2019 â€” 2020
The Vanderbilt Review is not operated by Vanderbilt University. The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Vanderbilt University or its official representatives. VanderbiltÂŽ and the Vanderbilt logos are registered trademarks of The Vanderbilt University. ÂŠ 2020 Vanderbilt University
Editor-in-Chief: Julia Lubarsky Managing Editor: Joseph Lovinger Art Editor: Maddie Amend Poetry Editor: Kelly Morgan Prose Editor: Darius Cowan Layout Editor: Rebecca Arp Head of Recruitment: Emily Kopec
Art Staff Catherine Sheehan Grace Brady Grace Runnels Julia Nahley
Layout Staff Amber Yun Grace Billman Kaitlin Joshua
Poetry Staff Abigale Harrelson Bryan Hollis Gracie Pitman Isabella Bruzzese Jasmin Norford
Prose Staff Allison Boyce Andy Bainton Caroline Crawford Chris Loveland Geronimo Owen Gracie Oâ€™Rorke Justine Hong Laiba Fatima Miquela Thornton Olivia Rastatter Roman Bacchetta
14 2022 242628 343639 Jalen Kobayashi (2023) The Story of Emmett Till (After Baldwin’s, Notes of a Native Son)
Kaitlyn Hammond (2023) i still text you even though you can’t answer
Farrah Hassan (2022) A Child Jailed
Farrah Hassan (2022) A Scientist Freed
Abigale Harrelson (2022) The Song as the Sun Sets
Abigale Harrelson (2022) Sweetener
Zachary Gardner (2021) Delirium (104.2°F)
Mac Kraus (2020) Raku Bottle, Raku Clay Raku Bud Vase, Raku Clay Stoneware Jug, Stoneware
Amy Chen (2020) Terabithia, Gelatin Silver Print (Infrared 35mm Film)
Table of Contents
404142 434447 484950 Catherine Sheehan (2021) Hilton Head Waterways Graphic Design
Lyndon Vickrey (2021) Skeleton, Film Photography
Grace Runnels (2020) Twogether, Photography
Alice Liao (2021) I Think Your Love Would Be Too Much, Digital Art
Natalie Elliott (2022) Salsabila Nurhidajat (2021) Which Way; Connection; Corrupted, Digital Illustration On the Way Home; Linoleum Print, Copper Etching
Joshua Lipsey (2021) Nature’s Colors Photography
Hermella Kassaye (2022) Yoncé, Charcoal on Canvas
Harrison Smith (2021) Icelandic Horror; Chinatown; BBP; Photography
Table of Contents
5457 59 6263 6465 66 Sophia Yan (2023) Fragmentation, Photography Collage. Summer Magic, Photography
Sydney Kaemmerlen (2020) In Reverence, Oil on Canvas
Brent Szklaruk-Salazar (2021) Wild James; Camping â€˜19; Seven Days in a Cabin; Photography
Jenny Gao (2022) Wait, Nikon D750 Film
John Lee (2020) Veritat, Digital Collage
Monica Gallagher (2020) Amor, Photography
Guillermo Leon (2021) Heat 1, Photography
Rebecca Arp (2020) Retrospect Two Channel Video
Table of Contents
70100 105 108 114 126 Darius Cowan (2021) The Last Witch Burning of Hawthorne, Tennessee
Jenny Gao (2022) Golden Girl
Ayana Wilson (2021) Chicago
Justine Hong (2020) Center Vase
Alexa White (2023) Umbrella Shopping
Darby Power (2020) Ghost Stories
Table of Contents 11
128 134 140 Eric Ponce (2022) Mommy Cat
Helen Hicks (2022) Worn Out
MiquĂŠla Thornton (2022) Lunar Eclipse / A Screenplay
Letter From the Editor
he turn of 2020 marks a substantial shift. Not only in the way we scribble the date on our journal entries, but a generational one as well. The air over Vanderbilt
is changing. It’s saturated with a new vibrant, creative energy. As you stroll through our arboretum-like campus and overhear students’ musings in the new dining halls, it’s a feeling that’s impossible to ignore. This edition that you hold in your hands, the 34th volume of The Vanderbilt Review, has been carefully created to showcase this new zeitgeist. It is important to note that many of the authors, artists, and poets featured in the following pages are also future scientists, historians, educators, doctors, and engineers. These
individuals come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring forth a fresh and bright perspective that yearns to be heard. That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of The Vanderbilt Review: to showcase the creative expression of an irregular congregation of minds, to pull stories from their lives, and to give their art a platform to inspire and move our community as a whole. Vanderbilt is teeming with creative life, and I hope that through our staff’s careful and thoughtful curation, we have forged a way for it to move forward, to grow and prosper, and to continue on once the academic calendar turns its page. I want to thank everyone who submitted to this year’s publication for allowing us to bear witness to your innermost thoughts and experiences, as well as to the judges for helping us elevate this body of work. Thank you a million times to our advisor, Paige Clancy, for easing the friction at every step of the way so that we could do our best work. And most importantly, I’d like to thank our entire staff and editorial board for their continued dedication to our mission of developing a creative space and platform for the artists, writers, and poets among us. It has been the pleasure of my college experience to work with these amazing individuals for the last four years, and I hope you can feel the love we put into this publication as you flip through the pages.
Award in Poetry “I chose “The Story of Emmett Till” because of the rich, electrifying language and its attention to sound. Additionally, the poet’s management of syntax and lineation gave the poem a captivating narrative cadence. I also admire the writer for taking on a subject of such scope and significance, and for writing with such honesty, sensitivity, and skill.”
Maria Isabelle Carlos is a poet from Columbia, MO. Her work—which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net—has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Pleiades, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sycamore Review, Four Way Review, Cave Wall, and elsewhere. She received her B.A. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as the Thomas Wolfe Scholar and is currently an M.F.A. candidate at Vanderbilt University. She serves as editor-in-chief of Nashville Review and INCH.
The Story of Emmett Till After Baldwin’s, N otes of a Native Son
was he not equipped with enough quickness? Emmett, Till /Death do U.S. part, Chicago’s own. 64th/St. Lawrence Avenue now labeled/urban decay (sunlight still shine through compost Black wall streets) officiated by its own residents’ calibers, kryptonite (carrying) CEOs grow hundreds of thousands in tithes for your spirit, Emmett, we hope you hear it, Emmett. when we jump rope/skip hopscotch/mattress backflip/hydrant drench and laugh, We are spiting what smite you, Who betrayed and betrothed you to cross,
to cross a Mason Dixie, a distal leap if Emmitt is Chicago and Chicago was nobody, which it couldn’t be, nobody ever moves to Mississippi. Emmett Till sought (as we all do) the exact taste of his lineage ‘sueded by grandmother, to bare finger barren regions where his predecessors seldom if ever slept. if always, Emett’s mother warned I imagine she prayed, staved over bibles and cauldrons of holy water, bathed him, ritualized the affirmation of the cloak of his blackness of his boyishnessof his beautiful smile and mind and life— for Emmett did not yet two days arrive on the plantation, I mean soil, I mean sharecrop, so I do mean plantation, when his is became was I need not explain anything that occurred with the white woman.
Carolyn Bryant is a reputable liar, and to whom it is tragically obvious, not capable of articulating in a competent fashion. I imagine her command of english was rather average. (which means) she held no methods of recognizing, exactly/each syllable Emmett/emitted And admitted, later. “That her brothers shouldn’t have did it or been acquitted” for she knows the image of the imminent threat created was figment, I need not talk about the gory, grotesque details of your lynching, for the act itself is description and depiction, suffice to, in stages who met a physical/and metaphysical castration/Emmett shows us that a stutter, a whistle, a look, a bullshit wikipedia write up 64 years later a black, a boy, means life enough. Emmett is no Birth of a nation, dangerous and naked stranger, aN ative Son rather, Emmett now lives in vast graphitic oil/paints pages,
is the Baldwin word, the sermon, the omen, the outfit check at the door, the watch your mouth when around them folk! the two different worlds coexistent on binary spectral thought, for Baldwin, the New Jersey and the New Jim Crow are only separated by the finger snap of/life lost/or liquidated in the swish of hot tea to the face, how the nerve of Baldwin—to betray his bitterness—killed Emmett before birth how you can do that until you caint, For Emmett, Baldwin says Carmen Jones knows that white directed movies do not exist. universally, as if, the white man does not see the black man, he thus cannotshine the light on him for others to see, and that’s what America is; is the chronic quest for pragmatic paradigmatics with paradoxical practices; to tell another’s story without it being spoken by them; so now I realize Baldwin never spoke death, only used it convey light. and I use it to convey life, and that’s why Emmett Till lives until today,
as a walking, talking ancestor, so that the bitterness felt by every native son gets washed with the sweet glaze of warning let their existence be a â€‹ ntitheticalâ€‹to colonial/ Virginian calligraphy, from Harlem/ to Trenton which is Chicago to Mississippi. and the many universes in which we live on. for the teddy bear, box candied and candled memorials on street corners the Baldwin. the Coates. the Thomas. the Dean Myers.
every vast mosaic drawn with the still warm/vibrating blood of your body, Emmett, you are the birth of a revolution. nations rarely seem to stand against (for) ever.
i still text you even though you can’t answer
we drank hot coffee out of red solo cups and wandered down the highway in our tight black skirts screaming like it was the end of the world (we’ll never make it out alive!!!) when we knew we were immortal
we talked to older boys in the mall lied about our ages (fifteen is close enough to sixteen, and really we’re adults at heart) and laughed as our bubblegum lips and bleached blonde hair turned them to stone
we pierced our ears in your bathroom snuck out to the movies ate junk food in the cars we would total
we curled our fake lashes got high with your brother cried when young love didnâ€™t feel so young anymore
we linked our little fingers and promised to be there when something finally stopped us our parents or prison or God
had i known you would be the one to end it i would have offered my veins to save yours
A Child Jailed You told her you’d give her work. You told her she’d help her ma. So you took the doll from her hands, Put a tool in its place. She was six. First, you took her to India. She had cuts on her fingers, Sewing those rugs and if they Asked, she’d say she “fell at school.” Then, you took her to California. She had rashes on her fingers, Picking that tobacco and if they Asked, she’d say she “has an allergy.” Last, you took her to Uganda. She had lost feeling in her fingers, Picking that cocoa and they asked, “Do you like chocolate?” She smiled, And asked – “what is chocolate?”
A Scientist Freed
Not a single molecule in the universe Is unaccounted for. Nothing can come Into existence, nor no longer be existent [Law of Conservation of Mass] Nature conducts every operation With a purpose, like randomizing Preferring a dispersal of its energy [Second Law of Thermodynamics] The balance of the universe is never disrupted, constantly sustained By an infinite, magnanimous opposition [Newtonâ€™s Third Law] The fraction we make up of our Universe gets smaller every second As it stretches to all sides of infinity. [Hubbleâ€™s Law of Cosmic Expansion]
So as we are run by laws That we haven’t written That we haven’t chosen That we haven’t sanctioned Shouldn’t we ask Nature Why and what for and how come She picked this and not that She does that but not this We are tried in a court we can’t see, Judged by a jury we don’t know, On the grounds of laws we don’t Understand. But we should. Let’s ask Nature for her story, When she wrote her laws Why she chose her rules And how she sanctioned the start of our universe.
The Song as the Sun Sets
Eager beams will quickly retreat. But the reluctant ones will linger in the smooth faces of languid ponds and the mossed sagacity of ancient trees, hoping that theyâ€™ll get to hear a last mosquito whine, a last fall of a whippoorwill song before they leave behind everything they touched that day, (the tepid ponds, the mossy treesâ€Ś)
I want the audacity of the whippoorwill who perches smally in the tree and claims his name against the sky. For he must know, that the sunset is more beautiful, that the rays’ great brightness is the real star of this scene. Still, he sings, though maybe that is why he needs to, and so many times—for a call back from the evening’s deaf humidity, for one that sighs yes, yes, you puffed-out creature— I would like to do the same, to perch unseen and sing and sing and wait kind reply, but could I do it in a whisper?
I started drinking coffee black when I was a teenager, when I was tired and distracted enough to be always running late, unable to spare the few seconds it takes to sweeten my buzz. So, when the barista asks, No, I say, no room for cream and sugar. She thrusts the cup onto the counter and it slides a little. I grab it and can feel the liquid sloshing against the cup’s thin sides. I grab it and think of my dad, who was never late and always had sweet coffee, who showed me how to hold an open mug so it wouldn’t spill, even as we drove over potholes on the way to school. He was Sweet’N Low, my father—really only good with coffee. On the counter, a dark drop escapes from under the lip of the lid in a thin trickle that streaks away, leaving a brown stain that runs down the smooth cardboard.
The cashier had said aloud As I shuffled off Tonight go tell your loved ones That you love them And show them love Tomorrow loved ones of yours Might be dead Thereâ€™s this kind of fire that paints The inside of my eyelid Boiling pupils Open Washing shut Then open again within Any kindled twilight between rests Tonight go tell your loved ones My parents dipped me in stagnant water Friends drown within wine She offers a warmth
Candlelight Little glows enough Amidst the dim kiln of Hell Who burns with the Sol of a proud mind That you love them But love is gauche tacky overdone Overwritten and awkward So I wonâ€™t need to Right They should know Recognizing the footprints Atop the surface of a troubled sea And show them love In slightly subtle measurements Bread or fish for living Two millimeters Closer To feel her flush Or wash out their dregs And call home on Sunday nights Tomorrow loved ones of yours Since the roosters havenâ€™t crowed yet Silence simmers comfortable
A murder approaches Roaring Phrases drip from me Draw out cliche and platitude Bent into the form of a pierced heart Might be dead Drifting wisps filter the teardrop moon Flaking cyclical sunlight Sobbing quietly Asleep Peeling dry skin I burn the low waxy hour Scattered ash can be a kind of pigment Painting feverishly as my eyes close I do not pause to mumble back my reply I think I hope they know they see it too already Our contrivances have always whispered I am who I am but I hold part of you
Award in Art I selected the Raku Bottle for its range of potential functions and interpretations as a visual art object. I appreciate it as a functional art form that is both simple, though useful, in its structural design while also refined in its decorative elements. The bisected glazing technique is one of muted contrast: a subdued, crackle white on the top portion while the bottom half quietly flares a reflective, earthen gold sheen. The tilted composition of these glazes might suggest ever-shifting philosophies of glass half full or half empty. Were this bottle to become a vase, occupied by flowers or foliage, the seam of these joined glazes might almost represent a sloping horizon line from which they grow. The hole in the center of the piece almost becomes a way of fusing these two glazed halves, but also translates as a three-dimensional viewfinder. Functionally this window becomes a grip for holding the bottle. While these assessments are my own, the strength of the piece is that it invites many possible narratives and perspectives.
From Farrar Hood Cusomato, Senior Lecturer, Department of Art at Vanderbilt University
Mac Kraus, Raku Bottle, Raku Clay
Mac Kraus, Raku Bud Vase, Raku Clay
40 Mac Kraus, Stoneware Jug, Stoneware
Amy Chen, Terabithia 8” x 10”, Gelatin Silver Print (Infrared 35mm Film)
(Left) Catherine Sheehan, Hilton Head Waterways, 8.5” x 11”, Graphic Design (Above) Lyndon Vickrey, Skeleton, 6.5” x 9”, Film Photography 43
Grace Runnels, Twogether, Photography
Alice Liao, I Think Your Love Would Be Too Much, Digital Art
Natalie Elliott, Which Way, 19” x 11”, Linoleum Print, Copper Etching
Natalie Elliott, Connection, 19” x 11”, Linoleum Print, Copper Etching 47
Natalie Elliott, On the Way Home, 19” x 11”, Linoleum Print, Copper Etching
Salsabila Nurhidajat, Corrupted, 19” x 11”, Digital Illustration
Joshua Lipsey, Natureâ€™s Colors, Photography
Hermella Kassaye, Yoncé, 18”x24”, Charcoal on Canvas
(Previous) Harrison Smith, Icelandic Horror, Photography
Harrison Smith, Chinatown, Photography
Harrison Smith, BBP, Photography
Sophia Yan, Fragmentation, Photography Collage
Sophia Yan, Summer Magic, Photography
Sydney Kaemmerlen, In Reverence, 24” x 48”, Oil on Canvas
(Above) Brent Szklaruk-Salazar, Wild James, Photography
62 (Previous) Brent Szklaruk-Salazar, Camping â€˜19, Photography
Brent Szklaruk-Salazar, Seven Days in a Cabin, Photography
(Left) Jenny Gao, Wait, 24” x 48”, Nikon D750 Film John Lee, Veritat, 19” x 11”, Digital Collage
(Right) Monica Gallagher, Amor, Photography
Guillermo Leon, Heat 1, Photography
Rebecca Arp, Retrospect, Two-Channel Video
Award in Prose The Last Witch Burning of Hawthorne, Tennessee creates a haunting, irresistible storyworld that collapses the distant past and contemporary moment in the United States. The author’s delicate character development is extremely effective, and the reader is surprised and yet convinced of the shocking reversal in the denouement. With gestures towards Jesus Christ and current political rhetoric about witch hunts, the story is a stunning commentary on American culture.
Dr. Elizabeth Covington, Interim Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Coordinator of Literary Studies, Senior Lecturer in English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Vanderbilt University.
The Last Witch Burning of Hawthorne, Tennessee
he first time Eli ever saw a witch burn, it was August 17th, 2006. He was six years old. He had never seen a witch before.
Hawthorne, Tennessee, like most other towns in the region,
was a witch burning town. A burning was a town-wide event, where people would buy snacks and watch a witch go up in flames until there was nothing left but a charred skeleton. Things were different up north, where witches were put in iron jails or simply driven out. “They’re soft on ‘em up there,” said Eli’s dad. “Why?” asked Eli. “Different history,” was what his dad would say. Eli learned in school that the southern witches used to rule the southern regions of the country, waging wars between the prominent clans that left casualties among the mortal population. Eventually, there was an uprising, and soon the witches were driven into hiding, hunted, and burned on sight.
Igne et ferro was the motto of the witch hunters. By fire and iron. They would patrol the woods for witch clans travelling through the area, round them up, and burn them all alive in the square. He had heard a lot about the witches, how they could break your bones with only your name and a piece of hair, or how they could strike a whole town with sickness just by spitting into the wind. He heard that you couldn’t hurt them unless they wanted to be hurt. He heard that Tommy’s dad shot one point-blank with a sawed-off shotgun, and she just got up and kept running without a scratch. He heard that they lived for a really long time, longer than anyone else in the world. “The only things left at the end of the world will be secrets, witches, and cockroaches,” his father would say. He father would also say, “Witches are resilient. Like old trees.” Then he’d smile and add, “They burn like ‘em, too.” Eli heard that they were weak to fire. Natural fire. A match, some kindling, a little gasoline, and they lit up like paper. “It’s
humane, though,” his father would say. “We drug ‘em. They can’t feel a thing.” The first witch Eli ever saw burned was already drugged when they dragged her into the public square. Hawthorne was a town full of witch hunters, and the center of the town was built like a stadium, big enough so that everyone could watch the charring. He didn’t know what he was expecting. From the way that the others talked about them, Eli had expected witches to be towering monsters, crackling with energy and malice. The witch they brought out just looked like a girl. She was maybe in her teens, a little younger than Eli’s brother Ezra. Ezra was the one who brought Eli to see the witch burn that day. He looked like their father, all broad shoulders and serious eyes. She was shackled in iron chains, two men carrying her by the arms as her feet dragged in the dirt. Eli had heard that iron was another witch weakness. It dampened their powers. “Witches are like wood, Eli, and magic is like water,” his father would say. “They only do it because they float. So you gotta weigh ‘em down. No floating, no magic.” Eli would ask, “Why can’t we do magic, daddy?” “God made man out of dirt, and dirt don’t float. Not like wood does.” “So why did he make us out of dirt and witches out of wood?” “God don’t make witches, boy. Witches make themselves.” The witch in the square didn’t look very well made. She looked skinny and bruised, like an overripe apple. Her hair was soaked with something. He would later learn that this was gasoline. Eli pulled on Ezra’s sleeve, and Ezra lifted him up on his
shoulders so he could see over the crowd. There was a large wooden pole in the middle of the stadium field. There were other pedestals where other poles would go if there were more witches to be burned. They only had one today. The witch was bound to the pole in more chains. Her head drooped over, like a wilted flower, and they pushed it up and looped a chain around her neck so that you could see her face. She was breathing hard, and Eli could see the whites of her eyes as they flitted back and forth. “Did I miss anything?” Eli and Ezra looked to the left. Mila, Ezra’s girlfriend, climbed into the seat next to them with popcorn in her hand. “Nope,” said Ezra. “Just getting to the good part.” “Cool.” Mila chewed on a handful of popcorn, looking around. She smiled up at Eli with a mouth full of popcorn, and he giggled. She swallowed. “Is there only one?” “Yep,” said Ezra. “What? I thought they snagged a whole coven.” Ezra shifted his weight. “My dad says they got away.” Mila frowned forward. “Lame.” She looked up at Eli. “This is your first burning, huh, little dude?” Eli nodded. “Wow. Sucks.” She lifted the popcorn bag and Eli took a handful. “Sorry your first one is so shitty.” Ezra elbowed her, and she lost some of her popcorn. “Language.” Mila scoffed. “Really?” “Yeah. My dad heard him say ‘damn’ once and lost his shit. We’re a bad influence.”
She rolled her eyes. “Right. We’re a bad influence.” Ezra said nothing. There were several people flitting around the witch now. A few people adjusted the frames while some applied a fresh splash of gasoline around the base. A woman with a clipboard was talking with another man as they watched. A young man came up and took a few pictures. “Why can’t you just admit your dad hates me?” asked Mila. “He doesn’t hate you,” said Ezra. “He’s just curious to know why you had that book on you.” “It was for a project.” Ezra cleared his throat. “He doesn’t believe that.” Mila looked at Ezra for a moment, then back to the field. “Do you?” “I don’t care what you read about in your free time.” “Because you don’t think I’m a familiar.” “Neither does he.” Mila snorted. “Bullshit.” “Language.” “What’s a familiar?” asked Eli. Mila looked up at him. “Your daddy thinks that since I read a witch book that I’m helping witches so that they’ll change me into one of them.” “Oh.” Eli blinked. “Are you?” “So I can dance around naked in the woods and be inducted into one of their lesbo-pagan orgy rituals? No thanks.” Ezra laughed. “But won’t you get magic?” asked Eli.
A bell tolled. Mila looked out into the field. “I don’t think magic is worth that.” Eli looked up. A trail of flames was crawling along a channel in the field, burning down like a fuse towards the witch. She looked like she was watching it. She made a weak attempt at struggling against the chains. The crowd began to cheer as the flames reached the base of the pyre. The fire spread quickly along the base and then began to inch up the witch. She struggled a bit more, but it looked like she was giving up as the fire licked her toes. She looked upwards towards the sky as the smoke began to rise. When the fire touched her flesh, the flames turned from orange to green. The crowd cheered louder. “Oh, neat,” murmured Mila. “A greenie.” Eli tapped Ezra on the head. “What does that mean?” “She’s a strong one.” “Not that strong, obviously,” Mila interjected. “She’s the only one that got caught.” “She helped the others get away,” said Ezra. “Made the trees fall and stayed behind.” “Really? Why didn’t she just go?” Ezra shrugged. The witch was shrouded in green flame now, the smoke rising in a thick cloud, the girl completely obscured. Eli wrinkled his nose at the smell. Mila shook her head. “Idiot.”
h The first time Eli ever met a witch, he was seventeen. Eli didn’t go to many burnings unless his father made him. He got most of the details from Tommy anyways, from the number, to the colors, to how long it took them to burn. Tommy Langdon didn’t come from a line of hunters like Eli did. He lived on a farm on the outer parts of town, and his dad would see a few from time to time, but other than that the Langdons were farmers. Eli thought that was why Tommy liked the burnings so much. He hated the idea that he was going to end up a farmer one day. He wanted the action. Eli saw the way Tommy looked at the hunters when they dragged a witch through the town, like they were kings bringing home a foreign leader. Tommy wanted to go off to war like that, and to be hailed as a hero when he returned. “I wanna light them up one day,” Tommy said. They were skipping rocks on the lake in the woods at the edge of town. It was a habit they had developed, going into the woods to skip rocks after long days. Originally, Tommy had wanted to go into the woods to see if they could catch witches. Eli didn’t want to go. He had heard too many stories from his father about kids who went missing trying to play hero. At the same time, he was reluctant to let his friend go alone. When they stumbled across the lake, Eli had begun to skip rocks and wouldn’t budge until Tommy did it too. Soon it became a weekly activity. “Why?” asked Eli. He skipped rock, and it bounced twice
across the surface of the lake before sinking. “It looks fun,” said Tommy. “You get to wear those cool uniforms and play with chemicals. What’s not to like?” He skipped a stone. Eli watched it skid across the water. “I don’t know, maybe the whole burning people alive thing?” Tommy rolled his eyes. “Dude, come on. Witches aren’t people.” He handed Eli a stone. “And they’re drugged. It’s humane.” “It’s fucked.” He skipped the stone and it sunk immediately. Tommy sneered. “Just like your stone skills.” “Shut up. Hand me another one, I want a do over.” Tommy picked up another stone and stared at it, turning it over in his palm. “You know what I hear they do in like, India and stuff?” Eli looked at him. “They stone them. Like, they actually throw stones at them until they die. And I hear that if it takes too long, they get big ones and beat them in the head with them.” He tossed the pebble to Eli. “That’s fucked.” Eli blinked. “Yeah.” He turned and flung the stone. It skipped three times before it sank. The two boys watched where it disappeared. “What about you?” asked Tommy. “What about me?” “You gonna hunt? Like your old man?” “I think he wants me to.” Tommy walked over to Eli and put his arm around his shoulders. “What do you want?” Eli sighed. “I don’t know, Tommy.”
Tommy squeezed his shoulder. They stood like that for a while. “My mom’s making meatloaf,” Tommy offered. Eli shrugged. “I’m down for meatloaf,” he said, and Tommy smiled. “Come on, then.” He pulled on Eli’s arm when Eli stopped. “Wait. What was that?” Tommy looked around. “What was what?” “Didn’t you hear that?” Tommy frowned. Eli stared across the lake, then back to Tommy, then behind them. “Tommy?” “Yeah?” “Where’s our stuff?” Tommy looked over to the patch of ground where they had left their stuff. There was nothing there. He blinked. “Fucking hell.” Eli walked over to the empty spot and kneeled. Tommy ran his hands through his hair and started pacing. “Fucking shit fucking shit fucking—my dad’s gonna kill me. That was a new jacket!” He kicked a rock. Eli brushed his fingers along the stones. “There’s a trail.” Tommy stopped. “A trail?” Eli pointed. There was a trail in the gravel where it looked like something had been dragged into the woods. “Did they…did they drag our shit?” Eli stood up and stared into the trees. “Looks like it.” “What the fuck.” Eli stared into the trees. “Did you hear that?” “Hear what?”
Eli squinted past the trees. It sounds like something’s…” His voice trailed off. He turned to Tommy. “Do you seriously not hear that?” Tommy frowned. “Hear what, dude?” Eli stared. Then he began to walk towards the woods. “Wait, where are you going?” asked Tommy, walking behind him. “Following the trail. Whoever took our stuff clearly wants us to follow them.” “I like how you say that like it’s a good idea.” Eli looked over his shoulder, still walking. “Do you want your stuff back or not?” Tommy stopped. Eli kept walking, stepping over the roots and into the trees. “Eli!” Tommy shouted. Eli kept walking. Tommy ran up to the tree line. “Dude, wait.” “What?” Eli called back. “Who do you think took our stuff?” Eli kept walking. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears, the blood throbbing like a drum as he went forward. “Dude, stop!” Eli kept walking. “Eli!” “Go home if you want!” Eli called back. “I’ll bring your jacket by your house.” “Are you serious right now?” Eli blinked. “Yeah! Just save me some meatloaf.” He looked over his shoulder. Tommy had already disappeared behind the trees.
h It was sunset, and Eli could not stop walking. The trees stretched up, branches weaving a canopy over the path he walked. He had never been to this part of the forest before. The path had widened slowly as he got deeper into woods, and now it looked as though he had walked into a natural sanctuary stretched into a long hallway towards the heart of the woods. The air felt vacant, like something had been ripped from it, and when he breathed it rushed into his lungs like cool water. He felt like he was being pulled somewhere, like someone had tied a string to his waist. When he reached the girl at the end of the path, she was sitting on a tree stump with her legs crossed. She had dark hair that fell down her shoulders in curtains. Her feet were bare and brushed with dirt. Her eyes were the most piercing violet Eli had ever seen, and she regarded him as he approached with quiet interest. As he got closer, he could see that in her lap she had Tommy’s jacket. She was winding a piece of hair between her fingers. Her lips were moving silently, forming words that he could not hear. She stopped winding the hair, and he stopped walking forward. She hopped off the trunk, brown dress fluttering in the wind. She was shorter than him. “What’s your name?” “Elijah Ardent.” Eli swallowed. The words had leapt from his mouth on their own. The girl began to walk in a circle around him. Her footsteps
were placed carefully—she didn’t make a sound. “Son of Gordon Ardent?” Eli nodded. She stood behind him in silence. “Are you going to kill me?” “Do you think I should?” she asked quietly. “I would understand why you would want to.” The wind picked up. The trees rustled around them, almost restless. “But?” the girl said. “But…what?” “Are you not going to beg me for your life?” “No.” “Why not?” Eli took a breath. “We—my father and my brother kill witches.” “Your family burns witches,” the girl said. “There’s a difference.” “I know. I…I don’t think that the burnings are right.” “Have you tried to stop them?” “No.” “Why?” Eli had no answer. He felt the girl move closer. “I don’t burn witches,” he said. “But you don’t stop them.” “The witch hunters? How am I supposed to—” His jaw snapped shut. He could feel it tightening, crushing his teeth. “Stop them? That’s easy.” He fell to his knees. The girl walked back around to the front of him, still winding the hair around her finger. “I’m not going to kill you, Elijah Ardent.” Her eyes
were glowing softly in the evening dusk. She reached out a hand, and pressed it against his chest, right over his heart. He felt the cool air around him turn to water once more. Suddenly, he was drowning, water pouring into his lungs, his mouth, his ears, all of it rushing towards her hand, right over his heart. There, at the focus of it all, the cold and wet feeling hardened into heat. His breath caught as the heat sharpened, carving itself into his skin. He could smell something charred on the wind, like burnt flesh. The witch smiled. “You are going to kill me.”
h Eli could not taste Mrs. Langdon’s meatloaf. The savory taste of the meat was lost to him, and he rolled the food around in his mouth with his tongue, prodding it for some semblance of flavor. He looked up at Tommy sitting across from him. Tommy had not touched his food. He was staring up at Eli, his eyes narrowed. He had not been happy about Eli leaving him in the forest and then showing up at his house with nothing but his jacket and an apology. He rubbed at his chest, wincing a little. Mr. Langdon sat at one end of the table and Mrs. Langdon sat at another. They didn’t say much. Eli wondered if Tommy talked so much to make up for them. “How’s your father, Eli,” asked Mrs. Langdon after a long silence.
Eli swallowed, the meat a slug in his throat. “He’s fine.” Mr. Langdon cleared his throat. “I know it must be hard around this time of year, with your mother’s death and all.” Eli blinked. “It’s the anniversary soon, isn’t it?” Mr. Langdon gathered a spoonful of rice. “Is your father…coping well?” Eli shrugged. “A witch killed my mom, Mr. Langdon. My father has killed plenty of witches.” He lifted a forkful of meatloaf. “I think he’s coping.” They listened to the sound of silverware clinking. “Glad to hear that, then,” said Mr. Langdon. “Tommy?” said Mrs. Langdon. “Is something wrong with your meatloaf?” Tommy stared at Eli. “No ma’am.” “Then why aren’t you eating it?” asked Mr. Langdon. The two boys locked eyes across the table. Tommy snorted. “I’m not really hungry. Can I be excused?” Before either of his parents could say anything, he pushed back from the table, stood, and walked briskly out of the room. Eli and the Langdons watched him go. Mrs. Langdon gave a sound of disgust and began to cut her meatloaf more. “I swear, what is the matter with that boy?” she muttered. Eli stood up. “I’ll talk to him,” he said. He moved towards the hallway. Tommy was in his room, arched over the dresser, staring into the mirror. When Eli entered, Tommy’s eyes in the mirror slid over to him. “Hey,” said Eli.
“Hey,” said Tommy. “Is something wrong?” Tommy stared. “You tell me, Eli.” “What are you talking—” Tommy spun around, and Eli froze. His eyes were scanning Eli’s face. “Take off your shirt.” Eli blinked. “What?” “You start hearing things in the forest. Our stuff disappears, and you hear more things. Then you follow the trail into the forest, and then you show up to my house hours later. Not even a fucking phone call. Something is up, dude.” Tommy took a step forward. “Take. Off. Your. Fucking. Shirt. I’m not gonna ask again.” Eli frowned. Tommy was wound tight, a weapon ready to fire. “Why do you want me to—” Tommy lunged, knocking objects off his dresser as he grabbed Eli and threw him on the bed. The two boys wrestled, Tommy grabbing and ripping at Eli’s shirt while Eli tried to push him off. Eventually, Tommy managed to get the shirt pulled over Eli’s head. Eli stumbled to his feet, dazed and staggering backwards, catching the wall with his hand. Tommy stood with his shirt in his hands. The two boys panted for a second. “I knew it,” whispered Tommy. “I fucking knew it.” Eli looked down. On his chest, on the right side, right over his heart, was a small, black circle. A familiar’s mark. He felt sweat drip down his back. “Tommy, I—” Tommy threw down the shirt and stomped past Eli into the
hallway. Eli grabbed at his arm. “Tommy, wait—” Tommy turned and punched Eli in the jaw. Eli fell over, landing on the floor hard. He looked up, rubbing his jaw. Tommy stood over him, his hands shaking, eyes shining with unshed tears. “What the fuck. What the fuck, Eli. They killed your fucking mom. What the fuck are you doing, man? Why would you—” He squeezed his hands into fists, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “Why would you help them?” Eli stared. “Do you know what…do you know what they are going to do to you? What your dad will do to you when he finds out?” Eli stared. Tommy pursed his lips and nodded. He walked out into the hallway and then ducked into another room. Eli spit blood onto the floor. He heard footsteps and looked up. Tommy stood in the doorway. In his hands was his father’s old sawed-off shotgun. He lifted it, putting the butt in his shoulder, and aimed it at Eli. “Where’s the witch?” he asked flatly. “Tommy—” Tommy flicked off the safety. “I’m not asking again. Where. Is. The Witch.” Eli could see the hard steel in Tommy’s grey eyes. His finger was on the trigger. His father probably taught him how to use it the last time they saw a witch on their land. “I don’t want to do this, Eli,” Tommy whispered. “Just tell me where the witch is. If I kill her, it breaks. If she isn’t controlling you right now, if there is any part of you left in there, I need you
to fucking tell me where she is.” Eli stared. The mark burned on his chest. His mouth opened. “She’s in the shed out back.” Tommy’s eyes flickered. “You brought her here?” Eli nodded. “With you?” Eli nodded. Tommy’s eyes widened. “Dude, what the fuck—” “She isn’t going to run. She isn’t going to hurt anyone. She wants to be caught, Tommy.” Tommy lowered the gun a little. “Why?” “That’s the way this ends. All of it.” Eli looked at the blood on the floor, the spit half-dried on the wood. “She has to burn.”
h Tommy did not ask questions as he followed Eli to the barn at the edge of the woods. He had his shotgun in his hand, and Eli distinctly remembered him never putting the safety back on. Tommy’s expression was one of hurt and betrayal, but Eli didn’t know how to reassure him, or even if he could. They reached the barn door and stood there. Tommy looked as if he had never been there before, staring at the door like he would any new place. “Are you going to open it?” asked Eli, “Or should I?” Not looking at Eli, Tommy slung the shotgun up onto his shoulder. It looked like a practiced gesture, as though he had been practicing. “How does this work?”
Eli blinked. “The door?” “No, the mark.” Eli put a hand to his chest and rubbed. The collar of his shirt was stretched and wrinkled, and one of his sleeves was a little torn. His father would have questions. “What do you mean?” Tommy glanced over, slowly. He regarded Eli as though he had never seen him before, too, and that bothered Eli. “Are you like, a puppet or something? Is she mind controlling you?” “Would you believe me if I told you no?” Eli asked. Tommy said nothing. Eli thought back to the marking, the way the mark felt like it had carved itself into his skin. “It’s more like…insurance.” That was the word the witch had used. “Does she think you’re not going to burn her?” Eli shrugged. Tommy looked back at the door, then back at Eli. “Why wouldn’t you burn her?” “I don’t like burning anyone.” Tommy turned to face him head on. “They killed your mom,” he said flatly. Eli wished it was that simple, that black and white. The truth is, for most of Hawthorne, it was. They were wronged in some way. Everyone had a wife or cousin or son or childhood friend who was whisked away into the woods, or eaten by witches, or struck with a sickness, or died in a mysterious accident, or attacked by a possessed man, or something. Everything that went wrong in Hawthorne came from the woods. “My mom died of breast cancer,” Eli said.
“And who do you think gave her breast cancer, Eli?” Tommy said. “I don’t think anyone gave her anything.” Tommy sighed. “That’s your problem. You never know how to call it. You never want to.” Eli shook his head. “You’re wrong, Tommy. Not everything is witches. Sometimes things just happen. Bad things.” He took a step forward. “We find these witches in the woods and we just burn them. We don’t ask questions. It’s catch and catch fire all the time, dude. When was the last time we burned a witch that we knew actually did anything wrong?” Tommy scoffed. “So you want us to wait until after they kill people?” “Maybe they would stop killing people if we stopped killing them.” They stared at each other. “Are you sure that she isn’t controlling you?” asked Tommy. Eli rolled his eyes and walked towards the barn door. Tommy would not listen to him, probably wouldn’t even listen to the witch. Well, not words, at least. He pulled the door open and slipped inside, and Tommy followed suit, gun still in one hand. The inside of the barn was dimly lit, the shadows softening into darkness around the edges, hay strewn about like discarded clothes in a room. Eli heard Tommy raise his gun again when he saw the witch sitting on the floor. Her violet eyes glowed in the dark. She stared at them coolly as Tommy made his way over, slowly, shotgun never lowering. When he got in front of her, he stopped.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t blast you to pieces right now,” said Tommy. The witch smiled. “It wouldn’t work.” She paused. “And then I would kill you.” Tommy stared her down, breathing hard. “There are other ways to be a hero, Thomas Langdon.” Tommy flinched, and Eli felt a pang of guilt for giving the witch Tommy’s name. “What are you talking about?” Tommy said. The witch twirled a piece of hay between her fingers. “Is this not Hawthorne? Do you not burn my people for sport?” “It’s not just sport, it’s—” The witch looked at Tommy sharply. There was a sound like rushing water, and the gun flew from his hands, clattering into the dark. Tommy froze, watching where it vanished, and the witch smiled. Tommy took a shaking breath. Seeing him disarmed, Eli suddenly saw how skinny Tommy had grown. He was stockier as a child, but the teenage years had stretched him out into a thinner young man, and Tommy didn’t look like he had ever really grown into himself. “You were saying?” the witch said. Tommy swallowed. “What do you want?” “Did he not tell you? I wish to burn.” “Why?” said Tommy. “Does it matter?” said the witch. “I will be another pile of ash in your graveyard of a town, and there will be one less witch in the woods.” Tommy relaxed slightly, his shoulders dropping a fraction. “What about the others?”
“Others?” “The rest of your coven,” said Tommy. “Where are they?” The witch looked up at Eli, and then to Tommy. “Gone.” “They left you behind?” “Yes.” “Why?” said Tommy. The witch looked back to the piece of hay in her hand. “Because I asked them to.” Tommy looked like he was considering something for a moment. “You’re their leader,” he said. “Yes.” Tommy watched her for a moment. He was no longer shaking. He turned to Eli. “I’ll help you then.” Eli blinked. “You will?” Tommy nodded. “But on one condition.” “What?” There was another sound, like a splash or a stone skipping across a pond, and the hay in the witch’s hand lit on fire. The two boys jumped, startled. The witch smiled. “He wants to be the one to do it,” she said.
h The last time Eli ever saw a witch burn, he was seventeen years old. The ritual for burning a witch was more traditional than practical. The via maleficarum was the procession that led a newly caught witch down the main roads of the town until they
got to the square. People would stand on the sides and cheer as the hunters led their new catch through the streets, chained and injured. Usually, it was long before the witch had been drugged. The chemicals they used to numb the victims also messed with their perception of reality, and the whole point of the via was that the witch could be publicly ridiculed and shamed. The citizens of Hawthorne would jeer and laugh at the witches that came through. Some would even throw things and poke and prod if they got close enough. Even the witch hunters themselves would land blows, enough to injure but not to knock the witch unconscious. Eli walked with his father, Ezra, and Tommy as they led the witch with the other men through the town. The crowds were cheering, screaming things at the purple-eyed witch as she stumbled along the road. Ezra yanked the chain as the witch fell behind. She didn’t make a noise as she lurched forward, the shackles on her wrists and the ring around her neck pulling as one. Gordon Ardent looked back at her, then to his youngest son. He put an arm around Eli. “How does it feel?” Eli felt the mark on his chest smolder. “I just want it to be over, dad.” Tommy waved at someone from school on the side of the road. They had been allowed to skip this week because of their new status as heroes. “You caught the head of the coven, boy,” he said. “We’re gonna celebrate for at least the rest of the week. Maybe some fireworks after the—”
“Dad.” Eli shrugged off his arm. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Ezra and Gordon looked at each other. Gordon scoffed. “If you didn’t want a burning, why did you turn her in?” The mark burned. Eli didn’t answer. When they got to the stadium, the prep team took the witch and pulled her into the room where she would stay until the burning. Gordon peeled off to talk with someone, and Tommy got stopped to answer some questions. Ezra put a hand on Eli’s shoulder and jerked his head towards a dressing room. Eli followed his brother inside and closed the door behind him. The dressing room looked like something out of a movie. Different uniforms with different colors hanging on a clothes rack. A mirror surrounded by lights. Makeup and hair products strewn across the counter. “What is this?” Ezra started fixing his hair in the mirror. “What’s what?” “All this stuff?” Eli touched a red uniform. “It looks like our theater department in here.” Ezra laughed. “It kind of feels like that sometimes, too.” He adjusted his collar then turned to look at Eli. “The big burnings can get a little theatrical. They bring cameras, have interviews. It’s a big win, y’know?” He looked his brother up and down, then crossed his arms. “Or maybe you don’t know.” Eli turned away from the uniforms and stood against the wall. Ezra sat in a chair. “The way they see it, witch burnings serve two purposes. They entertain, and they deter. People hear about all that horrible, awesome shit these hags can pull, and some of
them might want of piece of that. It’s tempting, y’know? A lot of people feel powerless, and some of them would do anything to get a taste of that power. So they go to the woods and they do dumb shit and mess around with a witch. And that’s how you get…” he made a circular motion with his hand, as if reeling an answer from Eli. “Familiars?” Ezra nodded. “Familiars. People want to be a part of that world, and I mean, who could blame them, right? So they go in the woods and they find a witch and get marked or whatever. And then the witch tells them to do shit, and they do it. Give it a few full moons and then, bang! New witch. Baptized in tree sap or demon semen or virgin blood or whatever the hell it is they do out there.” Eli shifted. “But some people don’t actually become witches.” “Well, yeah. They just die. That isn’t good either. And some people don’t even enter the contract of their own free will. They get captured and branded. And then they’re enthralled. That’s why we do this stuff. We patrol, and we capture, and we burn them straight into hell, because if you don’t, they take people. They take your people.” “And the entertainment part?” Ezra shrugged. “People are sadists, Eli. Watching monsters go up in flames is fun.” “What if they aren’t monsters?” Ezra frowned. “What?” “Yeah. What happens when they aren’t hurting anyone?” He paused. “When was the last time a witch ever actually hurt
someone?” Ezra stared at Eli. Then he began to laugh. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me. You better not let Dad hear you say this shit.” “I’m serious. When was the last time a witch actually hurt anyone?” Ezra stopped. He blinked at Eli, then looked past him. “You’re too young to remember mom, I guess.” He looked at his watch and gave a half-smile. “It’s almost show time. I’m gonna go check on some last-minute stuff. Last coat of gasoline, out of place kindling, things like that.” He got up and walked passed Eli out the door. The mark burned. Eli looked out the door frame. “Ezra!” Ezra stopped. “Can I drug her?” Ezra thought for a moment. “Probably. Ask prep.” He turned around and kept walking. “You’re the hero, remember? You can do what you want.”
h The prep team gave Eli a quick run down on how to dose her. The head nurse gave him specific instructions based on the witch’s bodyweight that he didn’t listen to. The witch was chained to the room itself, standing on a tall block, her arms held up by shackles on her wrists. His eyes were on her the entire time, and she looked up at him, violet eyes flashing.
“You got it?” asked the nurse. Eli looked at her. “Yeah, I got it.” The nurse nodded. “We’ll leave you to it, then.” She ducked out. Eli turned towards the witch. They stared at each other for a moment. Eli spoke first. “You don’t want me to drug you, do you?” The girl smiled. “No.” The door swung shut. Eli glanced at it. “Your magic still works.” She smiled wider. “My magic is stronger than most witches you’ve dealt with.” “Then why are you still here? Why don’t you just run?” Her smile dropped. She looked off towards the door. For a moment she looked older than she was, the shadows of her face deepening into wrinkles, her hands shriveling up. “I’d explain, but I don’t think you’d get it.” Eli regarded her. She was still wearing the same dress she had wore when they met in the woods, but it was torn in several places. Her feet were scratched and scraped from being dragged. Her arms were bruised. “What’s it like, being a witch?” She looked at him and shook her chains. “All fun and games.” “No, seriously.” “What’s it like being mortal?” she returned. “I couldn’t tell you. This is all I know.” “You were born a witch?” “Were you born a mortal?” Eli looked at her arms again. “I thought witches couldn’t get hurt.”
She scoffed. “You’ve been grossly misinformed about my people. Clearly.” “So you aren’t weak to fire?” “Doused in gasoline and pumped with accelerants, anything will burn.” Eli looked at the needle full of chemicals and frowned. “How long do witches live?” “Long enough to die after a game of twenty questions, at least. Or so it seems to me.” She stared off to a wall again. “My people are resilient. We live as we please. We die when we wish.” “And you want to die now.” “Yes.” “In this way?” “This is the only way, mortal.” She stood a little straighter. “This is the way it all ends.” “Why?” The witch leaned, angling forward on her pedestal. “There is one illusion that has allowed the burning of my people. It is this illusion that I plan to shatter with my death.” Eli looked at the needle again. “I don’t get it.” “No, you don’t. But you will.” She stood up again. The door opened, and Tommy came in, looking from the witch to Eli. He adjusted his sleeves. “Show time.”
h Eli and Tommy tied the witch to the pole and then stepped off the pyre. Her head drooped as if she were drugged, but Eli could
still see the flash of violet and feel the burn of the mark. The two boys stared at the witch as she was splashed with gasoline. “Did you drug her?” Tommy asked without looking away. “No,” said Eli. “She told me not to.” Another member of the prep team filled the base of the pyre with gas. Tommy shrugged. “Her funeral, I guess.” They walked across the field to where the other hunters were waiting and turned back to watch. Ezra and Mila were walking around the outside, each with a torch in hand, to the places where the gas would start to burn up towards the witch. “You didn’t want to light her?” asked Eli. Tommy shook his head. “Something feels off about this one.” “Because she turned herself in?” “Maybe.” Tommy tugged at his shirt hem. “It would just feel weird, you know?” A bell tolled. Ezra and Mila lowered their torches at the same time, and the flames rushed towards the witch, almost as if they were being called to her. “Yeah,” said Eli. “I know.” The flames licked at the base of the pyre. They crawled up the base, to the pole, to the feet of the witch— And her foot jerked. There was a sound of surprise from the crowd. The witch’s foot jerked, then spasmed. The flames touched flesh, changing from orange to purple. The crowd let out a hesitant cheer. Tommy let out a low whistle. “A purple? Those are the really
strong ones—” The witch screamed, and the cheering died. The flames reached up her leg. She screamed more. The flames licked at her waist and her torso, and the witch screamed more. The hunters all fell silent. Tommy’s lips parted in silent horror. The mark on Eli’s chest was excruciatingly hot, and he gasped. The flames shrouded the witch, and she screamed. She screamed louder and longer. Without the accelerants in the drug, she would take a long time to burn. She would scream at every second. The agony in her voice washed over the whole stadium. The silence was pierced only by her wailing. The fire was so big and bright and hot that no one could get closer to put more gas, to make her burn faster. So she burned slowly. She writhed on the pyre like a snake, thrashing as though she was trying to break free. The spectators of Hawthorne, for the first time, looked away. They covered their ears. The witch, the girl on the pyre, squirming in agony, was too much for them to see. Generations of hunting in Hawthorne, of dragging witches into the stadium and burning them alive, and no one here had ever heard them scream. She burned nearly an hour. Eli was impressed by this, as it was usually over in a maximum of fifteen minutes. He wondered if she was doing this, prolonging her agony to prolong theirs. People began to leave, and those that didn’t were stuck in place, staring. Her voice reached higher and higher pitches. Her movements slowed. But still, she burned. An hour and ten minutes after the burning started, Gordon
Ardent snatched a gun from a waiting hunter. He walked up to the witch, raised the firearm, shot her three times in the head, and walked out of the stadium. Mila threw up, and Ezra took her home. He asked if Eli wanted to come with, but Eli said nothing, so Ezra left him. Tommy muttered something and shuffled out of sight. In five minutes, the stands were empty. There were no fireworks that night. Eli sat on the ground in the same spot he had been standing. He thought about a few things, like how bad things happen, just like bad people do, without magic. He wondered if Tommy got what he wanted before it was over. He remembered his fatherâ€™s face, the hardness of it as he raised the gun to shoot. He thought about Ezra in the dressing room, and the camera crews and reporters flitting outside, and how all of that felt so distant and quiet now. He could feel it in the air, all the watery magic and the charring flames vanishing at once. The mark throbbed a few times. He wondered what that meant. He watched the body burn until the last flame faded.
hat vase, do you recognize it or something? It’s just that I’ve noticed your gaze keeps resting on it. The light blue one, almost transparent, all shiny and pale in the diner
light. The corners of your lips sink in just slightly (your excuse for a smile), as you turn away from me, combing your fingers through your long dark hair. Still I remember vividly when it was short, when we were children, romping among the giant foam Legos in the kindergarten classroom. “I’m going to be the first woman astronaut!” you declared, standing triumphantly above the foam, to which I laughed, saying, “There’s already been a woman astronaut, silly,” although I couldn’t recall her name. You responded,“Well, then I’ll be the first female something!” We grew up together, and last year, I remember from years ago how that hair felt, in my arms, on the beach. You laughed at the little seashells I’d found, but stood so solemn before the sea. There are thirteen people here, in the diner. The presence of the thirteenth is like a silent, palpable, constant echo in the dry air, midst the laughter, the clink of silverware, the charmed eyelids.
“I swear, I felt betrayed by that kiss,” Richard says next to me, regurgitating a story, causing an uproar of laughter. His thick eyebrows almost touch in the middle of his forehead. “Cheer up, man,” Richard says to me, his thin frame leaning away from me thoughtfully, as if attempting to read my emotions. (But our secret sorrow connects us, you and me.) At the other end, a woman with short fluffy hair explains that this diner stands on old cathedral grounds; her gestures are effusive, her laughter shrill and forced. Her husband has one arm on the back of her chair, listening distractedly. “Careful with that vase,” he says. The young waiter, holding disks of food, quickly veers to the side. Your friend sits across from you, her dirty blond hair loosely curled on her back, her pink lipstick glistening. She laughs and chatters, you mostly listen, she crosses and uncrosses her legs (upon which a white flowery dress loosely rests); she curls an indecent amount of hair around her finger and lets go, the strands briefly spiraling out. The lawyer clears his throat. I suppose she’s attractive to many, but they just can’t perceive your quiet magnetism. You seem vulnerable, with your gaze cast down, your black eyelashes slow and shy. But there’s something heavy behind that. I’ve seen you gulp down poison, consume it as it consumes you, devouring your body from the inside out. So you merged with the violence, wed it, until you became irrevocably damaged—and shimmeringly alive in my eyes. You’ve been slicing at that steak for a while now, pulling and stretching, but the meat is too tough. A young man next to you volunteers to help, a split second before the meat gives way with
a harsh grate. “You’re a strong woman,” he remarks. You smile, he laughs. “Betrayed by a kiss . . . now where have I heard that before?” a stupid lady says. “Judas, The Last Supper. It’s such an obvious reference, how could you not see that?” I snap, turning several heads. But it’s no use; you’re still engrossed in conversation with that young man. Richard looks at me ironically. An absentminded man responds, “Yes, it’s strange how often we don’t perceive what’s right before our eyes.” Ice cubes crackle against a blue plastic cup—the lawyer’s. He’s making a ruckus with it, but he still leans back languidly. “Tax evasion, manslaughter . . . a truly despicable man . . .” His wife sits primly, having quieted down now. His eyes run along the outline of the blue vase. You laugh loudly, almost absurdly, with the young man. You care nothing for him; why do you engage him? Why lead him on? You look at him as you’d looked at one of my seashells. I still remember your angry scream; you said you’d never planned on drowning yourself, you just wanted to feel the kiss of the ocean. But I had saved you from it. “That vase over there, or is it an urn? Where’s it from?” I hear you ask him. Richard taps me on the shoulder. The lawyer gets up, jostling the keys in his pockets. When I turn back, emerging from my conversation with Richard, there are only eleven people in the room.
hat do you want to be when you grow up?” Grandma asked me as I rested my head on her lap, fetal position on the couch.
“Blonde.” A long silence followed with the click of the TV remote and the pretty white girls disappearing from the screen. Grandma’s hand quivered holding the remote, but when I looked at her face it wasn’t anger. “Nǐ wèishéme zhème shuō zhège? (Why do you say this?)” she asked. As she bit into the z, pulling back the corners of her mouth like an animal, my stomach squeezed with distaste. I hated her for using the tongue of outsiders. Our stretched vowels pulled our lips here and there as though we were trying to spit, not talk. They didn’t exist in English. They shouldn’t have existed at all. “Grandma, can we not use Mandarin. It’s so embarrassing.” “Not grandma, but nǎinai.” “No, Grandma. Your. Name. Isn’t. Nai. Nai.” I said, slowly hissing each word through my teeth. I knew it drove her crazy to
hear me enunciate nǎinai as two words instead of one, as if I were one of the white kids who were liked best at school. Her hand combed through my ugly black hair. “Bao bei (my gem),” she began. I swatted her arm away, causing a black waterfall of hairs to drizzle onto my face. They reminded me of dirty spider webs or the yucky bristles of a used broom. They couldn’t curl or bounce in cute pigtails like all the other girls whose manes were colored in sunshine, honey or gold, topaz, milk chocolate, and all the good things in the world. I looked at my Grandma’s hair, then my own and was reminded of death and darkness. Grandma kept petting. “What is on your mind?” Her black bob, beginning to streak with white, also stuck oiled to her head. It was h er. She h ad to come from China and h ad to have kids who had the same punched in nose, open but closedlooking slits for eyes, and yellow skin whose hue almost seemed diseased. “Why did you come here?” I whispered into her linen pants. Every other grandma I’ve seen wore nice cotton dresses and skirts. They smelled like cookies or flowers. I took an inhaleof my grandma and smelled herbal medicine and laundry detergent, the kind that is always on clearance. The words “cheap” and “stingy” seemed to be made to describe Asians. “Shénme, bao bei (What did you say, my gem)?” She didn’t try touching me this time. My black arm hairs still stood up in the air, so obvious and dark. When I am old enough, I want to bleach my skin, bleach my hair, bleach my eyes so all the darkness finally goes away. I think it’ll hurt though, since
grandma locks the cleaning cabinet from me and says that bleach will burn. She must think I’m stupid, since Michael Jackson did it and seemed dandy enough to moonwalk his way into the Grammy Hall of Fame, bleached and all. Dad used to call him crazy. Says all the bleach leaked into his brain. I get Mr. Jackson though. He just wanted to be beautiful and loved, and he was, after his darkness left him. “I wish you never left China,” I said, loud enough for her to stop speaking Mandarin. She stood up so abruptly that I rolled onto our rug, patterned with Chinese symbols and flowers that didn’t belong in America. Something dropped onto my face, and when I touched it, my fingertips were wet. “Grandma, I—” Before I knew what to say, she was out of the TV room, squeaking on the floor in rubber houseshoes. My stomach felt icky before, but now the empty spaces in my heart explained to me in science class were heavy with cold metal filling. Her bedroom door slammed an echo through the house. My thumb hit the remote’s power button. I needed the silence and the cold couch to go away. On the TV screen, my alien-looking reflection stared at me for a millisecond before a beautiful blonde replaced me.
n the one day of the week I got to leave Saint Luke’s Hospital, I chose a field trip to Walmart. I looked around for the place where they kept the umbrellas. There was
no tag presenting itself on the aisle that said “Umbrellas” so I kept wandering all over the place, and Isabelle followed close behind. I don’t think she knew that umbrellas were my thing at that time. “Just ask,” she kept saying. She was timid; it was early on in our search and she wasn’t yet pushy enough to make me do anything that I didn’t want to do. “I think they’re right up here,” I would say and point at some random corner of the store. But because of my persistent stubbornness, we had walked every aisle twice before she had the foresight to ask an attendant while I wasn’t looking. I shifted my bag around on my shoulder, and she rushed to my aid. “I’ve got it,” I said. “But you know, the chemo makes you lose muscle strength...” she trailed off and backed away cautiously to leave more distance ahead of her. “Excuse me, could you tell me where the umbrellas are?” she asked, as I walked up ahead, pretending not to be at all associated with someone who would bother a store attendant with such a
question. “Let me show you, they’re right up there with the golf clubs,” the man said as his quick pace ruffled his blue shirt with the Walmart sunburst embroidered upon the breast pocket. He took us to the golf clubs and pointed upon the wall of umbrellas. “Is that the type you’re looking for?” he asked Isabelle, likely unsure of why I eventually wound up following the two of them there. I had kept my distance enough that it was unclear if we were shopping together or if I was, in fact, the type of person that would follow the attendant helping another customer just to ask where the dryer sheets were. Isabelle sent him away with gracious thank you’s, which I would argue took proportionately longer than him walking her over to the golf section. He walked away with less of a glance at my almost gone hair than I usually got. There wasn’t much left to look at, a few wisps here and there, but the people would stare as long as they pleased. Isabelle pointed at the umbrellas all leaning up against the half wall. “This isn’t quite what I was thinking of,” I said as she reached out for one of the black umbrellas and held it as if she was curious as to its tangibility within her fingertips. When she passed it to me I clicked the button that exploded it, right there in the store. “Oh my god, Sinead!” Isabelle looked around and tried to put a damper on the situation as fast as possible. Her eyes shot around the store looking for security cameras. “I’m testing it out,” I said with a smile I didn’t know was in me, “Come on! Live a little.” “That’s bad luck!” her eyes flew at me and she almost froze her
entire face in shock before fading back to me. “These are too expensive anyway,” she nodded and looked away. She knew now wasn’t the time to be spending forty dollars on a thin plastic sheet to cover my head. Especially a head not even allowed to be outside in the rain for the long walks in the woods like I used to take. I had already been reprimanded by my oncologist multiple times for coming back with a cold; hence, the trip to Walmart instead of a walk in a park. “Don’t you get free ones from the Audubon Society or WWF?” Isabelle asked. “I don’t really like birds,” I replied as a slid down the aisle feeling the quality of the fabrics. I liked a good water-resistant fabric, so I could see the water slide off the top. Just little shadows against the sky. “It’s more than just birds...” she replied. Isabelle was getting impatient and her gravitation drew me to the side of the aisle. She was looking at the Rain Shield ones and they were all black or dark blue. “These look sturdy,” she offered, clearly not knowing what I was looking for, “I don’t love the colors though.” “Yeah, I feel like there must be another display somewhere,” I said, peering over the top of the aisle. We walked away from the golf clubs and started circling around the store again. “Why do you need an umbrella, again?” she asked. “I need one for my car,” I said even though there was no “My Car” anymore, and Isabelle knew it because she was the one that drove me places on Sundays. I didn’t know how to tell her that I would need an umbrella when I could go in the rain again, as far
off as that seemed. “Don’t you have one in your room at Saint Luke’s?” she asked. “I don’t like when you call it my room. It’s just a room I’m in for a while,” I said. “You also have some in your hall closet, I just saw them yesterday.” I quickly remembered Isabelle had moved into my house, just for a while. ‘To keep it company,’ she had said. It rains so much here, but I’m not even allowed on my rain walks anymore. Not even when it sprinkles on my skin. Barely even mist. She and I looked around for a while more, and finally found the other display that the attendant had failed to show us. “This is why you have to wander,” I told Isabelle. She just smiled at me and we studied our choices. These were the short kind, the ones that fit in your purse, or your car door, or your hospital bag. There was a bright pink one, which I think she believed would make me forget about going back to the hospital, judging by the way she presented it. “Ooh! This one is poppy and fun,” she said. “That one hurts my eyes,” I shut her down. She went back to the patterned ones, skipping the few with birds on them after that Audubon comment earlier. She held up a few more and raised her eyebrows at me. There were a few patterned ones and I liked them enough. I picked out one that had polka dots because my legs were getting tired quickly and I refused to check out a wheelchair before I went on these trips with Isabelle. “Do you like that one the best?” she asked.
“It will do,” I replied as I leaned on the checkout belt. We walked back to the car. She opened the door for me and I got inside with my new umbrella. I threw the wrappings on the ground and put the umbrella in the passenger’s side door. “Can I drive back?” I asked. But I didn’t need an answer, and Isabella drove us back really slowly so I didn’t get sick. It started raining too.
w It was almost half a year later (and cancer free) that I got home to a package on my steps. I grabbed it out of the snow and brushed it off with my bare hands. Grasping the handle of my door, I shook all the snow out of my coat and my short hair before walking inside and stomping my feet. I opened up the box with my scissors held in the dangerous way and sliced through the tape towards me. The tape cut the first time but the reinforcement strings took a little hacking before I could tear through them. There inside the thin box was a little umbrella, clear with blue trim around the edges. It had the smell of a new shower curtain and the texture of thick Saran wrap. I read the note as I opened the umbrella up right in my dining room. Sinead, a clear umbrella lets you see the sky. Isabelle
nd you want me to sing it?” The question clearly conveyed her confusion, but not so much her disbelief. His eyes were big and bright and blue. He looked happy
and excited, just as she remembered him from the summer before. Her jaw was tight, and her eyebrows were tense. “My song.” She remembered her old guitar up in her room, dust collecting on the strings. It had been a gift, from him. She’d never fully learned how to play. He seemed to dim at this. “Our song.” He said. “I thought.” Neither one of them said anything. They didn’t hold joint possession over anything anymore, save the silence. But even that seemed to belong to him. He opened his mouth to try again. “It was...” He fumbled. “It’s ours.” He confirmed, to himself, to her. “The vocals, the lyrics, they were always yours.” The words seemed to be tumbling out of his mouth. “But the music, that had to have been mine.” “It was all yours.” Her eyebrows dropped now, along with the tension in her jaw. “Your music, your voice, that was always yours. It still is.” She glanced around the dining room, observing the setting. The
wood of the table was the same deep brown, but the shine seemed gone from the wood. Maybe the light was gone. Maybe that was her imagination. The room, depending on natural light slipping through the blinds, seemed pale and dead. “Unless I give it to you.” She paused. “Like you want me to.” He wanted her to sing for him. For his movie. He wanted her to sing the song she’d written, and performed with him. He wanted her voice, to hear and record and showcase. “Not your voice, just the song.” “Our song.” “Your song.” “How’s school?” He laughed. It was a foreign sound. “It’s great actually. Did I tell you?” A stupid question. “I met a girl with the same name as you.” A forced laugh escaped her lungs. “That’s funny actually. I thought you were looking for someone with a better name than me.” The words came out bitter. “What’s a better name than yours?” He placed his empty glass on the table. She looked down to where it clanked on the table. “Thanks for the water. I’m going to go get my guitar. We’ll just run the song through, one time, see how you like it.” She didn’t look up to watch him talk, didn’t meet his eyes like she used to. “And then I’ll leave if you want me to.” It was a big if. The choice nagged at her. She didn’t know what to think of his presence now. She would’ve loved it some months ago. “I’m not so sure I wanted you here in the first place.” These
words, too, came out bitter. His eyes seemed to harden, but he made no response. “I mean, I never thought I’d see you back at my door. After what you said.” This, he responded to, and he snaked his hand out onto the table, stopping just short of where her hand rested around her glass. “I try not to think about what I said. I think you should do the same.” He squeezed his empty glass once and let go. She opened her mouth and closed it. Seeing she had no more to say, he flew out of the room, comfortable in her home, winding his way through the hallways to the front room where he’d left his guitar. In his absence she took a sip of her untouched glass of water and exhaled. She closed her eyes. She’d have to wash the dishes now, and mentally added that to her list of chores. Along with that, there was still the set of old clothes her mom asked her to take down to the basement. She’d been putting it off all morning and afternoon, avoiding the basement and all the high school artifacts she’d stored there. She was avoiding the yearbook especially, which sat in a clear freezer bag on top of the storage bins, because she knew at the sight of it she would immediately want to flip through it. She knew which pages to flip past quickly, memorized it on the previous holiday home. Page 87, the talent show, page 197, Valentine’s day, page 283, the Cutest Couple page, and the page dedicated to senior couples, the cutest or not, on page 301. But her therapist told her not to go through it again, and she
was trying to do what he said. She made her way to the living room, knowing he could find her there. It was rainy and overcast outside from what she could see through the blinds. Though the rain looked like it would hold off for another hour or two, the sun was gone, had abandoned this part of Chicago. She’d heard it was sunny though, by the lake. By his house. She could picture his sister now, also home for break, soaking in the sun in their backyard. She was probably tanning in the chair their father had made, mug of tea relaxing on the cool stones her mother had placed in the garden. Sometime over break, this evening even, he and his sister were likely to start a bonfire in the fire pit in their backyard. Just like the one he’d started with her in the early morning hours after prom. She could hear him as he made his way through the house moving quickly, excitedly. He made it to the threshold of the room and stopped. “A new couch?” “Right.” She didn’t turn around. “And new flooring. We’ve switched to wood.” She noted his nodding reflection in the window. “Right, right. I remember I used to always get the...what did you call it?” “Rug burn. And that’s what the world calls it.” She turned around, forced pleasantness on her face. “What’s this for?” He looked confused by her question. His head tilted slightly, and his long hair tilted with it, shifting behind him. “The ukulele?” She gestured to the ukulele he held in one of his hands. She hadn’t seen it with him when she’d let him in earlier. He’d shown up at the door, without an umbrella, of course.
Hair drenched, he at least looked less appealing than he did in her dreams, or nightmares. Unfortunately, he looked a great deal more distressing. It was as if for the past few months she’d been teetering on a small wooden block, feet pushed so closely together on the small space that even her ankles were rubbing each other, and immediately upon seeing him she was knocked off that delicate balance which she’d worked so hard to keep. She thought back to their conversation, her memory of it seemed foggy, though it couldn’t have been more than a half hour ago. She remembered she’d gasped as soon as she’d opened the door, having not checked to see who it was before opening it. In the few crucial seconds of silence before she spoke, her heart had been hammering in her chest. She’d gulped a fresh breath of fresh air before speaking. “What are you...can I help...you? With something?” She’d stumbled over the words, unsure of what to say. She remembered that his reply came quickly, and his eyes seemed sharper than she remembered. “Yeah, could you let me in?” He’d asked. Well that part she was unsure of. Maybe he’d said: “Yeah, you could let me in.” She couldn’t remember what he said, only that in the moment her compliance seemed certain, both to her and him, just as it had always gone unquestioned so many months before. Off balance, the new unkempt beard, the slightly larger build and the new watch on his wrist all distracted her from what should’ve been her first question. Why was he here?
He’d hidden the guitar from her, apparently a master of hiding things, until she’d already offered to let him in, likely assuming that too many questions would arise at the sight of it. She’d never gotten to ask him about the guitar though, much less the ukulele that she’d never noticed. She’d been too preoccupied watching him dry his hair on the towel she’d offered within moments of letting him in, and was otherwise distracted with the wondering of what would’ve happened if she’d offered him a change of clothes as well. Part of her would’ve liked to seem him undressed. Maybe then he’d be as vulnerable as her. The last time she’d seen him like this, in person, had been August. They’d both been crying, pitifully, and he’d handed her the bouquet of flowers she’d been asking for since February. The next day she, and the rest of her family, and all of her belongings, were packed up in the car. She held the flowers in her lap the entire drive, and set them up in a vase she bought for her desk first thing. Not long after that, he’d made the phone call. “Just thought I would try something new.” His words brought her back to the present. “Right, right.” “Oh! And this!” He set down the instruments on the new wooden floor, and cracked open the guitar case. “I know you were asking for this. Well, you said Cameron was asking for it? I felt really bad.” Cautiously watching him unpack, she watched him pull out the video game she’d demanded he send back to her months ago.
While it was true that Cameron had asked for it, Cameron was six, and his attention span hardly extended the month that she’d spent calling and asking him to give it back. It was hard for her not to call, not to demand something, considering. But she’d realized the petty nature of the calls seemed far out of character. By his request, and her own, she’d stopped calling. “Thanks for returning it.” The word “finally” seemed to hang in the air. He seemed to be waiting for applause. “He’ll be glad to know it’s back home. I’m sure he’s dying to play it.” She took the game and placed it in the drawer under the T.V. “So this song is for your movie?” He nodded his head as he took out the guitar and began strumming the strings. “And if I don’t sing it who sings it?” A loaded question. He shrugged, seemingly unconcerned with that possibility. The question hung in the air. “I’ve never been the best singer, you know. I couldn’t do it on my own.” There were a lot of things he couldn’t do on his own. He couldn’t, for example, submit college applications, remember her birthday, or his sister’s, buy prom tickets, or homecoming tickets, or a yearbook, or remember to bring an umbrella on his own. Of course, she’d helped him with all of those things, so naturally it was expected she would pull through again. Yet, an inability to sing a song to save himself the trouble of coming here didn’t seem to belong on the list of things he was unable to do. If there was anything that the phone call proved, it was his
uncanny ability to self-prioritize. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, I’m sure you could get it done.” “I wouldn’t want to.” “That’s not what you said.” His lips formed a line, his eyes, dull, focused on the strings. “Maybe it’s what I should’ve said.” There were a lot of things he should’ve said, but the list of things he shouldn’t have said was far longer. The rain had started falling heavier now, puddles filled the yard. She knew Cameron would want to play in those puddles when he got home from school. She could picture him now, rain slick and sliding off of his skin. Her daydream distracted her, and she was humming. Odd, considering she hadn’t sung the song for months. Not even it dared to appear in her nightmares. “There it is, there! This is why I couldn’t imagine producing it without you.” She could hear the excitement in his voice. If she looked, she could probably see it in his eyes. He sat down now, moving away from the guitar case, seemingly done with his fiddling. “Remember we sung this song?” She asked. He smirked, as if to ask which time. “At the talent show?” She sat down on the floor next to him. “Another one of my ideas. It went well, I would say.” He began strumming quietly, providing soft background music for a very hard conversation. “Yeah, it went well.” “Glad I convinced you to do it.”
“Me too.” She smiled. It had been a while since she smiled with him. “Could I convince you to sing for me now? Just this once?” He was putting on a show, wide, child-like smile plastered on his face, strumming the melody of the song as his eyes pleaded with her. Seeing her hesitation remained, he began humming the melody as he played, still looking at her, still begging. “I can tell you want to.” He spoke quickly, and immediately went back to humming. She watched him like that for some time. He was waltzing a fine line between amusing and pathetic, and she could not bear to watch. “I think you should go.” He finally stopped fiddling with the guitar. The silence in the room seemed more definite, now that it was missing the same quiet music it had held so many nights before. “The song?” “My mom will be home soon.” Disappointment spread across his features. “I mean, maybe not, but probably.” A crooked smile appeared. “She was always crashing our plans wasn’t she?” It seemed wrong to agree with him, wrong to speak ill of her mother, considering. There was a time she would have agreed with him in a heartbeat, but that time was long gone, shattered by mornings she’d spent calling her, crying, wounds fresh. “She likes to come home early.” “Yes, that I do remember.” She was sure he did. He packed up the guitar, his eyes to the ground, his smile gone. He picked up his instruments and turned for the door. He didn’t
need an escort out of the house, but she seemed to give him one anyway. She followed him to the door quietly, footsteps silent in the hallway, lips sealed shut. Weaving through the hallways, they arrived at the front door. He set down his instruments and picked them up again, reaffirming his grip. “You want an umbrella?” She asked, unlocking the front door for him. He’d never been quite able to work the locks, though last time he’d been here he’d seemed to be getting better. Looking at the instruments in his hand, she revised her offer. “Or a jacket?” He took a deep breath and looked up the stairs to his left. They’d raced up those stairs plenty of times. After the twentyminute bus ride from the school and the ten-minute walk from the bus stop, seven if they were really excited, they were more than eager to get upstairs. As soon as the door to the house was open, the race was on, and she, having to lock the door back, was always at a disadvantage. It only took him one leap from door frame to stairs, and he was gone. She’d always had her ways of evening the odds. He breathed deeply again and turned away from the stairs. He peered through the glass design on the door to see outside, closing one eye as he did so, a trick he’d learned from her. “What about the song?” His eyes and his smile were sweet. “I really do think you should go.”
One. My great-aunt is the first person I know who dies. After, I sometimes dream about her. She always disappears just after I realize Iâ€™m dreaming, and by the time I turn to ask her what it is like she is already gone. I remember more of her from these dreams than I do from before she died. Two. My grandfather died just after moving to a new house. Sometimes, now, while playing dominoes or watching Jeopardy a door will open of its own accord, and my grandma will greet her late husband by name. Three. After a sleepover, my best friend informs me I talk in my sleep. Last night, she tells me, you sat straight up in bed and looked towards the corner, and said, Someoneâ€™s over there. And then you closed your eyes again and laid back down.
Four. Freshman year of college. The girls next door claim to have a ghost opening doors and leaving scratches on them in the night. I never see it, but sometimes after I have seen them both leave for class I hear shuffling and thumps through the wall. Five. When satellites and radios were still new, scientists didnâ€™t know why they picked up static. They eventually accounted for it as ever-present background radiation, cosmic leftovers from the Big Bang. Phantom energies that had always been everywhere, but we hadnâ€™t yet known how to listen for.
he told me they gave her a name at first—something tired like Tiger or Mittens or Ginger or something—but that eventually the name devolved into baby talk into sobriquet
into hypocorism into just syllables until finally she was christened Mommy Cat. Mommy Cat was old when I met her—16 or 17, ancient for a family pet. They got Mommy Cat after 9/11 when there was an upsurge in stray animals and a need for adoption and the kind of absolute animal love that doesn’t waver or bite, the kind everyone needed so badly. She told me about when they first brought Mommy Cat to their Manhattan apartment and she mewed and mewed and just wouldn’t stop, incessant as a smoke detector, and that when feeding her and petting her and looking up “meowing” in the book her mom got about owning and caring for cats didn’t work they just let Mommy Cat be until they realized that that was exactly what Mommy Cat wanted: to be left alone. Nothing was as random as Mommy Cat’s love. Usually you couldn’t tell if Mommy Cat could tell if you were even there. Mommy Cat would do her own thing, lazing about like the fat (she always called her plush or fluffy and would tell me the f word wasn’t nice and it hurt Mommy Cat’s feelings, but that was
when I thought Mommy Cat was some sort of metempsychosised ancient stoic trapped in the body of a cat and so regarded her with cold empirical interest and, admittedly, contempt) house cat she was, in what seemed like complete oblivious bliss. Mommy Cat would approach you sometimes, slowly but not timidly, as if she knew that what she was doing was a blessing unto you. When she invited me over to her house the first time she introduced me to Mommy Cat in the way one would introduce someone to their great grandmother—we approached her slowly and proffered petting hands and in a reverential whisper she said “this is my boyfriend” but I knew that the reverence wasn’t aimed in any way at me. Mommy Cat would walk slowly across a room, like a cloud. One soft aching paw in front of the other, with her head down and tail wired up. Mommy Cat would always choose the most direct path, a pythagorean intention that you couldn’t help but view as wise: with purpose, telos. When I would pull up to her house I would usually see Mommy Cat through the divulging glass windows trekking across the living room or other times I’d see her sister cooking mac and cheese with Mommy Cat sitting on the counter advising, or her mom flitting through letters with Mommy Cat in her lap reading each one, or her dad working at the table with Mommy Cat sitting nobly by awaiting or maybe delivering orders—or I’d see her, holding Mommy Cat like Simba and dancing around the room. She told me that Mommy Cat liked me more than other guys. Apparently, Mommy Cat had some sort of innate sense for those kinds of things: Mommy Cat knew who was good and who was bad
and could just judge someone’s character in an instant. Mommy Cat came and sat in my lap the time we watched the Modest Mouse documentary, just plopped right on my lap. She told me Mommy Cat rarely did that to anyone. I didn’t believe her. Mommy Cat was a mystical cat. There were so many unexplained things about Mommy Cat. Things that kind of veiled her, made her separate. When they adopted her the shelter told them about how she was found in the rubble near ground zero, with a litter of dead kittens. Mommy Cat was a sagacious presence but not in an ancient oak tree kind of way, rather in an inexplicable center kind of way. Mommy Cat was just the answer, the final end. It made sense that Mommy Cat was so wise, Mommy Cat had always been there and had outlived all. She was there for every house they lived in, every Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year’s, every tornado, every snow day, every boyfriend, every birthday, every fight her parents got in, every heartbreak, every death, every divorce scare. Mommy Cat had seen it all. Sometimes Mommy Cat would just disappear for days. They wouldn’t see Mommy Cat anywhere or hear those meaningful meows. This was alarming at first, but eventually everyone got used to it. Mommy Cat would go off on adventures and probably kill some small rodents and get in alley cat rows and then just come back and act like nothing had happened. It wasn’t like you could ask Mommy Cat what had happened though, Mommy Cat just regarded you with a purr when you pet that ginger fur, slowly at first then with more feeling as you got the sense that it was being enjoyed. Mommy Cat appeared at the back door one January morning when it was supposed to snow, reminding us
that we weren’t the only ones who were cold. Mommy Cat also had healing powers. She told me about the time Mommy Cat burrowed by her father for the first few nights before he had appendicitis and then the week after that. As if absorbing, charging, meditating. Mommy Cat stayed with her sister that one Christmas when she had the flu, just by her side gently purring, like some sort of alive heated blanket. Her mom would apparently let Mommy Cat lick her open wounds, that wet sandpaper tongue brushing over the flesh and blood. Mommy Cat would even come to her when she was upset, especially when she was upset. Mommy Cat had some sort of spidey-sense about wistfulness, and so Mommy Cat would just come and sit, while she lay prostrate on her bed, crying about I’m assuming me. After a couple months Mommy Cat and I regarded each other with a sort of lonesome-cowboy-in-the-saloon attitude. I would walk into her house and take my shoes off and there was Mommy Cat sitting on the black grand piano in the sun, and I would walk up and pet Mommy Cat, pay a kind of respect to the feline before I had to shift my attention. Mommy Cat would watch me as I talked to her, as I tried to keep that affected cowboy-cool going. Maybe Mommy Cat was trying to tell me something, something I could see but refused to acknowledge on my own. Something Mommy Cat experienced wholly but I was only tangential to. Something Mommy Cat felt sorry for because I was just another life she would live through. Mommy Cat just sort of knew. And so, Mommy Cat and I saw each other one last time when I went to deliver the vestiges of her when I knew she wasn’t home and I just shoved it all through the mail slot and turned to go back
to my idling car but then I heard the knock, the impossibly tiny knock from inside. So, I looked through the little side window and thereâ€™s Mommy Cat, all punchy and grief-stricken and hopeful, looking at me and opening her mouth in a mew and I stood there looking at Mommy Cat and Mommy Cat was just looking right up back at me not saying anything just unblinking and I could feel her looking so close to my soul because Mommy Cat had all experience, all knowledge, all feeling, all magic behind her dole green eyes and so I just stood there and Mommy Cat stood there in that moment just looking at each other ruefully.
ade In: Int. - A bare institution room. A bed sits against a wall,
a book or two on a bed table. Lights are off and it’s dark, except for the light of the moon that leaks in through a small window. The moon is in a crescent shape and the sky is littered with bright stars. ELAINE is trying to get out of the door, but can’t bring herself to touch the knob. ELAINE (terrified, frightened out of her mind, rapid/panicky speech) The Moon is out to get me. The Moon is really out to get me. She’s been out to get me for almost 3 years now. Everytime night comes, she comes, like clockwork and...watches me.
ELAINE reaches her hand out in front of the knob, fingers bent in an erratic stiffness and jerks it twice clockwise on the syllables of
“clockwork.” She still can’t touch it. She backs away and then tries to come closer. She tries to bring herself to bang on the door, to scream for help, but can’t get her fist to the door. ELAINE almost lets out a scream, but stops herself. Exasperatedly, she sits on the floor in front of the door and lowers her voice. ELAINE In the summer, she waits to stalk. . .waits to strike.. .most times until almost 9. But as the months grow colder... And the days become shorter... She comes closer. ELAINE’s speech escalates and she begins to run her fingers through her hair. Movements are rigid and stiff. ELAINE She’s in a crescent tonight. Her watchful eye isn’t as big, but I know it sees my every move. And she’s that silver, glowing with the stars—I know they’re watching me too. The stars are plentiful tonight...
ELAINE begins to get up and walks towards the window, slowly pointing at the stars accusingly.
ELAINE ...patterning every foot of the skywith that scrutinizing twinkle... twinkle...little star...how I wonder WHAT YOU ARE! ELAINE screams. Then she gathers herself and continues pacing infront of the window. ELAINE She’s crescent. And she’s silver. She’s only that yellow-goldish color when I’ve done it again. When I’ve...when I’ve killed somebody. And I don’t do it on purpose, I swear! I’m not that type of person I swear. I am not a KILLER! ELAINE turns to the wall and bangs her fists against it, before resting her forehead on the wall and heaving. ELAINE It’s just that I look at them...dead in the eye—they drop dead. (takes in a deep breath) It’s never immediate, like right then and there. It’s always...days after. Except...years ago, I made eye contact with a man on the subway before he... he.. .jumped. I was so afraid, traumatized...I felt like the breath had been taken out of my lungs and
I felt like I felt the bang that he—I fainted and banged my head on the pavement. Hard. I don’t remember at all what happened after that, but...ever since then, I KNOW when someone is watching me. I KNOW when the Moon is whispering about me. I KNOW when the government or the stars are listening in on my conversations. I KNOW when I’m being plotted against. And I KNOW when I’ve caused someone to die. I KNOW! ELAINE gasps and looks behind her at the window and quickly rushes for the door, but stops before she gets too close. She tries to touch the knob, but can’t bring her hand close enough to grasp it. ELAINE (a low voice that slowly dilutes into a whisper) She’s heard me. I’ve been too loud and she’s heard me. I want to leave, to scream for help, to open this door and RUN, but if I do...she’ll tell. She’ll tell them all that I know what I can do. I KNOW my powers. She’ll tell the ward nurse, all the stars...the CIA, the FBI, the sun! She’ll tell the sun, she’ll tell the sun, she’ll tell the sun, she’ll tell the S UN! Then they will eclipse, j ustto taunt me. Because, she’s out to get me. The Moon is really
out to get me. Everytime night comes, she comes, like clockwork and...watches me. ELAINE sits down slowly in front of the door and begins inaudibly mumbling. She whispers to herself repeatedly. Whispers to herself repeatedly. Whispers to herself repeatedly.
n the restroom, the woman picks at her loose string. She’s spilled to a couple of apathetic coworkers that she’s falling apart at the seams. They see she’s, well, wobbling:
sloppier movements, slurring speech, more reliably unreliable. Her thoughts slip away for hours then she gathers her slack by the skin of her teeth. She molds to her cubicle like liquid takes its container’s shape. Walking home, she grabs another frayed thread and anxiously tears it from the fabric. In her youth the penalty for damaged clothes would make any parents prohibit their children from trick-or-treating there. Snap! goes that thought through her sagging mind and leaves her hanging by a thread. Her work shoes rub her ankles sore; they look as cheap as they are. She feels the pavement through the worn down rubber, and heaves upwards to counteract her burdensome briefcase that grinds her drooping shoulder down down down—every second closer to concrete and dust particles. If only she could’ve held her first job, could’ve gone to college, could’ve focused in class
and couldâ€™ve stopped thinking about what happened. If only she could pull herself together. She descends into her studio apartment. Bag, shoes, clothes drip off. Her boneless feet lead her sagging body to the bathroom where she heaves her mass into the tub. Ancient thread-ends sparsely crosshatch over missing skin. She yanks and releases fistfuls of little white strings â€˜til she was all her landlord later found: nothing but a full tub of wet sand.
About Us The Vanderbilt Review is Vanderbiltâ€™s official undergraduate literary and arts journal. The Review includes curated work in fiction, poetry, drama, art, and photography from students, alumni, and University affiliates. The Vanderbilt Review was first published in April 1985 as a consolidation of three previous showcases for student work: The Poetry Review, The Photography Review, and Scrivener. The journal has received numerous awards for its high-quality work and design. In past years, it has featured interviews and work from writers such as Robert Penn Warren, Roy Blount, Jr., and Bobbie Ann Mason. The Vanderbilt Review staff works in the Student Media Newsroom in Suite 130 of Sarratt Student Center.
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