THE VORTEX UCAâ€™S MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE AND ART
MAY ONLINE EDITION
VORTEX STAFF SPRING 2018 Editor-in-Chief Assistant Editor Layout Editor Assistant Layout Editor Copy Editor Assistant Copy Editor PR Consultant Faculty Advisor
Audrey Bauman Ashley Nicole Hunter Paige Yutsus Johnathan Woodson Danny Baxter Aaron Seward Ashley Nicole Hunter Bob May
Fiction Editor: Sophia Ordaz Judges: Jamie Ireland, Hannah Newell, and Candace Williams Nonfiction Editor: Tyler Hauth Judges: Autumn Harris, Sarah Kapity, and Anna Belle Morrison Poetry Editor: Craig Byers Judges: Shauntel Creggett, Danielle Devecsery, Brandon Gray, and Lauren McCabe Scriptwriting Editor: Johnathan Woodson Judges: Elizabeth Beavers and Atiana Manriquez Art Editor: Rachel Hunt Judges: Megan Greene and Tink Pendergrass Multimedia Editor: Caleb Patton Judges: Jennifer Cale, Ebony Meyers, and Alyssa Miller
TABLE OF CONTENTS ART Matthew Magdefrau Beach Nights.....................................................................................18 Brilliance 1:2.......................................................................................21 Annika Warrick Bells of Assisi.......................................................................................19 Stairs Black and White......................................................................20
FICTION Tyler Hauth Masks..................................................................................................4 Paige Yutsus Fissures................................................................................................7 Ricky Rivera Half-Priced Life...................................................................................10 Letters to Marie..................................................................................28 Lakota S.G. Kasworm Fidelito................................................................................................15 Streets and Avenues.........................................................................32 Ashley Baker Celia...................................................................................................22
POETRY Candace Williams beyond dust......................................................................................6 Amber Sherer Are we sad because weâ€™re poets or are we poets sorry I choked on this hackney idea..........................................................13 A. VanSickle Phobophobia....................................................................................14 Lindsey Walker Octopus.............................................................................................17 Hand-me-downs...............................................................................35 Bethany Morgan Rattle..................................................................................................27 Annika Warrick Twenty-one........................................................................................31 Brittanie Bertrand Farm Place.........................................................................................34 3
MASKS Tyler Hauth
llen reaches into the jar and puts on her face before she leaves. It’s as nice a day as anyone might have asked for—nicer, even, than yesterday or the day before. There’s kids playing across the street. John and Cindy’s kids. All four of them. Cindy had them one after the other, with hardly enough time to breathe before she was in the hospital with another. Ellen can’t imagine living like that. She’d never let Jim do that to her. The oldest of the kids waves at her as she files onto the sidewalk. Her face smiles back at little Amy, eight, and then turns to look ahead. She never liked Amy. Her face doesn’t let that on, though. As far as faces go, it’s a relatively good one. Ellen assumes its performance has to do with the chemicals in her jar. She takes it off anytime she’s not in public, and lets it float by the door. Allowing a face to rest properly is imperative if you want it to last. She goes on walks most days of the week, except for those that it rains. Her face isn’t strictly waterproof (even sweat sometimes makes it run) and so she avoids any activity that might mar it. That includes swimming, running, biking, jogging—any sport or activity that’s strenuous, really. It’s not that she doesn’t like physical activity. In high school, she was on the tennis team, and the girl’s squad made it all the way to state. They didn’t win, but it was something for a school as small as theirs. Her face tries to smile at the memory—but it’s trapped beneath the jar-face, and so she only manages to twitch her lip. Cindy’s husband, John, runs every day. Ellen sees him coming back around the bend now, heading back to his yard where his four kids have been waiting on him. John runs at the same time every day. Just before 9 in the morning he flies out the front door with his running shoes laced down nice and tight on his feet, and just after 9:30 he comes back around the bend. Ellen watches him at it on the days her face can’t make it outside. She peers from behind the curtains, careful to keep everything but her eyes hidden, just in case someone happens to look. One time, Cindy was waiting for John at the front door, and they kissed when he came jogging up his driveway. Ellen hadn’t liked that. The memory makes 4
her face frown—public displays of affection are entirely inappropriate. Not necessary at all. Jim would never kiss her like that. She’d never let him! In the front yard of all places? Imagine what they do in restaurants. Perfectly scandalous. In high school, the same year the tennis team went to state, she’d been dating a boy called Carson. He was popular. More popular than Ellen had been, to be sure—but he seemed to like her in spite of her social shortcomings. They hadn’t been for lack of trying, after all. The year before the tennis team went to state, she’d even tried to throw a party. She handed out fliers to all her friends—and all the people she wished were her friends. Ellen’s having a party. Her parents were out of town, gone for the whole weekend. The party was on Friday night. Not even Carson came. John thunders past her now, feet pounding the sidewalk like Montezuma’s drums of war, thud, thud, boom, boom. His face smiles at her, and like a perfectly oiled machine (in truth she hadn’t oiled her face in a few weeks, it was past due) she smiled back. In a flash he was past— and good thing, too. Her face was straining. Ellen can’t quite put her finger on what she doesn’t like about John. The kissing in the front yard aside, he isn’t strictly a bad neighbor. But sometimes his face looks dry. Ellen’s wondered before if sometimes he forgets to put it in his jar. The weird thing about nobody coming to the party? It started at 5 p.m. That’s before anyone goes to bed. Ellen’s considered that, possibly, everyone had been too tired after school (it was a Friday after all, and some of them had tests) but Carson hadn’t gone to bed after school. She knows this because she walked to his house that night, after she was certain nobody was going to come to her party, and through the front window she’d seen a few of their friends in his living room. The lights were out, but by the light of the television she could see their faces. It flickered back and forth on their smiles. Two years later, in her freshman year of University, she was invited to a party. She knew what it felt like to throw a party and have no one show up, so she was determined to go. She knew she’d be the only one there, but she figured one person coming to your party is bet-
ter than none. The girls who invited her had been handing fliers out to everyone. But she’d been down that road before. She handed flyers out to all her friends—and everyone she wanted to be her friend. But nobody had come. There were three girls handing out fliers. Their leader was the prettiest. Her face beamed with joy, even at people she didn’t know. Ellen couldn’t believe that. She’d never smiled at someone she didn’t know. But the girl who invited her to the party freshman year had. When Ellen got to the party, there was so many people she couldn’t possibly keep up with who was looking at her face. She took refuge in a corner and stayed there for most of the night. It was easier that way. Toward the
end of the night, she saw the girl who invited her—the girl who smiled at strangers—walking up the stairs with a boy behind her. She hadn’t been able to figure what they were doing up there until after she’d been married. When she gets back to her street, John and Cindy’s kids have gone back inside. She’s relieved—her face didn’t have many smiles left on it. Little Amy would have waved at her, and she would have had to smile back. It’s better this way. No Little Amy, no waving, no smiling. She walks up her driveway and closes the front door behind her with a sigh of relief. She takes off her face and puts it back in the jar. It spins, suspended in the jar-juice like a pickled onion.
BEYOND DUST Candace Williams
I donâ€™t see an unreachable vastness in the sky but an ethereal eternity. each star is a flaming fortress each star is us and we and them: humanity. our broken but healing hearts beat with the twinkle of our corresponding star as a chorus of â€œhallelujahâ€?s permeates every particle of air. they are heavenly bodies. we are heavenly bodies. drinking in the brightness of the Sun. breathing out the darkness of the Void. though they are not visible on every night, their presence persists from the beginning to the end. the constellations in our minds coincide with everlasting celestial glimmer even with the budding black holes inside our souls. we know that eventually we all must burn out but even in this scorching and fading we will sense an electrifying essence of boundless worth. as cosmic energy engines we will prevail in the End symphonies radiating from our obliteration.
FISSURES Paige Yutsus
n a crisp Tuesday morning at exactly 8:45 AM, I fell through a crack in the universe. No one believes me! Like, I’m fine. I just scraped a knee. But it just seems like every time I bring it up in conversation, I get a half-baked response trying to convince me otherwise. I’ll give you an example: last week at the farmer’s market, I was trying to buy some apples from my regular vendor, Mrs. Elmer. She asked me how I’ve been, and I couldn’t not just tell her about the most important thing that I’ve ever fallen into. I explained and she looked very, very confused. “Like in a dream, right?” she asked. “No, I swear to god. It was right over there on the corner of 23rd and Jefferson. I had dropped a quarter on my way home and it rolled into the alley on the left, so I went after it, and BAM! There I was. The universe is so much smaller than I had imagined.” She pursed her lips, set down the tray of samples cups she was carrying, and inhaled a sharp, deep breath. “I’m sure it is. You know who would love to hear that? Janet over by the watermelons. I’m going to try and sell the rest of my haul today, so why don’t you take this with you and share your story with her?” She rolled her eyes, and picked the tray back up to reveal a small batch of apple pie samples. Did she switch the trays? I simply nodded and left her alone. I always seem to get free stuff now. Jerry from the department store gave me a coupon book for discounted chairs, and Glennda from the ice cream shop gave me a free swirl cone! Everyone thinks they’re being so nice to me, but I know what they’re really doing. They want me to go away so I don’t make them look bad. They don’t want to be associated with a lunatic. I thought about my encounter with Mrs. Elmer on my way to my support group, Chicago’s Help for Understanding Metaphysical Phenomenons (we’re in the process of a name change after we had difficulty being taken seriously). They’re the only people who like lunatics apparently. We’re a small band of normal gentlemen - who all just happened to fall through the universe’s threshold. Jim’s my favorite. He’s been homeless his whole life and doesn’t have a single qualm about it. He 7
believed that living off the land was good for the soul. I wish he got free stuff all the time like I do, but sometimes you can’t have it all. Jim fell through a crack in the universe with a friend, our third member of CHUMP. Jacoby Smalls was a bonafide car salesman who could sell thirty cars in a day (so he says). He actually was caught in a scuffle with Jim at the time of the phenomena (Jim tried to steal his wallet), and they just seemed to fall into the dimensions together. Their universe was much larger than mine apparently, because it was big enough to hold Jacoby Small’s ego. The last CHUMP member is my least favorite and who I happen to be staring blankly at as our daily session starts. He’s Paul. He’s the only skeptic in the group and shouldn’t even be here. He didn’t fall into anything. He just sits at his seat every day, scrawling horrifying chicken scratch on a discolored yellow legal pad. He has a swanky journalist gig at the tribune. I hate journalists. He always smelled of burnt coffee and cheese, and worst of all, always questioned everything we said. I didn’t even want him in the group when he pitched the idea of auditing our sessions to us, but “Jacoby Smalls leaves no man behind” and Jim “doesn’t give a shit.” Today he sits wearing an irrationally bright red cardigan with a blue pocket square. He’s been through two sheets of paper as he listens to Jim pitch to him. “I’m just saying that if we got an ad in the daily paper, we could really make CHUMP go viral. You need to get to crackin’ on your market jumble, my confidant.” “It’s Marketing Lingo, and I think you need to look up what the world viral means.” Paul added. “Oh, and don’t call me confidant. I’m just here to study you.” “Could have fooled me,” I remarked. “You’ve been going to town on those free bagels I’ve been supplying each day.” He gave me a sideways glance and took another obnoxious chomp of bagel, cream cheese surrounding his upper lip as he smacked his lips together. I really hate him. “If you have a problem with my eating habits, then you need to get a dictionary with Jim and look up the word ‘free.’”
I gave an exhausted sigh and looked around the room. CHUMP met in an abandoned church three blocks from the farmer’s market. Broken stained glass littered the dusted carpet, amongst other things like crushed beer cans and Pro-Choice picket signs. I look over to where Jim was (to the left, arguing about dictionaries being government issued propaganda now) and realized we were missing someone. “Where’s Jacoby?” I asked. Jim stopped his schtick to glance over in my direction. “Yeah, I forgot to tell ya. Jacoby’s gone.” “What?” “He went to go explore the fissures in the 9th Ward, but I haven’t heard from him since. I think he died.” That’s what we’ve decided to call the cracks, fissures. Fitting, I thought. “Jim, when was this?” Paul asked. “About last night, or just after we got out of Wednesday’s meetup. So two days. It’s Friday right?” “It’s Sunday, Jim.” “Shit. Yeah, he’s dead.” I sat and thought about what could be happening. Jacoby Smalls had a family (a beautiful Spanish wife and scholars for kids, he always bragged), so he didn’t go to meetings all the time. It was common for him to be gone a few days. But he usually checked in. “Did you say it was the 9th Ward, Jim?” I questioned. “Sure,” he replied. “Then let’s go.” I stood up, ready to check the ward for our friend. Jim shouted in excitement and jumped out of his chair, eyes aflame and ready for adventure. Paul, however, had a problem. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he started. I glared at him. “Why?” “Because you guys know he went exploring and now he’s gone. Aren’t you worried about your own safety? Besides, he could be with his family.” “I’m sure his family would have called,” I said. “I’m sure his family doesn’t like you.” I fought the urge to rip his head off as I spoke. “What did you just say?” “This is a weird activity. I’m sure his ‘voluptuous French wife’—” “Spanish wife.” “Whatever nationality, I’m sure she doesn’t like the fact that you take up her husband’s day with fantasies of falling through the fabric of substance. There’s a good chance that she told him to stop coming. I’m sure he has work to do.” 8
“This doesn’t take over his life or any of ours,” I argued. “We just want people to know the truth.” “At the cost of a normal life?” “Nothing is normal anymore once you fall into the fissures.” He huffed, rolling his eyes. There’s his skepticism again. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers and started again. “I’m just saying we should go check with his family first,” he said, giving up on our argument. *** We arrived at the Smalls house, an over-the-top powder blue cottage with a small chimney emitting smoke. The gray and yellow stone walkway felt extremely uncomfortable under my feet as we walked to the front entrance, but I’m sure that the Smalls thought about fashion more than function for this place. Jim seemed to agree with me as he cursed at every stone his bare feet stepped on. As we got to the front, I noticed that there was a huge amount of trash in the front entry. Most of it was bags of clothes. I stepped closer and opened one to reveal stacks of suits, the ones that Jacoby Smalls liked to wear to meetings even though he wasn’t at work. I knocked on the door, hearing kids scuttering about the hardwood floors inside. When his wife answered the door and saw it was us, she seems everything but happy. “What the hell do you want?” she said. “Uh... is Jacoby here?” I responded first. “I was going to ask you the same thing,” she said, “but since you don’t know either, if you happen to see him somewhere tell him to get his things. They’re making our yard look terrible.” “Hey!” Jim started, about to defend our friend’s honor. He hesitated a bit now. “Are you Spanish or French?” he asked her. The door really hurt as it slammed into my face. *** Back to square one. I began to think that maybe we should be looking in the wards like I said before. Paul offered me a handkerchief from his pocket square for my now purple nose. “You still don’t think I’m right?” he asked. I threw his handkerchief back at him and looked at Jacoby’s trash. We could probably take some of it and give it to him when he turns up, I thought as I rummaged through his stuff. I looked over at the actual trash to the right of his things, and something stood out to me. I picked up one of the dozens of apple pie boxes and threw one at Jim. “Hey, Jim, could he have gone to another ward after
the 9th?” “I guess so,” he agreed. “Fantastic, let’s go.” *** We arrived at the corner of 23rd and Jefferson and I took a deep breath, letting the moment sink in. I hadn’t been there since the last encounter with the fissure, and I wasn’t sure what was about to happen. Paul stopped me as we just entered the alleyway. “This is elementary. We need to think about this.” “You know,” I started, “for someone who claims to be a skeptic, you sure have a lot of issues with us going to this alley. You want to be a good journalist, right?” He looked at his shoes. “But—” “Great. So then you’ll want to have the most coverage on this for your story. And who knows? Maybe we are lying like you think. I guess you can find out for sure when you walk in with us.” Jim had already walked ahead of us, I guess, because he didn’t have anything to add. I started to walk in his direction when I was jerked back by Paul’s arm. “No.” he stated. “We’re doing this right and reporting a missing man to the authorities. This is element—” He didn’t get to finish because I had thrown what was probably the best right hook of my life into the left side of his face. He stumbled on the pavement in the alleyway, gripping his jaw and trying to prop himself up. Jim let out a gasp behind me, and it made me realize that I had probably overstepped my boundaries. “Guys!” he called out. “Don’t worry, Jim. I’m calm now.” “No guys, look!” I turned around and saw what Jim had actually gasped at. He was pulling apart a small thread in the atmosphere, and a tiny light was starting to blossom from the middle. I drew in a huge breath, unsure whether to run toward the light or away from it. “Paul, it’s true! Look I’m sorry I hit you but get up, look!” I reached for his hand and helped him up. He was still grabbing at his face, which made me feel a bit of remorse. When he finally removed his hand, though, it was my turn to gasp. I was looking at a Paul with one regular eye and one alligator eye. At least, I thought it was an alligator eye. There was no iris in question, just a gold and scarlet eye with a vertical onyx slit in the middle. He stepped back from me and looked over at the light coming from the alley. 9
“Shit,” he said under his breath. I looked back at Jim, who was still pulling at the gap. I started running after him, begging him to stop. I had just gotten to him when I realized Paul was on my trail. He had just lunged for me, tripping me in the process. I collided with Jim and we both fell through the fissure, again. *** The light was only there for a good thirty seconds before we really got an idea of our surroundings. Monitors decorated the wall, technology that clearly was made for another time. Screens showing the farmer’s market, the church, my house, every place I’ve ever inhabited. I looked at the screens next to it, which revealed profiles labeled “SUBJECTS A-C.” Jim’s profile sat next to mine, and over to the left was Jacoby Smalls’s profile, only his had a gleaming red ‘X’ over the screen. They showed our height, weight, eye color, and even eating habits. I looked at what we had fallen through and saw that what Jim was pulling at—fabric. Fabric, with a special kind of projection on it. I walked closer into the area, noticing that the span of this fabric seemed to go on for miles. Were we in a dome? I hadn’t even realized that the people monitoring the screens were anything but humanoid. They shared the same eyes as Paul, but had grimy, saggy skin the color of mold, almost like they were wearing carcasses. Their teeth were terrifyingly human, though, and shone with a platinum that was almost brighter than the light we first saw. “Cryto, really?” one said. “We told you to watch them.” “Hey, I tried. This is what you get for not using the right dosage last time.” We turned to look at Paul-Cryto and saw the same green reptilian-like creature right behind us. On the floor next to it was Paul’s skin, red cardigan shredded to bits now. “Well, you know what to do.” That’s all I remember before a sharp pain and darkness. *** On a crisp Sunday morning at exactly 3:00 PM, I fell through a crack in the universe.
HALF-PRICED LIFE Ricky Rivera
omma, what’s so special about a Barbie?” The purple bobbles holding her pigtails together clicked against each other as the little girl looked up towards her mother. The air stood cool and silent that spring morning while the pair waited for the school bus. “Barbie’s a very famous doll, honey. She’s been around since I was your age and your grandmamma was mine. Why do you ask?” “Yesterday, Matilda Davis said she was going to bring her new Barbie to show and tell today, and then all the other girls started asking her if her parents were going to buy her the matching Ken and what kind of clothes packs she got. And then they all started talking about their Barbie collections.” Momma kneeled down to hug her baby as the bus hissed to a slow stop in front of them. “Now don’t you worry about what Matilda or any of the other kids are bringing to show and tell. I’m sure once it’s your turn everyone’s gonna love lil’ Miss Shelly Ann just as much as you do.” Shelly Ann was the doll Santa had gotten Tonya for Christmas last year. She loved that doll so much and took it everywhere they went. Her aunt Patricia even said they looked like twins on account of the fact that they were both black with dark hair made into pigtails. She had come with two dresses: an orange and yellow sundress and a gray and white business suit—although their dog Chubby had eaten the suit by New Years. Tonya didn’t mind, though, since she’d always thought the business suit was icky anyways. “Have a great day at school, baby!” Tonya ran to the back of the bus to wave to her mother till she was nothing more than a little dot down the dirt road. She found a seat by a widow and began to think about everything she wanted to tell the class about Shelly Ann, as well as wondering if Chubby would get sick if she fed him Matilda’s Barbie. She felt bad about that last thought, though, because even though she didn’t have a Barbie of her own, Matilda had always been real nice to Tonya and Shelly Ann. Sometimes the three of them would even have lunch together and trade Ton10
ya’s apple juice for Matilda’s Butterfinger on account of Matilda saying chocolate gave her zits, whatever those were. Tonya had never seen a Barbie like Matilda’s before that day. It was amazing, like no other doll she’d had before. Perfectly straight long blonde hair, bends in her wrists and knees, and a face that looked more like a real person than a toy. And she didn’t just bring one or two outfits but a whole chest full of clothes, more than Tonya had in her own closet. “And Mom said that if I’m good this year she’ll get me the Dreamhouse for Christmas. I just hope she doesn’t forget the special Christmas Wonderland Barbie that comes with it.” Miss Carpenter clapped and the rest of the class followed with applause as Matilda carefully packed away all of her dolls’ ensembles. “Thank you very much for sharing your Barbie collection with us, Matilda. It was very nice. But now I think someone else is also going share their special friend with us, too. Now class, keep your eyes and ears open as Tonya tells us about her doll.” The plump grandmother of a teacher quickly glanced down at her notes. “Shelly Ann. Tonya, are you ready?” Most of Tonya’s attention was still on Matilda’s Barbie and the spell didn’t break until Miss Carpenter had said her name. “Oh, um, yes, Miss Carpenter.” She unzipped her backpack but stopped as soon has her hands found Shelly Ann. She looked down at the doll’s face with its large scratched eyes and fading smile. She let go of it and vigorously began searching her backpack, taking out her lunch bag and sweater and unzipping all the pockets. After a minute of panicked searching, she stood up with false tears in her eyes, “I can’t … I can’t find Shelly Ann. I think I left her on the bus.” The class was silent as Miss Carpenter rushed over to embrace her. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Tonya. Maybe you left her at home. There, there, sweetheart, don’t cry. I’m sure Miss Shelly is just waiting for you on the kitchen table. Do you want me to call your mom to check?” Tonya wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater.
“It’s okay, Miss Carpenter. Momma’s at work anyways. I’ll wait to see if I can find her when I get home.” “Alright, Tonya. You can do your show and tell next time.” She moved down the aisle back toward her desk to find the next name on her list. “And now Brian will tell us about his Beagle puppy, Speckle.” The sighs of cuteness and laugher instantly engulfed the class as the little brown and white bundle ran circles around Brian. Tonya’s head rested on her backpack in disappointment and shame. “Psst. Psst. Tonya.” It was Matilda in the desk next to her. “I’m sorry you lost your doll. I hope you find it.” Tonya gave her a weak guilty smile. “Thanks.” “And if you don’t, maybe your dad can buy you a new one.” A new one? Another car passed by as the highway wind undid her little purple pigtails. The puddle of water began to slowly claim her dress. A blade of grass scratched lil’ Miss Shelly Ann’s dirty eyes as she watched, with her lost smile, Tonya’s face in the school bus window disappear into the distance. After a quarter mile, Tonya closed the window and stopped looking back. The school bus lulled to a stop and Tonya saw her mom smiling at bottom of the steps. Tears fell down her little cheeks as she rushed down the steps into her mother’s apron. “Tonya, honey. Baby, what’s the matter?” A few moments of crying like a tornado siren and a couple of mucus stuffed gulps passed by before Tonya managed, “Mmmmomma … I … I … I’m, I’m sorry.” “Baby, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong? Did someone pick on you at school?” “I lost … I lost Shelly Ann.” “You lost Shelly Ann? Where’d you lose her? At school? There, there, child. It’s all right. It’s all right.” “I think, I think I lost her on the bus this morning. I tried to find her on the way back, but she wasn’t there.” “Maybe the bus driver saw it in the morning. Tonny, you go on and wait at the house and I’ll tell the driver to let me check the bus real quick, okay?” “Yes momma.” She says as she wipes away the last of the tears with the sleeve of her sweater. “Excuse me, sir? Sir? Is this your last stop? You see my daughter lost her doll and I was wondering…” Tonya walked into the trailer park as her mother pleaded with the bus driver to search for a doll that wasn’t there. Their house sat at the very back end of the parking 11
lot in the right-hand corner, just before the creek that led to a vacant lot behind a liquor store. She could always tell it apart from the rest because it looked like a giant metal peach on a plot of dirt. They didn’t have grass or gravel lawns like the other houses. They also didn’t have a car in the driveway like the rest since her daddy worked from before she woke up till after her bedtime, although she always managed to hear when front door creak around ten P.M. Sometimes she forgot they even owned a car. Some weeks she even forgot she had a daddy. As Tonya swung open the screen door, she was greeted by the welcome sign she had drawn a few weeks back: ‘Welcome to our house. Momma, Daddy, Tonya and Shelly Ann’
The living room was a mess of blocks, stuffed animals, and blankets, but no babies since the other trailer parents usually picked up their kids before Tonya’s bus arrived. She picked up all the baby stuff and put it in the pink plastic laundry basket next to the couch shielded under a plastic cover. The living room and kitchen were a single room, a little smaller than Miss Carpenter’s classroom. Half of it consisted of dark wood paneling and orange shag while the other half had white linoleum floors with small pink and blue stripes on it. She put her backpack in a chair and went to grab a juice box from cupboard and noticed something strange for the first time. She wondered if Matilda had noticed, too. Everything from the corn flakes to the peas to her juice boxes all said the same thing; “Great Value.” Not a Coke or Sunny D or Cap’n Crunch to be found in the entire kitchen and not a single Barbie in her bedroom. Burning tears began to form in the corners of her eyes. “If they’re so great, why does Matilda get Capri Sun and Snickers?” Tonya slammed the cupboard door shut and rushed toward her room where her pillow became a home to tears and muffled cries. A few minutes passed before she heard the screech of the screen door coming through the kitchen. “Tonya? Tonya, baby, I’m sorry. Me and the bus driver looked all over the bus, but we couldn’t find Shelly Ann anywhere.” Tonya felt her mother’s familiar hand rest on her back, now numb with distraught. “Shhhhh, there, there. I got good news. Your daddy called while you were at school today to say he was gonna be home early today. Aren’t you excited to have dinner with daddy?” Meekly, Tonya sat upright in her bed and nodded.
“Atta girl,” she said as she wiped Tonya’s face with the bottom of her apron and a warm smile, “now I want you to finish your homework and be all washed up before your daddy gets home, okay?” “Yes, ma’am.” Tonya remembered once when she was little about asking Daddy if he was a preacher on account of him always going to work in near Sunday’s best. Daddy would just laugh a little in his black vest and tie and say ‘Nah baby. I pass on orders from hungry customers, not the loving Lord.’ That night, over the potatoes and meatloaf but before the vanilla ice cream, Tonya’s mother explained to her father about the loss of Shelly Ann. “Is that why my sweet pea been so sweet and low?” He got up from the table and held his baby girl and patted her gently on the back. “Now, now. Don’t be sad, little girl. These things happen. I’m sure wherever lil’ Shelly Ann is, she knows you loved her very much.” His shoulder started to get a bit moist as Tonya’s little nose dug into it. “You know what? Momma, leave the dishes in the sink. I’ll get ‘em when we get back.” “Get back from where?” asked Tonya. “Don’t you worry about it. Just put on your shoes and jacket, and I’ll start up the car.” It was only a little bit after six but already the long stretch of highway between home and the rest of the city was dark as passing lights traveled on like faces of little red and white nomads. Tonya was afraid to look out the windows until the car finally came to a stop in front of a wondrous display of colored lights and whirling machines. What would normally be the empty back parking lot of the local Walmart had been temporarily transformed into an enchanted pocket fairgrounds complete with rides, food stands, and even games. Tonya had been wanting to go for weeks, but Daddy never had time to take them because of work. Tonya couldn’t bear its glow and began crying into her palms. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Over and over again. “Sweet pea? What’s wrong?” “I’m sorry, Daddy.” “What are you sorry about?” “I lied.” “What did you lie about?” “I – I threw Shelly Ann off the bus because I want-
ed you to buy me a Barbie doll like Matilda Davis has. It’s not fair! Why does Matilda get to have her mommy pick her up from school and has Lunchables with Capri Sun for lunch and gets to have dinner with her daddy all the time?” A long silence fell over the car as Tonya tried to decipher the expression on her father’s face. She’d only ever seen her daddy angry once before, when the restaurant called him on her birthday. The next few moments passed by as quickly as the lights on the highway but felt as long as a week’s worth of bus rides. Daddy got out of the car, slamming the door shut behind him. Momma ran after him. Tonya remained frozen still in her seat, breathing heavily and not daring to look out the window. Looking straight down at her shoes, she made out only few muffled yells as well as her dad kicking the bumper. “Fuck.” “Love.” “Damn.” “Work.” “Trying.” “Father.” “Fair.” The next few minutes passed by in silence until her Daddy opened the door next to Tonya. He’d been crying, but he wasn’t mad anymore. Instead he knelt down to eye level with Tonya and held her soft shaking hands in his own ragged fingers. “Tonya baby. There’s something I need you to know. I love you and your momma so very much. And…” His hands felt on the verge of trembling, but they didn’t. “I know I can’t buy you Lunchables every day, but I promise you’ll never be hungry. I can’t take you to Disneyland every summer, but you’ll always have a present for Christmas and your birthday. And, when you’re older, I might not be able to buy you a car or big fancy party, but I promise you’ll be able to go to any college you want. Because I love you, sweet pea, and I promise to try to spend more time with you and your momma.” A silence stood between them as tears streamed around her Daddy’s budding smile. “Would you like to go to the fair?” She just smiled big and nodded even larger. By the end of the night, she could hardly hold on to the half-eaten stick of cotton candy as she rode daddy’s back on their way to the car. “Did you have fun, sweet pea?” She smiled through closed eyes, her head tucked into the back of his neck. “Better than Disneyland.”
ARE WE SAD BECAUSE WE’RE POETS OR ARE WE POETS SORRY I CHOKED ON THIS HACKNEY IDEA Amber Sherer Are we sad because we’re poets or are we poets because we’re sad It ain’t either Poets talk about sad stuff make it pretty The image the image the image But it’s clear that the fog is there Social, Mental Those boys over there fetishize mentally ill girls Manic dreams Fix me. It’s still a thing why is it still a thing Leave sad girls alone Jesus Christ Celebrate life while wanting to die It’s what It’s what What did you say I stopped listening Get distracted be reactive Can you can you can you hand me that pen Quick I had an idea I don’t know what’s next but I know it’s gonna be something Do you wanna be alone it’s okay to be alone I’ll leave you alone but if you don’t wanna be alone I don’t either Why do we have to be alone We all feel lonely we all just have to say we feel lonely someone has to be the one to say something first I’ll say it We can be lonely together If you say you’re afraid to be afraid then that’s ok Can’t be honest because we got told being honest about the bad stuff the lonely stuff makes you a loser don’t be a loser If we are all losers no one has to be left out I promise please Don’t. pain is not beautiful only a child thinks so and sees the skinned knees as a badge we are two ships passing in the night, as I grow less afraid by the day
PHOBOPHOBIA A. VanSickle
Just because one can walk a tightrope doesn’t mean they should dance on the rings of Saturn. Seems obvious yet— no one realizes there is a reason storms are named after people. We get stronger mostly by accident. Scream every story: Then why do I chew my nails? Why are my grades slipping? Why is my hair falling out? Why do I flinch at loud noises? Stop yelling. Stop yelling. Stop—
Oh wait, it’s just me.
So when people ask, don’t speak, not even to say you’re fine because first of all, you’re sick of all the fake smiling bullshit second—if you open
your mouth, too much truth will tumble onto the floor.
You see, grandma’s butterscotch toffees and duct tape can’t fix you anymore. You’ve lost the ability to be anything more than tired and troubled and trying.
Oh, I promise I am trying, but I am only a lonely tightrope walker striving to stay on the ring.
FIDELITO Lakota S.G. Kasworm
idelito.” That’s what they called me. When I was a niño, that name brought joy to my young crooked teeth. It sparked a connection to me and my father, whom I thought the world of ever since I learned of his existence in New York. It gave identity to that little boy whose eyes wandered on the bus ride home. They wandered to the other little boys with strong hands to hold onto—he dreamed of what that was like. Now that boy didn’t have to dream, because out there on the living, breathing coast of Havana was his father. Fidel Castro. When I turned nine, my father turned his head away from his revolution momentarily and took notice of me. It wasn’t long before he and my mother, Mirtha, fought a custody war across seas and regimes over me. And after the lawyers waged their bloody battles for each of my parents, in the end, the victor from the rubble of their marriage was him. Everything happened so quickly. I packed my life away, embraced my mother as she wept, said goodbye to the friends I grew up in Brooklyn with, and claimed a new country beside a revolutionary—who eyed Cuba as his virgin bride. It was a new culture, and I was too innocent to really understand; regardless it made my stomach jump on the tugboat to Havana. It lurched back and forth as the waves crashed on the hull of the ship, and I soon became nauseous. Even before I stepped foot on Cuban soil, with the ambassador and four armed guards between us, the air had been replaced with gunpowder and broken shrapnel. It left a metallic flavor on the roof of my mouth and sent me into dizziness. I remember it so vividly, there were his soldiers, divided into two line formations. It looked as if it were Moses splitting the sea, like I had heard about in church when I use to go with my mother. They each had assault rifles bounded to each of their hands. The sweltering tropical heat brought sweat down my polo shirt, and I felt as though I would suffocate. Then there was him, Fidel, with his back against the fiery sky with orange clouds bleeding onto the colored villas. Everyone turned into muted silhouettes in the presence of the setting sun except for him. My father looked more powerful than anyone among the city of 15
Havana. He approached with purpose in each of his steps. I had waited for that moment for years, wondering what he would be like. My legs weakly bent, his ashen hands reaching for me—breath pungent with the smell of tobacco. And ever since the first moment I saw him, my concept of Fidel would forever be engraved in my memories. This man would be someone who I would both fear and love. When he spoke my name for the first time, his voice grated like scraping metal castings together. In my dreams, I expected him to embrace me—instead he grabbed me by the shoulder. “Come, boy. I’m taking you to somewhere safer.” He violently grabbed one of his soldiers out of formation. “Miguel, take the boy to the Jeep. More time here is more time for the pigs to slit our throats.” The soldier quickly obliged and firmly took ahold of my arm. The metallic taste was still in my mouth, and it would always be there, even long after I left Cuba. My father sent me to his compound house where I wouldn’t see him for the next few weeks. But that was fine, I understood he was a busy man. Despite hearing words that I was unable to fully understand, like communism, even I grasped that whatever my father was working on people depended on him to take care of it. So instead of thinking about it too much, I decided to just play with the plastic toy soldiers and vehicles scattered on the floor of my new room. There wasn’t too many of them, and their minuscule arms and legs were mangled from previous children who were too rough playing with them, but I ignored the flaws. Instead I jammed the plastic soldiers together as if they were fighting, colliding a few of them on a toy tank that was scarlet red, even splattering their corpses against the floral-painted walls for fun. I felt compelled to sprint to my father’s room. I sprawled onto his king-sized mattress, extending each part of my body to all four corners the bed. The limbs of a little boy would never be able to spread across it entirely. When I would be older, though, when I mirrored the facial hair of my father, when I smoked cigars like
he did, only then would this mattress be fit for someone like me. He bought me a puppy after a month. It reminded me of the two that Mother had back in Brooklyn. A pang of sadness always invaded my body when I thought about her. Everything I remembered about Mother, every memory with her was being torn open when I dwelled on it, like how she would caress my hair before I slept. The way her breath would smell like the budding roses that bloomed in spring—the ones we would see while hiking on the nature trail in Central Park. She would whisper so softly that she loved me before I went to sleep in my old twin bed. I started to wonder when Father would have those type of memories with me, when he would say that he loved me like Mirtha did. I also wondered when I would see Mother again. I started writing to my mother more often, then to my friends, Robert and Melissa, back in New York. Before I left, they had given me their mailing addresses and I promised that I would write them back. Their eyes opened wide in awe when I talked to them about going to Cuba with my father. Both of them would ask me varying questions about this mystical place they knew nothing about. They had only seen postcards of the country before that displayed the coastal side—to them it was as if I was vacationing with my father to bathe out in the sparkling sun. They were too innocent to understand as well. Neither of their parents really liked me. They wouldn’t say it to me directly, but through their dusty living room vent, I had heard the quiet hushes in their kitchen. They would call me strange words like “Castro’s
illegitimate bastard.” I didn’t understand what they meant about my father at the time, but they spoke about him with such contempt that I knew it was an insult. Later, after I would go home and tell my mother, she would slowly take me by the shoulders and command me to never visit those people again. So I listened and stayed away, though Robert, Melissa, and I were still friends after that happened. I was curious about what they would write back, if anyone at recess missed me as much as I missed them. The only letter I ever got back was from Robert a month later. What he said disturbed me—the names that he called me were names that I only heard his parents say before. Robert told me that my father was a murderer and that he wanted to kill Americans, that he whored women and his children, that I was one of his abominations— that I shouldn’t deserve to live. I turned pale and froze, breathing heavily. Everything was starting to connect, and it made me feel awful. Dizziness overcame me, and I vomited the eggs and sausages from earlier all over my father’s bed. Before I could start crying, Fidel walked into the room and saw what had happened. There was a tiredness in his eyes—the type of tiredness that did not understand the discrepancies between discipline and abuse. Those ashen hands approached me again; too quickly the reality seeped into my bones and made them shake. The lovely veil of Fidel Castro that I was too naive, too innocent to grasp before lifted away to expose the abhorrent truth. This man should not be someone that I loved—he should be someone that I feared.
OCTOPUS Lindsey Walker
Her mother swishes away swirls effervescent blue near the splitting of her shell. She learns her legs slowly stretching in full radius as siblings bloom around her and disperse. Thousands descend white string on the cave ceiling, thousands traverse in swills of sand and sea for life. She finds her home in a crevice of a shoreline ridge, her skin sometimes spiked in algae mimic, always shifting shades. alone she clutches a spider crab, cracks him open with her beak alone she crawls the watery floor into a boat & steals mirrors & bottles. alone she pulls herself along creating her own waves & riding them all the way out.
BEACH NIGHTS Matthew Magdefrau Photography
BELLS OF ASSISI Annika Warrick Photography
STAIRS: BLACK AND WHITE Annika Warrick Photography
BRILLIANCE 1/2 Matthew Magdefrau Photography
CELIA Ashley Baker
assandra’s movements are erratic as she snatches her mobile phone from the nightstand behind her. Her daughter is missing, and the desperation to find her is ballooning rapidly with every passing second. She passes out fliers and waits with bated breath for a news crew to air her desperate plea for the safe return of her daughter. The phone screams out another jarring note. “This is Cassandra Mallory.” “Cass,” Anna’s voice sounds strained, as if she’s crying. “I am so sorry…” Cassandra grips the receiver tighter against the wave of desolation drenching Anna’s tone; she can feel what’s coming. She feels as though her legs may cave beneath her. Her heart thunders in her ears as her world dissolves around her, leaving her adrift in an empty sea of nothingness with only the phone between her trembling fingers. “What is it, Anna?” Her voice feels small within her throat. “Celia, I think we found her...I’m so sor…” In that moment, Cassandra’s legs no longer support her. The phone cracks against the bedframe. “Mom?” Clio is at her mother’s side in seconds. “Oh my God. Mom, what happened? What’s wrong?” Cassandra can only stare into her eldest daughter’s hazel green eyes. Tears blur her vision. For a moment, she sees Celia’s eyes instead, gazing down into her own. “Dad! Something’s wrong with Mom!” Celia’s eyes slam shut, and she can hear Clio’s footsteps as she darts out of the room. They beat a furious pace down the hall, through the kitchen, and the screen door opens. “Dad!” Tremors envelop her fingers and toes, crawling viciously up to her core. Everything sounds muffled and far away. The room remains a blur, and the walls steadily inch closer around her. The blood rushing through her head drowns out any other sounds. Pain erupts in her chest, and her breathing takes on a terrifying new pattern. Cassandra’s heart bursts into an abnormal gallop. Her mind collapses in on itself. Every synapse in her brain fires sporadically, violently. The blurry room distorts as if she is looking at the normally boring bedroom from beneath ocean waves. 22
Cassandra feels a presence enter her restricting world, and arms engulf her with a caring embrace. She flinches and jerks fiercely away. A familiar voice’s soothing whisper intrudes on her catastrophic thoughts. She forces herself to focus hard on the voice, trying to bring it closer to the forefront of her self-destructive mind. “Breathe. Focus on your breathing. Count with me. 1...2...3…” Cassandra closes her eyes and tries to complete the task the distant voice instructs of her. “Focus on the world around you,” it says. “Tell me something you can touch.” She reaches out to feel something around her. It’s soft, plush. “The carpet,” she hears herself say. “What else can you feel?” The voice sounds near now, not so far away. She wills her senses to reach out to touch something else. Her fingers grope the carpet, bringing it back into her world. Her reality starts to expand around her as warmth seeps into her skin. The fabric of her shirt absorbs the heat from some invisible source. “Warmth,” she whispers, “I feel warmth.” “That’s me,” the voice whispers gently. Something soft and hot presses itself against the back her neck. “Focus on me. On your breathing.” “Hugh.” Cassandra breathes out a sigh. “I’m scared.” “I am right here, Cassi,” he says reassuringly. “Tell me something you can hear.” She strains her ears to listen, bringing more sounds back to her world. “Your breathing.” The sound of footsteps. Her head tilts toward it ever so slightly. “Dad.” The teary voice belongs to David. “The poli…” “There is someone here to talk to you,” Clio interrupts from the doorway. Cassandra can feel Hugh stiffen against her. His breathing speeds up ever so slightly. “Stay with your mother.” His voice sounds afraid, but is encumbered with stern resolution, like a soldier gearing up for what promises to be a losing battle. Cassandra feels him release her from his protective embrace. Her
world is starting to come back into focus; she is becoming grounded. She watches her husband step out of the bedroom. “Mom…” David’s voice cracks. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I should have been…” Cassandra blocks out her son’s voice as she fights her way to her feet. They shuffle her toward the bedroom door. “You should stay put,” Clio sniffles. “You should give your body time to recover from the panic attack.” “Hugh,” she whispers, “I am not going to leave him to hear the news alone.” She can hear his footsteps as he moves toward the front door. “You kids stay here.” “But…” David whispers weakly. Cassandra’s feet drag across the floor, her body drained of all its strength. Yet she finds the energy to shuffle forward, out the door, and down the hall. As she makes her way forward, her jerky movements are stiff and zombie-like; she recognizes the low rumble of her husband’s voice. Finally, Hugh comes into view. She can’t quite hear what’s being said because it is taking so much of her focus just to walk. She can see Hugh’s balance falter, and he braces himself against the doorframe. Officer Frasier, the first policeman, is tired and graying. He speaks to her husband in a gentle, sympathetic undertone. Next to him is a fresh-faced policeman, Officer Hoffman, who eyes her as if he is not sure if he should come help her or stay in his position. “Hugh,” Cassandra says weakly. She can see the tremor in his hands as he turns to look at her. He crosses the floor to meet her in a few long strides, and his arms coil around her. She clings to him. His presence is the only thing that holds her to the present, keeping her head just above the darkness that threatens to drown her once again. “We’re going to be alright,” her husband soothes, stroking her hair with an unsteady hand. Cassandra isn’t sure if Hugh is saying this to convince her or himself of this false truth. She knows nothing will ever be alright again. Their world has crumbled around them. All they are left to do is take in the destruction of what their lives have become. Instead of telling him so, she lets her husband hold her. She can feel his strong form shudder around her. “I am sorry for your loss,” the shorter older policeman said. “I know this has to be hard for you.” Cassandra can feel her husband nod in response to 23
the officer’s words. “We need someone to come identify the body,” Officer Hoffman says as his superior, Frasier, shoots him a glare. “You don’t have to come today,” the older man says. “We just need to have her identified before we can release her to a funeral home.” Cassandra’s breath hitches in her throat. They couldn’t bury her. She’s afraid of the dark. She has to sleep with a nightlight and the hall light on every night. They couldn’t do that to her, not to their baby. Hugh’s hold on her tightens as if he can feel the alarm radiating through her once again. This has to be a mistake; this can’t be happening to her—to her Celia. “We will leave you good folks alone to grieve.” The old man turns and walks toward the cruiser. “Hoffman!” The young cop stands a little straighter and turns to follow the older man off the porch, closing the door behind him. Cassandra can feel her nails digging into something as her mind races. She needs to find her daughter. This can’t be right. Anna has made a mistake… Lots of kids wear the same stuff Celia does. It can’t be her. It isn’t her. “Come on, Cassi,” Hugh says, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Let’s go lie down.” She doesn’t remember the walk back to the bedroom, but she finds herself on the bed with her husband curling his body around her, pulling her close. She rolls toward him and runs her fingers through his hair. She knows this is the one thing that she does that can really soothe him. *** “Good morning, sunshine.” The voice is faint in her groggy state of sleep. “Time to get up. Rise and shine. It’s time for you to make me breakfast.” “Come on, Celia,” Cassandra says groggily. “Just a few more minutes.” “Up, up, Mommy.” Cassandra rubs her eyes to see Celia’s blurry face looking down at her. “Are you okay, Mommy?” She rubs her face again, her head throbbing. “Mommy...Mom. Are you okay?” Cassandra’s eyes focus, and the hazel green eyes of her eldest child gaze at her in concern. “Clio?” She bolts upright, instinctively reaching for her husband, who is no longer in bed next to her. “What’s wrong? Are you alright? David? Your dad?” That’s when she notices her son leaning against the door frame, sobbing. “We’re fine,” Clio says, wiping tears from her eyes. “David couldn’t wake you.”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” Cassandra reaches out for her son. David moves quickly to her side and hugs her tight. She strokes his hair and kisses his forehead. She reaches for her daughter’s hand, giving a reassuring squeeze. “How long have I been a sleep?” “Since yesterday evening,” David responds as Cassandra’s eyes shift to the clock on her nightstand. 4:00 PM, the numbers glow at her. She has been asleep for 22 hours. “Where is your father?” Cassandra asks softly. “You have eaten, haven’t you?” “Yes. Grandma brought over some of her leftover lasagna.” “Shit,” Cassandra says looking for her cell phone. “I have to call Mom.” “Dad already called her, and Nan is on her way. He wanted someone here with us...” “Where is your father?” She asks again, unsure if she has already asked this question and has since forgotten the answer. “He’s sitting in the car…” Cassandra climbs to her feet and wobbles a little; it feels as though her legs are made of Jell-O. “I won’t let him go by himself.” She makes her way out of the house, to the front door. She can see Hugh sitting motionless behind the steering wheel of the car. “Oh, honey, you’re up.” Her mother calls from the kitchen, “Would you like me to heat you up some leftovers?” She can tell by the fragility of in her voice and tone that she has been crying hard. Cassandra ignores her mother’s offers of food, as she forces the front door open. The sun is blinding. How can the sun be shining after what has happened? She makes her way out to the car, focusing as hard as she can on the motionless vehicle. She’s desperate to avoid seeing the toys that lay scattered across her front lawn. She opens the car door and carefully lowers herself inside. She reaches over and takes her husband’s hand. She can see the tear stains on his cheeks. He blinks slowly at her touch, and his head turns so he can see her hand. He then looks up at her as she gives it a light squeeze. “You’re awake.” “Yeah.” “I’m sorry.” “For what?” “I don’t think I can do this.” “I don’t think I can either.” “Someone has to identify her…I don’t think…” Tears roll silently down his cheeks. “We will do this together.” 24
He nods slowly, shifting the car into reverse. *** Cassandra gazes at the building that towers over her and her husband as they sit in their vehicle dazed. This is a place she had never imagined she would go to, especially for one of her children. Bile rises in her throat. The thought of stepping foot in the coroner’s office is traumatizing. Her child’s corpse would force her to face her new reality. The knock on the car window startles them both. Hugh reluctantly rolls down his window. “You folks know you don’t have to do this today,” Frasier said gently. “It can wait till you’re ready.” “How do you get ready for something like this? How can we prepare for something like this?” Cassandra’s voice is harsher than she intends. The old man frowns. “I guess you can’t. I wanted to tell you, I think we have a lead. We think the other little girl saw something. Her friend, Rose. Her mother says that she had been seeing Celia, and Celia had led her to the ravine. We think that that it is her subconscious trying to bring the horrific event forward. The little girl is now with a therapist in the hope that the suppressed memories surface.” “Do you think she saw who hurt our little girl?” Hugh squeezes his wife’s hand a little tighter. “It’s a possibility, but we don’t know for sure yet. I’ll keep you posted.” With that, the old man turns and walks away. *** The coroner’s office is cold. Too cold. She wonders if it was this cold yesterday when Hugh was here getting the walkthrough about what would happen today. Her feet feel heavier with every step she takes toward where her daughter’s lays lifelessly. The overweight, balding man pushed the large swinging door open for them. Hugh clings to her hand as if his life depends on it. A tiny form lies under a white sheet. Her heart pounds violently in her chest, and her husband’s large hand trembles, squeezing just a little too tight. Her breath catches in her lungs as the coroner pulls back the sheet. As the floor rushes to meet Cassandra, Hugh grips her tight in his arms. He is the only thing keeping her from hitting the icy tile floor. Her eyes locate every bruise, cut, and abnormality that now mars the once pristine skin. “That’s our girl.” Hugh’s voice strains around the large knot that has developed in his throat. “That’s my Celia.” Her tiny body lay on a metal slab. There’s a necklace
of fingerprints in vivid blue-purples against the translucent skin of her tiny throat. All Cassandra can do is shake her head, this isn’t right. It can’t be right. This is all some sick joke. Who could do this to someone as sweet as her Celia? “Celia!” The tears spillover, like a flooded dam in a hurricane. Her baby’s name continues to pour from her mouth until it turns into screams begging her child to get up. The pain in her chest is so unbearable that she is being crushed under its weight as realization collides with disbelief. Her reality has forever been forcibly changed by someone—a monster—who took sick pleasure in snuffing the light from her baby’s eyes. Her sobbing husband grips her tighter. His tone is rough as if there is something trapped in his throat. “It’ll be okay, love. We’ll get through this.” She knows that’s a lie. There is no recovering from something like this. Hugh knows this. He is just trying to be kind and comfort her and himself. There is no way he could possibly believe something like that. Her brain races. Where had she gone wrong that day? What had she done to warrant this kind of punishment? Her world slowly dissolves around her; she feels as though she is sinking below the surface of black waves again. The last thing she remembers… “Did they…?” The traces of a dangerous anger tangles within Hugh’s thick accent. “No, sir. Everything is still intact.” *** Time flies by as though she were watching her life happen from somewhere else. Bits and pieces of conversations cling to her memory like cobwebs. She doesn’t remember planning the funeral or the argument she apparently had with Hugh about David after they came home from the Coroner’s office. None of that mattered. Right now all that matters is what she has in the box that rests in her lap. The air envelops in her lungs as her husband pulls into the parking lot of George and Son’s Funeral Home. She grips the box tighter as she gazes sightlessly out the front window. Cassandra jumps as Hugh’s fingers touch her hand. When did he get out of the car and come around to open her door? She gazes at her loving husband with glassy eyes, squeezing his hand as he helps her from the car. Her husband’s strong arms wrap tightly around her, supporting her weight. The pain in his eyes breaks her heart even further. She had been unsure before that moment that could even be possible. Her eyes drift from her husband’s pain stricken face. Her gaze locks on to what he is looking at. The long, black, unforgiving hearse, much too large for such a tiny 25
girl. Her heart stops; she glances once more at her husband’s blood drained face and leans against him to help her stay on her feet. For a brief moment, she feels like her soul has slipped from her body. Her limbs move of their own volition, pulling her husband forward toward the entrance of the white chapel. The odd smell of the chapel reminds her of stale flowers, almost making her gag. The pews are aligned in slanted, neat little rows; a very dark green industrial carpet is the only thing that gives the little chapel most of its color. Colorful hordes of flowers are strategically placed upon the pulpit surrounding the little pink coffin. Hugh is stiff beside her as they move painfully toward where their other children stand. Clio’s arm is wrapped around David’s shoulder, pulling her little brother closer to her. Her right hand rests against the coffin, and her lips move as she speaks softly to her sister. Cassandra can’t hear what she is saying. Hugh releases Cassandra and embraces their two children while Cassandra wobbles forward, box in hand. She gazes down at her daughter’s sleeping face. She can’t help but will her daughter to sit up and smile at her, but that is not to be. “I brought you some gifts, sweetheart,” Cassandra says softly. She fights the urge to scream. She reaches into the box and pulls out an old worn brown teddy bear. “I brought you Rabbit.” She places the stuffed bear next to her daughter. She reaches in the box again and pulls out a new pair of mismatched shoes. “These are new, so you’re going to have to wear them in, honey. I’m sorry that Nan put you in the wrong shoes, sweetie.” Cassandra reaches down and slips the shiny, black shoes off of Celia’s feet. She drops them one by one over the side of the coffin. She carefully slips Celia’s foot into a bright yellow and the other in a deep red shoe. A sob claws at her throat as she adjusts the new bright blue dress her daughter is wearing. “I am sorry about the dress, honey.” She strokes her daughter’s dark hair, relieved that the pigtails still look nice. “We looked everywhere, but that is as close as we could get. But Mommy brought one more thing.” Reaching into the box, she pulls out a coral flowered baby blanket. “Celia” is embroidered on the other side of the blanket that is a soft, bumpy gray. Cassandra drapes the blanket over her daughter, as if tucking her into bed. She leans forward and kisses her daughter’s forehead. She allows her fingers to trace the length of her child’s soft braided pigtails. “We are going to miss you so much, baby. Every day. We love you more than you can know.”
She lay the bottom half of the casket closed. Hugh’s hand pulls Cassandra back to the present. “Come on, Cassi. Everyone is arriving.” The rest of the funeral went by in an overwhelming daze. What will she do with her life now, without her daughter? David is a young man now and he doesn’t need her. Clio is about to graduate college and have her own baby...she doesn’t need her. What is her purpose in living without her sweet Celia? Without that little girl, her entire identity has been lost. The anger in Cassandra ignites viciously. All these damn apologies were not going to bring her child back to her. All these sympathetic people’s lives have not changed from her daughter’s death. Her ability to cope with the entirety of her current situation is sending her spiraling out of control. The panic once again blossoms within her chest. Grabbing her purse from the seat behind her, she makes a bee line for the women’s bathroom. “Cass?” Hugh calls after her while shaking Anna’s hand. “Cassi?” She can hear his feet start to follow behind her. “Cassandra?” She waves him off and steps into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. Leaning against the doorframe, she inhales deeply. She moves toward the sink, leaning hard against it. She looks into the mirror with an indescribably forlorn gaze. Her hand slowly reaches into her purse, searching for the one thing that could make this all stop. That could reunite her with her daughter. There. That’s it. She pulls out the white pill bottle. How long will it take? Is it going to hurt? Her hands tremble as she twists off the top. How could she live in a world without her youngest child? The pills tumble out in her hand with ease. All she can do is stare at them. Each white pill the same height, weight, and shape. Each pill an exact clone of the other. The sound of the faucet’s water reverberates off the bathroom walls. How could a chapel have such a loud faucet in a place that is supposed to be so noiseless, so hushed? Most of the people in the other room were speaking to her in soft whispers. It makes her want to
grind her teeth. Using her free hand, she places a few handfuls of the cold water into her mouth. All she needs to do is hope she can swallow the entire handful of pills down in one go. The knock at the door makes her jump, and a few of the pills fall from her hand into the wet sink. She remains motionless, watching the pills start to expand and dissolve under the running water. “Mom?” Her spine goes rigid at the sound of her daughter’s voice. The knock comes again, a bit louder. “Mom?” “Yes, Clio?” she responds finally, still eyeing the pills desperately. “David needs you.” Her ears perk up at the words, “What’s wrong?” “Dad thinks he’s having a panic attack. We have tried to calm him down, but nothing is working.” “I’ll be out in a second.” Cassandra eyes the pills in her palm one final time, like she is considering what is more important. They hit the toilet water with a wet plop as she flips the handle, sending her escape from the pain down the drain. Switching off the faucet, she gazes at her own reflection once more for a brief moment. She seizes her purse, which had been discarded on the floor and slowly turns the door handle. Her son. Her son is more important. The rest of her family are more important than escape. Escape would mean leaving her other children without their mother. Her grandchild and future grandchildren without their grandmother. Her husband without his wife. How could she do such a thing to them? Their need for her grows more apparent as she hears her beloved husband calling her name. The pain is still enveloping her chest, a pain that she was positive would never subside. Cassandra is still a mother, and her son, in this moment, needs her. David needs to become her current focus, and she is going to do her best to ensure that he is. The door glides open with ease as she steps over the threshold back into the chapel.
RATTLE Bethany Morgan
When you were born, a heaving rattle. Pink fists shook to grasp that rattle. Brunette hair grew as your mind worked each day to let go of the rattle. Walk, talk, no more a child Now your head begins to rattle. Thoughts, like cyanide bubble gum Roll between your lips with a rattle. Prescription papers block the sun Medicine bottles, chains, constant rattle. Breath, movement, impossible among the Holly. Birth. Death. Constant rattle.
LETTERS TO MARIE Ricky Rivera
ou would have liked the rain today. You always were a fan of pretty little things. Although it’s a bit cruel today as well. It greets our convoy of cars like a roaring stampede or a cheering crowd. But, honestly, what new widow wants applause on the worst day of her life. Even if by some chance the sky is crying just for me and no one else, it still won’t bring my best friend back. I open my umbrella and put on my brave face. The one you gave me when we first met. Do you remember that day? It was on a Sunday during the summer when we were kids. It was raining then, too. Not like this, though. The light shower barely kissed the grass and windows with nothing more than a ‘Good afternoon.’ The ease of that summer shower hushed the church service extra quiet. I remember kneeling down with my family amongst the hopeful. My father was praying hard, probably making deals with big man in the sky for more work and such. My mother was probably praying for him and my brother Gabe and me. I don’t remember what I was praying for or even if I knew how to pray at all. I just went through the motions, I imagine, because what problems could an eight-year-old possibly have to pray about? Mother always said that God worked in mysteriou ways and while I don’t remember praying for him to fix anything at the time, that day when I looked behind me to share some peace, how could I have known who that boy was? How could I have guessed that that dark hair and stupid grin would be the person I prayed for the most in all my life? I mean that was the first time I had ever met my brother’s friend Anthony, but I was shy at the time. I’ve always been the shy one and I think you knew that even from the first time you touched my hand. I always wondered if that was when you came up with the idea for the letters. I look around at all the faces in attendance. Some stern as stones behind their shades holding on to the arms of those on the brink of breaking down. Some cracking smiles and getting an early start on the good stories about you. I guess those are all the stories about you, so they’ll have a lot to talk about. No awkward pauses at your goodbye because who didn’t love Anthony? Even Officer Miller had forgiven you after that scrap you had 28
when you were kids. You remember that? He had been picking on me like he always did during lunch. I wouldn’t blame him. I was small and meek and always had a Fruit Roll-Up for dessert. I was different. I was basically asking to be bullied. He’d lumber over to me like a cartoon henchman, plop his carton of raisins down in front of me, and ‘trade’ me. Maybe my throat itched that day. Maybe I’d finally formulated an atom of courage or a squeak of fear, but just as the slightest ‘um’ left my lips a thunderclap of a fist beamed me in the left eye. I wasn’t blinded or knocked out because I remember very clearly what happened next as if I were watching a movie. Miller looming over me in the midst of unwrapping his trophy. The sounds of sprinting atop the cafeteria tables. The sight of your size eight limited edition Red Power Ranger sneaker colliding with Miller’s braces. I remember asking you later if a blue belt in taekwondo combined with being your soccer team’s number one goalie made you a ninja. You would just laugh and grin that stupid grin of yours. You snuck me our first letter that day. I think you slipped it in my backpack while I was in the nurse’s office and my brother was calling my parents with the principal. Are you okay? If that pile of goo ever tries that again just let me know okay. I hate when people get bullied especially when it’s my friend’s family. –A No one’s here to hold my arm, though, and all the happy stories in the world can only ache at the knowledge that we will have no more. Every sweet smile and salty tear I see on the faces of your loved ones falls on me like lemon on a paper cut. They would probably hurt even more if they weren’t just accumulating in the pit of my heart. Every step I take amongst the tombstones stings a little more and builds up a rattle of reminders slowly getting louder than this damned rain. I’d always heard that when you die, your life passes before your eyes and all the old memories come flooding back. What no one ever mentioned was that the same flood also drowns your loved ones as well. Everything reminds me of you to the point where even these stings take me back to the day I found out we were the same. We were thirteen and fifteen that morning you dragged me into the misty fields behind our homes. Said
you had a surprise to show me. That I should be extra careful not to wake up anyone, even Gabe, which was strange to me because up until then I had always been the tag-along of our group. You led me through the tall amber grass, one hand holding tightly onto yours, the other making sure that no crickets jumped in my hair, but none did. The world was just now shaking the night’s dew from its eyes. Sure, there were crickets and cicadas, but they were far too busy trying to out-orchestrate the early birds choir to be any bother to us. It was only after we’d left the fields behind and were walking over ancient roots that I’d noticed the bumps all over your body. I wanted to ask you what beehive you had gotten into a scrap with but never got the chance. I was speechlessness upon seeing the second most beautiful thing in my life. We exited the forest and came to a place where the river my brother and I usually swam in during the peak heats of summer narrowed into a gentle slumbering creek. The water was dark as tinted glass and what little mist remained skated over the surface like fairy dust. A wise old weeping willow watched over the creek, spotlighting the ground we walked on with orange shafts of warmth. I think it was a popular place for squirrels or birds, perhaps, or maybe the wind was an old friend of mother willow because at our feet were many tiny green sprouts of trees yet to be. Looking back on it, I can’t believe I was speechless at the time. Such a clichéd reaction to awe. But I was, especially after you climbed up into the willow and dropped down the rope swing you built yourself. I mounted the swing and wanted you to push me so bad, but before you did, you said you had one more thing to show me. You led me over to the trunk of mother willow that was just above eye level. What once would have just been a natural hole in a tree for birds or wasps to nest in, now wore a metal cover screwed into it with a latch and a lock. I was confused until you handed me a key. Inside was a letter that read: Your father doesn’t like me anymore, but at least you brother doesn’t hate me. But what I really need to know is if you love me:  yes,  no, or  maybe? -A I’d never kissed a boy before until that day, but then again, until that day I had never had a special home or a secret mailbox of my own, either. We started meeting there in secret from then on and leaving secret letters in our mailbox when we couldn’t. We gave each other new names so no one would ever know. You called me your Marie. Why I never knew. I named you Alexander because I thought you were great. I guess those are good times that these people will never know. 29
The flock of mourners makes its way to the back of the hearse where the guardsmen are about to begin their show. From what I’ve heard, you made some of your best friends in the army. Not surprising; you always had a knack for making the best out of bad situations. I wonder how surprised your brothers in arms would be if they knew that you never really wanted to join the army. I wonder how surprised they would be if they knew all the you that I knew. But don’t worry. Your secrets will always be safe with me. As they remove your coffin from its mobile mausoleum with the precision and reverence of a well-polished machine I can’t help but hate the rain. Every little tink it makes upon you feels like laughter. Like the jeers and whispers of a town that would never understand the real you. Even though he’d be dead before ever showing up here, my father still found a way to spit on your grave. But I can’t cry. You showed me how to be stronger than that. You always used to play with my head by asking what I would do if you weren’t around to save me every time. I couldn’t save you, Anthony, but you’d better believe I won’t cry. Not after all the crying you protected me from. Not after all the smiles you invested in me. As they begin to carry you off toward that final goodbye, I can’t help but think of our letters. The multitude of sweet words and plans and stories that lived through our secret mailbox. With each step toward the funeral plot, I see a letter left behind, as if some sort of sick flower girl were taunting me. My Dearest Marie, I long for you. Seconds like eons spread across my days when you’re not around. I push my body forward and focus on my life as only to become strong in an attempt to better venerate your smile. These friends of mine with their lovers made of glass could never dream of what we have. Purer light from heaven never did shine on mortal skin till the day our hands met for the first time. I wish to be your guardian, keeping you safe from all beasts of this world or your own. I long only for you to be free to do as you choose, even if I’m not by your side. As I write this, the warmth of your love wells within me, bringing me back to days on the river bank when all we would do was swim before noon and spend our afterhours drying in each other’s arms. I am no longer whole without you and sometimes the only respite in my life comes in the form of dreams in which we are reunited. I dream of your sunlight mane. The softness of your fingertips. The beating of your heart that I know beats only for my own. I love you, my dearest Marie. Smile and be brave for as long as our love burns eternal in the bosom of our mother tree, we can never be truly parted. I wait for our next day together. People begin to take their seats around the void as soon as the procession arrives. The faces take their places
among the white fold-out chairs atop a patch turf. The ladies and gents wouldn’t want their Sunday best soiled with something as pedestrian as mud. The black polished shoes of the guardsmen aren’t so lucky, though. “Taps” walks out from a trumpet and examines every single attendant face to face as if trying to remember what sadness truly felt like after all these years in service. It was the salute that really got me the hardest. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to keep the sweet memories only, but every bullet seems to put my soul against the firing squad. Bang! Gabe running through the fields ahead of the storm, trying to warn us of impending doom. Bang! My father burst through the trees like some rampaging ogre. Bang! Me screaming at the top of my lungs. Gabe trying to hold him back to no avail. My father breathing hellfire with each blow. “YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Bang! “YOU WERE LIKE A SON TO ME!” Bang! “AND YOU DARE TAINT MY CHILD BENEATH MY VERY NOSE!? Bang! Come on, Anthony. Fight him back. Fight him back like you did my fear or like Miller when we were kids. Why didn’t you fight back? Why didn’t you beat my father when he deserved it? Why didn’t you run away with me when I suggested it? Why did you have to join the army to prove my father of your conviction when we both knew he would never change? Why did you have to say you were coming back in your last letter? The officer gives your mother the flag you earned with your service. My brother and father are nowhere to be seen. As a good friend, I’d written you one last letter before you left, but I wasn’t strong enough to send it. Instead I look out into the mass of dark clothes and rain and said, “My name is Michael. My brother and I have been friends with Anthony since we were little. I can’t find the words to describe what he meant to me and all of us. But, if he were here, I’m sure he would have liked this rain. He always had a flare for the cliché.”
TWENTY-ONE Annika Warrick
I sit on my sill listening to the harsh sirens of the city, thinking of burned out cigarettes, and missing the stars wishing my body was anywhere but here I look out to the busy streets hear car tires screech wonder where theyâ€™re going so fast and so late. I taste the harsh tang of my last shot on my tongue gazing over what my eyes have known for so long and all I wish for is peace. For lamplight is too harsh on my skin and only the fluttering wings of a firefly can heal me now.
STREETS AND AVENUES Lakota S.G. Kasworm
he dim flame flickered, lighting his mother’s cigarette with ease. The end of the bud sizzled with an orange-yellowish gleam, then the paper crumpled under the aggressive flame. Nicotine clouds expelling into nothingness as it left her hollow, decaying mouth. I watched my cousin, Deacon, as he flipped off the switch from his mother’s lighter. I brought my arms to my chest, feeling misplaced in the slums of Fort Smith. On our way there, the Cadillac rattled above the rugged pavement from the cracked streets of Deacon’s neighborhood. When the moonlight shined on it, its white exterior made every other station wagon and pickup truck seem obsolete. In retaliation to this, I tried to drive through any puddle of muddy water left behind from the rain. I was hoping the dirty tarnish would make it like any other vehicle if I did. Deacon and I talked as if we were reading out of a script from our typical tired conversations. Putting the systematized “How are you?” “Good. And you?” “Good.” components together, functioning like a steaming assembly line. This conversation, however, required me to alter the script a bit. I manufactured my words, evaluating the product through inspection, making sure I didn’t mention any of my success to him. Never mentioning that my tuition was fully paid for, or that my poems had been published, or about my family going on that cruise to the Caribbean islands. Instead we just talked about college, something which followed the script. Deacon had plans of going to college himself once, to become one of those actors dripping with charisma. He was fantastic at it, too; he had all the lead roles in musicals while in high school. The drama director even paid for his voice lessons, which he never did for any other student. But that was so long ago now, those envious actors—who fumed and cursed when Deacon took their roles—went back to their suburban homes. People graduated, moved away, had children, found their own happiness. Soon we arrived at his aunt’s third home that year. Dropping Deacon off from work should have only taken a few minutes. He insisted that I stay for a while though, since he never got to see me anymore—now that I was in college. But something about just standing there felt 32
agonizing to me, especially when he lit that cigarette. A surging pain seeped into my stomach as I stood sheepishly next to Deacon and my aunt in their front yard. How many times has he done that for her? I wondered. How many years does it take for you not to care anymore? Deacon deserved more than her. A mother that wouldn’t use her son’s paycheck to keep the water running. A mother who provided for her children, instead of slumping on that bedbug infested couch, with that perpetually buzzed look on her face. My polished suede shoes were sinking into a grimy puddle; I tried not to think about how long it would take for me to clean them. Instead I plastered on a standardized smile, trying to suppress my desire to leave. Deacon paid little attention to my facade. Neither was he looking at his mother, whose eyes drooped as if they were melting from years of disappointment. Deacon was preoccupied, rummaging through his pockets. Another cigarette emerged from Deacon’s striped pajama pants. The only pair that didn’t have any holes in the pockets. He held it between his teeth, calling for the dim flame again from his fingers—its orange luster glowed faintly. The cicadas hummed from afar, providing atmosphere to an otherwise quiet evening. Deacon and my aunt stood in the shadows just beyond the gleaming porch light; their faces appearing hazily amidst the cigarettes’ gentle glow. Its smell—sharp and intoxicating. The wispy swirls of my aunt’s smoke intertwined with the swirls of Deacon’s smoke, forming thin trails of grayness, almost as if it were crafting elaborate interstates away from this place. It stretched and stretched, shaping itself into sprawling cities that all were interconnected with their own streets and avenues. Cities so foreign, so complex that Deacon’s eyes were the only ones capable of navigating across its vastness. But soon the cities blurred, the streets and avenues overlapped into one another as the creation lost its order and became a chaotic mess. Less of a cartographer’s masterpiece and more of a child’s scribblings. The smoke spun and spun, funneling in on itself—the cities crumbled as it imploded, not even leaving rubble to be remembered by. It smeared itself into the shadowy sky, where its
legibility would be beyond even Deacon’s gaze. Finally, the smoke surrendered completely to translucence, fading out of existence and becoming nothing. My cousin descended to his mother’s dreary front porch again, leaning on the wood of a house that wasn’t his even own. Deacon’s eyes met my own, swimming in a sea of green envy. I drowned in them—gasping as it flooded past my neck; the burning pressure of the bubbles floated from my nose, ascending like emeraldcolored angels to the sparkling white surface. Then the green water subsided, becoming just a shallow puddle dirtying my suede shoes again. I inhaled the polluted air; it answered by swelling the guilt to my lungs, scorching them. I thought silently, strategizing
how to leave quickly without being impolite. My mind wandered to thoughts of returning home to my endearing mom and dad, cherishing my family more than ever, wanting to embrace them. If I had brought them with me, their bright complexions would have blinded that place completely. It felt wrong thinking about them here. I glanced toward Deacon as he thought about his acting career again. I wanted to say something to him, but my lungs were still scorched. Meanwhile, my aunt expelled more nicotine clouds, dryly coughing with great intensity. Deacon was quietly protesting his reality, letting out another puff from his cigarette—his gaze kept on the swirling smoke. It, too, would become nothing.
FARM PLACE Brittanie Bertrand Hands shaky Eyes hazy “Do you ever feel Like quitting college?”
An exhale full of smoke Fingers drumming The steering wheel rumbles On the grooved pavement “All the time.”
Stars sprinkle the night’s canvas The airport twinkles silently in the distance Fingers fumble with fire Butane lighter than conversation Coughing easier than confessing
Shafts of light dance through Stalks of corn The breeze drifting in through Our open car windows Cinnamon gum pops Over the beat of alternative music
Two voices in unison Rise to the dulcet tones Of Teenagers by My Chemical Romance While receipts, napkins, and plastic bags Whip around the car Like exorcised ghosts
Worn tires grip the loose gravel of the road Our story told only by the dust we kick up And our Spotify search history Quick hands make a beeline For the volume dial
The radio in the car is off The only thing more smothering Than the cacophony of vape clouds and smoke Is the silence
Hands grip the wheel As a manic mind races Along with 3000 pounds of metal Down a country road
“Have you ever screamed At the top of your lungs When no one’s around?”
“You mean right now?” A thought, pondered A wish, granted Two windows, rolled down
Stress comes out in the form Of two pseudo-adults wailing Louder than any emergency vehicle Down a country road Doing 60
HAND-ME-DOWNS Lindsey Walker
When my brother dies, I will finally get my hands on the frayed collection of sweaters that wrapped him all his twenty-something life, that closet rainbow of grey synthetic shades. I have wanted this from him since I was eleven and he was thirteen, and the only things said between us were dial turns of electric guitars, thumping kick drums rattling his bedroom door. His lock turned and I pulled the air from the hallway into my lungs, leaving a black vacuum where notes shaped like come here and I miss you canâ€™t ring through the space, or the years. When my brother dies, I will take his hand grenade pins from his teeth, the burning paper and liquid that left scratches and scars down his throat and arms, empty bottles of Old Crow, and the blue striped sweater as his final and only hand-me-downs. The eulogy was lost in the hall, so instead I will live inside the cigarette holes and paint my walls that stained yellow around the corners patch over the threadbare spots with needle pokes, and memorize the knit patterns to understand the things he used to keep himself warm.
Take a look at the final Vortex edition from this year's staff! Inside is poetry, fiction, and photography from UCA students. Enjoy!