2021 Creative Writing Contest Issue
< The Casual, Brice Drake
Utah State University
Nonfiction | Fiction | Poetry | Art
Table of Contents 01 02
Huntress Madeline Thomas Photo Andrew Romriell
21 28 28 29
Alchemic-like: 16 Ways to Look at Transformation Andrew Romriell Centipede Magnifique Sabrina Allen Worship Madeline Thomas
04 05 38 06 Ode to the Blue Heron We Watched Lift From the James River 07 40 08 46 09 47 10 48 11 54 55 12 In Spring, After She Calls Me Andrew Romriell Photo Andrew Romriell
The Gardener Ann Marie Humble Seeing Green Dara Lusk
16 17 20
Folding Laundry Snow
Crafted Hope Madeline Thomas
Cold Stephanie Pointer
Photo Andrew Romriell
Photo Andrew Romriell
A Daughter’s Lesson Snow
Drowned At Birth Hannah Lee
When the Lights Go Out Jacob Taylor
Ode to the Religion I Left Jordan Forest
Art Brice Drake
The Becoming Andrew Romriell
The Father of a Peach Snow
The Link Hannah Lee
Photo Andrew Romriell The Marina Hannah Lee For the Boy at the Parade Andrew Romriell
56 62 63 64
The Haunting Hannah Lee
It’s Coming Chelsea Beck Let Go Andrew Romriell Ode to the Plum Tree Outside My Bathroom Window Jordan Forest Photo Andrew Romriell
Charles Waugh asked me before the pandemic to take over USU’s Creative Writing Contest and I reluctantly agreed. As things became more dire on a global scale, I had an annoying niggle far in the back of my head concerning this contest and how, during the hardest and weirdest year of probably most of our lives, was this contest going to go forward. I also worried about nearly everything else—as did we all. In the fall, I convinced myself that we wouldn’t get enough good submissions to make a good magazine. But I found as we all shut our doors and stopped meeting up with our friends this past year, we turned inward and asked tough questions. We not only had a competitive pool of submissions—but some great art and writing emerged. So, thank you to all who contributed. My other fear was finding enough help to publish a good magazine. Again, I was pleasantly surprised. Lisie Beck Brundage, Michelle Montrose Larsen, Chadd VanZanten, Anne Stark, Isaac Timm, Brock Dethier, Kacy Lundstrom, and Shay Larsen evaluated our great submissions. Amber Caron helped wrangle meetings and think of things that I forgot. Students on Sink Hollow did the heavy lifting of proofreading and designing this beautiful magazine that you’re looking at now. Madeline Mortensen, Deren Bott, Mckayla Beauchamp, and Sandra Edwards all volunteered to comb through the prose and check for small mistakes. Brianne Sorensen updated and designed our call for submissions. Stefani McClanahan helped with layout and design. Kyler Toman took on the tricky task of being the proofreading editor which had him juggling people’s schedules and technical difficulties. And, finally, this magazine would literally not exist without Anne Schill who worked as our layout and design editor. She is the reason this publication looks so fantastic. Thanks, again, to all who made this possible—now settle in with a cup of tea and enjoy some of the best writing and art at USU. --Russ Beck Interim Contest Director
Madeline Thomas Inside, stillness blazes, energy like lightning forms fractals on frozen muscle— everything I’ve trained myself to be quivers inside. Nothing breaks through granite skin. Behind me, his breath betrays his mortality, whispering across the back of my neck— No. The dew of pre-dawn morning pools in waves of his chestnut hair, his warmth flows like traces of spring through frozen strands— Stillness blazes. Why do Orion’s words keep crawling through newfound trails of insecurity in my brain? Apollo’s chariot bursts onto the horizon, first light trailing behind like his hoards of adoring maidensOrion breathes in my face— The inner huntress flinches back. My stone extremities long for fragile, gentle strokes.
Orion’s calloused hand envelops mine, startling the trust of silence. Nothing about his eyes belie the predator, the all consuming hunger that stains my memory in crimsoncrimson rage, crimson bloodhe waits, staring down with melting patience, begging for permission. The light grows. I nod. Tiny constellations rise on my skin, his breath of lingering wine promising elation, drunken ecstasy, hands on my hips, he leans in— The huntress claws her way out. Second Place, Graduate Poetry
< Photo by Andrew Romriell First Place, Graduate Art
iquid silence wets my lips and coats my tongue. The bittersweet headiness of sagebrush soaks into my skin as my father and I tense, poise. The rustle of crackling brush a hundred yards off pricks our ears. Quiet gives way to the pitter-patter of talons scraping frost, and an echoing burble stretches towards the star-dusted horizon. As rays of sun first blur into the drowsy sky, a sage grouse emerges and begins his performance. Long, striped tail feathers fan into a crown that offset his downy chest feathers. As he struts around his mating ground, a lek, the grouse gathers air and inflates two yellow air sacs that bounce on his body. Moving as little as possible, I watch for an hour as the sage grouse gulp upwards of a gallon of air into the bulbous pouches resting below their elongated necks. A rapid deflation of these air sacs results in popping sounds that resemble high-pitched chirps. The countryside rings with the strange pings that emanate from the parade. Back and forth across the lek, a sage grouse thrusts, strides, fans, and whistles to impress the females nestled in clawed sagebrush. As my stomach presses into the chilled soil, there is a sudden, sharp pang in my lower abdomen. I wince, but don’t dare move positions and risk disturbing the grouse. Uneasy minutes pass, but soon the pain fades and the sage grouse are once again my only focus. The sun has emerged to bathe the muted grays and greens of the scene in chalky hues. One grouse in particular is aggressive in his display, passing close by the females and flaring near their nests, only to receive a turned head and unruffled feathers. When not chosen, a male sage grouse continues to flaunt until he has won another female over or fallen
victim to the predators that frequent these exposed mating grounds. Warbles echo louder and plumage fluffs faster as the flock of sage grouse slowly begins to thin. Just as a male struts by with his puffed chest clearly visible, the piercing stab returns with greater ferocity. I can’t help an abrupt intake of breath. My father turns and shakes his head. Lowering my chin to the dewy grasses, I arch my back as much as possible without moving my legs. The unfamiliar ache persists. The bobbing sage grouse continue to dance. One male flexes his wings and nips at a younger, smaller male, snatching white fluff away from his throat. The fight is short. His domination is successful. The pursued female lowers her head to the ground, spreads her wings, and bows to the conqueror. He chases her away from the actions of the other males, herds her into the ground, and begins to mount. Fifty yards to the left, sunlight is refracted from the binoculars and camera lenses of other concealed bird watchers. Rays skip, collide, and shatter across the exposed lek as the male sage grouse arches his neck. His talons sink into her feathers for purchase. Slowly, my legs curl inward, and I wrap my arms around my barely-there chest. A warmth has begun to spread between my legs. I don’t understand the slickness of my thighs. I press my legs together and tuck my head into my folded arms, fighting against the instinctive hunch that emanates from the grips in my stomach. Hesitant to move, I remain cradled under the sparse shadows of the brush, eyes fixed on the limp body of the female sage grouse as her head is pressed into the earth. Second Place, Undergraduate Nonfiction
In Spring, After She Calls Me Andrew Romriell
i don’t know what comes after her scream: fuck you; when she slips her fists against the car door punching wailing screaming fuck you fuck you fuck you he raped me, he fucking raped me; when wet cheeks crash against the seat and hazel eyes drip down her words—childhood slamming against the car like wind; when she spills out and a dry rash creeps down my throat— what can i say to a girl so great so wonderous so shattered? when i clutch her hand and she clutches back, our fingers intertwined against memory, i drink in the noise of a storm and pretend i understand the pain of being opened like a body.
First Place, Graduate Poetry
Photo by Andrew Romriell First place, Graduate Art
Ode to the Blue Heron We Watched Lift From the James River Jordan Forest
Blue body and all that neck loosening itself from branch and into sky.
First Place, Undergraduate Poetry
Folding Laundry Snow
The sheet parachutes towards the ceiling, crisscross threads bound close to paisley pattern, warmth emanating from fingertip to fabric, grip held tight against the settling of sheet. Creamy cotton crackles static as a spark of energy bolts the gap between material and skin, leaping towards a resting finger, rushing into quiet nerves and unassuming cells, which pulse with mitochondria, nuclei, a touch of electricity spurring already ever-active transactions, within which atoms bounce furiously against each other, electron rings bound to proton core, thrumming, throbbing outward as they spiral in their orbits bound by space: chaos in the stillness of cloth.
Third Place, Undergraduate Poetry
remember the cold. I pressed against the stained, off-white wall until my spine was stripped of its natural curvature. Stiff, against the cold wall, my eyes frozen on the object. The air starched still. Between us there was air, and a small piece of metal. The metal looked cold. There it stayed, suspended in the air, wrapped in duct tape, gripped by her thick fingers. Her fingers turned white from the strain. The gray morning winter light streamed through the high window, sharpening the bitter edge in my vision. The scream sounded inhuman and cold. I remember the scream—it was pitched and short. It was short. It sounded like a threatened child’s cry. The scream was a strangled sound coming from my throat when the wall pushed against me pushed me closer to the knife the scream was the sound of her suppressed anger shattering the scream was her realizing what she was doing the scream existed outside of us the scream found a high note and there it stayed high enough that it still echoes in my head. It will take two years to realize I have no memory of what stopped her from pushing the blade into my skin until blood sprouted from my flesh and turned crimson when it met the cold room. There was the duct-taped butcher’s knife, but she was gone. She found the knife in a gutter a week before. The cream- colored gardenias on the table were laced with a beige border, and next to them, the knife. The day before, I put the gardenias in a cup since we didn’t have a vase. The water in the cup was still; not even 24 hours old and already clouded with algae. I slid to the floor. The chilled tile bit my skin through my clothes. I looked up at
the petals and metal sitting on the table. The flowers were a gift which marked me as a daughter by a woman who knew how to love LDS missionaries. They were a gift of love sitting on the table next to the blade. Hours later the other missionaries we shared the flat with found me in their closet. They returned unexpectedly after church to change before proselyting for the rest of the day. The muscles in my legs knotted from sitting curled between suitcases. They kept asking what happened. I didn’t tell them. I didn’t know. We were in the hall she was 6’3” and almost 300 pounds she knocked another missionary unconscious and was allowed to stay in the mission she sent kids to the hospital when she was in high school she loved when drunk men approached us in the street and was disappointed when they backed down after realizing she was far too big to take by force she whispered threats with the softness of a lullaby each night as we fell asleep her fingers were white for the second time that day the fist they formed bigger than any I’d seen before I stepped in front of her flying fist I breathed in waiting for the bones in my face to crack I didn’t see her punch the wall but I felt the house shake and then shake again as she slammed the door to our bedroom behind her the other missionaries stood behind me they sobbing I don’t know why I didn’t cry too why is she angry they asked all she says to me is you’re so stupid use your head I responded. I don’t remember seeing the gardenias laying on my desk in a pool of their own water, but they must have tipped over on my desk when she slammed the door. The freed, dirty water finally allowed to run after being trapped in the container I had placed it in. That water must be why the pages of my Bible are water warped as I realize this also notice the tremble in my muscles what I don’t remember is when I started shaking I can’t stop shaking and I’m not cold.
Third Place, Undergraduate Nonfiction
Drowned at Birth Hannah Lee
I woke with the cup in my hand, and I drank Brown water streaks down alabaster sheets— Just a drink, then into liquid weakness, sank. No pause to think, to stop, or contemplate Golden ichor rolled down slow, we taught it so. I woke with the cup in my hand, and I drank. Buzzing hands could weave no righteous words to thank The nursemother—her milk that reeked and filled To the brink as I, in liquid weakness, sank. The thirst, the curse, stayed—once gorged now sinking blank Draining oceans dry in days, throat heaving, I woke with the cup in my hand, and I drank. Ecstasy rolled in droplets, a worn escape. Seaside sacrifice intoxication. Just a drink, and into liquid weakness, sank. Deep drunk on the tide of the moon, we make No sound. The mermaids have stopped singing now. I woke with the cup in my hand, and I drank. Just a drink, then into liquid weakness, sank.
Second Place, Undergraduate Poetry
< Photo by Andrew Romriell First Place, Graduate Art
Ode to the Religion I Left Jordan Forest
I haven’t wanted to write you an ode. I’ve wanted to say nothing, in the same way I go to sleep without talking to God now. But yesterday I remembered my father and how he cried on Easter morning while leaning against our living room window and reading tissue-paper verses about the cross and about the disciple who ran to the empty tomb. I remembered the way he looked at the sunrise that morning— waving his hand at me, wanting me to see all that yellow too.
First Place, Undergraduate Poetry
The Becoming Andrew Romriell
magine, if you will, being seventeen. You’re a senior in high school and just auditioned for the spring play. The actual play doesn’t matter; pick any you’d like. But still, you auditioned, and you auditioned alongside your closest friends. You memorized a monologue—perhaps that cliché one from Hamlet. You auditioned with this monologue thinking that Shakespeare would set you up to be something much bigger than you felt. You hoped speaking Shakespeare could allow space enough for you to play some act of confidence you rarely felt at seventeen and a senior in high school. Imagine then, you’re at a party on the night Ms. Sauve, the high school theater teacher, would be releasing her final list—the list of those who made it into the play. The party is at your best friend’s house, and you’re surrounded by all the people who auditioned alongside you. The night is fire. Exciting. Ecstatic. Full of dancing and laughing and all the other motions you practiced in order to stave off the erratic fear of failure. You look around at those who auditioned with you and wonder whether they feel the same anxiety. Do they want it as much as you do? Do you want it as much as you say you do? And, in the midst of all this fear and staving off fear, from somewhere in your best friend’s house where all your friends have gathered, someone cries, “It’s up! The list is up!” And you pull up the list on your phone. Ms. Sauve has placed it on a website rather than a piece of paper on the bulletin board of the high school. You wonder why she’s done this. You wonder if it’s because she wants to allow people to see their loss in privacy—to not be bombarded by the celebration of their peers. If she wanted this, it doesn’t work. Your eyes move down each part, each character, and each name placed beside it. After first glance, you don’t see yourself. A small, hollow pit forms in your stomach, and you wonder if you
missed yourself. You look again. Your eyes lingering a little longer on each person’s name that is not your own. You can’t find yourself. The hollow pit swells. When you look a third time, you’ll search the list backwards. And when you can’t find yourself again, you’re engulfed by the swelling hole, the pit in your gut whispering: You predicted this. You’re not surprised. You don’t exist in the spaces here. You can’t be a part of those accepted and praised. You don’t know why you tried in the first place. In a silent room with pale green wallpaper, beside a window full of dark winter sky, holding a plastic cup of sparkling juice, you sit. The room’s not empty, just silent. Your friends also peer through the list, and most find themselves. They see each other. You glance around the pale green wallpapered room and find them glancing too. They meet each other’s eyes but shift quickly away from yours. They don’t say much. They leave, and you stay. They congratulate each other in the kitchen, and you stay silent beside the window full of dark window sky, abandoning your sparkling juice on the coffee table. Imagine two weeks later, and you’re standing in your high school hallway, outside the door of the theater classroom, beside the bulletin board where a cast list has been stapled crookedly on the corkboard. Imagine you don’t look at the list. You know it by heart now. Instead, you look through the tiny window of a door. Your friends are inside, sitting in a circle, scripts in hand. Though you can’t see Ms. Sauve, you know she sits with them. You see your best friend—the one born nine days before you, the one whose house has the pale green wallpaper. You see her smile as she reads her lines, the boy beside her laughing. Don’t imagine what’s so funny; you’ll
imagine it’s about you, and that hurts more than you can bear. It’s illogical anyway. You know it’s illogical. You know. Imagine that door with the little window that frames your best friend smiling, opens quietly, and Ms. Sauve steps out. You jump, growing goosebumps on your skin, and quickly turn to walk away, but she tells you to stop. You apologize, though you’re not entirely certain what you’re apologizing for. This is a reaction, muscle memory on your tongue. The word fills the expansive void of your gut, the one deepening as Ms. Sauve watches you sternly. Frustratingly. Powerfully. “You can’t be here,” she says, solidity bracing her voice. “You are not a part of this.” You know this. You apologize again. You can’t look at her anymore. You glance away. “I don’t want to see you here again.” The door closes before you glance back. She’s blocked by the wall again, but you catch the eye of your best friend through the tiny window. She tilts her head, her eyebrows wrinkling in a sad
kind of way. You smile to mask everything else. You wave and walk away. Imagine you turn the corner. Then, you sprint. You sprint and tumble down the hall until you reach the bathroom. You lock yourself inside a green-painted stall and cry. You scream and sob and cry and choke and punch the painted, metal walls of a bathroom stall covered in graffitied words, scratched into green paint so the silver metal shines through: FAG. BITCH. FAIL. HOMO. FUCK. HELL. SEX. ASS. GOD. DAMN. I. WISH. I. WAS. DEAD. You line up against the words, your spine cracking against the scratched-up wall, and tears drip from your soft chin to the hard tile floor. Years from now, you’ll see this moment as your becoming: the darkness of a bathroom; a newness opening within you; pure emptiness ready to be filled. And though you’ll come to think of this moment as a metaphor, you’ll never be quite sure which part you fit. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Perhaps, instead, the floor was simply the last thing you felt before standing.
First Place, Graduate Nonfiction
Hannah Lee The sea is cold. Wading waist deep in the water, Waist up in the sky, My hands burn in the waves. The wind paints my upturned neck As if trying to speak through me. The sand shifts beneath my feet, and I dig deep. I have never seen God’s face within the walls of a golden chapel— But in the spaces in-between. A wordless psalm has sat, for years, on my lips And I cannot give the thing shape. It has shaped me In ways that cannot be undone. It’s a callus—a column. A rib. Take it out, and my mouth would fall apart around me. Do not ask me to sing my devotion. I fear I would not be able To fold the ribbons of it back into place, And I cannot afford a strand to be lost. It is so heavy to hold. I clamp my teeth around it Until my mouth aches And imagine I’m holding onto God’s hand. We are so hungry to know. Winter blows in, bitter, and my spine leans into it. The cold is a lover that always returns, Always the same—still lonely— Still asking me to stay outside a little bit longer. I want to stay, but this body screams infidelity In the way it blisters in the cold. I want to be rid of it, Want to walk unencumbered through the valley Until my hands and feet become glass And my name becomes a forgotten thing. I romanticize decomposition, The kind of connection that hollows out, The kind that sets the spirit free. I ignore the call. We go back inside, Watching the winter on the other side of the glass. The world is speaking always, and yet, no one is hearing. It is daring us to listen and understand.
On the street we feel the call, too. We steal glances—avoiding one another’s eyes While we search through faces in side glances, As if it’s a secret we are still looking after all this time. Hands brush getting off the subway. It aches. In quiet moments we ask ourselves, What would affection taste like? Peach running down a chin, sick sweet? Or more simple— Like clove? Like a home? A fleeting image is fabricated in our minds: Life spent in tandem. An intimate existence. Seasons pass by in silence, rolling by with cold hands folded While we sit beside it. The springtime words we’ve waited to share Rot like unpicked cherries in our mouths. Sour. We still hope. We can almost taste that hallowed attachment. Here we are sitting, still grasping at the spaces between each other’s fingers, Speaking always, and yet, neither one hearing— Daring the other to listen and understand. We owe it to each other to try. To be at one with the world, with another person, Is that not the goal? To feel the borders beyond our hands fall away And melt into an unveiled, iridescent awareness? How close are we? The pine trees shudder, whispering under white cloaks. Rich black roots dig deep, Swallowing up the bones of the dead, Warming the caves of those who sleep. The wind cries, biting at the necks Of the children who play on the street Still trying to speak through them.
Second Place, Undergraduate Poetry
Photo by Andrew Romriell First Place, Graduate Art 16
The Marina Hannah Lee
e drove all night to get to the ocean. Our parents weren’t too happy, but we had done it. The first leg of our Pacific Coast roadtrip was complete : a fifteen-hour drive from Salt Lake to California. We had over 1,500 miles ahead of us. I had spent hours plotting the route we would take, marking every stop between Eureka, California and Portland, Oregon. After months of planning I had stumbled across a real gem: $78 a night for an AirBnB in a boat on the Eureka harbor. As unconventional as it was, there was still a shower, a bed, and a view of the sea. For two sisters with little money between them and enough supplies in the trunk to make over thirty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it was perfect. We had slept in worse places in the name of saving money. The name of the boat was The Obsession. Captain Doby, the owner, liked to refer to the old girl as “classic plastic” in a fond way. She was classic—a relic from the 80s—a Catalina 38 sloop, designed for the congressional cup race circuit (but was long since retired). His wife had reupholstered the seat cushions over a decade back, but everything else was original. It was a time capsule on the water. 17
When we pulled up to the dock in the late afternoon (after missing the exit for the tiny island twice), the captain stood waiting. He waved us over while he held to the mast with his other hand. His skin was dark and leathered from many summers spent on the California coast. He was a veteran— and a sailorman. His hands lingered fondly on each part of The Obsession’s hull as he walked us through the interior. He seemed to be reassuring her more than he was reassuring us that the stay would go well—that we would mind our manners if she would. He smoothed down her worn edges with a solid hand like you would pet an old family dog who felt skittish of strangers. The boat was sleepy, there was no other way to put it. By the time the water had gotten to the dock after curving around the island, it was tired and dirty too. It lapped at the sides of the boat in an obligatory way. The pulse of the ocean rocked the ship, but the heart seemed far off. Our presence was tolerated with little acknowledgement. Our stay was just a blip in the life of that old ship—shorter than a day. The soft orange light in the port-hole windows winked at us like pairs of drooping eyes. The music that drifted through the gaping port gave a familiar, creaky voice to that vintage boat. We kept both the lights and the music on. The radio was pre-set to some local station that seemed to only play 70s jazz. Not the good stuff, either. Each song blended into the next, sometimes repeating once or twice until the host would hop on and apologize, only to do the same thing ten minutes later. Mounted next to the radio was a control board, full of switches. Above the top switch on the left was written, in that 80s-label-maker-font: radio. It was always on. Just about everything had a switch: sink, lights, heater, kettle. There were also switches for things we wouldn’t need—things for being far out at sea: sonar, com. radio, motor, weather gages. In the kitchenette, there was an ice box under the counter where a carton of cream sat between two fat blocks of ice. Books about sea navigation were shoved into kitchen cupboards alongside packets of
sugar and salt. Around the rest of the boat, bundles of rope and thick maps filled every nook. The bathroom you didn’t need a switch for—but you did need the arm strength to pump out whatever you put into the bowl. No solids, only liquids. Not that that helped the smell. We mutually decided to keep the door shut. For dinner we spent too much money at a Thai place on the other side of the harbor. We ate what we could stomach while sitting shoulder to shoulder at the tiny fold out table in the belly of the boat. We fought over the dessert—mango sweet rice—since it was the only thing worth eating. When she refilled our waters I stole more than a fourth of it, then had half of the rest. Then, in an effort to wash off the fifteen-hour drive, we took fifty cent showers on the mainland. The showers were hidden next to the laundromat, and by the time we found them it was nearly dark. I laughed and dropped my sister’s clothes on the floor when the water came out of the showerhead cold, and she screamed. When the cold started creeping in from the ocean, everything went quiet in the anticipation of it. I could feel it sliding across the water like a second skin, and it clung to my wet hair as we walked to the docks. There was no brilliant sunset that night—just a gradual seeping of light. The waitress at the dock cafe eyed us levelly as she wiped off tables. Two men nearby gripped their beers in nameless solidarity, and stared out at the gray marina. I wondered if they were sailors too—if they had set out on the sea, and could read the water in the sleepy harbor to understand the sea’s thoughts. I could see no pattern in the swirls of gray. When we stepped back onto the swaying deck, music welcomed us. We slid back into that timeless place, in the gold light and musty smell, and climbed the ladder below the surface of the water and into the boat. We stayed up late into the night. If a passerby were to have looked between the gaps in the navy curtains, they would have seen one sister sitting at a small dining table, surrounded by orange light and
an array of paints, while the other sister sat close by. The music swirled around us, like the boat was singing to itself, and we just happened to be there by coincidence. When I was done with the painting, which was of the boat, my sister took photos of it while I boiled tea. We argued about the tea, and the painting. I had already decided to leave the picture as a gift, but she wanted to keep it; I had already boiled her tea, but she didn’t want it. So I took both cups and awkwardly maneuvered up the ladder, to the dock, in silence. That night the moon was big in the sky— alert and full. It rose above the towers of the old houses across the harbor like a heavy specter. I remember the sharp bite of fear—seeing a figure out in the waves that looked to be, for a moment, the silhouette of a man standing upright in the water. Then it crumpled, folding in on itself, and took off into the sky with an ungraceful song. The heron came back twice, though I never saw it land. I only ever saw it take off, as if it had been summoned from the water, time and time again, in some inelegant loop. The only other sound in the harbor came from two docks over, where Old Bessie sat still. The motor purred with a nasty rasp. The tall metal walls towered over the smaller boats around it, as if it were a castle in the water. She had been repaired multiple times with scrap metal and cords, and it seemed a miracle that she was still airtight. The masthead light above the dock was on, illuminating the broken spires of breath that rose from the solitary figure on board. He huffed as he shifted large barrels across the deck, moving them from one side to the other. He talked to himself loudly, his large shoulders shaking with unrestrained laughter. We couldn’t have slept if we wanted to. Even from two docks over, each word was clear and crude. We dimmed the music sat below the lip, shaking in silent laughter as we listened to the sailor cuss about the woman who had squeezed his bread at Walmart because, “Who the fuck squeezes a man’s bread? I’m staying right here with Bessie for a fat minute, god18
damn shit, man. Not going back up there. Crazies.” Of all these things, I remember, most vividly, sitting beside the sea when everything went silent. The mug of tea in my hands had cooled. Still, I could see the steam curling past the lip. Bessie’s fog light clipped off, and her purr died. The marina was silent. Then something happened I didn’t expect. The color seeped away, either dipping down into the ocean or migrating to the warmth of the land, until there was nothing left but a vast array of blues. On the lightest side of the spectrum there was the light blue mist that wrapped itself around the moon, and the blue-silver ripple that created a shimmering pathway across the harbor toward it. But, in the shadows of the boats, where the hulls touched the water, the deep blue dipped itself into black. It was a rare sight—a secret thing—that the sea peeled back to show. It was a holy thing, like some kind of Mariner’s Christening. The world was at a monochromatic
standpoint, broken up only by the warm flickers of orange that cut through the blue: the faint cigarette glow against the face of Bessie’s sailorman, who smoked hard and fast, but stayed out long after; the soft haze arching around the left side of the full moon; the 80s-era orange that wandered from our tiny, port-hole windows, where my sister laid in bed. In the silence of that navy-colored moment, it was easy to forget the other onlookers. Regardless of the monotonous heron, the sailor man, the moon, and my younger sister, I could convince myself in that moment there was only the blue, and there was only me. That night, my sister slept in the boat’s coffin-style bed while I laid out on the stiff couch cushions. We left one of the lights on in the corner, near the table. My breath synced in time with the rock of the boat while I settled into that timeless place, and then drifted into another. I dreamed of nothing and woke in cold solidarity.
First Place, Undergraduate Nonfiction
For the Boy at a Parade Andrew Romriell
[Michael], don’t be silent. Don’t be afraid. Shout. Scream. Vortex in a swirl of broken pens & torn pages—waterlogged & innumerable. [Michael], you’re okay. Your chipped mouth only feels broken because you do. Your body is beautiful. Constructed piece by traumatized piece, you puzzled yourself back together. You showed up. You showed up. You looked at a stranger in the mirror & broke it. Bloody knuckles, bloody knees on bathroom tiles you wept. You transcended your story. & through those god-graced scars, you lived. You can breathe now, [Michael]. You don’t have to hold on to air. I know you think it hurts to spread your lungs
but that’s only because you don’t believe the universe can fill them. You don’t believe these rainbow flags stand for you. But they do. They stand for the Fallen. Fractured. Healed. They stand for you, [Michael]. & those cries of joy you hear are really more like piano keys, plucking away a tune you must choose to hear. You must choose to believe. You walk alone only until you look up. [Michael], are you listening? These galaxies shine pride down on you. Their signs drop sunlight on your forehead, face glistening crystal in release & liberation. I promise you’ll ride this out, & when you do, this glitter, this streamer, this star-spun parade full of human dance— well, [Michael], you’ll find you’re dancing too.
First Place, Graduate Poetry
Alchemic-like: 16 Ways to Look at Transformation Andrew Romriell
Lead will play its role until the world has no further need for lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold. - Paulo Coelho Alchemy uppose when you were young, perhaps ten, there was a boy sitting across the classroom. Suppose you didn’t notice how much you noticed him. Suppose it came to you like sand beneath waves, slowly burying your toes—inch by microscopic inch. Suppose you notice the way he moves two fingers across his eyebrow in some effort to smooth down the hair. Maybe he hasn’t been taught yet that he isn’t supposed to care about his appearance. Maybe, like you, he’ll one day be told it’s the feminine way, a feminine trait. Not yet, but that lesson will come soon. Suppose you see him as if transparently, tempered glass: hardened. Imagine that the way you stare at him with increasing tension makes you feel unsure. Maybe he bites his lip too hard and blood covers his teeth. He raises a hand and asks to go to the bathroom. You watch him pass, gripping hands together beneath your desk as if in prayer. You don’t realize it yet, but you have transformed.
Mother Pretend you’re in a church. You sit there listening and not listening. Hearing, never speaking. Your mother has just picked up Catholicism, though she claims this is more a study than a religion for her. Still, she is very serious about it. She’s serious about a great many things. Curfew. Television time. Schooling. Politics. Activism. Abortion. Racism. Homosexuality. Taking the trash out. And now, religion. She’s a woman of learning and research, a Law professor at Columbia University. A mother 21
who desires a son who values the same. She often takes you to her favorite cafe—the one with floor to ceiling windows facing the Atlantic. You wonder what she thinks as she stares into that endless ocean. Is it the same thing she sees when she closes her eyes in this old, stainedglass church? When she bows her head, does she shift into a frame of mind different from that which stares into the edge of the world? You wonder how much she has to shift when you throw her fine china plate across the room—the one gifted to her at a long-forgotten wedding. She picks up the pieces because you were too stubborn to clean up after yourself. Does she shift into another person as she sits at the edge of the bed, pulls you close, ear to heart, and tells you, People are more important than things. You are more important than things. The Utter Malarkey of a Butterfly Conservatory When there’s a moment deep in the wilds of a Walt Disney World butterfly conservatory that you find yourself wondering why the fuck am I here? –just realize that it’s not quite so existential as you’ll want to think. You’re not wondering why the fuck you’re here: on Earth; in the universe; alive at all. You’re actually just wondering why the fuck you’re at Disney World and there are a million rides you want to go on and a million characters you want to see and yet you are standing in the middle of a tented butterfly garden with your mother. If you could simply realize the exaggerations, realize the extraordinary beauty of that chrysalis dangling from that leaf, you’d be able to avoid all of this—the pain and humiliation of what comes next. But you won’t, and maybe that’s why the fuck you’re here.
Halloween Imagine, when you’re older, the first time you’ll remember painting your face will be on October 31 of the year you turn fifteen. You’ll remember that, in an effort to hold onto some tiny fragment of your creativity, you dressed up as Dracula—an effervescent version of the vampiric lord. Your mother bought you the costume. It wasn’t anything staggering in beauty. It wasn’t expensive or comfortable or silk-lined. It itched up your crotch and ties a bit too tight around your neck, but when you put those pointed, white teeth in your mouth, feeling the bite of hard plastic against your gums, you looked in the mirror and smile. This only made your gums hurt more, but you didn’t care. The transformation was wondrous. Magical. Imagine you’re back to that day, when your mother paints your face with intricacy. With brushes her mother bought for her before she left for college, she touches your skin. A pallet sits beside you both, smooth colors glob against a wooden board. She dips the brush and brushes your cheek; dips the brush, brushes your chin; dips the brush, and slides it smooth across your eyebrow, darkening the hair. In a final touch, she paints blood dripping from the corner of your mouth. You’re so excited to show everyone what you’ve become, you forget to look at yourself in the mirror until your mother calls you back. She wants you to see yourself first. The mirror reflects someone back at you. You recognize this person, but not fully. The point of his chin; the pale color of his eyes; the way his smile is just a little crooked—these things you know. But he’s different too, transformed into a character, a made-up villain. Imagine when you stare into that mirror, you pause, wondering who’s more real: the boy or the monster. Your mother holds you tight before you walk to school, and when you arrive, you’re excited. Your smile continues to gouge into your gums, but you don’t mind—not then anyway. As you strut into the high school, you do so with pride. But the costume isn’t why you’ll remember that day. Well, perhaps it is. It’s hard to know with any certainty what precisely latches your mind to that day. Perhaps it is:
The girl who snorts milk up her nose like some comedy show when you walk in the front door. The boy who points, who screams words you’ll later forget. He screams them in laughter. Then his friends join in. This laughter, you’ll remember viscerally; the way mouths open and shine with flat, white, human teeth; the way voices build and build and hold vibrato like a song; the way he points and doesn’t stop pointing until you make it around the corner; the way his finger still feels like it’s marking something hidden deep inside you. The boy who passes you a note in English as the class giggles behind you. When you glance down, you’ll see a cartoon of you: you as Dracula; you without pants; you without a penis; you with the words “FUCK ME LIKE A FAG” blistered atop the paper. The girl who trips you as you sprint from the room. The teacher who helps you up and asks what is wrong. You won’t tell her anything. She’ll latch to your arm. You’ll pull free eventually. The road with all the cars honking, swerving, screeching past your body. The memory of wanting to leap into that road with all those cars. The memory of not doing so. It’s hard to know what causes the memory to linger. You only really know that you got home while your mother was still at work. You rubbed the paint from your face, tore the costume from your body, spat teeth from your faux-bloodied mouth. Your mother will come home from work early that afternoon because the school called to say you ran off. She will be mad at first. She will be scared second. She will want to know what happened. You won’t be able to tell her. Chirographic Chrysopoeia In the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, there is a phrase inscribed within Cleopatra’s Ouroboros design: “One is All.” A singular phrase pressed into the minds of her many alchemic followers, it translates that every unique substance is able to 22
contain the substance of another. In fact, perhaps it has already been a part. This is then why it’s possible to transmute lead into gold, death into life, stasis into movement. It’s believed they’re all one and the same. Still, it’s impossible to know whether Cleopatra and her three alchemist partners actually crafted that Philosopher’s Stone, that tangible essence that could alter the world, that could perfect it through transformation. If a stone like this could be found, could be replicated, could be used, wouldn’t everyone crave such change? If the innate process of Chrysopoeia shows the nature of all things as being transmutations, of changing one form into a higher form, from the most mundane to the most divine, wouldn’t all of humanity reach a little higher? The Crux of The Crucible In your senior year, you paint your face again, though this time, you’re instructed to do so. You’ve been cast in the spring play, The Crucible. It’s a dark tale, a dark tone, but that’s part of what makes it fun. As John Proctor, you get to pretend to be vile. You get to freely lie and hold secrets and become someone else. It excites you as much as it creates a boiling effect in the pit of your stomach. When you paint your face, you ensure it’s not as dramatic as the last time. You paint it with makeup to accentuate a hollowness not yet present in your cheeks. You paint a darkness beneath the eyes, a sharpness to your chin. You’re fascinated by the way shadows can alter everything, the way lines create emotion, the way a new face can cover the old one. After you perform, the audience cheers. You bow with the others. The audience cheers some more. Your mother buys you a bouquet of yellow roses. She likes the yellow. They’re happier, she says. She hugs you tight. You hug her back. She tells you she’s proud, and you fully believe her. At school the next day, the boy who pointed, points again. Laughs again. He calls you Flatty. Hey Flatty! Great play last night, Flatty! Maybe you can use that make-up to make it look like you got a dick, Flatty! Maybe then you won’t be such a little cocksucker!
The pointing boy can’t see you crying in the bathroom. He can’t see the way you look down inside your pants at your own dick to see if he could somehow be right. He can’t see you. He won’t ever see you. Caterpillar Effect Do you know if they bubble, those caterpillars encased in a hardened chrysalis? Inside, their bodies eat their own bodies. They eat and dissipate and dissolve until nothing is left but goop. Caterpillar soup. You learn this long after seeing the chrysalis at the butterfly garden in Walt Disney World. It’s the first thing that makes you stop and consider the chrysalis in that garden. You’ve learned that the key is in the enzymes, that caterpillars are born with maps in their genes. When they enter into that chrysalis, the enzymes eat the body, the enzymes unlock the cells. Bit by bit, it will reconstruct into a butterfly’s body. Though you did not wonder this when you peered deep into a bush and saw a tiny chrysalis, you wonder now whether the caterpillar knew what it would eventually become? Did it know what it would take to become it? As it encased itself and started devouring itself, was it afraid? Even though there was always a map in its enzymes, did it know it could make it out alive? Daenerys Targaryen, but not You stand in the doorway. Your friend has disappeared into the crowd ahead, but you remain; frozen. You want to step forward, but you can’t quite take it all in. On the edge, you stand. You watch. You try to understand what it means to be here. The Comic Con crowd is massive, filling the halls and stairways, spilling out onto the sidewalks and streets. People jam themselves into every corner, creating something bizarre and unexpected. It’s a whirlwind of sound and color and music, a massive, throbbing life. It’s Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons and Harry Potter and Fullmetal Alchemist and Game of Thrones and Naruto and stories you’ve never seen before. It’s that undiscovered space where people from many worlds and time periods
become one. It’s green hair and ray guns, steel claws and robots. It’s every genre imaginable colliding and transforming into something completely free. Manic. Glorious. When your friend reappears, taking your hand and pulling you forward, you realize that the way you both dressed in Middle-Earth hobbit ears and hair-plastered toes is nothing compared to many of the people here. Here, cosplay becomes art. Here, there’s a place for anyone to become anything. And you feel jealous. Your stomach flips. Tightens. Stretches. Tears spring to your eyes, and you’re not entirely sure why. And when you ask for a picture with a picture-perfect Daenerys Targaryen cosplayer, she’ll say yes. And you’ll laugh with her. And hug her. And you’ll feel a desire to become her. You’ll see the way that dress flows around her ankles when she walks, and envy will bubble up—an envy you don’t quite understand. You’ll push it back down. You’ll tell yourself the hobbit ears are enough. You’ll keep telling yourself this until the day you realize it had never been enough. Dressed-up Parades Imagine, if you can, that you realize you are gay in college. Imagine you go through a “coming out” a bit later than the norm. Still, imagine this process goes well—that the story is one where you are embraced by your mother, where your friends throw a party to celebrate your achievement, where you are excited and joyful and ready when you scream and laugh within your newfound life from the rooftops of your dorm room. Imagine it can be like this. Then, imagine there’s a moment where you fully realize you still haven’t been fully honest. When you go to your first pride parade in the streets of New York City, when you stand cheering with your friends, when there’s a fullness that bursts from within, and your cheeks are painted in rainbow. Your honesty exudes from your being until the moment it doesn’t. A giant float appears, one full of people dressed in all kinds of ways, all forms of rainbows.
A couple are only clothed in tight underwear. A few are in t-shirts and jeans, a few more in leather pants and vests. There are even some men dressed up in drag, their make-up pitch perfect, their dresses fantastically shining under the burning June sun. They’re laughing, white teeth gleaming beneath bright lipstick. They jump to the pounding music, full of ecstatic joy. And yet, your own smile slithers back, shrinks, disappears. As you walk away half an hour later, your friends laughing and cheering, you lock eyes on the ground, brow furrowed. You don’t yet understand why you feel an aching, a longing. You don’t know why there’s a burning frustration, but you do know it’s there. Then, you’ll pass a drag queen on the street. Your friend will want to take a picture. You’ll offer to take it, so you won’t have to be in it. You’re scared of getting too close, to feel your envy burn. Joan Murray “Chrysalis” We never noticed the caterpillars till we puzzled out the mystery of the small black things on the marble top—which turned out to be their droppings. And soon, three pale green dollops hung from the carved-out leaves, each studded with four gold beads—so gold they looked to be mineral—not animal—a miracle that kept us amazed as the walls grew clear and the transformed things broke through, pumped fluid in their wings, dried off—and flew. I gauge from that memory that it will be next month before the girls are “ready.” I wonder how they’ll “fly” when there’s been frost. “And they’ll come back next summer,” the cashier says, “to the very same field—they always do.” I’m sure that isn’t true. But why punch holes in our little hopes when we have so few? Firework You’ll say no at first. You’ll refuse the second and third time too. When your best friend asks you a fourth time, however, you’ll hesitate because it’s her birthday, and that’s all she needs to get you to join her at the drag show that happens every Thurs-
day evening at The Shakery. Unlike many of your friends, you feel evasive about these things—clubs and dancing and drinking. You feel like you don’t want to be that kind of gay. Though you don’t admit it, you feel like there’s something wrong about it. Something unrighteous. Like you could be something better than that boy who dresses colorfully. Freely. That, even though you never fully joined in on your childhood Catholicism, perhaps being something akin to chaste is still somehow holier in the eyes of the universe. At the very least, you don’t want to fit that cliche. Still, it’s her birthday, and you go. You wait for an hour to get in. When the show starts, your friend stuffs fistfuls of dollar bills in your hands. She pulls you with her to the front of the crowd. On the stage, the man dressed all in drag, more beautiful than any person you’ve ever seen, crouches down to pull the green from adoring fans. Sheepishly, you reach out your hand with the money. The drag queen’s hand will touch yours as she grasps your offer. You look up. Her eyes are blue—ice blue. You notice this first. Then you notice the violet eyeshadow—intricate and balanced. She has rosy cheeks, blushed out simply. Each line is perfect, each contour meticulously implemented. Then, her lips, painted in deep crimson, will curve up. She meets your eyes, gives you a wink, and grasps your hands in hers, money dropping from both your grips. For a moment, you fear she’s going to pull you up to the stage. You fear it in the same moment you hope for it, but she doesn’t do this. She simply holds you, hands cupped in hers as she lip-syncs “Firework” by Katy Perry. You don’t hear the words, though you see her mouth moving. You see her, and she sees you. Just for a moment, you stand somewhere in between a man in the crowd and a queen on the stage. Ready to leap, not ready to leave the ground. When you get home that night, you wonder whether she saw something in you. You wonder if you might see it now too. You wonder what it would mean. You wonder how you might discover. You wonder if you ever could. And, when you go to bed that night, you’ll consider whether you can buy some lipstick from the Walgreens two blocks down 25
without looking like a complete novice. Sculptor You won’t go to Walgreens the next day. You won’t go the day after either. It’ll take you two weeks to summon up enough courage to make that trip. Even so, imagine that when you text your best friend about your courage, she calls you and screams through the phone’s speaker: firstly, about how she couldn’t be more excited and into the new you you will discover within makeup; secondly, about how you’re an idiot for thinking your best friend would ever allow you to buy your first batch of makeup at Walgreens. Thirdly, that she would let you buy it alone. Within the hour, you’re standing inside the entrance of Sephora, hazy on how you ended up there. Your friend has already begun marching through the aisles of makeup, the rows upon rows of colors and shines and mattes and lashes. Before you can move, she holds up a tube of something you don’t recognize, yelling that she has to try the color you. A blush rises in your cheeks. At first, you’ll think this is from embarrassment. You’ll realize as you reach her, your flushed cheeks are a result of excitement, a wave of renewed bravery, a crashing sense of place. And when the man at the checkout counter—the one with the effortlessly sculpted mascara and flawless foundation—asks you if it’ll be everything, you look into his startlingly green eyes and respond that you have no idea. Your friend will say it’s only the beginning. The Last Shedding Another thing you didn’t know about caterpillars and butterflies and their process of melting and reforming inside the Walt Disney World butterfly conservatory was that the chrysalis isn’t something the caterpillar makes. But you did wonder how the caterpillar created an armor so hard. You wondered how it learned to do this, whether something else taught it to do so, whether it taught itself. You’ll later understand that this was the wrong question. The chrysalis comes to mind, years later, when your best friend sets your newly purchased
bag of makeup on her vanity, offering you the chair that faces the mirror. She’s going to walk you through the steps to sculpting your face, to defining your features, to making yourself up. You want it to be beautiful. Perfect. You asked her to put the makeup on you first, to show you how to do it. You tell her that you’ll hold the brush later. You tell your friend about the caterpillar, the way it melts inside itself. You tell her about rebirth and a chrysalis that contains it. You tell her how the body that’s revealed when the caterpillar sheds its last skin is the chrysalis. Rather than being crafted on the outside, the beauty is built from within. Imagine that as you speak, you come to understand your question better, how it was never about how the caterpillar learned to create armor. The right question was how a caterpillar came to shed its armor. And when your friend tells you this question feels like a metaphor, you’ll ask her where you fit, but she won’t be sure. When you don’t answer, she’ll laugh, hold up the brush, and ask if you’re ready. You’ll look into the mirror, pausing for the briefest of moments before saying yes. Yet, she’ll sense something in your tone and in the glimmer of your eyes. She’ll pause too, glancing down at the brush. Then, she’ll hold it out to you. It’s yours, she’ll say. You get the first mark. You’ll ask what happens if you mess it up. Imagine she smiles then, shakes her head in lilted laughter before telling you, Well, I suppose that’s what the second mark’s for. Clammy Hands Your mother’s house is cold. It’s always been this way at night. She likes keeping it cold so she can feign being gloriously happy when having to go to bed early, diving beneath the covers, burrowing down until all you can see is her face. She’d glance at you as you shook your head, embarrassed. She would say something to the effect of: At least I’ll get a good night’s rest. And she was right, of course. She tended to be right. You clench your hands together to try and stop the shivering. Whether it’s from the cold house or your own clamoring nerves, it’s hard to tell. You just wish it would stop.
She sits across the table from you, staring. She always stares at you like this when you say something that’s enticed her. She does it to everyone. She says seeing someone is the most important thing. She says that to see someone deeply, you must pause to do it. You must take that moment to look in their eyes, find humanity buried deep within, and breathe it all in. It’s a practice she’s done for as long as you can remember. It’s the same look she used to give that endless ocean in her favorite café—the one in which she used to attempt fundamental understanding of what it meant to be on the edge of the world. A pause. A look. A breath. When she breathes, you look back up to her. She has tears in her eyes, ones that weren’t there before you told her you had been practicing drag for over a month now. Your mouth hangs open, an unfamiliar noise issuing from your throat. It’s like a word caught in fear, stuck to your throat like silence. You want to let it free, but it won’t loosen its hold. Your mother reaches out her hand across the mahogany table, open to air, welcoming you to take it. And you do, though hesitantly. She clasps her other hand over yours. Her warmth spreads over your clammy fingers, and you feel the urge to apologize for the cold. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She’s never minded the touch of your commonly clammy hands. She’s always been happy to hold them anyway. After releasing you, she unclips her necklace. She holds it up to the light above you both. It’s the one her mother had passed onto her—a diamond-shaped sapphire placed within a golden square. She asks you to wear it at your first performance, the one she’s so excited to see. Philosophy The Philosopher’s Stone. To think that the greatest alchemic achievement in all world history is a legend, something unprovable, something unseeable. Still, philosophers, alchemists, and treasure hunters have been searching for it for thousands of years. Perhaps they all hope to prove the unprovable. The Philosopher’s Stone is believed to have the power to create perfection out of imperfection. 26
Turn lead to gold. Mortality to immortality. The idea of perfecting the imperfect is a tempting one, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you want to be the one to discover such a thing? Perhaps not. When that caterpillar dissolved, when it reassembled, do you think discovered perfection? When your mother painted lines of blood on a Dracula-ed face, did you need to be perfect in order to be seen? It all dissolves eventually. And at your most imperfect, when you throw a china dish across the room because your mother said you couldn’t go to a party held by that boy who wrote a note titling you “FAG” and nicknaming you “Flatty,” your mother still held you tight in her arms and comforted you. People are more important than things, she told you. You are more important than things. Breath The dressing room is bright. Bright lights, bright mood, bright music playing over the speakers of someone’s phone a few mirrors from you. You haven’t really started getting ready yet, but you know you need to. Your dress hangs on the mannequin behind you, the stiletto heels on the floor beneath it. Your makeup lies in before you, but you lift your hand to your mother’s necklace draped around your neck.
You grip it in your fist and hold out for some kind of courage to catch you. You sigh. You look. You pick up that brush on that table with that mirror and the boy there reflecting something innate back at you. You press the brush against your cheek and sweep. And you stop. Shake your head. Paste more makeup on your face. Stop again. Stare. Craft color on your skin. Pause. There’s the moment here; pay attention to it. Between beings, between knowings, between selves, there’s a space for a breath. Perhaps that’s where you see yourself fully. You’re no longer the you of before. You aren’t yet the person you’ll become. You’re in between. You are the pause in breath, the transformation, the way your mother held your hands across a table after handing you a necklace, and she saw you—really saw you. Oxygen beats beneath your skin. You see him: the boy with all the fear. You see his knuckles, the way they burn white under the strength of which he clenches his fist; the way he holds so tightly to a necklace; a boy who always craved an in-between—a space between spaces; a transcendence in mirrored eyes enveloped by deep violet eyeshadow, a slight upturn of crimson-colored lips; a look; a pause; a breath; a place to be everything; the opportunity to simply be.
First Place, Graduate Fiction
“Centipede Magnifique” by Sabrina Allen Third Place, Undergraduate Art
Madeline Thomas Clouds melt apart Sunlight plummets Golden beams bathe barren ground Frigid skin savors sacred light
Second Place, Graduate Poetry
Ann Marie Humble
n July, the garden outgrows itself. Beets and carrots must be uprooted and washed, the last of the greens plucked and eaten, peas picked and shelled, and the remaining zucchini and yellow squash rescued from vine borers. After weeding the thyme patch, Cora stoops to pick a few blueberries, dusty with bloom. She chews them slowly, then wipes her forehead on her sleeve. Her arm brushes the dill weed and she looks at it. “I’ll get to you after the onions,” she exhales, kneeling again to pull fat, yellow bulbs from the ground. The sharp scent of onion stalks and hot, hazy greenery wafts to her nose. She works methodically, shimmying down the row on her knees. Every so often she stops to sigh and press her hands against the small of her back. At the end of the row, she leans on her heels, stretching her neck from side to side. Her eyes glance up at a shed across the grass. “I hope the first batch will be dry today,” she mutters, looking back down. She registers the sight in a rapid heartbeat. Glossy scales—slithering slowly through the onion row. Cora lets out a yelp, standing in a blur and stumbling backward. The snake continues to move, clean and silent, its curved body glistening in the sun. Cora watches. Its polished snout glides from the garden to the grass, long tail bending gracefully after. It slips into the tangle of trees growing along the creek, and, like a dribble of water, is gone. “Well,” Cora breathes, coming back to herself. She looks at the row before her, and the creases in her forehead deepen. Frowning, she bends to inspect a pepper plant, trampled near her foot. “Poor thing. A pretty sight I made of this.” She twists away every ripened pepper it has left and adds them to her basket, hefting it onto her
hip as she stands. Her eyes glance warily over the shrubbery. The open shed has an earthy, garlicky aroma. Cora hauls her basket onto a barrel and turns to inspect the onions set out to dry. She pulls one from the slats, fingering its papery stem. “Not quite,” she remarks, putting the onion back. She checks another and returns it with the same conclusion. “Just a few more days.” She steadies another pallet on a barrel and arranges the new batch of onions across it. Then she pauses, wiping her forehead on her sleeve again. A look of satisfaction grows on her face, and she unties a few bundles of garlic hanging from the ceiling. The tangled, dry stems are tossed aside, and the heads placed in her basket. After her work she exhales contentedly, brushing off her hands. “That’ll be that, then.” The incline of the yard makes Cora’s breath heavy. She passes under her white sassafras tree as she climbs, its billowy crown in full bloom, smelling of spice and citrus. Cora’s back door creaks and whines at her push. The kitchen is dim. She stores the garlic and peppers, taking a swig from a jar of water before returning outside. While crossing back to the garden, her eyes catch something out of place in the clover-dappled grass. She freezes. Adrenaline flares through her, then just as suddenly flickers out. “My trowel!” she scolds. “I’d thought it was a…” She bends to get it, pressing her hand to her back again. “Honestly, Cora,” she says to herself. She returns to her work with a focused expression, but every so often her eyes dart around. By evening, the air’s warmth and humidity has tapered only slightly. The high chirps and whistles of insects and frogs pulse through Cora’s ears. Trees along the creek cast tall silhouettes against the sky. When her eyes can no longer tell tulsi from chickweed, Cora turns in. “Didn’t used to have such trouble seeing in the dark,” she says in passing, feeling for what she hopes is a young tulsi stem. Her knees pop as she stands. A few fireflies rise from the grass in front of her feet, their yellow-green abdomens glowing softly in the dark. Her backdoor opens with a yawn, and she fumbles for a light switch. “There we are.” A single lightbulb illu-
minates her kitchen. The outside window darkens. Cora leaves her boots by the door and moves about in socks. She starts a pot of water boiling on the stove, adding tulsi leaves and a bit of lemon juice before sitting to rest her legs. A warm aroma slowly fills the room. She listens to the burning stovetop, snacking on a bowl of dried hickory nuts and thinking aloud. When the tea is ready, she rises achingly and strains it into a cup. “Hopefully this’ll do it,” she mutters, rubbing her back. Steam kisses her face as she sips the hot, peppery drink. She savors it, taking her time. Night ends quietly with the sounds of scrubbing water, flicking off the light, and dressing down for bed. The stream just washes over Cora’s feet the next day, cold and clear. She wiggles her toes into pebbles and sand, eyes closed, face red and sweaty. Around her grow ferns and wild blackberries. Roots drape from an overhang to her side, and branches cross above her head. Sunlight filters through the greenery. Cora opens her eyes briefly, sweeping her gaze over the trees down the creek. An unusual twist in the branches flashes past her eyes. She double-takes, her blood beginning to course faster, then inhales sharply. There it is. The snake is almost close enough to touch. It hangs in the branches, seeming to defy gravity. Under Cora’s gaze it creeps forward, twisting around knots and bumps, smooth as the stream below it. Cora holds her place, her eyes fixed. The snake continues, heading for the trunk of a large, straight tree. “What’re you gonna do now…” Cora murmurs under her breath. Cool and controlled, the snake raises its head to meet the trunk and begins to slither upward. The rest of it follows, ascending vertically. Cora tilts her head further back to watch. A feeling of unease grows on her. Leaves rustle overhead, and the shifting wind disturbs a cloud of insects floating nearby. She swats at them, then slowly stoops to gather her shoes from the bank. Careful not to appear in a hurry, she returns to the garden. Cora cuts tufts of dill weed that afternoon, hanging each stem gingerly from the shed roof. Her eyes trace the rafters carefully, a strange expression
on her face. Around when the sun beats its hottest, Cora surveys her tomato plants. Half of the fruit is ripe nearly to the point of mushing. She hauls a bucket of tomatoes to the kitchen sink to be washed, mumbling to herself absentmindedly. “I thought I’d check on the trees today…” she begins, her voice trailing. She twists the water off, eyeing the creek leerily from her window. “Well, these need to be canned anyway.” The process takes all afternoon. As she opens the oven, and a flush of salty, tomatoey steam fills her kitchen. The pan is covered in tomato halves, roasted with olive oil. She scrapes them into a pot and fills the tray with a new batch, setting it into the oven again. The pot boils and sputters. Outside, her screen door shutters in a gust of wind. Sweating, Cora lines the table with open mason jars, spooning lemon juice and boiled tomatoes into each. In-between batches she leans against the counter, thinking aloud to herself. “I ought to take some of these to the Ackermans. Etta would love this.” While the jars heat in a water bath, Cora spreads dollops of serviceberry jam over bread and chews thoughtfully. “I’ll take some tomorrow,” she plans, “as soon as they’re sealed.” Cora stirs that night, noticing hazily the claps of thunder pounding outside her window. The house creaks. By morning, a dull drizzle hangs in the sky. Cora pours herself a cold cup of tea and sips slowly, reworking her plans. “Today will have to be a tree day,” she settles, downing the last bowl of soup and pulling on her work shoes. Beads of water roll from the persimmon’s glossy leaves. The brim of Cora’s hat dribbles as she tilts her head back. “These won’t be in season for a while yet,” she notes unsurprised, reaching out to feel one. “Still too hard. Not like jelly in my hand.” She lowers her arm, but her head stays up. Her eyes dart curiously over the branches, searching. Then she drops her gaze, proceeding to the next tree as if the thought didn’t cross her mind. The pawpaw tree is squat and round, growing clusters of large fruit at the ends of its branch30
es. Cora feels one, her fingers leaving prints on its waxy, green skin. She smiles. “You’ll be ready soon enough!” She pictures the fruit diced in half with dark, pebble seeds, tasting like custard. “No need to dally.” The smell rising up from the ground is warm and damp, like rotting leaves, and mushrooms, and wood sponging after tree falls. Her shoes squelch in the grass as she walks to her next tree—a young sugar maple. By noon, rays of sun break through. The earth is hot and wet, almost steamy. Everything drips and glistens. Water slicks over Cora’s boots as she paces. She can hear the creek rushing, looking like a torrent of chocolate milk along the edge of her yard. Cora stops at the edge of the garden, contemplating what to do next. A glint moving through the plants catches her eye. Her heart begins to pound cautiously. She watches, standing still, and an unmistakable shape slithers into view. A stir rustles through the carrot row, and a second snake joins the first. The two glide alongside each other, their bodies curving back and forth. They move silently, dipping into puddles and between stalks of plants, peppering themselves with water droplets. Their scales are slick and wet, their heads bowed quietly. Cora’s boots fidget in the mud as she watches them, straining to get a better look. There’s something graceful about the two of them together. She takes a small step forward. When the snakes slip from the garden and into a bramble of sweet fern, Cora doesn’t move. She stands at the edge of her garden, looking over the puddles. Imagining the snakes gliding through them. Remembering the way the water rippled. That evening, after the rain has soaked in, Cora digs potatoes. “Don’t want you rotting on me,” she says, pushing withered stalks aside to comb through the soil. She harvests half the row, selecting a few for dinner. Every so often she looks up from her pile. More than once, her head turns in the direction of the sweet fern. Her eyes linger, soft. When the sky grows dim, she enters her kitchen, a pile of potatoes in hand. She raises her eyebrows at yesterday’s tomato jars lining the 31
counter. “Oh!” she exclaims, pulling her shoes off. “I completely forgot.” She washes her hands in warm water, scrubbing the dirt from her fingernails. “Tomorrow, then,” she decides, setting a pot of water to boil. She cleans and cuts the potatoes, humming to herself. The sound of running water and whistling insects accompanies her. By nightfall a pot of buttery, mashed potatoes sits on the stove. Cora’s hair slips from her ponytail, her eyes tired and wrinkly, and she eats with a fist propped under her head. She’s asleep that night before her back even has time to ache. The next morning is clear, with the slightest cool breeze brushing through the air. Cora wears finer clothes than usual and lets her hair hang loose, combing it carefully. She packs her bag with a large jar of roasted tomatoes, and another, smaller jar of black cherry jelly. She squints in the sunlight as she looks over the yard. The grass is just drying from dew. Tall, billowy trees outline the perimeter. The creek tumbles on, still swollen from yesterday’s rain. She loiters there, her eyes sweeping the scenery, her brow drawn up wistfully. Searching for something. When at last she turns down the side of her house to go, her eyes scan the branches overhead. The lane is narrow, and empty of cars. It curves slightly to the left around Cora’s property, flanked here and there by pockets of wood. Cora walks along the shoulder, grey asphalt crunching underfoot. A pasture stands to the right of the road, overrun with tufts of broomsedge, swamp milkweed, and wild onions. At the end of the pasture, in a particularly boggy spot, are cranberry bushes. “I’ll pick those someday,” Cora tells herself, repeating a phrase she’s muttered for years. She steps around a craggy cedar growing at the edge of the road, a sign that she’s half-way there. The Ackermans’ house is no larger than Cora’s but looks far more stately. The outside brick is painted soft yellow, and white pillars frame the porch. Deems keeps the yard trim and clear, with every plant in its right place. The only exception is along the riverbank, where river oats and swamp rose have crept in from the woods.
Cora turns onto their front walk, holding the bag at her elbow. A few birds startle from the fringe tree. She hears the doorbell ring inside. A lacy, sheer curtain flutters over the window as the door is pulled open. “Cora!” Etta exclaims, a genuine smile on her face. “Please, come in! What do we owe the pleasure of seeing you?” Cora wipes her shoes on the front mat, stepping inside. It smells like fresh laundry, and newly vacuumed carpets. “Good to see you Etta! Well, I was canning my tomatoes, and I had a lot this year, so I thought I’d bring you a jar…” Cora reaches into her bag. “Come into the kitchen and let’s have a taste,” Etta interrupts, bustling across the room and through a doorway. Cora follows, stepping lightly across the carpet. She can hear curtains being drawn back, and the kitchen brightens. “It’s sealed,” Cora begins, placing the jar on the counter. Etta waves her hand in the air, searching her drawers for a can tapper. “We’ll have it for dinner—I can’t wait to taste it. Deems would love a good spaghetti or soup anyway. I’ve been buying at the store recently—” and Etta laughs, “but this is so much better.” She locates the can tapper and uses its flat side to pop the lid off. Etta hands a spoon to Cora and dips her own into the jar for a taste. Her eyes light up. “This is delicious! Deems will love it.” Cora hesitates as Etta washes her spoon in the sink. “Have a taste, Cora, I don’t mind.” “Well, I had some as I was making it,” Cora protests, setting her spoon on the table. “Just a bit, Cora, the flavors have set in by now.” Cora takes the other jar from her bag instead. “I also brought you this,” she says, placing a little jar of jelly on the counter. It shines deep burgundy in the sunlight. “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” Etta remarks, looking very pleased. “Blackberry?” “Black cherry,” Cora replies, smiling. Etta takes it in her hands. “Wonderful,” she says, opening her pantry. “You don’t mind if I store this one away?” Her voice is muffled behind the pantry
wall. “It looks like something for special occasions.” “Not at all,” Cora replies. She folds her hands on the table, stirring slightly. “Would you like to sit a while on the back porch? The dahlias just started blooming.” Etta’s already opening the door. Cora follows. After admiring her flowers, Etta gazes at the river down the slope. “Deems told me he was going to try pulling some of the weeds from it today, but since that storm it’s been a little too fast for him. In our younger days he would have, but he’s not as headstrong as he used to be,” Etta laughs again, “and thank goodness for it.” Cora smiles in reply, and the two settle down for a morning of chatter. Cora gets home just after lunch, a large cookie and a bottle of Etta’s grape juice in hand. She sets the juice and the rest of the cookie on the counter, and then leans against it and sighs, closing her eyes. She presses her hand into the small of her back, trying to rub out the ache. Her garden shoes, older and muddier than those she wore to the Ackermans’ house, are propped against the wall. She pulls them on and fastens her hair back, swinging the door open. As she treads to the garden, the warm scent of grass rises to her nose. Beetles are getting to the green beans. Cora inspects her bean trellis absentmindedly. She peers, without frowning, at the spots peppering her plants. Before working out a solution to the beetles, she turns to find something else to do. Her sugar pie pumpkins could use some weeding. Grass is trespassing into the garden, choking out the basil and bunching up under patches of yarrow. A thought enters her mind, and she paces to the shed. Bunches of garlic still hang from the ceiling, and onions rest on pallets. Some are surely finished drying, but Cora doesn’t give them so much as a glance. She reaches for her trowel and returns to the garden. Cora’s head nods up and down as she weeds, one moment on the soil, another moment on the yard. She hums distractedly, continuing to nod. It’s not until her eyes fall upon a coiled form in the
— continued on page 35
Brice Drake First Place, Undergraduate Art
grass that she realizes what she’s been looking for. “Oh,” she remarks, her voice light. She sits back on her heels, letting the trowel rest on the ground near a pile of pulled grass. “There you are.” The snake, a few paces off, slithers forward, head bowed to the ground. Its long tail follows in strokes, back and forth. The grass around it hardly moves at its touch. Cora straightens her back to get a better look. Watching it now, and remembering the day in the rain, she smiles. The snake draws closer. Cora remains where she is, relaxing her back as it glides clearly into view through the cucumber trellis. Sunlight gleams dryly on its scales. It bends around a bushel of yarrow and through a row of carrots, coming almost near enough to touch. Cora’s heel slips suddenly, and she jolts to the side. The snake freezes, its body rigid, head lowered timidly to the ground. Cora steadies herself, sitting still on the dirt, not moving so much as a finger. She meets the snake’s eyes. They gleam in the sunlight, small and dark. The slightest lightness outlines its pupils. Sitting there, so close, an impression dawns on Cora that surprises her. For the first time, the snake strikes her as vulnerable. After minutes of stillness, the snake’s body softens, and it creeps forward again. It weaves through the pumpkins, quiet and slow. Cora watches it go, its body gliding just inches past her. As its head disappears through a pocket of grass, Cora shifts slowly onto her knee and leans forward. The snake’s tail glides back and forth. Cora reaches her arm out timidly, her fingers outstretched, just close enough to touch its shining scales. And then she stops, remembering the look in its eyes when it froze. Her fingers hover above the ground, unmoving, and its tail slips away through the tall grass and is gone. Cora downs the bottle of grape juice that night, grimacing at its sourness. After turning out the lamp, she settles into bed. For a long while she lies awake, thinking. The next morning, Cora is famished. She picks spinach and lettuce from the garden, season35
ing it with parmesan and olive oil. Still unsatisfied, she stares at her emptied bowl and twists a fork in her hand. “What sounds good right now?” she asks herself aloud. The tomatoes catch her eye. “Ah, that’ll do.” She stands, looking around as she thinks. “Everything but basil,” she mutters, opening the back door. A flush of fresh air meets her, hotter than yesterday, and wetter. She can no longer see a rushing, chocolaty torrent at the perimeter of the yard. The stream has lowered to normal. Cora goes first to the basil patch, picking a handful of ruffled leaves. Instead of tracing her steps back up the slope, she meanders through the garden. She stoops to lift pumpkin leaves and brush through patches of tall grass. After peering around the sunflowers, she straightens her back to look about. Her hands rest on her hips, her mouth forming a pleasant line. Then she walks to the stream, the toes of her shoes dipping into the water, and looks carefully up at the trees. A few blackberry branches lean over the stream, just kissing the water, and she picks a handful. With seeds crunching between her teeth, and warm, sweet juice filling her mouth, she skirts around the edge of the yard. Her feet stop at a bunch of sweet ferns. Placing a hand on her knee to steady herself, she bends down to look under them, pushing fronds aside. Nothing but red stems and dark soil. She stands again. “That’s alright, then,” she says softly to the foliage. “Take your time. No need to be afraid, though.” She spends the morning making tomato basil soup, then downing half the pot. After the rest of Etta’s cookie, Cora is stuffed. She stores the rest of the soup in her fridge, then paces to the sink. Water splashes across her face. She lets her hair down to brush it. Her nice pair of shoes rests by her bed, and she fetches them. “It’ll feel good to go on a walk,” she mumbles, “and I might get the jar back while I’m there.” She brings the emptied grape juice bottle, closing the door and walking around to the road. The yellow brick house comes into view after the pasture, where the road begins to curve right. Cora walks leisurely, admiring Deems’ purple crape myrtle from afar. When the doorbell goes
unanswered, Cora wanders around the side of the house. Her eyes meet Etta, sitting with her legs crossed on a clean, white chair. Etta greets her, nodding her head and exhaling flusteredly. Cora takes a seat beside her. “How’s the morning been for you?” Etta asks, fanning her face as she reclines. “All fine,” Cora replies. She moves the bottle on her knee. “I brought this back.” Etta looks at it briefly. “Oh, thank you. I have your jar, too. We had spaghetti for dinner last night, Deems loved it. You know what else Deems—” “I’m glad you liked it,” Cora interrupts. “I had soup for breakfast, I was happy with how it turned out. Sorry—you were saying?” Etta waves her hand in the air. “Don’t even worry about it. I was just going to tell you, Deems gave me a fright this morning. I’ve been sitting here since, and my heart’s still pounding.” “What did he do?” Cora asks with intrigue. Etta motions down the slope to the river, and Cora’s eyes follow. Deems is standing almost knee-deep in water—clearer now, and slower—pulling up hydrilla and river oats. “You can see for yourself if you want, they’re still under the trees.” Etta grimaces. She looks away at the daylilies, as if thinking any more about it would be distasteful. Cora remains in her chair, but a lull in the conversation finally makes her stand. “I think I will go see,” Cora says, setting the bottle down. “I can say hello to Deems, anyway.” “Your prerogative,” Etta answers after her, continuing to recline. The slope of the Ackermans’ backyard is sharper than Cora’s, and she takes it in awkward, long strides. She honestly doesn’t know why they fuss over the river. Deems keeps the rest of the yard looking so curated, but the charm of the river is its wildness. At least they’ve let a few stowaways remain. A particularly nice-looking hemlock drapes near the river’s edge, toward the woods, and a blackgum tree stands not far from it. Cora doesn’t know whether the cluster of river birch was planted on purpose or not, but it looks especially cared for. Deems stands close to it. As Cora approaches, he
looks up. “Oh hello, Ms. Harlowe! Didn’t see you get here.” He continues to pull from the riverbed, water rushing over his arms. “Did Etta send you to see my find?” Cora watches him work, stepping around burly piles of hydrilla. “I think so,” she replies, looking over the riverbank curiously. “She says you did something to frighten her.” “That’s right. They gave me a fright too, at first. Don’t worry, they’re harmless now—I took care of them. Have a look—they’re under the birch trees.” Deems trudges out of the river and walks across the grass with Cora. When Cora’s eyes fall upon the figures on the ground, her stomach churns. Deems doesn’t seem to notice. He stands with his hands on his hips, looking proud. “Yeah, scared Etta alright. She hears me shouting down at the riverbank and comes running to see what’s happening. Catches me wrestling these two with a shovel—I got them pretty quick. She takes one look and has to close her eyes, says it’s appalling. No, I don’t take any chances with snakes. I kill them when I see them, if they look suspicious. Could have been venomous—I know a few venomous snakes like this.” Cora’s head feels light. She’s having a hard time looking straight. “Oh, you did?” she asks, unsure what exactly she’s replying to. The two snakes lie on the dirt, one facing the other. Their bodies are twisted and still. It’s clear Deems’ shovel hit on target more than once. The sight repulses Cora, reminding her of raw meat set on the counter for too long. Above the snakes, the bark on the trees peels leprously in large sheets. Cora looks away, her blood pulsing faster. “That’s alright Ms. Harlowe,” Deems says, picking up his shovel. “They’re an ugly sight. I don’t blame you.” He stands there for a moment with his hands in his pockets, then slogs into the river again. Cora compels herself to follow, turning from the trees. “Well,” she begins unsteadily, watching Deems reach into the water. “Did you say something, Miss?” Deems asks, 36
looking up. Cora smiles distantly and shakes her head. “No. I hope you have a good afternoon.” Her voice trails. “To you as well,” Deems echoes, nodding his head to her. Cora climbs the slope again. “There, I told you,” Etta says with satisfaction when Cora reaches the porch steps. “You’ll have to have a sit, too, now.” Cora does sit. For a while, Etta does enough talking for the both of them. Cora nods and mumbles in reply, shifting in her chair, a disturbed look on her face. “Cora, are you alright?” Etta asks at last, considering her. “Yes, fine,” Cora replies. “You look flushed. Shall we go inside?” Etta presses. Cora nods, standing clumsily. “I think I should get my jar,” she says, twisting her fingers. “Of course,” Etta answers, standing slowly and brushing off her blouse. “It’s on the table. Cora, do you need some water?” Cora takes the water, but still the conversation lulls. Eventually Etta sees her off, sending with her another cookie and a word of well-wishing with. Cora takes them and bids Etta goodbye. She passes the fringe tree on her way up the walk, turning stoically for home. Though her eyes skirt asphalt and witch-hazel, Cora hardly sees them. Her mind flashes from the grisly sight under the birch trees, to the look of two glinting, smooth snakes dipping through puddles in her garden, to the dark, timid eyes that met hers just yesterday. She sees the way the snake froze when she moved. How, after minutes, it melted and slithered slowly through the grass. How she’d let her finger hover just above its tail. Could have been venomous, her mind echoes with unease. Cora stops at the pasture. The cedar brushes her elbow, making it prickle. She gazes hollowly at the bog where cranberry bushes are growing. She furrows her brow, opening her mouth to say something. “Did it look like it?” she murmurs at last. She stands there, eyes set, hands twisting uncertainly.
“Did they look venomous?” From here, she can just see her house down the road. She sets her feet toward it, then stops. Her head flips between the road and the pasture. “We’ll see,” she settles, turning back to the Ackermans’ house. Her pace quickens. “Cora?” Etta asks at the front door, looking surprised and concerned. “I just came to…” Cora looks around awkwardly. “I’d like to see the snakes one more time, if that’s alright.” Etta masks the bewilderment on her face poorly, but motions to the yard before them. “Of course, go right ahead,” she says, watching Cora stride around the house. Etta crosses to the kitchen and stoops at the window, pulling back the curtain to watch. “Ms. Harlowe!” Deems greets her pleasantly. “You forget something?” Cora shakes her head, shambling over piles. “I just wanted to look again—a last time,” she replies, her eyes straining at the shade near the riverbank. She hears Deems’ first two words distractedly, not paying attention. “Sorry, Miss…” Cora’s eyes skirt around the flaying birch trees. She wipes her forehead on her sleeve. Her heart beats faster. Deems’ footsteps sound behind. He approaches slowly, coming to rest at her side. “I hope we didn’t upset you, Ms. Harlowe. After you left I thought, yeah, they are an ugly sight—didn’t want to keep them there all day. I dumped them in the river, just like all the other snakes I get… Well they’re gone now, Miss, no need to worry about them anymore.” Cora stares at the river with a sunken expression, watching its clear surface whip forward. She looks up at Deems’ face, stumbling through a satisfactory reply, then climbs the slope. Deems stands in the sunlight by the riverbed and watches her leave, a perplexed look on his face. That evening stretches on. Cora pulls chickweed from her leek patch, making piles in the path behind her. She keeps her eyes on her work. Her
mouth bends in an absent frown. At the end of the patch she sits back on her heels, looking up tiredly. The cabbages have ring spots. Her knees pop as she stands. She tears away infected leaves and gathers them in a pile. A few insects whistle from the trees around her yard, pulsing together. Sweat drips from her neck as she crosses the grass. Cora sighs, pulling aside a shrub blocking the compost pile. Her eyes wander down and she stops. Something white, there, nestled under a pad of grass clippings. Cora leans closer, dropping the cabbage leaves, her face pressed close to the shrub.
She inhales slowly, gingerly lifting the grass. A dozen oblong eggs meet her eye, nestled into the compost, each no larger than a hickory nut. A moment of understanding touches across her face. Could have been venomous. She stares. Slowly, a gentle look of resolution settles over her. She lowers the grass again and stands, letting the shrub fall back into place behind her. She inhales pleasantly, looking up at the sky. With an unassuming air, she sets off to check on the onion shed. “Ought to be dry now,” she mumbles, and then she begins to hum.
First Place, Undergraduate Fiction
“Seeing Green” by Dara Lusk Second Place, Undergraduate Art
The Haunting Hannah Lee
I have been that young, that petrified In the wretched haunting of my childhood home— That shipwreck, that sunken memorial ground. Been Prodded from troubled sleep by dead hands dragging The weight of ancient hate through narrow hallways. I was raised in the thickness of that haunt that cursed men And hurled priests by their necks to their knees. We learned To sleep through the shaking—the vibration visitations that Rocked our bedposts. Whatever message the dead were screaming We could not hear past our blaring heartbeats. We left the lights on. This morning the world split open, quaked under this house As pavement rolled and cracked. Twenty years since that haunt, Still, I woke searching for a ghost—Sat up in a bed shaking as it tried To hurl me to my knees. Brutal shocks crushed concrete foundations As car alarms wailed. Glass shattered— The family portrait burst across the floor. Deep below, I feel the dragging. I almost see them: Those boney hands Shaking stone pillars with slack jaws open wide. The dead writhe. Graves join together in pitch blackness, secret catacombs under this crust— This earth, hollow. This ground, a ceiling. The dead are screaming But the ears of the living hear only the roar of their own blood, Blaring, And we turn the lights on.
Second Place, Undergraduate Poetry
asper’s apartment looked exactly as Margo always imagined it would, checking every box of what she knew to be true of her twin brother. Exposed concrete walls juxtaposed natural wood beams, creating an intersection between industry and nature. Everything fell in straight lines, from the monochrome picture frames on the walls to the meticulously arranged slate gray pillows on the black leather couch. The only color in the room came from the wall of plants opposite his complete wall of windows—varieties that Margo couldn’t begin to identify, though she recognized some from their childhood home. The rug sat in perfect alignment with the gas fireplace and marble hearth. The exposed books on floating shelves matched in size, color, and shape. Identical side tables held identical coasters. The granite counters shone and smelled of new polish. It wouldn’t surprise her if he polished it whenever he did dishes to keep the illusion of newness, of sterility, of complete and total order. She reached out and carefully opened the fridge. Every container had the date he opened it written in perfect sharpie handwriting, and nothing was expired. Greek yogurt sat beside low-fat cheese and deli turkey meat. Ground turkey, beef, and sausage laid side by side in their tubes, labels up, on the bottom shelf. Fresh produce filled each drawer, fruits in one, vegetables in the other. She didn’t bother looking in the freezer. Margo wandered deeper into the apartment, back towards what she assumed was his bedroom. The perfectly made bed almost stank of military precision, a detail that would make Mother proud. In her recollection, Margo’s own bed had been her earliest form of resistance. Since the point her memory started, she never understood why anyone would choose to perfect blankets on a bed that no one else would see, only to unmake it a few hours later. At fourteen, even when Mother threatened to take away her free hours, she stopped making her bed. Eventually, Mother decided there were bigger
battles to fight. Margo’s propensity for sneaking out at night and skipping classes and training sessions actually threatened her future at the Agency, while an unmade bed could be overlooked for her kind of talent and skill. Jasper’s room showed the same neatness as his living space. Opening his closet doors revealed his clothing hung straight and ironed, from his sharp Agency uniform to his casual workout gear. His black tennis shoes prompted her to check her watch. Ten more minutes. As she closed the closet door again, a flash of color on his bedside table caught her attention. The pit in her stomach grew when she stepped close enough to recognize the photo. Their sixteenth birthday party. She’d climbed onto his back just before Father took the picture, and they’d both been laughing. On the day she fled, she’d grabbed her copy of the same picture as a last minute thought, and it shocked her that he kept his — the Agency had been thorough in destroying any photo of them together, happy, and innocent. Maybe it was Jasper’s version of the unmade bed. Margo turned and left through the still open door. Once back in the living room, Margo searched for the place where her presence would appear the least threatening. If she stood close to the door, he would expect an attack, but too far away would make it appear that she was lying in wait. She settled on the section of the couch facing the entrance. Jasper would see her the moment he walked in, but she’d have time to put her hands up and explain why she was there. At least, she hoped for enough time. For all the hard lines of the room, once she hit the couch, she sunk. After a few minutes in the silence, her mind drifted to when she last slept - had it been two nights ago, or three? More? She’d slept on the train, but that couldn’t have been more than an hour… The door opened slowly. Jasper walked in. He wore his favorite brand of running shoes, an Agency t-shirt, an old pair of basketball shorts— his hair was longer than she’d ever seen it, showing their matching blond wave even through the sweat. It took only seconds for his eyes to meet hers. He 40
drew his gun even faster, aiming it and closing the door behind him. “Don’t move, Margo.” The surprise flashed in his voice even as he kept it off his face. Last time she’d seen him from this close, his facial hair grew in patches. Now, it carpeted his chin, glinting ginger in the light. She raised her hands slowly into the air, showing the gloves covering her palms. ”I just came to talk, Jasper.” Without taking his eyes off of her, he twisted the deadbolt into place. The gun remained determinedly fixed on her as he closed the curtains across the wall, blocking most of the light from entering the room. Finally, he stopped directly in front her, stance wide. “Why would I believe that?” Margo sighed. Although she hoped he would simply listen to her, she expected his resistance. “I’ll let you do this on your own terms. Strip my energy. Search for weapons, tie me up while I’m down, whatever you need to do. Just don’t call the Agency yet.” Jasper’s eyebrows pulled together as they always did when he faced a decision—a detail of her brother that had somehow slipped from Margo’s memory. How many times had she seen that expression as they asked him moral questions in their testing to become Agents? When he caught her doing something she shouldn’t, as she begged him not to tell? How could he think her presence meant attack? Slowly, she moved to alleviate his fear, interlacing her fingers behind her head. She crossed her legs underneath her so sudden movements would be difficult. She waited for him to decide. After a few seconds, he crossed the remaining distance between them. When his fingers reached her forehead, the stripping instantly began. As the energy leeched away from her reserves, she couldn’t help but marvel at how much faster Jasper stripped compared to their last sparring match, only a few years before. In seconds, Margo fell unconscious, and Jasper carried her body towards the kitchen. 41
Waking up from an energy strip felt a lot
like waking up with a hangover, and even as Jasper funneled measured energy back into her, Margo fought nausea. Awareness of her limbs slowly returned. Handcuffs pinned her hands in front of her, attached to the same chain wrapping around her ankles. A thick rope wrapped around her torso and the concrete pillar behind her, binding her in place. Jasper thrived on thoroughness. After assessing her physical positioning, her thoughts shifted to the children, to the sounds of their screams as the Agency dragged them away, to the restraints the three-year-olds couldn’t understand with the way she shielded them from the realities of the world. She didn’t speak until he stepped away. In hoarse words, she offered her question. “Don’t you think this might be a little overkill?” “I could call the Agency instead.” He settled down, cross-legged against the pillar she faced. He raised an eyebrow. “Fair point.” The words stuck in her dry throat, and for a moment she fought against the cough rising in her chest. It emerged against her will. After watching her fit for a few seconds, Jasper sighed and stood again. He returned with a glass of water, pressing it gently against her lips. After a few long swallows, he put the cup in the sink and returned to his sitting position. “Margo, if you don’t start explaining why you’re here I’m calling the Agency. I won’t go down for harboring you in my apartment, even if you’re restrained.” This time, Margo sighed. Not calling her in the moment she appeared put more than his job at risk — if the Agency thought he’d given her the chance to escape, they’d brand him a criminal as well. Hell, if they even thought he’d given her the chance to speak, they might do the same. They feared her power to convince him to leave almost as much as they feared her abilities. She prayed that fear had merit. “I need your help, Jasper. The Agency stole two kids from me a month ago. I need to get them back.” Jasper tilted his head at her, considering. After a moment, he engaged. “The kids we found
when we raided Kellen’s safehouse. The twins.” Margo nodded. “We’ve done everything we can. We watched the Agency facilities to see where they’d been taken. We interrogated one of the agents that took them in. We searched transports, stole records, considered ways we could sneak into the Main Campus and find their files, but nothing worked.” Margo fought the panic that grew closer to boiling over the more she thought about their failures, and held on. The simmer hurt enough, and she had to stay focused. The longer Hadley and Karter stayed in the Agency’s hands, her risk of never seeing them again grew. If the Agency knew who they were, they’d do everything they could to make sure she never saw them again. Jasper’s voice shocked her back into her current surroundings. “That’s why your activity spiked so suddenly lately.” He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing it back and away from his eyes. He searched her face. “Did any of the last month involve sleep of any kind? You look like hell.” “That can probably be blamed on you stripping the energy from my body.” “You looked like hell before I pulled you.” He sat up straighter as a pair of footsteps sounded in the hallway outside. When they passed, he released his breath. “Why do these kids mean so much to you?” She’d anticipated that question. Though she and Kellen were usually successful in their rescues, the Agency had intercepted children numerous times. Though each failure killed them as they imagined the hell the children would be returned to, it never prompted her to reach out to her brother for help. Margo took a deep breath and counted as she released it — the old habit of self-soothing Father forced them to practice as children. As much as she longed to give him the truth, if there was any chance the Agency didn’t know the children’s identity yet, she couldn’t tell Jasper now. “Does it matter? Can’t it be enough that they do? You know I’d never come here unless I was desperate.” Margo’s eyes widened as her brother began to laugh. What started as a chuckle grew until he laid on his side, shoulders shaking. It took several
moments for him to regain composure, sit up, wipe the tears from his eyes, and look at her again. “What the hell is so funny?” For the first time in weeks, she forgot about the kids, incredulous. “Sorry. I just… realize why the media likes to portray you as some sort of sociopath. I can tell how upset you are, but you just admitted to utter desperation with almost no change in expression or emotion in your voice.” He fought to stay serious. “And I mean, I have my twin sister handcuffed and tied up in my kitchen. Even we can’t deny how absurd this entire situation is.” The smile slowly faded from his face. “How did we get here, Margo?” She thought of the picture sitting on his bedside table. “You accepted the will of a government that created us for evil. I couldn’t.” For him, she had tried. He didn’t respond to her statement. All evidence of laughter disappeared from his face as he moved to his next question. “Margo, where does Kellen think you are? I can’t imagine a world where he would be okay with your coming to me for help.” Of course. Margo knew he’d bring the conversation to Kellen eventually, but she didn’t need the fight then. It would do nothing to convince him to help her, and what came to her mind as she considered her reasons for leaving the Agency made the danger the children were in all the more real. His eyes, however, didn’t say fight, and she chose to answer his question, praying it’d be the quickest path to persuading him. “Kellen knows where I am. He doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t control my actions.” “That’s new.” Jasper uncrossed his legs, putting them in front of him, almost touching her feet with his. “He’s not deciding your every action anymore?” Her shoulders slumped slightly as she heard the challenge in his voice. Next came the anger, which she tried to keep at bay. “I figured you were the one that started the rumor that he brainwashed me into leaving. I figured that when I chose to run from the Agency that you would look to blame someone, and land on him. But I can’t believe that after eighteen years of spending each and every day with me, that you could believe that I was doing 42
anything that I didn’t want to do. Kellen didn’t, and doesn’t, make my decisions for me.” She stopped for a moment, gauging his reaction. His face remained carefully stony. “In fact, most of the time I’m doing the exact opposite of what he’d like me to do, but you know what? He respects my perspective, my intelligence, and my ability to choose for myself. That’s more than I ever experienced with Mother and Father or the Agency. We were raised as puppets. Kellen taught me to trust my own mind.” Finally and wholly, Jasper’s anger flared. “You do realize how naive you sound, right? You don’t even realize how he poached the one person that could hurt the Agency the most, poached an innocent girl away from everything and everyone she knew and loved— how he gave you visions of grandeur, convinced you that our organization was evil, and somehow managed to persuade you to use your gift to kidnap children and —” “Prevent them from becoming weapons in the hands of the government like we were raised to be?” Margo couldn’t stop herself. “Now you just sound like you’re spewing their propaganda.” Somehow, even after all he’d done since she left, disappointment coursed through her. She wanted more than to save the children. She wanted her brother back. Her next sentence started quietly. “I don’t know that anyone ever knew that I was the one who sought Kellen out.” The Agency’s narrative cast him as a demon that approached and corrupted her in the night. She raised her head for her next question. “Didn’t you ever wonder, growing up, why I pushed against Mother and Father so much more than you did? Why I asked so many more questions? Why I always seemed happiest in the moments we were away from the Agency? Have you ever stopped to think that maybe, maybe, I believed that what the Agency did to us was wrong before I ever acted? That when they taught us ethics, I started to realize the hypocrisy inherent in our lives?” She remembered the day, sitting in class on the main campus, when everything clicked into place — who decided that the government could breed children with special abilities to be their 43
weapons? That they could put those children in homes designed to make them the perfect soldiers, to act without question, to live their life in perfect harmony with a government Agency’s goals? That those with stronger abilities were treated as superior? She looked around the class at the other fifteenyear-old faces, watching the screen in front of them with perfect attention. Jasper sat directly behind her. She quickly turned her eyes back to the front. She didn’t want Instructor taking notice and asking her later what was wrong. Every day, the weight of her realization grew as the Agency trusted her more and she saw more of the horrors apparent in their rule - nearly two years after that class, she went out on patrol and found Kellen for the first time. He’d escaped the Agency a few years before, and had a reputation for getting abled children away from their twisted fates. The twisted fates their children now faced. She took another deep breath, torso pressing against the ropes binding her to the pole. Looking back towards the ground, she spoke one more careful line. “Have you ever considered that I never would have survived if I stayed?” When she looked up, Jasper stared at the floor. “Did you ever consider, for a single moment, that you weren’t the only one having doubts?” Shock flowed over Margo’s body as his words sunk in. Her perfect brother, who never disobeyed or questioned or left his bed unmade, doubted the system he tried so hard to get her to maintain? “Did you ever stop to think that maybe the reason I obeyed so wholly was so we might have the chance to escape later on?” If his obedience was truly motivated by a goal so immense, how long ago did he start to see the bad in the Agency? Had he been hiding his feelings since they were children, as she had? Jasper finally raised his gaze to her, eyes blazing. “Did you ever stop to think that when you left me here, you took away my ability to escape? That when you, their greatest prize, slipped through their fingers, they would ever lengthen the leash on their second favorite pet? Did you ever consider that when you ran off with your rebel boyfriend, that
you abandoned me to the life that was only tolerable because you were there with me?” He stood and stalked away, fuming. His bedroom door slammed behind him. His sobs grew audible. Margo sat in stunned silence. Once, when she first ran away with Kellen, he asked her if they should go back for Jasper—and she’d told him not to. She told him that her brother was happy to live the life intended for him, and that the offer would cause him more pain than she could bear. How had she never seen his doubts? Why hadn’t she ever trusted him enough to talk to him about hers? The air got heavier with her guilt, until she could barely breathe, and for the first time since the children were taken, the hollowness inside was replaced by utter desolation. The tears burned her eyes, fell from her face to her wrists as she sobbed. She cried until there couldn’t possibly be any more water in her body and kept crying anyway. She didn’t notice when Jasper came up behind her - until he untied the rope around her torso. He pushed more energy in through her forehead. He unlocked the handcuffs and wrist chains. Then, as she sobbed, he picked her up and carried her to the couch, set her down, and began to rub her back. He still said nothing. When she finally regained control, a few words passed softly through her lips. “I was pregnant. I left so suddenly because I was pregnant, and there was going to be a physical the next day, and I had to get away before they found out.” Jasper’s hand stopped moving on her back. “We should have taken you with us.” She wiped her eyes with her sleeves and curled more tightly into a ball as she waited for his reaction. Jasper vocalized the thoughts connecting in his mind. “Twins are genetic. The kids were three… the kids were yours.” Margo fell back into the phone call. She and Kellen were out on a rescue mission and left their kids with one of their deserter friends in a safehouse they kept in a nearby city. Their friend managed to dial their number as multiple agents breached the building — they listened in agony as
their friend was arrested, as their kids screamed as they were taken away. They’d gone to the scene as quickly as they could, but everyone was already gone. Their kids were gone. They’d retreated back to their home and searched, without sleep, without food, for weeks, but discovered nothing. Kellen tried to go back to focusing on rescues to stop from going insane. Margo ended up next to Jasper. “They shouldn’t be worth more than the other kids. They are.” She squeezed her eyes, trying to get their faces out of her mind. “You see why I came to you for help?” He gently pushed against her body to get her out of her ball. Slowly, she sat up and met his eyes. “I see why you look like shit.” He stopped for a moment. “Margo, I never imagined.” As her tears threatened to flow again, he pulled her close and wrapped one long arm around her, squeezing. “I think I can help you get them back.” When she looked at him again, he smiled, let her go, and stood. As he walked towards the door, he anticipated her questions. “I mean, now’s as good a time as any to make my departure, and I’ve always wanted nieces and nephews—what choice do I have?” As he put on his shoes and stashed his gun under his t-shirt, Margo stood. “Where are we going?” “Me, not you. They have no reason to question me yet, and I can find out where they are. If they’re holding them where I suspect, I can be back with them in two hours. Pack some of my stuff while you wait. Get some sleep if you can. We’re going to need to get out of here quickly.” He looked at her. “What are their names, so they know I’m a friend?” Tears bounced back into Margo’s eyes. “Hadley and Karter.” As he closed the door, he called behind. “Seriously, M. Get some sleep.” As he mentioned sleep again, something began to stir in Margo’s subconscious. The warmth in the room began to fade. She fought it, focusing on the thought of Jasper with her children in his arms. The thought of Jasper returning with them to their home. The thought of Jasper helping them save other children, becoming the other half of the 44
unstoppable force they were always meant to be together. And he would be with her — they could take more pictures like the one on his bedside table. They could be open with each other in ways the Agency never let them be. As she brushed her fingers against the goosebumps on her arms, she pictured being whole in ways she’d only pretended since she left. It would take Jasper and her children to bring that into reality. Kellen hovered his hands over his wife’s head, focusing on the angularity of Jasper’s apartment in his absence. When Margo’s brother stood in the room, she focused on nothing else, and Kellen could blur the background to some degree. When Jasper left, the details had to be perfect or the illusion would break. Even in her sleep, Margo knew his abilities far too well, so despite her dream-induced ignorance, her familiarity with his craft raised subconscious suspicion. No matter how much she wanted to believe in the reality he constructed, her brain searched constantly for danger and lies. Years on the run did that to a person. From his floating perspective, the hope on Margo’s face broke his heart. For the first time, he’d been truly successful. He managed to convince her that Jasper could be redeemed. In the past, his redemption arc always crumbled the illusion. She simply couldn’t believe any situation where the man completely consumed by hunting them could bring safety or hope. Still, she asked Kellen over and over and over to try again, to give her some form of closure. As
Kellen’s exhaustion took over and the dream began to slip, he doubted closure to be the result. When she woke, the reality of their situation would crash back over her. Instead of simply remembering their lost children, she would lose Jasper all over again. As her breathing picked up, he released the dream completely and slumped back into his chair. He wouldn’t craft Jasper or false hope again. When Margo opened her eyes, they dulled in seconds. From her position on her back, she twisted and folded her body in on itself, curling into the smallest ball possible. Sighing, Kellen stood and walked to the opposite side of the bed. He climbed on and formed himself around Margo, holding her close to his warmth. She shook slightly, though no tears fell. How was he supposed to help her now? Why had he ever agreed to do this, to keep trying? Why had she asked him to? They laid that way for more than an hour. Finally, when Kellen was losing hope that she would overcome the despair he caused, she moved out of his arms and rolled over. Her grey eyes filled with ice, with clarity Kellen almost forgot they could have. Clarity that couldn’t exist with conflict. She wiped the remaining wetness from her face, and any remaining sorrow disappeared from every stressed-lined inch of her face. For the first time in years, Kellen saw the soldier she was raised to be. “You gave me what I needed. I’m ready to take Jasper out of the equation and get our kids back.” Though it remained unsaid, her meaning still hung in the air. Whatever it takes.
Second Place, Graduate Fiction
Photo by Andrew Romriell First Place, Graduate Art
A Daughter’s Lesson Snow
a mother always reminds a child to eat all the greens on the plate. She sends her off to school with brown crinkly bag and crisp apple sliced. She does not teach her that when the door closes and screams echo through the vents that she is supposed to say: not the face.
Third Place, Undergraduate Poetry
When the Lights Go Out Jacob Taylor
uss’s father continued to live like a poor man, even after the life insurance money had flooded his bank account sixteen years ago. Russ’s mother had sold insurance before crashing into a cement divider on I-15, and although she’d barely earned enough to pay rent, she had been heavily insured. His father had allowed himself a few luxuries initially: a cherry red Ram truck, a house with three floors and a large backyard. However, sixteen years later, he still drove that same truck despite its broken shocks and leaking oil tank; he refused to buy a new water heater or pay for the roofing to be replaced. If his father could live without it, it wasn’t worth the money. Sometimes Russ wondered, Am I worth the money? He asked himself that question for the very last time as he boiled a pot of water for his bath while wearing nothing but his second favorite pair of boxers. After his bath, Russ would go to his friend Jeremy’s house for his birthday party. Russ hadn’t had a birthday party before he’d met Jeremy in the fourth grade, at least not one he could remember. Perhaps his mother had thrown him one or two before she’d died, but his father didn’t like birthday parties. They weren’t worth the money. And so, Jeremy always threw Russ a birthday party. Once steam began rising, Russ turned off the burner and carried the eight-quart pot (which he had bought himself, of course) with mitted hands to the bathtub. But after hearing a sound—the brush of sock on carpet—Russ stopped in the bathroom’s doorway. Water spilled from the pot and slapped against the tile floor. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his brother lurking at the top of the staircase. Save trips to the store, Russ’s brother remained in the basement. He worked from the basement, cooked in the basement, ate in the basement.
He’d bought groceries two days ago, so why come up today? It wasn’t right. Russ dropped his pot of steaming water and ran. His bare feet slipped on the now wet floor, but he made it to the front door before his brother could. He slammed the door shut and stumbled down the steps. Only then did he realize that the Lights had gone out. Muscle memory, not sight, had guided him out the door, and his muscles didn’t seem to remember what the front steps felt like. His brother did not chase him. Why, Russ could only guess. Perhaps seeing his younger brother run outside wearing nothing but a pair of boxers was all that he had wanted. As Russ stood, sun-warmed concrete rubbed against his skin like sandpaper, and foreign darkness filled the sky. The sun still shone—Russ could feel its heat penetrate his bare chest—but the light was gone. He squeezed eyes shut and opened them, but the Lights remained out. Russ stepped onto the lawn and reached for the house, hands grasping at air. He could feel the dull sting of hot water on his legs and the bite of scratches he’d accumulated on his way down the steps. I must look like shit, he thought, and suddenly Jeremy’s house was the last place he wanted to go. He didn’t want Jeremy to see more injuries. After finding the place where the house’s brick transitioned into vinyl siding, Russ knelt down on the damp grass and ran his fingers across the edge of the window well until he found the plastic bag he’d hung there. Inside he kept a change of clothes, twelve dollars, a flashlight and a compact emergency blanket. Russ pulled the jeans over his boxers, slipped the sweatshirt on, and replaced the bag. Any injuries on his arms and legs were now hidden, and Russ was satisfied. Russ made his way to the sidewalk and straddled the edge of the concrete to keep himself oriented as he walked to Jeremy’s house. Ellie Maine’s Paw Patrol scooter, of course, tripped him for the third time that month before he’d even reached the end of the block. When the Lights went out, Russ had no way of knowing where she’d left it. Sometimes it wound up three blocks from her house. He always knew it was Ellie’s scoot48
er because Mr. Maine had attached a bike bell to the handlebar that rattled when he tripped over it. His fingers came back sticky with blood when he rubbed the fresh pain on the top of his foot. This is why people wear shoes . But Russ couldn’t feel where he was going with shoes on. He crawled over the scooter and slumped onto his back. Sometimes the Lights came on faster without the added stress of navigating darkness. Dried-up grass stabbed through his sweatshirt. He felt as if he were lying on a bed of nails, like one of those turban-wearing circus performers. How long will you take today? Russ thought. Seconds? Hours? Days? He guessed that five or six minutes had already passed, but time always seemed to blur when the Lights went out. He waved his hand through the air, and his skin tingled as a summer breeze twisted through his fingers. The sun scorched his palm, but the sky looked black instead of blue. He hated that most. Everything looked cold—but it felt warm. It wasn’t like closing his eyes; sunlight could squeeze its way through eyelids. A car drove by—Mr. Q’s 1984 Chevrolet. That truck’s engine rattled and clicked like no other. Russ worried that, one day, Mr. Q would drive back from Smith’s and his truck would just explode. Russ liked Mr. Q. He didn’t talk to the old man much, but every time Mr. Q drove by, he always smiled and waved. Not many people did that. Not to Russ, at least. I should tell him to get a new car, Russ thought, convince him that it’s worth the money. Russ sat up. Black. Just Black. He missed all the color, even the brownish yellow of dead grass. He should have gone straight to Jeremy’s from work instead of stopping at home to take a bath. He should have known that his brother would try something because on Russ’s birthday last year, he had chucked wads of grass clippings around his bedroom like confetti, and the year before that, he had left a slimy turd on his pillow. This year, though, Russ turned eighteen. This birthday was different from all the rest, and he couldn’t help but worry that his brother had something extraordinarily terrible planned. Russ dug his fingernails into the scrape on his foot until the only 49
thing left inside his head was pain. Russ could trust the pain. He wiped the blood onto the grass as best as he could and then stood up. He ran his big toe along the lawn’s edge, mapped the sidewalk’s direction, and walked. The second the stubby maple trees in front of Jeremy’s house scratched against his forehead, the Lights snapped back on. The pale gray of the sidewalk rushed into Russ’s eyes, and he blinked until they adjusted to the bright afternoon sun. He stared up at the cloudless blue sky through the branches above him and then at the gray-blue shingles plastered above the rustred brick walls of Jeremy’s house. The dark green, dandelion-free lawn looked as soft as a blanket, and the red roses bordering the grass popped out of the green like polka dots. Russ had always loved the distinct shade of green that Weed ‘n’ Feed gave grass. Jeremy opened the ebony door before Russ made it up the steps. “Happy birthday, dude!” Russ smiled and walked inside. Goodbye was written on the doormat in cursive with flowers and leaves sprouting from each letter. The outside doormat said Hello in a matching font. Red and blue crepe paper twisted around the banister leading upstairs, and a rainbow HAPPY BIRTHDAY hung in a smile on the back wall. Balloons sprinkled the floor while pictures of Jeremy and his parents lined the walls. Russ’s eyes lingered on a photograph of Jeremy and his girlfriend, Lucy, sitting on the wooden swing in the backyard. That’s new, Russ thought. He wondered if parents normally hung pictures of their son’s girlfriend in the living room. His father didn’t like to hang pictures on the walls. Russ doubted there was even a single frame in the house. The first time Russ had been to Jeremy’s house, the number of pictures had distracted him so much that he’d lost to Jeremy at Super Smash Bros. Russ was good at that game. He used to play it all the time with his brother, back before their old console broke. Jeremy ran his fingers through his four-inch-long strawberry blond hair as he walked over to the table. His father had buzzed all Russ’s hair off because he didn’t like to pay for haircuts. Russ and his brother had the same length of hair, and Russ hated that. Russ gripped his forearm with his blood-
stained fingers, and the bruise he’d gotten there yesterday throbbed. Jeremy wouldn’t be able to see it through the long sleeves. His father didn’t notice the bruises or cuts. Neither did the managers at Arby’s or his old high school teachers. But Jeremy—he noticed them. Russ couldn’t let Jeremy find out where he got them. Jeremy would tell people, try to get him help, but the help would only make things worse. They’d move him somewhere far away where he’d be alone. Jeremy glanced down, and his smile twisted with concern. “What’d you do to your foot?” he asked. “Tripped,” Russ said. “Again.” Jeremy grabbed Russ’s wrist, slid up the sleeve and held it out so that the blackening patch of skin that stretched from his elbow to his wrist burned under the blueish LED lights above. “I knew it,” Jeremy said. “What happened?” “I—” “Don’t say you tripped again. Don’t you dare .” “I landed on a scooter.” He had plenty of bruises from Ellie Maine’s scooter. Russ hardly noticed the pain anymore, and he only snuck ibuprofen from his father’s medicine cabinet when the pain made him limp. He couldn’t limp. Then people would look closer. They’d find out about him and his brother and his father, about what did and didn’t happen inside their house. They might even find out about the Lights; then they’d lock him up in some mad house. Jeremy let his left arm go, narrowing his eyes, his freckled skin scrunching up with skepticism. “Sit,” Jeremy said, pulling open a drawer and then taking out a box of bandages and rubbing alcohol. Russ sat at the ebony table and pulled his sleeve back down, hiding the bruise in foreign darkness. The scrape on his foot burned with the familiar sting of alcohol-soaked cotton balls as Jeremy cleaned it and then pressed an extra-large Band-Aid patch over it. He poured two white Tylenols into Russ’s blood-stained palm. The blood made his pale skin look pink, as if he were somehow more alive with the blood outside of his veins than with it in. Russ swallowed the two Tylenol dry and felt them crawl down his esophagus like snails. “Lucy should get here soon,” Jeremy said. “Mom’s out having dinner with Mrs. Wilson.” He paced back and
forth between the kitchen’s marble countertops, wiping off crumbs that weren’t there with a rag he rinsed off every fourteen seconds. Russ absorbed Jeremy’s anxiety from the air, and his body grew restless. “It’s OK,” Russ said. “But it’s not.” Russ didn’t try to spark a conversation after that. Lucy did it for him. She gave Russ a quick hug after slamming the front door shut and then drowned Jeremy in a kiss. She leaned back, her long yellow hair tumbling off her shoulders, and looked Jeremy in the eyes, her hands on his shoulders. Her smile flattened. “What’s wrong?” she asked, glancing back at Russ. “Tell you later,” Jeremy said. He forced a smile. Jeremy had gone all out for Russ’s birthday. He’d made a pot roast with potatoes and carrots, speckled with spices Russ couldn’t name. He’d baked a cake and drawn a basketball on top with orange and black frosting. After they ate and sang and stacked their dishes in the sink, Jeremy slid a box wrapped in red paper webbed with white lines where the paper had been wrinkled so much that the red had rubbed away. Russ tore off the paper and opened the shoebox to find an extra-large bag of Skittles. Russ pulled out the bag and smiled at Jeremy. “Thanks, man,” he said. Jeremy leaned forward. “There’s more,” he said. Russ tilted the box towards himself to find a pocketknife with a metallic blue handle. Russ slid off the safety and clicked the button on the side. A blade—three inches long—shot out, and he flinched. Not just a pocketknife: a switchblade. Russ slid his fingers into the handle’s grooves, and the metal’s cold spread across his skin. “Is that even legal?” Lucy asked. “Where’d you have to go to buy something like that? The black market?” Jeremy smirked. “I bought it legally,” he said. Lucy raised an eyebrow. “I promise! It’s legal. ” Then Jeremy turned to Russ and glanced at the bruise underneath his sleeve. “Keep it with you.” Russ nodded, flipping the blade back inside the handle. He doubted he could use it. He doubted 50
he’d even try. Lucy pulled out a gift card and handed it to Russ: one hundred dollars for the Park City Outlets. Russ looked up at Lucy, then back down at the card, then back up at Lucy. “Buy yourself some new clothes,” she said. “I have a job,” Russ said. “This is too much, Lucy.” He’d only known her since Jeremy had started dating her six months ago. “Russ.” Lucy grabbed his shoulders, and he flinched just a bit; he’d gotten better at hiding his flinches, and he hoped that Jeremy didn’t notice. “You need new clothes, and I know you won’t buy any unless that’s all you can do with the card. Your dad sure as heck isn’t buying you any. Just get yourself something to wear that isn’t covered in holes and stains.” Russ gripped the card so tightly that the edges dug into his palm, turning it white. “Thank you.” Lucy gave him a hug, and Russ felt his eyes start to water. For once, the hug actually felt good. He blinked all the tears back inside. That was where tears belonged, with all the pain and Tylenol and memories he didn’t like to think about. The darkness lived inside, too. Bad things happened when the things inside came out. Russ picked up his shoebox full of Skittles. He’d put the gift card and the switchblade in his pocket. Lucy had already left. Russ needed to do the same. Home. Russ didn’t like home. He liked Jeremy’s rust-red brick walls and Weed ‘n’ Feed–fed lawn. His father would expect him home by seven. That left five minutes. Russ’s hands shook as he slid the shoebox under his arm. He felt phantom fingertips wrap around his neck. His breaths grew shallow and quick, forced through the slim passages in his nose. The top of his gut, right under his ribcage, 51
burned with nausea. Russ gave Jeremy a tight smile. “Thanks.” Russ needed to leave. He had minutes to get back. If the Lights went out again, he’d get home late. “Don’t go home,” Jeremy said, combing through his hair with his fingers. Russ scratched at his buzz. “You can stay the night.” “I’ll be fine,” Russ said, but his hand wouldn’t stop shaking. He didn’t know what waited for him when he got there, but his father said to be home by seven, so he would be. Sixteen years ago, his mother had stayed out late, and then she’d crashed—died. The rainbow HAPPY BIRTHDAY dimmed until it looked like an old black and white photograph. Russ grabbed the bruise on his forearm and squeezed, hard. The pain sliced through the Tylenol and thoughts of home, clearing his mind out like a bulldozer. His insides stayed inside. Orange, green, purple, yellow—it all came back. Even the gray tile floor seemed to brighten with color that Russ hadn’t seen there before: musty blues and greens popped out of the speckled stone; whites seemed to rise to the surface of the tile while blacks sunk deeper. “I’m fine, Jeremy.” Russ looked down at the doormat as he opened the door. Goodbye, it said in swirling cursive; some of the letters sprouted red roses with thorns and leaves that popped out of the dun fibers. Goodbye, Russ thought. He rushed out the door before Jeremy could stop him. Two minutes left. Russ stuffed the crisp five-dollar bill his father had given him for his birthday into his pocket next to Jeremy’s switchblade, and then he rested his forehead against his bedroom door, gripping the knob, gathering the energy to twist it with his trembling fingers. Russ shivered as he glanced behind himself. He ran his thumb across the keyhole. He’d bought this doorknob himself—installed it himself too. He’d be safe inside. Russ wrenched the knob and shoved open the door, and then he locked and slammed the door shut in a smooth, practiced motion. He
jumped onto an old loveseat his father hadn’t noticed disappear from the living room and rested the shoebox full of Skittles on his crisscrossed legs, rubbed the lid with shaking fingertips. “I wondered when you’d finally open the door,” his brother said. The Lights snapped off. Russ realized his mistake: he’d left his bedroom key on the bathroom counter. He hadn’t even realized that his door had been unlocked until now. He’d made sure to lock it, especially because today was his birthday. “Happy birthday, little bro.” Russ shot up, and the shoebox of Skittles rattled as it tumbled off his lap. He found the doorknob and twisted it unlocked, then open. He ran—just ran, trusting his muscles to take him away. His body knew this house better than his eyes did. A large hand grabbed his shoulder and shoved him into the wall. A pair of light switches dug into the arch of his back as fingers wrapped around his neck. Russ felt his brother’s breath on his cheeks while those fingers cut off Russ’s mouth from his lungs. He clawed at his brother’s wrists. Russ knew better than to struggle, but his body still tried. The struggling just made his brother squeeze tighter. Solid black was all Russ saw. But he heard his heartrate speed up, felt those light switches crush his nerves, smelled his brother’s sweat-soaked shirt, tasted the cold air that he couldn’t force down his throat. Russ couldn’t keep the tears inside anymore. He should have stayed at Jeremy’s. Screw his father and his brother and his dead mother. Russ was eighteen now—an adult. He could leave. He could leave and never come back. But Russ couldn’t see; he couldn’t pry his brother’s fingers off his neck. Tears dripped off his chin, and his arms fell limp at his sides. He felt dizzy, and his skin tingled with numbness. “Wuss,” his brother said, letting go. Russ fell to his knees, jagged breaths flooding his lungs with cool air. He needed to get to the front door. His father lounged in the living room watching Jimmy Kimmel and his wispy beard blab on about actors. If his father had paid any attention to his sons at
all, if he didn’t consider his brother’s abuse mere roughhousing, then none of this would have ever happened. If his brother had just kept to himself . . . Russ wheezed. “Why are you doing this?” “Pussy,” his brother said. “You want me to stop? Fight back.” At first, he’d thought his brother wanted to play. The solution was simple: spend time with him, do whatever he wanted to do, and he wouldn’t hurt Russ. But then he had started hurting Russ while they played together. He threw blocks and tied Russ up with jump ropes from the Dollar Tree. Then he had grown older, more confusing. He didn’t seem to follow any pattern, just punched Russ, cut Russ and choked Russ for no apparent reason. “Just tell me,” Russ whispered. “Why are you doing this?” The pain in his neck had already faded to a dull buzz at the back of his mind. The confusion, the unpredictability—that hurt more. Russ couldn’t trust his thoughts, but pain . . . pain was reliable. “Oh, little brother,” his brother said, “you’re funny. I’m just messing with you. Birthday prank.” His brother grabbed Russ by the wrist and pulled him to his feet. Russ steadied himself on the wall and slid his fingers to the left until he found the doorknob, but his brother snatched Russ’s wrist before he could turn it. He felt his brother’s cheek brush against his, and hot breath whistled through his ears. “You have Mom’s eyes,” his brother said. Russ blinked. Mom’s eyes . . . “You try to leave here now, and you’ll die just like she did.” Russ let go of the doorknob. The Lights went out, and Mom crashed. He felt his brother pull his wrist, and he followed without a thought to where they went, for all his thoughts were of his mother. Driving, seventy miles per hour. Then the Lights went out. If I leave, I die, Russ thought. If he crossed the street at the wrong moment, if he tripped over the wrong thing, landed the wrong way . . . Russ couldn’t seem to walk a block without collecting a new bruise. Then Russ’s foot hit the cold basement floor. His brother had given him more bruises than the 52
sidewalk or Ellie’s scooter ever had. He could feel new ones forming on his neck, around his wrist. Russ tried to yank his arm out of his brother’s grasp, but his brother dug his fingernails into Russ’s skin. Russ blinked, hoping the Lights would come back on. They didn’t. His brother pulled Russ farther into the basement, and any resistance was met with fingernails slicing deeper into Russ’s flesh. Russ reached into his pocket with his free hand and fingered Jeremy’s switchblade. He slid the knife’s safety off and hovered his finger over the button. “I’m leaving.” His brother shoved Russ against a wall. Russ tore the knife out, pressed the button and thrust it forward. The Lights flashed back on. The blue handle of Jeremy’s switchblade poked out from his brother’s bicep. Red crawled across his skin, staining his green-
and-gray button-up shirt. His brother looked at Russ, and Russ saw the shock in his eyes. Blood pooled on the floor; Russ had never seen such a vivid red. His brother’s insides kept leaking. All the colors in front of Russ’s face clashed together: red, brown, green, blue . . . They swirled in front of his face, melded together and darkened into black. Now Russ’s insides were leaking, too: darkness, tears, memories. The Lights were out again. Maybe things could have turned out differently if their mother hadn’t died. Maybe she could have fixed his brother. But his father had broken his brother, and his brother had broken Russ, and Russ needed to leave. Russ made his way up the stairs and out the front door. Then he stood on the front porch, staring out at a vast darkness. That darkness had killed his mother. Russ knew he might die before he even reached Jeremy’s house. He inched his bare foot over the edge of the first step.
Third Place, Undergraduate Fiction
Art by Brice Drake > First Place, Undergraduate Art 53
The Father of a Peach Snow
He dropped a box of peaches on the porch. Soft skins scattered, tumbling down steps to lay bruised on the sidewalk. Fuzz clung—to dirt, grass, aphids— until the peaches were a fleshy pulp of mud. Pinks bled into a lush flowerbed. One hit a tree and split, inner stringy yellow supplicating sky. But coronae care not for a peach. All around, sticky juices seeped into polished wood. Sweetness choked the breeze. Limp peaches were gathered into a box, tucked away downstairs, blankets taut, told to forget their bruises and their scars
Third Place, Undergraduate Poetry
It’s Coming Chelsea Beck
he first time the dream came Cora dismissed it as the product of a particularly overactive, sweaty night. It wasn’t unusual for her to experience vivid dreams in the heat of summer, or—as was most recently the case—during midwinter sleeps in which a certain someone in the house cranked the furnace up past seventy. She’d woken up around four a.m. clutching the edge of her pillow with her fists, but fell back asleep without issue and didn’t even remember the cause of this disturbance until, later that morning at the breakfast table, her little sister Harriet recounted her own eventful slumber. “It was awful, Mom,” Harriet told their mother through a mouthful of Fruity Pebbles. “You and Cora had green skin and told me that if I tried to leave the house you would call on your alien overlords to come eat me.” That was it. Green skin, aliens. Imminent doom. Cora had seen something similar in her dream. A serpentine beast of unfathomable size, it had risen headfirst from the sea, flying upwards until its body had eclipsed the sun and Cora was left standing at the shore in near total darkness. She supposed that was the point at which she awoke in a puddle of drool. “Sounds pretty scary,” Mrs. Bochy said. “I bet you were glad to wake up.” Harriet downed the remainder of her milk and replied, “Oh, I was! You and Cora look much better without green skin.” Mrs. Bochy handed Harriet her mask and lunchbox and sent her out the door to catch the bus. Cora, left alone at the table, scrolled through TikTok and finished her toast. She considered telling her mother about the dream, about the dragon, just for shits and giggles, but decided against it. Nothing could top Harriet’s doozy of a dream, and judging by the look on her mother’s face as she opened the mail, the last thing she wanted to hear about was another nightmare. “What’s wrong?” Cora asked, fearing the answer. That blue card she held could contain anything: an eviction notice, a half-hearted recon-
ciliation note from her estranged husband, some mystery charge on their account. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. “Nothing,” Mrs. Bochy said. She tucked the card back into its envelope and turned to face her daughter. Her frown had vanished and been replaced with a smile. “Great news, in fact, but I think maybe I should wait until you’re back from school to tell you. That way you and your sister can find out at the same time.” Cora shot up from where she sat. “Mom! Now you have to tell me. Come on, you can’t just hold me in suspense all day.” Mrs. Bochy resealed the envelope and placed it on the fridge, holding it in place with a Snoopy magnet. She pulled her dirty blond hair back into a bun and slipped on her Walmart uniform. “Go ahead and look if you insist,” she said. “But don’t blame me if you can’t focus at school today.” As soon as her mother was gone Cora took the envelope from the fridge and removed the blue card. It was a wedding announcement from her brother and his fiancée.They were to be married the twenty-ninth of May, just days after Cora was set to graduate. But then she saw the location and understood why her mother had initially reacted with concern—it seemed the wedding was being held in New York, probably in order to be closer to Erin’s family. What about us? Cora thought. Feeling like a deflated balloon, she put the card back in its place. Five years ago her brother Ben had moved to New York for college, where he’d met and fallen in love with his soon-to-be wife Erin. Much to the dismay of the Bochys, he’d spent most of his time, including holidays, back east. He only returned home once in a blue moon, when his mother’s pleas became intolerably loud. As such, it was no secret that Ben and Erin had become a serious couple and fully intended on tying the knot sooner rather than later, but Cora was still embittered to learn that they had chosen to get married so far from home. Her mood hardly improved at school that day, and it didn’t help matters that her lunch mates brought a side of angst to the cafeteria table alongside their food. 56
“So about that paper for Minnow’s class,” Dede said, picking at her pizza crust, “I was wondering if you could help me out, Cora.” Cora shrugged. “I don’t know. Help how?” Dede, a habitual truant, had a system going with Cora whereby the former swapped cash and treats with the latter in exchange for homework help. Usually, Cora didn’t mind tutoring her friend, but it had gotten to the point where Dede was out of school nearly half the week and now abysmally behind in all of her classes. The truth was, she needed far more help than Cora or the school system itself could provide her. Neither she nor Rodney had college plans, but made it known that the moment their caps and gowns came off they’d hop on the next plane out of town. “Well,” Dede continued, “we’re supposed to have three draft pages done by the end of the week or some shit, right? I was thinking maybe you could write up something for me.” “Write for you? That’d be cheating.” Cora had been offering Dede academic assistance since their freshman year, but not once had she asked Cora to do the work for her. It looked as though she had finally brought them to a line Cora wasn’t willing to cross. “Yeah, Dede,” Rodney said, throwing a clownish grin Dede’s way. “That would be cheating. You don’t want to get Cora in trouble, do you? Wouldn’t want her to have to go sit in timeout with the naughty kids, would ya?” Dede growled and gave Rodney a playful smack about the head. “Shut up, douche. All I’m saying, Cora, is it’d be cool if you could get me going on this paper—it would just have to be the first page or so.” She pulled a fifty-dollar bill from her wallet and slapped it down on the table in front of Cora. “Pretty please? I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m desperate here. You know I’m not good with writing.” Fifty dollars was more than double what Dede normally paid her, and there was no denying her family could use the money. In a bid to play it safe, while not ruling out any possibilities, she replied, “I’ll think about it.” “Well, think fast,” Dede told her. “You’ve only
got a few days.” When Cora got home she found her mother curled up on the living room sofa. Apparently, she had been sent home early from work due to a lowgrade fever and headache. They weren’t taking any chances. “I don’t think I’ll cook tonight,” Mrs. Bochy said, “but there’s leftover tuna in the fridge.” Saddled with schoolwork, Cora skipped dinner and turned in early. She fell asleep to thoughts of Dede and the wedding, but was soon pulled from her bed into a space that felt distant, and yet familiar. Her head throbbed as though it had been violently shaken, and it took Cora a moment to find her footing. Once she did, she found herself amidst a large mountain meadow. The sky was dark and wet and cried of twilight. Cora knew in her gut that something was wrong, something was horribly off about the situation, and the natural world seemed to be warning her to get out. To run away as far and as fast as possible. She looked around, keeping an eye out for any potential dangers that might be lurking in the shadows, and headed to the far edge of the meadow, which, to her surprise, overlooked a sprawling town. Countless homes and businesses, nothing more than tiny specks of white light in the evening sky, dotted the valley. The lack of sunlight made it difficult to tell, but the closer she looked, the more it looked to her like her own town. Watson. But had it always sat at such a low elevation? And where did the mountains come from? Watson was as undefined as any other southwestern desert town, and then some. Cora’s train of thought was interrupted by a low rumbling sound that shook the earth and caused her to lose her footing. She managed to catch herself with her palms, wincing in pain at the thorny brush that scraped her hands. The rumbling grew more intense until, finally, the source of the noise revealed itself. Looking up from ground level, through her peripheral vision, Cora saw it: a long, jade figure overhead that slowly wound its way from the top of the mountain down towards the city. Watching helplessly from her knees, Cora observed the eery snake motion of the creature and how it seemed to gather speed as it neared Watson. She
screamed on instinct, but was startled to find that no sound escaped her throat. Her body, too, was frozen in place, as if held down by some extraordinary magnetic force. The creature dipped its cow-like head into the heart of Watson, which, without being directly touched by the beast, erupted in a fiery plume. Cora screamed again. Retreating to her childhood fetal position, she curled her legs up to her chest and cupped her hands over her ears, squeezing her eyes shut. She wouldn’t watch. She couldn’t. When she finally did find the courage to open her eyes she was back home in bed. Based on the amount of light coming through her bedroom window, she guessed it was around six a.m., and upon reaching for her phone, discovered she was correct. “It felt so real, Mom,” she told her mother at the breakfast table that morning. “I think it was some kind of premonition. Watson might be in trouble.” “Prema-what?” Harriet asked. “Premonition. It means something that’s going to happen in the future.” Cora remained fixated on her dream on the bus ride to school. The dragon that destroyed Watson was the same one she’d seen in her first dream—she was sure of it. But what could it all mean? Was Watson about to be hit by some natural disaster? That day after English class, she met up with Dede and Rodney to discuss it. “God, Cora, I’m sure it was just a dream,” Dede insisted. “No need to go all Nostradamus about it.” Cora frowned and shook her head, growing increasingly distressed at her friends’ lack of concern. “No, you don’t get it, this felt so real, Dede, and I don’t think I’ve had a recurring dream in my life. Why would I have seen that dragon twice? The exact same one?” “If anything, the dragon probably wasn’t really a dragon,” Rodney told her. “Could be symbolic or some shit, just like Mrs. Minnow’s always talking about, right?” “I’m sure it was, but either way, I’m worried
that something bad’s about to happen here. I was thinking along the lines of a huge earthquake or nuclear strike. The type of thing that’s straight up biblical, you know?” “Listen to yourself, girl,” Dede said, rolling her eyes. “We don’t get earthquakes, and why the hell would an enemy bother targeting this little podunk town?” Rodney, outweighing Cora by seventy pounds and towering over her by a solid foot and a half, looked down at her through his mask and spoke in a joking way, as if addressing a small child. “Exactly. I think you just need to calm your little head and focus on getting some better sleep, m’kay? Sleep deprivation can cause all sorts of wild thoughts.” “You guys suck,” Cora growled. “I don’t even know why I bother—” “Oh, come on now!” Dede said. “What would we do without your academic prowess? Speaking of which…” She dug into her backpack, retrieved a crumpled piece of paper, and handed it to Cora. “Here. It’s the grading rubric for that essay I need you to write. Please say you’ll help me, Cora. Please.” Between finding a job to help her mom with bills and handling her own schoolwork, the last thing Cora needed on her plate was another essay. But if Dede was still offering to pay her, then maybe it would be worth her while. “Okay, fine,” Cora said. “I still expect that money, though.” “You got it, girl!” As soon as the deal was confirmed, Dede and Rodney headed to lunch, leaving Cora in the English hall with a stack of books and papers. Dede and Rodney weren’t together, but they acted like it, and Cora’s third wheel status was never lost on her. One day not long ago, when Mrs. Bochy got off work early and decided to pick Cora up from school, she’d taken notice of the way the other two walked separately from Cora, as if fully absorbed in their own little world, and she’d asked her daughter, “Why do you put up with that? I know you guys have been friends since freshman year, but maybe it’s time you moved on. Seems they have.”
Cora didn’t have an answer then, mainly because she didn’t even want to think about it. High school had always been about the three of them. Candied apples and carnival rides. Summer pool parties and late-night McDonald’s jaunts. They were the only friends she had, and until recently, she was sure that she meant something to them too. With some reluctance, Cora forewent lunch in order to write Dede’s essay. She met up with her outside the library just before fifth period, and the two exchanged goods. “You’re a lifesaver, Cora,” Dede said. “I’m always so impressed at how fast you can get these things done.” “It’s no problem,” Cora told her. Testing a theory, she asked, “Do you and Rodney want to hang out tonight? Maybe we could watch a movie or something.” Dede’s brow creased. “Sorry, we can’t. Me and Rodney already have plans to go ice skating.” Cora waited a moment, side-eyeing her friend and hoping for the best. “Thanks again for your help on this essay,” Dede said in an apparent attempt to change the subject as quickly as possible. “I hate literature with a fucking passion. All that analyzing—my brain can’t handle it.” Forcing a smile, Cora said, “You’re welcome. Have fun tonight.” “Thanks, babe. So excited!” And that was it. Just up the street from the high school was an old sandwich shop. Founded in 1953, Sally’s Subs had won the heart of Watson and now attracted as many tourists as meal-seekers. Cora’s father, a childhood friend of the owner’s son, treated the family to weekly subs that were often free of charge—of course, that tradition came to an abrupt end when he left in the middle of her sophomore year. But Cora refused to let her father’s betrayal taint her fondness for Sally’s. She and her mother and Harriet still stopped in at least once a month. It was because of their longstanding relationship with the restaurant that Cora had been offered a job there long before she’d turned sixteen, and now she felt the time had come
to take them up on that offer. Instead of taking the bus home from school that day, Cora stopped by Sally’s to pick up an application. The storefront, checkered pink and yellow, was frozen over with ice. The lack of traffic surrounding the shop was Cora’s second hint that something was off, but it wasn’t until she approached the door that she saw it: a note pinned out front stating that the shop had been forced to close permanently due to business losses related to the pandemic. Cora pulled up a local news app on her phone. The headline story, published less than an hour prior, was about Sally’s Subs closing after sixty-seven years. After a moment of denial, Cora headed for the nearest gas station, where her mother had arranged to pick her up around five. Sally’s closing. It didn’t feel real. But then, Cora thought, seeing red, nothing about the past year had felt normal. It was as if the world stumbled into some kind of hellish Twilight Zone reality back in March and never found its way out. Sally’s closing. Masks and lockdowns and sporadic school closures were demoralizing on their own, but Sally’s closing? Like a sick cliche, Cora mused, it was most definitely the end of a Watson era. On their ride home from the gas station, Cora asked her mother if she’d heard about the sandwich shop. She was tempted to mention the dream again, hoping to get some reassurance that it was all in her head and that there is no apocalypse, but Sally’s definitely had less at stake. Cora was far more comfortable discussing the closing of a restaurant than she was the end of human life on earth. She’d deal with that later. “Yeah,” Mrs. Bochy said, keeping her eyes on the road. “One of my coworkers broke the news. Can’t believe it’s come to this. I mean, Sally’s, for God’s sake? You kids used to love that place. Still do.” “Mostly because Dad took us,” Cora mumbled. “What did you say, honey?” “Nothing.” Mrs. Bochy was quiet after that. Cora guessed that she was just tired from work and didn’t think much of it. But when they got home Mrs.
Bochy turned the car off and remained sitting. Cora, reaching for the door handle, stopped what she was doing and faced her mother. “What are you waiting for?” “Cora, we need to talk.” Feeling like she’d been punched in the gut, Cora asked, “About what?” “I got a call from Ben this afternoon.” “Okay.” Mrs. Bochy paused a bit before continuing. Her face had lost some of its color. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Cora, so I’m just going to come out and say it. Erin’s pregnant.” Cora’s stomach untied itself. An invisible burden was lifted from her shoulders. She’d braced herself for worse. “Oh. Okay. I mean, I know they said they wanted to be married first, but accidents happen, right?” She laughed awkwardly, but Mrs. Bochy didn’t smile. Not even a little. “That’s why they’re in a rush to get married. She’s due in June.” “I mean…whatever.” “Cora,” Mrs. Bochy said, finally looking her daughter in the eye. “Erin’s parents are a lot older than I am, and with her dad’s health issues, I just don’t think they’re going to be able to help much with the baby.” “So? It’s Ben and Erin’s baby. Let them take care of it. Why are you worried?” “This is my first grandchild. I don’t want to live across the country from them.” Cora was beginning to see where her mother was heading with the whole thing, and she started to panic. “Well, can’t you just visit?” “It’s more than that. I need a change, Cora. I think we all do. I’m working a dead end job, your sister’s struggling in school, and truth be told, I’d really like to put some distance between myself and…” Sensing Cora’s anger, Mrs. Bochy changed directions. “I just think it’ll be better—financially, emotionally—for everyone. I’ve been seriously considering it for a while, but didn’t want to tell you kids anything until I was sure. When I got that call this morning, I knew. Don’t think you can get a bigger, brighter sign than that.”
Cora’s eyes warmed with tears. “It’s my senior year, you can’t just expect me to pack up and move! Besides, I was going to get a job to help with things. We could make it work. And what about college? I’m sticking around here for my undergrad. Close enough that I was going to come home on weekends. We had this shit planned, Mom!” “They’re getting married the end of May— just after you graduate, I think. We won’t be leaving until then.” “Great, so I’ve got five months until my family leaves me forever. Isn’t that just so fucking generous of you?” “Honey, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Bochy told her, looking genuinely grieved. “But sometimes plans change. Soon you’re going to be off living your own life, and me and Harriet will be living ours. I know it might be hard to see right now, but I meant it when I said I think this change will be good for all of us.” “There’s nothing good about me being left here alone.” “You’ve relied so much on your family, and I think it will do you some good to finally break away a little. Make some friends.” “I can’t believe this,” Cora sobbed. “Seriously, Mom, what the hell.” “If it’s really going to bother you that much, you could always come with us. There are plenty of good schools back east.” Cora’s heart had been set on one of the local schools ever since she was old enough to understand the concept of higher education. Going elsewhere was out of the question. That meant she really would be alone come May. She’d be but one girl in a big college town, with no friends or family to fall back on. The only person she’d still have around would be her father— someone she hadn’t spoken to in over a year and had no intention of making amends with anytime soon. “Think on it,” Mrs. Bochy said. Cora flung the car door open and stormed out. “I wanted to tell you now so that you’d have some time to process things.” “There’s nothing to process,” Cora snapped back at her. “I get it. You’ve made the decision—
without consulting me—to leave our home, everything we’ve ever known.” “Cora,” Mrs. Bochy started, but Cora slammed the door shut and hurried into the house before she could finish. The town had been reduced to rubble. If she didn’t know better, she’d think it was a war zone. The sky was red and heavy. Smoke clouded the air, hampering visibility and making it difficult for her to breathe. She pulled herself off the ground and ran for cover among the remains of the old theater on Main Street. The place was clearly on its last leg and looked to be moments away from crumbling to dust, but on some primal level, she knew something worse was coming, and she decided she’d rather be crushed by the falling building than made to face the beast responsible for the destruction. She squeezed her body into a small crevice on the outer wall and awaited the inevitable. Almost like clockwork, the ground began to shake. The theater walls shook around her, and against every instinct she possessed, she poked her head out and peered upwards to the skies. The monster was there, circling Watson like a storm system, enveloping the town’s ruins with its scaly body. She couldn’t take her eyes off the creature, couldn’t retreat back into the crevice, even though she wanted to. The beast, it seemed, had some kind of grasp on her mind, forcing her to look upon it—to see it for what it truly was. And she couldn’t deny it was something. A ghastly, but beautiful thing she hadn’t been able to look in the eye until now. The dragon’s eyes, sparkling obsidian slabs set deep into its bovine skull, met hers. She didn’t try to run or crawl back into the wall. She knew it was coming for her. There was nothing she could do to stop it. The world around her slowed as the dragon came at her head-on. Nothing else mattered except what was in front of her, what would ultimately consume her. Without actually seeing what was
happening outside her little spot near the theater, she could feel Watson—what was left of it—disappear into thin air. The dragon’s focus was no longer on what it had destroyed, but the one thing it had left to destroy. The creature’s mouth opened in front of her. She closed her eyes, and that was it. As a little girl Cora was taught that the world would end violently. Wars and natural disasters were supposed to strike without warning. Famine and disease were predicted to sweep the land. Her family didn’t have much to do with religion anymore, but back then, when her parents actually seemed to like each other, they attended church weekly, and Cora’s Sunday School teachers always had something to say about the end of times. As a teenager, Cora no longer believed those stories. But sometimes, when everything seemed to be spiraling out of control, she wondered. Maybe, she thought, moments after waking up for her third and final dragon nightmare, there was some truth to it all. Change was in the air —a change she couldn’t stop if she tried. The end, whatever and whenever that might be, was coming. Still shaken from her dream, Cora reached a trembling hand to her bedside table and grabbed her phone. She dialed her father, because she couldn’t leave things as they were if the world was, in fact, nearing its end. She had to talk to him, had to apologize for being so distant, had to try and make things right before it was too late. The phone rang twice before he picked up. “Cora?” he said, sounding unalarmed. “Hi, Dad,” she said. Her hands still shook. “Hey, great to hear from you. Everything going okay?” If the circumstances weren’t so bleak, she would have laughed. “Well,” she said, unsure where to begin, “about that…”
Second Place, Undergraduate Fiction
Andrew Romriell I’ll drop from the ledge, spill into the earth. If I dig deep enough, perhaps there’s space empty enough to leave
my body filled.
First Place, Graduate Poetry
Ode to the Plum Tree Outside My Bathroom Window Jordan Forest
I balance on the lip of the bathtub to steal a better look at your branches as I shower, which makes me wonder if we see the best things from the tips of our toes, like the green inside garden walls and that sexy Hershey’s bar hidden on a top shelf, and, when I was sixteen, the eyes of Rockwell Richardson, who kissed me even though my braces clacked against his teeth and whom I kissed even though his tongue was a slimy little thing and our church said No! said Don’t partake in passionate kissing! I am thinking of reaching into your branches, my arms naked and sudsy. I’d choose a plum fattened by summer, take a bite. The juice would run down my chin, trace my breasts, and fall into the drain, cleansing me like the showerhead now haloing my hair.
First Place, Undergraduate Poetry
“A Poison So Beautiful” by Andrew Romriell First Place, Graduate Art
Back Cover by Brice Drake > First Place, Undergraduate Art 64