Abandonment Issues

Posted on: July 28, 2016


We stopped across the street from the building and got out of the basic white rental car, economy-sized, like my budget. I remembered what an Arizona July was like when my hand touched the chrome door handle. “Dammit!”

”What's wrong?” asked the real estate agent. The building was already mine, along with the forty acres of land it stood on. He told me a woman shouldn't be out on the highway alone, and insisted on coming with me. I think he was afraid that, after I saw the place up close, I would stop payment on my check. I wasn't afraid of going thirty miles out of town--I had backpacked alone in areas more remote than that.

“Nothing.” I stared at the building. Most people would bulldoze it. I would rebuild it.

I stood across the street, digging for memories I didn't have. All I knew of my beginnings was a street address on a two-lane highway, Route 66, in the middle of Bumfuck, Egypt. Just being there made me think I should remember my past, but, like every other time, there was nothing but wasted dreams.

I wondered why my mother abandoned me here, at a soda fountain, outside in the August heat, wearing a diaper and a onesie. She must have known I'd grow up to be too tall, skinny, and awkward to be adopted, or for a man to take home to his mother and claim me as his own.

My heart felt a strange kinship with the building, a certain kind of loneliness mixed with pride. Neither of us needed anyone. Yet, we both wanted love and care. Its doors and windows had been boarded against the elements, a wall of protection put up to keep others out. That protection was eroding and, before it was noticed, the building would be taken, reclaimed by the earth. I wondered how long it had been abandoned. For me, it had been forty years.

The cement signpost had crumbled and fallen. There used to be neighbors on either side, a gas station and a curio shop. Both were gone. Not far down the highway stood the crumbling remains of the Sleep Tight Motor Motel. There was a time when Route 66 was an essential, well-used route across the country. Now it was the middle of nowhere and no one would come for a blue-plate special and homemade pie.

It was time to get closer. I didn't bother to look both ways. We'd been out there for ten minutes and had seen no cars. I strode across the street, leaving Mr. Real Estate standing next to the car. He watched me walk toward the building. Rejects like me can feel staring eyes. He'd done nothing on the drive but clear his throat and chain smoke. He was one of those people who smoked and twitched like he didn't need any caffeine, but couldn't get enough nicotine.

Standing at the door, I shifted from one foot to the other, looking down and picking out little pieces of the cement step with the toe of my boot. From across the street the two big windows and shredded awnings glared at me like two hooded eyes. Maybe mysteries would be revealed when I opened the door. Chances were good it wouldn't be the one I wanted, but never needed, to solve, the identity of my mother.

I peeked over the edge of the plywood that covered the glass door. Amazingly, part of the soda fountain was still there, the stainless steel backsplash and counters dusty and dulled by time. Poles stuck out of the cement in front of the main counter. I imagined them topped with red and white vinyl seats to match the deteriorated upholstery in the booths. A jukebox would have played the latest Beach Boys hit, maybe the Turtles or Herman's Hermits. The plastered ceiling had fallen into the middle of the room, all but blocking access to the rest of the building. There had to be a kitchen, at least one restroom, and a back door for disappointed boys to run away through.

I took a deep breath. The door knob turned easily, inviting me inside. My eyes scanned the interior of the building. I imagined the smell of the breakfasts my mother would have made had she worked here. I would have liked eggs and bacon with white bread toast. She would have cut off the crust just for me, her little girl. Today, it smelled like hot dust kicked up by a car speeding away. I reached up and pulled down more of the ceiling. A scorpion fell from above and scurried through the weeds that had sprung up through the tiled floor. With the heel of my cowboy boot, I crushed it with murderous nonchalance and kicked it out the open door with the same attitude. I glanced outside. The real estate agent still stood by the car, twitching. The only thing that didn't move was his helmet of black hair. He didn't engender respect or trust. He made me nervous. I was glad he was no longer needed for my adventure.

I half-crawled over the fallen ceiling, and found two bathrooms and the kitchen. A large and lonely tumbleweed stood in for the bottom half of the back door. Wires from the old lights still hung from the ceiling. I would hang new lights, the color of red lipstick my mother may have worn. I took photos with my cell phone and measured each room with a measuring tape. My mind spun with plans, opportunities. I would make the building alive again, for her, for the two of us together. For the first time that day, I smiled. It didn’t matter that I felt a dusty grit on my teeth.

Contractors would do the complicated work. I would do everything else myself. This wasn’t the first time I had gutted and rebuilt a building, but it was the first time I cared.

I walked back to the car and the twitching agent. “Let's go?”

“Okay.” He got into the car, waiting for me.

I took my time getting into the car, thinking of the vintage, neon sign I would hang outside.

Once we were on the road, he relaxed into the passenger seat. “So, what are you going to do with the place?” Without looking at me, he threw a butt out the window and reached his nicotine-stained fingers into his shirt pocket.

“Make it my home.”



Written by: Julie Hodges
Photograph by: Matt Crump

Heuristic

Posted on: July 26, 2016


My dear, Trevor. My obedient, idiotic, heuristic son, Trevor. You lived my dying words for all they were worth. And what were they worth? A fastpass to our reunion.

“Life is an experiment,” I said. “Be a good scientist,” I said.

Well, Trevor, you certainly listened. From the day my remains were placed into that sparsely decorated urn, you wore your ill-fitting suit jacket like a lab coat; twirling your pointer finger around in my ashes, and worst of all, TASTING IT. My God, son—is what I would’ve said if that was anyone else bonding with your saliva and sloshing around your tongue. What troubled me most was your playful laughter, as if you farted in a confessional versus technically becoming a cannibal. From that moment on, I knew watching you debauch my overwrought attempt at an eloquent ending would be as painful as it would be entertaining.

Your teens were nothing short of a horror movie, with “DON’T” being my constant refrain: DON’T try to jump onto that trampoline from a third-story window, DON’T sneak into the girl’s bathroom to see the tampon machine, DON’T play ding dong ditch in a trailer park, DON’T text a picture of your pubes to your friends, DON’T spike the prom punch with peach schnapps, and definitely DO NOT be the guy who streaks their high school graduation. Alas, you ignored my protests like the naive characters beaming from a theater projector, and I had no choice but to watch as you narrowly avoided catastrophe time and time again.

My teenage years were spent dominating spelling bees, conquering quiz bowls, cultivating an Elite Tauren Chieftain—it’s a World of Warcraft reference, and I know by your extracurricular activities you wouldn’t get it—not a single demerit to my name. As a matter of fact, I was the valedictorian of my graduating class, and if one of my peers did decide to disrupt my speech by exposing their privates, I was prepared to unleash the perfect quip; “The only thing funny about you, sir, is the size of your genitals.” I assumed it would be a male. I don’t know what I would’ve done if it was a girl. Regardless, no one did, and my speech was flawless. I wish I could say the same for that bright young woman at the top of your class.

I thought maybe, just maybe, you’d grow out of your exploratory phase by the time you reached college—or I’d be used to it by then. HA! Now who’s naive. I expected you, the same kid who tried to get high by smoking pencil shavings and lost their virginity to the sleeve of my old goose down parka, to squash your self-indulgent trial and error in an unsupervised smorgasbord of mind-altering substances and sexually-aware coeds? You know how kids feel awkward watching a sex scene with their parents? Imagine how I felt watching you contort your way through a mixed-gender fivesome—on multiple occasions, mind you. It’s amazing you even made it past your freshman year, with all the drugs you were ingesting and all the sex you were having. But then again, it’s amazing you got into a college in the first place.

To your credit, you did learn one thing during your three semesters of higher education that I never really got the grasp of; the value of friendship. Whenever you were late for class, there was always someone there to give you their notes or knock on your door or forge your name on the attendance sheet. When the dean of admissions sent you packing—saw that coming—your buddies set you up with a job and a bedroom in less than twenty-four hours. And every year, when the anniversary of my death rolled around, you were surrounded by smiling faces deeming you, “The World’s Greatest Scientist.” Yes, those words were emblazoned on the back of your ceremonial lab coat—nice touch, by the way—but I’ve been watching you long enough to know that most of those people were truly there to chase away the lingering sadness of my premature passing.

Hell, you’ve been shown more love and support as the son of a dead man than I experienced on my death bed. To be fair, a bar is a much easier sell than a hospital room, but I would’ve had just as much trouble filling a Super Bowl suite. I’m sure you, me, your mom, your grandmas and grandpas, your aunts and uncles, your cousins, Jim and Judy Johnson, and Stephen from my office would’ve had a blast, but that was about the extent of my friends list. And even some of them missed my funeral—which is probably why you were able to get away with your cremation taste test. Point is, you had a lot of friends. I just wish they were a little less supportive.

Maybe then you wouldn’t have had the money to go to Taiwan. Maybe then you wouldn’t have been introduced to Taiwanese snake whiskey. Maybe then you wouldn’t have bet that gangster you could jump through fire. Maybe then you wouldn’t have tried to collect your winnings? Maybe then, you wouldn’t have a knife in your chest.

What are you going to say to me once your heart stops beating? Are you going to curse me for giving you the thoughtless piece of advice that led you to an early grave? Are you going to berate me for being such a bore, you couldn’t help but take it?

I can’t believe you are LAUGHING. Don’t you realize you are dying? There is blood spurting through your teeth with every chuckle. There is no one around who can save you. This is game over. Every plan you made for the future is no more. Every milestone you hoped to achieve is officially out of reach. Everything you have been working toward your entire life—your career, your family, your retirement fund—will cease to be.

Oh. right. 

See you soon, Trevor. We have some catching up to do.


Written by: Mark Killian
Photo by: 
Blake Bronstad

The Blue

Posted on: July 21, 2016


“You sure you want to do this? I can wait,” Jack glances over at her, and the hunger in his brown eyes betrays him.

“I’ll be fine,” Natalie swallows bile rising in her throat and throws a half-hearted smile at her younger brother.

But Jack isn’t even looking for the tell-tale signs he has always been so careful to accommodate. His desire surpasses her comfort, and Natalie closes her eyes tight and counts to ten. She’ll have to get to “fine” pretty soon.

Natalie curls her tremoring hand into a thumb down before kicking her legs out and plunging backward into the water. It is the only way she can go in: without looking.

Once she is in the water, her anxiety subsides. The sea is warm, a crisp, sheer blue that wraps around her like Jack’s baby blanket. There is nothing scary down here. It looks darker from the surface, like something could be hiding, waiting.

It is easy to imagine Cthulhu lurking when you’re standing on the boat. In reality, the monster would be as out-of-place in the sea as a grizzly bear at a tea party.

Natalie kicks her legs, propelling herself forward. She glides through the water like she should be down here, like this is her world. Jack darts next to her, his slim body a dark streak against the blue. His hand forms a circle.

Okay?

Natalie returns the signal, her circle smaller, somehow dainty in the black neoprene gloves.

Okay.

Jack takes the lead down to the Coin.

He discovered the Coin on an ill-advised solo dive two weeks ago. When he returned, he dropped the GoPro on Natalie’s stomach, savasana interrupted with a startled belch of air.

‘You have to see this,’ Jack said. They watched the video together, hunched over the miniature screen. Natalie’s back had begun to ache by the time the Coin appeared.

At first, it was a faint light, a glowing pinprick in the distance. As Jack got closer, the video revealed a narrow circular passage in the gray rock wall, the water illuminated so it shone a brilliant blue in the dark.

‘You have to come with me. We have to see where it goes,’ Jack had said. And Natalie had simply nodded, not sure to what she had agreed.

As they dive deeper, the water shifts to a thick, sapphire blue. Jack’s headlamp cuts on ahead of her. Natalie clicks hers on as well, startling a nearby school of fish that glint silver in their exit.

Jack called it the Coin because he said it was more metallic in person, and because he felt lucky finding it. Like it was a penny, heads-up. Natalie asked him why he didn’t call it the Penny, and he rolled his eyes and said it wasn’t orange.

Natalie sees the glow ahead of her and understands what her brother meant. It is still that brilliant blue color, but shot through with an earthy shimmer, like looking at the inside of a geode.

They hover in front of it, and the circle exceeds their shared width. If they spread their arms out as wide as possible, the Coin would still eclipse them. It has grown since her brother was down here. In Jack’s video, they would have had to swim one following the other. Now they can swim side-by-side.

Or they could have, if Jack had not already gone into it.

Natalie follows him, but he is moving too fast. She is closing the distance, but she will not be able to catch up and swim next to him — at least, not without overexerting herself and using too much oxygen.

Jack’s body arches back and he pauses, floating in a kind of bent crouch. Natalie swims closer and his eyes grow wide, terrified. She shakes her head, confused.

His hand goes flat, the fingers spread wide. In a slow, stiff arc, Jack moves it back and forth.

Something is wrong.

Natalie reaches out, her grip tightening around Jack’s wrist. She pivots as an electric current pulses into her. Her body contorts and Natalie shivers with that pins-and-needles sensation, like she has gone numb and feeling has just returned to her body.

Next to her, Jack remains limp. His eyes dart in fear, long eyelashes fluttering. He floats, tethered only by Natalie’s hand. She drags him behind her, pulling the two of them back through the passage in long, labored strokes.

Her left arm feels like it will seize and give out, but the rest of her body quits before it gets the chance. Natalie’s vision comes to a point as the blue fades and the world shifts to a white, cotton ball haze.

*****

Something bubbles near the shore. Lii’s sharp face snaps to attention. Her icy eyes sweep over the surface of the cove until she spots the shapes in the gray.

Two figures stand near the rocky point. They wear tight, oily black clothes and turn in drowsy circles, gauging their surroundings with muffled shouts. Wrangling tubes and canisters, the two figures look bulky against the smooth surface of the lake.

The smaller one points at the forested hills on the other side of the cove. Lii can tell from the noises that they are confused, frantic. They grow louder when they remove their masks, their screams echoing. They are sharp and painful, like the bloody bellows of wounded game.

Lii has never seen interlopers emerge from the portal before, but she is ready. She scans the horizon and turns, eying the forest close to her section of shoreline. Birds caw in the dense trees and she is still safe. The beast has not yet heard the interlopers’ call, but soon it will. And it will answer in death.

She picks up her spear and marches forward.


Written by: Erin Justice
Photo by: Victoria Ostrzenski

Climax

Posted on: July 19, 2016



“It just looks so … sexual,” Allison said from behind the camera monitor. She looked to her director of photography, who nodded in agreement with one eye shut as he peered through the lens. “It’s supposed to be a horror flick, Brad,” she hollered to her actor in the bathroom. “So could you like … pretend to be scared?”

“How?”

“Well for starters, don’t slowly run your hand down the shower curtain.”

”I’m standing naked in a shower, Alli. I don’t know how else to be.”

“You don’t know how not to be sexy in a shower? Am I hearing you right?”

“Uh…yeah, okay,” Brad replied.

They had only been working together for a week, and Allison was running out of time to complete her senior project for her film studies class. She could kick herself for casting her roommate’s boyfriend in the lead role, but he swore he had film experience. Now she wondered what kind of film experience. She shook her head, cursing herself for not recruiting from the drama program first.

“Keep it rolling this time,” she said to her DP. He nodded. Silent and efficient, he was her ideal crew member. “Whenever you’re ready, Brad.”

Brad began whistling from the shower. It sounded oddly like “Rubber Ducky” from Sesame Street.

“What are you doing?” she yelled, standing from her makeshift director’s chair, which was nothing more than a rickety wooden barstool with the word “Director” painted down one leg-- a present from her overly optimistic parents.

“Trying to be casual. Not sexy, remember?”

She pressed her fingertips into her eyes, trying not to take her anger out on him. It wasn’t Brad’s fault she’d waited until the last minute to start shooting.

“Hey, the library needs this equipment back by eight,” her assistant director whispered.

“I know,” Allison huffed. “Let’s just give this one more go.”

Brad’s voice sounded from the overly acoustic bathroom. “So uh, what’s my motivation in this scene exactly?”

“Oh my god,” she grumbled. “Scared. You’re scared. Just take it from the top, everyone.”

The crew reset and Brad’s silhouetted form looked deep in thought.

“Quiet on set.” A hush fell over the apartment. “And go.”

The camera panned in from the left and began the slow zoom in, focusing on Brad’s silhouette. In Allison’s mind, the eerie background score was reaching its climax, building to the pinnacle moment of her short film when--

Arf! Arf arf arf!

“Margie, cut it out,” Allison growled, trying to get her yapping terrier to pipe down. The cast and crew held their positions, hoping Margie’s interjection didn’t mean starting over. “Keep rolling. We’ll fix it in post.”

The dark, imaginary orchestra resumed its playing in Allison’s head. The view from the monitor looked great. Never had her pieces looked this high quality before, and the building crescendo in her head made her stomach clench with anticipation. She held her breath, waiting for Brad’s pivotal line in the scene.

His shadowy figure froze. “Shit, what’s the line again?”

A disfigured clown stepped around the corner behind the assistant director. “Come on, man, you’ve had the script for a month now. Get it together.”

“Thank you, Tom, but I can handle it,” Allison said, scrounging up the last of her patience. “Okay, let’s keep going, people. Take it from Brad’s line, ‘Who’s there?’ Do you have it?” She asked him.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“Okay, whenever you’re ready.”

The figure repositioned, and Brad’s voice rang out like a bad Keanu Reeves impersonation.

“Who’s there?” His shadow shook its head. “Probably just my imagination.”

Even Allison jumped when the dark form of Tom passed in front of the camera. It was all coming together.

“Wait, what the hell is that?” the DP whispered.

“What’s what?”

He pointed to a black blob descending from the bathroom ceiling. She heaved a sigh, rolling her eyes. “Take it back to Tom’s entrance, everyone. We’ve got a boom in the shot.”

“No way,” the sound tech called from the bathroom. Allison had nearly forgotten Jerry was there. “I’ve had this thing at the same level the whole time,” he said, as the boom mic trembled with rage.

“Just keep it out of frame, okay?”

“I’m standing on the back of a freaking toilet. How much more out of frame can I be?”

“Dammit, Jerry. Make it work!”

She did feel a little sorry for the guy. Jerry was indeed standing on top of the water tank of a toilet in her tiny apartment bathroom holding a boom pole overhead. Maybe his arms weren’t shaking with frustration, but fatigue.

“Alright everyone, let’s take a breath and go back to the evil clown’s entrance.”

Whether or not it was what she envisioned, this was it. The crew was tired, people were starting to get sloppy, and the film would either be her best work, or it wouldn’t. There was nothing more she could do to stop the deadline’s determination to crush her.

“This is going to be the last run of the night,” she said, feeling somehow she was admitting defeat. The entire set sighed with relief as the cast and crew reset. “Whenever you’re ready, Brad.”

“Who’s there?” he said, the line sounding oddly better than before. “Probably just my imagination.”

The cloaked form of the evil clown darted in and out of frame. Everyone was on mark. Allison held her breath, the demonic orchestra rising in her head again.

“Cue, clown.”

Tom followed his mark perfectly and lunged in front of camera one, running down the visual corridor the DP had just created, straight for Brad. He wrapped both arms around the hero, pulling the opaque shower curtain down around him.

The camera zoomed, quick and precise as the DP stepped into the tiny bathroom. The two actors wrestled and writhed just as scripted, as Brad delivered his best blood-curdling screams. Allison watched the monitor with excitement and anticipation, waiting for something to go horribly wrong, but it didn’t. Brad’s screams died and the clown gave one last terrifying look to the camera above him, a maniacal laugh escaping his painted face. Even Allison shivered.

She had done it.

“And cut.”



Written by: HG Reed
Photo by: Erin Notarthomas

The Power of Water

Posted on: July 14, 2016


Maddie crouched at the riverbank on a small overlook. Brown water hissed around the rocks in front of her, foaming white, choking the edges of the river heavy with recent rains. She was never leaving. She would become a hermit, fish and hunt for game; the latter would provide food as well as warmth. Never mind that she had no taste for venison or bobcat or coyote. Loners – outcasts, weirdos – did what they must.

A balmy November wind blew at her back, rustling the weeds. Dead leaves curled around her toes. Maddie’s sneakers and socks lay behind her in the grass. She hadn’t meant to take them off. Somehow, though, she felt freer without them, unafraid, like her high school self, the barefooted camp counselor who’d taught the younger kids how to start a cook fire and purify water in this very park. Confident. Admired. Self-assured.

Nothing like the idiot who ran from Kevin earlier today.

Maddie loved Thursday evenings, the only nights that she and Mason both had free. After deciding to meet at five at a local restaurant, Maddie hung up and left the student center. She would shower, change, and finish some homework before leaving. She pushed the door open; cool air rushed around her jacket. In the entryway, a few feet from the door, stood Kevin.

They’d ignored each other since the spring. Maddie pretended he was a ghost, a figment of her imagination, the fading image of a nightmare, but today, she nodded to him.

Kevin slowed. “Oh, hey, Matt.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“You’re all alone. Scared away your new boy toy already?” Kevin stopped. “Must’ve been the lesbo haircut.”

“Fuck off.”

“He’s probably undressing a real girl right now.”

Always, always, always it came back to gender with Kevin. Here at the park, Maddie could fire off a hundred replies: I am a real girl; Mason wouldn’t lower himself to your standards; even if he hurts me, you can’t have me back.

But at school, her words decayed like a dead fish washed up on shore; the noxious fume filled her mouth, her nostrils. Maddie fought a gag reflex.

Kevin laughed. Maddie didn’t stop. She passed the library and the dorms, feet pounding against the sidewalk in a steady run. What kind of god allowed Kevin to corner her like that, with no witnesses?

The same god that made her, obviously.

In the parking garage, Maddie didn’t wait for the elevator; she ran down the stairs. On one jump, she skipped two stairs. Her foot caught the edge and slipped. Her hand wrenched from the railing, and Maddie stared into the abyss -- at the eight remaining steps and the concrete landing below.

If she let herself fall, would she melt into the concrete and disappear like water through a crack?

Maybe it was good balance, from the broken, dead trees over which she crossed rivers, or maybe it was luck, but Maddie stumbled down two more stairs, banging her hip into the metal railing. Breathing hard, she paused for only a moment before hobbling to her car and driving forty minutes to her woods, her river… Home.

Clouds hung in the sky, darkening the river as it lashed against the rocks. It was a battle, the water fighting for more space while the rocks, unmoved, stood in defiance.

Gender was supposed to be easy. But Maddie had always felt more comfortable outside – hiking, swimming, mountain biking, or mowing the lawn. She couldn’t do high heels or make-up. Not a girl, not a boy, Maddie was in between, fluid.

And Kevin hated that. Especially when she’d wanted to shave half her head and trim the other to a bob. “You can’t,” he’d said from the comfort of his dorm bed, leaning against the wall, his legs crossed. “I already feel like I’m dating a lesbian.”

Maddie rocked herself side to side in his wheelie chair. “What are you talking about?”

“You used to wear all those pink, lacy shirts for me. Why did you stop? Don’t I try for you? Don’t I dress up and bring you flowers?”

“You’re not dating my clothes.”

“All of a sudden, you dress like a man, and now you want to cut your hair. It’s like you want to be a guy. I date girls, Maddie.”

“You’re supposed to love me no matter what.”

“Don’t my needs matter to you?” Kevin asked.

They did. He wouldn’t be happy with her, so Maddie broke up with him. In his taunts afterward, Kevin made sure she knew about the “real girl” he cheated with.

The current attacked the boulder before her, bearing a stick; wayward water splashed onto the bank, dribbling across the dry dirt before seeping back into the river.

Maddie’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She’d blocked Kevin months ago, right? He couldn’t harass her, not here, not when there was nothing to stop her from staring into the abyss. The river water churned below her.

It was Mason. Where are you? his text read. Call me. It was five thirty, half an hour past their date.

Ahead was a bend in the river. The water beat against the rocks, brown frothing white before mixing back into the unrecognizable bulk of the river. Maddie stood. Her hip ached, and despite the balmy weather, her bare toes had numbed. On her phone, she typed, I’m sorry. It’s a long story.

But it didn’t matter. In the battle between the water and the rocks, the water – in its everlasting crusade for space, its attacks gentle or crushing depending on the current – won in the end.



Written by: Natalie Schriefer
Photo by: Kayla King

Beyond These Walls

Posted on: July 12, 2016


It was hard for Chyl to believe that there was a world outside the walls of the Palace of the White Sun. There were no windows, just curtains covering marble walls and doors that did not open. The gardens that surrounded the castle were always covered in a thick canopy of flowers, only allowing thin glimpses at the sky above and the clouds that covered it. People never really seemed to care about what was beyond the wall. They just continued on, marching through the resplendent halls as if the palace was all that existed. Chyl hardly believed that, but there were so many things one could do in the Palace of the White Sun, like dancing, playing hide and seek with the other children, and playing music, that she had never bothered to discover the truth.

Chyl's favorite activity was daydreaming, and the Cherry Garden was her favorite place to daydream. There was something about the carpet of luscious green grass, the canopy of white-pink petals, and the chatter of the stream that excited the imagination to all sorts of fantastical thoughts. Chyl imagined mythical creatures helping fair maidens on glorious quests and brave men in shining armor riding valiant steeds into epic battles. And more often than not, she imagined what lay in the land beyond the walls of the palace.

Few people knew exactly what was outside the walls. Only the King, the Queen, and a handful of guards at the gate, the only working door in the Palace, knew. To everyone else, the world beyond existed in memories of stories told long ago. Chyl knew them all. There was one about a famous captain from the Palace of the White Sun who had sailed all the way around the world. The story said the seas were full of sparkling blue water that shimmered like a carpet of diamonds, and the countries beyond hardly compared with the beauty of the Palace of the White Sun. Another story spoke of a knight who rode after the princess from the Palace of the Black Moon to ask for her hand in marriage. The knight had to fight horrid beasts, moving trees that grabbed at anyone who rode under their branches, and witches that lurked in the shadows. Most of the palace was content with the stories, but Chyl wanted to see the world outside though, not just hear about it. Why dream when you could know?

The branches on the cherry blossom trees were just low enough to climb. It was an enticing thought, climbing the branches. She had never acted on those thoughts, though. A voice deep inside her told her it was wrong, that there was a very good reason no one saw beyond the walls.

Today, though, that voice was quiet, and the branches tempted her. The stories and her daydreams didn’t satisfy her anymore. Slowly, Chyl sat up and got to her feet. As she did, the protesting voice woke, bring forth all the reasons she shouldn't attempt to look beyond the walls: if what was beyond the walls was meant to be seen, there would be windows, the flowers wouldn't have such a thick canopy, there would be no wall. Chyl ignored the voice in her head. Stepping over to the closest tree with a low branch, she hoisted herself up. Glancing up the tree, she realized how high she would have to climb before she broke the canopy.

Chyl was used to climbing trees; she loved sitting in the crooks of the branches to read or draw. As she climbed now though, she found it difficult. It was as if the tree didn't wish her to climb. Branches grabbed at her dress, weighing it down and ripping it. The branches snagged at her skin, drawing harsh red lines across her dark flesh, but Chyl refused to quit because of some minor struggle. She snapped the branches and beat them back out of her way. Her curiosity fueled her, pushing her on. Turning back was not an option.

Eventually, the branches left her alone. It was as if they realized their cause was useless. She pulled herself from branch to branch, making good time. Her feet found the footholds easily and her hands knew just where to go.

Soon, Chyl had passed the highest point she'd ever climbed in a tree. It was thrilling. The world seemed far away, and the canopy of flowers was closer than ever. Chyl stopped and stretched her fingers up to brush the soft petals. She stood for several moments simply caressing the petals. There was only one last step to take, to break through the canopy and see the world outside, but she hesitated. What's beyond the walls shouldn't be seen, the voice cooed, go back. Ignorance is bliss. You won't like what you see. But there was no way she could believe the voice, not when she was this close. Taking a deep breath, Chyl pulled herself up and stuck her head through the canopy.

Chyl felt like she'd been socked in the stomach. The stories had told her of a world that was beautiful, green, alive. What she saw was hardly alive. The land was black and dead. Fires burned off in the distance, throwing vicious gray smoke into the air and clouding the washed-out sky. Skeletal trees curled up from the ground like fingers, and from their darkened tips hung men, women, and children, long dead, bodies picked apart and destroyed. Instead of oceans and lakes full of sparkling crystal water, pools of murky water covered the ground, dark and sludgy. In the distance something scampered, much like the animals in the palace did, but when the creature stopped and looked in her direction, she did not see the face of an animal, but something between human and animal. And, as far as Chyl could see, no other kingdoms existed aside from her own. This was nothing like the stories. Beyond the walls laid horrors no man could ever imagine or should ever have the ability to.

"Chyl?"

She moved so quickly she almost fell out of the tree. Ducking back under the canopy, she saw her father staring up at her, a look of betrayal on his face.

"I'm sorry," she choked out. He shook his head.

"You were going to learn one day. We all do," he sighed. "We cannot live our lives in ignorance."



Written by: Cameron Mitchell
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

Cogito Ergo Zoom

Posted on: July 7, 2016


We cruised past the closed gas station lot with a glut of hot cars parked on it. Tim shifted his 1967 Pontiac GTO down to second gear and rode the tach right up to maybe five thousand rpm, the 400-cubic-inch engine roaring and snarling like a chained dragon. My Hemi Charger R/T added to the mechanical harmony. As we wailed away in second gear, two cars rolled out into the darkness behind us. The headlights in our mirrors rocketed up Woodward like anti-aircraft missiles turning toward enemy planes.

We signaled into a wide Woodward crossover to the southbound side at Bassett Street. A wildly modified ’65 Buick Riviera rolled in next to Tim, and a crappy ’62 Ford Galaxie stopped beside my Charger. The Galaxie was not a serious street racer, just a poseur. He couldn’t or didn’t want to spend the money it took to be serious. That’s actually a thing in racing.

Speed costs money. How fast can you afford to go?

The timeless jet-black Riviera was box stock on the outside, but in its engine bay growled a throaty, modified V-8 with the kind of spiteful intent never envisioned by Buick engineers. The owner had spent a lot of money on it, and that did not work in our favor.

We shut down all four cars and stepped out into the street, like gunslingers.

“Hey,” the tubby kid from the Riv said. “You guys lookin’ to see what those things can do out here?” He stood with arms crossed, but it only accentuated his thick midsection and made him look defensive.

Advantage ours.

“We know what our cars will do,” Tim said evenly. “We wanna know what yours will do—if you have the balls.”

The Riviera kid laughed like he’d been challenged this way before, and had sent the annihilated challengers home strapped to the hoods of their cars, like trophies of war.

“Yeah man, I got the balls. You got any money?”

Tim reached into his back pocket and withdrew an envelope thick with fifties.

“Well, all right,” the Ford kid said eagerly. He had a gap-toothed grin and an oily waterfall hairstyle, that sort of surf-wave coming over the front and slicked back on the sides. We looked at him like he was a turd—Not talkin’ to you, jerk.

You got any money, dude?” Tim demanded. The Riv kid reached into the left front pocket of his blue jeans and pulled out a roll of cash, fanning it back and forth in the air. It looked to be all hundred-dollar bills. A shit-ton of them.

“Asshole, I got the money. You got the courage to go with your daddy’s allowance?”

Tim didn’t take the bait.

“Here’s the deal,” Tim said, deadpan. “One grand, one run, no bullshit. Winner-winner-chicken-dinner. We line up over there at Hadsell Drive and race down Woodward to South Berkshire. That’s a bit more than a quarter mile, but I need less than that to put your shit on the fuckin’ trailer. The first car—the first car—to cross South Berkshire is the winner. Agreed?”

Damn, I thought. Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my college-prep pal, Tim?

“Who holds the money?” the Riv kid snarled. He was trying to sound tough now but it just came off as squeaky indignation. “Somebody needs to hold the money.”

Tim laughed an evil laugh.

“Well, it ain’t gonna be you, and this idiot”—he pointed to the Ford driver—“has an IQ about two points above plant life, so he’s out. We will hold the money.” He gestured to the Ford boy again. “Your little girlfriend here can ride with my friend and the cash, if that blows your skirt up. I get to South Berkshire first, we keep the cash. If you get there first, you get paid. But you are losing tonight, my friend. Bad. Your friends will still be laughing at your ass next September when you go back to do your junior year of vocational school over again.”

“Deal,” the Riv kid said. Tim reached out to shake hands on it and the kid slapped it away. “Fuck your handshake, asshole. Let’s race.” He gave me his cash, got back in his Riviera and burned rubber out onto Woodward.

Tim turned to face me.

Oooooh,” he stage-whispered, “must be a tough guy.” He smiled with confidence, gave me a thumbs up, and went to his car.

Tim lined up next to the hulking Riviera. When the engines sounded like they were about to explode, I blipped my headlights once and they launched.

A smoky blue curtain of shrieks and melted rubber enveloped them, and then the black Riviera lunged forward like it came off the catapult of an aircraft carrier.

A few seconds later, I saw the flashing red lights of two police cars reflecting off the pine trees in the median between north and south Woodward.

Tim was casually driving twenty-five miles per hour in the center lane when I caught up with him. The Riviera was stopped and bracketed front and rear by two Birmingham police cars, and officers who looked angry even in the poor light.

When our cars rolled past him, the kid glared at us something fierce and Tim flipped him the bird. Seconds later, the GTO indeed was the first car to cross the finish line at South Berkshire. We pulled into the Mobil gas station about a block farther on.

“You can get out here,” I said to the Ford kid sitting next to me. “First car won. You can walk back to your little buddy. He’ll be a few minutes yet.” He got out and looked up Woodward to the traffic stop, irritated and bewildered.

We drove a few miles over to our eastside hangout. I got out of my Charger and into the passenger seat of Tim’s GTO, grabbed his right arm in two hands and shook it forcefully.

“What just happened?!”

He chuckled. “‘Situational awareness.’ I saw those cops lurking on that side street, and goaded that Riviera kid into a big-dollar race knowing he couldn’t resist the challenge. We launched hard, but I shut down.”

I looked at my mastermind friend in frank admiration.

“Then, as you saw, I was the first car to cross South Berkshire. We win. Cogito ergo zoom.”

Cogito ergo sum is a Descartes phrase generally translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo zoom was an axiom by legendary advertising and car magazine editor David E. Davis.

It means, “I think, therefore I go fast.”

Written by: Daniel Charles Ross
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

The Caravan

Posted on: July 5, 2016


The caravan stopped again.

“Two more,” someone near the door shouted. The passengers all groaned and huddled even closer together. Most had been left behind before. Days, weeks, even months spent walking down deserted streets, desperate for a ride to the camp, only to watch their potential salvation speed past, cries of “full up” trailing behind. So they make room now, though it means sitting on laps, and on the floor, and not being able to sit at all.

How did Jonah put it? “Packed in like cattle off to slaughter.” Alec tried to remember if he had ever learned about cattle back in school, but couldn’t summon the image. Perhaps that was what he would have learned in second tier, he thought. He’d never know now. Jonah says that the cattle died off long ago anyway. That’s why being compared to them made Alec uncomfortable, he was afraid he’d share the same fate. Jonah smiled at him when he confessed this secret fear and told him he was a worrier like their mother had been. Alec didn’t like this comparison any better. He did not want to share her fate either.

As the truck began to move again, Alec wondered about the new arrivals, what their lives had been like before. It was a game he played to pass the time and to distract himself from the fear that had started to grow in his belly. The lady was a doctor, he decided. And the man was a baker. No, not a baker. His mother had been a baker and it was best not to think of her. Because if he thought about her too much, he remembered how his mother looked the last time he saw her; tears in her eyes, but not on her face, trying to be strong. How she had told him to be brave and that she loved him and told Jonah to care for him. He remembered how her arm reached out to touch him one last time, before she realized what she was doing and recoiled into herself. There would be no hug goodbye. No kiss. They couldn’t risk it. So it was with a wave that Alec had said goodbye to his sick mother and started on the long walk with Jonah. They were lucky, climbing aboard the then half-full caravan after only a week on the road.

A cough interrupted Alec’s thoughts. The whole truck went still. Another cough. The brakes slammed so hard they fishtailed in the sandy road before coming to a stop. Light filled the truck as someone swung open the doors.

“Who was it?” came a booming voice. Alec recognized the gruff accent of the Commander that had interviewed Jonah and him before their intake. He was a large man with hair covering his face but none on his head. Not even eyebrows. “See, mom was right,” Jonah had whispered to Alec when they had first seen the Commander. “It’s from the treatment!”

Now, Alec ran his hand over his own bare head, a nervous tick he had developed, and waited to hear what would happen next.

“No one’s gonna own up to it huh? Fine then, everybody out. Everybody,” ordered the Commander.

Slowly the mass of people spilled out of the truck. They were separated, the vaccinated, or Baldies, as the Commander called them, on one side of the road, the Untreated, on the other. Still no one had admitted to the cough.

“Look around you. Look at all the people you are putting at risk. You know the cough is the first sign. You know it will progress quickly, that it will begin to spread. And still you stay silent. Coward!” the Commander bellowed. He addressed only the Untreated, the ones that weren’t lucky enough, or rich enough, to get the vaccine. Still, no one came forward.

“Then you leave me no choice. Obviously the scanner we have doesn’t work. Everyone registered clean before we let you on the truck. I cannot bring an infected to the camp. And since I do not know who is sick, I have no other option but to leave you all behind. Baldies in the truck”.

The Untreated began to panic. Children sobbed, men and women began to accuse each other of being the cause for their banishment. An old man simply sat down, defeated, in the dirt on the side of the road.

Then, finally, Alec watched as a man stepped forward, wrenching himself from his wife’s grasp. “It was me. I coughed. I’m sick. Just me though. There is no fever yet, you can feel my head. I have no rash. I am not contagious. My family is not ill, I couldn’t have infected any of the others yet. Please, just leave me behind.”

The Commander himself went to feel the man’s head. He looked him over for the rash. Satisfied, the Commander nodded once at the man. “Fine,” said the Commander. “Everyone back in the truck. But your family sticks by me. The first sign that they’re sick too and it‘s over, you hear? Let’s move.”

The man nodded to his wife, and whispered something to his children. They reached for him but his wife held them back. They would only get a wave as well.

As they boarded the truck, each member of the caravan nodded to the man and wished him well, knowing that he wouldn’t be and that the virus would take him slowly and painfully. They’d all seen it. But for the man’s sake they pretended they hadn’t and said their goodbyes. All but Alec, who avoided the man’s eyes as he boarded the truck behind his brother.

Later, after Jonah had fallen asleep, and the whole truck was quiet, Alec sat up rubbing his head. Over and over he repeated to himself what his mother had said before they left, as she showed Jonah how to shave their heads to look like the Baldies. “You just need to make it to the camp. They have the vaccine there. You just have to make it to the camp. Whatever it takes….”

“Whatever it takes,” Alec whispered to himself, running his hand over the stubble on his burning head. He’d need Jonah to shave it again tomorrow. Alec spent the night watching the now fatherless children sleep, telling himself they would be at the camp soon. They’d all be safe soon. “Whatever it takes”, he whispered again, burying his head into his arm to suppress another cough. Whatever it takes.



Written by: Lindsay Sakatch
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

The Killers, Part I

Posted on: June 30, 2016


Carl points his gnarly, yellow-nailed finger (cigarettes) at the graffiti and says:

“Hey, that’s pretty funny.”

The graffiti is Don’t Open. Dead Inside.

“Yeah, that’s pretty funny, Carl,” you say.

You’ve been killing people, you and Carl, long enough to know that the graffiti might as well be tattooed on your chest. When your time comes and they open you up under the fluorescent lights of the basement morgue, out of you will come a stink that smells like sulfur and gut rot. You’ve been thinking that each kill is you playing god, and that each loss of life measures out in some place unseen on the cosmic scale, and that in this invisible place beyond the horizon there are racks on racks on racks of unpaid tickets, crimes against humanity, and that eventually you will be responsible for those tickets.

Lately, you’ve been getting nervous about this whole death thing.

Next week, you turn thirty.

“Carl, do you remember when you were a young man?”

“I remember everything, honey. Remember it all like it was yesterday.”

You’ve been telling Carl to stop calling you “honey” for years but the old fool does not listen and now it’s honey, honey, honey, and goddamn, you cannot mess with things you cannot control.

“You ever worry about fate, Carl?”

Carl flips his half smoked cigarette out of the open car window and says:

“Honey, I don’t think too much on fate. That’s a mad man’s game, worrying about fate.”

It’s so hot outside that the open window doubles as an open oven door when you’re not moving, so you pull the truck slowly away from the graffitied garage door with the dead inside and the warnings to keep shit closed.

East Austin: ain’t like it used to be. There used to be dusty parking lots and shabby bars, Mexicans and blacks, a faint whiff of danger in the stagnant summer nights. Now, you ask, what’s left? Condos. Fancy restaurants always crowded. Hordes of tourists that move up and down the street like newborns blind to traffic or death. The Mexicans moved east, and the blacks, well, you don’t know where the blacks moved.

Carl is black, so you ask him.

“Gone fishin’, brother.”

He doesn’t say anything more, so either he doesn’t know or he doesn’t feel like sharing the information with a shithead young buck white boy, and you know both answers mean the question will drift down the street, out of town like an unwanted stranger.

It is funny, you think, seizing the hypothetical before it goes, that you can kill a man with Carl, an act of instinct, and one that is very intimate, and yet he still won’t talk about his race and color.

“Weird…” you mutter to no one; not to Carl, nor the faded blue paint on brick walls, sixth street, steel bones of prepubescent buildings covered in sun and burning to the touch; none of it is weird, none of it is much of anything, and goddamn if it doesn’t make you pretty sad.

You pull up to the coffee shop and Google Maps goes:

You’ve arrived at your destination! Happy killing!
The coffee shop is an old house with mismatched antique furniture in the front yard. There’s a wraparound wooden porch, home to a half-dozen white-painted steel patio chairs and their table partners, each one in varying stages of disrepair. Everything is manicured, the environment subjugated, the scene one of inflated good taste, the revelation of the cool.

Carl walks with a limp from the time he took a machete to the thigh. It clipped his femoral artery and there was blood, blood, blood. You remember you were close quarters with some whacked out Colombians full of crack and unpaid dues, tenants of your boss, in this little white house with white walls and a white staircase, and when a bleeding Carl tumbled down that staircase, dude left a trail of macabre painterly genius, like Jack the Ripper and Jackson Pollack came together and opened an art exhibit. You even took a picture with your iPhone after you shot the Colombians dead-meat dead.

Those days were a little wild, but Carl survived, and eventually everything went back to normal.

“What if he ain’t here?” Carl asks.

Even though he’s two decades older than you, Carl knows that you’re smarter than he is, and so he capitulates to your plans most of the time. But the old-timer still gets nervous around cell phones, doesn’t trust technology or GPS, has dreams about floating satellites beaming nightmares into his sleeping skull, and so he’s always afraid “the guy” won’t be where he’s supposed to be. That’s Carl’s mantra, motto, and creed: What if he ain’t here?

“He’ll be here,” you say. “If he ain’t here now, he will be shortly, and we’ll just wait and have a coffee and strike up conversation.”

Inside the coffee shop there’s a wooden bar with stools painted different colors of springtime pastel. There’s a glass case of muffins, a big fat tip jar full of pennies and nickels and one poor bastard fiver, and a chalkboard with: Today’s Specials! Vegan White Bean Chili! Split Pea Soup w/ Rosemary!

You’re in what was the kitchen of the house, and they’ve knocked down the wall to what was the living room, with windows that open out to Sixth Street, and dark couches with light floral patterns and millennials on them. Some asshole plays an acoustic in the corner and behind him the Texas sun is turning purple through the window and even from this distance, you can see flecks of dust rise and fall, disappear and reappear like electrons, with the in and out breath of the dozen or so young adults chatting and drinking coffee and carrying the fuck on.

You and Carl take a seat at the bar.

“Place looks faggy,” Carl mutters.

“Get you something?” asks the barista.

“Black coffee,” you say and Carl nods, one for me as well.

The barista looks at you like: French press or...? And then says:

“Anything else?”

“Not right now,” you say. “We’re waiting on a friend.”


Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

Mirlitons

Posted on: June 28, 2016


CeCe’s nude heels clacked against the concrete sidewalk as she tugged on her black silk dress. It was the only funeral attire she owned, and it was too unforgiving for late June’s inescapable humidity. CeCe had gained ten pounds since the last time she had worn it, which meant it required constant readjustment. She had pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail, but tendrils still curled and stuck in the sweat against her neck. She reached out to pull the ponytail over her shoulder, exposing the tattoo of a chef’s knife on her wrist to her mother Bitsy’s glaring eyes.

The porch on the double shotgun house looked exactly as CeCe remembered -- bright and old and mismatched, just like the left side’s former inhabitant. Lester LeBones, the voodoo skeleton that Lorraine claimed brought the New Orleans Saints good luck, still held his place of honor right in the center of the porch’s sag. Having never made his postseason retreat to the attic, Lester sported a few strands of what had once been purple and green Mardi Gras beads, worn silvery by sun and rain alike.

The front door to the house was slightly ajar, and stanzas of gospel and the smell of boiling crawfish crept out from the living room into the street. CeCe and her parents paused at the front door.

“Remember about the knife and the books,” her father Louis said to her, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves. He was all business, but the droop at the corners of his mouth gave away his sadness.

One of Lorraine’s cousins had found a handwritten will dated five years back stuffed in a shoebox full of cash. She had bequeathed her chef’s knife and cookbooks to CeCe. CeCe had spent her formative years poring over those books, devouring the recipes as if they were sustenance. She knew she would take those, but taking Lorraine’s knife seemed too personal, like taking somebody’s arm.

CeCe stepped tentatively over the threshold, followed by her mother and father, and had barely rebalanced on her heels before a giant tree of a man hugged her so fiercely he almost knocked the breath out of her.

“CeCe! It has been a minute!” The boom of the voice coming from the chest it belonged to made CeCe’s ears ring.

She unearthed herself and pulled back to find a pair of green eyes set in ebony skin crinkled back at her.

“Kenneth!” she shrieked, and nestled back into his rib cage for another squeeze. He was Lorraine’s nephew, who had run off to Nashville with his brass band years ago. The last time CeCe had seen him was when she was fifteen and they were drinking illicit beers on the very front porch ten feet behind them.

“Bay...bee...GURL!” he cried, giving her a squeeze with each punctuated syllable. “You a Yankee now? Working at a big old restaurant in New York? Rooting for them Jets?”

“Screw the Jets.”

Kenneth gave Bitsy a gentle kiss on the cheek and Louis a formal handshake. He put his arm around CeCe’s neck and paraded the three of them through the house. Some of the people had frequented Lorraine’s kitchen table over the years and fussed over CeCe like their own long lost daughter. Other folks CeCe knew only from Lorraine’s stories. “Pleasure to meet you in the flesh,” she’d say, and they’d hug like they’d been acquainted for years.

CeCe made her way to the kitchen. She half expected to find it shrouded in black gauze. Instead, she found its formica table and chipped green tiled countertops overloaded with food, enough to nourish the mourners through their grief.

At the sink stood Lorraine’s best friend Doreen. “She loved you as if you were her own child, dear,” the normally gregarious woman said gently, patting CeCe’s cheek. CeCe nodded, tears finding their way to the corners of her eyes. CeCe wasn’t sure why people always assumed she needed mothering, but in this instance, she was happy to accept.

The evening was a funeral, a party, a family reunion, and a group therapy session. It was a blur of faces and names and stories about Lorraine walking through waist-high floodwaters to rescue her Mardi Gras costume box from her momma’s house and what everyone’s favorite meal of Lorraine’s was and how Lorraine had mended shattered hearts one by one, plate by plate. The summer air rolled into the room, coaxing sweat beads from eyebrows and sticking thighs to chairs and keeping stories lingering in the room, in hopes of drawing a complete picture of their subject. Louis laughed and clapped the backs of the storytellers. His sister-in-law had always brought out his most jovial side. Bitsy did what all Southern women do in foreign kitchens and pitched in with dishwashing duties.

Eventually, CeCe snuck away from the kitchen into the dining room, which was festooned with Zulu coconuts and Lorraine’s gaudy souvenir spoon collection. The dining room also held Lorraine’s cookbooks, nearly fifty of them slung and stuffed haphazardly onto an insufficient bookshelf. CeCe pulled one off without looking, and out of habit the book fell open to recipe for shrimp stuffed mirlitons. She and Lorraine had made this recipe together once, a test run before a Thanksgiving feast. They had stuffed themselves with the results while talking about CeCe’s high school boyfriend. She had trusted her aunt with every little detail of her life, from who she kissed to what her dreams were. She ran her fingers over the mirliton recipe, turned the corner of the page down, and hugged the book close to her heart.

                                                                                                        ***

Back in New York City, not a day passed where CeCe didn’t wish she could call up Lorraine -- to make her laugh, to ask her what would go best with the beautiful carrots she found at the farmer’s market. But when the head chef asked her to help conceive a new dish at the restaurant that fall, she had an answer.

“Mirlitons.”

“What?”

“Shrimp stuffed mirlitons.”

Chef looked at CeCe for a minute. He cocked his head to one side and cracked his meaty, tattooed knuckles.

“Alright, Landry. I’m listening.”



Written by: Clancy Fink
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart

On the Other Side of the Mountain

Posted on: June 23, 2016


Trees grew at the mountain’s snow-covered base, left undisturbed by a less primitive race of people. To Jeannie, the summit didn’t seem so far away, but the path took a snake-like route, adding far more miles than a direct path to the top. The group paused momentarily to take in the view, then continued on the frosty trail.

“I can’t believe we’ve hiked thirty miles already and we’re only at the base of the thing!” Archer’s younger sister Amie laughed and shook her head.

Jeannie sat watching the sunset while the brother and sister built the fire. It didn’t bother her that she barely knew them or why they were willing to help her; the fact was, she needed help. Archer the navigator and Amie the nature expert, the perfect traveling pair. She was just the tagalong. She shivered remembering how cold she was when Archer had found her. How long this journey was taking her. Amie interrupted her thoughts.

“I can’t believe we haven’t had one blizzard! This might just be easier then I thought! Just think, the three of us fighting our way to the top of the mountain. Will we make it? That’s up to chance.”

What a flair for the dramatics--nothing like her brother, thought Jeannie.

That night, Jeannie dreamed of fireplaces and wooden walls, felt the utter joy when she saw…

“Sorry to wake you--” Archer’s head appeared in the tent flap. “We need to get going. There’s a storm coming.” He backed out then called, “You’d better hurry.”

Snow had fallen so thick they could barely pick up their feet. Archer half carried Amie over snowdrifts so deep her tiny frame sank to her waist.

Jeannie said nothing the entire three miles, and by the time the sky showed the pink signs of sunrise, she was exhausted.

“Please, can’t we just rest for a while?” she begged. For once, Amie said nothing and plopped down on a rock next to Jeannie. Jeannie tucked her icy fingers under her arms, looking for heat that wasn’t there. She had never thought she was crazy until now. Her goal had always blinded the insanity of her endeavor, and even when Archer saved her, she had thought she was being rational.

It was a miracle Archer had thought to look near the snow slide. She had thought the cave would be a good place to sleep until the snow stopped, but as she slept, the mouth of the cave slowly covered with snow. By the time she tried to dig herself out, the pile was too thick. If Archer hadn’t been there, heard her scream, she never would have made it out.

                                                                                                    ***

We must be nearly to the summit, Jeannie thought. They had covered only five miles in six hours, and the snow was still falling in sheets.

“What are we going to do? How can we go on in this weather?” she asked. Amie just smiled and Archer shrugged and pressed forward. I guess we just keep going and hope for the best, she thought.

That night, Amie told stories while cooking dinner over the fire. “We needed more money to travel. I was only working at the general store, and Archer was writing for the tiny paper back home.” She blabbered on, but Jeannie was hardly listening. She was dreaming about what was waiting for her on the other side of the mountain.

                                                                                                    ***

“There’s the summit!” They all looked at the mountaintop only a few miles away. It had been a long few weeks before the snow had stopped. Archer shared his sister’s excitement, but Jeannie remained silent.

Her mind drifted back to a boy waving as he boarded the train, his green army uniform still clean, his pack too big for his back. Then she remembered the call that he was gone. MIA, miss. I’m so sorry. But she knew he couldn’t be gone gone. She pictured the log cabin where his family had stayed when he was young, the times that he had told her about it, how it was it was his favorite place on earth. And now, finally, she was so close, just on the other side of the mountain.

Tonight, she thought. I can make it on my own now. Archer talked with Jeannie by the fire that night. She liked his company, the way he treated her like a sister instead of some girl he had picked up on the way. She knew he thought of her as one of them. But I’m not, I can’t be, she reminded herself again. No one can follow me.

The crescent moon was high and the stars in full shine when Jeannie began to steal away from the sleeping camp. Wind whipped her face as she crept through snow-covered trees. She turned toward a sudden noise.

“JEEAANNNIIEEEE!!”

Archer stumbled through the snow, shouting. She ran through the snow as fast as she could and hid behind an evergreen, knowing the darkness would hide her tracks. She nearly cried as she saw Archer stumble past, begging her to come back.

She wanted to call out to him, to tell Archer to come with her, but she couldn’t, she knew that. What would they do? she thought, What if they told someone? Deserters are not taken lightly. Who knows if I would ever see my beloved soldier boy again.
As Archer’s calls faded into the distance, Jeanie slipped out from behind her hiding place. As the night wore on, she became increasingly lost. The snow, gone for several weeks, returned so heavy she could barely see where she was going. She stumbled as the wind whipped around her. Just keep going, you’ll be there soon.

But by sunrise, she was still alone. “What have I done!” she cried, “Why did I think I could do this alone? Oh Annachie, I’m so sorry.” In her exhaustion, she lost her footing and tumbled down a snowy slope. That’s when she noticed the little column of smoke from between the trees. Her heart racing, she ran in its direction, half crying with joy. Tripping over herself, she fell face first in the snow.

“Stay where you are,” came a voice behind her. Jeannie looked up and saw the little cabin only a few meters away. She heard the crunching of snow and turned to see the end of a shotgun barrel only feet from her face. Her eyes traveled up the gun to the man holding it. “Three years,” he said. “It took you three long years.”

“Yes, Annachie, but I’m home.”



Written by: Tess Selby
Photograph by: Blake Bronstad

Illusion

Posted on: June 21, 2016


We smoke for the first time together in her attic apartment, the ceiling unfinished, hidden by tapestries that meet at a point in the center. One is pale purple and patterned with flowers. Another holds colors of a sunset.

She packs the glass bowl, and hands it to me. When she says the word, “Greens,” I watch her mouth open to reveal her teeth, and it looks more genuine than the smile I saw back at the bar.

“I never—” I say, and she adjusts my hands, and lowers the flame in front of me. I take a deep breath and cough and she laughs as the small amount of smoke I’d taken in fills the space between us.

I can’t stop myself from kissing her again, this time with tongues and teeth, which clink together like our wine glasses just an hour or so before.

I met Prue at a place called Gypsy’s.

She pointed to women dressed in thick petticoats, brocade blooms patterning the fabric. She told me they called themselves sisters of the sun, homemade henna tattoos on their arms to prove it.

“You have to meet the fortune teller,” she said, pulling me to a table near the back of the bar.

I waited in line while she drank more wine, staining her lips a deep red. I wanted to kiss her an infinite amount of times, but I didn’t tell her this. Instead I kissed her once, and proceeded to the table.

“You are faithful, a loyal man, true. But you see the colors, too,” the fortune teller said, tracing the lines of my palm. I wondered how they were visible beneath my callouses; if she knew I was a painter. I said nothing, just nodded and tipped her and walked back to Prue, who gave me her hand. I traced it the same way the fortune teller did without seeing anything but her in front of me.

She said, “Follow me.” And I did.

Prue kissed me from one street corner to the next until we reached her place.

Now, when she smokes, she seems to fall back against the world, and as I take another hit, I wait to feel the same thing. But I find myself distracted by the way the bowl gleams beneath the lights on the ceiling, so purple and pure and pulsing when I squint just right.

“The lights,” I say, because I can’t say anything else. I don’t know how to explain that the lights look more alive than I feel because maybe they are alive and I’m just here; an illusion.

“I strung them myself,” she says. And I kiss her for the lights, and the moment. I can’t remember ever feeling the world in such a monumental way.

She offers me another hit, holding the bowl in front of me, letting me go slow.

“You see the fortune teller,” I say.

“Where?” Prue asks. I trace the outline of the purple flowers on the tapestry above.

We find other shapes on the tapestry, too, like we’re cloud gazing, but the ceiling is the sky, and after a while, my eyes feel heavy, and I sink into the floor, falling back against the world.

                                                                                                    ***

The first few weeks together exist in a black hole; time tentative and unreal. At my place, Prue runs her hands over the half-finished people who live within my sketchbook.

She dips her finger in a bit of blue, same as the spring sky. She paints points on blank pages. “The mountains,” she says. “They’re calling me.”

“I’ve never been,” I say, my brush in the blue, letting it puddle just so beneath her eyes.

She explains time in the mountains changes people. “But I know I’ll never go,” she says. The words are clipped, as if she's cut her hopes before they feel too real. Her eyes wander, reveal her gypsy soul within that bathetic body; an unmoving juxtaposition between want and need.

I paint Prue with perfect lips, covering the canvas with her arms and covering those in small swirls, which remind me of the sun and our first date and the beginning of everything.

“What’s your favorite season?” I ask. “For the background, you know?” I try to imagine the color scheme she’ll choose before she says it, but I can’t.

“The In-Between. That’s what I love,” she says. “One sprout through frozen ground, not quite thawed. Dandelion snow. The just-there-crisp as the first leaves fall; days disappearing,” she says.

When I finish, Prue looks at my work, stares at herself, and the faint hint of mountains beyond. I wonder if she recognizes this version, almost sad. She kisses my hands despite the paint, and I think she understands; I know her.

                                                                                                    ***

Most nights we sleep and smoke beneath my painting of Prue, her acrylic eyes protecting us from the world. I kiss my Prue and see her in shades of yellow: butter and daisies and faded henna and honey. I don’t remember when I start to see her this way, until one day, her jaundiced skin is all I see.

                                                                                                    ***

Prue sleeps and sleeps and never wakes. I’m not sure where she goes, but when I look at her, I feel trapped in the sun’s rays, eyes blinded. Sometimes it hurts too much to look at her, so instead I kiss her, and ask if she believes in the future. When she doesn’t answer, I roll a joint with thin sketch paper from the book she bought me for my birthday. While she sleeps, I smoke, and I wait for everything else to disappear.

                                                                                                    ***
One month later, Prue disappears.

They take her body and leave me with her painting. And for days after, I paint her. I surround her with pale purple flowers, eyes clouded with something I could never see.

I pack her few belongings from the attic apartment, and bring them back to my place. I take each of the tapestries, and the purple lights, which burn out.

                                                                                                    ***

I’m arrested outside her building.

The officer waits until I finish the henna lines on Prue’s arms, which I’ve painted on the side of the building.

She exists for everyone now, the brick bleeding through her skin. Her lips are dark red and everything else is pale and pure and if I squint just right, she starts to fade at the edges; only a ghost.

                                                                                                    ***

I’m released the next day, and I return to her building because I need to see her.

From the alley, I smell fresh paint.

Prue isn’t here.

Painted over.

Disappeared.


Written by: Kayla King
Photograph by: Tiffany Melanson

Too Much

Posted on: June 16, 2016


It is March, and the salt-bleached sidewalks pull me in a familiar direction. I know this road well. I have walked it often in preparation for the events that are about to transpire. Today is a Tuesday, it is 8:17am, and so the white Tesla will pass me within the next few minutes. It will be traveling at approximately 45 kms/hour. The driver— a woman in her forties like me—will be sipping a coffee. She will disappear around the corner just minutes before the door of the squat, brick house that is her home, will open and a young man will exit. He will be wearing a warm coat, but no hat or gloves. He will be carrying a blue canvas backpack. He will not be wearing a bike helmet today, as he will leave his bike behind and ride the bus to attend a class downtown.

I know that this will happen because I have been meticulous in my planning. I know he will be alone and I know he will be on time—the bus schedule demands punctuality. He rides the bus though his Honda Civic sits unused in the driveway. He is no longer allowed to drive that or any other car. Not since that night two years ago when the streets were dark and slick and his senses had been dimmed by consumption of too much … too much everything. He is too much. A boy—no, a man—who has too much, demands too much. He takes too much for granted. He has taken too much from me.

Across the road, I take in the view that hangs as the backdrop of their lives. The lake, pale blue; the forests, soon to be green again; and the sky that hangs serenely above it. The highway—always congested with transport trucks—and the train tracks, invisible unless you know they are there. They are the closest these people will come to connecting with the blue collar soul of this industrial city. They don’t know us, the people who make up the backbone of their home. That we collided at all was an accident, one they would sooner forget. An accident that is never out of my thoughts.

My feet crunch through the detritus of winter, the white salt crystals snap under my heavy tread. I walk with steps that echo a confidence my heart does not feel. I want my feet and my legs to lend their strength to the rest of me. I want the strong rhythm of my gait—a rhythm which suggests determination—to hide that I am a weak creature. Today I need to belie that weakness, to find a strength that typically evades me.

The white Tesla sails smoothly and silently past me and I avert my eyes, as I do every Tuesday morning. My face would be recognizable to the woman driving. It would be alarming for her to see me here, since she has left me behind. My face should only occupy the space in her memories that she would rather not look at. I should remain in the courtroom where we once sat on opposite sides. We fought—ferocious as mother bears—arguing for the judge, desperate for his agreement. We fought for our young.

I quicken my pace as I approach the house that the Tesla has just pulled away from, and my palms sweat with anticipation over what I am about to do. I picture it in my head, though I know the scene is all wrong—it is fiction. The weight of the bat in my hand is too easy, the crack it makes when it connects is a cartoon version of the sound I expect to hear. In reality, the sound will not be the sharp crack of the crust of crème brulè as it fractures under my spoon. It will be the flat thud of raspberry pie fallen to the floor, a wet sound, anticlimactic. A sound I heard once that told me something I loved had been irreparably broken. I know the sticky red syrup that I picture spilling across the asphalt is also wrong. It is nothing like the the dark black blood that I remember seeping into the snow as her body turned cold.

The door opens and the boy—no, the man—appears. He fusses with the keys. He has cut his hair since I watched him cry by the side of the road as my daughter died. It was even longer when he pled his case, begged for leniency because he had so much potential and he felt remorse, and he still had his whole life ahead of him. My daughter does not.

His keys drop into the slush and he bends to retrieve them, cursing under his breath.

I grip the handle of my bat firmly as I walk forward. I hear the crunch of the salt under my boots. Snapping and cracking.

He must hear the sound too, for he looks up, right into my eyes. There is a moment of recognition. There is a moment of confusion. There is no time for fear as I bring my bat down against his skull. He does not cry out. He does not fight back. I am strong, and my aim is good. He stumbles as I raise the bat and bring it down again. This time the impact knocks him to the ground. I raise my bat again. And again.

There is no blood.

There is only a broken man—once a boy—and an irreparable woman—once a mother—on a salt-bleached stretch of sidewalk, wrapped in cruel memories—wrapped in cold March wind.


Photograph and Story by: Sarah Scott

2 Drink Minimum

Posted on: June 14, 2016


The bar is small, dark, and trite, nestled in a strip mall between a prosperous and garish Korean nail salon and the upscale Gourdough’s Public House. This bar is not upscale. It survives precisely because it’s a hole people can climb into and pull over themselves.

It’s as anonymous as porn theater sex. It has no windows, no sign over the door, no chipped and faded little cigarette-company decal with a penguin proclaiming Come on in, it’s KOOL inside! The metal door is old and rusted, dented here and there, with two punctures that let in rain. It works with a scream of protest, just like most of the bar’s patrons.

The place has weathered barn wood nailed to the wall at the far end, and a few dart players of unreliable skill throw feathered projectiles at a target hung from a nail. A ragged color printout of someone’s ex-wife is taped over the ten-ring, encouraging accuracy. Most of the darts embed into the barn wood anyway.

As a celluloid Nick the Bartender said to the you-never-existed George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, this too is a place where men, and now women, are hard customers who come to drink hard liquor, and get drunk. If you can’t drink at least two, you are out of your league here. Go next door to Gourdough’s where there is better lighting and you can order your fucking Mojito.

Coincidentally, the bartender here is also named Nick. He hasn’t mixed a White Russian in two years. There was that Manhattan last month, but it was served to a regular who followed up with a triple Lagavulin neat. The woman’s date never showed—married prick, got cold feet. After almost two years on that bar stool, she never came back.

This is a destination bar, where men and women often meet with others not their spouse. Couples huddle in booths around the perimeter of the main room. A few more sit at booths and a few tables in satellite rooms even darker than the main area. There are other regulars, too. You can buy or sell information here, or plan some deal, but don’t get caught with dope or it’s your ass. If someone calls in looking for a customer—a frantic wife, an angry husband—no one is ever there. Sorry, really busy. Take a message?

Detective Inspector Douglas Lee Pavlichek is distinguishable from the other customers only to the bartender. Nick has served the cop booze since he came on the job; through two marriages, three killed partners and six promotions. He does a very passable simulation of a businessman, with his Abboud suits and Burberry trench coat. The homicide cops are well known to be natty dressers, and Pavlichek does his part. You need nice suits when you go to your partners’ funerals. Pavlichek doesn’t have a terrible average, though, for his thirty-two years. That works out to less than one dead partner per decade. But after he lost Mooney, Pavlichek decided he’d rather work solo. He’s on the glide slope to a disappointing retirement anyway, so the bosses agreed.

He also doesn’t care about any two-drink minimum, because Detective Pavlichek hasn’t had two or fewer drinks at a sitting since 12th grade, when he partied so hard that he barely graduated. Only Mrs. Ellsworth had saved that, allowing a retake of the final exam over the angry objections of Mr. Crawford, the so-called “guidance counselor” who hated Pavlichek since he was a southmore. That’s how they say it here, southmore, not sophomore. So he passed with a D-plus—still hadn’t studied—and drew the Logan green cap and gown to make the high school perp walk with almost a thousand other seniors that year.

Here’s a piece of info for that next lull in class reunion conversation: Today, a man named Logan Green is the co-founder and chief executive officer of the ride-sharing service Lyft.

No, that doesn’t mean anything. Nothing does.

Pavlichek doodles on a bar napkin. When he looks up, Nick is already watching him. The detective waves an index finger in airy, imperfect circles, ordering another round. Nick pulls a Stroh’s from an ornate tap and then pours an extra-double Johnny Walker Black while the beer foam settles. By the time Pavlichek survived the summer after high school, he could drink a whole fifth of Johnny Walker Black and still be just walking-around high, could drive and everything. That time he wrecked his car down the street from Griff’s house, where Griff’s mother always bought the party alcohol, the local uniforms didn’t even know he was wasted. That was the first time Pavlichek thought about a career in police work.

Police work is how he describes it, because cops will tell you honestly, in quiet moments, that “law enforcement” isn’t the same thing. Rookies do law enforcement; veterans do police work. Police work maintains order and keeps people safe and free, keeps the jackoffs in their own districts, at least. Those lofty goals are not always the purview of laws, so most cops don’t enforce laws. They do police work.

Pavlichek’s phone buzzes in an inside-left coat pocket, but he doesn’t have to look at it to know who it is. His personal cell is in the inside-right pocket, but it never buzzes. He downs the scotch at once, then powers down the beer.

“Gotta run, Nick. Work,” he says. He leaves a fifty on the bar, because if you tip a bartender well now, he tips a cop well later. Pavlichek gets only two steps away before turning back to Nick.

“Hey, you havin’ a good day, man?”

Nick shrugs. “Yeah. I guess. You know, it is what it is.”

“You are right about that.” Pavlichek waves a two-finger salute and turns to the door. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Okay, Inspector,” Nick says. He wipes wet rings from the polished surface of the bar and picks up the napkin. Pavlichek has carefully torn up the business card of the department psychologist and left it in a perfect teepee of matte pasteboard on the bar.

On the napkin, Pavlichek has drawn the crude image of a handgun shooting a bullet through a cartoon badge, and all around it, over and over, he’s written the words Kill me now.



Written by: Daniel Charles Ross
Photograph by: Chris Boyles

Meddled

Posted on: June 9, 2016


My entire body is numb when I wake. I stay sprawled on my back as feeling slowly crawls down my neck and tingles up my arms until I’m able to wiggle my fingers. Each tap of my fingers sends a bolt of pain that deepens the dull ache in my skull.

As I regain feeling in my body, a sharp pain in my chest shallows my breathing. My tongue feels swollen, as if it can barely fit in my mouth. My skin is covered in little scratches from my straw bed, and my pale skin is bright red.

Deep down, I know I should be panicking. I’ve been trapped and unconscious for what could be hours or days—I don’t know. Yet all I can interpret is the exhaustion weighing me down and the pain in my body.

I wipe away the crust caked on my lashes. The movement torments my shoulders, and I whimper. My throat burns with the sound, and I cough from the dust coating my tongue.

I need to ignore the pain and focus on what I know. I know the murderer is a man who has pale blonde hair and clear gray eyes. He was wearing a jacket and jeans in the humid, hot Massachusetts summer. Boots, even. I had been melting in the shorts and tank I’d worn to go biking. Is he even human? Does he come from the center of the earth?

I wonder if my coworkers or roommate would call for help—if they even notice I’m gone.

Managing to prop myself up on my elbows, I look around. The only light filters in through little cracks in the roof, revealing thousands of dust particles. My makeshift bed is situated beside a thick wooden pole with a heavy chain looped around it several times. The path of the chain leads to a wide metal cuff around my right ankle. A padlock with a six-digit combination keeps me locked in place.

Apparently he didn’t want to risk losing me.

Thinking about that man makes a new pain blossom in my chest. He is the man who killed my parents. After years of being tossed around in the foster care system, I had finally been able to call a place home.

But he ruined that for me.

I guess I’m not allowed to have a happy ending.

Slowly, feeling drifts down to my legs. Now that I can move them, I’m able to sit up. The movement sends a wave of lightheadedness that crashes through my head and settles as a lead ball of nausea in my gut.

The only sound I can make is a raspy whimper when I attempt to call out. The birds continue to chirp. Twigs snap in an unsteady rhythm, probably from a small animal. Aside from that, my prison is silent. I am alone.

Shit.

I don’t want to die.

Maybe my roommate’s right. I should have believed the police when they said my parents’ deaths were an accident. Just a coincidence. I shouldn’t have put it all together, tracked him down. When I discovered he was one of my foster brothers, my blood had run cold. He could’ve been jealous or vengeful. It doesn’t matter, anymore. It’s too late to find out.

I shouldn’t have followed him to a boarded white barn in the middle of nowhere on my bike. I shouldn’t have tried to break in. I should have stayed home and watched Friends reruns while drinking wine.

I shouldn’t have tried to meddle.

Meddle. Meddle. Meddle.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Stupid enough to get myself killed.

The door’s closed several feet away, with no visible way to open it from the inside. Aside from me and the pole, the small shed is bare. Nothing is here except the microbes and me.

My legs wobble after I pull myself up with the pole. I dig my nails into the cracked wood until blood rushes down to my extremities, and I can stand with little support. I breathe out a small sigh of relief as my body begins to feel normal again. I can do this. I can survive.

I need to.

My chain gives me about four feet of distance I can wander. It keeps me just out of reach from the door, and only lets me in far enough to scrape my nails on the next pole holding up the barn. All of the walls are out of reach. The boarded up windows are feet above my head. And as weak as I am, I won’t be able to climb worth a damn.

A clang of metal startles me from my thoughts. I whirl on my heel, nearly tumbling over from the sudden movement. The door slides open as I blink my eyes to try and calm the vertigo making me sway on my feet. The man clucks his tongue at me and closes the door behind him. I watch him closely as he turns his attention to me and assesses me with cool gray eyes.

“I’m impressed,” he says. “Most couldn’t stand in your state.” He walks towards me, swinging a pistol dangling from his fingers. He pauses an arm’s length from me and tilts his head. “I really didn’t want to kill you. You should have left well enough alone.” His voice is chilled and flat, with no hint of remorse or regret. Although his voice is soft, it still intensifies the throbbing in my head. I wobble on my feet and slump against the pole, closing the distance between us.

“You took my parents.” Somehow, my voice comes out strong enough to make words. He braces his free hand on the pole beside me and lifts the gun to my face. After tracing a line down my heated cheek, he tucks it under my chin.

“They weren’t even blood,” he says and scoffs. This presses the metal harder into my jugular. I wince and shy away from the weapon, but he straightens up and wraps his other hand around the back of my neck. I freeze.

“You took them,” I repeat. “Go to hell.”

He takes a step back and raises the pistol to aim at my head. I squeeze my eyes shut against the sight. Panic rises up in my chest, but he speaks before I can quell it.

“Keep it hot for me.”

The gunshot is the last thing I ever hear.



Written by: Jeanine Kleist
Photograph by: Kayla King

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