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A Publication of Rice University Department of English MS 33 Houston, TX 77005


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission of author or publisher, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law.

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Printed by PrintingXPress Printed in the United States of America www.texlandia.org

Editorial Staff

Ella Hoyt Sarah Swackhamer Hannah Young Marcus Munshi Selena Shi Kristie Lynn Colton Alstatt

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Lily Wulfemeyer Sonia Hamer Brittny Ray Crowell

Web & Submissions Managers

Lily Wulfemeyer Ella Hoyt

Copy Editor

Katie Edkins Milligan

Layout Editor

Eva Liu

Editor in Chief

Ian Schimmel



Texlandia is a Houston-based literary and visual arts magazine seeking to promote the work of established and aspiring writers and artists from Texas and beyond.

We are a nonprofit, all-volunteer publication staffed by undergrad uates, graduate students, and faculty at Rice University.

Texlandia has received generous support from Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, The School of Humanities, and the Department of English.

From the Editor

This magazine is an arrival. It is an arrival in the obvious sense in that, at long last, it has arrived here, in front of you, our readers. But it is also our hope that this magazine offers an arrival of an other kind, into a new place.

The inspiration for the Texlandia project was to seek out writ ers whose work could reimagine our notions of place and the characters therein. The challenge became how to do that without becoming lost. To invoke new and yet-to-be-defined “place” as an organizing principle was a compelling idea but also a daunt ing one.

The pieces that ultimately make up this issue each reminded us of an inextricable fact - that selfhood and place are always linked, and to perceive one we often require an uprooting from the other. As much as we have worked to design an issue that is boundless and pioneering, we are struck by how the writers and artists within these pages are often in conversation with arrival and return. These pieces all transported us, and they brought us back again. Perhaps it is that movement - away from and back to the self - that lets us understand the ceremonies and perfor mances of the places we call home.

We hope you enjoy reading this inaugural issue as much as we have enjoyed making it. We are so grateful to all of our con tributors for their thoughtfulness and generosity, and we are so delighted to welcome you, at long last, to Texlandia

contents:6 / TEXLANDIA 2022
10 El Adele Oliveira 26 The President Who Was Like Me Chukwu Sunday Abel 32 A Season of Caterpillars Laura Villareal 34 Hermit Justin Jannise 36 Down Where the Summer Went Deep Emma Bolden 38 Venice Amelia Brown 42 Egg Peter Wakeman Schranz 52 Let’s Play House Jasmine Ledesma 54 Birds of the Air Tyler Sones 72 Roads Mark Jackley 74 Exposure Gin Faith Thomas 76 Post-Apocalyptia Jessica Barksdale 78 Ending with Articulatory Gestures Anthony Sutton 82 Charlot Brendan Egan 98 Party Favors Amber D. Dodd 114 At the Window Caleb Braun 116 Elegy for St. Gertrude Audi Barnes 118 Last Sunday of August Emma Aylor 120 Terrible Lizard Carson Markland 7 / TEXLANDIA 2022
Untouched Beauty
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At first, when they didn’t hand her the baby, Cindy thought something was terribly wrong. Then she heard a cry, and Dr. Boyd made a sound too. He laughed. He ruffled his lips with an exhale, like a horse.

They brought Cindy the girl, swathed in receiving blankets. A nurse put her in Cindy’s arms and Dr. Boyd folded back a corner of the flannel, revealing the baby’s hip. By then, she was squall ing.

“If you’ll look just here,” the doctor said, pointing to a large, port-wine colored stain that bloomed on the infant’s tummy and wrapped around to her back. Cindy squinted. The edges of the birthmark were clean and sharp, not irregular and meandering the way body markings usually are. The mark wasn’t solid, either. It had negative spaces within its shape, mimicking the deliberate artistry of a tattoo. The likeness was unmistakable. There was the swoop of the pompadour, the curl of the lip. The birthmark was the face of Elvis.

“I don’t understand,” Cindy said. “Why did this happen?”

“It’s a mystery!” Dr. Boyd sounded more delighted than alarmed. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, but we’ll zap it with bilirubin all the same. Nurse?”

December 2002, the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The day before, Cindy was enormous, losing track of the days. When her contractions had started in the afternoon, snow was falling heavily, already settling in drifts that nudged out into the streets. Debbie, Cindy’s mother and roommate, had driven in her RAV4, racing through the snow, the flakes coming at them in the headlights like stars at warp speed, while Cindy had whis pered, “carefulcarefulcareful.” Debbie had stayed in the waiting room, because, “I think it’s better if I stay out here, don’t you?” None of the nurses thought to go out to tell her that her grand daughter had arrived, and Cindy did not remind them.

Satisfied with his work, Dr. Boyd strode away smiling and three nurses fell on Cindy, tugging at the plastic sheets beneath her, pulling back the sweat-soaked hospital gown to expose her breast. “That’s it dear. We call that a C-clamp.” Cindy registered the baby latching, the wailing ceasing, but she didn’t feel it. Ex hausted, she collapsed against the bed.

Hours later she woke to stillness, save for the hushed whir of medical equipment, and went to examine the baby, sleeping in a neat plastic box they called a bassinet. When Cindy pulled back the blankets, her daughter stirred and kicked, but she did not cry. The baby’s face squished into wrinkles before smooth ing again in slumber. The birthmark smirked up at Cindy. She smoothed her fingers across its surface, almost expecting it to smear, the joke finally revealed. But the birthmark was colorfast, indistinguishable in texture and temperature from her baby’s skin. Cindy wondered if it would stretch and fade. What did it mean, to be born with The King’s face emblazoned on your body? Cindy wasn’t sure how the birthmark figured into her daughter’s destiny, only that it did.

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“What should I call you?” Cindy whispered in the moonlight, re-bunching layers of blankets previously tucked and folded origami-tight by an unseen night nurse. “Lisa Marie?” Fleetingly, she thought of the baby’s father, a charming one-night stand named Christopher, first name only. She’d had other boyfriends since then, other sex in the bathroom stalls at Evangelo’s too, but Christopher was the only one where the math made sense. He had dimples, eschewed cell phones, MySpace profiles, “basi cally any and all FBI surveillance technology.” He had passed through town ages ago, on his way to the coast—LA, Portland, Vancouver, depending how long his money lasted. He was long gone, and none of this was his.

The next morning, filling out Social Security paperwork before discharge, Cindy impulsively chose Genevieve Marie. Debbie deemed it pretentious. Cindy knew she could never carry herself; she was Cynthia at her fanciest, and only when she was in trouble. But a girl with an Elvis birthmark had sparkle at birth. If the baby inhabited Genevieve Marie from the get-go, maybe it would never seem ostentatious or strange.

Cindy wasn’t born when Elvis died, back in ’77. Debbie told her about it, when they drove Genevieve home from the hospital. “You bet I cried like a baby!” Other people Debbie’s age liked to talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot but Deb bie performed this ritual for everyone, icons and intimates alike. She always cried when someone died, whether it was Lois who worked at the pharmacy or Lady Di in the Pont de l’Alma. Cindy sat in the backseat unbuckled, testing the side-to-side mobility of the infant car seat.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to go back and forth like this,” she said.

“I was at work, between tables, running back to the kitchen,” Debbie said, “When Sarah told me— ‘he’s dead! He’s dead! Elvis is dead!’ It was August and I was perspiring, but I’ll never forget it, I felt my blood run cold. That poor man. We didn’t know the part about the toilet until later, of course. Maybe Genny will be a singer?”

They hadn’t been home a week before Debbie carried this line of thinking to its next logical step, musing over ways to mon etize the birthmark.

“What, you want to charge five bucks for people to come and gawk at my daughter?” Cindy said, wincing as Genevieve took her raw nipple in her mouth. “She’s not a freak show, Deb bie. No way.”

“Did I say I wanted to do that? You’ve seen them well as I have—that tortilla in Las Cruces that had the face of Jesus blis tered into it, on the news? Those people were famous, because they shared something extraordinary! And the public wanted to know. Everybody’s always looking for a sign, but especially now.” She paused. “I’d charge a lot more than five dollars.”

“A sign of what?” Cindy asked.

“What, you want to charge five bucks for peo ple to come and gawk at my daughter?” Cindy said, wincing as Genevieve took her raw nipple in her mouth. “She’s not a freak show, Debbie. No way.”
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Debbie rolled her eyes. “Any number of things! Evidence of reincarnation. Intelligent design. Divine intervention. That’s not for us to decide. Personally, though, I think it’s a miracle. A miracle with a sense of humor.”

The pay-to-view scheme never materialized, partly because Cindy kept the birthmark hidden.

“That’s just gonna make her hate it,” Debbie said, on a Sep tember Saturday when Genevieve was six, as Cindy stuck a pink plastic bandage over El, not because Genevieve had a scrape, but to conceal him from view. Genevieve was going to be in the desfile de los ninos—the pet parade—matching several of her friends in a puffy crop top and circle skirt trimmed with rickrack.

“No,” Cindy said, like Genevieve couldn’t hear them. “What I’m doing is making sure she gets to enjoy being in the parade like anyone else, that nobody stops her, or stares or points or says ‘what’s that?’”

At the time, Genevieve hadn’t minded. She’d jumped up and down in front of the mirror, too excited to be still for the intri cate Dutch braids she’d been promised. But she made a habit of carrying Band-Aids after that, even on jeans and t-shirt days. Having one in her back pocket at all times, one she could pat occasionally to make sure it was still there, became her ritual in moments of unease.

Debbie, Cindy, and Genevieve referred to El often amongst themselves, but his potential as an avenue to fame and fortune was largely abandoned, until one afternoon when Genevieve was seventeen. She let herself in through the back door after school, a shoulder season day in March when the weather was turning. Spring was on the wind, winter wasn’t gone—fresh buds and a few blossoms trembled on the gnarled apricot tree that took up most of their postage stamp sized courtyard, a bold bet that hard frosts had passed for the year. Half of the time the tree was wrong.

Cindy and Debbie were sitting at the kitchen table, hands cupped around mugs of black coffee. Genevieve almost never came home to a full house. Debbie worked the slow afternoon shift at the restaurant and Cindy was nine years into pursuing a PhD in philosophy, eight months into an online associate degree in business administration. Most nights she got home from studying at the public library around seven, if she didn’t have her weekly shift at Evangelo’s.

Money was tight. Money was always tight, but it never mattered as much before because Cindy was thrifty and handy; Debbie could sew and cook. It never mattered before because Genevieve wasn’t going to “finishing school for artsy fartsy types,” according to Debbie. When Genevieve applied to RISD, she pretended it was a whim, but assembling her portfolio was a painstaking, laborious process—scanning her best drawings in the library during free periods, borrowing fixative kept in a locked cabinet in the art room to spray dusty charcoal sketch es. When the letter came, the one that said yes, Genevieve had

been surprised by its lightness, just two sheets of paper, but there it was, in black and white: “Welcome.” She’d been star tled when Debbie asked if she’d applied for loans concurrently, downright alarmed when Cindy said that online learning was the wave of the future, why did Genevieve need to move at all?

“Good, you’re home,” Cindy said, as Genevieve stood in the doorway. “We have some news.”

“It’s happening. We’re finally going to be on TV!” Debbie said.

Genevieve started at them, let her backpack fall from her hand to the floor.

“Debbie sent in an audition video,” Cindy said carefully.

“For?” said Genevieve.

“For all of us,” Debbie said. “I mentioned you, of course. It’s a documentary series, very classy, all original content. Small Wonders—that’s the name.”

“Small what?”

“Small Wonders,” Cindy said. “I looked into it. It’s legitimate. They’re owned by a subsidiary of Disney. It pays, Gen. It pays a lot.”

“How much?” Genevieve asked.

“Three semesters at your art school. I looked it up.”

Genevieve didn’t say anything and Cindy went on in a rush. “It’s a week, Gen. They come and do pre-production for a cou ple days, get everything set up, then film for three days, tops.”

“What do they film?”

“Mostly ordinary stuff, at home with us, going to school. You’ll sit for interviews, they’ll interview me and Debbie, maybe a few of your friends and teachers, and then they’ll feature expert interviews, too. I imagine they’ll want to film El.”

Genevieve’s hand flew protectively to her hip.

Debbie broke in. “You’ll be treated like a star, honey. Valerie says. Valerie, she’s the producer. You’ll like her, she’s so nice on the phone. The series is about regular people—children, most ly—who have something special about them, like you. There’s a six-year-old in Nebraska who had a near-death experience and met the Archangel Raphael, and a teenager in Utah who has visions of tsunamis.”

“I don’t have visions. I have a port-wine stain on my side. And I don’t have any friends to interview.”

“What about that girl, what was her name? Marisol? Oh! They’ll have an astrologer do your chart, too, see if that explains

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El. Won’t that be fun?”

None of it sounded like fun but neither did an afterschool job at the restaurant—Debbie’s other suggestion for how Genevieve might pay for college, if she insisted on leaving them. She said yes.

The crew arrived following week. Genevieve had assumed Valerie would look like her idea of a Hollywood bimbo, all bleach and Botox, but she was in her early forties, barefaced but for a bold red lip. She was dressed in a plain white t-shirt and rigid jeans Genevieve could tell were expensive without seeing a label.

“You’ll be easy to shoot. You’re cute as a damn button,” Val erie said, studying Genevieve’s face, fingering the ends of her long hair. “Dimples, too.” Genevieve knew Valerie was flattering her, but that didn’t stop it from working. Genevieve blushed and tried to cover her dimples by pushing her hair in front of her ears so it covered her cheeks.

They started with practice questions in the kitchen. Debbie had cleaned even more ferociously than usual, Swiffering the floors until they shone, pinning all of Genevieve’s best draw ings onto the fridge, even though they didn’t really fit, wrapped around the sides. Valerie had an audio recorder, but no camera equipment yet. Cindy sat at the table with them, and there was room for four, but Debbie was too excited to sit so she paced around the small kitchen, wiping and re-wiping the narrow counters with a dishrag.

“How has being born with an Elvis tattoo affected your life?” Valerie said.

“It hasn’t really.” It was true that Genevieve didn’t think about El all the time. Mostly she was accustomed to telling people who asked that he didn’t bother her. “And it’s not a tattoo. It’s a nevus flammeus, and Debbie thinks about him—it—more than I do.”

“Well, that’s not going to work,” Valerie said, switching off her recorder. “There has to be a story for us to tell. Otherwise, what are we doing here?”

“There’s a story to tell here, Valerie,” Debbie said. “Genny— do you need coffee, or something?”

Genevieve was glad Debbie didn’t know about Troy. Troy, who a scant six weeks ago had run his fingertips over El, had been the second person to kiss him—Cindy used to when Gen evieve was little, Debbie never did—and the first to lick him, his long, warm tongue tickling Genevieve to convulsions, making her shriek with laughter. Troy caught her mouth with his. It felt like a long time ago now.

“Oh, what about the bathing suits?” said Debbie.

“The bathing suits?” asked Valerie.

Fine, thought Genevieve. The bathing suits would work.

“In seventh or eighth grade everyone was getting bikinis and I didn’t want to because of El,” Genevieve said.

“Go on…”

“A girl in my class saw it once, years before that, on a field trip to a city pool. Third grade, I think. We were changing, she pointed, asked if I’d been burned. I said no, it was a birthmark, but she wouldn’t believe me, she kept saying it was a burn, telling everyone else it was a burn, too. I was Burn Girl for a few weeks. Everybody forgot about it, but I knew they’d remember if I wore a bikini. So, I didn’t.”

“How did being called Burn Girl make you feel?” Valerie switched the recorder back on.

“I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. Sad, I guess. Lonely. Different.”

“Do you feel that way now?”

“No. Not usually.”

“Genevieve. We need to tell a story. Think about when ev eryone else got bikinis—you wanted to, too, but you didn’t. Sad. Lonely. Different. Do you feel that way now?”

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“Sometimes. I guess.”

“Alienation. Agony. That’s what I can work with,” Valerie said. “We can give you an arc—in fact, I think it’s best if we do—that ends in self-acceptance, in maybe even loving your tattoo, if you think that’s possible, but we can’t start there.”

“Seriously, it’s not a tattoo.”

“Right, not technically, but ‘Elvis tattoo’ sounds so much better than ‘Elvis birthmark’—it’s just a colloquialism that’ll track better. We’ll explain it at the outset.” She pointed. “May I see him?”

Genevieve had been dreading this part. With one hand, she pulled up the hem of her sweatshirt. She rolled down the waistband of her jeans with the other. The kitchen was warm, but goosebumps rose to attention along her ribcage. She looked away, at nothing, like she didn’t care, as she felt Valerie bend to look at El, close enough that her breath tickled Genevieve’s skin.

“Wow,” Valerie said. “Remarkable. He really—you haven’t had this touched up professionally, not even at the edges? Damn. You were right, Debbie. He is more lifelike in person. Did you know it’s amazing that this is your first time on TV? Statistically speaking?”

“I know!” Debbie threw her arms up in the air, caught be tween exasperation and triumph.

Valerie returned on Monday morning with a camera guy called Larry and a sound guy called David Michael. Both men wore hoodies, torn jeans, beanies. They could have been 25 or 45. Valerie miked Genevieve herself, swept translucent mattify ing powder over her brow. “I’ve seen makeup artists do it a mil lion times,” Valerie said. “We’re on a bit of a shoestring budget for the pilot season. There. Lovely. Let’s walk to school!”

Ordinarily, Genevieve walked the half mile to school every day in a daydreamy trance, stopping for colorful insects or changing foliage, ignoring the rest of the world, the monoto ny of passing cars and houses she saw every day. Walking to

Des Blue By Lauryl Eddlemon
“Alienation. Agony. That’s what I can work with,” Valerie said. “We can give you an arc—in fact, I think it’s best if we do—that ends in self-acceptance, in maybe even loving your tattoo, if you think that’s possible, but we can’t start there.”
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school with Valerie, Larry, and David Michael, this was rendered impossible. Valerie was taking stabs at narration: “On her way to class, Genevieve wonders if today will be one of ostracization or acceptance? No. What about: As she embarks on another day, Genevieve looks like a normal teenager, but underneath layers of pleather and polyester, a secret lurks.”

A passing car honked. Someone whooped out the window.

“What the hell?” Genevieve said.

“Ignore them,” Valerie said. “It’s not you, it’s us. How do you feel right now, Genevieve? Apprehensive? Excited? Terrified? Thrilled?”

“Um. Mildly nauseated, I guess.”

“Nausea! Of course you feel queasy—what’s everyone going to think when we show up at school with you? Why are we here? Maybe you’re under suspicion. Maybe you’re terminally ill? They don’t know!” Valerie squeezed Genevieve’s upper arm and smiled.

“What do you think your dad would think of all of this, you being on TV?” Valerie asked next.

“My dad? I don’t have a dad,” Genevieve said, confused. Why was Valerie asking about her father now?

“Genevieve, everybody has a dad,” Valerie said, chuckling like Genevieve had said something silly.

“Mine’s not around. I don’t know what he’d think.” Genevieve pulled at her backpack straps, cinching them closer to her chest. She had the feeling someone was walking close behind her, though nobody was.

“Do you look like him?” Valerie asked. “Do you know? Wouldn’t it be so crazy if your dad saw the show and recognized you?”

As approached the chain link fence that bordered the edge of the soccer field and a quiet street that ran behind the high school, Genevieve caught sight of a cluster of classmates, vap ing and trading tales of weekend glory before first bell.

“Yo, what’s this fancy shit?” said a boy named Cloud. “Body guards? You rich now, or something?”

Genevieve laughed like it was a joke she was in on as she approached the group of kids. Belatedly, she wondered if she should’ve asked the principal if Valerie and the crew could ac company her to school. But Valerie must’ve already done that— securing permits and signatures on talent release forms.

Aimee, a girl Genevieve hadn’t hung around with in years, called out to her:

“Hey, Burn Girl!” Aimee looked embarrassed, excited, em boldened by the smatter of laughter that followed. “Did your dad really brand you with a cattle prod when you were born?”

“Genevieve!” Amber, a girl she’d spoken to maybe twice. “Is it true that your mom let someone tattoo you when you were a baby in exchange for cheap meth?”

Genevieve stopped at the edge of the street, feeling faint. This had been a mistake.

“Larry!” Valerie hissed. “Get her face! Zoom in!”

Genevieve swallowed, thinking fast and then not thinking at all. Turning on the balls of her feet, grateful for the double-knots on her sneakers, she spun on the frayed edge of the grass, roughly shouldered past Valerie and David Michael, made for an alley at the end of the block that she knew emptied into a ravine choked with river willows and Siberian elms.

Genevieve was not athletic. She would jog slowly when laps were required in PE. Her quads seized in surprise as she willed her legs to move beneath her, stuttering into motion. She

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had a moment’s head start during which Valerie was stunned, but when she turned her head to glance behind her, there was Valerie in pursuit, Larry a stride or two behind. David Michael was still standing in the middle of the street, holding his sound equipment and Larry’s camera.

“Genevieve!” Valerie yelled. She was in decent shape, but her Italian loafers, leather-soled and slippery, struggled for purchase on the gravel. “Tell me how you’re feeling! Don’t worry, I’ll get those nasty little bitches to back the fuck off. We can’t pay you if you’re not on camera!”

Genevieve didn’t turn around again until she’d cleared the ravine. She made a split-second decision not to hide in the reedy trees, too dry and rustly. She was about to dart across a busy four-lane street against traffic when instead, she veered right as though drawn by a gravitational pull, though it was just her gut, a second or two ahead of her brain. She was able to squeeze herself through the iron gate of an overgrown ceme tery—inactive since the thirties—that ran unnoticed alongside the street and took up a scant city block.

She ran between haphazard rows of mismatched grave markers, wooden crosses and solemn angels. She dropped to her knees and crawled to a granite headstone, scanning the cuts in the stone before she sat with her back straight against it. Jose Coriz, died in 1917, only 25. Genevieve wondered if he’d been handsome. Back then, he could’ve been her boyfriend—it wouldn’t even have been weird that he was so old. Breathing hard from running but trying to control it, Genevieve imagined Jose, dark-eyed and shy, dying of consumption in a sanitarium. She wouldn’t be allowed to visit for fear of infection, so she’d stand outside his window and weep, and when he died, she’d visit his grave dressed all in black, watering the hardy lilacs she planted there with her tears. Not for the first time, Genevieve wished she could cry on command. Her lungs seized, wanting to inflate all the way but collapsing against the cage of her chest as she tried to hold still.

The first time she showed El to Troy, three months ago now, he’d whispered, “Fucking dope,” his hands pausing on their way down her waist and over her thighs. They’d lain next to one

The first time she showed El to Troy, three months ago now, he’d whispered, “Fucking dope,” his hands pausing on their way down her waist and over her thighs. 18 / TEXLANDIA 2022

another on Genevieve’s single bed, atop her faded dahlia print duvet, awash in winter sunlight. Debbie and Cindy wouldn’t be home for hours. “I didn’t know something like this could be real,” Troy had said, smiling up at Genevieve. He’d horrified her by pulling her panties down and burying his face in her pubic hair in one fluid motion. It was only the second time they were hanging out, Genevieve would’ve done something about said pubes—tried to shave them off, probably, was that what boys liked?—if she’d thought Troy would end up in her underwear, but he didn’t seem to care. He was enthusiastic and surprisingly adept. Afterwards, when she’d tried to cover herself with the quilt, Troy had gently staid her hand, taking one last look at El. He hadn’t mentioned her drawings, which covered the walls of her room from floor to ceiling, and some of the ceiling itself. The drawings nearest them were derivative of Escher, sure, staircas es that led nowhere, insects rendered life-size, but some of them were good, too, like the nimbus clouds over the bed. “What do you think it means?” Troy had said, fondling El. Genevieve had pulled into herself, sucking in her stomach, willing Tory’s hand away. “I don’t know.” She’d flipped over onto her belly, where El was out of reach. Troy had looked disappointed. The next week, he stopped talking to Genevieve, stopped looking at her in the hallway, didn’t respond to texts. After the third text she tried, she’d had to stop sending them. It was painfully clear he wasn’t going to write back. As a last-ditch effort, Genevieve had written Troy a long email, asking what had happened, overexplaining, making herself vulnerable and pathetic. He hadn’t responded to that, either, and Genevieve knew now, with a sureness that frightened her, that they’d never speak again.

Atop Jose Coriz’s grave, the more Genevieve tried not to move, the more difficult it became to ignore that El had start ed to prickle on her side, an itch she shouldn’t scratch. She wanted to dig her nails into El, give him a good raking like she did sometimes, like she did to every centimeter of skin on her lithe, pimply body, all gooseflesh and whiteheads. Even gentle, exploratory touches usually ended in something rougher—a nail-raking that left marks—but she thought it did her more good in the end, a no-nonsense cleansing. Her fingers found a sliver of belly, exposed it to the cold.

“I don’t see her!” a man’s voice carried on the wind, above a

river of traffic. Genevieve froze, hand in the soft of her belly.

“Damn it! We can’t keep looking. She could’ve gone any where at this point.” Valerie.

“Should we get the mom?” Larry asked. “Shit. Is this gonna be like Utah?”

“No,” said Valerie, “Definitely not. We can’t afford another Utah. Call Debbie—the grandma. Mom is out to lunch.”

Unbidden, never when nor for whom she wanted, tears sprang to the corners of Genevieve’s eyes. She risked move ment to wipe them angrily away with her sleeves. How many times had she thought the same thing to herself—that her moth er didn’t have both feet on the ground, that she existed in a pri vate realm of piled, used textbooks. All the one-sided conversa tions Genevieve overheard while a headphoned Cindy chatted with people she knew only online. Even when Cindy said she was listening to you, her gaze was just beyond your shoulder, a place Genevieve had never been. Debbie’s arms were always open; she would have loved to have Genevieve as a protégé, but that would mean working at the restaurant, constantly scheming for something better, risking reaching a time when you didn’t actually want to leave the restaurant at all.

I could lie here forever, Genevieve thought. Or, I could go home at night to sleep and eat and pee in a toilet, but come here every single day. For a moment this felt like a tangible solution, a real-life plan, becoming obsessed with a dead boy. At least it offered focus. She could pretend she needed to visit the grave yard for a research project, something to do with community history, and maybe she could do that, too. Collect every shred of information she could find about Jose Coriz, become as close to him as possible. If you believed in parallel universes—and Gen evieve wasn’t sure that she didn’t—it seemed plausible to find a plane on which Jose still existed. Maybe Genevieve needed only to locate the right lens.

She craned her neck around the side of the headstone, watched Larry and Valerie disappear into the tangle of the ra vine. She was seized by a sudden pull to get out of the cemetery

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Exercise Log For The Hairried Housewife

she’d wanted to haunt moments before, away from the cold stones and relentless spring sunshine, and most of all the wind, spreading pollen with strong, unyielding gusts that existed for the spreading alone. The urge to leave was singular and pure, a particle carried on the breeze and blown into her ear. She rose from Jose’s grave filled with a potency of hope and purpose known only to the living—there was an Allsup’s nearby, and it had an ATM.

Debbie was in the kitchen, triple-checking the burners on the stove were off before heading to the restaurant, when she got the call. They still had a landline, mounted to the wall by the back door. The cord was six feet long, so you could reach every corner of kitchen while staying on the phone, sometimes wind ing it around your body in the process.

Valerie said Genevieve ran away and Debbie sighed heavily, but she wasn’t surprised. She understood why Genny ran. Her granddaughter was shy and self-conscious to begin with—ad olescence hadn’t helped—and she’d never been a natural per former. Not like her mother, who had danced ballets and belted out living room concerts for years when she was a little girl.

For the life of her, Debbie couldn’t understand why Genny didn’t want to use her God-given gift. Genny was the one who wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, and she was a smart, and still somehow, she didn’t see it. She failed to grasp that this was exactly what Debbie had been doing her whole life—trying to forge her paths out. Genny didn’t understand that not every body was given something to help them along. Debbie hadn’t been blessed with any extras. She was certain Genny’s dark er-than-usual malaise was due to the boy Debbie had encoun tered on the narrow lane to their house a couple months back when returning from work, a boy who’d nodded at her politely. She’d seen the panic in his eyes and knew exactly where he’d been. When she’d gone to Genevieve’s room to confirm her suspicions, she’d found the bed mussed and her granddaughter

When Genevieve turned her head and the headlights swept her face, she looked young and small, as only Cindy had known her. Be cool, Cindy said to herself. Be cool. Don’t scare her off.

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starting dreamily out the window, her cheeks flushed.

“Hello? Debbie?” Valerie said on the line, sounding far away.

“Tell you what,” Debbie said. “Meet me here in twenty min utes. We’ll figure it out.” She hung up and dialed Cindy. “Valerie’s coming over. There’s been an incident with Genny. I have to go, I’m already going to be late, but I told Valerie you’d be here.”

Cindy cranked the RAV4’s windshield wipers to full blast, but they did little to help her see through the heavy snowfall. The squall shouldn’t have caught her off guard—they happened ev ery spring, sometimes as late as May. Genevieve wasn’t answer ing her phone or responding to texts, but Cindy kept calling all the same. It was late afternoon, coming up on dinnertime, and the sky was slate with heavy clouds.

The RAV was good in the snow, Cindy would give it that. Debbie had bought it because she read somewhere once that Tom Hanks drove one, but it was good in the snow. Nobody else was on the road. Cindy drove through a section of town that was changing quickly. When she was growing up, it’d been a vast patchwork: fields and vacant lots; water treatment sites; a cemetery, bordered by bleak, industrial streets, a no-man’s land where kids went to fool around and smoke weed.

Now, the area was “revitalizing.” That was what the City called it. Contemporary lofts and industrial-chic bars. They’d kept the graffiti, the crumbling WPA bridges, but they polished the con crete and drove around in Teslas.

Inching along, Cindy saw a figure in a hoodie walking on the shoulder of the road, hunched against the wind. It was too much to hope it was Genevieve. Cindy had already seen her daugh ter’s face in a dozen strangers that afternoon, desperation giving her a fleeting moment of recognition before she saw it wasn’t Genny at all, but an old man with a yellowed beard, a woman

with pinched eyes.

But it was Genevieve this time. Cindy knew that hoodie—it had cost $125, some ridiculous eco-tech brand on the rack at REI. They’d fought about it. Genevieve had pleaded and said she’d wear it every day. Cindy had bought it for Christmas. When Genevieve turned her head and the headlights swept her face, she looked young and small, as only Cindy had known her. Be cool, Cindy said to herself. Be cool. Don’t scare her off.

“Hey stranger,” Cindy said as she rolled down the window. “I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s snowing. You want a lift?”

Genevieve hesitated, but she got in the car, sodden, nose red and running. Cindy put the RAV in gear, determined not to men tion Valerie or the TV show, but Genevieve said, “Wait. I want to show you something.”

She pulled up her shirt.

“Oh!” Cindy gasped.

Where El had been was a flowering apricot branch inked in fine black lines. The tattoo looked blurry under a layer of taped plastic, like a waterlogged sheet of paper drowned in a fountain.

Cindy recovered quickly. She followed with, “It’s beautiful,” on instinct. She didn’t know yet if it was beautiful, could not look at the tattoo as separate from her daughter, the person whose fingerprints had formed by pressing up against the sides of her womb.

“Really?” Genevieve looked scared and guilty. “I cleaned out the checking account. The guy wanted an extra $100 since I’m a minor.”

At this, Cindy’s breath again caught in her throat. Debbie kept stashes of cash around the house—Cindy performed a quick mental inventory. Behind the loose cabinet panel in the

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kitchen. Taped to the backside of a framed Manet print in the hall. Inside an old cough syrup bottle. She could pick up more shifts at the bar.

“Really. It’s beautiful.” Cindy grasped that she needed to say this again, might have to say it many more times. “You’re getting a job at the restaurant, though.”

Genevieve nodded, looking down. Maybe she’d anticipated this.

“I kept his eyes,” she said. “El’s. You can barely see them, but I kept them.”

Cindy slowed down. She turned away from the road and looked closer. There they were, buried deep in the unfurling petals of the biggest blossom, a secret in plain sight.

“I wasn’t trying to do something terrible to you,” Cindy said. “With Small Wonders. If I could buy you everything you wanted—” Why was it easier to say this than pay for college? “I would, but I can’t, so I’m looking for other ways. That’s all.”

Genevieve nodded. Cindy kept driving. The tattoo was beau tiful, she decided. She hadn’t been lying. It reminded her of an intricate botanical specimen, drawn in the days before photo graphs. When she thought about El, she felt a gentle tug behind her sternum, an ache like the one she felt when she thought about Genevieve as a two-year-old, or at five, or ten. That person was gone now, even as she sat in the passenger seat, and it made Cindy almost unbearably sad. Was this terribly stupid, considering Genevieve was—relatively—unharmed? Cindy already missed El, but he wasn’t hers to miss.

“Are they going to be there when I get home?” Genevieve asked at a red light. “Valerie and them.”

“Hell, no. I sent them away.”

“You sent them away?” She seemed surprised.

“Well, yeah. After Valerie told me what happened, even though she was trying to make it sound better than it was, after she said that they chased you—I told her where she could go.”

Genevieve furrowed her brow. “Is Debbie mad?”

“She’ll get over it. Having you at the restaurant will help.”

When they pulled up in front of their house, it was dark. Deb bie had gone to bed absurdly early to make a point. The porch light was on, though, so she wasn’t feeling too spiteful. With the motor running, the RAV was warm and dimly lit, like a cave dug from a snowbank. The apricot’s blossoms, the ones that had al ready burst from their maroon shrouds, were slowly disappear ing. The branches grew heavy and bent toward the car.

“Our flowers,” Genevieve said.

“It could be good, actually,” Cindy said. “If the weight isn’t too much. Big polycrystals like this mean it’s not too cold. And they’re soft. They’ll insulate the blossoms, like little domes. With any luck, we’ll still have fruit.”

“Hmm.” Genevieve leaned her head on the window, now cloudy with condensation. She drew lines in it with her pinkie. She didn’t look at Cindy, but she didn’t unbuckle her seatbelt or move to open the door, either. Cindy was glad. The moment they left the car, the spell would be broken. When it happened, she didn’t know how the world outside would be different, but she knew it would be changed. Already, Cindy sensed invisi ble currents shifting in the air around them, gathering strength before crackling quickly out of sight, lighting in the corner of her eye. All the windows were foggy now, and it was impossible to see outside. A snow globe effect: trapped, in a good way. Maybe safe. Cindy was warm in her coat, on the edge of drowsy. She felt like talking.

“You were born on a night like this one,” she began. “Debbie was driving too fast and it was snowing like crazy.”

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Staying Afloat for a Moment
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Chukwu Sunday Abel

I was like you, when I had no shoes, said our president, the commander in chief of the armed forces. I heard his voice over brother Femi’s China-made giant of a phone cum radio, cum torchlight. There was a time our president had no shoes—he walked barefooted like me. The soles of his feet conquered by allied forces of dirt, of the hard and jagged hot sand we tread on. His soles must have had psoriasis, must have been flaked by out of sight leeches, just like mine. The president must have walked on his tiptoes when his soles went sore- peeled by hot, grainy sand. He must have resorted to walking with his heels when the tiptoes went sore. Our president must have had his toenails caked, disheveled by unsympathetic dermatophyte fungi. The president once had no shoes and today, I have no shoes—a shared omen. An augury that portends that one day, I will be come the president of Nigeria, or if not the president, maybe a minister or a governor, or a commissioner, or a representative in the national or state assembly.

What he said yesterday—what I heard over brother Femi’s phone cum radio—is the most interesting thing. So interesting that my protesting intestines became calm, pacified by the augury words of the president. His voice was loud and clear, unambiguous, so coherent, like the sound of my growling, churn ing stomach, but brother Femi’s expression was that of artful dis belief. He thought the president was lying. Politicians! Politicians! And their lies, liar-liar people, he said, shaking his head vigor ously as if to shake off the words. I was not bothered by whatever so bothered him. My concern was the president, the president who had no shoes. I want a Nigeria where the son of nobody will become somebody without knowing anybody, the president said. The president understood that not everybody has somebody, and not everybody is somebody. Even though everybody must be conceived through lovemaking, that seems not to be the case with me, with us. A child conceived through lovemaking should be loved, cared for. Maybe, I am born by mistake, an unwanted child. Maybe a curse from God, rather than a blessing. No child conceived through lovemaking would be treated like we have been, by our parents. The society smiles at it, so, we learn to live with it, by it. A perennial sinister experience that has become conventional.

The president must have been nobody when he had no shoes—just like me, just like brother Femi, just like everybody in this school. This school we live in, sleep in, eat in. This school some of us have died in. Some of us have been raped in. Some of us have been violated, violated in our anuses. Our anuses panged by older ones amongst us with their stiffed phallus until the anus reddened, unable to hold water or air from slipping out. It is a school for the school children but a home for us, the home less, homeless boys and homeless men with two arms, one head, two legs, two eyes, and one penis each that pokes our pants each morning. Boys and men like all the others, but homeless. Boys with hope, very hopeful, and men who had hope, just like brother Femi. Brother Femi told me how he wanted to become a welder, how he had hoped to become a husband, a father to a child, at least. He told me he has no father, like me. He said

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he has no mother also. He said that I am lucky, lucky for having living parents.

The mosquitoes seem to have procured metal proboscises this night, brother Femi said. Their buzzing seems to be aided by an evil spirit. They seem to have slipped out of the hand of God, maybe unplanned. Nothing went just right.

You have refused to tell me what happened, brother Femi said, jolting me from my rumination over my life, over the day.

Nothing happened—it’s just that today is, somehow. Nobody sought my load-carrying services today. It was as if the day and the people at the market conspired against me. Not even five naira returned with me. The woman I sweep her shop said she will pay me tomorrow. It was really a bad day. I looked at brother Femi, his head hanging fittingly in his outstretched hands. He seemed to be dozing off. Maybe he was unlucky as I was. Whatever it is that troubles his mind should not deprive me of the opportunity of listening to the president today, I thought.

That is not what I am asking you. What happened in your house? Even if you are to go out of your papa house, but not now. You are too young. How many years did you even say you are?

Eleven, I said.

You look very tiny, smaller than an eleven-year-old boy should be. Each time I ask you to tell me why you left your papa house, you will start crying.

The first night I slept here I didn’t know about the diurnal life after the daily school life of school children. I had spent some hours in this school. I was in primary three—still battling with ABCD and four-digit numbers. Every morning, we recited the English alphabets in a singsong manner, over and over and over. I failed to learn how to recite the letters, let alone write them. During the recitation, whatever you shouted—whether it was misplaced or not—sounded correct to of the worn out teacher. I never knew I would return to this school and make it my home one day. I stopped going to school afterwards once I started living in my school. I had to fend for myself, just like I had been when I lived with my parents. We return when the school chil dren have left and we leave very early in the morning, before the school children arrive, without leaving any trace.

It was a few months ago, maybe six, maybe five. I don’t remember past things because they are not worth remember ing. They add nothing to my present except hopelessness. But, thanks to my president, a source of hope. That night, that rainy night, nature and God were against me. If not so, why would it rain so heavily the night I had no shelter to sleep in? The night that flood swept my feet off the ground, into the flooded gutter, my gaping mouth drank hungrily, helplessly from the befouled gutter water. If not for these, my eleven year old hands—brother Femi called them tiny—would I have survived? These, my tiny

It appears my president who was like me, my source of hope, wants to make me homeless.
I have lived here for what have been the most important days of my life. The president has declared that our home, my school, will be de molished.
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hands, were what delivered me from the resilient flood that want ed to sweep me like it did the empty plastic cans, nylon bags, and the bagged feces. Thank God my hands were more resilient than they should have been.

After swimming through the flood, I trotted towards this school in the thick darkness of the rainy night. On getting to this our school, into the classrooms, I was greeted by smoking cigarettes, a head-dizzying hemp smell lingering in the air. Every space was occupied by listless, muscular bodies—some slumbering, some blowing cigarette smoke into the air. I was treated like a stray ewe that night. Different, eye-threatening torchlight pointed at my face. Shouts of, Who is that! coinciding here and there. Some of them stood up, walked towards me to know my mission that night at the school. My tears answered their questions. Since that night, I have joined this league of homeless children declared surplus by their parents, their parents who married new wives to augment the existing ones in a one-room apartment. Three wives, nine children, as is the case with me. My father married a new wife the week my mother was delivered of what would be her fourth child. With the pregnant new wife, and my nursing mother and younger siblings across two stepmothers—siblings with little age difference among them—the mantle of leaving the home fell on me. I was the eldest, hence, nobody saw anything bad in the bad act. My father informed me that at my age, I was not meant to be sharing his apartment with him. Azeez, who I met here, said that his parents told him same. Fatai said same. Gbenga said his father abandoned them and his mother remarried. His stepfather told his mother that he only married her and not her and her son, Gbenga. They—Azeez, Fatai and Gbenga—are not older than I am, but it appears so because nature cheated me of some flesh. It was Azeez who introduced me to kaya work, carrying of items at the market.

The league of homeless boys enjoy the commonwealth of homelessness—unrestricted freedom. No monitoring by parents, away from parental control. We go to wherever we want and return whenever we want, not to be shouted at by our zealot parents, not to be lashed mercilessly, denied dinner, threatened with being ejected from home. These are the commonwealth of the homeless—the dividend of homelessness. For me, no hawk ing of groundnut and bananas for my mother; no more incessant smacking of my head, squeezing of my ears by my mother, lashing of my buttocks by my father, rubbing of Cameroon pepper on my penis, my eyes and my anus, in extreme cases, when a glass cup was broken, or when notes of naira slipped out of my moist palm and went missing, when some counted chunks of meat disappeared mysteriously from the pot of our newly cooked ewedu soup, egusi soup. Before, my eyes had to be smeared in ground Cameroon pepper when I returned some minutes after my schoolmates had, or failed to meet the daily sales target of my bananas. My anus couldn’t escape being smeared in pepper when a report of my playing football while hawking reached the ears of my father. (This, the most veritable example of my being peppered like stubborn bush meat—pep

per soup.) Since I joined this league, my ears have experienced calm from the vociferous rants of my parents. Here, we live by what fate brings and die by what fate brings.

The lying spaces are tacitly shared amongst us. The older ones, like brother Femi, who have become a veteran in the league of homeless people here, have more lying spaces. Chil dren like myself, Azeez, Gbenga and Faita manage whatever is left. We live communally here. The older ones protect us, some times, prey on us by relieving their long-endured libido in our anuses. We, in turn, render services to them in exchange. We buy cigarettes for them whenever we are sent. We wash their clothes. Sometimes, we steal from them.

So, because your father married a new wife, that was why he chased you out?

Yes, brother Femi, I said, not wanting to prolong the discus sion because it was time to hear from our president. Brother Femi is a waste-collector. He has done that for many years. His phone is the greatest feat he has achieved in recent time.

We want to lead a country where people will be less greedy. Where people will know that the commonwealth of Nigeria belongs to all Nigerians, where people’s wealth depends on the people around them. If you become a rich person and every one around you is poor, you are very poor. In the comfort of our offices, let’s not forget that the majority of our people live below the poverty line, my president, who was like me, said. I will go to bed with the imaginary, reverberating voice of the president. That I am a part of the Nigerian people our president said the commonwealth of the nation belongs to. But my president did not stop there: My story symbolizes my dream for Nigeria. The dream that any Nigerian child from Kaura-Namoda to Duke Town, from Potiskum to Nsukka, from Isale-Eko to Gboko will be able to realize his God-given potentials, unhindered by tribe or religion and unrestricted by improvised political inhibitions. In line with my administration’s transformation agenda, we will be demolishing about one-hundred and four dilapidated primary school buildings across the nation. New buildings are to be erected in their place within this period of long vacation. The schools marked are: com munity primary school Ijegun, Lagos…

It appears my president who was like me, my source of hope, wants to make me homeless. I have lived here for what have been the most important days of my life. The president has declared that our home, my school, will be demolished.

What if they come tomorrow, as he said. What will you do? Brother Femi asked my troubled heart. With my bleary eyes, my twitching lips, I said: I will follow you. Please don’t leave me be hind. I have no place to go to. Clouds of hot tears trickled down my cheeks. My chins seemed to be flabby, sagged by the heavi ness of the pile of hopelessness in me. It had never occurred to me that my president could betray me in that way. My source of hope becomes my source of hopelessness, the cause of my

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homeliness even though I had been homeless.

You can’t go with me. Where I am going to is far. I will be relocating to under-bridge, Orile Under-bridge. I have lived there before, so many years ago. That was the first place I lived when I became homeless like you. My father did not marry another wife like your father did, Brother Femi hissed. He hook his head and looked heavenwards, abstractedly, as if he were being spoken to.

My father became mad when I was like you, at your age. But I was bigger than you are now. We were two; I have a younger sister. One morning, we woke in our one room apartment at Orile to discover that our mother had abandoned us. She left the house while we were sleeping, leaving no trace of her whereabouts. That was how we became homeless, so many years ago.

What about your sister? Where is she now?

She started working at one brothel at Orile. She slept there. It has been very, very long since I saw her.

Please, don’t leave me behind. I have no place to go to.

Let’s wait and learn how many days, months or years it will take them to come for the demolition. Is it not government peo ple? They don’t do as they say. Watch and see—it is easier to say than to do.

But he said the demolition and reconstruction will be done during this third, term-long vacation.

Rather than the hopeful words of the president I had expect ed, the message of my doom from my president echoed cease lessly in my head while I slept. The night became extremely un communicative. Nobody spoke. Everywhere, noiseless, except the buzzing and fast-flying mosquitoes, the unsleeping crickets that broke the grave-silence with their intermittent chirps, the hooting of the wide-awake owls, relishing the night’s cooling breeze, keeping us company, haunting us, reminding me of my yet-to-come days of destitution. The night seemed longer than usual. Everyone awaited the daybreak as if it would furnish us with some hope, as if the president would rescind his decision. But the new day came and nothing happened. The president, oblivious of our plight, our homelessness, didn’t change any thing. The brightness of the new dawn revealed to our agonized eyes the approaching bulldozers, excavators, concrete mixers, men with helmets on their heads, in contrast with brother Femi’s counsel: They don’t do as they say.

Indeed, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. While I stood with my black nylon bag— in it, my halved, tooth-chopped chewing-stick, my torn, aged, white-turned-black pants, my oversized shorts I stole from my father, a rusted razorblade, a brown fishing-net-like stolen singlet, defaced notebooks—I watched the Ijegun community primary school, my home for the past six months, about to be demolished. My heart pounded so fast in desperation, the sound like that of the stamping hooves

of an overgrown elephant, like the hearts of the school children and some passers-by who must have heard the news the night before and had assembled, ceremoniously, to see my home, my refuge, my school, tumbled-down from the surface of the earth. I stood and watched alone, not with Azeez who had left, aban doning me, nor Bother Femi, who had left earlier while I was sleeping, betraying me. I watched the sun-pelted children of my school hopping and babbling—joyously, some of them—their kwashiorkor bulgy bellies, like mine, trundling as they gyrated excitedly, because to them, the government has remembered them. The president, my president had extended his salvaging hand to them. One man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison. I stood and watched the women who had gathered eulogizing the name of the president for making me homeless. I watched their hands rising and falling—rising, thrown in the direction of God in appreciation, before falling falteringly. From where I stood, I looked, mindlessly, at the brown, rusted, corrugated roof of my school, my about-to-be-demolished refuge. I looked at the wall of my school building, conquered by dust and age, begging for the unyielding hand of rain for a bath.

Finally, I watched as the rising blade of the excavator rose tall, upon the roof of my school building, and injected its fang. The rusted, corrugated sheets came crashing with the weak, soaked, mossed wall, as if they had waited for intervention of some kind. I watched as the excavator crumbled my school building, crumbled me, crumbled my soul. Each dragging, scraping, pulling grazing rouged my soul thanklessly with sor row, with destitution.

From now on, the world has me.

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The night became extremely uncommunica tive. Nobody spoke. Everywhere, noiseless, except the buzzing and fast-flying mosqui toes, the unsleeping crickets that broke the grave-silence with their intermittent chirps, the hooting of the wide-awake owls, relish ing the night’s cooling breeze, keeping us company, haunting us, reminding me of my yet-to-come days of destitution.

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A Season of Caterpillars

begins with one growing fat on my cilantro, his peapod body lethargic as the clouds that spring which never seemed to stop carrying burdens of rain.

it was the spring you were in the woods far away. you had wild turkeys & raptor hawks, i had stillborn blooms on my tomatillos. skull headed snapdragons humming for a visitation. not even the yellow-bellied finch would perch long enough to see caterpillars & their dewdrop eggs harmonizing under the leaves’ paunch.

the first birth is the hardest, the second i looked away confetti holes in my pepper plant. what else has been taken from me when I wasn’t looking? life is filled with innocuous dangers, but girlhood should come with a survival manual.

it was the spring a man broke into women’s apartments once a week with a handgun in glaring daylight. you can fill in the rest— we all know this story. it isn’t mine to tell, but the world continues & i can’t imagine how everything flourishes as if orchestrated. i want everything to stop growing gorgeous at least for a moment.

the second birth takes time & happens most often after a merciless spring. living alone means i check all the locks twice, carry a butterfly knife hidden in my pocket, weapons of opportunity ready. i feel safer

when you’re home. i sleep more soundly. i have trouble admitting that i’m still afraid.

so the hall light stays on in case someone arrives & it isn’t you. i won’t be as kind as i was to the caterpillar—it isn’t a season for mercy.

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Where Is My Home

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At the threshold, you test, with one tentative claw. Will this be the day you return to salt spray and searing light? But isn’t this Tuesday? The claw you withdraw.

Your best life was scuttling through foam, tripping on seaweed’s frayed rope, tiptoeing to the scalloped edge—translucent skin stretched over blue nerves,

every fellow creature a threat to embrace. What spindly hugs you gave, your arms like saws, your heart so full of fear you thought to love meant to attack.

See where it got you. See how good you were at keeping friends. You took to your shell the way dye takes to wool: you sank into it.

There’s only room for you in there. You must meet me out here. Abandon your house with the windows painted shut.

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Down where the Summer went Deep

Lily-livered, lace-drawn, all August the cruel evangelism of humidity.

For every what I was supposed to feel were a thousand I wasn’t & so

I felt none & nothing. Every lawn sweated out its greens, suffering

through the azaleas. I could not be tempted by the fire of a thousand flowers insisting on the bloom that brings on their own ends. I kept in my cools, kept my legs saying one

word to each other, which was both close & close. Sister, I know you. I am you. Tell

me, can you be sure every branch has a tree to which it belongs, can you tell me the answer to the owl’s song is anything but yes. Let a little holy inside the space between living & alone.

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One summer with the window open wide as a mouth you tell me you do not love me anymore over a bottle of beer we are sharing at five in the afternoon hot afternoon, sun-soaked afternoon the shape of our bodies, made by the sun, stuck in the carpet. You help me pack my things into two Sainsbury’s bags for life you roll yourself a joint and you ask me to leave.

On the street I put my knees against a pavement grave and let the Earth cradle me man setting his satnav in a car avoids my eyes too red-rimmed to watch woman with white hair says, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” as she begins to walk away.

The Church is called St. Mark’s Church who is the patron Saint of Venice even though I am in London even though London is hot like Venice I sit at the front on a pew soft as the palms of God wondering what praying would feel like.

“Do you want to speak to me?” says a voice which does not belong to God but to a vicar called Carol. Wraps an arm around my shoulder as it sobs.

I tell her I have lost the woman I love, not to death, but to life and she doesn’t take her arm away

Eventually she says, “I’ve been through that too. Only when he broke my heart I threw a plate at his head and tried to stab him to death with a kitchen knife.” Which I thought was a funny thing for a vicar to say. “So maybe you’re not doing so badly after all.”

Walking back into the day together hot day, sun-soaked day she says, “You will find love again.”

“Did you?” I ask, light in my eyelashes. She promises to pray for me.

I get a taxi home. Eat everything in my house. Two oranges and a pot of jam. I put my clothes that had been yours in the washing machine and sit in the heat trying to decide whether I hoped they would still smell of you when they came out.

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Good and Evil
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Now let’s say you’re asking why I passed so well for a human on land, and so well for a fish in the sea. I have no interest in ex plaining the perfectly simple reasons for this. Reasons irrelevant to anything that matters even slightly. If, however, because of your obsession with the insignificant, you insist, then I would re fer you to a short but thoroughly informative paper by my good friend Elisabeth Frege: “Hox Cluster Expression in Squaliform Hybrids,” in this quarter’s issue of the Journal of Atlantic Genet ics

If you refuse either to read the paper or to trust the things I say—the things you may not understand—you are responsible for your own curse.

I’ll ask you forgive me my defensiveness. I have learned bitterly that nobody likes to be impressed, and that most try very hard to avoid it, even though the paper will answer all their unimportant questions, and was written by my very good friend.

A month or so ago, I hatched from a lonely black egg on the sandy bottom of New York Harbor, a harbor which many others have so well described that I would just as soon not bother. I saw no mother, no clutch of siblings, nor even a hungry stranger in that water so brightly stained from the streetlights and the moon. I hatched expecting a mother, hoping for siblings, and dread ing a stranger, but I slid from my egg in complete solitude, and gazed above, to the wavering shafts of light that wriggled down towards the floor of the harbor.

I swam up to the lights, and soon approached the underside of a boat. I thought it might be my mother, what did I know? In my hox genes or something I understood being in a family and I knew how pleasant it felt, and I knew a few other things likewise.

This boat was one of those so constructed that, even though there is a square diving-hole in the bottom, it doesn’t sink. I swam up to that hole, and climbed from the wet and frigid place into a shockingly comfortable little cabin-like bilge. As I stood, fully clothed, I beheld, observing gleefully at the lip of the div ing-hole, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my entire life. She and her two friends had been playing cards at a little table hanging from the wall. When they saw me, she stood. Her friends stayed and chuckled, but she approached.

“Got him!” she said, for it seems that they had been waiting for me, or at least she had.

“I’m not interrupting, am I?” I asked.

“Of course not,” she said. “What is your name?”

“You know perfectly well that I have no name,” I answered, not understanding precisely what I was talking about.

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“My name is Elisabeth Frege. Elisabeth with an ‘S.’ I have come from Germany to find such a specimen as you. I have a great deal to ask you, if you don’t mind.”

She introduced me to her friends, I suppose because she didn’t want to ask me questions in the presence of strangers. They themselves must not have considered me a stranger, since they were taking pictures of me already, and of themselves. While she said their names I was trying to remember a card trick I knew. The best I can recall is that one of them had frizzy black hair, and the other was exceedingly skinny.

“I’ll show you a card trick,” I said to Elisabeth as I neared the cards.

“You can’t do that,” her skinny friend complained. “We’re in the middle of a game.”

I was disheartened to learn that they were more interested in their game than the fact that I knew a card trick despite hav ing slid from a black egg just moments earlier. Maybe they all knew about the unparalleled precocity of my breed. Certainly Elisabeth already knew, but then what about me did she want to study, if not my characteristics?

“You’ll love it!” I insisted. “Let me show you.” The players had arranged the cards into four piles, their own face-down, the middle face-up. I pushed all four piles irrevocably into one.

“What are we supposed to do now?” said Elisabeth’s blackhaired friend. At the time I thought she was asking me what they were supposed to do to get the card trick underway, but later I realized that she was asking Elisabeth, and that she meant in general.

I got nervous when I realized, hunching over the table, that I’d mixed the face-up and face-down cards, and would have to reorient them all before I could start the trick. “Let me just fix these first,” I said without looking at anyone.

“Elisabeth,” said her skinny friend, “It’s getting pretty late.”

“Yeah, we’d better go home,” said the other.

At that naive period of my life I still couldn’t figure out why they didn’t care about my card trick. Elisabeth walked them up to the deck and I sat by myself at the table in the wall. As I tried to rearrange the cards I heard her say goodbye and apologize to them at the gangway. She returned presently, and sat with me at the table. “Thank you for waiting,” she said.

“Why didn’t they want to see my card trick?”

“I’m not sure. My guess is that they didn’t want to pay very much attention to you.”

A month or so ago, I hatched from a lonely black egg on the sandy bottom of New York Harbor, a harbor which many others have so well described that I would just as soon not bother. I saw no mother, no clutch of siblings, nor even a hungry stranger in that water so brightly stained from the streetlights and the moon.

Ice Cream Legs By Anastasia Kirages 43 / TEXLANDIA 2022
Cultural Heart
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“But don’t they want to study me?”

“No, I want to study you. They’re just my friends. They study clams.” I quietly finished rearranging the cards, and Elisabeth said, “You can show me the trick if you want.”

I thought about it for a second and slid the deck towards her. “No, thank you. Now that I think about it, it probably would have been even more annoying if I’d actually done the trick.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I think if you do it right then some of the cards actually disappear for real and the deck is ruined.”

“That’s very considerate of you, then.”

“Should we get married?” I asked her.

She laughed and said no at the same time, in a way suggest ing that my question supported something she understood be fore then only in theory. “I just want to talk to you,” she answered.

And so she did talk to me. She asked me how someone as young as I was knew a card trick, and how I learned such good English. She said she’d started studying English in elementary school but still ended up with a German accent. She asked where my clothes came from, and a million other questions whose answers don’t make any difference at all, but appear in her paper, which she asked me to proofread.

We went about like this for a couple of weeks, and she let me live in the boat and leap during mealtimes through the square diving hole, and pry open clams with my teeth. She just wanted me to answer her questions, and knew expertly that I would always swim back to the boat to do so after I fed.

One day, one of her questions was particularly personal, which I took to mean that she was finally becoming impressed with me. “I know you don’t have a name,” she said, “But would

you like one?” I told her I would, and she said, “What would you like your name to be?”

“What about Boat?” I suggested, quite reasonably I thought.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Well, then what about Egg?”

“No,” she said. “That’s not really how names work. We’ll keep thinking, maybe.”

I had asked Elisabeth every day to marry me, because I didn’t have a family and she and I would have been great togeth er if only I had allowed myself to be more impressive. On the day we spoke about my name, she finally said something other than no, although that’s still what her answer amounted to.

“There’s a documentary showing this afternoon,” she said. “I think you ought to go see it. It’s about you.”


“Well, not you specifically. It’s about your kind, I mean.”

“Are you coming with me, Elisabeth?”

“I can’t. I have quite a busy day, and I won’t be back until later this evening. I bought you a ticket, though. Please go. The documentary is not very technical, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s nothing like my paper.”

“I’m not worried about that,” I assured her. “I’ve just never been off the boat before, certainly not by myself. Aren’t you worried that I’ll get lost?”

“If you don’t get lost in New York Harbor, you won’t get lost on New York Avenue,” for this was the street where I would find the theater.

“But where are you going, Elisabeth?”

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“First to the library and then I have to do a lecture, which I would invite you to, but I’m sure you wouldn’t understand it, even despite your unparalleled precocity.”

“I could understand it,” I said desperately.

“I bought you the ticket to the documentary already,” she said. “I will be very sad if you don’t go. I will see you this eve ning.” She gathered her purse, scribbled the directions to the theater on her notepad, and left me and the ticket alone in the boat.

I gave her a head start so I wouldn’t have to refute the good bye we’d just accomplished, and then followed her directions to the theater. I walked across the world-famous New York Bridge, at the end of which the theater stood, and I became conscious of how tiring it was to walk on land, and to be ignored by those who passed me.

I was early to the documentary, and before it started I watched the last five minutes of E.T. My companions in the dimming room were distant: two teenagers making out in the very back row, and not far from them, an elderly couple hold ing hands, which is the senescent equivalent of making out. Of course I was front and center.

I admit that the walk made me very tired while I watched the presentation, and there were countless periods in the theater where I must assuredly have been asleep. The first part I re member was about a medieval geographer. The subject of the geographer was brought up to introduce some important point about my breed, but all I can remember is that they said how, whenever he was on land, he was convinced the earth was flat, and that whenever he was at sea, he was convinced it was round. I don’t remember how they tied any of that into the main subject, but if you must know, then you should be ashamed of yourself.

Another thing I remember from the documentary is when it said we were half extraterrestrial and half dog, or half human and half dogfish -- I know that one of those combinations was

mentioned, and even though I was nodding off a little, I’m ready to swear that they both were. Our mothers are always either from Earth, or extraterrestrials capable of laying eggs on the sea floor of Earth. It occurred to me that I may have dreamed some of this as a result of my exposure to the last five minutes of E.T.

Either way, the documentary provoked a great sorrow in me. If what I’d understood from it was even close to the truth, then there was no reason for anyone even to take me seriously, let alone take my hand in marriage.

I left the theater and it began to rain as a result of my emo tions. I reflected most mournfully on the parts of the documenta ry that I remembered, but my reflection began only upon being finally outside again. The unquestionable narrator had explained that each individual of my kind, after learning that it’s an alien or a dog or whatever, returns to the sea and hides under the sand. I felt such despair about my fate that I lacked the strength to resist it, and so made my way back to the harbor.

I crossed the bridge again and gazed sadly down into the rain-tangled water of New York River. Yes, I thought, I’ll have to return to the sand again. The only reason I agreed to see the documentary in the first place was to obey Elisabeth. It made perfect sense to me that if I did whatever Elisabeth wanted, then she would love me. I couldn’t think of a more reasonable theory. On the other hand I also thought it would be reasonable to name myself Egg.

During my walk back I kept remembering more of the documentary. It sketched the entire life cycle of my lonely kind: first our mothers lay and abandon a single black egg, and so we never know our parents, or learn from them how to behave, and thus almost all of us find it impossible to court, though we all try. We fall in love with whatever animal we see first, and any incestuous difficulties are solved by the behavior of our mothers to lay one-egg clutches and then to rush off.

Those of us who fail in courtship (that is, almost all of us) return to the sea and hide in the sand. That’s what I remember.

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Those of us who fail in courtship (that is, almost all of us) return to the sea and hide in the sand. That’s what I remember.

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Midnight Snack By Julia McLaurin
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As I approached the harbor, I glimpsed Elisabeth and her friends entering a lecture hall, and naturally I followed. It was packed and undisciplined inside, and I lost Elisabeth in the crowd. Soon someone approached the podium and said some thing in German, and everybody took their seats. Elisabeth took the podium next and began presenting a PowerPoint. I was inter ested in standing up and saying hello to her from the audience, and asking her how she was doing, and telling her that I liked the documentary, because telling her I liked it would make her like me. I lost my courage though, and learned a rule, because a man with a big hat in front of me was talking on his phone until an usher came and whispered something angrily to him.

I didn’t know what Elisabeth was talking about, but every once in a while on a slide the word “Foetusfische” appeared next to an arrow-filled life-cycle diagram or some kind of a graph, and Elisabeth would sometimes say the word. Sometimes she would say something and the entire audience, excluding me, of course, would laugh. I surmised that they must all have known German, too, or that they were laughing at the sound of the German language, which despite the laughter’s intermit tence, is uniformly humorous.

Elisabeth had included slides with some pictures of us on the boat, of us playing cards, and of her friends laughing at me and getting mad at me. There was surely material in her lecture that she’d left out of her paper.

I hadn’t really taken any of the alien business in the docu mentary seriously, but as I listened to the language everyone at the lecture but me spoke and understood, I thought about how, generally, aliens never seem to realize that there is more than one species on earth, and that humans speak more than one lan guage. This is because, on every other planet, there is only one species, such as “Martians,” and they only speak one language, such as “Martian.”

After the lecture I couldn’t bear trying to get Elisabeth’s attention. I was possessed by the overwhelming urge to leap into New York Harbor and hide under the sand and never again expose my person to the vision of another living thing. I made

it my quest in the short walk to the water to do so, not because it was an unavoidable stage in my life cycle (the documentary and, perhaps, Elisabeth herself, had tried to assure us all of that) but because it was avoidable. Where the documentary and the lecture part ways, however, is at this point: the documenta ry made me feel truly, utterly powerless, whereas the lecture made me feel, if not powerful exactly, since I didn’t even know what Elizabeth was saying, at least like an active participant in my own life, because I knew she was talking about me, and the things I do.

I leaped into the harbor, swam down to the floor, and flailed at the sand until I felt that it sufficiently covered me.

I want to put a stop to this nonsensical theory, that at the last stage of my life I am certain to give up on love and go hide in the sand -- I will put a stop to it not by refusing to give up on love or refusing to hide in the sand, but by giving up and hiding even though I don’t have to.

I’m hiding even though Elisabeth was nice to me and waited in her boat for me to hatch. I know she probably made fun of me during the lecture, but she was probably also saying nice things. To you it looks like I succumbed to fate after all, but then again, you’re not even real, you’re just an imaginary, potential debate-adversary whose objections I am mentally anticipating. Even here I can’t honestly be defensive, since this is all just my memory. I’m not in front of an audience at a lecture. I’m the only one here, under the sand, but at least I know how difficult this choice was. It was difficult not only because it wouldn’t con vince anyone that I have triumphed over self-sand-interment, but also because I am now so desperately inclined to try to find Elisabeth, and tell her I was at the lecture, and ask if she saw me in the audience, and see if she’ll tell me what the PowerPoint meant.

No, I’m not going to do any of that. I’m going to hide right here under the sand I hatched on, and wait for whatever is sup posed to happen, practicing what I will say, I suppose, not that anybody will ask. Even so, I know what it means to be buried, in spite of my hope that I won’t ever die.

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Everything is Bigger in Texas
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Santa Fe Elk
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Let’s Play House

Jasmine Ledesma

“The Internet is going to save me from my feelings. But what is going to save me from the Internet?”

I am ten thousand miles in the air, on my way home from spending summer vacation with my mom. I even have a pair of new, chunky, mermaid-colored, Velcro latch Skechers to show for it. My feet fidget like hungry chickens. I’m nine years old. The girl seated next to me, dressed in a neon green tank top, is too. Her curls are held up by colorful glass beads with sparkles distilled inside. We are what the airlines identify as unaccompa nied minors. Kids who can fly alone. We leap in and out of Jonas Brother conversation, sipping on free soda we aren’t usually allowed to drink. Our luxury knows no bounds. As we begin to descend upon our destination, the girl asks me what my name is. When I say Jasmine, she pulls back.

“No,” she says, with the frustration of a losing gambler. “On AOL.”

I ponder a new title for myself. I most likely won’t ever see this girl again. Beneath us, the night sky is a sea of black, wet gallons. Finally, I confess.


I first transfer my urge for a fresh start, an urge that hums through me like wind, onto plastic toys. Barbie has gotten a ter rible haircut and lost a leg after setting her beach house on fire. But now she has three boyfriends and a plate of pink, immobile shrimp. No, she doesn’t. My friend comes over to play for the afternoon. Her Polly Pocket owns a booming shopping mall that sells chewy, teal boots in exchange for only three thousand billion dollars. The elevator keeps breaking.

We do and undo tragedies. We beg my older sister to buy makeup kits from the dollar store across the street and slather our faces until they’re wet and purple. We slather our dolls the exact same way. The final say is always ours in toyland.

Then, my aunt gives me one of her desktop computers for my birthday. It could be passed off as an asteroid on size alone. Everything changes.

The Internet is a thrilling, psycho plunge into an abyss. I swim through images—so many! I have access to anything I can think of: illegal music streams, Magic 8 Balls, faux roller coaster rides, celebrity interviews, movies, clothes waiting to be bought. But most of all, there are other worlds.

I play games for hours. I tend to my digital puppies as if they

— Melissa Broder, “So Sad Today”
I fill their fat, green bowls with pixelated kibble, play slow games of fetch and use my mouse to brush their fur and bathe them. I give bad ly animated women plastic surgeries; a click of the shift and X buttons makes for a perfect mastopexy. 52 / TEXLANDIA 2022


are alive—and who’s to say they aren’t? They bark at me in odd tones. I fill their fat, green bowls with pixelated kibble, play slow games of fetch and use my mouse to brush their fur and bathe them. I give badly animated women plastic surgeries; a click of the shift and X buttons makes for a perfect mastopexy. In Club Penguin, somebody from Russia says they like the igloo I’ve decorated with stacks of hay and two couches. I ask if they want to be my friend. We dance until bedtime.

When I call my friend, from my home phone to hers, she says she can’t come over because she doesn’t want her Neopet to die. Do you? I don’t. I hang up. At the dinner table, the television brings me back to the original world. Commercials, splicing episodes of Degrassi and SpongeBob in half like frozen birthday cake, advertising colorful vitamins and Band-Aids for the next time I get hurt. I will get hurt. That I will get hurt again is the only guarantee real life can offer. And I want no part of it.

When my friend turns thirteen, we spend half the night in gawky, mushroom red bowling shoes, monstrously devouring gross slices of pizza. We spend the other half making out for old er men on Omegle. The curiosity is a morbid one. In the pit of her bedroom, among her Marilyn Monroe and LMFAO posters, we feel prehistoric. The dirty computer screen is the first fire. Our audience is old oyster men, drunk frat boys huddled togeth er on a couch, other teenage girls and dark screens. As we kiss for the seventeenth time, our tongues worn out, the darkness types. It asks, do u like iCarly too?

Eventually, we get banned and drift to scary stories on You Tube instead.

As I get older, so does the internet. We come into our own together, bleeding in and out of each other. I buy a push-up bra and discover new avenues of life. Yahoo! Answers is my ugly chapel, group home, cool best friend. It is where I learn what nobody is teaching. Anonymous profiles conduct lessons. If you lick your elbow, you get turned into a boy overnight. You’re probably really ugly if you don’t have freckles. Britney Spears is an android. The world is going to end next Thursday and there is nothing you can do. At night, my head hurts from everything I am learning.

I kiss a girl for five minutes on IMVU while avoiding my par ents. Her head is a brown buzz gush of hair, as dense as a forest. Black wings explode from her back. She has rips in her dress. Her eyes droop like a cartoon. I tell her I want to kill myself most of the time, that my chemicals are rotted fruit.

“Me too,” she writes back, with a burst of pixelated hearts.

In half the summer, I meet every person on the planet. I beg strangers to indulge in my fantasies. I’m really rich and my name is Jenny, I say over and over in chat rooms. My computer gets a virus. Can you make me famous? Do you love me right now? I want our laser beams to touch, baby. I love myself most when looking into my webcam. Watch me love myself.

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Birds of the Air

Tyler Sones

Matt knows better than to count time by years. If they weren’t the standard unit of measure, he might have quit using them al together. So many substitutes add up to the same thing but don’t leave him dizzy with panic—ten places of residence; six shitty cars; one missing tooth; three DUIs; five non-consecutive nights in jail; twenty-two sexual partners; two tours of duty; fourteen dead enemy combatants; one male child named Logan, who he hasn’t seen since the kid was a new pink baby, freshly extracted from the womb of the meanest woman he’s ever met, who’s now eleven and supposed to visit for the first time today. Even the heftier numbers feel more manageable—thirty thousand beers, a hundred thousand cigarettes, ten thousand private orgasms— because he can round them up or down. All those zeroes make them sort of negotiable. Matt knows how old he is, obviously, but he doesn’t like to think about it. Thirty-two is a hard, concrete number, and he doesn’t have shit to show for it except scars, debt and the kind of insomnia that would make a lesser man lose his marbles.

Since the DUI last winter, he’s been trying to make up for lost time. Squaring accounts and making amends. All that twelve-step redemption bullshit that Brian, his probation officer, is always talking about. For every time Matt has to blow into the state-mandated contraption in his car, his car that checks his breath for alcohol, he gives a handful of change to the first homeless person he finds. Like balancing the books. He works sixty hours a week at two different jobs and sells his blood plasma at BioLife. Last month he sent Logan’s mom a check for fifteen hundred dollars, the first drop in what a judge decreed will one day be an ocean. He paid off his Discover card in March and now he’s paying down a different one. The walls in his dreams are graffitied with money math. It helps to focus on one thing at a time.

Like right now. He has his tools arranged on a dish towel in the backyard weeds and he’s thinking about nothing but chang ing the tubes on the three-speed kid’s mountain bike he bought this morning off a craigslist guy. Air up the tires, lube the chain, true the wheels. The kid’s supposed to get here at two. But Matt is trying to focus on now, which is way harder than it should be.

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Grackles are screaming in the hackberry tree like burglar alarms, mating, picking fights with squirrels. Matt is two and a half beers deep because it’s Saturday and his nerves are frayed. Even mouthwash on his breath means his car won’t start, but that’s okay—they’ll ride bikes anywhere they need to go. The beer can is spotted with dirty fingerprints. His nail beds are caked in grease. There’s a smear of it, too, across the bridge of his nose. He flips the bicycle upside down and pedals with his hand, running the chain through each gear, slowly, forward and back, counting the links as they pass. The chain lube smells like banana Laffy Taffy. He drips one drop into each link and gives the pedal a final hard crank that sends everything spinning in a slick freewheel whir like flying downhill with his legs splayed out and fuck whatever’s waiting at the bottom.

With the shower going full blast, Matt listens for car doors slamming. There’s nothing more substantial standing between him and the kid’s arrival than a shower. The mirror steams up and he scrapes at his chin with a disposable lady’s razor. Esther, in their time, had been a door slammer. No door has been in vented she couldn’t slam loud enough to wake the neighbors or set Matt’s teeth grinding. Screen door, trap door, revolving door. Coming in, going out. That fact is one of maybe a dozen Matt has retained about her. Other facts he’s gleaned from sleepless nights spent stalking her on his phone: she doesn’t have dread locks anymore; she still doesn’t smile in pictures; her brand of bisexuality has followed a roughly seventy-thirty split over the last decade, favoring women, the latest of whom is Sherry. Sher ry doesn’t smile in pictures either.

A shower isn’t substantial enough. It’s an activity performed in the background and Matt needs foreground activity to keep him distracted from that old familiar feeling that he hates himself, hates the outlook and would rather do just about anything than spend twenty-four hours trying to manufacture conversation with a child he’s never met before. One part of him feels that way.

Feathers Spread
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He checks to see if the water is hot enough to scald the chain grease from his hands. Maybe cauterize his nerve endings. He’s washed his hands twice already, and if anything, the grease has only spread itself around more evenly. Thirty-four minutes before they’re supposed to arrive. Wrapped in a bleached-out Alad din towel, swiping at the mirror steam, he practices saying dad things. What’s your favorite subject. What kind of books, movies, games. Which one’s your favorite president.

And of course, as soon as he drops his towel and steps into the shower spray, the doorbell rings. Hardass, unreasonable men trained Matt to be good with surprises, always ready to drop whatever and hurl himself into action. He lets the water wet his hair and turns it off, pulls on the same mesh shorts he always wears on the weekends and a fresh plain t-shirt. Hurriedly molds his hair into something that looks purposeful.

To the door in his bare feet, he practices his smile versus his grin, how he’s going to open the door wide to show the kid he’s been welcome here for eleven years, that it’s only been circum stances that have made an actual visit impossible.

He opens the door and there stands Esther alone. There’s a car parked on the street and the woman Matt recognizes from the internet photos is leaning on its hood, smoking, wearing only black, with one forearm tattooed entirely green. This would be Sherry.

Across the street, a Mexican grandkid bounces a basket ball on her porch to the beat of the song she’s singing. There’s ranchero music in the air, too. If you listen closely, there always is, accordions and corazons. In this neighborhood, Matt’s pretty sure even the dogs bark in Spanish. He considers warning Sherry about the mockingbird whose territory she’s invading, but Sherry looks like birds don’t fuck with her. The boy must be still in the car. Like he’s a mob boss or an elder statesman, and his moms are his goons.

“Hey there,” Matt says. He goes with the grin. “Y’all are early.”

“Traffic was stupid.” She looks past his body into the house. “We’re running super late. You going to let me in?”

He makes a little inviting gesture, just shy of a bow. Even with her huge-ass sunglasses on, it’s clear he’s aged better than she has. Matt has recognizable abs, a jawline and a glimmer of boy ishness, but her body has gone fleshy and loose. Through the shirt she’s wearing, he can see the cavern of her belly button. He can smell stale menthol smoke as she brushes past him, pa tchouli oil, but only faintly. He imagines her sharing a late-night cigarette with Sherry on the porch after they put the boy to bed. Lesbians, he feels like, must be pretty conscientious moms. But also, Logan is going to need a manly influence to balance it all out. For a speck of time almost too insignificant to remark upon, Matt feels okay about things.

To the door in his bare feet, he practices his smile versus his grin, how he’s going to open the door wide to show the kid he’s been wel come here for eleven years, that it’s only been circumstances that have made an actual visit impossible.

56 / TEXLANDIA 2022

“She can come in, too,” he says, “and the kid.”

“Don’t worry about them.” Esther’s already on the move, appraising his lack of decor—Matt’s rusty bicycle, the amber condensation weeping down the wall beneath the AC vent. She wears that kind of scowl old lady smokers can get, faint wrinkles pleated on her upper lip. He tries to suppress his grin.

She says, “Can I see the bathroom, please?”

A shotgun hall leads past the closed bedroom doors of his two roommates, Coy and Dylan—he paid both of them fifty bucks to make themselves scarce—through the room that might as well be a dining room, with a scuffed oak table and mis matched chairs, and into the kitchen. She seems suspicious of everything she sees and before they make it to the bathroom, she detours to the kitchen sink, where she hunches down, opens the cabinet doors and starts pulling out bottles of cleaner. She stands and sets a jar of Ajax and a bottle of bleach on the count er.

“You need child locks,” she says.

“All right. You didn’t mention that.”

“We’re in a hurry, Matt.”

“Right, you did mention that. Like just a second ago. Isn’t eleven kind of old for child locks?”

“Look, I don’t have time for this. He sleepwalks, so all this poison shit has to be kept out of reach. You got a gun?”

“Boy drinks bleach in his sleep?”

“I asked if you got a gun?”

“I do,” he said, “but it’s locked up.”

“You got pistachios or goat milk?”

“No ma’am.”

“Good, he can’t eat that. No goat cheese either.”

Matt makes a face like he’s recording this to memory. He’s never eaten goat cheese in his life.

She holds out the Ajax and bleach. “I want to watch you put this shit out of reach.”

He takes them from her and moves them to the top of the refrigerator, all the way to the back, behind a three-pound sack of potatoes and Coy’s jar of whey protein.

“You don’t got nothing to worry about,” Matt says. “We’re both going to be sleeping in my room, and everything wakes

57 / TEXLANDIA 2022

me up. If he sleepwalks, I’ll follow him around and make sure he’s safe. I won’t wake him up or anything. Waking him up is bad, right?”

“Yes, Matt. That’s bad.” Everything she says is sarcastic, exas perated. She comes close and looks him in the face. “You’re not like a fucking child molester, are you?”

“No, dude. Definitely not.” His face is reflected in each oilslick lens of her sunglasses. He laughs because he doesn’t know what else to do. He says, “Don’t worry.”

“Y’all going to sleep in the same bed together?”

“He gets the bed,” Matt says, “and I get the couch.” He hadn’t given it any thought but that seems like the answer she wants.

She looks in a few more cabinets before she’s done with the kitchen, looks in the refrigerator and sees nothing wrong. His beer is in a cooler on the back porch.

“Where’s the bathroom?”

He makes a little flourish like right this way, and she follows him through his bedroom. It’s cleaner than it’s ever been, hos pital corners on his bed, all the DVDs alphabetized underneath the TV, the mini blinds dusted and open to let the sunshine in.

He enters his bathroom, spins, and takes a seat on the count er. “En suite.”

She follows him in, cocks her head at her reflection in the mirror steam, and says “Can I please piss in private?”

Outside the door, he hears her cough and the shiny hiss of her urine striking the toilet water. There was a point in the irretrievable past when he loved this woman, or said he did. He remembers, faintly, her nipples and the feeling of domestic sat isfaction when he had to use the bathroom after her and caught the odor of shit she’d produced in private, how he smiled and thought, my girl shits, and felt like he was doing the right thing, convincing himself to be kind and steady. Even if it had been the right thing, it hadn’t held for even a month. Plus, he’s spent so much time and energy undoing the right things, doing them backward, that now, when his work is finally ready for inspection, it feels so small and tawdry, the little effort he’s made. There’s barely anything standing between him and the kind of perfect mess he could create, total destruction, except for his own halfass vigilance. This little light of mine. The effort to keep it lit is doomed to fail. When she flushes the toilet, he prepares his grin again. She hands him a bottle of Windex and a roach motel.

She writes Sherry’s cell phone number on a Post-it from her purse and sticks it to the fridge, gets both his roommates’ num bers just in case. Under Sherry’s number, she writes pistachios and goat milk. Matt follows her to the door. He observes the jiggle of her current ass and compares it to the memory of the

one that’s gone forever.

Matt hangs back on the front porch. Esther confers with Sher ry before opening the rear door of the car. The boy emerges. Pale and blonde-headed. He shoots Matt an appraising look and a little wave, twists his arms into a denim backpack. Matt feels a funny tenderness for the skin exposed between the waistband of the boy’s shorts and his t-shirt. Meager blond fuzz glinting in the sun. The kid goes back in the car, emerges again with a white cube in tow, a cage. A white-barred cage with a plastic blue bottom, nearly too big for him to carry. Esther puts her hand on his head and speaks directly into his ear. Neither of his mothers escorts him up the sidewalk. Inside the cage, a small green bird clings to a perch.

“Hey there, bud.” Matt meets him halfway and takes the bird cage and uses his body to hustle the boy inside. “Let’s put this guy down somewhere so we can shake hands with each other.”

He waves over his shoulder at the departing car, which is already gone. He shuts the door behind him.

Every dream Matt has is a recurring dream. He fails a piss test or sees police car lights in the rearview. He runs into an army buddy at a place he’s never been in real life, a dream bar or a food court at a dream mall, and that buddy has ideas about big violence that he wants Matt to help him with—paranoid ven geance on Jews or the Illuminati, ideas Matt wouldn’t entertain for a second in real life. Some detail of the plan requires Matt as a sharpshooter. And he can’t say no. Because that’s what he is, or was, or always will be.

Or else he’s done something bad, like criminal bad, and he spends the whole duration of the dream failing to figure out how to get away unpunished.

But most often he dreams about ghosts. At his end of the scope, they had all looked the same. Insurgents or plotters. Bad guys. None of his friends died over there, which supposedly makes him lucky. His friends started dying once they got home. The ghosts, though, are ones he made. Not that he’d chosen his own targets. All fourteen of them were elected to die by some misty counsel far up the chain of command. Orders came down.

At night these dead men arrive like members of a communi ty, as individuals. Mostly they only look sideways at him, seated on the floor or on the foot of his bed. He knows he’s dreaming, which means he won’t wake rested. Often, he ends up fucking them, the ghosts. Upon being touched, their bodies transform into women’s bodies. The faces stay the same. Without moving their mouths, they whisper and moan in the language of curren cies. Disarming amounts of dollars, dinars, riyals, euros, piastres, shekels, and pesos. Adding vast sums to other sums until the

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amounts more nearly resemble first world GDPs than anything Matt can ever pay back in a lifetime. The numbers flash like bar neon on the ceiling of the dream. Still, he aims for maximum, selfless pleasure, theirs, but wakes up before arrival.

Once he knows that he’s dreaming, and he always does, he knows, too, that he’s going to wake up before whatever plot he’s conjured is accomplished. And then there’s no way he’s going back to sleep.

Like his dad, Matt’s two uncles are dead, but when they were alive they were hunters. Every summer his dad would drive him to East Texas or southern Louisiana for these family hunting trips. He killed scores of deer and ducks before he ever kissed one single girl. He hadn’t hunted since he was fourteen or fifteen, but in the army, he could shoot the cherry off a cigarette from a hundred yards, just for the fuck of it. In boot camp, he scored an excellent on his rifle proficiency, only because perfect wasn’t a score. The zebibah is the mark made on a Muslim man’s forehead from friction with his prayer mat. Nine of the fourteen men he’d killed didn’t have one of those anymore.

Brian, the probation officer, says Matt has a guilty con science. Once, Brian, according to Brian, was a teenage evange list. After that, he was a drug addict and petty criminal. Now, he’s a freak about aphorisms, a lot of them gleaned from AA pam phlets. One of his favorite ones involves the word sticktuitive. Last week, for some reason, he made Matt close his eyes and listen to the entirety of “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley. Brian’s lesser aphorisms are about Bible animals. Consider the birds of the air, Matt, he says, how they toileth not. Deer of the meadow, fish of the sea, prairie dogs of the goddamn prairie. Depends on what you consider toil, Matt does not say. But it also depends on this dumb notion of birds as innocents, as harmless cutie-pie creatures in God’s zoo. In the real world, birds are vicious, and all they do is toil.

But most often he dreams about ghosts. At his end of the scope, they had all looked the same. Insurgents or plotters. Bad guys. None of his friends died over there, which supposed ly makes him lucky. His friends started dying once they got home.

If he’s ever dreamed about the little boy whose hand is in the birdcage, stroking the bird’s green throat with his index finger, they aren’t the dreams he remembers.

“He got a name?”

“It’s a she,” Logan says, “and her name’s Puff.”

“How come?”

“Because watch her,” he says. He extends his finger, and the bird hops on. “She puffs up. She does it all the time.”

“She don’t fly off?”

“Only if you scare her.”

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Carefully, Logan raises the bird between their faces. The bird has a green chest, zebra wings, a yellow face with a pattern of blue ink stains under its beak. The eyes are black beads that make Matt unnervingly aware of how little he knows about eyesight. Like, what even are eyes? Logan is standing and Matt is on his knees. He can feel his hand wanting to touch Logan. The shoulder blade seems like the best spot, with the boy’s shirt as a barrier between skin and skin. Instead he grips the edge of the coffee table. And then the bird does it. She puffs. That’s the only word for it. Puffs and kind of shakes herself out of it.

“Oh man,” Matt says. “It’s just like how dogs do.”

“Dogs don’t do that.”

“Are you kidding me? Dogs will tense up all their muscles and explode all a sudden into shakes. Especially when they’re wet. You ain’t never seen that?”

“No, because it’s not true.”

He’s laughing now, but Matt can’t tell what kind of laughter.

“You ever have a dog?”

Logan shakes his head side to side.

“Then how do you know what’s true or not true?”

They’re looking one another in the face now. Matt hasn’t talk ed to a kid since he was a kid, and he doesn’t know what you’re supposed to say. He hopes maybe it’s something just to make an effort.

“You like birds better than dogs?” he asks.

“I guess.”

“You know how to ride a bike?”

“Yeah, but my bike’s at home.”

“I bet I got one your size,” Matt says, “and I got some birds to show you. Come on.”

The backyard is an asphalt slab the size of a swimming pool. A two-car parking lot from back when the house was a duplex with front and rear entrances, but nobody parks there now. A couple pecan trees and mowed weeds make a border.

Through the gaps in the trees and house tops, portions of downtown come into view. Matt points out the high-rise that looks like an owl from a certain angle. He isn’t going to take the kid up to the roof, but from the topmost eave, you can just make out the tower where Charles Whitman shot a bunch of UT stu

They skid out in the gravel of the alley where trees have melted into the fences, their roots mulched by paper trash and malt wine bottles.
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dents in the sixties after killing his mother and his wife, because he fell prey to unusual and irrational thoughts.

When he presents the kid with his bike, he tries to be as unceremonious as possible. He tells him to see if it fits right and give it a spin around the slab. Hold tight while he gets his own bike from inside. He sneaks two tallboys from the cooler on the porch. Drinks one down in gulps while he’s still inside, and pours the other into a plastic sports bottle. He fills another bottle for the kid with tap water and nuggets of ice from the freezer. Wheeling his bike through the hall, he remembers something he should’ve already remembered. In his bedroom closet, he moves aside the hanging work pants and takes his .45 and his pellet rifle and moves them to the high shelf with his cowboy boots and his toolbox. He doesn’t even have ammo for the .45. Anyway, too high now for the kid to reach. Safe and secure.

They skid out in the gravel of the alley where trees have melt ed into the fences, their roots mulched by paper trash and malt wine bottles. Today, the only alley resident is the white-bearded Guatemalan man who traded in his old wheelchair for one with a battery. He hadn’t foreseen the impediment of gravel, or the fact that batteries need charging. A dozen plastic grocery bags hang from the chair like overripe fruit or goiters. Matt’s pretty sure his name is Sylvester, or Sylvestro. When Matt used to smoke, the old man would bang on his gate to beg a cigarette. Matt intro duces Logan to Sylvester, and vice versa, and dismounts to push the wheelchair out to the sidewalk on Comal where its wheels can gain purchase. As he’s pushed, Sylvester rattles at the kid in Spanish, and when the kid responds, also in Spanish, the old man breaks down into a coughing fit that might be laughter.

When they’re riding again, side by side in the bike lane, Matt asks Logan how he knows Spanish.

“They teach it at school,” Logan says, “but I’m not very good at it.”

“Sounded pretty good to me, dude. I’m impressed.”

Matt rides on the outside and makes hand signals when they turn. He points out notable landmarks along the way—the taqueria where, for two dollars, they sell you a whole grilled beef tongue and a stack of corn tortillas; the city train that takes com muters to and from the suburbs; the corner store run by a Syrian man Matt once saw break a teenager’s finger for spitting on him.

They turn down a narrow neighborhood street, and in front of a vacant lot, they lean their bikes against a chain link fence and Matt retrieves the water bottles from his backpack. Makes sure to give Logan the one with actual water in it, and the kid takes a long drink.

“Hey, what did Sylvester say back there?” Matt asks.

Logan’s cheeks are pink. He has a mustache of sweat beads.

“He was just naming off family members.”

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Mont St Michel By Austin Miller
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“Like Jorge is my uncle?”

“Uh-huh, but everybody had like five names.”

“And what did you say to him?”

“I asked him how old his granddad was.”

Matt hiccups. Beer fills his sinuses and he laughs in earnest for the first time since the breathalyzer was installed in his car.

“Oh, you’re funny, bud. You made old Sylvester laugh, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Matt yanks his shirt up to wipe his face, takes a big suck from his bottle. It’s not clear yet what all the boy’s facial expressions mean, but he’s pretty sure this one’s the happiest yet.

“Look up there,” Matt says.

The boy shades his eyes and looks straight up—a telephone pole, topped by a gray transformer cylinder. Built against the un derside of the transformer is a shaggy nest the size of a human head. Twigs woven to form a kind of ovoid container. Logan asks what it is.

“You know what it is.”

“It’s a bird nest, but what lives in it?”

“Wait a sec and I bet we’ll see.”

“I don’t see anything.”

“Yeah, but listen. You hear that? They’re tweeting in there.”

The nest is complicated. If regular bird nests are houses, this is a cathedral. It wouldn’t shock Matt if there were rooms inside, a floorplan. Again, he considers touching the boy’s shoulder, but it’s too hot. They’re both sweating through their shirts. They watch in silence for a little while, and sure enough, one green head appears in the nest’s opening, followed by another.

“Parakeets? Is that what they are?”

“Yep. There’s thousands of them in Austin. And nests all over town, always on telephone poles, because they’re from Peru or somewhere and they like the heat those transformers give off.”

“No way.”

“Google it, dude.”

“Are they the same kind as Puff?”

“I don’t know. Might be a little bigger. Supposedly they’re all descended from pet birds that escaped or got let go.”

As if on cue, the birds dart from the nest.

“Cool, huh?” Matt suckles the last hot dregs of his beer. “I was thinking about building a fire in the backyard tonight and roasting hotdogs. How’s that sound?”

Logan yells, “Hotdogs.” He squirts himself in the face with water from the bottle.

At H-E-B, they split up. Each with a basket. Logan’s job is wie ners and buns and ketchup, and Matt’s, for a minute, is pacing the dairy aisle, flapping his shirt to let the cold air in. Tonight, he decides, as soon as the kid’s in bed, he’s going to reward himself with a cigarette on the porch, which he hasn’t done in months. Because it’s the kind of a thing a parent should do.

They meet in the tortilla aisle. Logan chose Texas Red Hots, tubes of meat the color of dog erections with chile peppers and flames on the logo. The boy likes hot stuff, Matt guesses.

In line, Matt asks for a pack of Camel Blues and has to follow the teenage cashier to the glass case and show her which ones. He thinks about explaining to Logan how he quit smoking in April—how this is a one-time thing, how he’ll probably throw the pack away after he smokes a couple—but he doesn’t.

They ride back a different way, down Pleasant Valley on the sidewalk, across Caesar Chavez and down the gravel path that follows the river, lined with ball cypress and municipal signage. It’s too hot for joggers, and the only people they pass wear hats with neck flaps, dragged along by their exhausted dogs. Under a cottonwood tree, a homeless man appears to be making up tai chi from scratch.

“You as hot and sweaty as I am?”

“It’s super hot.”

“Here, pull off by that dock.”

They drop their bikes in the grass and Matt pulls a wet tallboy from his backpack, pulls his shirt off over his head, does a little dance to pull his shoes off. The dock is made of gray twoby-fours and there’s a swastika graffitied across it like a compass rose.

“One good thing about this city, there’s always some water to jump in.”

“The sign says you can’t swim.”

“Thing about signs,” Matt says. He jumps in. His wallet is in his pocket, and his house keys. He goes under, surfaces, treads water. “It’s just so if you drown you can’t sue the city. Jump in. I swear I won’t call the cops.”

The boy only hesitates for a moment. He jumps in with his

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Logan looks back over his shoulder, grinning, but it’s already too late. The state bird swoops down from its lair with a shrill squawk, aimed straight at the boy’s head, where it attempts a landing.

t-shirt on, and they tread water together, splash each other. The bottom of the river is loamy and loose, and Logan squeals every time his feet touch. When they swim out to the middle, he dog paddles. Matt floats on his back, watching ghost bacteria swarm in his vision against the backdrop of cloudless sky. To the west, four parallel bridges. Kayakers clustered around the bridge piles, soaking up the shade.

“Everybody calls it a lake,” Matt tells Logan, “but it’s obvi ously a river. If it was a lake, there wouldn’t be all these river snakes.”

Logan’s eyes go wide at the word. Matt chants, “Snakes, snakes, snakes,” and they haul ass back to the dock, hoist them selves up and bask starfished and panting against the hot wood. They talk about snakes—water snakes, land snakes, snakes that can fly—until their clothes dry crispy and the sun renders them speechless.

On the ride back home, the boy rides ahead. He tries to pop wheelies, swerving up driveways to ride on the sidewalk, hopping down off the curb. His tirelessness makes Matt tired.

They’ve only been gone a couple hours max, but in that time, Matt has forgotten about the mockingbird. For months now, he’s been using the alley to avoid it. From the front porch, Matt’s seen it torment cats, send old ladies running for their lives. More than a few times, it got him riding his bike home drunk from the bar and nearly made him crash. He’d forgotten about it entirely until he realizes they’re approaching the house from the front.

“Hey, bud,” he calls. “Hold up.”

Logan looks back over his shoulder, grinning, but it’s already too late. The state bird swoops down from its lair with a shrill squawk, aimed straight at the boy’s head, where it attempts a landing. Doesn’t land, but attempts it. The shadow of the bird and the air it displaces is enough to send the boy over his handle bars. Matt’s dad would’ve called it ass over teakettle

Matt performs a hero’s dismount. His bike circles a drain in the road. He rushes to the boy, picks him up by his arms.

“You okay, bud?”

“I think so.”

Matt dusts him off. Pebbles of asphalt are embedded in his palms and in the tender whites of his forearms. A couple scrapes, the kind you’re supposed to get daily at age eleven, right? He’s touching the kid for the first time and doesn’t realize it until later. Logan is fine. A little tumbled, but he’s laughing now. The bird, however. In Matt’s heart, the bird is already dead.

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He was there when the baby was born. Physically there, in San Antonio, but elsewhere in all the other ways. Esther’s mother was there, too. She was Esther but louder and more direct, mean and protective, a mother-in-law from a sitcom. They wouldn’t let Matt in the delivery room before the baby was born, so he sat through the labor with Esther’s stepdad, a winded and sapless man who illustrated exactly what happens when you stay too long where you’re not wanted.

It was a Wednesday and his kid was two days old. Matt was back in Lacy Lakeview. Supposed to be at work, but he was smoking in his car outside of a strip mall, ashing in a Dr. Pepper can, making Venn diagrams in his mind. The army recruiter was alone behind a desk in an office next door to a consignment store for plus-size women called You’re a Big Girl Now. There were posters everywhere inside with the word respect in all capitals. The recruiter was a black man with a spray of freckles across his cheeks and a chin you could tenderize meat with, and he didn’t ask if Matt was a brand-new father or what he was running away from, only seemed a little curious that it had taken him so long after 9/11 to join up. Enlistment sort of fell off, Matt remembers him saying.

Matt called home with the intention of telling his folks they were grandparents and that he was shipping off—that was the phrase he planned to use—as an act of spite. That’s how he learned his dad had been dead nearly as long as his son had been incubating. The dust had settled enough that his mother wasn’t nearly as hysterical or bereft as he wanted her to be. Matt called her names, hung up, got drunk, and went to war.

And did he consider—has he considered since—the lilies of the field who, same as the birds, supposedly toileth not? Sure, of course he has. If you consider the birds, you consider the lilies. But his conclusion is about the same. Birds build nests, lay eggs, fend off predators. What about this is not toil? Lilies erupt from bulbs, stretch out into the air, blossom, absorb moisture and light. The only difference is scale. It’s all fucking toil.

The trouble for Matt is that toil is relentless, and it doesn’t lead to anything he’s especially interested in. Digging himself out of the various holes he’s dug—why is that noble? Once he’s out, what then?

He knows that he can’t do this shit forever. Pay off credit cards, make amends, toil at respectability. He could get his teeth fixed, move into a place alone, without roommates. Make a brand-new family, how about that. And after he checked off those boxes, more would appear, and the longer he worked at it, the more progress he made, the bigger the break would be. The dam is going to break. He’s going to break. He has no idea what that might look like, the breach, but he can feel it coming, building like something he’s supposed to pretend away.

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Even after Matt cleans the kid’s cuts with hydrogen peroxide and tweezes out the pieces of street, it’s still too hot out to light a fire, way too hot to eat. The sun won’t set for a couple more hours. They put on dry clothes and play Xbox in Matt’s bedroom, taking turns back and forth at some fighting game because Matt only has the one controller. When it’s Logan’s turn the sixth time, Matt finds him sleeping, tucked into a couch pillow with his mouth open. Sleeping like only kids can sleep after swimming in a river.

He cracks a beer on the porch and asks his phone what the punishment is for killing the state bird. (Class C misdemeanor, five hundred dollar fine.) Thou shalt not kill a songbird or a hawk or an owl. Nothing about parakeets. The information comes from the Texas Audubon Society page, and there’s an italicized quote from the Harper Lee book. How mockingbirds don’t do anything but sing, which is clearly false. Maybe they have fancy mock ingbirds in Alabama or wherever, but the Texas ones are violent harpies and they can’t sing for shit.

The chinaberry tree in the neighbor’s yard—he’s pretty sure that’s where the mockingbird nests. Best he can figure, he’s got two options. If he goes out in the street and lures the mocking bird, he’s going to have to shoot as it swoops at him. Better, he can climb up to the roof and snipe it while it’s vomiting food into its babies’ mouths or whatever it does. Assassinate it. Before Oswald shot JFK, he tried to kill some rightwing general at his breakfast table. He missed. Aside from missing, though, his methods were sound. Only way Matt would miss would be if he tried to.

The kid’s still sleeping when Matt tiptoes in to retrieve the pellet rifle. Sleeping, but in a different position, sprawled. By the time he’s back outside, he’s lost his motivation. He’s too tired to hoist himself up onto the roof. There’s lead in his legs. A grown man should own a ladder, but he doesn’t. And the mockingbird is only doing what any parent would do, isn’t it? Protecting its kids. It doesn’t know what’s a threat and what isn’t—everything is a threat. In all the important ways, the mockingbird is a better parent than Matt.

He unpeels the cellophane from his pack of Camels and lights one. The first drag after an absence is always bad. All the nerve endings in his throat have to be rescorched. By drag num ber five or six, though, his head fills with pleasant fog. It saps his bloodlust. Instead of killing the bird, he drags a porch chair out to the metal gate, sets up a couple empty cans, returns to the porch, sits down, raises the rifle, and knocks the cans down.

Every time he goes back out to set the cans up, he brings a fresh empty. He’s on cigarette number two, and the sun is slipping down below the tree line. The light goes brassy. The shadows get complicated. The kid’s been asleep for an hour when Matt starts erecting the hotdog fire—a teepee of small, dry wood, some dryer lint tucked into the gaps to get it caught. A couple big breaths into the fire guts and the whole thing is

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blazing in no time. He shoots a row of cans off the chair, puts on a bigger log. His belly is rumbling. He doesn’t have a clue how long kids nap for, but he could do this all day. Setting them up, knocking them down.

Dead grass crunches in the side yard. Matt swings the rifle at Coy without meaning to. Coy with his hands up like don’t shoot, a gallon jug of water hooked on a finger, a bib of sweat. Matt sets the gun upright against his chair and says he’s sorry.

“Dude,” Coy says, “I’m sorry, too. I know we’re supposed to steer clear, but I need a shower bad. Then I’m gone.”

Coy’s just twenty-five, supposedly in grad school for some thing. They’ve lived together almost two years but Matt’s never seen him do anything except exercise and drink.

Coy nods at Matt’s tallboy. “Can I get one of those?”

“Help yourself.”

“Dylan’s floating the river, so he won’t bother y’all.”

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

“Where’s the kid?”


Coy jams his house key into the side of the beer can, lifts it to chin level and opens it, tilts it back and sucks at the aluminum wound. Loses barely a drop. He wipes his mouth with his shirt and sits down on the porch planks.

“So what, you already tired him out?”

“I guess so. He might’ve tired me out.”

Coy squinches his eyes at Matt. “You okay, dude?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“Shit,” Coy says, “speak of the devil.”

Behind the sliding door glass, Logan coaxes the parakeet from its cage. It looks like he’s whispering to it. Matt raps on the glass with his knuckles and waves him outside. Coy, Logan. Logan, Coy. The boy’s hair is sticking up on the side of his head and his face is puffy with sleep, etched with the pattern of the corduroy couch pillow.

“Dude, cool bird,” says Coy. “Can I pet him?”

Logan doesn’t correct him, doesn’t say it’s a she. He extends his hand, Coy extends his, and it’s so weirdly intimate for a sec ond, Coy stroking the head of the bird perched on Matt’s son’s finger. A kind of touch you’re not allowed to share with most peo

He cracks a beer on the porch and asks his phone what the punishment is for killing the state bird. (Class C misdemeanor, five hundred dollar fine.) Thou shalt not kill a songbird or a hawk or an owl. Nothing about parakeets.

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ple, maybe three people tops in your whole life. It feels wasted on Coy, who takes another beer from Matt’s cooler and excuses himself, just like he was paid to do.

“What’s the gun for?”

“Shooting cans. You want to try?”

“I don’t know.”

“Your mom probably wouldn’t like it, huh?”

Logan makes a shrugging noise and allows the bird to hop onto the rifle muzzle. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, bud.” Matt sits up straight like a dad. “Anything you like.”

“You think it would be okay if I let her go?”

Matt asks him why he’d want to do that, but he thinks he already knows. Maybe this is the shape his fuck-up was always going to take, something wound up in his fate as a deadbeat dad. Convincing his kid to free his helpless pet—because that’s how Esther’s going to see it, as Matt’s doing, not Logan’s.

“Because it’s bad to be in a cage,” Logan says. “I can let her go if I want to, can’t I?”

“I guess. I’m not going to stop you. Your mom will be mad.”

“My mom hates her. She wants a cat.”

Puff paces around the small circumference of the muzzle, six inches from Matt’s face. More like a toy than a bird. Odds are, free, she’ll get snatched up and eaten before sunset.

“Wait a sec,” Matt says. “You’re not sleepwalking are you?”


What Size By Austin Miller
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“Your mom said you sleepwalk sometimes, and I bet you’d be pretty pissed at me if you woke up and realized your bird was gone.”

“No way, I don’t sleepwalk.”

“Prove it.”

Matt watches the boy consider what proof might look like. A couple seconds of looking off at whatever nothing lies just beyond Matt’s head.

All of a sudden, the kid’s eyes roll back in his head, his arms shoot out, and he commences to shake, like he’s overcome, saying, “I’m awake, I’m awake.” He jumps on the ice chest and karate kicks the air. The parakeet doesn’t react, not until Logan leaps off the porch and comes down hard with both feet on the ground. Then she bolts. One flap of her wings and she’s gone.

“Fuck me.” Matt’s stomach biles up in his throat.

They dart down the porch steps and scan the trees. Every thing’s green—the bird that isn’t there, the leaves. The yellow of the bird’s face matches the yellow of stray parched leaves. The inkblots match the gaps between.

“How you feel, dude?”

“I guess okay,” Logan says. “I was going to let her go any how.”

“You want to say goodbye or something?”


“We could wave.”

“I already said goodbye.”

“Well, shit,” Matt says. He feels like he should say something significant, but all he comes up with is, “Good luck, bird.”

The sun goes down. The bird’s gone and she’s not com ing back. In some version of the future, Matt will have time to arrange the day into a satisfying order—what already happened and what’s still to come. To sort out cause and effect. For now, everything just happens:

How the boy fires the pellet rifle and misses every can he aims at. How Matt makes him steady the barrel on the porch railing, breathe in through his nose, out through his mouth as he eases the trigger. How he pulls the trigger too hard and jolts, and how every pellet strikes the gate with a metal ping and leaves a new dent. Practice makes perfect is Matt’s motto. No killer was built in a day. How the boy wants to keep trying but Matt can’t resist the urge to show off. How he lights a fresh cigarette and hauls a hackberry limb to the fire. Drains all but the last couple swallows of his beer and places it on the chair by the gate, just the one can. A cigarette butt fits so snugly into the hole in a beer can’s pull tab, Matt kind of believes they were de signed for that purpose. How he takes a long hard drag, blows the dead ash off the cherry, and fixes it in the tab slot.

How he says, “All right, so if I can knock the cherry off that cigarette in one shot, then we can roast them hotdogs and eat.” He wipes his hands on his shirt and adds, “Otherwise.”

“Otherwise what?”

“We go hungry, I guess.”

How he turns the porch chair backward against the railing and straddles it. Cocks his right elbow, snuggles the stock into his shoulder. One eye closed, waiting for the smell of paint to tell him to fire. How the cigarette cherry at the end of his sight is not a face, or, it’s only a face the way a storm cloud can be a face, distantly, with a nose, a brow ridge. How he doesn’t have to think about shooting the cherry. He just does it—the pellet is expelled and the cherry is gone. How the pellet rings against the gate.

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How the kid is in awe. How when Matt calls the red hotdog wieners dog dicks, the kid laughs like it’s the first time he’s ever heard a bad word. How his dad can fire a rifle with pinpoint accuracy and use dirty language. They untwist wire hangers and impale the franks. The buns are set on a cinderblock near the fire to toast. The ketchup bottle, the package of red hots minus two. Everything smells like fire and meat, and how Matt’s begin ning to think the boy holds nothing against him, sitting beside him on the asphalt, his wire bent above the fire. How he feels more like a cool older cousin than a dad. The red hots are spicy, but not too spicy. Way too hot for Logan, who starts hiccupping and trying to wipe the heat off his tongue with his shirtsleeve. How he’s kind of freaking out, walking around in circles. How Matt wants to touch him, to help, but he doesn’t. The boy doubles over and clutches his stomach, groans. If Matt only touches him when they shake hands goodbye, how he’ll be okay with that, how their first real time together is restrained.

How the kid never accidentally calls him dad, and how it also doesn’t feel like they’re strangers at all.

And how it feels when the kid does break. How his face contorts in the firelight. How Matt doesn’t realize until later that when Logan is hurrying from the fire, up the steps and through the sliding door, he’s shitting his pants the whole way. Not until Matt finds the dribbles of evidence later. And how the guts-deep groan Logan makes is because it hurts. How Matt checks the ingredients list on the package of red hots for pistachios or goat cheese. How he doesn’t know what allergies are or how health insurance works, but he knows ambulances are expensive, and he knows if he tries to start his car, the breathalyzer is going to laugh at him. Do kids die from allergies? And how, if the kid does die, it’s because Matt can’t figure out how to get to the hospital. How total destruction is a fun idea until you feel it breathing in your face.

How the hollow-core door feels pressed against his back and how he’s sitting on his bedroom floor, listening to the groans and

splashes of his child expelling illness from both ends of his body. Gasping, crying. Through the door, he tells the kid it’s going to be okay and nothing lasts forever and this too shall pass. And how if it’s not going to be okay, if Esther revokes everything and he doesn’t get to see the kid for eleven more years, then he at least wants to get this ghost’s face right. If the dream gets it wrong, he wants to correct the dream. How he’ll stand up and raise his hand and say excuse me, you’re wrong. How his kid’s nose looks like this, his eyes are this color, his parakeet was green, and this is what it sounds like when he’s crying and hurt. This is what his dad looks like sitting on the floor. How he’s trained for different surprises. But also, how this is nothing he can’t learn to do better.

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Construction Zone By Austin Miller
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Once again I find that place behind your knee— never mind that much has died, our marriages, the car.

You kneel, lay down, bisect the bed, a road, the way rising like warm bread, no one at the wheel.

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A Fantasy
By Stephanie Gonzalez
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Lucy used to love Nicholas Photoclub President, trailed him through the art department fog of clay dust, glittering stained glass scraps, smell of kilns firing up, graphite, hot erasures twisting off the paper. Sometimes she’d wait

in the darkroom, overexposing prints, shots she’d snapped of leaves cut through with daylight, long twists of country road, pumpkins sagging together in a row. Everything comes out too dark, grim and fiercely grey, reliefs chipped into headstones. She waited so long

for Nicholas but he always kept his gaze down like all the floors in hallways were trays of solvent, images slow-emerging for only his dark eyes – Lucy used to love his caterpillar neck, his photosensitivity, skin glowing in the darkroom’s brake light.

Then she saw Teddy Quarterback coursing the field at dusk, running with the sprawled out snaps of animals, dodging grasping arms, leaping over the white lines

so like a rabbit. Lucy panted. Now she sneaks every week under the bleachers to watch the tight white ripple of his uniform, ready tremble of his thighs, cutting scent of torn grass, his big digit shrinking as he sprints away.

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In post-apocalyptic novels there is the time before the apocalypse, and then the time after. As the plot cracks toward nevermore, no one sees the severance, the actual moment when it’s too late: the disease takes hold, the poison is let loose into the water systems, the monsters invade the sewers or the skies. By then, we’ve hurtled over the climax, people doomed to the end they predicted millennia ago.

That’s the part of the story I like the best. Both things are still possible. The old life of going to the corner restaurant and ordering a steaming plate of pasta in tomato sauce, a loaf of fresh bread, fragrant, yeasty nestled in the table basket, the windows open, letting in city sounds —bike bell, church bell, choir.

Behind the scenes, out of sight, the end comes crushing forward. We have no idea. I’m sitting with my best friend in an ancient building on a rickety wooden chair. The waiter is flirting with me. The sun slants golden across the table cloth. The whole room smells like basil.

Under the floorboards, zombies. In the tap, a bad elixir, the new life no one wants. The living don’t care. Not yet.

Jessica Barksdale
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Mhairi Treharne

Mhairi Treharne

Full Moon By
Mans Cave By Mhairi Treharne
Hoard On Peak By
Rock By Mhairi Treharne
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Ending with Articulatory Gestures

Anthony Sutton

I asked you a question, and then everyone’s faces blurred into the walls, and then I was locked into a world the size of Josh’s passenger seat.

And now I’m back to say: after that tampered drink crawled down my throat, after the last thing I remember, after the eight hours I don’t, I woke in the empty cloth of afternoon sun coming through the motel windows.

I was surprised to have everything: my backpack, hoodie, and I even gained a bit: an empty plastic bag and the muscle memory of what I did say held in my mouth—

After I asked How have you been all these months? your response shattered into static that collected and swirled around my eardrums.

Whatever I said after that I woke drowsily to the act of repeating it as my eyes lifted open.It went something like this: My jaw unfastened as my lips opened into an O. My jaw rose. Skin met tooth as air flowed through the passage. My jaw unfastened again.

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Charlot after Maupassant

That Monday morning, Miss Darla Dennehy couldn’t find her blood pressure pills. They were supposed to be in a shopping sack along with her cherry nicotine tablets. The sack wasn’t in the cabinet above the sink. It wasn’t in the little chester-drawers she kept by her bed. Nothing was anywhere it should have been at all.

Miss Darla figured her son must have stolen the pills the night before at Sunday supper. Or else, one of his two lazeabout sons. Or else, his laze-about wife, Thaizet. Any one of them might have taken them, crushed them fine and sucked them up their nose with the eagerness of a dustbuster. To the best of her knowledge, none of them were particularly troubled with drugs—the elder child was not yet eleven—but in her own seventy-three and half years, Miss Darla had learned there was a dope fiend in every family, and after all, this was just the kind of thanks she’d come to expect for fixing her good brisket and chili-mac. There were times she didn’t know if she could go on in this world.

She flipped open her phone and scanned the speed-dials she’d scotch-taped onto the back. Number three was her son’s cellular. He was at work now, but certainly this qualified as an exigent circumstance. She could feel the contracted worrying of her heart—the sputter of a yellowjacket under a sweet tea glass. A nicotine tablet would be just the thing to iron her nerves, if only she had one on hand.

“Corwin, I’ve told you countless times,” she said, tempering her tone against excessive accusation. “Dr. Hardwick says I will perish from this earth without strictest adherence to my pre scribed regimen.”

“Whatnow?” her son said. He was shouting over the sounds of diesel trucks backing up, out in the dusty barrens of the oil patch.

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“My pills, Corwin. I have simply torn the house asunder searching for my blood pressure pills this morning.”

“Calm down, Mother. You’re going to have yourself an isch emic event.”

“I don’t care who it was. You needn’t fear judgment from me. I let the Lord decide, you understand?”

“Have you checked your car?”

“Son, I don’t keep pills in my car. You think I’m some push er?”

“I don’t know, Mother. You said last night about the tattooed lady working the checkout at Walgreens. Maybe you’d been there yesterday after church and forgot to bring your order in the house.”

Miss Darla quieted, remembering the listless clerk. The woman had been ornamented with kabuki theater cosmetics. As she took Miss Darla’s Medicare card and pecked the necessary information into the store computer, gold jewelry the color of corn had clanged against her wrists and bounced upon the plump cleavage exposed beneath her red uniform vest. A green tattoo of a snake had slunk up her neck, mouth gaped as if it were about to latch onto a hoop-poked earlobe. Some manager should have handed that girl a washcloth and a turtleneck first thing, but decency and common sense had long since skipped this town like they were running from famine in the days of Judges.

“Go look,” Corwin said. “Call me back if you still can’t find it.”

Miss Darla slid into her house shoes and opened the front door to the furnace of early August. It was only ten in the morn ing but already 97 degrees on the concrete. She brimmed her

Texas Footwear By Rusy Singh
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Half Life

hand above her glasses. Down the end of the cul-de-sac, she could just make out the pumpjacks bobbing in the chaparral beyond the Apache Promenade subdivision. Across Appaloosa Avenue, the neighbor children were half naked in the sunbeaten lawn, hula-hooping without the encumbrance of actual hoops. They mimicked some sort of silent dance or demonic posses sion. They took turns filming each other with cell phones grimly extended away from their bodies. She would have paused here, to contemplate how all children’s behavior today seemed to gesture toward Armageddon, if her attention had not snapped back to the task at hand. A more pressing catastrophe presented itself before her now, in the form of a smashed-in driver’s side window.

Well, her pills and the nicotine tablets were there, on the passenger seat of her Pontiac. They were still in the Walgreens bag, along with a receipt long as an armadillo’s tail, but the bag was covered in nuggets of glass.

She took account of what all the car contained. Everything seemed in its place, except her CD of Charley Pride’s Pride of America and the exactly twenty-five dollar bills she’d stacked beneath the Whataburger napkins and ketchup packets in the glove box. The dollars were always there, so she could hand them out to the panhandlers dangling cardboard signs at inter sections. It was just too much. Miss Darla dry-swallowed her pill and sucked a nicotine tablet hard enough to trout-pucker her cheeks. She’d been burglarized.


That night, Corwin came back to the house with his sons to help clean up, and to check on his mother. Miss Darla watched him sweeping the last slivers from the upholstery with a hand broom, while the boys jabbed at tablets in the back seat. What ever game they were playing let out loud, wet crushing sounds, like watermelons splitting.

“Son,” Miss Darla said. “I need you to go out, buy me a Smith

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“I wouldn’t so desperately need a firearm if y’all didn’t move me out here to skid row, then abandon me to the mercy of barbarians. I was safe and contented in Brownview.”

& Wesson nine-millimeter like your Daddy used to keep in the bedside table.”

“You know I’m not going to do that, Mother,” Corwin said. “I’m not even certain you ought to be driving anymore.”

“I wouldn’t so desperately need a firearm if y’all didn’t move me out here to skid row, then abandon me to the mercy of bar barians. I was safe and contented in Brownview.”

Miss Darla had lived in the same ranch home for over thirty years until her husband, Frank, died of stroke. Corwin hadn’t liked the thought of her living an hour’s drive from him or from a major hospital, so he helped her sell the family place and buy a house in Apache Promenade, his subdivision in Midland. By the time their third son was born, the oil boom was on, and Corwin was making indecent amounts of money for a man who strug gled traversing the intellectual gauntlet of Brownview Technical High School. Thaizet had demanded they move into a four bed room, and so they had bought a place across town in a chichi gated neighborhood adjacent to honest-to-God polo stables.

Miss Darla had lived in Apache Promenade since, mostly alone except for bible study, Rush Limbaugh, and Sunday suppers.

“It’s a nice community, Mother,” Corwin said. He’d begun taping up a clear plastic sheet where the window had been. “It has a pool and an HOA.”

“Sure. They take all my offering plate money with their dues, and did you know I saw a sanitary pad squashed onto the diving board last week? I wouldn’t swim in that pig’s wallow if my un derthings were on fire.”

“I know you’re too proud, but I’ve always said you can move in with us. We’ve got a spare room, and the kids would love to spend more time with their Mamaw.”

“Heiferfucker!” one of the boys shouted from the backseat. He flung down his tablet and hauled on his brother.

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“Watch your diction!” Corwin yelled back at them.

“I am not too proud,” Miss Darla said. “I prefer to preserve a fig leaf of dignity as an independent woman, which I’d be able to do if you’d provide me with my own protection.”

“What if we got you a little dog?”

“What on earth would I want with a little dog?”

“As a kind of alarm system. To bark if someone comes around at night. Maybe it’ll scare them off or wake you up to call the police.”

Miss Darla had a dog once. A playful Collie called Bandito who used to chase jackrabbits on her parents’ land and slept at the end of her bed, right over her feet on cold nights. That was so many years ago, and here in Midland, the dogs were out of hand—chihuahuas and pit bulls, primarily—barking and scraping behind fences, leaving piles of feces on the sidewalk, jogging out into the middle of Rankin Highway and getting them selves compacted by cement mixers. The owners ought to be required to scrape up the mess.

“Just what this neighborhood needs,” Miss Darla said. “An other dog.”

“It might give you some company, too,” Corwin said, finishing his work with the window. “What do you think?”

“It looks derelict.”

“It’s just for a couple of weeks until the body shop can get you in. What I meant was what do you think about the dog?”

“For you, Son, I’ll consider it,” Miss Darla said. She did love her idiot boy. She didn’t tell him she had no intention of replac ing the window. The insurance claim was too much money to throw away like that.


Miss Darla had always woken up mornings bedeviled by dreams. She had a desire to tell someone the hodgepodged pictures she’d seen in the night—the meaning of them harder to hold on to than a handful of dirt on a gusty day. As long as she’d been married, she had resisted telling Frank about them. For one, because he’d claimed to never have any dreams himself. That had always seemed impossible, even for such a singularly unimaginative man, but Miss Darla held firm to her notion that the airing of dreams ought to be a reciprocal act. And for two, because sometimes her dreams came to pass, so to speak, and that felt like a thing too dangerous to reveal.

For the few nights after the burglary, she dreamed that local teenagers had taken to vandalizing the moon. They spray-paint

ed obscenities onto its glowing face and threw heavy objects at it—Coke cans, then bricks—cracking its skin like the shell of an egg. One boy unzipped his fly and pissed in a high arc all over the wounds in the moon’s surface. Stop, Miss Darla shouted. Can’t you see you’re fixing to ruin her for good? The teenag ers kept at it, poking the moon’s flesh with giant needles that dripped ink darker than the sky. Eventually, the moon crumbled and fell down on them in a burning hail, leaving a gaping void in the heavens. Miss Darla couldn’t see what good any dog was going to do about that, but at least she could tell the little crea ture what she’d seen. And on the plus side, she already knew of what dogs dreamed.


Best as Miss Darla could tell, Corwin’s directions to the dog breeder’s took her north of town right out in the middle of no place particular. He’d made the arrangements for her, through a coworker whose father raised dogs. She expected a sign to point her in the direction of the kennel. All she saw on the farm road was a rusty combine harvester and two plastic wrapped cotton bales like seven-foot tall loaves of bread. It didn’t help she couldn’t hardly see out the window’s panel of plastic.

She could have called her son to get better directions, but then she’d be subject to another harangue about installing a GPS unit. The boy was just like his father—always wasting money on gadgets. If Frank had had a little more sense about his toys, she wouldn’t have needed to scrimp so, now in her sunset years.

Her mind was wandering back to when Frank put a CB Radio in his truck, and just why he’d decided to anoint himself with the handle “Cube Steak,” when she spotted in her rearview a little girl on a wobbly boy’s bicycle, cradling something in one arm. Miss Darla put the Pontiac in reverse and squirmed back toward the highway. She pulled alongside the girl and cracked her door a few inches.

“Good morning,” Miss Darla said.

“Hey,” the girl said. “What happened to your window?” She was dressed in a knee-length denim skirt and a t-shirt with a pink cartoon bear on it. The thing in her arms was a tiny dishrag of a puppy, not more than a few weeks old. It nuzzled into the girl’s neck, nipping and licking.

“I’m looking for a place to get a dog. You know where that might be?”

“Yeah,” the girl said. “But you can’t take this one. He’s mine.”

The dog’s snaggled lower teeth jutted out at Miss Darla over its upper lip.

“I wouldn’t think of it. You just show me where I’m headed.”

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“I’m looking for a place to get a dog. You know where that might be?”

“Yeah,” the girl said. “But you can’t take this one. He’s mine.”

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He wasn’t a good dog, Miss Darla knew. He wasn’t worth a nickel of home defense, barking as he did every time a person, another dog, a ground squirrel or any creature more substan tial than a fruit-fly passed the window.

As she drove, following the girl on the bike, Miss Darla won dered if this breeder might have a collie, like her old Bandito. If not, she’d settle for a corgi or a toy poodle. She congratulated herself on not correcting the girl’s greeting. Good morning, Ma’am—that was the only acceptable response when an elder told you good morning, and it was none of the child’s business about the window. But Miss Darla needed her help. She’d tell Corwin how she showed such restraint.

The girl led her to the dirt driveway of a red tumbledown house, hidden from the farm road by a thatch of mesquite and prickly pear. There were not just dogs roaming about but a whole menagerie of cats, chickens, turtles, a dirty, ornery look ing goat in a bobwire pen, and Lord knows what other beasts. In the distance, a denser, evil-looking thicket was bisected by a barely maintained road.

An older man in a plaid shirt and cowboy hat scooped a bucket of kibble into bowls on the dirt.

“That’s my abuelo,” the girl said. “He doesn’t speak a lot of English.”

“Hola,” Miss Darla attempted, waving.

The girl conversed briefly with the man in Spanish. He nod ded, held up one finger, and then he and the girl disappeared into the house.

Corwin had told her to stop talking about it before, so she wouldn’t mention it, but she wondered if this man had his papers. Surely, if he’d been a citizen, he’d have a job out in the oilfield. She’d heard on the radio how all of Texas was filled with illegal immigrants. And that was the root of things going bad. Or one of the roots. Take this man. He seemed nice enough, but illegal was illegal. If we kept going like this, what did the laws mean? What would goodness mean?

The man and the girl came back out with another puppy.

“This one’s yours,” the girl said, handing Miss Darla the leash and nudging its butt with her sneaker.

The puppy waddled low towards her. It wasn’t a Collie. Or anything recognizable. It was stringy-haired and dingy white with black patches.

“Isn’t it much too young for me to take?” Miss Darla said. “Poor thing. Ripped from its mama’s love.”

“No,” the girl said. “He’s 12 weeks. Got his shots.”

The man must have seen something on Miss Darla’s face. He said something to the girl.

“He says it’s free. What more do you want?”

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“What’s his name?”

“My abuelo calls him Charl-oat, but you don’t have to name him that.”

“Well, what a unique moniker,” Miss Darla said as the dog circled, trying to sniff itself.

“My abuelo says he’s like some movie star, but I don’t know who he’s talking about.”

The man held a finger under his nose like a mustache and did a little penguin walk.

“Why sure,” Miss Darla said. “Charlie Chaplin.”

The dog looked up at her, seeming to wink one of his golden eyes. She could see the resemblance: the little brush of black under the dog’s nose and the splotch on his head. On his collar hung a round, tin tag, Dremeled with the name. Charlot. He was a handsome little creature, considering the price.

“I guess you’re coming with me, Charlot.”

Miss Darla picked up the dog and gave as gracious a thanks as she could muster. She took one more look back at the house and watched the grandfather show his granddaughter how to walk like Charlie Chaplin, the two of them swinging invisible canes. You could be good people and still be illegal.


Charlot wouldn’t eat the kibble Miss Darla bought on the drive home. He wouldn’t eat the canned food she went to Wal greens to pick up later that night. The dog would only circle itself and wobble about the kitchen. Miss Darla put him on the foot of her bed, but no sooner had she closed her eyes than Charlot stood on her pillow, wheezing in her ear. She shut him out of the bedroom. But in the morning, she discovered the price of this peace was a down quilt torn to tatters—sicked-up quills strewn in clumps throughout the house.

She should have called Corwin then, to tell him that dog ownership was not compatible with her lifestyle at this juncture. But doing so would have been akin to admitting some weakness of character, even if it had been his preposterous idea to begin with. Instead, she went to the market and purchased foods she remembered her own mother feeding Bandito: chicken hearts and gizzards, green peas, soup bones. Lunchtime, Charlot scarfed the peas and the gizzards and took special favor with her own fried bologna and Miracle Whip sandwich.

He wasn’t a good dog, Miss Darla knew. He wasn’t worth a nickel of home defense, barking as he did every time a person, another dog, a ground squirrel or any creature more substantial than a fruit-fly passed the window. There was no way to tell the

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Dejate caer By Stephanie Gonzalez
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difference between someone Miss Darla might need to worry about and every other damned thing. She kept rags around the house to mop the slime that beaded and dripped from Charlot’s little chin. He smelled like a bowl of three-week-old chili.

On the other hand, he was a jolly thing—trotting full steam down the hallway only to run out of room, skidding headlong across the kitchen floor, rolling onto his back on the bathroom carpet and paddling like an overturned bug. Miss Darla never properly trained him to sleep at the foot of the bed, but he did bound up—floor to cedar chest, mattress to pillow—every night to sleep beside her.

And she would tell that dog her dreams, after all—the ones about the moons and others where Frank’s ghost craned over and yelled how vain and stupid a woman she was, spending ninety dollars getting acrylic nails at the Korean salon by the H-E-B, though she hadn’t had a manicure since Corwin’s wed ding. She didn’t pretend Charlot could understand what she said, but he sat still beside her recliner while she explained and sipped her morning Diet Coke. When she was done, she’d say, “I know what you dreamed about, boy. A nice big bone,” and she’d go to the fridge and get it for him.

All went well until the last weekend of September, in the glowing coil of a heatwave. It’d been over 110 all week. The whole world was dead yellow. Nobody left their houses for fear of vaporizing beyond the womb of central air. Miss Darla hadn’t taken Charlot outside except for after dark—just long enough for him to perform his daily constitutionals.

Trouble began with one of the neighborhood children drag ging a mattress and box spring into the road. Charlot fired up in the front room, barking every time one of the children’s heads appeared in the front window as they bounced on the mattress. Miss Darla spread the blinds to get a better look. She watched, aghast, as the children accumulated, bringing pieces of worn furniture—a sunken sofa, a chair with some stuffing tufting out of its arms, an ottoman with its legs broken off. The children leapt from one bit to the next, hollering and chanting about money and their genitals. Just when Miss Darla thought it couldn’t get

any worse, one of the kids dragged out a hose and started spraying the whole scene until it was a sopping squelch of wet skin and upholstery. Charlot threw himself apoplectically against the glass.

Miss Darla felt ill intention pooling inside her. She wondered: What if she just happened to leave the front door a bit ajar? Would the children scatter at the sudden arrival of an over charged, semi-domesticated mutt, leaping and yelping at them as if they were fresh prey? She called Corwin and described the debauch outside her home for God and all to see.

“The world isn’t like it was, Mother, but you’ve got to let it be how it is. You’re always making trouble for yourself.”

The whole order of things was turning inside out, and all he could do was blame her. She was without a single kindred soul.

She grabbed Charlot firmly by the collar.

“You go take care of those little demons, boy. Scare them real good.”

She opened the door just wide enough for him to rocket out. She shut it and rushed back to the window. She watched the dog bolt into the sloppy riot of children, barking and snarling. But they continued bouncing and shouting, spraying each other under the hellish glare of the sun.

“Hey puppy!” they screamed, as Charlot raced between them.

One of the boys, swaggering in flame red trunks, had the gall to pick up Charlot and hold him before his face.

Miss Darla had to put a stop to it. She stormed to the door, opened it, and screamed the dog’s name. She clapped her hands. The dog squirmed against the boy’s grasp and nipped him hard on the nose. The boy dropped Charlot, who ran back into the house, whimpering. Miss Darla slammed the door.

She watched again from the window. The boy grasped his face. Blood dripped through his fingers, running a stripe down his bare chest. Miss Darla shut the blinds and crumpled on the sitting room carpet. There was a pounding at the door.

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“Hey lady, open up. Your ugly dog just bit my brother’s nose off his face. My parents are going to sue your ass off the planet.”

Miss Darla tried not to breathe. Charlot licked warmly at her earlobe.


Miss Darla knew it wasn’t Charlot’s fault. If the boy hadn’t picked him up, if those children hadn’t made a spectacle of themselves, if everything had been different, Charlot would have long ago settled down in bed beside her after another un eventful day. But Corwin had been right, for once in his addled life—the world was the way it was, and she could sooner catch a bullet between her fingers than stop all its changing. Here she was nursing a Diet Coke and Wild Turkey at three in the morning, wondering what to do with a dog who’d put a boy in the emergency.

On the kitchen table, she dumped half a bottle of blood pres sure pills, some nicotine tablets and the end of the pain meds she’d been prescribed last February for a tooth abscess. She mashed them up with Frank’s old skinning knife and stirred them into a big bowl of gizzards.

Before she gave the bowl to Charlot, she lay her hand on his head and said a prayer. “Dear Father God, just please forgive this little innocent pup. He’s not a bad dog and never meant to hurt that terrible little boy, and he deserves to join your everlast ing company of angel dogs and archangel dogs and just eat rare T-bone steaks forever and ever. Amen.”

Charlot licked his bitty mustached lip and tucked in, oblivi ously, to his death row dinner.


When she saw the full daylight beaming in through the blinds, shining on the print of her wedding portrait she kept on the bedside table, Miss Darla realized she must have slept in. The trials of the previous day roared back into her mind like a freightliner. She heard an insistent knocking at the front door. She threw on her robe and went to the window, terrified it might be the police. Instead, she saw a younger woman, hair in a bun, dressed in an awful purple blazer, a clipboard in one hand. Miss Darla sighed with relief. Another Jehovah’s Witness, she thought.

“Hey lady, open up. Your ugly dog just bit my brother’s nose off his face..”
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“Mrs. Dennehy?” the woman said.

“I’ve been saved,” Miss Darla told her.

“Oh. That’s very nice, ma’am,” the woman said. “Praise Jesus, of course. I’m actually here about your dog, ma’am? I’m Laura, Apache Promenade Homeowners Association board president? Yes, and well, there’s been a complaint filed under article six, numbers nine and thirteen: ‘pet, roaming without leash’ and ‘pet, general nuisance.’ I guess your dog ran out of the house and kind of—tweaked one of the neighborhood kids? The fines are two hundred and three hundred dollars, respectively.” She handed Miss Darla an envelope with a sharp nod and a toothless smile.

“The hell kind of lawsuit is this?” Miss Darla said.

“Nothing of the sort, ma’am. Like I said, the boy was just tweaked is all? His parents put a Band-Aid on him, and he went right out to play at the pool. So, I really hate to have to issue you these fines, but well, the rules are the rules? If we stopped following them it’d just be, well— chaos out there. I’m sure you agree. And you know, in the future, just keep that beautiful little pup safe on the leash, OK?”

“I don’t have a dog,” Miss Darla told the woman.

Just then, a scraping sound came from the back of the house, followed by a soft whine.

“Oh,” the woman said. “I’ll have to do a little follow-up re search then?”

“Yes,” Miss Darla said. “Maybe you might could.”

The scratching and whining grew louder, more rapid. Miss Darla rapped her fingers on the door.

“I must warn you though, ma’am. Under Article Nine, provid ing false information to the HOA could lead to further fines and possible legal action. My research is very thorough.”

A full-throated bark echoed through the house the moment Miss Darla closed the door. She rushed to the bedroom and was astonished to see Charlot giving her his familiar wink, waddling back and forth as if she had not watched him in the pre-dawn hours as his breathing slowed, and he sunk into the pillow with the peace of everlasting rest. Now, hours later, he was leaping, nubby paws on her knee, and she was scratching him again behind his ear.

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He’d been resurrected.

It couldn’t last, she knew darn well. Five hundred dollars in fines was more than she was willing to pay for any animal. Besides, who was to say it wouldn’t happen again?

How to get rid of a dog? She could leave him at the Humane Society, but it felt unseemly. And if the HOA woman found out, it could cost her. She wanted to call Corwin but couldn’t stomach telling him what happened with the children in the street.

Just after the sun went down, she draped a laundry sack over Charlot’s head and hustled him out to the car. They drove out of town to the only place she could think to go: the dog breeder.

She was greeted by the girl who’d helped her the day she first picked up Charlot.

“I remember you,” the girl said. “You took the funny movie dog.”

“That any way to answer the door?” Miss Darla said.

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “I guess I just did.”

“Never mind. Is your grandfather home? I’d like to speak to him alone.”

“Sure. You can try anyway.”

The man came to the door. “Your dog. He’s OK?”

Miss Darla tried to explain how Charlot was in the car and the man needed to take him back. She gestured and said por favor and willed him to understand, but he kept repeating no se Finally, he called for the girl again.

“He can’t take back the dog,” the girl told Miss Darla. “But he’ll show you where you can put him.”

“Where I can put him?

“He says there are some things you got to do for yourself.”

The pearly halo of the man’s box flashlight led Miss Darla out the back of the property past other dogs who barked at the smell of Charlot, past the goat that groaned behind its bob wire. The man pointed out where sharp branches of mesquite overgrew the road, but he kept silent, walking purposefully. Miss Darla felt her heart’s yellowjacket sputtering. What if the man was leading her to her own shallow grave? No one knew where she was. Lord only knew if the man was even documented. He could murder her and vanish.

Miss Darla felt her feet giving way and squealed. Charlot had slipped in the sandy dirt and tumbled, nearly tripping her.

She was ready to be rid of this dog.

Finally, they came to a rise over a steep slope. The man stopped. His flashlight swept over a huge white crater cut into the ground. An old caliche pit. All of the bumpy farm roads for miles had probably been dug out of this chalky hole. In the distance, Miss Darla saw a rust- pecked backhoe that might still have been scraping up hardpack.

The man pointed a finger toward the back right corner and made a circle with his arms. Miss Darla saw that he was telling her where to take the dog. He stood still. He would walk no further. Miss Darla looked down at Charlot, wagging his nubbin of tail and winking in his spastic way. She tugged the leash and proceeded down the slope toward the corner of the caliche pit where the man’s flashlight aimed.

There was all manner of refuse on the pit floor: broken bottles and shotgun shells where someone had sighted-in their rifle; nip bottles of banana schnapps and Trojan wrappers where people had indulged in various sins; the broken frame of a bassinet where a parent had said goodbye to old times. As they got closer to the back wall, Charlot grew ornery. Miss Darla had to tug him along. Sure enough, she found a round crevice between two boulders at the center of the flashlight glow. Miss Darla crouched over the opening and saw it was a pit within the pit—a hole that must have gone down some seven feet or more into cavernous darkness. What’d happened there before, she didn’t dare think.

She looked down at Charlot. He shook his head, jingling the tag on his collar. He bared his teeth beneath his mustache. It was a look that reminded her he was a creature that could bite an innocent boy. He had her on the hook for five hundred dollars already. It surely wouldn’t be long before he’d be causing more trouble and heartache.

Miss Darla picked the dog up by the collar and heaved him into the hole.


What dreams she had then. In one, she sat down to Sunday supper with Corwin and his family. A silver cloche covered the roasting dish in the center of the table. Corwin kept asking her what she made for them that night. She couldn’t remember. After the yeast rolls had been passed, she lifted the cloche to reveal Charlot, bathed in steam and licking droplets off his mustache. Her grandchildren gasped and fell to the floor.

“Heiferfucker!” one of them choked out beneath the table.

After that, Miss Darla managed to get herself back to sleep only to find herself trudging along a farm road, watching dust devils roam rows of cotton. She saw the dog breeder in the dis

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tance, an apple basket in his hand. When she got close enough, the man seemed to offer her an apple. She reached in and felt Charlot biting her hand. The man looked at her with merciless eyes. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t pull her arm free. Charlot was pulling her into the pitiful black of the basket.

She woke at dawn, exhausted and determined to make right her mistakes.


Miss Darla drove out to the caliche pit with an ice chest full of giblets and bologna sandwiches. Charlot was barking from deep in the cave. It pained her to think he’d been begging the whole night through. She tossed food into the hole, morsel by morsel, whispering her confessions into the chasm.

“Forgive my weak heart,” Miss Darla said. “I’d never known a taste of love!”

For a number of days, she continued bringing Charlot break fast. He sounded well enough, yipping from the cave bottom. Still, Miss Darla wondered if there wasn’t any way to rescue the dog from the isolation to which she’d condemned him.

One morning, as she drove toward the pit, she saw the dog breeder’s granddaughter riding her wobbly bike, rooster-tailing dust behind her.

“Excuse me, little girl,” Miss Darla said, opening her door. “I lost my dog down the caliche pit. I was wondering if you’d help me retrieve him.”

The girl’s eyes popped. “My abuelo said I shouldn’t talk to you. You dumped your dog into that hole. I’m not even supposed to go near it.”

“It was just an accident is all. That dog needs our help, now. You can just crawl down into the hole and—yank him up. It’ll only take a minute. I have some rope in the back of my car. We don’t have to tell your grandpop at all.”

The girl stood astride her bicycle, staring into Miss Dar la’s eyes, as deeply as Charlot had done the night Miss Darla attempted to euthanize him with the crushed pills.

“I’d only do it for a price,” the girl said. “There’s a bike I want at Walmart. Two hundred dollars.”

“I can’t pay you that much for ten minutes of work,” Miss Darla said.

“I don’t know what to tell you, lady. You shouldn’t have dropped your dog in a hole.” The girl sped off, weaving toward more consequential adventures.

Miss Darla picked the dog up by the collar and heaved him into the hole.

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There came a dawn when Miss Darla arrived at the caliche pit to the sound of unfamiliar barking—low and hungry. There was a second, bigger dog down there. Miss Darla threw down some wedges of soup bone and some handfuls of peas. Each time she did, there was a raucous noise. The new barking sound followed by a familiar, pained yelp. The larger dog was fighting Charlot for the food, winning every time.

Miss Darla called her lost dog’s name down into the crevice as she threw the first bite of bologna sandwich.

“Charlot! This is yours, sweetheart.”

But the larger dog growled. Charlot whimpered like a baby who’d tossed away its own bottle.

Miss Darla backed away from the hole with welling eyes. On the drudge back to her car, she nibbled the sandwich and smeared her face with a film of tears and Miracle Whip. When she got back to where she’d parked her car behind the dog breeder’s house, he seemed to be waiting for her, one hand slid between the buttons of his flannel shirt and the brim of his hat low and flat above his eyes.

“How could you have let me do this?” Miss Darla said. “I’m a poor old woman, all alone. Don’t you have any heart at all?”

Her tears were met with the whistle of the wind.

“I can’t afford to feed every dog that gets thrown down there,” Miss Darla said. “Once I start, where will it end?”

The grandfather gazed toward the tangles of mesquite. It was getting hot again, and the animals would be thirsty. He had no need to understand whatever it was the woman said. There was nothing to help her.

He turned back toward the house where so many water bowls waited to be filled.

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of Memories
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Party Favors

Attending a socially starved STEM school brewed thick social awkwardness. At first, I was all work, no play, perfecting the ideology of the exceptional scholar. A novel genius married to AP Lang essays, blowing past Maryland High School Assess ments. Then parties became curriculum.

I was determined to be triumphant in booze, boys and books. How to ace this much fun, failing all those classes? How to synchronize your ego with soft grace, staring lustfully into cinnamon eyes, sneaking hookups home past the 2:00 a.m. Critz Hall dorm curfew?

The true wild bitch inside emerged like a caterpillar crack ing her cocoon at Mississippi State University.

Keisha, Nikki and Kayla were my first college girl group. We all met in a chat for incoming freshmen, before school started. Keisha lived down the hall from me by chance. We binged mov ies, helped unscrew nipple piercings and stood outside commu nity showers while each other bathed.

Keisha explained her Memphis party life.

“Bitch, I snuck out the house for a party once and, biiiitch, they shot the whole fucking club UP,” she said, over gurgling shower heads. “Then they said they was coming BACK to shoot that bitch up AGAIN. Starkville ain’t got shit on Memphis.”

Nikki ended up moving in with me mid-October, after she fought her old roommate’s boyfriend and won. She questioned my life as a Marylander, said I marauded through the South after educational opportunities. The angst disintegrated as we caught each other’s tears over family issues and exam stress.

Kayla was Nikki’s best friend. We weren’t particularly close, though we were in the Black student organizations together, friends by way of frequent functions. We climbed into board

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member chairs and we kept up with Black campus life. Eventu ally, I became secretary of the campus’ NAACP chapter and she became vice president of the Black Student Association.

These women were my teachers of femininity—another unknown covenant. I came from two brothers and sheltering parents. Heels, makeup and other symbols of striking young girlhood were new experiences. My first party, the girls talked me into a striped, candy-colored crop top that wrapped around my bony torso. Classic, dark-wash daisy dukes tightened with a hot pink belt. Nikki recommended comfier shoes, so I sport ed gray Converse I purchased in New York City during the freshman year history trip. I didn’t have any makeup. My long, chocolate legs kept eyes off the bulging whiteheads on my deep brown skin. Eyeshadow would have hid behind my square glasses anyway. I looked at myself in the mirror overwhelmingly unrecognizable, yet enticing. Femininity oozed out of me. A new identity had begun emerging, becoming, no matter the prior ignorance or approaching mistakes.

Two shots of Everclear, some vodka, and a smidgen of unbearable, efficient moonshine and there I was: an unfavorable party. Crowds weren’t a bother. Puddles of sweat didn’t weigh me down. Preying upperclassmen didn’t hover over me. Parties became where I unlearned stiffness and learned how to jig.

My biggest night, Dreams and Nightmares played at the mid night bash our new cafeteria hosted during Finals week. I went ballistic, dropping to the ground, rocking side-to-side, cooking drugs in an imaginary pot to a Baltimore dance called The Avenue. Camera screens and flashlights illuminated all the daz zling eyes upon me, everyone hyping me up and naming me a dancing machine not stuck on the cogs of social cues. Even with the cultural split between Black Northerners and Southerners, I was finally one of them, an Us. Gyrating my dark body on pitch black dance floors made me feel light, passing a freshmen intro course with flying colors into what my social life could become.

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The Passage

But, as STEM kids know best: logistics can only serve so far in human experience.

“You babysitting.” Jaquarius and Will, track runners and my fav upperclassmen, observed my warm, nearly untouched pint of green apple vodka at Nikki’s cousin’s birthday party at the start of sophomore year.

“Don’t be no pussy now.” They pop-quizzed me to see if the knowledge had stuck.

Chugging the bottle, I completed the exam. Encouraging chants were my cheat sheet yet the noise made me miss the bo nus question of consequences. My boyfriend of three days—he had dangled his new prize out of his best friend’s truck passen ger window, allowing the sour, chunky swirl of cherry cupcakes and campus Chik-fil-A to purge out of me as I promised him some great head later. I still passed with flying colors, but what would it cost me as I matriculated further beyond the gates of social acceptance?

Me and the girls weren’t as close by junior year. Saturday nights were for cuddling with my boyfriend. Keisha did the same with hers too, retiring from the partygoing altogether. A pallor professional personality strengthened my mysterious reputation, allowing me to glide into a budding sports journalism career and campus leadership life. Pulling my weight in my relationship, friendships, and classes to align my future, bright spots of free time only occurred during our breezy syllabus week. Nikki and Kayla, who now lived together off campus, invited me to party with them like “old times.”

“Eh, sure. I’ll go tonight since Black Reign is next week,” I re membered it as the Sigma bash that kicked off spring semester. “I know I’m not going to that.”

The night of the get-together, we squeezed into Nikki’s room like we used to when we shared one. We had a new pregaming ritual, smoking or taking shots without a hovering RA.

“Big T invited me,” Nikki said.

An infamous outside linebacker, Big T was known for his skills on and off the turf. He threw the best functions. He kept the best women. “I know it’s finna be some fine ass football players there. It’s a kickback.”

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Kickbacks were the poetry slams of college link-ups. Thriving in low lighting with a few friends you personally knew, acquaintances you knew of. You relaxed. You sat or smoked with whoever sat next to you. Deep secrets were spilled...

“Kickback or party?” I asked, looking in the mirror, uneasy with my outfit. I had to be sure—these were vastly different social settings.

Kickbacks were the poetry slams of college link-ups. Thriving in low lighting with a few friends you personally knew, acquaintances you knew of. You relaxed. You sat or smoked with whoever sat next to you. Deep secrets were spilled in Never Have I Ever, or you just—talked. Songs you pretended not to like were slipped into the shuffle. Junior year I remember walking up into an empty bedroom, glocks in the corner from loud ass niggas caught up in their dice game camaraderie. I couldn’t judge. It was Black happiness, freedom away from our chaotic curriculums.

Parties meant a wilder environment. Screaming. Jump ing around like a mosh pit in someone’s kitchen. Dancing or sing-screaming away our college problems.

One girl got her ass beat at one party, outside going to the afterparty, and even at the afterparty. I was pissed that she broke our utopia. It could’ve spiraled out of control. Fear—or any other similar emotions, like shame, and guilt, for the 38 on an exam I needed to pass—wasn’t supposed to exist here. The guy I left my boyfriend for, a day after he expressed his love for me, stood right next to me. Out of party civility, he didn’t bark a word.

I went to a true kickback earlier that night. People playing Uno and Spades, games on their 56-inch TVs. My milder, clean cut friends. I didn’t have to worry about putting on clothes or looking and acting cute. Everything in the name of “squad:” posting corny photos together at our community service events; singing white pop songs freely. Instagram hype comments and shares were our favorite past times, all in the name of leadership image and negro respectability politics at a PWI.

I liked me when I was with them. I was morphing into a pres tigious member of my organization. Rebranding my confident, presidential image. These friends never knew the stench of the wilder, young Amb. Their disguises were just as deceiving as mine.

I sported a constricting jean jacket with a canary colored cami. An old, black bodycon dress as a headscarf. My black, faded joggers—tight, but comfy.

“Girl, it’s another kickback,” Nikki said. “Calm down.”

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“Eh, you look fine,” Kayla said. She wiggled her heels on, matching her baby blue strapless top. She adorned her neck with a gold choker. “You’re lowkey anyway! Nobody would even recognize you.”

Nostalgia resurrected the possibility of pure girlhood, a re minder of how fun it was to squish seven of us in a car for Super Bulldog Weekend.We laughed just like we did before going to the Kappa pool party sophomore year where someone’s ran dom toddler lounged around the pool. I could smell the smoke from their neighbor’s apartment like the night we won our SEC opener against LSU. Football players blasted their music like past spring scrimmage games.

Rides always set the scene. Nikki blared her usual music — Three Six Mafia, from her childhood, or pre-Versace Migos, as we sped on invisible Mississippi midnight backroads. Athletes stayed in the new maroon townhouses where those Walmart MSU Bulldog flags signified their location. Clumps of people stood around the patchy, mustard lawn. In the cold, January air, plenty of conversation carried.

My leadership acquaintances showed up too. I walked past John, who I tutored in English freshman year, with his friend group as they passed a big bottle of dark liquor around.

“Glad to see you out, sis!” a friend of his joked to me.

Kayla made sure her makeup was perfect, reapplying her dark lipstick.

Nikki looked comfortable in her pink and white plastic Jordan’s, her hair in a puff from work earlier. She was quiet and calm, saving her high for being social inside.

I retucked my cami, straightened out my jacket and blinked to make sure I wasn’t too stoned. I had to sound like I ate Caesar salads for fun. It was 45 degrees outside that night but, like the Marylander they always said I was, cold weather wasn’t a both er. “Dude, we used to stand on the bus stops in three degree weather,” I’d boast, laughing at how miserable we were, waiting in soaked, knockoff Ugg boots. “This is nothing.”

“Bitch, there he go. Say hey,” Nikki whispered to Kayla. She waved faintly at one of the finer, funnier football players, trying not to try.

“He sooooo fine,” Kayla schmoozed. “Damn, wish he didn’t have kids.”

“Plural?” I asked, examining his well nourished baby face.

I never saw anything spectacular about athletes. It wouldn’t be a good look to have sex flashbacks during pre-game press conferences. However, college social barriers dissolved at athletic functions—they became a makeshift recess for grownup kids.

Dope boys flashed money every chance they could. There were two groups of them: one stayed in the house by the kitchen island, stealthily scoping out The Opps™ or girls they lusted af ter; the others outside entertaining girls they were already fuck ing, presenting their pretty, pampered chargers and mustangs. They shimmered under streetlights at 1:00 a.m., blasting their best friend’s mumble rap inside their bass-quivering cars.

Shy, quiet guys were human wallflowers, still in motion like decorations. They claimed responsibility as permanent DDs. They made their own, one-man, mental kickbacks in the middle of parties, wondering what time they’d get home for church in the morning as others fell into rap-a-longs. They were as fine as they were quiet, though. It made us wonder, because they didn’t fuck anyone at our school. Community college girls with low follower counts on social media were their go-to type. Stonedfaced and blank, with just one emotion, quiet men are the Swiss army knives of their groups. They are the saving grace—the voice of reason. They keep their wasted friends out of ass whip pings. They are elite escape artists. If anything pops off, they camp out closest to the door. At these parties, the cute girl from Calculus could stand next to them and talk while they held the wall. Possibilities were endless.

Clueless, “green” girls always looked lost. Never been nowhere. Never been around nobody, not even they own people. The only songs they knew were ones on the radio, no matter how many times friends scolded them for not practicing while getting ready. They skidded over iconic music. We looked at them crooked for pronouncing every single, slicing syllable of “it’s get-ting hot in here,” here instead of hurr. Green girls were onlookers, unable to submerge themselves into the memories being made around them.

The bad bitches. Oh, yes. A homegrown kind of fine. The ones with juicy lips, who only needed moisturizer and some lip gloss. Lashes were optional, but in this economy? Baddies just looked like they tasted of cherries and honey. Earlier that night, a few of them at this party posted a bathroom selfie with a little bit showing, landing just right on the pick-me and misogyny scale. They walked in cliqued up, eerily similar to cinematic hot chicks, Dirty Little Secret during Spring Break montages.

Lesbians watched too. They—I—begged silently for a piece, while Baddies took their stares as problematic, instead of samesex mating calls.

Artists made their way to functions too, when not hypnotized by their craft. When, while blowing off steam with like minded students, they realized an element was missing. An element they couldn’t put their finger on. They gazed off at parties like this one, frozen in their dilemma.

Pro-Blacks. Hoteps. Bible-thumping Christians or other con ceited theology snobs, Jesus Christ, are y’all annoying as fuck at the function. They always spewed their divisive shit, about eating

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The bad bitches. Oh, yes. A homegrown kind of fine. The ones with juicy lips, who only needed moisturizer and some lip gloss. Lashes were optional, but in this economy? Baddies just looked like they tasted of cherries and honey.

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He stood atop the kitchen counter. His baby blue boxers showed as his pants sloppily draped under his ass. Red lights on the kitch en island shined against his gilded, diamond pinky ring.

computerized carrots, or the Wrath coming, or how we didn’t vote, yet there they were, right next to me at a sinful shindig. Their presence was always contradictory at its finest. They were oh so unique, so righteous, but somehow, some way, we all met up at the same location, shook ass to the same beats and knew the same lyrics that were viciously tearing apart Black commu nities, rapping about guns that shot them in their precious third eye.

I knew most cliques like the back of my brown hands, so I always knew there was no particular group for me to lock into. An artistic STEM kid with a bright, enthusiastic but dry, sarcas tic personality, climbing the sports journalism ladder and still tiptoeing over Boosie and Young Dolph? Solidifying one part of my identity would’ve always meant losing out on another. Mass get-togethers would become a hodgepodge of gatekeepers and classmates wondering why I was there, not observing some stupid journalism case study, and college had to be fun some how. The same cliques showed up to the same functions. This one was no different.

Loud chatter erupted as we approached the door. Porch lights exposed how faded my joggers were, comparatively. An other woman’s bright pink lace corset covered her brown arms to combat the upcoming cold as she left whatever we were en tering. I walked out of the dark hallway into the cramped living room. Music that had just stopped blasting still echoed on the walls. The host changed their kitchen lights to ultraviolet, a color that exposed every moving spec through the smoke-filled air. It smelled like sweat, salty ham and ass. Pure, hot ass.

“This better not be a party.” I whispered to myself.

“AYE NAH, THIS A PARTY,” I knew it. A drunk host confirmed my social nightmare yelling through the DJ speaker. “IF YA’ AIN’T SHAKING ASS, MINUSWELL GO HOME!”

As soon as he gave out the ultimatum, the DJ dropped the classic of it all: Juvenile’s Back That Azz Up “CASH MONEY RE CORDS TAKING OVER FOR THE 99s AND THE 2000s!”

I. Knew. It.

I disobeyed party commandments. I went to stand with on lookers and didn’t shake shit.

“Whatta kickback huh?” I yelled over to Nikki. She shrugged, smiled.

My eyes were drawn to a shirtless, skinny, light skinned man. He was covered in chest tattoos of dead niggas’ names, Bible verses and faded angel wings. He stood atop the kitchen counter. His baby blue boxers showed as his pants sloppily draped under his ass. Red lights on the kitchen island shined against his gilded, diamond pinky ring. He gripped a defrosting Hennessy bottle while rapping to his friends below him. His gold grill shined with each word, thick spit riding his tongue like

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ocean waves. Around him, people swarmed into their Saturday night plans: a pair of party promoters cheered; Baddies entered in their cutest clothes, ready to go; green girls danced stiffly, mesmerized by the majestic, chiseled athletes walking past; quiet men doubled as nannies, surveilling friends. Some guy in a faded dashiki held a woman by the waist beads.

The ultimate party song darkened into NBA Young Boy song. I’m tryna t-shirt the bitch. I could feel Young Boy spitting all over me. One scary bitch that I ain’t get and I ain’t stopping til he get stretched…

The songs switched over again. NBA’s War with Us began.

Nigga all I know is murder, swear to GOD that I’m with it and everything I talk up in my song you know I live it.


I’d stayed out of the game too long. None of these songs were the soundtracks I knew when I defended myself from summer’s floods, or 12-foot ice storms. They weren’t what I panicked to while searching for my crimson “special event” tie, when Maryland senators visited our poor charter school to perform normalcy with us. These weren’t from wild nights during Senior Week. I wanted to hear songs that mirrored memories of shar ing summers with other ex-military kids. I couldn’t find myself playing in the sand of Arcadia Shores, or staring off into the long, winding Brigadier Road I marched on. The discomfort of not fitting folded my excitement in half, but a familiar voice called my name behind me.

I called back over the music. “Hey Marc!”

He was known as the “lowkey cool gay” from Memphis. He respected me for leaving, for being so far from home. He saw I was pretty cool past my Valley Girl accent. He looked at me with a curious smile and before I could open my mouth we died laughing at my party displacement, instead of a quiet library room. Having had a few impromptu, hour-long talks outside our student union, I was sure Marc’s quipping humor would soothe me into the party vibe.

“Well, who you with?” he asked.

I searched for Nikki and Kayla, but my eyes snagged on Blue Boxers, concentrating, pouring his full drink on a girl. He flicked his red Solo cup at her then shrugged, and onlookers gasped like some sitcom studio audience. Music cut. A guy wearing a mustard shirt swooped in. Instantly, Blue Boxers and Mustard Shirt Man started an inebriated, incoherent argument. They shared a pillow-soft nose kiss while they threatened to cut each other’s lives short. The girl walked away screeching in pain, wiping alcohol from her sizzling pink eyes that glowed under ultraviolet lights.

“Mane bet I won’t bust my shit!” Blue Boxers screamed, pull

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Sketches for Still Life 9779
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ing a platinum pistol from his waistband, baiting Mustard Shirt Man.

“Aww, shit,” Marc said.

We all jetted toward the front exit. One party host, a guy in all black, maybe a defensive linebacker, bulldozed over one of those human wallflowers to slam and lock the door.

He shouted at us. “And who the fuck said the party was over?!”

We turned back around, rushing for the back exit, but it was blocked by the DJ booth. The argument grew louder.

“Shit!” I whispered.

Mustard Shirt Man pushed Blue Boxers. Ironically, he gave him enough space to shoot. Adrenaline fueled our panicking bodies, setting the cramped living room ablaze. We prepared to die.

“Sunset…January 20, 2018…” said a boy behind me, joking, mocking the iconic vocal blend of Morgan Freedom’s slow deepness, Maya Angelou’s sultry, assuring vibrance.

The blinded girl meddled between the bickering men, back ing Mustard Shirt Man into a dark corner. Blue Boxers vanished into the Dope Boy circle. Within seconds, chatter exploded, and tension ate itself.

I thought the DJ would rush to play a nice singalong jam to ice the altercation, but instead, he spun Webbie’s “U Bitch.” You know—the song that sprinkles the phrase “you bitch” into the chorus fourteen times. Screams of excitement jostled energy into the room like a karaoke screen was mounted to the ceiling. The DJ rang the alarm. Hatred rose like steam. Camera lights il luminated the room like a concert, and then the chorus returned.


The door reopened. The hallway was a rivulet. Nearly thirty partygoers squeezed into the living room, clueless about the shit that just went down. A group of boys settled in next to me while everyone continued to rap.

“What the entire fuck just happened?” I asked Marc.

“Aye, I don’t know, but aye,” one called to grasp my attention. “Can we use your phone light?”

“We trying to roll this up,” another explained.

I pulled my phone out. The phone flashlight was on and it landed on his nose, revealing his captivating chocolate eyes. Music slowly blurred as I focused on his golden, honey skin. He carefully split a brown blunt with two fingers, concentrating on sprinkling the dope in. His tongue softly kissed the blunt like areolas of women he caressed. I knew exactly who it was.

Lance was from Jackson, the capital and “dangerous part” of Mississippi. Well-known, he had joined Black communi ty service organizations on campus and became a summer Christian camp counselor. He connected with Black kids better than any white woman from Ridgeland ever could. That was his superpower: smooth, charming, charismatic. While Jackson natives respected him for making a name for himself, he still wore his upbringing in flashy tats that covered his chest. He sought skin-delicious souls through his black-blond, dip-dyed locs that grew past his thick eyebrows. His chiseled cheekbones, accompanied by a handful of scars from fights through adoles cence, gave his soft demeanor an alluring, dark aura. His perfect smile and plump, bubblegum pink lips struck hearts. And the dimples?! He sported earthy-toned V-necks to compliment his clear, sandy skin. He paired them with athletic track pants daily, finishing off with the freshest pair of Jordan’s. Instagram baddies had first dibs on him. Quiet girls were interested in his cool demeanor. Green girls wouldn’t dare.

Three girls next to me slowly recognized his face through the lights too, joining in on the Let’s Fuck Lance Fan club. I looked around and chuckled at his minute fame that put us all in a trance. The bold girl from freshman parties blossomed within.

“Oh, you’re Lance, aren’t you?” I mindlessly asked.

He nodded.

“Oh, so you that nigga, huh?” I mocked the sincerity of goo gly-eyed women.

Lance looked around, then at me, up and down.

He crunched his pencil-thin eyebrows. He beamed at my outfit, and then my face. He walked away, lighting the blunt I helped construct. The embarrassment gut-punched me and confidence wilted quickly. I laid back on Marc again. Nikki and Kayla made their way toward me through party traffic.

“This DJ fucking trash!” Nikki complained. “I don’t want to hear this jigging shit.”

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She dated situated kinds of men, the ones who didn’t go to our school and could afford her spiritually and financially. They were usually NFL top picks, still getting daily fixes from the future NBA stars at our college. Halloween 2016 was the last time I had seen her.

Funny enough, he abruptly dropped the cult classic of my generation. ‘Faneto,’ a banger from the Drill Music era. One of Chief Keef’s best. As a generational tribe, ‘Faneto’ was our cultural medley of ‘This is How We Do It’ doused in ‘Down for my Niggaz.’ My baby brother kept me in the loop on all the drill music. Hood culture was so cool to him. He never got a chance to experience police corruption or the opioid crisis poison Balti more. We escaped to Anne Arundel County when he was three.

“Finally!” I shouted.

As Chief Keef glued us together, we jumped in unison, recit ing lyrics that had carried us through high school and prepared us for these college moments.

“I’M A GORILLA IN A FUCKIN’ COUPE FINNA PULL UP TO THE ZOO NIGGA.” We harmonized. “BROKE NIGGA WHO THE FUCK IS YOU?! I DON’T KNOW NIGGA!” A wave of silence cut through the chorus. “GAS WHAT I SMOKE NIGGA!” We threw ourselves into the song. Look at me, a college student at a col lege party.

The DJ was on a roll. I had learned the next song a few months before winter break ended. “NBA Young Gang you heard me?” I rode my ‘Faneto’ high. I knew how “hard” the lyrics were. Assimilating to subcultural cliques was an archaic tactic, but in this case, since .38 Baby discussed disloyalty, it was time for me to rap my life lessons. An insecure STEM nerd turned into a Louisiana gangster for lyrical content.


The guy next to me rubbed a bright pink dent I’d left on his tan forehead. I looked at the victim of my playing make-believe. The bright screen exposed my headwrap, completely undone and nearly off my head. My black glasses frames faded to an ash white, shocking my camera lens with intense light. Black acne blotches shined from the front screen flash. The Snapchat video blasted on a loop. I could hear my phony diction as I cut hard k’s and q’s.

Though it sounded like the accent that comforted and wel comed me with open arms, it still wasn’t mine. I sat with Marc like a church child popped in the mouth, immediately dumping my NBA Young Boy persona. While dwelling, I watched Nikki and Kayla sharing another best friend moment, rapping songs word for word and stopping at favorite parts to hype each other up. The girl with the drink in her face from earlier stayed after

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her friend convinced Mustard Shirt Man to leave. I smiled at her friends cheering her up after the incident earlier, as she rapped her favorite song. Cold winds of loneliness found me in a pocket of a packed hot house of misplacement. Someone bumped me, halting my train of thought, which created a domino effect. Two white girls were also bumped, sending a plastic red Solo cup flying. Tsunami waves of pink juice sprayed everywhere, splash ing all over Nikki.

“Oh, I’ve been waiting to beat a bitch,” Nikki said, clenching her jaw and balling both her fists.

“No, no, no,” I cooed, alerted by the anger bubbling under Nikki’s collegiate growth. “Don’t do it. Take your jacket off before juice seeps through.”

Silence fell while the girl darted for toilet paper on the island counter.

“Sooooo sorry,” she slurred through a thick, rural Alabama or Tennessee accent. “Someth—. One. Someone bumped me and I—”

“Tissue.” Nikki cut in.

I carefully squeezed the liquor from Nikki’s puff. I waved my fingers dry and exhaled, another potential disaster dissolved. But then it felt as if someone had flicked me like an annoying fly, hovering over cookout food. I squinted into the dark corner to piece together faces and it was Jaelin with three of her close, on-guard friends.

She was the finest woman to me. Five foot nine, all legs. The baddest everywhere she went and she knew it. Her energy asked you, “Can you keep up?” and the answer was always absolutely fucking not. She dated situated kinds of men, the ones who didn’t go to our school and could afford her spiritually and financially. They were usually NFL top picks, still getting daily fixes from the future NBA stars at our college. Halloween 2016 was the last time I had seen her.

We heard a shutdown was fifteen minutes out. We decided to dip before we got caught in roadblocks that discovered we were 19 with Hennessy in the trunk. Jaelin was behind me while we trailed out of the house. I stopped moving, allowing the newly crossed frat brothers to take their drunk pictures.

“Uh, I don’t give a fuck about nothing, bitch,” she screamed, centimeters from my ear. “We can go back in this house party. I can and will fuck these bitches up. I’m not pulling fuckin’ hair

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either, bitch. What you wanna do?”

I never knew if she was talking about my slow tipsy walking or someone inside that was competing with her, but I decided it was the time to find out. But, did I really want to fight at this ter rible ass party? Did I really want to be a hard bitch? Did I even want to piece that version of myself together for a two-minute fight?

The front door flew open, ending internal interrogation. Three hunched-over football players motioned the crowd toward the hallway.

“Aye, we wanna thank y’all for pulling up and shit,” the tallest and buffest one said over lowered music, no way this was the ‘ole chiseled-chin, charismatic dude from my Mass Communica tions class freshman year. “But if you ain’t MSU football affiliated, one of my niggas, or some of my bitches, ga’night!”

I couldn’t find Nikki or Kayla until the biggest crowd moved outside. Nikki rubbed her eyes and popped her shoulder.

“I wonder if he still out,” she mumbled, looking through someone’s story. “Ready for this night to end.”

The juice spilling culprit loitered across from us. She laughed, revisiting embarrassing middle school memories with her best friend.

A football player approached her. “So, that chemistry home work?”

“Fuck that shit,” She looked confused at him. “I’m trying to be lit.”

Her boyfriend came behind her and wrapped her in his arms. Friends poured more into her cup and giggled.

I looked at Nikki, still scrolling, at Kayla, still eyeing the drunk girls, and then at my phone.

“You going home with us or—?” Nikki asked, awkwardly since I had no car.

A few months earlier, Homecoming night, at 1:00 a.m., they wanted me to walk through a dark trail back to my dorm.

“Home,” I answered, as I ripped off my sloppy scarf.

There was no Sonic stop where my friends decided for me as I seesawed between cherry and Tiger’s blood slushie. There

weren’t any songs we heard that hyped us up on our way back. We didn’t chill at anyone’s kickback. Old times my ass.

Man, that party was trash, I tweeted when I got home, realiz ing I had wasted three hours at my first party in a year, a party I didn’t even enjoy. A party I just barely survived. So, what the fuck was I doing here?

In light of “old times,” there was nothing quirky or cool about falling from being too drunk to hold yourself up. Nothing cool about standing on top of slippery kitchen islands to get people to notice you. There was nothing cool about riding around in the car with people who whispered quiet threats about fighting me, all because I didn’t think we should’ve been fucking with other people’s men. Nothing cool about trading my friendships for memories that represent self-esteem issues and mediocre grades to shiver in the Cotton District. Announcing, This is my song! and rapping it while looking in people’s eyes for approval like America’s Got Talent, “hyping” me up. Those weren’t sexy, fun party times. Partying for the approval of the city locals, letting them hear my yankee accent click and twirl to Southern music was always an L. And yes, I was a fucking loser for it. It, mean ing laughing with those who were laughing at me. It, meaning performing my Blackness, trying to fit by squeezing into social spaces that felt like everything to me yet had nothing for me. . It, meaning holding myself hostage at party scenes. I knew I was never going to get it. Not there. Not with them. Not ever.

Growth wasn’t insulting. Growth was fact. Growth became a turning point toward how well I knew myself and my new world. I refused to strip back the renewed, refined version of me for stale settings.

I refused to go back.

Not only was I out of place, I was out of time. Winter wind ripped my friendships and the epiphanic silence apart.

This time I ripped that “skin” off. No peeling. No room for me to re-emerge again.

Not a fucking inch.

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In light of “old times,” there was nothing quirky or cool about falling from being too drunk to hold yourself up. Nothing cool about standing on top of slippery kitchen islands to get people to notice you.

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Sketches for Still Life 3162
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Sketches for Still Life 2582
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At the Window

Death makes even us all, makes beauty from the finite window through which rests the seemingly innocent sky.

Each bound by body, wake to rooms like this one: wishing the window a bit bigger, only the tops of west desert trees

visible: mesquite, Texas ash, scrub oak, the loneliness of landscape whose otherness is (if only it weren’t so) ourselves.

All that echoes here is here. Estrangement is the occasion. As if suddenly it was my birthday and those clouds gathered at the edge of the windowless horizon weren’t the precipitants of a summer storm

but balloons brought exactly for me by strangers whose deaths are forgotten, whose stone eyes weigh nothing,

whose bones rise like prophecy and dance in the pregnancy of the pale-blue, human afternoon.

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Franklin Mountains, El Paso
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I watched a woman on a park bench feed a cat. Red pencil skirt, white blazer, a face framed in a severe black-blue bob. A real power player. A real bitch. Her ankles neatly hooked. Her nails immaculate, demure pink. She used them to pick the chicken pieces from a bed of greens, proffered them to a rail-thin orange cat whose spine I could see from space. It was only her and the cat and the salad and the chicken and both their heads were bowed in grace. The orange cat licked her fingers. The woman kissed its paws.

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Last Sunday of August

I butter good bread sometime in the night: it’s soft when I eat it

as end-summer sun at my throat. The moon’s surface cold is clear as it drops newer nightly, back into blot, and salt from the sound carries

up my hill. This time of year, the hull breaks open on colors often kept private.

In another state, you run a bath and read and are received

in your blue towel, sanctified, your chest warm to touch; instead I hold my own face close; there is no one to see. The longer I sit the sooner the skin of the overripe day slides off.

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Terrible Lizard


First, there is laughter.

Tommy and Olivia are pulling at the center wheel of the tea cup, making it topple around its own axis in a frenzy, even as it dips and bobs past the others. The music swells like a heartbeat pounding out of a chest and Mallory joins in with the spinning, elbows bumping against her brother, her sister. She is certain they are going to crash and certain she will remember this mo ment until the day she dies.

They’re at the island’s carnival, an event put on for tourist children like themselves in need of entertainment. “Mom? Mom? Can we get in the water?” Tommy demands as the ride grinds to a halt. And before he gets an answer, he climbs out of the teacup, straining away, the world always too slow for him.

“Beat you there!” Olivia shouts. She’s the oldest, the fastest, and she overtakes Tommy.

Hot from the revelry, the children race onto the small strip of beach. They dip their feet into the lagoon, making dime-sized splashes as their mom looks on. They aren’t the only ones with this idea, but if they look to the horizon, everyone else is excised from the frame. It’s blue and green and resort housing as far as the eye can see. They stare into the trough of the water, the waves rising in small triangles like celebratory pennants.

“Smile!” their mom shouts, holding out her cell phone. The children have the lucent glow of a Rembrandt, gathering all of the sinking light around them, casting the rest of the beach into stillness and dark. They’re almost indistinguishable from each other, aging into the rangy posture of late childhood from the soft-bodied toddlers they were. Their hair curls off their heads, tangling into a collective cloud, blowing around like a shared dream.

“Look at the stars,” Olivia gestures. Her arm is an arrow shot into the freckled bowl of the cosmos. She knows the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, can sometimes find the blunt arc of Draco twisting in a helix through the sky, but this patch is unfamiliar to

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her. Where are the usual suspects?

“Why are they so bright?” Tommy demands. Olivia starts going on about light pollution but he didn’t really want an answer in the first place, so much as something to say.

Next to them, Mallory watches the waves, a steady undula tion that moves, somehow, like a mouth around words, singing a song that evolution has made alien to her. Through that rhythm is an underlying note, a dark chord eating its way through the wa ter. Her leg is the first point of contact, ushered into the vestibule of the creature’s jaws, a pale flash against the dark. She topples into the sand, keeled over as if by a sudden wind.

Olivia is still looking for the constellations when her sister comes unsocketed next to her. A dull thump registers on a delay, and as she turns, her mother pushes her back, something frantic and unhinged about her movement. To Olivia, it looks like she’s trying to fight the water, lunging toward it with both hands. It’s only when she sees her sister’s flashing arm come wailing out of the darkness that she realizes otherwise.

Tommy understands that something bad is happening before the nature of it is made clear. His mother is shouting and tugging at his sister, trying to pry her loose from the jaws of a nightmare that has climbed out of his mind and slithered onto the beach. He is up now, joining Olivia in the grabbing for Mallory, beating at the crocodile’s hide as it backs toward deeper water, drag ging him past his ankles, up to his thighs. It’s like hitting rock, beating his fists against the solid wall of destiny.

The water is lashed into a white fury, spouting up into their eyes, their mouths. They are losing their footing and their grip. Olivia watches Tommy slip, lose his grasp, Mallory’s arm melting through his hands like she’s dissolving on the spot. She wishes her hands were hooks or guns or anything but flesh. The croc pulls.

Their mother is still here, lunging gigantically. It’s a stalemate between desperation and the indomitable muscle of the animal. The crocodile whips its entire body, rolling through the water like a tank, wrenching the girl away. Now, the water is still.

Otra Vida
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Underwater, everything sparkles.

It’s like living in a mirror, or the diamond of your mother’s wedding ring. There are so many more colors: purples that are tarnished blue, greens that burn into yellow, coils of violet twisting in the current. The little croc, newly hatched, is aware she once had a mother, and air breathing eyes, and a name that is lost now.

It all must still be up there, at the surface. The little croc edges toward the dome of light cascading down from above but before she can pierce it with the spear of her body, her path is blocked by a shadow. The shadow tumbles into a form, and that form is her own, amplified. Broad swath of blue-black scales ridged like a fortress, teeth dripping from the jaws like icicles, amber slitted eyes like doors she could fall through.

A deep hunger envelops her, aches all the way through her in an empty grimace. Briefly she thinks of ice cream, gum my snacks, macaroni in the shape of cartoon characters. As if sensing this betrayal, the larger crocodile offers up a beheaded fish, white meat floating like a glove. The little croc studies the fish uncertainly, even as she yearns to engulf it. What holds her back? Some impulse from her human life, the absurd thought that she should wash her hands. Disinfect this raw, shredded meat covered in scales and scum.

The larger croc waits expectantly. Pulsing out of its eyes is a current she can sense with her own. And associated with this, a certain uneasiness. The row of fangs takes on a new menace. She studies the fish. She rips into the flesh.

The little croc is a quick learner, adapting to the world underwater and the new body in which she patrols it. Flat, trowel-shaped hands are replaced with webbed paddles. Soft, poppable flesh with a hard rash of scales. She is a glittering

Clean By Anastasia Kirages 122 / TEXLANDIA 2022

She is a glittering cocoon of green, a dragon without wings. She is impermeable, from the jowls of her leathery throat to the strong whip of her tail that sprouts like a tumor from her back. Maneuvering this body is like steering a missile—slicing through the water after a meal, she moves faster than she ever has.

cocoon of green, a dragon without wings. She is impermeable, from the jowls of her leathery throat to the strong whip of her tail that sprouts like a tumor from her back. Maneuvering this body is like steering a missile—slicing through the water after a meal, she moves faster than she ever has.

She is learning how to be invisible, how to creep with a rep tilian slink. Fish yards away flare in her vision, giving themselves away with vibrations in the water. Their movement pummels the sensory organs around the little croc’s snout, earthquakes of information about size, location, and speed. Crabs send quick, scuttling signals; grouper lazy, lumbering pulses.

Her sense of time erodes, her activity untethered from the drought of sun. It doesn’t matter what’s in the sky. The water is enough. She aligns instinct with activity, trawling through the water all night sometimes, searching for fat-bellied trout or bony racer fish. She catches them in her mouth, tips her head back and lets them fall down the chute of her throat, no chewing re quired. When she is tired, she drifts along the surface, a ridged ellipse and a pair of eyes, or goes belly deep in the muck and murk at the bottom of the lagoon.

Some instincts are left over, kicking inside her like alien in vaders. The urge to breathe in shallow gasps instead of one big pull that will last her for hours. Pausing in front of her reflection, doubled back to her as she slithers from land to water. A strange desire to see the sunset.

But words fade fast underwater. The little croc’s neurons are shrinking, folding down. What’s the benefit of all those baubles of a human brain—the hyper-developed frontal lobe, the lan guage centers—when evolution has proved you can do without? Her brain is flattening into the bare essentials. A cerebrum the size of a Christmas ornament. An optic lobe like two knuckles. A cerebellum tacked on like a citation. Enough to swim, breathe, hunt

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These are the kinds of words that matter to the little croc now. Rip, eat, kill. The flute-like speckled swordtails that flit past like butterflies become meal. The low throttle of a boat’s approach ing motor becomes danger. And in the waning hours of the day, when the little croc swims to the surface, when the magnolia pet als drift along the water, when the earth seems, for a moment, to be just for her, to have slipped off the continuum of time into a space of any age— she has no words for this at all, if she ever did. She is fading into a silent world.

There is only one thing to fear: the angry, upright slashes who patrol the water. The little croc watches them from afar, the flurry of activity on the shore, black-white blur of motion, yellow tape, wind, boats and yelling. If she cruises close enough, she can feel the vibrations of their clumsy footsteps on the land, rip pling out across the water. She knows to keep away but still she is drawn to watching them. They feel familiar. The drowned past returns in bubbles, fighting to stay afloat in the little croc’s brain.

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Olivia is dreaming again. She’s watching the start of the world, a light show with no audience. A tornado of dust and rock coagulates into a pinball millions of miles from a volatile nuclear reactor, and she watches the molten surface from above, black cracked with red magma, like the hide of a crocodile revealing the vital flesh beneath.

From within the planet, there is a great tectonic shift around the core. Eruptions spew from the earth with the reckless release of a shaken soda. Olivia breathes in sulfur and exhales nitrogen. There is a calm in this, and a cooling. The magma subsides; the earth folds, breaks, and dries out. Water rushes in, drinking up the ruined earthscape, overflowing, giving new meaning to the concept of endless

Something is bubbling beneath the surface, clawing its way out of the mud. An armored silhouette, a creature who could break the earth, scale the universe. The land folds into itself, rises in mountains that scrape the sky. Ants become people become cities. Everything that touches the air crumbles, builds itself again. And still crocodiles trawl the dominion of land and sea. A rock plummets from space and the crocodilians survive. There is ice for a hundred thousand years and the crocs survive. There is a world on fire, a mushroom of death, and the crocs sur vive. The crocs will inherit the earth. When everything else has ground to a halt, when the sun has exploded in a cold radiance, when the universe folds in on itself and gravity stumbles to a halt, there will be crocs—

“I keep having this dream,” Olivia says.

Tommy, sitting on the bed, waits for her to continue. She doesn’t.

They are being sent home, packed up with their suitcases and shipped back with their grandmother. The past week of searching the swamps around the island hasn’t brought any change. They have been living endless, infernal days trapped in their condominium, shuttled around by well-meaning relatives who’ve come to town for support. Their mother has decided enough is enough. Tommy could have told her that after the first listless afternoon of minigolf. He and Olivia sat down at hole three while their grandmother excused herself to cry in the bathroom.

Last night, Olivia woke to an earthquake, Tommy next to her, crying soundlessly.

They’re supposed to be folding their clothes, a task that has been laid out for them by their parents as if it will take days, not seconds. Instead, they click through articles on the internet, inhaling everything they can about crocodiles, from the anato my of their dentition to their primordial origins. Many websites call them the last dinosaurs, creatures that have, remarkably,

An armored silhouette, a creature who could break the earth, scale the universe. The land folds into itself, rises in mountains that scrape the sky.

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remained unchanged for millions of years. Tommy reads. Olivia sits at the window, pressing her bruises, drifting away from him.

Her mind slithers with scaly things. Things that are clawing their way through the gray sponge of her brain, a slick mass that is drowning her. Crocodiles. She presses her bruise. Dinosaurs. Press. Crocodiles. Press. And beneath it all, she is sure, is Mallo ry, if she could only fight her way through.

The sound of the adults seeps beneath the door. The hiss of the coffeemaker, another pot that will quickly be consumed by their sleep-deprived parents. The low murmur of aunts and uncles sitting in the living room. In an hour, Olivia and Tommy will be in the car, driving to the airport. In two hours, they’ll be on a plane, flying back to the landlocked state they never should have left, this strange, swampy place and everything that has happened disappearing behind the white blade of a plane wing as if wiped from memory. Somehow, Olivia is certain that once she leaves, she will never see this place again.

“I want to go back,” she says. She stands, hauls herself to the window. “Let’s go back to the beach. I need to see it again.”

Tommy pushes the window open with her and they climb out. Everything is a rush—their sneaking around the house, their sprint to the bikes. No time for shoes, they churn through the streets with bare feet, their soles grinding against the hard plastic pedals. The wind past their ears makes the sound hurry, quick, fast. They are running out of time they haven’t been aware of spending.

By the lagoon, there are barriers wedged in the sand. Wood en sawhorses with DO NOT CROSS spray painted in red across the lintel. On the beach, all but one boat has disappeared from where many boats were anchored. Olivia and Tommy creep out onto the shore in toeholds, as aware now as they should have been on that night.

“Do you think…?” Tommy asks, but his voice is bitten off. They drip past the back of a tent, catching snatches of bodi less voices discussing the ongoing investigation with a sort of delighted pessimism.

“Don’t know why we’re still looking,” one voice says.

“This kid’s dead,” comes a second voice.

“Deader than dead.”

Tommy recoils into Olivia’s shoulder, but she is glad to have it confirmed, that this is not all a bizarre daydream, a trick of the eye.

“Funny how helpless they are when you get ‘em in the net.”

“Like glorified lizards.”

Canadian Granite
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“I want to go back,” she says. She stands, hauls herself to the window. “Let’s go back to the beach. I need to see it again.”

“Teeth can’t do anything against a gun.”

Olivia and Tommy move on, shuffling against the sand. “Mal lory,” Tommy says, looking out at the water. To Olivia, he looks very grownup, and very confused.

“Mallory,” she repeats.

Underwater, the little croc feels vibrations, and what’s more, a name she knows. A magic spell pulling her to the surface. Voices tumbling in the music of human sound. On the shore, a pale flash of legs and white sand and blue sky. Closer, closer. Danger, danger.

Olivia and Tommy don’t see the little croc until it shivers onto land, claws deep in the mud. Olivia stops, throws an arm across Tommy instinctively, electric shock crackling down her spine.

The little croc can see their fear in fluorescent violet, pulsing out of the girl child and boy child in seismic waves that pummel her eyes. They’re very still, not even trying to run. So much weak flesh and snappable bone, no hide, no claws—they aren’t meant for this world. Unclear how they’ve made it this long. Lunge. Kill.

She starts forward and is met with weight from above, clamp ing over her like a trap, struggling, twisting away. Danger, danger, danger. A bulk weighs her down. She is powerless to move and there is shouting, always shouting.

The little croc is dropped to the ground, tackled by one of the rangers who has emerged from the tent. “What are you doing?” He is yelling at Olivia and Tommy. “What the hell are you doing?”

But the children are not listening to him. They turn their faces into the croc’s lurid gaze and something clicks between the three of them—not a key being turned, but a lock fitted into place.

Time doesn’t slow down or speed up. Rather, it begins to heave, moving in all directions at once. The gaze of these crea tures—blue, brown, yellow—creates a kind of internal earth quake in each of them, a tectonic sizzling as memory grinds against instinct.

Olivia and Tommy tread the same web of thought. They are thinking of that night, the carnival, their sister. Tommy is still racing his sisters to the beach, the carnival music smearing the night air, his hands sticky from a wand of cotton candy they shared. And Olivia is right there with him, ignoring the blades of grass that whisper, Stop! and the terrified keening of the stars, too high pitched for human ears. She is still running as fast as she can into the wide-open night.

The little croc sees the night sky like an upturned bowl of stars, the thin pulse of human muscle in motion, and something shivers down her spine. Convulses through her hide. Penetrates the impenetrable. Some almost forgotten human instinct flippers

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inside of her. The desire to touch, to meet flesh with flesh.

Maybe such a touch would remind the little croc what she once was. The warmth of human skin singing through her cold blood, making her body a home again, instead of an armored bunker. Maybe it would be enough to make one husk melt away, to make a little girl emerge from the caul of a hide. Or, maybe these are not the little croc’s thoughts at all, but some collective idea billowing in the space between the three of them, borne by the children’s desire. Is longing enough to induce a transforma tion? If you try hard enough, can you reimagine the past in such a way that it reconfigures the future?

The other ranger is approaching fast, a bright gleam of metal shining in his hand. Olivia and Tommy fall forward, reaching out, calling “Let go! Let go!” It is just enough to confuse the first rang er, who loosens his grip unintentionally, allowing the little croc to scuttle away, to disappear into the water.

For the rest of their lives, even after they return home, even when Olivia takes a psychology course and believes the events of this afternoon were nothing more than a delayed onset of grief and denial, even when Tommy declares there are some things you can only believe when you’re young, they will think of this moment.

After two weeks the park rangers will call off the search. They will have caught seventeen crocodiles and shot them in the back of the skull, but the little croc will not be one of them. She will eat, breathe, swim, grow. She will forget. And still, sometimes, in the early mornings, when fog hovers like held breath over the water, when the egrets huddle in their rookeries, there will be a small tickle where a memory would go, something that can’t be hers, something she dreamed: a girl and a boy with molar-wide smiles sitting across from her in a teacup, spinning around and around and around.

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2022 “Best in the Land” Prize Winners


This singular story about a girl born with a birthmark that looks just like Elvis Presley gripped me from its opening scene and never relented. Every character is tragic, flawed, unique, and they seem to want to break out of the confines of the story’s pages and come alive. “El” is a superb example of what the short story is capable of. It was a great pleasure to read it, and now a great pleasure to share it. ~ Fernando A. Flores


One of the many areas where this poem succeeds is in its clear at tention to craft. The line “the first birth is the hardest, the second” is such a great example of enjambment as it plays off the word “second” as both a duration of time and as an ordinal number which the poem returns to later in the fifth stanza (“the second birth takes time”). The transitions between stanzas is also impres sive as it shifts from one context of seasons–that of the butterflies and girl/womanhood–to the next. Bookending a poem can be difficult to execute well, yet the speaker’s understanding that they don’t have to meet intrusion with mercy makes for a triumphant close. ~ Brittny Ray Crowell

Creative Nonfiction

“Party Favors” is a voice-thick coming-of-self story about a young Black college student negotiating her identity between cliques and subcultures. A party (not a kick back) she doesn’t want to be at erupts in near-violence and the narrator is forced to face the disintegration of freshman-year friendships past their sell-by date, as well her own growing sexual and emotional maturity. At times, “Party Favors” leans toward the psychic force of Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and the musicality of Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. Amber D. Dodd is one to watch. ~ Cameron Dezen Hammon

“A Season of Caterpillars” by Laura Villareal
“El’” by Adele Oliveira
“Party Favors” by Amber D. Dodd
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2022 “Best in the Land” Prize Judges

Fiction - Fernando A. Flores was born in Reynosa, Tamaulip as, Mexico, and grew up in South Texas. He is the author of the collection Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas and the novel Tears of the Trufflepig, which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a best book of 2019 by Tor. com. His fiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Frieze, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. His collection of stories Vall eyesque is forthcoming May 2022. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Poetry - Brittny Ray Crowell is a poet and artist. A native of Tex arkana, TX, she earned a BA in English from Spelman College and an MA in English from Texas A&M-Texarkana. Recently, she won the Donald Barthelme Prize in Poetry and the Lucy Terry Prince Prize, judged by Major Jackson. A Best of the Net nomi nee, her poems and art have been published or are forthcoming in Frontier, The West Review, Mount Island, Aunt Chloe, Glass Poetry, Cosmonauts Avenue, and the anthology Black Lives Have Always Mattered. Currently, she is a teaching assistant and a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.

Creative Nonfiction - Cameron Dezen Hammon is the author of This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obses sion (Lookout Books), the Nonfiction Discovery Prize Winner for the 2019 Writers’ League of Texas Book Awards, a bronze medalist for the Independent Publisher Book Award in Creative Nonfiction, and a finalist for the Foreword INDIE Book of the Year in Autobiography and Memoir. Kirkus called This Is My Body “a generous and unflinchingly brave memoir about faith, feminism, and freedom.” Her nonfiction has appeared in The Kiss antholo gy (W.W. Norton), Vogue, Ecotone, the Literary Review, the Hous ton Chronicle, NYLON, and elsewhere; and her essay “Infirmary Music” was named a notable in The Best American Essays 2017 She earned her MFA from Seattle Pacific University, and current ly teaches nonfiction writing at Rice University.

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Contributor Bios:

Adele Oliveria

Adele Oliveira is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she grew up and lives with her family. Her nonfiction and essays appear in Longreads, Hyperallergic, The New Republic, Salon, and other publications; her fiction appears in the Santa Fe Liter ary Review and Cagibi. She is at work on her first novel.

Anastasia Kirages

Anastasia “Stacy” Kirages is a Houston-based collage artist, zinester, and community organizer for Zine Fest Houston (ZFH).

She received a BA in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin, and certificates from the University of Pennsylva nia’s School of Social Policy and Practice and the University of Houston’s SURE™ Program, in Arts & Cultural Strategy and Entrepreneurship, respectively. Check out more of her work on Instagram: @k.llages.

Amber D. Dodd (she/her) is an award-winning writer with a special interest in contextualizing Black America. She is a former Racial-Equity Reporter and an assistant nonfiction editor at Sundog Literary Magazine and also edits poetry. Her nonfiction can be seen in Carefree Mag, CP Quarterly and Stellium Literary Magazine. She is a Latin scholar and the founder of blaQplight, a storytelling platform for the Black and queer community.

Amelia Brown

Amelia Brown is a queer writer whose debut manuscript has been shortlisted for Penguin’s WriteNow mentorship pro gramme, longlisted for Mslexia’s Novel Award and the Blue Pencil Agency First Novel Award, and was a finalist in the Bright horse Prize in the Novel. They’ve had short stories published by Bridgehouse Publishing and in The Bombay Review

Austin Miller

Austin Miller is a photographer, artist, and designer based in Houston, Texas. He earned a BFA in Studio Art at the Universi ty of Tulsa and an MFA in Photography/Digital Imaging at the University of Houston. His artwork has been exhibited in many galleries both nationally and internationally. In addition, his work has been published in numerous publications such as Leonardo, Silk Road, Rice Review, and Studio Visit

Anthony Sutton

Anthony Sutton resides on former Akokiksas, Atakapa, Karanka wa, and Sana land (currently named Houston, TX), holds an MFA from the currently under threat program in creative writing at Purdue, and has had poems appear or forthcoming in Guest house, Gulf Coast, Grist, The Journal, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Quarter After Eight, Southern Indiana Review, Zone 3 and elsewhere.

Audi Barnes

Audi Barnes is a poet and essayist and the founder of the WE HAVE VOICES reading series, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for Black Orlando writers that fundraises for pro-Black initiatives, organi zations, and local businesses. Her work can also be found at The Offing and in Capable Magazine

Brendan Egan

Brendan Egan’s fiction and poetry have been published by Witness, Catapult, Threepenny Review, Rattle and other journals. A graduate of the MFA program at McNeese State University, he lives in West Texas with his wife, Stacy Austin Egan, and their two children. He teaches at Midland College and attempts to keep a garden.

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Caleb Braun

Caleb Braun earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington, where he received the Harold Taylor Prize. He is a PhD student in creative writing at Texas Tech University in Lub bock, Texas. His poems have appeared and are forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, 32 Poems, Image, Blackbird, Cherry Tree, and elsewhere. He can be found online at calebbraun.com.

Daniela Pasqualini

Daniela Pasqualini is an innovative Italian painter based in the United States whose abstract works have been exhibited inter nationally and are held in private collections worldwide. Mixing acrylic and impasto, her paintings result in a sculptural, three-di mensional appearance.

Carson Markland

Carson Markland’s writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarter ly and Breakwater Review. Her work has also been selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She currently lives in Phoenix.

David McClain

David McClain is a Houston-based artist and writer. He earned a BA from Rice University, a JD from the University of Houston Law Center, and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His artworks have been exhibited and published in Texas, New York, Chicago, Germany, and his writing has been published in a variety of literary journals. He currently serves as the arts editor for Superpresent, a journal of art and literature.

Chukwu Sunday Abel

Chukwu Sunday Abel (Sunabel) is an Igbo-born Nigerian writer and a journalist. He is the winner of the 2020 Creators of Justice Literary Award in Short Fiction and Essay by the International Human Rights Art Festival Awards in New York. .His literary works have appeared in anthologies and magazines across four continents and he is the publisher of The Reliant News (thereli antnews.com).

Daniel Combs

Daniel J Combs’s photography observes human-made and nature-made landscapes. He hopes that his images invoke a connection to a sense of place and one’s personal beliefs. Daniel hails from Waterford, New York. He attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan, earning a B.A. in English and Communica tion. He divides his time between life in Michigan on the lake shore and in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico.

Ellen Orseck

When she was three years old, Ellen Orseck painted on the walls and furniture of her parent’s home in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work can be found in museums, private and corporate collec tions and at her studio at Winter Street Studios in Houston. She teaches at Watercolor Art Society, Houston and at the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies at Rice University.

Emma Aylor

Emma Aylor’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, AGNI, Colorado Review, 32 Poems, and the Yale Review Online, among other journals. She lives in Lubbock, Texas.

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Contributor Bios:

Emma Bolden

Emma Bolden is the author of House Is An Enigma (Southeast Missouri State UP), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press) and Malef icae (GenPop Books). The recipient of a 2017 NEA Fellowship in Poetry, her work has appeared in The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Best American Poetry and journals including the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, and TriQuarterly. She is Associate Editor-in-Chief for Tupelo Quarterly and an Editor of Screen Door Review. Her memoir, The Tiger and the Cage, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press.

Gin Faith Thomas

Gin Faith Thomas holds an MFA in poetry from Indiana Univer sity and continues to live and write in Bloomington, Indiana. She has published work in [PANK], Hobart, Flying Island, and her poem, Lucy the Teenaged Werewolf, is forthcoming in Bluestem She’s still hunting for a publisher for her collection but to date neither confirms nor denies being a werewolf, herself.

Jasmine Ledesma

Jasmine Ledesma is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in or is set to appear in places such as Crazyhorse, Rattle, and [PANK] among others. Her work has been nominated for Best of The Net and twice for the Pushcart Prize. She was named a Brooklyn Poets fellow in 2021. Her novella Shrine was listed as a finalist for the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Her poem was highly commended by Warsan Shire for the Moth Poetry Prize.

Jessica Barksdale

Jessica Barksdale’s second poetry collection Grim Honey and her fifteenth novel The Play’s the Thing were both published in 2021. Her novel What the Moon Did will be published in Feb ruary 2023. Recently retired, she taught composition, literature, and creative writing at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California for thirty-two years and continues to teach novel writ ing online for UCLA Extension and in the online MFA program for Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband.

Josh Hickman

Josh Hickman is a Texas artist and writer. He has published six books, numerous articles, and his work has been featured in several solo exhibitions.

Julia McLaurin

Julia McLaurin is a multidisciplinary artist working out of Hous ton, Texas. Her artwork is best known for combining vintage and modern imagery in a contemporary style. Today she is a full-time artist, rainbow enthusiast, creative visionary and lover of all things pop art. Her studio is located in the Silos at Sawyer Yards in Houston, Texas.

Justin Jannise

Justin Jannise is the author of How to Be Better by Being Worse (BOA Editions, 2021), which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. Recently a recipient of the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry and a former Editor-in-Chief of Gulf Coast, Justin is pursuing his Ph.D. in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Houston.

Laura Villareal

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She has received fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and National Book Critics Circle. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, American Poetry Review, Waxwing, AGNI, and elsewhere.

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Mhairi Treharne

Mhairi Treharne is a Canadian artist based in the UK. Wooden panels are uniquely cut and milled, decoratively burned, and embroidered with wire before painting. Treharne is driven to create work about places which are magical, sacred and have a ‘thinness’- an apparent closeness to another dimension.

Rusy Singh

Rusy Singh was born and raised in India and is currently work ing in Houston, Texas as a business analyst. His work contains a wide variety of motifs with main focus on street, abstract and documentary genre. He seek to demonstrate wide-eyed open ness to whatever passes in front of his camera.

Mark Jackley

Mark Jackley’s poems have appeared in Fifth Wednesday, The Cape Rock, Natural Bridge, Cagibi, Talking River, and other jour nals. His new book of poems, Many Suns Will Rise, is forthcoming this year by The Main Street Rag Press. Other books include Ev ery Green Word (Finishing Line Press), Cracks and Slats (Amster dam Press), and On the Edge of a Very Small Town (Nameless Press). He lives in Purcellville, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Paul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles amidst a forest of telescopes and vintage cameras. To date he has published over 2,500 nonfiction features focusing on a variety of subjects along with a smattering of short fiction, numerous photographs, and several books dealing with military history.

Stephanie Gonzalez

Stephanie Gonzalez received her BFA in Interior Design from the Art Institute of Houston and her MFA in Painting from Houston Baptist University. She has created works for public collections such as Starwood Hotels, Le Meridien in Saigon, Lot 8, designer Chloe Dao’sretail, Skyline Art Services, the Make a Wish Foundation, Pearl Bar, and more.

Tyler Sones

Tyler Sones is a writer from Waco, TX. He received an MFA from Ohio State in 2019, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Washing ton Square Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Austin and can be found online at tylersones.com.

Peter Wakeman Schranz

The writing of Peter Schranz has most recently appeared in the Decadent Review, Metamorphoses, the Automata Review, and somehow also his website, dailydoofus.com. He has a “podcast” on bandcamp.com called Flight Of The Fifty Fancies which is a lot like dailydoofus.com. He has also written secretly under a mysterious pseudonym. He lives in Philadelphia.

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In this issue:
Adele Oliveira Chukwu Sunday Abel Laura Villareal Justin Jannise Emma Bolden Amelia Brown Peter Wakeman Schranz Jasmine Ledesma Tyler Sones Mark Jackley
Faith Thomas Jessica Barksdale Anthony Sutton Brendan Egan Amber D. Dodd Caleb Braun Audi Barnes Emma Aylor Carson Markland