Posted on: November 26, 2015

Saul feels the darkness start in his hands, then the hairs prickle on the left side of his face. The air is thick with the heaviness of some otherworldly thing inhabiting the well behind the house. He walks backward, watching the mouth of the well, expecting something or someone to crawl out.

It does.

It resembles the shape of a human being, but the length of the arms and legs are exaggerated. It is black, and looking at it from this distance makes it seem more like a coal sketch than a physical creature. It pauses on the lip of the well, mouth agape, and Saul can feel it watch him from the hollows of its face that should be holding eyes. He watches its back rise and fall with breath. Saul wants to walk toward it and run from it at the same time.

“Your sensitivity summons me, boy. You’re like a quivering magnet; it could be hazardous if I come much closer.” The being’s voice is a hoarse whisper caught in a hiss.

“What’s your name?” Saul asks.

The being cocks its head back, its mouth a sneering black hole. “Mersef. You may be a boy, but you’re not a dumb one. You ask my name with authority; who taught you how to guard yourself from we who walk the boundary?”

“I read a lot.”

Mersef’s laughter erupts. “It is dangerous to walk the path of knowledge without a guide. You might stumble over a snake you mistook for a stone.”

“I could banish you from the well if I wanted,” Saul says with sudden bravado.

Mersef’s reply is a purr. “Your ignorance is obvious. A wise man, a righteous man - yes - could banish me. The most you can do is hold me at bay, but I can follow. I can inhabit the things around you, the ones you love. I can torment you for the rest of your days, boy.”

Saul swallows, feeling his pulse beat hard between his collar bones.

“Or, I can guide you,” Mersef coos.

The wind picks up as the sun begins to set behind the trees, leaves rustling a gentle warning. Saul hears the creak of the screen door as it opens and the sound of his mother calling him in for dinner.

“Saul, come inside! Let’s eat!”

“Ah, Saul. Now we are better acquainted,” says Mersef, almost giggling.

“Damn it,” Saul says under his breath and then, “K! I’m coming!”

Mersef adjusts itself to resemble a cat seated on its haunches.

“We have power over one another now, Saul. Just enough to stay bound,” the demon says.

Saul shakes his head. “No. You are bound to the well. You can’t leave it unless you’re released, unless you have another place to go. Your threats are empty. Meaningless.”

“But my promise is rich with potential,” Mersef replies. “I can guide you, remember?”

“What could you possibly teach me that I would even want to know? I can learn everything myself.”

Mersef begins to lower itself back into the well. “Ah, but you want to know everything I know, because the rabbis won’t teach you. They keep the power from you, but everything the rabbis know, they learned from us. We are the true source of knowledge, the ultimate source of power for someone like you.”

“What do you mean someone like me?”

Mersef shrugs and turns its face away. “What difference does it make? You can learn everything yourself, you said.”

Panic settles in Saul’s chest and he steps forward, reaching toward the well with his hand. “Wait. I mean it. What do you mean?”

Mersef turns to the boy again and says, “Your tradition and your world disapprove of all the qualities that make you special. You perceive the spirit world. You can walk the line between worlds. You are rare because you are curious and willing to be controlled by the very beings you can control.”

Saul is anxious now, knowing he should go inside. This conversation should end, but he wants to hear more. He has always felt like an outcast at school and at the synagogue, too smart to be relatable. He’s a star on the track team, but no number of medals could earn the respect of his peers. The demon knows a part of Saul that he cannot share with others, not even his mother. Maybe Mersef can make him feel at home in his own skin.

“We are brothers, Saul. I can show you what that connection means, and the power you can wield.” Mersef descends into the well, out of sight and says, “Come to me tomorrow with your decision.”

At the dinner table, Saul is pensive and pushes his peas around with his fork. His mother notices, but doesn’t press, and his father is engulfed with the day’s newspaper. His brothers are playing paper, rock, scissors for the last piece of chicken. Saul helps clean the table and wash the dishes with his mother.

“Do you think I’m special?” he asks.

She turns to face him, holding a dish in one hand and a rag in the other. “Yes, Saul. You are very special.” Her smile suggests concern. “I think you will make a wonderful lawyer someday.”

Saul lies in bed with his hands under his head, staring at the ceiling as his thoughts become lazy and he drifts toward sleep. He dreams of a spirit, luminous and malleable like water. He hears the echo of the rabbi reciting from the book of Bereshit.

“And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep…”

Saul watches the spirit hover and glow, but it isn’t bright enough to illuminate the darkness that surrounds it. It seems weak in comparison to Mersef. He wants the adoration, the admiration, the affirmation and words the demon offers.

The vision of the glowing spirit begins to dim as the well comes into focus with Mersef waiting. Saul hears himself whisper into the night.

“Teach me. I’m yours.”

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix


Posted on: November 24, 2015

Continued from Three of Swords, Hanged Man, & Rust

Grayson shifts away from me, pulling the comforter off my legs. I can’t remember the last time she slept through the night, making notes in her phone instead of writing in her notebook.

“Would’ve been six months,” she says, beside me in bed. For a moment the words mean nothing. We talk so little about what happened, writing about it instead; burying our baby in words and metaphors about birds and nests.

We never got to bury anything real.

“I want to take the train to Fairfield,” I say.

I’m rewarded with a real smile, one I haven’t seen in weeks. Like that, Grayson is herself again, illuminated by the light from her cell phone.

Of course Gray is still herself, but we are changed. This is our reality, and sometimes it doesn’t feel real.

“Maybe I’ll write something new,” she says.

“So it’s decided?” I ask.

“Check the train times,” she says, leaving our bedroom in search of a story, or maybe a cup of coffee

The train leaves in less than an hour. When I print our tickets, the time stamp says 11:50 PM departure. I pack a bag with two notebooks and six pens and a change of clothes for each of us. I hope some time away will help Gray forget the should have of this moment. She should’ve been six months pregnant today, but instead, she’s two months empty.

Maybe the rest of our lives will be spent marking time this way.


“How are we out of coffee?” Gray asks on our way out the door.

The station is a short walk from the apartment. We buy a cup to share on the way to keep our hands and mouths warm. Two months ago, we would’ve held hands, or kissed instead. It’s been difficult for Gray to be close, so I take what I can from the taste of her peppermint lip balm on the rim of the paper cup.
We arrive just in time, and the conductor directs us toward our seats. The world is dark beyond the windows.

“Do you want to write?” I ask once we’re settled. Gray draws swirls in the condensation on the train window, and I wait for her answer.

I wish she’d write beside me like we used to at the beginning. Our pens used to dance across separate pages in perfect synchronicity. The movement looked like love before I really knew I loved Gray.

“I love you,” she says. She smiles her permission for me to start, and I grab a pen and my notebook from the bag.

Grayson rests her head against my shoulder, falling asleep after the train departs. I wonder if she sleeps uninterrupted, or if she dreams.

“Baby,” she says when she wakes an hour later. She pulls the pen from my hand, and asks, “What are you writing?”

“Dreams. Or maybe this is a dream, here. Not sure yet,” I say. And it’s true because I can’t remember the last time we sat so close; both of us so awake.

“Write something,” she says. She kicks off her boots and pulls her feet beneath her, nudging me with her shoulder.

“I thought I already did.”

“Write something for me,” she says. Her bottom lip wobbles when she says it, like she might cry. So I take the pen and the notebook and begin:

If she was really 
there, he’d touch her. Reflections
so close. Almost real.

“Why haven’t you tried talking to me?” Gray asks. “I’m here, Shaw. I’m real.”

“We’re on a train to Fairfield,” I say, hoping she knows I’m trying.

“You want me to feel better, but I can’t. We don’t talk about it. We never talk about it,” she says. She cries for real, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Do you blame me?”

“This happens to other couples,” I say, taking her hand.

“But is it my fault?” she asks.

“I want to kiss you, be close to you, but I’m scared. I’m not sure when it’ll be right or if you’ll be ready,” I say. “What if it’s always like this? I know when you look at me you’re really looking for her, right?”

“Sometimes I wonder if she would’ve had your eyes,” she says and then she kisses me, and it’s real, and she’s real.

“I miss it,” she says. “I miss feeling her.”

My throat feels tight, and I know I’m about to cry, and I don’t try to hold it in, because I miss her, too. I miss the people we might’ve been.

“I never could, Gray. I could never blame you.”

Grayson wipes her hand at my eyes when the conductor announces, “Fairfield.”

“Let’s go to the beach,” I say.

“But it’s snowing,” she says.

“Was that going to stop you the last time we were here?” For a moment, she doesn’t answer, but as soon as she remembers I see it; her eyes brighten, and she gives me a smile.

We stand in the Fairfield station on the edge of today, and we kiss. I write the word real on her neck. She nods against my chest.

Written by: Kayla King
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

Instructions for Living the Perfect Life

Posted on: November 19, 2015

Arabella found the instructions for living the perfect life on a late night/early morning Amazon binge. She was drunk and immediately clicked Purchase, woke up Gael snoring next to her, and texted her best friend, Brynlee, to tell her the exciting news.

“Bella is so funny,” Brynlee said. She was in bed, scrolling, texting, liking, commenting, and swiping with practiced fingers. I was next to her, half-asleep in frog pajamas.

“Mhmm,” I moaned. It was nearing three in the morning, and the Netflix prompt, Are you still watching? lit up the dark room. I had class at eight. Philosophy with Professor Fine. One more tardy and he swore to fail me; a fate I would surely test eventually.

“She’s drunk and ordered something called, Instructions for Living the Perfect Life. It comes in a briefcase. With, like, instructions and stuff.”

Brynlee was not a vapid valley girl, though based on her speech, you’d be forgiven for thinking so. Her’s was a halting dialect full of umms and likes. But in reality we all spoke this way; all of us shock troops in an army of communicators shaped and molded by emoji-speak. We unwittingly and accidentally transcended simple slang, and eventually we’ll “speak” like binary robots, with blinks and blips in a sort of teenage auditory morse code.

“I wonder who supplies something like that? Must be a private seller or something.”


Five to seven days later, the instructions were delivered. I came home from an exam to find Arabella, Gael, and Brynlee huddled around the briefcase like it was a board game. Brynlee was reading from a piece of paper, and Gael smoked a vaporizer, letting out invisible fumes with large, smiling, sighs.

“Hello, lucky owner,” she read. “You have in your possession detailed instructions on how to live the perfect life.”

She giggled and took the vaporizer from Gael. He leaned back in the beanbag and flipped through his phone absently. Swipe. Type. Tap. Repeat. Swipe. Type. Tap…

“Before you unlock the secrets of the enlightened life,” she continued, “please read these instructions and complete the attached checklist.”

“Instructions for the instructions,” I said.

“Don’t be so negative,” Brynlee snapped.

“Knowledge is an onion,” Gael said absently. “You’ve just got to peel back the layers.”

“Is that Descartes?” I asked him.

He looked up, confused, as if the joke had just sneaked past him in the night and all he could do was smell it.

“I dunno,” he said finally. “Sure?”

Brynlee pinched my leg before I could continue with my teasing.

“First,” said Arabella, reading from the checklist. “Surround yourself with individuals of a purely positive energy. Life is optimally experienced with an open core.”

I imagined a giant robot man, his chest lighting up, his core like a bug zapper sucking up all the positive energy of the world, zapping away the bad vibes. I would call him Mister Good Vibes.

“Second,” she continued, “find a beautiful place above sea level. Like heat, positive energy rises. High elevation areas are best.”

“We could go to Devil’s Point,” I said. “It’s the highest part of the city.”

“Ummm,” said Brynlee, “I don’t think a place called Devil’s Point would have the best energy. It’s called that because people commit suicide there and stuff.”

“That’s actually a myth,” replied Gael. “It’s called Devil’s Point because it’s the middle, and highest, of the three mountains. The conquistadors, or some shit, named it because they thought it looked like Satan’s pitchfork, ergo, Devil’s Point. It’s basically geography.”

“Who told you that?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “It’s like a thing everyone knows. It’s just true. I don’t know who straight up told me.”

I got out my phone and tapped open Chrome to catch him in his bullshit.

“Lastly,” Arabella said. “Spread the love. Secrets only hurt. Honesty is the policy of the universe. Share the instructions for the perfect life once you have them, so others can benefit and be fulfilled.”

“That it?” I asked.

Brynlee nodded.

“Well, fuck it,” I said. “Let’s do this, Leeroy Jenkins. I’ll drive.”

The four of us drove up to Devil’s Point and parked at a spot overlooking the city. It was absolutely beautiful. Some sort of cosmic paint had been spilled, creating a landscape of indiscriminate grace that emanated off the canvas of the earth, that shone through the fumes of our progress and made our world magnificent. I knew the reality. Knew that the protracted wavelengths of red blocked the other colors in our spectrum as they stretched across the atmosphere. I knew it was the science that was beautiful, not some invisible projection of mankind’s vanity, or some selfish belief that these things existed for us, blind to the notion that we were nothing more than unwitting watchers in the best of times, destroyers of worlds in the worst. I knew the truth, but I chose to keep it to myself so as not to disrupt the opening of the briefcase.

“Everyone ready?” Arabella asked. She had the briefcase in her lap.

“I’m excited,” Brynlee said.

“Me too,” chimed Gael.

And then, a strange feeling spread over me. I was also, ashamed to say, excited. All the nonsense had somehow coagulated into a sort of earnest enthusiasm; in that place, with those people, overlooking thousands of lives and actions with their personal universes spread out, merging and bouncing off one another, like someone had zoomed out on us all with Google Maps - demagnified our worlds - and from such a distance we were all lawless picnics of aggressive atoms, rubbing against one another.
What was happening to me? Was there something to be said of positive vibes? Of feng shui, and Oms and Umms? Of clapping away the bad energy, or lighting incense to wash out the negative? Was there some element of truth in all this bullshit?
“Here we go…”

She cracked open the briefcase and an intense bright light emerged from its guts and momentarily blinded us all.

“Oh my god…” said Brynlee.

“What the fuck?” muttered Gael.

“It’s beautiful,” awed Arabella.

As for me, I kept my mouth shut, hoping to contain whatever mysterious dynamism toiled inside my cranky skin and bones.

Written by: Logan Theissen
Photograph by: Blake Bronstad

Never Say That

Posted on: November 17, 2015

Never underestimate the power of a child’s words. They may not have many to choose from, but when they find the right subject-verb agreement, it’ll floor you faster than a plastic stegosaurus.

Sometimes, they say something so adorable, you feel compelled to pick them up, purse your lips against their forehead, and freebase the innocence straight from their cranium. One time, Becca–my one and only little lady–put a dollar in a panhandler’s cup and asked, “Can I play in your fort now?” Unfortunately for me, the bum said yes, and instead of basking in my daughter’s naieveté, I spent the next thirty minutes sopping up her tears with my sleeve while trying to explain why I wouldn’t let her rummage through the homeless man’s cardboard castle.

Kids are also capable of channeling an astounding amount of sympathy. Case in point, at my mother’s funeral, when Becca comforted me by saying, “Is okay, Daddy. I be your mommy now.” I don’t know if that promise magically altered my gray matter or what, but from that moment on, I couldn’t look at Becca without seeing little traces of my mother: the mannerisms, the mole on her right cheek, the missing teeth–the cancer treatments made my mom’s teeth more fragile than daisy petals. Seeing the woman who gave birth to you in the girl you gave life to is oddly comforting.

But little ladies aren’t all pigtails and endearing speech impediments. There’s a darkness lurking not so deep inside each and every one of them, and in Becca’s case, it rises like the Kraken right around bath time. It was then–no more than a day after making her noble pledge–that Becca told me she hated me for the first time. “I HAT YOU,” if we’re being specific, but I knew what she meant. And all because I told her scotch is only for adults with dead mothers.

I was in no mood or emotional state to hear her declaration of hate, but even that didn’t disturb me as much as the string of syllables that rolled out of her mouth earlier this afternoon. There we were–me, Becca, and our matriarch, Jennifer–enjoying an idyllic autumn day on the state capitol lawn, when Becca came down with a wicked case of the questions: “Why is the sky blue?” “Is Gramma on that cloud?” “Who is he?”

She was pointing to a statue of George Washington, and I, trying to be a good father/American, walked her towards it while relaying all the biographical information Google could provide. That’s when she looked up at me with an ear-to-ear grin and said the worst thing a child could ever say to their parent, “I want to be president.”
In retrospect, I probably should’ve given her proclamation about as much weight as the h-bomb she dropped in the tub–her hair shampooed in a mohawk–but I wasn’t thinking rationally at the moment. All I could picture was my sweet, innocent Becca wearing a Hillary Clinton pantsuit and holding her finger over the big, red button that would usher in the nuclear apocalypse.

“Never–say–that,” I said, putting my pointer finger so close to her nose her eyes crossed and filled with water. Before the first tear could roll down her cheek, she went screaming down the hill towards Jennifer.

“What’s wrong,” Jennifer said, scooping Becca up into her arms and searching for signs of injury.
I caught up to them just in time to hear Becca mumble, “Daddy said I couldn’t be president,” into the wool of Jennifer’s turtleneck.

“Why would you say that?” Jennifer asked, perplexed by my need to squash our daughter’s dreams.

“In my defense, I never said she couldn’t be president,” I argued. “I simply told her to never say she wanted to be president.”


“Because I don’t want her to be president.”


“Have you SEEN what it takes to be president these days: the pandering, the backstabbing, the flip-flopping, the begging for money? Think of all the Republicans and Democrats currently running for office and name me one who you’d actually like our daughter to look up to.”

Jennifer thought for a moment, bouncing Becca in a way that made her whimpers sound like a helicopter propeller. “Lincoln,” she said.

“Lincoln Chafee?” I said, nearly swallowing my gum.

“No, Honest Abe Lincoln,” she clarified.

“That’s cheating! I said CURRENTLY running for president.”

“I heard what you said, but I couldn’t think of any.”


“THAT’S NOT THE POINT,” Jennifer yelled so loud Becca stifled her sniffles and shot me a look of concern. “Sorry sweetheart,” she said, coaxing Becca’s head back to her neck.

“Then what is?” I whispered, out of respect to Becca’s ears.

“The point,” Jennifer continued, matching my tone, “is that she is three years old. Today she wants to be president, yesterday she wanted to be a butterfly, and there’s no telling what she’ll want to be tomorrow, but whatever it is, we need to support her.”

If Jennifer was holding a microphone in place of our daughter, that was the moment she would’ve dropped it. Ceding defeat, I sidled up to the remaining loves of my life and rested my head against Becca’s back. Her quaking lungs confirmed that she was still pouting about the whole president thing.

“Hey, Becca Bear,” I said, prompting her to bury her head deeper into Jennifer’s neck. “Do you still want to be president?”

Her nodding caused Jennifer and me to rock back and forth like timid concertgoers.

“Then you have my vote.”

Becca turned and placed her arms around my neck, swinging from parent to parent like a baby chimp. Once her velcroed sneakers were affixed to my ribs, she gave me a big kiss on the lips and said, “I love you, Daddy!”

“You can say that again,” I said; so she did, and I realized if I can just teach her to be a moral, honest, and kindhearted person, I’ll never have to worry about her becoming the president.

Written by: Mark Killian
Photograph by: Chris Boyles

The Old Homestead

Posted on: November 12, 2015

Henry noses his SUV into the narrow spot next to a cherry red convertible with the top down. He squeezes out and closes the door before Zeus follows him. The dog lets out a displeased whimper from inside the car.

An older man with salt-and-pepper hair gives him a friendly nod. Henry notices he has a new cowboy hat on the dashboard, the tag still on it. The hat’s small and feminine, a turquoise heart encircled in hammered silver, black twine strands secured with a cheap, plastic toggle. Overpriced tourist tchotchkes.

Its owner skulks out of the convenience store, a teenager with a real chip on her shoulder. She wears pastel pink Uggs, cutoff denim shorts, and a pink and white plaid top. She looks like the kind of girl whose name has too many ys as vowels.

“They didn’t have caramel. Ridiculous.” She rolls her eyes and sets a vanilla Frappuccino on the hood, the glass bottle emitting a high-pitched squeak. The man winces and the girl pulls an iPhone from her back pocket. Henry walks into the store as the man attempts to engage her in conversation, monosyllabic responses her weapon of choice.

When Henry returns to his SUV, large Coke in one hand and a bag of Doritos in the other, the man blocks his path, eyes pleading and desperate.

“Bob,” the man introduces himself, “and this is Persephone, my daughter.”

The girl sticks out her hand, not looking up as she continues to text.

“We thought we’d take a little father-daughter getaway this summer, while her mom’s on a trip,” Bob says.

“Jesus, Dad, she’s on her honeymoon,” Persephone groans. Bob blushes, and his brown eyes grow cold and distant before he wills a too-wide smile to appear on his face. His eyes remain sad, and Henry has a hard time looking at him, the divorced dad who’s miserable but trying to keep it together for his kid.

“Anyway,” Bob forces his voice to sound happy, “Persephone loves roadside attractions — ”

“You like them.”

“— and we’re wondering if there are any here. We got some cold cuts for a picnic somewhere on this stretch of highway. With all that dust on your truck, I’d bet my last paycheck you’re a local.”

Henry nods and asks Persephone if he can borrow her iPhone and keys in an address.

“My family’s land,” Henry explains. “Technically it belongs to Uncle Jim, but he went AWOL years ago so we just let it be. Mama says he always turns up, not to mess with it more’n we have to. There’s always been stories about things that happened there when they were kids, like funny lights and weird storms. The kind of rumors you get when military testing facilities are around.

“Anyway, it’s gorgeous, and it’s deserted and peaceful. There’s an old mailbox at the end of the road; you can put your trash in there. I usually check on it once a month, but I’ll swing by this afternoon.”

Bob thanks him and Persephone gives a shrug of approval.


That afternoon, Henry almost drives by the narrow split of road. He peels off the main road, another motorist protesting the lack of turn signal with a long, loud honk. Zeus braces himself during the swerve and lets out an annoyed bark.

“Sorry, sorry,” Henry mutters as he glances in his rearview mirror.

The SUV bounces along the dirt road when the sky goes bright — a hot, white light blinding him. A stream of obscenities escape his mouth and brakes. Henry exits the car, blinking until his vision returns. Zeus whines and nuzzles against his leg.

The sky has a lilac tint to it, pale where it previously blazed orange and red, a swollen sun setting on the horizon.

Henry has never seen the buildings in person, though he recognizes versions of them from yellowing photographs that also feature his grandparents, mother, and uncle.

The old homestead, no longer in faded two-dimension but standing, real and in front of him and wrong. Green paint peels from the first building. Behind it, a second building fights a losing battle against time, the roof already caved in.

A low, eerie cry comes from the house and Zeus bolts toward the haunted sound. He bounds through wayward drifts of snow on the ground.

Henry fights the survival instincts that tell him to turn back and feeds that dangerous streak of curiosity, the one that got him rattlesnake-bit at fourteen. In the hot summer sun, he can feel the phantom venom throb and pulse under his hand, but in this odd, ethereal thaw he feels nothing but a compulsion to follow his dog’s lead.

Persephone sits, limbs pale and pulled to her chest. She looks up, brown eyes like her father’s, cold and distant.

“Jim said it’s the crossing-time,” Persephone says, “when he can go back, when things can come over. I wandered away. I guess I came over.”

Henry nods, but he does not want to know. He wants to get her out of here, get her to the authorities, and never know the details. Zeus paws at Henry’s legs, eager for permission to go inside.

“Can you stand up? Can you walk?” Henry asks the girl. “We need to leave, right now.”

The cold bite in the air is more than wind and snow. It is something dark, something unsettling. People pray over things they do not understand, and Henry begins to pray..

Henry gets them all into the SUV when the blinding light comes back. And then it is summer again, a stream of police barreling down the main road.

To her credit, Persephone said she wandered off and fell, and when she came to it was Henry who heard her cries for help. Bob didn’t contradict; he'd searched the land for an hour before going to the police and telling them Persephone was missing. The cops were happy the reunion didn’t require a lot of paperwork; they let Henry go without much hassle.

He pulls out his cell phone when he’s down the road, lights and siren behind him.

“Mama —” he begins, but she interrupts.

“You’ll never believe who turned up!”

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Blake Bronstad

The Commons

Posted on: November 10, 2015

Darius broke right and sprinted down the alleyway, but deep down he knew even his best effort would be futile. Athletic endeavors had never been his strong suit, and the three boys chasing him were older, faster, and stronger.

“Get back here, you fat little motherfucker,” shouted their leader, a hulking monster of a teen whose real name was Terrence, but went by T-Dog. If the rumors floating around school were true, this past weekend T-Dog fulfilled his lifelong ambition, metamorphosed from wannabe gangbanger to a full-fledged member of the Baseline Crips after emerging triumphant from a cocoon of fists and stomping feet. His two acolytes, Peanut and DeRay, were no less menacing.

“You keep running, we’re gonna beat your ass even worse,” yelled T-Dog.

But Darius, faced with the first flight or fight moment of his life, kept chugging along as fast as his stout little legs and asthmatic lungs could go.

It wasn’t fast enough.

DeRay was the first to reach him. He grabbed Darius from behind and slammed him to the ground, knocking his glasses off and ripping the sleeve of his shirt. Peanut slapped him across the mouth, turning his lip raw and bloody.

“The fuck you running for?” T-Dog asked, shaking him. “Huh? Answer me motherfucker! Peanut, I thought you said this motherfucker was smart. Don’t seem so smart to me.”

“Wh-wh-what do you want from me?” Tears poured down Darius’s cheeks as he stumbled over the words.

Before T-Dog could answer, a voice, booming and gravelly, called out, “Let that boy alone.”

Darius, glasses gone and eyes clouded with tears, watched unfocused as a blur of a man hopped a dilapidated, white fence and confronted his attackers.

DeRay rushed at the stranger and was thrown headlong into the fence. T-Dog took a swing at him. The man caught his punch and pulled him close, twisting his arm awkwardly behind him. The man slid his other arm across T-Dog’s throat.

“I said, let that boy alone.” He held onto to T-Dog for another few seconds, choking him and cranking up on his arm, before pushing him down to the ground. “Now, get out of here.”

T-Dog got up slowly and brushed himself off. He and the others backed down the alleyway, bristling with teenage rage, staring at the man.

“I’m gonna get you motherfucker. This ain’t over.” T-Dog yelled, before shifting his gaze to Darius. “You either. See you around school.”

“You alright, son?” the man asked Darius, brushing him off and handing him his glasses.

Darius was pretty far from alright.

“Umm. Yes, sir. I guess, sir.”

“What’s your name?” asked the man.


“Darius, I’m Theo. You live around here?”
“Yes, sir. We stay over in the Commons.”

Theo glanced up at the ten-story public housing unit that dominated the neighborhood. He put his arm around Darius.

“It’ll be ok. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”


After he finished washing up, Darius scouted around the little house. He noticed a large picture hanging over the mantle. It was a younger version of Theo. Darius didn’t know much about sports but he knew the iconic baseball uniform.

“Did you really play for the Yankees?” he asked.

The voice that answered him was not Theo’s, but the hoarse rasp of an elderly woman.

“Yes, he did. My baby pitched three seasons with the Yanks, until he blew out his elbow.”

Darius turned and looked at the woman. She was wrinkled and weathered, but had gentle, warm eyes.

“Still lives up in New York, too. He’s just down here taking care of me.” The woman coughed. “I’ve been sick lately.”

Theo came in from the kitchen, carrying a pitcher and three glasses.

“I see you’ve met my momma. I’ve been trying to get her to move out of this neighborhood and come live up north with me for quite awhile.” Theo smiled. “But she’s a stubborn old woman.”

“I love my boy, but the only way I’m leaving this house is in a body bag.”

“Good morning. Is there anything I can help you find?”

The man behind the counter eyed Darius suspiciously. Or perhaps it was just Darius’s guilty conscience. He had never skipped school before, and he had never ridden the bus to this part of town before, either. He felt very out of place, but baseball card shops didn’t exist in his part of town.

“Yes, sir. I was wondering if you had any Theo Jackson baseball cards?”

“Theo Jackson?” The man furrowed his brow. “The name doesn’t ring a bell.”

“He played about ten years ago, for the Yankees.” A proud smile spread across Darius’s face. “He’s a friend of mine.”

“Hmm, let’s see what I can find,” said the man. He pulled out a worn copy of Beckett’s Ultimate Baseball Card Guide. “Now, not all players get cards, you know,” he said as he thumbed through the guide. “Alright, here we go. Jackson, Theo. Looks like he was a common in 2004.”

“What’s a common?” asked Darius.

“Well, with baseball cards, about eighty percent of them aren’t worth much. Maybe five cents or so. Players who most people wouldn’t recognize on the street.”

The man walked over to a cardboard file cabinet. He slid out a drawer and started rifling through it.

“It’s the superstars cards that are valuable, but to keep the value on them up, and to keep them rare, they have to fill the packs with commons.” He walked back over to Darius, card in hand. “Like your friend here.”


Darius couldn’t wait to show Theo and his mother the baseball card, but he forgot all about it the moment he rounded the corner. Blue and red lights swirled, lighting up the street. Three police cars were parked haphazard in front of the Jackson home. The people of the neighborhood ringed the area, watching and whispering amongst themselves. Darius’s heart dropped into his gut. Even from a distance he could see the rumpled white sheet on the lawn, covering the body.

He could see Theo’s mother sitting on the front step, crying and shaking. Two police officers were doing their best to calm her. Darius ran towards her. The baseball card slipped from his hand, mixing in with the fallen leaves on the lawn. As he got closer he could hear her wail.

“Oh Lord. I didn’t have no choice but to shoot him. I swear it. He was gonna kill my baby.” She took a deep breath. “He was gonna kill my baby.”

The front door opened. Theo walked out of the house. He knelt beside his mother and offered her some water. When she finished he set the cup on the top step and put his arms around her.

Photo and Words by: Ben Cook


Posted on: November 5, 2015

The colors of city lights bleed out into the blank sky, smoke rising to the atmosphere, and ashes falling back to the asphalt. In the back of his mind, he hears music—Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. For the boy, it has always been the song of the after.

Outside the thin windows of the apartment, Kai can hear the sound of falling rain and the low breeze, screeching cars and drivers spouting profanities. The streets are never quiet. He hears the beating of a moth's wings as it flutters around the street lamp, but not the urgent words that leave his mother's lips as tears streak her face. Her mouth keeps forming the same shapes, and it occurs to him that she's saying one thing over and over again.

"Everything is going to be alright, sweetie." The sound of her voice feels like the earth has dropped onto his chest when his mind returns to his body. He becomes aware that the side of his face is pressed into the cold, wooden floor of their living room. Sweat makes his dark hair stick to his forehead, and he can taste iron when he breathes. He feels like shit, personified.

"Do you need to go to the hospital?" she asks, knowing that after seventeen years, it has become a useless question.

"I'm fine," He manages to croak out a half-convincing response.

Kai struggles to pull himself up into a sitting position; there's a sharp pain flowing in the blue of his veins. The heavy soreness in his side makes him think he's broken a rib. The room is empty except for the two of them, and Kai is relieved to know they are alone, at least for now.
"Are you okay?" Kai asks. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"

His mother shakes her head, looking years older than she did the hour before.

"I'm alright," she says, leaning down to wrap her arms around his torso. The action is supposed to be comforting but she quakes in fear. His mother helps him off the floor and to the bathroom, which proves to be quite the task. Since starting high school he has grown a foot taller than her, and now his limbs still aren’t fully functioning.

He leans against the sink, and his eyes wander to his once-white shirt, advocating Sigur Ros, some indie rock group whose music he has never heard. It’s covered in blotches of dark red, the color of wine. The red seeps through the fabric. The stain will never come out.
"Just wash up, okay?" his mother coaxes. Kai pulls the shirt over his head, and she snatches it from his hands. Her eyes jump from the shirt to back up at her son.

"I'll take care of everything," she says, clutching the bloodied t-shirt to her chest and shutting the door behind her.

He takes off the rest of his clothes before stepping into the shower. He turns the faucets, and a stream of cold water hits his back. The red washes away, pooling on the white tiles at his feet, and the pain under his bruised, olive skin dulls. There’s a long, thin gash running diagonally across his chest. The cut is not deep enough to kill, but it will leave a scar.

He can try to forget, again. Try to remember all the good things, but the memories of those are fading. Besides, there is only so much you can wash away, and only so much that you can forget in the after.
Kai walks into his bedroom, looking for something constant in all the change. Instead, he finds that most of his stuff is dumped out into suitcases strewn across his bed. The shelves that once held pictures in frames are now bare. His mother stands in the center of the chaos, packing their lives away into trash bags. When she sees him she tries to smile, like this entire scenario is normal. It’s a slap to the face, a reminder of just how fucked-up their lives are.

“I have to go to the bank, Kai, sweetie. Finish packing up—I’ll be back soon.”

“Okay,” he says, because there is nothing more to say.

She reaches up and ruffles his hair, like she did when he was younger. Even though he is seventeen, he still finds comfort in it.

There’s still food in the fridge—mostly just takeout. Kai grabs a few relatively fresh-looking apples, but there’s not much to salvage among the rest. A bottle of wine catches his eye, cigarette butts floating in the dregs. He winces. The room smells like his father, like despair and fear. The burn on his arm feels vicious, singeing. He grabs the bottle, hurls it out the open kitchen window, and watches the glass shatter on the street. He laughs like it’s his last day on earth. It might as well be.

By the time his mother returns, Kai has packed everything. They pile the pieces of their lives into the back of the Impala, leaving the place they once called home barren and empty.

“Where are we going?” he asks as he shuts the trunk. His mother smiles warily before answering.

“Somewhere far away,” she tells him as he slides into the passenger side. The tiny green pine tree air freshener looks almost like an arrow pointing them away. The car’s engine sputters to life, and the sound is already so much better than any empty promise she could make.

The city is grey and flat, like a paper cutout, drawn with the tip of a needle. This city was the backdrop to his life, yet this is the first time Kai has ever thought of it as something other than his personal hell. Cars pass like water through an iron grate as they drive away. Everything looks perfect from afar, windows in buildings perfectly identical, symmetrical.

It was never so beautiful up close.

Written by: Jamie H
Photograph by: Skyler Smith


Posted on: November 3, 2015

Dana was standing near the theater when he pulled up in his red BMW to ask for directions. He looked about her age, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, blond hair, golden tan, leading-role actor face, expensive-looking shirt. His overwhelming attractiveness made her instantly wary. Guys who looked like him didn't smile like that at girls with lank dishwater-blond hair, unremarkable faces, and dumpy bodies hidden under shapeless thrift-shop sweaters. They certainly didn't ask them out to the movies.

He introduced himself as John – no last name – just John.

Perhaps she could go with him, but head home right after in case this was a cruel prank or he was trying to recruit her for some crazy cult. Her friends didn't share her taste in movies, and it would be nice to have someone to go with for once, particularly someone so attractive. But she hesitated before getting into his car. She knew it wasn't a smart thing to do, so she scanned the vehicle's interior for signs, her gaze falling upon the photo of a beagle snuggled up to a kitten that sat on the dashboard.

"Your pets?" she asked.


She jumped into his vehicle and then cursed her naiveté as the door shut with an ominous click, trapping her in an enclosed space with a stranger. She rolled down the window to provide an escape hatch.

"The movie doesn't start until seven," she said.

"Is there somewhere we can hang out for a couple of hours?" he asked, flashing his perfect teeth at her.

Perhaps he was just looking for easy sex and assumed that a homely girl would be a quick and easy lay, she told herself to crush her pathetic hopefulness.

"We could go to the lake," she said. "It's only a couple of miles from here."

The lake was actually just a large pond surrounded by a few dilapidated cabins and farmhouses, pretty in a rough sort of way. As they made their way down to the surrounding grass, John looked up at the trees as though amazed by them, stopping to stroke the rough bark of a willow.

While he gazed at the tree, she examined his face, searching for the imperfections that make faces interesting, but his skin told no stories. Everything was symmetrical and immaculate.

After they settled on the grass, he asked about her favorite movies and she described the cheesy sci-fi epics and thrillers she loved.

"So, you like movies where everyone dies?"

"It's funny, because in real life, I can't stand it when anyone is sad. I think movies are my way of facing the darkness in a safe place."

He gazed at the murky pond, frowning. She willed her foot not to twitch. He was so calm and still.

"Are you nervous?" he asked.

She bit her lip. "A little."


"Because I like you."

Her treacherous mouth had released the words before she could stop it, and she wasn't even sure why she liked him. She didn't really know him at all.

"I like you, too," he said, but he wasn't smiling and she couldn't read him. She'd seen attraction on boys' faces a few times in her life, a dilation of the pupils, a quickening of the breath. John showed neither of these signs. Maybe he was gay and wanted a woman to hang around with for cover so that he could stay in the closet. She looked at her watch to escape the awkwardness.

"We should head back."

They rose from the grass. On the way to John's vehicle, Dana spotted something peering through the grimy window of a broken-down barn.

"There's a chicken in there," she said, scanning the surrounding buildings. The place was obviously abandoned. "I need to rescue it."

"Don't you eat chickens?" he asked.

"I'm a vegan. I don't eat anything from animals." she replied as she sought a way into the barn. The only entrance she found was an old gate secured with a rusted padlock.


"Just because you're smarter than something, doesn't give you the right to exploit it. And I'm not even sure we're smarter than them, at least not in the ways that count. I need to break this window."

"I'll do it," he said, unzipping his sweatshirt and wrapping it around his fist. He struck one of the panes with a quick, sharp jab, then watched with evident fascination as Dana coaxed the weak, scrawny bird toward the opening and lifted the little body into her arms.

"My aunt runs an animal sanctuary," she said. "I can bring the chicken to her tomorrow morning."

"Sanctuary," he repeated thoughtfully, as though tasting the word.

"I'm sorry," she said with a pang of regret. "I can't do the movie, now. I have to get food for her."

"What do they eat?"

"Grains, seeds, stuff like that."

"I have sunflower seeds at home. I live nearby."

"That would be awesome!"

This guy is dangerous, she thought. I could fall in love with him.

She'd expected something fancy and intimidating, so she was surprised when he pulled up in front of a decrepit little cottage with flaking paint surrounded by a neglected, overgrown garden. They walked along the broken cobblestones, the yellowing tendrils of wild plants snaking around their ankles. Nothing about John matched up, but she was happy that he lived in a place like this. She could imagine sitting with a second-hand book in the wild chaos of a garden where each plant was allowed to do whatever it wanted. Perhaps she and John weren't so different as she had initially thought.

He opened the door to a dark hallway, and she followed him until it gave way to a room that didn't make sense. Was this a meth lab? The place was full of scientific equipment arrayed on long, shiny, stainless steel counters, so at odds with the rustic exterior of the cottage. Then she spotted the shackles bolted to the gleaming metal table in the center of the room and a scream froze in her throat.

She turned to see John advancing on her. He was holding a long, slender metal object that had to be some sort of weapon, and her last thought was regret that she would die so absurdly, killed by a mad scientist while holding a starving chicken.

There was a flash, and everything went black.


797097 was back on the ship, reporting to his superior officer.

"The meat is no good."

"Full dissection? You conducted all the tests?"

"Yes," he lied. "Very toxic. No usable parts."

"We'll need to find another source, then."


Dana woke by the lake with no memory of how she'd come to be there. She'd been in front of the theater and now she lay on the grass with a scrawny chicken nuzzling her open palm. Had she hit her head? She didn't have a headache. Perhaps she'd fainted. She should go to a clinic and get checked out, but first she would take care of the pitiful animal at her side. For some reason she couldn't fathom, she wanted to name it John.

Written by: Jennifer Copley
Photograph by: Phillip Wolt

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