light of the world

Posted on: February 25, 2013

Ryan is on fire for the Lord. We’re sixteen, and it's the dawn of the new millennium. We meet in our community theatre's production of The King and I. Ryan is tall and gels the front of his hair. He used to be home schooled, but now he goes to public school, which is full of sin but is also a good place for spreading the Word. Ryan carries around two books with him at all times: a pocket-sized NIV New Testament and a graph paper notebook where he writes memory verses and inspiring song lyrics. He plays the guitar. I, as it happens, love boys who play the guitar.

Doing community theatre isn't really about acting. It isn't about lights in your eyes or the thrill of applause. It's about the secret space that surrounds the play: unsupervised downtime. We spend most of this downtime in the parking lot behind the theatre. No one is up to anything, and yet, we are up to everything.  Where else, in a town like ours, can you wear a ball gown and sit in the dark with the boy you like, hoping his knee will touch yours and he'll tell you the sensitive secrets of his soul? It’s a misplaced prom dream for the meek and lowly.

In real life, I am chubby and awkward with the requisite braces and glasses and hair that really shouldn't have been cut into "the Rachel." But when we perform, I’m wearing contacts and mascara. Surely Ryan has noticed. Two weeks ago after practice he called me his "sister in Christ" and kissed my forehead. I can't let go of the feeling of his Chapstick-perfect lips on my skin.

On the night of dress rehearsal I follow Ryan to the hill behind the parking lot. It used to be a dirt pile where the law firm next door was going to expand, but they changed plans and grass grew over the dirt. Tonight, I can feel the universe pulsing. The night sky spreads out overhead, full of promise.

"Look at all those stars," Ryan says.

"I know. They're so bright."

"Jesus said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.' Isn't that comforting? If we follow Christ, we can have that light."


I scoot a little closer to him on the hill. He leans back, staring up at the sky.

"Jesus makes it sound so easy, following him," Ryan says. "But it's not. It's really hard."

"I think you do a good job."

"You don't know that. You're so pure. I wish I could be like you."

"Can I help?" I inch my hand closer to his, but he raises his arms behind his head.

"Pray for me. That’ll help."

"I will,” I promise.

Then the stage manager throws the backstage door open and hisses into the darkness for all the chorus members to hurry the hell up or we’ll miss our cue.

Before opening night, Ryan leads the cast in prayer. I try to stand beside him as we all join hands, but I end up beside weird Mark with his sweaty palms.

"Dear God, I just thank you for bringing us here today. We give you all the glory, God. We just pray that everyone tonight remembers their lines, God. That you bless us, God, and be with us as we share your love with this audience. In your Son's holy name we pray, Amen."


The show goes awesomely. At intermission, I try to get Ryan’s attention, but he’s deep in conversation with his friend Brandon. I sit in the backstage hallway and pretend to read a book Ryan lent me called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. When Mark comes and asks me what's wrong, I sigh and say,  "Nothing. I just feel like being alone."

The next night, Ryan asks me if I want to go to Bible study with him after the show.

"This group is like my family," Ryan says. "They're spiritual warriors."

I call my mom to ask. This is practically my first date. 

Ryan drives a bright yellow 4Runner because his mom wants him visible to reckless drivers. It is the best car I've ever seen, and now I'm in the front seat as we pull up to the house where the Bible study is in full swing.

We slip in as a skinny guy is giving his testimony. Tears stain his face and his body quivers as he shouts at us to banish impure thoughts from our minds. Every time we lust after a member of the opposite sex, every time we wish to do things only meant for holy matrimony, we are letting the devil tighten his grip on us. We are letting the devil in.

Ryan is nodding his head. When the skinny guy sits down, Ryan pulls out his guitar and leads everyone in song. "Over the mountains and the sea, your river runs with love for me, and I will open up my heart and let the healer set me free. I could sing of your love forever...I could sing of your love forever..."

Soon everyone is crying and repeating the lines of the chorus. The guitar music stops, and it's just our tortured voices, singing to the God who loves us and hates our sin.

As the group disperses for the night, a blonde girl in lowrise jeans and a pink American Eagle polo approaches Ryan and compliments him on his guitar playing.

"You were just, like, so full of the spirit," she says.

"Thanks, Abby. You're my sister in Christ," he says. He kisses her on the forehead and asks if she needs a ride home.

I sit in the back seat of the 4Runner. Abby is chatting about the latest Newsboys album. I lean against the car window. The night sky is foggy and polluted with the light of the world.  I can't see a single star, but I keep looking.

Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
Written by: Dot Dannenberg

Presidential Baggage

Posted on: February 18, 2013

“And to my eldest son, John,” read the attorney, “I leave the keys to the family business. May it bring you the same success and happiness it brought me over the years.”

Either my dad was being facetious or his death was as surprising to him as it was the rest of our family. Regardless, I am now the proud owner of the same failing bookstores that probably led to his heart attack. Correction, “bookstore.” He was down to one.

“I also leave you the keys to my 1961 Porsche 365. I told you I’d let you drive it one of these days.”

Wrong again, you old bastard. The bank took your beloved ego booster four years ago.

“Sorry,” the attorney apologized, breaking character. “This will is a little out of date.”

“Yeah. I kind of gathered that.”

“Well, there may not be a car, but I do have the keys to your new office.”


The attorney grabbed my dad’s keys from his desk. He jingled them between his thumb and pointer finger like I was a house cat.

“For the record, I urged him to sell the stores ten years ago,” claimed the attorney.

“You’re not the only one.”

I examined my dad’s keys as I walked to my shit-box of a car. He always told me that the lottery would be a better investment than an English degree. God I hate proving him right.

“Son, it’s not the people who write books that make the money,” he would say when he caught me scribbling short stories in my journal. “It’s the people who sell them.”

Oh, is it, dad? I think the IRS would beg to differ.

There were four keys on his key ring. The first one went to the depressing one-bedroom apartment he moved into after the divorce. The next opened the sole survivor of the Words for the Wise bookstore franchise. After that came the key to the dingy office in the back where they found his body. The last one was a mystery to me, a mystery that intrigued me enough to blow off lunch with my mom and beeline to the abandoned bookstore.

I left my dying Toyota Tercel sprawled across the three parking spots in front of the entrance and headed toward the door. Next to the hours sign on the door was a freshly applied eviction notice. I had until tomorrow to raid the shelves before the repo men did the same.

I put the door key in the lock and entered the prison of my adolescence for the first time since I left for college. That was also the last time my dad and I ever spoke.

“YOU’RE DEAD TO ME,” he shouted from the sidewalk as I got into the passenger side of my mom’s over-packed SUV and headed off to my future alma mater. Oh the irony.

I don’t remember exactly what was said before those heart-wrenching last words, but I know it revolved around his ongoing disapproval of my literary pursuits and my lack of interest in taking over his antiquated business.

I blame for the deterioration of our relationship. Their endless catalog of titles and unbeatable prices trumped my paternal loyalty. I’ll never forget the look of betrayal on his face when my first purchase arrived on our doorstep.

That was back in the days when “our” included my dad, mom and little brother. That was back when he must’ve written his will. That was when everything started going downhill.

Now, my stomach is churning from the familiar smell of aging paper and binding glue. I bypassed the Harry Potter display, that remained unchanged since the release of the seventh book, and headed to the back of the store.

The scent of my dad’s office was drastically different from the rest of the building. It reeked like a freshly Febrezed bowel movement. The odor seemed to be emanating from the clean patch of carpet beneath his desk where his intestines expelled their last meal.

I braved further nasal damage and approached said desk, kicking his wheelie chair across the room to avoid accidentally sitting in his death seat. I started pulling on all the drawers to see which one, if any, required the tiny key.

His lap drawer opened effortlessly and contained a boring mix of pens, paper clips and promotional bookmarks. The three equally sized drawers on the left didn’t have locks, so I didn’t even bother checking them. All my excitement hinged on the double-decker cabinet to my right.

I warily put my left knee down on the clean spot and tugged on the first handle. It didn’t move. I inserted the tiny key into the cylinder on the top right of the cabinet and twisted. It turned.

I tried opening the top drawer again. Success. Unfortunately, it held exactly what it was intended to, files. An auditor would’ve loved this, but I couldn’t give a shit. I pushed the drawer closed and tried the bottom bunk.

I thought it was empty until I noticed the contours of a briefcase hiding in the shadows. I pulled it out and laid it on top of the giant desk calendar he won’t be needing anymore.

Hanging from the handle was the luggage tag I bought him before his first business trip to the Big Apple. “TRIP OF THE PRESIDENT,” it read. I bought it to remind him that he shouldn’t be intimidated by the other head honchos at BookExpo America. I guess he should’ve.

I unbuckled the clasps on the briefcase and slowly opened the lid. What treasure did this slender chest contain? Business cards? Brochures? EVEN MORE BOOKMARKS?

Well shit. Sitting in the mouth of the leather clam was a stack of journals I hadn’t seen since I moved in with my mom. They were the same journals he ridiculed me for writing in throughout grade school. And now they’re safely locked inside his desk? Where’s a Ouija board when you need it?

Photograph by: Whitney Ott

Written by: Mark Killian

no reward

Posted on: February 11, 2013

The pretty coffee shop girl looked at me with horror. “You know dogs are allergic to chocolate right?” she said. She was reading the poster I asked her to put up.

          Lost dog, answers to Daisy, loves chocolate. No reward.

A photograph of my ugly pug accompanied the short message.

“Sure, but only in large quantities. I only give them to her as a rare treat.”

I always kept a handful of bite-sized chocolate bars in my coat pocket for her, but with Daisy missing I’d been eating them instead. The only problem is now I couldn’t stop. I blame it on the stress—I really missed Daisy. This is it, this is the last one, I would say to myself. Before I knew it, my pocket would be full of empty wrappers.

The pretty coffee shop girl was still looking at the poster with doubt, skeptical of my explanation. Her dark hair was pulled back in a loose bun exposing her lightly freckled face, her brow furrowed as she studied the poster. Small coffee stains were liberally splattered on her white t-shirt—a poor choice for her line of work. Her trimmed, unpainted fingernails drew my attention as they lightly gripped the poster. I’m not sure a girl’s hands had ever drawn my attention before. Anyway, she was charmingly unkempt and I couldn’t stop staring at her.

The next day I met with Harry for coffee, as I did every week.

“I’m in love,” I proclaimed.

Without even looking up from his cup, Harry replied, “Again?”

I wasn’t sure if he meant to offend me with the offhand response. He was aimlessly stirring his coffee, which he took black.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. But listen, I can’t stop thinking about this girl. It’s distracting. I can’t write.”

Harry set his spoon down and looked up at me.

After he took a sip of his coffee, he said, “Well that’s dramatic. Who is this woman you’ve fallen so mightily for?” He said this with a smirk I didn’t much appreciate. I nodded, and Harry turned around. Angela, the pretty coffee shop girl, was behind the counter preparing an espresso drink for a Wall Street suit.

Harry turned back around and said, “Didn’t that girl start here two weeks ago? How could you have fallen love with her already?”

I shrugged. Harry shook his head and said “I don’t even know why I bother asking you these questions anymore.”

I admit, we’d had similar conversations before, at that very same table. Harry’s look of dismay was so predictable at this point that it should not have irritated me anymore—and yet, I continued to feebly justify myself to him.

“I’m an artist Harry, it’s in my nature to see the beauty in everything, including women. I’m an unapologetic romantic.” I tried to say this with as little irony as possible, realizing I probably sounded pretentious.

Harry rolled his eyes. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? Romantics desperately hope that love is fleeting because there’s no poetry in linear relationships. And what you want is poetry, so you go from woman-to-woman looking for your next poetic moment. There’s another word for people like that, addicts. You’re an addict.”

Harry was right, but I didn’t agree with his characterization. That’s how I felt about most of his opinions. “Why is that a problem? I say it makes love worthwhile. To say that love’s raison d’etre is permanence is old-fashioned—permanence is only a side effect. Just because it has a long shelf life doesn’t meant it’s love.”

“Your vice isn’t love, my friend. That wouldn’t be a problem. Your vice is the promise of love.”

Harry was a lawyer—a litigator to be exact. He was an expert at parsing words and usually ended up having the last one in any conversation. As infuriating as it was, there were few people I enjoyed chatting with more. It had always been that way.

Harry added, “You’re too much of an artist for your own good.”

I replied, “And you’ve forgotten how to disengage from your lawyer’s objectivity.” We silently agreed with each other’s assessments.

I finished off the rest of my coffee in a single, deep swallow. It was gritty and bitter— I must’ve gotten the last of the pot. I contemplated going up to the counter for a second cup, but my conversation with Harry made me tentative about approaching Angela. I reached into my pocket for a chocolate bar instead. This one had bits of puffed rice in it. I preferred the ones with the chopped almonds, but the variety suited me. I stuffed the empty wrapper back into my pocket.

Angela came around from behind the counter and began clearing off the table opposite ours. She smiled with acknowledgment as we made eye contact. Her casual affection reminded me why I had brought her up with Harry to begin with. Any uncertainty he had infected me with melted away.

Harry looked at me wide-eyed, teasing me for my fatuous expression. “Maybe it is love after all,” he said, laughing. I ignored him.

I went for another chocolate. It was one with almonds.

“No, maybe you’re right about me,” I said with my mouth full. “But, I just don’t see anything wrong with pursuing a woman, or women, if what I’m looking for is love. It’s not like I’m just in it for the sex. Love isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because you fall in love once doesn’t mean you become incapable of loving someone else.”

Harry sighed, “It’s not a matter of being incapable. In any case, most addicts can’t see their own follies.”

In a typical fashion, Harry grew bored of our endless debate on romance, so he changed the subject. “Any luck finding Daisy?”

I shook my head, really wishing I had more coffee, “Not yet.”

I reached into my pocket again, rummaging around for one last piece of chocolate, but only pulled out an empty wrapper.

Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: James Mo

safe place

Posted on: February 4, 2013

Brit sits on the carpet in the living room, an elbow propped up on the glass coffee table and its corresponding hand cupping her forehead, pushing back her sandy blonde hair. The fingers of her other hand trace the fingerprints streaked across the glass. They remind her of the sticky hands of small children who scream and whine until they get what they want from tired parents. She wastes time and avoids packing up to visit her mother who lives four hours away, her mother who never visits, but always calls. The relationship is strange, as if Brit’s mother never quite understood her role as a parent, but ascertained that food and unwelcome criticism were part of it.

A basket of laundry. An oversized purse. Cell phone charger. Brit slides into the driver’s seat of her old black Jeep and dreads the price tag her gas tank will yield in the hours to come. Making eye contact with herself in the rearview mirror, she pulls back her hair into a loose bun and slides on her sunglasses before cutting on the engine and pulling out of her apartment complex onto the highway. She didn’t eat breakfast and she didn’t call work to say she would be gone for a few days. Brit busses tables at a fancy restaurant downtown and lives mostly off of tips and leftovers. Her father calls every once in a while to ask if she needs money, but she always says no and he always sends a check.

Driving always makes Brit so sleepy. She prepared a high energy playlist for this, but it only seems to lull her faster. The only remedies are impromptu phone calls to various people that she really doesn’t want to talk to, but knows that conversation will keep her from falling asleep at the wheel. One of her friends, Rachel, likes to complain about her boyfriend and say that he doesn’t understand her needs. She talks about how he doesn’t fulfill her emotionally and she kind of wonders if being a lesbian is the answer. Brit says, “Why not give it a shot? You might find your soulmate.” Rachel chastises her with, “Unh! Brit! Like, I’m not that serious about it. God, you sound like you’ve done that. You’re probably gay.” Brit is suddenly wondering why she called, why she gets coffee with this chick once a week, and why she hasn’t hung up yet.

The only redeeming aspect of the drive to her mother’s house is the landscape. Right now it is autumn and the grasses are gold, the trees touting red, yellow, and orange leaves. The lyrics to “Fields of Gold” by Sting are coursing through her mind as she smiles to herself, leaning forward and setting her chin at noon on the steering wheel. Miles of road roll beneath her, making her eyelids flutter every so often. She remembers the long drives of childhood when she would sleep in the backseat with her sister as her father listened to Madonna’s newest cassette. Dreamily, she would say to him, “Hey Dad, I know all the words. Do you want to hear me sing them?” He says yes and she sings until she drifts away once more.

Brit turns onto the long dirt driveway that leads up to the house settled on a vast plain. The Jeep takes the bumps and gravel in stride as it approaches the ranch style home with blue shutters and a large live oak that sprawls its canopy above the roof. There’s a garden in the back, rich with lettuce, mint, and zucchini sure to be on the table this evening. The kitchen window is open and Brit can see her mother standing at the sink, probably washing dishes or fresh produce. Her mother looks up, smiles, and disappears to come to the front door.

They don’t hug or kiss. They probably don’t even say hello. Brit’s mother immediately grabs the laundry basket in the backseat as Brit collects some trash and her purse from the passenger’s side. She slides her sunglasses on top of her head and follows her mother into the house where it smells like rest. Brit takes off her shoes and makes a beeline for the sunroom where her favorite futon is already prepared for her arrival: a blanket, a pillow, and her childhood teddy bear. Her mother starts the first load of laundry and says, “You always forget to empty the pockets.” Brit replies, “I know.”

“Come to the kitchen,” her mother says. Brit complies and sits down on the floor with her back against the refrigerator door. Her mother peels carrots and asks her to fill her in on what’s been going on. Brit talks a little bit about the guy she’s been hanging out with who is really sweet and plays baseball.

“It’s nothing serious, but I like him. He opens doors for me and stuff.”

“That’s good,” says her mother before interjecting, “But don’t get serious so fast. You’ll scare him away.”

“Okay, Mom,” Brit replies as she stands up and makes her way over to the kitchen table.

A blueberry pie sits in the middle and all she wants to do is stick each of her fingertips into the spaces between the braids. She begins to pick at the edges of the crust and slip the tiny pieces between her lips, nibbling as she contemplates the strange coexistence of love and hate for one’s parents. Brit considers the dread she felt as she sat on her living room floor, anticipating her mother’s supreme dissatisfaction with the world, which is constant like the invisible sound of a television that is turned on and muted. What upsets Brit most is that she is also dissatisfied. Try as she might to meet society’s norms and fit in with others her age, she wants nothing more than to disappear as her mother has into the countryside. She wants to turn off her phone and never have to answer again. 

Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: Natasha Akery

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