EPIC Literary Journal - Spring 2016

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EPIC A Journal of Undergraduate Prose, Poetry, & Visual Arts UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI | VOLUME 15 | SPRING 2016


Elizabeth Arnold



Breanna Payton-Simons


Tonya Eberhard



Jessica Heim-Brouwer


Carlie Procell


Carolyn DeVivo, Anna McMurry, Jenna Allen, Steven Zokal, Lilian Tang, Bailey Conard, Erin Niederberger, Kelly Schoessling, Rosie Siefert, Kayla Thompson, Erica Rose Hampton, Sydney O’Hara


Amanda Porter, Alexandra Stange, Adalberto Aviles, Annabel Ames, Alyssa Gregory, Peyton Stableford, Rose Nash, Sarah Jolley, Maren Lindquist, Michaela Marshall Dungey


Sarah Judd, Emma Quinn, Michaela Flores, Garrett Giles, Kierin Geed, Rebecca Oliver



Haley Boeschen, “This is Ice”


EPIC is the University of Missouri’s undergraduate literary journal published by the organization English at MU (EMU). Submissions are accepted year-round via e-mail at epicsubmissions1@gmail.com. EPIC is funded by the Organization Resource Group. Find more information online at englishatmu.wordpress.com.


To learn more about EMU & EPIC related events or to become a reader, write to englishatmu@gmail.com.


We would like to acknowledge the following ind ividuals and organizations for their support: University of Missouri’s Department of English Mizzou Media The English Department’s Leaders Board Our advisor, Lily Gurton-Wachter

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF | ELIZABETH ARNOLD When stepping outside at noon in August, with the sun directly overhead, you are forced to squint through the light and ignore the sweat that rolls down your back as you push your way through the crowd. You remind yourself that you can’t mind that you are missing a day of the first week of class or that you are continuously jostled by your neighbor’s backpack—that isn’t the point of being here. You are walking out in support of the graduate students—your teachers, your classmates, your coworkers. You feel the crowd pulsing around you as you take in your entire community. Countless bare arms brush against your own as everyone fights to escape the bottleneck as you pass from the sidewalk to the quad. You arrive in front of the columns to hear the announcement of newly placed hurdles facing graduate students as the university directed budget cuts at one of its most integral parts. That is why you are here—to support the many graduate students that contributed significantly to your education. While this seems like a promising moment—there are so many people standing in solidarity— this is just the tip of the iceberg, an omen for what lurks beneath the school year’s surface. This has been a particularly tumultuous period for Mizzou. Despite the unfortunate need for walkouts and rallies for various reasons throughout the year, we have had the fortune to see the vastness of our community. Volume 15 of EPIC reflects thought on the subject of identity within a community, legacy, and living without boundaries—be they physical or mental. We are very fortunate to have a wide array of voices both new and familiar to the magazine. Haley Benson’s “The Doll Maker” tells the story of a woman who falls into the questionable company of an outsider while trying to live up to her family’s legacy. This inquisition into community and the role of otherness is echoed by Alyssa Gregory’s eco-critical prose poem, “Welcome to the Food Chain.” Other pieces, such as Karesse Wilkey’s “Gorilla Happiness,” are more introspective. The muted colors and movement in Wilkey’s piece communicate a precarious state of being that speaks both generally on the topic of human emotion and specifically on the identity of its subject. Olivia Bertel’s poem “tooth & claw” retains an element of community while examining identity and a more immediate, fading relationship. Each piece in this volume of EPIC is dazzling in composition and offers a unique perspective that will delight any reader. This year EPIC has sought to build community and extend the reach of our voices. For the first time, the English Department’s Leaders Board has created the Leaders Board Choice Award (LBCA) to build a bridge between undergraduates and alumni. This award also aims to recognize a piece from each genre that the board finds particularly moving. We are still a magazine by undergraduates for undergraduates, but are happy for this chance to include a wider readership. We thank you, our readers, for being part of our community. Your support makes the arduous tasks of publishing all the more rewarding. We hope these pieces sweep you up and take you on a journey from coast to coast while giving you pause to contemplate the place in which you find yourself.


6 18 24 30 41 57


10 11 23 36 37 38 46 47 49 50

Sun Kissed Sydney O’Hara Lost: Please Return if Found Erin Niederberg Reckless Abandon Jessica Piccone The Doll Maker Haley Benson Post-Its Amy Taylor Where is the Osage? Lance Nichols

A garden on the far side of the moon Paige Lalain BitterrootRiver Paige Lockard tooth & claw Olivia Bertels Clamored and Clanged Emma Quinn Son of Man Carsen Sikyta Centro Erica Eisenberg I Hope When I am Older My Skin is as Soft as My Mother’s Sade Howell Unsettled Caitlin Hamilton To Love Her Simply Alec Raimond The Sailor’s Wife Alyssa Gregory


13 29 53

Soap Opera for Men, Dress-Up for Boys Blake Beck Welcome to the Food Chain Alyssa Gregory Dear Jerry Marshall Reid


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Untitled Natalie Woolf Untitled Devon DeVaughn Gorilla Happiness Karesse Wilkey Daughter of the Woods Heather Hughes Venus de Marlboro Karesse Wilkey Untitled Dani Opal Captain of the Plan B Alex Cavalco Family Austin Fitzgerald Prism Portal Megan Osbahr Underwater Amanda Bradley Automatic Ally Andrew Ballesteros Walking into Town Simon Tatum Headlights Amanda Battmer

SYDNEY O’HARA The setting sun streamed into the room through cream-colored curtains, illuminating the sterile white walls of the hospice room. Bouquets of flowers bloomed on the bedside table with frail paper cards planted on the wood like tombstones. A wrinkled, decaying portrait of a knobby-kneed boy with a royal blue ribbon pinned to his shirt sat on the nightstand. He lay on the bed with a checkered fleece blanket wrapped around his lower half for warmth. His skin was leathered with age. The crow’s feet arched in the corners of his eyes alluded to simpler times, times not yet forgotten. There was a younger man sitting on a chair next to the bed, his head nested in the nook of his arm leaning on the edge of mattress. His shoulders moved up and down, up and down with his heavy breathing. The brown hair on his head was jagged, having not been washed for days, like the bristles of a toothbrush. His clothes were creased and splattered with coffee stains. An untouched cot was pushed into the corner of the room, the pillows unmoved. A woman creaked open the door. Her blue scrubs wished and washed to the end of the bed, her hands finding a grey binder. Flipping the pages, she nodded her head and murmured quick recognitions, pulling a pen out of her left breast pocket to jot down notes. Binder in tow, she waltzed to the heart rate monitor. She reached for the older man’s wrist to search for his pulse to compare it to the pace of the machine, careful not to disturb the man sleeping by the bed. “This is not right.” Adjusting her fingers around his wrist, the woman felt for the signs of life that the monitor clearly believed were there. The machine beeped, beeped, beeped. She moved her hands to the man’s neck placing her pointer and middle finger over his artery, avoiding the scar decorating his skin. Nothing. She felt nothing. “This cannot be right.” At the sound of her voice, the young man woke up and instinctively grabbed his father’s hand. The nurse’s mouth opened in disbelief, as she saw what he did not yet see, a white pulse oximeter taped to


own his pointer finger, the same white pulse oximeter that was tapped to his father’s finger earlier that afternoon. Following her opal eyes, he glared at the white plastic glued to his hand and tried to reason with it. Standing up, the young man wrenched the pulse reader off of his finger sounding a panicked flat line chorus from the machine placed next to his father’s bed. “I didn’t know. I…I didn’t notice.” The sterile white walls turned red with the sunset. Holding a small microphone, the announcer pointed to each of the boy’s limbs calling out the dark flecks of skin by name: two hundred and thirty six, two hundred and thirty seven, two hundred and thirty eight. The sun was at its highest point in the sky radiating heat down onto the stage where the boy and his sisters stood on display at the Founder’s Day Fair. It was only natural that a blue-collar Irish neighborhood would hold an annual freckle counting contest, a contest that the children looked forward to every summer. During the summer months, the neighborhood kids would be outside by sunrise only to return home once the streetlights turned on at sunset. The sun would nurture the freckles on their skin, compelling them to grow darker, thicker, and more pronounced. The flecks of dark skin that embellished the boy’s arms were difficult to count, the spots were so numerous and large that they seemed to form one giant stain on his body, turning his skin a pale brown that faded during the winter months into a creamed ivory like butter. In the beginning of summer, his skin would suffer and burn from the sun, turning red with blisters. His parents could only afford the essentials to take care of their six children: one boy and five daughters. Sunscreen was never deemed an essential and the freckles that graced the Irish clan’s skin was proof of that. Before bed at night his mother would tuck him in, staring at the freckles on her boy’s arm. “Each one is a kiss from God. Each and every

freckle. Remember that.” The announcer moved down the line, having had given up trying to track the clusters on the boy’s arms and face, humoring the rest of the crowd by counting the number of freckles on the other contestants bodies. His sister’s glared at him as a blue ribbon was pinned to his shirt. “First Place Founder’s Day Fair Annual Freckle Counting Contest, 1971.” As soon the fair was over, he and his siblings raced home while the sun began to disappear beneath the horizon. Holding up his ribbon to his mother, she smiled, her teeth crooked and familiar. “My God, you were kissed good this year.” “What did the dermatologist say about that?” He peered over at his son, the glare from the sun leaking through the kitchen window emphasizing the freckled constellations that matched his own spotting on his son’s smooth skin. His father was fingering a mole near where his shoulder and neck meet, a force of habit that grew larger each passing summer. “It’s nothing.” He waved away his son’s concern with his hand. “It’s being removed next week. Nothing to be worried about.” “If its nothing to be worried about, then why is it being removed, Dad?” The man peered out to the sun sinking down behind the trees that lined the backyard of his small, but humble home; a home he worked hard to build for his son. He smiled as the flicker of the streetlights turned on in the neighboring road, signaling for children to fly home. “Son, where I come from, freckles are admired, not removed.” The water sparked orange on the lake as the sun peeked over the pine trees. Wrapped in a checkered fleece blanket, a teenage boy sat droopy eyed in the back of a metal sheet boat, his father picking wriggling worms from a bucket. The boy reach his gloved hand out from under the warmth of the blanket to yield a fishing pole from his father’s hand. His breath steamed out from between his lips. “You remember what to do, right?” The son nodded his head in response, shedding the blanket off of his shoulders to free his arms.

Gripping the handle of the pole with both hands, he drew his arms back and then forward, releasing the line, sending the yellow bobber towards shore near the fresh waterweeds. His father did the same and the pair sat in silence waiting for a fish to nibble on their lines. The sun rose slowly turning the sky rose purple and blue, warming the seats of the small boat. His father handed his son sunscreen to put on his face, ignoring his own skin. “Did you know that the sun used to be a cloud?” Studying his son, the man reeled in his line and casted off again closer towards the shoreline riddled with thick bushes, accidently snagging his hook on a thick branch. The man sighed and peered at the rising sun on the opposite side of the lake. “It was made of gas and dust until finally gravity made it collapse upon itself. Turning it into a disk. Most of the materials were pulled into the center creating what we see now as the sun.” “Where did you learn that?” “Science class.” The father pursed his lips into a slight smile, instinctively touching his neck, right underneath his right ear lobe to feel a newly forming lump bulging underneath his freckled skin. It felt round like the sun. The hospital room walls were plain, all except for a detailed poster of the human throat. The esophagus was painted a deep rose purple hidden beneath blue and red arteries that lined the neck like telephone cables. It looked like a cartoon, something artificial and animated stifling the reality of the room. He was sitting in an examination chair, not unlike a dentist’s chair, that reclined vertically underneath a bright fluorescent light that beamed on his skin. They found the tumor two weeks ago, hidden underneath the same arteries lined on the poster. The doctor’s believed it to be benign with ninety percent certainty. Given his former family’s cancer free health history, they suspected that the tumor was a simple growth, not life threatening, moving and rounding underneath his loose skin. Still they ran tests anyways, searching for cancer cells. He was to be told the results of the test in this room. His son bounced his knees up and down, up and down, the soles of his shoes lightly tapping on the white titled floor. His father’s scratched his throat as he stared at the purple esophagus poster reining over them.


A woman with wild red hair entered the room, her white doctor’s coat flapping around her pleated skirt. Her title was surgeon; the same surgeon that removed the tumor leaving a scar the size of a popsicle stick underneath his right ear lobe. His son rose from his chair stationed in the corner of the room to shake the same hand that wielded a knife to his father’s neck. Holding a folder in her hand, the surgeon moved to the dentist chair feeling the popsicle scar with her finger tips. “This will heal nicely.” Her head bobbed approvingly, admiring her own work. The woman sat down opening up the folder in her hands with heavy fingers. In the movies, white lab coat clad doctors would build up to terminal news, suffocating it behind pleasantries and “how are yous” and optimistic promises. The pair quickly learned that reality is nothing like the movies. “Melanoma. Stage four to be exact. The cells have metastasized, meaning that the cancer has attached itself to other tissues in your neck making it easier for the cancer to spread to the rest of your body.” Benign, benign, benign. “Given your family’s past health history record, I never would have suspected this.” Ninety percent certainty. “You will have to start treatment as quickly as possible. We will need to run more tests to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body before we proceed.” His son hung his head low letting the news wash over him like a tidal wave. The man pursed his lips into a forced smile focused down on his son from his perch on the hospital examination chair, the esophagus poster glooming rose purple around the room. “My God, I must have been kissed good this year.”

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PAIGE LALAIN Bruises bloom on my body like orchids. A stumbling garden, flowers melt above my skin. Fingers chafe my throat, dry heave ‘til flies spill, black. Black as the bile that drips from my teeth. Teeth sharp, teeth peel muscle from bone. I crawl into sewers and eat my limbs. My blood runs fallow. Platelets dribble yellow. Nail a needle in my vein, it’s all oil. Open the oven door. Open the door, the door, the goddamn door. Scratch holes in the scalp, I’ve looked inside my skull. I fished out a fraction; two-thirds, three-fourths. Cranial crater, cadaverous, empty. Have you ever seen a night with no stars? I reach to pluck a dreaming daisy, push it across an onyx sky. I slip into the soil. A planet sheds its shell.

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PAIGE LOCKARD You and I danced around the campfire until our bare feet found one too many splintered pine cones, and the smoke made the air too thick to breathe. So instead, we spun it into pancakes to offer Ursa Major, tied our tent down with the remnants of broken fishing line, and told stories. You’ve lived more lives than I, but assured my naïveté was sweet, and with every shot of whiskey I moved closer to grace, one pirouette away from your mouth. We jumped in the river, fingers tangled, lungs braced for the shock, and let the black water rinse from our skin the smell of scorched cedar. For all I can remember, the sun never came back up. We lived the rest of our days caked in moon-silver dust, forgetting completely the world that spun on, forgetting us too.

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BLAKE BECK The Gateway Wrestling Society roster, on the day it unofficially closed its doors in 2012, consisted of 12 wrestlers: Big E, Billy P. Nile, Blaze, DD Punk, Howie Bootit, Lucha Loco, Master Funkie, Redneck Robbie, Simon Estevez, the Reaper, the Shortie, and Xile. I took on the roles of two of these personas: Estevez, a foul-mouthed Canadian who wore camouflage shorts and red-and-white baseball socks, and the Reaper, a manic-depressive masked man with a penchant for screaming, babbling, and terrorizing the wrestling league. Blake Beck, on the other hand, was the timid, twitchy, and at times incompetent owner of the company. Although he was the league’s authority figure—booking matches, suspending wrongdoers, and mediating disputes— he was often pushed around and overpowered by the wrestlers. He had no character to hide behind. Under the title Missouri Wrestling Kids (MWK), the league had its humble beginnings in the basement of my mother and father’s home, where, unbeknownst to them, my brother and I had constructed a wrestling mat of diarrhea-green couch cushions, a stained mattress (was it pee?), and a ripped and torn comforter that concealed the ring’s musty entrails. Each week we found inspiration on World Wrestling Entertainment’s Monday Night Raw,1 its flagship program, where we would watch wrestlers such as Triple H and Shawn Michaels perform moves like the Pedigree and the Sweet Chin

Music, which, without even thinking about the repercussions, we would imitate between commercial breaks. Little did we know, professional wrestling is fake—or, as the politically correct wrestling fan will say, “pre-determined”—so we used real punches, real kicks, and real Sweet Chin Musics that caused real pain. The first official match in MWK’s short history was a tag team match in which I teamed with my brother to face my neighbors, Lauren and Jacob. At the time we had no characters, but we did have names. I was working as the German Giant, an obese fifth grader with absolutely nothing German about him. My brother, meanwhile, took on the moniker of Triple X, a name he ripped from a professional wrestling tag team in the second-rate company Total Nonstop Action. Our opponents, Lauren and Jacob, were known simply as Jesse and Woody, a nod, as you might suspect, to Pixar’s Toy Story. These were only names back then, expedient aliases that just so happened to be phonetically coherent and culturally relevant combinations of letters. We knew subconsciously, as most children do, who we really were. The match itself was a disaster. It was painful, uncomfortable, and totally unfair. Here I was, the heaviest kid in my class, wrestling—in actuality, fighting—a first grader and his attractive blonde sister who, despite my vehement denial, was my first crush. For the duration of the match I cowered in the corner, begging my brother to tag me out, to give me a break from this brutal and maniacal beating at the hands of Jesse. A beating which, in retrospect,

Unlike their home video releases, the WWE did not put a message at the beginning of their bi-weekly television programs warning, “Don’t try this at home.” 1

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definitely had Freudian undertones. Laughing and grinning, she punched me, kicked me, slapped me, and the entire time, as my body throbbed in pain, I was conscious of every thought, every perception, every sensory experience—the smell of her skin, her hair, her perfume, and the strange feeling that I was watching it all from where my brother stood, outside of the ring—away from it all—where I desperately wanted to be. From there I watched as the Giant, this stranger in the ring, was left to half-heartedly fight back, throwing punches with the utmost difficulty, like his fists were sandbags, and flinging awkward, heavy kicks with legs of Silly Putty. He never did get the tag, and he lost, finally, after Jesse performed CPR, her signature move. But it wasn’t the German Giant who was defeated that day. It was Blake. Things soon got serious. The MWK roster quickly expanded, with Andrew and Doug joining the ruckus, followed by Dan, Dylan, Evan, and Corey, other wrestling obsessed fifth graders who informed us that yes, wrestling was definitely, totally, super fake. We swallowed that pill halfheartedly and proceeded with the day-to-day operations of the league, creating championship belts with cardboard and crayons, designing t-shirts with markers and plain white tees, and picking and fighting over which songs we would use for our entrance music. We were creating an identity, for the league and for ourselves, with bits and pieces of the wrestlers we saw on television. By this time we were prepared for the Birthday Bash, our first official and organized event that was to take place at my 10th birthday party. We created a match card, set up a strobe light, and reconstructed our wrestling ring using slightly cleaner couch cushions. The stage was set, the lines were drawn, the show of shows had arrived. This was our WrestleMania.2

The event itself quickly dissipated into an evening of pizza, video games, and MTV’s Jackass. The highlight of the evening, of my birthday party in general, did not come until later, much later, when we begged Dan to perform a moonsault.3 He was, after all, the first of us to claim to have executed this move successfully, and we fully expected him to do it for us. With a look of uneasiness (peer pressure will do that to you), Dan climbed to the top of my dilapidated coffee table (we didn’t have a top rope, so this was the next best option besides a suspect folding chair) and hesitated for a second or two, swinging his arms back and forth, squatting ever so slightly, gauging the distance between his head and the low ceiling. We all looked on as spectators, adoring fans, carefully watching Dan as if he were Rey Mysterio, WWE’s fan favorite luchadore and underdog known for his highflying and spectacular feats of anti-gravity.4 Dan, as a matter of fact, had quite the collection of Rey Mysterio action figures at the time. He pushed off the coffee table, went airborne for a second, two seconds, his entire body upside down. Thud. The back of his head smacked the edge of the table. Not a breath was heard in the basement. “Uh,” I muttered. “I’ll go get some ice.” I ran upstairs as Dan nods his head. When I returned, ice in hand, he’s sitting in the middle of the ring, hand behind his head, a dark wet spot on the wrestling mat beneath him. I see his hand and it is covered in blood. The room is silent. I wake up my mom, he calls his parents, and the night ends earlier than expected. My dad tells me it’s time to clean up the wrestling ring, to shut MWK’s doors indefinitely and put an end to our dreams of backyard wrestling. We did what we were asked to do. The next day, as my brother and I cleared away the mattress and the couch cushions, we saw the bloodstain, dark and permanent, on the comforter. We removed the blanket, tucked it away in the darkest corner of the basement, and viewed the empty

WrestleMania, the premier event for World Wrestling Entertainment, takes place annually in either March or April, attended by over 70,000 wrestling fans each year. The first Birthday Bash drew an estimated crowd of seven. 3 The moonsault, innovated by Mando Guerrero, is a backflip from the top rope onto an opponent lying supine on the wrestling mat. 4 At 5’7”, 175 pounds, Rey Mysterio, a former World Heavyweight Champion, is remarkably smaller than the average professional wrestler. A good example of the average professional wrestler is the 6’5”, 250 pound Randy Orton, whom Mysterio defeated at the 2006 Royal Rumble. 2

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spot where the ring once lay, bare and exposed, an ugly expanse of gray carpet.

Middle school arrives and Andrew gets a trampoline. Commonly used for jumping, loafing, or stargazing at night, our first thought was, a wrestling ring! Despite his ubiquitous warnings—“If you guys get hurt on that thing, it’s going to be on my ass!”— Andrew’s dad was carefree enough to let us use the deathtrap for wrestling, provided we do it when he or his wife is home. Though he may have told us more, about safety, his high school wrestling days, the dangers of unfettered capitalism, we had no time to listen. We immediately set to work creating Extreme Wrestling Kids. A cast of characters was assembled. Andrew was Dr. Funkie, a lovable hippie who entered the ring to the popular Lipps Inc. song “Funkytown” and donned a tie-dye headband. Evan was Big E, a cocky SOB who would end up being the longest reigning EWK Champion. Dan was the skullcap wearing DD Punk, a degenerate and rebellious teenager and a member of K-X, with Big E. I was Simon Estevez, who was then the manager and lackey of K-X before defecting to Canada and creating the Canadian World Order5 (a rip-off the 90s wrestling faction New World Order). Doug was the Freak, a dude who made up for his lack of a tangible, fixed personality—and, with his basketball shorts and whatever shirt he just so happened to wear that day, formal attire—with his impulsive quirks. And finally, Corey was Xile, a loner whose long hair and all-black get-up could have easily passed as “emo” back then. Matt and Jeremy, who joined the league shortly after its inception, were Justin Sane and the Shortie, respectively. Their names should speak for themselves. All of our characters were, at first, caricatures, exaggerated versions of ourselves that had some truth to them. Andrew had long hair. Corey really

was shy. The Shortie actually was short. But, through name change after name, from EWK to St. Charles Hardcore Wrestling, SCHW to Gateway Wrestling Society, as the characters became more complex, as new characters debuted, as characters befriended, betrayed, and battled each other, things were lost. Estevez went Canadian, but he didn’t have the accent. The Freak affected a Southern accent and became Redneck Robbie, but he lived in the suburbs. Evan added Lucha Loco to his repertoire, but he wasn’t Hispanic. We were only playing dress-up.

Gateway Wrestling Society’s two final shows took place the summer before our junior year of high school. After a hiatus of about two years, we decided it was time to return to the squared circle. We crafted a story to explain what happened: we crashed a plane, suffered memory loss, built a ring out of trash, and reopened the league. With our first two shows, we were to crown the new GWS Heavyweight Champion, with the intention of having more shows in the near future. It’s the Reaper’s last match in the league, but he doesn’t know it yet, and no one else does either. His theme song blasts from the boom box, an ancient thing covered in dust and prone to skipping. The music is that of the Undertaker’s, one of the most famous professional wrestlers in the United States, a 6’10” giant who wears all black, walks to the ring in total darkness, and rolls his eyes to the back of his head. His arms are covered in tattoos, his hair is jet black, and he floats to the ring deliberately, like a ghost searching for business he may have left unfinished. He does, in fact, have some unfinished business left to tend: his kayfabe6 brother, Kane, burned down their house as a child and killed their parents. The Reaper’s brother Blaze committed this same act of arson and murder. When the music kicks into high gear after a se-

The C.W.O. would be comprised of Simon Estevez, Psycho Seth (later Billy P. Nile), and Howie Bootit. Kayfabe is a term used by professional wrestling pundits to refer to pre-determined matches, storylines, and characters that are portrayed as true or genuine. When a wrestler breaks character, he is said to have “broken kayfabe.” 5 6

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ries of bell tolls, he makes his entrance, stomping through the curtain, a bed sheet split in the middle and spray-painted with the symbols of adolescent rebelliousness and the acronym G.W.S. But it isn’t the Undertaker, it’s a boy, short, plump, costumed in the black-and-white striped pajamas of a prisoner. He wears the menacing mask of the luchadore La Parka.7 He walks like a penguin, attempting to affect the same air of deliberation as the Undertaker while also screaming his head off in a pubescent and shaky voice (a homage to independent wrestler Delirious, another influence). He spots the cameraman, rushes toward him, and yells something incoherent and violent. The cameraman, standing in as the commentator, makes a comment about this strange character. The wrestler’s name is the Reaper. He is from Parts Unknown.8 He is insane. That is all the cameraman seems to know about him. This is all the Reaper knows about himself. Finally he reaches the ring, a dilapidated mess of mattresses, plywood, and carpet padding, with a blue tarp to top it all off. The mattresses, plucked from the garbage of neighbors, vary in size, creating a lumpy and uneven mountain range the contestants must traverse throughout their match. It’s an upgrade from the league’s former ring, the aforementioned frayed trampoline with missing springs, which sits to the left of the new one. It’s now used as a turnbuckle of sorts, reserved for death-defying aerial maneuvers like the frog splash or the cross body. The wrestlers do not neglect it, this old friend of theirs. In the ring stands a boy of small stature, billed affectionately and fittingly as the Shortie. He is the Reaper’s opponent, and today, on this scorching, sticky day in August, they’re facing off, the winner advancing to the next round of the Gateway Wrestling Society Heavyweight Championship Tournament. A shot at championship gold is on the line, as almost any wrestling commentator would say. The bell rings and the match begins with the two locking up in a collar-and-elbow tie up, a tradition-

al start for any wrestling match. The two obviously know the structure, the science, the art, behind it all, and they should. Since fifth grade, they’ve studied professional wrestling, watching it bi-weekly, mapping out matches with their action figures, exploring the history and lore behind the squared circle. They know what they are doing. Minutes into the match, the Shortie lifts his opponent so that he is parallel to his shoulder and the ground, the Fireman’s Carry. The Reaper acts as if he is struggling, squirming, kicking his legs to no avail, attempting to escape with all his might. The Shortie doesn’t give. He flips the Reaper over his right shoulder, slamming him head first, neck first, legs in the air, onto the wrestling mat, onto the thin layer of carpet padding and worn mattress that separates the wrestlers from the cold, unforgiving ground. The force of the impact on his body scrunches the Reaper up into something anatomically repulsive, a big ball of human, and he gets a taste of his padded knees. The cameraman audibly shudders behind his mother’s camcorder. The audience goes silent. The Shortie goes for the pin and the ref starts his count. He kicks out before three. I search for the Reaper, but he isn’t there. He’s back in Parts Unknown. It was only me in the ring – an overweight teenager with a collection of insecurities and an ugly expanse of gray carpet. I watch it all from where the cameraman stands.

There are actually two La Parkas. The first, and most well known La Parka, was Adolfo Tapia, who relinquished the name in 2003 when he left the Mexican wrestling promotion AAA. The new La Parka, Jesus Escobedo, was known as La Parka Jr. before taking up his current name. 8 Parts Unknown is home to the most zany and strange individuals in professional wrestling. Its most notable occupants include Doink the Clown, the Ultimate Warrior, and Kane. 7

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ERIN NIEDERBERG Felicity Wallis sold her soul to the devil for a cat. But not just any cat. She wanted to make that clear, and she did, with some frequency. “That cat was all I had,” she would say, jabbing her finger onto the surface of the table for punctuation. “All. I. Had. Left.” It was true. Her husband had died a few years back. Her children had grown old and moved away. So the neighborhood didn’t argue. Certainly the cat had been hit by a car, and no one had held out much hope that he would recover. But miracles happen, and modern medicine has made a lot of advances. The devil had nothing to do with it. My father, Mike, was the one who hit the cat, and he never forgave himself. “He ran in front of my truck,” he said. “I didn’t see him until it was too late. What was I supposed to do?” “There was nothing you could have done,” everyone assured him. Henry had the run of the neighborhood. Felicity had never believed in keeping her animals inside or declawing them. The state of her furniture bore proof of that. Henry roamed where he pleased, darting across streets and picking fights with dogs with abandon. He seemed to take the nine lives legend as fact, to the dismay of poor Mike when he felt a thump against his front bumper. Mike worked as a delivery man. He’d been helping a young woman with her move from one part of the neighborhood to the other, and the back of his truck was stuffed full of furniture held down with bungee cords. An upbeat tune streamed from the radio and he hummed along, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. He’d always liked driving. Earlier in life he had run people’s errands for free if they asked. The errands only became a job after his divorce, when he could no longer scrape by on my mother Eleanor’s librarian salary. He didn’t make much, but he didn’t complain. Money was money, and he would do anything to get behind the wheel. “I get to go anywhere,” he would

20 — E P I C

say, slapping the side of his truck with a familiar hand. “How many people can say that?” He kept up the beat on the steering wheel – tap, tap, tap – and cruised down the road until a streak of gray flew past his peripheral vision and his next tap was interrupted by a thud. “Shit.” Mike had hit a few things before – small animals, opossum and squirrels. Part of the risks of the job, he told me. He had never hit a deer, but he’d had to slam on the brakes a few times on misty mornings or evening drives to let them bound across the road in a flurry of graceful shadows. Now he stopped and jumped out the driver’s side, heedless of oncoming traffic. Felicity’s cat stretched out on the side of the road, eyes closed, chest heaving. Blood clotted the gray fur on his hind leg. Henry looked fragile and broken lying there on the pavement. If not for the animal’s breathing, Mike would have thought that he had killed him. The contents of one woman’s life strained under flexible cords piled up in his truck, but the center of another woman’s life lay gasping in the dirt in front of him. Felicity’s face went white when he brought Henry’s body to her, and he was afraid she’d drop of a heart attack right then and there. Instead, she rallied herself and called the animal hospital. Mike stood holding her pet and feeling blood smear on his hands. Henry’s heart thumped and jumped erratically. “Keep going,” he whispered to him. “Stay alive.” No one thought he would make it, not even the vet technician who murmured soothing words to a distraught Felicity while Mike washed his hands in the waiting area bathroom. The impact had broken several ribs, and there was internal bleeding to worry about. They’d do everything they could, but sometimes animals died. “You can go home,” Felicity told Mike when he emerged from the restroom, wiping his damp hands off on his pants. “You don’t have to stay here. I’ll be fine on

my own, and I know that you’re a busy man.” He argued long enough to keep his dignity and then retreated, relieved. The woman’s furniture needed to be delivered, after all. The next day, he called. Henry wasn’t doing well. He kept his distance from the phone the day after that but picked it up during the evening, compelled by a sense of duty. “How is he?” he asked, expecting tearful accusations. Felicity sounded exhausted, but excitement thrilled underneath her words. “He’s doing much better.” “Thank God,” he said. Felicity responded with a laugh. Sometimes in the telling Mike would try to replicate it, mimicking the high trill of an old woman pushed nearly past the limits of her endurance, something bright but curiously brittle. “Trust me, Mike. God had nothing to do with it.” After Henry pulled through, Mike never went past Felicity’s house without some sort of treat in his pocket. Shredded ham, tuna fish, turkey… between Mike and Felicity, that cat was the most spoiled animal in the state. If another truck had hit him, the truck would have crumbled first. Whenever Henry waddled past, Mike would smile with gentle benevolence while regarding his handiwork. “That’s one mistake,” his smile seemed to say, “that I put right.” Some people would say it was the only thing Mike did right. My mother certainly thought so, or professed to. Whatever she believed, between them they raised me well. I grew up with a librarian mother who knew everything and a delivery driver father who could go anywhere. My mother read me stories about magical feats and fantastic lands while I curled up in bed. She also read to me from kiddie science books – she believed that good education started young – but no amount of details on evolution or tectonic plates could steal the magic from my view of the world. In stories, anything could happen. Control the story, and you controlled everything. Telling the tales made her magical too. With Mike, I really traveled – at least around the block. He plunked me down in the passenger seat of his truck and drove me around town, joking, “We’re going to drive to Canada. To China! Think your mom will mind?” She did, a little, but beyond checking that my seatbelt was securely fastened she didn’t protest. “Children need their family,” she said. “I won’t get in the way of that.” I believed my dad was special then. He crafted fanciful stories about his travels, showing me road maps that I embellished with crayon drawings of volcanoes and dragons. When he fumbled through a magic trick and pulled a dime from my ear, I clapped. I’d seen the

coin glinting in his palm, but that didn’t spoil the fun. Other kids would say, “Mike drove that over for us,” and I’d say proudly, “Mike’s my dad.” My mother didn’t think kids should refer to their parents by first names, but it stuck. “He’s not magic,” she said when I uncurled my fingers around a coin, but she took the sweaty offering anyway and put it in a jar kept in the kitchen cupboard. When it filled enough, she let me take a handful and buy a treat for myself, courtesy of him. The two of them taught my imagination to run wild, even if I physically stayed exactly where I’d started – working through first to twelfth grade in the same school district, finding summer jobs in town, taking the occasional road trip never more than two hundred miles away. Over the summer and on the weekends before I left for college, I volunteered at the local animal shelter. One day, I presented a tiny lump of fur to an old woman in need of a friend. That, of course, brings us back to the cat. It seems like, sooner or later, everything comes back to the cat. Felicity never blamed Mike, or at least she never told me if she did. “I’m grateful to him for stopping,” she said. “Some people wouldn’t have. Then who knows how long Henry would have been out in the road?” I visited Felicity regularly. My volunteer outreach activities involved bringing animals to visit the elderly, but it was more than that. I liked spending time with her. My own grandparents had died when I was young. My memories were the soft-edged ones of a child’s, tinged with fear to see family members reduced to wraiths with frail bodies and wandering minds. Felicity was nothing like that. She was lively, with a sense of humor that often surprised me into laughter. When she picked up an animal, she held it in her hands as delicately as a baby bird. She hadn’t planned to adopt after her last pet died, fearing the animal would outlive her, but when I brought Henry to visit – then only a scrawny kitten dug out of the gutter – she couldn’t give him up. Maybe he knew I’d done him a favor, because he always greeted me when I came to the door, running toward me with high pitched cries of delight, his tail drawing happy flourishes in the air. Now Henry pawed at my shins. I lifted him up onto my lap, taking care to avoid the bare skin on his hind legs. “He’s healing nicely,” I said. “It’s amazing

E P I C — 21

what vets these days can do.” “I prayed for him,” she said, looking at me sidelong with her bright eyes. I’m sure she wondered how much my father had told me, and whether my comment was an attempt to fish for more information. “I asked God to spare him, but he kept getting worse. So I told the devil I wasn’t too proud to beg, and that’s when Henry turned around.” I believed in God in a casual, weekly sort of way that kept the devil in for flavoring more than anything else. To me, Satan occupied the same mythological space as Santa Claus. Felicity came from an older tradition. For her, the devil hung over your shoulder and whispered in your ear. Her way of looking at the world fascinated me, so I asked her, rubbing the velvet of Henry’s ear, “What’ll it cost you?” She shrugged. “I didn’t get into specifics. It’s not like he answered back.” “I think your soul is the usual bargain.” “I suppose that means I can misbehave as much as I want now, then,” she said, and her wrinkled face split into a grin as I laughed. Henry rode out the jolt on my lap, digging his claws a little into the fabric of my pants for balance. Our conversation turned elsewhere, and I didn’t know how seriously Felicity meant any of it. No one else did either. “Watch your back, Mike,” a few people said at the bar. “The devil’s coming for you.” The pastor mentioned it in his sermon as a joke. No one held it against Felicity, but everyone kept an eye on Henry as he roamed around the neighborhood. We didn’t expect him to grow horns or summon Satan, I don’t think, but we were waiting for something. A sign to prove, one way or another, the truth about Felicity’s story. Legends sprang up around the cat. He never walked past the church door on Sundays. He didn’t get wet in the rain. He’d healed a blind man with a touch of his paw. Felicity got a good laugh out of that last one. We all did. The story of the devil and Felicity’s cat became one more thing to tie the neighborhood together, a ribbon of humor twined around our ordinary lives. Then one day my father, who I had believed could go anywhere, went. The facts of the case are as follows: I was one of the last people to talk to him. I was in my freshman year of college, and I was coming home for break the next day. He sounded excited to see me. We talked about having lunch.

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His landlord saw him drive out a little past eight in the morning. At eleven fifteen, someone found his car sitting empty and abandoned at the side of the road. No one ever saw him again. My mother was crying when I got home. I wanted someone to blame. “Why are you crying?” I demanded. “You hated him.” “It was more complicated than that.” “You never acted like it,” I snapped. It wasn’t true, and I didn’t mean it. It was complicated – too complicated for the story I wanted to slot us into, the one with a villain I could see. We fought a little, but it took too much energy, and people kept up a constant presence darting in and out of our lives to offer fluttering bits of sympathy. My mother and I had always grieved like a lake freezing over: ice growing into itself and locking everything dark and messy underneath. We made peace, sitting vigil in the kitchen with mugs of hot chocolate, watching the phone. Whenever it rang, we both jumped for it. Soon we had developed a code of hand signals comprised from quick flicks of the fingers and wrist. No news. Unrelated. No news. For the first few nights I prayed, kneeling at the foot of the childhood bed that no longer felt like mine. “Bring him back,” I asked God. “Let him be ok.” Like Felicity, I received no answer to my prayers. One night, I brushed my teeth and slipped under the covers. A wadded up tissue sat on the pillow next to me. I grabbed it and threw it against the wall, where it bounced off a poster of Middle Earth and knocked one of the thumbtacks loose from the wall. After watching the paper hang pathetically sideways, I got up and pulled the other tack out. The map slid to the floor, where it crumpled in on itself and hid the contours that had filled my childish fantasies. Retreating under the covers and lying rigid, I told myself, “My father’s gone. I’m not going to be a kid about it.” The new blank space on my wall drew my eyes until I forced them closed. People held off for a few days as a sign of respect, but eventually I started hearing the murmurs. Those jokes about the devil being after Mike weren’t as funny now. Neighbors didn’t stop by Felicity at the community center to engage in conversation. No one bent

down to give Henry a scratch on the chin or a rub on the back. While standing in line at the grocery store, I heard someone call Felicity “that old witch”. I turned around, the carton of milk in my hand following the motion with a slosh. “Don’t call her that.” “It was your father who disappeared.” The speaker was a boy a few years younger than me. He stared at me, his defiance tinged with fear of confronting an older college student. “She had nothing to do with it. Don’t be ridiculous.” His friend put a hand on his arm. She smiled wryly at me, a sort of ‘the things these people believe’ kind of expression. I had made the same kinds of faces myself when the devil jokes got too out of hand. “He didn’t mean anything by it.” “He’d better not have,” I said, and slammed the milk down on the belt. Most people didn’t mean anything by it. It was just rumors, jokes, a way to add acceptable mystery and horror to the mystery and horror natural to someone vanishing a few miles from their own home. We didn’t want to imagine that Mike had been murdered, or kidnapped, or had stood up and left. The devil was easier to blame. Kids threw soda cans at Henry exactly once, as far as I know. On that occasion, I threw the soda cans back with far more accuracy. They missed by an inch, since the kids had missed, but I made my point. “Fuck off,” I screamed at them, voice wobbling, the ice I’d locked myself in threatening to crack. They fled, holding back tears, as I was holding back mine. I carried Henry back to Felicity’s. He was heavier than he had been when I’d first brought him there, but he had the same docility. He didn’t struggle as I grunted under his weight and adjusted my grip. “You’re a nice kitty,” I told him. “You have a better temper than I do. Next time anyone does something like that, bite them.” He purred. “Children will be children,” Felicity said when I delivered him. “Most people are kind.” “Maybe you should keep him inside for a while.” The date of my departure loomed close, and I didn’t like to think of him roaming the neighborhood unprotected. The same stubborn expression appeared on Felicity’s face as when people questioned her shredded furniture. “He likes being outdoors. He’ll stand at the door and cry if I keep him in.” I looked at the gray colossus sprawled out on her lap and dripping off either side. “I guess he can take

care of himself.” He did. He outlasted Mike, anyway. When I went back to college, Henry had reestablished his run of the town. Even without me to defend him, I thought he’d be fine. My mother promised to call me weekly. “If I have any news I’ll call you right away,” she said. “You’ll be the first to know.” We hugged long and hard before I got into my car, and I had trouble adjusting my mirrors because I kept blinking back tears. Leaving home was always painful, but leaving a hometown where Mike didn’t live anymore hurt more. College passed. My calls home dwindled to every other week and then once a month, as news didn’t come and didn’t come. At first my mother opened with the upbeat, “They’re still looking,” but eventually she couldn’t anymore. The absence felt like killing him all over again. Was he dead? I thought so. I wanted to think so, anyway. Sometimes I daydreamed, crafting elaborate fantasies where I turned a corner and came face to face with him, or he washed up aboard a handmade raft on some distant shore. My mother had raised me on stories. I couldn’t resist constructing my own. Whenever those ideas came into my head, though, I pushed them away. I had to stop fantasizing. I was an adult now, and Mike was dead. That felt better than thinking that he’d left us on purpose, or that someone had taken him away and kept him prisoner. Some things were worse than dying. Besides, if he was dead, I could stop looking. I didn’t have to live my life hoping he’d come back. I didn’t understand how anyone had the energy for that. Doing double takes and checking every familiar face in the crowd, surfing news sites every night… it would kill me too. I told myself these things, but I still jumped at ringing telephones. Felicity died a few months after my graduation. We had been close during my high school years, and I felt that I should make an appearance. Once I arrived, I regretted it. The house, packed with distant relatives and pot luck dishes, was stifling. Who were these people? Did they even know her? Even the coffin – sitting in state at the front of the funeral home’s viewing room, swathed in its own polished aura – made me angry. Her adult children gathered around it, and I glared at them

E P I C — 23

from the corner. Why did they get a body to bury? They didn’t deserve one. They’d never been there for her before. Near the end of the visitation, I mustered the courage to walk up to the coffin. The smell of flowers was overwhelming. I tried not to think too hard about what it was covering up. Felicity didn’t look asleep. She looked dead. There was a peace to her anyway, a serenity I imagined had been painstakingly molded by funeral professionals. At the end, had she believed she was going to hell? Did she think her intervention had tipped the cosmic scales? Looking at the calm in her face, I thought that it might not be so bad, sometimes, to believe. With a whisper, I paid my respects to a woman from another time, when they believed in monsters and miracles. Then I retreated to bury my face in a pamphlet, eyes prickling, ice melting into something that choked my throat. I spent most of the funeral proceedings with Henry in my lap. He was getting on in years, but he had life left in him. Felicity’s children had lives of their own. None of them wanted a cat, so I volunteered to take him. I’d made Felicity a promise by encouraging her to sign the adoption papers, despite her fears of her animals outliving her in her old age. Now I had a duty to make sure someone took Henry in. He took maneuvering to fit into a cat carrier these days. During the ride home, he wailed. Maybe he thought he was going to the vet, but I preferred to think that he wanted Felicity. “I miss her too,” I said. “I’m sorry.” Henry got along with my own cats all right. He even purred a few times. I thought he was happy, but after a few days, he ran away. I called for hours, but he never returned. Maybe he tried to go home, although it’s a long walk for an old cat, and no one has reported seeing him. Maybe he went looking for Felicity. I hope he found her. Sometimes my mother and I talk about the cat, about Felicity, about my father. We wonder, in a way that is both joking and isn’t, whether the devil was involved after all. I keep an eye on the telephone. The facts of the case are as follows: We don’t know.

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I’d like to have a better ending to this story, but there isn’t one. No magic ring to cast into the volcano to make the monsters go away, no last scouring of evil left behind. In a proper story, Mike would show up again. Henry would come home. I don’t have anything that satisfying. Sometimes you have to stop waiting for a happy ending and turn the last page. It’s been a few years since Felicity died. I don’t jump when the phone rings anymore, but I never let it go to the answering machine either. Pasted up advertisements looking for a lost cat peel off telephone poles, their paper ragged, text blurred. The phone number is indiscernible. No one ever answered. When I go on walks, I check the gutters where Henry came from, in case he ends up there again. Gutters collect all sorts of things, things lost and left behind, but I don’t expect much. After all, it is easier to stop looking. There is relief in letting go. My mother reminds me that after a while you need to give up. But sometimes I put a bowl of food out on the back steps, in case he comes back.

OLIVIA BERTELS the day you say that you might leave i fracture like the tooth of your brother, the one with a cap from that time he fell skateboarding. it comes out if he bites hard enough, i know. every time i think of you leaving i imagine myself as tooth & i bite down so hard crown comes off. every time, i firmly place it back in the right spot & tell myself it’s for the best - i need to learn how to let go. the day you say that you might leave with him, the boy like acid, i leak like my parents’ faucet & think if i place myself in just the right position, water will disappear. the positioning proves impossible - i twist & turn & hold myself delicate but water still comes. i think of the laborious passage of time: i will fade & fade & fade. i will become face & then name & then memory of a girl you loved, once, a girl that bruised & demanded, in her own quiet way, too much. face & then name & then leaking faucet. i think of you as my quiet place, the place no one can find me. i think of the summer you held me like bird with broken wing, delicate & present. i long to reach out to you, boy of pulse and pain. when we say goodbye, i will quiet the longing as it grows arms to wrap around you, claws to snarl & snare, & i will smile & laugh & i will tell myself it’s for the best - i need to learn how to let go.

E P I C — 25

JESSICA PICCONE I woke up yesterday morning pressed against your father’s chest, our sex seeped into his sheets. I watched him sleep for a moment, noticing things about him that I hadn’t the night before under the dim lights of the bar and the influence of tequila: the freckles across his cheekbones, the length of his eyelashes. He slept, snoring lightly and I crept quietly around his bedroom, gathering my strewn clothes. I was in a hurry to leave before he woke up. Your father seems like the kind of man who would have kissed my forehead and blushed as he made me breakfast, unable to let things go. All my life, I’ve let things go: jobs, lovers, cities, little pieces of myself, a concrete life. Now I hitchhike my way across the highways. I ride in the passenger seats of semis next to truck drivers who have travelled millions of miles, but never left the Midwest, trapped in tedious routes from Kansas to Nebraska and Missouri to Arkansas. Plains upon plains of plainness. I refuse to live that way. I refuse to settle so passively, to accept complacency. I am not homeless. I am a drifter. I live wherever I am. Whenever I get the feeling, I leave. The feeling usually comes when the season changes or when I get tired of the locals’ accents. Sometimes it comes when I can’t stand to smell the salty sea air of the ocean or the feeling of the mountain air whipping though my hair any longer. It is a fidgety feeling like I’ve had one too many espressos and my blood is jittery beneath my skin. It is an unavoidable restlessness that I must heed to. I scratch my itchy feet across the states. I have seen it all because of my impulsion: the Grand Canyon, the Gateway Arch, the Rocky Mountains, Hollywood, the Space Needle, the Empire State building, all the icons of the United States, and I have seen past them. I have seen America naked and raw. I’ve seen prostitutes on the seedy streets of Vegas with four inch heels and STDs that they could never spell. I’ve seen ambitious actresses in L.A. faint from starvation, floating to the floor like a piece of a paper, and I’ve seen four-hundred pound Missippians bound to wheelchairs. I’ve seen single mothers with six kids working three jobs. I’ve seen a man with swollen, black and blue veins and sullen eyes devoid of emo-

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tion. I’ve seen the violence, the hatred, the ignorance, the hardships. I lie. I steal. I cheat. I survive. I adapt to my surroundings and I get by however I can. I steal clothes from laundromats when the seasons change. I take whatever I want from lost-and-found bins. I rig vending machines and parking meters to spill all of their change. I manipulate people into letting me into their life and then I take whatever I can from them and disappear. I keep thinking that maybe, if I can spill it all out to you, it won’t contain me any longer. I tried to live a normal life. I had a name once that didn’t change everywhere I went. I had a social security number. I even had an address. I had a job where I punched in at nine and out at five. I scanned people’s groceries and bagged them just right so that their eggs wouldn’t crack and their bread wouldn’t mush. And it was fine. It was a good job with all the health benefits people always want and a salary that could have sustained me forever. It was all fine, but I wanted more than to be fine. I wanted more than a routine that was so familiar I could gloss over every day without conscious awareness. My life had become muscle memory and it depressed me. I stole your father’s wallet. His bills were all faced the same way. They ascended from Washingtons to Lincolns to Hamiltons to Jacksons, an indication of an organized life. I found a library card and a frequent shopper card and a Connecticut license and I wondered if the two of you know that that kind of stuff is binding. Bound. That was how I felt. I felt bounded to my life and it started to suffocate me. I was asphyxiating on atmosphere. The east coast was boring me and I intended to buy a ticket for the next available bus headed west, compliments of your father. I was tired of the smog and the smugness and the chronic necessity for someone, anywhere, to hail a taxi. I was thinking about how maybe I would go to Northern California and spend a few days wasting away on the coast, roaming around vineyards, plucking grapes and seeing how long they took to turn to raisins.

I was jarred from my thoughts when I heard your voice round the corner. “Daddy,” you said, your voice high pitched with cheer and enthusiasm. You trailed off when you saw me walking down the stairs. You stood in place, in between me and the front door. You noticed that I wore your father’s Rolex on my wrist and clutched his wallet in my other hand. I saw your eyes stuck on the possessions. You were still in your pajamas, your hair tangled from your restless dreams. You held a teddy bear to your chest and stared at me. You looked to be about seven. Your cheeks were plump and rosy with innocence, your mouth slightly a gape. Your eyes were wider than the miles I’ve travelled. We were both unaware of what to do, my heart pounding beneath my chest and yours fluttering. All of the successful escapes, all of the lies, all of the things I’ve done, and it all comes down to getting caught by a child, I thought. I tensed my muscles and waited for your shrill scream for your father. “Are you my daddy’s girlfriend?” you asked me and I could hear the lilt of hope. “Yes,” I answered too eagerly. A smile spread across your face and it sickened me. I could see you creating a life for us in your mind. I could see you picturing me doing your hair and taking you shopping and evolving into a mother for you. I could imagine the heartbreak when your father would have to explain the truth to you in some condensed and child-appropriate manner, and it brought back memories. I will confess something to you, something I don’t let myself think of anymore, something I’ve put behind me: I had a child like you. Like you in the way that all children are like one another. You all have that wide-eyed curiosity and the naivety to believe that people are so much better than they are. The son I once had was like that. He believed I was good. He did not doubt me for a moment when I told him that it was only temporary as I left him at the doorway of the children’s shelter. His eyes bore into me, but he believed me. Tears rolled down his cheeks and fear trembled through his body. He ate up the lies about how I would just be gone for a few days for work. And he never would have thought that there was a one-way plane ticket for a city one thousand and sixteen hundred miles away tucked into my jacket pocket. “You’ll be back?” I remember him asking. “Promise,” I said and we linked pinkies.

I gave him an envelope with one hundred and seven dollars and a false promise. I sprinted around the corner, fled to the cab that was waiting for me, desperate to be somewhere different. I left him because children force you to grow roots. They commit you to one place and I prefer to be placeless. He interfered with my frenzied lifestyle and I interfered with his childhood. I loved him, of course. How could I not? He grew from within me. He knew the rhythm of my heartbeat better than I know myself. But parenting takes more than love. Love is the easy emotion, the one that comes without effort. But it is discipline, selflessness, and resilient commitment that truly nurture a child. Just to love is never enough. And love could not save us. You don’t have to believe me and I’m sure no one else would either, but I had his best interest at heart. He was due to start school in the fall and I knew that I would never be able to settle on a city and I couldn’t possibly transfer him every time I felt inclined to leave. I’d already been shuffling him from city to city, feeding him fast food burgers and soup kitchen offerings before tucking him into a lumpy motel bed. He deserved better than to be dragged along on my endless road trip. He needed stability. I tried to find a relative who would care for him. I kept thinking that maybe one last drift would cure me of my restlessness and then I would be ready to be still. I just needed someone to look after him for six months and then I would come back, rent a place, find a school, settle. But I’d severed all ties with my parents when they learned that I’d quit my job to hitchhike to Maine just so I could taste a quahog. And I’d heard that my sister had four kids of her own to occupy her. And his father was a drifter I met in Ohio who said names were too possessive and never told me his. Or maybe a Vermont farmhand whose wedding band was cool to the touch against my thigh. And I can’t entirely roll out the possibility of the man who swore up and down that San Francisco was still a gold mine and that he was going to strike it rich. Either way, I’d lost all contact. The children’s shelter was not where I wanted to leave him, but it was the only place that I could. I knew that once I’d left him on their doorstep I would never get him back. They would never let me, citing me on charges of illegal abandonment. So I hugged him tighter than I ever had, told him a pretty lie that would ease his nerves, and I walked out of his life forever.

E P I C — 27

I will tell you something else about myself and that is that I don’t regret abandoning the son I once had. I regret becoming the kind of person who could abandon her son. The two are not the same. You asked me for my name and I gave you an invented one, one I have never used. I try to leave the people I have been in the places I have been. You told me your name is Addison, but that everybody calls you Addie. You told me that you were in second grade, that you love the color yellow and hate carrots. You told me you want to be an actress when you grow up. I told you that I had to go then. “But you’ll come back, right?” you asked me and it was hauntingly familiar. I thought, briefly, of being honest with you. I thought about telling you that I would never come back to this city, that you and I would never see one another again. “I’ll come back,” I said because I couldn’t bear to disappoint you. You had this sense about you that suggested you’ve been deeply disappointed before and I couldn’t add insult to injury. You should know that I left your father’s watch, his wallet too. You were a witness and I couldn’t have that. I’d upset your lives enough. I stole the picture of you, though. The one your father kept in his wallet, protected in plastic covering. I can’t explain exactly why I took it. I guess I like your pigtails and the gap in your smile from where your baby teeth are missing. I like to look at you and remember your innocence and your ignorance. I like to look at you - when I’m thumbing for a ride or steadfast on the road to nowhere - and hope that the son I once had is still as blissfully oblivious as you, Addie.

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ALYSSA GREGORY Primary Producers. The sunlight feeds the least of us. Star grass covers the savannah like a heavy, coarse blanket. It does not keep anyone warm. It only keeps them hidden. Primary Consumers. We are small and large. The termite makes a home in a mound of earth and carries scraps of foliage in to feed the larvae. The hare makes a home in the ground and comes up to nibble on the tall grasses. The Thompson’s gazelle hears a sound behind her and bounds away. She is safe today. The wildebeest consume the grasses in huge patches, moving on when there is none left, startling a mouse on his way. Secondary Consumers. We are predators and prey. The aardvark sniffs out the termites. He uses his long tongue to pry them from the tunnels they have built in the earth. The pangolin picks at harvester ants as they march across the ground. Her dark, keratin scales slide against one another like armor as she follows them. The mongoose has found himself a mouse. He digs his way into the nest, pulling first the mother, then the babies into his maw and devouring them. He stops when he hears the familiar sound of a snake slithering through the tall grass, and he goes to investigate. Primary Consumers. We are to be feared. Few will survive a race with a cheetah, and even fewer will survive a brawl with ten hungry lionesses. The tawny eagle will have a hare in his clutches before it even thinks to run away. A wildebeest will panic when she hears the laughter of a hyena, as she hears them closing in but cannot see them. The caracal will teach her kitten to snag a mouse with one paw, and she will leave her young in the den as she sets out to find a gazelle. We are the top tier. But the lion will eat the cheetah, and the cheetah will eat the caracal. The hyena will eat the wild dog, and the vulture will eat whoever dies first. Primary Destroyers. You are something from our nightmares. You burn the tall grasses with a wave of your hand and leave us all hungry. You tear down the acacia tree and tear up the warm soil. You plow termite mounds to the ground. You leave the mouse and her babies as nothing but charred skeletons beneath the earth. You kill the wildebeest, but you refuse to eat him. You take the pangolin’s armor for your own, and you eat his meat halfway across the world. You stop a lion dead in his tracks, leaving his pride with no leader and this place with no pharaoh. We are not like you. We are gentler. We are wilder. We belong here. A wildebeest will tear a lion apart with its horns. A young mongoose will slay the most venomous of the snakes. A single poisonous insect can take down the most fearsome of us all. And so it will be with you. You are not one of us. You will not last long here.

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HALEY BENSON In Finnbrooke the sky was always blue and the sun was always shining. A light breeze would blow through the town about midday, cooling the faces of the three hundred and twenty-five people who lived there. The word ‘small’ didn’t even come close to describing this town or the people in it. In reality, everyone here was big, and if you tried hard enough you could even touch the sky. The local bar and grill acted as a town hall whenever one was necessary, but there hadn’t been a meeting in nearly ten years. Now it was just the hot spot for the young and old, for the workers who got off at all times of day and night and for those who just wanted to get out of the house. Right outside the bar was a statue of Marvin Finn, the founder, and he stood taller than most of the buildings. He was the example. He was the one who showed us how to reach for what we wanted. He was my grandfather. I could touch the sky. All I had to do was reach up my hand and my petite fingers would graze along the various combinations of blue, green, orange, and pink, dragging stars behind me. That’s when I was younger at least. My grandfather had passed before I was born, before my father had even met my mother. I never knew him, but I would stare up at that statue of Marvin Finn gazing into the horizon and wonder what he had been like. What he dreamed about at night when he saw the millions of stars staring back down at him. My father would always tell me to come away, that if there were any dreams worth taking they weren’t in Marvin Finn’s eyes or up above in the sky. The only dreams worth having could be found right here in Finnbrooke. That’s how my father became head of the factory here, the town’s biggest source of revenue, an old shoe making company: Finn’s Shoes. Original. When I was young, maybe nine or ten, my father would sit me on his knee and tell me stories of conquest or faith or determination. They were normally about him or grandfather and how great they made this place. Most often, my father told me about how he knew he was destined to start the shoe factory, the only one until Seattle. It was his “calling.” Each night he would do this and each night my

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mother would call out to us that dinner was ready, even when it wasn’t, just so he would quit rambling. I don’t think he ever got the message, not till I was older and found a conquest of my own. My grandfather made the town, my father began the factory, and so I had to leave a mark, didn’t I? My father and I are very different people, always have been, always will be. He focused on what he had in front of him, what he could see and touch. I typically found more enjoyment in what life could give you in intellect, humor, a feeling. This being only one of many reasons we barely speak now. I was eighteen when I left for college in Seattle, on my mother’s encouragement. My father was outraged; he didn’t think I could leave Finnbrooke and my future as his heir behind. “Finn’s created this town and there will always be a Finn here to protect it. “ He put emphasis on the “always” just to make sure I knew this town would be my past, present, and future. Unfortunately, fate took a mean turn and about three years into my Psychology degree, my mom got sick, real sick. Of course, my father blamed me for putting too much stress on her by leaving, but I don’t think anyone really knows how a woman of forty develops cancer. Now here we are, seven years later and I’m stuck in Finnbrooke just like my father always wanted. My mother has been bedridden for five years, and it’s taking its toll on her body and her mind. The doctor from Seattle, nearly three hours away, calls it delirium, but we knew better. She was on her way out. My conquest was a library, and it was our town’s greatest accomplishment. It stood nearly as tall as Marvin Finn and held just as much square footage as the bar. Marble columns, arched ceilings, and a basement with several private study rooms. The library took me nearly five years to finish, as I needed to convince everyone, including Father, that it was necessary; find the funds to build it; and then find books to fill it. It was the only library for the three towns of Finnbrooke, Norton, and Hallsville. Most people had to drive into Seattle to find a book, that’s what ultimately convinced the towns to help fund my project. If I leave any sort of legacy in this town,

it’s going to be that library. After all, Lilac Finn was inscribed on the outside. However, I suppose it left me vulnerable, my love for the library, for reading in general. My own form of escapism, my mother used to say. I didn’t necessarily agree with that, I liked the characters I read about. Dark characters with even darker histories, even a bit of the morbid; that was all I could read about. Actions weren’t either good or bad, the world was full of gray, and in the end we would all find our destiny. I didn’t see him coming. That’s normally the first question people ask me once they hear my story. Did I want this? Did I want something more exciting than this life could offer me? I don’t honestly know. All I can really tell you is that when I saw the opportunity for something bigger than myself, how could I just ignore it? It was a Sunday like any other, the town was just beginning to cool off from the long summer months, and there was less traffic than usual in the library. Most of the townsfolk reserved Sundays for God, food, and relaxation. I preferred Sundays here, in my library, with a good book and no interruptions. As I had just turned a page entering the climax of American Psycho, a book I had been hooked on for a week, I heard the door to the library open and bang shut. A swoosh of air ran through the main floor and I would have lost my page had I not been nose deep in it. “Ahem,” a man cleared his throat as he approached the circular desk where I sat. He must have been leaning in close because some of the hairs on my head blew as he breathed. Slowly I dog-eared the page I was on, closed the book and set it aside, and looked up at the lumberjack of a man who had just broken the peace of my sanctuary. He had to have been at least 6’5, shoulders as broad as a barge, with a beard that covered the lower half of his face. He was wearing a wide brimmed hat that shielded his eyes, a long beige coat, and boots with soles of steel that clicked every time he took a step on the marble floors. “Can I help you?” My brows furrowed as I tried to uncover the identity of this stranger. He cleared his throat again and removed his hat, revealing the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen. How did I not know this man? Three hundred and twenty-five people in this godforsaken town and his was the only

face I couldn’t place. “Yes, ma’am, I’d like to know where I could find the forensics section.” His voice was gruff, but it almost felt soothing to hear. He had a slight drawl, elongating the vowels of his words. “Why don’t I show you? Follow me.” I stood up and left the confines of my desk, the only safe space I had. Every time I ventured out of my fortress I could feel people staring, trying to figure out what exactly went wrong with me. They knew I was different from them, but they looked at me like I was some side act in the circus, they didn’t understand my depth. “Forensics is a very peculiar area, what interests you in the field?” I had read every book in this place twice, if not more. The benefits of being the only librarian I suppose. I stopped as we approached the small section of forensics/criminal justice/psychology. The man took a step further than I expected and I could feel his hot breath on my neck as he whispered the next words. “I find it fascinating - serial killers, I mean. The way their minds function, the way they perform their work, it’s art, wouldn’t you agree?” All the breath left my body at once; I even thought I saw stars for a moment. I could feel it in every inch of my body; my life from here on out would never be the same. The air shifted behind me as the man moved to pick out a book entitled Forensics and Criminology; A detailed anthology of America’s mass serial killers. “This should do.” He spoke again, now facing me. I saw his eyes staring at me out of my peripherals, and suddenly a light went on. “You’re the blacksmith, John Harmon.” Armed with knowledge I turned to face him, as well. “ You’ve only been here a couple years, right?” He nodded. “Where did you come from?” “Fort Knox.” “Wow, you’ve come a long way. Do you just like Washington or did you have family out here?” “It was just my time to leave, the army doesn’t appreciate those who don’t take orders well.” The man cocked his head and his expression softened. “Why are you here?” “My grandfather is Marvin Finn, he founded this place and I guess none of us Finn’s have left since.” I shrugged and took his book, about to head back to the counter so I could check it out on the computer system I had installed a few months ago. “I was very glad to see a library when I got here, this one is nicer than most.” John Harmon stood his

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ground, not following me to the desk. I could feel my cheeks blushing and walked back over to him. “Thanks, most people think it’s a nuisance.” “Then, I don’t think those people are worth your time.” John Harmon smiled and reached out for his book. I felt frozen, my eyes locked into his. His hand landed on mine, it felt rough and calloused. It was as if the air around me had suddenly burst into a multitude of electric charges and time was standing still. I can’t honestly say I wanted this man in my life, but I needed him to be there. I needed him. John Harmon stopped in every day that week in August. The week turned into a month, and soon there was snow on the ground and my day didn’t even begin until I saw him. Sometimes he would be picking up books, strange topics like crime files or household cleaning, but most of the time he would just stop in and sit with me and we would talk about almost everything. About where we thought we came from and where we wanted to go, goals, dreams, fears, what death would be like. We talked about subjects I didn’t even know I had an interest in until he brought it up. What was the worst pain you had ever felt? A car had once hit John as he was crossing a highway, which accounted for a long scar all up his right arm. It left his skin mangled and coarse, but the mystery and adventure surrounding him only drew me in further. Pretty soon the whole town was talking about us, as is the nature of towns like Finnbrooke. I could almost feel the excitement in the air. Finally, I was doing something that no one agreed with and yet no one could stop. It was going to be my mark. John was an artist, he understood my need to be relevant, to be remembered. My family was a legacy, each one greater than the last, and now it was my turn. The library had been a good start, but I needed to do something bigger, something that would make my name live forever. John knew, he would live forever in his art, and now I could live there with him. “Lilac, where are you?” John gently shook my arm, bringing me back to reality. A task he had grown accustomed to, as I was often off in my daydreams. Right now, reality was a small restaurant on the outskirts of Finnbrooke, comfort foods mostly and a homey atmosphere. John enjoyed it in contrast to the austere décor of his home, and I enjoyed it because it reminded me of him.

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“Sorry,” I smiled softly, taking his hand as it slid down my arm. “I was just thinking about everything that’s happened since I met you. I feel so,” I paused, taking a breath, “so electrified. You thrill me, John Harmon.” He grinned and took my cheek in his free hand and kissed me with all the passion in the world. “Ehem.” A loud scoff broke us out of our private reverie. John and I shifted our gaze to see our waitress, a petite brunette woman with a permanent look of disdain upon her features. Of course, both the waitress and I had grown up in Finnbrooke and went through our schooling together, but her name escaped me as many once familiar things did. It seemed that the more I realized what was really important to me, the more the irrelevant aspects of my life disappeared. “Yes?” John’s voice rang out in a chilling, lulled tone, as he slowly turned to face our intruder, producing the desired effect in the waitress: uncertainty with a twinge of fear. Her jaw dropped a bit as she uncomfortably shifted her gaze between John and I, she took a slight step back, and her skin began to perspire. The corner of my mouth twitch up in a small chuckle, John had taught me so much about human nature until the manipulation of it became an addiction. “Your, uh, bill,” She stumbled out, “Sir.” She turned away quickly and didn’t return. I smiled and squeezed John’s hand in mine. He was lost in a different world, in the potential for his art. The woman would have been a good model for him, but he didn’t do so much living art anymore. We had both outgrown it. “Now you’re the one who’s gone,” I looked down at our hands, molded together as if they could never be apart. “You are leaving soon, aren’t you?” John often had business in other parts of the sate, but he never left for as long as he would be this time. “Tomorrow,” He sighed. “I’ll be back in a week though, I know you can find something to occupy your time.” “Yes, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be anything without you.” I had neglected my own work for so long, after becoming immersed in John’s. What if I really would be nothing without him? MURDER IN FINNBROOKE was the frontpage headline. The whole world seemed to stop as the people of Finnbrooke read the article that would

change our little town forever. Three women had gone missing a few weeks ago from neighboring towns, most of their bodies turning up several days later, however each were missing parts, and now we were on that list. Two bodies were found last night, one without a right leg and the other missing the left, in the creek that ran along the relatively unknown Route 75 from here to Seattle. They were faces I knew, girls I had had conversations with. One of the girls was our waitress from the small diner, she had disappeared the day after John left. The phone rang, making me jump and break with my thoughts. I clutched the paper tightly, crumpling the corners, as I walked to the phone. “Hello?” I answered tentatively. “Lilac, you saw the paper?” My father’s voice was hard and stressed, each word blurred with the next as he spoke. I managed to mumble out a yes. “Did you see the description on the second page? Someone saw those girls near the creek at 3:00 am last night, and they saw a man, too.” My heart felt like it stopped in my chest as my father spoke. I had to call John. “Lilac, the police are looking for a Caucasian male at least six feet tall. Sound familiar to you? The police are interrogating everyone in town, you have to tell them—.” “I have to go.” I hung up the phone and clumsily slid down the wall until I was lying in the fetal position on the cold tile floor. Did John do those things? Could he murder five women? What was I going to say to him when he got back? I didn’t know if I could turn him in or not, I didn’t know if I even wanted to. My mind felt blank and numb. A knock at the door pulled me out of my thoughts. I took a deep breath and tried to gather myself. I stood, rather shakily, and made my way over to the door. Another knock. I tried to speak, to ask who was on the other side of that bleach white door, but my throat was dry and my mouth couldn’t seem to form the correct words. I reached for the handle, mentally aware of each second as it ticked by, and slowly, I twisted the door open. “Hello, ma’am. Are you Lilac Finn?” Two men in police uniforms stood before me, and I let out a gasp of air that I didn’t know I had been holding. “May we come in for a moment?” I nodded and shut the door behind them. Their uniforms weren’t typical of the fived manned office of Finnbrooke PD. “I’m Dave and that’s Barry, we’re from Norton PD. We’d like to ask you some questions about John Harmon.” Norton, that’s where two other girls had gone

missing. I nodded again. “Okay, we know the two of you are very close and that he’s not in town currently. When did he leave Finnbrooke?” “A week ago,” nearly a whisper. “And when will he be back?” “Tomorrow.” “Okay, Ms. Finn, have you noticed anything off about him lately? Strange interests? Spending an excessive amount of time in solitude? Maybe he’s been secretive or gone a lot lately?” The words caught in my throat and I took a few steps back, trying to breathe. “What are you saying,” my voice shook, “I just, I can’t help you.” I turned from them, desperately searching for the right thing to say. “Would you like some tea?” I sped into the kitchen, occupying myself so I had more time to think. I looked at the officers in my living room, they were whispering, one would glance up at me every few seconds. “Barry, she knows something, I can feel it.” The one called Dave looked at me again. “Listen, if she is involved then she’ll slip up and we can take her in. Just be patient, the whole state is working on this,” Barry resolved, sitting up straighter. I walked back over after putting on the tea. “Ma’am, I don’t mean to be rude, but if you are involved or know something and you don’t tell us, you will be charged as an accomplice.” Dave’s eyes were hard, determined. He knew, and so did I. “I’m sorry, none of this sounds like John. Maybe you all should try talking to my father, he’s head of the factory, I’m sure someone there knows more than I could tell you.” I smiled politely at the officers; they gave each other an uncomfortable glance. “Ms. Finn, you’re about 5’5, right? Brunette, blue eyes, petite build? We’re only asking because you bear an uncanny resemblance to some of these women who’ve been killed” Dave, said. “Actually, Ms. Finn, your father was the one who told us to come talk to you about John…” Barry quietly let his voice trail off. “Hmm, that’s interesting.” I cocked my head to the side; “I hadn’t noticed that about the women before. Very interesting. Well, it’s about time for me to head to work, are we done here?” I stood up and walked to the door, not allowing them enough time to answer. The two men awkwardly stood and walked past me, thanking me for my time. They paused past the threshold of my door, sharing a look. Dave attempted to turn back towards me but I flung

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the door shut too quickly. After locking the door I jumped into action. Suitcases packed, a hurried message on John’s voicemail, and I even wrote a note to my mother, trying to explain. The phone rang again, and I let it go five times before answering. “Hello?” “Lilac, I’m so glad you called. Are you okay? Are the police there? What’s going on?” John’s hectic voice sounded on the other end of the line and excitement tinged with fear flooded through me. A high-pitched screaming made me gasp; I braced myself against the wall and remembered the tea. “Lilac! What’s happening?” I took a couple deep breathes before answering him. “I’m fine, John, but the police are looking for you. They’re saying you killed those women.” I let the line go silent for a bit, I had to know that John was all in. “Pack your things and head to the barn on the edge of my property, the one where I do my art. I’ll meet you there.” “Already done.” It took about twenty minutes to evade the police car that was following me, and another twenty to drive out of town near the edge of John’s land. He had bought quite a few acres, most of it covered in thick forestry. The barn was in poor shape; it had been a discovery the two of us had made on one of our many hikes. Once inside I glanced around for the last time. There was an old sofa, ripped in places, and the place looked like a tornado had come through it. Newspapers and magazines were everywhere, a cup of coffee had tipped over and never been cleaned, and the air smelled vaguely of ammonia. Something gleamed out the corner of my eye and I turned to shuffle around some papers on the floor. I picked up a wooden picture frame, the edges cracked and most of the glass covered in dust. I gently blew and the dust exploded off the glass like shrapnel. I stared curiously at the picture of me looking down at a few papers, the university I attended in the background. Strange, I didn’t know John then, though it felt like I had known him a lifetime. I took the picture out of the frame, folded it, and stuffed it in the back pocket of my jeans. A trap door in the middle of the barn had been swung wide open revealing a set of stairs. Carefully I walked down, being sure not to make any noise.

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There was a small light source in the corner of the basement, but John was hovered over it, blocking it from reaching the last step and I stumbled. “Lilac, wait there! It’s a surprise!” I stopped, John’s hands began working quicker, and then he took a deep breath and turned to face me. His hands were covered in a red liquid, but his face held the brightest smile I had ever seen. I walked closer to him, the smell of ammonia was strong down here and it burned my nostrils. “Sorry about the smell, I just had to make sure everything was perfect.” “What is it, John?” My voice came out softer than I expected. He signaled me to come closer and stepped out of the way so I could view his masterpiece in the light. “Oh, John,” I sighed. It was a body, perfectly sewn together by each major joint. The skin was mismatched, but other than that it was a very accurate representation of the subject. On top of the neck sat a picture of my face, another I hadn’t even known John had taken. I had on a smile that I wore just for him, a hidden smile, one that attempted to mislead him on how excited he made me feel. I knew he could see right through it. “Do you like it?” “No one has ever done something like this for me before, I love it.” I turned to him and he embraced me, the liquid on his hands seeped into my cotton t-shirt, but it didn’t matter. Only John and I mattered, and the legacy we would create. I looked back down at the body, “She’s like a doll.” I could feel John smile into my hair. “I wanted to make a collection.” He rested his forehead on mine, eyes closed, taking in the moment. “Someday the world will appreciate your art, and they’ll all know our names.” I replied and closed the lid over the cooling chamber that John had stored her in. It took us all of five minutes to load it into the back of his SUV on the other side of the barn. We were a team, a family. He was the only real family I’d ever had. It’s hard to believe sometimes that it didn’t work out. I thought John and I were invincible, that we would always be together. We both should’ve seen the storm headed our way. There’s a reason the bad guys always get caught, and I did not plan on being one of them. It must have been about a month after we had first gone on the run; John had just gotten

back to the shanty of a motel we were staying at, near the border of Washington. He wanted to go to Canada, but our dolls didn’t last long, so he had to keep finding new parts. It was a hassle and took a toll on him; already our relationship was beginning to deteriorate. John was starting to get sloppy. The feds were now on the case and they were close; they drove right by the motel we had been staying at a few towns ago. I knew I couldn’t let this go on any further, and from what I understood in the small bits of news I could find, my father had convinced everyone John had kidnapped me. My father, the Good Samaritan, just wanted his daughter back. He knew I could never do something like this, and when he spoke people listened. He was my saving grace, and I was his “lost doll.” It was a little after 12:00 a.m. when I made the call. The knife felt cool to the touch, John always kept it in his bedside table. It was his favorite. A far off siren sounded and grew louder with each passing moment, soon red and blue lights were flashing outside the motel. I crawled in bed next to a sleeping John, he had such a long day searching for the perfect woman, and his fingernails must have been permanently stained red by this point. I ran my finger along his chiseled jawline for the last time. A single tear slid down my cheek as I looked at him, so peaceful and unknowing. “We are eternal, thank you.” I whispered against his cheek. Then I raised the knife and slid it across Johns throat. His eyes fluttered open for a moment, and then blood poured over my hands and arms, in spurts at first and slowing after a few minutes. Someone was speaking into a megaphone. I wasn’t paying attention, and I could barely gain the strength to walk out of the motel. The room kept shifting and my eyes blurred, I couldn’t think about him anymore, what I’d done was final. I opened the door to the room and walked out with my hands up. “Please,” I choked out. “Please, help me. I just want to go home. I just want to go back to Finnbrooke.” A swarm of officers rushed around me into the room. I fell to my knees as another officer came up and grabbed my arms. I was hysterical, crying and shouting, the pain I felt was extraordinary. My wrists were cuffed and someone helped me into the back of a police car. Two familiar faces caught my eye. I looked back at the motel and saw Dave and Barry from Norton PD talking to a couple of the Finnbrooke officers. Dave kept shaking his head, he

was upset, and Barry just walked away. I was taken to the police headquarters in Norton, where my father was waiting for me. Apparently Dave and Barry had made quite a case against me, but my father, being the influential man he was, managed to convince the federal agents assigned to John’s case otherwise. I was “confused”, “stolen from my family”, I couldn’t have possibly known what was going on, right? It had been hours since I had been taken into custody and I had no idea what was being decided. I must have begun to doze off because the sound of the door banging open would have made me jump out of my chair if I hadn’t been handcuffed to it. The police chief gave me a sympathetic smile and gently released me from the handcuffs. I stood just in time for my father to come running in to hug me. It felt strange; we had never been a close family so I suspected this was just for show. I tried to look sheepish, sorrowful; I must have succeeded. We were about to leave, my father was signing some paperwork while I waited at the door, a free woman. I heard someone walk up behind me, and turned to find Dave. He was pale, bags under his eyes, and the general demeanor of a defeated man. “I know. I know what really happened and just because your father has everyone convinced that you’re innocent doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to prove the truth. Do you even care about the lives you’ve destroyed?” His eyes were menacing. “You will not have a normal life, I will never forget this.” I smiled at him as sweetly as I could before speaking; “No one will.”

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We met in the hypersensitive visions of our anxious minds. We met behind curtains of cross-eyed, star-struck, forgetful bodies with curled ends that tripped you up when you tried to stand tall or if you looked like you were beginning to dance. I met him when our words rang out and clamored together, when our voices, like cymbals, cleared a busy room and became one piercing shout. I met him when we complemented one another, not verbally, but visually, when his body’s rhythm matched mine at each beat and the room was so empty but with so many eyes and his weren’t looking at mine, but, boy, did we put on a show.

She clambered and She clanged and She was so serious about things I wouldn’t have been serious about if it weren’t for her. When did we meet? No, I don’t even remember her name.

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CARSEN SIKYTA Son of man you have made me what I am. You picked up my embryo, my lump of unformed clay and formed me into a docile something, a something that should not be reformed, or so you say. You molded full breasts, wide hips, long legs. The perfect housewife to fulfill my duty, to entertain. A sugared lemon, my life is bitter sweet. I am taken care of but I do not speak.

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ERICA EISENBERG Here as buildings age they continue construction upward adding structural beams hidden by ornamental elements Rioplatense baroque maimed or dressed up in the image of Le Corbusier an amalgam of old and new I am Palacio Barolo and you Teatro Colón we speak of hypothetical futures the forms we will take and us you tell me i’m beautiful and you are too, in your way you say you wish I were that enduring body and I was for a time provocative if not gaudy art nouveau eclectic my curves charming quirks —a chaotic symmetry designed to please, the embodiment of Dante’s divine comedy visitors enter the ground floor hell and work their way up and out, I look down resentful the city mutating below With the passing years you have been refurbished character changing to fit some passing mode, practical barefaced and understated You exude confidence the best acoustics in the world, you claim a facade cold and unassuming hides the royal opulence within They walk down Avenida de Mayo heads tilted upward necks strained capturing us as we are now expanding with benign growth accessory to our obsolescence witness to that evolution uninterrupted

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AMY TAYLOR I sat in my car and stared at the old, white house stretched out in front of me. I felt an overwhelming sense of dread wash over me. I about jumped out of my skin when my thoughts were interrupted with a “Victoria!” followed by a knuckle rapping on my window. “Jesus Christ, Tracy!” My sister just laughed. “Come on, are you ready to go inside?” “If I say no do I still have to?” I sighed in defeat and got out of my car and walked toward the house I grew up in. I hadn’t been to the house since well before my mom died. We put Dad in a nursing home, so it was time to clean and sell it. Every part of me dreaded going through all of my parents’ belongings. Tracy was rambling about something cute her new grandbaby did the other day. I tuned her out as usual. The first thing I noticed when I opened the door: it still smelled like Mom. The second thing I noticed were postit notes everywhere. They were stuck to the fridge, the cabinets, counters, and even the television remote. Tracy’s phone rang. “Oh! I have to take this. I’ll be right back,” she said as she stepped back outside. I went to look at the notes. Some were in my dad’s handwriting but most of them were my mom’s. You bought milk on October 12th. This remote is for the television. Drink more water. I decided to go to my mom’s bedroom. There were more reminders in there than in the rest of the house combined. Your daughter Tracy lives in Chicago. Your younger daughter Victoria lives in Springfield. Tracy has a daughter Claire. She’s pregnant with her own child. This is the bathroom. Your name is Elisa. You have Alzheimer’s disease.

“Elisa, where are you?” I heard my husband call. “In the office.” “What are you doing?” He looked on the computer screen. “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Association.” “I have sixty-five years under my belt. And I’m going to lose all of them.” Henry didn’t know how to respond to that. I didn’t expect him to. “It says on here that a lot of people write books to themselves or scrapbook so they don’t lose their memories.”

“Is that something you want to do?” Henry asked me softly. “Maybe.” No. That would be accepting defeat. Except I did feel defeated. I felt like I was on a boat with a slow leak. The doctor had told us that I’m not just going to lose my memory, but that eventually I’m going to forget how to do simple tasks by myself. I don’t remember anything else he said. That could have been the Alzheimer’s, or it could have been shock. “Here. How about we just write some stuff on a postit note just so you remember them. Birthdays and things like that,” Henry suggested. “I don’t know… I don’t really feel like it.” “Elisa, that’s what post-its are for. Reminders. Here I’ll write the first one for you. ‘Henry is the most handsome man I’ve ever met’. How about that?” I rolled my eyes and smiled at him. “We’re going to have to tell the girls soon,” Henry pointed out. “What girls?” I asked. “Our daughters...” He was trying hard to hide his confusion. “I’m kidding. I still know our daughters.” I forced a laugh. “Elisa, that was not funny!” “You either laugh or you cry, Henry.”

“Victoria, are you crying?” I handed Tracy the note I had been holding. You don’t have a cat anymore. Stop leaving food on the porch - it’s attracting raccoons. “Yeah. I think her doctor suggested doing something like this,” Tracy said. She sounded detached. She was done mourning. “God, this place is a nightmare,” she paused to look around. “Listen, that phone call was my office and I have to go back in to work. I just need you to start sorting things into ‘trash’ and ‘keep’. There are a ton of trash bags in the kitchen. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She tossed the post-it down on Mom’s bed carelessly. I

picked it back up and returned it to its rightful place on the wall, a little agitated with how detached Tracy seemed. I was glad she was leaving. I tried to ignore the post-it notes and started cleaning things out. The quicker I cleaned the sooner I could leave. I opened the drawers to her desk

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and pulled all the papers out. Trash. Trash. Prayer books. Trash. You enjoy gardening. Go plant some roses if you’re upset. I opened one drawer and it was filled with coupons. There were probably 150 coupons in there. Half of the coupons had already expired and the other half was for stores that closed years ago. If you can’t find your husband (Henry), check the whiteboard in the kitchen. He writes where he’s going on there. “How do you feel, honey?” asked the man leaning over my bed. He looked familiar. “Elisa?” he asked. How does he know my name? How do I know this man? “Henry?” I asked slowly. The name sounded right so I went with it. “Yes, honey, it’s me.” Henry. My husband. “You fell in the bathtub this morning and you broke your hip. Do you remember that?” He was talking slowly. I would have been insulted except I knew I wouldn’t have been able to keep up if he talked any quicker. I felt groggy. “No, I don’t think I did.” “Yes, honey, you did. You’re going to be on bed rest for a while and then maybe we can get you a wheelchair so you don’t have to worry about falling again. How does that sound?” I looked around the room before I answered. The walls were hidden behind tiny pieces of paper. Calp Sharon and tianls her fokr the sclup. “I didn’t fall and break my hip, Henry. And I don’t want no damn wheelchair. I’m 65 years old, I can still walk.” “You’re 73 years old and you have a broken hip.” “What? I’m not 73.” “We’ll talk about it later. There are some people here that want to see you, Elisa. Can they come in?” I didn’t see what choice I had in the matter. Two young women walked in cautiously. Why would strangers want to see me? Maybe they’re with the prayer chain at my church. I tried to read another note. It’s alomst Chlicstmrist. I’d have to have Henry take those notes down. “She’s pretty lucid for now,” I heard Henry say to the women. “Elisa, do you remember Tracy and Victoria?” Should I? I stared at them harder.

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“We’re your daughters, Mom,” one of them said gently as she walked toward me. I flinched when she tried to touch me. Mom? I think I knew I had kids. I looked at the other one standing in the back. She seemed scared of me. “What’s your name?” I asked her. “Victoria. Sometimes you called me Tori. ” Maybe if I looked at her long enough her face would come back to me. Instead, it just teared up. I could tell I hurt her. I started crying. I couldn’t help it. I would never want to hurt my family. Henry started to usher the women out of the room. “Okay… I think it’s time to let Mom get some rest. Wait for me in the living room.” “Love you, Mom!” yelled the one that had touched me from the doorway. I looked at the other girl one more time. She stared at me like I was a ghost. She didn’t say a word as Henry pushed her out of the room. “I didn’t break my hip.” I cried harder. I paused and looked around, overwhelmed. The post-its may have reminded my mom of important things but they just reminded me of what it feels like to mourn someone still alive. I felt guilty for a long time about not seeing my mother very often toward the end. If we’re being honest, I still feel guilty. The people around the house are here to help you. One of the last times I saw Mom she was almost in late-stage. She was having a delusion and when Dad and I tried to get close to her, she started throwing things at us from her wheelchair. It was about then that I realized we probably weren’t going to get very many lucid moments left with her. I couldn’t bear to think about how scared she must have been, so instead I thought about how scared I was. That was easier. Tracy and Dad kept telling me that my mom was still in there and I needed to talk to her the same way I used to, but I couldn’t. The woman that potty trained me was the one in diapers. I hated when people asked me how my mom was because the answer every time was worse. She lost everything, and slow: my name, her continence, and eventually her ability to swallow. Your hospice nurse’s name is Carol. She will sing songs to you if you ask.

My wheelchair is on the porch. I don’t know why or how I got here. It is cold. A woman just put a blanket on me. Who? I am too tired to care. “It’s a nice day out, don’t you think Elisa?” Who is Elisa? I want to tell her I think it’s too cold. The woman starts to hum a song for a few bars before she begins to sing. It’s a beautiful song. I’ve never heard it before. I wish I could sing along with her. I don’t know the words. I close my eyes and listen. Who is that singing? I think I’m cold. I wish I had a blanket. I start crying. A woman next to me tries to grab my hand. I just want to sleep. A woman wheels me inside and I see another man in a wheelchair. I try to stop crying. The man reaches for my hand. I let him. Someone wheels me into a bedroom and helps me to bed. I am tired. There are pieces of paper hanging on the walls. I don’t understand what’s on them. A woman puts covers over me and says words. I don’t understand. It’s dark. I am coughing. I can’t breathe. A woman comes running into the room. I can’t find the words to tell her about the pain in my chest. With a sigh, I moved over to my mom’s nightstand. There was a picture of our little family on it. It was from before she was diagnosed. I found a piece of paper tucked under it. This is your family. You love them and they love you. I stopped reading. I fell back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering how long I might have until my muscles forget how to hold up my head.

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SADE HOWELL and that I’ve mastered the simplistic art of perfectly spreading enough butter on toasted rye bread. Making sure to lavender lotion my body every night, after a bubble bath. I want to be able to still play without boundaries, clean to the rustle of Elvis and Aretha on Sunday mornings. I’ll encourage my kids to sing along, craft stories of that rabbit when they can’t fall asleep, explain to them how their hair texture might be different but that we’ve been fighting for that not to matter. So that they don’t feel alone when there is no Barbie emulating their skin tone, or on the streets. When my skin is soft I will cup their heated cheeks And tell them that there will be an answer, don’t let it be.

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CAITLIN HAMILTON You said I was incon sis tent the reason why you left. Maybe it was because my hair was never one color for more than a week. or because the tv could not stay on one station for more than a few minutesThe frustration of not being able to order for methe impatience of waiting. as i tried on everything in my closet. Or could it be the way i would ignore my parents phone calls but would call back at 4 am to hear their voices on the answering machine. when i threw my diamond rosary in the trash cursing the lord’s name yet, sometimes in the middle of the night you hear me whisper words of prayer When we would fuck and I would tell you to stop. because i was no longer in the mood and when you finally left i told you “Good Riddance” which I knew was a lie and cried. when i realized you weren’t coming back. I have never been able to make my mind up about anything but I have always been sure of you.

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ALEC RAIMOND To love her simply in such a way which makes a waitress hesitate before breaking your and her quiet gaze to refill your coffee. To love her simply while spending two hours teaching her how to use chopsticks and deciding who gets the fortune cookie. To love her simply and see the same image of Spiderman as she does on the popcorn texture ceiling. To love her simply so that doing laundry together takes on the same role as the Catholic Mass, no holier still. Yes, and to love her simply in such a way that Cathedrals crumble in awe that your salvation was without crucifixion. Difficult to love her simply without limp and lisp, bad one-liners, tall-tales, and worse poetry. Difficult to love her simply the way she loves.

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ALYSSA GREGORY The sailor’s wife holds fast to the mast of the ship she has built on land, her chest glowing like a lighthouse’s beam to call her lover home. She eyes the tides through the lens of a telescope fashioned from her rib and a piece of sea glass and calls across the waves a song of frantic heartbeats and lonely cries beneath cotton sheets when her children are asleep. She prays for gentle winds gentle rain a gentler world that will not keep her other half so far from her on nights such as these when the deep blue of the ocean looks like the deep blue of his eyes and she imagines how little and how much lies between the port and starboard sides.

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The night is never-ending and deep as the sea and the ebb and flow sounds like his breath outside her window. Her child is crying for another set of arms far away for the feeling of a father’s embrace and the sailor’s wife must tell her that the sea is wide and wild but that nothing that lurks there can extinguish a father’s grit the flame that shines across the waves like a lighthouse’s beam calling to his lover and promising his return. The sailor’s wife holds fast to the mast of the ship she has built in her heart and prays for gentle winds gentle rain a gentler song than the one she sings when she begs the waves, be kind.

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MARSHALL REID Dear Jerry, I have an image of you in my head, one that I know cannot possibly be correct. I have an image of you in my head that is fallible, an image that I’d like to change. I hear your name and think of you being barred from military service while in the Corps of Cadets at A&M because of your flat feet and crossed eyes, of you as an old man in a wheelchair, sitting for the rest of your life unable to interact with life happening only inches away. I think of textbooks and calculators, and, of course, the thick, black-framed glasses that never left your face. I sat down and spoke with your children not too long ago. Whenever I’d ask a question about you, I would be met with a smile and a story– as if you were too complicated a man to explain without a story – like the time you took all of your children to McDonald’s in their Sunday best, You open the side door and step across the threshold; your arrival home is received by six smiles. You set down your briefcase, a large object with worn leather sides, remove your shoes, maybe pour yourself a glass of tea. Sometimes the curiosity couldn’t be contained and one of the smiles would ask where you had been to lunch that day. “The Golden Arches Eating Establishment, of course,” with a smile too coy for their reasoning, a response that is met with awe. “Can we go with you sometime, Dad?” “Maybe,” a pause, but you’ll have to be dressed for the occasion.” or the time you were pinned in a car accident, The skyline of highways in Dallas drop and turn through a narrow passage with towering concrete walls on either side of the road, your children call it “The Canyon”. A semi truck merges quickly, pinning your vehicle between its massive side and the endless concrete walls. The truck driver hits the breaks when he feels the collision, dragging your car against the concrete. The seatback of your chair breaks and you are pinned horizontally, looking at the crushed ceiling of your car. You lay in the smoke,

making sense of what has happened. The truck driver exits his vessel and approaches you. “You were in my blind spot, buddy,” he calls through the broken window. A straight face, “You’re a professional driver ou’re supposed to know what’s in your blind spot.” I’m told that you were never caught off guard, that you always knew what to say. It’s a shame that we have been so long without a formal introduction. I heard your college friend Bill tell a few stories about you several years ago. After leaving A&M, you joined him in Lubbock to become the first two people to earn Master’s in Engineering from Texas Tech. He cleared his throat while the creaking from the pews died down, and began the rehearsed words carefully. “He never had much patience for people that he considered stupid,” Bill began, “Which is probably why he was annoyed by me so much,” he smiles and is greeted by laughter that is both welcome and uncertain. Your oldest daughter told me about how you were once picked up by, “CIA or FBI or somebody like that,” and taken to, “an intelligence test of some sort,” from your dorm room at school; I’ve seen this story under a dozen different lights, this is the general consensus. You took their test and were informed some days later you only missed one question, an unprecedented score. They reasonably suspected cheating of some sort. You were picked up days later to retake the test under closer vigilance you had been bothered by the single question you missed and had been playing with it in your head since the first exam. You didn’t miss any questions on the second attempt. On the car ride back to your dorm you noticed that their HAM radio wasn’t working. Pulling from your experience working at a radio station, you instructed them on how to fix it. This story is a favorite. Even though you were surely imposing with your height and build, your crossed eyes and flat feet kept you from developing any degree of true athleticism. Your children smiled and told me you looked “a little odd,” when you ran but were never shy to play with them or “be goofy”. Your genius never

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seemed to take anything from your humanity, however you would never do anymore than hint at how to solve their math and science homework, “I’m sorry, I can help you but I can’t do it for you. How are you going to learn it that way?” I’m sure many a frustrated tantrum was incurred by your insistence that everybody solve their own homework instead of “Dad the Genius” saving the day at every problem. I asked one of your daughters what job you had and she slipped seamlessly into a story that I’m sure she had told a dozen times. She has just started the first grade and the teacher is going down the row of students and asking what his or her fathers do for a living. “My dad is a grocery man.” “My daddy is a bank man.” The teacher gets to her and she responds, “My dad works.” The teacher responds with a concerned look. “He works… hard?” “Your homework for the night is to figure out what your father does,” The thought of homework was distressing. She asks your wife that night what you do and she responded that you were an engineer. She happily goes to class the next day and tells the teacher that you wear a suit and carry a briefcase to work and that you’re the engineer that drives the train. The teacher is skeptical and insists that she ask her parents to clarify The frustrated girl seeks you out for clarification. “Well, I do math, lots of math.” She is too embarrassed to tell the other children that her father does math for a job and continues the lie the next day at school. Your children laugh but the truth is that they didn’t know then what you did and they don’t know now, nobody does. You stand before an accelerated class for elementary-aged children. Your eldest grandchild, no more than nine, stares with pride as you talk to the class. You clean off your lenses and place the thick, black frames on the bridge of your nose. You spot a hand sprouting from the mix of small desks and messy hair. They ask what you do for a living and across your face, like the spiderwebbed cracks on a windshield, a smile appears.

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“I could tell you,” you declare matter-of-factly, “but I would have to kill you after.” Tiny laughter fills the room. After the kids were awake and hurriedly getting dressed for school you would sit down to breakfast and from there it would go one of two ways. Your wife will either call, “Good morning, Jerry,” or, as you sit down to your plate of eggs and toast and look up at your wife, she’ll return your gaze and shake her head. “What? What’s wrong about it this time?” she’ll ask. It was inevitable that you would be wearing a plaid pair of slacks with a striped shirt or a striped jacket with paisley tie. “But I like this shirt,” a plea that is already defeated. She shakes her head and you leave the room to make the necessary adjustments. Your kids describe you as having too many important things in your head to let a silly little thing like fashion sense to crowd them out. You had old recordings that you would listen to constantly and a stack of old engineering textbooks, all in Russian. You knew Russian. For some reason this has been one of the greatest mysteries about you. The rumor around your family, which is speculation at best, is that you were responsible for deciphering captured schematics or intelligence. Bill, who remained a lifelong friend, came over to visit you many years later. You had planned to go on a vacation with your wife, long after retirement. Bill sits down across from you in the living room; he has stopped by unannounced with his wife, something rather out of the ordinary. Your wife starts to leave the room, it looks important, Bill stops her. “You need to hear this too, Darlene,” She stops, turns, and chooses a seat. Bill does not look at you, he looks at your wife and, dropping each word delicately, says, “Jerry can’t go to Moscow,” he stresses the second word. Polite protests surely floated to the surface of conversation quickly. An interruption, “Jerry,” he looked from you to your wife and paused, “can’t go to Moscow.” He turns to look at you now, “If they find out who you are they won’t let you leave.” It is from incomplete stories, told without a shred of disbelief, that you are composed.

I know you don’t recall but we did meet once, you already weren’t yourself. We took a walk around your neighborhood and soon found ourselves lost amongst the maze of twisting residential streets, lined with bushes and flower gardens, looking both beautifully familiar and completely foreign. It seemed that you were just waking up from a convoluted dream. Your frustration was apparent, even to me. I complained about being tired and was proudly sitting atop your shoulders before the sound of my request had died out. I sat there in silence for the remainder of the walk. It frustrated you when you felt yourself slipping away from us. First it took the small things like where your keys and wallet were. Then it took directions, what day it was, what you’d done that day. It took your ability to tie your shoes or open the door. It took your ability to walk. It took the names of people you loved and it took your voice. It took your judgment and your inhibition, it left your memories. Your children maintain that you were always with them, even when you couldn’t speak their names, you couldn’t respond but you were there and that is what matters. Tucked away, your mind sat, not dormant, just quiet. They say you were a great lover of Jeopardy, you always knew the answers, you never forgot what time it was on. From a wheelchair you still knew when it was time for you to sit in front of the great, glowing television and watch your show with your wife. It was something left behind, something overlooked, something that hadn’t been taken from the two of you, something you were able to share.

never truly gone. You were dead before my first kiss, and I can’t remember the sound of your voice. I’ve come to realize, though, that you are more than old age and sickness – more than peculiar Russian textbooks and tight-lipped secrets. You are a loving church full of old friends, a plaid suit with a checkered tie, five children with smiles and frowns and math homework. You are a subtle smile, and, yes, you are a thick pair of glasses. It’s been too long. Maybe we can see each other soon, Grandpa. I miss you. Love, Marshall

The beautiful words have been spoken and flowers lain with care. The casket has been lowered and the tears are being wiped away, day by day. Your wife sits in front of the great, glowing television and watches Jeopardy. You open the side door and step across the threshold. You cross through the kitchen, into the living room. You walk past your wife, staring curiously, on the couch. You lower yourself into your favorite armchair and adjust your glasses. “Well hello, Jerry,” she calls to you gently. “Hello,” you respond in kind. She says without shame that you still visit her sometimes. She professes no fear of your presence, only a sense of comfort. You’ll enter quietly and leave silently and in between you’ll spend time with your wife who is grateful that you are not forgotten, and

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LANCE NICHOLS The gas station cashier scanned two Red Bulls and a pack of Camel menthols. She punched in the total and leaned to the right of the register. “Got I.D.?” Joe slid one of the two plastic cards cycling through his fingers onto the counter. The cashier quickly inspected it and approved the purchase. Joe swiped his debit card, mumbled a “thank you,” and hurried out the gas station’s doors. Across the parking lot, Jimmy slouched against his car and cursed at the pump’s computer. “Goddammit! You piece of shit, I’ve got seven bucks on this card!” Joe shook his head and approached the parked Cavalier. “Dude, stop shouting. You’re making a fool of yourself. I’ll just put in ten. Get in the car.” “Well okay,” Jimmy said and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I do have money on this card. It’s just being a bitch.” “Ah shut up! Now do you want a Red Bull, or not? I got you one, too.” Jimmy slid his bulky frame into the passenger seat and pursed his lips. “Not really a big fan of Red Bull... did you get anything else?” “Cigarettes! Now take your goddamn drink!” “Okay, okay. How much you puttin’ in?” Joe rattled the nozzle as the display reached ten dollars. He finished, holstered the pump, and got behind the wheel of the car. “Ten.” “Where we goin’?” “A good floating place on the Osage. You know where that is? You ever been there?” “Nope.” “Well I’m going to take your car, drive it in the river, and make a boat,” Joe said and smiled mischievously. Jimmy sighed and stared at Joe. “Why you always gotta fuck with me?” “Why do you always have to make that face at me?” Joe pulled a roadside map out of the driver-side

door. “We’re going swimming. Now if I know where we are, and I think I do, then we can come up on the Osage River over by... ‘Terre Du Juste?’ Never heard of that one before.” “Whatever. Give me a cigarette.” Joe started the car and pulled out of the gas station parking lot. “You don’t need a cigarette.” “C’mon, don’t pull that shit on me. I’d let you bum a cigarette if you wanted one! You’re not my dad, you know—you can’t tell me what to do. I’m gonna smoke if I wanna—” “Alright, alright. Shut the hell up and take a cigarette. Jesus.” Joe accelerated steadily on the empty highway. The sun penetrated the Cavalier’s tinted windshield and warmed his forearms. He popped the tab on his energy drink’s slender, aluminum can and audibly downed three large gulps. Jimmy sucked on his cigarette and occasionally coughed out small puffs of smoke. Joe lit his own cigarette and inhaled deeply. He flicked its tip’s ash out the window. “Where we goin’ again?” Jimmy asked. “I told you already: the Osage River.” “Oh. What’re you doin’ tomorrow?” “I think working. I need to double-check the schedule.” Jimmy took a drag from his cigarette and coughed again. “That’s what I should be doing: working, saving up money, and getting ready for college. Then I can blow out of St. Jacob and never look back—I shouldn’t be running around and letting you take my car wherever you please!” “Oh Christ, we’re going swimming, man! Stop bringing me down,” Joe merged into the left lane. “Here we go. This is the turn-off to Terre Du Juste.” The car turned down an old highway road. Jimmy’s eyes followed the shiny contours of the slick greenery as they drove. The trees appeared to stretch over the asphalt like longing fingers. As the road narrowed, their branches meshed into a grid of inter-

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twined arms and digits. Large country villas began to speckle the scenery and thin out the trees at the climax of their entanglement. “Where are we now? These people livin’ here must be rich.” Joe slowed the car and unfolded the road map. “Well... I’m not really sure. It seemed like it should have been easy to find. I wonder if it rained here recently.” “Big fuckin’ houses.” “Ah pay attention dammit!” “I was!” Jimmy said, arching his eyebrows. “I don’t think I saw any dirt roads we could’ve turned down. Did you see anything?” “No. But I also wasn’t looking. I’ll just keep driving. It might be at the end of this stretch… although these houses don’t seem connected to anything.” “Yeah. Just look at ‘em! Every one we drive past is super-fuckin’ nice.” Joe did a double-take out the window. An imposing, white mansion stood at the end of a long, paved driveway. In-ground lights bordered a chalky, concrete path leading to an open veranda, and the spacious surrounding grounds were flanked by dark viridian shrubbery. A closed, ornate steel gate barred the entrance. Two white-haired, white men stood talking in front of an open double garage; curvaceous, chrome-accented cars nestled in the shadows behind them. Joe matched their gaze and then turned back to the road. “I suppose. Rich old bastards. Make their money then buy a bunch of land and move out to the country. They’re not country folk, as I would call them, but they buy up all the land from country folk, and buy it up real cheap, then it’s too expensive for anyone but them to live there after they die.” “That’s what I want to do: make a shitload of money, then move out to the country and sit my fat ass on my porch and drink a glass of tea. Maybe smoke a cigarette in the evening.” “Ha! How many times have I been over to your place? You sit on your fat ass and drink tea at home. Why waste money on a new house?’” Joe said and snickered. Jimmy tried to hold in a laugh but couldn’t hide his smile. “Fuck you. I guess I walked into that one.” “C’mon, you know you want to laugh! Seriously though, I’ve never been swimming on the Osage, so this should be pretty fun, from what my Uncle Tim has to say.”

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A light flashed in Jimmy’s eyes, and the corners of his grin tightened. “You’ve never been out here before?” “No—” “But I thought you knew where we were going!” Jimmy shouted. “I do, dammit, I just don’t know exactly how to get there.” “And you call me stupid? This is pretty stupid.” “Jimmy, shut up, or I’m leaving you here and stealing your car,” Joe snapped. “It’s your fault anyway, I can’t concentrate if you keep distracting me.” Jimmy opened his mouth to protest, then turned away. Instead, he stared out the window and tried to see past the horizon. As the car rounded a corner, the woods began to return in clusters, blocking the view. From within the thickening foliage, the glisten of something man-made caught Jimmy’s eye. A wooden signpost with lacquered, deep-carved lettering stood angled, welcoming by the side of the road. Screwed beneath the message was an aluminum sign, painted a familiar teal. Its white lettering read “Terre Du Juste.” “Joe—there’s Terre Du Juste. What does that sign say?” Joe squinted as he slowed to a stop. “‘Oo-ay losage?’ It’s the goddamn French, again! What the fuck does that even mean?” “I dunno. I got away without taking any foreign language bullshit in high school, remember?” “Yeah, and I didn’t pay any attention in Spanish.” “‘Vooz duh-vez luh troover?’” “I wasn’t even going to try the second line. We have to be getting close to the river, though.” Jimmy was quiet. The sign was old, valuable. Someone had taken the time to apply a smooth coat of dark varnish, and it was clear the wood had been sanded and repaired over time. He reached his hand out of the idling car and ran his thin, white fingers through the grooves of the lettering. “Never made anything like this in shop. Never made anything nice like this. It was always useless shit.” “I made a mugrack. Does that count? You ever make a mugrack?” “I said something useful.” “True. Dude, you were talking about all the nice houses? I bet there’ll be at least a few in Terre Du Juste, if those others, back there, are any indication. Kind of like an old, rustic, Missouri-sort of thing, if

you wanted to check them out first, or something.” “I guess. I don’t care... We can just go to the river,” Jimmy said and let his eyes drop to the floorboard. He quietly studied the trash at his feet: crushed cans, soiled wrappers, and empty cigarette packs. When he looked back up, he pointed out the window and shouted. “What the fuck is all that shit?” A cluster of warped single-wide trailers straddled the end of the road. A few were fitted with corrugated aluminum skirts; the rest were pock-marked by rusty erosion. The highway ended in pieces of jagged, broken asphalt and branched off into several residential streets; Joe turned down the first on the right. “Well, this wasn’t anything I was expecting.” Jimmy yawned. “Nope. I thought you said the houses were gonna be nice—you acted like Terre Du Juste was gonna be nice.” “Well, I mean, I told you I hadn’t been here before. This is considerably worse than I would’ve expected, though. All the same, not like you can’t find this back home.” Several lawns were spotted with greasy car parts and broken appliances. One small house looked like a patchwork doll, its walls a quilt of mismatched metal. A clean welcome mat laid in front of the house’s only door, and a small, shiny bucket was nailed to the doorframe. On the bucket, pieces of electrical tape had been arranged to spell the word “mail.” At the end of the street, someone had parked a piebald IROC Camaro sideways, blocking the road in front of the last three houses. The car was an amalgam of different finishes and paint coats: red, white, blue, and the gritty sepia of corroded steel. Its windshield was bisected by a deep crack. From the outside, the first house beyond the car looked like nothing more than four stark walls of whitewashed concrete and a roof. Its front door hung open, but shadows were all that emerged through the doorway. “I don’t ever wanna live somewhere like this,” Jimmy said. “Yeah. I bet they got drugs here, though. Bet it isn’t too hard to find drugs if I wanted them! I bet there’s probably—” “How close is the river around here?” “You finally getting exciting to go swimming?” Jimmy was silent. They turned past the Camaro and drove over a section of isolated railroad tracks. The road curved to a sharp left, and riverside shacks and cabins began to peek out from behind damp willow and corkwood curtains. They all lined a low em-

bankment blanketed with waterside greens and dark, alluvial soils. At the bottom, the Osage River flowed by with an audible energy that pulsed through their chests and magnetized their eyes. “Ah-ha!” Joe yelled after a long, wordless moment. “I told you I’d find it. Now to find somewhere to park. I’m tempted to just pull up here.” “You wanna jump in right by the houses? What about the people living there?” “Dude, I haven’t seen anyone since we got here. Maybe they’re all out swimming. Wouldn’t surprise me. Just watch: it’ll be triple digits before too long.” “Well in that case, let’s definitely keep driving,” Jimmy chuckled. “I don’t wanna deal with anyone who lives here.” They followed the river until the road stopped and emptied out into a graveled parking lot. Joe parked and stripped down to a pair of basketball shorts. The Osage was in full view; the river ran past steady and formidable, like a fierce animal, its haunches bristling and tipped with mud, detritus, and the fringes of the woods. Joe jumped straight into the water with an enthusiastic shout. Jimmy slowly got out of the car and sat down on the riverbank. After a minute, Joe shot out with a splash, blinking and sputtering. He flexed and shook the water from his tall body. “Ah dude. You swimming?” “I don’t think so, man.” “Well why not?” Joe said and dived again. “This place just sucks. I’m tired of being here already, I guess,” Jimmy replied. He frowned and his brows furrowed tensely above his blue eyes. “You think college is going to be any better than high school?” Joe waded out of the river to where Jimmy sat on the shore. “What? Is that why you’ve been acting weird all day?” Jimmy held his breath for a moment and forced a grimace. “Dude, I remember back when my dad used to live with us, me and Mom and the kids. The only swimmin’ he did was in his piss-water beer! Well, that’s not true—I can remember goin’ swimmin’ in some dinky little kiddie pool with my brother when I was a kid. My dad still had a beer can in his hand! We should’ve taken all the cans he threw away to the recycling center. Bet I could’ve made twenty bucks.” Joe nodded and ran his fingers through his sandy-blonde hair. “I actually wouldn’t mind a beer, right now. Something about drinking beer and

E P I C — 61

swimming that goes hand-in-hand.” “A lot of my dad’s cans just wound up in the yard, anyway, after the garage filled up. We had a little bit of money when he was workin’, you know—but it all went to bullshit, junk. Or his truck. He used to work on that fuckin’ yellow truck in our garage, before it got filled with junk, too. He said garages were for working on cars, and the only machine that goes in the yard is the lawnmower. When the garage filled up, stuff went in the yard, though. The junk, then the cans, then the trash. You know the city will just leave your trash in your yard if you can’t pay them to come pick it up? They don’t give two fucks, even if it’s just gonna get everywhere. They’ll even fine you, if they say it gets too bad! I finally gave up trying to grab it all. It wasn’t worth it.” “Yeah.” I can’t wait ‘til I’m rich and famous, ‘cause the only reason I’ll ever go back home then is to rub it in all their faces, everyone in that fucking awful town.” Joe held up the open palm of his hand. “Hey dude, I don’t want to interrupt you, but hold that thought. I need a cigarette. You want one, too?” “Sure, man.” Joe walked to the Cavalier and brought out two cigarettes and a lighter. He lit one and blew twin jets of smoke out his nostrils. He dropped the remaining cigarette, lighter, in Jimmy’s lap, and squatted next to him in the gravel. They sat and smoked quietly. After one last drag, Joe flicked the smoldering butt behind him and stood up. “Listen man, I get it, high school fucking sucked. I mean, I know it. Look at me: I didn’t even get to go the whole four years. I still know it wasn’t easy for you. Everyone’s awful and just wants to pick on the fat kid, right? They were evil. But that’s done, it’s just the past, man! It’s over and gone and doesn’t matter anymore, and you have to believe that. Otherwise, it’s just going to pull you down and keep you there. Dude, if you don’t want to be poor, don’t ever fucking give up again—that’s all it takes. You have to keep fighting and working and trying, but you can’t throw in the towel. I believe in you, man. I know you have the potential to... to do all the things you want to do. Just don’t give up,” Joe paused. “Well how’s that for inspirational? You feel any better now?” Jimmy squinted and looked down at his cigarette. A steeple of white ash tumbled away into nothingness. The ember had burned bright orange in the breeze, then consumed itself, quick and unseen. Jimmy turned toward Terre Du Juste and nodded.

62 — E P I C

“I wonder how many of them never gave up.” Joe stood looking down at Jimmy quietly. He waited for Jimmy to turn around for a few moments, but his friend kept his eyes trained on the wooden wall of the nearest shack. Eventually, Joe took a heavy breath and turned his gaze to the river. After a pause, he nodded, ran back to the Osage, and dived into its current.


E P I C — 63

We are not like you. We are gentler. We are wilder. We belong here. — Alyssa Gregory,

“Welcome to the Food Chain”

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