The Letting Go

Posted on: September 29, 2015


Michael parked next to his office in the parking garage that was built below a Jenny Craig Center and left the keys to his silver Pontiac on the passenger seat. He walked the blocks between Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial daily for exercise, but today was walking them for experience.

His heels clacked as the concrete rose to the bottom of his shoe. He watched for cracks, grates, and other pedestrian hazards with eyes fixated on the ground.

Michael could taste the lipstick as he ran his tongue over his lips, though the color had since worn off; Raspberry Rhapsody. His black leather gloves hugged his wide hands. They were shaking, but from the bitter fall season or from revival, he wasn’t sure.

The streets were busy, bustling with commuters grumbling and rebuffing one another. Michael walked through them, rebounding from each shoulder-to-shoulder collision. The air was dense with mist that was painful in its dilatory approach from the East River. The balls of his feet ached while he plodded past his favorite coffee shop, beyond the barber he used to frequent, and to the mouth of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tourist’s cameras clicked in his direction, gathering the streets and avenues behind him and transforming them into digitally-filtered hypocrisy. They might note the existence of freedom in their admiration of the structure in which they stood, but Michael wondered if a ceremonial hashtag was enough.

“Would you mind?” an epicene voice asked. “We’d love to have just one photo of us without our selfie-stick.”

Michael deplored tourists.

“Sure,” he said, thankful they at least spoke English. “The lighting is better from this angle.” He pointed for the couple to turn and face Brooklyn. “The skyline is better behind you.” Manhattan sat perfectly still and tall in the background. “There,” he said as he handed the camera back to them.

The two thanked Michael and continued to snap selfies; fixing their cleavage, sucking in their tummies and duck-lipping.

Michael pushed his blonde hair out of his eyes and began to walk farther across the bridge.

Their voices followed, whether purposely or because there was only one direction to go, but Michael lacked tact.

“Are you following me?” he asked the couple.

“We are enjoying this satisfying view,” one responded.

“I don’t like your fucking tone,” Michael said.

“New Yorkers really are dicks,” the other said.

“Just walk ahead of me, for Christ’s sake.”

The rest of the crowd moseyed past them, inconscient of the intensity on Michael’s face.

His feet were throbbing having walked up and down Dey Street in shoes that were two sizes too small. He took them off and leaned against the railing. He watched the couple until they became inchoate and muddled in with every other body on that bridge.

Michael removed his gloves and shoved them into the deep pockets of his black raincoat. He could smell cherry blossom lotion.

Her cherry blossom lotion.

He wondered how she was doing. Was she lonely? Was she talking?

Michael checked his cell for texts; even if they were admonishing. That means she was processing and he would have preferred evangelizing profanity and resignation to silence.

He’d understand.

Their argument began like most do. She didn’t feel appreciated. She didn’t feel sexy. She didn’t like his drinking or staying out late or his lack of financial prowess, given his job was in accounting. He didn’t like constantly rescuing her from the boat he sardonically nicknamed “Shipwreck;” his tasteless attempt at poking fun at her self-consciousness.

“You never tell me I’m beautiful,” she’d say.

“You’re beautiful.”

“I want you to want to say it, Michael! Not because I am forcing you to,” she’d say.

Today’s argument, though, began last night after his return from the gym and had lasted until he parked his car this morning.

“I found this,” she said, “in your briefcase!” She threw a turquoise, lace, padded bra at Michael’s chest. “Do you mind telling me who the hell this might belong to?”

He stood there in a towel in the bathroom of their 650-square-foot apartment.

“I can explain,” he began like so many men do.

“Don’t bother,” she said. She grabbed what she could fit in a paisley printed carry on.

“If you’ll just--” he said. He extended his arm to stop her from closing her luggage. “Let me just explain it to you. Can I do that, please?”

“You have one minute.” She gritted her teeth. Her cheeks were no longer rosy, her gaze acquiescent.

“Great, okay.” He sat down on the edge of their bed. “I am not cheating on you. And I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true.”

“Do you think I am stupid? How can you tell me you love me and then bring home some slut’s C-cups?”

“You’re not listening. You told me I had a minute, now let me have it.”

She crossed her arms, fastidious and taciturn.

“I am not cheating on you. I need you to know that.”

He waited for her interjection, but it didn’t come.

“Okay?” he asked for receipt.

She nodded in affirmation.

“It’s mine.”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“I bought it for me,” he said, “to wear.”

She let out a hearty, nearly gelastic laugh.

“Just go,” she said. Still laughing, she picked up his green bra and threw a pair of red heels at him. “Take these, too. Red’s more your color.”

Michael got dressed while she called his mother, sharing with her his heaviest secret. She laughed, they laughed together. Before he slipped on his leather gloves, he put a dollop of cherry blossom lotion on his palm and rubbed it in. He skillfully dabbed lipstick on the center of his bottom lip, coloring in the lines and puckered.

Michael closed their apartment door behind him.

“Why don’t you come with us?” Those voices again, calling to Michael from across the pedestrian walkway.

“No,” Michael said. “No, thank you.”

“Honey,” one said, “red is so not your color.”


Written by: Alicia Randazzo
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

Fiscal, Fiscal

Posted on: September 24, 2015


It is the afternoon following the morning when you said you would never write again. It is too painful. Every time you get started, you find something else to do instead. Today, you choose reading. And this is what you read: sometimes Dylan Thomas only managed to get one word on the page. One word! And that was enough for him to go to the bar and celebrate. An accomplishment to write the letters in the right order. To make a word. That is all it is to write.

And you think, well, OK. I can do that. If Dylan Thomas did that and then came up with “Do Not Go Gentle…” then I guess it maybe works. One word. How hard is one word? But then you’re thinking, which word? It has to be magical if it’s only going to be the one. You go through words that sound delicious or silly or mysterious: lush, wish, dust, dish and so on. So now the word itself becomes anxiety-producing.

Leave it to fate. That’s what you should do. You say, I will look at this section of the New York Times right here and just write the first word that comes into focus. And so the word is “fiscal.” Fiscal. Hmmm. That is a word you wouldn’t have picked on your own. Maybe it’s a sign. So you write “fiscal.” And then you think, well, that was easy.Let me riff on fiscal and see what comes of this. Because it feels pretty good to write down “fiscal." It has that soft beginning, the fissss like pouring a glass of 7-UP, a secret, the promise of something better on the horizon, but then, too, the word carries that ominous threat, doesn’t it? The rough kuh sound that follows so fast after the soda fizz. And so you write it a few times and what comes next seems inescapable: fist. But for some reason, it’s not just the fist. It’s the other f-word that goes with the fist. So you write it. And it feels even better to get that on the page. Wild and daring. You’re not afraid to write like this. You’ll be the new author that “writes like this.” They’ll say, she sets it down for us, all those things we think but we’re afraid to talk about.

Next thing you know, you’ve got an entire story devoted to these strange little words. You write it all in one sitting. It’s marvelous. This is what people talk about when they talk about the zone. About stories writing themselves. About characters taking over the story and saying, “No, I’m not going to the beach to make up with Astrid. I am going to the industrial park and I am sneaking behind the building to dig a grave in preparation for the murder I will commit, so do your thing. Get it down in words for me.” You never believed it when people said, “My characters told me where my story was going.” But now you are starting to see how that might be possible.

You finish the story. It is a breathless masterpiece. You cannot believe you whipped that out in, what, like an hour? The superpower. That’s what it is. You always knew it lurked in there. Your secret talent, latent and waiting until the time was right for you to wing it out there and throw it at everyone. “Shazam!” you say out loud, “Bet you didn’t know I could do this: fiscal fiscal fist fuck.” The feeling is incredible.

Time to submit this, friends. You open up your Submittable account. You ignore the pages of red denials: declined, complete, no thank you. You find the perfect journal. You usually don’t like to be the one paying for your writing, but this journal would be so worth it. It’s only $15. What is that – the cost of a t-shirt, a glass of wine? You go through more than that in one Starbucks trip. You send it. And then you wait.

The wait lasts for days. So many days, you almost forget about it, but not quite. You’re at a stoplight; you check your email. You’re talking to a client on the phone; you check your email. You wake up at 6; you check your email. You go to bed at midnight; you check your email.

You know what comes next. You get what has become, in your experience, the inevitable rejection letter. It says, “Thank you for submitting ‘Fiscal Fiscal Fist Fuck.’ Unfortunately, it is not for us. We wish you luck and so on. “

At first, you think, wait a minute. Is this a mistake? This was my thing. This isn’t supposed to get rejected. It’s my superpower. I’ve been waiting years for this. How could they not see the brilliance, the new ground being broken? And you cry yourself to sleep and whatever.

Then the next day, you’re taking stock of your horrible life and you’re like, fiscal fiscal fist fuck? That’s what I was waiting decades to write? What was I thinking? I suck. You feel as if you’ll never write again, but that presupposes that you ever actually wrote in the first place. You’re miserable.

And here is the thing you forget: the hour, which was really more than two hours, when you wrote that story. Your daughter laughed at her book as she sat in her favorite chair with her cat in her lap. Your son came home from day camp to tell you about a front flip he almost did, but didn’t, but tomorrow he will. And you sat at your table in the middle of your house, with a Dylan Thomas poem next to you, the New York Times next to that, and some coffee waiting in the kitchen. You sat there typing, typing, the tapping sounding out a rhythm, filling the quiet, happy house like a song.


Written by: Jeanne Jones
Photograph by: Florian Klauer

When the Streetlights Came On

Posted on: September 22, 2015


I used to be a bird.

Marvin, my stepdad, nicknamed me Bird. Taller than all the boys in my kindergarten class, I had comically long limbs matched with a metabolism that made me look as nourished as Mick Jagger or Jack Skellington.

“Birdie, it’s like this: You keep your skirt down and tell ‘em to keep their zippers zipped.”

I sat on a stool in McDonald’s when my dad bestowed this single nugget of knowledge. I swiveled my stool and shoved fries into my overstuffed mouth and nodded like I knew exactly what he was talking about.
At six, I didn’t know much of what happened when skirts went up and zippers zipped down. I knew it had something to do with no-no parts and that now my birthday Happy Meal tasted different.

That was the same day he told me I had an old soul. “Old soul,” I parroted, stretching out the “o’s”. I wondered if it was older than his.

“You’re over the hill today.” He said and patted me on the back. “You’re over the mountain.” I told him and stuck out my tongue.
Marvin’s lessons spanned a spectrum from common sense to street smarts. In front of a sunny summer backdrop while the Temptations or George Clinton played, there were lessons in bike riding, rollerblading, self-defense, dancing, and basketball. How to aim for the backboard, how to flick my wrist to give the ball rotation, and how to guard my opposition:

Follow their gut. Not their eyes.
Our neighborhood got darker than most when dusk moved in. That’s when the heavy lessons helped. Sneakers hung by their shoelaces from the telephone cables on our street. Marvin pointed at them and told me they marked bad houses and sometimes they marked death. He taught me to look both ways before crossing. He taught me to go home when the streetlights came on.

Over the years, even after my mom and Marvin split up and after he moved away from Buffalo, he remained my stepdad, a real stepdad, stepping into shoes that were never filled for very long. I’d visit and he’d call. Before I started college he gave me an updated version of the talk he’d started when I was six. “You just never know what anyone has.”
In early November 2006, I skipped my college classes and went to visit him. My stepfather sobbed into my shoulder. “I always thought of you as my daughter, Birdie.” I knew this to be true. I thought of the time he took me to work with him. A co-worker told me I looked like my dad. He put his arm around my shoulder and said nothing. His grip was strong then like every bear hug he’d given me back when I was fledgling. But now, my arm was around his shoulder and his hug was more like a slouch, his body hung off of mine.

He’d aged 40 years since I last saw him. His scent had changed from his mix of cologne and man musk to the withering body odor of a stranger. I avoided looking at him. His eyes were no place to stay. I looked down, as if this had been my fault. I stared at his ballooned feet swollen with water because of the liver failure. He clung hard to my body, and I pathetically tried to console him, “I’m not ready to go.” He sobbed and I rubbed his head, but couldn’t lie to him.
I’d never seen him cry or break in any sort of way. My gut shrank each time his fingers gripped my shirt, but I never wanted him to stop because it meant he was still alive.

On Thanksgiving morning, Marvin’s body lay still where he slept for the last time. There is a lot to say about that day and all that followed.

Marvin buried in his gators. My godmother, Sue, slipped in the backyard. The mashed potatoes burned. My godsister Jen and I drank sweet, cheap, piss-colored wine. Thanksgiving dinner was quiet; not because of the food. Sue’s son carried her to the couch. The pastor called my sister Krystina “Katrina.” Krys and I danced to Carl Carlson. I heard “Hallelujah” for the first time. I got pulled over.
I got pulled over on the way from the grocery store back to the house.

I ignored a stop sign. I’d gotten lost on my way back to the house. I was sure the road led to a dead end. Pleased to find the corner had a turn instead of a turn around, I took it. I didn’t know until the blue and red reflected in my rearview.

When the cop asked me why I was crying, I cried more.
“You won’t lose anything. No points. Nothing.”

I thought about telling him about Marvin since he taught me how to drive and how he was dead now. But the cop was walking back to his car, and the ticket was in my hand, and here there was no braking. Tears and snot ran into my mouth, I crumpled the ticket in my hand and the cop’s lights swirled once more as he left me where I was parked.

I left the keys out of the ignition. I got out and walked nowhere. The streetlights were on.


Written by: Tia Brown
Photograph by: Matthew Wiebe

Rust

Posted on: September 17, 2015


Maybe we are too young and the world is trying to remind us of that.

“It’ll be okay,” I say.

When she lifted the sheet last night, it looked like spilled ink seeping beneath her. The words are on her lips even now, even if I’m only imagining them. She’s quiet and still and I’m filled with everything she’s not.

I start a haiku in my head. The words are written in blood. Too much blood. I don’t say them because I can’t. I hold Gray’s hand, and it leaves me itching to trace words in her palm. I write the haiku with my other hand on the underside of the kitchen table.

My flower baby,
free little gypsy dancer,
please don’t fly away.

“I can’t just sit here, Shaw,” Grayson says.

The way she bled our baby from her womb looked like a Rorschach test. When I think back to that moment, I try to remember the way she took my hand, running it down the small bump of her belly; a tiny half moon that will never be full.

The sun peeks through the living room window, exposing a sliver of light, trapping Gray in the shadows. She rearranges reminders for doctor’s appointments and our one ultrasound picture on the refrigerator door. She hides them beneath scraps of stories neither of us have used. Other paper bits bear pieces of poems waiting to be penned.

Grayson lets the faucet run over her hands until they are pink. The crusted blood beneath her nails turns the water pink, too. She washes my coffee mug from the night before. You could stop drinking it with me, she’d said at the beginning, but I never knew she was serious. Caffeine was the first to go when she found out she was pregnant. I never stopped drinking it. I should have given up coffee for her. I should be helping her.

When she starts scrubbing the sheets, it’s as if she is real and the sheets are real, but I am imaginary. And so I take them from her and try my best to scrape these moments back to before. I want the pen in my hand and the notebook in my lap and I want Grayson sleeping beside me.

I want us to be okay.

I’m already wishing for Gray’s lips to spread and reveal a sunrise kind of smile; teeth cresting over the horizon of her bottom lip. I know that look might be lost in blotches of blood now.

“Just leave them,” she says. The room feels different with her real voice here. Her small voice, her shy voice; the quiet way she always says she loves me.

I let her kiss me as she cries, her lips stiff and unsure. When she moves away, the space between us smells like traces of Thai takeout from the fridge. I want to pull her back, but she wraps her arms around her stomach, and I know it’s not me she wants.

We replace the bedding with two sleeping bags. Once inside, she curls away from me, but our feet still touch. I try to sleep, but her words and my words and all the words we heard between last night and this morning are in my head. I push an earbud into my right ear and the other into Gray’s and I press play.

I try to find words without paper and pen, but I can’t get them right. Before Gray, I was never a night writer. But now, the words find me while she dreams. Maybe that’s the only way stories can separate themselves between two writers.

I write a letter by the light of the alarm clock, not wanting to wake Gray. I start with To Nyxie, trying it on seven separate pages. I don’t know what to say now. I never told Gray about the name, but it’s what I’d started calling her bump while she slept. Sometimes I told it stories or wrote it words on her skin, hoping it would know.

“Already a day,” Gray says when she wakes. The early evening leaves traces of moon mist over her eyes. “I miss—”

“I know,” I say.

Because I do.

I don’t show her the pages pressed between the mattress and pillow. I set them on the bedside table instead, and wait for her to say something. She doesn’t.

Gray walks to the kitchen, and moments later I smell fresh coffee, hear a spoon clink against her mug. I know she must be stirring in honey and cinnamon the way she used to before. I wonder if the color will remind her, if she’ll write her way through the memory or if it will rust her insides until they crack.

Grayson sits at the kitchen table, steam surrounding her chin. Her eyes flash to the sheets in the sink. Spots still dot them like stars. All I see are bits of our baby. And I know she must see the same thing. I press the fabric to my chest until it doesn’t feel real and I don’t feel real and this all feels too fucking real with Grayson’s hands wrapped around my green coffee mug.

I leave the sheets on the balcony beside the bonfire pit we’ve yet to use this year. When I return to the kitchen, Gray’s coffee is gone, and part of me hopes she’s dumped it down the drain, that this is all unreal for her, too. Her hand finds mine across the table. I try to squeeze the life back into her, but it’s already gone.

Written by: Kayla King
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

Junum the Young

Posted on: September 15, 2015


Junum the Young was the last of the Cloud People. All the others from his tribe had disappeared one by one, wandering off into the fog when their time came. The Cloud People were quiet; they kept to themselves living in the crags and caves of the tallest mountain peaks.

At just over 7 feet tall, Junum was small for his kind. His long, thin limbs were coated in fine white hair. The fur sprouting from his grey skin grew chaotically, fanning out in all directions. It grew thickest on his head where it matted together, and if you saw him through the fog, you would see what looked like the distorted silhouette of a man. But you would never see Junum the Young, or any of his kind. They lived in small family groupings, hidden in quiet caves, melting silently into the mountaintops.

The skies were clear and crisp, and the clouds hung low in the world, hugging the barren rocks. Junum scrambled up the mountain using his strong hands to cling to the narrow ledges and heave himself along on his wide, sturdy feet. He was returning home after weeks out scouring the nearby mountains. He was returning alone, unsuccessful in his search. Junum had not found a companion.

For years he had searched the surrounding terrain for any other Cloud People. He had wandered until the rocks turned to grass and the clouds were high above. He traveled until the plants towered over his head. The world became flat and the air smelled of earth and flowers and other strange things he could not name. Junum was disappointed, for once again he had been unable to find any other creatures like himself.

As he crested the lip of the ridge and the ground opened up to reveal the mouth of his familiar cave, Junum caught the scent of something on the wind. It was the smell of meat, urine and salt, a smell his mother had told him belonged to man. The smell he had been taught to always avoid. There was something else, a foreign smell, both sweet and smoky. The strange aromas were coming from within his home. Junum knew he should disappear back over the ridge, he should blend into the fog and disappear before the man caught sight of him, but years of loneliness overruled his natural inclination for timidity, and Junum entered the cave.

The man was small. It sat unmoving with its legs folded and its hands resting palm up on its knees. Eyes closed it did not see Junum, and he was able to approach the creature and examine its strange appearance.

The man-thing was wrapped in skins that hung loosely from its body, obscuring its shape. The skins were unlike any pelt Junum had ever seen. They were the bright colour of summer berries and looked as soft as grass, as though they could be ruffled by the slightest breeze. The man-thing had no fur on its head, its pale skin was smooth and shiny. It held a collection of pebbles in its hands; each one perfectly round, and pierced through the centre. The pebbles had been strung along a piece of sinew. Junum watched as the man-thing mumbled strange sounds, sliding the pebbles along the sinew, passing them from one hand to the next.

The cave was filled with the same sweetly scented smoke, which had caught his nose outside. The smoke seemed to be coming from a small, solitary stick that had been stuck in the ground. Junum decided to approach, intending to extinguish the ember. The smoke caught in his nostril and stung his gentle grey eyes.

As Junum knelt in front of the man-thing, its eyes suddenly popped open. Its mumbles gave way to a shriek so shrill it seemed to have come from a bird. Junum stumbled back, and in an instant the man-thing rose to its feet. Fear ran swift and thick through Junum, coupled with regret. He knew he should not have entered the cave. Junum reached out to push the man-thing aside, intending to run away and disappear into the mountains. But the creature shoved him hard to the ground. Junum raised his hands to shield himself from the monster but its eyes were full of panic and rage. It grabbed a rock from the floor of the cave and slammed it into Junum’s head.

The impact shook Junum, and he fell to his knees in front of the howling creature. He felt blood oozing from his scalp. He looked up just as the rock came crashing down a second time against his skull. This time, Junum sprawled to the ground, immobilised by the impact. The third thud of rock against skull stole Junum’s vision, and as the world turned black around him, he knew the next blow would take his life.

Junum closed his eyes and thought of the others who had been gone for so long. He thought of his mother with her gentle hands and his father leading them through the hidden mountain paths that had been their home. Junum thought of the smell of the wind, the songs of the birds and the feel of cool mountain streams in spring. He thought of the taste of summer berries, sweet and vibrant. He did not think of the man-thing and his skins of the same colour. He did not think of his lonely years after the others had gone. He thought only of his home and the good things he had loved. Then, when the final blow fell, Junum the Young thought no more.


Written by: Sarah Scott
Photograph by: Rob Gregory

The Violent Acts of Poets, Part IV

Posted on: September 10, 2015



Continued from The Violent Acts of Poets, Part I, Part II, & Part III


Lily Miller died in my arms, gut shot, on a day in the middle of April. The weather was beautiful. A chill surfed along with the wind under a shining sun. I didn’t get to hold her too long before the police came into our little fort and busted me with the blunt end of a shotgun. There was lots of screaming about the gun, where was the gun, that sort of thing. But I just kept repeating, “I ain’t got no gun.” It was the truth. Lily had left it in the car.


                                                                                                      ***

On her last day, I drove while she read Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov. She’d picked it up for a dollar at a garage sale we’d stopped at sometime before. One dollar for a piece of genius like that. “What a deal,” I said. She never got to finish it, but she liked it fine, the bits she did read. She had one favorite passage in particular, and she read it to me as we passed a sign that said Welcome to Durham’s Corner. She read it three times in a row, and each time her voice got a little bit sadder, like the realization of what we’d done finally coaxed her out of our dream. You could hear it in her voice, and as the police lights flashed in my rear view mirror, she hardly moved. She looked back, held the gaze of the policeman, and then turned back to me. I’d never seen her look that way. She looked like a little girl. And that’s when I realized that’s exactly what she was. Both of us, really, were children in the scheme of things. I concluded then and there that I was going to get her out of that mess, no matter the cost, and she was going to go on and be a real person, with a real life, even if she could no longer do it with me.

                                                                                                      ***

The flashing lights multiplied and followed us into town. I was panicked, I’m ashamed to admit, and yelled at Lily to get the gun out of the glove compartment. But she wasn’t listening to nobody then, just staring out the window, and finally I stopped yelling when she looked at me and smiled. We didn’t speak. There was nothing to say. I loved her and she loved me, and I think even when everything gets taken, that’s what we hold on to, that’s what we take with us to heaven, or hell, or prison, or freedom, or wherever we end up. In the end it wasn’t complicated at all. It was just about love. So when I saw the trees I ripped across the road and headed toward them. I figured the trees gave us the best chance to escape, and it was strange, bumping across that field, because I really did believe I could lose them in the trees. Even with four, five, six cars on our tail, I believed.

                                                                                                      ***

I slid the truck to a stop on the dirt road, rushed to Lily, and dragged her out of the passenger side door. I could hear the cop cars rolling in behind us, but I did my best not to look. The sirens felt like they were pounding out from my chest, they were so close. Lily ran beside me as we headed for the crumbling brick building. Durham’s Corner. Random observations and questions seemed to rush through me like bullets. I thought of Durham and his corner. His own place. His own stake. Something to own and grow with, and now all that was left was the crumbs. They’d named a whole town after him. What a thing, to be the namesake of a home. Even if it was only for a few hundred people. What a thing. Then Lily collapsed beside me and pulled me out of my daydream. It was like she was on strings and some puppet master jerked her leash back. That was the bullet, no doubt. I often thought about the police, the gunfire, and which one of those gentleman sent that lead slug into her belly and out again.

                                                                                                      ***

I carried her into the broken building like a bride. There was so much blood, and I tried to stop it, tried to cover her with my hands, and when that didn’t work I held her up to me as she wrapped her skinny arms around the back of my neck. She whispered to me that she was in a great amount of pain, and I just kept repeating sorry, over and over and over again. There was a commotion outside, but I didn’t pay it no mind. We rocked back and forth until I felt her go limp, and then I just cried, wept like a child, until they came and knocked me unconscious. They wouldn’t have known it, and it surely wasn’t intended, but I thanked them for that small mercy.

                                                                                                      ***

In the weeks that followed there were many headlines and opinions. Politicians and parents alike concerned themselves with what we’d done. Some saw us as sinners, some as victims. Most all of them saw us as children, and plenty more as killers. To their credit, I suppose that’s what we were. Ultimately, I didn’t mind all the questions much. I stayed pretty quiet in the police station once I’d come to. Stayed pretty quiet in the interrogation room, as men with mustaches and pot bellies played good cop-bad cop, trying to ring my confession. They asked what my parents were going to think, and I didn’t answer them then neither. The one playing bad cop eventually got upset with all that silence.

“You’re a killer, son!” he screamed at me, but I only smiled. He probably thought I was a loon, but it wasn’t that. It was just that he had reminded me of Lily Miller, of her reading that book she’d bought for a dollar, a piece of fiction, of something not real, something cooked up long ago by some Russian guy, but something that spoke across time to a runaway girl in a car, through her favorite passage, which I repeated.

“Emphatically, no killers are we,” I said to the police officer. “Poets never kill.”


Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Luke Pamer

Rescue

Posted on: September 8, 2015



Read the rest of the "West" saga: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |


The Benadryl was kicking in. Brooklyn’s head lolled to the side as she watched Doc McStuffins on Drew’s iPad. The fire ant bites on her legs were so close together, the swelling around the individual bites overlapped into an angry, unending rash.

“Do you think we should call the doctor?” Drew asked.

“He’s just going to tell us to do what we’ve already done,” Jennifer said, shaking her head. Just in case, she dislodged her cell phone from the tight back pocket of her jeans and Googled “ant bite emergency?”

Then she noticed it: a text. From Dena.

I need you.

Jennifer’s stomach couldn’t decide how to react. It dipped as she remembered a brief flash of the smoky field, Dena’s hands inside her clothes. Then her stomach lurched in anger, confusion.

“Needs me? She left me,” Jennifer said under her breath.

By Jennifer’s calculations, it was her turn to ask for a favor. She had been the one to save the day, repair the RV, give Dena whatever it was she was looking for the night of the bonfire. Jennifer was the one left behind to act like an adult when she didn’t get what she wanted. What more did Dena need to take?

And yet--Jennifer was drawn to her. Her thumbs skimmed across her phone screen, replying before the rest of her body gave the go-ahead.

where r u?

The text bubble containing the always-taunting ellipses appeared on the screen. Then:

Santa Fe. I’ve made a huge mistake.

what happened??

I should have stayed in Austin. Chris disappeared. Took the keys and $.

wtf!?

Yeah. This crazy old Indian lady’s gonna lose it if I don’t get off her land in 24 hours.

lol thats racist

Native American. You know what I mean. For real though.

what r u gonna do? wheres chris?

His phone’s cut off.

hes GONE gone?

I think so.

Jennifer watched her brother turn off the iPad screen and scoop sleeping Brooklyn into his arms. She wasn’t sure what good mothering was, anymore. She worked hard, and she was still a disappointment. She tried to keep Brooklyn safe and loved, and the fire ants found her anyway.

“Drew?” she said.

“Yeah?” he whispered over Brooklyn’s sleeping body.

“You still want to go to California?”

                                                                                                          ***

Benny answered the door when Dena knocked. He raised one eyebrow at the greasy-haired white girl on his steps and said nothing.

“Is...Mae home?”

“She’s at Bingo.”

“Oh,” Dena said. “Well, will you tell her that my friend is coming from Texas and I will be gone as soon as humanly possible, but it might be tomorrow instead of tonight? Oh. And give her this? Kind of a thank-you-and-I’m-sorry gift?”

She thrust a Wendy’s hamburger bag into his hands, spun on her heels, and headed back to the lot. Benny watched her until she disappeared inside her hunk-of-junk RV. He opened the fast food sack. Inside was a package of peanut M&Ms and two plump, hand-rolled joints.

                                                                                                          ***

“Jennifer Michelle, you are being nothing but reckless right now.”

“Mom. It’s fine. You need to chill. Drew’s the one moving to California. I’ll be back as soon as I can hot-wire a Chinook.”

“I would like to repeat that this is a fact-finding mission only?” Drew chimed in. “If I don’t find any good job leads in two weeks, I’m coming back, too.”

“I don’t think you should take Brooklyn with you. Especially with those god-awful ant bites!” her mother squawked. “Jesus, how did she even get that many?”

“I’m a terrible mom, that’s how. But I’m still her mom. She’s coming with me.”

                                                                                                          ***

Highway 84 stretched in front of Drew’s Toyota, shimmering with summer mirages. Brooklyn snored in the back seat.

“We can turn the radio on. She’s zonked.”

“Zonked? Who says that?” Drew said.

“It’s in the Mom Handbook.”

“Har, har.”

Jennifer turned the radio to a Car Talk re-run.

“You sure you don’t want to get the RV going and then come with me?” Drew asked. “Carl won’t care. I think his girlfriend has a kid, actually.”

“Thanks. But I kind of need to see where this one goes.”

                                                                                                          ***

The RV still smelled of cats and mildew. Dena dumped a can of Chicken & Stars soup into a pot and lit the stove burner. She leaned on the flimsy table and turned her phone over in her hands. Chris had been off the social media grid for twenty-four whole hours. No selfies, no tweets. No Instagrams of his feet or his lunch.

He hated her enough to resist the pull of his biggest addiction.

She poked at the soup with a wooden spoon, watching the doughy stars swirl in the broth. Dena wasn’t sure how she’d gotten to this point. She and Chris just wanted different things, wasn’t that it? Jennifer understood her--Jennifer had her own complications. With her, Dena could be free and loved at the same time. Couldn’t she?

Not that she deserved something like that.

                                                                                                          ***

Dena squinted as a car approached--Jennifer in the passenger seat--a guy behind the wheel.

Shit. Who is that? Her baby’s father? Dena thought. She checked her phone, attempting to mask her anxiety. Jennifer got out of the passenger’s side, stretched, and bent into the back seat.

“You guys are so dumb,” the guy said.

“Shut up, Drew,” Jennifer said, still untangling the child from car seat buckles.

“You could have just had the camper towed somewhere.”

“This is my brother, the smartass,” Jennifer said. “And this is Brooklyn.”

“I panicked,” Dena admitted, relieved to learn the guy’s identity. “Chris just left me here. And he took our cash. I have, like, forty dollars in my account.”

Dena wanted to take Jennifer in her arms, to hold her in a combined death grip of attraction and gratitude. But her feet wouldn’t move. Brooklyn’s face was red from crying--and her legs--was that a rash? Dena realized, in that moment, the scope of asking them to come all this way.

A screech of tires cut the silence as Mae’s Pontiac swerved to park beside her house.

“I sure hope this is your rescue party,” Mae said as she crossed the road. Mae spotted Brooklyn and took off her sunglasses. Her small eyes wrinkled in delight. “And who is this?”

“Brooklyn?” Jennifer said, shooting Dena a questioning look.

“Let’s see if we’ve got something for those legs,” Mae said. “Benny?” she said into her phone. “Bring the bug bite potion.”

Dena half-expected a secret Native American herbal remedy, but Benny appeared, red-eyed, carrying a tube of cortisone cream. Mae knelt down in the dust, and Brooklyn walked right to her. The old woman cradled the child and spread the medicine on her inflamed legs.

Dena watched them, then looked at Jennifer, Drew, the RV. Benny. Was he high? All here, in this moment, because of her.

Maybe I’m not a stranger, Dena thought. Maybe reinvention, despite what she’d always believed, could be real. Could be possible. Even for her.



Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

Connections

Posted on: September 3, 2015


Sean came home to a hurried note on the fridge that read, WiFi Out.

“And?” he said aloud, knowing it was his problem now.

He wiped Kim’s scribbles from the whiteboard with his palm and studied the remnants accentuating his fingerprints. It was the closest they had come to holding hands since Kim began her nightly rotations at St. David’s Medical Center.

There was a lot to love about dating a doctor-in-training – the free medical exams, the parental approval, the promise of riches – but Sean didn’t anticipate the disparate schedules and always playing second fiddle to school work, although, he really should have. As the son of two equally preoccupied medical professionals, he had spent enough time with nannies, tutors, and tennis instructors to know that patients come first once one pledges the Hippocratic Oath.

Sean rinsed his hand off beneath the kitchen faucet, filling Kim’s marinara-splattered pasta bowl with muted-green liquid.

“Merry Christmas,” he said while drying his hands on a snowflake-patterned linen.

Sean tossed the towel on the counter, disregarding Kim’s insistence he never do that on account of the bacteria velum laminating the surface. She also gave him a very detailed explanation of how alcohol poisons your internal organs, but that didn’t stop him from retrieving his stout glass from the cabinet and filling it to the brim with a beer as dark as a reindeer’s pupils.

Sean took a big swig of the toxic elixir and closed his eyes to devote his senses to his tastebuds. He rolled his tongue around in his mouth like that spiral thing in a washing machine, detecting notes of coffee, licorice, vanilla, and dark chocolate.

“Liver be damned,” he said after swallowing the flavorful gulp.

Sean opened his eyes and saw a smeared whiteboard to his left and a sinkful of dishes to his right. He took another sip of beer and contemplated which task would have the largest impact on his immediate future. He took his phone from his pocket and spoke to the only other intelligent being in their apartment.

“Ok, Google,” he said, his phone chirping to attention. “Call Time Warner Cable.”

He watched as the search box transcribed his words and dialed his most loved and hated utility provider. Once the tone began to hum in the earpiece he hit the speaker icon and let the phone yodel from atop the bunched hand towel.

“Customer service,” he shouted when the automated messaging service asked him for his ten-digit phone number. “Customer service,” he repeated when the robot on the other line apologized for not understanding. “Customer service,” he said once more before the robot gave up and connected him directly to a customer service representative.

Sean grabbed the gloves hanging from the faucet and slid them over his fragile hands. As his chapped fingers filled the humid hallows he recalled Kim’s lecture about the pathogens cultivating inside his rubber gauntlets. He also remembered the look on her face when he folded down the pinky, ring, pointer finger, and thumb of one of the gloves, leaving the middle digit standing tall and proud like the flag of Iwo Jima.

“Thank you for calling Time Warner Cable, this is Janet speaking. Can I have your ten-digit phone number?” Janet, the customer service rep, requested.

Sean recited his number with the pace and volume of an American tourist in a foreign land. Janet processed the information and asked, “what can I help you with?” Sean told her his Internet was out. She politely recommended a reboot and asked him to hardwire his router to a computer. Sean asked if there were any other way to do it, because he’s “kind of busy right now,” to which Janet apologized and said, “a direct connection is the only way to return the signal to full strength.”

“Fine, give me a minute” he scoffed, tossing his gloves over the faucet like sneakers on a telephone line.

Sean picked up his phone and carried it to the bedroom, where a yellow light was beckoning him from beneath his desk. He asked for another time extension to find an extra ethernet cord and Janet was obliged to comply. His clinking and clanking served as a crude waiting tune while he rifled through the drawers.

“Got it,” he announced and crawled towards the modem before Janet could give further instructions. He plugged the cord into an empty port and cursed himself for not starting with his laptop. Unwilling to turn back, he slithered the free end up the wall and wiggled it around until it latched onto an unidentified object. He returned to the surface to find the cord hooked on the ankle of the World’s Best Boyfriend trophy Kim gave him on their two-year anniversary.

He plucked the doohickey from the plastic statue and inserted it into his laptop. “Okay, fire when ready,” he said.

“Very good, sir,” she replied. “I’m going to put you on hold while we reboot your system.”

“Do what you gotta do,” Sean said, flopping onto the bed for a more comfortable wait.

Sean awoke several hours later to the sensation of skin filling the gaps between his outstretched fingers.

“AHHHH,” he yelled into the darkness.

“Shhh,” Kim said, placing her free hand on his cheek. “I’m not going to hurt you, little baby.”

“I think you literally scared the shit out of me,” he spat, grabbing her elbow and pulling her within tickle torture range.

Sean moved his fingers across her torso like a piano virtuoso, each tap eliciting involuntary leg kicks.

“MERCY,” Kim screamed.

Sean ceased his concerto and studied her face like sheet music. She was smiling with her lips, nostrils, and eyes, which were staring directly back at his.

“You seem happy,” he said. “Good day at work?”

“Not particularly,” she answered, intertwining their fingers once again. “It’s just good to be back.”

“It is,” he said, catching a glimpse of green light beneath his desk as he leaned in for a kiss.


Written by: Mark Killian
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

What the Darkness Hides

Posted on: September 1, 2015


“What if there are other people like us?” Gloria’s questions start earlier every night; pretty soon, Margaret will be waking up to her hypotheticals. Dangerous.

Still, she indulges her. Margaret can’t survive solely with white noise and her own thoughts.

“Like us?”

“Living around here. Or something like it. You know, surviving on suburban scraps,” Gloria waves her arms at the Starbucks they have refashioned into a bunker.

Broken-down cardboard boxes cover the windows and block out the light. The area behind the counter has been converted into a barista’s nightmare and a child’s dream fort. For them it is an extra layer of precaution, a panic room.

The tables form a particle-board barricade, the chairs an interlocking ceiling. Gloria’s liberal use of duct tape lends the illusion of structural integrity.

Something skitters outside. Margaret’s mind visualizes the creature: six legs, serpentine body, vines pulsing down its back. A leaf-shaped head, curling in on itself like a bloom in reverse. Mandibles like a fire ant. A lizard, if H. P. Lovecraft designed it.

Margaret thinks of yoga, thinks of bliss, thinks of when all that mattered was which pair of ass-clinging pants would look best when she rolled and wriggled her way to nirvana.

Gloria picks up the chair leg she keeps as a weapon, brandishing it like a poor imitation of an action hero. It doesn’t matter.

A scream sounds from across the street, and Margaret puts her hands over her ears. It doesn’t matter. She hears everything. How the creature tears and rips. How bones crunch. How blood spills.

This is the third person she has heard die in less than a week.

When it has finished feeding, the rhythmic clicking of the creature’s legs punctuates its exit back down the block. Margaret listens to it fade into the distance, heading back to the nest.

After an hour, they breathe easy. Margaret peels back a corner of the cardboard. Sunset.

Not all the survivors get it. They think they’re safe in the light.

Margaret knew it the first time she saw one. Five days ago, her last afternoon shift. Todd had gone to smoke a joint behind the store, claiming the best kind of high was weed and the smell of shitty Starbucks coffee. Margaret was left alone to fill the young woman’s order, coffee Frappuccino and two cupcakes.

“What the fuck?” The young woman drops her iPhone, burgundy lips parting in a wide scowl. Todd pressed up against the window, his face wrenched in pain.

Two pincers wrapped around his waist like a hug, and tore him in half. A fat, fleshy lobster with sacs of chartreuse jelly on its back.

It’s an uncomfortable truth: make something scary enough and it wants its place in the sun. The darkness only hides what’s too chickenshit to be illuminated.

Gloria wants answers. Every night with the questions: Where did they come from? Why are they here? What are they?

They have their cell phones, though Gloria’s screen is shattered. They turn the brightness way down at night, even though it’s probably safe.

The internet has everything. Wild speculation about creatures that spread from Guatemalan rainforests. Asinine candidates ensconced in modern fortresses, pretending their opinions matter.

Some guy uploaded a video of a massive tortoise-shaped beast with fern carapaces. It walked through a cement highway divider like it was on a pleasant afternoon stroll.

Margaret scrolls through reports that the creatures are getting stronger.

“‘Not as many coming back to the nest every night,’” she reads from Twitter. A before and after photo: street lush with green and a sparse, scrubby-brushed highway. Gloria flops down onto white towels and green aprons woven into a synthetic spearmint mattress. She looks at the photo and bites her lower lip, her face an anxious mask.

“We should try to find whatever we can tonight, spend tomorrow packing and resting, and leave tomorrow night,” Margaret says. “We need to leave.”

“Where are we gonna go?”

“I don’t know. We can’t stay on the outskirts, though. They’re spreading,” Margaret replies. She peels the cardboard back from the door, ignores the moonlight shining through fresh stains. “You coming?”

Gloria pouts like a petulant child but gives in when Margaret promises they’ll stay together.

“We can’t let each other be afraid,” Margaret reminds her.

The first night was hardest for Gloria: there wasn’t anyone reaching out for either of them. Margaret came up through the system, a depressing euphemism for having a hard-partying sorority sister of a mom who took advantage of the state’s safe-haven law. But Gloria seemed like she had someone out there; there was no way she was on her own. She wasn’t capable.

“You were buying two cupcakes,” Margaret prodded.

“I was hungry,” Gloria replied, folding her arms.

Margaret takes her five blocks away, figuring they will work their way back to Starbucks during the night. The first street is all boutiques and frilly caf├ęs, their wares either impractical or rotting. Gloria pockets a pair of earrings, studs with bright pink crystals. She shrugs at Margaret and something shifts behind her.

The light blinds both of them, a neon green shock to the senses. It’s the Lovecraftian lizard she imagined earlier in the week, just shrunk and multiplied. Thousands of tiny creatures cover the walls, their bodies like smooth blades of grass. They throb with life and move in frenzied spirals, the sound of tiny legs a dull, buzzing drone. Their backs pulse a warning.

A sound from the boutique’s back store room. Rhythmic clinking, rapid and loud.

Not a warning, a call.

Gloria grabs Margaret’s hand and pulls her outside. Adrenaline propels them, their arms and legs pumping in synchronous survival. The moon casts a soft glow, and their shadows stretch down the street, the dark rounds of their heads meeting the twigged legs of the creature. Its mandibles clatter against each other, a hollow roar in the night.

“Fucking suburban sprawl,” Gloria pants.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

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