Alive Inside

Posted on: December 30, 2014

We last saw Anna as she turned to a group of rabbis to cast the spirit of Lucas into her own body. Read the whole Anna the Extractor Series--"The Extractor," "Bury Their Own," "Beloved," "A Tremor in Your Name," and "Stress in the Workplace," "Common Denominators," "Inhabit," and "Calling" (an introduction)--to learn more about Anna and her supernatural adventures.

Memory is a dark and hazy thing, full of shadows and uncertainty. We remember in the ways that serve us best, waxing ourselves heroic as our shortcomings lurk in the darkness.

What’s happening?

Why is she yelling at me?

God, I’m drunk.

Stop pushing me.

Shit, I just want to lie down.


Anna feels her fist, no, someone else’s fist collide with the side of the woman’s head. She watches her hit the wall, then bounce toward the floor, neck connecting with the seat of a wooden chair on the way down. Then, nothing.

Anna wakes up on a dingy couch with the television on. But this isn’t her couch, and this isn’t her house. This isn’t her almost two hundred pound body. She sits up, only to throw up in a man’s lap, wiping the spittle away with the back of his sleeve. She stands and locks eyes with a very handsome, hungover man. But he is in a mirror.

He is her reflection.

Anna doesn’t call the shots; it’s as if she’s merely a spectator residing in his body, stepping over beer bottles toward the bathroom with a sudden urge to piss. But she feels the relief just as he does when the stream hits the water, and the refreshment of water from the faucet against his face. And she feels the confusion and the horror at once when they both notice the body on the kitchen floor.

Then, Anna remembers the rabbi blowing the shofar as a circle of men chanted in Hebrew. She remembers that they exorcised a ghost named Lucas out of a young man and cast him into her body. She remembers the damp chill of his presence within her, like a foggy November morning. Anna remembers being scared because it’s a strange thing to possess the ghost that possesses you, a being that has the power to make you bleed and make you kill.

So, Lucas is trapped inside her body, and Anna is trapped inside his spirit and locked within his memories.

Lucas crumples to the floor as he takes the woman’s body into his arms, weeping, groaning. There’s an opal on her left ring finger, and Anna realizes that he killed his fiance. She can taste his tears in the back of his throat. She can feel his heart race with dread. She feels the cold death emitting from the woman, and the presence of her ghost hovering just behind Lucas. Anna knows he does not sense her spirit, only its absence from the body he cradles.

“Dana,” Lucas groans, “Dana, Jesus Christ, Dana. Oh, God, I’m sorry.”

Memory is where Dana haunts the man who loved her, and killed her when he drank too much for the hundredth time.

“Who are you?” Dana asks, and Anna knows that she’s not talking to Lucas.

I’m trying to help him cross over.

“You can’t. I tried.”

He can be helped. We just have to figure out how.

“Love wasn’t enough. What else could change him?”

Forgiveness. He needs to be forgiven.

“Forgive him? For killing me? For killing our baby?”

Where’s the baby?

Dana’s presence wavers.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Did he know? Does he know?

“Yes, he knew. Despite his addiction, he knew.”

Dana, this - all of this - won’t stop unless you forgive him. He’s gone mad in the living realm. He possesses men’s bodies and uses them to kill women they love.

“What good is my forgiveness if he can’t forgive himself? He can’t escape what he’s done.”

Anna feels Lucas crawl away from Dana’s body across the floor like a sloth, pulling himself forward with desperate fingertips. He’s in their bedroom. He reaches under the bed. His hand closes around the grip of a revolver. She feels the barrel in her mouth as he sits up and leans back against the dresser. And she’s screaming inside of him, inside a figment of himself. But it’s too late. It’s been too late for decades.

Then, nothing. Just the haze of memory, painting us prettier than we are.

What’s happening?

Why is she yelling at me?

God, I’m drunk.

Stop pushing me.

Shit, I just want to lie down.


She lives through Dana’s death and Lucas’ suicide twelve times as Dana’s ghost and heartache shiver close by. Anna starts to feel herself lose it because she’s trapped. The rabbi should have cast Lucas out of her by now, and she doesn’t understand why suddenly feels damp. Wet. It’s hard to breathe.


The piercing scream of a little girl is making the realm of Lucas’ memory flicker around her. Dana fades, mouthing something Anna can’t quite make out, but she barely cares because it’s like she’s swallowing mouthfuls of water. She’s gasping for air. She feels herself detach from Lucas, but he’s still clinging to her like cement bricks pulling her into the deep.

Then Anna knows the voice, Lydia’s voice, her spectral sidekick residing in the cross against her chest, screaming for her to come back to the land of the living. Anna finally sees the sunlight streaming through the surface of the water and she kicks against his will to drown her. She breaks through and gasps with horror and relief, recognizing the city’s harbor. She forces herself to swim for shore and hits the sand coughing up water, hearing Lydia reassure.

“It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this.”

But the little ghost isn’t trying to comfort her. Anna may have regained control of her body, but Lucas’ spirit still trembles inside her, like a dog abandoned in a cage. Lydia speaks peace over the spirit of a man who killed the love of his life, the mother of his unborn child. She’s whispering compassion over his self-loathing and Anna wails with a grief not her own, letting Lucas use her body to mourn as only a living being can.

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Jaemin Riley

The Smith-Corona

Posted on: December 23, 2014

 Jake Thayer paced back and forth, taking in the breadth of his studio apartment in just a few short strides. Every fourth step or so, he would do an about-face, take a swig of Pabst, and throw a derisive glare at the typewriter that sat on the desk.

The typewriter stared back. Silent. Smug. Mocking.

And as evidenced by the growing jumble of beer cans heaped on the counter and the shallow groove being worn into the shoddy wooden floors, the typewriter had been mute a lot recently.

But that wasn’t always the case.

The typewriter was a 1954 Smith-Corona Travel Deluxe. With its pristine hard-shelled case and unique cursive script, it could probably fetch a pretty penny at any of the antique stores downtown. But no matter how destitute, Jake would never consider selling it. Its value went far beyond money. It was both a link to his past and his ticket to the future.

A gift from his doting grandmother, it was a relic from her own younger days. Always a restless youth, she wasn’t content to stay in the south Chicago neighborhood of her Irish forbearers. So she spent her youth criss-crossing this great expanse we call a country, devouring every new city, every new experience, the typewriter her sole companion until that day that her wanderlust was finally satiated with a chance meeting in the least likely of all places.

His grandmother would regale him with that story, the story of how she met his granddad, every Sunday, during their weekly ritual of banter and pancakes. And every week he listened with rapt attention. So much so that by the time he was ten, he would finish it with her, holding her hand as they looked at the photo on the wall of the man they both loved and missed so much.

“…and it didn’t matter that I was a big city girl. I took one look at that shy, young farmhand, standing there in the cold on that forlorn train platform in the middle of absolute nowhere, and I knew that my traveling days were done.”

It was those moments, sitting at her little farmhouse table, listening as she spun magic with nothing but words, that became the seed of Jake wanting to become a writer. And as any good farmer would, his grandmother fed that seed. She fertilized it with tales of all of the places she had been, describing how each place had its own personality, its own cadence, its own smells, and she nourished it with the works of the writers she loved, giving special attention to local-born Willa Cather and Weldon Kees, just to prove to him that even those from small town Nebraska could blossom into great writers.

She presented him with the typewriter after graduation, along with a check for three thousand dollars. Tears blurred his vision as he lifted the sleek, hard cover, making it hard to read the piece of paper tucked into the roller. On it was just three typed words.

Go. Live. Write.

And write he did.

Oh, how that old Smith-Corona used to sing! His stipend was long gone by the time he hit New York City, used up on long rambling train rides and nights of jubilation, but that didn’t matter. He spent his days doing whatever menial tasks it took to pay the bills and those hours of drudgery became perfect fodder, giving his brain plenty of time to ferment. By the time he got home the words would be bubbling up and ready to pour forth, frothy and delicious and intoxicating. His fingers, like a chorus line of tiny madcap dancers, would kick and stomp across the keys, filling his little hovel with a cacophonous din of rat-a-tat-tats and clickety-clacks.

Times were good. The economy, and a certain White House intern with an affinity for blue dresses, were humming along. In the city, Jake fell in with a bohemian crowd of artists and writers, like-minded spirits who didn’t mind his shy Midwestern ways and who seemed to love his vagabond prose. Together they laughed and loved and fucked and cried. It didn’t matter that they lived in the shadow of the ghetto, or that no one bought their paintings or published their words. It didn’t matter if they were black or white, gay or straight, penniless or just playing poor. Like the generations that came before them, the only thing that really mattered was that they were young and alive.

But that was then.

Now, with the smoke still rising from the rubble at ground zero and a specter of dread hanging in the air, it wasn’t so easy. Most of his friends were gone, scattered in the winds to the safety of the well-known bastions of the weird--Austin, Asheville, Portland--seeking somewhere easier on both the wallet and the soul.

But Jake was steadfast in his resolve. Just as his grandmother knew that long ago day that her travels were over, Jake too, knew where he belonged. He knew that on these streets he was home, that there was nowhere else in the world for him to be. He knew that city would soon rebound and regain its pulse, its rhythm. That it would rise up with a tenacious resilience and proclaim once again “FUCK YOU WORLD. THIS IS NEW YORK CITY.”

And when it did, he and the Smith-Corona would be there, and he would once again have something to say.

Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Jen Smith

Poor Loser

Posted on: December 18, 2014

Fuck you, bouncer, and a big ten-gallon FUCK YOU to you too, John Wayne! I’ll kick that hat right off your flat head!


Fucking curb. Fucking concrete. Fucking blood. Where do you think you’re going, dripping out of my nose like that? You get the fuck back in my brain RIGHT NOW.

Sniff. Cough, cough. Spit.

HA! “BUDDY’S PLACE.” Now you’re BLOODY PLACE. You take my DNA and you LIKE IT. You’ve taken everything else from me. You call yourself a “Home of Happiness.” How about a ROUNDHOUSE KICK?

Goddamn you, concrete. We meet again. And I see you’ve decided to take some of my forearm with you this time. FINE! KEEP IT! But you’re the one who’s going to have to answer to Stavros and his boys.

I’m their property now, and it’s all because PEYTON MANNING is a FUCKING CHOKER! Four more games, Peyton. Just four more games, and you would hold the record for the quarterback with the most consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass, and I would still be alive to praise you for it. BUT NO! You let the Buffalo Bills stampede you like Stavros’s henchmen are going to do to my SPINE.

Oh fuck. Oh shit. How did I end up like this? Three years ago I didn’t even WATCH football. My weekends were spent seeing movies, cooking dinner, fucking–sorry–making love to the woman I was probably going to spend the rest of my life with. Maybe even have kids with? Kids I would make damn sure never step foot in one of these concussion factories we romantically call “gridirons.”

I would give ANYTHING to get that back. Fuck, I tried to give EVERYTHING to get that back, but you wouldn’t have it, would you, Peyton? Nope, you Bible thumping, right-wing leaning, Papa John’s Eating, Nationwide slinging piece of Bronco shit! You had ONE JOB, Peyton Manning! That’s one more than I have.

Fucking football. Fucking gambling. Fucking Steve from accounting. Why’d you have to loop me into all this shit in the first place, Steve? All I asked you for was a little financial advice. I said, “Steve, I’m tired of these student loans. How can I pay them off faster?” And what did you tell me? “There’s always gambling.”

You made it look SO EASY, you fucking prick, but it was all just some sneaky accountant’s trick. You deserved that stapler to the head, and if I could hop in a time machine and go back to last year, I’d do it all over again!

No, no, no, NO! WHAT AM I SAYING? Unleashing the beast on Steve isn’t worth breaking the space-time continuum! Hell, Steve wasn’t even worth the .0002 cent staple I lodged in his fucking forehead.

Let’s be smart about this. If I were to somehow stumble across this magical time-traveling vessel before Stavros’s Town Car pulls up, the back window rolls down, and a gun barrel pokes out, where would I go?

The obvious answer would be to go back to the day before I approached Steve for financial advice, but now that I think about it, WHY did I approach Steve for financial advice? Oh. Yeah. That’s right. Because Becca was busting my balls about not being able to compete with her friends on Instagram!

“Why can’t we go to Greece?” “When are we gonna get a puppy?” “Where’s my Tiffany’s engagement ring?”

Gee, Becca, I don’t know, maybe that’s all in a parallel universe where we were born into well-to-do families that supported us with the financial and emotional stability it takes to make us feel like we deserve more than a fucking middle-management position at some heartless corporation!

Fuck Becca! She’s not worth my flux capacitor either. I’m revving my DeLorean to 88 and leaving that greedy hag in a cloud of plutonium exhaust. Then it’s off to high school, so I can study and join some clubs and build the kind of résumé that’ll get me out of my safety school and the perpetual student loan debt that came with it.

I’ll play tennis! All the smart, rich motherfuckers at my school played tennis. I bet Steve played fucking tennis, DIDN’T YOU, STEVE!?

Who am I kidding? My parents would never support my tennis ambitions. I’d spend more time mowing lawns and painting houses just to buy a racket than I would practicing. Then I’d be a laughing stock. Tales of my horrible tryout would travel through the halls at the speed of an AOL Instant Message. I’d go from being the loner that nobody knew to the loser that everybody screwed with. Fuck that shit. Back to the DeLorean!

What about Kindergarten? What if I spent more time reading and counting than I did eating fingerpaints and making fart noises with my armpits? Then I would’ve probably passed that test that determined which kids go on the honors track and which ones remained with the teachers who only got into teaching for the two months of summer vacation.

Yup, that’d probably do it. I don’t suspect many honors students lose their entire life savings to a loan shark on a football bet. A stock broker, maybe, but not a bookie.

Just look at me, sitting here, playing the Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda game. THAT’S the motherfucking problem. I wouldn’t even need a time machine if I could just get back all the time I’ve spent wallowing in my own self-pity. HA! There’s another one! Another “IF.” IF this. IF that.

Life isn’t a game of “What if”s. Life is only concerned with what IS. The truth IS, I’m a fuck up. Always have been. From my paint-eating, armpit-farting youth, to my kung-fu kicking, nose bleeding now, I FUCKED UP, and it IS time to pay the Grecian piper.

Speak of the devil. There IS Stavros’s Town Car. It IS slowing down right in front of me. The back window IS rolling down. There IS a gun. That IS all, folks.

Written by: Mark Killian
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

Yellow Door

Posted on: December 16, 2014

When people ask Marcus where they met, he lies.

“There’s no shame in it,” Lily will tell him.

“The other story is so much better,” Marcus will say.

The real story is they found each other on an online dating site. Marcus was ready to delete his account when he saw Lily. He would tell her much later that she was the only real woman he encountered in a picture; they had all been too staged, and his dates had come across more like auditions than authentic human interaction.

He’d taken the last woman, Marissa, to a football game because she wore a jersey in her picture. She broke down in tears at halftime and admitted she hated crowds, but she thought men found a “guys’ girl” more interesting. She also said her ex-boyfriend was “like, super jealous of black guys.” Marcus gave her money for a cab and left without saying goodbye.

In her profile photo, Lily’s dark hair gathered in a messy side braid that cascaded past her collarbone. Her head tilted back, her mouth open in a loud laugh Marcus heard inside his head. Her hazel eyes gleamed with mischief, like she had pranked someone nearby. Her short fingers curled around a delicate champagne flute.

The story Marcus tells is that he saw her at the yellow door on a hazy Saturday morning, and they abandoned errands for coffee, too rich in taste and cost, but not time. It is an appropriation of their first date, in which Lily suggested the familiar landmark and Marcus suggested the activity. Lily had worn her hair down, and it hung in a glossy sheaf against a Harvard sweatshirt, the hood hanging over the collar of her black peacoat.

The first words that came out of Lily’s chapped lips were “I’m sorry.”

Marcus, on autopilot, responded with “Don’t be.”

Lily explained she spilled foundation on the blouse she had been wearing, and she was behind on laundry, and so she didn’t have anything else to wear but her favorite sweatshirt.

Marcus unzipped his winter coat, the white “Yale” letters blazing like heresy.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Marcus said, “but I think we have a lot of trash talk to cover over coffee.”

During the following year, they will show up at each other’s alumni events in rival colors, first eliciting cringes but later familiar smiles. They will encourage each other to try new things, leading to misguided forays into yoga and indoor rock climbing and a surprising addiction to spam musubi.

They will meet at the yellow door every Saturday and walk to the closest coffee shop nearby.

At Thanksgiving, Marcus meets Lily’s fathers for the first time. He presents both men with their own bottle of bourbon and, upon prompting, begrudgingly admits he doesn’t know what Modern Family is and doesn’t understand what lame joke he should be making.

“I told you you’d like him!” Lily gushes, her lips stained after two glasses of red wine.

“Bless you, son,” Robert chuckles.

When Lily excuses herself, Marcus doesn’t waste any time.

“I love your daughter,” Marcus says, “and I know I want to spend the rest of my life with her. Before I ask her, I want two things: to move in with her, and to have your blessing.”

“How will you ask her?” Frank asks.

“I don’t know yet. I have some ideas.”

“When?” Robert adds.

“When it’s right,” Marcus shrugs. “Not a holiday or our anniversary, though.”

“We’ve had three hours and four courses to get to know you,” Robert says. “You think you’ll get our blessing right now?”

“I didn’t expect to, to be honest,” Marcus smirks. “I thought you would want to know my intentions. I thought you should know about Lily’s Christmas present.”

Marcus shows them the pictures from his phone: a bright, modern loft with smooth white walls and light hardwood floors. Metal and glass accents glint.

“She’ll love it,” Frank says.


Lily wakes up to a cold bed. She shivers and reaches for Marcus, but he’s gone. She rolls out of bed, stumbling into the nightstand. A tiny wrapped package drops to the floor, the silver bow crushed on impact.

Lily tears the paper off and pulls at the lid. A piece of yellow paper lies alone in the box. Printed in careful handwriting is “Kitchen counter.”

On her counter is a bigger present topped with a festive red bow. Inside another note reads “Get dressed. Check weather first. Meet me at the Starbucks by the yellow door.”

Pulling on her Harvard sweatshirt, yoga pants, and brown leather Frye boots, Lily exits the apartment. She returns three minutes later to collect additional winter accoutrements - coat, scarf, ear warmers, mittens. As an afterthought, she drops two empty thermoses into her bag.

The smell of chemical gingerbread and eggnog and booming Bing Crosby greets her. An over-caffeinated woman in a green apron and felt elf hat (complete with pointy ears) beams at her when she walks in.

“Are you Lily?” The woman asks.

Lily nods.

“Yay! I was worried you might stand that nice man up. He thought you might be here an hour ago.”

“I guess I slept in on Secret Christmas Scavenger Hunt Day,” Lily says.

“I’m supposed to give you this.” The woman sets a present next to the register.

“I’ll trade you,” Lily says, handing her the thermoses. “Two of those holiday teas. Extra hot.”

The next note is an address near Lily’s office. She hands the woman a crisp twenty and leaves with two thermoses, steam wafting in thin spirals as she makes her way to the address.

A doorman greets her with a “Merry Christmas, Lily!” and hands her another present. It’s a new key, silver and unused. The doorman tells her a floor and a unit number.

In the elevator, the tears come as her lips tug into a wide, full smile.

She knows which apartment it is when she exits the elevator. In a row of black rectangles, it’s a freshly painted bright yellow door, the happy sheen welcoming her home.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Shelly Love

Korean 28

Posted on: December 11, 2014

“I’ve been dreaming about planes.” Ellen-Teacher tells me.

“I know it’s stupid...but...I think I want to be a pilot.”

We’re sitting in one of the bars near Lotte Cinema. The dim one with giant teddy bears in glass cases. The teddy bears aren’t for sale. They aren’t for anything.

Maybe it’s the mutual dissatisfaction with our job or maybe it’s the teddy bears in glass cases that make me encourage her.

“You should take flying lessons.”

Ellen-Teacher slides her glass of Hite closer and glances around before taking out her third Dunhill of the night.

No one’s watching. No one notices the female South Korean lighting another red. Everyone is busy watching themselves, taking selfies, texting, or fixing their makeup. But Ellen-Teacher looks as if her father might pop up at any moment.

“I can’t.” She says.

Ellen-Teacher can’t do a lot of things. If I ask her out for a beer, Ellen-Teacher has been directed to tell me “I can’t.” Director Randy, our boss at the English school, forbade her. He didn’t tell her why. This may also be why Jessica-Teacher answers me in small grunts and glares at me from afar.

Director Randy chose his English-speaking name by naming himself after Randy Rhoads. Sometimes he rollerblades around the carpeted office and once a week he asks me to guess how old I think he is. He’s balding. It’s week 17. Every time he asks, I smile uncomfortably and shrug with false uncertainty.

The first time Ellen-Teacher invited me to get a beer, she told me about this rule. The invite was a pity one. She saw me through my classroom window. It’d been hours of speaking in my well-crafted English slow-tongue. I’d emphasized every R and L ad nauseam to my beginners. I’d made sure my intonation was welcoming and bouncy, like the lovechild of a mid-westerner and a Southern Californian. I’d spent the last few hours of my shift trying to teach English to adolescents who only questioned my importance. “Why we need English?” I didn’t correct their questions. Like a real adult, I told them to ask their parents.

Ellen-Teacher saw me through the glass square in my door using my hand to keep my head from falling on the desk in defeat. Outside, out of Director Randy’s view, she invited me to share our first pitcher.

Ellen-Teacher and I are both 28. I lost two years during my 17-hour flight from the States. In Korea, you’re one from the moment you emerge from your mother. Your birthday means nothing. Forget about it. Your birthday is now the New Year. Everyone’s birthday is the New Year. Back in Buffalo, New York, I was a young 26 but Korean Standard Time declared me 28. I’d missed my chance to join the 27 Club entirely and glided into the not-so-golden age of a Korean 28.

Korean 28, for a woman, means marriage with kids on the way. Korean 28 does not mean teaching over-privileged Korean students English. That’s the equivalent of a spinster. I might as well resign to a life of lonely Sundays where I watch infomercials as if they are real television programs and start calling product helplines just to hear another person’s voice.

I learned my status as a spinster from every conversation with every South Korean cabbie ever.

The driver looks in his rearview and asks where I am from.

“Where are you from?”

“New York.”

The driver assumes that “New York” means the city and makes weird shout-outs. He lists the things he knows and thinks about the city, each its own exclamation or statement:

“New York!”

“Big Apple!”

“Time Square!”

“Very many people.”

I nod in agreement as these are also my thoughts on New York. We nod at each other until there are no more nods. When the nod-off ends, the driver asks how old I am.



Horizontal nod.


Another horizontal nod.

I can see his scrunched brow in the rearview. He retires to a disappointed silence. I want to add another detail about New York with an exclamation point at the end.I want to say anything to take us back to when he was excited to know me. But his silence is a strong one, a finite one.

Ellen-Teacher isn’t married either and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Ellen-Teacher's first name is not Ellen and her last name is not Teacher. Euna chose “Ellen” as her teacher name. My teacher name is Letia because that is my birth name. When Euna is asked why she chose the name “Ellen”, a shrug is the reason. Like me, she is confused as to how she wound up teaching English to the over-privileged kids of her country.

Ellen-Teacher lives with her parents. Ellen-Teacher had a brother. He left Mokpo to live in a bigger city. Their parents disapproved. He bought a motorcycle. Their parents disapproved. Ellen-Teacher’s brother died in a motorcycle accident.

There is little hope of Ellen-Teacher flying anywhere.

And though we both know this, that we’re a couple of Korean 28s and that it feels too late, Ellen-Teacher continues to dream of planes.

“You could take lessons.” I suggest again.

After all, Amelia Earhart’s legacy was of trying.

“Do they have flying lessons here?”

She tells me they do, she explains the expenses a little, and ends her last sentence with a but.

Even Amelia got lost.

After Ellen-Teacher’s pack of Dunhills is lighter and we’ve drained enough pitchers to find our lives laughable-laughable instead of pathetically-laughable, we part ways for the weekend.

Ellen-Teacher goes home. A hallway away from her parents, she lays her head down and dreams the same dream again. The one where she is flying above us all, wearing an Amelia Earhart leather aviator helmet, and watching the world below move on.

Written by: Tia Brown
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

The Star

Posted on: December 9, 2014

Her grandmother took her to the opera house to see the Nutcracker. She sat very still in her seat, the red fibers of the chair scratching her thighs. She watched patrons move down the aisle with bouquets of roses and greenery in their arms and gift bags dangling from their elbows. She knew they were presents for the dancers.

But what they didn’t know was that her name was Clara, too, just like the star of the ballet. Surely, for that, someone would give her a gift. Maybe clip-on earrings or a porcelain doll like the one she saw when she was shopping with her parents at the antique and garden store.

Clara knew if she could just rise from her seat, twirl her velvet dress, and approach the woman with the present, all she would have to say was, “My name is Clara,” and the woman would be charmed. Everyone would be charmed.

But at that moment, her grandmother wrapped her leathery hand around Clara’s wrist and squeezed.

“Do you want a peppermint?”

Clara rattled it around in her mouth, clicking the candy against her teeth. Now the lights were dimming. She had missed her chance.

When the ballet was over, it was decided. She would become a dancer, and everyone would shower her with gifts and flowers. The spotlight would shine down from the roof and the whole room would gaze on her alone.

Back at her grandmother’s, she rummaged through the closets for ballet slippers. She settled instead for terrycloth house shoes with rubber grips on the bottom. She spent the rest of the afternoon imagining the patio was a stage, and she was Clara, the star Clara, who had a growing Christmas tree and a real prince and a benevolent uncle who was also a magician.

When she finished her dance, she set about gathering leaves and sprigs from her grandmother’s yard, topping off the arrangement with all the fern fronds and large succulent leaves from her grandmother’s potted plants. She wrapped them in a paper towel like a bouquet and cradled them in her arms, thanking her adoring fans.

Her grandmother had had enough ballet for one day.

“What have you done to my fern?” she said.

Clara didn’t have an answer.

“Let’s get you back home,” her grandmother said, shaking her head.

Clara spent the drive back to her house staring out the window, imagining she was alone, and imagining that everyone loved her.

“I don’t see why I couldn’t spend the night,” Clara sighed.

“We didn’t plan for that,” her grandmother said.

When the screen door of her parents’ house slammed behind her, the magic was gone.

“Get changed—you don’t need to play in that dress,” her mother shouted from the kitchen.

Clara could smell spaghetti sauce and some kind of vegetable she was certain to dislike. Downstairs, one of the twins was screaming. She hung her dress on a pink plastic hanger in the closet she shared with Emma and traded it for blue polka dotted leggings and a yellow turtleneck with a faint Kool-Aid stain near the hem.

Emma wanted to hear about the ballet, but Clara didn’t want to talk. She knew if she stayed inside, she would be asked to do chores. She had enjoyed an afternoon of extravagance with her grandmother, and now someone would want to make her pay. Drying the dishes. Picking up pine cones. Sorting the clean laundry into seven stacks—one for each member of her crowded family.

“Where are you going?” Emma whined, as Clara double-knotted her sneakers.

“Shut up,” Clara said, even though those words were off limits.

She sneaked outside and hid under the deck.

It was too tight to stand up and continue practicing the fine art of ballet, so she braided two clusters of pine straw together and pretended it was a dancer. There was a dead roly-poly near her foot.

“A rat!” she whispered, and jumped her pine straw dancer away.

She wished she had kept a piece of her grandmother’s fern. Ferns are infinitely more graceful than pine straw. Clara arched the straw dancer, bending it into an arabesque. The straw broke, leaving her dancer’s leg ruined.

She heard the thunder of little feet on the deck above her head. It was Emma with the twins.

“Clara!” Emma called. The twins echoed. “Supper’s ready!”

Under the deck, Clara tensed, drawing her knees up to her chin. She had forgotten her jacket and was getting cold, but she didn’t want to go in. She didn’t want to go to the dinner table, fight over the breadbasket, and watch the twins and baby Julie smear spaghetti sauce in their hair. She didn’t want the noise and pain of it. The knives screeching on plates, Emma kicking her shins under the table.

No one would pay any attention to her. No one would think she was special for having the same name as the star of the ballet. She was the star of nothing. There would be no elegance in scraping leftover food into the garbage can and loading plates into the dishwasher. Nothing lovely about sliding a nasty broom under the baby’s high chair and pushing crumbs into a dustpan.

“Is Clara gone?” she heard one of the twins ask Emma. “Where’s Clara? We love you, Clara!”

“Go on in,” Emma said. “I’ll find her.”

Clara heard the twins run back across the deck, and she saw Emma’s feet coming down the stairs. Emma peeked around a beam.

“There you are,” she said.

“I’m not hungry,” Clara said.

“Look what I found in mom’s room,” Emma said, crawling beside Clara in the dirt. “She said you can have them.”

Emma handed Clara a tattered pair of ballet slippers, long and narrow like their mother’s feet. The leather was still a perfect rosy pink, and inside each heel someone had written their mother’s initials with permanent marker.

“After supper, will you show me how to dance?” Emma asked.

“Maybe,” Clara said. “I’ll think about it.”

They left the broken pine straw in the dirt and went inside.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe


Posted on: December 4, 2014

I lost my grandfather three months ago. Thirteen years after my grandmother. Now that they are gone I feel like a big part of my childhood is lost forever.

People ask me if I was close to him. I don’t know what to say. In the last few years, I didn’t see him everyday, and when I did, I didn’t know what to talk to him about. But he was my grandfather, and now my mother is an orphan.

I walked into his room and everything was still the same: his bed, his glasses on the side table, the two paintings of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Krishna, side by side above the bed. He was there too, his body wrapped up in a white sheet like an Egyptian mummy. From the moment I saw him like that I knew I would never be able to let go of that image.

The next day we took him to the cremation ground. Before leaving, each of the family members had to walk around his body, his face now uncovered, and put flowers on his feet as our last offering to him.

The blazing fire of the cremation pyre is a scene I have seen a thousand times in movies and on bad soap operas. It never really struck me as anything out of the ordinary. It was just another custom, just something that had to be done. Standing a few feet away from the burning body of my grandfather, I could not fully comprehend that it was him in there. It was just like one of those fires on the TV screen. I saw everything that was happening, all the rituals; I held my crying mother, but I could not cry.

With that fire we are supposed to let his soul go on and find peace, but all I could think of was the past.

When my grandmother died suddenly, the entire family was shaken up. Even then, I could not cry at all, maybe because I was still too young to have a clear concept of death. Looking back, I think it was also because I was watching my mother completely fall apart and I had no room for my own emotions. For months she would get up in the middle of the night and go to an empty room, so as not to disturb my father, and cry. She still doesn’t know I could hear her.

She also doesn’t know I found her note.

Once when she was out of town, my father asked me to take out some money from my mother’s drawer because he always forgot where she hid her keys. Next to the money I found a piece of paper with her handwriting. She had written a goodbye letter addressed to my brother and me. Not only did the letter shock me because it sounded like she was going to die soon, she had also written she loved us in it. For the longest time, my mother had been unable to say that to us in words. She couldn’t tell us she loved us. It was simply implied and we were supposed to pick up on it on our own. I put the letter back in its place and never mentioned it to anyone. Some months later it was gone.

To this day, I don’t know if it was some sort of suicide note or just her way of trying to be prepared in case she died unexpectedly, like her mother.

Maybe finding her letter is the reason why I often write letters to people even when I know I will never send them. The way my mother could never say, “I love you” to her children, I am unable to say so many things to people around me. I just write to them, without them knowing it.

I tear up handwritten letters. I spend weeks carefully editing emails and then delete them permanently. Some things I have buried, some I’ve even burned because I don’t know how to say them.

I don’t know how to say:

“I’m tired of looking after you, look after me for a change.” Or

“You let a perfectly good friendship end because of one fight. And I hate knowing how little I matter to you because I still miss you.” Or

“That joke you made four years ago still hurts me even though you think I’ve completely forgotten about it.” Or

“I moved to the other end of the world to get away from you.”

Sometimes, I even write notes to myself:

“When you leave, don’t look back.”


In the days after the cremation, relatives and friends visited my Uncle’s house to convey their condolences to the family. One of my mother’s cousins started talking about the journey of the soul after the death of the body. She talked about reincarnation; she talked about how my grandfather could feel us mourning. I knew she had lost her young son some years back and all I could hear in everything she was saying was her inability to accept the permanence of her loss. She had found every way possible to convince herself that her son was not really gone but continued to exist in some form, in some world or the other.

While some of the family members found comfort in her ideas, I was able to understand the real motive behind the funerary customs we had just gone through. They were not for the peace of the departed but for the living. Every step was supposed to bring us closer to acknowledging the loss and letting go. The fire, the immersion of the ashes into the Ganges, the giving away of all the belongings, it is all so that we have nothing left to hold on to.

It’s like the letters that I write. I burn them because I no longer want to feel the feelings that I write about. A cremation, followed by a mourning and then, hopefully, a move forward.

Written by: Vrinda Agrawal
Photograph by: Sydney Singhass

Forever Young

Posted on: December 2, 2014

It soon became clear that the children were not going to stop.

Their bickering reminded her of the sounds of childhood back on the island. The washing rattle of waves. The sporadic tick-tocking of coconuts falling from trees in the dark. Her father’s record player spinning black vinyl, and a singer who possessed a wincing, death-rattle of a voice. Her father, who died young at 55 and never set foot on United States soil, was obsessed with the voice. The voice’s name was Bob Dylan.

She would call it ironic, the extent to which that voice somehow scored her own life. But irony wasn’t the right word. It was more just weird. Coincidental, maybe. Like it was written in the stars. Like it was.. what? Blowing in the wind?

Sara Hibbing had been named after a Bob Dylan song. More specifically, she had been named after the final track on his 1976 record, Desire - her father’s favorite.

It was astonishing, really, that she was not more aware of this fact when it came time to name her own daughter. She wished that she could take a boat to the past, hold that particular record sleeve in her hands, flip over to the list of songs on the back, and focus her attention on the second track. By the time she actually did this, in a now-demolished record store on Mercy Street, it was more out of nostalgia than curiosity.

It was of course, by then, too late.

“Isis,” she said, addressing her daughter. “Get your stuff together. We’re leaving.”

The little girl shook her head vehemently in the negative.

“Isis,” Sara repeated. “Do as I say.”

Isis looked at her little brother, Joseph - Joey - and it was as if the two of them sang the same sibling song, and the name of the song was “Hell no... hell no... hell no, we won’t go.”

The two comrades had an unspoken bond, and Sara would revel in the existence of that bond any other time, but goddamnit, not this time. Not right now.

Where was Allen when you actually needed him?

“Mama, look!” shouted Joey.

The boy then proceeded to throw his half-finished ice cream directly at his sister. Unfortunately, on account of his tiny arms and the perilous slickness of melting ice cream, his heave fell well short and to the left of his intended sisterly target, instead slapping Sara right in the forehead.

The vanilla cream, more liquid than frozen at this point, slid down her face like a tired drunk against a wall.

It was at this exact moment that Allen emerged from the ice cream shop that he and his wife had labored over for the last six years. Six years gone since the purchase of property. Six years living with the reward from their weirdly perilous journey to the dark heart of the American dream. Six years since winning the lottery.

When he saw his wife, when he saw her face behind the ice cream mask, he involuntarily made the same face that his son was making; bulging eyes and a gaping mouth full of shock, and at the moment, a bit of Rocky Road.

Allen had beautiful skin that once drove Sara’s grandmother to proclaim him, “an angel come down from heaven.” As if God physically reached out to the young boy - just another brown boy spending too much time in the Kingston sun - touched him and made him something more than the rest of us.

Sometimes when Sara looked at him she just wanted to rub against him. Nose to nose. Palm to palm. Didn’t matter.

After buying the abandoned ice cream shop - shortly before Isis and a bit more before Joey - they had cleaned it themselves. It was in need of a thorough brush and scrub so they gathered broken boards, painted the walls a light blue color of the sea - a color of home - swept up all matter of cobwebs, and scrubbed on hands and knees until their biceps ached.

After they were finished Robert produced a small joint, and they smoked it leaning against the counter that would soon serve Caribbean ice cream. And when they were done with the joint they fucked like teenagers on that very same counter.

She knew the word was crass, but just the thought of saying it turned her on now. Robert and his beautiful body. So sweaty from work that she had to peel that red shirt off him. Like it had melted to his torso. When it stuck on his head they both giggled and she looked down at his bare stomach, and those muscles that made a “V” down to his cock (she never knew the name of them but she adored them), and...goodness.

But time pays no heed to fools - not even the young.

They never fucked anymore. They had sex, and it was like they had never before seen each other naked. Exotic positions, most ending in failed laughter, had been replaced by a sort of intense missionary eye contact. Allen preferred making love, as he called it.

But she couldn’t blame him alone. It was on both of them. She knew it was to be expected. Knew it was normal. But she had never wanted to be normal before, so why now? Why with such an important thing? With such a fun thing? It wasn’t the penetration that she craved; it was Allen’s laugh as he fell off the edge of bed, clutching a cramped leg and yelling her name; his beautiful bum the last she would see of him before he popped back up and collapsed next to her in a tired heap of love.

And now there was ice cream. Ice cream all over. Children that were beautiful as their father now, but would soon plump and fatten like all the other American children. All because of this fucking ice cream.

She wondered if other lottery winners ever wished they had never bought the ticket, or in her case, that her husband had never bought the ticket, had never used her birthday and their anniversary digits and forfeited them to the convenience store clerk as if they had lost all their chastity; defrocked by that dream, the mansion on the hill; just like everything else in this country. Was nothing left?

Sara was a volcano and the scream that erupted from her mouth had started deep inside her soul, subterranean and building until she unleashed it upon the world like spewing lava.

Isis fell silent, as did Joey, and also Allen. They looked at her like one looks at a lion, waiting for that natural power to take hold, to unleash that violent instinct.

And goddamnit, she thought, I am a lion. I am a fucking lion and now I will scorch earth as I make my way across this wasteful land, as I burn my path through children, husbands, Americans, lottery tickets, cream.

The vanilla had slid past her nose and on to her lips. It was, save her soul, terrifically good. Her family stood in silent awe of her maternal divinity; frozen in her golden glow.

She was the planet and they were her moons.

From a passing car, Bob Dylan croaked through the second verse of “Forever Young,” commanding her and her family to always be courageous.

To stand upright, and be strong.

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Nathan Mansakahn


Posted on: November 25, 2014

We last saw Anna being interrogated by Michael Cohen, the police detective assigned to a series of related murders that all involve the same ghost. Anna realizes that the only way she can stop the specter's spree is to help him. Read the whole Anna the Extractor Series--"The Extractor," "Bury Their Own," "Beloved," "A Tremor in Your Name," and "Stress in the Workplace," "Common Denominators," and "Calling" (an introduction)--to learn more about Anna and her supernatural adventures.

“Lucas, be still.”

The rabbi isn’t speaking to the man, but to the ghost that possesses him. Ten men of various ages surround Lucas with heads bowed and eyes closed, reciting a psalm in Hebrew, each at their own pace. Some of the men have their palms turned up, as if ready to receive a blessing. Others are nervous, unsure of themselves, merely mumbling the words and wringing their hands.

The ghost cannot flee as he has before, not when the rabbi knows his name and commands him to stay. His host begins to tremble, face flushed, and breath shallow. Lucas peers through the eyes of his stolen body, searching the faces of those around him, and noticing the silhouette of a woman just beyond the circle, sitting on the arm of a faded red couch. He knows her immediately, feels the chill of her spirit pressing toward him before she even moves.

“Anna,” he hisses.

She stands, sliding between two of the men to enter the circle. He recognizes the look of a plan hiding in the curl of her lips. Anna is determined, but he doesn’t know what will come next.

“Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?” the rabbi asks Anna.

“Yes,” she says, then swallows.

The rabbi licks his lips then raises the shofar, a bellow erupting from the horn as he blows. The man whom Lucas possesses shakes harder, falling to the floor as his eyes roll back in his head. The chanting grows louder as the rabbi raises his hands and Anna sits down on the floor. Lucas feels his spirit detach from his host, like the friction of velcro pulled apart. He is suspended in space, but cannot sail from the enclosure of religious fervor.

“Lucas, into Anna,” the rabbi says.

Like a beast forced into a cage, Lucas feels his existence fill Anna’s expanse. He can control her, but to a certain extent she can do the same to him. Their spirits merge, and the distinction between the two is hard to discern. He feels her parents’ absence and the light decay of her lungs from cigarette smoke. He notices the presence of another spirit apart from Anna’s, but he’s drunk with the sound of exorcism. Lucas can’t think straight. He doesn’t know what to do. All he has left is the flow of revenge that has sustained his spirit for decades. It makes him angry. It makes him lash out.

Some of the men take a few steps back, threatening to break the circle when Anna starts to beat her chest with her fists, a groan resounding from deep inside her. She’s doubled over, and her hair shields her face. The rabbi urges the men to keep formation, to continue the recitation.

“Anna, are you still present? Can you hear me? Tell me my name if you can hear me,” he says.

Anna shakes her head, barely able to turn her face in his direction.

“No, if I say it then he has it. He can take you if he has it,” she manages to utter.

Another wave of rage careens through Lucas as he throws himself against the walls of Anna’s body, her heart and soul. He digs her nails into the skin of her neck. He pulls her hair and slams her down against the floor. He needs a way out and he can’t find it. The only way out is through her, with her, to end her.

Despite her small frame, Lucas uses the force of his presence to strike down the man directly in front him. Anna headbutts his chest, and he falls to the floor in shock and terror. As the circle breaks, Lucas feels the power over him begin to diminish, like water seeping out of a crack in a porcelain cup. He notices that the rabbi is stunned, knows to go for him next. He feels Anna resist his control, but it’s already too late when she takes hold of the shofar and rails it against the side of his head. The holy man falls to his knees, losing focus only for a moment, but by the time he remembers the ghost’s name, he is gone and his host is gone, too.

Lucas can feel how lost Anna is as he uses her body to run down busy sidewalks, taking side streets, unsure of where he’ll go, but knowing he needs to get out. But something still binds him to her, as if a job left unfinished cannot be abandoned completely. The rage is building with every step, and he feels that other spirit’s presence build with ferocity. Lucas feels trapped, like the walls are closing in, but Anna is weak and she’s losing the fight. She can’t recover her body or her mind.

But then he feels her. He feels her spirit digging. She’s scratching at the walls of his past, peeking through the curtains of his motives. She’s going places where she shouldn’t, opening doors that he has kept locked for so long. And she isn’t alone.

“Lucas,” the spirit whispers.

And he remembers, the spirit of the little girl whose life he took years ago, using the hands of her drunken father.

“Lydia,” he seethes.

Lucas feels her residing in the cross that rests against Anna’s chest, a place he cannot enter. The little spirit is just out of his reach, and her voice taunts him as she whispers his name, debilitating his hold on Anna’s body.

“I’ll kill her,” he mumbles with Anna’s voice. “I’ll throw Anna into the river. I’ll drown her. I’ll make her kill everyone she loves.”

“Lucas,” Lydia begins. “Anna doesn’t wish you ill. She’s trying to help you. Let her.”

“No one can help me,” he screams through his host.

He brings Anna to her knees in the middle of an intersection, cars squealing to a halt and spectators gathering about in horror and delight.

“She can,” the little spirit whispers. “She will.”

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

Biscuit Sings the Blues

Posted on: November 18, 2014

James ‘Biscuit’ Baker sat alone at a little table in his motel room, sipping on a bottle of Lone Star. The clock read ten til six. His curtains, like all motel curtains, would not quite close. Light seeped in from the red neon sign outside, bathing his room in a sanguine aura.

He felt like Goldilocks when he was out on the road these days, the bed two nights ago in Amarillo was too soft, this one too hard. With any luck, the one tomorrow night in San Antonio would be just right. He swallowed a Vicodin and waited for the pain in his lower back to subside. Once the opiate started to work its magic, Biscuit nodded off in the chair.

A knock on the door woke him from his slumber two hours later. He lurched his sixty-year old body out of the chair and lumbered towards the door.

There was more knocking, louder this time.

“Hold the fuck on. I’m coming.”

The hazy, morning sun blinded him when he opened the door, but he recognized his visitor as soon as she spoke.

“Morning, sunshine,” she said in an unmistakable tone.

Maxine, his ex-wife, had a huskiness to her voice that once reminded him of a young Lauren Bacall, but after a lifetime of cigarettes of whiskey, she now sounded more Johnny Cash.

“Fucking hell…what do you want?”

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Oh yeah, you’re a sore sight for eyes.”

“Don’t you mean a sight for sore eyes.”


“Well, you’re not looking so hot yourself, old man. I see that you got that dickey-do disease going on.”

“Dickey-do disease?”

“Your belly is sticking out farther than your dickey do.”

She chuckled at her own joke. Her laugh sent a chill down his spine.

“Not that it would take much of a belly for that to happen,” she added.

“You know Maxine, I’m sure we could just continue this love fest all day, but what the fuck do you want?”

“Can I come in?”

“No… I’ll come out there. Hold on,” he said, slamming the door.

Biscuit splashed some water on his face, put on a fresh shirt and grabbed the pack of Parliament Menthols that were lying on the table. He closed the door behind him and lit one up.

“How did you know I was here?”

“In Austin? Hell, Biscuit, I do live here, you know. And it’s not like I don’t go to the Continental anymore. If you don’t want me to find out, maybe you shouldn’t be playing at one of the most popular fucking clubs in town.”

They started walking towards the sidewalk.

“I meant, how did you know where I was staying?”

“Because you always stay here. You’re a creature of habit.”

Maxine gestured at the big Austin Motel sign, almost pink in the early morning light, that shot up into the sky.

“I figure it has something to do with that sign. A dick for a dick.”

“Huh…” Biscuit took a long drag of his cigarette. “I wonder what old Sigmund Freud would say about that. I always thought of that sign as a hand, with a big middle finger. Kind of a giant ‘fuck you’ to whole entire world… And you think of it as a dick. Maybe he was onto something with that penis envy thing.”

“Not that you would have anything to envy,” came her retort.


“Seriously though, did you call Scotty and tell him you were going to be in town?”

“I tried last night when I got in, but he didn’t answer. I didn’t leave a message. I was going to try again today.”

“That’s convenient.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, that it’s convenient how you wait until the last minute to tell him, hoping that he has other plans.”

“That’s not true. I would love to see Scotty.”

“Bullshit. What are you afraid of Biscuit? Failing as father? You already did that.”

“Fuck Maxine, do you have to be so harsh?”

“What? Does the truth hurt, honey? You know what else probably hurts? When your father doesn’t make it to your high school graduation, or when he forgets to call you on your birthday. So if you’re looking for sympathy, you better find a dictionary, it’s somewhere between shit and syphilis.”

Biscuit stared down South Congress Street, searching his memory for anything other than hatred for this woman.

“He’s getting married.”

“Huh?” Biscuit turned to look at Maxine. “He’s what?”

“Getting married. She’s a real nice girl. I think he wants you to come to the wedding.”

“If I’m such a failure as a father, why would he want me there?”

“Because he still loves you Biscuit. I don’t know why, but he still does.”

Maxine put on her sunglasses and opened her car door.

“You know, despite all of our shortcomings, that is one hell of a good kid we have. And before you get all pissy, I’ll admit, it wasn’t just you. I was by no means mother of the year. But somehow he turned out real good. Give him a call, Biscuit. See you around.”

Maxine got into her car and disappeared into the Austin traffic.


Biscuit walked onto the stage to raucous applause. He sat down on the stool and picked up his trusty old Telecaster. Once the crowd quieted down he pulled the microphone close.

“Before I play tonight, I just want to say a few words. My son is here in the crowd, with his beautiful new fiancé.”

A spotlight was turned on to a table near the back of the small room. A waitress was delivering a bottle of champagne to the young couple sitting there.

“So I just want to say to Scott and Sara, congratulations, and I know I was a shitty father…” Biscuit’s voiced cracked. “Hell, I still am a shitty father, but I love you.”

Scott smiled and wiped a quick tear from his eye.

“Now enough with all this feel good shit. If you want happy music, go to Nashville. My name is Biscuit and I sing the blues.”

“They say that time is money… well, I guess I’m broke as fuck…”

Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Matt Crump

The True Test

Posted on: November 13, 2014

Max hesitates and looks up and down the antiseptic hallway, stark white and silent. Dozens of scanners glow next to dim portals, each leading to a bright exam room.

The watch vibrates an alarm. He’s going to be late. Max sighs and places his hand on the screen. The portal displays a series of numbers and biometrics, as well as the same terrible picture of a younger, pimply-faced Max. The portal spirals open and Max steps through.

A young woman with short, choppy hair is in his exam room.

“My name is Ren,” she smiles. “It was clear Dr. Rosen was not making any progress.”

“I wasn’t nice to Dr. Rosen. I didn’t know his name, though,” Max says, as though it makes a difference. Last week his test response was a thinly-veiled story about a clever boy imprisoned by a fat, evil king. Max has been paying for it all week with brutal drills in the SimRoom.

“I don’t expect you to be nice to me. Not when I look like the enemy.” Ren’s smile seems sharper, more pointed and ferocious.

“Don’t do that. You aren’t the enemy.” Max says. “You’re Japanese. Are you one of the survivors?”

“No,” Ren exhales and looks down at her notes. She drags her red pen across the paper, drawing sad loops.

They do not say the words they are both thinking, born from different memories of the same terrible day. Max does not ask her if she lost family during the Crimson Terror. Ren does not ask him if he joined the Academy because he was caught up in narrative driven by revenge.

Their expressions tell their stories: loss and hatred.

“I’m sorry,” Max says. “I didn’t mean — ”

“How did you know?” Ren asks. Her expression is a blend of sadness and curiosity. She wipes a stray tear away with an ink-stained finger, leaving a smear of violent red in its wake.

“My dad made me memorize the family tree back through the First Civil War,” Max says, “after World War II, my great-great-grandfather married a Japanese nurse named Ren.”

“Without that, would you have known?”

“Probably not,” Max admits. “But if you’re at the Academy, you have to be good, right?”

Ren does not respond. She taps on the table and dozens of blooms rise from its center. There are massive sunflowers and vibrant posies, curled fiddlehead ferns and drooping tulips in every shade Max can imagine. It is the most color he has seen in years.

“This is your thirty-seventh test, Max. Create a story,” Ren says.

“Wait,” Max says. He pulls a clean white screen cloth from one of the many pockets in his jumpsuit. He hands it to Ren, her wide brown eyes wet with uncried tears. She stares at it. Max gestures to her eye.

“You’ve got ink there,” he explains.

“Thank you,” Ren says, dabbing the stain until it disappears. When she gives the cloth back to Max, her fingers brush against his.

She pulls her hand away and taps on the table again. A wide ceramic bowl appears under the floating flowers. Max looks up and plucks different stems from the holographic network garden above him.

“He fell in love with the smartest woman he knew,” Max begins.

At the ninety-eighth test, Max requests a cipher.

“A cipher?” Ren’s voice is even, but her dark brown eyes light up. It is the only way they can laugh together.

“A key,” Max replies, his blue eyes wide and bright. He almost cracks a smile, but bites his bottom lip instead. Ren blushes and glances at her notes.

“Please, Ren. I’ve been telling the story all wrong! Flowers have different meanings, and if the man is in love with her, he can’t send her flowers that mean friendship or sympathy.”

“In your story, you assume the woman cares about the meanings of the flowers instead of the overwhelming affection behind the man’s efforts. Why does she care?” Ren asks.

“Because she’s smart and he isn’t, and if she knows this and he never did, she wouldn’t want him,” Max explains, his voice rough and deep.

“You have been telling the same story in every test I have given you. Some days you pick different flowers. Your flowers mean the same thing to the man. Why does a key matter?”

“I graduate soon. I just want to tell it right.”

“There are no right ways,” Ren laughs. “Now, tell me a story.”


The transport hovers over the East China Sea, its belly swollen with recent Academy graduates, high off propaganda and nationalism and eager for action. Max sees something spiraling up out of the water, a swarm of flashes and a low hum he could feel deep in his gut. He jams on his helmet and screams for autopilot to take over, and the last thing he sees is a shimmering black sludge that coats his visor. He feels his stomach drop as he falls.


“Your progress is good,” the doctor says, “and you’re integrating with the new tech nicely. You’ve gotten a few pings for visitor requests. Now that you’ve got full range of motion, I think it’ll be best for them to start coming by, get used to your new look.”

“They have to get used to me?” Max says.

“Soldiers who signed up as tech donor recipients have an easier adjustment to their new limbs or organs - except for the silver skulls, and nobody can get used to looking like a partial Terminator, though I’m told it’s terrifying in Occupied Shanghai.”

“Terminator?” Max asks.

The doctor shakes her head and leaves.

His parents come the following day. His father stares at his arm and shoulder, his mother cries, and his little sister keeps saying “Cool” and asking the doctor varying questions about the specs.

Ren comes the day after with a tray of flowers: real ones, wilted and sweet.

“Pick one,” Ren says.

Max curls his new slender, silver fingers around a blossom. He liberates one of the white roses from the tray and hands it to Ren.

“He fell in love with the smartest woman he knew,” Max says.

Ren smiles and nods.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

Too Far from the Water

Posted on: November 11, 2014

It makes it more difficult, Mica tells me, if you transition into a human family that's too far from the water.

"In a land family," she says, “you'll have turmoil."

"Like the waves?"

"No. Like a world with no waves."

I can't imagine a world with no waves. The pulse of them is all I've ever known. They set our days here. The waves rising and falling tell us when to swim beyond the ocean shelf and when to go closer to the shore to feed on smaller fish.

"You'll get lucky," says Mica. "I have a feeling you'll be born to fishermen."

I know it isn't good to spend too much time speculating, but I hope she's right. I swim behind her as we head towards the reef. The sun cuts through the water and flashes against her scales, which shine silver.


On the day Mica is caught, I swim to the sandy bottom and bury myself in silt, like I've seen the crabs do. Lin finds me and tells me I should celebrate. That Mica’s been eaten by now, and soon will be born as a human.

"How can they eat her, knowing they used to be animals themselves?"

"Why do you eat smaller fish?" Lin asks. "You help them continue on their path. Besides, humans lose all memory of their past once they're born in their final form."

I stay on the bottom awhile longer, then rejoin the others as they swim towards the shallows.


When the net dips down, I try to lock eyes with the fisherman. Remember who you were, I want to say, but my lips move in strange patterns in the air. My gills burn like the time I was tangled in a jellyfish tentacle.

As the fisherman moves the net into his boat, I can hear the muted sounds of my friends below, still in the water.

They wish me luck. Then, they are gone. All I hear are the waves.


The waves change. They usually woosh at a regular rate, but today, they're faster. I can feel a deep thrumming of noise. Until today, the noise has been soothing, sometimes seeming to speak directly to me--but now it's loud and angry. The walls of the chamber where I've been floating expand and press in around me.

When I emerge, my gills burn again, but in a new way. I try to protest in my old language, like in the fisherman's net. But now, the noise comes from me. I am wrapped in a new net, this one warm and soft. I am wiped clean. My scales are gone--in their place, brown skin.

I look up into human eyes for the first time since the fisherman's, and at once, I forget the waves. I am born.


“Don’t you go near that pool!”

I am four. It is hot. So hot, my feet burn on the concrete that surrounds the swimming pool. We’re on a roof deck, and Mom is talking to Jay and Shelby. No one is swimming in the perfect, turquoise water. Women and men lie on chairs all around us. Some reading, some drinking. Some sleeping. I don’t know why you’d want to nap when you could have a pool all to yourself.

Mom is helping Shelby get drinks out of the cooler. I sneak closer to the pool. I can just set my foot on the top of the water. Just enough to cool off the burn from the concrete. Ahhh.

I lose my balance.

I’m part of the water, now, bobbing up and down. Mom and Shelby and Jay are still by the cooler. I can see them as if through a sheer, sparkling curtain. No one is coming. I close my eyes, and when I open them, I see darkness creeping in.

And then, Mom’s in the pool, pulling me out, still wearing her long dress with the pink flowers on it. She’s crying. I’m crying.

On the pool deck, she spanks me, then squeezes me so tight I think I’ll black out again. She spanks me again, then kisses the top of my head.

“What did I tell you about the water? You are not a fish,” she wails.


“What’s your sign?” Michelle wants to know.


“Your sign. Your astrological sign?”

She has a thick purple book on her desk. The pages are rimmed all the way around in silver, so when she closes the book, they shine.

I don’t want to admit I don’t know what she’s talking about. All morning, Michelle and her friends have huddled around that book. I didn’t expect to be included. Mom’s grand idea to move to the suburbs has left me the new kid in the middle of the school year. These kids ride horses and wear name brand clothes. The girls all have miniature leather backpacks that they’ve stuffed with glittery lip gloss and scented lotion. Mom bought me my backpack at Wal*Mart three years ago, and it’s falling apart. I don’t wear makeup. But now Michelle is talking to me. She wants to share the contents of her magical book with me.

“Helloooo? You in there, new kid? What’s your sign?”

“I can’t remember,” I say. “I knew one time, but now I forget.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“March 1st.”

“You’re a Pisces,” she says.


When Mom gets out of rehab for the second time, she takes me on a trip to the beach.

“You hate the ocean,” I say, when she calls me at college to propose the plan.

“I never did enough for you when you were little,” she said. “It can be a fresh start.”

I’m not sure I believe in fresh starts, especially from Mom. For her, it’s always more about disconnection from the old. “What’s past is past,” she’s fond of saying. And when the new is an escape rather than a decision, I can’t trust it to last.

“It’s nice here,” she says. The water is clear and calm. Bluer than I remember. But what memory do I have to go on?

“Did we come here when I was a kid?” I ask her.

“I don’t think so. You never liked the water.”

“That’s not true,” I say.

“Well, we just didn’t. We went to the mountains, though. Remember camping?”

“Uh huh.”

Mom’s taken her sandals off, and she cries out when she steps on something sharp.

“It’s just a shell,” I say, bending to pick it up. It’s shimmery, like mercury.

“Why does it look like that?”

“I think it’s called mica,” I say, unsure how I know this.

“Whatever,” she says.

I put the shell in my pocket, knowing I will have to make my own home.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Vrinda Agrawal

Push Yourself

Posted on: November 6, 2014

Candace pushed the paint roller up and down the sanded surface that was previously covered in faded paisley wallpaper. Her matte-blue trail stretched from the living room entrance toward the picture window that overlooked the back of the property. It was in front of that same window her mother would sprawl out on a chaise lounge and read novels about war-torn lovers, using the end of each chapter an opportunity to check in on young Candace as she played on the swing her father built her before answering his call of duty.

Candace used to spend hours watching ants march beneath her feet, the rest of her body draped over the wooden plank like a dress hung out to dry. She would make up stories for each the six-legged soldiers, imagining where they were going, what they were doing, and how many children they left behind. She was comforted by the thought of a larger being looking out for her father in the same way she was watching over the platoon of insects.

Candace stopped painting and placed the roller in the pan, resting the handle against one of the cloudy panes of glass. She searched for a place to take a break from her duties, but with all of the furniture either in storage or sold, she had nowhere to sit but the untreated floorboards that were speckled with carpet fragments.

She knelt down until her hands reached the tacky surface beneath her, using her arms as kickstands for her upper body while she extended her legs toward the window. She tapped the platinum ring on her right hand against a stray carpet staple while assessing her progress. The pings of her jewelry were as uniform as the lines of paint along the wall.

After estimating how long it would take her to finish the room, she shifted her weight to her right arm and checked the watch on her left wrist. The beams of light coming through the window bounced off the diamond-accented hands, filling her pupils with explosions of color that were snuffed out once she rolled her eyes.

She stood up and trudged toward the window, each step echoing through the empty room like her shoes were lined with packaging tape. As she reached for the roller, she caught a softened glimpse of the swing dangling on the other side of the glass. The subtle swaying of the unoccupied seat taunted her from across the yard. She disregarded the time on her outstretched wrist and headed for the back door. She pushed opened the creaky screen and tiptoed down the steps, being careful not to disturb any creatures that may be lurking in the shadows beneath the concrete slabs.

Her silence was broken once her right foot crunched the brittle weeds surrounding the base of the steps. The decaying lawn reminded Candace of her mother’s current state of health, reaffirming her decision to move her into a retirement community and sell her childhood home.

Candace crunched across the prickly turf until she was reunited with her Rosebud. She placed her right hand on the plank of wood and pushed down to test its durability, taking the familiar squeak of the screws as permission to climb aboard. She grabbed one of the weathered ropes with each hand and walked forward until the wood rested flush across her flat stomach.

She gave the fraying cords a final tug and hopped upward, letting the forces of gravity take hold. The swing’s true age became apparent once the wood stripped from the nails, sending Candace face first into the trail of barren dirt that was formed by the repetitive dragging of tiny feet.

Candace laid still for a moment, waiting for pain to identify any injuries she sustained in the fall. The only sting she felt was coming from the circular indentation around her left ring finger. She lifted her hand to find a crimson insect crushed in the trench of flesh, its jaws clinging to her skin.

She picked up a twig with her right hand and made a tiny groove in the dirt. She then plucked the lifeless ant from her finger and placed it in the hole, covering it with the displaced earth. She patted down the mound with her thumb as a tear fell from her nose, strengthening the bond of the soil.

“You fought bravely, your family will be proud,” she said to the grave.

She sat on her knees, clapped the dirt off her hands, and reached for her phone. There were no signs of damage, but there were three voicemails.

“Hi, Ms. Shruggs. It’s Zach. I feel dumb calling you about this, and I know you have enough to worry about right now, but I’m having a hard time with the Garrison report. If you could give me a call I’d re …”

She deleted the first message.

“Hi again. Just wanted to see if you got my call. I’ve made a little headway on the report, but I could still use a som …”

She deleted the second message.

“Okay, disregard everything I’ve said up until now. I figured it out. The report is almost complete, and I will have it to you first thing tomorrow. Sorry again for disturbing you. Please don’t fire me.”

Candace laughed and saved the third message. Then she composed a text.

See what you’re capable of when you’re left to your own devices? P.S - you’re not fired … yet.

She hit send, put her phone back in her pocket, and got to her feet. She wiped the moisture from her eyes with the back of her sleeve and blinked until the house came into focus. She saw her reflection in the window, standing in the same spot where she waited for her father to return from the war, where she waved for her mother to come give her a push, where she learned what she was capable of when left to her own devices.

Written by: Mark Killian
Photograph by: Anna Westbury

The Warden

Posted on: November 4, 2014

Sometimes your dad wakes you up way too early, and in that fumbling darkness as you put on your contacts, there is a moment of clarity. After you stick those weird little lenses onto your eyeball there is a second where the world shifts from dream to reality.

Then sometimes that moment ends and you realize that your contacts have been soaking in disinfectant -- not cleaning solution, but rather that old school, hazardous shit. Sometimes panic comes before pain. Sometimes you set your eyeballs on fire.

Your dad comes into the bathroom because he hears the yelling. He finds you in the fetal position, and because nothing could have possibly happened at this moment to warrant such a response from his oldest son, he begins to laugh.

“Son, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

You want to tell him that the pain is real, but all you seem to manage is, “arrrrrgh, no, eeeeyyyyyyess.”

You hear him walk down the hall and yell back to you in that familiar drawl.

“Well, get the hell up. We’re burnin’ daylight.”

You end up sprawled in the back seat of a maroon suburban with your eyes squeezed shut, trying to think about what it would mean to literally burn daylight. It would probably feel like your eyes right about now.

This is how your trip begins. You’re going duck hunting with your old man.

To embark on this masculine pastime of bird-killing you must wake up very early. The weather will be very cold, and there may even be snow on the ground. You’ll need to wake up early enough to get to the partially frozen pond, don your camouflage waders that look like giant rubber overalls, and set up the decoys in a very particular pattern that changes based on the wind and maybe some other variables; all before the sun comes up. You’ll then hunker down in a camouflage blind, wearing your camouflage coat, hat, gloves, pants, and even long-underwear. You cannot wrap your head around the concept of camouflage underwear. You will then wait. And wait. And wait. You’ll begin to fall asleep from all the waiting and because your eyes hurt from the disinfectant. Your dad will blow a terrible honking noise out of a strange tube-like device that is also camouflaged called a duck call.

You asked your pops if you could bring your Walkman with you, so you could pass the time with the new Smashing Pumpkins cassette Siamese Dream, the one that has the song “Silverfuck” on it. The one that your mom took away because it has the song “Silverfuck” on it, but then you went and bought another copy and now you listen to it in secret and obviously this makes it better.

Ironically enough, the fact that your mom tried to pull a Tipper Gore on your music collection means that of all the cassettes you owned, and all the songs you listened to, the one you remember the most is a song with the amazing title of “Silverfuck.”

“Pops, can I bring my Walkman to listen to music?”


“Pops, can I bring, like, a book or something? To pass the time?”

“Son, we’re going hunting. You’re not going to read a damn book.”

“Pops, can I bring…”


It’s really cold in the blind, and even with all the clothes you’re feeling pretty miserable. Your dad says to shut up, that you’re talking too loud. There are no birds anywhere. Even your dog, the black Labrador named Beauregard, he for whom this rodeo be not his first, even he looks up at you silently teasing, “Sucks, right?”

After more honking and your dad checking his watch, then looking up at the sun, grumbling something under his breath and checking his watch again, finally there is a bird.

You stand up and your dad immediately sits your ass back down.

“The bird!”


The bird does not appreciate your antics, spots the waiting ambush, flies away.

“Goddamnit,” mutters the old man.

Before long, another bird appears on the horizon, making a beeline to your trap. This time you stay put. Dad honks his duck call and the sounds escape the device in jagged, jumpy intervals. You’ve learned that you have to wait for the duck to cup its wings, wait until it slowly begins to drift toward the frozen pond, and then as it’s hanging in the air, as if by a string, you take the shot.


The twelve-gauge recoils against your shoulder as you fire. The duck falls. Beau bounds out of the blind, ripping through the tall grass, his black tail curled up like a shark fin above the reeds.

Your dad is grinning at you, and his blue eyes shine in the sun. The barrel of his shotgun is smoking.

“You fired too?”

“I missed. That was all you.”

You don’t see another bird all morning, but the waiting is somehow now invigorated like its been struck by lightning. Even the silence is electric.

Around noon you begin to pack up your gear. On the way back to your grandparent’s house you sit up front with your dad, and ya’ll listen and sing along to Garth Brooks cassettes. Your dad tells you for the hundredth time how he really wanted to be a game warden, but he wanted a family more, and it was tough to raise a family on a game warden’s salary. You can hear in his voice dreams of a road not taken, one of hunting trailers and lonely, straight roads at dusk. But then he looks at you, and it’s as if the dream was only a passing thought. His voice changes and he tells you that it’s probably for the best that he’s not a game warden.

“If it was my job, if I did it all the time, it wouldn’t be special anymore. It wouldn’t be the same.”

You stop at a little roadside diner to get runny eggs and bacon. Black coffee for your pops. Other hunters dressed in camouflage uniforms populate the diner, and they speak to your dad in what seems like a foreign language.

“Set up near Ponca, out near Vance Riggins’ place.”

“Went out there once with Jim Caldwell.”

“From Enid?”

“Okarche. Didn’t see shit though.”

You get back to the house and the cousins are playing a football game in the front yard; a Christmas tradition. You play all-time quarterback for a bit, then head inside and lounge on the couch, prepping for a nap. The Spurs are on television and your uncle from San Antonio yells at the television as you drift off. Your mom walks by and ruffles your hair.


“My butt itches.”


“Did you have a good time with your father?”

“Yeah. It was cool.”

She smiles and kisses you on the cheek.

“Uh huh. So I guess that means you’ll be getting up and going again tomorrow. I’ll go tell your father.”

The meaning lags behind the words, a case of tape-delayed brain, and then it hits home and panic ensues for the first time since the contact incident.

“No! Jesus, Mom!”

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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