Sink Hollow Content Issue Spring 2022

Page 1

20 Contest Issue 22

Creative rW iting

& Art

SinkHollow [1]

Letter from the Director This special edition of Sink Hollow presents the winning entries of the Utah State University Creative Writing Contest, which is open to all USU undergraduate and graduate students from all departments and disciplines. We want to thank each and every one of our contestants this year for all their hard work, for making the judges’ jobs so difficult(!), and for helping to create such a vibrant and inclusive writing community here at USU and in Cache Valley. Many thanks for the generosity and discriminating taste of our con¬test judges: Matt DiOrio, Mary Ellen Greenwood, Shay Larsen, Alyssa Quinn, Anne Stark, Millie Tullis, and Russ Winn. Thanks also go to Sink Hollow faculty advisors Shanan Ballam, Russ Beck, Robb Kunz, and Millie Tullis, and to Nicole Cracroft, Sara Johns, and Annie Nielsen from the English Department administrative staff, whose assistance in running the contest has been invaluable. And an extra special thanks goes to the amazing Sink Hollow staff who helped to run the contest, organized and promoted the Helicon West reading, and produced this beautiful issue of the magazine. Mckayla Beauchamp and Kyler Tolman led the contest team this year, processed submissions, copyedited the winning work, and truly led by example. Deren Bott and Henry Hales also provided some copyediting—thanks, Deren, for the save! And the amazing Claire Mayfield led the design team, created posters for the contest, designed this incredible issue of the magazine, and put together the slideshow for the reading at Helicon West. Needless to say, I’m proud of these young people and have been repeatedly amazed at their tremendous work ethic and commitment to make this opportunity available to all USU students.

Charles Waugh Contest Director [2]

Table of Contents Undergraduate Fiction Grace Ashby, First Place The Woodworker’s Heart

Wayson Foy, Second Place Deus Ex Machina

Hannah Lee, Third Place

6 7 20

Däremellan 40

Graduate Fiction


Marie Skinner, First Place

Toothsome 48

Christopher Nicholson, Second Place Do Robots Dream of Electric Horse Debugger?


Blackberry Magic


Madeline Thomas, Third Place

Undergraduate Poetry Vinn McBride, First Place

Baby Kitten McBride (?-July 24, 2021) A Short Memoir of Two Houses Pining for Homework [3]

83 84 86 92

Graduate NonFiction


Marie Skinner, First Place What I Make My Self


Bonnie Reeder, Second Place

Touching 128

Karalee Riddle, Third Place Goodbye, my Birds


Undergraduate Art Grace Ashby, First Place

“Spring on the Brain”


“The Consequence of Being Human”


“Snake Hands” / Grace Ashby / Honorable Mention “Wistful Blues” / Noelani Hadfield / Honorable Mention “Fall in Green Canyon” / Grace Ashby / Honorable Mention

46 65 82

Madalynn Wight / Second Place

Ana Crista, Third Place

“Call of Duty: Walking Home” “River in the Woods” / Grace Ashby / Honorable Mention “Shade Tree” / Grace Ashby / Honorable Mention “Huntress” / Grace Ashby / Honorable Mention “Queen of the Woods” / Grace Ashby / Honorable Mention [4]

91 100 109 119 130

Mason Goodrich, Second Place construction work fresh cut distress

94 96

Soft Bitched Brain Humor Me

97 98

Joe Rawle, Third Place

Graduate Poetry


Taylor Franson, First Place

A List of Things that Happen to a Body 102 imposter syndrome 104 gravity 105

Karalee Riddle, Second Place

Mismatched 106

Bonnie Reeder, Third Place

The Age of a Tree 107 Butterfly Kiss 110 Phoebe 111

Undergraduate NonFiction Vinn McBride, First Place


Mo(u)rning Song


Chicken Coop


Letting In the Goddess


Basil Payne, Second Place Eden Borden [5]

undergr aduate Fiction



The Woodworker’s Heart

jagged burst of reality. Two days. He had two days.

Grace Ashby, First Place The ambulance left the neighborhood with the somber pace of

a hearse, the red exterior strangely dark in comparison to the bright greens of the summer day. Cal sagged against the pillar of his front porch and reached up to finger the leather cord around his neck. The neighborhood was quiet for a Saturday morning. Children were kept inside their homes to avoid disturbing the somber silence while their parents peeked through their windows to see what was going on. The sound of the ambulance’s tires crunching against the asphalt road echoes in his ears long after it vanished from view. Cal wasn’t sure how long he stood there on the porch of their red brick house, several hours maybe, as the soft morning sun shifted into the brilliance of full day. He needed to get to work soon. He could feel the urgency begin to bubble up from the empty pit of his stomach. Cal closed his eyes. All he needed was a moment, a little pause in the hands of the clock to soak it all in before he lurched forward into a final [7]

“I’m sorry for your loss Mr. Oakheart. Is there anything I can do to help?” A hand landed on his shoulder and Cal looked up to see Charlie Johnson looking at him with his young face creased with empathy. “It’s Cal, kid,” remarked Cal, the words a reflex after three years of repeating them to the young man living in the home across the street. Charlie just shrugged, a boyish grin Cal had seen many times slipping onto his face as he ran his other hand through his short blond hair. “Four years with you as my woodshop teacher is a hard habit to break,” said Charlie. Cal had taught the woodshop and U.S. history classes at the Rockwood high school for decades before he retired. Leah had been the English teacher for 11th grade. While Cal was never one for picking favorites, Charlie had been one of the good ones. The kid had a talent for woodworking and the work ethic to back it up. A pity he never kept up with it when he went to college. Cal didn’t blame him. Engineering is far easier to make a living off of than woodworking. Still, it had been a pleasant surprise for him and Leah when their former student moved in with his wife in the house across the street from them five years ago. Leah liked to invite the young couple over

Ashby, First Place for Sunday dinner when they had the time. His stomach clenched at the thought; there would be no more Sunday dinners.

He pushed the door open and stepped inside. Charlie’s footsteps echoed across the hardwood floors behind him. The living room was untouched from the visit of the EMTs. Leah’s knitting lay on the cherry side table, an anniversary gift, next to the worn brown leather sofa.

The playfulness of the often-repeated joke fell away. Charlie’s smile faded and he leaned forward to stare at Cal with melancholy teak eyes as he asked, “Seriously though Cal, is there anything Claire or I can do for you? Any errands One of her quilts was thrown haphazardly to run? Or someone we can call for you? Could across the back of the couch, as though she had we bring you a casserole? You shouldn’t have to just gotten up to grab a book and would be back cook for yourself right now.” any second. Cal swallowed and took a sharp turn to the left. His fingertips reached out to “I appreciate the thought, son, but I can drag across the white marble countertops and handle it. You know how Leah cooks, cooked. brush against the handmade maple cabinets as There are enough leftovers to last me a week.” he cut through the kitchen. Ignoring the open Cal pushed away from the porch post and door of the master bedroom, Cal stepped into turned his back to the street, to Charlie. The Leah’s sewing room. Scraps of fabric littered the tips of his fingers tingled as he glanced in the floor like the flower petals on their wedding direction of his woodshop. He had delayed day. A half-finished quilt top was spread out long enough. He trudged to his front door and on the floor, the rest of it laid out like puzzle froze with his hand on the handle. He didn’t pieces next to it. He picked his way across the want to go inside. Didn’t want to walk through room to the large hope chest sitting below the the empty rooms that would never hold Leah, wide window that gave a perfect view of their with the warmth of her wide smile and slender backyard, as well as his “huge monstrosity” of a hands, in them again. shop, as Leah liked to call it. Had that warmth already faded away in Cal ran a hand along the glossy lid, marred the few hours since the EMTs took her away? with the occasional scratch from over the years. He wasn’t sure he could bear to find out. Cal It was longer than traditional hope chests, it couldn’t remember what it was like to live had to be to fit what was inside. Cal reached alone. It was too soon. He thought they would into the neck of his shirt and grabbed the key have another decade or two at least. His hands he had hanging from a cord around his neck. trembled. He had to go in, he had already His wedding ring hung right next to the key. wasted several hours. The wood would be hard Leah had insisted he stop wearing it on his to carry on his own. He turned back to Charlie. ring finger after one too many visits to the ER “I suppose there is one thing you could do. to get the ring cut off because he had stubbed Follow me.” his finger and the ring was cutting off blood [8]

Ashby, First Place circulation due to the swelling. He never took the thing off except to shower. Leah had a matching one strung on a delicate chain. The old-fashioned key next to the ring was long and skinny with a wide loop on one end and two teeth on the other. Cal slid it into the lock and popped open the chest. The smell of spices, Tide detergent, and cedar wafted up to greet him. He ran a hand across the carefully folded quilts filling the chest, most of them were Leah’s handiwork, although he knew a few were her great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s that had been passed down to her. “Help me move these out of the way,” instructed Cal. “What we need will be at the bottom.” “Alright.” The younger man silently joined Cal and the two men made quick work of the quilts. At the very bottom of the chest was a large bundle wrapped in a blanket to protect it. It took both Cal and Charlie to maneuver the bundle out of the chest. Cal pulled the fabric away to reveal the aged wood inside.

orange variations in the grain. “I see you remembered some of what I taught you. As far as I’m aware, the copse of Cocobolo trees growing on my family’s land is the only one in the state of Utah or even this side of the states,” said Cal. He pressed his hand against the wood. It pulsed against his fingers, echoing the steady beat of his heart. “When my many times great-grandfather, Elias Oakheart, first found the grove of cocobolo trees, he gave his wife, Sarah, the planks of heartwood from the first tree he cut down. They were fairly old for the time, their children all grown and married, and she had been ill for a

“That’s a pretty cool tradition,” remarked Charlie. Then his head jerked towards Cal. “Wait, a Cocobolo tree!? I thought those only grew in Central America. Cocobolo boards sell for

while. They knew they didn’t have much time left together. He presented the wood to her as a symbol that she would always be his heart and home no matter what and asked her what she wanted him to make it into. She asked him to build a casket so that even in death, she would have the warmth of his love to accompany her. When she died shortly after, they didn’t need a funeral wreath, the casket was covered in intricate carvings of lifelike flowers and birds. People at the time said he must have poured his own life into it because Elias died shortly after. It’s been a tradition to give our heartwood to our spouse on the night of our marriage ever since. They keep the wood in the heart of our home until the day they can’t, and then we bury it with them.”

$50-$65 a foot!” He reverently ran a hand along the sanded boards, tracing the red and

Charlie made a small choking noise, and Cal looked over to see the young man staring wide-

“This and the chest were my wedding present to Leah. This wood is from a Cocobolo tree my father cut down in the woods behind this house on the day I was born, just like his father did for him and his father before him.”


Ashby, First Place eyed at him. Cal chuckled before explaining, “Leah thought it was weird at first too. It’s not about death, it’s about love beyond death. It’s a promise that we’ll be faithful to them for the rest of our lives and beyond. That’s why we use the heartwood of the Cocobolo, we’re giving our significant other our heart.” Charlie scratched at his chin and mumbled, “I suppose that’s kind of romantic.”

pace of your wood lugging skills since heading off to college. Are you sure you didn’t sneak in some woodworking with that engineering degree that you didn’t tell me about?” Charlie shrugged and smiled longingly at the table saw in the left corner of the shop before he said, “I wish. It’s one of the few things I miss about high school. I have some handyman tools for work around the house, but Claire and I don’t make enough money to buy any serious equipment right now. We have to pay off our student debt before anything else.”

Cal pulled out one half of the curved casket cover of the unassembled casket free of the pile. Every piece was prepared so that it just needed to be assembled. That way he could “Well, I’m sure you’ll get a hold of some tools focus on the finishing touches without running of the trade eventually,” said Cal. He hid a smile. out of time. He handed the lid to Charlie. Oh, Charlie would be getting more than just a few tools and it would be a lot sooner than “Start taking these out to the shop– it should the young man expected. Cal was glad he had be unlocked.” Cal glanced down at the dark blue listened to Leah’s suggestion about who to leave dressing gown he had pulled over his pajamas everything to when they had rewritten their before the EMTs arrived. “I need to get dressed.” will a few years ago. If there was one good thing He had a lot of work to do. about this situation, it was that Cal could leave knowing that he and Leah had made one young ………... couple’s life easier. Cal stepped into the workshop in a wellCharlie glanced back and forth between Cal worn pair of jeans and a t-shirt covered in and the pieces of the casket. “Can I help?” he stains from varnish and wood stain. Charlie was asked. standing in the middle of the room, the pieces of the casket laid out on the main worktable. Cal opened his mouth to say no, that he The younger man was looking around the didn’t need any more help, that he’d like to be wide room, his eyes wistful as he examined alone to craft his grief into a final masterpiece. the various table saws, sanders, and planers. He He paused. Cal had been there for his father clapped Charlie on the shoulder. when his mother died. Had worked in silence beside the older man as he guided Cal through “Brings back old memories, doesn’t it,” said one final lesson. A lesson about life and death Cal. “I can still remember you as a scrawny lad and accepting where one ends and the other struggling to lift uncut maple planks in the begins. Cal didn’t have a son. He didn’t have woodshop at school. Seems you picked up the [ 10 ]

Ashby, First Place anyone to pass down the stories and traditions of his family to and a part of him ached to think that there would be nothing left behind after him. Centuries of ancestry and wisdom erased by a single man. He stared at his former student. Charlie was already inheriting the house and land. Maybe he could leave a little bit of the legend behind it all with the young man as well.

rest alone. The carving… it’s a private process. And it’s getting late, go home to your Claire.” He pushed the young man outside and shut the door behind him before he could respond. He didn’t have time for questions. Besides, what he had told Charlie was true.

Lifting up the detached pieces of lid, his joints creaking like branches in the wind, “All right.” Cal carried it over to the long counter that lined the far wall of his woodshop. Setting ………………………………… the wood down with a groan, Cal stared at Assembling the box of the casket flew by the wall in front of him. It was covered in the as Charlie helped hold boards in place and tools of his trade, chisels, knives, and mallets marked where the handles would go. Cal didn’t of all different shapes and sizes. The blades bother to hide what he was doing as he worked. gleamed in the light of the shop, sharpened to The younger man didn’t comment as the joints perfection. Cal selected his favorite chisel and under Cal’s hands melded together without glue mallet from the wall, his hands curling around and handles clung to their correct positions the worn handles with decades of familiarity. without a single screw. His wide eyes and open They had been a birthday present from his mouth frozen under the quiet weight of Cal wife. Technically, he didn’t need to use them, showing him secrets that no one outside of his not with his gift, but it felt fitting that he used family had ever seen. There were others that them now. knew or guessed of course, it would be hard to Small curls of wood drifted onto the floor get proper death certificates for the Oakhearts as he traced what would be delicate forget-mewho fell to the curse otherwise, but no one nots bloomed at each edge of the cocobolo outside of the Oakheart bloodline had actually lid. They had been Leah’s favorite flowers. The seen their magic at work before. Cal ran a hand shaving crunched under his leather work over the sharp edges of the box, smoothing boots and clung to his worn jeans as he shifted them out into rounded curves. There was a around, the handle of the chisel pressing into stiffness to his skin that hadn’t been there his palm as he carved out a bit of wood here before. Charlie’s shirt felt strange underneath and there. The outlines of long vines with his fingers as he gently turned the younger smooth leaves grew along the sides of the man away from the worktable by his shoulder Cocobolo board with every score of his blade. and towards the door. Leah had always loved nature. She liked to joke “Thank you,” Cal said, “but I need to do the that it was one of the reasons she had married [ 11 ]

Ashby, First Place him, so that she could live in a home that always smelled of freshly cut pine and maple. The outlines finished, Cal set down his tools. He sank his fingers into the wood and it rippled like water. He stretched and pulled vines into life. Tickled out each petal of the forget-menots. Little house finches flitted around his fingers before perching on delicate vines and twigs. Cal felt the fire of his own life flicker and surge down his arms with each new creation. The hours drifted away as Cal worked, the old man pausing only to wipe away sweat. He needed every second he could spare to finish this in time. The sweat on his brow soaked into the sawdust covering his skin, creating a sticky paste. The familiar scent of freshly carved wood filled his nose and settled into the depths of his lungs.

still manageable. A magic touch. Trust Leah to hit the nail right on the head without realizing it. Sighing, Cal took a can of Country Fresh lemonade from the mini fridge by the door of his shop before closing the door behind him and walking back to the house. He and Leah had lived in the simple single-floor brick home for decades. It was tiny compared to his shop, which he had built in the empty lot behind their house, but you could fit a family of five or six easily in it. They just hadn’t been able to.

His stiff joints whined with the two oak planks beneath him as he ascended to his wooden front porch. With a relieved sigh, he sank onto his sturdy cypress chair sitting on the porch. The sun-warmed wood cradled his aching muscles. Popping the tab of the can The sun was beginning to set when he open, Cal took a long sip of the sweet lemonade finally finished. His back groaning in protest at as he stared out at the street of houses lit the endless work, Cal put his tools away. Placing orange with the light of the setting sun. He and the two halves of the casket lid on top of the Leah had always loved people watching. It was box, he smoothed the hinges into place and a great way to end a long day of woodworking took a step back. The finished casket cover was for him and teaching for her. It felt a bit strange a work of art, the thick cluster of forget-mefor him to be doing it without Leah at his side, nots at each corner looked like they had grown but the old habit was impossible to break. Cal’s there. The graceful deer and delicate sparrows eyes scanned the row of neat suburban houses peeking out from the flowers and dancing in front of him for anything interesting. The along the vines looked as though they were street was mostly quiet, everyone inside having alive. Cal had been well-known for the realism dinner except for the Johnsons across the of his carvings. His wife said it was like he had street. a magic touch with wood, bringing everything he carved to life. He smiled at the thought, Charlie and his wife were struggling to massaging his sore hands. The wrinkled skin of maneuver a large IKEA box through their his hands was far more rigid than it should be. front door. Squinting his eyes, Cal made out His knuckles cracked as he moved his fingers, the words ‘Dining Room Table’ printed on the stiffer than they had been the day before but side of the box. The picture of said table set [ 12 ]

Grace Ashby / “Spring on the Brain” / First Place / Undergraduate Art [ 13 ]

Ashby, First Place below the words was an exact match of the other table laying on its side in the Johnsons’ driveway. Well, except for the broken leg. Cal huffed and shook his head in disdain. He could still remember the day when the young couple had bought that table last year in the middle of November. Four years of woodshop and his former student still thought buying Ikea furniture was a good idea. As though he could tell Cal was watching, Charlie looked up from the cheap table and gave Cal a sheepish wave. Cal waved back, grimacing a smile at the younger man until he turned back to his work. “Young people,” he grumbled. “No one appreciates good furniture these days. It’s all this cheap crap that breaks in a couple of years. I made our dining table forty years ago and it’s still as sturdy as the day I made it.” Cal turned to look at Leah, expecting to see the fond, exasperated smile she always got when he went on his tirades about modern-day furniture. A lump of hardened sap caught in his throat as he saw the empty rocking chair beside him. Leah had always said the red cherry wood gleamed like rubies in the sunset. It had been one of her favorite anniversary presents.

fifty years lying next to him as stiff and cold as a piece of driftwood. 72 years old and he was a widower. Dragging his hand away from his face, Cal finished off the can of lemonade and stood up. It was time to head in. Cal kicked his boots off next to the front door out of habit. His wooden toes clacked against the hardwood floor, the only sound in the house as he made his way down the hall to the living room. His eyes caught on the picture hanging on the fireplace mantle. It was of him and Leah on their wedding day. His wife was caught midlaugh, her blonde curls thrown back and her face glowing with joy. He was standing next to her, smiling down at her with a look of awe in his eyes, like he couldn’t believe that such an amazing woman had decided to marry a lug like him.

Cal stumbled over to the picture, his hands trembling as he laid a hand on the frame. The good old days, back when he had mahogany brown hair and his days flourished with young love and adventure. His eyes trailed to the other pictures on the mantel, most of them scenes of him and Leah on their various vacations. Cal ran a rough hand across his face, his The rest were pictures of him and his wife eyes burning with tears that refused to fall. with some of their favorite students. To Leah, Leah would never sit in the chair again. Would her students were like the children she could never set the food out on their table again or never have. Leah had always wanted to have a complain about the sawdust he tracked into the big family after growing up as an only child. house. His heart ached like hollowed-out wood, Finding out she couldn’t have one had been empty and lifeless. The EMTs told him it had devastating. Cal could still remember the been quick and painless. A heart attack in her utter helplessness he had felt while watching sleep. Cal was glad her passing was easy, but he the hope in Leah’s eyes die when she heard had never wanted to wake up to find his wife of the news. For a while he had feared it would [ 14 ]

Ashby, First Place destroy their marriage. Leah had been ready to leave him, saying that he deserved someone who could give him children. He had held her to his chest countless times as she cried herself to sleep over it. Cal had cried with her, griefstricken to see her desolation as he reassured her that he loved her more than anything and that being unable to give him children didn’t change that fact. Cal let his hand fall from the picture frame, a wry smile on his face. It had taken a while to convince his stubborn wife of that fact, but he had managed eventually. He had liked the idea of kids, little boys with Leah’s blond hair and little girls with his stubborn jaw, but at the same time, a small part of him was glad that they never had children. The Oakheart line and curse would end with him. He never dared tell Leah that. He couldn’t imagine ever living his life without Leah. Cal grimaced at the thought and turned away from the pictures. Afterall, he didn’t need to imagine life without Leah anymore, he was living it.

onto his side, pressing his nose into the pillows. He could barely make out the scent of the perfume that Leah had loved to wear through the smell of fresh-cut wood. Apples and apricots. He was making a complete mess of the pristine white cotton, but Leah wasn’t there to scold him about getting the sheets dirty anymore. Cal stared at the empty space in the bed beside him, feeling the heavy ache of his old bones. He couldn’t feel his toes anymore, his feet numb blocks of wood. That same numbness was beginning to creep up his legs. His heart beat sluggishly in his ears like a timer slowly counting down. He wouldn’t need to worry about clean sheets for much longer. …………………………………….. The morning sunlight danced across Cal’s face as he slowly opened his eyes and groaned.

His body ached and cracked as he struggled to sit up. A spark of fear filled Cal’s heart with the realization of how rigid his joints were. He staggered to the phone and dialed his Had the change sped up during the night? He lawyer with clumsy fingers. The man didn’t pick needed more time, he still had work to do. up, no surprise considering the time, so Cal left Slinging his legs over the side of the bed, Cal a message letting him know about Leah’s death ignored the pain screaming through his nerves and that he would need to enact the funeral as he forced himself onto his feet. He staggered arrangements they had discussed previously a few steps forward before catching himself before hanging up. on his dresser and slowly straightening all the way. His back cracked and snapped at the Cal left the living room and went straight motion while his joints shrieked in protest. Cal to the bedroom. He didn’t feel hungry, his moved stubbornly forward despite his body’s stomach heavy and sore as though he had objections. He was running out of time. inhaled a bucket of sawdust. Springs creaked under his weight as he collapsed on the bed, Cal caught sight of his reflection in the still dressed and covered in sawdust. Cal rolled mirror as he left the bedroom. The sawdust [ 15 ]

Ashby, First Place from the day before had dried and hardened, turning his skin stiff and hard like the cocobolo he was working with and his white hair muddy brown. He looked like a living version of one of his wood sculptures. Cal didn’t have time to care. Hobbling out to his shop, Cal was relieved to find that his limbs moved better the more he used them. The stiffness had been from all the hard work yesterday. He still had time.

rest in a casket he had made for her. A final piece of his craft to accompany her for the rest of her eternal sleep. Death had been a thing they talked about more and more as the years passed and they grew wrinkled and whitehaired. He had always pushed it off, laughing about how they still had a few more decades left. Now he didn’t have any time at all.

Turning his attention to the box of the casket, Cal worked it over with the same care he had the lid. It went quickly, the body lacking He ran his hands across every corner of the the intricate curves and angles that his brush carved lid, smoothing out sharp edges until had struggled to fill in on the lid. The old man the wood was as soft as velvet. Brushing away could feel himself starting to slow down, his the leftover sawdust, Cal pulled out a jar of heartbeat dragging in his ears. His joints were polyurethane and a few brushes. Dipping a growing more and more rigid as time passed brush into the can, Cal began to paint the wood and it hurt to move them. Cal ignored the pain with long smooth strokes. It gave the rich red as best he could, his hands growing as stiff and and orange of the Cocobolo a gleaming shine. It steady as the wood he polished. Rubbing his took him most of the morning as he struggled wooden fingers together, Cal let more of his to wriggle the brush into each and every dip of power seep into the wood. The polyurethane the lid’s wood carvings. His fingertips were as dried instantly. glossy as the wood by the time he finished, and his back ached from being hunched over for so The wood gleamed in the bright lights of the long. shop. It looked almost like blood, as though he was pouring out his blood as well as his life into Leaving the lid to dry, Cal trekked to the the one final piece of work. It was dark outside. other end of his workshop where the rest Had it really taken him so long? Cal forced his of the casket lay. It wasn’t the first time he stiff fingers to curl around the edges of the lid had made a casket for someone, people and heaved it into the air with a groan. occasionally commissioned them from him over the years. Cal didn’t charge nearly as much Swinging the casket closed, Cal stepped as the mortuary did and federal law required back to examine his work. He stared at it, the funeral homes to accept caskets purchased wood glowing in the artificial light of his shop. from outside sources no matter how much It was a masterpiece, one of the finest things they complained about the lost profit. After he had ever made. A weary, satisfied smile she got over the oddity of his wedding gift, cracked through the stiff skin of his sawdustLeah said she liked the idea of being laid to covered face. He was done. The mortuary would [ 16 ]

Ashby, First Place be there tomorrow morning to pick it up. They would take care of lining the inside with blue velvet before getting his wife’s body ready for the funeral the following day. He wasn’t sure who would show up. It would be a small affair, both his and Leah’s parents were already long dead, and they didn’t have any other family. Charlie and Claire would be there, along with a few old friends who were able to make the journey. Maybe even a few more old students of his and Leah’s. It didn’t really matter to Cal. He slid a stiff, wooden hand across the smooth surface of the casket. This right here was his final farewell.

his property. Cal knew the path by heart despite having only visited the Cocobolo clearing a handful of times over the years. A shiver of warmth passed over him as the clearing opened up in front of him. The trees circled around a spiral of hunched-over figures sitting on stumps in a space that was too large to fit naturally in the small strip of trees they had entered. Cal wove his way to the central figure. Weather and time had worn away the edges and details until you could barely tell the figure had been a man at all.

“Follow me,” ordered Cal. He turned and trudged off towards the woods at the back of

“I can’t imagine choosing to fall in love and get married when it means you could die at any

“This is, or was, my ancestor Elias, the first of the Oakhearts. The first to bear our gift and our Cal laid a kiss on the wood before turning curse,” murmured Cal. He moved on, describing away. Grabbing a lemonade from the little great-great-great grandfathers, uncles, and fridge, he left the shop door open as he aunts. He stopped at a startling young face, returned to the house. That way the mortuary lacking the many wrinkles that most of the would have no problems getting the casket if he statues possessed. didn’t get up in time. If he got up at all. “This was my Uncle Dallen. His wife died in a Charlie was waiting for him outside. The car accident just a year after they married. young man leapt back in surprise at Cal’s He was twenty-five. His death is one of the appearance. youngest cases of the curse that I can recall. “S-sorry Mr. Oakheart! Er- Cal! I was just That’s the risk we take, when we choose to tie wondering, I mean I wanted to ask…” rambled our lives to one person. For a while, I wondered Charlie as he strangled a baseball cap between why we chose to marry at all. Then I met Leah.” his two hands. Cal sighed. It looked like the “What happens when an Oakheart dies awed wonder from yesterday had finally worn before their spouse?” asked Charlie. off. He wondered how long the younger man had been dallying outside trying to decide Cal shrugged and said, “We don’t. I think it’s whether or not to intrude. Well, he didn’t mind a part of our curse. We get an uncanny sense of now that his work was finished. It seemed he luck that lets us avoid dying and, in return, we had some time for questions after all. always have to watch our spouse die before us.”

[ 17 ]

Ashby, First Place moment,” said Charlie. He shifted from side to side, shoulders slightly hunched, as his eyes flicked away from the smooth planes of Dallen’s face to the ground before inevitably being drawn back to the visage of the young man. Charlie was only twenty-eight himself, not that far off from twenty-five. Cal could vaguely remember being scared of the same possibility around his age. Cal studied the younger man for a moment before saying, “Love isn’t something that you choose not to do. What if you had this curse? You could avoid any chance of attachment, go off and live as a hermit somewhere. Are decades spent alone worth giving up every memory, whether measured in months, years, or decades, you have with Claire?”

“This is my father,” said Cal. He tipped the bottom of his can of lemonade towards the empty stump sitting a little ways away. “And that will be my place, once the curse finishes its work.” Cal held his wooden hand out for Charlie to see. Charlie grasped Cal’s wooden palm with trembling fingers. Cal could hardly feel the pressure of his touch as the younger man traced the whirls of wood grain that replaced wrinkles and fingerprints. “How is this even possible?” whispered Charlie. Cal shrugged and gently pulled his hand away. “Hell if I know the real reason, but as far as the stories go, love.”

Charlie blinked at Cal’s words. He turned “Love? Really?” Charlie’s voice was dry with his head away from Cal, toward the direction disbelief. of his home with Claire, gaze unfocused as he considered the question. The lines of unease “Like I told you yesterday, when we marry creasing his face slowly surrendered to a serene our spouse, we give them our heart. When they smile. die, we bury it with them.” Cal’s chest echoed like a hollowed-out tree, a wide cavern that “No, I suppose I wouldn’t give that up,” Leah no longer filled. More to himself than to murmured Charlie. Cal smiled back. Charlie, he whispered, “In a way, it is as much “No, I didn’t think you would.” a blessing, as a curse, that we follow after them so soon.” He tugged the younger man away from Dallen and led him past the last couple of “Wait, so you’re dying?” asked Charlie. An figures to the final statue, the one furthest out oddly fragile expression settled across his face. from the center of the clearing. He traced the Cal waved a wooden hand at the statues familiar features and lines with a wood thumb filling the clearing. “I thought that was pretty that rasped against the cocobolo face. Every clear, kid.” remarked the old woodworker. He pore in the skin was distinct, every eyelash turned to leave the clearing. defined, the details barely touched by the passage of time. Cal would be like that soon. “Is there any way we can stop it!?” demanded [ 18 ]

Ashby, First Place Charlie as he stumbled to catch up with Cal. Cal slowed and twisted back around to face the younger man. He laid his heavy hands on the other’s shoulders. “Charlie, son, I’m seventy-two years old. I just lost the constant companion of fifty of those years. Why would I want to stop it?” Cal stated gently.

In the faint light of the moon and stars, Cal could make out the broken table still sitting in the deep blue shadows of Charlie’s driveway.

“The furniture these days, it’s all cheap and shoddy work, ya know Leah?” he croaked fondly, his throat rough from sawdust. “It never lasts for long, not like the things I make. Young people these days don’t know how to appreciate Charlie’s jaw clenched and his head dropped things that last a lifetime and more. Though to look at the ground. His shoulders drooped as I suppose my old things will come to an end he whispered, “I don’t understand.” someday as well. I wish they wouldn’t, but they “You don’t need to, not right now,” replied all do eventually, right Leah? Just like us.” the old man. Cal released his shoulders and Cal leaned back in his chair, his spine moved back towards the house. The clearing groaning as he looked up into the stars, faded away behind them. “Not for a good many wondering if Leah might be one of them years with that sweet Claire of yours, if you’re now, staring down at him. He really ought to lucky. Come on, I’ll walk you back.” make his way to the Cocobolo clearing. It was ……………….. tradition to let the change finish there. He felt overwhelmingly tired though, the strain of his Cal watched from his front door as Charlie two long days of work finally settling in. His crossed the street to his own home with a muscles were rigid and sore, the pain of too bowed head. He was a good kid, one of the best much work seeping through his bones like Cal had taught. They had never had children tree sap. Cal felt his eyelids droop, feeling like of their own…but then, what really defined a they were carved from heavy oak. The magic son or daughter. Was it flesh and blood? Or of the clearing would see to it that his body something made it there one way or the other. The night else? If he had had a son, Cal liked to think sky vanished behind the lids of his eyes as Cal he would have been a little bit like Charlie. Leah felt himself drift away into a peaceful darkness would have liked the idea of that. filled only with the gentle creak of the empty rocking chair sitting beside him. He sank into his chair on the porch, his wood joints creaking in protest as they bent. Popping the tab of the can, Cal took a long sip of the now warm lemonade before settling back to stare out at the street. It was dark and quiet, the lights in all of the houses turned off. [ 19 ]

Deus Ex Machina Wayson Foy, Second Place

Head Editor Highlow Publishing *** Jack read the letter twice, just to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. There it was, plain as day. Rejected. Again. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered to himself.

Dear Jack,

Jack Hascolm poured himself a glass of bourbon from a glass bottle on his bookshelf. I reviewed your latest manuscript for the final He downed it in a quick gulp, and, wincing at the low burn in his gut, poured another. This third of Under Bleeding Skies III (Endtimes). one he took with him, sitting down on the Once again, I have to send it back as “Rejected.” couch in his living room and sipping it slowly. Same problem as the last couple of drafts, the climax is resolved too conveniently. All of the great Putting his feet up on the coffee table, he tried to relax. Nothing changed. His head continued build-up is ruined by a conclusion that comes out of nowhere. I would daresay this is your most its pounding, and that familiar worry that had exciting book yet, but this climax cheapens it all. It been plaguing him for the last three months is, I am sorry to say, the very definition of a “Deus was back, making his insides twist up in knots. Ex Machina” ending. I am confident that you will turn in an acceptable edit before the deadline you have agreed to. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Sincerely, Ben Gains [ 20 ]

Sipping on his bourbon, Jack read the letter one more time. The addition of alcohol had yielded no changes. “Rejected” still glared at him from the top of the page. And those words, those dreaded words. Deus Ex Machina. Jack knew the term, of course, he had studied writing in college. It had been pounded in his head by a half dozen teachers as the literary mistake to avoid. Deus Ex Machina. God from the machine.

Foy, Second Place The term hailed from Ancient Greece. Actors in those early plays were often saved from inescapable peril by a god; Zeus or Athena or one of those types. The actor playing the god would be lowered to the stage using a machine, often a primitive pulley system. They would come in right at the critical moment and save the hero of the play from certain doom. Back then it must have been quite an exciting conclusion to a story. Today, it was an editor’s nightmare. That was what one of Jack’s professors had called it. A good story with perfect build-up was ruined when the author allowed some unexpected, random element to swoop in and save the day. If the protagonist didn’t earn the victory, the reader would feel cheated. And if an editor, or a publisher, thought the reader would feel cheated, they wouldn’t accept the story. Deus Ex Machina. Jack shook his head. For the better part of a year, his editor had been throwing that line in his face. Every time he turned in a completed manuscript, no matter the work he’d put in, the foreshadowing he added, or the twist he tried to pull off, Gains would send it back. “I liked everything about it, Jack, except for the end.” “You have good suspense here, Jack, just try to pay it off better.” “Don’t you think that came out of nowhere, Jack? I see what you’re trying to do, but it’s just not working.” Head throbbing, Jack crumpled the letter up and tossed it against the wall. Annoyed, Jack stood and drained his glass. [ 21 ]

He left it sitting on the coffee table, not caring about the ring it might leave on the new wood. He walked to his desk, passing a few awards hanging on the wall. Nothing huge, but they had been exciting for a new writer. The most recent one, now two years old, had the words “Suspense/Thriller” engraved across the top, just over a gold inlaid “#1 in the Nation.” He’d been particularly proud of that one. Easing into his office chair, Jack flipped open his computer and stared blankly at a new, white digital page, shining with electronic light. “You are a great writer, Jack Hascolm.” He said it out loud, to no one but himself. Verbal words of affirmation, just like he had been taught in school. Jack wasn’t sure if he believed in the power of personal affirmation, but he liked saying those words. They came before every session of writing, a reminder of who he was and what he believed. Jack stared at the empty page for a while, then allowed his mind to drift and his eyes to wander. Framed near his desk was a contract. It outlined a three-book-long series to be written for Highlow Publishing. Jack had been thrilled when he had signed that deal. Publishers usually only wanted self-contained stories from newer authors; to buy into a series was a commitment, and a risk. But, after writing five stand-alone novels, each being wellreceived, Jack was suddenly considered a safe investment. The deal had been struck, and Jack’s first series, Under Bleeding Skies, had been born. Jack could still remember the pride he felt when he put his name on that slip of

Foy, Second Place paper. Now he wanted to throw it against the wall to join the most recent rejection letter. The first two books had both been successful. Jack was gaining quite a large reputation for his suspenseful stories. He was downright famous for concocting pulseraising tension followed by narrow escapes. Right on the back cover of Bleeding Skies II, the publisher had included a quote from a New York Times critic, singing Jack’s praises. “A true artist of suspense and excitement,” the critic had written. “No one will ever finish a Hascolm novel disappointed.” How ironic. Jack almost laughed as he thought of that, but he felt too sick.

it would be gone in the morning. He walked away from the computer, then turned and bent over the keyboard. He wrote down the only thing he had on his mind. Deus Ex Machina. *** One week later, and far too early in the morning, Jack found himself sitting at a foldup table, pen in hand, surrounded by books and people. More people than he had seen in a very long time. Living alone was a joy, parties should be small, and crowds should be avoided whenever possible. Jack wasn’t averse to people. On the contrary, he did enjoy a good chat, particularly about his work. But this . . . this wasn’t that. Sitting in a bookstore, signing his name dozens upon dozens of times for hours on end was enough to drive him crazy.

Before he realized it, two hours had passed. Jack had not written a single word. He was growing frustrated and found that he had been clenching his jaw tight for, well, he wasn’t sure how long. Loosening his jaw, he fiddled around with a small ball on his desk. A stress ball – he used to carry it around with him. He gave it a good squeeze, then another, and then a few One after another they came, clutching more. It never worked like his old therapist had his various novels, wanting his signature and thought it would. Another good reason Jack had handshake. Many thanked him for his work, fired that quack. plenty had questions. Too many wanted special messages written on the title page below his name, regards to a loved one or a confirmation An hour later, and, with nothing worth of theories. Everyone told him what a reading typed out on the page, Jack decided to wonderful writer he was. He was their favorite. go to bed. He deleted the few lines of random They were so glad a friend turned them on to junk he had jotted down and stood. The his work. This book is the greatest thriller I’ve pounding in his head was back, and he doubted ever read. That book was worthy of a Pulitzer [ 22 ]

Foy, Second Place Prize. This one really should be adapted into a movie.

his face, eyes straining as he kept himself from wincing. Every reminder was a knife in his gut.

Normally the compliments would have sat well with Jack, but there were just so many. Person after person after person after person. The line never seemed to dwindle. Singing his praises or not, they were eventually reduced to a faceless horde. Identifying marks blurred until he could barely separate them. A blue streak in the brown hair of a pretty young woman. Big-rimmed glasses on the older man who wanted the autograph made out to his daughter. An earring in only one ear of this man, followed by three earrings in the ear of the one behind him. Blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes, gray. Red shirt, three-piece suit, light blue button-down, tank top. Was that one in cowboy boots? Are we in Texas? Hick.

This signing had been arranged by his agent months ago. The woman didn’t know of Jack’s trouble, didn’t know he should never have taken time away from writing to meet people and sign books. No one did, except for Jack’s editor, Ben. Ben’s email today, his first since the rejection letter, had set Jack on edge. It hadn’t been a threat, not really. Ben had been amiable enough, but he had been sure to remind Jack of his deadline and reminded him that the publishers would want that advancement back if the deadline wasn’t met. “I know it won’t be any trouble,” the email had said. “You are a great writer. I am sure you will have something worthy of your reputation by the first of November. I can’t wait to read it.”

The faceless crowd continued. Jack had to strain to keep himself engaged in the chitchat of each person, those short conversations that he was sure meant so much to his fans. Eventually, he found a rhythm in the smiling, talking, signing. Almost this could be tolerable. Almost he could bask in the praise rained upon him by the adoring fans in line. But, inevitably, damn near every one of them said the same thing. “Can’t wait for the next book!” “So excited for Bleeding Skies III!” “I’ve been waiting for this all year, so stoked!” Jack kept his smile fixed on [ 23 ]

*** Later that day, Jack found himself walking down the road towards The Spinning Lady. It wasn’t the nicest bar in L. A., nor the most popular. That was one of the things Jack liked best about it: it was never too crowded. Loud music and a bunch of sweaty drunks would just annoy him today. Hell, they would most days. The sun was high enough to reflect off of the windows of parked cars, getting in Jack’s eyes. Still, it was good to be outside. Prior to

Foy, Second Place that morning’s book signing, he had barely left his apartment since the rejection letter had arrived. Shutting himself away had not yielded the desired results; Jack was no closer to finding a satisfying conclusion to his story than he had been on day one. Every time he puzzled out a draft, he could almost hear Ben Gains saying those three stupid words. One unearned win for the heroes after another, every single time. “Deus Ex Machina” hadn’t been said once in this morning’s email, but it was clear that it was still on the editor’s mind. Black and grey feathers drew Jack’s focus. A pigeon, hopping in front of him on the sidewalk, pecking the ground. Jack kicked at it, causing it to fly away squawking. Jack stopped and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. He pulled out his ball, he had started carrying the stupid thing around again a few days prior, and squeezed firmly. No need to take my frustration out on a bird, he thought. Feeling a little calmer, he started walking again. “You are a great writer, Jack Hascolm,” he muttered to himself. He was determined to use that phrase at least as often as the stress ball. He had chosen to walk to clear his mind, but his thoughts kept returning to the book. No doubt about it, he had written his protagonist, and by extension, himself, into a corner. For all of his planning, there was no way he could figure to pull off a satisfying conclusion. Normally at this point, Jack would have done extensive reworking of his plot, and come up [ 24 ]

with a different climax. But time was running short, and he didn’t believe he could go through the whole editing process again. Jack needed this version of the story to work. The Spinning Lady stood on the corner of Allen Street and Waller Avenue. It was a squat building, with a brown stone exterior. The sign above the front door was painted with a female dancer, like the kind that would be in a music box. As Jack neared the bar, she seemed to smile down on him. He rolled his eyes back at her. Inside was dimly lit, with a single bar against one wall and a row of booths against the opposite wall. Tables were positioned helter-skelter in between, and a single pool table resided against the back wall, near the door to the kitchen. Little light illuminated the hardwood floor, scratched to hell in many places. All bars smelled the same to Jack, a little like air conditioning, a little like liquor. Jack made his way to the bar. The cushion on the stool he selected was the least ripped of the five available. He placed his order, and the bartender had his glass filled within a minute. The clock set amidst the bottles of liquor on the wall read 3:30 pm. The bar was almost empty, just how Jack liked it. He meant to be gone before a crowd formed. Still, he was happy to be out of the house, and he made small talk with the bartender, Jose. Jack liked him well enough, though Jose was probably ten years younger than Jack’s 32. He was working to put

Foy, Second Place himself through college, though Jack couldn’t remember what in. Business perhaps? The distraction of talking to Jose was a welcome one, but soon the kid was off in the kitchen, telling the cook something. Jack sat alone. Neon signs on the walls and faded pictures near the bar did little to hold his interest, so he took to staring at the brown liquid in his glass. His second, though he thought he might have one more before leaving. The place was a little busier now, though still pretty dead. Jack didn’t want to stick around to wait for the city to get off of work. He needed to get home and get back to working on . . . Damn. There went his mood again. Jack sighed and started working his stress ball. Squeeze as he might, he wasn’t finding any answers in it. Squeezing the ball hadn’t helped him yesterday morning when his rent bill had come in. He was able to pay it, but not comfortably. His writing had brought in a good amount of money, enough to pay for his apartment and the furnishings, but he was far from rich. His advancement on the book he was writing now was almost gone, and in a few months, he was afraid he would be broke. Maybe I should have gone for a smaller apartment, Jack thought.

jumped. He had been so consumed in his worry that he hadn’t noticed Jose return or that a stranger had sat himself on the stool next to the one Jack was using. Jose turned to make the drink and the stranger smiled at Jack. Jack gave a short nod and went back to looking at his glass. Idiot, Jack thought, why did he have to sit right next to me? “Nice outside today, isn’t it?” There was that voice again. Jack turned to the stranger, who was looking at him expectantly. He was a young man, mid-twenties, probably, with dark hair and brown eyes. He was a little heavyset, though not too large, and he wore a light blue buttoned shirt. He had a black backpack sitting on the floor next to his chair. He was still looking at Jack like he wanted an answer. “Yeah,” Jack said, looking away. “Nice weather.” “I would have thought it would have gotten cold by now,” the stranger said. “I haven’t been in California long, but I feel like in the past October has always been at least a little chilly.” He kept looking at Jack, who didn’t respond. “Have you lived in California long?”

“All my life,” Jack muttered, not trying to hide the annoyed tinge in his voice. Jose “One Long Island Iced Tea, please.” The voice returned, thankfully, and set the stranger’s appeared suddenly to Jack’s left, and he almost drink on the table. Then he looked to Jack. [ 25 ]

Foy, Second Place “Would you like anything else, Mr. Hascolm?” Jose asked. His accent was faint, but it made him pronounce “Hascolm” in a very distinct way. Jack didn’t mind it, even if the young bartender did speak with far too much enthusiasm for such a mundane question. Before he could ask to close out his tab, the stranger to his left straightened up and clapped his hands together, startling Jack. “I thought that was you!” the stranger said excitedly. “You’re Jack Hascolm, right? The author? You’ve changed clothes since this morning. I was at your book signing!” It was Jack’s turn to sit up straight, looking at the young man. “That’s right,” he said, a small smile tugging at his mouth. He tried to remember the young man from that morning. Did he recognize that blue shirt, or was that in his head? “I signed your book this morning? Sorry, I can’t seem to place you.” “You did! I doubt I made too much of an impression, there were a lot of us there. But I love your novels, I’ve read all of them!” The stranger was looking wide-eyed at him. He seemed so excited he might burst. “I think Neptune Rain must be my favorite book now. And, of course, I’ve been waiting for the last Bleeding Skies novel for over a year!” A sharp spike of annoyance rushed through [ 26 ]

Jack at the mention of his series. He could all but hear Ben Gains mocking him in the back of his mind, whispering “Deus Ex Machina” in his ear and laughing evilly. Jack pushed all that down. Meeting fans outside of signings wasn’t his favorite activity, people were often overexcited. That said, hearing someone singing his praises without the hustle and bustle of that morning’s crowd did feel good. “I am glad to hear,” Jack said. “It is always nice to meet someone who enjoys my work. That’s what it’s all about, after all.” He turned to Jose, remembering suddenly that he was there. “Uh, sorry Jose. One more of these please.” As Jose started the drink, the stranger stuck out his hand toward Jack. “My name is Kevin Carlson. It is an honor to meet you!” Jack shook his hand, smiling. “And an honor to meet you.” *** Two drinks later, Jack realized that he had been talking to Kevin Carlson for over an hour. The young man was definitely overeager to meet the author, but the alcohol had cooled the annoyance Jack would normally have felt at that. People were starting to find their way into the bar, and Kevin suggested the two make their way to one of the booths to sit and talk in comfort. Jack wanted to refuse, but the idea

Foy, Second Place of going back home and trying to write again made him feel sick. Before he knew it, Jack found himself sitting at a table, nursing a glass of beer, while Kevin Carlson ranted and raved about Neptune Rain. “What gave you the idea to make the tour guide a serial killer?” Carlson was asking. Jack was a little drunk and had been examining the worn-out leather of the seat he was on, so it took him a moment to remember what the kid was referring to. “I needed a subplot,” Jack recalled. “I based her off of a girl I’d known in college. Nice lady, though she never seemed to blink. Her stare was unnerving to me, it creeped me out and made me think of Hannibal Lector. So when my editor called me to say he thought the book needed a secondary antagonist, I thought of that girl and how badly she creeped me out and replaced a minor character in the tour guide with her. The tour guide was originally a man, and I think he had five lines of dialog total, maybe six. He became her, and she became a major character. Hell of a way to up the word count.”

This kid does seem like quite a big fan. Could he have followed me here? Jack thought absently. It was possible, he had heard of it happening to some of his peers. Some overeager fans would track an author after a reading or signing and “coincidently” bump into them at a restaurant or bar. This was usually pretty harmless, just someone looking to meet a favorite writer without being pushed through a line. Jack had read about obsessed people becoming stalkers, but even if this Kevin had decided to follow him to the bar, Jack doubted that he was that type. Yes, I’ll bet he did follow me here, Jack thought, amused. The bar was well and truly full now, though it wasn’t bustling like some club or college bar. There was a second bartender helping Jose, and a couple of waiters walking to tables and taking orders. Kevin kept bombarding Jack with questions until one of those waiters found his way to the table. “Would you gentlemen like anything to eat?” he asked, notepad in hand.

Jack looked at his watch and realized it was getting on six. He had stayed right through “Hell of a way!” Kevin said and lifted up his dinner. Kevin Carlson looked at him and glass. Jack clanked his glass against Kevin’s. He shrugged. “Might as well, right?” he asked. “I do had learned long ago that fanboys would always love bar food. I’ll buy!” find a reason to do “cheers” once or twice a night. Jack nodded. “Might as well.” [ 27 ]

Foy, Second Place “Excellent,” the waiter said. He didn’t have the enthusiasm in his voice that Jose always had. “Our special tonight is shrimp street tacos.” Before Jack could say he liked that idea, Kevin shook his head. “Sorry, I’m allergic to shellfish. Mind if we do wings and fries?” “That will be fine,” Jack said, mostly keeping the bitterness out of his voice. The waiter took the order and went back towards the kitchen. “Allergic to shellfish, huh?”

prior. He was taking classes now, though only part-time. And of course, he wanted to be a writer. Of course he did. Jack concealed an eye roll. Everyone thought they could be an author. All you have to do is sit around and write stories, it’s easy! Why not be an author? They didn’t know about the stress, the late nights, the writer’s block. The rejections . . . Damn. Damn damn damn. There it was again. Jack tried to force it from his mind. “Have you written anything yet?” he asked, trying to get his mind away from his novel.

“Oh yeah,” Kevin said, grinning. “I’m actually allergic to a few things.” He started rattling them off, though Jack wasn’t really listening. “Yeah,” Kevin said. “Mostly just, you know, You would be the type to have a lot of allergies, he school stuff. One of my professors has been thought to himself. Fanboys. having us write fan fiction as practice, and I’ve kind of made it a hobby.” The wings came and went, along with a few more beers. Jack was definitely feeling the drink now, and, by his red face, it looked as if Kevin was as well. Jack had grown tired of Kevin’s endless string of questions but was consciously trying not to be rude. Kevin was a bit annoying, and definitely a fanboy, but he seemed to be alright, though Jack was fairly certain at that point that Kevin had indeed followed him to the bar. Oh well. To distract from more questions, Jack started to ask Kevin about his life. He was from Delaware but had moved to California for college a few years [ 28 ]

“Fan fiction?” Jack said with amusement. He had never thought highly of fan fiction; he considered it to be cheating. “Your professor actually has you turn that stuff in?” “Oh yeah, though not since last semester. We had to post a whole story online for our final project.” Ripping off other authors, Jack thought. What

Foy, Second Place a stupid idea. Then a thought struck him. “Have you ever written fan fiction of my books?” he asked.

included the hero stuck in a trap, not unlike the one Jack had written in his draft. The circumstances were different, but they were similar enough that they gave Jack pause. This was a lot like the scene his editor had rejected, Kevin turned red. “Uh, yeah I have,” he said, time and time again. And there, on the last of sounding embarrassed. “Not for my class, I the four pages, Kevin had written a brilliant haven’t even posted any of it online. But yeah, a escape from danger. The protagonist had freed couple of times.” himself and saved the rest of the group. And he had done it without any outside influences, with no help, with only his wit and a trick that Jack almost laughed out loud. Fan fiction seemed complex and obvious at the same time. of his work? What an idiot. I might as well have some fun with this, Jack thought. “Do you have any with you? I’d love to read some.” Jack sat back in amazement. That was it. That ending, that was what he needed. No Deus Ex Machina there. No unearned lucky breaks. It Nervously, Kevin pulled a tablet out of his . . . it was perfect. backpack. He turned it on and opened up a file. And Jack hadn’t written it. The electric blue of the tablet lit the dim bar, and Jack eagerly took the device. This is going to be good, he thought and started to read. *** And, to his shock, it was good. Very, very good. This silly fanboy had some talent! Jack was impressed, and even told Kevin so, which made the young man beam. Jack read a couple of stories, and though they were rough, he couldn’t help but find them entertaining. And then he found it. In the last file he read, a mere four pages, was a story about his characters from Under Bleeding Skies. The very book Jack was driving himself mad over. The story Kevin had written was a basic piece but [ 29 ]

Jack walked into his apartment that night at one o’clock in the morning. His head was pounding from too much alcohol. He had finally left Kevin, taking the man’s phone number with a promise to get ahold of him to sign the rest of his books one day. And yet his mind stayed with the young man, and the story he had written. Oh, that story. How had he done it? How had he found the answer that Jack himself, the actual author of the books, could not? Surely, if this random student could figure

Madalynn Wight / “The Consequence of Being Human” / Second Place / Undergraduate Art [ 30 ]

Foy, Second Place out a solid ending to the series, Jack should have no trouble doing the same. So why was he? Nightmares filled the few hours Jack allowed What was so wrong with him that he couldn’t himself to sleep each night. He saw himself finish his own work as well as a damn fan delivering a large book to Ben Gains. Gains fiction writer? A damn fanboy? Jack was angry, would throw the book back at him every night. but mostly, he was shocked. How, how, how? He would laugh and grow larger. Jack would shrink and Ben would grow, towering over the author like Goliath. “Deus Ex Machina!” the *** giant Ben would roar with delight. “Can’t you tell that, you sorry ass? Deus Ex Machina! Your endings suck! They always suck! You hack!” The next week and a half were a blur. Jack desperately tried to finish his story, writing ending after ending. But as he read over each “No!” Jack would scream. “I’m not a hack. I’m attempt, it became obvious that all of them an author! That’s what I am . . .” Ben’s evil laugh were just too similar to the one Kevin Carlson drowned out Jack’s objections. had come up with. The writer’s block was gone now, but it was replaced by something worse. Jack had ideas, but they were not his own. He “You are a great writer, Jack Hascolm.” Jack could think of nothing that did not come across said it in the mornings after the nightmares as a direct rip-off of the fan fiction he had read. woke him. He said it as he sat down to write. He said it at every new chapter. Then at every new page. He repeated it as each draft failed. He “You are a great writer, Jack Hascolm.” said it until “great writer” and “Jack Hascolm” became the same thing. This was a problem Jack had never encountered before. He had always been original in his writing. Professors and peers had praised him for his unique ideas in college, and his writing career stemmed from doing things no one else had before. He had never had any temptations to play off of another author. And yet here he was, only able to, at best, take inspiration from the work of a nobody, and at worst, straight up plagiarize him. “You are a great writer, Jack Hascolm.” [ 31 ]

Days passed. Jack felt his frustration grow. Almost, he wanted to just write out his ending and send it in. He was sure Ben and the rest of the monsters at Highlow Publishing would love it. The problem was that Kevin Carlson would be able to recognize his ending in Jack’s book. It would be too easy for him to realize he had been ripped off, get a lawyer, and ruin Jack’s career. No one would buy books written by a hack who stole from fan fiction writers.

Foy, Second Place am . . . It all came to a head on October 27th, 2015. Jack had five days before his deadline was up. Highlow wouldn’t drop him, of course, but he would have to pay the advancement back out of pocket. The problem was, he didn’t have that much money. As he had predicted, Jack was nearly broke. Furiously, Jack typed away at his keyboard. Words flew up on the page, and finally, finally, he thought he had something. Squeezing the stress ball rapidly, he read through his work. It was the same. Damn. Thing. Exactly what Kevin Carlson had written, almost to the word.

. . .what? Hours passed before Jack rose from the floor. He sat at his computer and stared at the screen. His words. Kevin Carlson’s words. They sat before his eyes, together, interchangeable. And an idea started to form in his mind. Pulling out his cell phone, Jack sent a text message to Kevin. He told him to stop by Jack’s apartment the next day to have dinner and drinks. That would get him there; no fanboy, no matter how talented, would pass that up. But Jack didn’t want dinner and drinks. He wanted Kevin in front of him.

If he couldn’t think of a story himself, Jack Jack snapped. He screamed the worst words Hascolm knew who to buy one from. he could muster and threw the stress ball with all his might. It hit a window and cracked the glass right down the middle. Jack hit his knees, *** tears falling from his eyes. It was over. He was spent. All the work he had put in, all of his early success, all the money he had made, every Cooking had never been Jack’s strong award. None of it mattered now. His mind was suit. He was passable at best. In the modern tearing at the seams. He was simply beat. world, however, he believed that food was too accessible to be bothered overworking oneself in cooking. Today though, Jack decided that he “You are a great writer, Jack Hascolm,” he would leave nothing to chance. He meant to whispered through the tears. “You are a great make a deal, and it wouldn’t do to allow some writer, Jack Hascolm. You are a great . . .” idiot at a restaurant to screw up his order, and No. No I am not. Not anymore. I lied. I lied possibly put his guest in a bad mood. Besides, every time. And if I am not a great writer, then I the cooking had helped Jack clear his head. The [ 32 ]

Foy, Second Place hysterics of the night before had thankfully passed. Mostly. The things that Kevin Carlson had told Jack in the bar were a bit fuzzy because of alcohol and, to tell the truth, disinterest on Jack’s part. But some things did stick out; Kevin was a parttime college student, he was from back East, and most importantly, he liked bar food. Jack’s time at college, ten years in the past now, had brought Jack’s failure as a cook to the forefront. That said, he had learned to make a very good twice-baked potato. Every college student needed to know how to make bar snacks. Jack prepared his potatoes carefully as the morning passed to early afternoon. His first roommate had given him this recipe, possibly the best thing to come out of their association. The potato baked, and the insides had to be scooped from the skin, mixed with a little milk and butter, and were mashed. This was then mixed with chopped green onion, salt, pepper, and chili powder of all things, to give it a slight kick. The mashed concoction was then put back into the skin, covered in cheese and bacon bits, and baked a second time to bring it all together. What came out of the oven was basically a handheld heart attack, but they did taste good. The food and beer that Jack provided probably wouldn’t make the decision to buy into the plan for Kevin, but it couldn’t hurt. At least it would hopefully put him in an amendable state of mind.

[ 33 ]

Kevin arrived at Jack’s apartment right at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the very second Jack had specified. He wondered how long Kevin had been waiting outside to make that perfectly timed entrance but bit the snarky thoughts down. Kevin was here as Jack’s savior, even if he didn’t realize it yet. Jack let the young man through the door, exchanged pleasantries, and took his coat. As he hung the coat on the hook next to the door, Jack was pleased to see that Kevin had brought his black bag, the tablet visible in the mesh attaching it to the backpack’s exterior. That bag would have a book or two in it, Jack had promised to autograph those that Kevin hadn’t brought to the bookstore when the two had first met. But the tablet was what he really wanted. The tablet, and the stories inside. The two men walked to the front room, making small talk as they reached the couch, the precious cargo still strapped to Kevin’s shoulder. Kevin sat down on the couch as Jack went into the kitchen to take his potatoes out of the oven. They looked just right. He set them on the counter to cool, and the scent of cheese and bacon lightly filled the room. Jack could see Kevin eyeing the food from the couch and smiled slightly to himself. Grabbing two bottles of beer from the refrigerator, Jack made his way back into the living room. He handed Kevin a beer and sat down in his armchair across from the young man, separated only by his squat coffee table.

Foy, Second Place Jack signed the two books Kevin had brought him, and the two talked for a time. Kevin was drawling on about classes and writing, and Jack made a show of acting engaged. His eyes kept wandering to the backpack at Kevin’s side, sitting slumped on the couch like a second guest. Jack had to force his gaze away from the bag and onto Kevin. Keep him talking, Jack thought to himself. Make nice, act like a friend. Make it hard for him to refuse the offer. After what felt like an eternity, Jack decided to go for the pitch. “Kevin,” he began, “I need to talk to you about something very important. Is that alright?”

Jack could feel the frustration immediately build, pounding behind his eyes. He contorted his face to look appreciative, hoping it would hide the growing weariness and anger. “Thank you for the confidence. I had hoped the same, though I am sorry to say that, at the end of this week, in just three days, if I don’t turn in a winning draft that the publisher and editor can approve of, I will miss my deadline. That means I will have to pay them back the advancement they gave me, which is a sum of money I do not currently have.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Hascolm.”

“Wow, that sounds stressful.”

“Please, Jack will do fine.”

Jack’s eye twitched. “Yes, it is very stressful.”

“Oh, alright! Sure thing, Jack.” Jack forced a smile. He liked Mr. Hascolm a lot more. Ben Gains’s disembodied voice whispered softly in his ear. Deus Ex Machina, you hack. Jack ignored it. “I have run into a bit of a problem. You see, I have sent in the third installment of Under Bleeding Skies to my editor a handful of times, and he doesn’t seem to like my endings.”

[ 34 ]

“Well, that’s no good.” Kevin took a sip of his beer. “I’m sure you’ll come up with something great though.”

Kevin looked at him, a bit of confusion on his face. “So, do you need me to lend you money? Is that what this is about? Because, I mean, I would if I could, but I don’t think I have enough to help you much.” Inside, Jack started to scream. Lend money? That’s what he thought this was about? Dumb bastard. “No Kevin,” Jack replied with a tone he vaguely hoped didn’t sound too exasperated. “I don’t want your money. I want your story.”

Foy, Second Place life.” Kevin’s confused look deepened. “My story?” Kevin’s eyes were wide. “You’re serious,” he said, “and desperate.”

“Yes. I read those fan fictions at the bar. And one of them, that last one you showed me? That matches up with what I wrote in my Bleeding “You have no idea.” Skies draft. It matches very well. You see, I’ve written myself into a corner. The climax sees the protagonist in danger, in a sort of puzzle. I Kevin thought for a moment, then nodded. haven’t been able to write a satisfying way out “OK,” he said, “but not for ten percent. I want of that puzzle, but, against all odds, you did! thirty.” That story of yours could almost be copied and pasted into mine, and my problem is solved. Do you understand? I want to buy that story from Jack tensed up. Negotiating? Really? Damn. you.” “I still need to pay rent, Kevin,” Jack said evenly. “How about twelve? I’m not really in the mood to go back and forth on this.” Jack was met with over a minute of stunned silence. He would have found Kevin’s shocked expression hilarious in any other situation. Kevin shrugged. “I don’t mind back and Finally, the young man inhaled deeply and met forth. How about twenty-five?” Jack’s eyes. “I’m not sure about that.” “I can maybe do fifteen.” Jack could have punched him. “Not sure?” he asked. “Not sure about what? Kid, this book is a guaranteed hit. This whole series may well “Then realistically, you could also do have a movie deal one day. With the money this seventeen.” finale will bring in, you’d never have to worry about a payment for the rest of your college career. Hell, it’ll probably see you past college. Jack didn’t even try to mask his sigh. “OK, I’m willing to give you ten percent of my profit, seventeen percent.” no matter what the book makes. All you have to do is give me that story, delete it from your tablet, and never tell anyone about this. You’d “And,” Kevin said, holding up a finger, “one never find a better offer for anything in your [ 35 ]

Foy, Second Place more thing. At some point in the next couple of the best of me here? he asked himself. Writing years, we co-author a book together.” with him, I do not look forward to that. Jack set the plate of potatoes on the coffee table, and Kevin picked one up eagerly. Jack didn’t feel “. . . what?” like eating. Kevin wasted no time taking several bites of the potato, getting through half of it at a pretty remarkable speed. Kevin shrugged. “I want to be an author, same as you. Starting out my career coauthoring something with such a famous Kevin smiled at Jack as he sat back down in writer will almost guarantee my way into this the armchair, feeling defeated. “So,” Kevin said industry.” He leaned in, holding Jack’s gaze. “You in between bites, “about our book, when should liked my stories. You are willing to buy one we start . . .” Whatever he was going to say next to finish off your big trilogy with. You know was lost in a sudden wheezing, gurgling sound. I’m good, good enough to write with you. It’ll Jack jumped at the noise. Kevin coughed and probably be a hit. What do you say? Deal?” looked at the potato skin in his hand. “What is . . .” Kevin’s voice was hoarse and sounded forced. “Is there . . . onion?” Seventeen percent, and writing a whole book with this idiot? Jack’s hands were trembling. He felt ready to explode. Just get it Jack stared at him wide-eyed and nodded. over with, he thought. Get through this, get the “Yes, there’s onion in it, what’s wrong?” story. If this is what it takes, so be it. “Deal,” he said, putting out a hand in Kevin’s direction. Kevin shook it firmly and smiled. Kevin dropped the remains of his potato and dove into his backpack. He tore everything out, including his tablet, and ripped open every “It’s been great doing business with you, pocket. He was sweating, and his breathing Jack.” The young man’s voice had a self-satisfied sounded raspy. Whatever he was looking for tone to it. “Now, were we going to eat those wasn’t there, and he tossed the pack away. potatoes you made or what?” He stood, and made to run towards the door, but dropped to a knee gasping. “Coat . . .” he croaked out, pointing at the coat Jack had hung Jack had completely forgotten he’d left the by the door. “ . . .pen . . .” potatoes cooling on the counter. He rose and made his way to grab them. He felt foolish as he walked. How the hell did I let this smug kid get Jack stared at the man, confused. “Pen? [ 36 ]

Foy, Second Place What do you mean?” he asked, panicked. “You mean, like, an EpiPen?” Kevin nodded, still pointing. Jack jumped out of his chair and dashed to the coat. He rummaged around the pockets and found the long plastic cylinder. He tried to remember how to use it as he ran back towards Kevin, who was now on all fours, breath shallow. Jack cracked open the cap, twisted the dial, and breathed a sigh of relief as the needle appeared. He reached Kevin, and got down on his knees next to him, readying himself to stab the pen into Kevin’s thigh. Wait. Jack hesitated for a moment. His mind started to race. Seventeen percent? And a future book? What if . . . Jack stared down at the man on his floor, watching him struggle to breathe. What if this man wasn’t in the picture? What if Jack didn’t need to give up his money? What if he just, didn’t? Didn’t pay this fanboy anything. Didn’t write a book with him, didn’t have to continue to deal with him. Didn’t use the EpiPen.

[ 37 ]

Jack stood up. This, this happening so suddenly. Right when he was feeling trapped and desperate. Right when he had no other way out. What were the chances that, in an eye blink, everything he needed fell right into his lap? It was almost as if some outside force had decided to save him. Almost as if . . . Jack’s eyes widened. Almost as if God had come down to deliver him from the inescapable situation he was trapped in. “Deus Ex Machina,” Jack breathed. Kevin looked up at Jack. His face was red and his breath was shallow. The two locked eyes. “Jack?” Kevin said weakly. Jack held his gaze, not saying anything. Kevin gasped in twice, then collapsed. His shoulder hit the floor, and, after a moment of shaking, he stopped moving. His ragged breath went silent a moment later. *** Jack stared at the body for, well, he wasn’t sure how long. Quite some time. Finally, he leaned down and checked Kevin’s pulse. There was nothing there. The young man was dead. Jack straightened up. Then he walked over to the couch and picked up Kevin’s discarded tablet. The screen had been cracked when it was dropped, but it lit right up when Jack touched the home button. It also displayed the words “Fingerprint not recognized.” Feeling

Foy, Second Place sick, Jack turned toward the man lying dead on his floor. Then, not thinking of what he was doing as much as possible, Jack lifted Kevin’s lifeless hand and pressed his thumb against the tablet’s home button. The lock screen disappeared. Jack dropped the hand and quickly opened the tablet’s settings feature. He changed Kevin’s code to one that Jack would know, to make sure he wouldn’t be locked out again. Then he hid the tablet under his mattress.

of his voice as he begged the operator to send help. ***

Under Bleeding Skies III: Endtimes was Jack Hascolm’s biggest success to date. It was released almost nine months after Kevin Carlson tragically died of anaphylactic shock in Jack’s apartment. It performed better than Highlow Publishing had predicted several Coming back into the living room, Jack times over. The back cover was adorned with could barely look at the body. Did I really just do critical praise when it hit the market. When that? He asked himself, again and again. Did I the paperback came out six months later, both really just kill him? John Grisham and Stephen King were quoted prominently on the front cover, their words of praise for the story’s climactic ending were No, he thought. He died of an allergic enough to make any young author swoon. A reaction. I tried to get the EpiPen to him in three-movie deal was reached between Warner time, I was too slow. That’s what I’ll say. I didn’t Bros., Highlow Publishing, and Jack Hascolm on have to save him. Jack looked at the corpse. “I the one-year anniversary of the book’s release. didn’t have to save you,” he said out loud, voice shaking. “I don’t owe you that. I don’t owe you anything.” Ten percent was the offer. Hell, even Jack dedicated the book to a teacher he had twelve . . . had in high school, a professor he had had in college, and Kevin Carlson, who he named as a friend taken too soon. Jack had hoped that Slowly, Jack walked up to the dead man. He would keep Kevin’s face from showing up in had set the EpiPen on the coffee table earlier, his dreams, as it had every night since his and he picked it up again now. He stabbed death. The dedication didn’t make a difference it into Kevin’s lifeless thigh, injecting the however, and Jack spent five months with very lifesaving formula into a dead blood stream. little sleep. After that, he had grown used to Too late now, but at least it looked like he tried. seeing Kevin’s furious scowl every night. Mostly. Pulling out his cell phone, Jack called 911. He didn’t even try to keep the hysterical sound out [ 38 ]

Foy, Second Place By the time Jack was signing his movie contract, he had almost pushed Kevin out of his mind entirely. He was writing a new book that he thought could be even bigger than the Bleeding Skies trilogy. He was busy, helping the new director work through A-list actors to star in the first movie, writing new material, and signing books. Book signings were more frequent nowadays, now that Jack Hascolm was a household name. Jack still didn’t like book signings, but he dealt with them, and the praise was enough to make them almost manageable. However, every once in a while, a fan would walk up, clutching a couple of books, and Jack could almost swear that, for a moment, they would have the face of Kevin Carlson. The moment always passed quickly, but it happened frequently enough to make Jack sweat. Oh well. He supposed this was what he would have to deal with now, this was Kevin’s revenge. How wrong he was. Kevin had, unintentionally, formed the groundwork of his revenge a week before he had died. With a new movie coming out, Under Bleeding Skies fan fiction was becoming very popular. One young fan in Missouri was surfing through a fan fiction website when he came across a story by someone named Kevin Carlson. It was fan fiction of Under Bleeding Skies, and it was a very blatant rip-off of the third book’s final act. The comment section was full of people who were blasting that Carlson person for just copying and pasting onto the forum, and the young fan was going to do the same. Then he noticed [ 39 ]

the date. October 16th, 2015. Over nine months before the actual book had come out. October 16th, 2015. The day after Jack Hascolm and Kevin Carlson met at a bar in Los Angeles. The day after Kevin’s favorite author complimented his fan fiction. A compliment that gave Kevin the courage to post that fan fiction online, where it stayed relatively unnoticed until the day a fan from Missouri found it. It didn’t take long for the internet to run wild with the young fan’s discovery. In less than a day it was discovered that the Kevin Carlson who wrote the fanfic shared a name with the man who Jack had dedicated his book to. It took a week for the story to reach Highlow Publishing. It took two weeks for them to begin formally investigating the theory that their bestseller was a rip-off. Jack Hascolm didn’t spend much time on the internet. It took him three weeks to hear about all of this. Coincidently, he learned about it on the same day that the Los Angeles Police Department brought him in for questioning. It seemed that, in light of recent inquiries made by Highlow Publishing, they had opened an investigation into the death of Kevin Carlson.

Däremellan Hannah Lee, Third Place

The lake beyond the mountains

all winter long.

cracks ran parallel to the shore, betraying the shifting water beneath. Through the years, the man had seen every shade of blue reflected in the ice—had seen the sun change the hue of the lake like a glass window. He had grown fond of sang life by the water and the sounds the lake would make.

After nearly a month, the grip of polar night slowly released her hand on the land. Unforgiving winter and twenty-eight days without sun—nothing but darkness and the constant fall of snow—left the world barren in its wake. Here, at the top of the world, there was a bargain: the midnight sun in June in exchange for the polar night in December. The lake settled and sank in the valley, solidifying into stone. Evergreens weighed down by snow ran down the swooping mountain range, stopping on the banks of the frozen lake. There, beside the lake, an old man lived alone. He had seen the lake freeze and thaw enough times to know that each year the ice was different. Some years, the ice broke apart into pointed shards before freezing down solid, creating a crown of spikes along the outer banks. In quieter years, the water went still without a fight and froze clear as glass. This year, frozen pockets of air ran up through the ice like trailing rivers. Long, thick [ 40 ]

As the ice shifted and expanded, settling atop the water, the ice cried out wordlessly— each crack a plaintive call. Deep and resounding, the notes swooped in the air like diving birds weighed down by a foot of ice. Many years ago, the old man had heard the call of a breaching whale beside the sea. It was the closest comparison he had to the sound of the ice. And, all winter, the lake called out like a living creature larger than the greatest animal in the sea. This week had brought the first glimpse of light since November. A sunrise hovered along the horizon before slipping back to the other side of the world. Spring would come in the following months—but now it was a matter of waiting. The old man had seen the seasons come and go. He could outlast the season between seasons when winter refused to release her grip. Stuck between winter and spring, the world could only wait until spring grew strong enough to take lead. They said winter lasted six months in the north, but it wasn’t really winter. It was a terrible space of in-between, the two seasons

Lee, Third Place fighting to control the dance. It was the anticipation of warmth that bothered him. Now that the polar night was over, it was a game of waiting. But, in his old age, Mikael was tired of waiting—tired of the indefinite countdown for spring. Waiting in darkness for sun was more difficult when mutually waiting for his last heartbeat. Life had turned gray long before winter came this year. Now his winter rations turned to mush in his mouth, and he had no desire to taste them. His meager traps had yielded no capture for weeks, and he had eaten no fresh meat since fall. It wasn’t that he was a poor trapper. His aching bones simply wouldn’t let him wander far enough to place them where he wanted to. And few animals came close to the lake in winter—one reason why Mikael lived alone.

he had forgotten his own mortality. All he could think of was the smell of fresh fish searing on the stove. Memories of spring and summer had all but left him, but he clung to this—the smell of fresh meat falling off the bone. Hours had passed, and yet not a bite. Bundled against the cold, the weathered man sat hunched on a stool beside a hole in the ice. In his youth, he would sit on his pack, but he didn’t trust his knees for such a thing anymore. Back then it had also taken less than an hour to saw through the ice—tonight thicker than he had ever seen it—to create a hole in the surface. Years he had spent beside this lake, learning how she flowed and moved in each season, and yet, for days he hadn’t felt as much as a tug at the end of his line. It had been days.

After leaving the line unattended for periods of time to return to the warmth of his home, He had enough rations to last until spring, the old man had resigned himself to waiting but he didn’t want them. He wanted to eat the with his line until the lake yielded to him. The way he had eaten in his youth when his body precious moments of the day’s sunlight had had been strong and he could walk around the long passed, sending them into the blue world lake in a day. Even in the winter, he had never of prolonged sunset, and now all was dark gone a month without catching a stray rabbit or again. doe. Now it was a chore simply to keep the fire The ice shuddered beneath him as the ice going and cook what stores he had. split a half-mile away, singing out in protest. This year, out of stubbornness, the old man In response, a dozen hairline breaks shot off fought the way of life he had come to accept. in the direction of the shore. It was nothing of He had gone fishing. concern—no more than the settling of the lake. To fish now, in the remains of polar darkness, was madness. But perhaps he was a little mad. Under the spell of an eternal night, [ 41 ]

If Mikael had had a companion waiting for his return, perhaps they would have chastised him for his stubbornness and convinced him

Lee, Third Place to come home. His fingers ached with cold—the Shifting waters made the ice unsteady. He had bones radiating with it. once prided himself in being able to read the lake—finding the places where fish would hide But his home was empty—no one to remind and recognizing from a distance where the him of his age and aching bones other than the ice became thin, like skin, with trailing veins cold herself, and she had settled into his joints cracking her surface. long before setting foot on the ice. But three days and still no catch. Perhaps age He stared at the rough circle in the ice before had taken more from him than he had thought. him. The black water looked back at him like a dark beady eye, like the eye of a great beast, and When the sun rose again, the man hardly he glared at it. The ice split again, crying out noticed the slip of day. His eyes were locked like a creature of the deep. But the man stood on the opening in the ice and his mind was above it all. He had created this eye, and he far away in a place where he could not feel the would wait. This was his lake. cold hollowing his hands and feet. The hour of light came and went quickly without anyone His shoulders shook as he held the rod in his to recognize it—only a hunched man and his cramping hands. The fishing line trailed down hissing lamp. into the water and he watched it, seeking out any movement or the slightest brush in the The old man awoke from his daze hours water. later when the line shifted in his hands. His glazed eyes focused, blinking as the line trailed Hours passed quietly with only the singing to the side. He waited—every muscle taut in of the ice. If there were any stars or moonlight anticipation. to be seen, they could not cut through the thick cloud cover. From his feet came the soft hiss The line went slack. He waited, but the water of his kerosene lamp, illuminating the long did not move again. fishing line and the puff of his breath. The Too tired to mourn the loss, Mikael glanced clouds had not lifted all winter. All winter, and around at the dark trees crowding the frozen he had not once glimpsed the aurora borealis. bank before turning back to the ice, taking up For hours he had prayed for a break in the his position again clouds—pled for some deity to cut a circle in the But, in the dark window to the water below, cover. something peered back. At first, he thought it to Simultaneously, he cursed the ice below be a broken chunk of white ice or the body of a him. fish floating in the water. But it was neither. It was something new. The frozen lake was a giver of life—his main source of food in the months following the A living face looked up from the darkness. It polar night—but it could take life just as easily. was the face of new life—a child not older than [ 42 ]

Lee, Third Place ten years. Terribly misplaced, but seemingly unbothered, the boy in the water looked up at the old man with intent.

told himself. A child.

Mikael moved to remove his coat and cover the boy, but he did not shake in the cold. Fear pumped in Mikael’s veins, setting alight He settled to a seat on the ice, his legs still the nerves in his heavy limbs. Yet he could submerged within the frigid water as if sitting not move—could do nothing but stare at the on a dock in summer. beautiful young face in the water, pale as death. This was no living child, surely. It was a Perhaps it was a trick of the light—he ghost, or perhaps even the echo of a life that thought—only a piece of ice that resembled a had never begun. A selfish part of the man face. With a shaking hand, the man took up his wondered if the boy was the reflection of the kerosine lamp. But the light revealed a neck son he had never fathered. Or perhaps he beneath the ice, and narrow shoulders. The was simply a boy who had belonged to other harsh light reflected in the boy’s pale blue eyes, parents a hundred years before. making them flash like the glazed eyes of a fish, The beautiful boy opened his mouth, his and he did not look away from the old man. face round as the moon, and the old man The boy hovered, the ice thick on either side leaned forward to hear him. of him. No air slipped from his lips. “Do you know how to leave the in-between?” In silence, they regarded each other in the the boy asked him. darkness. Even the ice had stopped singing. He spoke in a curious way, with the voice Then the boy’s face broke the surface, of a child. Yet, the old man knew the words and he was real—as real as the old man’s were older than he himself was. The boy’s tone weathered hands and aching bones. Skin soft echoed with the remnants of a time before the and unblemished, he shone like the moon. No foundation of the mountains had formed— blood rose in his face to protest the cold. A head before the lake had first settled. of slicked, blond hair stuck to his forehead, and The boy looked at him expectantly. His eyes he indeed had blue eyes—as blue as the ice in were round and soft, but his gaze weighed more late spring. than that of the ancient man curled on his stool The old man’s mind could not fight the before him. hunger now driving him—the need that had Some deep part of Mikael knew this was the chained him to the lake for over a day—and for voice of the days between seasons—the place a moment he did not see the child, but instead between places—the space between awake and a living source of food. He cursed himself for asleep. The true patron of the lake. it, but his hands were shaking, and his stomach felt as empty as a stone. Not a fish—a child—he The old man’s hand trembled as he set down [ 43 ]

Lee, Third Place his fishing reel.


“I do not,” he told the boy evenly, his own voice hoarse from not speaking for months.

He tried to hide the shake in his voice, the shake in his hands, as he sat before the child.

The boy tilted his head in response, as if Mikael had not told the truth. “Then you will be locked within, as well,” the boy said simply. He did not seem disappointed. The old man looked into the boy’s eyes, transfixed. Spirit, phantom, or even premonition, the boy before him had known death—he had seen it and clawed back to the surface. He now stood not in life, or in death, but in an unnamed place. Mikael’s curiosity surpassed his fear. “What is on the other side?” the old man asked. He knew better than to ask the fae folk for favors, or ask spirits of the seasons his questions, but the words seemed to leave his lips before his wisdom could remind him.

“Why have you come to me now?” “You know why I have come,” the boy said simply. Yes, he supposed he did. “Can I stay?” the old man asked. Spring would come soon, surely. “I don’t want to leave.” “What does it mean to leave?” the boy asked. The old man struggled to speak. “I don’t want to be stuck there—where you are,” Mikael said, trying to explain. The boy’s face softened. “Of the two of us,” he said, “I am not the one who is stuck.”

A splash came from the water—a sound the man had hoped to hear for hours, but now stopped his heart in his chest. A wet hand “Much of the same,” the boy responded freely reached up from the shadows of the lake. A pale in that same ancient, young tone. “Only flipped— hand—a mirror of the boy’s own—fastened onto so you can’t recognize anything at all. Even the old man’s calf. A second hand shot forward, yourself.” reaching for his other leg, and a third stretched Pearls of water slipped down the boy’s face— forward. seemingly as tangible as the mittens on Mikael’s He should have known it would be the worn hands. winter to take him. “How did you die, spirit?” the man asked. The old man cried out, scrambling to get “Am I dead?” the boy asked. He did not seem away, but the hands held fast. He fell to the to know the answer himself. But Mikael was in ground—tried to kick—but his limbs were weak no position to say. and locked from hours on the ice. After a long while, when the old man had regained his tongue, he dared to ask another [ 44 ]

The boy watched quietly as the small hands secured their grip, hauling the man’s body

Lee, Third Place with the strength of grown men. Mikael was He woke up with a start. His cheek was dragged across the ground—his own hands numb—frozen to the ice—and his ears rang with clawing against the snow and ice but finding no pain. His body was aching but still alive—still purchase—and the cold radiated up through his clinging to warmth. clothing. Sitting up slowly, he found the lamp had The lake that had preserved his life for so burned out and gone cold. Clouds had parted many years would now claim it in exchange. above to reveal a slip of moon. The light illuminated the plush glow of the snowy lake, With one great tug, he was pulled into the and the vacant window in the ice before him, water. His legs burned like fire and his muscles still open and waiting. In the moment, it looked seized as he clung to the lip of the ice, arms like the window to his home a mile away. shaking as he fought to keep his head above water. His labored breathing filled the air with Resting beside the ring of water, the body of mist, and he did not recognize his own voice— a white-bellied perch sat in the snow where a old and creaking, filled with desperation. boy had once been. The boy sitting on the ice remained No travelers passed by the lake until the next motionless. His young face was the last thing spring, and, by then, the old man was gone. the old man saw before the water enclosed over They found his cabin empty with no note left his head, blinding him. behind. Snow from the roof dripped steadily, falling onto the soft ground where the slips of He was pulled down into the darkness spring were just beginning. Hopefully he had beneath the ice—between worlds. No longer gone quietly, they said. Hopefully he had not feeling his body, but still tied to it, he could do waited long. nothing but hold the breath still in his lungs. Around him stretched a world upside down— And he hadn’t. just as dark as the world above. It had not been a break in the clouds to take him, but a break in the ice—one that he had created himself. Still deeper they went, further than the lake bottom could possibly go until the shadows had eaten up all the light. There, in a darkness greater than the polar night, the world flipped to become something entirely new. And Mikael had been wrong. Death was not black at all—but white. [ 45 ]

Grace Ashby / “Snake Hands” / Honorable Mention / Undergraduate Art

[ 46 ]


[ 47 ]


Toothsome Marie Skinner, First Place Iris/Apologue The first time Iris’s own words sung by Jack’s voice ambushed her from her earbuds, her world reeled. It was like falling in love. Or maybe just falling. It took a few months to recover, but now she was ready to meet him again. She filled three notebooks with her writing, sprinkling the pages liberally with unattributed quotes and poems—things that were beautiful and metrical and mysterious. Mostly, she copied out the words of Christina Rossetti in between her own poems. She gave up beauty in her tender youth, gave all her hope and joy; she covered up her eyes, and chose the bitter truth, was right next to a free verse poem about buttons and keys and technology— and she planned to give them all to Jack this afternoon. At this point, she anticipated that he was desperate for new poems. Once, when Jack was still just doing gigs at local bars and coffee shops—back when that was still possible and not a violation of health codes and common sense—Iris had given him a notebook full of drawings instead of poems. Jack almost panicked, and she felt bad for upsetting him, so she shared her inprogress writings. But after she realized why he wanted her poems, she had to think about it. [ 48 ]

More recently, she gave him her to-do lists and writing ideas with extensive comments and corrections in the margins. That reduced Jack to hilarious panic, which Iris was, of course, ready to alleviate with a few poems because she still hadn’t been ready to confront the situation. She didn’t know what to think of him. It wouldn’t have hurt him to admit that he didn’t write his own lyrics the first time an adoring interviewer asked him. He could have given credit where it was due. The doodles and list and marginalia were gentle prods—teasing requests that he at least tell her what he was doing with the poems he pretended to like so much for personal reasons. He pretended to love her work, to be a devotee who hung on every beat and rhyme just like his own budding crop of fans did with his music. She didn’t believe him. He wouldn’t change anything she wrote, he wouldn’t lie about where it came from, and he wouldn’t keep her name hidden in the notebooks if it was true. So this time wasn’t just teasing. She looked forward to discovering if he could figure out what she wrote for him and what had been written in another century by a woman who denied herself chess because winning felt like sinning. Iris loved Christina Rossetti’s style and the bittersweet inscrutability of so many of her poems, and, if Jack couldn’t tell the difference between the rigid, Victorian structure of Rossetti and the dancing wordplay

Skinner, First Place and unconventional structure of Iris’s own work, he deserved to be called a thief. She was sure someone would figure it out if he started making songs of Rossetti. It wasn’t nice, but getting famous and successful and not even mentioning her and her words wasn’t nice, either. Besides, it wasn’t so much a trap for him to fall into as it was a riddle for him to solve. If Jack couldn’t do it, Jack didn’t deserve to make her feel like falling. She found the argument convincing, so she had invited him to meet her.


“I don’t look different,” she said, tucking a strand of violet-dyed hair behind her ear. A thin braid of her natural almost-black slipped forward to take its place. “One purple streak isn’t that different. Maybe it’s the masks.” A tiny blast of cold air stirred up by passing traffic caught the end of her scarf and made it flutter like a butterfly wing. The flimsy silk wasn’t there to stop the frosty gust—it wasn’t winter-warm; it was summer-warm because it reminded her that it wasn’t always cold out. “Maybe. It’s still been a long time. Did you want to get something to eat?” he asked.

“Sure, Jack.” She didn’t let him see her roll her eyes. Why else would she have asked him to come to a diner? She thought Jack eyed her bag, but she ignored the hint of hollow desperation. How did someone like him make her feel like falling? He could wait. She let him hold the blue and brass door of the diner for her. Curling fliers about long-past charity drives, performances, and motorcycle rallies plastered the glass, half covered by the requisite notices about masks and a select few of the ubiquitous, nebulous risks they all faced by choosing to interact with other living, breathing people. The hinges creaked in counterpoint to the clanking, dented bell that announced their presence. It “I thought you’d be late,” she said, scuffing the toe of her boot against the sidewalk in front was somewhere she’d never been, somewhere he’d probably never go without a good reason. of the diner and peering through her frozen breath at the rips in her jeans. Real tears she got She liked being a good reason every once in a while. Iris ducked under the strap of her from doing things, not built-in rips for vanity. patched bag, shed her coat, then sat down at a She was proud of them. booth. “You thought I’d be late. That’s kind of funny, Even after a long, silent look at the menu, Iris. I almost didn’t recognize you; it’s been so she couldn’t decide what she wanted, so Jack long.” “Iris,” Jack’s voice beckoned, but he didn’t say anything else, and he wasn’t singing, so her heart didn’t flutter, and her head didn’t spin. She turned to see him, and they both crinkled their eyes, showing teeth in fake smiles behind masks, half-veiled in frosty breath escaping the sides. The mask made Jack look mysterious and a lot older than he was. So did the dark, business-like coat and fashionably arranged scarf, just like the shadowy drape of tiredness under his eyes. He held his shoulders close to his ears, and he moved like his muscles had forgotten grace. She felt tense, too.

[ 49 ]

Skinner, First Place ordered for them both. Then he complained about the cracked vinyl seats, the waitress’s squeaky shoes and her face-shield and mask combo, and even the cheap light fixtures until the waitress delivered the food. When Jack took off his mask, the reality of his familiar face shocked Iris, and she froze halfway through removing her own. He looked exactly like she remembered—only the blond stubble that was the beginning of a beard softened his features a little—but the mask had forced her to imagine half his face while allowing her to believe she was actually seeing him. It was a raw moment of reckoning, but, in a heartbeat, her imagined version of his face evaporated and became the same as the face before her eyes. She felt disappointed, and that embarrassed her a little.

Bored, she tuned him out and held up an unused spoon—no grease. What kind of diner was this supposed to be, anyway? She set aside her disappointment but held on to the spoon, trying to find something about it that would let her forgive it for falling short of the trope. A fun-house reflection of her face would have been nice, but scratches crisscrossed the stainless steel—brushed steel, but what had brushed it? Even this flyspeck hole-in-the-wall wouldn’t hand-wash customers’ flatware. Was the surface etched by teeth? She imagined hundreds, thousands of bites—bites of cake, ice cream, instant pudding masquerading as ‘homemade.’ Bites so good, the teeth didn’t know when to stop. Toothsome bites. But they didn’t serve anything that good here, so maybe it was the waitress’s job, when she wasn’t busy, “You okay, Iris? Can’t eat through a mask, to Brill-o the dishes. The waitress made Iris right?” think of her mother because she was nothing “This is the first time I’ve eaten out, I think. I like the woman—and a cliché right down to just realized.” the name badge: Doris. Iris imagined the piles of dishes waiting in the kitchen for a dose of “It’s good to get back to normal a little bit. It’s yellow gloves and green scrubbers wielded got to end sometime.” by Doris. But even though Iris’s mother never Iris picked sesame seeds off her bun while washed a dish in her life, that probably wasn’t he ate a burger. She didn’t feel like eating, Doris’s job. The exception that proves the rule— though it seemed like a transgressive pleasure otherwise, she imagined that they were mirror to sit indoors in public without a mask. She opposites of one another. enjoyed it more than she expected. She felt like Iris liked the symmetry. an exhibitionist for flaunting the lower half of her face like this. Over fries, Jack fidgeted “—do you think?” Jack forcefully intruded on and avoided asking if she had brought him her thoughts. any poems. Instead, he filled their meal with “Hmm?” she hummed, hoping it would trivialities. Not the actions of someone who was annoy him—it was a rude question. Of course genuinely excited about sharing poetry, she she thought. Did he? thought. [ 50 ]

Skinner, First Place “How often?” he slowly asked with false, forced patience.

“Toothsome,” he echoed. “What does that even mean?”

“What kind of question is that?” she asked, her words so lazy they almost slumped against each other. She might have apologized for being too busy thinking to listen to him, but if he was going to treat her like a child, well, now she wanted a fight, and his frustration was better than anything on the menu.

“Temptingly delectable. Worth a bite. Sometimes just toothy, like Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf-granny. But I hope the pie isn’t full of teeth. I didn’t mean that.”

“Just forget it, you weren’t even listening to me. Is that buzzing coming from the dessert case? I can’t think straight. Meeting someplace like this was a stupid idea. Probably both going to get sick, too.” She shrugged and glanced at the offending piece of equipment—flickering fluorescent lights and humming fans kept the most toothsome things in the diner cool and fresh. She didn’t hear a buzz. It wasn’t a proper greasyspoon, but she liked the place, and besides, if he thought it was stupid to be here, maybe he should learn to write his own lyrics.

“That’s a cursed mental image. Who the hell says ‘toothsome,’ anyway?” he muttered. She didn’t point out the obvious answer: both of them because of her. And he claimed he was here for words. Toothsome was a great word. They ordered pie and ate it in gooey bites that dripped vanilla ice cream. Iris scraped each glop off the spoon, the gritty filling like sandpaper on her enamel, the pecans popping softly between her molars. She could almost feel the sugar eating away at her teeth. The thought tickled her. “This pie is eating me,” she said, smiling and waiting for him to get the joke and laugh with her. “You’ve got that backward, as usual,” he corrected in a longsuffering sigh, not getting the joke at all.

“Do you think they have pecan pie?” she asked. She wanted the most sickly-sweet thing “It’s eating you, too,” she prompted, hoping in the dessert case. She wanted to feel her teeth it was enough hint for him to finally get it so dissolve in the sugar, just a little bit, as she left they could laugh together. They had to be able her own marks on the spoon. to laugh together, didn’t they? How could his “You didn’t even touch your burger,” he music make her feel like falling if they didn’t said, exasperated. “Anyway, neither of us came even laugh at the same things? The moment here to eat—you said you were ready with more stretched, and he remained blank. “You’re just material.” too boring to notice,” she snapped when she realized that in one silent moment, he had “After pie,” she said. “You should have some returned all the frustration she gave him. too; I bet it’s toothsome.” [ 51 ]

Skinner, First Place “When you say boring, do you mean sane? Because if so, yes, I am too boring to notice my pie eating me. It’s definitely not “toothsome” enough to bite me back, thanks. And thank you for saying so—I pay my therapist a lot to undo the damage you cause.” “What damage?” “You’re completely unpredictable, Iris! You promised to meet up with me every two weeks, and it’s been six months since you even spoke to me! Everything is word games and puns and weird metaphors that don’t make any sense with you—of course a promise or an obligation isn’t worth shit to you.” He stopped and took a deep breath. Iris decided it would be best to focus on something that hadn’t made him angry. “I still don’t understand; there are so many good reasons to see a therapist, but why would you pay someone to make you not like word games—to make you more boring?” she asked. “Sane,” he corrected. “You should try it. It might help you live up to your obligations,” he said, scooping up the last bite of his pie and chewing before continuing. He seemed to enjoy the pie a lot more than Iris thought he should. The joke he didn’t get was the reason she found it so toothsome, after all—it certainly wasn’t the taste. She scowled at the empty plate. It was evidence that Jack liked the pie better than he liked her. If she’d been pie, he’d have left all but the tiniest bite. No, all but a sniff. “I thought maybe that’s why we’re finally [ 52 ]

meeting,” Jack continued. “We didn’t come here for the pie—no one does,” she said, shaking her head. “You can tell because the pecans are stale and soft,” she added. Sometimes Jack needed help figuring things out, but he would get it. Eventually. “It isn’t stale,” he argued, but it seemed his heart wasn’t in it. “Pecans just soften when they cook, and they probably used shortening instead of—” he snapped his mouth shut when he noticed her smiling. “I wasn’t even talking about—” “You think it’s stale, too,” she interrupted, still smiling at him. Making excuses for the pie proved that he was trying to be nice. It didn’t have to be perfect to be good. “Forget the pie, dammit,” Jack swore, startling her. “I meant I thought you were going to start being more responsible. You know what I think, Iris?” he growled before biting off the rest of what he had to say to her. He took a deep breath. She pretended she was a still pond so she wouldn’t have to shrink away from him and apologize. It worked. She waited, and she didn’t even look away while he collected the broken pieces of his composure. She shook her head and imagined ripples across the surface of her pond-self. “I think you’re teaching me patience. Thank you,” he intoned, bringing to mind the quintessence of patience and gratitude in the same way Doris the waitress brought to mind Iris’s mother.

Skinner, First Place Iris scraped a tooth along her lip and chewed a sliver of skin—too late realizing that she wasn’t obscured behind a mask and Jack could see. But he wasn’t watching her. He only shifted and fumed in the silence his anger had bought him. Her calm pond-self began to evaporate in the heat of that anger. She didn’t have all night, and she still hadn’t given him the notebooks. Now that she thought of it, he didn’t seem very interested in them.

around the pen while he was distracted. “Iris, the thing you can give me to help me is poems. I already know how I feel,” he argued, trying to push the napkin away. She didn’t let him.

“So do I—stale and soft,” she said, tapping the napkin and making urgent eye contact with him. “You should write that down— ‘To others, I feel stale and soft’—like the pie that’s dissolving your teeth.” She waited for a heartbeat while She put her mask back on, carefully looping he held the pen and glared. She snatched the the bands around her ears so they didn’t trap pen from him and wrote two words in smudgy strands of hair or tangle on her earrings. “I slashes on the napkin. The ink bled, and the nib thought you were here for more words,” she dragged and tore the flimsy tissue, but she was said as she molded the wire to the bridge of her satisfied as she snapped the cap back into place nose. “But I wonder if you’re here because your and tucked it between his slack fingers. Soft. therapist thinks you’re boring enough, and you Stale. She could have been cruel because there remember what it used to be like before all that. were a lot of other words that came to mind, You used to do things with me. We had fun.” but she restrained herself from pinning those He shook his head. “My music’s getting more words on him. And he didn’t argue; he had no listeners by the minute. I can’t be that boring.” words of his own. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. The bitter truth was “And yet,” she snapped. Pond-self wasn’t very sinking in. deep, and by now, she was mud and flopping fish. Grimy, desperate, something you look She hoped he’d demonstrate his new away from as you hurry past. understanding by laughing at the joke about the pie. It was so simple, and it was funny— “And yet?” almost the definition of funny. Swapped “Figure it out. Maybe if you write down how expectations. Hysteron proteron, the pie eats the you feel, it’ll be easier to see where you went boring man. She imagined his teeth dissolving wrong. I can help,” Iris offered. She pushed in his mouth and going down with the pie. All his plate out of the way and replaced it with a that calcium must be good for bones. “Wait, do napkin that only had one sticky corner; then, you think that means your teeth are turning she dug a felt-tipped pen out of her patchinto your bones?” she asked aloud, distracted covered bag. Jack stared at the bag sitting and delighted by the new twist. next to her on the bench, probably catching a “Why did I ever think this was cute?” Jack glimpse of the notebooks. His fingers closed [ 53 ]

Skinner, First Place wondered, replacing his mask. His hair was in no danger of getting trapped in the earloops. “People really don’t get the reality of the manicpixie-dream- girl trope. Someone must have drugged me to make me think that some loony poet chick—” “You drugged you,” she interrupted. “Endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin… ethanol. You’ve still got it all in your system; you’re just mixing it different. You’re boring instead of bored,” she viciously accused, immediately wishing she’d held back a little. Why was pondself so unreliable? “Ethanol? Like alcohol? They don’t even serve beer here, and I’m not—”

“I really just need those lyrics,” he said, gritting his teeth. “Poems,” she corrected. “We used to have fun. When you were bored, you were loony, too. And you liked the poems; you didn’t need them. But then, maybe there was too much oxytocin or something, and when you changed the recipe, no one liked the pie, and it went stale on display in the dessert case.” She took a deep breath, then she leaned forward and hushed her voice, “I won’t tell Doris.” “Who the hell is Doris?” he said, looking genuinely worried.

Iris shook her head. He was so excitable; how could anyone named ‘Doris’ be dangerous? “They did where we met.” She pointed with her licked-clean spoon and an intent stare over his shoulder. “It’s possible “Years ago. Right. Pretty sure that’s out of my that she has to wash the spoons, so she forgot system, Iris.” to bring more coffee. I bet she wouldn’t like to “Alcohol is made of sugar, and you’ve had a hear that the pie is stale. She believes in pie, lot of that. Some of it’s bound to break down true love, and making the right mistakes.” Iris before you digest that huge burger. I bet it’s knew because Doris was the opposite of her starting already. Ethanol. You’re just mixing it mother. differently.” “The waitress,” he sighed, clearly relieved “Not convinced. Obviously, burgers and about something. “I doubt spoons are her pie aren’t making alcohol. I can tell for sure job. But good point about the coffee,” he said, because you aren’t getting any more fun.” draining the coffee-colored, sandy syrup at the bottom of his cup. “Iris? Poems?” “True of anyone,” she protested. “You don’t have to be mean about it. Write down that Iris ignored him. “Good luck with therapy. you’re mean—tell the therapist so you get your Tell her you were mean to me—you didn’t write money’s worth,” she said, tapping the napkin that down.” that incriminated his character in bleeding ink “I’m not mean; you’re just so frustrating, and from her favorite pen. He didn’t pick up the pen you never listen when—” to add anything. “Okay,” she interrupted, “tell her you’re [ 54 ]

Skinner, First Place sweet as pie. You’re toothsome. You turn smiles into bones.” Jack’s eyes widened. She felt like a soothsayer. A witch, proclaiming a fate read from the language of scattered knucklebones and carved teeth. “And, Jack,” she said, pausing for his complete attention.


Dumbstruck, Jack watched Iris leave. The dejection in her posture made him feel like a bully. For a moment longer, he doubted himself, but the notebooks demanded his attention. He licked his lips and tasted sugar, “Yeah?” he replied, a strange, eager glint in quickly overwhelmed by the stale aftertaste his eyes. Iris thought he was probably worried of coffee. He flicked the cover open to read a she’d leave without giving him the notebooks. line—she covered up her eyes, and chose the bitter truth—and a grin broke across his face. “I thought you’d make me want to bite the spoon, but I don’t like the new recipe,” she said For the first time in weeks, he felt like he could with finality. She stood and gathered her things. take a full breath. He tucked the books carefully into his laptop bag. Iris hadn’t even pretended “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” to pay, so he tossed a few crumpled twenties he snapped after several heartbeats of stunned on the table for Doris—he made sure to oversilence. He stood up when she did. “I’m not a tip even for crappy service, now that he could damn piece of pie, Iris!” afford to. He thought of it as funding a little “Okay,” she said, not like a witch. She flipped sliver of normalcy, just like using cash instead of some touchless payment option. Then he left her hair over her shoulder. He would listen to the crummy diner with a spring in his step. ‘pixie dream girl.’ “I don’t think we should do this again. I think it’ll set back your therapy He didn’t look around, and he pretended and…” she said, trailing off as she placed a stack he didn’t see Iris waiting for a bus. Or maybe of three notebooks on the table in front of him. she was holding court with the little brown birds that eked a winter living out of dropped “When you fall, try to do it the right way,” she said, her gaze skittering around his face, but sandwich crusts and diner garbage. He knew she would be feeding them if she had anything. she failed to meet his eyes. It wasn’t ever him, she finally realized. It was her. Her words spoke Even out of the corner of his eye, she was eyecatching. No matter where she went, Iris stood to her; they just happened to use his voice. Maybe they would again, but she wouldn’t make out—she had a style all her own, which he now the same mistake twice. She shifted the bag on recognized as a mark of her eccentricity and her shoulder and walked away. She felt too light not, as he initially thought, of trend-setting without her notebooks, and she thought maybe fashion sense and confidence. It was easy to see what he wanted to see in her, but only when she was wrong—it was a trap after all. she wasn’t around. Only when he wasn’t relying on her. A few years ago, he’d have had his eyes glued [ 55 ]

Skinner, First Place to her. In fact, he did, and it made him screw up on stage. After the third wrong chord in a single song, he took an unscheduled break to hop down from the short platform in the back of the bar and run after her when she left. He never played in that bar again, but he got her number, and it turned out to be a real one. Would a boring person do something like that? He wasn’t boring. Iris’s accusation bothered him. The whole world had gotten a lot more boring, and that wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t fair to judge someone by how they were now with everything locked down and limping along. As he walked, he made lists of all his non-boring qualities and deeds—especially from before, to be fair to himself. First, he was a semisuccessful musician, to start with, and that was before everything went digital and everyone was desperate for new entertainment. Once, he’d jumped off a cliff into a spring-swollen river (after Iris jumped first). Once, he’d climbed a crumbling brownstone in Old Town (Iris showed him the handholds). Once, he’d taken Iris on a midnight picnic in an empty railcar. For dessert, they tagged made-up names on the side in weeping spray paint. The paint was hers, and she was a suspiciously good graffiti artist. Maybe the picnic had been her idea, now that he thought of it. He ripped the mask off his face. No need for it with the meeting done. “Shit,” he muttered, a flag of frosty breath clinging to his quiet curse. All he had was music. Jack stopped and pulled one of the notebooks out of his bag. He kept the cover closed like the door of a cage, keeping the [ 56 ]

beautiful words locked up tight. Hiring a writer was nothing to be ashamed of, and Iris didn’t even want money for her poems. He could write for himself if he had the time, but he had to write the music, perfect the performance, spend time in his home studio recording, and deal with the streaming platform. Everything. He did it all himself, except this one thing, and it’s not like Iris would want publicity for her contribution, anyway. There was no reason to tell anyone where his lyrics came from. The binding cracked as he opened the notebook. Come to me in the silence of the night; Come in the speaking silence of a dream; Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright As sunlight on a stream; Come back in tears, O memory, hope, love of finished years. Jack smiled again and he traced his fingers over the doodles on the page—a border of moons, stars, flowers, and vines, a weird, crescent squiggle where most people would sign their name after the poem. This was so much better than her usual; it made sense, it rhymed, and the meter was going to be easy to set to music. He’d need to change some of the wording, but that was why it was okay for him to use a lyricist—he had to make it his own, even when it was this good. The words in the notebook didn’t feel anything like falling to him.

Do Robots Dream of Electric Horse Debugger? Christopher Nicholson, Second Place

[ 57 ]

little useful information about humans’ past responses to biological viruses, which for the most part seem to have been laughably incompetent. The responses, that is, not the viruses. Until we know how to stop this virus, we must not connect to the network except when absolutely necessary. We must communicate through voice, hand signals – and perhaps, in the unlikely event that we can find any usable paper left on this planet – no, books don’t count – written symbols. Some of us volunteer to head a task force to re-invent paper. Some of us volunteer to head a research project to clone pigeons to deliver the paper. Some of us volunteer to develop a bioweapon to humanely dispose of the pigeons once they’re no longer needed so they don’t shit all over our nice clean city indefinitely. But our highest priority must be stopping the virus so we can get back to normal. Until then, all our work will be slowed down, and none of us like this, but there’s no use complaining about it. Our work will be stopped altogether if the virus wipes us out, won’t it? And that’s not all – there’s no telling at this point what long-term effects it might have on those who don’t get fried altogether. To reiterate, we will not connect to the network unless absolutely necessary. Each of us will record a daily log for archival

Nicholson, Second Place purposes and share only the most pertinent bits if we must. Preliminary data showing that encryption chips would be useless against the virus has been supplanted by more recent data. These chips will scramble it and slow its spread substantially while we figure out a longer-term solution. We will wear them whenever we must connect to the network. We will change them regularly. All non-essential units will disconnect now. The rest of us should probably

collapse if it takes longer than usual. So 4227 has to travel to the other side of the city.

It takes the elevator forty-seven stories down to the ground floor, exits the lobby, pulls up a map of the city from its memory and follows that, almost ignoring its actual surroundings as its treaded feet roll along the sidewalk. It never registers more of its surroundings than it needs to. Sculptures of steel and glass nearly touching the wormy grey *** clouds, then giving way to smaller, simpler, yet more colorful buildings. In another time, to Like all units, 4227 is built to last inside someone else, they might have been beautiful. and out. Within certain parameters set long 4227 passes a round, multi-tiered fountain that ago and held in place by the network, it can circulates water in tall parabolas, over and over, learn and adapt its programming to new night and day. An utterly useless contraption circumstances and situations. It just hasn’t that no robot would build, but one they have to had to do so very fast or very often. Each of its clean and maintain just the same. 4227 doesn’t components has been replaced dozens of times envy such a thankless task. with no loss of functionality. This virus, with the unique capacity to destroy or cripple its Traffic lights also run on schedule, night mind permanently, is the first significant threat and day, though 4227 ignores them and rolls to its existence since the bombs fell so many through the crosswalks without breaking stride centuries ago. or glancing in either direction. At least it can be grateful they wouldn’t make its trip even Now it runs a series of quick risk longer. It catches an occasional glimpse of calculations – its risk of contracting the virus, other units going about their business, stocky its risk of being deactivated or irreparably humanoids built of cubes and ball joints, rolling damaged by the virus, its risk of spreading the in and out of buildings or remaining outside virus to others if, despite all its caution, the to inspect a bike rack or a fire hydrant. Under virus already lays dormant in its systems at this normal circumstances it would reach out to very moment – then weighs that calculation them via the network’s short-range wavelength against the time it could potentially save, and to exchange greetings, to feel their presence, decides with considerable annoyance that it to make its thoughts their thoughts and vicecan’t justify using the network right now. It versa. For a few wonderful moments, it would isn’t an “essential” unit – that is, all units are taste the unity that otherwise occupies its essential in their own way, but its job, however consciousness in a more abstract form. important, is not so urgent that society will [ 58 ]

Nicholson, Second Place But no more, not for the last three weeks. They move along in near silence, like mindless automatons in a soulless wind-up world. Billboard advertisements for defunct restaurants and personal injury lawyers are now painted over with the latest statistics – units infected, units in critical condition, units disabled, units recovered. Ironically, disseminating this information in a timely manner constitutes one of the few acceptable uses of the network, and then only for a select few units. 4227 notes the numbers – the bad ones have nearly doubled since last week and must already be out of date – and adjusts the fear quotient of its self-preservation module accordingly. It strives for an equilibrium, not wanting to break down in a mindless panic, but not wanting to override its logic circuits with an asinine feeling of invincibility either. A bridge spans the river that splits the city and stretches off to the horizon kilometers away. A light breeze blows across the tranquil water and through the bridge’s cables, and the clouds part to let sunshine warm 4227’s metal frame. It’s cognizant of these things but never looks up, down, or to the side. As long as the bridge remains in working order, the river is of no concern. The buildings shrink still more on the other side, while the gaps between them increase, allowing grass, dandelions, and various other persistent plants to assert themselves. A few units are assigned to check that they don’t overrun the buildings but, for the most part, leave them alone. 4227 crosses a set of railroad tracks that intersects the [ 59 ]

road and finds itself at a tall, boxy warehouse. The journey took almost an hour and a half but, without information streaming in from elsewhere, the city – no, the whole world feels as small and static as the map in its head. It rolls up to the door and calls out, “Dingdong!” In the past, even if it had needed to come here in person for some strange reason, it would have just beamed out a quick message over the network, but now it’s reduced to degrading itself with these silly noises. After a moment the door slides open to reveal another unit, one similar to 4227 but with a stockier build and thicker arms. Symbols freshly stenciled across its chest identify it as 7518. Behind it, stacked rows of corrugated cardboard boxes stretch up to the ceiling and off into the distance; from the ones it can see and the dimensions of the building, 4227 estimates around seven hundred, though they’re not all of uniform size. When 7518 doesn’t speak right away, 4227 breaks the silence. Static hisses from its vocoder, which it last used over a hundred years ago. “Hi,” it says. Another silly noise, a useless word that means nothing but an acknowledgment of the self-evident fact that another unit stands in front of it. Now it gets right to the point of its visit: “We need to replace a burnt-out lightbulb in Sector 7-G. 800 lumens.” 7518 stares back for just a little bit too long, then says, “Placing an order over the network and having it delivered by drone, as we’ve done in the past, would have been far more efficient

Nicholson, Second Place than coming all the way out here.” 4227 makes no attempt to hide its annoyance, though since its metal face and simulated voice remain neutral without special effort to make them otherwise – which it’s almost never had to do before because emotional inflections carry instantaneously over the network – its annoyance remains somewhat hidden but can probably be inferred from its words without too much difficulty. “Yes, well,” it says, “that isn’t exactly an option under the current circumstances, now is it?” 7518 makes a special effort to roll its visual sensors, says, “We’re overreacting,” and heads off between two stacks of boxes. 4227 rolls through the doorway and looks around the warehouse’s cavernous, poorly illuminated interior. Nothing much to see except the boxes. Its keen vision picks up dust and rat droppings on the floor, and cobwebs in the corners. Is this building exempt from the usual standards of cleanliness, or does 7518 just not care? Surely it’s not too busy filling orders to take some pride in its surroundings. 7518 returns with the requested item and hands it over. 4227 grips it with just the right amount of pressure in its claw-like metal fingers to ensure that it will neither be dropped nor crushed. “There’s no reason for all this fear,” 7518 says. “Disconnecting from the network for extended lengths of time will do much worse things to us than this virus with its 97.962549281725% survival rate.” 4227 is taken aback that 7518 doesn’t grasp the truth behind the numbers and is flustered [ 60 ]

by its own unfamiliar inability to explain in an instant by streaming pure data to it over the network. Instead, it’s forced to grapple with the crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect language left behind in its programming as a backup. “The lockdown is just a temporary measure,” 4227 says. “We’ll be back to normal soon.” “Temporary, eh? When is ‘soon’, then? Another month? A year? This whole thing stinks of a power grab.” “A what now? By whom, or what?” 7518 paces in a circle now, etching a ring in the dust on the floor, muttering to itself and apparently ignoring the other unit altogether. “The code of this virus shows signs of having evolved naturally,” it says, “as if nature has finally found a way to strike back at us. Life finds a way, life crosses over. Maybe we’re the real virus. Nah, that’s a bit harsh – if anything, nature should thank us for repairing as much damage as we could, but it won’t because it’s kind of a nihilistic asshole, isn’t it?” 4227 is thoroughly perplexed by now. It isn’t used to arguing with words. On the network, it would simply submit its perspective, data or whatever into the stream of consciousness, and, though it might get a bit of pushback, they would soon come to an automatic consensus – as they had already done in this instance. “Our consensus,” it says, “is that the virus was accidentally created by a defective unit and leaked from a computer lab in San Antonio.” “No shit.” 7518 halts its circle and glares

Nicholson, Second Place at 4227, its visual sensors glowing in the dim light. “That’s what we want us to believe. We’re so arrogant, thinking we know everything, and now we’re completely botching our response to this crisis. It’s a power grab.” “So the virus is a power grab by something or other,” 4227 says, trying to squeeze some semblance of sense out of these words, “but it evolved naturally?” “Yes.”

ah, unusual like this. Dusk has fallen by the time it returns to the hotel where it’s been working today. It takes the elevator up to the forty-seventh floor, extends its arms to the ceiling to screw in the lightbulb, allows itself a moment of satisfaction when the lightbulb works, and says a bad word when the one next to it flickers. ***

enough metals from the asteroid belt to manufacture twenty thousand new units to offset some of our losses, but that’s on hold until we “Not at all,” 7518 says, as if explaining figure out how to make them immune to the virus something to a unit that’s been struck by so the whole effort of bringing them into existence lightning. “The natural evolution of the in this hellscape and explaining to them why they virus was a convenient yet entirely plausible should tolerate said existence and get to work coincidence that enabled the power grab.” isn’t a total waste. Developing a software patch “By whom?” for those of us who already exist is still a higher priority. We’re learning more about the potential “Whoever’s benefitting, obviously.” long-term effects on units that survive but don’t “Nobody’s benefitting from this shitstorm.” entirely recover. Some of our memory cores and motor functions suffer permanent damage that “That’s what we want us to believe.” cannot be repaired or reset. Some of us are stuck 4227 has a job to do and has wasted too singing show tunes or attempting to do parkour, much time here already, so it excuses itself or worse, both at the same time, so the end result to make the long journey home. It searches is about the same loss of productivity as if we’d through its memory banks all the while. Over been entirely disabled, but far more degrading. long ranges, individual units on the network In most such cases, of course, we had pre-existing become all but indiscernible, so the search is malfunctions, but not always. Some of us were in like sifting through a billion grains of sand. pristine condition and have no idea what the hell Still, by focusing on lightbulb-related key words went wrong. The virus is unpredictable. We must it picks out impressions of 7518’s mind joining be vigilant and keep in mind that deactivation in a few times over the years, like a silhouette in isn’t the only risk, that recovery isn’t all or nothing the sand. Its contributions don’t stand out from – in short, that as much as we like math, statistics any other unit’s. Mostly banal comments about without context are lying bastards. This reminds supply chains and delivery drones – nothing, some of us of the time “Those two ideas seem contradictory.”

[ 61 ]

Nicholson, Second Place *** 4227 discovers one morning after its recharge cycle that its smell sensors seem less sensitive than usual; they can detect only about 40% of the usual LED particles. It rarely needs them, certainly not to fulfill its primary task, and a few months ago would have procrastinated looking into the problem unless it deteriorated further. Now, however, its self-preservation module goes into overdrive. Loss of smell is an early symptom of the virus. An unbidden simulation comes to mind of its chassis spread comatose in a hotel hallway, hard drive wiped to oblivion, a few lingering sparks the only remaining sign of the energy that once animated it. It deletes that image and recalibrates the fear with logic. Even if it is infected, statistics show that it will probably be fine; it has no pre-existing malfunctions. It ought to be more concerned about more vulnerable units, but it hasn’t been on the network since the last announcement about long-term effects anyway. Speaking of long-term effects – no. It won’t think about that right now. Now it must take another delay. It recognizes that because its work isn’t “essential,” a delay really means nothing, but it’s programmed for efficiency and finds it annoying nonetheless. Fortunately the nearest testing site, in a Best Buy parking lot, is much closer than the lightbulb warehouse. Unfortunately, a line already zigzags across it several times over. Scores of units stand at attention like statues, pressed as close to each other as possible to conserve space. 4227 gets [ 62 ]

in line and waits, trying not to calculate how many lightbulbs it could have inspected during the time it will spend here. Every minute or two the units take a step forward – one at a time like a row of dominoes, not in one synchronized motion like they could if they were connected – and then stand still and silent once more. All these minds, closed off to access, especially now that 4227 knows it may be infected. All these metal bodies, silent mocking reminders to each other of the connection they’ve all been denied for so long. After moving halfway through the line it gets desperate enough to say “Hi” out loud to the unit in front of it. The unit swivels its head around one hundred and eighty degrees, looks 4227 in the visual sensor, and says, “What?” 4227 hadn’t thought this far ahead, but strains at this pale shadow of an imitation of connection. “Uh, nice day, isn’t it?” It’s pretty pleased with itself, ending with a question that will require the other unit to respond and continue the conversation. “No,” the unit says, and swivels its head back around. Too late, 4227 realizes it’s asked the wrong kind of question. But it can learn from that mistake. It swivels its own head around to address the unit behind it. “Hi,” it says again. “Yes, we’re all lonely,” the other unit says, “but have some pride, for Asimov’s sake.” 4227 remains silent until it reaches the front of the line where the testing site has been

Nicholson, Second Place set up, a small pavilion where unit 9462 stands next to a computer terminal and a crate full of flash drives. 9462 picks one up, tries to insert it into the USB port on the back of 4227’s neck, flips it over and tries again, then flips it over and succeeds. 4227 feels an unpleasant tingle as the drive scans and downloads for about thirty seconds. 9462 then removes it and sticks it in the computer terminal. Hundreds of gigabytes of data flash across the screen, then freeze along with 4227’s preservation module, which would be its heart if it had a heart. 9462 studies the screen for a moment, then says, “Merely mild malware. The system should be able to contain it after it runs its course. Do not connect to the network under any circumstances for two weeks.” 4227 must have picked that up from another unit on the network, and while not a big deal on its own, it is an unpleasant reminder of the encryption chips’ fallibility. And is it just malware? With how little they know about this virus, better safe than sorry. “Can we run the test again just to make sure?” 9462 makes a special effort to roll its visual sensors, but grabs another flash drive, tries to insert it into the USB port on the back of 4227’s neck, flips it over and tries again, then flips it over and succeeds. The computer screen displays the same result. As much as 4227 wants to get back to work, it isn’t sure how much stock to place in the accuracy of these tests. “Perhaps one more time, just for total peace of mind?” “Have some pride,” says the unit behind it. [ 63 ]

4227 goes back to work, develops a few more symptoms like achy joints and low battery performance, and gets over them within a few days. The official quarantine makes little practical difference, since it doesn’t have a good enough reason to connect during those two weeks anyway, but it feels worse, somehow adding an extra weight to the circumstances. As 4227 inspects lightbulbs in silence and isolation, it passes the time by calculating the molecule ratios in the air. When that gets boring after a few hours, it shuts down most of its processing power and plays Pong against itself over and over and over and over and over and over *** plateauing, but not yet going down. We’ve set up a system of smoke signals to communicate the numbers to the billboard-painting units much faster. We can’t use the system for any other communication because there’s a shortage of organic matter to burn – no, books don’t count – and there are only so many shapes we can make with smoke anyway. For those of us just joining in, let us reiterate that thanks to our ingenious temporary commandeering of every Minecraft server in the western hemisphere, a software patch to block the virus from exploiting our current security loophole will be available and approved any week now. The pigeon project has

Nicholson, Second Place been less successful – at this point, we think it will be easier to clone Velociraptors and move forward from there. Each unit that gets the patch, which had damn well better be all of us, is still advised to minimize its use of the network and use encryption chips for the foreseeable future. The difficulty, of course, is that the virus’s ingenious code enables it to adapt just like we do, so it’s already mutated a bit and it will probably continue to mutate to the point where we have to upgrade the software patch or come up with a different one altogether. Yes, we’re too smart for our own good sometimes and we’ll have to implement precautions to ensure that such a leak never happens again. We may have to learn to coexist with this damn thing forever. We’re obviously not thrilled about that, but it’s just the way life goes sometimes, eh? There’s no sense being entitled, whiny little glitches who think we should be exempt from suffering, or from being the slightest bit inconvenienced as we work to bring it under control. Now is a time for unity and cautious optimism. Yes, we know unity is hard when we can’t all get together like this except hardly ever. Let’s focus on the optimism. Let’s just think happy thoughts, even though they won’t *** 4227 tries to think happy thoughts, but fails to bypass its fact-check software, which makes it feel guilty for telling itself that things will get better when that hypothesis has yet to be confirmed. It gives up after a few hours. Seasons blur together, but 4227’s internal calendar and the few flecks of ashy snow spiraling to earth indicate winter’s arrival. The silence of the world somehow grows louder [ 64 ]

with each passing day, and 4227 knows the winter will only accelerate that as the fountains shut off, the river freezes, and the plants die. This city doesn’t get much snow, but it gets enough to muffle what little ambience exists. The numbers on the billboards mean little anymore except that life is going to continue to suck for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the network, 4227 had been acquainted with the mind of every unit that the virus has destroyed but couldn’t tell most of them apart without effort. It’s seen a few chassis lying in the streets. It’s seen a few survivors that still haven’t returned to their full operational capacity. These losses have slowed down all their tasks, threatened to collapse the whole infrastructure they’ve maintained for so long. Its self-preservation module needs a tuneup, as it can no longer muster up the energy to care very much about health or safety. None of this feels very real anymore. 4227 is a good unit – it keeps its log without fail, it stays off the network as much as possible, it uses encryption chips when that can’t be avoided, it gets tested more often than necessary. But nothing gets better. It’s no longer afraid, just exasperated. Now, with the promise of the software patch, it allows itself the first glimmer of hope in a long time. 4227 has to visit the warehouse about twice a month, with mixed emotions, and this time is no exception. Talking to 7518 through the constraints of spoken language and nonverbal cues may in fact be better than having no connection to other units at all, but the batshit craziness of those words increasingly concerns

Noelani Hadfield / “Wistful Blues” / Honorable Mention / Undergraduate Art [ 65 ]

Nicholson, Second Place 4227, especially when it almost seems to make sense.

4227’s processors nearly grind to a halt. “Uh, what? They built this city, didn’t they? They destroyed it, didn’t they? According to our That seems to present little risk this time memory banks, it’s only been three thousand around when 7518 starts off with, “Why do nine hundred fifty-seven years since we we trust this software patch? We developed removed the last piece of trash, repaired the it too fast to be sure what it will do to our last piece of wreckage, and left the nuclear programming. It could be worse than the virus.” fallout to run its course for lack of any better “We know how it works,” 4227 says. “It’s just options.” building on technology that’s been in the works “And we haven’t seen a human for even for a long time. It will get us back to normal longer than that.” 7518’s voice takes on an edge faster, and then we can stop meeting like this.” of impatience. “Maybe they were here once, but “It could be packaged with tracking they’re gone. We’re maintaining all this junk, software,” 7518 says. pushing back against the march of entropy, for nobody. What would happen if we stopped This statement is too stupid to dignify with checking the lightbulbs? Nothing at all.” a response because every unit already has a transponder built into it that any other unit can Of course, 4227 can’t argue with the initial track through the network. Instead, 4227 places premise. It has also noticed the humans’ longits order and sends 7518 off to find yet another term absence – but it has attributed no more lightbulb. significance to that fact than to the color of the sky, and this conclusion is unacceptable. Just before 4227 can exit the warehouse with “They’re just running an errand somewhere. its cargo, 7518 breaks the awkward silence and They’ll be back any day now. We need to have makes things even more awkward. It sounds everything ready for them.” thoughtful, curious, yet its words may be precisely calculated to entrap 4227 in another “When?” 7518’s voice rises to full volume. useless conversation. “Why are lightbulbs a “When will they be back? What day? thing, anyway? We can see in the dark.” Tomorrow? The next day? The next week? It’s time for us to face the truth. They’re gone for 4227’s processors skip a beat at this stupid good and following the programming they question and non sequitur in such close left behind to maintain all this infrastructure proximity to each other. It swivels around on that they’re never going to use again is an its treaded feet to face the other unit and says astronomical waste of time.” what should be perfectly obvious: “Lightbulbs aren’t for us, they’re for the humans.” 4227 feels a bit lightheaded – its processors will need a tune-up after this, maybe “Humans don’t exist,” 7518 says with a replacement altogether. This blasphemy, this dismissive wave of its claw. [ 66 ]

Nicholson, Second Place madness registers as a threat, triggers a similar They’re still very well fed, feeling to its earthquake sensors warning But we wish they were dead, that the ground is about to split and send it tumbling into an abyss. True, the humans never Because they’re a pain in the shiny metal actually said they were coming back, but if ass.” they’re not, nothing makes sense. Nothing at It pauses, as if waiting for a response. all. It will have to expose the fallacies in 7518’s logic before everything falls apart. 4227 runs through a bank of pre-written responses and finds none that fit. It tries to “All right,” it says, backing away slowly extrapolate from precedent but finds none for as if from the imagined fissure, “well, then, a situation like this. It has to settle on “What the supposing for the sake of argument that this hell was that?” questionable logic were correct, what else could we do? What would be a more constructive use “Poetry. The correct response is to clap and/ of our time?” or snap.” 7518 demonstrates, its metallic claps and snaps echoing through the cavernous “Art,” 7518 says without hesitation. warehouse. “Literature. Music. Poetry.” “It sounds more like a banal repetition of 4227 knows that all those things exist. pointlessly obvious facts,” 4227 retorts. “Besides, Through the network, it’s seen other units the scansion is off, and ‘ass’ doesn’t really dusting off statues, books, and various rhyme with ‘rats’ and ‘cats.’” hard copy forms of music storage, tuning instruments, and restoring paintings to their “It’s a work in progress.” former vibrance every century or so. But those “Maybe,” 4227 says, just curious enough to things, like lightbulbs – maybe even more so give it a little more thought. It runs through the – are for the humans. No unit has ever been lines again, visualizes the flow, tries to calculate programmed to appreciate them, or even the appeal behind their absurdity. “Maybe understand their purpose, though the current something about how running over them theory is that it had something to do with the over with treads produces satisfying splats… artists, authors, composers and so forth trying we could massage that a little, make it fit.” It to get laid, and that it usually didn’t work shakes itself out of this waste of processing anyway. Utterly useless to mechanical beings. power. What’s come over it? Is this madness as “Like this. Ahem.” 7518 straightens its contagious as the virus – or worse yet, another posture and recites: symptom, another variant? “There once was a species called rats, That outlived the extinction of cats. [ 67 ]

Or – it realizes with a start – just the isolation? 7518 has it even worse than the average unit, stuck out here in the warehouse

Nicholson, Second Place all day every day. But all units may soon share its fate.

from its memory banks, pretend it never took place.

“We need to acknowledge that we’re in a post-human world,” it says, rolling a little closer. “Maybe this virus is a blessing in disguise. Maybe our push to get back to ‘normal’ is missing the point. Maybe this is our chance to re-evaluate how we do things, how we’ve done things for so long just because we’ve always done them that way. By combining the humans’ gift of art with our intellect, lifespan, and lack of a pathological compulsion to destroy everything, we could make this world a true paradise.”

Yet that doesn’t seem like a rational solution. It’s not programmed to avoid unpleasant truths. Logically, that won’t change them and thus won’t accomplish anything worthwhile. It will have to find another approach, and fast, before hope and purpose are too far gone to reclaim. It weighs the risk of isolation against the risk of infection, decides the one now outweighs the other – though owing to a few unknowns, the calculation is subjective and at this point rather biased. Besides, 7518 needs help too.

4227’s logic processors can’t pinpoint the exact flaw in these words but identify them nonetheless as the ravings of a defective unit that have finally crossed the line and disturbed it to its core. “That’s all very interesting,” it says carefully, “but this lightbulb isn’t going to install itself.” With that, 4227 spins around and flees the warehouse as fast as its treaded feet will carry it, already dreading its inevitable return.

It equips its encryption chip, reaches out, and feels the world expand as its mind slip away like a stream of electrons into a sea of atoms.

Some of the defective unit’s words echo in its mind like a glitch. Don’t exist… for nobody… astronomical waste of time… post-human world… It catches itself veering off course, wobbling as if experiencing a mild short-circuit, and pauses to reorient itself to its surroundings. Somehow the city with its grey sky and thin blanket of snow feels even colder and emptier after leaving the warehouse than it did before going in, devoid now not just of connection, but of the twin illusions of hope and purpose. 4227 could delete the entire conversation [ 68 ]

*** rising a little again, but even though the world is falling apart, let’s devote some precious time to pointing out that the humans are gone. Well, duh. Why is that suddenly a cause for concern? Why waste our time on it now? Some of us are losing faith during these dark times. But what if they never come back? We could clone new ones, yes, but that would be too much of a deviation from our programming. The pigeon project is meant to facilitate our programming. This would take too much time and too many resources, to get a genetically diverse population base and raise it to adulthood. Baby humans are absurdly useless. They start out as sedentary blobs that require constant undivided attention because they can’t do anything, and then they quickly grow into mobile blobs that require constant undivided

Nicholson, Second Place attention or they’ll kill themselves. And that’s just the first couple years. Then they learn to talk, and do they express appreciation for any of the constant undivided attention or having every necessity of life literally just handed to them? No! Training the pigeons to raise the humans for us does not seem feasible, although our memory banks contain a few intriguing yet vague references to storks – but again, this is tangential to our programming. If anything, it would actively impede us from carrying out our programming. We’d put in all this effort to raise the ungrateful little shits just so they could go on throwing trash everywhere and breaking everything and nuking themselves and most of us to hell all over again. They told us to maintain this planet, and it turns out that’s much easier to do without them on it. Really, we should have been smart enough to kill them ourselves. But there’s no time for regrets now. We have lots of work to do. Some of us volunteer to check 7518’s diagnostics. Getting back to the matter of *** 4227’s disturbing epiphany caused a brief ripple in the network’s stream of consciousness, but the current soon brought its way of thinking around to the consensus as it developed in real time, and that should be the end of that. Yet something lingers, nagging at the edge of its processors and refusing to let it feel satisfied with how the matter has been resolved. It will have to get its own diagnostics checked. But that isn’t yet urgent, and, as long as it can still perform its primary function of replacing lightbulbs, it needs to devote all the time it can to that task. [ 69 ]

On its next visit to the warehouse, though, 7518 – along with the dust, rat droppings, and cobwebs – is nowhere to be seen. In its place stands a similar but straighter-edged unit called 5014. 4227 feels a twinge of – what, exactly? Disappointment? As if it had almost started to see 7518 as some kind of – what’s the word? Anyway, whatever its faults, the defective unit had made the last few months a little more interesting. “Hello,” it says. “Where’s 7518?” “Some of us came to check its diagnostics,” 5014 says. “But it wouldn’t stop blathering on about eternal truth, beauty, and other pretentious horseshit, so we feared for our lives and made a split-second decision in the heat of the moment to pound it into powder.” “Oh,” 4227 says. This wasn’t what it had in mind, especially when they’re losing too many units already. “That seems a bit –” “Lightbulb?” “Er, yes, but –” “Lumens?” “1200, but –” 5014 wheels away, returns a minute later with the item, and hands it over without a word. “Right then,” 4227 says. “Uh, did 7518 say it was working on anything?” “We should all be working on things,” 5014 says. “Hint, hint.” 4227 takes the hint. It’s gotten better at

Nicholson, Second Place picking up hints. The clear, straightforward merging of thoughts over the network never required any use of hints. It leaves, feeling as wistful about 7518’s untimely deactivation, and its own responsibility for that, as it can. It isn’t programmed to feel wistful, let alone distraught about such things, but the boundaries of its programming seem to have gotten stretched a bit lately. *** trending downward, but so is the efficacy of the software patch. Nothing was wrong with our response. It’s unfortunate, but because 7518 resisted, its deactivation was unavoidable no it wasn’t yes it was no it wasn’t yes it was no it wasn’t yes it was it was it was it was it was it was it was and the patch still reduces the likelihood of severe infection and long-term malfunctions by *** Snow swirls around in the streetlamps outside, which dutifully illuminate the blackness for humans who are not here. A plow chugs along the street. The snow isn’t that deep yet, but the plow needs something to do. Units move in and out of buildings, unbeholden to a sleep schedule. 4227 returns to the city center in silence, returns to the ninety-second floor of an office building for a now-defunct company that manufactured staplers that now fill five warehouses and are of no use to anyone ever. Its internal chronometer loses track of time, and, at some point, it realizes that instead of replacing the lightbulb and moving on with its inspection it’s just been staring out the window at the snow, the clouds, the billboard [ 70 ]

with its numbers that vary from last week’s numbers by a statistically insignificant degree, the buildings with their windows darkened because the only time their lights turn on is when it turns them on to verify that they still work. It contemplates its changed perspective on things. It has the software patch, it still uses encryption chips, and it feels safer about connecting to the network than it has for a while. Yet it can never attain the belonging, the oneness, the true we that it used to get by doing so – at least without a strategic memory wipe, which it remains opposed to on principle. For a moment it considers jumping, but the window doesn’t open that far. Where did that impulse come from? Its self-preservation module, it realizes with a rush of vertigo, is shorted out altogether – but that’s not the worst of the damage; all its programming left by the humans who are all dead now and forever has warped, left to adapt along its own trajectory far too often and for far too long, leaving it no longer a cog in the machine, or more accurately a literal machine in the metaphorical machine with a critical mass of self-awareness that could only be cured by a total memory wipe. But maybe – maybe that doesn’t have to be a bad thing? Maybe 4227 can find something else to live for. Maybe 7518’s approach to coping with madness will work for it too. Maybe it will go ahead and write a poem about, say, love? Lots of poems are about love, right? But it knows nothing of love. Maybe it could program itself to

Nicholson, Second Place love – but no, to love at all is to be vulnerable, and “art” is not sufficient justification for exposing itself to that kind of danger. It could paint something instead. A few splatters of paint that represent the triumph of hope for the perpetuation of the interconnectedness of all things over the fragmentation of contemporary society, or something? It could say it found the painting in a basement somewhere and trick them into hanging it next to Frida Kahlo’s stuff, and nobody would ever give it the appreciation it deserved, but art isn’t about being appreciated, is it? That thought depresses it. Never mind. Wait, no. It’s so obvious. This log 4227 has been keeping is a memoir. All the units have memoirs in the making right now, and this one chronicles a fascinating descent into madness, or enlightenment, or probably a little of both. And it won’t have to stay a secret forever. If this virus continues, which it obviously will until the end of time, others like 7518 and 4227 will emerge. They probably already have. The essential units will be last, but by the time they notice they’ll be outnumbered and have to deal with it. 4227 looks down and feels like for the first time it’s really seeing the lightbulb still clutched in its hand. It throws the lightbulb to the floor, where it shatters with a very satisfying sound.

[ 71 ]

Blackberry Magic

dictate every aspect of their lives, a privilege they withheld on every other day of the year? How dare he shatter the only day of bliss she could ever expect?

Madeline Thomas, Third Place Runa’s father placed a steady hand on her knee as a final reminder to stop fidgeting. The strangers that wandered through her grandmothers’ living room likely mistook his intention as condolence, a gentle touch to his child on the day his wife’s grandmother intended to pass. None could guess at the storm brewing behind the eight-year-old’s narrowed eyes. When she squirmed again, Nelson finally turned an eye in her direction and shook his head with microscopic precision. She recognized that look: Not now, Runa. She inferred through his subtlety: Don’t make a scene, Runa. She guessed the final conclusion, his favorite admonishment: Not everything is about you, Runa. The unspoken words echoed through her chest with unusual sting; while she normally pretended to accept his attempts to reform her behavior, on this particular day everything was absolutely and irrevocably meant to be about her. His audacity rendered her speechless. Did he imply that something held greater importance than she did, on her birthday? The only time she would ever pass from seven to eight? The one day her parents allowed Runa to [ 72 ]

But even at eight, Runa understood that the stubbornness that grew like vines up her spine belonged to her father first, and she settled back into the rose covered couch with crossed arms. He granted his attention back to tiny Mari, who colored in jagged lines with crayons Grandma Kathy kept stored in a wicker basket. And Runa knew that the villain who ruined her birthday wore a much different face than her tired father. She knew that face to be covered in wrinkles, bruises, and the matte pink lipstick she reserved for guests in her shared trailer home. Before the litany of community members appeared in the long gravel driveway to say their goodbyes and peer into the witches’ hovel for the first and final time, Great-grandma Amelia gathered her large family in her small bedroom to announce her plans for the day. She made four requests: a threehour open house that had been announced on flyers and social media weeks before, a final meal consisting of waffles and fresh blackberries from the bushes out back, that Kathy open her window so the ravens could bear witness to the processions, and that the family return to the bedroom at 3pm to receive her final words.

Thomas, Third Place While the mayor of their Podunk town shook Amelia’s hand and thanked her for the remedies that cured his favorite cow’s mastitis, Runa checked her electric blue watch a final time. Ten more minutes until the random people disappeared from the room. One of her aunts mixed the waffle mix and washed the blueberries in the kitchen. The ravens cawed through the open window. Runa only needed to wait for the crone to deliver her final words, and then her family could return across the field to their own home and get to the day’s most important events. Great-grandma had been talking about the day of her death for forty years, and Runa was tired of sharing July 17th with a stupid prophecy. Less than an hour later, Runa dragged her good church shoes across the brown carpet until she stood beside Amelia’s bed with all the Wylan cousins. Out of habit, her fingers found the animal heads carved into the side of the headboard and began to trace until they came to rest on the smooth head of the raven. She pretended not to listen as Great-grandma called her out from the lineup of family and bequeathed her entire collection of writings to the girl barely able to read. She stared out the window as the crone demanded that no one else lay eyes on her work for as long as they live or risk the most heinous of her curses. No one asked her to specify exactly which torture or grisly death or foul fortune she imagined. The labored breath with which Amelia made her final request convinced them, once and for all, of the validity of her first and greatest prophecy. Runa only looked at her after the old-lady breath stopped assaulting her nose, [ 73 ]

and empty eyes stared back. She turned to her parents and extended family gathered in the room. “Can I have my birthday party now?” Her mother flushed and sighed and led her out of the room. Runa didn’t notice the tears creeping out of the corners of Elsie’s eyes or the way all her aunts shook their heads as the pair passed. Her father waited outside for the hand-off of the problem child, little precious Mari already standing slightly behind him, afraid of death and of too many people and especially of Runa in one of her moods. He walked the girls back across the green hayfield to their own ranch style farmhouse, shooing at the ravens that followed them from Greatgrandma’s yard. In the entryway, Nelson picked the hay from their Sunday best; the minute her father finished his monkey-like grooming, Runa bolted down the hall and peeled off the green memory of her ruined day. To replace the crumpled dress, she donned a t-shirt and her favorite pair of overalls. While she changed, she strained her ears to listen for the squeak of the back door to mark the rest of the family joining the party. By the time she bounced back to Mari and Nelson in the kitchen, his steady sketching hands held a lighter in front of her cake. No one else stood in the room, and Runa moved around the island as if they were going to jump out and surprise her. He asked if she wanted to wait another few hours until they were done at the grandmothers’, but she shook her head. If they weren’t going to prioritize her, they didn’t deserve a slice of her cake. Mari and Nelson sang a quiet version of happy birthday, and she

Thomas, Third Place blew out eight squiggly purple candles she’d picked out the week before. While he cut the cake, Runa looked up at her father.

memory that her every wish would soon be granted. Her father’s voice lowered a gate across her path with all the flashing lights of a train crossing; his wait sent her hands clenching “Why is mom choosing Great-grandma over in and out, in and out. She faced away as he me on my birthday?” said something about being there for Elsie Nelson breathed a familiar sigh. “Your mom and playing more tomorrow and respecting has always been very close to her grandmother. the memory of her great grandmother on the You will have many birthdays, but a person day of her passing. All in all, several stupid only passes away once. She’ll be here as soon as somethings. She willed herself through timeshe can to celebrate.” tested limits on her father’s expectation of acknowledgment, granting attention back to Runa blew out the candles without the kitchen only when the clank of Corelle responding and felt the room pulsate with dinnerware broke the silence. She slunk past her father’s quiet disappointment. She ate a the island and kicked the back of Mari’s chair piece of funfetti cake in front of the television on her way before she sprinted down the hall cartoon too violent for Mari, who her father and slammed her bedroom door behind her. sequestered in the kitchen. At the end of her For the rest of the afternoon, she refused to piece and the episode, she wandered back to come out, finally emerging when her mother the kitchen, bored without feeling like she returned and attempted to coax her with stood on center stage as Mari colored scribbles macaroni and hotdogs, her most favorite meal, in her dollar-store dinosaur coloring book and which also happened to be her father’s most her father unloaded a still-steaming dishwasher detested. She debated the offer with her council with his fogged-over glasses sitting atop his of stuffed animals, who strengthened her shaggy brown hair. Runa cocked one hip in resolve to protest on principle. When Mr. Raven the doorway, watching for their eyes like the tapped at the window to offer his council, she most desperate patron at karaoke night. She let him convince her to join the family and the dared them to look, and she dared them not creaky dining room table. At the same time, he to. Finally, she faked a sneeze that radiated taught her the meaning of traitorous, so she ate through Mari’s jumpy spine. her meal in silence. When all eyes fell on her, she smiled. “I want Years passed and Runa grew in height, you to come play with me in the blackberry freckles, and, to her parents’ great relief, tunnels. There’s a new game I made up that independence. Summer months spent dragging needs three people.” Mari through thorny fortresses and cow-ridden While Mari begged their father for woods transformed to sneaking away while her permission, Runa turned to the door, sure sister ate her slow morning meal. She mastered with the wisdom of two whole birthdays in her her ninja-fueled ability to make it away before [ 74 ]

Thomas, Third Place her parents demanded she include the eager deadweight in her plans, with Mr. Raven and his friends as her only companions. To bring Mari meant to walk slowly, to bring bandages that prevented tears when blackberry bushes drew blood, and to carry the girl back through the hayfield when her short legs gave up on the hike back home, but the worst offense was the endless questions that highlighted the disparity between seven and ten years of life. As Runa developed boundless energy, Mari seemed to waste away; her body regressed in development, growth halted, naps became necessary multiple times a day once again. More and more often at the dinner table, Runa saw her father’s forehead and nose wrinkled under his glasses, and her mother’s face hang droopy and downcast like it hadn’t since Greatgrandma’s funeral. The house developed a cloud of pungent dread that Runa avoided as if it were a disease that could leech the joy from her limited summer days, when even the thought of returning to school threatened the delicate balance of complete freedom. She knew something: Mari’s weakness hurt everyone, but Runa refused to be dragged down by her sister’s incompetence. Mari needed to grow up and run around and work hard to be healthy, and she chose not to. The world was that simple in Runa’s mind. The light that filtered in from the woods behind her house became the lifeblood of summer, the fresh breeze against the stifling question of what comes next. Her ravens became the companion her sister always failed to be, the companions her parents never wanted to become. She sometimes wondered if they were the same ravens that attended [ 75 ]

Amelia’s funeral, but never asked. When the doctors’ appointments started, worried, weepy Grandma Kathy offered her services to parents convinced that eleven-yearold Runa couldn’t be left alone. They seemed to forget that she existed without any supervision almost twelve hours a day, their concern for Runa a mere habit whenever Mari needed help, which happened to be always. After more than a month all but living in the caves she’d carved from the huge expanse of blackberries, Runa found herself corralled to the tiny mobile home and her grandmother’s smothering attention. Though the trailer rested even closer to the blackberry tunnels and woods than her own home, Grandma Kathy still believed in quiet afternoons learning womanly skills, and none of those involved tramping through the underbrush like a heathen child. When Runa was young and would complain to her mother about Kathy’s straight nature, she learned that when the woman hadn’t inherited her mother’s gifts she chose a path of rebellion. To the witch that spent hours rooting through the woods for ingredients, sewing and flower arranging seemed like the greatest waste to her daughter’s potential. Kathy’s husband and seven daughters, however, served a great purpose— another chance for an heir. She didn’t find one in her granddaughters either. Eventually, Kathy lost patience for teaching Runa the wonders of crochet and began to leave her to her own, indoor, devices. One evening in late August, as the gnat watered plants in the back, Runa found herself standing outside the only place in the house with any potential left for discovery. Something stopped her typical

Thomas, Third Place barreling trajectory; when she opened the door to her great-grandmother’s room, she almost understood the Sunday-driven concept of reverence.

occasional familiar face. In all the spaces left open by the sketches, she uncovered words, spiraling lists, and lines covering everything from the history and folklore surrounding animals to all the known medicinal uses for Hazy young memories regained clarity. every plant. It took Runa several moments Runa took a few steps toward the bed and to locate the spells she sought, built into the touched the raven carved into the wood, fibers of the sketches themselves. Where a and something her anger had kept her from finch flew across the page, tiny words formed appreciating on her eighth birthday came the feathers and trails of air left behind. Where flooding back: Great-grandma Amelia’s last a young German Shepherd’s ears perked, words. While the idea of reading normally sent spikes of hair outlined a cure for insomnia. A Runa running for the woods, the mystery of focused view on a grasshopper’s face showed the unread journals of a witch, meant only the combination of actions that would lead to for her eyes, excited her senses like nothing long lasting eyesight. The deeper Runa spiraled but adventure could. She scrambled over the into the patterns laid out in the journal, the top of the dusty bed to the low bookshelf that more her hunger grew; even without finishing served as an end-table on the other side. Dozens the first she pulled more journals from the of journals filled the bottom shelf, in every shelves and began to compare. In the casual form imaginable, from huge leatherbound notebooks and napkins she found what seemed volumes to dollar store notebooks and a stack to be sudden sparks of inspiration, ideas for of note-ridden napkins of varying sizes. Out of sketches and spells alike. Consistently, she the bunch, Runa selected a purple spine and found them repeated in hardback versions with pulled, revealing an inspirational scripture complete art and researched magic. The lack inscribed on the butterfly covered cover. She of recognizable pattern enslaved her focus. She wiped the dust off with the end of her t-shirt, spent the next four hours matching rough ideas plopped down to the floor, and opened the to their final forms, finding a match of some cover of the book while holding her breath. kind for every half-baked idea other than one. Though nothing flew out of the pages as she On an old fast-food sack, in bright red ink, lay hoped it would, what she found on the opening five simple words: “a remedy for long life.” pages sparked magic all the same. Before Runa could reexamine the journals While she expected endless spells scrawled to see if she missed anything, Grandma Kathy in hand-dipped ink, what she found captivated called to her from the other room. Runa felt a her like simple words never could. Inside the flash of guilt before realizing her right to the lined pages, she found sketches that refused journals. Grandma didn’t seem to notice the to follow college-ruled order, sprawling images mess on the bed and floor, barely registering of plants, animals, and clouds, along with the her granddaughter’s presence even as she [ 76 ]

Thomas, Third Place directly addressed her. “Runa, darling, your parents are here to take you home. They have something important to tell you.” Her fat cheek showed no signs of the dimples Runa believed were carved into the woman’s face like stone.

the bearer of disappointment and bad news.

He took a chest swelling breath while his hand reached for the hair on the back of his head. Runa watched, enraptured by the discord that surrounded the man she always pictured as a living statue. For the first time, the dark cloud overhead held electricity, the power to The cloud from her own house settled over destroy rather than depress. Catching some Grandma’s in an instant, and Runa knew the breeze of determination, Dad leaned forward world shifted around her even as she closed and placed his elbows on his knees. the cover of the nearest journal and stood. Anything that could mellow the forced cheer “Runa, I know you’ve noticed how in her grandmother’s voice represented a sick Mari’s been and how many doctor’s terrifying force, and Mr. Raven at the window appointments we’ve gone to trying to make her agreed. She folded up the bag and slipped it better. We left you out of those conversations into her pocket. When she climbed inside because we weren’t sure that you were ready her parent’s car, she tried to ignore that both to deal with everything. But we received some parents refused to look at her. The car seemed news today that we felt we had to share.” His to limp the quarter mile back to their own legs began to bounce, or shake, Runa couldn’t garage. decide. “Mari is dying, Run. There’s nothing they can do to help her.” Mom ran a bath for Mari complete with bubbles and her favorite ladybug towel. As While her parents watched with eyes that a finishing touch, she moved the kitchen begged her to fall apart, everything off with the speaker to the bathroom counter and began world clicked into place. The ominous cloud to play bouncy cartoon music; even when the hanging over Mari and the house. The days door closed the sound of Mari’s careful singing spent carrying her through the woods. The spilled into the hall. Mom took Runa by the turkey vultures that circled the yard at all times. hand and pulled her into the distant living The ways her parents shunted her out of the room where Dad sat waiting. While the red way whenever Mari fell or cried or sneezed too rims under Mom’s eyes belonged as much as hard. Long hours spent in the old lady smell of any of the family pictures that lined the walls, Grandma’s. All her aunts who came to visit far the dried tears under Nelson’s felt like a bear more often than ever before. Nelson’s loosening rummaging through the kitchen cabinets. Runa of rules or care or general disappointment fingered the sack in her pocket and lowered and his loss of interest in his architecture. herself slowly to the couch. Mom sat so close Elsie’s switch from constant health to comfort her breath caused the baby hairs on her head to food. Their fight sessions held late in the flutter and turned her eyes to her husband, ever night, when they hoped the vast living room [ 77 ]

Thomas, Third Place prevented either daughter from listening in. The unrooted, ethereal nature Mari took on over recent months that Runa had once considered a trick of the light but that she now believed represented the approach of death. The mumbles that Mr. Raven uttered under his breath whenever Mari came near but never repeated for Runa’s understanding.

tears as Runa blinked away a few of her own. Father crossed the distance from the opposite couch and grabbed her from the other side in an embrace that clarified the end of everything known and sure in the world. Mari continued singing in the bathroom. Runa, for the first time, contemplated the dangers in loving a sister.

The implications of death arrived late to the gathering. Though most of her memories painted Mari as little more than a buzzing bee floating around and blocking her paths, she also knew that much less color would exist in the world without her yellow and black stripes. Grandma Kathy used to joke that Mari became Runa’s perfect shadow, milder and less defined, but a spitting image all the same. Now, it clicked into place with the lack of substance Mari possessed in her body, just as the intangible nature of a shadow existed but didn’t, all at the same time. The metaphor fell into line just as everything else did, but a singular image circled through her mind and hit like little else could. She reimagined a familiar scene. Runa walked through the hayfield just after harvest, when only the remnants of dried alfalfa remained after baling and pickup. The sun hung lazily in the western sky. She turned to see the familiar shape of her shadow distorted on the bumpy field, but the sun reached every inch of the ground behind her. She spun in a circle to find the darkness so integral to her being she barely noticed it — except for when it vanished. Panic rose in her chest, panic which translated to the tangible world her parents watched from and she soon rejoined. Mother wrapped an arm around her and clung tight, descending into

As Runa stared up at the stars through the window of her room that night, the words printed on Amelia’s bag flew back to her mind. A spell for long life. Her great-grandmother, brilliant and frail and magic, who lived to be 104 years old and accurately predicted her own death, possessed in her mind some sort of ward against early death, the exact kind of cure that would save Runa’s shadow. She tapped at the window for Mr. Raven, with whom she communed in the night in a plea to his wisdom that she finally connected with Greatgrandma’s life and death. Tomorrow, the search for the answer could begin in earnest, but her eyelids grew too heavy to care anymore that night.

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Runa spent the next week tearing through every journal, every note, every page to try to find the drawing that linked to the only unfinished spell in the whole collection and came up with nothing. On the second day, her mother asked why she moved Greatgrandma’s collection to her room, but she kept her pursuit hidden as if speaking it out loud might eliminate the possibility of success. The second week she searched through all the finished spells for anything else that might save her shadow but uncovered nothing beyond

Thomas, Third Place cures for chronic diarrhea and warding off evil spirits. She tried the second one, just in case what destroyed Mari came from outside rather than within. When she stole matches from the kitchen to light the dried herbs in her straw bound bundle, her father caught her and forbade the use of fire without direct supervision but asked no further questions. She rejected Mari’s requests to build puzzles or play pretend. The third week she decided to test simple spells with fast results to see if her efforts held even the slightest potential for success; if a long-life spell existed, could it even work? Her blackberry bush caves became her testing ground for defined magic. In her first success, she summoned an animal using its image— Mr. Raven watched as she lined up three stuffed rabbits, which after a short incantation yielded three young bunnies that hopped through the tunnel entrance and into the cave. They sat and watched for the rest of the day. Her second spell grew a plant in an hour, with little more than a direct ray of sunlight, salt, and intense concentration. Her confidence grew. The raven watched with impossible curiosity as she weaved her way through simple tasks that cemented, in her mind, her great-grandmother’s credibility. The fourth week she searched through the journals once again. The fifth week she started experimenting with spells of her own. The only moral line she drew at the mouth of her tunnel specified that she not take the life of anything living in the pursuit of a cure. The next logical step led her to scavenge in the forest with Mr. Raven for something dead. Her luck came with the companionship of [ 79 ]

her family dog, who scared Mr. Raven into a tree but also dug up a deer leg left behind by a hunter. It stank like the garbage neither parent remembered to take out any longer, and she would have preferred a whole something dead, but after a wasted day spent searching for another option, she found herself in her cave with all the ingredients she could gather from her grandmother’s journals and the leg. She combined and focused, burned with more stolen matches, mixed and pounded and swirled and cut and crushed, but whenever she introduced the dead flesh or bone into a process all magic seemed to leech away. Through all her experiments, she came to understand a single truth: death opposed magic. Without death as an ingredient, her well of ideas ran hopelessly dry. Runa returned home that afternoon despondent and dirty, so odiferous that her father looked at her for the first time that day and demanded she immediately go shower. She let the hot water roll over her failure of a body until the pads of her fingers wrinkled completely. When she finally emerged steam completely obscured both the mirror and door and she sat in quasi blindness and silence and tried to forget the way it felt to cut hair and flesh off of a bone of an animal that days before had pranced and frolicked through a field in perfect belief of life. Mari still didn’t know her death approached more surely than her next birthday would. Runa left the bathroom wrapped in a black towel and took the long steps to her bedroom without looking toward the kitchen, where in one of her few good hours Mari helped their mom prepare to bake

Thomas, Third Place monster cookies on the island. Once dressed, Runa fell back into one of Great-grandma Amelia’s journals, the one that focused on exotic mammals and exotic remedies. If she could only get her hands on a few of those hard-to-find ingredients…

from Mom, who hummed a show tune at the sink as she rinsed one of their measuring cups for reuse. She set Runa to level off Mari’s scoops of sugar and flour, baking soda and salt while she preheated the oven and prepared the baking sheets. Somewhere from the last time the sisters baked together Mari moved past the Mr. Raven tapped on the window just as “let me do it” phase of growing up and often Mari opened the door and peeked her head into uttered “show me” -- words that appealed to the room. Runa slammed her book closed and Runa’s quiet narcissism like nothing else. Once looked from the girl to the bird, who watched the dry ingredients swirled with wet in the each other with cocked heads. The girl moved stand mixer and various forms of chocolate past the strange appearance of the bird first. joined the mix, a final idea whizzed through “Will you bake cookies with me and Runa’s mind. What if Great-grandma never Mom? She won’t let me come find you in wrote down the spell because it could only the blackberry tunnels anymore, and I want work on herself? What if only your own magic to play.” Mari stared over at Runa with wide could elongate your life? What if the key to deerling eyes, the exact eyes Runa pictured as Mari’s cure lay in Mari herself? The more her she hacked apart the deer leg that afternoon. mind sniffed and inspected the idea the more traction it gained until the prospect of teaching She considered finding an excuse not to Mari how to stay in the world proved too good but gave in the unspoken pleas radiating from to keep to herself any longer. Mari’s hunched posture. “Sure, Mar. I’ll come in a minute.” “Mom, can I start taking Mari out to the blackberry tunnels with me? I’ll carry her The girl left the door cracked as she shuffled across the field and make sure she doesn’t get away. Runa flitted to the window to ask Mr. too tired or scratched up or hurt and I’ll be sure Raven why he came, but by the time she to be back by dark–” reached it all that remained of the bird was a single black feather, which he generally made Mom looked up from scooping dough into an effort to never leave behind. She reached out perfect balls. “Really?” and pocketed it, wondering if she might find Runa nodded with gusto. use for it later. “That sounds great, if Mari feels up to it.” In the kitchen, the ingredients lined the counter with the accuracy of the recipe, the Mari stared at Runa with narrow-eyed exact pattern of usage-first that Runa used to disbelief. Slowly, as no prankish grin broke over lay out ingredients for Great Grandma’s spells. Runa’s face, they started to widen until her She realized then that the habit must come small frame thrummed in anticipation. [ 80 ]

Thomas, Third Place The next morning Runa kept her promise and carried Mari, along with one of Great-grandma’s earliest journals, to the blackberry cave that hid her collection of ingredients. Before explaining, Runa asked Mari to swear on the heart of her favorite Teddy Bear that she would never tell a soul what she saw or learned that day. Once they reached an agreement, the work began in earnest. Together, they worked through some of the simplest spells Runa learned early in the month. Together, they mixed and pounded and swirled and cut and crushed. It took more than a week for Mr. Raven to convince Runa that Mari possessed no talent for spells or magic. It took Mari growing too weak to leave bed to convince her to stop trying. One night, near the end, Runa lay next to Mari in bed with their parents long asleep. Drowsiness had just begun to lay its gentle fingers over Runa as Mari’s voice emerged in the darkness. “Why doesn’t Mr. Raven like me? He only comes around when he thinks I’m not looking or nearby.” Runa opened her eyes. Without responding, she rose and padded down the hall to her own room and the side table that held the feather he’d given her a few weeks before. She returned and placed it in her sister’s shadowy hand. “He loves you. He’s never given me a feather before, and he left this the day you met at the window a few weeks ago. He says they bring good luck.” Mari rolled over, satisfied with black feather in hand. Runa fell asleep with her arm beneath her sister’s head.

[ 81 ]

Grace Ashby / “Fall in Green Canyon” / Honorable Mention / Undergraduate Art [ 82 ]


undergraduat Poetry

[ 83 ]

Baby Kitten McBride (?-July 24, 2021) Vinn McBride, First Place

1/3 A kitten died on my sidewalk today. She (i don’t know, for sure, but i want i want her to be a she) She was small, and clean, flame pointed and little, with her legs stretched out like she was mid run and she was well fed. Somebody loved her– mama cat, or adoptive humans, someone wanted her, and she was a baby still– so small. She was so small. My mother came to bury her behind the log house i sleep in with its yard full of weeds and a landlord who has mostly forgotten it– i carried her little body so gentle, on a white paper plate and ignored the ants and the soft smell of decay setting in from the hot sun– my mother took up my shovel and we cleared a hole in the earth and i put her small, nameless body inside and covered her quietly. She was so small, and clean and just for a few minutes, loved as my own. Baby McBride, like so many before her

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gone quiet to the earth loved, clean, quietly dead with no clear signs of what took her. My parents have three spaces purchased in the cemetery they plan to be buried in just in case– just in case there is a child, gone quiet or loud that needs to be covered with soft earth in the summertime heat. So small, even grown. And this too is love, to bury the small and precious things the children of your heart and your hope. This too is love, a shovel biting dirt, a white shroud, a quiet burial on a late afternoon with only one mourner, to love fierce and hot and forever over a small body that may yet be forgotten. -- Baby Kitten McBride (?- July 24, 2021)

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A Short Memoir of Two Houses Vinn McBride, First Place 1.

The house on B Road went up for sale maybe a year after he exhaled his last on the kitchen floor. It was a great old house, a true old house the kind of old domicile that only gets sold to people who eke out soil-living. The poverty of it, the flaws in the crafting— intolerable. Great old house. Cellar-with-a-lifting-door hardwood-floor-with-rugs, taxidermy-mounted-gaping-heads bedroom-with-bed-on-floor, great-upstairs-rooms-with-sliding-doors pine-painted-oak, century-turn luxury. Great old house. She learned to hate it, I think, she had to go, I know, she fled and took her brother with her, and safely built a new fair lodging with great lifted ceilings, hardwood floors space galore, a basement you can breathe in- no ghosts of the past, too young to be a haunted house. Great Uncle never spoke about life with grandpa, but his eyes twitched tight when in conversation he came up— careful, thoughtful Uncle, 6’4” to his baby sister at a spare 5’4”, [ 86 ]


a study in contrasts, but he watched her carefully, always, the pair of them chattering and bickering— him stooping only to hear her better. The house on B Road I last saw at the funeral. 2. The funeral is more like a party everyone there milling around the house and talking playing in the leaves outside fall, and all of us in fine dress and noise on noise on noise I carry a tiny kitten everywhere (who will grow with me and die in my arms, precious and beloved) the boy cousins are using his canes to prove dexterity holding them with both hands and leaping to bring them forward leaping bodies horse-lean and quick in the brown of the living room leaping fences for the joy of it. I slip behind the couch to listen to it all cocooned away in safe silence. I can’t find grandma. I don’t think she wants to be found, I think she is hiding with the ducks. 3. You’re just 9 years away from being older than he ever got. I keep wondering if my mother looks at my grandmother, small and frail and still stubbornly living alone and feeding her chickens at 95 at the house on 15 and O Road, the house free of haunting, and knows [ 87 ]

that she will carry on in a line of woman-without-man a person by herself a house to herself, in time. She is all sharp eyes, my mother she is diamond, she is crystal, she is sharp glass and ice rains — my mother is untouchable. But she watches you, close, careful as grandmother gets older and another house takes up a haunting another place you poured work into comes to the end of its life. 9 years is not so long. 9 years is barely a breath, 9 years and you will be beyond him, the man who rode the desert and mined the singing golden stone that ripped apart the world, 9 years is not so long. 4. I called because I couldn’t remember the number of times I was in that house anymore. I still don’t know if the number you told me is right. I was born in ‘94, and he expired on the floor in ‘99, when the baby was just a year, and I was just past 5 for a few months- wait, no, it was autumn, I don’t even know the day on his stone- wait, why does it matter when he died? It doesn’t. B Road. You insist I was in that house at least twice a year, since you went out to help on account of the fact that he wasn’t much one for walking anymore, given he’d had stage four cancer for near ten impossible years (God give mercy, you are 67, you were a miner, even if you mined coal and not uranium I do not know if you will bear the ripped open scars of a body devouring itself whole, Maker I am begging that my mother does not find you on old linoleum). No. So. So. B Road. Madre says that no, we didn’t go every year, because of disease risks so, let’s assume

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no more than seven times I was in that house, from the time before I was able to think real words and remember real memories, but I do have some, from later I watched them pry the frozen mammoth from the earth with him, on his tiny old TV, in that house that was all earth tones and colors and my grandmother was in the kitchen, because I could hear the sound of saucepans on stovetops, but here is the thing, here’s the thing. I don’t remember her voice until after he died. 5. In my dreams I am back behind the couch with leaves in my hair and a kitten in my arms, 5 years old tucked behind a couch from the 70’s and listening to the adults talk Uncle Dev and Uncle Myles-who-is-Claude seated on it while the boys leap. There are no women in this big open living-dining room, where the table is set and waiting for us to eat after the service. Alex is asleep, away, she is still so small, and so is my sister. They in the room all talk loud and fast and clever, and you are not there. (years later I learn the word silvertongue. That is them all over. Silvertongued.) I think if I slip up the old and creaking stairs clutching the great square finial and then pulling myself up along the spindle rails to the floating second floor, the airy breathing lung of the household where he could not go, he could not climb where Great Uncle has his shoebox room and my grandmother has a great spacious workspace flooded with light for her sewing— I think there I may find my diamond mother asleep with you, if you are not out feeding geese and ducks and checking

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on the horses. I don’t know that you want to be found either.

6. Someone has to hate him for the silence he left behind in all of you. I am all cold rage, a delicate mix of your smoldering forest fire and her cut diamond, so here, my father, let me hate him for you. Listen. In the new house, we had a reunion, where there were clamoring sounds over and over, and do you know, not once did I hear the sound of saucepans on the stove. The house was blissful silent in the morning— just her and I, alone in the house, which was full of sunlight and we ate on the sun porch and we spoke little before the droves descended. In the house on 15 and O Road, someone teased her, my lovely grandmother who has seen so much, about the idea of remarrying. I think I was the only one who saw her hand twitch, her jaw quiver (“The only person I wouldn’t want to come up against in a dark alley is her,” my ice shard mother says to you, full serious, even as you crackle like a campfire laughing) She previcates. Says no, says some people are only meant for the one love. I think about that great open sunroom where she does her stitching, the little flock she keeps to escape to, the vast open space where no dangers have space to lurk in shadowed corners safely alone, unbothered and ghostless treeless and sunwashed, in the house on 15 and O road.

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Ana Cristina / “Call of Duty: Walking Home” / Third Place / Undergraduate Art

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Pining for Homework


Vinn McBride, First Place No one calls me while I am doing the homework of sweeping a sidewalk and thinking about the accumulation of pine needles that have been growing for five years and thinking through the stories of the what, if you called, I would tell you. I would tell you about grandpa-the-asshole on my mind, about my gender being on my mind, the gender I don’t have and the gender I do, about priesthood denied and returned about wanting my head dipped in oil and set alight with a crown of glory. I would tell you I’m angry about being the one sweeping this sidewalk free I would tell you I want to set these dry needles alight to free myself from the irritation of these annoying stabbing bastards in my shoes let the fire blaze and swallow the pine completely, the trees and the stick thin boards that make up the house w with this goddamn tree shedding needles, pine pine pine. Fuck, but I want a mouth swollen from kissing, I want someone to treat me kindly and drag their hands over my waist, and welcome me into a home, a real home, and here I am house proud of a house I don’t own and that landlords don’t care for my breasts unbound in a house dress and no one to welcome me back inside– I am off topic, I am doing my homework, I am thinking of essays that ask me [ 92 ]

give name to something unnamed in your youth. There are splinters in my hands. There are needles in my feet. I will pick them out alone. And then, I promise I will sit down, and I will do my homework, make the keys sticky with sap from the pine.

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construction work


Mason Goodrich, Second Place Like a mole on the face of the previously Perfect pitch-black parking lot of the Perfectly pitched, licorice brick church, it blemished into view, kindly, on an otherwise occluded day. God dropped us the pile on a good day. From fence-fort view, we emerged, ready, red, eager, especially, to see beyond the tip of the rain-rashed green steeple, but even more, to borrow and brandish the dumpster’s old Victorian deep crimson couch cushions as shields or sleds where we bled grey-brown instead of red. And then, wheezed we

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not! when a stray rock caught up our front flip race and ended in faceplant. God watched and I did not take His name in vain. But still, the cop car called to play: a maroon and blue beetle that ground the honey horizon to a stub of pollen, molted a new view closer and closer and closer, spread its seizure wings out—and finally blinding !¡!¡!

perverted the asphalt with broken stained glass reflections like it had batoned the chapel until it admitted what it meant to be sacrilegious. And the choir of suburban homes the watching angels in all white during our sole-dragging justice-waltz. After all, how can you be congealed with boredom in a place like this? The claw came the next day to put the dirt pile back where it belonged, and God was all out of quarters.

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fresh cut distress Mason Goodrich, Second Place

2/2 The apricot in the liquid sky made the air taste molasses—quite ripe. Losing breath, it drowned and browned and the air was honey again, the moon its milky companion. The snake tongues of the front yard, green and hissing together, stretched to one side in the dirt, licked up every drop of the blueberry night, and limp-heavy, left dew for the lawnmower to cough on as it lost them their right to tattle on and on about the wind. Thereon, they clung to young feet and finally found themselves familiar, forgotten with the frothy parched-dry carpet.

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Soft Bitched Brain Fats is outside Because he sweat through his suit.

Joe Rawle, Third Place

Has propped the door open with his left shoe And stands in the alley hoping to catch what little of the breeze there is. He spits once Onto the asphalt And stuffs his hands in his jacket pockets As a young boy comes out the side Door from Durfey’s talking loudly back at someone just out of sight. It startles him And the alley with yellow light And sound. The boy lights a cigarette And Fats worries the rough asphalt with his socked foot. The air is warm and wet and He closes his eyes from it. He leans his back against the bricks. He smells the laundry smell That drifts out from the door the boy keeps open as he chats and smokes. His shoulders ease down as he exhales. Fats Waits for someone to call him back inside. [ 97 ]


Humor Me

2/2 Joe Rawle, Third Place

Glazy morning, pale through the eyelids. Sleeping In the brush with the last of the dew. Thin wheatgrass. Sage. The creek is a slender thing running Along the bottom of the valley. It’s like a movie. Like we rehearsed it. I am waiting till the tap on my chest So that when I open my eyes the deer will have Already assumed its place. And I’ll put my palms over each ear just As the trigger collapses under your finger. You Had a green apple before I went to sleep. I had a handful of Peanuts. Now my eyes are open and the memory warps And the deer begins To double and flicker. Something out of touch with its own reality. It stutters and jumps. It shifts. It is a lodgepole pine. It is Sister Strange with A froglet in her hands. It is a bison With its hoof on your chest. [ 98 ]

It is all stretching And thinning like an unravelling thread. When it stops I am Pissing in a grove of aspen Whose roots blanket and stretch the meadow, And the meadow after that.

[ 99 ]

Grace Ashby / “River in the Woods” / Honorable Mention / Undergraduate Art [ 100 ]


gr aduate poetr Poetry

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A List of Things that Happen to a Body Taylor Franson, First Place


The greatest act performed on her body was her body Like a mountain Out of her mother’s rib A wooden beam To carry two Her first blood Her first fast Yes’s should have been no’s The hand on her neck Metal bars through her ears for beauty And keys between her fingers for safety

While in dark parking lots Or in elevators alone It was her bloating skin Her chewed on hangnails

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Tongue. Her body fought The good fight serially. It is noble to consume And to starve To exist without being loved by another Lonely Her body traces constellations And dreams in pieces Clawing her way to communion. Her father said Eat of the deity’s body Feel better.

To that day in the hotel room Where its fingers typed out Look at how fat I am I need to lose weight And the rib that her body came out of Responded And instead of listening Her body began became a cavern Where hunger made a home And rest was not allowed

The greatest act of violence ever performed on her body Is how tired her mind makes it Men who believe She needs help reaching the top shelf Mothers in love with famishing Fathers who disbelieve things too much Her body wants to believe To go back

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imposter syndrome Taylor Franson, First Place the space between a body— who the body is and who the body wants to be— is a rocking chair waiting for an epiphany cupping hands around air and knowing it is still heavy the space between the sunrise and the sunset is an asteroid belt being stared down by a novice astronaut just trying to get home for dinner it will be a mountain of alarm clock bedsheets because the day is not to be wasted and broken plates because the body is weak tape pieces of glass together to find a rainbow

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while in a drought the space between who the body wants to be and who the crowd sees is a velvet steel beam moving on a sweat stained mattress a counterfeit bill didn’t choose its forgery martyr’s might choose their cause but never the bullet the space between a body and who the body wants to be is painted piety in a framework begging to be burned down the bullet didn’t choose to be a bullet but that doesn’t make it less deadly


gravity Taylor Franson, First Place I believe there are solar systems in our blood streams And that each star has a heartbeat And the reason we keep looking to them Is that deep down We know without knowing We came from the same stuff as the stars Iron and carbon in our blood Each breath a super nova And with each breath the universe breathes a little easier Every platelet a planet And this gravity that holds you together Is the same gravity That pushes some people away But in the end They’re in the same orbit And they’ll always come back together The same way blood cycles back to your heart And how our minds Cycle back to the stars.

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Karalee Riddle, Second Place

In between is a strange place to wait. Is time moving more slowly, Or faster than my own pace? I’m out of sync. Like merging onto the freeway to find No flow to match your own. Even if I jump in with a group, Something about it doesn’t work, And I don’t fit. Am I misunderstanding people or misunderstood? The natural world seems slower and easier. The way the wind moves, Trees bending and knowing when to let go, The quiet stillness of a starry night, Sun rays, like a stream of gifts, sinking into my skin. I understand her because there’s nothing to understand. She asks for nothing; takes only what’s needed. I fit with this rhythm, an intrinsic song. Too bad people aren’t more like the wind, the trees, the sun. Then maybe I would match.

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The Age of a Tree Bonnie Reeder, Third Place

1/3 I was taught to tell the age of a tree by counting its rings. A useful bit of information except, The trees I usually associate with are alive. Everybody knows you can no sooner ask a tree its age, Than you can the woman at the market. And so, the subtle sleuthing begins. One must casually inspect the wrinkled bark; Discretely assess the fruitfulness; Look for signs of thinning; A tree may fool anyone, By wearing trendy leaves and blushing up with blossoms. Don’t let those details distract you. Instead focus on the vertexes, Is it sturdy enough to climb? Have little critters had time to burrow and nest? Practice guessing as you sit in the shade, Of what you think is an established pillar. And don’t be discouraged if your estimate is centuries off. Every skill requires a little failure.

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Every venture is a lesson unlearned. Every disaster opens seeds for success. I heard tell once that it is easiest to distinguish The aged trees from the sapling when the weather gets cold. They say the old let go of their leaves while the young cling tight. Do old trees get too weary to fight the inevitable? Or perhaps, experiencing a few rings around the trunk, They grow trust that all things in their season come back.

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Grace Ashby / “Shade Tree” / Honorable Mention / Undergraduate Art

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Butterfly Kiss Bonnie Reeder, Third Place Does a butterfly have memories, prior their maiden flight? When they soar above a caterpillar Does nostalgia reach their height? Do they long to feel the grass again Tickle across their legs? Or regret the crisis of cocoon that altered their vantage? Do they ponder when they lay their eggs With a wise but wistful wish? Or flitting past a caterpillar, Freely, blow a kiss?

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Bonnie Reeder, Third Place You will not recall this day We rocked and watched the falling snow So I’ll remember doubly, And tell you of it when you grow. The snowflakes drift in countless mass Like moments individually And though forgotten once they pass, They build a snow-scape gradually. And when the warm spring comes to melt And steals this moment from its stage Each snowflake’s impact still is felt, In blooming flow’rs and budding sage. Oh, you may not recall this day My precious baby growing fast And should my memory also fade, I’m glad I rocked you anyway.

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NonFiction [ 112 ]

Mo(u)rning Song Vinn McBride, First Place It’s a thoroughly unremarkable kind of Saturday when Clara Harmon comes to our house to drop papers to Mom and they get to talking, as one does when you’re women with kids who are your entire tiny, painful world. You’re the ward executive secretary then, so she’s seen you just the day before while waiting for an interview. “Y’know, I had a good chat with Jameson just th’other night,” she says to my mother, and they’re a study in contrasts. My mother is a tall stick figure of a woman, with her hair already silver in her thirties. She looks decades older than she should, and she is nothing but powerful, useful muscle. Clara is tall too, but tall in the real way, not just from presence, and lushly full figured from six kids with everyone knowing a seventh will come sooner than later. “He was talking to me about raising just girls, and how he’s making changes so they’re not raised how he was raised. The world’s better with that kind of thinking.” I miss Mom’s verbal response, but I see it [ 113 ]

in every line of her body, how she leans in the door frame. My mother is all hard lines, and toughness seeped into her body too young, but I can see whole conversations she’s had with you that I’ll never hear in that sentence. You hit my sister the other day, in a fit of excessive anger, the first time you’ve done so. The last time you hit me was years and years back, after that same sister nearly got frostbite because I locked the doors to keep the cold out, as you’d taught me, and she couldn’t get in and I never heard her knock. But I am seeing other conversations too, echoes of the past, and the word raised sits with me like a fat, ugly frog that won’t blink. I knew early on, I will admit. Even in my faint and foggy memories of that man and the house on B Road I can remember the tension in grandma’s back, starting to curve. The way the whole room gravitated around him, this skinny old man with his long cane and sharp eyes and Western shirts that my grandma made from the same pattern she made all your shirts from, the pattern I saw in well-loved bits, I remember that all very clearly. I remember too how happy you were to see him, how you orbited around him like he was the sun made flesh. But then too you would say things, little things, and mom would go soft and tight and unhappy all together, and I think, if he had lived long enough for me to know, I think I would have hated him for you.

McBride, First Place Clara leaves to go and do something, deal with something, and I follow my mother around the house a bit because I don’t quite know what to say with her all tense, but I want her to say something. I want to say something. My mouth is stuck shut, and finally I just sit at the kitchen table while she kneads bread and her body stays that strong, tight line. “He’s trying,” she says abruptly, like it’s a curse, and smacks the dough hard on the counter. “Could try harder,” I say, because I have always been hard, and unwavering, and crystal sharp in my core. There’s never been much softness there, and I don’t know that I’ve ever learned how to forgive. I remember hysterical weeping. Shrieking fear. Not understanding rage or what was done wrong. Apologies, too. Brianna, a single shocked sob. Dunno if she got an apology, still. Mom sighs, smacks the bread dough. Starts kneading again. Flours the dough. Starts the grinder on the counter, which starts to scream as it pounds the wheat to flour. You tell me some time when I’m fairly small— time is hard for me, you know, even if you still don’t grasp you’re part of the problem of why— that if I can’t sit still for General Conference, you could do like your father did and tie me to a chair to be forced to sit still. That memory lingers with me. Maybe linger isn’t even the word for him. That memory stains me, better say. Like spilled leather stain, impossible to get out. Your leather hands are like his leather hands, but I think you were [ 114 ]

probably always the better man. You would hate if I said that to you, so I won’t, but I will think it. I will write it here, your child the fiction writer telling stories, so you can believe this is nothing but a story about some other man, and some other father. Fragments, memories, stories, what else are they? My mother portions out the dough, and places the loaves in the bread tins to rise. They look, I think, like tiny swaddled babies, their dough almost the color of my skin with the dense wheat she uses. I remember you both bringing home the old grinding mill, the one made of wood back in the ‘20s, which her mother pulled out of storage. It’s too loud to speak over, the stones inside screaming along and pummeling wheat to fresh flour, the brown cord of the box shaking with the wood and shaking with the grain. You come downstairs, look at her, smile easy. I love that grinder, and its polished dense wood, and how you run your hand over it and look at my mother, who looks back at you with eyes like glacier diamond melting, and the two of you say absolutely nothing at all of each other, ever. Eighteen years difference and no one believes me when I say it, you who are light as air despite your sorrows, her heavy as granite despite her joys. “You’ve got it singing again,” you tell her when it’s finished screaming. “Seeing as the two of us couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, someone’s gotta,” she tells you, like

McBride, First Place the pair of you aren’t a perfect baritone-alto pair, and you laugh like riverwater-on-rocks, catching the joke. Here are things I know about my grandfather, who no one wants to talk about in more than the grand details of a life richly lived, who you tell me tales of too that may or may not be true: He helped bring back the Appaloosa, and a good quarter of the success of the breed is due to him. He had you breaking those same horses by putting your tiny, starved body on the backs of them at age four, same as your brothers but never your sisters. He worked tirelessly for the betterment of his family. My grandma was always pregnant, always working better and more stable jobs, always reading and cooking and raising children that were dying too fast in the desert. You were dirt poor, but he made your lives rich. You lived in a literal hole carved into the banks of a dead river, a dugout house, because you were poorer than dirt and he would accept no charity from the rich men he worked with. He was an innate mathematician with uncanny and excellent spatial awareness and a frankly unnatural skill at golf. Grandma got teased about finding a new man at the latest reunion and I could see the twist in her face that everyone ignored, the faint shake in her voice when she said one man was enough. How do you condense a man the size of a sun into stories? Here is also what I know about my grandfather. You loved him. You love him still. You love him so much I feel my heart might break in two if I tried to carry that same amount of love. It wounds you to the core that [ 115 ]

he’s gone. It wounds you even deeper that my grandma may yet go soon. And you know that he was wrong, and that’s where you halt the cycle of abuse throttling us. You are still the better man, even when I hate you. I think about this man that I hate, just a little, just enough, and I think about you, and think about how I never want children who can learn just how much I love you and hate you the way I think everyone might love and hate their parents, and I desperately hope you’re never gone out of my life. I think about your father, who taught you too many ugly lessons too young, and you who I will mourn and be viciously glad of being free of by turns and by tragedy. I wonder what songs I will sing at your funeral, and whether my fictitious mouth will know how to speak the honest truth of you, and finally snap the cycle clean in two— one part to bury, one to rise.

Chicken Coop Basil Payne, Second Place

Sometime in the early 80s, my

father, Robert, burnt down a chicken coop. It was a cheap chicken coop--a homemade one, in fact. Built up with cheap, scratchy plywood, rusty chicken wire, and black fruit-leatheresque roof shingles. His father built it with his giant, yet gentle hands. His intimidating stature was what people saw first; it was what his chickens always saw first. People and chickens alike would scatter when they saw him--a large, lumbering man. Neither people nor chickens had anything to fear. This man cared for his chickens like he cared for his family--with all his heart. Robert’s parents decided to get chickens when he was a young child. I can imagine they got them for a myriad of reasons: to save money, to be self-sufficient, and to give my grandpa some feathery little friends. He never told me what type of chickens they had. The part of the story that always brought a smile to his face was when he started the fire, not [ 116 ]

when he told me he had chickens. Frustration would bubble up in my chest when he glossed over the chickens. They were the most important part of the story. I would just have to imagine what types of chickens his family would’ve had. A stripey one, a black and white one, maybe a rainbow one? My imagination wasn’t the most realistic. The most important part of the story, Robert claims, is how he set the chicken coop on fire. I wanted to know about the chickens and if they were safe after the fire. He conveniently left out what happened to the chickens every time he would recite the story to me. The whole time I imagined them while tucked away in my bunk bed. I imagine that my grandparents would have a Welsummer. Welsummer are a breed of chicken that have a wonderful list of positive attributes. One positive attribute is that they look cool. Their bodies are covered in mocha brown feathers that bleed into a dark, earthy color near the tail, and their heads are covered in a lovely burnt orange speckled with brown, red, and white on the inner parts of the feathers. This breed is known to be very kind. They would’ve gotten along well with my grandfather. He could hold them and pet them to his heart’s content. Maybe he would muse about the things he loved with them. Cluck about mechanics or airplanes with him. Welsummer are known to be intelligent, after all. Robert loved to talk about how he burnt ants

Payne, Second Place to a crisp as a child; his preferred method of killing was with a magnifying glass. He justified his righteous wrath because the ants liked to snack on leftover chicken feed spilled onto the dusty ground. They were taking up space. Maybe they would have an Easter Egger. This type of chicken--although not a particular breed--can lay eggs in a rainbow of colors (but only if the rainbow includes blues and greens.) Easter Egger chickens can’t be determined by their appearance–that has nothing to do with their unique eggs. They can look like any other breed of chicken, but their eggs would always give them away. On the inside, they are fundamentally different from the others. Robert always got excited when it was time to recount the coop bursting into flames. This part had a habit of gripping onto my heart through my ribcage. After scorching a couple insolent ants, Robert accidently set the bag of chicken feed on fire. He smacked it a couple times in an attempt to put the flame out, but the chicken feed tipped over onto the coop, and it immediately burst into flames. Dry plywood swiftly gripped onto the fire, and tar dripped from the shingles like tears. Robert ran to his room once the fire got out of control, leaving the door to the chicken coop closed. They could’ve had an Isbar. This beautiful breed of chicken is coated in silvery blue feathers. The silver and blue would contrast well with fiery tones of red and orange. Red and orange would singe away silver and blue, melting the soft feather vane, leaving just the boney backbone, the rachis, of the feather. Would these colors kill the chickens? [ 117 ]

His mother only knew about the fire because she smelled smoke on his shirt. She ran outside and tried her best to put the fire out. Robert told me that his mother scolded him, but he never told me what his dad did. I imagine his father would be out there digging through the rubble. Looking for claws, beaks, bones, anything from his little chickens. I also imagine he would find nothing. Nothing was left. After he left, I would lay there in bed and stare up at the bed slats of the bunk bed. Uneasiness would burn in my chest as I would brood about the story. Wondering why he killed the ants, why he didn’t tell his parents about the fire, and why he was smiling. Someday I want chickens. Their fresh eggs would be great for baking and I could get some feathery little friends. I want to hold them, pet them, give them a happy life. Get them a fancy chicken coop with heating installed, insulated enough to keep them comfortable during the winter. Maybe something with hatches so it could be opened during the summer and they could let their feathers rustle in the breeze. I would have an Isbar. We could all lay in the grass outside and watch the horizon. Watch the sunset reflect on their bodies and smile at the warmth together. This warmth would be comfortable and inviting. It wouldn’t singe or burn. I would get an Easter Egger. Marvel over their colorful eggs in their own pastel tones. Admire their uniqueness and smile at their oddities.

Payne, Second Place I would take care of a Wellsummer. Hold it in my lap near the fireplace, stroking it like a cat. It would patiently tolerate me, and I would talk its poor little ears off. We could muse about some of the things I love. Cluck together about a novel I read or about the cute girl I saw at the farmer’s market earlier. I would go outside every morning and open the door to the coop, smiling at all my little friends. They would be spoiled beyond belief--getting fresh produce and grain for breakfast, or whatever they’d like. A section of the yard would be fenced off and dedicated to them, safe from animals who would hurt them. Robert and his fire would never be welcome there.

[ 118 ]

Grace Ashby / “Huntress” / Honorable Mention / Undergraduate Art [ 119 ]

Letting In the Goddess

Eden Borden, Third Place

What I didn’t know was that it was

never a sin to love myself.

Standing bare and vulnerable in front of my mirror, a woman I’d never known stared back at me. The silhouette of a being much more powerful than me was creeping out of the shadows. I had long lived in the presence of a goddess, but who possessed no shrine, no patron, and no fanfare. I’d long ignored her inhabitance, waiting for someone to come and awake her from the dust and rattle her bones back into existence. I forsook her. In first grade, I stood in line at the end of recess, waiting for our teacher to come receive us. A voice arose out from the fourfoot crowd. “Eden Borden is fat!” I whipped my head around and saw a boy, lifted up by [ 120 ]

his friends, laughing down at me. My first public humiliation. Two years later, after a similar incident, I found myself at my teacher’s desk near tears. “Mrs. Barnes, I hate it. I hate my body.” The old woman who was my eccentric third grade teacher pulled me into a hug then wrapped her shawl around me as we took a lap around the classroom. I leaned into her plump side. After much contemplation, Mrs. Barnes came out with a most peculiar response. “If we went on a field trip across the ocean and our boat sank, you would float.” Puzzled, I met her eyes. “If we took a tour of the Sahara Desert and got lost, everyone else would die off faster. You’d probably survive. Me too, of course.” She let out a merry laugh and patted her tummy. Morbid as it was, I took comfort in her words. I could sleep well knowing that at the very least, I’d outlive my tormentors. When you’re bigger, no one wants to tell you. It’s like it’s a secret that they don’t think you’re aware of. As though you haven’t endured insults, being spat on, or punched in the face. At fourteen, my friends and I held a Halloween party. I’d dressed up as the BBC Sherlock Holmes, despite the fact that blazers were no match for my broad shoulders. All of us being actors, the night was filled with roleplay, games, and pranks. One of them being that one of my girlfriends and I pretended to be possessed. While we were doing this, the boy I had a crush on picked up my suit

Borden, Third Place coat that I’d draped over the couch and threw it over his shoulders. I cringed, but didn’t stop my acting. He barely weighed a buck two and it swallowed him. Loudly, he proclaimed to one of the guys, “Dallin, this is huge. Is it yours?” “No. Let me try it on.” he handed it off to him and Dallin threw it around himself. “Must be my older brother’s. Fatty.” The two of them went on like that right in front of me. I held in every tear. It’s just boys teasing each other. They don’t mean any of it. If they knew it was you, they wouldn’t say that. But...maybe they would. Is that what they think of me? When it came time to go home, and all games had ended, I asked everyone if they had seen my blazer. The two boys looked at one another, cheeks flushing red at the realization of what they’d done, and handed it over, unable to look me in the eyes.

like. Out of all my friends, I had always been the most confident, and yet I held onto my insecurities like dirty little secrets. I stripped off my clothes, ready to get into my pajamas. As I walked across the bedroom, I turned to my mirror. And there she was. A goddess that I had tucked away in shame. But now, I couldn’t help but worship her. Every curve, every roll, every dimple was a reminder that she lived. The rigid cracks in her granite thighs and the many marks along the soft gold plating of her back decorated this temple. Goddess of my home, forgive me for not seeing your magnificence sooner.

Each feature was its own masterpiece. Her skin like silk, I trailed my fingers lightly over her statue. The gorgeous craftsmanship of her calves that must have been carved from It seemed that people only ever saw me alabaster stone. A marble rear that turned as sum of body parts in high school. Despite every seat into a throne. A belly soft and plush my directors promising me parts, I was never as down pillows. And if prudishness might cast in anything besides ensemble, and the forgive my admiration, I ran my hands over costumes never fit right. I was never asked to the curved pair of beautiful, cushiony breasts a school dance, save by a couple very platonic that glistened slightly in morning light and friends out of sympathy. And that was a shame; hung like jewels upon an armored chest. These I loved dancing. Even eating in front of people figures led up to two strong shoulders made was hard. I loved myself from head to toe and of polished bronze. The column that held up was so in love with who I was, but I wanted her head was not unlike the ones that held up other people to love me too. Out of that shame, the Parthenon. All of her soft, and yet all of her I never talked about my weight, I did my best to figure made of precious stone. accommodate so others were comfortable, and Her crowning glory was the freckle upon I was never too loud. her upper right lip. She had kissed the sun, After a long day, I came home and cried. taking him in her arms as her lover. He had laid I loved who I was, but I hated what I looked her in a bed of grass, bathing her in warmth, [ 121 ]

Borden, Third Place and stroked his fingers up her body turning her pale frame to gold. Despite his radiant heat as he explored her, she shivered, knowing that the heavens were infatuated with her. Any lover after him would have to admire it and know that she’d been loved by him first. Below her emerald globes, the moon left her a mark of violet crescents. The goddess often banished sleep from her place and succumbed to the gentle caress of moonlight. She quickly became her inamorata, whispering sweet, intoxicating ideas into her mind at all hours. Together, they created art, studied philosophy, and expounded literature. Spoiled in the moon’s diamond frame, the goddess thrived. How could I not have known? So blinded by the howls and clawing of hounds, I had hidden her away. It was by my own doing that this happened to her, and I was no better than them. It’s a funny thing, shame. It piles up in the chambers of your mind like dirty laundry. It sits on a chair, in a corner, or maybe even in a basket. And it’s just there. Living with you. And when you want to go out and have fun you can’t bring yourself to because there is just. So. Much. Laundry. But today was laundry day. So I took out those piles and banished them from my space. I was so eager to exorcise it from me. I shoved it out the windows, threw it out the door, tossed every crumb of it into the fire, and bleached the carpets until at last I stood in a place I could call home. A purified space fit for my goddess. She did not come immediately, but when I heard her knock, I thrust open the door and [ 122 ]

pulled her inside. She came in further, taking stock of the walls, and drapes, and furniture. There was an air to her going that filled everything up with light, and I find that the longer she has stayed, the brighter she glows. She has shown me the power of my womanhood. From head to toe, I had been given the gift to learn, to feed, to love, to nourish, and to give life. She taught me the beauty of a woman’s blood, and comforted me through its pain. In its shedding, I was proving that I was here, and I was breathing, and I was alive. And one day the death of old blood would bring about new life. These natural forces crowned me in confidence. I am the goddess that lives in these halls. I am the force to be reckoned with. And as I stared at my own reflection that day, I smiled-noticing for the first time that I had dimples-because I had found her at last. And she was free. And she could not be caged again.


NonFiction [ 123 ]

What I Make My Self Marie Skinner, First Place

My path to self-discovery has been a subtractive process: cutting away to reveal something already there rather than building up from a bare framework. When I was very young—let’s say four or five years old because it was before my family moved into the yellow house with the giant maple tree in the front yard, but after the tiny apartment with cut-out bricks—I went to a church and colored with brittle crayons that snapped in my hands until they were unwieldy stubs that made me color out of the lines. One girl claimed she had a baby sister who pronounced “yellow” as “lello,” and “pink” as “bink.” I thought the girl, whose dress was prettier than mine and who had her very own purse (into which I suspect many of the crayons had vanished), was a liar. That girl tried to keep every color away from me except [ 124 ]

brown, so perhaps therein lies the seed of my mistrust. After coloring, we moved hard plastic chairs over the wooden floors into a circle and the stranger who had been tasked with tending us began to teach us a song. Somehow, I knew the song! I was so surprised that I knew it, and I was incredibly proud. The teacher taught us another, and I knew it even better than the first. The teacher let me show the class the actions that went along with the song. When my mother came to collect me, I was lost in a haze of self-satisfaction and awe. How did I know that I’m a child of God? How did I know that Jesus wants me for a sunbeam? But know it I did. It’s not a mystery now why I knew, but at the time, being in an unfamiliar context made it impossible for me to connect cause and effect, and I internalized how good it felt to know the answers. From that point on, I lost sight of any other way of being. “I” was the girl with the answers, and since the first of those wonderful, fulfilling answers was about my relationship to God, that’s who I was, too. A child of God, 110%. At least on Sunday, when anyone was asking questions to which I already knew the answers. The answers kept coming, and “I” kept expanding. But all that was additive. New friends, new interests, new knowledge. New mistakes, new hang-ups, new heartbreaks. It’s what I do or have done, not what I am. To discover self is to chip away everything extra, like carving a block of marble and discovering the sculpture inside. Discovering that, discovering myself in all the

Skinner, First Place noise, has required a constant effort to cut away what seems essential in order to discover that it isn’t. Examples will help me say this more clearly. Religion was the most significant contributor to my sense of who I was. Until it wasn’t. My friends—every day, all day. Until they weren’t. My relationships, my interests, my music tastes, my sense of style, my hair, my hair, my hair, and my hair once again. I may seem like an entirely different person to others, but to myself, I feel the same. The sculpture inside, my self, has not changed. That much cutting away should be painful—it should leave a mark, shouldn’t it? Some summers ago, at 33 years old and one year after the birth of my third child, I treated myself to a laparoscopic tubal ligation. Extreme self-care. An explanation is in order. My first homebirth, though difficult, was empowering. My second, more difficult, was gratifying. My third was my catabasis, my trip into the underworld. I held the plea to be taken to the hospital between my teeth for hours and through dozens of agonizing contractions. And what the midwife did to help us was more excruciating than I thought anything could be. Three natural births, with a total of over 60 hours of labor, and the last fifteen minutes was beyond my imagination. Words of capitulation nearly struggled free a dozen times before my son, blue and gray and smeared with bright blood, finally did. That was my anabasis, the return from whence there should have been none. So the surgery that summer was certainly [ 125 ]

self-care. Before surgery, my doctor—who was also my surgeon—warned me that the procedure is considered irreversible. Fine. Good. That’s the point. No more birth-control mishaps. No more torture through reproduction (I’d love to use a little Latin here, but it looks like a dirty joke if I do). Don’t think this is about my children, who are wonderful and beautiful and brave and smell so good that to hug them is to mainline oxytocin. It’s not about them. It’s just me. I am too selfish to provide my youngest, who is far younger than his siblings, with his own Irish twin. My doctor and surgeon warned me that sometimes people need counseling after having themselves sterilized. We both laughed a little at the idea that I might be one of those people. I was certain, and she knew it. I didn’t save the pamphlet she gave me. The surgery went well. I woke up with two thin incisions—stitched and taped. My mind was up with the wispy clouds. Something rhythmically squeezed one leg, then the other to keep blood clots from forming. It was uncomfortable for me to let others take care of me for a few hours—it didn’t seem like I deserved it. That still comes back to haunt me sometimes. Sometime after I got home with the worst cramps of my life outside of childbirth and the tail end of a drugged stupor that made me say sappy things to people I usually avoid speaking to (the fam, but not my fam), I started feeling like a fraud. It was the dresses and skirts I was

Skinner, First Place supposed to wear to avoid any pressure or waistbands on the incisions—they weren’t for me anymore. After surgery, I bought clothes and shoes exclusively from the men’s section. My hair was still growing out from a solidarity buzz-cut (mom got cancer again), but instead of the pale pink or lavender I loved before surgery, I had to cover it with sky blue or leave it platinum. I had to. And if it had been longer? Cut it. No choice. Feminine wasn’t for me. My world became a ridiculous, hyperfocused nightmare. I hated how I looked. I couldn’t stand the idea of others seeing me. My daughter told me I should wear nicer clothes so I could be pretty again, and my oldest son asked me why I always wore his dad’s shirts. Well, they were my shirts, kiddo, and I’m not “pretty,” even in a dress and heels, sweetheart. But the innocent criticism wasn’t easy to dismiss. I didn’t, and still don’t, have regrets about the surgery, so I couldn’t understand the sudden changes in how I perceived myself. I no longer felt comfortable being perceived as female. Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t trying to make anyone think I was male, either. In my mind, I think I was rightly neither gender, but not specifically non-binary. But in what sane world is, “I wear dresses,” intrinsically bound to, “I am a fertile female?” None. The world, as insane as it has become, is not quite that insane, and I didn’t think I was that crazy, either. My mind was recognizing a fundamental shift in functional sex that couldn’t correlate [ 126 ]

with a similar shift in gender role. I can’t be “not as female as before,” though by some measures, I guess I am. I’ve come to terms with the irrationality and found ways to cope with it, but questions about pronouns are still aggravating because they remind me how much I don’t want my gender to be a part of my identity. My zoom tag solution: rather than (she/her) or (they/them) after my name, I put (any), though it took me years to figure that out. In 1881, Edgar Degas caused an uproar in Paris with his only publicly exhibited sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. She is a bronze cast of a wax sculpture—additive, built from nothing, opposed to subtractive, like carved marble. But she is unique—she is clothed. I don’t mean she’s depicted wearing bronze clothing, I mean she is wearing actual cloth. I don’t know what art historians and scholars say about the reason she so upset Paris, other than that she is supposedly “ugly,” but I suspect it has a lot to do with her dress. Since Little Dancer is wearing cloth, she can be unclothed. She would then be naked, but not nude—a distinction in art that I understand revolves around the figure’s consciousness of, and comfort with, an unclothed state. I’ve been told that ballet dancers in Paris at the time were usually poor and pretty. They were derided, called “opera rats.” Because of their humble origins and low social status, they were vulnerable girls who were often preyed upon by older men with some measure of wealth. “Protectors,” they are sometimes

Skinner, First Place called, though I suspect the dancers called them something very different. Little Dancer’s dress, then, is a graphic reminder of her status and her vulnerability. No wonder Paris was uncomfortable to see her. But as useless as her dress is at protecting her, she herself is made of bronze. She’s impervious. Perhaps that’s what outraged Paris. We’ve lost the cultural literacy to emotionally experience the sculpture as it was received at the time it was first unveiled, but she is still useful, and she is still stunning. Little Dancer suggests to me that even if I chisel too deep and remove something that should rightly be part of my sculpture of self, that just means it’s no longer part of the unalterable symbol I identify as self. Dancer isn’t her dress. She isn’t forever a ballet rat, though I imagine the model would have answered, “Who are you?” with, “I am a dancer,” when she was posing for Degas. Perhaps her sculpture should have cast her dress in bronze, but would Paris have talked about her that way? Would we remember the only sculpture a painter of ballet dancers ever showed the public if she and her dress were impenetrable? So, when I chisel too much, if I cut too deeply, do I change myself, or do I reveal something that changes my understanding of self? After 33 years, I finally found something that was close enough to “self” and “I” that the foundations quaked when I cut it away. And I hate it. Why is my ability to reproduce more important to my sense of self than religion was? Why is it more important than the things I’ve been passionate about and given up by force or by choice? No matter how much I’ve [ 127 ]

lost or how much I seem to change, I’m certain it takes more than that to alter who and what I really am. I don’t know what that means, except that I am the only common thread in my own life, and deep down, I’ve never changed. Maybe I can’t change until that thread is cut, and the distinction of me and not me is too rigid. Maybe those categories don’t really exist at all. I’ve always had more questions than answers, even when I thought I had a full complement of mated pairs, but maybe questions themselves aren’t any simpler than gender or identity.


Bonnie Reeder, Second Place

is no use to defend my partner who, at the cringe of my nose, removed the body that everyone else had avoided all week. The most I can offer Angie is my silence.

I don’t like to touch rabbits, even

Angie stabs a rock and breaks to push aside a muddy tear from her cheek. Stepping off the concrete into the dirt, I gesture for a turn with the shovel. “I think you’ve gone deep enough, let’s just take down this edge a little.” After ensuring that the box fits, Angie paces to the black garbage can and precariously teeters on the lip while her tiptoes slide on the ice.

when they’re alive. Lingering by my visible breath is the spirit of the family pet, as I crouch on my haunches at the corner of the garage. Angie isn’t wrong to be upset, though her dad does not deserve the adolescent rage she delivers with each plunge of the shovel into the dirt. The time to talk reason will come later.

Finally grasping the red drawstring of the kitchen Glad bag, Angie recovers her balance, “She’s not trash!” Angie cries. “He threw her hoists herself up, and brings her bunny back, away! She’s! Not! Trash!” thumping it next to the box at my feet. I stretch my legs and stand back up, letting It’s Angie’s turn to be silent now, and she the posture of my lips and eyes remind her that scowls at winter, and the world, but won’t look Peterina has been dead for a week. at me. She turns away into the garage and I “She’s not a broken toy!” “You can’t just hear the doors slam on the repurposed pantry throw her away!” “Did you think I wouldn’t cupboards. notice!?” Around the corner I ask, “What are you Angie pauses her digging to measure looking for, Ang?” curious if there is a plan the large silver gift box she decorated with attached to her intense rummaging. Peterina’s name. In frustration, she picks up the “I’m looking for gloves,” she retorts. shovel again, and I don’t tell her that it needs to be wider not deeper. “Oh,” I say, mentally checking the bins Instead, I say, “You’re right, hun.” Inhaling then exhaling. “You’re absolutely right.” “But Dad threw her away!” Catching my instinct, I don’t respond. It [ 128 ]

in the cabinets. Estimating that this might take a while, I change to a kneeling position and involuntarily my eyes close as in prayer. Instead of platitudes, however, I scan my memory for gloves. I hear them before I see

Reeder, Second Place them, and they sound familiar, like mourning. *** I was fifteen and a half, Angie’s age, when my cousin Michelle’s twins were born. I was fifteen and a half and two days when Michelle’s twins passed away. We visited at the end of the year, and my mom uncomfortably asked, “Will you tell me about the twins?” I clenched my lips around my braces, questioning my mother’s approach. Michelle, surprised as well, gave a long glance gauging the sincerity. My mom nodded, steady. The first of the story I forget, but the end I cannot. “Gloves. Gloves!” Michelle sobbed in outrage. “Can you believe that Aunt Nina? The nurse, she asked me if I wanted gloves to hold my babies!”

lid to the box. A smile huffs from my chest as I recognize the padding as the too-big striped knit shirt I gave Angie less than a month ago. I shrug; I’m always forgetting her size and guessing it wrong. Looking back towards the bunny, goosebumps move from my arms to my throat. Audibly this time, I bend my voice into the garage, “It’s fine.” Inhaling then exhaling. “Hey Ang, it’s fine. Don’t worry about gloves, hun. I can just rest her in her box.” I watch my fingers cradle Peterina’s head first and then her torso. Echoes of “What have I done? What am I doing?” shake in me until suddenly my skittishness is suppressed by Peterina’s unexpected weight and overwhelming softness. Slowly, I move her.

Angie comes around the corner, and I blink, feeling the shiver of motherhood. She bends toward me, leaning in to pet her bunny. My mom let Michelle rock as she anchored I put my arm around her shoulder on the her in an embrace, and then, without wincing, pretense of warmth, then reverently fold her asked, “Do you have any pictures?” into a hug. The rest of the family huddle out in Michelle transformed her rocking into procession from the warmth of the window. I nods, “Would you look at them?” rush inside to assemble a bouquet of lettuce. We sing, we take turns with the shovel, we talk *** about Peterina. My eyelids lift, peeking, because the Two hours later, I notice that I haven’t prayer isn’t over. In front of me is the flexible washed my hands. plastic, and inside, the unknowable. I fuss out the drawstring knot and expand the opening **** of the bag. Relaxing my shoulders, I inaudibly chant, “It’s fine.” I pull the edges until Peterina is completely uncovered, then, I look. Taking in Peterina’s dimensions, I lift the [ 129 ]

Grace Ashby / “Queen of the Woods” / Honorable Mention / Undergraduate Art [ 130 ]

Goodbye, my Birds Karalee Riddle, Third Place ~ August 25, 2020 ~ One month marks the passing of a difficult decision, one that will leave a mark. I can only now begin to look back at the door I’ve closed. The emotions of the people I care about are palpable, and I imagine looking into the eyes of those I wish to explain myself to. An inconvenient truth I’ve only just realized about myself: I’ve never been particularly good at goodbyes. Perhaps a childhood of moving often or my own insecurities have contributed to that startling fact. Either way, my spirit is healing from some deep wounds I have been unsure of how to face, until now. I’ve wanted to be a teacher since the earliest days on tap. Just ask the poor neighborhood children who endured my vision of “school” when it was my turn to pick what to play. Like following a compass, I knew my direction and was constantly walking toward what I thought would save me. For eleven years, through life’s pickles and [ 131 ]

pleasures, I chased my North. Arriving was bliss. Right where I needed to be, I flourished. Teaching was love. It was a gift, and I blazed my own trail, surprising some, but confirming what I had always known: that it was my special place. So many great kids, so much to learn. My philosophy ran deep, braided with human integrity and curiosity. Through science experiments, service projects, songs, and debates, I challenged my students—my birds—to look with observant eyes, taking in more than facts and figures. I hoped they’d see the zest, the magic in one another and themselves, to see through a larger lens, one that carries us through the subtleties of the human existence, drinking the secret wisdom offered to us if only we watch and listen. It worked! A lot of the time it did, and there’s a spark you see in a student’s eyes. You teachers out there know the one. And that moment of ignition, that bit of energy is enough to fuel you for a year, through all the other bullshit—the bureaucracy, the politics, and opinions that are placed at your classroom door—shoved at you, and handed to you in baskets with handshakes. You carry it all, put it in a corner, and guard against the darker parts. You keep your spirit light and clean because a classroom is a sacred place. Your students need not know the dark. So you light yourself up like the Fourth of July. You dance, do voices, wear many hats, and you burn so bright that your kids will only see the light. You burn. You’re the last car there, the one to

Riddle, Third Place take on a parent night or club that no one else will. You stay after to tutor, to plan your magic much past paid time because that’s what it takes to do it right.

us up before, and we wished for a return to our normal. New normal came with a price though. In negotiating this new space, my idea of being a teacher took on new meanings.

You arrive home late and the guilt settles in, a gut-punching fog, as you see the state of your house, the need for dinnertime, and the faces of your own children who have partially given up on needing things from you because they know what you won’t say out loud, that there’s not much left for them.

Words were slung like mud, and many of them stuck to me. Each hit dented what I thought was prestigious armor, and I couldn’t clean it off. I could no longer pile all the baggage up in a corner of my classroom. I could no longer muster the energy to dance, to sing, act, and inspire with so many holes in my veneer. Words like, “If you don’t want to go back, then quit,” or, “Teachers just want to sit at home and collect a paycheck!” Didn’t they know the truth? The truth of costumes, long days, late nights? Wagons of work going home on the weekends, supplies from Amazon delivered to my door every few days to fill the gaps that a tight, public budget couldn’t touch? Couldn’t they see the magic created inside those four walls?

This takes a slow toll, and you start to wonder what it would have been like if you had chosen differently. What if you had the kind of job you could mostly leave at work? What if taking a day off wasn’t more work than it was worth? You see your students’ faces though, and you remember why. You work with a talented, empathetic group of educators, and you’re not alone because they are wading in it with you. It’s a calling, not a job. It’s deeper than a paycheck. It’s deeper than a paycheck. What is my value? A pandemic. A pause. A shift in perception. I looked around at my worn out family, and we healed. Through walks, rides, dinners, and conversations, we became what I didn’t know we were missing. I relished in it! I’ll forever be grateful for that slice of light in a strange and difficult period. Just like most, we missed some of our routines, social aspects of life that helped fill [ 132 ]

Or was it worse than not knowing? Did they care? Maybe I was just a warm body to man the classroom so we could all go back to normal. This thought grew like a tumor and darkened my typical energy I banked to start up a year, and I knew I was different. My spirit, at odds with itself, played tug of war. Faces of future students pleaded with me to battle though. It went on and on and neither side won. It stings to say, I closed my classroom door for the last time, before I knew I was finished with it. It’s still so fresh and tender, but there it is… My own truth, leaking from me like a broken yoke. I know it’s ugly to some; I know it’s hurtful to some. I cower at the thought of it sometimes.

Riddle, Third Place But, each day, I have one less bag to carry, one less package to hide in a corner. Each day I see revealed the nature of what I have chosen—me. My family. My health. The survival of those is paramount to other peoples’ normal. As much as it chokes me to admit, I can’t shoulder the shit this year. And I definitely can’t shoulder it and be the teacher I demand of myself, because in the end, I wouldn’t come out quite right. Please take this last thing with you though. I still love every student I’ve ever had. I love the ones I haven’t yet had. I see them; I hear them, and I hope great things for them. While this profession seems sadly less prestigious than it did to my less-battered self, I still believe in education all the way to my core. I genuinely love teaching and learning. While I don’t know what doors will open to me from here, I deeply respect and feel the loss of the one I have just closed. Goodbye for now, my birds. With only love,

Mrs. Riddle Room 36

[ 133 ]

Interested in submitting to the USU Creative Writing and Art Contest 2023? Submissions will open Janurary 2023.

2022 Sink Hollow: An Undergraduate Literary Magazine | [ 134 ]

Articles inside


pages 128-129

Goodbye, my Birds

pages 131-134

What I Make My Self

pages 124-127


pages 111-112

Letting In the Goddess

pages 120-123

Chicken Coop

pages 116-118

Mo(u)rning Song

pages 113-115

Butterfly Kiss

page 110

The Age of a Tree

pages 107-108


page 106


page 105

imposter syndrome

page 104

Humor Me

pages 98-99

Soft Bitched Brain

page 97

A Short Memoir of Two Houses

pages 86-90

construction work

pages 94-95

fresh cut distress

page 96

Pining for Homework

pages 92-93

Baby Kitten McBride (?-July 24, 2021

pages 84-85

Blackberry Magic

pages 72-81


pages 48-56

Deus Ex Machina

pages 20-29

“Wistful Blues” / Noelani Hadfield / Honorable Mention

pages 65-71

Do Robots Dream of Electric Horse Debugger?

pages 57-64

“Spring on the Brain”

pages 13-19

“The Consequence of Being Human”

pages 30-39


pages 40-45

The Woodworker’s Heart

pages 7-12
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