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It’s 2:10 Somewhere: A Short Fiction Anthology From Level 2

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Table of Contents Little Rabbit

Pay Kish

Dear Nora

Isabella Victoria

As Foretold by Nostradamus

Will Thayer

Believe in Shiny Things

Caden Molin

The Golden Locket

Dominique Green

Habiba

Suhail Gharaibeh

Train Tracks

Serena Zets

He’s in New York

Olivia Benning

The Things School Should Teach Us

Pilar Lojacano

Long Road to Nowhere

Chyna McClendon

Abandonware

Ciara Sing

Hummus and Being Alone

Veronika Gillespie

So Lovely

Eva Dregalla

Kilkenny

Jessica Kunkel

This Funny Thing Called Life

Chelsea Lewis

Buffalo Nickels

Noor El-Dehaibi

Warm On a Cold Night

Maya Frizzell

Like It’s My Fault

Maisha Baton

House of God

Hope Schall-Buchanan

Separate

Ryan Andrews

The Unbearable Tale of Harold Goodman

Aurora Wise

Thaw

Weston Custer

3


Little Rabbit Pay Kish

It was sharing time. At the end of every day our teacher, who we call Ms. Bubbles, makes us sit on a circle rug that was supposed to resemble the Earth and take turns answering a question. I rushed to sit next to my best friend Charlie. I liked sitting next to him because during sharing time Ms. Bubbles always made us hold hands with the person we sat next to. We did this because it’s a “bonding activity.” I didn’t really know what that meant; all I knew was that I liked the way Charlie’s hand felt in mine. It somehow managed to be soft despite the number of times he caught himself falling off his bike, or paddled through dirt in his backyard in search of “remnants of prehistoric life.” Today Ms. Bubbles asked us to name our favorite animal and tell us one cool fact we know about it. First went Mark and he liked raccoons. Next went Anna and she liked giraffes. Richard liked lions. By the time Lydia was telling us about how good cats were at jumping, I started paying more attention to the rug than to what the other kids had to say. The rug was old. Loose, frayed strings stuck out in obscure places; some kids liked to pull them out and throw them in each other’s hair. The blue and green – the sea and continents – twirled together in an almost perfect harmony and it reminded me of the paint my mom used to grace across canvas. Before she got sick again. “My favorite animal is the Triceratops! And my cool fact about it is that they had to have three horns to protect itself from the big, mean Tyrannosaurus Rex,” Charlie stated proudly. I smiled at him. We let go of each other’s hands for a second to high-five. Silence fell across the room like a thick blanket. “That doesn’t count!” Bobby exclaimed from across the rug. “The dinosaurs are dead! They’re not real anymore.” Charlie’s porcelain cheeks flushed, his face resembling that of a doll’s – something that always happened when he was embarrassed. But he also looked hurt. I didn’t like the way his face fell when Bobby yelled at him. For some reason it made me mad. A cool rawness began pooling in my belly. I clutched onto one of Carrot’s ears, my knuckles turning a snowy white. His coffee brown fur tickled the inside of my hand. “Just because they don’t exist anymore doesn’t mean they weren’t real animals!” I shouted back at Bobby angrily. The unusual spout of fury silenced everyone for one, brief moment. Soon everybody started proclaiming their opinions. The whole circle became a chaotic sea of wavering opinions. I gripped onto Carrot harder. I didn’t like the noise. “Well my dad told me that dinosaurs don’t exist and he’s the smartest person I know!” shouted Mark. “Yes they do! If they didn’t then what are all the dinosaur bones doing in the museum?” countered Harper. “I know dinosaurs exist! I saw them one night in my backyard!” stated the kid who never showered. Ms. Bubbles clapped her hands three times in a row and the room grew so quiet you could hear a pin drop. She inhaled deeply. The multitude of necklaces she wore gently clanged against each other as she tied her greying, frizzy hair into a messy ponytail. “Bobby,” she spoke gently. “It’s perfectly okay if dinosaurs are Charlie’s favorite animal. Just because something is dead doesn’t mean it’s gone forever.”

4


At the end of the day, Ms. Bubbles let us go to our cubbies to get our backpacks. While the rest of the kids chattered away, I stood by Charlie holding Carrot close to my chest and inhaling the familiar scent of home. I loved learning at school but I’d much rather be at home with my mom or playing with Charlie. The classroom was so big compared to me. Four walls, plastered in motivational posters of frogs that said “Jump Into Learning!” or a kitten hanging on a tree branch that said “Just Hang in There.” Twenty-four desks were arranged in tables of four and sat sporadically throughout the classroom. A few bookshelves stood tall in the back, which held board games with missing pieces and books – most of which had torn covers. When we were finally dismissed, I asked Charlie if he wanted to come over and play. He said he couldn’t because he was taking a karate lesson. I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Charlie was my only friend. But for some reason I felt more disheartened about it than usual. That evening during dinner, I didn’t talk much because I was too preoccupied by the thoughts that were surrounding my brain like ants to a piece of bubblegum. I couldn’t shake the thought of the new feelings I felt whenever I was with Charlie. When I was with him, it felt like my heart was playing jump rope. My hands got sweaty like I was holding the monkey bars for too long. I wanted to hug him like I hug Carrot when he’s fresh out of the washing machine. But I don’t think I liked Carrot in the same way that I liked Charlie. “Mommy, how do you know you’re in love?” My mom’s face broke into a warm smile. She spooned some of the steaming soup into her mouth to prevent herself from laughing. “Well little rabbit, I think that’s kind of a big question for me to be answering,” she said in her usual, honey-like voice. I turned the spoon over in my bowl three times. “Okay but how do you think you know you’re in love?” I pressed. She put her head in her hand and exhaled deeply. “Well, I think you’re in love whenever the person you’re with always makes you happy,” she answered, folding her bony, papery fingers together. I pondered this idea for a moment, twirling the idea over and over again in my mind. When I was with Charlie, he made me happy. I didn’t have to think about the bad things: the mean kids at school, my mom being really sick, being told I have to grow up. All of that seemed to fall away when I was with him. “What’s brought this on all of a sudden?” I stayed quiet. I studied our kitchen’s floral wallpaper and the comfortable glow of the light fixture that hung above us. Outside the trees were being shaded in hues of the approaching evening. It was almost my bedtime. “Mommy, I think I’m in love with Charlie.” When I got home the next day, I inhaled deeply. The first breath of air that hit me was warm and crashed down upon me like a wave at sea. Second grade was really hard. My mom walked in a few steps behind. She’s been walking slower than usual lately. But I tried not to think twice about it. She always told me I’m a worrier. While she went off to the kitchen, I scampered upstairs to put my backpack away and grab Carrot. Ms. Bubbles only allowed me to bring him to school three days a week. She told me that I’m “too old to be indulging in such childish behaviors.” I didn’t know why she thought that. I didn’t know why bringing him to school was such a problem. He made me feel better. But I did what I was told anyways. My room was small and cluttered with toys. Stuffed animals, books read and reread a million times, Legos, and wooden cars were strewn across the dark hardwood floor. The walls were painted a soft baby yellow accompanied by paintings of rabbits hung seemingly at random.

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My bed was white and wiry, pushed up against a window that overlooked the street below. I could see Charlie’s house from that window. A smoky blue comforter covered the bed along with a pile of pillows and atop that laid Carrot. I grabbed him swiftly and bounded down the stairs back to the kitchen. “Mommy, can Charlie come over and play today?” I asked, hopping onto one of the kitchen chairs. She poured us both a glass of milk and sat in her usual spot across from me. “I don’t see why not. Why don’t you go ahead and call him?” I glanced up at a list titled “IMPORTANT NUMBERS” on a faded salmon index card that hung on the fridge. Among the list, which included Aunt Lilac, Grandma and Grandpa, and Doctor Perez, was Charlie’s name, freshly inked since I just obtained the skill of using a phone. He said he could come over, and not even a minute later there were three little knocks at the door. Together, we walked back into the kitchen. Charlie and my mom greeted each other and when she asked us what we were going to do Charlie told her we were going on an adventure. My backyard was more than a backyard when Charlie and I played together. It became our own little world. The Mesozoic Era when we were dinosaurs, the rainforest when we climbed in the trees, Mount Everest when it was snowy, even places beyond Earth. And today, we were superheroes, saving a beautiful girl from the clutches of the evil Lord Ratalia (part human, part rat; it was all explained the last time we played this game). After serving Lord Ratalia (or Carrot) a fatal punch, we both collapsed to the ground giggling uncontrollably. A few minutes passed, and soon everything fell silent, the only noise coming from our heavy breathing and the little bursts of wind. “Hey Charlie, d-do you think next time we play this game we could save a handsome boy instead of a beautiful woman?” I was nervous to speak, but I had to get the thought out of my head and into the open. It was like jumping into a swimming pool for the first time. “A handsome boy? Wouldn’t you rather save a beautiful girl so she could be forever grateful and you could marry her?” Charlie asked in a teasing tone. I hugged Carrot a little closer. “No.” “Why?” Charlie’s tone changed to one coated in pure confusion. As if it was the most bizarre thing he ever heard. “I don’t know.” I start to bite my lip. “You have to have a reason, Leo.” “Well I don’t,” I responded firmly. “Yes you do. Why?” Charlie pressed. The nervous feeling started pooling in my tummy again. The feeling I got when I’m about to get a shot at the doctor’s. Or when I go somewhere and forget Carrot at home. Or whenever I raised my hand to look like I knew the answer even though I didn’t. The same feeling I got when I don’t know what to do. Or when I’m about to say something I shouldn’t. “Because I don’t ever want to marry a girl! I don’t want to hold hands with them or kiss them or date them. I think girls are icky and boys are handsome!” “Oh,” was all Charlie said. I felt like I did something wrong. Something very, very wrong. I turned to look at Charlie. The wind had brushed a few wisps of dark hair in front of his eyes. The sun illuminated his face like a piece of art. His emerald green eyes glistened like gems and highlighted every freckle that danced across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. I thought he was the most handsome boy I’ve ever seen. I started to stare back up at the sky wishing the endless blue would swallow my body. I stared and stared until I couldn’t. The sky started to twirl around and around above me. I still felt wrong. I pressed Carrot’s face up against mine and tried my hardest not to cry.

6


“I’m sorry,” I choked. “You shouldn’t be sorry if this is how you feel.” “Really?” I asked, pulling Carrot away and wiping at the tears that managed to fall. “Of course. You’re my best friend Leo, and I wouldn’t stop being your friend if you wanted to date a boy. That’s silly!” “Pinky promise?” I held up my pinky between us. “Pinky promise.” He wrapped his around mine. A few moments later, my mom called us in. I challenged him to a race, knowing he’d never back down from that. We ran and ran like we were athletes in a marathon. He won, of course; he’s always been much faster than me. But I didn’t care because he was my best friend. And when he was happy, I was happy too. A light gust of wind waded through the classroom from a cracked window later that Wednesday afternoon. It was only spring but the first breath of summer had already made its way into the air. Ms. Bubbles had two rules for giving out birthday invitations in her classroom: 1) it had to be at the end of the day and 2) there had to be enough for everybody. It was almost time for dismissal. Everyone was scrambling to stuff their backpacks with notebooks and pencils and worksheets and crayons. Lily yelled at Kevin for pulling Holly’s hair. And Tommy chased Adam around repeatedly chanting, “Bob the Builder! Bob the Builder!” Ashley stole Hayden’s smelly markers and he was demanding that she give them back. Collectively, it was a nightmare come to life. “Alright, alright everybody settle down, settle down now,” Ms. Bubbles said as she stood up from her desk. The room quickly hushed. We sat back down at our desks as Ms. Bubbles made her way to the front of the room. She beckoned for Charlie and Bobby to come foreword and handed them each a collection of envelopes. They were birthday invitations. The two boys circled around the room, setting invitations on every kid’s desk. Charlie’s envelopes were yellow and had outlines of orange dinosaurs splayed across it. A smile stretched wide across my face when Charlie had handed me mine. Bobby wasn’t as kind when he more or less tossed a dark blue envelope at me. I tried to catch it, but my hands ended up slapping each other as the paper fell through and sashayed to the ground. Bobby laughed. “What a twerp! You can’t even catch a piece of paper.” I inhaled deeply through my nose and closed my eyes. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. “What’s wrong, Leo?” Charlie asked. I hadn’t realized he made his way back to my desk when he finished passing out the invitations. I opened my eyes again to see Charlie searching me with his curious, green ones. “Bobby called me a twerp,” I sniffled. “Oh Leo, you know that’s not true. Bobby’s just a meanie.” I laughed when he said this. He stepped forward and wrapped his arms tightly around me. I wasn’t expecting it, but I didn’t mind it. In fact, I wanted to stay like that forever. If Gorilla Glue could seep between us and attach us like that, I wouldn’t complain. But he pulled away too soon. “But seriously don’t listen to him, okay? He’s the biggest twerp I know.” I was sprawled out on the living room floor busily coloring a picture of a dinosaur to give to Charlie for his birthday. Mommy was laying down on the couch watching the news and talking to me about my day. She spoke softly, like we were in church. She told me she was feeling a little bit sick again, but I wasn’t allowed to worry because she promised me that she would get better. And Mommy never breaks her promises to me. The doorbell rang. I sprang up and ran to answer it. “Aunt Lilac!” I chirped when I opened the door.

7


“Hi my little bunny boy!” she cooed as she stepped through the door. Her smile glowed. It reminded me of a crescent moon. I loved my Aunt Lilac because she was like my mom and my friend. She always took care of me when my mom was too sick. And when she did, she always made it fun. Aunt Lilac loved to color with me and watch all my favorite movies. She loved dogs and we always played together with the two she had. She was also very, very beautiful, with her long brown hair and eyes that mimicked stars and she always wore really pretty dresses. Aunt Lilac also had a long, bubbled red scar on her neck. You usually can’t see it because her hair hides it, but one time when we were rolling down the hill I did. Later on, I asked my mom why Aunt Lilac had that scar and she told me that a very mean man she used to know told her he loved her, but lied and hurt her. Mommy cried a little bit after she told me that. I told myself I’d understand better when I’m bigger. Aunt Lilac brought a pizza with her because my mom was too sick to cook anything. She sat the greasy white box and a few paper plates on the dark wooden coffee table in the middle of the room. She leaned down to hug my mom and ask her how she was doing. Their voices were hushed like little mice and I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I wasn’t supposed to anyways. “What are you drawing there, Leo?” Aunt Lilac asked as I continued to scribble a reptilian green crayon across paper. “A dinosaur,” I answered. “It’s for my best friend. His name is Charlie and he makes me happy.” Mommy and Aunt Lilac both giggled at me when I said this, but I wasn’t trying to be funny. It was true. They continued to talk as I colored furiously. I decided to draw a bunny next to the dinosaur. I decided to make them hold hands because I would really like to hold Charlie’s hand and tell everyone that he is my boyfriend. Sometimes on TV, people say that it’s wrong for boys to like boys and girls to like girls. When I asked Mommy why people thought that, she told me that some people don’t like it because they don’t understand that love is love. I asked her if they were going to say that mean stuff to me if Charlie is my boyfriend. She promised me she wouldn’t let that happen. “Look! It’s all done!” I announced, presenting my picture to Mommy and Aunt Lilac. They told me that they were both very impressed and said that it looked like it belonged in an art gallery. I smiled really big. “Are the bunny and the dinosaur holding hands?” Aunt Lilac asked. I nodded. “Yep! You see the bunny is me and the dinosaur is Charlie.” Aunt Lilac looked at my mommy and she smiled. “Yep. It seems as if our little rabbit’s growing up. He’s already gotta crush on somebody very special.” “Mommy told me that when somebody always makes you happy that’s how you know you love them. And Charlie always makes me feel happy so that’s why I’m going to make him my boyfriend.” Aunt Lilac laughed. “And how are you going to do that?” “I’m going to ask him at his birthday party so it’s extra special! He gave me a hug today too, so I think we’re making progress!” Usually when Aunt Lilac came to visit, she liked to spend a night or two with us. I loved it when she stayed because we got to spend more time together. Mommy went to bed early that night. I told myself not to worry. Aunt Lilac had to help her get up the stairs, but after that we ate cookies and drank milk and watched Bambi. I fell asleep halfway through. Sleep cradled my worrying body like a baby. Aunt Lilac woke me a few hours later. She must’ve moved me from the couch to my bed because my comforter swaddled me like a cocoon. I knew it was early in the morning because the sky had been blasted with a concoction of pretty colors.

8


“Sweetie…Leo,” she spoke carefully trying to get my attention. “Sweetie, your mommy is in the hospital again.” I looked at her. Her warm, brown eyes were glazed and red. She was obviously crying before she woke me, but didn’t want me to know. I always knew though. We’ve been through this a million times before, but this time felt different. This time Aunt Lilac cried harder and my heart started to beat faster and the whole world felt heavier. Mommy going to the hospital was always hard because we never knew if the trip would be her last. I tried not to think about it, but it weighed on the back of my mind like a rock because I knew it was true. She would stay there anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or months. And even though I loved to spend time with Aunt Lilac, home never felt like home when she was gone. It felt like I was living with ghosts. “Can we go see her?” I asked. Aunt Lilac nodded. It was Friday and Mommy wasn’t doing much better. I was sitting in the backyard. Charlie and I rolled a ball back and forth as he talked with a toothy smile about his party. I tried to match his excitement, but thoughts about my mom being in the hospital kept pecking like crows at the back of my mind. I rolled the ball to Charlie. He stopped it. “Leo, what’s wrong?” Tears clouded my eyes like a brewing storm. This time, I didn’t try to fight them back. I let them trek down my cheeks like narrow streams. Charlie reached out to try and catch a few with his hand, but it was pointless. “I-I think my mommy’s gonna die,” my voice was strained. It felt as if a brick building finally collapsed down upon me as I uttered this at last. Charlie crawled over to me and wrapped his arms around me. “N-no she’s not. She’s okay, yeah, she’s okay. I promise.” Charlie held out his pinkie. The chair I sat in next to Mommy’s bed was too tall. I kicked my legs back and forth like a pendulum. I never liked hospitals. They smelled like a terrible mixture of rawness and bleach, everything was either grey or blue or white, and the nurses always looked at me with sad, doelike eyes. Today was the day of Charlie’s birthday party. But I couldn’t go. Aunt Lilac said that it was very important for me to be at the hospital because my mommy wanted me there. I really wanted to be with her too, but I also wanted to be with Charlie at the party. Mommy was going to be okay. Charlie promised me she would. She promised me she would. But as time carried on, it was getting harder and harder for her to talk. She sat up in her bed taking deep, painful breathes as she tried to keep up with what Aunt Lilac and I were saying. Mommy motioned me to sit on the bed with her, which I did. I curled up next to her, pressing my skin against hers. It was cold. I didn’t say anything about it. She gathered all of the energy within her to press soft, gentle kisses to my head. “I love you so much, little rabbit,” she whispered to me. A few hours later she fell into a coma. And a few hours after that she died. I didn’t like to think about it or else I would start crying. When Aunt Lilac and I went home that night, the ghosts were plentiful. Everything that ever stood in that house reminded me of her. Aunt Lilac and I held each other while we cried. The tears shook our bodies like hurricanes, and when we became too tired to carry on, we fell asleep like that. When we woke up the next morning unrest was still lively throughout the house. Aunt Lilac, still wearing clothes that reeked of the hospital and her hair tied in a nest-like bun, tiredly made us breakfast.

9


We ate in silence. The phone rang. And rang. And rang. Aunt Lilac stared at the kitchen table, not even making a slight effort to move. When the obnoxious ring finally ceased, the sound of my mother’s dewy voice swaddled the air. Aunt Lilac squeezed her eyes tightly together. “Leo,” the voice began. It was Charlie. He sounded sad. “Please call me back.” Aunt Lilac looked at me. I shook my head no. “I don’t think I’m in the mood to play today.” Charlie called three more times that day. Neither Aunt Lilac nor I answered the phone, and just sat in a painful silence whenever the answering machine began and my mother’s voice snuck its way into the air. She was gone, but it didn’t feel like it. I couldn’t sleep that night because I couldn’t stop thinking about my mom. I stared out the window. Everything outside this house carried on seamlessly. Everything was perfectly normal. When I grew frustrated of watching I turned away from the window, and shut my eyes tightly, blindly hoping it would lull to sleep. My brain was exhausted. Plink. I opened my eyes. Plink. Plink. I sat up in my bed and crawled back over to the window. Below a small figure with a shock of scruffy, dark hair stood below. I opened my window. “Charlie, why are you throwing rocks at my window?” I asked in hushed voice. Charlie dropped the few pebbles he had left in his hand to cup them over his mouth in a poor attempt at projecting his voice. “I saw it in a movie once. Please come down here. I need to talk to you,” Charlie whispered back. “I-I don’t really think I want to talk.” “Please talk to me, Leo. You haven’t been at school, you won’t come over to play…you didn’t even come to my birthday party,” Charlie said. I didn’t say anything. I looked at the milky white paint chipping away to reveal its dark wooden flesh and slowly shut the window. I creeped down the steps as quietly as a mouse. Aunt Lilac was passed out on the couch clutching onto one of Mommy’s old sweaters like a lifeline. Charlie’s body was illuminated by the ivory rays of moonlight that descended from the sky. I stood in front of him, darkness suffocated the both of us. I could barely make out his eyes or the freckles that splayed across his cheeks. He was taller than me. But I still looked to the ground as I spoke. “I’m sorry for not going to your birthday party,” I muttered, eyes fixated on the grass that felt like a wet towel beneath my bare feet. “How was it?” “Nobody showed up,” he answered sadly. “They all went to Bobby’s party. That’s why I really wanted you there, Leo. Because even if nobody was there, I’d have you to make me happy.” I swallowed hard. I didn’t say anything. Did he really just say I made him happy? “Where were you?” He asked. I kept my eyes on the ground like they were sewn there. I stayed quiet again. “Well m-my mom s-she’s…” I stopped as tears bloomed in my eyes and the next word nested in the back of my throat like a pigeon. I never said it before now. “Dead.” “Oh,” Charlie whispered. I quickly pressed my arm to my mouth to prevent a choked sob from escaping. But I couldn’t suppress it any longer. He stepped forward and wrapped his long, pale arms tightly around my shaking body. But I didn’t hug him back. Right now, I don’t even think Charlie could make me happy.

10


Dear Nora Isabella Victoria

I’m sitting on the couch watching Disney Channel, but when I hear Nora’s friend’s mom pull up in her car outside, I turn the T.V. off and pick up a book. Nora thinks Disney is for babies, and I am NOT a baby. She bursts into the house talking faster than summer break flies by. “How was the concert?” I ask excitedly. “So fun,” she says as she drops her duffel bag next to me on the couch. Nora walks into the kitchen and I throw the book down and follow her. “I’ve never been to a concert before, Nora. We should go to a concert together, Mom would totally let me if you came!” I say. Nora is looking in the cabinets and pulls out a jar of pretzels. “Well, I mean we sorta listen to different music right?” Nora says. “I don’t really care what kind it is, I just want to go with you –” “Yeah, so going to a concert together wouldn’t really be that fun. Would it now?” she interrupts. “That’s not what I was trying to say,” I mumble. “Yeah, alright.” I bite my nails and look down at the counter. Nora sits down next to me, but instead of talking to me, or even acknowledging me, she gets on her phone. Bored, I go out to the backyard. I sit in the grass looking at the little playground with the purple slide. I can remember sliding down so many times when I was younger. I smile as I think about Nora waiting for me and catching me at the bottom. I lay down. The tender green grass tickles my neck through my brown waves. Soon my mom opens the back door and my little brother Jacob speeds outside. Jacob runs at me as I’m sitting up and tackles me back to the ground. “Jacob,” I say through laughter, “how was your play date? “It was fun. I think that Evan will be my new best friend!” I laugh, this time because I am amazed at how quickly and easily seven year olds can become friends, even if they just met. I’ve known Nora for 11 years and I still can’t become as close with her as I want to. “Hey Mom,” I say as the two of us walk into the kitchen and sit down at the island. “Molly! How has your afternoon been?” “Okay.” “Sorry I wasn’t here. I ended up talking to Evan’s mom the whole time.” “No problem I was just –” but I was interrupted by Nora suddenly bursting into the room. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since yesterday, Nora. How was the concert?” “I loved it! I want to go to as many as I can. It was really fun,” Nora says. She sits down on the other side of Jacob. “And my favorite little brother. How was Evan’s?” “He has three Tonka dump trucks and 17 Nascar matchbox cars, and for snack we had fruit snacks,” Jacob says, bouncing up and down in his chair. Nora nods and takes a strawberry from the bowl as Mom sets it down. I wonder how the two of them have a connection so easily. It seems impossible how flawlessly they get along. They are so different: Nora, a teenage girl, and Jacob, a little seven year old. I can’t quite get why Nora and I can’t connect; we are only a few years apart. I am doing everything I can to become closer with her.

11


The next day Nora’s friends are over and I am bored. In two days, it will be Nora’s 15th birthday and party. I can hear her talking to her friends about it through the thin wall that separates our rooms. About half an hour later my friend Emma comes over and we get out an old recipe book. We flip through recipes and decide to bake a lemon cake. Emma is measuring out the flour when I muster up my courage to ask her. “Emma, do you think I’m annoying?” “Why do you ask?” “Because lately Nora has been acting really off around me. She interacts with me differently,” I say. Emma dumps the flour – the last of the dry ingredients – into our bowl and begins to mix. She doesn’t look up when she talks. “I don’t know Molly. I really don’t.” “Lately I’ve been trying to do things that she likes so that we have something to talk about. I want to do stuff with her, but she doesn’t want anything to do with me,” I respond. “Maybe that’s the problem, Molly.” “I don’t get it.” “Well maybe you need to give her some space.” “Why would that help me get closer to her? Emma, that doesn’t even make sense,” I say. “I don’t know. Just, sometimes my older brother tells me to give him space and then I do and we’re good.” “But if I give her space I’m scared that she’ll just not even remember that I’m here,” I say looking down. “Don’t worry about that. Just do your own thing and let Nora do hers.” I put the cake in the oven and start the timer. “So I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to go see what Nora and her friends are doing right now,” I say hopefully. “Molly, that’s the exact opposite of what you should do.” I walk out of the kitchen and into the living room where Nora and her friends are in the middle of watching a movie. I sit down on the rocking chair next to the couch. “Molly?” Nora asks without turning her head from the screen. “What are you doing?” “Just wanted to come watch this movie with you guys. It looks really good!” “Well, unfortunately we were just about to turn the movie off and go do something else. So…” Nora says. I can hear the sharp sarcasm in her voice and it makes me want to try even harder to break through to her. “And by the way, it’s not a good movie.” “Oh yeah, it didn’t even look like it would be fun to watch,” I say, picking at my nails. I get up and start walking. I hear Emma sigh behind me, but I keep following Nora back up to her room. She closes the door and I hear the lock click before I get into the room. Through the door I can hear laughing and I can’t help but feel like they are laughing at me. Emma stands next to me biting her lip. “Nora! Please let me in. I just want to talk to you. I’m sorry.” I wonder what I am apologizing for, but I must have done something wrong because she refuses to open up. My face slowly clouds over as I realize that she wants nothing to do with me at the moment. I trudge into my room with Emma behind me. I slam my door so hard shut that books fall off of my shelves. Can’t she get it? Can’t she understand? I just want to be like her. I mean, shouldn’t she be happy? I lay on my bed with my face shoved into my pink pillow with green stars on it. Why does Nora do this to me? I turn onto my side and look at the framed picture on my nightstand. I’m sitting on Nora’s shoulders. It probably took both Mom and Dad to balance me up there. She is looking up at me and grinning. My hands are in the air, stretched out high, and I’m

12


laughing. I can imagine Jacob behind the camera, probably trying to run into the shot. It seems so simple to me; this is how things should be. But they aren’t and I don’t know how to change them. Emma goes home and I say I’m sorry. I say that I know I was a bad host and that I’m sorry the cake was burnt. I sigh and sit down next to Mom on the couch. “I can’t piece together why Nora acts like this with me now.” “Honey, Nora sometimes doesn’t know how to feel, I think. I’m having trouble understanding her myself right now. Maybe just give her some space. That’s not to say you can’t talk to her or do things with her, but when she seems testy maybe just step away for a while.” “You don’t understand, I don’t want to give her space. She used to always want to hang out with me and we would have so much fun! Why isn’t it like that anymore?” “Molly this may be hard to hear, but Nora needs to have a life outside of her little sister, no matter how much fun you two have had together. But that doesn’t give her the right to be blatantly mean to you. I’ll talk to her about that.” “It’s hard, Mom.” “I know sweetie, but Molly?” “Yeah Mom?” “Make sure to be yourself. You shouldn’t have to change for Nora to want to be closer with you.” I nod, though I’m not really sure what she was talking about. Mom stands up and leaves the room. Nora’s birthday and party are tomorrow. Mom and Dad say that we all have to stay home and help out with party preparations. I’m happy to, in hopes that if I help Nora she will see that I’m not just a dumb little sister. Jacob, on the other hand, is not too happy with spending a day cleaning and decorating when he could be playing with his friends. So, in an attempt to ease him, after breakfast Dad and Jacob leave for the store to buy balloons and a cake. Mom asked if I wanted to go with them, but I don’t. Jacob’s still little. I’m not, I can handle this. While they are out, Mom, Nora, and I clean up the living room and kitchen. We hang a large banner above the T.V. It’s the same one we use every year, colorful letters run across a thin string spelling out “Happy Birthday!” For the most part Nora just has headphones in and listens to music. She doesn’t get mad at me, but she doesn’t talk to me either. Around lunchtime Dad and Jacob get home with tons of balloons, an Oreo ice cream cake, and lots of snacks for the party. They come into the door and Jacob is beaming; his lips and tongue are blue. “The lady at the balloon store gave me a blue raspberry lollipop, it was so good! Are you guys sad you don’t get one?” He turns towards Dad. “Should we have gotten them lollipops? I think Molly, Nora, and Mommy are sad they didn’t get lollipops.” Turning back to us he says, “Are you guys sad you didn’t get lollipops?” Mom, Nora, and I laugh. “No Jakey, it’s okay, we’ll just have to have extra cake tomorrow,” Mom says. Jacob frowns and looks very distressed. Then, as quickly as it comes, it fades away when he realizes Mom is just joking. Nora and I laugh. For a split second I can imagine that we get along, that we are super close. That we tell each other everything and nothing can bring us apart. It makes me long for closeness with her, a real one, not one that I make up. Snapping out of it, I know that based on how Nora reacted yesterday, I’ll need to work extra hard to reform the bond between us. I decided to try to make sense of what Mom said about giving her space, but what neither of them understand is that I can’t. I feel like if I give Nora too much space, she’ll be gone from my life before I know it. Nora is outside with Jacob. He insists that we come outside with him to see him go across the monkey bars. I head out and

13


see him halfway across. I sit down next to Nora in the grass, a ways back from the play structure. “Nora?” “Molly.” “Are you excited for your party tomorrow?” “I would be, but –” “But what?” “I was going to finish,” Nora says with an attitude. “Do you want me to tell you honestly why?” “Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” “Because,” she stutters, and then hesitantly says, “Because, Molly. I know exactly what’s gonna happen. All my friends are going to get here and I’m going to be hanging out with them. Then you’re going to try to follow me around. I’ll ask you to leave me alone, and you won’t. You’ll try to be so funny and impress all my friends and I really don’t want that.” I pick at the grass next to my feet. Doesn’t she get that I don’t care about impressing her friends? I just want to impress her, my older sister, but no matter what I do, it’s always wrong. I don’t know when the way things are between us changed to how they are now. “Nora, I promise I won’t. I won’t do anything to bother you. Sometimes though, I just find it hard to know –” She sighs. “Thanks Moll,” she says as she gives me a little hug. This is how it should be with us. We should be two sisters who are always there for each other, who do things for each other. I wake up to the whirring sound of the vacuum cleaner running downstairs. I run into Nora’s room to see if she is awake. She isn’t and I am not surprised. “Nora, Nora!” I bounce into her room. “Let’s go, we have to get ready!” Nora pulls the covers down from her face and pokes her head out like a bear looking out of his cave after a long, slow winter of hibernation. She groans and grumbles about how the party doesn’t start until 12. I know she is excited though; after all it’s the day of her 15th birthday! She sits up and rubs her eyes. I plop down next to her and bounce until she stands up. Nora stretches and goes to her closet. Back in my room, I start trying to decide what to wear. I decide on a pair of jean shorts that used to be Nora’s and a blue floral tank top that she got me for Christmas. When I get downstairs Mom, Dad, and Jacob are all sitting at the kitchen table. There is a big stack of chocolate chip pancakes on each of our plates and one stack has a candle in it. I sit down and a few seconds later Nora comes down the stairs. In unison we all start singing “Happy Birthday.” She smiles, blushing a little, then sits down and blows out her candle. “Thanks guys!” Around noon, Nora’s guests start arriving. As they come, they sit in the living room talking and laughing. It seems a little boring if you ask me. They just sit there talking and not doing anything really. Nora sits next to the two girls that came over the other day. Once all Nora’s friends are here they go outside where Dad has speakers set up. I begin to follow them out, but Nora gives me a firm look. I stay inside and play with Jacob and his racetracks. Soon the party comes inside. They giggle loudly and talk faster than Jacob does when he is telling me about a new toy. Jacob and I walk into the kitchen and sit down at the island. The party sits at the table. Nora comes over to the island where all the food is set up and grabs a box of pizza. “Nora, can we come sit with all of you at the table?” She laughs. “Molly, come on. Just sit up here with Jacob.” “Please, I haven’t even done anything to you. I just want to sit with you, Nora.”

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“It’s my birthday party Molly, stay over here. I have my whole life to sit with you. We’re sisters, not best friends.” “Fine, sorry I’m so annoying,” I say angrily. Nora just smirks and goes back to sit with her friends. Jacob looks at me questioningly. “You guys never fight. What’s going on?” “She always does this. She’ll have a nice talk with me one minute, but the moment her friends get here she acts like I don’t exist or that I’m being super annoying and I just can’t stand it!” I storm out of the kitchen and go sit on the couch. Mom must have overheard because she comes over and sits down next to me, putting her arm around my shoulder. “Is it Nora again, sweetie?” “How’d you guess?” I grumble. “Molly, today is a big day for Nora. All her friends are here and it’s her birthday too, maybe cut her a little slack today.” “But it’s not just today Mom, its everyday!” “I know it seems that way but –” “I don’t care how it seems! No matter what I do, she’ll always hate me.” Before she can answer I explode up the stairs into my room. I sit down in my desk chair and cover my head with my hands. Maybe if I just knew what I did wrong. Maybe then I could fix it. If only Nora would even just listen to me, then she would understand that I don’t try to annoy her. That there is just something I can’t control that will always annoy her about me. But she won’t, she won’t listen to me or talk to me or really do anything with me. I pull a piece of paper out from a drawer of my desk and begin to write. Dear Nora it starts. Dear Nora, I’m sorry. Dear Nora, I’m sorry that I ruin everything for you. Dear Nora, I’m sorry that I ruin everything for you. I’m sorry that I’m not like you and I’m sorry that no matter what I do I can’t make you want to be close with me. I try to do things you’re interested in so we have things to talk about. I “bother” you and your friends because I want to be a part of your life. Dear Nora, I’m scared you’re going to forget about me when you grow up. Dear Nora, please don’t forget about me when you grow up. Dear Nora, I just want things to go back to the way they were when we were younger. I take the picture on my nightstand out of its frame and fold the letter up around it. I go back downstairs and shove it to the bottom of the pile of presents stacked in the living room. Mom and Dad must have taken the party back outside because the house is completely silent except for the zipping and comforting sound of Jacob driving his cars up and down the orange plastic tracks. He looks up once I stuff the letter in the pile. “Molly what are you doing? Do you want to play cars some more?” “I just wanted to add my present to the pile.” “Oh that’s cool, but do you wanna play cars now?” “Yeah Jacob, yeah. I’ll play cars now.” And as fast as summer flies by and the cars zoom down the tracks, I grow up. Summers pass and cars become paper airplanes. Paper airplanes become remote control helicopters. Remote control helicopters become Legos. I am 15 and not wanting to play Legos every day of my life. Jacob is 11 and is a master of Lego brick buildings of all shapes and sizes. He’ll ask me to play, and I’ll say no but then feel bad and play with him. We’ll build and build. I’ll get bored and testy. I snap at him, he gets upset and I think about Nora. She left for college earlier this summer and we miss her. She is coming home this weekend. Mom, Dad, Jacob, and I are very excited to see her. Mom and Dad say that they feel like they have an empty nest without their biggest baby bird. Jacob and I pretend not to hear that. Jacob misses the way Nora is good at math and the way she always has the perfect thing to say.

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I miss the way Nora and I can talk about everything. I think about how I can be myself around her in a way I can’t with anyone else. She listens to me when I tell her things and gives me the best advice. Nora always helps remind me to be patient with Jacob. Sometimes we laugh about when we were younger, but more often Nora apologizes. I almost can’t believe the way we used to act towards each other. When she gets here I’m sure she’ll bring the letter with her. It’s almost become a tradition. She still feels badly about that all, but I’m just glad we grew out of it and became close again. Having a relationship with siblings the way I do makes life so much easier. We just had to drive over the bump in the racetrack.

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As Foretold by Nostradamus Will Thayer

Heavily, the trapdoor clamped closed and exploded the bunker into blackness. Lawrence pulled out a notepad and scribbled “OIL TRAPDOOR.” The room consisted of two recycled shipping containers that were spliced and crudely smelted together, then laid to rest in the middle of the Great Basin. They were a hot and fiery furnace that burned the sand to thick molten glass. Although this deep in the ground, the earth cooled the bunker into hibernation and left it just as dark as it was empty. Terracotta turned to slick onyx; there was no friction there. (His mother had suggested those rubber bathroom ducks for some traction, but he had quipped back that they wouldn’t fly in post-apocalyptic America. She packed them anyways.) As he stepped away from the ladder, his shoes burst into light. Bright orchid and chartreuse erupted from his feet, and lashed at the walls, a neon prominence. Each LED twinkled and darkened like a star and he swore he could see constellations on the ceiling. He tiptoed across the prismatic hallway, and the lights danced across with him exactly as he read in Ptolemy’s Almagest. He wondered to himself why the room was so dark. He counted every umbra, penumbra and antumbra and recited the number back to himself. Those refracting lights only cast a shadow, their glow absorbed by the six feet of earth and sand separating Lawrence from the sky. He regretted the measurement. It was too dark here. “Lamp,” Lawrence read back to himself. “Electric?” he wrote half-heartedly. How was he going to power this lamp? The bunker was only made up of a two shipping crates and Lawrence didn’t calculate enough room for a generator. Lawrence felt the mantle of his family pressing into his shoulders. They yelped like ghouls as they plummeted into unlit shadows. Without power, Lawrence and the Lafayettes would crumble into wet sand. He heard the sound of footsteps from above him and his father plummeted into the bunker like a meteor. Clark had an odd appearance to him that didn’t juxtapose well with his personality. He had the body of an accountant and the soul of Sasquatch. His skin hung loosely around his skeleton, but the way he arced out his chest screamed of the man he thought he was. Lawrence thought this was the reason for Clark’s obsessive prepping. It started about five years ago when Lawrence was seven. Clark had been grading stories at the university when he came across a paper entitled “As Foretold by Nostradamu,s” a short story about the world according to the 16th century apothecary and seer, Michel de Nostradame. While a complete work of fiction, after reading it Clark drove straight to the Fresh and Easy to get 20 cans of sliced peaches, then right home to tell his family. Lawrence had always admired his father’s adhesive tenacity to protect his family. After Nostradamus’s prediction of the “King of Terror” didn’t come true in July, Lawrence’s father was devastated. Lawrence always thought it was terrible that he was sad the world didn’t end but after thinking about it, it started to make sense. His father, a creative writing professor at the University of Nevada, was up for tenure and a big raise. This big raise could’ve meant big things for Lawrence and his family, including the end of couponing for his mother. But when he quit, all the talk of a raise went straight down the drain, and Lawrence’s didn’t think anybody forgave his father for that. It’s been 5 months and Lawrence could tangle himself up in the thick web of silence that covers the room when his father walked in.

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“Ever see Waterworld?” Clark said as he handed back the notebook, which now had “Electric?” frantically encapsulated by many circles. Lawrence didn’t like movies. They made him sick and Dramamine was never on sale so his mom could never buy it. “Well it’s kinda like what it sounds. Something about ice caps melting and water goes everywhere, I mean everywhere. Kevin Costner has to get in a submarine just to find Denver. Denver! That city is like a mile high.” Lawrence asked his father what relevance this had to anything. Anything at all. “My point is that if you wanna survive the end-all we’re always talking about, you can’t use electricity. Because once those floods come rolling in that lamp’s gonna fry us.” Lawrence tried to tell him the total-technological breakdown wouldn’t melt the ice-caps, but he didn’t care. He was doing this for his father anyways. He crossed out “Electric?” and etched “Gas?” into his notepad, and traced the letters until they were inky-black fissures and handed the notebook back to his father. “Ever see Waterworld?” his dad said as he handed the notepad back to Lawrence. “No Dad, I haven’t.” “Well, there’s this scene right. This little girl is being held captive and Kevin Costner is getting real mad, and he tells the pirates ‘Gimme back the girl or I’ll blow you right out the water!’ and of course the bad guys are like ‘Nice try’ but then Kevin shoots a flare right into their gas tank and BOOM.” “And? “Well I mean sure you can have gas. If you want Kevin Costner to come on over and fry us to a crisp.” Lawrence tried to tell his father that Kevin Costner could care less about some doomsday preppers living in an underground bunker in the middle of Nevada. He crossed out “Gas?” anyways. Lawrence wrote “Plutonium?” and closed his notebook. “I think I hear them coming, L,” Clark spoke through a sigh. “Just be nice okay?” Lawrence let loose a hollow “Fine,” and started to kick up dust with his shoes. They twinkled again, but the shine was swallowed by the thick clouds of light and dust that billowed in through the open hatch. Without warning, his brother bolted down the ladder and magnetized himself to his father’s leg. He was at eye level with Lawrence, and blinded him with the light reflecting off of his ivory teeth. His smile crept across his face, wide and sharp as a scimitar. Behind him, three others shuffled in. Everybody had curly red hair that was hot and thick like sand, but the faces of Vikings. “This is… new,” the shortest girl said with a helium voice. She was about four feet tall and had eyes the color of brass. “Better than the last one, L,” The boy added. He was cradling a silent baby in his arms. “I love it honey!” The taller woman ran at Lawrence, arachnid arms outstretched and scooped him up. He didn’t know this woman. They were in fact, his family. The tallest girl was her mother, a 45 year old waitress named Missy with a knack for couponing. His sister, Jennifer, was very striking. Her hair was static and her presence was thin and brief like lightning; she was always leaving. A few years back she been taking out the trash when she was approached by the new neighbor, a 16 year old hippy named Todd. Todd like the Grateful Dead and smoking and other things Missy wouldn’t approve of. Knowing this, Jennifer immediately fell for him. By some grace of the stars, Todd has somehow managed to tolerate Jenny and 3 years later Lawrence was rushing to the hospital to meet his niece. “I take it back, I’m in love,” Jenny said as she darted around the room “After the world doesn’t end, it’ll make a nice sauna,” she spat and Lawrence thought for a second that her tongue had forked and hissed at him.

18


“Jenny stop, your brother put a lot of work into this,” Todd said as he bounced on his heels. “Into what? Anybody can steal their parent’s credit card and order some shipping containers. It’s not like he joined Mensa or anything.” “Jennifer!” Clark lashed “Your brother is doing this for you, you should be thankful goddamnit.” Lawrence’s brother, Johnny, dipped down his head. “Language, Clark,” Missy chimed in with an unnatural smile. “I don’t have time for this, my book-club starts at 4 and I’m not missing it, and I won’t miss it next month when we are still here, six feet above this hell-hole.” Lawrence couldn’t help but notice the loud crash, then the blackness after his sister left. He had never connected with his sister. She was 8 years older and a lifetime more experienced. Jennifer had always blamed Lawrence for the long downward spiral that was their father. She pictured him as a malefic omen, a two-horned demon who only existed to destroy her. In fact, Lawrence had said few words to her outside their fights and didn’t have much to do with her existence. ”We’re locked in,” Todd screamed. “She freakin’ locked us in!” Lawrence wondered how much time passed, and imagined a clock somewhere deep within the bunker. “Shut it Todd, she’s bluffing.” “What does bluffing mean, Daddy?” Johnny asked. “It means Johnny, your sister is a no good lying piece of—“ “Clark! Language!” “You shut it too Missy, it’s not like Johnny’s gonna care about his manners when we’re waiting for the Rapture.” “We won’t have to wait for the Rapture, Clark. Because we are getting out of here once Missy gets her act together, realizes we are stuck, and comes back. And once we get out we don’t want our son to become a serial killer right? I read in Cosmo that kids who are exposed to cussing at a young age are more likely to act out, which makes them more likely to be violent, which leads to murdering stray cats and then cannibalism! Is that what you want Clark?” Missy vacuumed all the air in the bunker after her monologue. “It’s not a Rapture, Mom. How is a bunker going to save us from the Rapture?” Lawrence spoke for the first time and Missy shot him a glance that seemed to sew his mouth shut. Clark stood up, evicting Johnny from his perch, and walked over towards the hatch. He shoved Todd back into the wall, but artfully so the baby wasn’t woken, and started to pound on the trapdoor. He became more frantic and disorganized with each hit, and Lawrence watched his father unravel like his mother’s knitting. “Daddy?” Johnny asked as he knocked on his father’s knee, creating a hollow sound. Todd cradled his baby and sank to the ground. “Everybody is breaking their elbows, you know,” Missy said. “I read it in Cosmo, everybody is going out and breaking their elbows.” Todd was unfazed and kept cradling the baby, while Johnny ignored his mother completely. “People are just walking outside, tripping over and breaking their elbows,” Missy made eye contact with Lawrence, who was slamming his shoes against the metal. They didn’t light up. “It’s a very vicious cycle actually. Their families hear screaming and they run outside and break their own elbows. They say it’s the winter, but I think it’s their own fault,” Missy protested to nobody as she paced around the room. Winters in Nevada were harmless. It was the nighttime when the white-hot sands glaciate into crystals, not the winter.

19


“I mean how stupid can people get? Just throw some salt out there and you’re fine. But no, people are too preoccupied with their own lives to think about the future. Nobody can live two steps ahead of themselves, I know, but you can at least tell where you’re going,” Missy landed an arm on Lawrence’s shoulder. “And why was this a cover story? I expect Cosmo to write better crap than this.” Lawrence felt the sunset above him. He saw tendrils of frost weave themselves into blankets in the corners of the room. He watched as they crawled from floor to ceiling, skittering and crackling like goblins. “I did this all for nothing.” Lawrence said to himself. “You know I hate that self-deprecating bullshit Lawrence, leave that to the adults. You’re too young for that,” Clark shot a finger at his jugular. That wasn’t what Lawrence had meant. He remembered the night his father came home, drenched in rain and sweat and paper-cuts; it was the first time he had seen his father afraid. His father filled up the apartment with the smell of wet cotton and peaches, a smell that Lawrence would learn to hate. Clark had an odd air about him that night, an abscissor to the rest of his family. As soon as he entered, he spilled the peaches on the floor and marched across the room in crooked and irrational lines, muttering to himself. He sketched angles into the carpet as he paced. Obtuse. Acute. Right. This was not right. Lawrence knew something was up. Lawrence’s mother and Jennifer were out, Johnny was in his crib. Clark eventually stopped his erratic ricochet and stared Lawrence in the face. He shoved the thick stack of papers in his hand onto Lawrence. The moisture wicked itself onto Lawrence, and stamped “Nostradamus” onto his forehead, backwards. “Listen, son.” Clark’s eyes created parallel lines all across the air. “We are the last of us, you know. Or will be, eventually. I need you to know this.” Clark always had a dramatic aspect, but this was far worse than normal. “This right here, it’s what’s gonna save us.” He peeled the paper off Lawrence’s head and started to read it aloud to him. “Shouldn’t we be dead, or like comatose or something?” Todd asked everybody as he set his daughter on the ground, preparing for unnecessary CPR. Clark looked up from the ground for the first time since his tantrum “I mean, we’ve been here a pretty good amount of time right? Shouldn’t we be choking? Like altitude sickness?” “We’re in a bunker, Todd, not climbing Mt. Everest.” Clark said as his gaze fell back towards the ground. “No, no that’s not what I mean.” “Well it’s what you said. Please don’t waste my time with your dumb ideas Todd, Jennifer might think it’s cute but nobody else does. You’re wasting breath.” “That’s what I mean! Shouldn’t we be out of breath? There isn’t that much air in this place.” “He’s right Clark, there must be an air vent or something.” Missy was suddenly excited. “Was there, Lawrence?” Lawrence didn’t know the answer to the question. Everybody in this room thought this was his creation. Minus Clark of course, because after all it was his. He remembered when they first drew up the blueprints, on a napkin in a Perkins. It was an constellation of ashy pencil marks and ruler lines. They crudely met at perfect angles and formed a platonic rectangular shape. It was entitled, “Fort Lafayette,” the end all for the Lafayette family. On that napkin, there was no air vent. But Lawrence hadn’t kept up. He always went to meetings and construction sights but just as the cowering shadow to his father’s figure. Clark had somehow convinced his family that this was all Lawrence, while alienating Lawrence in the process.

20


“There’s one somewhere,” Lawrence said with plastic confidence. “I heard the contractor say something about an, um, air vent, I’m pretty sure.” There were three rooms in the bunker, all divided by ancient pad-lock doors straight from a WWII submarine. Everything was monochrome and shallow, dizzying to the eye. Missy had started combing through the walls, her hands were tiny pale spiders sifting through sheet after sheet of nail and metal. Todd was picking apart the storage room while Clark scoured the bedroom. Lawrence was an idle promontory in a chrome sea. “Mommy! I found something,” Johnny threw a wobbled plate of metal on the ground, causing a loud clash. The air duct was about 8 by 8 inches, and nobody knew how deep. “I can’t fit. I knew I should’ve stayed with Weight-Watchers,” Todd said to himself. Clark pulled his body up against the opening in the wall. His angstrom-wide skeleton was a mass of muggy electrons rotating around his hollow nucleus. His body was thin and empty. Still, his shoulders stuck out against sleek walls, they twisted and jarred like antlers as he tried to slide his way in. Missy poised herself next. Laying there on the floor, Lawrence noticed how insectile her anatomy was. They were long and thin, each bone attaching to another at weird, double-jointed angles. Her chest was compact and short, a thorax . It was her legs that took up most of her space. Just as her arms, her legs were that of an arachnid’s, unending and slim. They were each two vertices in space-time, cross-stitched into feeble and brittle bones. Knees equidistant from foot to hip, she was weirdly symmetric; she looked like a dissection. She launched herself forward into the 8-inch abyss, only to repeat her husband’s mistake. They sulked in the corner after their defeat, like frauds failing to pull a sword out of a stone. Lawrence started to realize that his life rested in the hands of his sister. He imagined his sister on the highway, driving toward some lustrous desert he hadn’t heard the name of before. White, the dunes were white and glossy and Jennifer’s body sliced it’s glamour with her slim Lafayette body. He wondered if she could feel him under her feet. “Can I try?” Johnny vibrated in his skin. His mother gave him a nod and told him it would be okay if he was scared, that he was very little and they didn’t expect any great hero out of him just yet. Like any other nine year old boy, he interpreted these words like a challenge and launched himself into the vent. First Lawrence heard nothing. “It’s dark in here Mom, like really dark.” “You’ll be fine Johnny, I promise,” she said this with a caring tone, but shot an annoyed glanced at Clark. Lawrence could tell he was moving slowly through the vent because only occasionally would her hear the pop and sputter of his brother’s body clawing at the metal. He was maybe two feet in but Johnny yelled at his mother like they were separated by two vast oceans. Lawrence imagined their yells distorting his vision, emanating across the desert. When the sound would reach the nacre sands of Jenny, they would shamble and crumble to nothing. Jenny would flee into her car and drive away frantically, but the iridescent waves would eat at her until her foot let off the pedal and she sped down into the gnashing waters behind her. Johnny’s screams fell into fugue state; a loss of noise. “Honey, is everything alright?” “Just come out Johnny, it’s no use,” Clark pleaded with his son, wanting to starve a proud father. “If Lynn Redgrave can do it, so can I. She’s not that great, right?” Todd asked to lighten the mood. “I don’t have time to validate you, Todd! And Lynn Redgrave is amazing, don’t act like you’re better than her. Have you seen Gods and Monsters?” “Well,” Todd sunk to the floor and the baby cried for the first time since they’ve been down there. He started singing some hippie-song that amplified his baby’s cacophony.

21


“Johnny, what’s wrong?” Missy placed her head inside the duct. She saw only a motionless body, chilled in a thick fog of subterranean cold. “Spider,” he replied. “What?” “Spider.” “There’s a spider?” “Shush!” “Johnny, I don’t think spiders have ears.” Missy didn’t have the energy to mask her voice with softness. “They can feel your voice in their hairs, Mom, their hairs,” Johnny said with a mouth full of wonder. “Just get out, I’ll do it,” Lawrence said, but didn’t want to. Nobody suggested it because they knew that he would shoot them down. “They can see motion, I can’t move.” Lawrence reached a long arm into the vent and grabbed his brother’s ankle. He ripped his brother from the wall while Johnny released loud parping screams into the bunker. Johnny rolled around on the floor like his flesh was on fire. “SPIDERSPIDERSPIDERSPIDER!” His words exploded into buckshot. “There’s no spider. I swear.” Missy reached down to comfort him. “That’s what it wants you to think!” Johnny was still screaming. Clark looked away from his unraveling child and gave a nod to Lawrence. Lawrence cocked his body at the mouth of the beast in front of him. He saw no spiders in the shaft, only blackness like the bunker. He squirmed himself in, slashing a diagonal line through the vent. Inch by inch he writhed further into the shadows, the screams of his family growing distant. Above him Lawrence imagined Jenny, not alone in an alien desert, but sleeping six feet above him. She was waiting for 2000, when she would open the bunker and prove them all wrong. Lawrence knew that this was true. Yet he still crawled forward. Behind him, Lawrence imagined the night his father crawled home. The smell of wet cotton and peaches, his dad like a bundle of electrons in motion; haywire. He imagined his lifetime on a line, bending to the curve of Clark’s back. Lawrence was the imprint of his father, and he didn’t want to be. Below him Lawrence imagined Nostradamus. He wondered how Nostradamus imagined the end of the world. One big battlefield of acid greens and blacks, the sky darkened with lead and smoke. He wondered if Nostradamus had seen him. If he wrote about a young boy, escaping his family through a vent that lead nowhere in particular. Lawrence knew that Nostradamus was wrong, that the sky wouldn’t fall and the only green would be that of grass, not battery acid. Still Lawrence waited for his prediction to be true. For a bomb to set itself on the bunker. For it to blast a big rusted wound into the ceiling. He imagined this hole throbbing with caustic green, the color of the end. Alone, in darkness, Lawrence wondered how big a crater is.

22


Believe In Shiny Things Caden Molin

I wasn’t completely sure but the better part of me suspected we were going to play some type of get to know you game, and alas, come second period, we did. And while there were several awesome Averys and rad Ryans, it made it easy to tell that I was the only eighth grader surrounded by high school nerds. My teacher gave me a glare. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” I threw my head down, my chin poking into my collarbones. I didn’t want to say a thing. “Honey, will you please participate in the game?” Mr. Dennis called. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “I need to learn your name.” “Raven.” “Can you play the game with us, sweetie?” “I told you my name is Raven. Raging Raven, if you may.” I shut my eyes hard. I knew I was giving the man a hard time. The class greeted me with a ‘hi, raging Raven’ with a lot less enthusiasm than what was given to the other kids. The girl next to me popped her head up. “I’m sassy Sapphire,” she said, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I said it with the class this time, hello to sassy Sapphire. As the circle went around, I felt less and less patient. It had been twelve minutes and Algebra 2 already felt like Alcoholics Anonymous. Mr. Dennis handed out a syllabus for what we would be learning in the upcoming year. “I want all of you to take these home and get them signed by a parent.” “Or guardian,” I added. “Right, Raven,” Mr. Dennis said. “This will be the first assignment I will be checking, please have it in by Thursday. We will begin our first lesson tomorrow, so please be prepared with something to take notes in. Your syllabus has a list of everything you will be needing for this next quarter.” The second bell rang, then the third then the fourth. In social studies we talked about classroom expectations – ask to use the restroom, turn in homework, come prepared to class, and my science teacher issued me my first textbook. When I sat down for lunch my eyes drooped. The couch sat in my mind; I wasn’t ready to be back at school – I felt frigid. I felt people buzzing around the cafeteria. “Wake up sleepy!” I heard Charlotte’s sugary voice call. My body suddenly felt warmer. “It won’t be summer forever!” She sat down with her school lunch along with a chocolate milk and bag of Doritos from the vending machine. “I don’t want that,” I said as I yawned while rubbing my eyes with my sleeves. “My mom woke me up at two AM last night. I want caffeine and apple juice.” “You’re in luck.” She handed me a carton of the school lunch apple juice. “And you’re bomb.” I snatched the apple juice and opened the top. “What teachers do you have?” “Murphy.” I gasped. “You mean the one who got a nosebleed during orientation?” I pounded on the table with my right hand. “Wait, what does he teach?” Charlotte’s face spread out into a wide, glorious smile. “That was him! He teaches my English class. He’s so dumb.”

23


“No kidding,” I said, as Charlotte began to eat her food. It was a few seconds until I caught myself staring at her, wide eyed, and my head propped up on my arm. My eyes wondered around the room, the green walls and all the tops of everyone’s heads. The brakes slammed on a girl with awkward fluffy hair and striped tights. I watched as her eyes gazed into mine, all the way from across the room. She was in Algebra, I was sure. I just wasn’t sure if she was looking at me. “Rae.” I blinked. “Sorry, I was just wondering if I could get lunch.” Charlotte smiled as she does: wide, sharp and pretty. She was never much else. “I’m sure you could just ask for one.” My eyes went down to look at her hands, slightly moving around, soft and dusted in freckles. “I’m not going to bother anyone with my welfare problems.” “I know,” Charlotte said, at the same time. “You need to eat though.” “I’m not spending two of your dollars on a pb&j,” I said to Charlotte, without annunciating or looking her in the eye. “Never said anything of it.” Charlotte rested her head onto her hand and chewed slowly. I frowned, and didn’t say anything. I watched as she opened her chocolate milk and took a sip of it with her soft, pink lips. “I had my first Algebra 2 class.” I said to break the silence. “Oh yeah? And how was that?” “Guy’s a prick,” I stated, and drank my juice. Charlotte bit her lip. “Okay, he’s iffy. He’s a he. Terms like honey, sweetie, that crap really rubs me wrong.” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “You’re gonna have a lot of guy troubles one day. Wait until you meet Mr. Murphy.” “What, Mr. Nosebleed? Dumb guys are better than guys with a stick in the – I mean, booty, and I could play that guy like a fiddle. No. Not Mr. Honey- sweetie- baby,” I vented. “Which math are you in?” Charlotte groaned. “I’m in Honors Geometry.” She gave me a sad laugh. “Rest in peace.” My eyes drifted to see Charlotte’s little mouth moving around as she chewed her food, as her wide eyes looked down to her iPhone. My hand moved itself, closer and closer across the table slowly as her lunch tray cleared itself. I stared at her hands, one up against her face as she ate and the other holding her phone, which was just slightly touching the table. “What are you doing after school?” Charlotte said. My eyes broke from the table and met with hers, and I drew my hand back and put it on my lap. I didn’t know what to say and my head shook side to side quickly. She looked shocked. “You don’t have to know, I was just going to go to the library. Did you want to come?” I unfroze. “Of course I do. Let’s go.” She gave me an awkward stare. “Okay. We can go after school.” I exhaled. “Yeah. That. Sorry, I’m stupid. Okay. I have to go.” I didn’t have to go anywhere. I just started gasping and I grabbed my bag and began walking away. “Raven? Where you going?” Charlotte called. I didn’t know any better than she did. My hand went back into my pocket. “You’re stupid!” I whispered as I was leaving the cafeteria. My hand still felt tingly, and I grabbed it with the other. We didn’t go to the library that day. I went home. I always go home.

24


As soon as the door shut, I walked across to the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove. “Mom?” I called. No response. My heart thumped and I rushed town the little hallway to the bedroom. “Mom, are you okay?” Tossing over a bit, my mother let out a soar, dry grunt. “I’m fine. Where have you been?” I felt her eyes look up and down me, her hand me downs hanging loosely off of my body. “School?” “Of course you were.” She sat up in her bed. “I’ve been asleep all day. Took some Ambien and went right to bed. That helped a load.” I nodded. “You look a lot better.” “I feel it too. Tess came by.” “Yeah?” My mom cracked her back. “Well, yeah,” she said. “No news there. Barely talk to her, really. She was just getting a load off her back.” I nodded. “How was school anyways? See that friend of yours?” My mom picked up her book, the same one she’s been reading for months. “School was fine. Charlotte’s fine.” My mom smirked. “Did you eat a good lunch?” I froze. “Totally…” As my mom began to stand up and put on her slippers, her face looked tired and grumpy. “Nobody took your food, did they?” I shook my head. “Why don’t you lay down? I’ll just order a pizza.” “Are you sure? Because I put water on the stove already.” My mom took my hand, and put hers on top of mine. “You know what the great thing about water is? It unboils. Tonight’s on me. Just go read a book or something, I’ll deal with it. You’re probably still tired, and I’m sorry girl, I really am.” I grinned and sat down on my mom’s bed. “Thanks, mom.” She grinned too. Mr. Dennis assigned us seats, and to my surprise, he put me near the back. As I sat down, a couple quiet voices laughing, along with “Why is Sean wearing a dress?” from someone in the room. Soon the chairs around me were full. Two boys sat across from me, one of them being ‘Awesome Avery’ and the other a boy wearing a Nike ‘Just Do It’ t-shirt who said his name was Oliver. “I’m Sapphire,” said the girl from the cafeteria as she sat down next to me. Oliver chuckled. “Oh shut up.” I glanced over at her. She was nothing like any girl I’d ever met: her hair was cut choppy, her eyebrows thick and untamed, and she had a defined Adam’s apple. “I’m Raven,” I said. “Sapphire, you said it was?” She nodded. “Why do you gotta be such a fag, Sean?” Oliver choked. I saw Sapphire’s face drop. “This kid’s probably like ten.” Twelve. “Uh, it’s fine. Nice to meet you guys,” I said. Sapphire frowned. “So what grade are you in?” She asked. Eighth. Honors kid. Prodigy. She just gave a shy nod and opened a notebook. Nothing felt right. I put both hands on my head. Mr. Dennis began to talk about whatever teachers talk about: school, math, hard work, standardized testing, etc. Oliver’s words replayed in my mind, drowning what little important information Mr. Dennis was even trying to say. Why do you have to be such a fag. I’d heard my fair share of hurtful words before. No need to lean into this one. My palms were pressed firmly against my temples. I didn’t like that word.

25


Class felt long – far too long – and when Mr. Dennis told us to clean up it was as if I had just gotten out of prison. My hands glided around the table, picking up my papers to put it into my folder. “Hey,” I heard, and turned around. “Are you okay?” I made eye contact with Sapphire. “Me? I’m fine. Are you?” She squinted. “Why?” I used my head to gesture towards Oliver. “Oh. It stings a bit. But he’s a jerk, and I’m used to it. Why, is he upsetting you?” How could it? I didn’t even get it. “Totally not!” I froze. Was I being quiet or loud? “I’m fine. I’m fine.” She frowned. “Are you sure you’re fine, you went from one to twenty several times.” Thanks. “Maybe you can switch seats. He’s got to let you, right?” I proposed. She shook her head. “No, he’s a white man,” She said. “Isn’t that a bit prejudiced?” I asked. She scoffed. “It’s a bit prejudiced the way they see me, too.” I nodded. “I think I saw you yesterday.” “When we played the name game? Yeah. I swear kids get less and less creative every year.” I shook my head. “No. Well, yeah they do, but at lunch. I think.” She thought for a moment before smiling. “I think I saw you actually. Hey, actually, if you have room at your table, could I sit with you?” “Wait, really? Wait, don’t you want to sit with your friends?” Her smile froze. “No.” “Oh. Well, if you want to sit with my friend Charlotte and I, you can, I guess.” I watched as the coldness on her face quickly thawed, brining back the smile she had given me before. “Really? That’s so nice! Okay! I’ll see you.” Sapphire proceeded to pick up her bag and leave quickly after giving me a pat on the shoulder. “Bye, I guess,” I said, but Sapphire had left. “So. Second day, how was it?” My eyes were wide, wide open. “Is this mandatory? It was fine.” Charlotte chewed her food while making eye contact with me. Weird. “I’m trying to be friendly. Look, if I was in high school classes I would want to spill about it.” My head rocked so my face was parallel to the table. I looked over a school chocolate milk and pb&j. “You know I’m only in one class with them. The rest of them are honors. It’s a blessing and a curse.” “In which way?” “Teacher is gross, content is alright, and we haven’t even started on it. I swear that nothing can get done in 40 minutes.” “How do you know about the content?” Charlotte asked. “I read the textbook?” “The entire thing?” I sighed. “I couldn’t sleep last night. Listen, my friend is sitting with us today. She’s right over there.” I pointed to her, paying for her food. Charlotte turned her head around, and her long hair swished around, smooth and black like licorice. “Where did you say she was?” Sapphire plopped herself down in the chair to the right of me, putting her lunch square on the table and stretching out her shoulders. “Are you sure you guys are comfortable with me

26


being here?” She asked. I nodded and she picked up a Chevy Chase public school style cheesesteak. “So um, what did you say your name was again?” Charlotte asked. Sapphire put one finger up as she chewed the rest of her food. “Sapphire,” she said after swallowing. “Like the gem.” I nodded. “It’s a very pretty name,” I said, and Sapphire grinned. We were quiet a second, as I watched Charlotte eating while trying to look at Sapphire. I knew Charlotte; her eyes traveled as they would and I watched as she stared at Sapphire’s flat figure. “I wonder how your parents came up with that,” Charlotte said. Sapphire suddenly looked directly up. “You’re kidding me, right?” Charlotte laughed. “Well, excuse me for wondering.” She threw her hands onto her face. “Anyways, Raven, do you ever spend time at the library?” “What?” I said, before my mind could process what she had said. “Well, yeah, I do. Why?” Sapphire grinned. “Well,” she began, “there’s a program for LGBT teenagers and we’re trying to get as many allies as possible to come. It’s Thursdays at four.” “Allies as in…?” Charlotte’s face went cold within seconds. “Supportive people.” “That sounds cool actually…” I muttered, hoping Charlotte wouldn’t make a fuss over it. “Just the one down the street?” “Yep. Thursday.” “Cool,” I said. “I might come.” Charlotte closed her eyes and quickly shook her head. “You’re joining the gay club?” “Gay… club?” “It’s not just for gay people. That’s why we don’t call it a GSA,” Sapphire explained. “It includes trans people, and people who just want to lend a hand.” “Rae,” Charlotte called. “You’ve never held a plan that wasn’t made more than an hour in advance. Do you even know what LGBT means?” “If you don’t want to you don’t have to, I just need to get the word around. I can leave if you want me to.” I stopped for a second to think. Hearing the word gay hit me on the back harder than I’d ever felt. I didn’t know what to think – gay, fag, trans, lgbt, allies. I knew one gay person, but besides Caitlyn Jenner, I had never heard anything of someone who switched genders, and even that made no sense. “I don’t think I could be in that,” I said, feeling apologetic and shocked. Sapphire nodded sadly. It wasn’t the last time – at all – that I talked about it. The next day in Algebra, Sapphire told me what LGBT meant, and that the acronym went on. On Thursday, she told me about pride parades. “So they just close down the streets and throw rainbow and glitter everywhere?” I would ask, and she excitedly smiled. “How much does it cost?” “It’s usually free. You should go next June, to DC Pride.” Mr. Dennis already handed out the first Algebra test by Friday. “This is a very simple test. I will be very disappointed if I see that anyone fails this.” Sapphire failed it, along with most of the others. “How come he just tested us on the fifth day of school before he even started teaching us?” I laughed. “Teachers have never been of much help to me.” As I opened the door to Tess’s, Connor skittered across the floor to hug my leg. “Hey little guy!” I greeted.

27


“Raven! It’s so good to see you!” Tess walked out of her room in a black dress and large silver earrings. “I have to go to the meeting at the office – Pip is picking me up and then we’re going on a date. We’ll be home by seven, and Lily will get home in an hour.” I picked up Connor with my left hand holding him up and my right supporting his back. “Your mama’s going on a date tonight!” I said in my baby voice to Connor. “You know he’s turning three next month!” Tess yelled, while boiling some pasta. “You won’t get to use that baby voice forever.” “I think a three year old can handle some affection. Is Lily still at school?” Tess grinned. “Yup! My friend is driving her home.” I looked back to Connor. “Your big sister is starting to learn! Isn’t that exciting?” “I still haven’t explained to him about Pip, not that he would really get it. Lily loves the woman. When she comes for dinner, we can’t get Lily off. Not that Pip minds.” “Connor looks just like you,” I said, too quietly for Tess to really hear. “How’s school been?” Tess asked. “The first week just ended. I might join the GSA at the library.” Tess’s face lit up. “I’ve seen so many posters for that! Supporting a good cause, huh?” I watched Tess as she grinned widely. “Yeah, I might make the next meeting.” “I hope so, Raven,” she said. A honking occurred. “That’s my lady. Bye Raven, take care of my little guy!” I nodded as she walked out the door. My heart hurt a little. I would be the luckiest alive to have a mom like Tess. Saturday I spent at the library with Charlotte. We listened to Ghost Town. Sunday was dull as I read books and made soup for dinner. Monday was Labor Day and I took my mom out to the park. We played a game of rat slap and drank Capri Suns. Tuesday Sapphire didn’t come to school. “Where’s your friend?” Charlotte asked. I shrugged. She didn’t care. “Do you not like her?” I asked. She gave me a look of disgust. “You can tell me if you don’t.” “She isn’t bad… just, well, she’s…” Lesbian. “A boy…” Gay. “I’m confused,” I stated. Bisexual. No. “I mean, it’s not like it’s hard to tell.” She giggled. “Look, she can do what she wants, it’s just weird.” “Is that why people call her… never mind…” I felt the need to cut myself off. What if I had disrespected her? “What do they call her?” “They call her Sean…” “Ah. So she is a boy. The kind of guy who calls himself a girl. Just as I thought,” She said. Transgender. The next day, Sapphire took me to the GSA after school. We ran down to the library and sat down in one of the private rooms. A girl with pink hair was putting up a large piece of paper on the wall. “Who’s this, Saffy?” “This is Raven, she’s in eighth grade at my school.” She then turned to me. “And Raven, this is Dali.”

28


Dali turned around. “You’re so cute!” “Uhhh…” I put both of my hands on my face. “Thank you.” “We’ve just been having discussions lately, it’s a fine time to sit down. Do you want a water?” “Oh, no thanks.” Sapphire grabbed my wrist, which was laid out on the table. “You okay?” I flinched. “I will be.” Friday, class was interrupted by an eighth grade class meeting, and once I got home I walked in to hear my mother talking. “She hasn’t told me of this,” I heard her say. “Mom!” I called. “Who are you talking to?” “Your visitor,” I heard her say. Jogging down the short hallway, my brain shifted gears. My mom was okay – as I could tell. But who would be visiting me? Who else, I thought, other than Charlotte. As I opened the door, I saw her wide and thin eyes puffy and red. “Charlotte!” I exclaimed, my lungs feeling constricted. “Hey, I just came here to talk to you, uh, do you mind? I brought you something.” And I shook my head. “Not at all.” There she was, in my bathroom. “You know I have nowhere better to talk to you,” I said. “Yeah, yeah you’re fine. Listen, I just wanted to ask you if you’re okay.” I went silent. “That’s all?” “Well, no, but I do want to know. I really just need to know you’re not mad at me,” she admitted with her face down and her hair sticking up under her eyes. I’m mad you made me question my friend. “I’m not mad,” I lied. “Are you sure?” No. “Of course, Charlotte,” I lied, again. “I can’t be mad at you.” Shut up Raven. “I guess it hurts a little that you always stand me up and I want to know why,” Charlotte confessed, pulling her hair into a ponytail. It was hard to tell if she was lying. “And I know you went to GSA and we only make plans when I call,” she continued. My eyes became wet and I said I was sorry. “Are you really?” She asked. I erupted – I couldn’t save myself from this. “No, Charlotte, no,” I admitted. ““What?” Her body stiffened. “I… I’ve been losing my mind over this!” I whispered, angrily. “Every day I have to reassure myself that I’m not a horrible person for having the thoughts you put into my head.” I watched as Charlotte grew angrier and angrier but I had to keep going. “Can’t you see that I’ve felt this way, and no matter how many doubts I have I have to keep myself together? Why don’t you understand why I would go to GSA and hang out with Sapphire?” Charlotte looked outraged. “What horrible thoughts, Raven, what horrible thoughts do I put into your head? I tell you that Sapphire is obviously messing with your mind and it makes you say I’m horrible?” “No! You’re not horrible! You’re not! This isn’t about…” I stopped. “What isn’t this about?” I opened my mouth to talk when my mom opened the door. “What the hell is going on in here? Raven, you have to make dinner and then get down to Tess’s. Charlotte, you can leave now.”

29


I shut my eyes tight. I didn’t want to watch her leave. Nothing happened. Nothing. We didn’t talk, Sapphire and I sat alone at lunch. I didn’t see her and my guess was that she was going out of her way to avoid me. “Sapphire,” I began one day at lunch. Her head peeked straight up. “Yes Raven?” I lingered on my words a second. She watched, patiently as ever. “Never mind,” I said. We had another quiet second as Sapphire stared at her food and I stared at her. It was never in the way I stared at Charlotte. “Sapphire.” She looked up, and I cleared my throat. “You’re a girl, right? I’m right about that, right?” I talked, far too quickly, and my words were so mashed together I wasn’t sure what she was thinking. “Raven…do you believe me when I say I am?” I nodded, shamefully. I didn’t know what I was supposed to think. I felt like she would slap me, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Instead, I felt arms around me. The soft skin of a girl not too different from me. Her face on my neck, and even when I had known her less than two weeks, I got it now. I got her.

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Habiba Suhail Gharaibeh

Snowfall was only beginning to lighten. In the foothills of the plateau, sand and dirt were covered by a crunchy lamina of snow for weeks, small and icy shimmers of snow falling during the night, when the shiny snowmelt of the day would freeze into rocky caps of ice. Habiba’s school had closed down nearly six months ago. With only seven of the tenstudent minimum populace, officers from the Ministry were spotted pulling into the school’s gravelly driveway one day, and everybody knew what for. The schoolteacher barely showed in any case; he was apparently afflicted with chronic bronchitis that elicited vehement fits of coughing, although students had never actually witnessed this happen. Her mind traveled to this often; now she considered the circumstances of her school’s closing while shifting firewood in the hearth. Her father had cut the cords of wood from an acacia tree long ago, cached them in a stockpile next to the hearth to keep them dry. Pulses of snow fell slowly still. She checked outside for her father’s car. He hadn’t come home for days, and the patch of driveway where he usually parked his car was now fully blanketed in white. If another day passed, Habiba decided, she would have broken her own record of consecutive days of orphanage, so then she would contact the authorities. The girl who cried desertion. At the hearth, a cast-iron pot hung over a fire pit that was dark and sooty with use. She poured several inches of recycled olive oil into the pot, where it would begin to heat for deep-frying falafel. She extracted a glass jar of seasoned chickpea flour from a nearby cupboard, along with it a yellow plastic bowl, and filled a carafe of water. Pouring dribbles of water into the bowl filled with chickpea flour, she mixed together a thin dough while the oil came to frying temperature. Habiba formed discs of dough and guided them into the oil carefully, watching the oil engulf them, saturating the patties in a frenzy of bubbles and sizzling. The falafels were pummeled by the oil before floating, defeated, to the surface, browned and crisp. Next came the predicted footsteps of her brother, attracted by the smell of fried food— one that was unceremonious to most, but his appetite knew no bounds. He padded in through the arched doorway of the kitchen to flutter hungrily around the cooking. Habiba was now fishing the falafel out of the oil to place them on a clay plate lined with paper napkins. “Yallah, Jalil, go sit at the table,” Habiba says, leading him with the plate of food to their little dining table, crafted by their father from giant cedar. Jalil tapped his bare feet against the ground as he began devouring the food, arranging the falafel in stacks and eating them until there was none left. She distracted herself often by staring at him, engrossed by his cute idiosyncrasies: his pin-straight eyelashes that made him look perpetually sleepy, how his eyes held a million flecks of green, a short laugh that she always missed in its absence. Habiba’s stomach clenched noisily as she stepped away from the table, having eaten a disproportionate amount of the breakfast. She pushed her hunger down into the floor of her stomach, and poured water on her brother’s plate to rinse off the crumbs. Maybe I’ll find some money, she thought, to go and buy bread and honey. But she preferred books—reading was second nature for Habiba. She wished she could devour words for sustenance, crack the spines of new books and feel full. She craved wisdom like she did food, and the interruption of her life as a student left her feeling hollow. At the sink, she washes a steel teapot, and remembers with an excited quiver in her stomach the newspaper she has stowed away in her room, placed firmly under her mattress. She pictured it,

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pictured taking it out from under the bed and showing it to her father, reading to him, afloat with the idea that excited her so. Later the sun sang over the valley, its light the color of plums. Gnarled olive trunks cast mottled shadows on the sand, and Habiba plucked a fig from the family’s tree—carefully so she wouldn’t bruise its soft flesh. Along with it came the fruit’s attached leaf, broad and veiny. She ate it on a plate that was cold from its chilly storage in the pantry, ripping it open by hand with a muted crushing noise. The millions of little fleshy seeds used to discomfort her mother—she used to handle the fruit with knives only, no hands, and stare at the interior of the fruit as though it were a wound. But Habiba ate ardently because the fruit was sweet in its maturity (the figs all needed to be plucked—they were on the brink of rotting). She’d call the police in the morning, she decided. Tomorrow she’d call the police if her father didn’t arrive home. That night she dreamed of her mother; how she listened to fijiri—the music of the pearl divers. Rowing through the crystal water of the gulf of Aqaba, they would sit on the floor of their dhows and play shimmering songs, drumbeats and claps, their sage voices singing old songs. And the ocean’s arms embraced them fiercely. They dove into the chill of the water, surfacing with a wealth of pearls, each iridescent and perfectly spherical—the sacred geometry of the sea. Her mother would listen to recordings of their songs on a Revox record player that she used to have. She used to hum along. Habiba’s bed faced a window. Its view was mostly engulfed by a new flush of green that erupted from the young kair tree outside—a shrub that held a tangled mass of tender branches. Its roots gripped the salty earth, webs of it that could be observed when the surrounding soil eroded and was carried away by the wind. The trees would be left skeletal, their knotty tops a mirror of their threadlike globes of rootage. Now with the thinness of the immature tree, she saw a car through the branches as her eyes opened out of sleep, focusing as she blinked. There it was—parked, large and red in the middle of their snow-laden driveway. Her father had had that car since before she had a functioning memory, and he loved it so in spite of its growling motor and dwindling battery. She thought, momentarily, of slashing its tires, of clobbering the windshield until it webbed and shattered. Its large redness was a swathe of color that angered her, and her stomach fluttered with emotion upon realizing that her father was home. She rolled over. She could feel, with her shoulder, the newspaper under her mattress. Nearly every morning since she brought it home, she read it upon waking up—today, though, she would reread the article with purpose. Its headline: “New School Opens in Irbid After Months of Construction.” She read for the umpteenth time the same information: The Hashemite School of Irbid, expected to enroll thousands, was finished on March 3rd. It would offer an English-language magnet program. Habiba imagined herself walking its halls, going home to her aunt’s house, doing homework. And reading. Her father clearly didn’t worry about her presence at home. So why would he say no to her leaving? This morning she woke with pain in her leg. It worried her still, even after the doctor sentenced her to a short time in physical therapy—she was supposed to be cured. She saw Xray visions projected onto the black backing of her eyelids: femur shattered like crushed diamond…sparks of her bone glinting. Murmurs rushed in from the kitchen in bursts, interrupted each time by static. Her father was watching the television. Jalil slept in the bed next to hers. Before she knew it, she was standing, and black motes clouded her vision as she stumbled toward the door lightheadedly. It creaked and she resented it, because now her father knew she was awake and approaching. She wished she was still lying in bed, but she forced herself to step into the kitchen and in front of her father. Rounding the corner she saw him seated at the counter. He looked up at her, and looked surprised. Like he didn’t know she would be home, like he didn’t know she was still alive.

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He quickly turned his eyes down to a glass of tea, realizing who he was looking at. She was the first to greet. “Hi,” Habiba crinkled a corner of her nightgown between two fingers. “Hello.” Her father sipped his tea loudly. His face was widely stippled with black hair, and Habiba couldn’t feel much besides repugnance when she looked at his crooked nose, his greasy hair, his t-shirt, yellowed at the neckline. He stared at the television blankly, actively ignoring her presence. Noise shimmers on most channels. He settles for the news on Channel 2. “Where were you?” Habiba’s voice wavers. “I was on business with Ahmad and the guys from my job…Is, um, is everything okay around here?” “I cook. I take care of Jalil. Yes, I think everything is just fine.” “I don’t need lip. You know that I go on trips for work, you should know how to handle yourselves. And Jalil is eight now, so quit with the babying.” “I miss my mother.” Now tears were hot in the rims of her eyes, and she rushed back into her room, where Jalil sat upright in his bed. His hair sprayed upward, sleep-tousled and greasy. He looked bewildered. Habiba’s face felt flooded with emotion, and tears began gushing in wide streams down her small face. “Biba, why are you crying?” Jalil wondered aloud. She didn’t answer. Instead she drew the curtains, closed them on the kair tree, and lay back in her bed, pulling the linens over her body. She folded into herself, into cold skin and tears encrusting her cheeks. The town’s newspaper no longer ran on paper routes. The route only required one bike to circle the whole town (dozens wanted the job) and even so it was too expensive to maintain an employee – taxes had plummeted after sandstorms unearthed most of the crops, when farmers had to be supplied measly government rations and flocks of people fled for more fertile farming land. Habiba had had to go to the grocer to pick up a newspaper, and she did this most days when the weather allowed it. The owner of Al-Ghazal almost always waived the 20-cent fee for Habiba – she read them voraciously, underlining with dull pencils words that she liked. So it was on a dark morning that Habiba had made her weekly pilgrimage to the store to pick up the latest issue of the Johfiyeh Jaridat, and plastered in bold letters on the front page was the story of the school, the one that had been built just for her, and she would arrive home to it, fleeing the length of the days in Johfiyeh. At home even the nights were interminable – Habiba would wake to dark shadows of strange women leaving their home, tucking their hair under their hijabs before stealing away into nights that were always illuminated by the neon of the stars. One of these nights, her father had caught her, awake in the darkness of late night, staring at him as he said goodbye to a woman leaving his bedroom. It daggered into Habiba’s heart, these wanton mementos of motherhood that could only confuse her. In a wrinkled dress shirt, her father was gaunt, body rising tall and willowy, but in a sinewy rather than handsome way. The woman slowly, measuredly, planted a kiss on her father’s corpse cheek – when he turned his face to receive it, he saw the sliver of Habiba’s face illuminated by a gash of light. In the morning she woke with a violet bruise at her jaw. She had to leave. But her brother was only eight years old, and taking him with her was a tremendous risk that she was just not willing to take, but leaving him at home was a death wish. She would stay for the winter. Habiba pulled the newspaper out from under her mattress, letting it hit the bedframe with a small puff of dust. The front-page article continued on page three, and she flipped to it to read

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over it one last time before asking her father. The paper was dry in her hands – she had just woken up and the sensation of her palms was uncomfortable against the desiccation of the newspaper parchment. She marched out to the patio, where her father had been stationed for days in lethargy. Before sliding open the door, she waited momentarily, her fingertips grazing the texture of the glass. Through it she saw the figure of her father, garbled by the bumpy glass of the sliding door. Humming out a sigh, she went out onto the patio, and stepped onto a woven raffia rug. Her father had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Pulling lazy drags from it, it crackled orange, and he let milky eruptions of smoke pour from his nostrils. A dwindling bottle of arak sat at his ankles. When he noticed her, only a slow turn of the head was elicited, and a look of distinct early-morning was showing. He smelled of musk and perspiration; his eyes lolled away as he ashed his cigarette. “What is it,” her father raised his eyebrows, “that you want?” “Father, look.” Habiba thrust the newspaper forward to him, and it remained suspended in the air for a moment before he snatched it from her, looking over it, his eyes jumping as Habiba watched anxiously. He put it down, and dragged his cigarette. “Why are you showing me this?” “Well, we have family in Irbid, and you know how it has been for me without school, for so long, I just thought maybe…well, I thought–” “You thought what?” Her father swigged the arak, standing to his full height. It flew towards the wall, bursting loudly, thick glass shrapnel soaring everywhere, in one swift throw of his arm. The air flooded with the smell of anise. Arak poured down the wall, and Habiba winced and stumbled back towards the patio’s door. “What did you think, Habiba? Did you think that I would let you run off to go to school in Irbid? Is that what you thought? Stay with your auntie, take the school bus, freshly sharpened pencils, is that it? And let your brother stay here to twiddle his thumbs all day?” Her eyes were stinging, the harshness of the words gutted Habiba. She was seized with hatred for her father. She wanted to scream at him, beat her fists into his chest, but she stood there, small, with her cloud of curly hair waving thickly down her back. Wet with tears, her hazel eyes were verdant, their thick black rings contrasting around the edges of her irises. Instead she walked numbly back inside the house, falling back to rest against the glass door after slamming it shut. Her father’s dark words rang in her brain. The night was a balmy one, and the wind twirled indecisively as it did during the change of seasons. Little snow was left, and the symphony of early spring began to revive itself, slowly at first. The rows of olive trees began to dot with green, small cocoons of foliage pushing from the bark. Habiba began spending days sitting under the family’s biggest olive tree in their backyard, wrapped in chunky knit blankets and the scent of cardamom, gulping hot tea. The sunsets were radiant, dust humming at the horizon, casting arms of purple out into the sky. The children saw her for the first time as they sat in the drawing room, as Jalil watched how the cold wind, tempering the intensity of the sun, bent the boughs of the olive trees. Her dark chiffon cloaks flew around her like ink in water – the women of the village wore the cloaks during seasonal high dust storms. “Habiba, look.” Habiba turned. The woman walked up the drive with a hand over her nose and mouth, eyes squinted, pressing her eyelashes together to keep out the sand. “Who is that,” Habiba mumbled. Her father yelled from the kitchen for the kids to get dressed. Bewildered, Jalil rushed upstairs, but Habiba stayed sitting on the couch to watch the stranger welcomed into their house by her father.

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“Ahlan, ahlan.” Her father welcomed the woman. She stepped into the house, lifting her dress. A kiss on the cheek. A smile. Behind her back, her father combed through his hair with his hands, and glared at Habiba, who was still in pajamas and staring at the two of them. The woman shed her layers. Their color rendered them creaseless, like they were swatches of dark matter as she hung them on the rusted hooks near the door. She emerged from her cocoon in a dress embroidered with flowers. It fell to cover her shoulders, square décolletage framing her breasts and collarbones neatly. It was a deep Chinese red, and the color suited her bronze skin. Suddenly the woman turned, and before she could react, Habiba was staring fully into her eyes. They were icy, but the woman’s demeanor caused her to seem sweet. Still Habiba hated her. “Well, hello!” Her voice rang. To her enamored father, she was sure that her voice sounded musical, chiming. But to her it was tinny. She swept a couple strands of sable hair from her face delicately, and walked over to Habiba, whose lips remained tightly sealed. Her father squinted at her in the background, so Habiba shakily greeted the woman back. “Hello.” “Stand, Habiba.” So she did. And she repeated herself. “What’s your name?” She showed teeth so white they had a bluish tint to them. The woman’s nose was straight. Her mother had a straight nose. But the nose of her father was grossly hooked, so Habiba’s face had grown to distend a large nose with a high and angular bridge. “Habiba,” she replied. She remembered all the nights when she would be awake to watch her father’s lovers leave her house, and racked her brain for loose dark hair, for swarthy skin. She didn’t remember her. She remembered only hijabi women, women she probably knew but couldn’t recognize with only the desert’s stars and lurid hanging moon for lighting. She remembered brilliant violet bruises, remembered lying stiff in bed watching women rush away in black abayas. Women walking home alone at night. Jalil skirted around their father, shyly wondering whom the guest was. He probably didn’t expect a woman in a red dress, or to see the black ringlets of curls hang down her back. It was rare that you saw a woman uncovered – their village offered three mosques but no school. “Jalil, this is Suzanne.” Her father put a hand on the back of Jalil’s neck to guide him in front of his legs. “Hello.” “Hi there, Jalil,” Suzanne said. Jalil looks up at the woman with his globular greenish eyes. He stares for a moment before looking down at the ground. “Yallah, kids, go set the table. Suzanne,” their father shooed them away, “is joining us for breakfast.” They went into the kitchen and stood around the table, not setting it but rather standing there, staring into each other’s eyes in confusion. Their father had never introduced them to a woman since the death of their mother. Jalil’s eyes slowly glossed with wetness, and Habiba’s nose was stinging. They urged each other to stay away from tears, nonverbally. They stared, tense, in each other’s eyes, searching for comfort that they couldn’t muster. Days came in and out, and the rows of olive trees had flowered beautifully, sprays of white flowers dotting deep green. The air was flooded with the grassiness of their scent, light and green like spring wind and bay laurel. Suzanne came to the house often, although it was mainly during the night, when she and Habiba’s father would talk softly in front of the television, drink arak, laugh. Habiba read newspapers and ate the last of the figs—they eventually stopped growing in late March.

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Jalil died before the olive trees bore fruit. They were in full bloom, woody buds poking sharply from the branches. He was playing alone with a red ball while Habiba looked out at him from the kitchen window, and when he kicked it out of their small yard and into the street, he ran after it, shoes kicking up little clouds of dust. Habiba watched the death of her brother play out in just seconds, in one she was paralyzed—she stared with quickly widening eyes at the truck barreling towards him, speeding through the street lined with jasmine flowers. It was loudly colored, brilliant red, the faded emblem of some brand of soda plastered on its side. She found herself kneeling at his side moments later. His blood had rolled on the compacted dirt, beading up, shining crimson. And soon the olive trees hung with heavy fruit, large verdant olives that could be shaken off of the branch with the lightest touch. Jalil was blessed and buried in shrouds under an olive tree at the edge of the house. Alive, he was the salt of the earth; in death he was bounty. This season the soil was alive, fertile—an elegy. The house experienced a peak in energy, in emotion, as ashamed tears were furtively shed, and many nights Habiba woke, hiccupping with sobs, her chest seizing. One night, her father was woken up by the sound of her crying, and when he made himself noticed in the doorway, Habiba’s throat clutched in effort to stop crying. She expected to be scolded for waking him. “You…Habiba.” Tears flow freely from her eyes. “You were supposed,” her father growled, “to be watching him.” She never before knew her father’s cruelty to this extent. He had hit her, certainly – but he etched invisible scars now, leaving traces of cold words on her skin, biting. She slammed the door, a sob pinching the back of her throat, threw the door shut in her father’s face. He turned, walked slowly back to his room, and shut the door quietly. Habiba laid in bed, both anxious and enraged – she imagined her father’s face being murderous, his eyes flaring, but in his movements remaining stoic, cool. This was the man she was terrified of. And dead was the boy that she loved so fiercely – his green eyes sealed like a tomb, his effervescence so obviously absent. Habiba wanted to know nothing else of that house if she could not see Jalil’s face, alive. So she left – that night she packed her handful of clothes and a notebook with her aunt’s address and phone number written in it. She walked alone and the air was cold and dense, but held the flavor of late spring. She left behind the brick house and its coldness, she left her brother six feet under the olive tree, left Suzanne and her father. The moon was lambent in the night, and there were countless stars. Habiba left the village on the last bus to Irbid.

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Train Tracks Serena Zets

Part 1: Seventh Grade The seasons are transitioning slower than cupcakes cooling on a baking rack when you’re really hungry. It’s September but it feels like July. My legs are exposed, in my shorts, and the train seat scratches at my thighs, making them raw and irritated. Every few seconds, I bring my hands down to scratch the underside of my legs, but everytime I do so my seat mate gives me a strange look. From his profile I can tell he’s older than my father, but younger than my grandmother, which doesn’t really narrow anything down. They’re really the only adults I have to go off of. At this very second, I’m in purgatory between the two. The train carries me from my shell of a home with my father to my grandmother’s lovely home. These rides always feel like I’m bursting out of my sheltered cocoon and into the real world. One time, late at night, I made the decision to tell my father about how good these rides feel. I expected him to be insulted, but being the mild mannered rational person he is, he calmly asked me why I found these train rides so refreshing. I explained how most kids don’t like being in such a speculative environment all the time. I told him how sometimes, I’d rather read Highlights and not The Brown Journal of World Affairs. He then explained to me that most ten year olds have never even heard of The Brown Journal, which proved the point I was making. It’s been two years since that interaction and not much has changed. Upon dropping me off at the train station in Amherst, my father handed me his iPod and told me to listen to his latest lecture on Roman Law, so I could approve it before he uploads it to his department’s website. What kind of sane father forces his daughter to review his lecture on Roman Law? The lecture starts, “This is Raul Lyle reporting from Amherst College on Roman Law.” I give him so much input, that my name, Coral Lyle, should be credited on it too. But it would probably look unprofessional for a respected professor to have his twelve year old daughter’s name attributed on his lecture. He sees me as a colleague and I see him as someone to pay the bills, so it’s not a bad relationship per say, just a little mature. The train ride goes by much slower than I had hoped for. The seat continues to scratch my legs. Then my seat mate tries to spark a conversation about the presidential election, but I don’t have much to say. He talks about how one of the candidates is Muslim, which even I know is not true. I don’t think he realized how young I am, since most people don’t. It’s probably an effect of growing up in a college town, where everyone is mature and academic. It’s one of the reasons that I’m always glad to escape for the weekend to my grandmother’s house in the mountains. She lives in a small A-frame cabin with a stream running through her backyard that’s perfect for splashing around in. It’s beautiful in the fall gloaming, as the stars twinkle overhead and the copper leaves reflect in the bottom of the stream and crush under my feet. I’m barely able to keep my eyes open as the train pulls through the dark into the Berkshire station. I look out the window and see Terry there on the platform. It must have gotten colder as the sun went down, because she’s bundled in a jean jacket. She’s also wearing a pashmina that I brought her from my trip, with my father, to the Himalayas. Terry loves the mountains, but doesn’t travel out of the Berkshires a lot. So whenever I gave it to her, she said she loved that it came from a mountain range she’d never been to. Even when I was halfway around the world, her and I were still connected.

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My dismount from the train is surprisingly quick. As soon as my sneakers hit the platform, I run to Terry to give her a bear hug. She sweeps me up as if I haven’t seen her in years, but in actuality it’s only been a week. We gossip on the short walk home. The sun has completely fallen by the time we make up the winding gravel driveway and to her porch. The porch light is turned off, so we can’t really see anything besides ourselves in the dark. It’s reassuring to know she’s next to me even though I can’t really see her. My jaunt slows as we approach the porch. I can make an outline of a person on the porch. As we get closer I can tell that it’s my mother sitting on the porch swing. I’m not sure whether to be shocked or to expect this kind of thing from my mom. She looks up from the huge book she’s thumbing through and says, “Oh honey, you’re home.” “Yeah, I know I’m home. But why are you?” I respond. I can’t help but get defensive. “I had a lecture scheduled tomorrow morning at Holyoke but it was cancelled, so I figured I’d drop by for the night.” “So you’re in town for the weekend? Why would you come here and not go home to see dad?” “Terry said you’d be here for the weekend and I just wanted to see my favorite girl.” She stood up to give me a hug, but I crossed my arms in refusal. “If you kept up with my schedule, you’d already know that I spend every weekend here.” I said defensively. “Come on Coral, give your mother a break. You guys haven’t seen each other in a while, and this is how you greet her. I would’ve thought she raised you with better manners,” Terry interjects. “She barely even raised me,” I say. I look down and try to avoid my mother’s eyes. I can’t help but feel her looking at me, as I look at Terry. “It was all you.” Part 2: Eighth Grade My eyes blink open and the first thing they see is the empty fish tank that sits on my dresser. I meant to buy new fish whenever Bubs and Chip died last year, but I haven’t gotten around to it. When I look around my room, and rub the sleep from my eyes, I realize that my room looks like that of an elderly woman, not an eigth grader. My pillows and sheets have a faded pattern of blue lilies on it. It clashes with my knitted quilt, but I keep it all anyways. My room smells of lost moments spent sitting at my desk as I eat spoonfuls of almond butter with little else. Sometimes I sneak almond butter up to my room and it stains my beautiful pillow, but in those moments I flip it over and all is right again. Those times in bed with my almond butter and books are when I’m happiest. My mouth is cemented shut and I have an excuse to not talk for a few minutes. There’s no way to describe it. There’s probably a word for it in German, because there’s a word for everything in German, especially the best things. Unfortunately this is not one of those blissful times. Halloween is right around the corner and that means that Amherst turns into a literal ghost town. All of the stores in town decorate for the day which is a shame, because all of the college students are out partying and are too wasted to appreciate the handiwork. Halloween used to be one of my favorite holidays, but I’m dreading it this year. My mom was dead-set on me hosting a party, but that’s not really my scene. That just goes to show how much she missed in the years she was gone. With that in mind, the only other option is trick or treating. Unfortunately, I’m fresh out of costume ideas. My Margot Tenenbaum costume was a crowd pleaser last year, so I don’t know how to top that. My dad suggested that we go as Mork and Mindy, but that would give my classmates just another thing to tease me about. In class one day, I quoted Mork and my peers cracked up and said “She’s been an alien all along.” So I took my lunch to the library and sat. I was even able to watch them play on the playground as I ate

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my bean burrito and read Emma for the second time. Someone once told me that life is too short to reread books. And I thought that just might’ve been the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Considering all of this, I think I’ll disregard my dad’s proposal. I sit upright in my bed and realize that I don’t have time to be thinking about this, I really need to get ready. My train to Terry’s leaves in an hour. “Coral, come downstairs. Breakfast is ready,” my mom bellows from the kitchen. I swear, since she’s been home she’s honed the creepy sixth sense that every mom possesses. She’s been home for a year but I’m still not used to her being here. My father and I had just learned to coexist in a symbiotic relationship with our own litle roles. Then mom came back home and disrupted everything. Everytime I hear my mom’s voice, I remember that she’s actually here and it’s not just her voice on the answering machine. “I’ll be right down in a second. Let me brush my teeth first,” I call back. I rummage through the medicine cabinet, looking for my tooth brush, but I can’t find it. I blindly grope around the shelves for it, but instead I find a journal. I recognize its colorful decoupaged cover as my old diary. I flip open a page and find this: Coral Lyle, December 25th, 6th grade. Christmas was a letdown yet again. Mom couldn’t be here, so we Skyped her as I opened my presents. I tried to hide my dissapointment at my presents, so my mom wouldn’t feel even more guilty than she usually does. My parents know that I want a complete encyclopedia set, more than anything. But instead of that, they bought me a beautiful hand bound edition of Charlotte’s Web, an alpaca sweater, and a new leather purse. I love their presents, but I still yearn for that encyclopedia set. Maybe I'll luck out and get it next year. Almost two years later and I had almost forgotten about that encyclopedia set. For a couple years, all I wanted was a complete set of encyclopedias. I didn't care if they came from a yard sale or if they were brand new, all that mattered to me was that it was complete. In those pages I looked for what my family lacked: wholeness. I put the journal back and reach around for my toothbrush again. I find it behind a bottle of almond scented lotion. I rush through brushing my teeth and head downstairs. I find my mom standing at the counter. She’s flipping pancakes with one hand and talking on the phone with the other. She nods her head towards the plate stacked high with blueberry pancakes without breaking the pace of her conversation. I can also hear her humming the Maude theme song under her breath. I’ve been eating my pancakes for a few minutes, when she finally finishes her phone call. She turns to me with a napkin in her hand and dabs at a dribble of blueberry juice on my chin. She does it as if we’ve done this a millon times. Her eyes gleam as if she’s going to tell me something I’m not going to like. That’s when it hits. “So I was thinking about what we should do for our Halloween costumes,” she tells me. “I came up with some really good pair ones.” I nod. She continues, “I was wondering if you’d want to go as Maude and one of her housekeepers?” She seems really excited about it. I have to admit, it’s not a bad idea. Before my mom went on sabbatical a few years ago, we’d always watch Maude. It was the little common ground we shared. “That’s actually a pretty good idea. But you know I’d have to be Maude if we did do it,” I state. “I was thinking you’d be the housekeeper.” “No way. I’d be such a better Maude.” “I’m the one who introduced you to the show, so I should get to be Maude,” my mom protests. “Are you really going to debate with your thirteen year old daughter over your joint Halloween costume? You should be glad that your daughter wants to spend Halloween with

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you, most kids would be out partying,” I retort. I wonder, why does she always need to make everything about her? “So I’m not cool enough to hang out with anymore? I see how it is.” I can hear the dejectedness in her voice. “I thought you were glad to have me home.” “I was, and I still am. But you just manage to make everything about you. I’m so used to being around mature adults and childish teenagers that I don’t know how to interact with you.” “Wow. That’s a personal blow but I understand. I’ve just been trying to get us back to the relationship we were at before,” she says. “What relationship? All we ever did was stuff you wanted to do. Just like this costume.” I’m frustrated and it’s coming through in my voice. “You just said a couple minutes ago that it was a great idea.” “Yeah I thought so at the moment, but it’s because you’ve sucked me back into your trap of going along with all of your plans. Did you really think I wanted you to travel around the world for two years without me?” My mom looks heartbroken by my admission. “Coral. I told you, I’d only do what you thought was best for you and for us. If you had just said no, I would have stayed and taught at Amherst.” “Seriously? How was I going to say no to such a good opportunity for you? You got to teach all around the world. I missed you, but I was also proud of you too.” I look down and stab at my pancakes, so I can avoid her woeful eyes. “Cori, I missed you so much,” she says. “Dad never calls me Cori.” I had completely forgotten about that little nickname. “Yeah because that’s one of our special things.” “Like Saturdays at the Emily Dickinson museum?” “Or pizza with potato, black bean, and basmati rice sauce from Antonio’s,” she says. “I missed that pizza so much. Dad thinks it’s disgusting and would always make me order the avacado quesadilla pie.” I quiver at the thought of his beloved monstrosity. “Like that’s any less disgusting.” My mom shudders, too, as she responds. “Exactly,” I say. She reaches across the counter and gives my hand a squeeze. “I missed you too mom, but I’m still not dressing up as the housekeeper.” Part 3: Ninth Grade When my and Terry’s train pulls into the Amherst station, I see my mother sitting on a bench on the platform. Her nose is bright red. Her lips are raw and chapped. Steam from her travel mug of coffee rests on the lenses of her eyeglasses, to the point that she can’t see. She keeps rubbing them on her scarf in an unsuccessful attempt to clear the fog, but it only smudges them. She must be able to see a little, because as soon as she sees us through the train window, her face brightens up. Terry grabs her purse and the Tupperware that holds her sweet potato pie from under the seat.. Her sweet potato pie is celebrated throughout Massachussets. She makes a ton of her legendary pies every November, and raffles them off for charity. One time, my mom brought some to her PhD students on Pi Day and they loved it so much, they held a contest to see who could make it the closest to her recipe. After eating and judging their sorry attempts, it made me disheartened to learn that even PhD students can’t recreate a recipe. If they can’t do it, how will I? Terry and I hop off the train and head towards my mom. She sets down her mug and gives me a comforting, enveloping hug. I’m not sure if she did this because she’s freezing or because she’s genuinely excited to see me. It’s probably a mix of both. As she hugs Terry, I take a sip of her coffee when I know she’s not looking. She claims that coffee stunts your growth and that I can’t take any chances when it comes to my gene pool. She's probably right

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considering that a she's a former gymnast and my dad has been consistently mistaken for an extra in The Hobbit. “You must be freezing,” my mom says. She steps out of her hug with Terry and surveys my thin sweatshirt and jeans. “You know I never get cold,” I reply. “That must be how you survived your disastrous trip to the Himalayas with your father.” “You’re just jealous that you didn’t get to go.” My mother smirks at this. “You’re right. I am sooooo jealous that I missed out on that trip.” It’s been said that I got my dad’s eyes and my mother’s sarcasm. “I wish I had gotten to go,” says Terry. My mom gives her a questioning look. “You probably would have lost all of your fingers and toes,” I say. “And if that had happened, we wouldn’t have anyone to make us sweet potato pie,” my mom says. She scoops the Tupperware out of Terry’s hand and starts to lead us to the car. We get into the car. Frost crusts the windows and the seats are freezing. Snow starts to fall as we drive from the station to our house. The view outside looks as if it belongs as the stock wallpaper on a computer. The leaves are a sunburst of colors with the beginnings of icicles dangling from them. As we pull into the driveway, the forenoon sun is overhead and its noticeably warmer than it was when we were at the train station. Inside the house, my dad is rushing around the kitchen trying to perfect everything about this day. I guess perfectionism is in my genes, unlike height. Though, if anyone has something to prove, it’s my mom, since its her first Thanksgiving at home in a few years. My dad, on the other hand, has no one to impress but himself. He’s pulling out all the stops: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, casserole, and the rest of the works. It’s especially funny because none of us are very good at cooking. Most of our meals consist of frozen foods from Trader Joe’s topped with produce or sauce that also came from Trader Joe’s. But sadly, Trader Joe’s doesn’t have an all in one microwavable Thanksgiving kit. Believe me, we've checked. Thus, we bluff our way through holiday cooking. I leave my parents and Terry in the kitchen, and head up to my room, so I can stay out of their way. I know they would never admit it, but I worry that my family still sees me as the the little girl who always got to sit at the adults’ table. Nothing reminds me more of that unbalance than holidays. Now that mom’s back now and I’m in high school, maybe they’ll accept me into their mature, academic realm. I'll always be the girl who’s out of place at their table, but somehow still feels at home. Part 4: Tenth Grade I wonder how much time I’ve wasted at this train station. Lost moments spent in a transitory haze, similar to dusk. I wonder how much time I’ve spent sitting on this bench, preparing to leave someone I love, or even worse, watching as someone I love leaves me. Today, I’m in the worse of the two situations. I’m being snubbed. My mother sits on the bench next to me. She looks professional in her camel trench coat. The fall chill has already set in, even though it's only early September. I’ve heard the story of the day she bought that coat, again and again. It's from a vintage store in New Orleans that she frequented while she was teaching at Tulane. She wandered into the shop, in search of a birhday present to me, but instead she found the most beautiful coat she’d ever seen. Long story short, she got that coat and all I got for my birthday was an “I owe you.” It’s not even an attention-grabbing story, but she tells it anyways. It reminds me that I’m still waiting to cash in that “I owe you.” Today, the coat swishes around her knees as they bounce up and down out of nervousness. Her whole look oozes the kinds of professional air you’d find in New York City, not

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Amherst. Which I guess is appropriate considering that she’s heading there for the next two years. Her job as an adjunct anthropology professor is taking her to Columbia. She’s considered an expert in the study of humans, yet she doesn’t know enough about me to say the right thing right now. Ironic isn’t it? Knowing her, she’s probably spending our last moments together taking mental notes. Later, she’ll share them with her new class in the form of an amusing little anecdote about family ties. They’ll laugh at all the right parts and it will solidify her first impression for them. Over the course of the year, they’ll only get closer and by graduation, they’ll know more about her than I do. We sit in silence. People rush around us, as if we’re not even there, trying to make it to their destination. I've spent so much of my time in transit that I don't remember how to be still. A loud rumbling disrupts our silence. I look up and see the train pulling into the station. My mother stands up and wraps me in a hug. Her coat smells like our pantry. She smells like home. I pull back from her for a second to see her face. Her cheeks are blotchy and small tears are forming in the corner of her eyes. I rub the tears away, before they can hit her pristine coat. "Mom, you know what?” She gives me a questioning look. “I used to want the mom that baked for the class bake sale and was in the PTO. But then I realized, who wants a Stepford wife as a mom? I won the parental lottery when I got a bad ass world renowned anthropologist for a mom." My mom laughs at this and holds me again. I hug her back, even harder. “I wish I were that well regarded in my profession,” she says. “Trust me, you are. Every time I meet one of your colleagues or students, they always tell me how they wish they were related to you. That’s a pretty cool feeling, to have what other people want.” “You got that from me,” she says, smiling. She looks up at the train and back at me. “I should probably get going, even though I don’t want to.” She gives me another squeeze and kisses my forehead. Then, she turns and joins the masses and hurries off to catch her train. She turns back to me for a second and speaks over the hum of the crowd. “By the way, I left a surprise for you in the trunk.” I see her coat swing through the train’s door and I track her as she makes her way to her seat. She gets settled and waves to me from her window seat. Her train disappears into the distance without so much as a final whistle. Her entrance into my life was so drawn out and dramatic that it makes this small goodbye feel unfulfilling. I walk through the parking lot to the car. It still has my mom’s countless bumper stickers. She plastered them on her car into a collage of her life’s highlights. It’s like driving around in a photo album of someone else’s life, for everyone to see. Her bracelets, spare reading glasses, and the rest of her crap are still in the glove compartment. It reminds me of her. Everything around my house reminds me of her now. Our kitchen reminds me of the hot chocolate that she’d make for me on cold days. It’s spicy and as thick as fudge. She claims it as her secret recipe, but everyone in Amherst knows what her special ingredients are. No one has the heart to tell her that it isn’t actually a secret. I use the remote control key to pop open the trunk. But the jumble of bumper stickers weigh down the door, so it always sticks. Using the little arm muscle I have, I pry it open. My eyes start to tear up as I realize what’s in front of me. There’s a full set of the 2010 Encyclopedia Brittanica crammed into the tiny trunk. On top of the first volume is an index card that reads Cori, The secret to my hot chocolate is cayenne and cocoa. I hope this clue makes our time apart a little sweeter. I have yet to figure out the secret to missing you less. This is the last printed edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I hope this is the last time we have to say good bye. I love you Cori. Mom.

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Her note reminds me that no matter what, I’m that little girl who's mature enough to know that it's impossible to know everything, but still young enough to try. And maybe that's not a bad thing.

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He’s in New York Olivia Benning

I slump down into the couch, fed up with the ongoing argument. Devon hasn’t shut up since he got home and Sebastian keeps agitating him to keep him going. “Maybe Evelyn wants to watch something, hmm? Did you even take her into consideration?” Sebastian grins at Devon whose round face is already red. Devon shakes his head, crossing his arms over his chest as usual. “She never said she wanted to watch anything!” Honestly, I just came downstairs to fix myself a sandwich before heading back to my room. Upon my venture back, I realized that I wasn’t in the mood for going up the steps so I sat with my siblings. Note that out of all my choices this was the worst but there was a television in the living room, which improved the situation. “I just wanted to eat a sandwich in peace, guys. I’ll watch whatever you want to Devon.” I smile at my little brother, the look of guilt disappearing from his face. Sebastian glares at me but I could care less. When he isn’t out with his loser friends he’s here at home trying to instigate an argument with Mom or Devon. I figured he wouldn’t argue with me if I ignore him, which I usually do anyhow. “I don’t care anymore,” Devon sighs, getting up from the couch. “I have soccer practice. Please come, Evelyn.” Shrugging, I take the controller. “Depends on who is taking you. I don’t think I want to hang out with Sebastian anymore today.” “Mommy is taking me.” He leaves the living room, now making me feel lonely. Lucas was the one who would take Devon to his soccer games but now that he’s in New York, things have changed. Since Lucas left, Devon only has Mom to cling to now. I love him, but now I don’t have the time I used to be able to spend with my mother. Being the middle child has never helped but makes it even worse in this situation. Lucas leaving threw everything off balance and I have no other option but to adjust. I still haven’t and it’s been almost two months. I never thought he made a difference in the household until recently. “I’m hurt you don’t want to spend quality time with me. I get it though, you’d like to spend time with Mom.” Sebastian gives me a knowing look and I nod. “You’re not wrong.” I go to speak again but the front door opens, Mom coming through the door. Sebastian looks up from his phone. “Sylvia, it’s so nice to see you. How was your day?” Mom rolls her eyes, pushing her hair out of her face. My mother is pretty but not just because of looks. She seems to enjoy forgetting she’s an adult with responsibilities sometimes to help relieve stress. Seems as if Lucas leaving to New York really took a toll on her but I’ve never asked to know for sure. “Eventful at the least. Before you decide to go out anywhere I need you to stay here so I can tell you the news!” Her face lights up as she moves across the room. My and Sebastian’s faces twist up in the same moment; only he decides to speak. “What news?” She hesitates, knowing we’re growing impatient. “We are going to be moving to New York so we can all be together again!” “Dear lord...” Sebastian sighs, fixing his hair in the camera on his phone. I ignore him, directing my question to Mom. “Is Lucas excited about this?”

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“Of course,” Mom sets her bag down on the coffee table. “He just wants us all to be in the same place. He misses us.” “Then I’m excited to move.” I smile as Sebastian looks at me, his eyebrows furrowed. “This’ll be good for us, right?” Mom kisses my forehead, her face glowing with excitement. “Right. Okay I’m going to go tell Devon before I take him to his soccer practice.” She hurriedly makes her way to the steps, calling my youngest brother’s name. Sebastian lightly punches my arm, making me turn to him. “What the hell were you talking about? There is no way you’re excited to move.” “I just want to make things better. Thinking about how things changed with Lucas not being here really made me think...” My nerves get the best of me knowing that Sebastian is going to ask for an explanation. He continues to look at me expectantly as he sets his phone down, letting me know he’s serious. “If you really think about it, Lucas leaving has changed the way things are in the house. I’m getting older now, Sebastian, and I feel as if I don’t know Lucas enough. I don’t want to spend these next two years not knowing somebody I’m living with! It’s because I’m starting to see things differently.” He hesitates as if searching for a response that I won’t have an immediate response to. Sebastian ends up rolling his eyes. “He’s not your biological father, Ev. I’ve been telling you this since we were kids, I don’t understand.” “We’re not the same person so it makes sense we think differently. Goodness, Sebastian, use your brain.” I roll my eyes to mock him, standing up from the couch. Sebastian doesn’t respond, a faraway look on his face. “You know that means we’ll most likely be selling the house.” The statement makes me stop and think about what was just said, my good mood slightly plummeting because of the realization. “Yeah...it does.” Continuing to drown my sorry excuse for breakfast in syrup, I rub at my eyes knowing that I’m still tired. The early morning light shines down onto the wooden floors, warming my feet as I search through the fridge for the orange juice. “If you’re looking for the orange juice, I drank it all.” A heavy sigh leaves my lips as I take a bottle of water instead, turning to see Sebastian poking at the eggs I made earlier this morning. He scoffs, “You had time to make eggs and bacon but not any waffles?” I shrug, sitting down at the island. “Just put a waffle into the toaster like I did.” I sit and eat as Sebastian fixes his breakfast in silence. My mind wanders to how soon everything will be happening and when Mom will be telling us the details. Knowing her, she’ll most likely talk with us before going to Devon unless he convinces her otherwise. “Evelyn, are you listening to me?” I look up from my plate, my mother standing besides Sebastian as he eats off his plate. I shrug. “No, wasn’t paying attention. What’re you talking about?” Sebastian sighs as if he was the one talking but my mother just smiles at me. “I was just saying that we’re going to be moving in with Lucas’s younger sister, Naomi. You guys have never met her, so it may be awkward at first and I apologize for that, but it’s what we have to do until we sell the house.” She folds her hands. “I don’t want us living here while I’m working with the realtor to make sure the house is ready for sale.” “Either way it’s not going to be comfortable living.” Mom rolls her eyes. “I get that but all you have to do is put forth the effort to get to know her and you’ll be fine. It won’t kill you Sebastian, dear lord.” “When are we leaving to move in with her?” I’m usually the one to deflate the situation but sometimes Sebastian deserves it.

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“Within the next two to three days. The home in New York is already furnished so we need nothing but our belongings. Of course some things we’ll have to leave here until the day we leave.” Sebastian puts his dish in the sink. “I’m so excited.” “Nobody needs your negative and sarcastic attitude right now. The rest of us are excited about this so you being like that is not helping. It’s annoying.” My voice comes out surprisingly harsh, making me recoil at my own words. Sebastian and Mom look at me with slightly shocked expressions. “You’re actually excited about this?” Sebastian frowns at me, “You weren’t just playing around yesterday when you said what you did?” “Yes! I’m going to bond with Lucas and make sure that living in New York isn’t a complete disaster.” Mom frowns. “It wouldn’t be a disaster even if you didn’t bond with Lucas.” Sebastian chuckles, taking a piece of bacon from my plate. “She’s going to try, Mom. She thinks she needs to change things and somehow that’ll make a difference.” “It’ll give us a better relationship. Of course it will make a difference.” My mom smiles but doesn’t say anything, putting me at ease that we’re not talking about it anymore. I sigh, now regretting not making waffles. Squinting, I look up at the house feeling suddenly overwhelmed. Compared to our house, it’s significantly taller and much more slim. A small grunt comes from behind me. I turn to see Devon struggling to carry his bag. He stops beside me, starting to examine the house just like I had done. I smile. “Looks like Gru’s house from Despicable Me, right?” Devon hesitates before smiling and nodding. “Not as evil. I hope she’s nice.” Nodding, I pick up his bag to help him carry it into the house. “Me too.” Sebastian comes out from the house, obviously annoyed for having to carry most of the bags in. He stops in front of us. “Devon, your Aunt is going to pee herself in the next two seconds if you don’t get in there. She made sugar cookies for you, bud.” Devon’s eyes widen as he rushes past Sebastian and on into the house. I hoist up Devon’s bag. “You make him feel like his family isn’t our family.” Sebastian doesn’t say anything in response and I’m not surprised, but it would’ve been nice to have a conversation with him. I continue into the house, the lavender painted walls and vanilla candles putting me at ease. A picture of a little girl and boy sit between two candles on a small table to the right of the door. I step forward to look closer, neither of the faces familiar to me. “Evelyn, come on.” Sylvia’s voice is soft but doesn’t fail to catch my attention. “Naomi really wants to meet you. She made cookies...” Nodding, I turn to my mom and place the bags beside the small table. “Food is great and all but it’s not going to make me move any faster, Mom.” We stare at each other, something we usually do until the other gives up in situations like this. I cross my arms in front of my chest defiantly. “Alright, okay. It’s just a little odd that all of a sudden she’s excited to see Devon and it’s been ten whole years. I get that maybe she didn’t care about her brother’s new step kids but when you had Devon, she should’ve been around. Devon is Lucas’s only child.” My Mom scowls at me. “Keep your voice down, Evelyn. I don’t have to explain that to you. She is allowing us to stay here for a bit and you need to be grateful for that.” “It’s not like I’m not grateful! I’m just saying-“ She raises her hand. “No, we’re not going to talk about this anymore. I want you to kindly introduce yourself then take your things upstairs to the room you’re sharing with Devon.”

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I don’t bother to respond as I walk past my Mother and on into the kitchen. The sudden change of color taking me by surprise. “You like the marigold walls? I thought it’d be a nice change coming from room to room. What do you think?” Naomi speaks to me and I hesitate, looking her over to see if she looks anything like Lucas. Her hair is pinned up and it looks like she’s wearing makeup, but I can’t tell from just the natural lighting in the room. I shrug. “Yeah, they’re great. When did you paint them...the walls?” She smiles, picking up a cookie from a plate on the countertop. “Precisely a week ago. I get bored in this house, so I frequently do things to make it different than before.” “What, like remodeling too?” She nods and I think about asking her where she gets the money to do all of these things, but my Mom steps in beside me, making me bite my tongue. “Well, I’m Evelyn and I appreciate your hospitality.” I pull a smile and even take a cookie off of the plate, taking a small bite of it. “Why don’t you check out the room you’ll be sharing with Devon? I also put some new things in there.” The thought that she did that just for us crosses my mind but I nod, glancing at my mom before exiting the kitchen. I grab the bags I set down earlier and start up the wooden steps, holding my cookie in my mouth since my hands are preoccupied. Glancing into the first room, I know it must be Sebastian’s because of this bags lying around the floor in no type of order. The next one on the right is the bathroom, followed by the room I’ll be sharing with Devon. I walk into the room, my eyes widening at the huge fish tank on the wall opposite of the door. Fish swim upwards as Devon drops a bit of food into the tank for them, watching the fish swim towards him. “Devon…” He turns around, a smile on his face. “Ev, she has fish! We get to sleep in here!” I smile and nod, setting his bag on the bed closest to the tank, deciding I can sleep on the opposite bed. Devon turns to me. “I’m happy I met her. She reminds me of Dad because he likes fish too. I miss him a lot but it’s okay since we’re moving. I’m really happy.” I laugh, thinking that Devon usually isn’t the type to talk about his feelings. He ends up getting frustrated and throwing a fit because he can’t put his feelings into words. I hug him, kissing his cheek despite him attempting to squirm away. “Good.” “Wait, so Lucas bought you your first car and not your parents?” I ask, holding onto the cup of tea Naomi gave me. Since I couldn’t sleep I came downstairs not too long ago to get myself a drink. Naomi was also down here, sipping tea and reading on her Kindle. I decided to go all out of my comfort zone and ask her about herself. Turns out she’s an architect, which actually surprised me. She also loves aquariums so she decided to purchase a tank and fish of her own. After talking for a while I asked her about the picture by the front door, becoming engrossed with the conversation when she told me it was her and Lucas. We’ve been talking about her childhood memories with her older brother since. Naomi nods, breaking a piece off a cookie and eating it. “Yeah, my parents thought I didn’t deserve one and Lucas was all for it.” “I’ve met your parents. They take Devon out for lunch all the time during the summer.” “Oh yeah,” she nods, “they’re big on going out. It’s nice that they have a grandson to do that with now. I feel like they miss having kids in the house.” I tuck my leg under me. “I’m assuming you and Lucas are still really close?” She sighs slightly, making me tense up as if I’ve said something wrong. “There was a period of time, before Lucas married your mother, when things weren’t all that great. We didn’t

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talk as much which is why I never got to meet the wonderful addition to the family. I was excited and happy for him, of course, but because of what had previously happened, things were not the same for us.” I nod, not wanting to ask about anything that I have no business knowing. “I was told by Janet that Lucas didn’t have too great of a marriage before my mom.” Naomi laughs. “My mom loves to gossip even at her age. What she told you is true, though. He’s very happy with Sylvia and he loves all three of you kids. No need to think about the past.” I nod and try to sip the hot black tea without burning my tongue. I give up and set the mug down, sitting still in the quiet and dimly lit kitchen. I’ve never thought much of him but I suppose it was because I didn’t really know him. I still don’t, which is bothering me. “Naomi?” She looks up from her mug, her eyebrows pinched together. I continue to speak, “Can you tell me more about Lucas? I know it might sound a little weird me asking but-“ “Not weird at all. It’s what you do when you want to get to know somebody, am I right?” Her smile comforts me as she starts to hum to herself in thought. “You love reading, am I right? I nod, so Naomi continues. “So does Lucas. I remember back in middle school he would read books on the bus ride home. He never did the stupid things other boys did, which is why I looked up to him so much. He wasn’t like other boys, but I didn’t mind that.” Naomi continued to tell me about Lucas when he was younger and I found a lot of things we had in common. He participated in a lot of academic clubs in high school and was really focused on his grades. He was uptight and only had a couple of friends, which he found better anyhow. It wasn’t until he was in his twenties that he started to loosen up. Naomi told me that it was like he went back to the Lucas she knew in middle school, which she didn’t mind. It wasn’t until later that he found a balance between the two and found some stability within himself. His love for books seemed to always keep him balanced and I feel the same. I wanted to know more personal things but I appreciated Naomi telling me what she did. She told me about his past relationships, and even dumb things he did like stealing his parents car his senior year of high school. Naomi eventually got tired and went to bed, leaving me to think about everything I had been told. Nothing was left but for me to do but sit by myself and finish my tea. We still haven’t sold the house. It seems to be stressing Mom out that she’s working so hard to get everything done, and it’s sad to see her so tired like that. I haven’t been able to make her feel any better, but I have been getting to know Naomi more. Sebastian has been awfully quiet lately. On the opposite hand, Devon is feeling great. Between making cookies with Naomi and going out to buy more fish, he’s been enjoying his stay here. As for me, I’ve been worried about selling the house. I know it’s “not my place” to be worried about such things but usually what effects my Mom has some impact on me. Seeing her stressed has never put me in the best of moods and I’ve been told I’m a pessimist anyhow. Sebastian flips through the channels, while texting on his phone and occasionally glancing at the television. He sighs. “Nothing good is on.” I roll my eyes because he just passed “Untold Stories of the ER,” which is a great show. “Just go to FX and see what movies are on right now.” Sebastian’s scrolling eventually starts to piss me off, resulting in me getting up and entering the kitchen where Devon and Naomi are baking. Devon is mixing batter manually while Naomi washes some utensils they’ve already used. “What’re you guys baking this time?” They both turn to me, startled by my sudden entrance. Devon relaxes and smiles. “Just some cupcakes.”

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Naomi nods, turning back to the dishes. “Devon came up with the great idea to bake something for your mom since she can’t be with Lucas for their anniversary.” “Wait, today? Like today is their anniversary?” Devon frowns at me while continuing to mix the cupcake batter. He doesn’t say anything but I can tell he’s upset at me for forgetting. I groan and Naomi wipes her hands off on a towel hanging over her shoulder. “You have time to think of something still if you really want. Don’t stress yourself, and Devon, don’t be so hard on your sister. A lot of things are going on right now, it’s easy to get caught up.” Devon nods but I remain silent, too preoccupied with trying to come up with an idea that would please not only Mom but Lucas too. “No, sit right here. I need you to listen to me please.” I narrow my eyes at my mom, who just nods, sitting now across from the iPad. “Evelyn, I wanted to relax. Can we make this quick?” I groan, “Yes Mom, now hush.” She looks taken back by my change of tone but I shrug it off, going into the kitchen. Naomi is setting all of the cupcakes on a cupcake tower while Devon scribbles away on a piece of paper. “Is Sebastian not back yet with his gift?” Naomi shakes her head, wiping the frosting on her fingers off onto a paper towel. “I haven’t seen him. We’ll have to start without him, Ev.” Glancing at the clock, I nod as Naomi takes the tray into the dining room where Mom is sitting. I asked Lucas if he could FaceTime around six and he agreed even though I gave him no explanation as to why. Devon decided to make Mom a gift of his own besides the cupcakes so he made her a necklace. Sebastian said that he had to go and get something, but other than that I have no clue as to where he went. Devon tugs at my hand, looking up at me. “It’s almost time. We have to go in now.” I hold his hand as we walk into the dining room to a confused mother and excited aunt. Devon sets his box and note next to the cupcakes before sitting in Mom’s lap. “Okay,” I smile, “we’re going to start without Sebastian because we really need to. So now we-“ The iPad starts to ring, making me grab it from the table accepting the call. I quickly set it back down across from mom. “I figured it’d be nice if you two could see each other over video since you can’t in person. We have all prepared something for your anniversary because Mom is stressed, and Lucas, we all know you’re working hard so-“ “Happy anniversary!” Devon smiles into the camera, waving at Lucas. “I miss you, Dad.” Lucas mouths a ‘thank you’ to me as Mom kisses my cheek. Lucas chuckles. “I miss you too, bud. You help Evelyn with all of this?” Devon nods, “Yeah. Aunt Naomi helped too, though. We made cupcakes and she decorated them.” Naomi smiles, waving to Lucas. “Been a while since we’ve talked...” Lucas’s smile fades as he sighs. “I know. I’m very sorry Naomi. I just moved into the house here and I’ve been busy. I love you regardless though.” She nods, taking a seat near the cupcakes. Lucas and Devon start to talk some but Mom doesn’t seem to mind as she smiles, holding onto Devon. I can hear the front door open, and I excuse myself out of the room and into the kitchen to see Sebastian holding a bouquet of assorted flowers and a box of chocolate. My eyes widen. “You got both of those for Mom?” “I got the chocolate, but not the roses. Earlier this week Lucas asked me if I could buy some flowers for Mom and he’d pay me back later or whatever. He said he really didn’t want to send her the gifts he got her. Rather wait until we get there to give them in person.”

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“Then what took you so long?” He gestures to the dining room. “Just...come on. I have a special announcement to make.” I follow him back into the dining room in my confused state, watching him hand the flowers to Mom and Lucas explain, my mind still elsewhere as to what type of news Sebastian has to share. “I apologize for interrupting but I couldn’t think of a better time to tell all of you.” Sebastian sits on the right of Mom, glancing at me. “I have been thinking about this and no, it is not one of my stupid last second decisions. I have been considering staying here and living on my own while you all move to New York.” My eyebrows furrow but Lucas doesn’t seem surprised at all. Lucas nods. “I will support whatever you decide to do.” Mom looks like she wants to say something to Sebastian but Lucas shakes his head as if saying ‘not right now.’ Sebastian’s eyes widen as if he wasn’t expecting Lucas to say what he did. “Oh...well thanks.” Sebastian shrugs, getting up and grabbing a cupcake before leaving to go upstairs. I shake my head. “We’ll leave you guys to talk and stuff.” Devon gets up, leaving with Naomi but not before taking a cupcake off the bottom of the tower. “Thank you, Evelyn.” Smiling, I nod deciding to leave them to themselves. I wanted to talk to Lucas and tell him how great it was meeting Naomi and spending time with her. I wanted to tell him that I’m excited for New York and I’ve been doing everything I can to make everyone as excited as I am. I wanted to apologize for not getting to know him before, listening to my older brother who may be leaving us. Despite all of that, the smile on my mother’s face from seeing Lucas was enough to push my thoughts aside, making me smile with her. I sit on the steps in the front of Naomi’s house, eating one of the cupcakes from three days ago. Mom agreed that I should see my friends before we left, so she let me go out. I’m not one for getting overly emotional about things but I did have the urge to cry. Being with all of my friends and laughing with them reminded me of how I wasn’t going to be here anymore, and that hurt me. Today was the first day I actually felt like moving to New York was a terrible idea. Once I got home I knew I had been wrong. Thinking of the smile on Devon’s face three days ago when he got to talk to Lucas warmed my heart. To see my Mom so happy after a stressful week also helped me relax more than I have in a while. Thinking that my friends get to live their lives here without me was just selfish, and that’s a trait I didn’t want to cultivate throughout all of this. “Evelyn!” Mom gets out of her parked car, walking up the steps from the sidewalk. She smiles and sits beside me, holding papers in her hand. “Somebody bought the house. It’s not ours anymore.” I look to my Mom as she lets out a content sigh, her blue eyes brimming with tears. I touch her shoulder. “Please tell me those are happy tears.” She laughs, blinking and wiping the tears off her cheeks then nodding. “Yes, they are. How was seeing your friends?” I nod, folding the cupcake wrapper. “It was great, actually, and Faye was there. It was kind of just what I needed right now.” I figured we were both satisfied with how our day went, since Mom just nodded not saying anything else. She was happy we sold the house and the thing stopping us from moving on was now not our concern anymore. It was scary but exciting that we now have no reason to

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stay in Pittsburgh anymore. I start to question her ‘happy tears,’ wondering if she was slightly sad, too, because I began to cry. Sebastian decided not to go to New York with us. A friend of his I’ve never met had been looking for a new place to live also so they figured why not move in together. Devon was a mess when Sebastian came from wherever he had been to tell us. Devon flung himself onto Sebastian and cried almost as hard as he did when Lucas announced leaving. Mom sat and told Sebastian he was a grown man and he could do whatever he wanted. She also cried, but waited until she thought Devon and I left the room to speak with him. I didn’t stick around to eavesdrop. I on the other hand didn’t do anything. I sat at the table confused as to why he was leaving. Of course I understand him being an adult and wanting to be on his own, but some part of me hurt to see him branch off into a life of his own. Even though he would annoy me to no end, I know I’m going to miss him. Devon had me sit with him and watch the fish while I decided to not talk to Sebastian. It was childish, but I knew if I went to talk to him I’d end up getting emotional, and the last thing I wanted was for him to see me cry. Today we’re leaving and I feel good about it. I talked to Lucas last night and he told me about the house and that we live close to a bookstore. He was happy, and said he really appreciated setting up the FaceTime call. Naomi hugs us all, including Sebastian, as we stand on the sidewalk. She smiles. “I can’t wait to hear from you all again.” Mom starts to talk to her about visiting as Devon hugs Sebastian, his eyes squeezed shut. Sebastian bends down, hugging him. “I’m not so far away Devon, it’s okay.” Devon nods and lets go so I can hug him, which I do. I sigh, “I bet your new place is disgusting already.” Sebastian laughs, rolling his eyes at me. “That’s all you have to say to me?” “I love you and I will miss you.” I say the words quickly, rocking back and forth on my feet. Sebastian smiles. “Yeah...same here.” I try not to think about everything and everyone we’re leaving behind as we start to drive away, happy tears streaming out of my Mother’s eyes.

51


The Things School Should Teach Us Pilar Lojacono

1. The halls are lined with hundreds of students, all of whom seem to have someone to talk to. It’s like a safety blanket: it shows you’re competent enough to have at least one friend. If you don’t, then…well, something must be wrong with you, right? Dominic Alkaev walks down the hallway with his head down, his dark hair hanging into his eyes. A pair of earphones hang haphazardly from their cord in his hand. His shoelaces are untied. And he is one of the ones who walks alone. It’s not that he tries to ostracize himself from the other kids. But he’s quiet, and he’s not super smart or sporty or punk. He’s just weird. The last bell is about to ring, letting all of the prisoners out for blessed freedom for a few short hours – most of them spent working or sleeping – until they have to go back again. Dom wants to leave. Suddenly, a foot appears out of nowhere and he doesn’t have time to stop himself – he trips, and tries to catch himself to ease the pain…and he lets go of his books. Everything falls to the ground. The guy who tripped him – his name is Jace – he has cruel eyes, and he curls his pierced lip. “Ha, what a commie loser.” Dom tries to make a noise in his throat, a comeback, anything – but he can’t. He just…he can’t. The other kids laugh and walk away. He sighs to himself and stands up on his own, after the others are gone. His shin hurts, but that doesn’t matter. He picks his stuff back up, and keeps walking. Dominic hates the fact that he’s pushed around – who wouldn’t? It makes him feel weak, horrible, like he’s nothing. Sometimes he wonders if that’s true. But he isn’t brave. He doesn’t like talking to strangers, much less standing up to people who make it very clear that they don’t like him. Dominic gets outside the school and air cools his face. He takes a moment to breathe. He has to remind himself to breathe. His high school is up on a hill, pushed back from the road. It’s pretty large, but his house is nearby, so he walks. The town he lives in is very small. The good thing is that he can walk wherever he wants to. The bad thing is that it has that sort of mentality: everyone gossips and no one can stop it. Dom and his family can’t stand it: people are small-minded. They get mad if you don’t think similarly. Dominic arrives at his house. Their whole neighborhood is pretty well to do, but his family isn’t really rich. They’re not exactly poor either, they’re just average. They live in a twostory house with a gloomy-looking porch. Five people live in the house: him, his stepbrother Lev, his older brother Aleksander, his dad, and his step-mom. He and his little brother share a room. It’s a tight fit. He pulls out his keychain and slowly, he unlocks the door. Sometimes the key sticks. “Dad? Aleks?” he calls as he takes off his backpack, and his jacket. “I’m home! Are you guys here?” His temperament changes when he gets home too; he’s not nervous anymore. “I’m here,” Aleks walks out of the kitchen with a small sly smile. He’s in jeans and a wifebeater shirt, and he holds a coffee mug. “How was school?” “Okay,” he says softly. “The same as always, I guess.”

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Aleks sighs. “‘The same as it always is’ and ‘okay’ are two different things, little brother.” Dominic pretends he doesn’t hear him, because he’s fine the way he is. He follows Aleks into the kitchen and watches with a hollow feeling as he makes a snack. “…they beat you up again, didn’t they.” Dominic doesn’t answer, and he doesn’t meet his eyes. Aleks raises his eyebrows. “You need to do something about that, Dommy, they could really hurt you – me and Dad can’t be there to have your back, not in school–” “Aleks, I’m fine,” Dominic says, more forcefully. Aleks sighs and sips his coffee. “If you say so…at least tomorrow is Lev’s first day.” Dominic frowns. “You say that like it’s a good thing.” “You don’t think it is?” Aleks raises an eyebrow. Dominic looks down and shrugs. “I don’t know.” Aleks ruffles his little brother’s hair. “Don’t worry so much, Dommy,” he says gruffly. “It’ll be okay. It was for me, and trust me – you and Lev will do a whole lot better.” “Well you dropped out,” Dom reminds him. “It doesn’t take much to do better than you…” “Shut up,” Aleks laughs. “Do you have homework?” He smiles. “It’s only the beginning of the year, Aleks!” “Yeah, yeah, but still. I remember what high school was like. C’mon, tell the truth–” “I have some physics homework,” he says offhandedly. “I’ll do it later.” “Better get it done before you do anything fun, Dom. Then you’ll get off-topic, forget about it, and eventually get behind…” Dom thinks about how it’s ironic that his brother is reprimanding about “forgetting about schoolwork;” that was one of his downfalls his high school experience. “Okay,” he repeats anyway and waits for his cue to leave, to go up to his room. “Dominic, one more thing.” He turns around in the doorway, eyebrows raised slightly. “Huh?” Aleks’ done washing the mug now; his hands are chapped and pink from the hot water. “I want to talk to you about those kids beating you up. I know you don’t want to talk about it, but someone has to make a change. And I know for a fact that those school ‘authorities’ aren’t gonna do a thing, either. So what happened?” Dom knows if he says nothing, he won’t believe him. And he doesn’t really want to just say nothing anymore. “I...I don’t do anything. They just don’t like me…” “You must do something.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “No. I don’t do anything.” “Well, maybe that’s just it,” Aleks says. “Maybe they want you to fight back. To do something. Hell, even to say something.” Dominic looks at the ground. He doesn’t like...people. It’s not like he’s a moody teenager or something stupid like that; he doesn’t think of himself that way. He just...doesn’t like people in general. People make him nervous, strangers makes him nervous. And that is why he doesn’t really have a lot of friends. “...I don’t want to do that,” he whispers. Aleks’ face softens. “Look, I get it,” he says. “I know that this would be hard. But I don’t want you to come home from school and be beat up everyday!” “Aleks, I’m not even hurt– ” “Not physically, but I can see it in your eyes.” Dom rolls his eyes. “Stop trying to be my therapist when you’re not. It’s not funny.” “And am I laughing?” Silence. “I’m just saying. You’re my little brother, and I love you–” “–more than Lev, I know.” “Shut up, that’s not true.” But he looks slightly guilty. “Anyway, just think of something. It could be something small. But something that could...make you more confident, huh? In school. So people would be less likely to pulverize you.” “I don’t know what I’d do though…”

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“Think on it. It could be anything. Just an actual thing, yeah?” He smiles and claps Dom’s shoulder. “Now go up and do your homework. I want one of us to get a good job. Make us rich!” As Dominic leaves, he hears Aleks laugh and go down into the basement. He can’t help but hear the bitterness, the regret, in his brother’s voice. 2. Dominic heads up to his room, the carpet immediately caving under his now-sock feet. His family doesn’t wear shoes upstairs. He wishes he could be alone. But he’s not. Lev is fourteen, skinny, with thick curly dark hair and bright eyes. He’s a good kid. And while Dom and Aleks are real brothers, Lev is only their stepbrother. It matter to Aleks sometimes, but it doesn’t to him. They’re family And he loves him. But sharing a room 24/7 would even get on quiet, laid-back Dominic’s nerves. “Hey!” Lev says, grinning up at him from one of the two twin beds crammed in the room. He has a video game controller on his lap. Dom refrains from rolling his eyes. “Hey, Lev,” he says back more quietly. He takes a seat on the opposite bed and spreads his backpack out in front of him. “Wanna play?” Lev holds a video game controller out for him. Dom shakes his head. “I have homework.” Lev makes a face. “Homework is stupid.” “Ain’t that the truth,” Dom mutters with a smile. He pulls out his notebook and fiddles with it. “So are you excited to be a freshman?” The smile falls from the younger boy’s face. “No,” he mutters. Dom frowns. “Why not?” “I don’t like my generation.” “I don’t think anyone does,” Dom answers honestly. “What don’t you like about them, though? You haven’t even met the kids yet.” “I’ve met some of them,” Lev persists. “And I don’t like the kids I know. They’re idiots.” “There will be nice people too,” Dom says. “Trust me, kiddo. There are the good guys as well as the bad ones.” Do you really believe that, a little voice in his mind says. Or are you just being a hypocrite? He tries to ignore it, but Lev voices his thoughts. “Are you serious? Aleks told me what’s happening to you! If they hate you, they’re gonna hate me too!” Dom’s jaw drops. He hadn’t expected such honesty from Lev – he thinks of him as a kid, even though he knows he shouldn’t – and it hurts. “Lev, they don’t hate me, they won’t hate you, it’s all–” “And that’s not even all of it.” Lev puts down his video game controller and looks into his older brother’s eyes. “It’s all of high school. I love Aleks, but I wanna do something with my life. I don’t wanna flunk out like him.” “You’re a smart kid,” Dom says. “You won’t fail if you put your mind to it.” Lev shrugs. “I just wanna know how to survive high school, Dommy. Can you help me?” Dom smiles sadly. “I don’t know a lot… I don’t think you’d want to hear it from me…” “Of course I do. Anything you know would help. You’re a good brother, Dom, and I love you.” “Love you too…” Dom murmurs, and he looks down at his Physics homework. Is there anything he can do to help Lev, to put him at ease? He doesn’t want his brother to turn out like him--god, no. But he doesn’t want Lev to flunk out like Aleks did either. 3. I want him to have a better time in high school than me, Dom thinks to himself that night.

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It’s after they’re all asleep – their dad and step-mom, and Aleks in his own room, and Lev in the bed next to him. He himself doesn’t usually get a lot of sleep. And he wants to know what to do from people actually in high school. But generally successful people (i.e., not him). So...the obvious answer is that Dom would have Lev get to know older kids at the high school, get advice from them. The best advice he could give is Don’t end up like me. If only he had friends! he thinks to himself ironically. Too bad that’s never going to happen, not with the fact that he screws himself over whenever he even tries to talk to someone his age…but what if he just talked to people, to get their experiences and personalities and stuff – to prove to Lev that everything wasn’t as bad as it seemed? Then he’d have to actually talk to people. Just the thought makes him nauseous. But...it all comes down to what is more important: his little brother, or his nervousness. And besides, Aleks did say Dom should do something to get over all of this. Talking to people, even just a little bit each day, would be a good start… And deep down, he wants to get over it. He wants to have friends. He makes up his mind that tomorrow will be better than today. Dom rolls over to look at the clock. 11:08 pm. If only he could get some sleep. 4. The next morning he wakes up. Aleks drives him and Lev to school. At the door, Lev balls his hands into fists. He’s trembling, his face is set: his nervousness is obvious. Dom wraps his little brother in a hug. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’ll be okay, okay?” He’s almost tempted to tell him what he plans to do--what he wants to try to do, He doesn’t want to look stupid to him. Lev hugs him back. “I-I don’t want to go.” “It’s okay,” he says again. “It won’t be that bad. And I’ll come get you at lunch, okay?” He doesn’t mention that they probably won’t have lunch together, because their schedules are very different. He hopes he believes him. After Dominic drops Lev off in the cafeteria where all the freshmen are being held, he takes his time walking down the hallway and deciding who to talk to. He sees a guy standing on the side of a locker with a cigarette. Well, he could start there. Dom approaches him. “U-um, h-hey…” The guy turns around with a raised eyebrow. “Are y’ talkin’ t’ me?” Dom blinks. “U-um--” “Hey! Commie!” He flinches when he feels a rough hand on his shoulder. “He’s not bothering you, is he?” Jace, his bully, says in a mockingly sing song voice. The guy he tried to talk to says, “No, man…“ He sounds high. Jace apparently doesn’t take that as a good enough answer; he and two other guys grab Dom and roughly shove him into a locker. Again, no one tries to help. As he struggles to get out of the locker and eventually gives up to wait for a teacher, he wonders not for the first time why no one liked him... 5. Dominic heads up to his first class. He walks into English and sees a girl sitting by herself in the back of the room. She has brown hair, and she’s wearing an oversized sweater. Well, it’s now or never, he thinks to himself, although never’s looking pretty good. So he tries to keep his hands from shaking as he walks over to where she is. She looks up and smiles slightly. “Um, hey.” “H-hey,” he breathes back. “C-can I sit here?” She shrugs. “I don’t own the table.” He nods and not meeting her eyes, sits down. “This lovely school does.” Her voice is laced with sarcasm. “You…don’t like school?”

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“School could be worse, I guess…but then again, it’s school, so honestly: how good can it be?” He nods back in agreement. American public schools are only all right. “Sorry, if you nodded, you’re going to have to say so,” the girl says suddenly. Dom looks up. “Um, I-I did…” She grins. “Okay. Cool. Sorry, I’m…” she waves her hand in her face vaguely. “I’m blind. So I actually have no idea who you are.” “Dominic,” he clarifies. “And you-you don’t look…” “I don’t look blind?” she raises her eyebrows. “What, should I be wearing sunglasses? Should I have a freaking seeing-eye dog?” “N-no, that’s not what I–” “I’m not one-hundred percent blind. I can kind of see shadows and stuff. Sometimes shapes. But that’s about it.” “I’m…sorry.” She shrugs. “It’s fine. It’s just kind of hard, cuz I was born with my sight…I’ve been losing it since first grade, but – I remember what it was like to see, you know?” He nods. And then for her sake he says, “Yeah, it must be hard…” “Eh. But I guess I’m used to it by now. Doesn’t make it any better, but hey.” She trails off. “So…Dominic. Why exactly are you talking to me?” “…should I not be…?” “Not a lot of people do, to be honest.” The girl gestures at the otherwise-empty table. “So what’s your angle? What do you want? Talk to the blind – well, you didn’t know I was blind… Talk to the weird girl no one likes?” “…that’s not w-what I meant…” He takes a deep breath and wishes he didn’t stutter so badly. “I just–” He sighs. “…I’m doing this project. M-my little brother is going to be a freshman – w-well he is, he started today, and… I want him to–to have a good year, so I want to talk to juniors about their experiences and...stuff.” He finishes lamely. “What about your friends you can talk to?” “...I don’t really have any,” he admits. “All right,” she says finally. “You can talk to me. You sound like the most decent guy I’ve talked to in awhile.” “Th-thanks,” he manages. “Don’t mention it, dude.” She pauses before saying “I’m Esther.” The next weeks pass. By the time it’s December, there’s already close to three feet of snow on the ground. The tiny village they live in gets really cold, really fast. Naturally they still have school. Since they’re used to the snow, it’s not going to stop them. Dominic has, over the course of a few months, gotten more comfortable with Esther. They eat lunch together everyday. He’s mostly been able to talk to her without stuttering. And it’s been nice. 6. But it falls apart. All good things come to an end, isn’t that what people say? He’s walking into school one day when Esther comes up to him, her face carefully blank. “Hey,” he greets her warmly. She doesn’t say anything for a moment, until: “Some guys told me the truth.” He frowns. “What truth?” “Don’t play stupid with me, Dom…” “I’m n-not, really – what truth?” “That you only talked to me because you pitied me.”

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“W–what?” “I mean, I really shouldn’t be surprised, but it hurts, you know? I thought you were a nice guy. I thought you were different. Hell, I thought I could trust you! But I guess I was–” “Esther, who told you that?” Dominic whispers. She pauses, and then frowns. “Uh, some guy our age. I didn’t know his name. Weirdsounding.” He sighs. Jace. “He hates me,” he says truthfully. “Whatever he said about me is a lie.” “How can I trust you?” she says suspiciously. “Because I’m your friend,” he answers. “And I really like you.” 7. “Hey! Commie!” Dominic’s shoulders stiffen as he’s walking down the hallway, but he stops anyway. Really, couldn’t Jace think of anything more original to call him…? Jace approaches with his trademark smirk on his face. “After all this time, I would’ve thought you to know better not to stop. Stupid.” Dominic flinches but doesn’t say anything. “...see that?” Jace jeers. “Too stupid to even say anything!” A thought floats into Dom’s mind: will Esther help him…? Did she believe him…? Does she still want to be his friend? He doesn’t blame her if she doesn’t. He stops thinking when the fist collides with his stomach. He’s on the ground--pain shoots through places where he knows there will be bruises later. “Hey!” a dimly familiar voice calls. “What do you think you’re doing?!” Dom doesn’t pay much attention to it – he doesn’t even recognize it at first – because of his situation at hand. But he does notice when the next punch doesn’t come. “Leave him alone!” Esther? he thinks to himself. She...she’s helping me...even though I probably don’t deserve it… She doesn’t even like me… A hand grabs Dom’s arm and he stands, albeit shakily. “Are you okay?” Esther asks firmly. All he can do is nod. “C’mon,” she says, without another backwards glance at his tormentors. But Dominic stops walking. “No. Hold on.” She raises an eyebrow. “What? I just saved you. What else do you want from me?” Dominic sighs. “I need to stand up for myself. How am I supposed to tell Lev to do so if I don’t even do it?” He frowns but before she can answer he turns around to face Jace again. Dom’s nerves are gripping him tightly like a monster’s fist, but he takes a deep breath. “Leave me alone,” he says firmly. “I’m sick of you pushing me around so much.” “Oh yeah? And whatcha gonna do about that?” Jace sneers. “This.” He punches him in the nose – not enough to knock him out, or even knock him over. But the latter happens. Jace crumples surprisingly fast, like a rag doll. That was all I had to do, Dominic wonders as he stares down at him. He walks away with Esther. He finally did it. 8. “What’s some advice you can give me for my brother?” he asks out of the blue, as they walk home from school. It’s almost Christmastime: the day before break. Lev had been picked up earlier that day by Aleks because he had come down with a bad cold. So they’re walking side by side, the snow coming up to their knees. Esther tilts her head. “You want creative advice, or advice in general?” “Advice in general, I guess. On how to survive in high school.”

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She nods slowly. “Well, always do your homework on time. Always keep up with stuff. Hopefully he knows that by now.” “Honestly, I wish I knew that as a freshman…” “Mm hm. And uh, be nice to people? And people will be nice to you…” “B-but not everyone is nice to you even if you’re nice to them,” Dominic murmurs. “I know, but you should still be nice yourself.” Dominic agrees. “Yeah…” He thinks about the guy who tripped him at the beginning of the year. Countless experiences like that. He doesn’t want to focus on that anymore. “What else?” Esther smiles then. She has a nice, albeit quirky, smile. “Always be there for your friends.” He has to agree with that one too. 9. Lev, So I decided to make a list of the things that I know about high school that I think and hope will help you with the rest of your own high school experience. I hope it isn’t too vague or cliche. At the beginning of the year, you asked me this, and I said I didn’t think I was the right person to talk to about “surviving” high school, seeing as I am barely socially alive right now. But I have done my best, solely for you. 1. Be a nice person. To everyone. Even to be people who hate your guts. At least try. And if you can’t be, be sneaky about it. But never hurt anyone who has never done anything to you. 2. When provoked by someone you love or trust, don’t do anything. It might be a misunderstanding. I know from experience. 3. If it is, however, not a misunderstanding, stick up for yourself. Don’t be afraid. Show people you’re not afraid. 4. Don’t be nervous to do anything with anyone in school; everyone else is most likely just as scared as you are. 5. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. That’s the only way to make friends. Something I’m pretty sure I have finally been able to do! 6. Have self-esteem. No matter what anyone else says or does to you, know how great you are. Aleks and I are one hundred percent confident of your awesomeness! 7. And no matter what, don’t let anyone sway your beliefs. Love, your big brother, Dom

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Long Way to Nowhere Chyna McClendon

I hopped into my rusty RAM pick up truck. It was about 6:45 in the morning and the sky was a deep orangey salmon color. I slapped my bag of 7-11 treats on the seat. I pulled out a bag of Combos. The tang of the salty yet cheesy pretzels danced across my tongue. It was just what I needed to get to the next city. I also took a swig from my berry lemon Calypso. I opened up my large crinkled map of the United States. My eyes scanned around as I looked for my next destination. Washington DC was my top priority. I wanted to bask in all of our nation’s history. I wanted to climb up the Lincoln Memorial. I started up my old RAM and headed on the quiet open road. The highway was empty this time of day. It was silent and that was what I needed right now. The mountains and trees whipped by like they were being mowed down. I pushed my foot on the gas pedal and accelerated to 75 mph. The speed limit was 65 but it didn't matter, there were no cops on this part of the road. I put in my CD and skipped the tracks until it landed on “Life is Highway” by Tom Cochrane. It was cliché, but it fit the situation perfectly. I turned up the music and rolled down the windows. I let the cold air rush in and fill my lungs. This was the best feeling that I have experienced. After I finished my song I drove for about twenty miles until I came across a rest stop. I decided to turn off of the road to go to the bathroom. I was not going to be stuck for the next 100 miles on my way to our nation’s capital with a full bladder and then pee in some dusty Mr. John on the side of the road. I went in and used the bathroom and then grabbed some road treats and a coffee. I went to my truck and started it up. The smell of the coffee permeated in the air and I inhaled deeply. I opened the bag of bacon and macaroni chips. These were Devyn’s favorite. Devyn was my little brother that I left at home. I thought of him as I looked at the bag. I ate one and then started on the road. I had a long way to go. My life I Philadelphia had gone down hill and it started two years ago. I was stuck in a small neighborhood on the outskirts of Philly to the point where it was New Jersey. I had been doing the same thing over and over again. Working a 9–5 shift, coming home, helping out, eating, and then sleeping. I was tired of coming home each day and doing nothing. Some days I pondered even going home. I would drive to the outskirts of the town and ponder crossing the state line. But I would always turn around. I was just letting it slip away like grains of sand. My biggest fear was not taking my life to the fullest. I just wanted to take my rusty RAM go on the road and play Natasha Bentingfield’s “Pocket Full Of Sunshine.” Take me away, a sweet escape; take me away a hiding place. I constantly hummed this under my breath. I wished one day I could actually make it happen. My alarm clock blared signaling that I had to wake up for work. I groaned and slapped the clock until I stopped. I shook my head because I could still hear the ringing. I got dressed and walked down the stairs and grabbed an apple before I walked out the door. I started up my truck and I drove down the neighborhood until it opened up into the busy part of the city. I parked at Bob’s Food Emporium. I got out, shut my door and went inside. As usual Bob was waiting for me so I could take over his shift. I trudged behind the counter and tied the apron behind my waist. I sighed heavily and leaned my elbows across the counter. It was going to be a long day. We only had 5 customers. The rest of the time was quiet. Since no one came into the store Bob actually told me to go home early. This was the most

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exciting thing that has happened to me all day. I got into my truck and drove home. I walked up the stairs and changed into my pajamas. I was sitting on my bed and my brother came into my room. “Hey sis how was work today?” he said. “Boring, just like any other day,” I replied in a monotone voice. “You say that everyday, sis,” he said. “That's how I feel everyday, bro,” I said. “You know this.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” He paused. “I’ve noticed that a lot lately. Are you okay? You haven’t been yourself, Lani.” I let out a big puff of air. “Yeah I guess you could say that,” I said. “You know that I’m here for you. I got your back, sis,” he said, looking at me deeply. “I want you to know that for whatever you’re thinking.” “Thank you so much, bro, I really appreciate that.” I gave him a hug and then lay back down. “Now exit yourself from the premises,” I said and then laughed. The next several days I contemplated on whether to leave Philadelphia. I came to the decision to leave because I couldn’t stand my life here anymore. I wanted to live on the edge and not know what was coming my way all the time. It was either work or sleep. After hours of thinking, I decided to make the plan to leave and go on a road trip. The idea came to me while I was gazing at my map on my wall. It seemed to fit my situation perfectly. The only thing that was tugging on my heart was leaving my brother. He was the only person who really understood me. It would be hard, but it was time I made decisions for myself and not put other people first. He would get it, right? I entered Washington D.C. and was greeted by fresh air. There were flowers planted in every crevice. Every place was bustling with people running in and out of the doors. There were tourist attraction, cars, and buses filling the streets. I parked in front of the Smithsonian Museum. I’ve wanted to come here ever since I was a little kid. I walked inside and was in awe. There were so many things to do in one day. I decided to go with a tour guide to the history section so I could fully understand everything I was seeing. I ended up tagging along on the last one. “On your right you will come across the wooly mammoth,” she said. “They lived in the ice age and became extinct later when it ended.” There was a giant model of the animal. I touched it and ran my fingers over the coarse fur. “Now as we move on, we are going to come across the animals that lived in South America during the earlier times,” she said. “Over here you will see a saber tooth cat that was the main predator in that time period.” I was amazed at what I was seeing. I couldn’t comprehend how one museum held this much history. We continued to walk on for another hour before she left us to explore on our own. I continued to walk around the museum, taking countless pictures so I could keep these memories. After a few more days I confirmed that I would be leaving. I couldn't stand to watch my self waste away in this small town. I made a plan to leave and use my map to take me across the US of A. I needed to leave as soon as I could. The hard part would be getting past my parents. They would know something would be up if they sensed anything was wrong with me. I had to keep my cool and act like I wasn’t planning to leave the state. My mom brought up college today at dinner. She said that I needed to go supply shopping and go tour my campus. Yes, I got accepted into college but I didn't want to go. I know

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what you’re thinking: why you would turn down college? Especially when it is Temple University? You must think that I’m crazy. But that wasn’t the point. In the back of my mind, I wasn’t ready to dive into college and spend another five years in school. “Yes mom,” I said. “But I don't really want to think about that right now.” “Well honey, that is important that you go and see what is going on,” she said. “I guess,” I said. “I’m just trying to relax, and I might not want to go right now.” I mumbled the last part. “What was that dear?” she said. “Nothing mom can I go upstairs?” I said. “Fine. Are you okay?” she said. “I’m great mom, just tired,” I said. “Young lady, you will see that college,” she said. “You better like it.” I rolled my eyes and slowly walked up the stairs. My mom never really paid attention to what I did. It would be easy to get past her. My dad not so much. He wanted me to uphold the Washington school legacy. I knew if I acted weird he would say something to me. I opened up my door and closed it. I waited about 5 minutes before I actually started to move around. Once the coast was clear, I opened up a false pocket in my nightstand and poured its contents on the bed. It contained a map of the United States, a credit card, an emergency phone and places of motels I was going to stay at. I had to hide these in there because my mom liked to snoop around my room and I couldn't risk her finding them. Tomorrow I planned on going to the bank and getting out all of my savings. That would be used for gas, food and motels. I also needed to make a trip to the store to pick up other necessities on my trip. After spending the whole day walking around I decided to go to the motel. It was about 15 minutes away from the Smithsonian. I pulled up to the Days Inn and got out my small bag full of pajamas and the next two days’ clothes. I went up to the front desk. “Hello, I would like to check in please,” I said. “Okay, can I have your first and last name please?” she said. “Yeah. Malani Taylor. I have my payment papers already since I did the information online,” I said. “Okay, great,” she said as she took the papers. “Alright, you are all signed up. Here is your room key, breakfast starts at 6:30 a.m. and then ends at 10:30 a.m. Have a nice stay.” “Thank you,” I said. I walked up to my room and opened the door. As soon as I opened it I was greeted by a strong cleansing smell of lemon. The place was very clean and had a huge bay window. There was a single bed in the middle of the room, a closet, desk, a television, and a large bathroom. I shut the door behind me and flopped on the bed. It felt so good to relax and sit down. Being on the road took the energy out of me. I really needed to go to sleep cause I was not tryna wake up a mess. I changed into my pajamas and got underneath the covers. I turned on Spike so I could watch Obsessed, the movie starring Beyoncé. This was like one of my favorite movies. An hour in and my eyes started to droop and I turned the volume down. I snuggled under the covers and went to sleep. A military alarm blared from my phone. I groaned in my sleep and turned over wishing it would turn off. In a minute it did and I went back to sleep. Yet five minutes later, to my dismay it blared again and I had no choice but to get up. I dragged myself out of bed, took a shower, got dressed, put all my clothes away in my bag, and brushed my hair. When I finished I grabbed everything and headed downstairs to eat breakfast. I got downstairs to get some food. The buffet had so many yummy things to eat. I stuffed my face, not caring about the people who saw me. I’m pretty sure I looked like a savage, but again I didn't care. I finished up my breakfast and

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checked out of my hotel. I hopped into my RAM truck and headed out to see the White House. It was my last stop before I left. When I pulled up to the White House there was a giant black gate around it. I was struck with silence. The place was beautiful. It was covered in flowers and had green grass everywhere. I took thousands of pictures. I stayed there for another hour before I decided that it was time for me to leave. I walked over to my truck and hopped in. I once again pulled out my crinkled map. My eyes grazed over the map. I was stuck on where I wanted to go next. I continued to search, letting my fingers graze on the different states. I landed on California. I decided on this because it is on the coast and I really want to learn how to surf. It would be a long drive but it would be worth it. I would just stay a longer time. Home got further and further away. I got the call at 9:30 p.m. It woke me out of my sleep. It was my mom. I was supposed to be working and I get home at exactly 9:00 p.m. I took a deep breath. “Hello, mom?” I said “Where are you, I have been worried sick!” she said. “Malani Taylor Washington, you better answer me,” she yelled. “I’m in Washington DC, mom,” I said in a monotone voice. “What do you mean DC? You better get home right now!” “No mom, I need to be here right now, you don't understand,” I yelled. “Malani Taylor, come back home now,” she said. “This is not a game, your father and I have been worried sick about you.” “Don't lie to me mom, all you have been concerned about is me going to college. You didn't even see me fall apart the last couple years being in that small town!” I yelled. “I will talk to you tomorrow.” I said and I hung up the phone. I sighed in frustration and threw my phone across the floor. I didn't want to go home, but the way she sounded made me feel bad. I ran my hands down my face. I didn't know what to do. I climbed under my covers and went to sleep. I went to the bank to withdraw the money for my trip across the United States. I got out of my car and walked into the building. The security guard greeted me. “Hello Lani, how are you?” he said with a smile. This was a small neighborhood so everyone knew each other. “Good, Mr. Samuels, how has your day been going? I know it’s slow around here,” I said. “Eh, it’s going,” he replied. “But it ends in 20 minutes so I’ll be okay.” “Okay, good, luck see you around” I said as a found my place in line. “Bye,” he replied. I smiled and then turned around and looked forward. The line was almost to the front and I just prayed that it hurried up. I wanted to get home before my parents got home so that I could put my money away. I was daydreaming and the lady called the next person in line. “Next!” she yelled. “Sorry,” I said. I rushed over and stepped up to the booth. “What would you like to do?” she said popping her gum and rolling her eyes. She seemed to be grouchy. “I would like to withdraw $4,032 please,” I said. Her eyes popped out of her head. “Wow, that is a lot of money,” she said. “How did you earn all of that?” “I work,” I said. “Now can I please have my money?” “Sure, just sign here,” she said. I signed the paper, got my money, and walked to my car. I started up my truck and drove home. I luckily made it home before my parents did. I jumped out of my car and ran upstairs and

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slammed my door. Once I was absolutely sure that I was safe, I opened up my drawer and pulled off the safe bottom. I put my money inside with the other things I collected. I was putting in the false bottom when the door creaked and my brother fell on the floor. “What are you doing Dev?” I yelled. “You scared me.” “Sorry sis, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. “What are you doing?” “Nothing important, just pulled out some money that I have been saving up,” I said. “Don’t lie to me Lani.” He stared me down. “You can lie to mom and dad but you can’t do it to me. I know you too well.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said as I put the money back in the drawer. “Really Lani, you’re acting like it wasn’t ‘nothing important,’” he said. “Fine Dev, but you can’t tell anyone, especially mom and dad. You hear me?” I said. “Spit swear.” “Jeez Lani, it’s that serious?” he exclaimed. “Yes, now just do it, or you’re not going to find out about it.” “Fine. I Devyn Washington swear to never tell your secret, so help me, for if I do, Lani will kill me.” He stuck out his hand and spit on it and I did the same. “I’m leaving the state,” I blurted out. I looked down after I said it. “Malani Taylor Washington, you are what?” he screamed. “Dev, look, I’m sorry but I have to leave here. I’m just not satisfied with how my life is going. I’m going on a cross country trip and going to places that I’ve always wanted to go. I just need to do this for myself.” He looked at me and then back at the floor then looked back at me. “Well if that is what you need to do, then do it. I’m not going to stop you. Just be careful okay,” he laughed. “Okay, thank you so much.” I hugged him. “This is why you are my favorite person.” “Can I come?” he said. “No way Dev, I’m going across the USA!” “Just kidding sis, just wanted to see your reaction.” He laughed again. “Just promise that you’ll be careful okay. I want you in one whole piece if you decide to come back.” His voice got quiet on that last part. “I promise you,” I said. “Now get out of my room, squirt.” I smiled. He laughed, gave me a hug, and then got up and shut my door. I let out a huge breath of relief. I felt so good that I told him, but at the same time I felt bad because I might not come back. But I needed to make this decision to leave. A couple of days later I had a day off and decided to spend my paycheck on new clothes and supplies for my trip. I went to the King of Prussia mall in Philly to get all of the stuff that I needed. I pulled up to the parking lot and parked in the spot that I could find closet to the main door. Again, I was on a time crunch so I had to get this done before my parents got home. The first store that I went to was Macy’s. I scanned the aisles until I got was I was looking for, a North Face jacket. I would need this to keep me warm on the road. “That will $198.98 miss,” the lady at the counter said. “Okay.” I handed her ten twenty-dollar bills. This jacket was a lot of money. “Thank you miss, have a nice day,” she said and handed me my bag. “You too, bye.” I waved. I continued shopping until I got everything I needed. Then I pulled up to the house. My parents weren’t there and I let out a sigh of relief. My brother Devyn saw me from the window and helped me take my bags up to my room. Once I got everything sorted out, I put it to the back of my closet, put the rest of my money away in the drawer, and fell on my bed. Now the only thing that I needed to do was plan which day I was leaving. Maybe some time this weekend.

63


I woke up a few days later and decided it was the day. I woke up with a smile on my face. I ran downstairs to go eat breakfast with my brother. There was food on the table when I got down there. I sat down and couldn't wipe the grin from off of my face. My brother poked my side and mouthed. “What are you so happy about?” “I’m leaving today,” I said back. He turned back in his seat and had a sad look on his face. I dove into my food. When I finished, I sat there thinking about how I was going to leave and how I would go unnoticed. I planned to stay home all day and then when it was around 10:00pm I would leave. That’s when my parents slept. I would say good-bye to my brother, hop out my window, and then poof, I would be free. “You okay, sport,” my dad said. “You're a little quiet this morning.” “Yeah I’m okay, just daydreaming about things,” I said. “Can I be excused?” “Okay,” he said. I scooted out of my chair and ran upstairs and locked my door. I put my ear to it to make sure that no one was coming. Then I opened up my secret compartment in my drawer and dumped everything out. I had my money, cards, extra phone, my crinkled map, GPS, and some of my favorite 7-11 treats. My clothes were in my suitcase in the closet. I pulled that out and set that near my window. I had everything ready. The rest of the day I sat in my room. I just sat around waiting for 10:00 to come. When it was 10:17 I crept out of my room and checked on my parents. They were asleep. I smirked to myself and crept back into my room. I then pulled off my pajamas and revealed my real outfit. Before I jumped out my window, I went to say goodbye to my brother. I walked into his room and shook him. “Hey, I’m about to leave. I just wanted to say bye,” I said. “Okay, be careful sis. I love you,” he said. “I love you too, bro, see you around,” I said with tears in my eyes. When they fell he wiped them away. I gave him a big hug and kissed his head. I walked to my room. I opened my window and got my suitcase and threw it out the window. It landed with a thud. I then used a nearby tree to climb down and reach the ground. I managed to pull the window closed with a rope I attached to the outside of it. I took one last look at my house and then got into my truck. I put it in neutral so I wouldn't make any noise, and then started it up when I got further down the street. I gripped my hands on the steering wheel and then headed on the highway. I was on the highway driving and I saw the border for California. I was so excited. I drove down the road to my hotel and saw nothing by palm trees. The sun was beating down through the window and I smiled. I was on my way to the hotel so that I could put my stuff away and have fun. I pulled up to another Days Inn. They were my favorite. I shut off my car and then walked inside. The lady greeted me with a smile. I checked into the hotel and got my key. I walked up the flight of stairs. I found my room and opened it. It looked the same. I flung my bag on the bed. I pulled out my swimsuit and put it on. I was going surfing today. I finished and grabbed my bag and went back outside. I started up my truck and went to Malibu. When I got there, the waves were large. I smiled with excitement. I slammed my door and ran out to the sand. I searched for the surfing instructors and found them near the snack bar. “Hello, I would like to do surfing lessons, please,” I said. “Sure, just follow me,” he said. I followed him down to the shore and he got a board for me. He demonstrated how to get up on the board and find my balance. Once I got the hang of it I went to the water. The first couple times I fell and almost drowned. After 20 minutes I got the hang of it and I was surfing! I kept doing it for a few more hours before I packed up and went back to the hotel. I took a shower and crawled into bed. What a great day.

64


The next morning I got ready and headed downstairs for breakfast. It was a large buffet again. After I stuffed my face, I headed back upstairs. I sat on my bed and just stared at the wall. My mom and I’s conversation still played back in my head from a week ago. Almost like it was burned in my mind. Should I really go back home? I wasn't ready, but I need to be there for my family. I decided to leave the hotel a day early and go to New York. It was sudden, but something was telling me to go there. I checked out of the hotel and started up the truck. I got back onto the highway and got onto route 123B. It would at least take me two days on the road. It was about 4:55pm. I had just sat down on the bed when I got another from my mom. “Hello,” I answered. “Hi honey, where are you?” she said. “Are you safe?” “I’m fine, and I’m in New York City now,” I replied. I hadn’t spoken to her in a week. “Oh okay,” she said, and I remained quiet on the other side of the line. “Look, Malani Taylor Washington, I expect you to be home within the next two days.” “Are you kidding me right now?” I said. “No child of mine is going to be running around having fun when you have a college to see,” she said. “I worked so hard to push you to get into Temple.” “Yeah mom, key word pushed. You have forced me to do whatever you and dad wanted,” I said. “You never really thought about what I wanted.” It stayed quiet for at least five minutes. “Mom,” I said in a low voice. “What,” she said. “I’m not coming home,” I said sternly. “What about you brother? He misses you.” My heart shattered when she said that. “Don’t use that against me. He understands why I left,” I yelled. “Wow, you really don’t care,” she said. “Look, just be quiet and put Devyn on the phone, okay?” I said. “Hey sis, how are you?” he said. “Good,” I paused. “Look. I’ll make the long story short, bro. I’m not coming back home.” “Okay,” he replied sadly. “But I’m gonna come back for you, okay? Eventually,” I said. “I want you to be on the road with me for a while. I miss you so much and I feel bad for leaving you. But it won’t be for another couple of weeks.” “That’s fine, I just can’t wait to see you again. I miss you,” he said. “I miss you too, little bro, and I promise I will come back for you, okay?” I said as tears ran down my face. “Okay,” he said. I could tell he was smiling. There was a silence on the line but it wasn’t awkward. “Well, mom wants the phone back so I have to leave now,” he said. “Okay little bro. I’m coming back for you,” I said. “I love you, Dev.” “Love you too, see ya,” he said. And he was gone. My mother was back on the phone. “You better be on your way back home, young lady.” Her voice was laced with attitude. “No way mom. But have a great time telling dad, bye!” I laughed and hung up the phone. I sighed in relief and laid on the springy motel mattress. I plugged in my Ipod and put on Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocket Full of Sunshine.” Take me away, a sweet escape; take me away, a hiding place. And this time I made my sweet escape.

65


Abandonware Ciara Sing

Abandware, Abandware, Abandware, Tristen, you are no longer functioning. You are a Baitware system, so many defective elements that people can use you for free. People can walk all over you. People can take you for granted. No one will bookmark you. No one will save a specific place just for you so they can enable easy return. If they do, you are nothing but a fix for their little bug. Nothing more than the final step for distribution. People can’t live without Java, Tristen, a program written into every back up recovery system and embedded deep within computers. Everyone is always seeking to receive the newest update. Tristen, why can’t you be like Java! Why can’t you be like a killer app? A system that is so useful and desirable that other systems are using it as its groundwork. Tristen, why can’t you be like your own software? A system adapted in 6 different states. A system people need in order to save lives. I let my calloused hands run down my face, spending some time rubbing my eyes. I hope I’ll rub away these thoughts. I splash cold water against my face. My hands grip the marble sink. Once again I find myself getting lost in the disoriented image in the mirror. Tristen, you need an interface. You need to learn how to communicate with other systems in the outside world. You need to write yourself a whole new code. You need to write in outside variables. Maybe when you do, people will actually want to be around you. Tristen, become a business model for the perfect software, the perfect friend. It’s time to run an analysis. I splash cold water on my face for the last time. I was up all night. The dark circles under my eyes don’t help the friendly appearance I am trying to go for. The curls on top of my head are still flat and dry from sleeping. It looks similar to the picture mom has hung up in the bathroom at my old house. I was around five years old and surrounded with soapsuds. I was trying to tame the curls and manipulate them into a mohawk. That is still more attractive than my hair right now. Maybe that’s why people don’t approach me. I look un-kept. I may go get a hair cut today. Tristen, you should’ve done a case study a long time ago. Determine what key factors are affecting the outcome. Figure out your compatibility with all inputs. Tristen, this research project is long over due. What component do you need in order to have a cohesive and stable interface? You need to find a non-replaceable component that can be physically written in with consistency. Have a degree of uniformity, standardization and freedom from contradiction with other variables it comes in contact with. Tristen, it’s time to do corrective maintenance. It’s time to correct discovered faults. “Mom, I’m not attending your beach party.” I continue to flip the phone around my hands. “Honey, why’s that?” she screams from the kitchen. “First off, the beach is an hour and a half away. It’s fall so it’s going to be freezing cold. Everyone who is going is just your and dad’s friends.” “Invite some of your friends too.” I stop twirling my phone around in my hands and look up at her. “Uhm, they’re probably busy with schoolwork. They’d say no.” “How do you know if you didn’t ask them?” She walks into the living room. “No one passes up the beach.”

66


I wanted to tell her that no one is actually who they are. That I’ve been lying to her when I said I went out to a friend’s house or went to a party. Most of the time I was attending a meeting with future clients or companies. I wanted to tell her that the closest to a friend that I can ask is my old nanny that took care of me when I was seven or eight. Maybe she’d come with me. “Mom, it’s the beginning of senior year. They’re all too busy trying to get out of college quicker. You and dad will have fun with all your friends. I do not need to be there. I‘m pretty sure I have to teach a class that day anyway.” I really wish this conversation were a software program. Then I could just enter codes so it’ll go down a new path. Or I could just destroy it all together. I shove my keys inside my pocket. I don’t have to go to the party. Tristen, you lied to her. You falsely manipulated the code to do your bidding. I get up from the front porch patio, pick up my mail, unlock my sliding doors and walk in. My house is the only one with sliding doors. It’s too big to be just for me. All the houses on the street are too big for just one person. I was the only college student living on the street, but then a fraternity bought the second biggest house (mine being the first) on the block. They live in the very last house, away from everyone else, right before the edge of the woods and where the street loops back around. I really don’t want to talk to them; it would end up a mess. Tristen, are you serious? If you already expect a weaving software, you’ll end up treating it like an E type system. You’re going to damage and corrupt the determining results. When you are already composing the process for fixatiation you’re yielding a working system. Tristen, you are yielding your own working system. Tristen, when calculating effort estimation you never disregard a system and already classify it as failed. You don’t apply any restrictions for its operation domain. So then why are you, Tristen? Why are you already restricting yourself? Tristen, why are you limiting yourself? I flip through the mail. This month’s light bill, electric bill and credit card bill. It’s completely gold on the outside. There’s no return addressed nor is it even addressed to me. I haven’t done anything amazing recently to receive an award. I already told mom that I’m not going to her party so I know she wouldn’t waste an invitation on me. I use the edge of my keys to open it. It’s a thick black piece of cardstock paper. The other side looks like an IPhone message conversation: “Come tomorrow night to Gamma Alpha Delta house. Bring anything but the cops.” I’ve never gotten invited to a party before. I never even had someone want me to come somewhere who weren’t my parents. This just seems like a mistake. Bring anything but the cops. I toss it in the trash. Tristen, change the viewpoint with which you look at the problem. This is a developing component that may give you the requested determined result. I pull the gold envelope back out of the trashcan again. I continue to flip it over in my hands. This would be the first. Someone actually wants me somewhere. Finally, after four years. College is suppose to be about all those fun regretful memories. I have none of those. Tristen you have to go! You have to test this route. You have to test this QR code and do an analysis. Tristen, this is a case study that would determine if you are even an actual engineer. Tristen, it’s time to test your compatibility with the real world. Tristen, you wonder why no one ever likes you, maybe because you pass up opportunities like this. I’ve seen enough movies to know that what’s in those red cups isn’t always what it seems. Tristen, don’t take a sip from anything but a closed water bottle. Don’t accept any substance someone offers you. If you walk into a room where there’s nothing but smoke in the air, abandonware, abandonware, get out real quick.

67


I maneuver my way around the dancing bodies until I can stand in a space without my exhale causing me to bump into someone. I don’t know half of the people at this party. I’ve never seen the boy with the football varsity jacket with the letter “C” printed in the right hand corner. I’ve never seen the girl hanging on his arm with the tiara lightly placed on top of her brunette hair. I’ve never seen the girls wearing the school’s colors on their cheerleader uniform. I don’t even know whose house I’m at. I leave the backyard and immediately begin a coughing fit. I was greeted with a huge cloud of smoke as soon as I walked in. Tristen, this is the first calculation error. You never allow more then three. You need to have functionality. I finally reach the kitchen. Bottles with names I don’t even know nor am able to pronounce are all over. I look in the fridge; it’s still the same sight. I finally find an un-opened water bottle. Then follow the crowd back outside. Tristen, screaming and cheering is never a good thing when you’re not at a game. Don’t follow them Tristen. Don’t follow them. The group of guys with Gamma Alpha Delta written across the back were all wearing black masks. The unknown students weren’t screaming out of terror, they were cheering the guys on. They masked guys were going around the crowd and snatching people, covering their heads with brown cloths, similar to the ones I use to see our lawn workers carrying back and forth in the garden. The masked guys then put them inside a van. Tristen, this is a major error. You need to get out. Abandonware. Abandonware. Abandonware. You don’t get out much but you know that’s never a good thing, especially on a campus. Tristen, get out. Everything went dark. I don’t remember even opening my blinds this morning. I know I would never do that. I have a pounding headache. Tristen, someone’s messing with your coding. Someone’s messing with your software. They’re hacking you. Creating a bug to infest your system. Figure it out before you completely get taken over. I’m on the lawn of the frat house. How did I even get here? No one is on the street. There’s no cars, no old people walking their dogs. No one. I walk down my street back to my house. I finally reach the sliding doors only to be greeted with my face plastered all over my house, doing things I know I would never do. Tristen, you’d never allow anyone to ever corrupt, allow someone to abuse you to break your circuit board. They really did infest your system. I’m holding a red cup in my hand passed out on someone’s couch. Tristen, this isn’t what they mean when they talk about adaptability. I’m in someone’s toilet. My head is just laying there. It’s just laying there inside the toilet bowl. Tristen, this isn’t the type of alteration to the system that you want. I’m laying on top of a redheaded girl who is also passed out. I’ve never seen her in my life. I don’t recognize the room either. Tristen, this doesn’t benefit the user. I start to rip down the papers. They covered my furniture. They covered every single wall. The telephone was wrapped completely. There is paper sticking out of the vase in the center of the table. Each egg has my face completely plastered over it. The papers are now in one big pile on the floor. I can’t remember any of this. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how they got in my house. There’s no broken glass around here so they didn’t break in. Tristen, continue adding all the variables. Do a step-by-step analysis to calculate your hypothesis.

68


I run upstairs. I don’t see any papers anywhere. I run to the safe underneath the floorboard. It’s still there, unharmed and unopened. All the doors are still locked. It looks like they didn’t touch upstairs. Tristen, make sure all the facts are accounted for to guide the investigation. I go back downstairs and sit on my couch. I wish I could just bang my head and remember all the details of last night. I shouldn’t have gone. I don’t know why I convinced myself that I needed to go, that I deserved to know. Tristen, you shouldn’t have gone. That was a stupid mistake. A mistake only guppies would make. A pre-college engineer-student mistake. Tristen this is one hell of a ripple effect. This is directly and indirectly affecting all other areas of the system. I clench my thighs digging my nails deep within it. The pictures keep flashing around in my head. How did they even get in my house? I start to feel around checking all my pockets. They’re empty, which means my wallet is missing too. I let out an exhausted scream. Tristen, you need a component after delivery to correct the faults. You need to adapt quick to this changed environment. I grab a black garbage bag from the kitchen. I want to burn all these pictures. Scorch this moment from my life away. I continue to rip the pictures off every corner of my house and throw it away. It takes about two hours for my whole downstairs is picture free. There’s only my desk left. I find a box wrapped in the pictures as if they used it as wrapping paper and thought it looked cute. It wasn’t. I tear it open. My keys and wallet are inside. Last night I only left twenty dollars and a bunch of business cards in there. All my credit cards and other cash are locked up in the safe. My wallet looks untouched. At the very bottom of the box, one of the pictures is laying there with a very sloppy handwritten “welcome” in the corner. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome to what? I did not want to be a part of that. I go grab the house phone and quickly punch in 9-1 but stop myself. If I do this, they’re going to take this stupid story and run with it. I’m not ready for that. Tristen they’re going to take the developing components and write a new version history. You don’t want that. I grab the coffee from her hands. “Thank you,” I look down at her nametag, Sarah, with a smiley face sticker. I give her a thin smile and walk to the back of the café. My watch says 8:24. I was suppose to have a meeting with a new client who wants me to write a system that allows her consumers to track their products across the world. She contacted me last night. She is twenty minutes late. A blonde woman, around my age, makes eye contact with me. She strides over. She has on jeans and a hoodie with the school’s name in maroon etched a crossed it. She is carrying just her cellphone. I hope this isn’t my client! Not only is she late, she’s underdressed and didn’t bring any of the papers that I asked her to. She walks up to me and extends her hand. “Hi I’m Makayla.” I stand up and wrap my hands around hers. They’re cold. “I’m Tristen. It’s nice to meet you. Sit down,” I gesture to the seat across from me. She slides in and puts her elbows on the table. “I received your e-mail last night and tried to research your company but couldn’t find anything.” “I know, that’s because it doesn’t exist.” She sits up straighter and her smile never falters. I start to pack up my laptop in the bag. “Then why did you contact me?” I asked. “I found one of your business cards on the ground last night at the party. I tried looking for you but couldn’t find you. I went home and looked you up. I’m glad to finally put a face to the hero all the professors gush about.” “I’m not a hero they look up to.” I grab my coffee and backpack. “If you would excuse me I have other places I need to go.” She’s beginning to creep me out. Why pretend to run a company just to talk to me? I stand up to leave.

69


“No wait.” She stands up and puts her hand around mine. “I don’t mean to be weird. I just thought you were too famous to talk to someone like me. You’re a big hotshot around here. I figured this is the only way I could.” “I’m not famous. Sorry, I really have to go.” Tristen, why are you leaving? You don’t know the traceability. You don’t know the degree to which a relationship can be established the two products. It seems like she actually likes you. You’ve been looking for someone to like you. “Just give me the rest of the meeting to talk. Do you just bail out on all of your clients?” “You’re not my client.” She smiles again and removes her hand from mine. She sits back down and stares at me. “Someone who is watching you doesn’t know that. They’d think you’re incapable of holding down a simple meeting with a client. You’d get the wrong reputation. “No one’s going to recognize me.” “I did.” I blow the air out of my mouth. She’s making me really frustrated. I’ve never seen her in my life. I must’ve dropped one of my cards when I was being hazed. I really hope she didn’t see that. I throw my backpack in the booth and sit back down. She tucks her hair behind her hair showing her earrings. “Let’s start over, I’m Makayla. I don’t want anything from you besides getting to know you. I’m a senior here. I major in fashion, and I think you’re cute.” My head springs back in confusion. “You think I’m cute?” “Yeah, and I want to get to know you? I want to learn how to be a better person with you.” I blink my eyes. I don’t know what to say. She can’t be serious. It seems like she still thinks she’s in high school. “Do you?” “I don’t even know you.” “Let’s get to know each other now.” Tristen, measure the software entropy. It seems very low. The amount of disorder in this situation is really low. There are no variables holding you back. “You planned all of this just to get to know me?” Tristen, the entropy is really low. “Yes Tristen. I feel like we have a lot in common.” Tristen, someone actually likes you besides your parents and your old nanny. “Yes mom, I want to attend the party now, is it okay if I bring a guest?” I hold the phone to my ear a little lighter and pick up my sweatshirt off the ground. “I know I said that before but they cancelled the class.” I walk into the kitchen grab the air freshener out from underneath the cabinet and spray all over the first floor. “I’m bringing my girlfriend.” I pull the phone back so her screech doesn’t permanently damage my ear. “Yes, she’s coming over now so I have to go, but we’ll be there.” I see Makayla’s car pull up through the driveway. “I gotta go mom. I can’t wait for you to meet her too. Bye. Love you. See you soon.” I shove my cellphone in my pocket and give the house one last look over. Everything’s in order. The doorbell echoes through the house. “Tristen, this is the first time I’ve been in your house. It looks amazing!” She walks past the main hallway and heads straight to the living room. “It’s very simple. Where are all your electronic equipment and awards from the hospital?” She did her research on me. “I have it all upstairs. I keep everything locked up.” “Lets go,” she grabs my hands and tries to drag me up the stairwell. I lead her towards the couch. “Let’s just sit down and talk.” “We can talk while we’re up there.” “We haven’t talked all day. Come here.” I try and drag her to sit on my lap.

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Tristen, something is causing an error code to send. It needs your attention immediately. “I have to ask you a question.” “Alright.” Instead she sits down across from me. I don’t know why she wouldn’t just sit on my lap. “Next week my mom is having a party and I was wondering if you would come with me as my date.” She sits up straighter. “A party. Like a fancy party?” She comes and sits right beside me. I turn towards her. She grabs my hand. “My mom’s throwing a beach party for all of her friends and my dad’s business partners.” “The whole beach! I would love to come. Are there going to be any celebrities?” “Just a bunch of company owners.” “Oh nerds.” She takes her hands back. “Will you buy me a dress?” I look at her confused. My doorbell echoes through the house. “I’ll be right back.” I get up and go to the door. I can’t see anyone through the door, only a gold envelope. It was exactly the same as before. No one’s around. I feel Makayla behind me. “That’s Gamma Alpha Delta, the frat down the street. Why are they sending you that?” She pulls the envelope out of my hands and tears it open. It’s the same font as before. Welcome again please meet behind the house near the woods. She takes a couple steps back. “Why are you getting a welcome note? You’re a senior.” I feel the flesh of my lip between my teeth. I don’t want her to bring it up. “They only send these to freshman but you’re a senior. They hazed you!” “I honestly don’t know why.” I walk out the front door and she follows. My hands are sweaty. “Three weeks I’ve been pretending to like you because I thought you were some big billionaire. I thought you were extremely famous. The only reason why they’d think you were a freshman if they’ve never seen you. You’ve been at this school for five years.” I run my hands down my face. “You’re really a nerd, a nobody. I’ve been seen with a nobody. Oh god.” She begins to shake her head. “How can I let myself do that.” Tristen, there’s the error. She’s a bug. “You’re a mess.” I stand by the sliding door. “Please don’t come near me. You were only using me. I knew there was something extremely off about you. How childish can you be. You’re a grown adult.” ”I don’t want to come near you, don’t worry. I was only using you. That’s the only reason why someone would even ever like you.” She storms away. I’m still holding the gold envelope. I let out a frustrated sigh. I tear it up and storm up stairs. Tristen, she diagnosed the problem. Maybe there just won’t ever be anyone to you. Your assets aren’t compatible with this system. This addresses the limitations with this approach. With successes comes many obstacles. Tristen, it’s time to reevaluate. My phone beeps. It’s a message from the job I applied to at the Software Engineering Institution. At least they want me. I don’t need a girlfriend to be liked. I don’t need people flocking me around. I don’t need to destroy people to make myself feel better. Why am I destroying my own self. Why did I ever convince myself that I needed to change? The frat just wanted me because they never met me. I’m already doing something great. Those people at the hospital get so excited when they see me. I can continue to help enhance the lives of many people if accept this job. Tristen, begin to manipulate your own existing and potential products.

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Hummus and Being Alone Veronikia Gillespie

Brady woke up late with the taste of warm chickpeas. Not necessarily in her mouth, but in the air. It didn’t make sense. She could not recall chickpeas, smell chickpeas, see chickpeas from the night before. Just lightly taste them, unpleasantly, unfortunately. Nothing but barelytangible chickpeas and toothpaste, and her cold feet were quick to notice the jade sheets she had wrestled to the ground in her sleep. With the way that they lived, there was no way she would make it for three months. Two months, even. In these conditions, it seemed impossible to move out and be on her own. Paying off tuition left little else over for said months, where it was found that a roommate would be paying most of her rent, and the food was an entirely different monster to tackle. Although Brady's current arrangements were actually more than fine, living alone had been a dream of hers since early adolescence. Living alone was glorified, miserable (in a good way, somehow), unattainable. Leaving you to marinate in your own thoughts for a while. Movies made it seem so easy – as if you were going to immediately find some conveniently placed, cheap condo and live there for all of college until you found monogamous bliss in some superlative person along the way and died holding hands with them in exactly 99 years. But when you've been in school for so long, accumulating a notable amount of debt, a lot of things begin to seem like virtues. Relationships are impossible to hold up for a time long enough for people to truly grow close. It might just be because of nervousness or lack of true attention. Brady had never known. Being noticed in the scientific field had been a dream. Being a scientist regardless had been a dream. Being anyone had been a dream. But she had to set it aside (only slightly) for her current job and to maintain health. This seemed like the right course of action, even if she had never had any true form of guidance. Her parents never griped to her about how things were struggles. She never had to tell them to shut up and storm off, because her parents never really told her anything that would cause her to do that in the first place. They glanced at her straight A's and B's with half-smiles and pats on the back, and when her grades began to slip, maybe they thought the best approach was just ignoring it until she got her things together. Had they thought that silence was the most powerful punishment? Or, they were just lazy and didn't feel like putting forward the effort of really raising a child. To Brady, she felt like she had just been somebody who lived with them, and then didn't. It seemed to be an entirely new case with Jeffrey. There were pictures of him all over social media, and, when Brady visited, on walls and mantels and the like. She took even, slow and somewhat ghostly strides across her bedroom floor to the window, picked up a pencil lying on its sill, and took it over to a cup by her desk on the mirroring wall. Glancing at the clock nearby, she further studied the thin layer of dust she noticed time and time again that had settled on its simple, otherwise spotless face. She sat down on her unmade comforter with a sigh, not bothering to fix the clock, nor the bed. Brady wanted to be a biochemist. She didn't know why she wasn't in class right now, but something had compelled her to just stop everything she was doing for a few hours. Not a few days, of course. She would say she was sick or had a hangover, or there was a death in the family. For all she knew, maybe there really had been a death in the family. She hadn't talked to her parents in a couple of weeks – maybe they were grieving. Lots of maybes. Maybe it had been because she never picked up her phone on the first dial through. Did they get sick of all

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the inconsistencies? Did it matter that she wanted help now, or that she had wanted help in high school, but didn't get any? Should she have asked despite them never offering? She turned her head to the side and eyed her closed window, the curtains tucked back like thick waves of dark brown hair exposing the bright whites and hued blues of her apartment's cranium. They must have been worried that she would get too dependent. This was for the best – living with two girls who couldn't care any less for her middle name or if she ever makes a second glance, if she ever cares to notice people or not. How little? How much? Being impersonal never hurt anyone when it had to do with a person you didn't see very often, but when she had dealt with being ignored for so long, it couldn't have been a good approach – a good first impression, that is. If she hadn't been so lazy about her social life, perhaps she would actually have friends. She saw these people every day. Brady made an attempt at calling her mom, still sitting on her bed. It went to voicemail. She left a message that she knew wouldn’t matter anyway. “Just checking in. Since you told me to check in...whenever I have the time. I’d be willing to meet up today, if you can. I’m going out later, so...I’ll be out. And stuff.” An awkward pause, as if she was expecting a response. “Bye.” Their residence smelled empty. If she closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose, it almost was like she lived alone. Had it mattered all too much, she would have packed up and left as soon as she was eighteen. But, Christ – now that she sat down and thought about it, everything she did resulted in a very alone feeling already. She could turn off her cell phone for days on end and, upon turning it on again, have no new messages. Maybe something from her crossword puzzle app that reminded her, hey, I'm here too, but not much else. She should have shut that off a while ago, deleted the application, anything to keep her hopes from being pathetically raised. Out of the two roommates she had, neither of them were going to come home until later on in the night. With this information, Brady never knew what to do on Sundays. Maybe she would scroll through an online cookbook or quadruple-check if she had any work to do. Maybe she should really stop with the maybes. She sat up and stayed that way on her bed for a while, feet dangling and not quite touching the rug. If you laid on it for too long, it would irritate your skin to some mild extent. It kind of reminded her of wet grass, even if it was obviously dry and synthetic. On Thursdays in middle school, she used to take hikes where she lived in Michigan, but they weren't hikes. She would just go around the block a few times, and if she found something interesting, a few more times. She still did that here, not much was contrastive right now. But, she just happened to have people expecting her to be places in more of an impersonal, businesslike sense. There wasn't much else that could happen. She ran on a semi-tight schedule, and when she had nothing else to do, she did nothing. Not a lot of hobbies were gathered or warranted, unless cooking counted. Then again, hobbies made for a lonely person. Then again, she was already fairly lonely in the first place. It would be harmless if she let herself indulge in something beyond herself and her hopeful future career. Maybe. Possibly. So, she began to cook more often. Two months later, Brady was beginning to feel good about the skills she had picked up on her own, with cooking, baking, and the like. She decided to try and orchestrate a big banquet in the comfort of her own apartment. It wasn't clear to her how this was more of a chore for mothers – cooking. They might have felt too obligated to make some fun out of it. She wasn't sure of what childbirth was like, or the whole process of motherhood to begin with. Postpartum depression? Plainly and simply not loving your children enough to want to care for them? In a hypothetical situation, if Brady felt like that, she would probably want her kids to waste away just as much as the next bad mom. Then again, was a ‘bad mom' defined by how much she could

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do, or how much she could care? Maybe some mothers didn't like to cook because it reminded them of how little food they have to offer. Some people learned how to cook from their mothers. From popular belief, or, as far as Brady knew, most people learned how to cook like that: with their moms, bumping hips with the bustle around the kitchen and gummy, silly grins. Bonds that were meant to grow closer, in most cases, grew closer that way. She didn’t know if it was her fault for letting herself avoid that experience, not that she had ever even thought about it in the window of time where it had applied. Maybe if she hadn't let herself go so much, become a shut in, talking to flittering moths stuck near her window and trying to get a taste of the lightbulb in her room more than her own parents, she would have discovered sooner that she liked to cook. Not one childhood memory was something she could associate with cooking. Not licking the cookie dough off of a whisk or getting the pads of fingers burned on the stove. Not a single callus had ever developed on her hands. Brady wasn't sure of how she had gone on a semi-depressive mental tangent like that in the middle of a Costco; namely, the canned goods section. She was using Olly's (Roommate #2) membership, which the employees didn't seem to mind. She was questioning buying a package of 10 cans of chickpeas for the hummus she was going to make for this seasonallythemed gathering, but could she even make that much in such a small amount of time? She had a week to prepare. In theory, she could do it. She paced down the aisle, reviewing many of the different kinds of canned beans, all coming in outrageous, sizable amounts. What if people don't like my hummus? At some point in time, it had to have gone through a lot of people's heads. Would the guests be too polite to say anything, thin smiles veiling the gastrointestinal pain they were experiencing from the consistency of the hummus, or the overuse of spices in the hummus? The appearance of the hummus in general? It wasn't such an outlandish thought, after all. She just wanted to be confident in her hummus. So many things could go wrong, but if she had ever wanted anything to go right, it was this dinner. This hummus. It excited her to know that there were people awaiting her food, coming over just to eat it and to tell her about it, to tell her about their lives as well. The exchange with the cashier was brief and slightly unsettling for her. She was counting bills in a rush, standing there with her purse gaping open like a separated ribcage. The other woman stood there like there weren’t four other shoppers waiting behind Brady with full carts. She wasn’t expecting that, or the “Have a good day” that she uttered. She just smiled and returned the formality before fleeing. After returning home with the bulk groceries, Brady mustered up a mass email to the small number of family members and few friends she had invited to the banquet, informing them that there was a scheduling error, and that it would be postponed until November 10th – allowing her to now have a week and four days to get ready for everything. She had tried to make the reason as to why as vague yet also as seamless as possible, in order to not raise any suspicion. Not that she thought it would, since she never got a reply from any of the other seven guests. This was including the two of them that actually lived with her. She hadn't talked to either of them in about four days. That upcoming Sunday, Brady found out about a local cooking show hosting auditions for young cooks to show off what they know. She made sure that they weren't referring to high school students when they said ‘young' and was glad to know that she was qualified. She didn't just skim over the website she discovered from a Facebook page, either – she really dug deep. Or as deep as one could get from three pages worth of information and a contact sheet she had to print out from the library down the street. As she walked, it kind of disturbed her. She had never wanted to get more involved with something. She had never found more of a meaning.

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When she had been choosing a major in college, she had been so sure of what she wanted to do. Up until now, her path was clear and the tasks she handled made her moderately happy. Homework was interesting. Things were the way they were meant to be. Yes, maybe it wasn't ideal now, but she had a feeling that her situation would fall in and out of her perceived paradigm of a wholesome life. She was fine with it. Brady was able to scrawl something onto her calendar whenever she got home. ‘COOKING WITH KARRIE AUDITION' for the 8th of November, a Thursday. Underlined thrice, to show that it was three times as important as anything else on there, which, there was nothing. She had already set aside an outfit, things to say, funny jokes about cooking. Naturally, Brady wanted to be likable. This was especially important for how she was seen in the eyes of these chef deities. Not to be a teacher's pet, but somebody to relate to. Was that too much? Too strong? On top of that, Brady couldn't exactly decide on what to do after her scheduled date for her audition. Or before it, for that matter. Was she supposed to train? She should have been getting necessary goods for the party, which was actually just two days after said audition. She didn't know if it would have been better to space out these events, but it seemed to be too late to send out another mass email about changes. So, she let it be, not that she had much of a choice in the matters of whether or not to. When she cooked that night, she paid attention to detail. Grilled cheese and tomato soup was a meal that was hard to mess up, but easy to make bland and average. When presenting it to Kayla and Olly, they seemed satisfied, making small talk with one another while Brady just enjoyed listening. Sometimes, they would give her a chance to say something, by asking a question that could be referred to as rhetorical. She liked that sort of consideration. Around a mouthful of a greasy sandwich, Kayla said, “This is really good.” The small amount of praise actually meant everything. Brady managed a small smile. “Thanks,” she replied. Throughout the course of the next week, Brady began getting into making and remaking dinners for herself, for the sake of her roommates not getting sick of eating the same dinner consecutively. What she found herself trying to make and perfect often was her hummus. It wasn’t too stressful to make it, but she just wanted to get better and fast. She made small bowls to sample from, and took notes like she did in her classes. She eventually began veering from traditional recipes she found online and in books. Different amounts of oils, spices, veggies. Olly was the first to question the difference between Hummus Number Eighteen and Hummus Number Nineteen, with a rather simple statement. “Is there more salt in this one?” There wasn’t, but Brady was flattered by the attempt at seeming interested in what she did. The amount of ground cumin contained in Hummus Number Nineteen was the different ingredient, but there was definitely more disregard to the subtle flavors in this dish. Finding somebody with a perfect palette felt right. Not that she would even know where to begin finding one. Craigslist? “No, actually. But it’s interesting that you mention it – I put a little more cumin in 19.” “Oh. Huh.” She didn’t need to tell Brady twice that she didn’t even know what cumin was supposed to taste like, nor did she have to mention how much disregard she had for whether or not a type of hummus was necessarily good or not. What if nobody could tell? What if there was nothing special about her hummus-- just some mashed up beans with oil and olives on top. If it really was that trivial, she regretted focusing on the hummus. Nobody would notice it, anyway. What was the point?

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She began making Hummus Number Twenty and questioned if she had a problem or not. Maybe hummus was a defense mechanism. A dependency, even. A physical, yet also metaphorical, crutch. It hadn’t taken too long to let the days live on and keep quick course with one another, with homework and hummus and being alone. Trying to be more concise with her words, trying to not add too much water to her mixture. Deciding whether or not she could sustain this type of living seemed to only be up to time. When she broke down, she would stop. Though, more likely than not, she would forget this rule and keep going. Reckless and foolish – pride meant nothing, and Brady’s mental health should have been a priority of hers. It still hadn’t gone through to her. She ended up going to all of her classes one day, even staying behind to talk to other professors and make sure that she was getting everything in order, that she understood the material. When she got home that afternoon, she made hummus. Number twenty-four. No number ever felt like it was enough. It was about quality, not quantity, and she didn’t know if she was even getting any better. The little comments her roommates gave were not helpful in the long run, as it only made every factor of what went into the hummus more flawed and defective to her. It’s good. I like it. You shouldn’t change it from here, it’s fine. You really shouldn’t. There was still more. There had to be more. Brady had three days left to make this edible and relatively good-looking. It was a good choice she had made, in retrospect. It appealed to vegetarians and vegans alike, didn’t contain nuts or gluten, and made for a great dip for other things. This had been a rational decision. She just couldn’t get it right. Three days left. Three days until Brady could find a recipe she was content with. There were a few variations that appeared to work well, but she still couldn’t settle on one kind. At least she had gotten the texture down. She studied, in a way, by watching shows on the Food Network, namely, “Worst Cooks In America.” It was actually very helpful, and it made her feel better about herself. She wasn’t that bad. She took notes, enjoyed herself with her roommates, and planned another run to Costco for more supplies. Kayla helped her this time, after her class was over. They didn’t need as much as before, because they were fine on lemon juice and most of the fine seasonings. Mainly, they just needed more chickpeas and beans. After they both got home, they laughed over obscure license plates and began making hummus together. Brady had never known how good Kayla was at cooking. They worked well with one another, too. Maybe she had just thought cooking was supposed to be solitary, as things usually were with her, but working through this process with somebody else felt sort of memorable and special. Nobody cried over spilled cumin. In fact, the two of them laughed over it for some strange reason. Bonding over nothing. All the sputters of laughs throughout helped her get rid of all the weight and bile in her stomach, all the bad vibes dying down into a more manageable slow burn that would likely be gone soon. Kayla helped with more things than she was likely aware of. “...needs more garlic.” The feedback was meaningful, and Brady happened to agree. She began to prepare another clove. They turned on the food processor and held it down, Kayla’s hand underneath Brady’s as they pushed together and created something beautiful. By the time it was in the fridge, they were both tired. So they retreated to adjacent bedrooms and promptly slept, for the better. The day of the audition was messy. Brady had forgotten to do her laundry and, as a result, ended up looking pretty strange, considering who she was as a person. She made do with the nice clothes she had that weren’t dirty – tight light blue jeans and a bright mustardyellow t-shirt, a few spots of bleach that had irreversibly blemished the bottom of it. It was loud,

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and she was tired. It hurt to look in the mirror because she felt as if her outfit was blaring, screaming out at her. Maybe it would help her stand out. Did she want to appear to be that kind of girl? She called her mom that morning, just to tell her how excited she was, or something like that, but she wasn’t expecting anyone to pick up anyway. She was right. Was she even cut out for a television show? What was she doing? With no other decision she would feel right making, she took Olly’s car to the studio, a big SUV that didn’t seem to make sense to her, considering that Olly didn’t have much family at all, let alone children. She was a soccer mom without grass-stained brats tugging at her yoga pants. It was a little bit sad to see. And it was like nothing had ever happened. In and out of there, with an hour of waiting and ten minutes of just talking, presenting the hummus. No real feedback. Two scrunched up faces, before a shake of the head from the third. Apparently, it didn’t appeal to their palettes well enough. No pizzazz. Brady understood, but she didn’t know why she was so emotionally drained. That was Number Thirty Seven. She missed Number Thirty Six. “I’m home,” She called begrudgingly after coming back to the apartment, where both of her roommates were parading around in pajamas, making something in the kitchen. “Hi! We’re, uh–” Kayla looked down at the kitchen counter. “We’re making pancakes.” “Oh. Cool.” Brady sat down at the table, setting down her bag and keys. “Is everything okay?” “Yeah,” Brady sighed. “I’m just tired. I might go back to bed.” “...alright.” She made her way back to her bed, closing her curtains and wiping off the subtle stage makeup that had been caked onto her face by a team of artists. She didn’t regret trying, but she was just incredibly drowsy all of a sudden. Her face hurt from scrubbing off the chemicals and sustaining a 10-minute dimply smile. Television would have been a lot of pressure on her, anyway. It wasn’t such a big deal. She considered all of her options in terms of what she could do right now. Ultimately, Brady chose to take a nap. Realistically, she could have just been cranky from waking up so early. This would be a way to test that theory. She didn’t dream and didn’t ponder. She just slept. When she woke up, she still felt bad. She padded into the kitchen and made herself a grilled cheese before sorting out more ingredients to make things for the party, which happened to be coming up in less than 48 hours. Brady couldn’t just lose steam like this. She couldn’t just dissolve. So, resolutely, she didn’t. Her roommates left to go bowling, or to go to dive bars, or something. She got all of the food in order, from what would stay fresh the longest to what wouldn’t. Going by this rule, she got a quarter of the full meal ready that night, and felt better by the end of it all. Putting things back was like second nature to her, and she was glad that she knew the rightful locations of everything by now. The next morning was more of the same. Brady didn’t see her roommates much at all that day, excluding whenever Kayla came home briefly to do some work for school and help Brady start the hummus and guacamole, as well as an entirely separate project – the sevenlayer dip. It wasn’t anything as easy as what they were both used to making, but Brady felt like it would be good to have a challenge. They were buying a chicken from the grocery store, precooked, the day of. That wasn’t something she was ready to handle, of course. Baby steps. Just like that, it was the day of. It all seemed ridiculously sudden to her. Just like that split-second decision down at the auditions. She tried to cheer herself up, took a long shower, treated herself to a bigger breakfast. Maybe that would end up improving her self esteem more than she even knew.

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It didn’t, but Brady braved her way through it anyway. She set the table nicely, and by 4:00, guests began to filter in. Her mother and brother, Olly, Kayla. She considered them to be support, even if she was rarely ever truly aided by any of these people. They were close enough to be trusted. And so, they ate. Nobody complained, gave funny looks. In fact, people seemed to be enjoying themselves. She had set her small kitchen table up like a buffet, and Jeffrey sat in between her mother’s legs on the couch while they both ate on plates her father had given to her when she moved in. Olly and Kayla sat on the loveseat, talking about science and art and cooking, something about Thanksgiving. About how the kitchen smelled more and more like hummus with each passing day, which, it wasn’t exactly a smell somebody was used to smelling daily. Then again, it wasn’t as pungent. It was harder to notice to begin with. Brady brought something interesting up: she could start selling it. Her mom agreed with the idea, responding with something about how the packaging could be shaped like some sort of bean. From such an obscure entrepreneurial idea, Kayla laughed so hard that she practically spit out little bits of her crackers and hummus. Around the mouthful, she muttered, hopefully so that Brady’s mother couldn’t hear, “Sorry. Your mom is weird.” “It’s okay.” “... Cayenne pepper? Is that what’s different?” She was right. Brady smiled. Her reply to that was laconic and meaningless, and she forgot it within the next thirty seconds. She didn’t forget anything that Kayla did, though. It was the best compliment she had ever gotten.

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So Lovely Eva Dregalla

Curling my body closer to itself, I am trapping heat between the covers and me but I am still cold. I want to stretch out, get more comfortable, but I don’t. It’s not warm enough for that to feel good yet. Fall has settled deep into the structure of my home, keeping me in bed until the sun delivers its warmth. November is a rough one. In the mountains the winters are brutal, but even in the summer the mornings insist on waking us up with a chill. I need more blankets. I hug my chest and pull my covers tighter around me and open my eyes, squinting. Dull light sifts through my curtains, sitting in my room with a blunt glow. The perfect atmosphere to go right back to sleep. Sometimes when I can't seem to pull myself out of bed I try to wake up by thinking about exactly what I'll do for the rest of the day. I do not do that today. Right now, I wish today didn’t exist. Eventually my brain perks up enough to convince me that at 9:47, it really is time to get out of bed. I’d rather not, but knowing that by now I’m too awake for another bout of sleep, I scurry to the bathroom. Even as I ignore them, I know I have certain responsibilities today. Turning on the shower, I anticipate the hot water on my body, and shiver. I get undressed, gooseflesh poking out on my skin; rubbing my arms up and down, pushing the bumps away with my hands. I hate that feeling the most. Steam spills out of the curtains and I stumble in. I always felt that taking a shower was like having a deep conversation with your body. We let our thoughts sprawl out and then clean them away with a sponge. Afterwards, we inhale this moment of calm, and get on with our day. Nothing is as sacred as this, I think. The water spills over my head, and I breathe in through my mouth. I imagine it like I’m a fish. A rainbow fish, with pink scales, and sharp, spiky fins. Maybe if I had thicker scales I’d be warmer. Maybe if I had gills I wouldn’t feel like I’m drowning. I head into town. In my car, sometimes I like to roll down the windows so that the wind can dig deep into my scalp. Still, I always keep the heat on. The streets today are shimmering with last night’s rain, black and glossy, but the leaves have been falling in red. They keep their place to the side of the road, stacked and mildewing. Good food for the worms, I think. The air is cold like menthol, and I breathe in, feeling frost crisp up in my lungs. I’ve been to other places. The city a few times – New York City, but only for extended family, once for a wedding. I never understood the attraction. It’s just dirty. Not the good kind of dirty either. Polluted, and filthy. Walking down the street is like bathing in a moist dumpster. Here, it smells good. The evergreens freshen the air, producing a sweet type of oxygen singular to these mountains. Mist sweeps over the Hudson, lending a hand to the ethereal vibe of the place. I don’t think you can find that anywhere else. Not like this. I’m really not interested in trying. A consistent flow of elderly women hang outside on the porch of Café Sarah every day. Possibly just everyday I’ve been there, which, to be fair, is a sizable part of the week. They remind me of barnacles, the way they suction themselves to a seat. Still, most of them seem friendly enough; I guess they like the fresh air. I smile, they nod in unison, eyes wrinkling up to say hello. Their hair is all the same tinge of grey-purple, and each of them wear jackets made out of that crinkly plastic-like material that swishes when they pick up their mugs, shaking. It’s a Thursday, like every year. The last one of the month. I had worried that the café wouldn’t be open for the holiday, but driving by, I noticed their chalkboard sign advertising a limited edition Thanksgiving day sandwich. It sounds completely unappetizing to me, but I can't

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distinguish if that's because I wouldn't like the taste or if I'm just being bitter. Besides, it doesn't matter – I get the same order every time. Pushing open the door, a thick burst of heated air envelops my body and I step inside quickly. It smells like sweet butter, something baked fresh, with a smooth note of freshly roasted coffee beans. Creamy, deep, and sugary. I want to carry this scent in my chest for as long as possible. I take a large breath, embracing the warmth, and let my body defrost. "Hi Dean! How are you today?" A cute employee rests her hands on the pastry case, and smiles at me with those pink cheeks of hers. "Oh hello, Sarah. I'm doing...y'know, okay." I don't think her name is actually Sarah, but I call her that anyway, and so far she hasn't corrected me. I find it curious, and slightly perplexing that not every employee working at Cafe Sarah would be, respectfully, named Sarah. If they think it's strange, no one's commented on it towards me, and all the Sarahs I've ever met there have been quite pleasant to be around. "What can I get for you today?" She is so damn lovely. "Oh, you know me, I'm a creature of habit. I'll just have my usual." I try not to stutter, although I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. My hands I keep in my pockets, contained and safe. "Okay, so one cherry danish and a small coffee? That'll be $6.88." I hand her a ten dollar bill. She grabs a danish from the case, carefully peels off the cling wrap and slides it onto a plate for me. Tiny white flecks of icing and puff pastry scatter onto the counter, and Sarah wipes them into her hand before cleaning them off into the trashcan. Then she swipes a cup from the thin styrofoam tower to the side of the register and pours my coffee, the finest around, without spilling a drop. She does this all flawlessly, seamlessly, practically dancing, and I forget that she owes me change. When she hands me my drink, she warns me of the temperature, but I know exactly how hot it is. I take a seat by the window and eat my danish hastily, without a fork, leaving the cherry center for last. I don't scan the newspaper, or crack open a book- today is not a day of leisure. After I finish, I stack my plate among the others in the washing bin, and look to Sarah. She waves, polite as she is – a peach, really – and I step out again into the crisp. The mural on Main Street across from the cafe is flourishing more and more every day. Each bit of colored glass, perfectly placed in each ideal spot, slowly crawls over its concrete wall. Women in knitted hats wear latex gloves and glue on piece after piece, as they have been for the past two years. I stroll past them and marvel at their craftsmanship as I always do, scanning for new additions. My eyes catch on the fisherman. They've given him a vest now, I notice. Thigh deep in the swirling water, he stand with his back to me, fly fishing rod pointed to the sky. His line whips through the air, but his gaze is focused on something else. I want him to turn around. What does he say with his face that I can't see? Inside of Tops, I stroll through the aisles, glancing at canned food and boxed recipes. I haven't really thought at all of what I should bring until now, and in this moment, it's too late to stop myself from panicking. The conversation I had with Jenna last night keeps recycling in my head, bouncing around, and I can barely read the labels. "Hello? Jenna?" My words formed around my toothbrush, and my mouth was foamy and full of mint. "Yeah, Dean." She paused. "Are you there?” "Hold on." I spat into my sink, and rinsed off my toothbrush quickly. "What's going on?” "You're coming to Aunt Jean's for dinner tomorrow right?" "Aw, Jen, I really don't think so. I haven't seen them in forever and I really just-” "No. You're coming." Neither of us talked for awhile. I scowled at the toilet, tapping my foot on the tile. "Please?" She sounded upset, possibly tearful, and I sighed. "I need you to be there." "Jesus, Jen..."

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"Come on, it won't be so bad." Realizing what just came out of her mouth, she backtracked with an, "I mean, you know, not that bad." I didn't say anything for a minute and rubbed my eyes in frustration. "Oh my god," I huffed, my resolve hardening. "No. No, Jenna, I really can’t do that. No way." “Well what are you going to do otherwise? Sit on your couch eating sliced turkey out of the bag? Microwave mashed potatoes? Thanksgiving is about family, and you need to see yours. You’ve been ignoring them for long enough, and everyone misses you.” “Well, they sure as hell don’t act like it!” I felt dumb, like a child. This was too much, far far too much. How could she expect this much from me? After all this time. I wasn’t ready. My head started to twirl and I sat on the closed toilet seat, pinching my eyes shut, breathing deep through my nose. “Dean, you’re the one who stopped coming around.” My sister sounded tired, like I had exhausted her. Guilt prickled through my chest and baby tears sprouted in my eyes, blurring my vision. Oh, man. Why did I answer her call? My sweet sister, the speaker of truths. Couldn’t she have just let me live in my cave of seclusion? Denial is my sweet spot, I guess. I clutched the phone to my chest and inhaled a deep, shaky breath. The moisture coating my eyes had dissolved any composure I had assembled before engaging myself in this conversation. “Jen, I just...You know I miss you, right? I’m not good at keeping company. Family company, especially,” I said, self-deprecation springing out of my mouth. I didn’t like it one bit. Who knew simple sibling conflict could lead to such gross self pitying? “That’s not true! You’re great to have around! Everyone adores you, they did before and I’m sure they will now. Besides, it’s only one night, and you really should come and see the family. Who knows, it could be good for you.” I thought it over. Maybe not well enough because in the end I said fine. "Thank you! Thanks Dean, really. Could you bring something to eat? Like a desert or... anything really. Just to show some hospitality." “Hospitality, sure,” I grumbled. “You know I don’t cook.” “Anyone can cook. It doesn’t have to be fancy or anything. Just not cranberry sauce, Dad hates that.” So at this point I’m staring at a can of cranberry jelly, wondering how bitchy I really want to get today. I put it back on the shelf and turn away to scope out the vegetables. I weave through the displays of fruits and vegetables, picking up an apple here, weighing a squash in my hand there, and am at a loss. How is it possible to be this uninspired? Every item of produce triggers a new set of ideas, a new list of potential foods. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to care, and I wasn’t going to let this holiday interrupt any part of my life. Any energy I had was not going to be wasted on something this trivial. Panic rises up in my throat again- too late. Michael finds me here, frantically searching through the pumpkins, while he restocks wrapped heads of cauliflower. He always looks so professional in his green Tops apron. Even though he works at a grocery store it always seems like he has his life really put together. He comes over and stands by my side. “Hey, you,” he says. I’ve known Michael since middle school, and I’ve always liked him a lot. He’s the kind of guy who just doesn’t worry. And not in that stoner-ignoring-all-my-problems way. He just focuses on what he really needs to do with himself, and lets the rest roll over him. I admire that in a person, and it’s something he’s maintained since he was a kid. “Hi, Mike. How’s it going?” I stare at the orange gourd in my hands and try not to sound completely miserable. Of course, it doesn’t work at all. “I’m fine.” Michael swoops his head in front of my face to look at me. “You do not look happy. You look completely miserable, actually. Not a fan of the holidays?” “No, not really. Pretty sure they hate me too.”

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“So what brings you here today?” He glances at the pumpkin I’m still holding. “Making pie?” I sigh and place the pumpkin back on the pile. “I don’t think so. You know how terrible I am at making food, right? Well, I am. Remember when we tried to make brownies? Anyway, my family wants me to come to Thanksgiving and bring something to eat, but I just don’t know. I really don’t know what to do, Mike. ” I rubbed my eyes vigorously with the heel of my hands. My eyelids made a few little wet squeaky sounds, and I stopped. “Well, what can you make?” “Um. Pasta? Mac and cheese – the Kraft kind, turkey sandwiches, toast.” I know my skills are terrible, but hearing myself say that out loud really made my heart sink. What the hell have I been eating these past few years? “Oh. That’s bad.” He stands by me, silent for a second, then says, “Why don’t you make pasta and meatballs?” “My aunt’s a vegetarian.” “Oh, ok. What about cookies?” “The last time I made cookies I set my hair on fire.” “Really? Jesus.” He is quiet again, and I feel bad for being so difficult when he was trying to help me. “Yeah, you know, I’ll think of something. It’s not really that big of a deal. I’m j-” My eyes settle on a golden pyramid of sweet potatoes. Mm, sweet potatoes. The world around me slows and I realize I have found exactly what I am searching for. How had I not seen it? My favorite vegetable, so perfectly sweet, here to save the day. I rush over and picked up a big one. My grandmother used to make this delicious brown sugar and marshmallow sweet potato casserole. I used to make myself sick eating plate after plate, stuffing myself with sugary, gooey, goodness. I think I even asked her for the recipe once and I still have it. Everything comes together and my relief makes me giggle out loud. Michael looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. I walk over to him and pat him on the shoulder. “Thanks, man. You helped me so much. Have a great day.” I kiss him on the cheek and snatch up a basket, filling it with yams, before heading off to find the baking section. On my way home I pass through a street of houses still covered with Halloween decorations. Rotting jack-o-lanterns litter their doorsteps, fake cobwebs stretch over their bushes, colored brown with rain and dirt. One house even set up a mini false graveyard in their own front yard, but by now the headstones have mostly tipped over or broken. I shiver, thinking back to the real Halloween this year – one I spent in bed with the curtains drawn, reading books with earplugs stuck in my head. It’s hard for me to believe even, but I despise Halloween even more than Thanksgiving. I just can’t win, and every year Fall comes around again to kick my ass. I hear a loud bang and a few crackling pop pops behind me. Three teenagers, boys in ripped jeans and raggedy t-shirts, place another firecracker into the road and light it, spraying light and sparks in the street. That’s ridiculous, they're going to get arrested! I think. Also, why would anyone waste their explosives during daylight hours? Are they trying to get caught? High cchoolers are pretty dumb. Still, I'm not in the right mood or state of mind to yell at a crew of slackers on how to break the law more efficiency. Being from Pennsylvania, my cousins would often smuggle fireworks into New York for the Fourth of July or New Year's Eve. This had become a tradition in my family, and every year we would all get together, cook up more food than we could ever eat, and light firecrackers over the Hudson. One year, after my family and I had all stuffed our bellies with hot dogs and potato salad, the sun shrank behind the evergreens into dusk, and my uncles Ricky and Randy pulled out a black garbage bag of explosives. We all knew this was the real deal. Usually, us kids

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would get a few sparklers and they’d set off a small spectacle to amuse everyone, but this yearit was getting serious. I don't know where they got these things, and I don't know how, but I doubt any part of acquiring or possessing it would sit well with the law. My uncles pulled out rocket after rocket. Massive tubes of potential disaster leaned up against the fence. Maybe it was because of my age, or my unfamiliarity with explosives, but I was freaked out, and I could sense an energy of excitement and nervousness shimmering through the air. They didn't say much, just shouted, “Y’ALL READY?” And lit the fuse on fire. I shut my eyes and snuggled up to my dad, plugging my ears. BAM! BAM! BUBBU-BUBU BAM! The rockets shot up into the air spraying into multicolored light when a shout rang through the air, turning my stomach in confusion and fear. “Holy shit! It's the police!” We ran. I ran, following my cousin Sarah, losing sight of my dad. I didn't know why we were running; did I do something bad? My eyeballs shook in my head every time my little feet stomped hard on the ground. We made it to my aunt’s house and I collapsed on the floor gasping and crying. My head spun and as I caught my breath and sniffled, Sarah shut off all the lights and sat with me on the floor. “What happened? Why were we running?” I was shaking, and my head was spinning in waves, like the world does after long time in the pool. Sarah was two or three years older than me, and I always looked up at her for answers. “I guess they didn't want to get in trouble. I thought we were all running together. Where are they?” Staring out the screen door into the pitch darkness of the night, I felt a sinking sense of hopelessness. My stomach dropped into my knees. “What if my dad got caught and he's not coming back?” I choked back more tears. “What if he's gone forever?” Some part of me knew how unrealistic this was but my fears were too close to push away. Sarah tried to reassure me and hugged my shoulders but I was too consumed with the grief of losing my father indefinitely. We stayed like that for a while, sniffling and hopeless, until the rest of my family came home laughing with sloshing beers in their hands. I ran up to my dad in tears and he just rubbed my head, saying, “You missed out on all the fun. Too bad.” And with that he walked away. False alarm, apparently, and my relief evaporated into anger. He hadn’t even gone looking for me. He just let me go into the night. I wondered if he had just sat there, laughing at me, sprinting away in terror. That was before I could tell whether or not someone was drunk. Regretting ever worrying about the jerk, I stormed off. I put myself to bed early that night, vowing to trust only myself. When I get home, I unload my groceries and check my watch. 12:25 – I’ve got this. I get inside and search through my cookbooks, trying to find the recipe. It’s handwritten, and I stuffed it inside one of these for safe keeping. When I find it, the paper is slightly yellowed, and my grandmother’s slanted and slightly illegible handwriting has smudged a little over time. In my head I wonder if she was still alive if I could’ve endured the family for her. Once she passed and there was no more sweet potato casserole to indulge in, I didn’t have much reason to stay. I start to boil water for the potatoes. My mind starts to relax, and my thoughts settle into a calm, meditative state. I thought about her, my father’s mother. Wearing long, sheet-like dresses, she would sway through the kitchen grabbing supplies. Then she’d say, “Dean, my love, why don’t you help me with the yums?” Yums as in food. Yummy food. My grandmother liked to make up words, and would argue with anyone who questioned her. She’d grab me a stool so I could reach the counter, and hand me the yams. “Here, peel.” The bright orange meat of the potato glistened up at me, and we’d shed their skin in silence. Afterwards, she’d give me a caramel and we’d watch cartoons while the yams boiled. I loved my grandmother, and she let me cuddle up in her arms and snicker at the T.V. We always laughed at the same things. I liked to lay on her with an ear to her chest, and

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listen to her lungs inflate and her heart pump slowly. A very relaxed woman. Then, she’d mash the potatoes up with her strong arms, and I’d catch marshmallows in my mouth. That always made her laugh, and watching an adult laugh with you at that age made my little heart skip. After I finish cooking and getting dressed, I decide to head over. Jenna told me it started at four, so I leave just in time to arrive slightly moderately late. More than fashionable, enough to show my ambivalence, but not quite enough for a spectacle. The car ride is fidgety and uncomfortable, and I travel down roads and side streets that turn nostalgia into nausea. Like passing by a high school you really didn’t like. My skin prickles and it feels like electricity in my stomach, bones crackling with energy. My chest grows heavier. I inch into the driveway, coaxing myself closer to accepting that, yes, I am a dumbass and I’m actually doing this. I peek in through the living room window. My aunt, cousins, Dad, Jenna. More people I don’t know. Anxiety rises in my throat and I spend a minute in my car getting it to recede. I force myself to remember some good memory I have of all of them-which is hard, but not impossible- and step out of my car. Walking up the pathway to their house I am feigning calmness in a way I’m sure highlights my fear, my rubbery limbs drag heeled feet slightly over the gravel, but I keep going. I keep going fast before I can convince myself to stop and I use this momentum to knock on the door. My dad answers and smiles. “Hey Dad, I say. “Happy Thanksgiving, kiddo.”

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Kilkenny Jessica Kunkel

I’d gotten to the top of my mother’s stairs fifteen minutes ago, luggage in tow. As I stood in front of her door with my fist poised, I could already tell he changed it all. My mother’s husband had a habit of fixing things that weren’t broken and breaking everything else. It had been eight years since I’d been home, eight years since my mother last spoke to me. I couldn’t bring myself to knock. My fist had been in position for ten minutes and finally I lowered it to let the blood reenter my fingers. I turned, taking my luggage with me, and sat near the bottom of the stairs. They were a rustic shade of brown. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen Joel on these same stairs; back then they were a “Kilkenny” green (I had picked the color from my collected swatches, claiming it as my favorite) and the paint had just begun to peel. We would have Wes over and play here in the spring when the weather started getting nicer and Mom started her gardening. We waited for Dad to come home from work, playing make-believe games with sticks in our hands as wands, ten years old and obsessed with Harry Potter. Wes would play Ron, but Joel was, after enough whining, Harry. The last time we played Potter was the day Dad came home from work, only to be rushed to the hospital. Mom tried to send Wes home but he was shocked and crying and insisted on staying. He saw my father as his own. She told us to stay outside with Dad when he collapsed and called Grandma to take care of us after they rode away in the ambulance. Aunt Cassidy came from New York that night for her monthly visit. She was the one to scrub his blood off of the cement. She told us later that his incident had been “perfectly timed” since we saw him go down and wasn’t driving. As if we believed her. We didn’t pick up our wands again. I watched the cars pass as I sat on my step. There was one especially beat up green truck. It slowed down as it neared my stoop, then, after the driver examined my house, sped away. I thought for a moment that Wes was driving, but I laughed at myself. I heard the door open half an hour later when Mom took out the trash. She started towards the stairs, whistling nothing in particular. I only felt her take the first step down before she froze. I turned around, awakening my muscles, sore from sitting for so long. “Evelyn?” She dropped the trash where she stood. She didn’t move. I couldn’t say that I was surprised; I hadn’t moved either. She stared at me for a moment then spoke. “Come in the house.” I sat in my seat at the small dining room table with my hands in my lap, my right leg restless under the table. My mother was one to keep you in suspense. There was one time when we were thirteen that I sat here with Joel because we had broken Roger’s new computer. There were fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in the middle of the table where there was usually a flower arrangement (never faux, always fresh), and we stared at them for an hour as they cooled off. We didn’t dare take one. We didn’t speak while we waited. When he made the slightest sound, I would hiss at Joel to be quiet so I could hear Mom and Roger arguing in the next room over. That was when they had just gotten married, before her flyaway hair and the dark smudges under her eyes.

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I sat at the table for five minutes before she reappeared with two glasses of ice water. She slammed them on the table. I flinched and drops of water ran down the side of the glass onto the marred wood. “Why are you here?” Monotone. She was livid. “You could’ve called in the eight years you were with Cassidy.” With a hand slammed on the table she said, “You could’ve sent letters or texts or even a damned post card Evelyn!” I leaned towards her. “Are you kidding me? Did you actually just say that?” I slammed my fingers on the table. “Communication is a two-way street Mom; I’m not the only one that’s wrong here.” I sat back and motioned toward her. “You could have called, you could have written, you could have offered for me to come home for the holidays,” I was breathless. “You could have just sent a cheap souvenir to make me homesick.” “I thought you were dead!” She threw up her hands in desperation. “I had to come to terms with the idea that I would never see you again because you made a mistake in New York and you were begging for money on a street corner, or you were so high you couldn’t function, or you were dead in the damn river. I didn’t want you to miss the call to spite me, you little brat.” She sighed and ran her hand down her face. “I didn’t want to hear that your number was out of service. I didn’t want Cassidy to pick up and say you’d been dead for a year or had gone to some kid’s apartment and didn’t come back.” She looked at me pleadingly, her eyes wide and tearing up. “I didn’t want to know I’d lost you.” I swallowed my pity. “And so you just decided you would lecture me the minute I got home about how I could have done something you didn’t have the nerve to do?” My voice was breaking. She opened her mouth to start to speak, then slammed it shut, her jaw clenched. She sighed. “Where are you staying?” I traced the grain of the table. A stray tear on my cheek was quickly swiped away. “I haven’t quite straightened that out yet.” She made a light humph and pushed herself away from the table. “I need to make dinner. Put your suitcase in your room.” I looked up at her, my mouth agape. “Mom you don’t–” She stopped in the doorway and put up her hand. “Just do it before I change my mind.” I slowly stood up, my legs shaking. Stumbling, I made my way up to the loft and fell onto my bed, still unmade with a visible layer of dust. The room was stale and there were papers and books and various office supplies all over the floor. I got on my knees, trying to bury my rage as I gathered the musical theatre club’s old scripts with shaking hands. Some of the heavily marked pages were torn and stamped with overlarge footprints. A wave of nostalgia rushed over me as I looked through the pile in hand. My copy of Phantom of the Opera was still mostly intact. I had played Christine in the production junior year. I rushed to the shelf and my vision became blurry for a moment. I didn’t drink any of that water. In high school I was a star. I would cycle through singing partners and lead males in school productions (two a year). I always played the female lead. But no matter what, no matter the drama or the other guys, Wes was always there. I remembered how his face fell when I told him I was running to New York and how he hugged me as if it’d be the last time the night I left. I wondered if he was still here in North Carolina or if he had moved out to Seattle like he had always wanted to. He was the only one I regretted leaving. One afternoon when he came to my house in the beginning of sophomore year, we were in my room doing homework, listening to my vinyl copy of A Chorus Line on my dad’s old record player, when he came behind me at my desk and spun my chair around, pulling me up and singing one, singular sensation, every little step she takes. I laughed and we danced and we sang, belting out the lyrics even after the music stopped. We fell onto my bed and, exhausted,

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fell asleep. His body was warm next to mine when I woke up for dinner, and the weak sunlight filtered into the room as night fell. I shook him awake when my mom yelled for us. He gave me a small, half-asleep smile and told me I looked beautiful in the light. When I asked him later how he knew the song he shrugged and said there was no way he couldn’t. I stood up, realized I was crying, and set the papers in a neat pile on my shelf. Then I walked over to the bed, pulled the blankets over my head and pretended that Wes lay next to me, wiping away the tears. I woke up in the dark to my mom in the doorway. She looked like she was about to be sick. I could hear the TV from downstairs. Roger hadn’t stopped putting it on full volume since he realized it annoyed Mom. I sat up and pulled my hair back. “What’s for dinner?” “Chicken and rice is in the fridge. Try not to bother Roger.” It seemed like she was going to say something else, but she turned and went into her bedroom at the end of the hall. I tiptoed down the stairs like a child and snuck past the living room, sure not to step on the notoriously creaky boards. The kitchen looked like it hadn’t been really cleaned in years. Grime had built up on the once spotless cabinets; the walls were specked with old foods and stained with cooking grease. Before I left Mom had taken pride in the state of her kitchen. I looked around and saw that everything was disorganized. I opened the silverware drawer to chaos; the refrigerator was cluttered with leftover dinners and smelled like old milk. I was holding my breath trying to find the source of the smell when Roger came into the kitchen, a can of Miller in hand. He looked at me, then at the pile of old food containers surrounding the open refrigerator, then at me again. “What the hell are you doing in my house?” It didn’t sound like a question. “I–” I wavered for a second, frozen in place. He crushed the empty can in his hand before he walked over and rammed the cooler drawer into the side of my calf. He was too close. I tried to take a step back but there was a container of old chili behind me. I tripped, grabbing onto the counter as it tipped over. He glared at me and shut the cooler drawer with his foot. “Clean that up,” he growled as he walked away. I slumped my shoulders and stepped over the food barrier. I put it all back in the refrigerator and found the dinner she had made. That night I thought about everything. It was a mistake. There was Dad laying in a hospital bed and the feeling of helplessness that accompanied staring at him, a fraction of who he was hours before. Somehow I came to my favorite pink sweater, the one I gave Wes when I left. It was probably sitting in Goodwill or at the bottom of someone’s closet. Aunt Cassidy sent me that sweater from New York. She used to visit us once a month, or at least send well-meaning gifts. One month she sent a heavy-duty envelope addressed to me instead of Mom. Inside was an oversized pastel pink sweater with a note insisting it was designer and bought with leftover money from her last role, but there was a too-big hole near the hem where the ink tag would have been. She always sent something, if anything, for both of us, but after I pulled out the sweater the package was empty, and Joel’s face fell. We were thirteen. No more little gifts came. I couldn’t understand why Joel came home. He insisted that it was better for my healing process if I was surrounded by as many positive influences as possible because that’s what his psychiatrist friend told him. What he thought I was healing from I wasn’t sure. When I asked him about his personal life, he said he had fallen in love. He told me he met a woman – a doctor, no less – and that he wanted to marry her. He said she would be here

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for Christmas with the rest of the family. He said he would be asking her on that very occasion, and that he wanted me to help pick a ring because I was a girl, and I knew what girls wanted. He had let his dark curls get a little long, and the scar on his chin, from his first day without training wheels, was hidden by a few days of stubble. I couldn’t figure out if it was intentional or if he had just forgotten to shave. I hoped for the latter. He wore a high-quality flannel with khaki cargo pants the day he showed up on Mom’s doorstep, and when I asked why he abandoned his usual polo he said it was because he and Sarah were going for the “rugged look.” This led me to believe that the stubble was intentional, and that I would end up shaving him if he didn’t do it himself. The advice of his psychiatrist friend was short-lived. The day after Joel came home, Roger proceeded to compare the two of us as he had always done. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” “You’re a disappointment.” “You can’t do anything.” My mother would wince and Joel would shovel more food into his mouth. Roger would look at me, his mouth curled in a sneer. The only thing I could count on him for was making me feel completely, utterly visible. I was sixteen. It was my father’s birthday, and Roger refused to let us out of the house to visit his grave. I hadn’t spoken to Roger since he took up his post in the living room with one eye on the foyer. The meatloaf sat in the middle of the table. Roger was across from me; my mother and Joel were on either side. The only sound was that of our silverware on the dingy plates. I met Joel’s eyes halfway through the meal. He glanced at Roger and nodded to me. I knew what had to be done. “So Mom,” I said, wiping my mouth with a napkin. “Did you get him fresh flowers?” She looked small and uncomfortable, glancing at Roger and I with wide eyes. “No?” My chest tightened. “What about you Roger? Did you pay him your respects?” He glared at me, defiant, and swallowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he growled. I slammed my fist on the table. “Oh bull!” I saw my mother flinch out of the corner of my eye. Quieter, I said, “We both know that’s a lie.” He stood up and took his plate. “This is my house, and you will listen to my rules.” He walked into the living room and turned on ESPN. I shoved away from the table and walked into the living room, stopping in front of the television. “Get out of the way,” he said, his voice low. “You have no right to keep us from visiting him,” I said, standing my ground. “Evelyn—” my mother said from the table. I turned and held up a hand. “No, Mom. You know I’m right.” “Evelyn, I won’t ask you again.” Roger was straining to stay calm. “You don’t respect us, and you don’t respect him,” I said. His face was getting red and blotchy. “I’m not asking you to go with us, I’m not even asking you to give us a ride, I’m just asking–” The remote was flying before I could finish. I ducked and it crashed into the TV, cracking the screen. My mother gasped and my brother was pale. Roger was fuming. He stood up and charged at me, not caring who watched. I was frozen with shock and he slammed my shoulders into the entertainment center. Mom yelled his name. “You should learn to treat me with respect.” His breath was hot on my face and smelled like meatloaf and stale beer. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned my face away, gasping for

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fresh air. He pushed me into the shelving again before he walked away muttering, “Ungrateful…” I cursed at him under my breath. I snuck out later that night to visit the cemetery and came home to new locks on the doors. I stood on the porch of Wes’ childhood home, my fists curled into white-knuckled balls to keep from shaking. The porch light was dim but moths still threw themselves into it. I could see the light of their TV shining through the curtains, and I could hear Jeopardy at an above-average volume. I turned around and saw Joel waiting in the car. He smiled and gave me two thumbs up. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. Mrs. Anderson paused the show and stopped at the door, looking through the peephole. I waved sheepishly and heard a lock quickly turn. The door opened to Mrs. Anderson in her threadbare pajama bottoms and camisole, covering her mouth as tears stumbled down her cheeks. She pulled me into her arms and I was numb as she wept on me. “Hi, Mrs. Anderson,” I said as I pulled away. She sniffled and smiled. “Oh, Evie. I’m so glad you’re okay. I–” “Actually, I was looking for Wes. I wasn’t sure where he lived.” She looked hurt, but shrugged it off. “He’s renting a place in Kill Devil Hills, near the KMart. You can’t miss that beat up green truck of his.” She scoffed. “Of all colors, green! He told me it was your favorite though.” “Thank you so much Mrs. Anderson.” I kissed her cheek. She waved as I ran to get into Joel’s car. “I need you to take me to Kill Devil Hills,” I said as I buckled the seat belt. He sighed. “I have to get home and Skype Sarah, Ev. I’ll take you tomorrow.” Peeling away from the sidewalk he said, “I’m sorry.” We drove home in silence. When Joel walked up to the front door I snuck around to the shed, searching for transportation. I couldn’t take the car; it’d be too obvious. My bike’s tires were deflated after not being used for eight years. Mom’s bike wasn’t much better. Joel always kept his bike in pristine condition. I checked the tires and they were usable. I wheeled the bike out of the shed and took off down the street, making my way up the highway, wind blowing through my hair and legs burning with the motion. It took me an hour of pedaling to reach the K-Mart ten miles away. I sat in the parking lot and realized that I had no money, it was nine o’clock at night, and I had no idea where I was going. I could try to bike around the neighborhood searching driveways for his truck, but that would take hours. I had just made up my mind to bike back home when a beat up green pickup sped toward me, catching the front wheel of my bike. I was flung off of the seat and the only thing I could think about was that Joel was going to kill me. The truck parked and the driver got to me in a hurry. I touched my hand to my forehead. My vision was blurred and I saw blood on my fingertips. I heard the driver swear. “What the hell were you – Evelyn?” He leaned back against his truck. I realized that it was my Kilkenny green. We were both sitting on the ground in front of it. “Hi Wes,” I said, cringing. He stood up and held out a hand. I stood up without taking his hand and fell into him, dizzy. “Let’s get you home,” he said, guiding me to the passenger door. “No, I can’t, I can’t go home.” He put my seatbelt on me as my head spun. “Fine.” He shut the door and I closed my eyes, sighing. I heard him set the dented bike in the bed and winced. He got in the truck and when he closed the door he dropped his head on the steering wheel.

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“I’m–” “Don’t,” he said. He put up his hand. “Don’t say you’re sorry.” “What? Why?” “Because I don’t want to hear it.” He picked up his head and we drove to his house in strained silence. I woke up on his couch under a few blankets. My forehead had gauze and medical tape on it. The room was dark and heavily air-conditioned. A light flicked on. “Your mom will be here in a few minutes,” Wes said, setting a glass of water on the coffee table in front of me. I shot up on the couch and a headache followed me. “Why would you call my mom, Wes?” “Because you rode your brother’s bike for an hour to find my house with no plan whatsoever. You need help.” “But Wes–” “Evelyn, I can’t be worried about you like this.” I squinted at him. “What do you mean, worried?” He rubbed his hand on his face, distressed. “I looked for you a couple times in New York.” He dropped his hands to his lap. “I asked around the college, I spent hours on Broadway. And I found you within a week or two.” He sighed. “You were performing in the musical at school, just like you always had been. I went to all of the shows. You just,” he paused and bit his lip. “You looked so happy.” He shook his head and laughed sadly. “I went home after the show closed, and I tried to move on. I couldn’t, obviously.” He looked at me. “Why didn’t you tell me you were home?” “I–” A car beeped outside. Wes swore under his breath. I followed him to the door and he said he’d return my bike soon and hesitantly hugged me. I got in my mother’s car and he closed the door as we drove away. “What the hell were you thinking,” my mother screamed. She nearly lost control of the car. “I wanted to see him,” I replied, my voice quiet. “And you couldn’t just call like a normal person?” I laughed quietly. “Not my style, Mum.” “Yeah, your ‘style’ seems to be leaving in the middle of the night.” I winced. “To be fair, it was eight this time, not three a.m.” “But you still left, Evelyn.” She sounded like she was exhausted. “You can’t keep leaving like this.” “I’m not a child, Mom!” “Could have fooled me.” Her voice was steely. “You’ve been acting like a child since before you left for that godforsaken city.” “Are we really going to talk about this?” She started to respond but I cut her off. “No, Mom, really, let’s talk about it.” My temper was rising. “Why didn’t you want me to go to New York?” “I didn’t want to lose you!” Her voice was getting shrill and she struggled to keep her eyes on the road. I nodded sarcastically. “Oh, like you really believe that.” “Tell me Evelyn, what were you doing after college in New York?” “I was scraping by on a back-alley show or two. I was living with your sister – you know, the one you gave up on–” “I did not give up on her,” she fired. “Then what, Mom? What happened?” I was getting desperate as we drew closer to the house.

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She had been holding the steering wheel as if it was going to be torn from her grasp. She sighed and loosened her grip. “You want to know why I didn’t want you in New York?” I nodded. “Because I knew exactly what Cassidy could get you into.” “You mean her… habits?” Drugs didn’t seem like the right word. “Yes, her ‘habits.’” She spoke with tangible restraint. I nodded and started to cry. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I whispered. We arrived at the house and she hugged me after a lifetime. We walked in step into the house, her arm wrapped around my shoulders. Roger wasn’t home. She led me into the dining room and I sat down. She brought me a box of Kleenex. She was smiling as tears crawled down her cheeks. Holding my hand she said, “I missed you so much.” I laughed, wiping my nose. “I missed you too Mom, more than you know.” She nodded. “Oh, I know baby.” We laughed but my mother gathered herself, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “I think I’m going to get a divorce.” Roger moved out two weeks later, glaring at me the whole time. Joel left a few days after, giving me a bear hug and a whiskery kiss on the cheek. He insisted that he’d be home for Christmas and that Sarah would be with him. I told him I’d only be seeing him if he shaved. My mother and I shared the house, and she got a cat to fill the space. I woke up to the sun filtered on my sheets through the partially closed blinds. The Kilkenny green trim was softened by the weak morning light. There were three minutes until the alarm sounded, and I shut it off in advance. Saturday was not a day to wake up early. There was a sleepy groan next to me, and I turned to see Wes beginning to wake up. He turned to look at me and smiled. “Good morning beautiful,” he said, his voice hoarse with waking up. I smiled and slipped on my ring. “Good morning my love.” I heard crying in the next room and made my way to the crib.

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This Funny Thing Called Life Chelsea Lewis

God has a funny way of turnin’ life completely around and he has been throwin’ me around like a rag doll here lately. It’s like he’s the puppet master and I’m on the strings, against my own will. I try my best to stay positive, though. My mama always told me that “there’s a method to the madness.” If only I could find that method or maybe just an insight of why this is all happening to me. I mean, if someone had told me that this is how things would’ve turned out, I would’ve laughed in their face. Before all of this happened, my biggest struggle was getting out of bed in the morning, even when I had extra time to sleep. I didn’t have to be to work until 10 on most days, which was definitely a plus. Ya girl loves her sleep. At 9:30, I was out the door with my purse on my shoulder and phone in hand. I made a quick pit stop at Starbucks, just like every other day, and then completed the commute to my job. I wasn’t in any particular rush at this time of the morning, the traffic dies down and I usually get there 10 minutes early. I didn’t mind though, I like having time to prepare before my first client. Walking into my office, I smile like always, knowing that it’s all mine. Setting my things down, I open up my first client’s file. Ah, Sienna. She was my most stubborn kid but I saw the potential in her and I actually liked her. I was getting out all of the things for the session. Personally, I like to put out tissues, candy and a stress ball. I heard the door open and someone plop on the couch. “No knocking, Sienna?” I turned around and smirked. She just shrugged. I could tell that today was a bad day. “What happened?” She stayed silent and stared at me. “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me anything.” “My life is bullshit.” “Care to elaborate?” I crossed my legs. “Nope.” “Then why are you in here?” See, I was a teenager not too long ago. I know how to get under their skin. When they feel like they are being challenged, they start to talk. “Because I want to be,” she snapped. “Well if you want to be here then start talking.” I threw the stress ball at her and she caught it. Sienna’s story is pretty complicated. Her mom and dad were both locked up on some pretty serious charges. They weren’t getting out anytime soon but they didn’t care for her anyway. She was sent to live with her grandma who is too old to properly care for a seventeen year old. The thing is, though, she’s so smart but she’s letting her grades fall because she hangs out with a group of thugs. Anyway, during the session she finally opened up. I think if she takes my advice, she can make it through these last months of school. Sienna was my only client that day so I was back out of there by noon. I loved days like that: work for a little and then do whatever for the rest of the day. I packed up and left the office. I ended up picking up lunch from the local takeout place and going back home. Since it was a Tuesday afternoon, there wasn’t anything to do so I decided to just chill and watch movies.

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I loved this freedom. Nothing was more satisfying than living your dream life. Having the perfect job and still being able to do anything you want. I mean, of course I want a family one day but not for a while. Thinking back on how much things have changed, it almost puts me to tears. Two weeks ago - January 3rd to be exact. I was sitting in my condo. I had my laptop in front of me, reading tips my new boss gave me and occasionally sipping my coffee. Life was good, simple. Anyway, I was enjoying the comfortable silence until my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but I decided to answer anyway because it could be important. “Hello?” I greeted. “Hi, is this Mariyah Desmond?” some guy replied. “Yes, this is she. Who is asking?” I tried to say in my best professional voice. “This is Dr. Jones from the Atlanta Medical Center. We have your friend, Niya Simpson here. It says that you’re her emergency contact and we called to tell you that she’s not doing well,” he explained. The tears threatened to fall from the brims of my eyes. I knew this day was coming but not so soon. It couldn’t be. Niya was my best friend in the entire world. We grew up in California together and when it was time to go to college, we both got accepted to ones in Atlanta. She went to Spelman and I went to Clark Atlanta. When she was 21, she got pregnant with my goddaughter, Breylyn. Shortly after that, she developed breast cancer. It was mild at first but her body wasn’t responding to the treatments and it got much worse. I hung up the phone and ran to my car. When I got inside the hospital, I went straight to the seventh floor. I wasn’t really prepared from what I was about to see. I slowly opened her room door and they both looked up at me. Niya looked like someone had drained the majority of the beautiful chocolate pigment from her skin. Her eyes were droopy and she kept as still as possible. I stared at her with sadness and sympathy. Being that Breylyn was in the room, we couldn’t say what we wanted to, but we both knew what was going to happen in the next couple of hours. “Auntie Mariyah!” my little boo screamed which caused me to break my and Niya’s eye contact. “Brey baby!” I bent down and picked her up. “Mommy’s not feeling good.” She frowned. “I know, don’t cry. Hey, why don’t you go to the nurse and get you some candy?” I motioned to the nurse’s desk right across the hall. She squealed and ran over there. Once I saw she was safe, I sat next to Niya. I held her hand and sighed. She looked at me, her eyes clouded with grey. “Ryah, I’m not going to last much longer.” She coughed. “Niya, you can’t just give up. You have to keep fighting,” I pleaded but she shook her head. “What do you think I’ve been doing for the past four months? I’m tired of fighting.” I knew she had to be on her last limb. Niya was the strongest person I knew. She fought for everything she had and kept my head up most of the time. Seeing her so weak was tearing me apart. “What about Brey? You can’t just leave her.” “I need you to do something for me.” “Anything,” I sniffed. “I already had somebody go to the court for you to be named Brey’s guardian. I need her to live with you.” My eyes widened. Tears started falling down my cheeks, this is way too much. My life was just getting started and I’m not ready to be a mother yet. Not to sound selfish but why is this all happening at once? “I love my little Brey but I can’t just take in a child, Niya.” “I’ve got no one else and plus, you’ve always wanted to be a mom.”

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It was true. Niya’s mom went M.I.A and her father was put in jail. She practically lived with me until we moved down here. “Not like this though. My best friend is being taken away from me and now I have a child sprung on me. You can’t leave me like this. Brey and I love you too much.” “Just please. Love you.” She breathed for the final time. My face became soaked in my sorrows. I hate crying and feeling vulnerable. The doctors rushed in but they couldn’t save her. I left the room, looking for Brey and when I found her, she looked at my face. “What’s wrong? Can I go see mommy again?” She looked up at me. I squatted down to her level. “Not right now, honey. You’re coming to my house.” I tried to smile a little bit. She started wailing about wanting to see her mother but I wish she could understand. I scooped her up and took her to the car. The whole ride to her new home, she was screaming. What has my life become? Once inside, I sat her on the couch and took a seat next to her. “Brey, calm down, please.” I stroked her face. She quieted down but the questions never stopped. “Where is mommy?” “Well, your mommy was very sick.” She nodded and I continued. “So, in life, people pass away and leave the world and since your mommy was very sick, she passed away.” “So she’s gone forever?” Her lip started to quiver. I nodded. She started wailing again. I wanted to join her but I knew I had to be strong. This was too much for her five-year-old mind to handle, and honestly, I didn’t know how to handle it either. Her cries wore her out because she was asleep on my shoulder with her thumb in her mouth and dried tears on her soft cheeks. I carried her upstairs to her new room and put her to bed. Across the hall, I got into my bed as well. My life had turned around in less than five hours, which made me cry. I looked up at the ceiling as if an answer as to what my life has become was going to pop up. Of course, nothing happened and I lay there with a million questions. I turned over, my tears still coming and went to sleep. Over the next few weeks, I struggled to get Brey settled in. I have never in my twenty-six years of living experienced such a challenge. The first week, she would not stop crying. I tried everything; I mean at one point, I thought she was going to pass out from dehydration. Then, she transitioned into screaming. Every time I would try to ask her something, she would scream the answer. Now, she’s ignoring me. She wouldn’t come down for any meals. I would have to put them in her room and then go back and get the empty plate. I do feel for her but I’m really running thin. I felt boney knees pierce my ribs and tiny screams filled my head. “Mariyah! Get up, I’m hungry!” Brey constantly shook me until my eyes fluttered open. I was shocked, this is the first time she’s talked to me in a week. I guess she’s really hungry. “Okay, okay. I’m up.” I glanced over at the clock and it read 7:30. I groaned loudly when she scurried out of the room. I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me. 7:30 in the freaking morning. Where’s Ashton Kutcher at? I have to be getting punked. I tore myself from the bed limb-by-limb and headed down the stairs. When I walked into the kitchen, Brey was sitting at the island. “Alright what’s for breakfast, kiddo?” I rubbed the fatigue from my eyes. “I want some waffles and chocolate and bacon and juice,” she said in a whisper. I almost didn’t hear her. “Uh, I don’t have a waffle maker, I’m sorry.” “But that’s what I want!” Her lips started to quiver.

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I scoured through my fridge and cupboard to see what I had. Usually, in the morning, I make a quick fruit salad and go. Plus, I haven’t gone shopping in two weeks. “Okay, how about chocolate chip pancakes and eggs?” I suggested. “No!” She started to cry. “Alright, uh, you know what? I found a waffle maker in the drawer,” I lied. I was just going to cut the pancakes in squares; she wouldn’t know the difference. Instantly, she stopped crying and went to the living room. Little faker. I started cooking. I made myself a pot of coffee while I was at it. I need this whole pot to function correctly anyway. I poured a fresh cup and drank it while cooking. Soon, I finished her breakfast and called her in. I never really eat this much in the morning so I just made a parfait. “So, you have to go to daycare today because I have work.” I leaned on the counter. “Just for a few hours.” She never said a word. I really hope she behaves today. The daycare always calls me about her acting up and I have to leave work to get her. I understand that she’s not used my lifestyle and being with her mom. But to be honest, I’m not used to her lifestyle either. I broke my thoughts and decided to just get both of us ready. She followed me up the stairs so I could give her a quick bath and twist her hair. She picked out her own outfit, being the little diva she is. Just like her momma. When I was done with her, I left her in her room and ran to go get myself ready. I did my normal hygiene routine and put on my business attire. I ran through my hair with the flat iron quickly and I was ready. We left the house and I went to Brey’s temporary daycare. I had to get her enrolled in school today. I dropped her off inside and sped back off. I had quite a bit to do this morning. I arrived at the office very early, but I guess it was somewhat of a good thing. I sat down at my desk and got out my client files for the day. Once those were organized, I started making phone calls. First, I called Rosewood Elementary School. I had to get her enrolled in this one; it was the most convenient for me and sounded like a good school. The secretary told me that it was past the deadline for enrollment but once I explained the situation she was able to enroll Brey. Okay, that’s done. I checked the time and saw that it was 9:00. I should have time before Sienna comes to finish my personal business. Just as I thought that, she walked through the door. Just great. “I know I’m early but my grandma had somewhere to go.” She plopped down on the couch and I nodded. “Okay Sienna …” I started but my phone started ringing. I told her to hold on and answered. “Hello?” “Is this Mariyah Desmond?” A woman asked. “Yes, this is she. May I ask who this is?” I tried to be professional even though I was a little stressed. “This is Shelia Ward from the Department of Children Services. I’m the caseworker on your file regarding Breylyn Simmons. I was calling to set up a date to meet.” “Niya did mention something about signing papers. What would we be meeting about?” “Well, I would have to ask you and Breylyn questions, observe the home and eventually decide where the child will end up.” I shifted in my seat. “If I think you are fit and she is safe, she can stay with you. If I don’t, she would be placed in foster care.” I pushed my hair out of my face and sighed. “Okay, well how about this Friday? I have off of work.” “Sounds perfect. Expect me around 12:00.” “Alright, thank you.” I hung up. This is all way too much. I can’t let Brey go into foster care but she’s not warmed up to living with me yet.

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“Wow. It seems like you need the therapy session, not me,” Sienna chuckled. I glared at her. I disregarded her comment and began her session. Soon, business hours ended and I went to pick up Brey. She wanted to go to her favorite restaurant, Friday’s. She loves the chicken fingers. I didn’t mind though, I didn’t feel like cooking anyway. The night was actually decent. Brey was loosening a little bit. I got her to laugh once and I think I got some extra brownie points for getting her extra chicken. Hopefully everything else falls into place. The following Friday, Sheila came to visit. To say I was nervous was an understatement. If this didn’t go right, I’ve failed. I didn’t keep my promise to Niya and this meant I was not the good mother that I thought I could be. I probably looked like a maniac running around the house trying to make sure that everything was clean. It was just about one o’clock and I had already gotten Brey together, who was sitting on the couch playing with my iPad. She was still ignoring me but I prayed that she cooperated with the caseworker. I had sort of calmed myself down and was now just awaiting her arrival. My stomach growled as I sat on my phone. Wow, did I really forget to eat? Just as I was about to go grab a snack, I heard faint knocks on my door. “Hello Ms. Shelia,” I greeted at the door. “Please, come in.” “Thank you, it’s nice to meet you.” She smiled. She was an older lady, I’d say in her mid50s and very petite with caramel skin. “You too. Here, follow me into the living room.” I led her down the small hallway into the grand space. “Brey, baby. Someone is here to visit you.” She looked up, her eyes filled with curiosity towards Shelia. Shelia squatted down beside the couch, reaching Brey’s level. “Hello. I’m Sheila, what’s your name?” “Breylyn.” “That’s such a pretty name.” “Thank you. I like your bracelet.” She beamed. Oh, so she’ll talk to a stranger but not to me. Well, at least she’s being nice. They had a small conversation about who knows what and then Sheila turned back to me. “Can I take a tour of the home?” I nodded and proceeded to show her around. I had nothing to be nervous about now because my condo was amazing. When I first bought it, I decorated it very modern and it’s just really comfortable but still spacious. Soon, the tour was over and we went back down into the living room. “Alright, I’m going to ask questions if that’s okay?” She sat opposite of Brey and I, who were one of the couches. “Go ahead.” “Okay. Is the child in any schooling?” “I enrolled her this week. She’ll be starting in the fall.” “Great! So how are things going overall?” She looked up from her clipboard. “They are going okay. We are combining our lifestyles pretty well and I think we got the hang of it. She’s just been acting out a little bit because of you know...” “Of course.” She turned to Brey. “Sweetie, how do you like it here?” “It’s okay but I miss my mommy.” “I know but Mariyah is taking care of you now. How does she treat you?” “Nice. She makes food and let me play on her iPad.” Awe, so she does like it here, she’s just sad. “That’s wonderful.”

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Sheila stuck around for about another 10 minutes, wrapping everything up. She asked a couple questions about my income and things like that. Basically, she told me that I have a month to prove that I’m truly fit to take care of Brey. After that time is up, we will have another meeting and she will make her final decision. The only thing I can really do is to continue what I’ve been doing. Brey seems to be comfortable so I’m not going to overdo it because that could ruin everything. It was Brey’s birthday today. It’s been two weeks since my month trial started. Things have been slowly smoothing out, which I’m grateful for. I’m a little nervous about how today will go though, this is her 5th birthday and her mother isn’t with her. I have a few surprises for her though. After Niya died, I had to go to her house and clean it out. Turns out, she left Brey a gift. I had just finished making her breakfast. I made her a waffle with whipped cream and strawberries. Yes, I bought a waffle maker. I walked it up to her room and she was out cold. I gently shook her and her eyes opened with a smile on her face. “Happy Birthday Brey!” “I’m 5!” She jumped. She loved birthdays. “Yes you are. Now eat up and then we are going to get ready.” Instantly, she dug in and I went back downstairs. Soon, she was all done and I got her cleaned up. The whipped cream was a bad idea; she got it all over but it’s okay, it’s her day. When she was ready, I got showered and dressed myself. We left the house and I drove to our first destination, The Playhouse. It was an inside play area with trampolines, an arcade and everything. I definitely took two Advil before I left the house. The entire time, Brey was squealing with delight and she made me do everything with her. Eventually, she decided that she had enough and we left. Next, we went to lunch at Red Robin. She decided to be a big girl today and get a chicken sandwich and actually ate it. I could not stop laughing at her accomplished face. Back at the house, I had a mini cake with candles set up and I was going to give her the gifts. I sang “Happy Birthday” to her and she blew out the candle. “Are you ready for your gifts?” I smiled. “Yes! I’ve been waiting all day!” I laughed at her animation. I grabbed them from the chair and handed them to her. I got her about four and then I was going to save Niya’s for last. She started screaming and jumping around. “You got me my own iPad?! Thank you, thank you.” She hugged around my legs. I kissed her head. I also got her clothes, new dolls and things for her room. “Okay, you have one more. From mommy.” “Mommy?” Her eyes got wide when I handed it to her. She didn’t open it at first but just stared at it. Slowly the expression on her face changed from curiosity to sadness. The tears poured down her face and I knelt down to her level. “Hey, what’s wrong?” “I wish she could give it to me herself.” Her lip poked out. “Me too, but you know she’s thinking about you.” Brey wiped her tears and slowly started to open the gift. She pulled out a bracelet, an envelope and a picture. The picture was of Niya and Brey on her fourth birthday. On the inside of the bracelet it read, “Mommy loves you forever.” When I read the letter, she started to cry a little again, and to be honest, I shed a few tears from hearing Niya’s words. I knew Brey would cherish it forever. It read: To my dear Breylyn Taylor Simmons, I’m so sorry I’ve left you so soon. I never meant for this to happen. I would love to see you grow up into a beautiful young woman and I still will, just from a distance. I want you to be a good girl for Mariyah, okay? She loves you and wants what’s

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best for you, just like me. I want you to always remember that I love you unconditionally and I’ll always be with you… Two weeks have come and gone and it was now time for the meeting with Shelia. Brey and I were in the car, on the way to her office. She was loudly singing to the radio, oblivious to the situation at hand. Soon, we pulled up to the parking lot and got out. I tried my best to keep a positive mind as we walked towards her door. It seems like there might be a good outcome, but you never know what she may think. I knocked on the door and opened it once she said to come in. “Hello Mariyah and Breylyn. Come sit.” We followed her direction. “How are you?” she asked. “Pretty good, thank you.” “Hi Ms. Sheila!” Brey greeted. “Hello sweetheart,” she smiled. “Okay, let’s start. So I’m going to direct my questions towards Brey for this part.” I nodded. “So Brey, how has the past month been?” “Great! I turned five and my mommy is in here.” She pointed to her heart. Niya said in the letter that she would always be in her heart. “That’s wonderful. How do you feel about Mariyah?” “She’s really nice and takes care of me so I love her. Plus she was mommy’s friend.” I smiled. Shelia asked Brey a few more questions and directed some to me, as well. She told us to wait outside for a moment to make her decision. My leg viciously shook up and down. Nervous habit. After about five minutes, she called us back in. “Well, from what I’ve seen, you are a good fit for Breylyn, and I grant you full custody.” I let out the breath that I was holding in. Tears threatened to fall from the brims of my eyes but they didn’t. I did it. We stayed for another five minutes for me to fill out paperwork. When we got in the car, I decided to take Brey somewhere. “Where are we?” she asked when we got there. “We are going to see your mom.” I grabbed roses from the backseat and scooped up Brey. I walked down to Niya’s tombstone and sat down in front of it. “This is where she is?” Brey looked at me. “Yup. This is where people go when they pass away. You can talk to her, too. She just can’t talk back, but she hears you.” I reluctantly walked up to where my best friend was buried. It was surreal that she was really dead. She was gone forever. I stopped dead in my tracks and dropped onto the ground. I couldn’t control my tears at this point; they just trickled down my face. Brey bravely walked right up to the tombstone and started talking. “Hi Mommy, I hope you are good. I miss you but I know you’ll always be in my heart. I promise I’ll only eat two cookies and go to bed while you’re gone.” She put her rose down. I put my rose down, too, and kissed up to the sky. “I’ll never forget about you, love,” I sighed, and stood up. We stayed there for a moment, taking everything in, and eventually we left. The night was still young but Brey had already fallen asleep. I was lying in my bed thinking about everything. Who would have thought that all of this would’ve happened to me? One of the most important people in my life was gone but I was blessed with caring for another life. I thought I had everything together; it was perfect. But then I was thrown a curveball. Just goes to show, anything can happen.

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Buffalo Nickels Noor El-Dehaibi

Robert Shaw pulled his work apron out of the washing machine. He had forgotten to put it in the dryer the night before, and it smelled like mildew. He brushed out the wrinkles and put it on. He was already going to be a few minutes late for work. He walked down the road to Food Lion. There was almost no one else around. Robert was unnerved. He didn’t like tourists, but he would rather have thousands of sunburnt families desperately searching for the beach than the thinned October crowds. Normally there were at least a few people coming from the cities for warmer weather, to see the leaves change, something. But the streets were completely empty. He always hated this time of year; it made him feel vulnerable. He passed a storefront with a red FOR RENT sign in the window. Robert could barely look at it. He knew it was silly, but he felt a level of resentment towards the building. It was the site of his first business venture, a restaurant – where it all began. Though Shaw’s Waffles wasn’t where his troubles started. That was more likely when he decided he couldn’t be a professional chef, or failed culinary school, or dropped out of college, or, even farther back, maybe something in his childhood. One failed restaurant was just part of the downward spiral. But Robert hated it with a passion. It was a visible, tangible sign of his failure. And he had to walk past it every day. He could barely look at it, with the slipcovers over the counters and the faded spots where you could almost see the outline of the sign. He picked up a small rock and nonchalantly tossed it against the glass. A crack spread from the place of impact. He looked both ways and walked away quickly. It took Robert 12 minutes to get to work. He arrived exactly on time. Running away from the scene of the crime had been his saving grace. Not that the cracked window would be a big deal, anyway. The store had been abandoned since his breakfast place shut down. It was said to be unlucky. He started his shift, pulling out a silver cart and grabbing a sleeve of crackers. Robert, with his three semesters of culinary school and cumulative two years of restaurant experience, was qualified to serve samples. He sliced up a block of cheese, dropped a piece onto a cracker, and put them in muffin papers on a plastic tray. He didn’t even get to hand them out – he just stood there pretending to be very focused on his task, getting the occasional “thank you” from kids after being scolded by their mothers. He felt like he had been standing there for days, serving overstocked brands of cheese and crackers, occasionally announcing the price and aisle it was in. Finally it was his break. He dumped the unwanted samples in the trash and left his station as quickly as possible. He left the grocery store and hopped in his car, telling his manager that he had to “feed his cat.” His manager didn’t care. If she did, she probably would’ve noticed that it was the seventh time in two weeks that he left on breaks. She, like Robert, was more concerned with her second job. Robert had applied for to be a deliveryman a few months ago. After a quick background check and confirmation that yes, he did have his own car, he was hired. He was informed of two stipulations: he would make all deliveries within the day, and he would not be reimbursed for gas. The job was easy – he got a call, he met the man that hired him (who told him to call him

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Fido) at a diner a few miles away, and he drove down for a few hours to meet his client at another diner in the same chain. He was transporting boxes of seemingly valuable coins across North Carolina. “Shouldn’t you find someone with an armored car or something?” he had asked Fido. “Like how they have for banks?” “That’s suspicious,” he had explained. “People have enough sense to know that something in an armored car is worth that hassle.” He took a box out of his car. “Nobody’s expecting anything much from a guy in a run-down diner’s parking lot.” He dropped it in Robert’s trunk. “They should, though.” He pulled a silver coin in a plastic case out of the box. “1943 S Jefferson nickel. Mint condition. Guess how much it’s worth.” Robert looked at him blankly. “Three bucks? Fido laughed and dropped the nickel back in the box. “More like sixty. Now get out of here,” he added gruffly. “Nobody’s gonna wait all day for you to show up.” Robert went on his delivery, but something still felt off. He was just anyone, why was he allowed to have this job? He wasn’t even a good driver – he had enough speeding tickets to finance a county fair. It took him a month to figure out that the coins were fakes. Well made fakes, but fakes nonetheless. Not that he could tell, himself. He had to take one to an expert to find out. He managed to muster up the courage to confront Fido after another few weeks. Fido didn’t seem surprised. “I’ll give you an extra 10% per delivery to keep your mouth shut, but it better stay shut. You don’t know what you’re dealing with here, kid. Pretty sure there’s not a real Jefferson nickel from the forties in the state at this point.” Robert had in fact kept his mouth shut. He wasn’t even sure how to blow the whistle – all he had was a weird nickname and a description for one person and a pile of receipts for an old diner. Besides, the pay was more than he could ever hope for at Food Lion. He got at least a hundred dollars per delivery, not including tip. He had to keep going for now. Robert was driving back from a delivery when he got a text from his mother. It took him a few moments to realize it was a paragraph-long invitation to her house for the weekend, from her to all her kids. “I can’t wait to see my grandchildren <3,” she sent. “It’ll b like a family reunion!!! LOL. Love you lots, Mom,” followed by an inexplicable chain of emoticons. By the time he pulled over, his sister had already replied, gushing about having her kids see their grandma again and how excited she was. His brother opened the text, but didn’t respond. Robert had expected that. He leaned forward in his seat, propping up his head on his hand. He had never liked family gatherings. His mother was acutely aware of his shortcomings, and she made sure that he knew just as well as she did. She liked to remind him about all the different business ventures he had tried and failed, all the food trucks he had used that were later driven into rivers for insurance money (“But at least you couldn’t’ve been charged by that point, thank god! You sold it by then, it wasn’t making any money”) or crack jokes about how qualified he was to make dinner (“I mean, you never finished that degree from culinary school – I don’t know when they teach you to make burgers! You could’ve missed the unit”). She was especially relentless about his job at Food Lion. It had gotten to the point where he and his brother made Passive Aggressive Bingo cards for their visits. Robert’s card was in the glovebox, with all of the classic – “Suzanne saw you at the grocery store the other day. I didn’t know you still worked there;” “When do you think you’ll start applying for other jobs;” and his personal favorite, “I thought with all those samples you served you wouldn’t have trouble with a plate of deviled eggs!” They were neck and neck for months, each one a square away from winning. Robert almost wanted his mom to start asking when he would go back to business school again – the suspense was just too much.

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His phone vibrated again. It was Fido, calling him. He turned down the call volume before answering it. “Where are you?” Fido wasn’t that angry yet; Robert was only a few minutes late to meet him. “I’m at a Sheetz, I needed to stretch my legs. I should be there in twenty minutes or so.” “You SHOULD be here now. Now quit stopping and hurry up, it’s not like you’re paid by the hour!” He hung up. Robert hurried to the diner, but it still took him half an hour to get there. Fido was pacing in the parking lot, waiting for him. He had barely put the car in park when he walked up to him and pulled on the door. The act reminded Robert of a tired six year old, trying to get home from the store as soon as possible. The door swung open as soon as he unlocked the car. “You owe me six fifty.” Robert reached down between his seat and the divider and pulled out an envelope. Fido drummed on the door handle, watching him count fifties. “I should start charging you for being late.” Robert didn’t look up. “I can’t just drive for three hours straight. It’s bad for circulation.” Fido rolled his eyes. “There’s a new statistic every day.” He took the money out of Robert’s hand and got out of the car. “I got eight deliveries lined up for you in the next couple weeks, farthest one is just past Raleigh. Take care, kid.” He walked off into the diner rigidly, as though he was holding something in his coat. Robert watched him go in, then drove off. His phone buzzed. His brother answered his mother’s invitation: “ill be there.” He stared at the screen for a few moments. “me too,” he sent. Robert spent the next few days clearing any trace of his “new job.” Fido’s contact name in his phone changed to “Dog walker.” Every loose bill from his car and sock drawer was collected and put towards credit card bills. Piles of receipts from Starlight Diners were torn up and thrown out in a Chik-Fil-A dumpster. It took him two full days to get rid of all the evidence, and a night to pack. Robert left for his mother’s house around four. It only took him an hour to get there; no one else was out driving. He wanted the tourists now more than ever. He wanted to slip into a crowd, evaporate into a backdrop – but the backdrop had faded away. He played Pet Sounds on repeat the whole drive down. It reminded him of August. He was the last person to arrive. His mother and sister were in the kitchen, making cookies with his nieces and nephews. He peered in, and his sister gave him a warm smile. He smiled back, waved, and walked off. They seemed busy enough without greeting someone, and he didn’t want to get flour on his favorite shirt. His brother was sitting on the couch in the living room, sulking. He sat down next to him. “How’s it going, Maria?” he asked. He was answered with a long, cold stare. “Oh wait, um…” he stammered. He was bad with names, especially when they changed. “It’s Marcus now, right? Mark? Matt? Max?” “Lawrence,” he sighed. “Like the college.” “Oh, yeah.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “I’m trying my best,” he mumbled. “I know that’s not enough, but I am.” Lawrence shrugged, stony-faced. “I’m sure you are.” He picked at some strings on his shirt. “At least you’re doing better than Savannah. She won’t stop trying to set me up with the only lesbian she knows.” “Aren’t you trying to get a girlfriend?” Lawrence rubbed their temples. “Well, yeah,” he said exasperatedly, “but she’s gay. I’m not a woman loving woman, or whatever. I’m your run-of-the-mill straight dude. It’s different from a lesbian, even with something like this.” Lawrence said it with an air of finality, as though he

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was used to saying it to end arguments. It certainly shut up Robert. Lawrence’s voice lightened. “You got your bingo card ready, dropout?” Robert snorted, glad to be free of the tension. “You got yours, black sheep?” Lawrence grinned and pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out of his breast pocket. “I’m close this time,” he boasted. “You better get ready to buy me dinner.” “I dunno, I got a lot of squares filled after that Easter brunch. You should be the one getting ready.” Lawrence laughed aloud. “But do you remember what happened when I started seeing that trans girl a while back? I would’ve won a cover-all with that mess.” He shook his head incredulously. “Go into the kitchen, man,” he said. “Go talk to Mom.” The family gathering had been going surprisingly well, by Robert’s standards. Savannah’s kids were old enough that it wasn’t work to be around them, but young enough to be accidentally hilarious. He took them to the grocery store with him, letting them pick out bags of Halloween candy while he bought food for later that night. It was tradition for Robert to make dinner the first night he was at his mother’s house, and he always left for the Foster’s Port Food Lion a few hours after he saw everyone. He always felt better buying food in his hometown – it was cozier. And he was always appreciative of the opportunity to miss the start of the annual fights. Lawrence had recently started correcting his mom when she called him “Maria” or referred to him as “she,” and expected his siblings to do the same. He loved both of them, but would’ve clawed his way out of a bear trap to not have to be around for that argument. He went out of his way to get the fanciest ingredients he could find. He knew that he should be worrying about his student loans before gourmet cheese, but he couldn’t help himself. He hadn’t been able to shop like this in a while. Checking out, he realized that his niece had snuck five bags of Reese’s in his cart. He shrugged it off. She would probably only be able to eat a few before she started feeling sick, and he could use the rest to make peanut butter brownies. His mother found the bags of candy when she was helping him unpack groceries. She gave him a disapproving look, but seemed to understand. She was a parent, after all. And Robert figured he was the uncle buying things the kids probably shouldn’t have. After a few more minutes of emptying bags, her attention shifted from the future sugar rush to the expensive brands. “Going all out for little old me?” she laughed. “I got some money now, I can afford to,” he answered, smiling. He didn’t think his mom had ever tasted gruyere cheese. She would love it. “Congratulations!” she said, looking up from the groceries. “Did you get promoted at Food Lion?” “No. I got a, a second job.” Sweat started to bead on his forehead. His mother didn’t notice. “That’s nice. Are you selling your food?” “No, mom,” he answered, grimacing behind her back. “I, um… I’m a deliveryman.” “Oh,” she said. “That’s nice.” She looked at the piles of groceries on the counter. “I should get your little sister to put these away.” She walked into the other room. “Maria, dear,” she called, “come help us!” Robert left the kitchen as soon as possible, trying to ignore the look on Lawrence’s face as he walked in, saying “Look, mom…” Neither one of them watched him leave. He walked up the stairs as quietly as possible, going into his old room. He lied down on the slightly-too-small bed. He was sweating. He opened his contacts and changed “Dog walker” to “Rite Aid”. Below him, he could hear someone stomp away. Robert woke up an hour later. There was a crumpled piece of paper next to his bed, with twenty-five boxes in a grid on it. Fifteen of the squares had been scribbled over with pencils and half dead pens. The bottom left square was scratched out so hard that it tore. He tried to read it,

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but it was completely black with ink. He sighed, walking over to the room Lawrence was sharing with one of his nieces. He shoved the paper deep into one his smaller bags. He would tell his mother about the forged buffalo nickels before he let her know about their game. He made a dish of baked macaroni and cheese that, in his opinion, was underappreciated. Nothing was harder than cooking something impressive then four finicky kids would still eat. He wouldn’t complain, though. It wasn’t his worst reception to a meal. The experience of running several failing restaurants exposed him to some strange and creative insults. At least his sister seemed to like it. “You know,” she said to him, as the kids cleared the table, “I haven’t really gotten the chance to talk to you yet. You always run off to the grocery store as soon as you get here.” He laughed. “What can I say, the Food Lion calls to me.” He passed nephew a stack of cups. “Is Oliver not coming this time?” “He’ll be up here tomorrow morning.” She waited for her son to leave before she finished. “He said he needed ‘a night off from the kids.’” All three siblings rolled their eyes. Oliver’s favorite thing to do was to complain about his wife and kids. It was something that Robert could tolerate in a friend, but not in a brother-in-law. “But,” she started, in a cheerful tone, “I heard you got a new job!” Robert felt his heart skip a beat. “Tell me all about it.” “Well,” he began, “I started it a few months ago. It pays pretty well.” He struggled to give a smile that didn’t look forced. “Not much to say, honestly.” Lawrence scoffed. “There has to be more than that. What do you do?” He hesitated. “I...make deliveries.” He gave Robert an impatient look. “Ok, like what? Pizzas? Mail? Drugs?” Robert scoffed, over-defensive. “I make small deliveries for pawn shops. Pick up lamps and things like that. I’m cheaper than a guy with a truck, so they call me in when they don’t need to do a whole lot of hauling.” Savannah’s smile returned. “I love pawn shops. Who do you work for?” “Oh, I go to some down by Raleigh, some near the coast – anywhere I can drive to.” Savannah opened her mouth to say something, but Robert cut her off. “I should probably go help those kids,” he said, standing up from the table. He walked out of their line of vision and leaned against the wall, rubbing his eyes. Robert washed dishes, trying to clear his mind. Someone would have started questioning his behavior by now. He wished that he had prepared a better back up story, or never said anything in the first place. He decided to spend more time with his nieces and nephews: no one would interrogate him if the kids were around. This took him to the living room, where they watched an inane Disney channel movie, back to the kitchen, where they made a desert that was essentially ice cream, pudding, Oreos, and chocolate sauce in a waffle cone, and around the house as they searched for the youngest one’s teddy bear until he finally convinced them to go to sleep. He slipped into his own room, relieved. He could definitely stand to be dragged around by four kids for a couple of days – he might need to take another day off when he went back home, but he could do it. As tired as he was, he couldn’t sleep. He had turned off the lights and gotten into bed, but could only stare at the silhouette of his old Spiderman poster. He woke up late the next day, jerking up suddenly. He had a dream that someone came in and looked through his bags, taking pictures of the contents and slipping eggs between his shirts. He noticed that one bag was open. Everything was crammed in and messy, but that was the way he packed it. There weren’t any eggs, at least. He tried to shrug the whole thing off, but the bag nagged at the back of his mind. He decided to at least deal with it after breakfast. Savannah was sitting at the kitchen table when he got downstairs. As soon as he walked in, she put her phone down and looked at him expectantly. Robert tried to pretend that wasn’t strange. She waited from him to sit down before she began.

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“Robert,” she asked hesitantly, “have you been feeling ok?” “Of course!” he answered, almost confused. He didn’t think his actions warranted a talk just yet. “Why do you ask?” She fidgeted with her wedding ring. “We’re just concerned.” “Concerned about what?” Savannah looked down. “You’ve been acting so strange lately, we thought that maybe something was wrong.” “What could be wrong?” he asked. She shrugged, looking up. “I’m not sure.” Her concerned tone became more genuine. “Is it about your job? There’s no shame in being a deliveryman, Robert. Especially with a situation like yours–” “It’s not about my job.” He cut her off a bit too quickly to not seem rude. His voice softened. “It really isn’t. I just don’t want to talk about it.” Savannah looked at him, trying to read his face. “Alright,” she said. She wasn’t the type of person to push someone if they seemed uncomfortable. “Ollie’s going to be up here in an hour or so.” He smiled. “I’ll be glad to see him.” She smiled back. “He got me something for my coin collection. It’s from this cheap shop up by Raleigh – it’s so beautiful.” “What is it?” he asked, dread creeping into his voice. Savannah didn’t notice. “A nickel from the forties!” she laughed. Robert’s stomach sank. He spent most of the day avoiding Oliver with Lawrence. They watched crime dramas all afternoon, guessing who the killers were and almost always getting it wrong. Lawrence resorted to looking up the plot of each episode, trying to predict more of them than his brother. Their mom came in from time to time , asking them to tell her what had happened since she was last there as soon she walked in. She seemed to be avoiding her son-in-law, too. They all went out to the park to have a barbeque – Robert’s mom declared that it was “the last nice day before everything freezes over.” They missed the last nice day by a few weeks, but it was fine regardless. Until Oliver handed Robert his phone, telling him that a Rite Aid had been calling him all night. Robert tried to not visibly panic. It was probably nothing, some pocket dials, maybe. He texted him, explaining that he was on vacation with his family. His phone started ringing again. Robert walked off, apologizing (both to his family and his employer). Through the yelling Fido told him that he needed to go out on a delivery before Monday for a small but vital shipment. It was non-negotiable, but not for a lack of trying of Robert’s part. Fido told him that if he didn’t want to do it he would lose both of his jobs. Apparently his boss at Food Lion had made a fortune investing in some of the coin collector shops, and would not be happy to hear that her sample chef was jeopardizing that. Robert sighed. He arranged to meet him an hour outside of Foster’s Port later that night. Robert spend most of the next day in his room, claiming to be “packing up.” He desperately wished he could find an excuse to leave early, but that would seem even more suspicious. He always stayed long enough to make Sunday brunch for everyone; he had always said it was “the reason he came up in the first place.” He planned to make the delivery late at night – hopefully by that point everyone would already be asleep. It took until twelve thirty for everyone to go to their rooms, but Robert waited for another hour and a half to leave. He slipped out of his room, stepping over the squeaky floorboard. No one saw him leave.

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Robert’s hands were shaking so bad on the drive down that he almost swerved off the road. Fido was waiting at a Denny’s – the Starlight Diner closed at ten. Robert only stayed for a few minutes to get a cup of coffee and shove the plastic bags into his jacket pocket. It was 3:02 by the time he got back on the road. Robert had been driving for about half an hour when he realized that he didn’t know exactly where he was supposed to meet his client. He checked his phone; Fido normally sent him an address or city. It was dead. He pulled onto the shoulder of the road. The truck stops were closed by now, he couldn’t buy a new one. He had to go back home. Each mile stretching back to 3923 Semplica Road seemed longer than the last. Robert unconsciously repeated to himself: “I’m going to grab it and leave. I’m going to grab it and leave.” until the words sounded like random sounds. He reached his mother’s house and slowly unlocked the front door. The knob flew out of his hand as the door swung open. Oliver stood opposite from him. “Come on in,” he said flatly. Robert stumbled through the door frame. Savannah and Lawrence were sitting on the couch while his mother paced. “There you are!” she cried out. “Where have you been!” Robert couldn’t do anything but stutter. He had had nightmares about this very moment. He had to pinch himself to make sure it was real. “Well, where have you been!” She strode up, noticing the bulge in his pocket. She pulled out two plastic bags and held them up. “Are those dimes?” Savannah said, confused. Lawrence sat up, looking closer. “I think they are.” His mother was incredulous. “Why did you leave at god knows what hour to get a bag of dimes?” She shook her head. “Robert Shaw, I will never understand what you do with your life.” Robert couldn’t focus on what was in front of him. He could only think about a slip of paper back in his dresser. “Bingo,” he said weakly. “I didn’t tell them anything sensitive. I’m not sure what they think, but I left you out of it.” He sighed. “They didn’t ask me a lot of questions, I’m sure they won’t find anything out. They didn’t know what to ask” Fido was uninterested. “Did you turn in the bags?” Robert rubbed his eyes. “It took me another day, but yeah. The guy almost strangled me in his booth.” “That’s what bad customer service gets ya.” Robert couldn’t tell if that was meant to be a joke or not. “You owe me five hundred.” His stomach sank into his shoes. “He only gave me two.” Fido’s eyes widened. “I swear to god I’m going to kill Steve. Give it to me,” he commanded. Robert wordlessly passed him an envelope. Fido snatched it from him, counting aloud. He swore when he reached two hundred. “Three years of business, and this is the thanks I get!” He turned to Robert. “This is on you, kid. You better ask Susan for a raise, because I’m getting this money by the end of the week.” “Can’t I just make some deliveries for free?” He scoffed. “You don’t have enough lined up for all that, unless someone’s feeling real generous with their tip. I’ll see you Saturday.” He got out of the car and slammed the door hard enough to make Robert wince. He couldn’t even consider asking his family for money anymore. He didn’t think he’d be invited to the next get-together. He put his head down on the steering wheel. Maybe he could start selling plasma again.

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Warm on a Cold Night Maya Frizzell

I sigh as I hand my boarding pass to the gate attendant, who has his hand outstretched and ready to receive it. It’s less sighing and more forcing the air out of these two functioning lungs because, I decide, I would rather not breathe than get on this plane. I hold my breath most of the way down that long, dimly lit hallway. When I’m sure I can’t hold it any longer and my face is turning red, I inhale hesitantly. Mt. Desert Island attracts a certain type of person. I am not that person. I live, breathe, eat, and sleep Los Angeles. As far as I knew, Mt. Desert Island was far in my past, and now that it was in my future, I was terrified. Two days ago, I had been fine in L.A. Two days ago I was never going back. Two days ago everything was the same. I drove down the street to where the large ALEXANDER’S LITTLE MAKEUP SHOP sign hung loud and proud above a window in need of washing. That ‘little’ makeup shop isn’t quite so little anymore- more than 50 makeup artists and hairdressers now call the shop home. I saw a swish of leather in the reflective glass. I thought of Henry. Henry had liked leather, so I used to wear it for him sometimes, but when he left I threw all of it into a heaping pile in the back of the shop and set it aflame. There’s still a black hole where the fire married the asphalt. In retrospect, it was a really awful idea because every time I see that gap, I think of him and how he left. I should really get something to cover it up, but every time I try to move something over it, I hesitate. Crap. I whipped the wheel around at the last second and turned into the driveway next to Alexander’s. I should really get something to cover up that hole. I stepped through the door of the two-story brick building. Before I bought it, it had been a fire station. The large red doors had been replaced with glass, but ENGINE 23 TRUCK CO. still decorated the front of the building in large lettering. “Warm on a Cold Night” by Honne plays softly from upstairs. I spotted a large coffee cup sitting on a small desk in the corner of the room. “Thank you, Ricky!” I yelled through the seemingly empty rooms. “You’re welcome,” I heard someone shout back from the second floor. I took a long sip of the hot drink and sighed. A large crash sounded through the fire hall as a box fell down the stairs and landed next to my feet. The box was followed by pounding footsteps followed by Ricky. I took another long sip of my coffee. Ricky paused as he reached for the box and turned his head slowly to look up at me. He mumbled a quick “Hi, Lex” and went along picking up the contents of the box, which were strewn around the room. “Hello, my lovely assistant,” I chuckled. “Oh, someone rang you earlier,” Ricky said. “I think the area code was two-oh-seven?” My face went white. That meant Maine. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” I told Ricky. “Don’t need me.” He nodded and continued to stuff various items into the box. I took a deep breath in and hit redial. I recognized the number. It had been mine years ago. The phone felt heavy in my hand and I had the urge to set it down in its cradle, but before I could, the ringing cut off. “Mom?” I ask, breaking the silence. There was a sigh of relief through the phone. “Yeah, it’s me,” she replied. I bit my lip before speaking again. “Which mom?” I asked. She chuckled. I could hear the fatigue creep into her tone.

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“Step-mom,” she told me. “I’m calling about Boss Mom.” My breath hitched. Boss Mom was what my brother, my sister, and I called my biological mother when we were younger. “What happened?” spilled out of my mouth before I could stop it- before I could create some kind of dam with my teeth. “She’s sick. The doctors– “ she paused to take a deep breath. “The doctors don't know if she’ll make it to New Year’s.” I glanced down at my watch. It was already November. She continued. “It’s not looking good, Roo,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “She wants you here. She’s been asking for you.” I lowered the phone into the cradle and cringed at the thud it made. When I tried to walk, my feet dragged across the wooden floor. Her words were carved in my mind and they kept repeating again and again and again and… ow. I looked down and saw a pin sticking out of my toe, the skin around it bright red, waiting to spill blood. As I pulled it out, I thought of Henry for the second time that day. We went to the beach and I got a piece of glass stuck in my foot and he panicked and I laughed at his frantic hand motions and at the concern in his voice. God, I loved that voice. I sighed as I reached the bottom of the steps. Ricky kept his back turned to me when he asked me what the people had wanted and I was glad because my face was white and a pool of blood was beginning to grow around my foot. “I think I have to go home,” I said. That got him to turn around and his face twisted into shock and stayed there until his eyes averted to the scarlet pool by my feet. “Oh my goodness, Lex,” he spoke. “What the heck did you do?” I started to feel the pain in my toe. “Ow,” I said. “No kidding,” he responded. He pointed to a chair that was against the wall behind me. Silently, I walked toward it and sat down as Ricky rushed to the other side of the room, where the first aid kit was hanging on the wall. He sat before me and brought my foot up to his lap. As he cleaned and bandaged the hole that went all the way through my toe, I told him what my mother had said. He only spoke when appropriate, but otherwise, he listened intently to what I had to say. When he was done, he patted my foot and lightly pushed it off his lap. “Come on,” he said. “You’re in no state to drive and I can help you pack.” I let Ricky guide me out of the shop and to his car, which was parked to the side. As he opened the passenger’s door for me, he placed a kiss on my forehead, then one on my lips. I smiled gratefully at him like his kiss had cured me and I kept smiling as he closed the door. Then I sobbed. That’s how I ended up here, waiting for the plane to take off to the one place I don’t want to go. I almost didn’t go. I had suggested multiple times over the two days it took me to decide that I needed to stay in Los Angeles, but Ricky had booked me a direct flight so I wouldn’t have the chance to escape in Chicago or Pittsburgh or God knows where. I want to be anywhere but here. As I drive through endless acres of pine trees, I turn the volume dial three more notches up. “Warm on a Cold Night” plays through the speakers at full volume, causing the car to shake with the bass. I sing along and the pine trees become a blur as I race along an empty road to Mount Desert Island. I should stop at the grocery store. I sigh. I don’t want to. It’s never warm in Maine. Even when it’s summer, there’s still a gray tone in the sky that you just can’t get rid of, and it stays in your mind, even when you move across the country. The Hannaford’s, the one and only decent grocery store even remotely close to MDI, seems to be the only real source of light and even then it feels too artificial. I think about the Los Angeles

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sun. It seemed almost blinding compared to the flickering light in the grocery store. Someone taps my shoulder. “What the hell are you doing here?” I drop the red basket that’s in my hand and turn to face the person who had just spoken. It’s John. “Mom doesn’t want you here,” he continues. “None of us want you here.” He sneers in my face and I can see his cheeks flush red. If it were possible, there would be smoke coming from his nose. “Lily called me,” I tell him. “I don’t want to cause any trouble, I just want to be here for mom. Let’s not make a scene in the grocery store. Please. I know we didn’t leave it off well, but I don’t think you can hate me forever.” He gives me one last angry look before he walks away because he knows he can’t argue with Lily. I exhale, realizing I’ve been holding my breath. “Mom?” I call out as I enter the house. My call is greeted by footsteps pounding down the stairs. I hear “Warm on a Cold Night” play faintly in the background, probably from my mom’s rooms. I look at the old oak floors and at the various shades of gray and blue and purple that grace the walls of every room. I’m eyeing the grand piano that stands next to the couch in the living room when I hear a giggle behind me. “Roo!” a voice almost shrieks. I can’t help but smile at the warm sound of Lily’s voice. I turn to gently scoop her up into a hug. She’s so small that when I stand, her feet lift off the ground and dangle in the air. When I set her down, I see that her eyes are red and circled by dark rings. Her normally lavender hair has faded. Silver and gray has taken over any bright color, though when she turns her head, I can see a flash of purple. Suddenly she becomes solemn, remembering why I’m here. “Come on,” she says. “I’ll take you to the Boss.” The walk up the steps seems entirely too long. The woman who sits in the bedroom upstairs isn’t mom. I guess she looks like mom well enough, but when she speaks, she sounds tired, like she can hardly move her mouth. When she moves, there’s hardly any life in her. The little life she does have is spread thin across her body, making everything weak and tired and useless. She looks so cold, but when I lean in for a hug, she’s too warm. She’s burning up and I want it to stop. I want her to be strong and just warm enough and not dying. I cringe. The word hurts even if it’s not out loud. It pierces my brain and I wish I could forget it. I sit and talk with her. She’s still so happy. She tells me about the long walks she takes with Lily. She tells me about the wheelchair they bought and how shiny it is-shiny enough to see yourself in the wheels. She tells me about my old friends and her old friends and about Mount Desert Island. She laughs and it sounds more like she’s suffocating. I go a whole day without seeing John or Brenna. Wednesday morning, Brenna comes to the house. I hear she and Lily whispering while I sit with mom. “Alex?” I hear it echo through the house. I give mom a look. “Hide me,” I say. “Please.” “Come on, it’s just Brenna.” Looks like I’m not getting out of this one. I tiptoe down the stairs, taking as long as I can to reach the bottom. When finally get there, Brenna flings her arms around my neck, pulling her legs up to wrap around my waist. I audibly groan and she giggles as I try to lay her down on the floor. I look up at Lily. “Help me,” I say, pretending to gasp for air. “Can’t… breathe.” Finally, she lets go of my neck and collapses onto the ground. I reach my hand down to pull her up and she gracefully leaps to her feet. She was like a cat in that respect, almost always landing on her feet. “Come on, Alex,” she says. She grabs my hand and marches me to the sitting room. “We need to talk.”

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We talk about mom. She tells me all the details of what's happening, all the things that Lily can’t bear to say. We talk about what to do when she’s gone. We talk about doctors. We talk about funerals. We talk about our feelings. We talk about Lily. We talk about John. “She wants you to make up with him,” she tells me. “I want to make things better,” I say. “Really, I do, so if you have an idea of how to do that, I’m all ears.” She’s silent. We both know there’s no way to do that. “Unless you can perform a miracle, John is not going to forgive me,” I say. “When I left football, it broke him.” “He wanted to be just like you. Passionate about the things you do.” “He doesn’t understand that I’m passionate about what I do now. He thinks I abandoned my passion.” I dig my nails into my thighs. “I can try, though. For mom.” That night at 11:48 PM, mom dies. All four of us are in the house together, John, Brenna, Lily, and me. Lily stays huddled together with me mostly, both of our faces streaked with tears. John and Brenna stand on the other side of the room. Brenna’s eyes threaten to let loose tears, but John’s eyes stay dry. His expression is pained, like he’s trying to swallow something sour. You can tell the John is keeping his distance. When I come near, he sneers and waits until I back away to regain his composure. We spend the rest of the night giving each other side eyes. It doesn’t take long for Lily and Brenna to take notice and I can hear their voices falter every time my gaze flickers away. “Oh my goodness!” Brenna shouts, flinging her arms out in a dramatic movement. “Our mother just died and all you two can do is make angry eyes at each other from across the room.” I see John shrink back, not wanting to endure the wrath of Brenna. “John, Andrew is happy! That’s all you should care about. Everyone except you just wants this to be over.” She turns to address me. “Andrew, I’m leaving you alone with John in this room for an hour. Figure something out. Make mom proud.” With that, she grabs Lily’s hand and stomps out of the room. I look at John. He has his eyes turned down toward the floor, not wanting to look at me. “John,” I start. He turns away. “Look at me. Please.” He hesitantly turns his head towards me. “There, you happy?” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Jonathan. I’m happy in LA. I’m happy doing hair and makeup. I’m happy without football.” He looks pensive for a second, like he’s breaking my words into little bits and pieces, trying to process. He sighs. “Are you passionate about it?” His voice is almost a whisper. “Yeah,” I tell him, “I am. I really, really love what I do. A lot.” “I didn’t…” he pauses. “I didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of a coward who was too scared to follow his passion. I didn’t want you to end up like dad.” “I’m not like dad, John.” It sounds more like pleading than I want it to. “He left his passions and what he loved for a lifetime of misery. He traded his family for his weakness. I’m following my passions. I always have. That’s why I started playing football and that’s why I left.” He nods his head slightly and the room falls silent. I want to say something, but I don’t know what. “So, any new girlfriends?” he asks. I laugh and shake my head. “Boyfriends?” “It’s complicated,” I tell him. He laughs with me for the first time in six years. I had forgotten how much I loved to hear John’s laugh. Over the week, he had laughed a total of thirty times with me. We joked around like we had before everything else had happened. There was still an undeniable gloominess over the house, but we made the best of it. We would

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sing songs from our childhood and swing Brenna and Lily around with us as we bellowed them at the top of our lungs. One day, while Brenna, Lily, and I are in the kitchen, John comes in to help and as he chops veggies, he starts to sing to himself, Like a rabbit in headlights They’re stunned by all your charm And I feel so damn lucky To have you on my arm When we all fall silent, he stops singing and looks up from the cutting board. “Sorry,” he mutters. “Don’t be,” Lily says. “Keep singing. Please.” He pulls out his phone and the song starts to play. He picks up where he left off. And I can’t help but wonder He draws out the word ‘wonder’ along with the singer like he doesn’t want to let it leave his lips. Just how we ended up all right And I love you like no other ‘Cause this has never felt so right Lily’s wiping tears from her eyes. I reach out to grab her hand and twirl her around. I hold her close and sing the words into her ear, my voice catching as I begin to cry. You can keep me warm on a cold night Warm on a cold, cold night Yeah you can keep me Warm on a cold night Warm on a cold, cold night Lily’s tears fall from her eyes onto my shoulder with memories of her wedding night, of her first dance with my mom. I see Brenna grab John by the hand sway back and forth to the music with him. This is how we’ll remember mom. Two days later, when I check my phone, there’s a voicemail. The name reads ‘Henry’. I don’t listen to the voicemail. In fact, I delete it the moment I see it. I don’t want to think about him just yet. I’ll deal with him when the time comes. John calls me downstairs and I hardly think about Henry at all for the rest of my time in Mount Desert Island. “No, John!” Brenna shrieks. “Don’t touch the flowers! How many times do I have to tell you?” John winces and pulls his hand away as though the flowers burn him. We sit in the living room, gathered around a large book, which reads VAN BUREN AND SONS FUNERAL HOME. “So controlling,” he murmurs under his breath, turning back to face us. “What!” she snaps. “What did you just say?” “Nothing,” John says. “I didn’t say anything.” “No, I want to know what you just said.” She isn’t letting it go. “You just said that I’m controlling?” “Yeah, actually I did.” John moves his eyes up to meet her gaze. “You’re being bossy and controlling.”

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“I am trying to do what’s best for mom. I’m the oldest, so I know her the best,” she says matter-of-factly. “I know what she would want for her funeral.” “Actually, Lily would.” He gestured toward our stepmother. “And you haven't asked for her help yet.” “She can add input whenever she wants,” Brenna says. “She doesn’t need my permission. Look, you’re wasting my time.” John gives Brenna a disapproving look. “You know Lily. She’ll be quiet and go along unless you ask. And this is supposed to be our time. We all lost a loved one, not just you.” “You’re just doing this because you want control.” She has an accusatory tone as she speaks. “You think you know everything about mom. You think you can just take over this whole thing and do it yourself.” “That’s not what I said, Bren,” John says. “I just wish you would let us help.” “No, that’s what you meant.” She throws the papers in her hands to the table and stomps to the door before pausing and turning to face us. “Take your control, John. I don’t want any part in it!” She opens the door, steps out, then shuts it with a defiant slam. John sighs and bows his head. “What am I supposed to do now?” I don’t answer. It takes two days before Brenna calls me. Even then, when I ask if she wants to speak to John or if she wants to talk about arrangements, she cuts me off. Mom’s funeral is planned for three days from now and Brenna hasn’t come back by the house. Lily has called her a few times, asking if she’ll be at the funeral, but she never responds. “Go talk to her?” Lily and I are sitting in the kitchen. Brenna hasn’t been home for four days now. “Please, she’ll listen to you.” I sigh. “Yeah, I’ll see what I can do.” When I drive by Brenna’s house, her car is parked in the driveway. Relieved, I park out front and make my way up the walkway. It takes three rings for her to answer the door. When she does, she sighs and gives me a tired smile. “If you’re here to talk to me about John, I don’t want to hear it.” “Actually, I’m not here to talk about John,” I say. “I’m here to talk to you about a funeral. Your mother’s funeral, which you are not missing over a little fight.” “I don’t want to miss the funeral,” she replies. “I just don’t want to see John.” I sigh and give her my best disappointed look. She isn’t fazed. “You,” I gesture to her, “are coming with me, missy.” I grab her hand and lead her out of the house. She resists me for a couple seconds, but after that, she falls limp. She doesn’t try to pull away, she just follows. I open the passenger’s door for her and wait until she’s buckled to close it. When we arrive home, she doesn’t move. She sits in the seat as though she dreads that house and all the memories in it. I have to walk to her side and unbuckle her seatbelt before she moves. I lead her into the house and to the living room where John is seated, pouring over the VAN BUREN AND SONS book. “John?” He looks up from his work, his eyes growing wide when he sees Brenna standing next to me. “Now is your chance.” He looks confused at first, but nods when he realizes what I mean. I walk out of the room to sit with Lily again. We wait an hour before they come out of the living room and when they do, they’re smiling. Who knows what John said, but man, did it work. As I look at the two of them together, I decide, home isn’t so bad after all. When I get the chance, I pull John aside.

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“What in the world did you do?” I ask. “She’s acting like that whole thing never even happened.” He smiles. “Well, when she first came in, I still had that book with me.” He pauses. “You know, the one from the funeral home.” I nod. “As I was talking, I could see she was only half listening. Mostly, she gazed at the book like it was the most important thing she had ever laid eyes upon.” He takes a deep breath. I give him a look, encouraging him to continue. “Do you remember that time after Mom and Lily first got married and Mom took Brenna into her bedroom for about three hours while we played with Lily?” I hesitate before answering. “Yeah, I do.” “It turns out Mom told Brenna everything she wanted for her funeral and for her kids in case she didn’t get a chance to write a will.” John holds back tears as he continues. “So, I was wrong. Brenna really does know best what Mom would want for her funeral.” I hug him. The tears he was holding back now spill down his cheeks onto my shirt. Mom’s funeral goes beautifully. John and Brenna worked on it together, adding all the finishing touches. We all cried together, Lily, John, Brenna, and I. Each of us has a eulogy prepared. Lily’s goes flawlessly. She has the whole church sobbing as she speaks. Brenna’s is sentimental, but still has that touch of that toughness, which Brenna got from Mom. John’s is funny. He cries as he reads it, which everyone says was moving and lovely. When I take out my paper, something feels off. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. Then I place the paper back in the pocket of my jacket. Today is the day to speak from the heart. The day after the funeral, I head back to L.A. It doesn’t feel like home anymore. MDI feels like home. When I step into Alexander’s for the first time in three weeks, there’s coffee waiting on my desk for me. I hear Ricky’s voice humming “Warm on a Cold Night” from the room upstairs. “Thank you, Ricky,” I yell up to the landing. I hear the pounding of feet as he runs down the stairs to the main room. “Lex!” He jumps into my arms. His voice is a squeal. “You’re home!” I giggle and hug him tightly. “Oh, I missed you,” I tell him, giving him a peck on the lips. “I have so much to tell you.” Someone clears their throat from behind me. “Excuse me, can you tell me where I can find Alexander Ondo?” I recognize the voice, but can’t place it. I turn to face the stranger in the doorway. “You’re looking at him.” I register the face in front of me. My fiancée stands in the doorway. He’s clean-shaven and dons a flannel and jeans. He’s put on weight since I last saw him; the unhealthy tired look in his face is gone. I want to soak him up in all of his glory. “Oh. Henry.” “It’s been a year, Alexander.” Henry’s face looks exactly the same as I remember, except now, there seems to be a light in his eyes where it was vacant when I had left. “You said that in a year I could come back and you’d give me a second chance. I’ve cleaned up my act. I want you back. Please, Alex, give me a second chance.”

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Like It's My Fault Maisha Baton

I remember her. I remember all of her. I remember the way her eyelids fell to her waterline, and with each blink her eyelashes could send waves of wind across the room. I remember how she slipped on each of my socks in the same smooth way of stripping a banana of its skin. I remember the way she carefully wrapped countless band-aids around my finger after the stove's harsh fires were gone but the metals surrounding remained hot and it burned me, like it was my fault. I remember how tight she held me the day I came home from elementary school talking about some girl calling me dirty or stupid or something I cannot recall, and my mom wrapped me up into herself, like a present, and held me so close. She told me some words I also cannot recall, though at the time those words were all I could feel. I could have deflated & sunk into her on that very day. But then I woke up. To see sunlight stretch and rip gashes across a barren room’s dust is one reason to open your eyes in the morning. It’s a reason to release a husky yawn, a reason to send your view into orbit as you crack your back, a reason to smile at the window like you’re thanking it- a reason to smile. But after you’ve swam out of bed and found yourself in the dim of your bathroom, collapsed into the face of an iridescent sink, full of the reflection of a light bulb's grin & lone hairs that mock you, it’s hard to figure why the sun would bother coming up in the first place. I pull myself into the hallway that leads to the bathroom. It’s hard to keep waking up. I’m not sleep deprived or anything, I’ve just been doing it a lot lately, that’s all. It’s easy to watch my fingers concede into my palm & plunge into a sweet sleep. It’s easy to forget while you’re asleep, or post-sleep when you’re lost in that lazy state between drowsy and drowning. It’s easy to forget. It’s preferable to forget. I’d like the most to forget that I am forgetting, and never have to wake up with the weight of remembrance. I let the sink hiss & splash my face with cold water, allowing it to roll through my face as my hands clutch my cheeks and drag them down. I set my hands free from my face and let them climb up my head and rake over my flyaways. I imagine my fingers as an intense maze of sewer lines through a large city. I remembered real sewer lines. Gross. Chills parade down my neck onto my spine while I reach for a toothbrush. After brushing my teeth, I run chapstick across my mouth and briefly see my mouth as a pillow with a soft hand running down it. I find jeans that are far too tight & a shirt that is far too large, then I find my keys beneath a stuffed green rabbit from a distant time that I’ll probably never remember. I imagine that when I got it I was at a carnival, I was seven, maybe eight. Maybe I saw it from behind the counter of a ring toss game, or a game with rubber ducks. An unenthusiastic teenager with greasy hair & stick n pokes would take a quarter from me. I’d successfully throw darts, or rings, or pins into innocent objects. I’d laugh, I’d cry, I’d get a green rabbit. Eventually, I make it to the front door & I slam it with such a great force that I can feel my rib cage rattle against this stupid stained shirt. In my car, I turn and shuffle over receipts for things I don’t need, coupons I’ll never use, and letters from people I’ll never write back to. For whatever reason, it comes to me as a shock that I can’t find the GPS, I’d bet that Jeremy took it.

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In order to own a convenience store, it’s probably best that you’d be able to convenience the people around you. Or at least convenience yourself and learn your own way to work. You’d think at some point he’d learn the city. He’s lived here so long, that the city has probably learned him. Granted, there’s not much to know. It’s the first snowfall. It’s cold in the most welcoming way possible. I tried to drive from memory – but that’s hard to do when you’ve never gotten the chance to make a memory of a place. This was the cause for circling a few blocks and listening to my car shiver down alleys made for no vehicle. Why bother making an alley you can barely drive down? On my way I see a lady walking a dog that is blown out like her hair. Her knees buoyantly recover after each step, and her hair is so compelled by the wind that if the wind told it to jump off a bridge, it just might. Her dog looks like a great dream that you can’t recall by morning. It’s a dog that’s not worth remembering, but still worth meeting. It’s small, and you can tell it’s a dog that dives into your lap when you sit down. I imagine her at home. She’s waiting for her kids to come home from school with open arms and a permission slip to sign, and she’s rereading a book about plagues in the 1700’s, or the bible, or something from Oprah’s book club. But actually, she’s not reading. She’s watching the sunlight drip onto the page and thinking about the summertime, but she still looks too smart for her own good. Maybe she will cure something someday. Maybe she is a doctor. “Any idea how I get to the new Shelly’s from here?” Her gaze on me was just as buoyant as her walk, the way it bounced from each of my features to the next. Though it wasn’t the bounce that had caught my attention, it was more of her eye’s sharp stop at each of my details. She is hesitant to respond, her voice shudders as she talks. I notice how incredibly blue her eyes are; they are a blue the sky wishes it could be. “Down these next two blocks and a–” she spread her fingers & checked for which one made an ‘L’. From my car, I could see her hand’s softness. Her skin seemed to flow like a wave subdued by sand. Her nails were smooth & topped off with a white French tip that almost matched her skin. I glance down to my rough hands. Unlike hers, the palms of my hands were rough and, dare I say, outcasts from most palms I’ve seen. I imagined her palms running along the length of her dog. “–maybe a left at the light?–” She continued. A sense of insecurity washes over me, and I quickly tuck my hands beneath my legs. Who else had seen my hands? Had they noticed their rigid cover? Beneath her talking, I can hear my car buzzing, almost whispering my name. I’ve never noticed how loud it is. She’s motioning with her hands. They look like the kind of hands that would hold books about plagues in the 1700’s, or the bible, or something from Oprah’s book club. I wanted to look at mine to compare again, but I had already looked at them once. What’s the limit on looking at your hands while you’re having a conversation with someone? Does it change when it’s someone who reads books about plagues in the 1700’s? Her gaze is deep in my eyes, and she’s saying something I can’t quite clutch. Her words are empty bottles whistling next to the wind. Her glare was always serene. In church, she stared off into the pews like they were a misty sunset, washing over her. When I broke her favorite vase, the crystal one whose sparks once scintillated beneath a dim moon, she hummed as she swept up its remains. When her favorite pearl necklace popped by my grip, she laughed. But when she returned from the doctor’s due to her fatigue, no smiles were shed. She cried. She cried with the moon, she sobbed with the sun, and every moment inbetween. When she held my hands they’d shake, and when she lost her hair, it scintillated just like her favorite vase. Her lungs pumped until no tubes could pump them anymore. When she couldn’t cry anymore, I cried for her.

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She must have given me some directions, or said some words, or at least said something half coherent because the next thing I knew, her and her French tips waved, said something polite and walked away, collecting their breath & bouncing along. I wrapped my fingers around the wheel and let my fingers sink into the palms of my hands. I pull into a parking lot with weeds creeping from careless cracks and a few cars that looked like they have somewhere else they’d rather be. Jeremy and his GPS, or lackthereof. I’m sure he didn’t take it with evil intentions, but still. It’s easy to forget that he’s just trying his best with what he’s got, because really, what he’s got is not a lot. I find my eyes sharply landing around the parking lot. My mind goes blank for a while. Streetlight. Fence. Weeds. Jeremy. My GPS. I drove down to Jeremy’s store and found him and my stupid, stupid GPS. A small bell pulls me into reality as I open the cloudy store door. “Have any coupons? I know you don’t, because we don’t give out coupons!” He’s checking out some old lady. There’s man with a little girl behind the old lady. Her hair was thin like his, but youthful & feathery unlike his. A few stray hairs bounced away from her hairpin, but for the most part they conformed to this ideal curtain shape. She stared at me with large, phlegmatic hazel eyes. I quickly glance to her and then glance up to Jeremy, though I could still feel her burning holes in my skin, and as her gaze wandered up and down my skin, I could feel it blistering my arms and legs. I pushed her and the old guy aside. Jeremy has always had an unnerving calm about him. For as long as I can remember he has always been able to take deep breaths and shrug at every mishap that hurtles towards him, every tragedy that strikes him in the face, every toe he’s ever lost. Jeremy & I were at his kitchen table, working on some homework assignment for some class filled with judgmental faces that I could feel smeared across the pale white page. It must have been October, or November, or one of those sad months where it has sunk in that you’re stuck in school for another 9 months of marble floors and mildew clouded gymnasiums filled with blonde hair that whips like it’s waving to you as the hair’s owner, some girl, hums a tune I’ve seen too many times. And you feel her friend’s eyes sticky on you and your own hair, that will never whip like that. She smiles politely when she realizes you’ve noticed her presence and turns to her friend and laughs. Aunt Jane stormed into the kitchen, flat iron in one hand and a tube of crisp pink lipstick in the other. “What the hell, Jeremy?” “What the hell to you too.” Maybe if he had looked up from his paper he would have seen the flat iron, steam climbing against their pink walls. In my experience, and most likely Jeremy’s too, it’s best not to talk bad to someone holding 400 degree metal. But today, for whatever reason, was the day he decided to be so studious that he couldn’t notice anything besides numbers and equations he’d never remember, or need to remember. “I told you to mow the backyard on Tuesday. I don’t want to yell at you, I don’t need any worry wrinkles.” She looks into her window reflection to check that the sparkles of youth, sparsely sprinkled about her face, still remained. “Just go take care of it.” No matter what he says, him and I both know that he’ll never win, so he accepts his fate with a solemn ‘whatever’ and slides on his dad’s scandals. I couldn’t have sat in his kitchen, doing my homework by myself, for that long. 10 minutes tops. I got up to grab a cup from his ashy cabinet. From the window next to the cabinet, I could see Jeremy, galloping through his backyard with such euphoria. It couldn’t have been more then 50 degrees out, and his jean shorts weren’t helping. The sink purred into my cup, and within a blink, Jeremy’s toe blood crawled across the yard and was seeping onto the concrete, in the same euphoria as Jeremy. I

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remember his signature shrug, his signature chuckle, and his mother’s signature shriek from her bathroom upstairs. I ran outside to find his neighbor, Mrs. Wadinski. “What happened? What were you two doing?” “I was just doing homework and–” What happened? Good question. “Jeremy, what happened?” “I lost my toe and–” he paused to listen to himself before announcing “I lost my toe!” “What did you do?” Mrs Wadinski asked. “I lost my toe!” He thinks about it. “My toe!” “Not you.” She looked to me. “What did you do?” I looked at her with the same shocked expression she had. I knew Jeremy never got a handle on the whole ‘functioning properly’ thing, but I never thought it’d turn into this. “I know just as much as you.” I looked at Jeremy, whispering something about his toe to this unmown lawn. I laughed. “Are you really surprised?” “God, now’s not the time to be making jokes.” “Hey, don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” “Is now the time to be calling other people out? The boy lost his toe, for god’s sake.” In the midst of this conversation Aunt Jane had managed to scramble to the backyard to find Jeremy’s toeless ass curled up in fetal position. “Call 911! He’s missing a toe!” “Why can’t we just drive him?” I read that ambulances, just for the ride, is like $700, and for that price, you’d think you would get refreshments and a hot tub, but it’s not even all cozy like that. “No way in hell,” Aunt Jane responds, “is his damned foot blood getting on my new leather interior.” “Ellie! What’s cracking?” “More would be cracking if I knew where I was going.” “You’ve got that job thing or whatever going for you. You’ve got some direction.” He fumbled with the cash register. I stepped to the side as he began to check out the old man. “More direction on a smaller scale.” He looked at me blankly. “I need my GPS.” I watched ‘GPS’ run through his brain. It took him far too long to realize what I was talking about. “Oh yeah… that. It’s in the back somewhere. I’ll grab it as soon as I finish up here.” I looked at the man and copious amounts of stuff- not anything in particular, just stuff. He’s got baskets full of stuff and I know Jeremy’s going to be there for at least 10 minutes, checking him out & making small talk. Ten minutes I could be driving to Shelly’s, ten minutes I could be chowing down on a mediocre burger, ten minutes I could be making small talk through my teeth & chewed up food about a meal that I enjoyed a little more then I expected to, ten minutes too long. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll check him out. Just get me my GPS.” I gave him a hurried look. “Seriously, it’ll only take–” “Just go!” Jeremy and I used to run this convenience store together, before I realized I needed a real life that wasn’t scanning coupons and asking other people how their day was. I needed to earn enough so that I could have other people ask me how my day was while they scanned my sugary drinks, loaded with bubbles & anticipation. And I would put it in the cup holder of my eggshell convertible with gold-rimmed tires, or my sexy red sports car and drive to a house far too big for just myself and my small white dog, but we still make it work. I’d have long hair that would dance so freely across my back, or it’d be slick up in a bun, and the temptation of wanting to slide your fingers down each bit would be far too much.

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I completed step one, which was to leave this trashcan that Jeremy calls work, and I suppose that is the most progress that I deserve, for the moment. Somehow, someway, the universe has thrown me back into this never-ending circle that is working for Jeremy, and I’m scanning magazines that I know are overpriced, and eggs that have to be spoiled, and cheap 99¢ toys that I know will break like it’s her fault, and she will cry, and this man, presumably her dad, will tell her it’s okay, because it was only 99¢. “Her? Check me out?” The old man looks to me & sizes me up. His voice is dusty & tired but still round & steady like a mahogany chair’s laugh as it creaks. His hair is cemented to his head & his eyes are chalked up & glossy gray. “Yeah, me. Do you have any coupons?” He looks shocked as Jeremy fades into the backroom, leaving me behind the counter. He stares into me, he stares at who I presume is his daughter. “Just make it quick.” Jeremy stepped out a moment later & handed me my GPS. “She give you any trouble?” He just rolled his eyes & stomped out of the store. “What’d you do to him?” Jeremy watched him pitch his bags into the back of a car as worn as that man’s wrinkles. “All I asked him for was coupons.” I tried to recall the events of the few moments when Jeremy was gone. In the moment I hadn’t noticed, but looking back on it I suppose his eyes watered for defeat, not just for dusty & dry air. And maybe his hair stood slicked to his head for safety, not by choice. “Just take your GPS. And stop scaring away my customers.” He looked to the window, maybe to look at the man, maybe to watch the rush of impulsive decisions drain from his eyes through his sandy reflection. He doesn't talk much anymore, he just looks out of windows and probably thinks about what he could have done differently. That's what I would do if I were him. At Shelly’s, a women with russet hair & rosy cheeks smiles behind the counter. She is a little shorter then me & looks gentle. The way her hands bounce off of the cash register with each tap. Her nails are long and fake with white tips. They smile just like her. A bald man hands her a twenty & says something that, judging by the looks of him, couldn’t have been that funny. She laughs a laugh that causes her teeth to jump from her mouth as she punches a few more numbers into the cash register. He walks away with copper coins & a few crumpled dollar bills. He turns to me as he’s walking out of the door and I can see his smile recede back into his stubble. “Shelly’s, how can I help you?” Her smile is long gone, and even if you looked deep and hard, you could never tell it was there to begin with. She looks to me like she’s just swallowed an electric mist, her eyes are firm like death & her voice rattles like hail knocking on your window in November. “Table for one please.” She whipped out a menu, and I watched its lamination shimmer under the soft light of the old ceiling’s radiance. She walked so harshly against the floor that every time her Keds hiss against the floor, I almost pity them. I followed her to a dimly lit booth in the back of the restaurant. “Can I get you something to start off with?” She awkwardly hands me the menu, and I watch her hands fumble back up into herself as they recede back into her side. She looks at me with eyes wide, eyes asking for an answer so she could scurry away. I know that look. I’d know it anywhere. “A Coke would be great, thanks.” “Zero?” “Excuse me?” Zero what? Zero Cokes? “A Coke Zero?” “No thanks, just a Coke.”

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She looked to me, and then glanced to my arms, now bare with no winter coat shielding me from her. “Are you sure?” I looked at her for a moment, and she looked at me. My confused stare must have given her the answer she wasn’t looking for, and she scribbled something down on her notepad and walked away. Four minutes later she walked back over to me, and I ordered a cheeseburger. “Must be hard being that beautiful, huh?” How do you even respond to that? Are cheeseburgers that beautiful? “Yeah I- uh… With fries.” “Hmmph.” I watched her tongue reach across her teeth behind her red lips as she rolled her eyes. She strutted off into the kitchen as I let my face collapse into my hands and stared deeply into an a napkin holder, wondering what I had done wrong. The first Shelly’s opened in 1962, and I guess by the time the 70’s rolled around they didn’t have enough money to remodel so they just kept it like that. Even though this one is newer, it still has the mint booths, mirrors along the walls, tables brimmed with a faded pink & checkered black & white floors. Along the walls, there are different newspaper articles, like in 1987, for whatever reason, they thought it was newsworthy to discuss the arrival of spring. Like it didn’t come every year, or we weren’t expecting it. Spring was one thing in the world we could count on, you know? Maybe it wasn’t an article on spring’s arrival, more so an article on thanking spring for its fidelity to us, for its accountability. Then there’s other articles that are more recent, like this one about the opening of the new Shelly’s from early December. It looks bleached and brighter then the parade of antiqued paper that could crumble if you blew on it too hard. Alongside one of the bathrooms at this Shelly’s is a sign that reads ‘whites only’. It is yellowed and it crumbles champagne shaded dust in the corner of its frame when someone slams the door too hard. It’s an interesting addition to the restaurant. You can tell they really have their hearts set on this 60’s theme. Looking around, it’s not like there’s any need for the sign. As far as the eye can see, there’s only sallow hands holding silver forks that shimmer under the light that seems so dim from here. I can see their smiles and chins reflect in spirals around the border of their plates. They laugh, they take a bite of their food, they walk into the whites only bathroom. Twenty minutes later, the waitress comes back. She slams the cheeseburger on my table and smiles. Not wide like she did at the middle aged guy, but a more piddling smile. A smile that sat under her skin. I go to put ketchup on my burger and after picking up the bun, I found a big, giant slab of saliva. I screamed. There was nothing I could do but scream. I looked up and saw everyone staring at me, not that they weren’t before. But now they had a reason to, I had given them a reason to stare. The silence was blaring and echoed throughout my head. It’s heavy on me, like the stares, or the piddling smile from the waitress in the back. All the pale people stare at me & it’s like that blanket that made me so invisible to them when they bumped into me or asked me for something. Sure they could see me then, but now, now they can really see me. My face steamed and out of habit, I threw a twenty on the table and stormed out of there, jacket half on & eyes overflowing by the time I reached the door. When I came home from school, everyday until high school, I would carefully grasp my fingers in my palm and my tin lunchbox with some cartoon I can’t remember the name of. I would walk through the living room, past the dining room table to find her stirring, frying, or cleaning something. “How was school?”

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I had my bad days at school. I had days where girls put gum in my hair. I got picked last for lacrosse, but first for basketball. The teachers never called on me. I ate lunch in the bathroom with Lindsay. She didn’t have any friends just like me, because she chewed with her mouth open and her skin was different like mine. It always smelled like crayons and piss in that bathroom. But when I heard her smooth voice trail from her lips and rise with steam from cast iron pans, it was like everything might have been fine. Just fine. “Fine.” She pushed vegetables around in the pan, I listened to them hiss about the room. “Just fine?” “Just fine.” It was cold. Not cold like snowballs and echoing laughter between trees, or lying in the snow and instantly regretting it, just because you can. But cold like bitter breaths brushing against your cheeks, cold like a sharp sidewalk & inconsistency. It was the kind of day that made the sun laugh at crisp & biting branches but all they could do was consider the cold. Each step a clean crunch. I couldn’t say how awful it felt to get stepped on & spat on & accused & ignored by every boot, in & out of everyday. But then, to know that this surface was, and would always be, for me to stomp & scratch across was a sense of fidelity I appreciated between the earth & I. A common understanding between a simple person & a simple circle was all I really needed. If knowing I was going to be standing on the earth everyday was the most allegiance I’d ever see, or I’d ever deserve to see, then so be it. I do recall the life being fanned from my lips & drooling from my eyes. The air tasted like bottled water. Plastic. Procrastination. Warmer times freezing on my tongue, like it’s my fault. “You didn’t mean to break it.” “But I did! And that’s just as bad.” She holds a up shard of glass against the dusty sunlight that rolled in through the windows. “It was an accident. Accidents happen.” My face is white hot, and her words are brisk and promising. They hold me tight. Glass scattered the ground, they mocked me as they carelessly shimmered against the hardwood. “It’s my fault. It’s always my fault.” “It’s only your fault if you make it your fault.” She laughs and brushes most of the glass into a dustpan in one swift motion. “Is it?” “Is it what?” “Is it my fault?”

119


House of God Hope Schall-Buchanan

Late October "Tell me again, Mom?" Juniper asks, "About your one teacher who hated you?" I smile. She never gets tired of this story. "Well, when you were a baby, I was still in college, and had to take you to all of my classes. One day you decided to start crying in the middle of his lecture, and he turned around and stared at me like I had just said the rudest possible thing to him. And then," I say, pulling out our most recent farmers' market directory, "I try to get up and leave to take care of you, but before I get all the way to the door, he threw a piece of chalk at me!" She giggles. "And I turn around and he says 'Don't you come back, I'm not going to teach any woman if she can't take her eyes off her baby for two seconds!'" "And that's why you dropped out?" "Well, I did have a religion to start. It was amazing, what had happened to me that one night; it felt like I was being called to do it." I look at the surveys of customers for our market. It's getting pretty full from all of the new business. We're still getting a lot more business than we did last fall. We sit for about fifteen more minutes, without anything really happening, before Dmitri and Ruthie's car shows up. About time, too. She said she would come to the market to pick us up in half an hour…about an hour ago. "Hi, J. I–" "What happened? You're half an hour late!" She runs out. "I know, I'm sorry, it just took longer to get back here than I thought it would." "Where did you go?" She pauses. "Um…a lot of places. Come on and get in, I'll show you." That's why Juniper and I are out of the market early – to scour the town for things our new holy temple will need, such as furniture, books, art and decorating materials. And, as Juniper adds, "an actual temple." It's true that we haven't yet found a place, but when I mention this, Dmitri says to me, "Oh, that's right. We did find a place we could look into using. I think you'll like it." "We don't have a lot of starting money," I remind him, "so we probably won't be able to afford anything too big." He makes a strange smile at Ruthie, who is driving, and says, "Oh, don't worry, that won't be an issue." "What's that supposed to mean?" Juniper asks. He replies, "Oh, you'll see." I roll my eyes. Since when did he decide he was good at being mysterious? Our most fruitful stop turns out to be Talontown's expansive Goodwill. It is truly an amazing building, residing in the Business District and being the hub for all of our city's unwanted objects and a major shopping center. There we find pottery, textbooks on science and philosophy, furniture and art pieces celebrating the existence of the universe. Our other stops don't yield very much else except some bolts of cloth we can use for decorating. They are mostly yard sales and that sort of thing.

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Back in the car, Ruthie turns to me and says in a we-need-to-talk kind of voice, "So you know the place D said we could have the temple in?" "Yes?" "Well, it's a littleâ&#x20AC;Śunconventional. And it might be a little dangerous." That's confusing. "And you didn't think to tell me before?" Before she can respond, Dmitri says "Hey, we're here!" and parks the car. I look outside. "This can't be right, can it? We're in the sticks," Juniper notes. Indeed we are. We've driven out of one of the well-populated neighborhoods and into the poorer suburbs that surround each neighborhood. As Ruthie parks the car, Dmitri points and says, "There it is, the future sight of the beautiful New Spinozaist Temple!" And what he's pointing to looks nothing like what I imagined our temple to look like. The old church was once grand and beautiful when it was used, but had long since been abandoned. Over the door were the faded words "Talontown African Methodist Episcopal Church." "You're starting your religion there?" Juniper asks, disbelieving. "Isn't it beautiful?" he beams. It certainly looked nothing like what I imagined Black churches to look like, one story high and made of white clapboards. It was not wide, but extremely tall, and made of smooth-cut marble and granite, with arched, narrow stain-glass windows and an expansive courtyard that extended toward the other side of the building. I turn to Dmitri. "Do you really want us to have a temple in there? In an abandoned church? Isn't that a little strange?" His smile disappears. "I was kind of hoping you would be excited. It's not like we can buy a church," he tells me. "You know that." "I know. Wellâ&#x20AC;Śit would be an impressive location. And it would be nice to not have to hold all of the stuff we just bought in our apartment or your house." "I don't like this," Juniper pipes up. "You want your church to be an abandoned building. Isn't it illegal? Couldn't you get arrested?" "Juni, I know it's not ideal, but it's kind of the best shot we have at starting this religion soon," Ruthie says hesitantly. "It won't cost anything, and we won't be bothering anyone else. Once we get in there and touch it up, I'm sure it won't be so bad." "I don't want to break the law. You're acting stupid." I groan. I suppose she's right that it's against he law, but what does she want us to do? Just keep the entire temple in our tiny apartment, after all the work we've done creating the New Spinozaist religion, and just vaguely hope that something will come up? How long will that take? "We need to start this thing soon, now," I insist. "We've waited for damn long enough. I'm not going to stop now, just because you have some moral qualm about it." I should stop. I know I should, but I keep going. "If you don't want to help us, then why don't you just stay in the car and wait for us to come back from looking at it!" She looks at me as if intimidated. "Fine," she says quietly, and walks back to the car. I shouldn't have yelled at her like that, but I need this. She doesn't understand. Great accomplishments can't always wait for the law, and New Spinoza could change the whole of Western society. We could be remembered as some of the greatest Western philosophers of all time, but not if we don't have somewhere to teach our ideas to the people. I try to shake these thoughts away so I can focus on making note of the church. Ruthie pushes open the wrought-iron gate and we creep into the yard one by one. The front doors are locked with a heavy, rusty padlock. After trying and failing to shake off the lock, we make our way around the church.

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Behind the church, the yard looks like it used to be a community garden. There are still some vines putting out squashes and tomatoes rotting on their plants. And I don't mention it, but it almost seems like people have been walking around the garden recently, as the uncut grass in the pathways looks like it was stamped down. This time I go up to the back door and try the handle. To my surprise, it opens. And the church looks perfectly preserved. Well, not perfectly. There's some water damage underneath the stained-glass windows, but other than that, nothing looks like it has been moved. Each pew is still in parallel lines, and there's a statue of Jesus on the crucifix and a podium on the stage. We walk onto the stage and stare for a moment in awe of what we had found. “It's perfect,” Ruthie says. “I can't believe they left all the pews and everything here.” “They must have left here in a hurry,” I say. “They can't have just decided they weren't worth anything.” I notice something strange. There doesn't seem to be any dust on the pews or stage. Wouldn't an abandoned church have dust all over everything? This time I'm about to say something, when I hear a crash and turn around in shock. The stature of the crucifixion has broken at its base and fallen forward, and Dmitri stands next to it, looking nervous. "I didn't do anything, I swear, I was just touching it and it broke and fell!" I walk closer to the statue. A few termites crawl out. "We might as well take it outside," I say. They agree and we carry it to the backyard, laying it in one of the old garden beds. As we do, I notice that it's getting closer to dusk. Dmitri notices it too, and says, “Maybe we should come back tomorrow. It's getting pretty dark out.” Ruthie and I agree with him and we leave. Maybe it is strange working out of an abandoned church, but it is a beautiful building, we don't have to pay for anything, and most importantly, we can get right on with our ministry. We couldn't have asked for a better opportunity. The day after next is not a market day, so we head back in the early afternoon to move some of the old furniture out. On the way, I work on Juniper some more. “Juni, I understand you don't want us to use an abandoned church as our temple,” I begin, hoping I'm saying the right things, “but we really don't have many options. We can't buy anything...” “And God knows that both your apartment and our house are way too small for it,” Ruthie interrupts. "And we can start having services earlier than if we waited," I finish. She sighs. "Yeah I know." She looks up and smiles a bit. "I've thought about it a little, and maybe it wouldn't be so bad. But if I do agree with you, will you promise not to get arrested?” I relax and smile. Juniper was always more willing to think things through before she did something drastic. She probably learned from my mistakes. Her life was pretty unstable, and it was mostly my fault. We're both lucky she turned out to be a bit more clear-headed that I ever was. We retrace the route to the church and creep through the yard around to the other side. I'm the first one in the backyard so I notice it first, and when I do, it's like an electric bolt shoots through me. The crucifix is gone! "Oh my god," Ruthie says, "someone's been here." This is bad. This is really bad. The stomped-down grass and lack of dust comes back to me. "Wh– there can't be anyone else here, we just got here, we need this place more than anyone!" "Okay, okay, don't panic," Dmitri says. "There could be lots of reasons why the crucifix is missing."

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"She's right," Ruthie adds. "Let's not jump to conclusions. Let's just see if anything else has changed. Maybe this isn't so bad." I realize this and stop. Ruthie pulls open the church's backdoor, and we go in, cautiously this time. It's worse inside though. I haven't taken three steps before I see something that shatters my illusions of safety or solitude. The crucifix from last night is now hanging over the church doors, suspended almost grotesquely by thick wires. Below it is a sign on a sheet of paper, illegible at this distance. Shocked, I walk up the aisle to the door to read the sign. CHURCH WILL BE CLOSED TONIGHT AT 12 AM FOR CONCERT. PLEASE STAY AWAY. THIS IS NOT YOUR CHURCH AND IT NEVER WILL BE. "Wow." Juniper seems to have followed me. "I guess this church is still being used." I don't respond. I'm still trying to calibrate this new information. I think Dmitri and Ruthie have followed me too, because she whispers in his ear something that sounds like: "I told you this was a bad idea." This is not your church and it never will be. No, I think. No, you can't decide whether or not this church is ours. You don't have any more legal right to it than we do. We have come too far and too long to waste a golden opportunity like this. I don't care who you are. I turn around and face my companions. "Let's go home and pack. We're staying here tonight." I can see shock in their faces. "Have you gone insane?" Dmitri asks. "We just realized other people go – have concerts here; what if…" "Do you want this church or not? Whoever thinks they're having a concert here, we're going to meet them tonight and tell them exactly whose church it is." "And whose church is it?" Ruthie asks. "It’s…" I stop and think. "Well, it's not any more theirs than ours. And if they claim otherwise, we'll ask them for a deed." “But…” Juniper says nervously, “what if they're crazy?" I don't care. "We have to take chances. New Spinoza depends on it. If we don't take this opportunity – and protect it, we may never find a temple. And Spinoza might fade into the back of our minds behind our mundane lives!" My voice rises and starts echoing around the church. "This is our religion. We've got to fight for its right to exist, even if it means getting onto some conflict. We need to take chances for what is right!" I pause, not sure what to say next. "All right," Dmitri says. "I'm in." Yes! "I guess if you two are staying, I should too," Ruthie adds. I had to take Juniper with us. She wasn't excited about it, but I couldn’t leave her at home so far away from me. We arrive at the church at about 7:00 p.m. The words "African Methodist Episcopal Church" shine brightly in our headlights against the shadowy walls. Cautiously, carrying the sleeping bags and blankets we took on our backs, we make our way through the courtyard and open the back door. I slide through the door, my ears prickling at the slightest sound, and walk onto the stage. Our breaths are reflexively shorter, quieter, enveloped in almost perfect darkness. The only light comes from Dmitri's flashlight, minuscule against the back walls, and the stained-glass windows, glowing slightly from the streetlights behind them. "Where should we, um, hunker down?" Ruthie's question cuts through the silence and makes us all jump. That is a good question.

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Dmitri and I walk up the aisle. His flashlight goes across the right wall and finds a short spindly staircase. He looks at me. "Should we try up there?" We climb the staircase, each step creaking, and find ourselves on a tiny, black pulpit. I volunteered to keep a vigil. I think I hear voices outside, but I’m too tired to acknowledge them. Suddenly I hear the door being pushed open and I jerk my head up and look over the side. Voices are coming from the stage, but it's still too dark to see them. As I stand terrified over the side of the pulpit, I hear: "You see anything?" "You think I see anything? It's all dark." "Well, you hear anything?" "…No." Oh my god. I sink down to the floor. Juniper whispers to me and I almost jump. "Who are they? What's going on?" I don't say anything. All the resolve I built up this afternoon seems to have been lost. Out of the corner of my eye I see a flashlight beam darting around the walls. "Well, it looks like the squatters're gone." "Thank god. We'll just say we decided to move Jesus." A woman's voice now. "Yeah, he looks more impressive up there anyway." I think the others are awake now too. Ruthie silently gets up and looks over the edge of the pulpit. "Okay, you dragged us into this, what are we going to do?" I try to think. "All right, let's go down there and introduce ourselves and say: 'You don't own this church, so you can't keep us out.’" I can't see Ruthie's face, but her silence feels judgmental. I say, "Well, what do you think we should do?" I hear a deep breath. A few paces away, Dmitri says, "Alright, are we doing this or not?" I assent, and we start creeping down the staircase. "Let's turn on the light then, see if anything needs cleaning." Suddenly the church is full of light. It catches us off guard. Juniper gasps and falls a few steps down. Reflexively I cry out, "Juni!" "The hell was that?!" Several pairs of running feet. We look over the side and four people are staring at us. All of them are black. Three men wearing different-colored monochromatic suits, and one woman with natural hair and a leather jacket. All with shocked faces. "Who do you think you are?" the man in light blue asks. "Um…" I try to say something, but I had lost the words. "Well, my friends and I here wanted to talk to you," Ruthie cuts in, glancing frustratedly at me. "We thought we should catch you at a time we knew you would be here." She looks at me as if to say "Go ahead." "So you're the folks that came in and knocked Jesus over!" The man in red says, laughing and relieved. "Why, I thought you were a bunch of heathen punks! They're just white, middle class people." I laugh nervously. They weren't what I was expecting either. "Well, um, I just think you need to know, since you don't really own this building, I don't think you can tell us to leave." I'm surprised at my own directness. They look surprised, too. "We have concerts here, what makes you think you need this place more than us?" the woman asks. I'm thinking fast. "We have a religion to start and we need a temple. And why would you have concerts in an abandoned church?" "It's not abandoned, it's been shut down."

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"What?" Juniper asks. "The local government shut down this church when they decided to move our jobs away, and the neighborhood went down the crapper. I was head of the choir and I saw it all happen. We didn't have any connections or anywhere to go, so we circled around Talontown…and eventually ended up back here." "What do you do?" "We're blues musicians. Our band is called FrankenChrist, and at this point, we should have a crowd outside waiting for us to play." She turns and walks down the aisle. "Old locals who remember what this neighborhood used to be, mostly." She turns back and looks at me. "And who respect the dignity of this church." I had Juniper at about 24. I was at Harvard, trying to get a PhD in physics. My grades started slipping. I did not account for how much schoolwork getting a PhD would entail. I started pulling all-nighters regularly and downing coffee and Red Bull to finish this essay and that thesis, always telling myself that the next one won't be so bad. But the next one was always bad, always taking more time than I thought it would. I couldn't take it anymore. Every time I fell asleep in class, or felt sick after going 48 hours without sleep, or saw my grades falling, I wondered if it was worth it. I felt like I was going insane, not only from the stress, but from this feeling of meaninglessness, like I knew I was never going to become a famous physicist as I hoped, and would never be remembered for anything. It was a strange feeling, but I couldn't see the point in living if I wasn't going to leave some mark on the world. In the middle of an essay about the wave-particle duality, I suddenly switched involuntarily from rational, scientific thought to something very emotional. I stared at my hands on the keyboard – and felt a warm buzzing energy emanating from them. I brought my hand closer to my eyes. Suddenly I could see no solid surface, only a cluster of vibrating, waving particles, whose movement made my hands feel hot. I'm not thinking straight, I told myself. Too much caffeine. I went over to my dorm window and opened it to get some fresh air. It was night, and I breathed in the outside air, expecting it to be cool…but it was as hot as my hands. I stared up at the starry sky, and jumped back in fear. The stars – hell, the very darkness of the sky – looked the same as my hands: no solid lines, only vibrating, bouncing particles moving like waves. At first, I was terrified, but after a few minutes, I felt relaxed, and even energized, more so than I had been in years. I could see no distinction between me and the rest of the universe. There were only wave-particles, existing in a holy mass of energy that included the entire universe. It was that night that I quit. I had stayed in school, but my grades were failing quickly because my daughter Juniper had been born. What was I to do with a baby in the top physics classes Harvard had to offer? A few times, I tried to bring her to class, but she couldn't sit through several-hour-long classes without disturbing other people. She needed constant attention, which means I needed constant time, something I did not have. So I started skipping classes and stopped caring. I had all the time in the world for Juniper, but eventually I had to drop out. But I had a new reason to live. The world deserved a similar experience to mine. It deserved modern pantheism, a renewal of Spinoza's philosophy, although I didn't have those words for it yet. We couldn't stay at the church. We tried and argued, but there were four musicians and a crowd of people outside waiting to see the band play, and they weren't taking it. I suppose there's no good in arguing with huge amounts of people like that, so we went home. And we're back at square one. New Spinoza doesn't have a temple. I was no physicist, I'm no

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prophet, and I'm not a great mother either. I just hope Juniper does better at putting a mark on this world than me. So I sit and think in our tiny bedroom, surrounded by piles of things that should be in our temple. The door swings open and startles me. It's Ruthie, and she wants me to come help her negotiate with FrankenChrist. "They only need it every two days," she says. "Come on, we have an opening. Don't you want to take it?" I think for a moment. "All right," I say, "I guess we can try, but I'm sure nothing will change." "I am not crazy about letting you in this church," Eliot says. "You don't know anything about it. We've been here for years." I don't know what to say to this. He's right. "I know. It's just that…" "What?" Clarisse asks. "I kind of…Something happened to me a long time ago that inspired me to do this – to start a new religion. And we kind of already have everything we need for it, except somewhere to do it. " I don't think I'm convincing them. I'm barely convincing myself. "We can't just pass up the possibly only chance to allow Spinozaism to be reborn. There's nowhere else we can use for a temple in this town. We really care about our religion." Clarisse narrows her eyes. "You care about your religion? You think you know what it's like to be unable to celebrate it? I used to be the head of the choir at this church. I saw the jobs leave, and everyone leave with them. I saw our church rot. Leonard, Cal, Eliot, we were all displaced and had nothing left but our music. So that's what we used to bring people back in here. And you come in and try to tell us that you deserve it more than we do?” My mouth and brain feel numb. I can't think of anything to say. I look at the others behind me. Their faces are blank. Was this a bad idea all the time? Not just dangerous, but wrong? I think about what it would mean to give up. "Listen, Clarisse, I didn't think this was a good idea at first either," Ruthie says, "but this religion isn't just something Joanne can leave behind. She was in graduate school for physics, and she had a religious experience. A real one, she told me about it. She felt connected to the whole universe and wanted to share that with everyone. She needs this. We don't have anywhere else to go.” "You're right, Clarisse," I add, "you have been here longer than we have and know about it more than we do, but you don't use it everyday. And we won't need it everyday either. Just once or twice a week for services, that's all. You won't hear from us again." Clarisse sighs. "You're sure about that?" I nod vigorously. “You swear you won’t interfere with the concerts, and you’ll put everything back to where it was before your service?” “Yes!” She looks skeptical. "Well, I guess, if you move everything back to where it was when you got there. But I still hope you'll remember the church's history. It's not going to just go away when you start teaching Spinoza in it." I can't believe it. We actually have a temple, after all this time! "I'll remember, I swear. Thank you so much." Thanksgiving

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"Good evening everyone, and thank you all for coming. And for bringing food, since we're a bit too broke to feed you ourselves." Laughter. "To be honest, this temple wouldn't have grown and become as amazing as it is now without the help from all of you. In a single month, we've managed to collect over seventy members–" Applause "–and have extended our services from once a week to two to three times a week, to show others how the sciences of chemistry and physics betray such a wondrous universe.” "But even at the beginning of the First Unity Temple I couldn't claim all the credit. A lot of that credit goes to my good friends Ruthie and Dmitri, for helping me create a religion out of all the thoughts floating around in our heads; and for my daughter Juniper, who has been an amazing companion on this very…unusual journey." I pause and look slightly at Clarisse, who's looking at me like I've forgotten something. "But I think the people who've gotten New Spinoza the furthest would be the amazing people of the band FrankenChrist! They know this neighborhood and this church better than anyone, and they generously offered to let us borrow it for our services. I really can't thank them enough for it, and for being here tonight. Thank you to Clarisse, Leonard, Cal and Eliot!" I step down and Eliot comes onto the stage. "Evening everyone. Well, we've been talking, and we thought we ought to do Joanne a favor and deal with some entertainment tonight, considering she's managed to put together such an expansive clergy, and such a large celebration of being alive, which is a pretty impressive feat for someone in just one month. So here's a song you'll probably recognize." While he's talking, the others in the band and a volunteer set up their instruments. FrankenChrist begins a rendition of "Why I Sing The Blues," and the audience listens attentively. I sit back in my seat and look at my now-empty plate. It seems so long ago that we first established ourselves as a new religion, even though it was really only a month. "Hi, Mom," Juniper says sliding into the seat next to me. "Great speech." I smile and say, "Couldn't have been that good, I sort of made it up on the fly." "Well, I liked it. You didn't forget anything." "Thank you. I know you're not super-religious, but isn't it kind of beautiful? All these people brought together by a single idea?" Juniper smiles. "You're not still thinking about all that changing the world stuff, are you?" "I don't know, I feel like I've only changed a pretty small part of it. But I also feel okay with that. We have made a difference in a lot of people's lives, and maybe that's more important than getting your name in history books." FrankenChrist finished their song, and the audience bursts into applause. Most of them know very little about the church's real history, but they still have shown full respect for it and it's musicians. "That's pretty deep," Juniper says. "But true."

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Separate Ryan Andrews

On September 20th, 2007, I asked out someone I had always seen at the park while I was walking my dog. Her name was Cassandra, and I, Brandon Ponner, had asked her out on a date. She said yes, and we went to The Olive Garden a few days later. It’s funny how people never say an Olive Garden. It’s always the Olive Garden, as if that is the only Olive Garden that exists. There are actually five in Cincinnati alone. After we had some tasty breadsticks and salad, we both ordered chicken and pasta. I remember asking her about what she liked, what she didn’t, and things like that. She told me “pollo,” trying to be funny. Of all the Spanish I have taken throughout high school, wouldn’t you know I barely retained any of it? However, some of the food words stuck with me throughout the years. Coincidence? Maybe. I noticed that The Olive Garden has “pollo” at the top of their menu instead of “chicken.” Anyway, I asked Cassandra what she didn’t like, and she couldn’t think of anything. I in turn answered my question for her. I don’t like bugs. I don’t like a dirty house. I don’t like stubborn people. She told me that she would agree with me on those. After fifteen minutes, the waitress brought out another batch of breadsticks. We started talking about what we did, and I told her that I currently work at the Circuit City Corporate office. She grinned at me, and I’m sure she assumed that I made a nice chunk of change. She was right. “So, what do you do for a living?” I asked. “Before I tell you, it’s funny how you work there.” “How so?” “Well, my mom actually used to work there. Corporate office, same as you.” Oh my. I wonder who her mother is. There’s only a handful of older women. “Wow, what a coincidence. I’ve probably worked with her.” “Mary Ann Myers is her name,” she said as I gulped down a sip of wine. “No kidding! How weird. She was actually my boss,” I told Cassandra. Crap. Mary Ann Myers is one of the most difficult people I know. I don’t know how Cassie grew up in her presence. She once told higher executives that she saw me e-mailing secrets of the company to our rival, Best Buy. I was emailing a secret recipe, not company secrets. I almost got fired for it! Ugh I can’t stand that woman. It’s hard to think that someone as kindhearted as Cassie came from someone as mean and ignorant as Mary Ann. “Oh my. I hope this doesn’t make things weird…” “Enough about me. What do you do?” “Well, I actually clean houses, but it’s all under the table. I guess you could say I’m a part-time maid.” I told Cassie that I actually work from home, so we both are basically cooped up in houses all day. There’s something we have in common. “Yeah, since Circuit City is headquartered over in Richmond, I do most of my work from home, but every once in a while I go over there on business. Does your mother work at home most of the time? “Yeah. She’s pretty high up also. I don’t think my job could ever compare to yours, but I do like what I do. It keeps me busy, and I have time to work-out.”

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The waitress brought out our meals and I decided not to tell Cassie that I couldn’t stand her mother as my boss. “So, did you always live in Cinci?” I asked Cassie. “Actually yes. Born and raised. What about you?” “Well, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and then moved here when I was 25 after I went to Pitt.” About 10 minutes passed by, and we just talked about casual things, like the weather, sports teams, things like that. Then, Cassie told me how she has two kids. I was ultimately shocked at this news because by the looks of it, she never would bring them to the park while she walked her dog. “You have kids?” “Yeah. Two of them actually.” “What are there names? And why don’t you ever bring them with your dog?” “Oh. They are actually at either baseball practice, or their grandma’s house when I walk the dog. James is seven and Danny is five. Do you have any kids?” “No, no. Just me, myself, and I,” I responded. “It must be nice. They are a handful with their sports and everything.” “Yeah, I couldn’t imagine.” The waitress came over again. “Alrighty. I’ll be back with the bill for you guys. Is this separate or one check?” “It’s sep–“ “It’s all together,” I said. Cassie was telling me I didn’t have to do that. I told her that I wanted to. “Hey, um…thanks for the dinner. You’re really sweet.” “Thanks. It’s my pleasure.” After I paid, we hugged each other, and I told Cassie that I would see her soon. Our relationship was moving at a steady and fast pace. I’ve grown closer to Cassie, and everyday I was finding myself at her house after only a couple of weeks of being together. I love her kids. I love that I can go to her house and spend time with what I consider to be my family. I don’t have anyone else, really. A dead father, a mother in the hospital who doesn’t even know her first name, and a distant brother. She is the only thing keeping me going anymore. A year after our first date, Cassie and I were still together. Well, I guess you could say that we finally were together, because we sure were not a couple back on our first date. Cassie invited me to her mother’s Fourth of July party. She said it would be fun, and I would finally get to meet her mother after about a year of dating. Well, not necessarily “meet” her mother, but have Cassie introduce her to me. I wondered why Cassie was so iffy about me actually seeing her mom. Did she talk about me before and feel embarrassed? Did Mary Ann say something about me? I didn’t want to go. However, I was trying to make things good with her. I really like Cassie, but not her mother. I haven’t had contact with Mary Ann in a while, but when I do, I know she is going to bring up work-related topics. She thinks she is better than everyone, and honestly, she is probably one of our worst employees. But Mary Ann is my boss, and I don’t want to risk my job if I upset her daughter. She was a pain before I met her daughter, and I think if she thinks I’d treat Cassie bad, she would be even more of one. All Circuit City stores were closed on Independence Day, as well as corporate office. I ate a hearty breakfast, and mentally prepared myself for seeing Mary Ann for an extended amount of time after so long. I honestly didn’t know if I could handle it. After I nearly caught my kitchen on fire by turning on the wrong burner on the stove, I managed to shower and get dressed. I didn’t want to over-dress, but I didn’t want to under-dress either. I knew it was going to be hot – a ninety-five degree high, so I ended up wearing cargo shorts and a polo top. I mean, it’s the Fourth of July, so it can’t be that fancy. Especially if it’s at Mary Ann’s.

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I drove to Cassandra’s house at 1:30. I didn’t want to be late to the party, and we were going to go together, with her kids, all in one vehicle. All of us piled in the gray 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan. It only took about 15 minutes to get to Mary Ann’s. As soon as we pulled into the driveway, it was exactly what I pictured her house would look like: all gray siding, a driveway slightly going uphill, at least a quarter mile of grass running from the edge of the street to the end of her yard. Why is Mary Ann’s house heaven compared to Cassandras? Does Mary Ann help out Cassie financially? If so, why does she live in such a shithole? Mary Ann strutted down her cement steps to greet Cassie and the kids. “Why hello Cassandra! James, Danny hello! You’ve gotten so big!” Mary Ann said. “Is that you, Brandon?” “Why yes it is Mrs. Myers,” I replied. “And when were you going to tell me that you’ve been seeing him? This is the guy who you’ve been talking about?” “Mom, it’s my life, remember? And I didn’t want your opinions to influence me.” “Well, I guess. Suit yourself. I just hope Brandon isn’t another Will, that’s all.” “Mom, don’t go assuming things. You barely know anything about him. And for Christ’s sake, he’s standing right in front of us!” Cassie projected. Mary Ann snarled, and must have thought it wasn’t something worth arguing over. She invited us all inside her mansion-like house. As soon as we walked in, a burst of cold air hit me. She must be keeping the thermostat at sixty! It also smelled delicious. “We could eat soon. I have all the trays nice and warm in the dining room,” Mary Ann told us. There were a lot of people sitting in the living room, and it looked like Mary Ann had a sunroom attached to the back. “So, Cassandra, how did the two of you meet?” Mary Ann asked. “Oh, we met at the park while I was walking Buster. He was walking his dog too, and he asked me out to dinner. After that, we kept talking, and here he is! Almost longer than Will, would you say?” Mary Ann sighed in disappointment. “Yeah hon. But I don’t think that’s my point. Does he live by you?” she asked as she almost choked on her water. “Uh-huh,” Cassie replied. “My god Mrs. Myers. It’s like an icebox in here,” I joked. “Brandon, I don’t find it particularly chilly. You do know it’s over ninety degrees outdoors, correct?” she snapped. “Yeah Mary Ann. I’m well aware of the temperature outside.” We all lined up in the dining room, and I helped James and Danny get their food from the trays, then I got my own, and we all sat around a large circular table with other people I didn’t know. They were all just the business-y type, y’know? All professional, all of them probably thinking they are on top of the world, better than everyone else. Cassie, the kids, and I look like bums. “Did anyone see the Reds game? The Pirates smoked ‘em,” I said, to try and break the ice. I mean, they had to like baseball, right? It’s an America’s pastime! “You watch baseball?” one of the professionals mumbles under their breath. “Yes. What a shame the Reds lost. Are you a Pirates fan or something?” Mary Ann replied. “Um, yes I am. Pittsburgh born and raised. I have Pirate spirit in my blood,” I said. “I’m sure you do. He probably likes the Steelers too. We’re Bengals fans over here, Brandon,” Mary Ann responded. “That doesn’t bother me. Come back to argue when your team has 5 rings. We’ll probably win next year too,” I laughed.

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We continued eating, and I made sure to help the kids out. Danny was still so young, and I didn’t want him to make a mess. Following everyone’s goodbyes, Cassie, the kids and I helped Mary Ann clean up. She had a ton of leftovers, and I assumed she had it catered because of the aluminum trays individual dressing packets. That’s where I made my next mistake. “Hey, Mary Ann. I bet that dinner wasn’t cheap. I’d give it 3 stars,” I said. “Brandon, I made this myself. How could you say something like that?” “Oh, I didn’t kno– “ “Actually I forgot who you were. You’re Brandon Ponner, the man who always has to fit in, the man who always has to make comments about everything. Has it ever clicked that sometimes, you just shouldn’t speak? Ever? Honestly, I don’t even want you here right now, but my lovely daughter wanted to bring a date. There’s the door.” “You know, I didn’t even want to come. I’m just doing this for Cassie and the kids.” “Her name is Cassandra, you low-life. Now don’t go causing a scene. Leave!” I went and retrieved Cassie and the kids. I couldn’t stand being near that insane woman any longer. She’s nothing but rude, and I only made a joke by mistake about her cooking. I was thinking about the Fourth of July party, and I guess I was being a bit stubborn towards Mary Ann. She didn’t deserve what I said to her, but she shouldn’t have said the things she said to me. I’m giving her – and myself – another chance at redeeming the relationship. After all, Cassie and I have been going steady for a year or so, and I think it’s time for the next step in our relationship. Would that mean engagement? I’m not sure, but it’s not a good idea if Mary Ann and I are not on good terms. About Mary Ann – I invited her to the surprise party for Cassie I’m throwing this weekend. She’s turning the big four-oh. I also told the kids after I picked them up from Mary Ann’s, and I hope they’re mature enough not to say anything to their mother. “How was grandma’s, guys?” “Good. Where’s mommy?” “She’s at home still. I told her that I would pick you up. We’re going somewhere – and it’s a secret.” After I was asked where we were going by the kids what seemed like 300 times, I told them. “Kid, kids, enough! We’re going to get your mother birthday presents!” I was then bombarded with the question of where. “We’re going to the mall. But your mother thinks I’m taking you to Chuck E Cheese’s.” “Awe, come on,” James let out. “Come on James! It’ll be fun. Don’t you love your mommy?” I asked. “Ugh. Yes, I do,” he sighed. When we got to the mall, all three of us went into the jewelry store, and decided on a nice bracelet for Cassie. I think she’ll like it. It’s peridot, the August birthstone. I ended up taking the kids to Chuck E Cheese’s for a little bit also, so they would have a lesser chance of ruining the surprise. When we got home, I overheard Cassie talking to her mother on the phone. It’s not unusual, but I heard Cassie say “A party? No way! How sweet,” into the phone. Mary Ann told Cassie about the surprise party? Why would she do something like that? Should I confront Mary Ann or Cassie about it or should I let her act surprised on the day of? But let me guess – I’m still the bad guy, even though she already ruined my wife’s fortieth birthday surprise. I hope the bracelet makes up for it. A week later, it was party day. I had done everything – picked up the cake, retrieved all the food, hung countless amounts of balloons and happy birthday banners, and made it look nice and not tacky. The party was in my backyard, which is pretty spacious and had room for a couple of foldable canopies. I made sure also to get James and Danny on my own so that Mary

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Ann didn’t have to come early. I would get more done if she wasn’t there, and I assumed she would have thought I did everything wrong anyway. If I see it white, she sees it black. If I think it’s hot, she thinks it’s cold. It’s like I could never win. Mary Ann came by about thirty minutes before Cassandra was supposed to come home from cleaning for her largest client. Immediately walking out back she told me that she think’s its outrageously hot and that we should have had it inside. I told her that we would get all the food inside, and that she could sit in there if she wanted to. Following that, she said that then she wouldn’t be able to sit with everyone else. What am I supposed to do about that? Has she never sat outside before on a ninety degree day? I have tents and umbrellas to provide shade, and a bunch of ice cold drinks. I don’t know what I could do to make that woman happy for even a second. Everyone finally arrived about ten minutes before Cassie was supposed to show up. I called her just to make sure everything was on track. Her real birthday is not for two weeks, so she should be thrown off, at least a little. She said she would be home in ten minutes, and that she’s dying to eat. I told her that I would have something ready, and that I was sure there would be enough. “Surprise!” everyone screamed as Cassandra walked through the back door. “Brandon! Was this all you?” Cassie asked. “Yes it was indeed!” I exclaimed. I saw Mary Ann roll her eyes. “Oh my gosh, I’m just so shocked! All my friends! Oh!” I was surprised myself by Cassie’s reaction. She was really pulling off the act that she didn’t know about the surprise the whole time. Then, the beans spilled. “I just had no clue. No clue! It was so nice for Brandon to plan this. My mom said that he did it all himself,” I overheard Cassie telling her friends. If she had known that I did it all myself, then obviously Mary Ann told Cassie about the whole party, and this was my proof. I decided to go up to Mary Ann and say something, because I was unsure why she would say something to Cassie. I couldn’t change the date either, because I would still have to tell Mary Ann about the party, and she would probably snitch again to Cassie. “Hey Mary Ann…I got a question for you.” “Yes, Brandon?” “I know that you told Cassie about the party. I overheard you on the phone with her the other day! Why would you ruin the surprise?” I exclaimed. “Brandon, I didn’t say anything to Cassandra! I was talking about a jewelry party for next week! I never said anything about this little thing.” “Mary Ann, let’s not play games. I just heard Cassie talking about how she knew that I planned this all myself, which you apparently told her. Stop lying.” “Brandon, why would I want to ruin a surprise party for my own daughter?” “Why would you want to ruin a surprise party for your own daughter?” I questioned sarcastically. “Because you’re out to get me! You always have been! Every time we are forced to sit through a meeting together you’re always on my back! And I never say a word! What did I do wrong?” “Brandon. I treat all my employees with respect. If you fail to do something listed in your description, then I will continue to treat you the way I treat you. If you would simply follow the rul–” Mary Ann explained. “But Mary Ann, it’s not how you’re painting it out to be! You have been out to get me from the jump! And now that I’m dating Cassie you’re even more rude and stubborn around me! What can I do to fix this problem!?” “Brandon, Cassandra is my only child! How would you feel if your only child was falling in love when time after time she gets hurt?”

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We have started to gain attention from other people at the party. Without knowing, we grew from a quiet confrontation to a screaming fiasco. Then, Cassie ran over to us and walked us up in the yard, away from the rest of the crowd. “Mom, Brandon! What’s going on?” She panicked and shook her head in confusion. “Honey, tell me the truth. Did you know about the surprise party?” I said to Cassie, attempting to remain as calm as humanly possible. “I will not be mad if you already knew, but please. I want the truth, and I want it now.” I put my hands on my hips, and I could feel that I looked like a concerned parent after their child gets in trouble at school. I glanced at Mary Ann to notice that she was shaking her hand at her side. She must have been motioning to Cassie to lie to me, and say that she never knew about the surprise party. “Well,” she stuttered, “yes. I knew about it, Brandon.” “Well then why didn– “ I sharply questioned her. “Because I didn’t want to upset you! I knew that you had to have been planning this for weeks, maybe even months! I thought it was no big deal if I knew. It’s my party anyway!” she said. “So your mother told you then. I knew it. I heard you on the phone with her one day last week, and she said she was talking about a jewelry party, when in reality she was ruining your fortieth surprise party!” I exclaimed before I took a sip of my wine cooler. “You know what, I can’t do this anymore. Yes Brandon Ponner, I told your lover, my daughter, my grandkid’s mother, about her own party! I’m sorry,” she said as she put her veiny hands on my arms. “I make mistakes! What can I say!” “You can tell the truth when you’re asked to. And yes, Mary Ann, people make mistakes. I’m human, too. And Cassie’s ex made a mistake by leaving her. But I’m going to make things right. Cassie and I were talking, and– “ I stuttered to Mary Ann. I started to sweat. I knew that Cassie didn’t want me to tell her mother about the baby, but I can’t hold it any longer. I needed to prove that I care about Cassie. “Brandon, not now. You’re going to give her a heart attack!” she warned. “Cassie, if this isn’t the right time, then I don’t think there will ever be a right time. Mary Ann, we’re having a baby!” I said seriously, speaking with my hands. It looked as if Mary Ann was having heart palpitations. Her hands rose to her chest. She was speechless. “Since we are having a baby, we also thought that it would only be right if we got married,” I explained. This put Mary Ann in some kind of deep shock. “What? What? This is just so soon. A complete shock. I…I… Brandon.” Mary Ann’s face turned to disgust. It looked like she was about to throw up. “I don’t approve of any of this! Everything is moving so fast and I just met you as Cassandra’s boyfriend like a month ago! This is getting out of control! You’re not having a baby or getting married! “Not to burst your bubble, but the baby thing is kind of already in the works. And you can’t tell us we’re not getting married.” I looked over at Cassie. “You know what?” she screamed. “I’m out. Have fun with your little wedding and your little baby Brandon. And don’t even think about asking me for a single penny for any of it!” Mary Ann scurried down the yard without saying goodbye to anyone, and sped off onto the main road. “You know, I’m glad she left,” I mentioned to Cassie. “I guess I could say the same,” she said as she started to tear up. Cassie and I were in the hospital room together, my hand on hers, listening to the doctor yell the words “push” and “take it easy” in a somewhat calming manner. We had talked about names briefly, and I wanted to let her pick the name. I mean, she went through all the extra

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weight for 9 months, and still to this day hasn’t made amends with her mother. Something was in the doctor’s hands, and it appeared to be a boy. I smiled at Cassie, and she smiled back. I asked her what we were going to call him. She told me “Pollo,” and I knew she was kidding.

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The Unbearable Tale of Harold Goodman Aurora Wise

Harold awoke with a start. He sat up straight, bouncing his young daughter off his knee. She had been playing with cars, running them across his chest and over his head. Her small brown hands were soft and cold and he relished the feeling of her skin brushing against his face. “Oof. Sorry, honey.” He picked her up and placed her on his lap again. “That’s okay, daddy,” she said in the singsong voice of every six year-old girl. She collected her cars and said, “I thought I was gonna wake you up doing this,” and ran the car through his hair, making sure to hit his small bald spot. “What about this? Does this hurt?” She took a small plastic truck and rubbed it against his chest, as hard as she could. Her tiny fingers clutched his flannel shirt. “Okay, okay, yeah. That hurt,” he said. Harold picked up Elena and put her back on the dark leather couch. Her olive skin rubbed against the sofa and she slid off, landing butt down. “Daddy!” “Sorry!” he said with a hint of worry in his voice. He offered his hand to her; her dainty fingers readily grabbed onto three of Harold’s weathered ones. “Do you want to go see what mommy is making for dinner?” He stepped over Elena’s twin, Lawrence, playing under the decorated pine tree with the gaudy pink dolls he most loved to put tiny shoes on, tiny shoes Harold inevitably wound up stepping on in the middle of the night. Imagine two quiet kids, he thought. His tired feet crinkled as he shuffled over the many dried juice and food stains in the carpet. “Yeah, let’s go see!” and she began to babble on about her favorite foods. Walking into the kitchen, he came upon Adalina, stirring a pot of noodles and humming. The warm glow of the ceiling lights bounced off of her shiny dark hair. She turned on them. “Well, look who’s up,” she said with a stern look pointed towards Harold. “Sorry, Ada. It was just a long night.” Her face softened. Her features looked especially striking and Harold’s heart grew louder in his chest. “Alright. But you have to make dinner tomorrow,” she said. “Got it,” he said. “So,” turning towards Elena, “what’s for dinner?” “Yeah, mommy! WHAT’S FOR DINNER?” she yelled. Harold laughed, the first time today. She wriggled out of his grip and ran over to Ada, her little feet plodding on the tile. “Well, you’ll just have to find out, won’t you?” said Ada. The phone rang. Ada walked over to the wall and fumbled with the phone, dropping it. “Damn,” she said, the word getting quieter as she glanced at her curious daughter. “It’s probably the school,” she explained. Harold began walking over to the pot on the stove to stir the noodles, but Ada interrupted him. “Harold, honey, it’s for you,” she said. She donned a worried expression and Harold’s mind raced: Was there a fire? Did someone fall, break a leg, get hurt? God, did someone get hurt? Ada must have seen the look on Harold’s face, because she mouthed it’s okay and gave a sad smile. Harold took the phone. He could feel his tremors coming back and all of the sudden the soft golden light in the kitchen became so bright it hurt his eyes. “Uh, yeah?” His voice sounded hoarse and he cleared his throat. “Harold Goodman speaking. Is everything…okay?”

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“For the most part. I guess. Nothing to do with any visitors,” squawked a voice that Harold didn’t bother to identify. “So nobody’s hurt,” Harold said. Relief visibly spread throughout his body and Ada took a breath out. “So what’s the problem?” “Well,” said the voice and Harold wished he would spit it out, “there’s a bear in the East Wing.” “Well, can’t we just scare it away? Like all the other ones? This happens a bit, I don’t know what the big fuss is.” There was a silence. Ada kept glancing back at him, watching his movements. “Is it vicious? Do you think it’s gonna, y’know, hurt someone?” “No, no, but you know it’s better to be safe than sorry. You know that of all people,” and there was a pause. “Sorry.” He took a deep, deep breath and continued, “What type? It’s not that bad. But yeah, I guess you’re right. Lots of tourists coming the next few weeks.” He sighed. “I’ll do it. I mean, that’s why you called. No, I di– “ “We’re not trying to put pressure on you, Harold, we know you got the kids and such.” He widened his eyes in exaggerated anger and Ada looked back with a sympathetic smile, her white teeth glistening. “No, listen. I’ll do it. I want to.” “You know the risks, though.” “Yeah, I got it. Okay?” “Alright now.” “Bye.” He hung up the phone and gently rested his head on the wall. “What is it?” Ada asked, trying her best to hide her nervousness. “It’s a bear,” he replied. Elena, who had been dancing around the kitchen, now stopped in her tracks and squealed. “A BEAR?” Her face quivered with excitement. From the living room came a bang, and Ada rushed to the doorway, almost running over the little body that burst into the room. “Did someone say a BEAR?” cried Lawrence, clutching his stuffed white teddy bear, dragging it behind him. Harold started laughing and adopted his special kid voice. “Yeah, there’s a bear. He’s out there.” He pointed towards the windows on the far side of the kitchen. Lawrence ran into the glass, pressing his face up against it. His breath fogged up the glass. “Wow,” he said, in awe. Harold looked out the window at the snow, sparkling under the light from the kitchen. The woods directly outside were illuminated, and he squinted to look for the bear he knew he wouldn’t be able to see. Or find. Harold breathed in deeply, exhaling slowly. It smelled like wood. Memories of hugging his father tight, sitting by the fireplace, and hours of chopping logs flashed over his eyes. He blinked a few times and continued into the meeting hall. Harold noticed he had forgotten his hat, and felt a surge of anger come over him. “Alright! Let’s get it together, people! What’s everyone waiting for?” he yelled. Harold really didn’t like yelling. He had only raised his voice once at his children, when they were playing in a stream with a strong current. He regretted it immediately after. Last night, Harold had dreamt of bears. Grizzly bears, tearing into salmon, swallowing the fish whole. They were giant, larger than the trees. They left dinosaur-sized paw prints in the ground. Lawrence and Elena loved dinosaurs. He had woken up in a cold sweat, wishing more than ever that they had a really, really, big dog. He shook his head and focused on the rangers of northeast Beaverfoot National Park.

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“What’s new this week, what’s going on?” he said, this time in a more friendly (albeit forced) voice. Thirty pairs of eyes stared back at him. More anger overcame him. “What are you guys going to get done this week?” he said, in a much less friendly tone. With that, the meeting hall buzzed back to life. Murmuring and laughing commenced, jackets chafed with movement, and the rangers’ eyes darted back to the clock, their phones, the coffeepot. One by one, they went down the line, talking at Harold, reporting the mundane for the most part, the weather, flight patterns of northern geese, how many tourists still wanted to have picnics in the dead of winter (that elicited a chuckle from most). Harold had stopped paying attention all together. Their silence brought him to life, and he abruptly called out, “Good work, folks! Tomorrow morning, meet here again as usual, you know the drill.” After everyone emptied out, Harold very slowly got up from the hard chair he was sitting on, and made his way to the back of the building, where the labs were. The bright white lights and the polished chrome sinks of the research labs could be intimidating, but for Harold, it was like the room in his house that he wasn’t supposed to go in, but did anyway. He was attracted to a vial, lying there on the counter. He picked it up and fingered it for a few moments, when in walked a man in a white lab suit, wearing smelly latex gloves. He held a see-through bag with an apparently very sterile tranquilizer gun in it. “Good morning, Harold! I see you’ve found the drugs for the darts.” Harold didn’t like the way he said “drugs.” “Hi, Dr. Ruben. How are you?” Harold said it like a question he didn’t really want answered. “I’m just fine. Now. About this bear predicament. I understand this must be very daunting for you, but we all appreciate your bravery, we do.” “Uh, thanks, I guess. I got your message this morning, there’s something here for me…?” “Oh, yes, yes, of course. That’s what I have right here.” Dr. Ruben held out the bag, and Harold grabbed it tentatively. Harold took it out of the bag and rubbed its metal sides, cool to the touch. “A tranquilizer gun,” said Harold. “Yes, with 30 darts, injected with the necessary drug that will help you…stabilize the animal.” “It won’t kill it?” “Oh, of course not! I mean, unless you shoot it too many times, then I can’t guarantee anything,” Dr. Ruben said with an unnerving smile, “but I trust you.” “Okay. Will this really stop the bear?” “Oh, definitely! Probably. Well, I trust you know how to use the gun and what to do with the animal after, correct?” “Yeah. That’s basic training.” “Wonderful! I know you’ll be able to catch her!” “Her?” Dr. Ruben smiled fiercely. “Her!” And with that Harold was pushed out of the room into the damp, grimy hallway, feeling uneasier than he had when he went in. Harold had been driving around for about an hour. He first had his tranquilizer gun on the seat next to him (safety on, of course; Harold had checked 3 times), but it made him uncomfortable, so he put it in the glove compartment.

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He knew with a regular car, driving the perimeter of the East Wing could take about an hour and a half. However, he wasn’t driving with a regular car, he was driving with a state certified “patrol vehicle.” It was a glorified golf cart. When he felt the car start to slow down, he hit the wheel in frustration, along with the horn. He leaned back, took his foot off the gas, and waited for the cart to stop. The fuel gauge still read F for full. Harold undid his seatbelt and slid out of the cart into the snow, which crunched beneath his feet. It looks like somewhere in a calendar, he thought. He picked up some snow and tasted a little bit, something he often saw Lawrence and Elena do. He realized he should tell them to stop doing it. Harold needed to focus. He leaned against the cart and tried to collect his thoughts, but images of bears kept forcing their ways in. He thought of his dad; his perpetually solemn voice, his rough, rough hands. Harold always made sure to use lotion, so his children wouldn’t shy away from his touch. He felt Dad’s hand on his shoulder and began to walk. He didn’t know where, he just walked. The snow was covering all the signs, but he wasn’t paying attention anyway. He had been shuffling his feet the whole way, and the snow had melted down into his boots. The cold water on his toes got him moving, and he realized he knew where he was. He took a deep breath in, deep breath out. He kept walking. He was looking down at his feet as he trod forward, something he was trained not to do. Some squirrels skittering past him on the ground interrupted his thoughts. He kept his eyes on them until they climbed up a tree fifty feet away. Bewildered, he didn’t even hear the rustling behind him. A branch snapped and Harold turned around. There she was! The bear! Harold was secretly let down; he expected a ferocious beast, foam dripping from its jaw, its eyes wild. None of those things appeared in the bear before his eyes. She’s…goofy looking. Seeing him, she rose onto her back feet and cocked her head to the side like a puppy. She tottered for a few seconds and fell back down with a loud thump. She was abnormally small, and her snout looked too long. He wondered if she was actually a black bear, but couldn’t think of another breed that was similar. Her eyes were giant and her front legs seemed a little bit shorter than her back ones. Harold exhaled sharply. He felt anger rising up, anger at himself. He was afraid of this? He was losing sleep over this? Harold lost his footing and fell hard. About to say some things he would regret, he looked up to see the bear much closer than she had been before. His mind cleared of every vile thought he had before and the only thing he could hear was the blood pumping in his neck, his hands, the back of his head. He started to move backwards on his hands and feet. He looked down at his hand and saw blood staining his jacket, a deep gash in his skin. The bear came closer. Harold scrambled up, wiping his mangled hand on his leg. He breathed and locked eyes with the bear (something he later found out he should not have done). This was it. He would get the bear, he would save the day. Finally, he would save the day. He reached for the tranquilizer gun. His heart stopped in his chest. The gun wasn’t there. “Shit.” “Wow, Daddy! You’re like, a superhero!” said Lawrence, gently poking at Harold’s bandaged hand. Harold smiled in spite of himself. “I…I guess so, buddy.” He wouldn’t turn down a compliment like that. Lawrence climbed up onto the bunk bed and started miming punching movements, making noises as though he was hitting someone. “Did you hit him like this? Did you punch the lights out of him?”

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Elena walked into the room, her hair wet from a bath. She smelled like the yellow baby soap they used. It was Harold’s favorite smell. She walked in the room into the glow of the Buzz Lightyear lamp. She was wearing matching pink pajamas with…bears on them. He inwardly groaned, and cursed Ada. “Lawrence, you are so not mature,” she said matter of factly. “Daddy is friends with Honey. Aren’t you, Daddy?” She smiled sweetly, but that wasn’t what Harold was focusing on. “Who’s Honey?” Elena laughed, somewhat sarcastically. She had climbed into her bottom bunk, and was arranging all of her stuffed animals. “Honey, Daddy. Don’t you see?” She had been the habit of using mature phrases and saying them in a very condescending tone of voice. “No, I don’t. Why don’t you tell me?” “The bear!” Harold stood up. “It’s time for bed, guys.” Two tiny voices called out “Goodnight, Daddy.” Harold savored the moment. As he was closing the door, he heard Lawrence say, “That’s a dumb name for a bear.” He shut it before he could hear the reply. He walked down the hallway, his feet aching and his hand burning. He entered his bedroom, where Ada was already lying under the covers. He climbed into the bed, and felt every muscle in his body relax. He closed his eyes. “So you had all those nightmares for nothing, huh?” Ada’s voice was soft under the numerous blankets. She turned towards him, a smirk on her face. “I guess so. It was just so…bizarre.” “I think it’s kind of funny.” “You should have seen it, Ada. Had the weirdest look on her face, like she was trying to play with me! I don’t know. I thought, this is it. This is the last moment of my life. And then she just stopped. She turned her head and just flopped down on the ground. Not dead, or hurt. She looked like a f—like a cat. That wanted me to play with her!” He exhaled sharply. Ada smiled and patted him on the chest. She turned over and switched off the light. “Have fun with Honey tomorrow.” Harold had made sure he had brought the tranquilizer gun, although he was starting to wish he had left it at home, under his bed in a locked box. The snow had started to melt and his boots squished in the mud. His eyes were pointed straight ahead, looking for Honey. I mean, the bear, he thought. She’s not a friend. He waited where he saw her the other day. His mind was preoccupied with the call he had gotten earlier this morning, from another head ranger. It was stern, telling him there were to be no more slip-ups with the bear. He had spit out the last two words like they were sawdust in his mouth. It came as a surprise when Honey fell out of a tree, although later Harold swore he wasn’t alarmed. He somewhat expected a bizarre entrance, if there was one. He was watching when it happened. There was a giant thump and a flock of birds flew into the air, squawking. Harold sat there for a few minutes, frozen in place. He slowly got up. He couldn’t find the bear. He stood on a rock on his toes to look. Seeing the large black lump, and seeing it wasn’t moving, he began slowly making his way to the bear. He tried to be as loud as he could, hoping not to scare Honey. She wasn’t really that big; not as big as he thought she would be. Her fur was dark with patches of light golden hair. It looked soft. He fought back urges to run his hands through it, and tried hard not to compare it to Elena’s stuffed teddy bears. He couldn’t be sure if she was breathing or not. He wasn’t supposed to kill her. He didn’t want to kill her. She probably has a family, maybe two little cubs.

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He went up and poked her with the end of his tranquilizer gun. The safety was on. She didn’t move. Harold poked her a few more times, to no avail. He knew this was the perfect time to shoot it. Shoot her. Harold couldn’t undo the safety; it was jammed. He knew he should feel afraid, weaponless next to a strong beast. He climbed behind a rock where he could see her. He sat in the snow. He watched her for forty-five minutes before he rested his eyes and fell asleep. He dreamed of bears. Harold woke up to hot breath in his face. At first he was confused as to his surroundings. He didn’t realize the gravity of his current situation until he looked up, straight into the bear’s eyes. In that moment, Harold forgot everything he was supposed to know about coming in contact with adult black bears. All one hundred hours of training, every single For Dummies book he had checked out of his local library—gone. He stared straight into her eyes; sure she could hear every thump of his heart. He broke the gaze. Just like that everything came rushing back. His hands were shaking holding his gun, he was covered in sweat and there was a f—there was a bear right in front of him! The images in his nightmares were flashing before his eyes. He wanted to shoot, but he couldn’t. Did he really want to shoot? He held his hand in front of his face, not allowing himself to lock eyes with her again. “Please don’t hurt me. Uh, I don’t know if you…understand me, but you have to listen. I have two kids, and I got – I gotta be there for them, you kn– “ Honey pushed her nose into his bandaged palm. He gasped inwardly. She’s…nuzzling me, he thought. She’s nuzzling me. Somewhat out of his mind, he placed his other hand above her snout and gently pet her, as you would do with a cat. Just like a cat. Nuts. Honey moved her head and Harold immediately retracted his hands, holding them close to his chest. She walked away. Harold went home. There was nothing there for him today. Two days later, Harold returned. The snow was melting more but the ground was relatively dry. He brought a lunch, too. He had packed a sandwich and some berries. He placed them in the middle of a clearing near where he had met Honey earlier. There he waited for her. When she came, she went straight for the food, as though she was expecting it. She ate meticulously, overturning the bread and consuming only the meat. She fed slowly from the Tupperware Ada had bought long ago, and Harold knew Ada wouldn’t be pleased he shared it with his friend, the bear (as she would say). She finished eating and raised her head, pinpointing Harold. She looked at him, her head cocked to the side. She then nodded, as though thanking him. He nodded back. Lying in bed that night, he went over the moment, somewhat cringing. My friend, the bear, he thought. My friend, Honey. The bear. Harold stood in the kitchen, his thick wool socks sliding on the floor as he leaned against the counter. The wall phone was hanging on its cord, clanging against the refrigerator beside it. He had his head in his hands. It was four AM. A small cup of brown liquid sat beside him. “I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.” “Harold…” Ada said, her voice soft, “you can’t blame yourself for something that happened when you were fourteen.” “It wasn’t just something. She died. Helen died, my sister died. And now the bear is going to do it again.”

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“Harold, I know the anniversary is always hard, but it’s been so long, and,” she took his head in her hands and looked in his eyes, “it’s not the bear’s fault.” She offered a sad smile and kissed his cheek. Harold stayed home the next day. He didn’t want to see Honey. It had snowed again, this time heavily. Elena and Lawrence had the day off. He woke up when Ada left for work. The kids wanted to play with Harold. He instead sent them outside with sleds. He sat on his couch and opened the curtains, intent on watching his children. I’ll rest my eyes, just for a minute, he thought, and fell asleep. He awoke an hour later to his laughter. He laid his head back down on the side of the couch, and tried once more to doze off, but his fatherly instincts kicked in. He opened the curtains, expecting to see the twins throwing snowballs or sliding down the small hills in their yard. His heart stopped. Harold rubbed his eyes, hoping to wake from the dream he felt he was in. Out the window, there was a bear playing with his children. Lurking near his children. Preying on his children. He sat in shock for a minute before he shakily stood up and walked as fast as his weak legs would take him. He kept his eyes on the window for as long as possible. Once in his bedroom, he dove for the box under the bed. Harold fumbled with the lock, retrieving the key from his sweatpants’ pocket. The box opened and he snatched the tranquilizer gun inside it. He got to his feet, nearly tripping numerous times on the way to the door. Harold ran outside without shoes on. He was ankle deep in snow, but didn’t feel it. He tried to shout to Lawrence and Elena, but all that came out was a bizarre garbled noise. The kids took one look at the tranquilizer gun and backed up against the house. He took a deep breath and shot the gun. He overestimated the pressure he was to put on the trigger and shot three more darts than he intended to. Honey looked at her side where the darts were and then at Harold before she collapsed. Harold clicked the safety back on, walked over to Honey and gently tapped her with the tranquilizer gun. She didn’t move. He thought he could see her breathing, or maybe just really wanted to. He looked over at his children. Their backs were flat against the windows. He motioned for them to get to the door. “Go,” he tried to yell. They ran to the small porch. He joined the twins, picking both of them up with one scoop. Elena whispered in his ear. “We were just playing with her, Daddy. We weren’t gonna let her get us.” “I know,” he said, his throat hoarse. “Will Honey be okay, Daddy?” Lawrence asked, turning towards his father. Harold didn’t reply. Harold rang the doorbell to his own house. Elena opened the door, reaching on her tippy-toes to pull the door open it. She was wearing a ballerina outfit and had a stern look on her face. “The password, Daddy,” she said. Harold rubbed his head. “I don’t know. Is it still Herbie?” She laughed. “Of course not. There’s a new one.” He paused for a few seconds. “I don’t know.” “It’s Honey!” she said, and hopped away. Harold had a cold feeling in his stomach. He walked in and put his ranger supplies down. Ada was sitting in the living room, watching TV with Lawrence in her lap. She winced when she saw him. “Ohh, Harold, can you not put your junk down? I just swept like…five days ago.”

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“Uh, yeah. Sure thing.” He began to walk out of the room. “Oh, and Harold?” she shouted. He looked back in from the doorway. “Yeah?” “Can you take the dog out for a walk? I know you don’t like just letting him roam around and the twins can’t figure out how to hold the leash yet.” “Yeah, of course.” He knew what she was thinking: You’re the one that wanted the damn thing. He grabbed Minnie by the collar and led her outside, clipping the leash on while they walked out the door. Harold and Minnie walked down one of the trails near their house. It took longer because lately Harold insisted they walk past the small grove where he met Honey many times. He never saw her. They traveled back to the house. Minnie was still hyper, so Harold took her off the leash and grabbed a tennis ball, throwing it for her. When finished, he entered the house. He felt the rush of warmth on his face and kicked off his shoes. He was getting ready to sit down when he looked at the grainy TV and stopped suddenly. There was a picture of a bear on the screen, a black bear. “Turn it up,” Harold said, staring at the TV. Ada looked at him and absently pressed the remote. The news was showing a story on the brand new addition to the Franklin Park Zoo, an adult female black bear. She was brought in to help nurture two bear cubs that had recently lost their mother. She was noticeably small and her front legs seemed just a bit shorter than her back legs. Harold noticed that there was no information on where she came from. Elena gasped. “Can we go to the zoo soon and see Honey? Please?” “Elena, that’s not Honey. We’re not gonna talk about Honey, okay? And not to mention the zoo is very far away, it’s going to– “ “I think that’s a great idea,” said Harold, smiling just a little bit. “A great idea.”

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Thaw Weston Custer

Barry Kowalczyk, who disappeared into thin air, loved pierogies. And as he lay in his bed, shivering, at 5:17 AM on December 3rd, 2014, he could scarcely bring himself to entertain thoughts of anything else. Fantasies of savory dough and melting butter seemed to fully possess every last fiber of his very being. But Barry wasn’t complaining (as usual). He knew that he had to stave off the cold somehow. At 5:45 AM, the radio blares to life, cutting through the frigid air with a burst of vicious noise that is more static than anything else. Barry doesn’t jump, nor does he roll over. It occurs to him that today is the day. Barry isn’t sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is definitely something. He fumbles around with the alarm, changing the signal 4 times before he is finally able to shut the thing off. Outside the venetian blinds, Barry would like to believe that skeletal trees still stand, awash in the orange ambiance from the flickering streetlights. But he can’t shake the feeling that the world outside has completely disappeared. Everything Barry once knew is gone, suffocated by massive snow banks that drifted down silently in the night, the remains of a blizzard comparable only to The Flood. And in a way, the silence makes him feel like he is, in fact, at the bottom of the ocean. Barry edges down the stairs, feeling his way through the darkness. Is this how the blind feel all the time? The house creaks, and he can barely make out the silhouettes of some 370odd Santa Clause tchotchkes, sporadically arranged in clusters around the living room. The collection ranges from the multi-racial to the athletic to the electronic to the musical. And that’s just covering the figurines. Snow globes, Christmas tree ornaments, stockings, mugs, decorative plates, and cross-stitch representations of Jolly Old Saint Nick fill up the spaces in between. Anne loved Santa, and although Barry hates to admit it, it rubbed off on him too. She used to talk about how he was the perfect Christian, a pure representation of a parent’s love for their children. Et cetera, et cetera. Barry just thought that in the dark, all the sets of twinkling eyes looked spooky. Barry kicks around at a power strip a couple of times until his big toe hits the switch and the yuletide army, the merry militia is awash in blue light from the Christmas tree. He cracks his back, runs a hand through his thinning hair, and lets out a long, slow sigh. “Good morning,” he mutters. Nobody replies. In the kitchen, there is nothing to eat and nothing to smoke. All of the dishes are dirty so Barry just chokes down his 7 daily prescriptions, multivitamins, etc., dry. The taste of his own breath was awful, but the taste of straight medication is an entirely different beast altogether. Barry wonders how it could possibly be these things that are keeping him alive. He chases the pills with a piece of Nicorette. One of the many Santas on top of the fridge topples over backwards, making a small thunk. Everything smells damp. Everything feels damp. Peering out the window above the sink, it is revealed to Barry that, outside his own residence, the world continues to spin. In his neighbor’s house, the lights flick on. A car pushes black sludge to the side of the road, and Barry watches as its twin headlights fade into the distance. He splashes water on his face straight from the tap and nearly gasps from how cold it is. Barry can’t feel his toes, and his ears are long gone. He starts digging through the cupboards in search of anything he could pass off as breakfast, but he knows he should have

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done the grocery shopping three days ago. He subconsciously avoids opening the fridge, knowing that the light would burn his eyes. There’s a knock at the door and Barry knows exactly who is on the other side. Not a good thing or a bad thing, he tells himself. Not a good thing or a bad thing. In his thin wifebeater and shamrock boxers, Barry isn’t sure if the door is unlocked but he’s very sure he doesn’t want to answer it. “Come on in,” he yells. Actually, he tries to yell it but the words catch in his throat and come out mottled, half whispered. The person outside knocks again and Barry screws his eyes up tight. “Come on in.” The door is shoved open, and a burst of icy air rushes into the house. Barry does his best to keep from shivering, to let the icy air wash over his body. Neil wipes off his boots and slams the door shut. “Dad?” “Back here.” “Still at it with the Santas, huh?” Barry isn’t quite sure how to respond to that. On one level, he wonders why he would ever give up on such a crucial part of the Kowalczyk Yuletide Season. But the downright ludicrous nature of sharing a home with hundreds of facsimiles of the same solitary saint (and a largely fictionalized one, no less) is far from lost on Barry. Neil makes himself comfortable (with minimal oration), and Barry makes his way back upstairs to get dressed. Even with two pairs of wool socks, jeans, two tee shirts, a flannel shirt, a heavier flannel shirt, coveralls, his best hiking boots, and his coat, he’s not quite sure he’ll be warm enough. Barry’s better-safe-than-sorry nature is all his mother’s fault. Neil’s voice comes up muffled through the floorboards. “You know, Flipper is still waiting out in the car.” Barry remains silent, pulling on a third neon orange hunting hat. He’s already sweating underneath all his layers. Barry and Neil finally make it out to the car, Barry pushing Flipper to the back seat. Flipper makes no conversation and the car refuses to warm up. Barry pulls his collar up and stares down at the snow melting off his boots and soaking into the grey carpet. Nothing moves outside. The car’s clock is broken. Barry is nervous in the silence. “How’s Marie?” “She broke up with me, Dad.” “When?” This is news to Barry. Neil and Marie had been together for years, now. Not that many years, but years. “Like 2 months ago. How did you not know this?” “I don’t know, I–” “Dad, I told you. I remember telling you.” Barry is speechless. Stunned, even. And he definitely doesn’t remember hearing about Marie. Flipper remains completely stoic throughout all of this, but Barry can’t exactly blame him. In fact, it’s a trademark Barry move. “I’m sorry, I–” “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” “No, really, I should–” “Dad. It’s fine.” Neil stares dead ahead out the windshield, absolutely refusing to look Barry’s way. He turns to his left to check for cars in the opposite lane behind him. There are none. Even in the car, his breath fogs up the glass. Barry can’t tell if he’s really angry or just cold. That’s stupid. Of course he’s angry.

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An hour of driving, two pit stops, and a check-in later, Barry is brushing the snow away from the base of a tree. He sets down his rifle, eases himself down against the tree, and looks up at the sky as the sun is just barely starting to rise. They’ve been out maybe two hours and have seen nothing. Barry is starting to worry they’ll all go home empty-handed. Neil and Flipper are talking two hundred and seven feet away, at the foot of a creek. Neil seems to be gesturing. Barry’s not surprised. Neil is a risk taker, and a stubborn one at that, but Flipper’s been hunting all his life. He has all the experience here. Neil notices Barry watching and points northwest. They disappear into the trees and Barry is alone with his thoughts and his mild indigestion. Barry has never been a huge fan of hunting, at least not in practice. In theory, it doesn’t sound too bad. Going out with your friends. Being quiet. Maybe shooting something. But it’s the aching feet, the relentless cold, the sense of competition that always got to him. None of these things appeal to him at all. Barry is drawing in the snow with a stick. A man? No, too short. Barry salvages it with a tail and ears. There, now it’s a monkey. A nice happy monkey. Barry remembers hearing as a kid about pirates that used to keep monkeys on their ships as exotic pets. Some of them developed a taste for rum, and to this day, in select parts of Mexico and Central America, any alcoholic beverage that isn’t in a hand will disappear into thin air within a matter of seconds. Barry made the monkey’s eyes into little spirals and drew a few bubbles above his head. Perfect. The crack of a high-powered rifle quickly disseminates any and all boozy primate related fantasies. Barry jumps, takes a deep breath, and leans back against the tree. He knows he should go help Neil and Flipper with their newfound deer carcass, but he decides he’ll wait until one of them calls him over. Barry is not in the mood to move at the moment. A stream of profanity crosses the stream, with Neil not far behind it. His foot slips off the log and into the icy water, only serving to piss him off more. Flipper, however, is completely undeterred and tromps right through (albeit quickly). Frostbite, not so much as a word but a concept, briefly crosses the tracks of Barry’s train of thought. He does his best to block out the blue cloud hovering over his son’s head. “Missed it. I missed an easy shot.” “Are you sure it was that easy?” “Amateur. Right, Flipper?” Flipper is silent. Neil tries to storm off, but, finding this rather difficult in the snow, ends up with sort of an agitated hop. Barry’s alcoholic monkey friend doesn’t stand a chance. In seconds, his tipsy innocence is crushed by Neil’s soaked left foot. Barry opens his mouth, takes in a sharp breath, but stops himself. Even through six layers, his arms feel numb. Before Barry knows it, Neil is gone. Flipper sits down next to Barry, digging at the snow absentmindedly. Barry wipes his nose on his jacket sleeve, leaving a snail-trail of snot that freezes and crackles off. They both sit in silence for nineteen minutes. Flipper sneezes twice and the rushing of the stream almost covers the ringing in Barry’s ears. Another twelve minutes pass. Barry tries to pack together a snowball, but the snow is too powdery. He throws it at a tree and it disintegrates in midair (although it would have missed completely anyway). Barry feels like he should be worried about Neil, but he’s actually somewhat glad that he isn’t, which is making him feel way more guilty than anything else. This almost motivates him enough to actually get up and go after Neil, but he justifies not doing so by imagining what would happen if he himself got lost. This makes Barry wonder if he’s really just lazy and doesn’t want to go after his son. Needless to say, Barry is a complete mess right now.

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Barry isn’t sure if it’s him mustering up the energy or if it’s the guilt mustering up itself, but either way he somehow finds the gumption to stand up and brush himself off. Is gumption the right word? Flipper stays seated, looking up with a wholeheartedly bored expression. “I’m going to go look for Neil.” As Barry starts walking, he hears Flipper grunt and start after him. The sun is shining at full capacity, almost blinding Barry when reflected off the snow. They walk for 37 minutes, going nowhere in particular. They see 2 deer, one a doe. Barry briefly spots the second through the sight on his rifle, but decides not to fire. He just isn’t particularly motivated to drag a deer home today. Although he hates to admit it, he’s kind of glad Neil wasn’t there to see him bail. It would have pissed him off to no end. Speaking of pissed off, Barry tried to brainstorm ways to get him off the hook when it came to the whole Marie situation. They were serious about each other, but Barry could tell she wasn’t the one and he thinks Neil could too. He never really properly met her, Neil was always too embarrassed to bring her over to Barry’s house for dinner or the like. He had good reason to be embarrassed. But then, Barry realizes it’s pretty selfish to just look for a way off the hook. To not get rid of the proverbial hook itself. He should’ve been more involved, both when they were together and when it ended. Not involved, per se. Just more involved. Barry tries yelling for Neil, somewhat embarrassed by his own childlike yelps. Flipper offers no help, only clears his throat occasionally. Barry quits yelling. He’s not quite sure how much longer he can continue lifting his legs up high enough to goose-step through the snow, but he knows he’ll have to sit down soon. Barry is not exactly who he used to be, and neither is Flipper, for that matter. In fact, he’s surprised how fast he gives up. He isn’t even worried about Neil anymore, he’s just dead tired. He feels like his blood is running cold. Even his tongue is numb. But, refusing to sit down, he leans up against a tree and catches his breath. It takes Barry a good, long while to catch his breath. Under Flipper’s unrelenting gaze, this brings him no small measure of embarrassment as well. He’s not quite sure how long they stand there. The rush of the stream is gone, and there are no birds to be spoken of. Barry could use a steak right now. His stomach audibly grumbles, and he kicks himself for not eating breakfast. Or not having anything to eat for breakfast. Which was through his own fault. Anyway, there’s definitely something here worth kicking himself for. Frostbite manifests itself again in the form of white noise skirting around the edges of his (admittedly glacial) thought process. He more consciously refuses to acknowledge it this time around. Barry isn’t quite sure how long he stands there, but it’s long enough for him to feel basically normal again, or as normal as one can feel in the cold. He’s staring down at his soaked boots when he hears frost crunching in the distance. Off to his left, a Neil-ish figure struggles over an icy patch. “Neil. Neil.” Barry starts towards him, Flipper remaining seated. Neil waves, somehow still managing to look pissed off. He’s holding a cooler. “Went back to the truck. Grabbed lunch.” “You didn’t have to do that.” “Oh, yeah? Were you gonna do it, then?” Barry isn’t quite sure how to respond to this. Per usual. “Thank you.” Neil scratches at his left eye (a task that manifests itself as no small feat when one is wearing thermal gloves). The three of them sit down and eat until the cooler is empty, not that they needed it to keep anything cool anyway. Neil eats like a man possessed, finishing his food before Flipper is

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even aware of what’s going on. Barry can barely taste a bite of his turkey sandwich, even with all the (halfway frozen) hot sauce he dumps on it. Barry thought hot sauce was supposed to be unfreezable, like alcohol. Can you use a cooler to keep things hot, too? How great would a hot sandwich be right now? He wonders how much heat the digestion process tends to generate. Isn’t a calorie technically used to measure heat? Barry is suddenly wishing he paid attention in his high school biology class. “You see anything while you were out?” “Just a doe. You?” Barry contemplates what to tell his son for 4 seconds, and it’s his silence that gives him away. “You didn’t shoot at it, did you?” “Well, I didn’t want to–” “What’s the whole point of us being out here, then? Why did we throw this whole thing together?” “I guess I shouldn’t have brought it up.” “Right. Don’t bring up hunting on a hunting trip.” Barry finishes the rest of his sandwich, now unsure whether or not Neil is watching him eat. He’s too afraid to look up. Flipper is finished too. What the hell? Does Barry just eat really slow? What’s going on here? He should have remembered Marie. He should have remembered Marie. Neil starts packing the wrappers, plastic sandwich bags, et cetera, back into the cooler. Barry tries to help, but unfortunately it’s not really much of a two man job. Flipper looks as if he may have fallen asleep, and frankly, Barry can’t blame him. “You know, Dad, I’m sorry I interrupted all of your rest and relaxation out here.” “You just disappeared without telling us where you were going. I went looking for you.” Neil walks away, this time leaving the cooler. Barry isn’t about to let him get off again, but he also doesn’t want to carry around a cooler full of trash. Screw it. Barry and Flipper do their best to catch up to Neil, leaving the cooler at the base of a long dead tree. “Neil, hold on.” Neil does not hold on. Barry is really struggling here. The snow is deeper in this part, and his legs are sore. Neil moves ahead like a steamroller, ascending a hill off to Barry’s left with stunning ease. Flipper catches up and they both turn around, watching Barry trip and stumble upwards until he reaches them, hands on his knees, gasping for air. “There’s nowhere to go. We’ve tracked this entire area.” “I know.” Barry’s eyes sting from the cold. He’s certain that these deer are evading their party not by chance, but through an elaborate system of tunnels and hidey-holes, similar to the Viet Cong. Almost a full day of hunting and they’ve only seen two deer? At the beginning of the season? Barry imagines deer knocking a secret pattern into a fake tree with their hooves. A pit opens up in the ground, revealing a long, long ladder descending to a verifiable complex, a city of deer refugees. He imagines them, bustling around in the gas lit caverns, spreading out maps on tables and planning their counter strike. The longer Barry dwells upon this subject, the more realistic it seems. In fact, you’d have to be a fool to not believe in the dangerous deer underground. “Dad.” Barry doesn’t respond. Flipper nudges him back to reality. “You spaced out there for a second.” “Sorry, I was– yeah. I spaced out.”

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The slight, unspoken humor of the situation seems to dissipate Neil’s anger unusually quickly. Or, at least, most of it. Flipper is still winded. Neil has his rifle in hand, fumbling with it somewhat nervously. The three of them stand at the top of the hill in silence. The sun is still beating down on them from directly overhead, a position it’s been in for what feels to Barry to be a disproportionate amount of time. None of the trees seem to cast a shadow. Barry feels like his entire world is being lit up by a flashbulb. After some time, Neil and Flipper wander off again. Barry curses himself for probably like the fourth time that day, but this time for putting off this trip for so long. It’s too late in the year to use a deer call. Maybe he should just talk it out with Neil, ask him what happened. Maybe if he helps Neil get some closure it’ll help defuse some of the tension. But that’s dumb, Neil won’t just forget that Barry forgot. This feels manipulative and selfish. He begins scuffing around at the snow with the heel of his boot, deep in thought, kicking at logs, stomping on twigs. Soon he’s made it back down into the valley, and onto a trail of sorts. He figures he should tell Neil and Flipper where he’s going. Barry looks back at the hill behind him. Never mind. He continues on his way, back to the stream and beyond, past fallen trees, rock pilings, snow banks. He spots one buck and three birds that look like they could be pheasants. Flipper used to hunt pheasants. Well, Flipper used to try to hunt pheasants. Barry walks for at least twenty minutes. Spotting cabins off in the distance, Barry becomes dimly aware that he has entered a no hunting zone. He subconsciously adjust his gun, tightening the strap against his back. Four minutes of walking later, Barry reaches the cabins. They’re clustered together around a fire pit and a couple picnic table, the campground long abandoned. There are six cabins, two of them with caved in roofs. One is almost entirely covered in ancient brown ivy, grasping at the slats between the wood like Barry nudges the shutters open on one of the windows with the tip of his rifle, both falling off their rusty hinges and into the snow in the process. The cabin is filled with grime and dust, illegible graffiti of summer camps gone by fading from the woodwork. There’s an eviscerated raccoon in the corner, ripped up by God-knows-what, mouth agape. Frozen open, for lack of a better word. Barry’s not sure he would’ve even been able to tell what it was where it not for the long, striped tale, virtually untouched in comparison to the rest of the body. Just like taking out trash in the winter, he’s thankful it doesn’t smell. Barry walks for at least another hour. With the campground’s sole inhabitant long behind him, he starts to wonder what Neil and Flipper are up to right now. He wonders whether they’ve noticed that Barry is gone yet or not. Barry knows in the back of his mind that this is facetious, that there’s no way they wouldn’t have tried to check in by now. Unless Neil got a deer, of course. Barry grins, imagining the two of them grabbing the deer by its legs and dragging it back up the hill. But Barry hadn’t heard any shots. They were probably panicking by now, calling Barry’s name, et cetera. Barry doubts that Flipper could keep up his mask of indifference, even in these circumstances. The sun is unrelenting in its attack on Barry’s retinas. His feet are soaked, seemingly all the way down to the bone. Barry should’ve known that going hunting in a pair of boots older than his son was a bad idea. In the snow, no less. At times, it feels like Barry is absolutely blinded, adrift in an ocean of a color too bright to possibly register as white. He covers his face with his hands, watching the spots behind his eyes drift backwards into oblivion. Barry is reminded of the snake from The Jungle Book, the Disney version. Mostly the way his eyes looked whilst hypnotizing his latest victim. Or was the snake the one being constantly hypnotized? Barry can’t quite remember, but the image of blue

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and yellow concentric rings surrounding the pupil is clear in his mind, clearer than anything he can actually see. Neil and Flipper have probably made their way back to the truck by now, zipping down to the park office at a simply absurd speed for a national park, praying the ancient engine doesn’t stall. He pictures them talking to a bored park ranger at a desk, the ranger telling Neil to slow down when he tries to describe the situation. Neil’s thought process tends to go about a mile a minute when he’s stressed. Barry feels almost exactly like when they used to convince him to do shots at family gatherings. He can’t feel anything below his knees. He squints his eyes and the shadows lengthen.

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It's 2:10 Somewhere: A Short Fiction Anthology  

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