No Take Backs (Or, Don’t Be an Asshat)

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

Yes No Maybe
Photo Credit: John

As writers, we’re often told that we need to learn to deal with rejection. It’s just part of the process. If you can’t deal with it, you may as well find a different vocation. I’ve even in written about it. But five years ago, when I wrote about only needing one yes, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility a writer might receive an acceptance, only to subsequently have the editor behave as if he were Nelson on The Simpsons (“haha!”) and rescind it.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened this summer. After a change in editors at The Paris Review, the new editor sent a form email to a number of poets whose work had been accepted by the previous poetry editors, informing them that he was sorry, but there was no place for their work in this new rendition of the journal (if you want to read about the incident, start here).

To say I was flabbergasted by this behavior would be an understatement. Words that ran through my mind: egomaniacal, disrespectful, unprofessional. The “unacceptances” served no one but himself. The former poetry editors, who were still a part of the journal, presumably didn’t pick dreck. Regardless of whether it was to his particular taste, it was still undoubtedly good writing. I now had a mental image of this editor as an individual who, due to a puffed up sense of his own sense of self-worth, had forgotten his colleagues were also human beings with feelings.

Shortly after The Paris Review incident, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review committed suicide. At first this tragedy seemed to be a personal one, but subsequently, allegations of workplace bullying on the part of VQR‘s editor arose. In the wake of this incident, VQR is now—at least temporarily—closed (you can read a recap of the events here and here).

Of course, these accusations may not be true, and even if they are, I don’t think that VQR‘s editor intended for this outcome. No one commits suicide just because his supervisor is a jerk. Obviously, there were a number of intersecting factors that led to the managing editor’s decision to take his own life, and these struggles are things that his co-workers may not have known about.

What I think we need to remember is that everyone has problems, and act accordingly. We’re often so wrapped up in our own concerns that we forget to empathize with those around us. Workplace bullies aren’t evil; rather, on some level, they feel threatened, and lashing out at their co-workers makes them feel better about themselves: powerful, important, indispensable to the organization.

Rejection isn’t exclusive to writing. It’s something we face every day, in every facet of our lives: work, school, teams, relationships. Because of that, everyone knows that all rejection is not created equal. We know that the further you get into the process, the more rejection stings. You email your resume in response to a job ad and receive a PFO letter in return? Meh, whatever. You lose your job of ten years, which you love and are exceptional at, due to an “organizational restructuring”? Crushed.

I’m not saying that editors should just accept everything to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, or that bosses should overlook sloppy or deteriorating work, or that an offer shouldn’t be rescinded if it turns out one of the parties has misrepresented some pertinent information. Look, I get that TPR‘s new editor maybe didn’t love everything the previous editors selected as much as they did. (I should note that as a result of the reaction to the unacceptances, TPR backpedaled, offering the poets payment and online publication.) At Toasted Cheese, we edit as a collective, and that means that sometimes a piece I wasn’t all that fond of is chosen for publication—and sometimes a piece I loved doesn’t make the cut. But that’s okay. Because it’s not all about me.

Respect for your colleagues means trusting the decisions they make, not disparaging them for having different tastes. Respecting the writers you work with means honoring the commitments your publication has made, regardless of your personal opinion. When the other party, be it a writer or a fellow editor, acts in good faith, strive to act in good faith in return. Don’t be an asshat. Don’t exercise your power just because you can. There’s nothing wrong with having healthy self-esteem, but your esteem for yourself shouldn’t preclude compassion for your colleagues.

Acceptances are moments of celebration. Writers tell their friends, their family. They tweet and blog about it. They update their writer’s bio: “poems forthcoming in…” While they could avoid having to awkwardly explain that they’re not being published after all by always keeping their good news a secret until they actually see their work in front of them in print or pixels, that would suck much of the spontaneous joy out of life. So many things in life aren’t certain. It would be nice to believe that, at least in this one case, yes really means yes.

No take backs.


Email: beaver[at]


Best of the Boards
Sue Nelson Buckley

State Hospital Bars II
Photo Credit: Andrew McFarlane

I kept my eyes shut.

There was no need to see what was going on around me. It was the same every day. It never changed. It never would again.

Once I accepted that I was a lot calmer. I stopped bouncing against the walls trying to find a way back outside.

They called me quirky at first. They smiled and patted me on the head when they said it. I took it as a compliment. Back then I was five; approval meant everything. Then it changed. Quirky was no longer a fun word. It was used to separate me. Make me feel different than everyone else.

I have to admit I rebelled a bit. But not nearly to the extent that those witnesses who claimed to watch implied. It was as if their minds had collected into one, like a Borg mindshare that could not be shaken, no matter how reasonable my reasons.

No sense on dwelling on that now I supposed. I relaxed against the padding and let my mind wander. At four I was precocious, at five quirky, and at seven-and-a-half my mother began to look at me with fear in her eyes.

After the day she found me in my bedroom braiding Fluffy’s intestines into a rug.

I wanted to squish them with my toes.

I hadn’t planned to hurt the cat. I was napping and it pounced. Before I was even half-awake I’d flung the creature across the room where it landed on the pointy end of my pink Barbie umbrella. Apparently, hell hath no fury like a grumpy child.

When I went to investigate I found out how warm and slippery its innards felt. We’d been learning to make rugs in Brownies. I thought it was a great idea.

Mom didn’t. “What are you doing?”

Even at seven-and-a-half I knew she was trying not to freak out.

“Wanna help?” I asked her as I held up my handiwork. “I’m making a squishy-rug to play on.”

“No darling, you keep playing, Mommy has to make a phone call.”

I still remember the look on her face as she backed slowly out of my room.

Men came and took me away. Years later, they deemed me ‘cured’ and I was able to go outside again. They got me a job and eventually I returned to the house where I’d started to grow up. Mom didn’t live there anymore. They say she just packed up and left the day after they took me away. Not a word to anyone.

It wasn’t hard to find her. Even the best-covered trails are easy to find.

Now, as an adult—a cured adult, able to integrate and be a productive member of society—I understood why she had done what she had done. But seeing her again made me feel like a seven-and-a-half-year-old all over again.

This time when the men came, I knew from the looks on their faces that there was no hope of me ever going back outside. I saw my file as the last Borg-like mind doctor turned away. On the cover, in bright red Sharpie, he wrote: #fail.


Sue has been a storyteller since she could talk and a writer since she learned her alphabet. These days she is co-owner and managing editor of PaperBox Books and one of the senior story consultants at Fiction Therapy. Email: sue[at]

New Age Break-Up

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Marissa VanWingen

Caitlin BW
Photo Credit: Paul Li

We had a whirlwind relationship from the start. Everything happened so fast. We weren’t perfect; we didn’t have an ideal relationship. We were both young, but I thought we were going to grow up together. I never thought things would come crashing down. He promised me forever and I believed him.

We had only been dating six months when he proposed, and the fact that we were five hours apart made our time together even shorter. We had seen each other a total of four times, possibly adding up to a month’s time face-to-face. He told me time didn’t matter; when you know someone is the one, you just know. Everything about the night he proposed was like a fairy tale. I was the Princess and he was my Prince Charming. He came to rescue me and we were going to live happily ever after.

It was two a.m. and we had been driving all night from his parents’ house in Indiana. I was wearing a tattered pair of jeans and a sweater that I’d had on the past two days. He had me wait in the car a few minutes before he led me in the front door with my eyes tightly closed. When I opened them, there were candles lit all over the apartment. Right in front of me he spelled out “will you” with rose buds. He took my hand in his and said, “Marry me?”

His hands were shaking as I nodded lovingly. There were tears in my eyes. I never thought a day like this would ever come for me. When he put the ring on my finger I tried to catch a glimpse of it, but he wrapped me tightly in his arms. My ear was pressed against his chest and I could hear his heart racing.

“I want to take care of you for the rest of our lives. I knew the second we met that you were the one. All I want is you.”

There he was, my Knight in Shining Armor. Telling me everything was going to be okay and that my whole life would be different. He was there to whisk me away. After minutes of still not believing the situation, I took a second to look down at my hand. I couldn’t believe the ring. It was flawless. He knew exactly what I wanted. The diamond wasn’t too big, the cut was simple, and it was silver and small. It looked as though the ring was made for my hand only, and it was perfectly mine.

After that night, our life was nothing like a fairy tale. Our relationship had a lot of rocks in it, but I thought we could fix the things that were broken. I thought we were in it together, forever and always.

I would get mad that he didn’t call me, and he would get angry that I was so upset. Because we were in a long-distance relationship, I felt it was important to talk every night. I needed that emotional intimacy since I didn’t constantly have the physical contact. If I didn’t get to curl up with him every night, I needed to feel safe some other way. All I asked for was to hear him say he loved me every night before I went to bed.

We both knew that it was going to be hard from the start. Nothing other than storybooks makes marriage and spending the rest of your life with someone easy. Just because he was in the military didn’t mean he loved me any less. We believed we could make it all work: deployments and the constant unknown of where he might get moved to next. I knew there were thousands of possibilities and none of it was within my control. And even though I knew he could be shipped out in the morning, I always believed we had what it took. I thought I was everything he wanted. He would tell me how perfect I was in his eyes, how he loved everything about me and how he couldn’t see himself with anyone else.

I knew I’d have to give up a lot, but that was okay with me. I was willing to follow him all around the world, and be the military wife. My only stipulation was as long as he was in the military I didn’t want to get pregnant. I didn’t think it was fair to move around all the time with children. So as long as it was just the two of us, I was prepared to go wherever he did.

The five-hour barrier was hard on both of us, but I think it affected me the most. I would pick fights with him just to know that he still cared. All I really wanted was for him to tell me everything would be okay. I wanted to hear him say he loved me unconditionally and was never going to let me go. That no matter how bad things were, he was in it forever.

Like a real married couple, we fought a lot about money. He spent every dime that he made, and I’m extremely frugal. Some of the things he bought were extravagant gifts for me, but I was never able to appreciate them. I always thought about how much it cost and how that money should be going to something else, like a savings account. I would say things like “I can’t believe how much money you spent.” He couldn’t see that material things meant nothing to me, that I would much rather have just known he was there with me for the rest of our lives. Or that we had money to build our future lives together and some day, possibly a family. He was all about the right now while I was about tomorrow.

I imagined the idea of us living together, in our own castle. Everything would be perfect. We would both be working, and he would get marriage pay. Once we moved on base, we wouldn’t have to pay rent or very much in gas. I saw myself taking charge of the finances and giving him an allowance for food when he was at work. We wouldn’t have to worry anymore. He wouldn’t be able to spend outside our means. We wouldn’t have anything to fight about anymore. Everything would be kisses and hugs.


I work as a lifeguard on base. It isn’t the job I always dreamed about, but it makes enough money for now. Plus, the hours are flexible so I can be home whenever he is. And if he gets orders, it will be easy to just transfer my position from base to base. He doesn’t have to do shift work anymore. Instead of changing hours every month, he works 9–5 Monday through Friday, and always gets home on time. He never keeps me waiting long, and if it looks like it was going to be late, he calls and lets me know.

I get home and pick up the house a little, and throw a load of laundry in the machine. I put on my blue-and-white checkered apron. While the clothes are in the washer I start to make dinner for two. First I make a chocolate cake for dessert, because it needs time to bake. I make my own tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes and parsley. Then it’s time to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer.

Twenty minutes before he will walk through the door, I boil some water and put the spaghetti noodles in. I slice and butter the French bread, then season it just right.

The timer goes off, and the cake is perfectly done. I take it out and set it on the counter to cool.

After I put the pasta in the pot to boil, I unload the dryer and place the basket in our room, to be folded and put away after dinner.

With five minutes to go, I drain the pasta, but the bread under the broiler and set the table. Candles and wine. Not a moment later I hear a key in the lock.

“Honey, I’m home!” he says as he opens the door and places his keys in the basket.

“I’ve made dinner. Come, sit and let’s eat.” I pour a glass of wine for both of us. Kiss his cheek and sit opposite him at the table. We eat our dinner, have our dessert and then he does the dishes. After dinner we sit on the couch together holding hands. It is the definition of happily ever after. We are the perfect married couple, living in wedded bliss.


Instead, he had to be in control of everything. When he lost control of our relationship, he stopped trying. He looked me in the eyes and lied right to my face about a 600-dollar credit card bill. He hadn’t paid it like he promised. It took me well over a month to finally confront him about it. We were never the same after that.

I remember the day it all fell apart better than I remember his proposal. I was sitting with my knees up to my chin and my feet on my folded-up futon. My arms were wrapped around my legs. I was wearing pajama shorts and a tank top because my room was really warm.

Tears were falling from my eyes as I shook like a leaf. I hadn’t heard from him in almost a week. I didn’t know where he was or why he was ignoring me. He wanted to marry me and spend the rest of his life with me, but he didn’t want to talk to me?

My phone vibrated and I felt the futon move. I grabbed it and saw his name immediately in the text message inbox.

“I’m with my parents right now. I still love you but I don’t think I can do this anymore. I need some time to think. I’m sorry.”

Through my tears and shaking hands I replied immediately.

“What do you need to think about… us?”

After minutes of constantly picking up my phone and making sure it was still working, I got a reply.

A two-word reply. “Yeah us.”

That was it? I quickly wrote back. “Will you PLEASE just call me?”


“NO! I’m with my parents. I’m still mad about some things so I will call in a few days.”

I was pissed off and angrily typed through the tears. “If this is going to end, I don’t want it to end in a text message, so please. Just call me.”

I didn’t really believe that this could be the end. Not now. I had already envisioned our perfect marriage. I had bought the perfect wedding dress. The invitations were made, the colors picked out. This was supposed to be my happily-ever-after. Didn’t he remember that?

We had been through too much to really call it quits now. I tried to end it before, but he promised he would change then. That he would fix the mistakes he made. Things were supposed to be different, be perfect. I waited for his response. I knew he was getting mad because he hated that I couldn’t let anything go. But feelings like that didn’t matter to me at that moment. I was trying to save my fairy tale. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It was never supposed to end.

“I have more class than that. I would never end it in a text message. You should know me better than that.”

I sat and stared at his answer. I had no idea how to respond. “I can give you a few days, but know this. I’m not going to wait around for you forever.” I thought he would be happy that I was giving him time. That was out of character for me. I was already falling apart; I didn’t think I could hold it together for a few days.

“OMFG! All I’m asking for is a couple of goddamn days so I know if this is what I want for the rest of my fucking life ok?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I typed back with a fury. “DON’T YOU EVER TALK TO ME LIKE THAT! All I said is I won’t be waiting around for you forever and you respond that way? Take your couple of days. I guess this is good night. I love you.” I couldn’t control anything anymore. The tears fell without stopping; my body shook uncontrollably. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.

“I’m sorry. I love you too.”

I thought things were okay because he said he loved me too. Things couldn’t end if he loved me. That’s not how love works.

That’s not how love works in the movies. But in real life, it was the end.

I felt so alone, but there was nothing I could do. The empty apartment was getting to me. I couldn’t stand not being close to anyone who loved me. I wanted to go for a walk to clear my head, but I couldn’t stop shaking enough to put on my shoes. My tears made it impossible to see, so I just stayed where I was and cried.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. I cried every second until I had no tears left. When the tears ran out, I began to dry heave. My body still wouldn’t move and I couldn’t even speak. When I tried, no words would even come out because my throat was so dry. Every thought, every image, started the tears all over again.

I was strong and didn’t call him for a week, at which point I broke down. I knew he wasn’t going to answer, but I called anyway. I tried not to sound too defeated, too broken.

I pictured him sitting on the couch staring blankly at the TV. Nothing was on, but he didn’t want to get up and change the station. His phone was in his pocket and when he heard it go off he grabbed it immediately.

He saw the nickname he gave me come across the screen: “Incoming call: Peanut.” But he wasn’t man enough to answer. He knew once he heard my voice he would give in to my sobs. He let it go to voicemail.

“I was okay waiting for a couple of days while you figured stuff out, but it’s been a week. When I said I wasn’t going to wait around forever, this is what I meant. I’m leaving for New Orleans next Friday. If I don’t hear from you before I get on that plane, you’ll never hear my voice again. I’m done. I’ll send you the phone back when I get there, and that will be the end. I’m really hurt by all of this, but I still love you, and always will. Please just call me, and give me that much.”

After the icon popped up saying he had one new voicemail, he clicked to listen to it. Three words in he quickly hit delete. He couldn’t stand to hear my voice shaking because he knew that I was crying. He hated to see me cry.

He went to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels and drank it straight from the bottle the rest of the night. He only got up to smoke. On his way out the door he punched a giant hole in the wall. He knew he wasn’t Prince Charming. He knew there was no happily ever after. He also knew right then, that he made the biggest mistake of his life. He lost the best thing that would ever happen to him.

That message was the longest I had gone without crying in a week. I didn’t want him to hear the vulnerability in my voice and I tried to sound mad. I know I failed miserably and instead he could hear my heart breaking through the phone.

I never heard from him again. He never called a few days later. We didn’t have time to fix what was broken. He didn’t have more class than that. My picture-perfect marriage was nothing more than a dream inside my head. He didn’t come riding in to save me. Instead he left me with a shattered world and my heart in pieces. It wasn’t a happily ever after, The End.

Marissa VanWingen is orignally from Michigan, but hasn’t lived there in over two years. She recently graduated from the University of Iowa with a major in Journalism and Mass Communications and a second concentration in English. She currently lives in New Orleans where she is working to start her real life. She is always reading and writing and is a football fanatic. Email: marissavanwingen[at]

My Grandfather

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Esperanza Paz C. del Casal

Boys playing beneath the coconut tree
Photo Credit: Jeremy del Rosario

When a person dies, what is most remembered about him? The way he spoke? His peculiar little quirks? The manner of his death? My grandfather died in his home, attended by his daughter and the two in-house caretakers she hired. He died unable to walk, barely able to move, and his mind already halfway into the netherworld. I never personally saw him in this condition. My last memory of him is as a thin, small body in a coffin I would never have thought he could fit in. He looked peaceful, yes, but in life he was larger. He would never have fit in that coffin when he was alive.

In life he was loud, and when he really warmed up to a subject, his speech raced with his thoughts so that words would run together and sentences had no end. He loved to eat, and he loved to wander through his neighborhood on foot. He could be a disciplinarian when the need arose, but I remember him laughing easily, a witty comment ready on his lips.

These are the things that I can recall when I think of him. Of course, there are also things that I don’t know, things I could never comprehend about him and the life that he’d known. When I was a child I used to think that I knew him quite well. I knew that if he cooked at all he only ever cooked one thing, and it was one of his favorite things to eat. I knew that tennis was his favorite sport, and he would come home from playing on the courts and rub garlic on the strings of his racket. I knew that my grandmother had a sharp tongue, but his could be sharper. I knew that he found me funny and can remember saying things as a child that used to make him laugh, and the more serious I was about the things I said, the harder he laughed. I knew that my acting like a tomboy while still in diapers delighted him and that to him my chubbiness while in his and my grandmother’s care was a sign of his wealth.

I realize that most of these memories aren’t necessarily the same ones others have of him. We are, after all, viewed in different ways by different people, and after my parents, siblings, and I emigrated to the U.S. we only occasionally had contact with either of my grandparents. In other words, there is a gap in what I know about my grandfather, about who he really was as a person. So I listened hard while we were in the Philippines for his funeral to what my father had to say about my grandfather’s past.

He was born September 15, 1931, somewhere in the mountains of the island of Cebu in the Philippines. When he was about eleven, World War II was being waged by the Japanese right there in the neighborhoods where he played with his friends. I’ve wondered what that means exactly. What does it mean when war is being waged at your doorstep? From recent images of wars taking place around the world, I’ve realized two things that would most impact an eleven-year-old boy: lack of food and restricted movement. According to my father, whose sources remain unclear, the Japanese would raid towns and villages. They discovered when and where the weekly markets were held and disrupted them, sometimes in search of the Filipino guerrilla militia, sometimes to ensure that Filipinos didn’t congregate too often in large groups. Standard precautions undertaken by an efficient occupying force would ensure that the chances of a local rebellion were minimized. My grandfather ran around a few of these markets with his best friend with the type of freedom one can only associate with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

There was always a warning before the Japanese arrived, and I can see it almost as a game for my grandfather and his friend to sneak away just in the nick of time. Did they hear the screams as they ran through the coconut groves? Probably. Did they know what those screams signified? I can imagine them telling each other tales of people’s throats being slit, women being stabbed, babies being thrown in the air and skewered on bayonets. These are the atrocities my father described to me to illustrate my grandfather’s experience of war, recounted to him by other old men who saw it themselves.

As the months rolled by, the Japanese became more acclimated to the heat and the land, and one day they arrived at a market quite unexpectedly. I prefer to think of my grandfather yelling to his friend and immediately taking off for the trees, dodging the Japs that were suddenly everywhere and trusting that his friend was right behind him. I prefer to think that it was only when he acquired the relative safety of a grove that he realized that his friend wasn’t with him after all. I prefer this sequence of events than the alternative in which he sees with his own eyes his best friend’s stomach being ripped open with a bayonet.

I imagine him crouching among the vegetation, trembling at the screams, feeling like he should go back and yet almost faint with the thought that he should himself be killed. I see him waiting as long as he dared, glimpsing other people rushing away to safety. Someone must have seen him and urged him to go home.

“What are you still doing here?” a man would have said.

My grandfather would have recognized him as one of the locals vaguely associated with the Filipino militia. He would have stared at him blankly, not sure how to explain. My friend, he wanted to say, I don’t know what to do. He’s still over there. I don’t know where he is.

He was trembling. The urge to pee was overwhelming. Sweat was beading on his forehead, and his bare feet slid a little on his rubber flip-flops as he shifted nervously.

The man looked behind him. Vegetation was being roughly disturbed. “Run!” he whispered urgently to my grandfather.

My grandfather froze, his eyes widening.

The man grabbed his arm and shook him violently. “Run!” he whispered again. “To your grandmother’s house. Don’t go to your mother’s!” He shoved him hard.

My grandfather stumbled, but suddenly his legs remembered how to move. They were shaky at first, but momentum steadied them eventually.

As he bolted through the trees, adrenaline pumping through his veins, his mind cleared. Avoid the roads, he thought to himself. It was not unheard of for the Japs to delay the arrival of some of their troops, and sometimes they came by a different route. Avoid all roads. He was heading down towards the sea, towards the town where his grandmother lived. It would have taken him more than a day by foot if he followed the roads, but he kept himself among the trees and the shrubs. The terrain became harder to travel through, became more unfamiliar as the sun sunk lower and lower into the horizon. His limbs were shaking again, but now it was less from fear than from exhaustion. His stomach growled in protest, and his muscles ached as he climbed and slid down one difficult slope after another.

Only the unavoidable dimness of night convinced him to stop. He sat against a coconut tree, his mind running again but now more slowly. Various scenarios played out before his unseeing eyes regarding his friend’s demise, for in retrospect he was sure that they had both started running as soon as he yelled, and he had never before out-run him.

He started crying then, in the full, unhindered way that most children do. When he had no more tears to shed, he paid closer attention to his growling stomach. Ignoring his aching limbs, he got up and climbed the tree he had been leaning against. At the top, he shook the laden limb as hard as he could until some coconuts fell, and when he got back down on the ground he looked for a sharp rock to help peel away the thick green fibrous coating that protected the brittle brown shell. When he got to it, he cracked open the brown shell and hungrily drank the milk and juices. Next, he broke the shell into smaller pieces and ate the coconut meat by scraping it off with his teeth. He went through a second coconut before the need to sleep overtook him.

At dawn, the sound of roosters crowing roused him, and he wondered as he lay awake whether or not he should abandon the idea of going to his grandmother’s and instead go back to his mother. But perhaps that man he met yesterday was trying to tell him that his mother had herself gone to his grandmother’s. The guerrillas were probably staging something and had warned others to stay away.

My grandfather moved less hurriedly that second day. He heard the sounds of people in their everyday activities but avoided them except to borrow a heavy knife to cut down a bunch of bananas. The mangoes he plucked right out of the trees. By afternoon, he decided that he could probably cover more ground at night. The heat of day was tiring him, and all he wanted to do was find some shade and sleep. Besides, there was even less likelihood of encountering any Japs at night. He didn’t keep track of how long it took him to get to his grandmother’s town. When he reached its outskirts, he felt like he had traveled for ages, and suddenly he didn’t want to be among other people. He didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. Not yet anyway. So he holed up in the wilderness for a few more nights, unable to sleep, barely eating. What troubled him most was the sense of guilt that had evolved and grown within him in his solitude. What could I have done to save my best friend, he kept asking himself. The knowledge that he never went back for him gnawed at his guts, and yet he knew that to have done so would have meant sharing in his fate.

He grew tired of his own company eventually, grew tired of mulling over the same thoughts. His guilt dissolved inside and was no longer a heavy, alien lump which demanded all his energy to carry. It had become tiny little crystals that spread throughout his body and were absorbed in his blood. It was a part of him now. When he looked out at the world, he was looking at an image focused by the experience of losing a friend and not having done anything to stop it.

And what he noticed was that the world continued as before. Nothing had changed. His reticence then seemed absurd. Others could blame him if they wished, but there was nothing he could do about it now. Life continued.

He made his way down to his grandmother’s house and knocked at her door. Her face registered surprise; her hand automatically clutched at her heart. He had been missing for so long that they thought he had died. And yet, there he stood, thinner than when she last saw him, more haggard and silent.

She fed him, made up a bed for him, and glossed over his reluctance to speak by telling him the latest war news. As he slept, she sent word to his mother that he was alive but needed to rest. To that end, she let him sleep well past noon the next day. Food was on the ready for his consumption. And most of all, she asked him nothing. Not one question passed her lips, though she had to wonder where he had been all this time, what he saw, what he knew. He merely looked at her with his big, almond-shaped eyes. No smile in them now, no mischief. She recognized in them the same quietly observant blankness that he wore when he was a toddler learning about the world around him, and that convinced her that he needed to stay in the relative safety of her house rather than in the unpredictable battleground that the mountains were becoming.

His mother sent word back not long after. She would insist on seeing him to gauge for herself how he was, so against his grandmother’s own judgment, she brought him back to his village shortly after his arrival at her doorstep. As his grandmother had predicted, his mother took one look at him and said firmly, “You’ll stay with your grandma.”

On the road back to the seaside town, a group of men overtook them. They were just returning from digging up the latest mass grave left by the Japanese after their market day visit.

“We finally got around to the one they left some days ago,” one of them related after exchanging greetings. “Can barely recognize any of the corpses now.”

My grandfather’s grandmother shifted uneasily and glanced at him.

“Hey, didn’t I see you at that market with your friend?” the same man said to my grandfather. “Your friend was killed, wasn’t he?”

At that, his grandmother sputtered in indignation. “You callous fool!” she cried. “He’s just a child!”

And so ensued a small commotion on the roadside as his mother tried to calm his grandmother, the accused man tried to justify himself, and the other men either supported the accused or tried to extricate their group completely.

“What about the other boy’s family?” the man finally asked. “Don’t they deserve some comfort?

His grandmother sputtered some more. What did her grandson have to do with the other boy’s death?

“He could help out, you know. You don’t have to shelter him; he already sees war every day.”

“You leave him be!” his grandmother said, her finger pointed threateningly at the man.

“All he has to do is identify the body.”

“Come, that’s enough,” the others interposed.

“Everyone’s doing their part. He has to do his. His friend’s family deserves this one act of kindness from him.”

“If they want their boy’s body, they can very well identify it themselves,” his grandmother snapped.

“It’ll be in even worse condition by the time we get them to the site,” he persisted.

“You shameful man,” his mother said in wonder. “Why are you trying so hard to expose my son to more violence? Can’t you just let it drop, and apologize to an old woman simply trying to protect a child?”

“He has to grow up some time. Just like the rest of us!” He grunted as his friends hauled him away.

My grandfather’s mother and grandmother hurried him along, but he couldn’t un-hear what had been said. The idea of duty kept whirling through his head, and before long he decided that he had to find his friend’s body. He had left him there; it was only right that he should be the one to bring him back to his family.

His mother and grandmother eventually capitulated to his wish, delivered as it was with the quiet stubbornness that they knew would spell outright defiance if they tried to forbid his going. When they got to the grave site, however, they realized that the horrid man they had encountered had either lied or was more ignorant of the situation than they thought, for there looking through the rows of bodies were the dead boy’s parents.

The two adults glanced at each other and sighed with relief. My grandfather didn’t need to be subjected to the gruesome sight ahead of them after all.

Without a word, he ran from them, and before they could grab him he was at the side of his best friend’s mother.

“That’s him,” she whispered to no one in particular, tears streaming down her gaunt face.

But it didn’t look like him at all. And the smell was horrendous. My grandfather covered his nose and mouth with his shirt and continued to stare down at the remains of what was clearly a boy with his abdominal cavity ripped open. What remained of his clothes did look familiar, but everything else was completely alien. My grandfather kept staring, searching for something recognizable in the decomposing pile of organic matter. Those who knew him and saw him that day would wonder that he didn’t cry at all.

He took that last image of his friend home with him, but he never could reconcile it with the memory he had of him as a living person. That corpse wasn’t his friend, he decided. His friend was gone. His spirit had moved on, and my grandfather knew that he would have to move on as well.

I could never, in my right mind, claim that my grandfather was the only person to have known tragedy during that war in that particular part of the world. What is of interest to me is that he evolved from the boy who experienced tragic loss and guilt to the man I remember—a man whose character never hinted at tragedy. He did not become a beggar or a thief. He didn’t sink into insanity. He wasn’t hardened by his past. He was fortunate.

None of my family got up to say anything at his funeral. I, for one, am not comfortable with speaking in public, but I do want to share his memory. And this is the only way I can comfortably do just that. My grandmother would cringe at this insistence on dwelling on one of the less cheerful aspects of his life (“We danced often” was the only thing she would say about her own experience of the war, insisting that she hardly ever left the cave where her family hid in the mountains). But dwelling on one of the most influential experiences of his life—despite how uncomfortably sad it makes me feel—is, I think, the best way to honor his memory because it illustrates more vividly than any eulogy just how resilient and pragmatic an individual he was.

Esperanza is a paper-pusher by day, an avid novel reader by night, and a would-be writer when she can spare the time. Email: esper.del[at]

Where She Fell

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Mary Wuerth

Doe and Fawn
Photo Credit: Robert Engberg

The shape is roughly like one of those pieces found in a challenging jigsaw puzzle. It has bits jutting out sharply, then turning abruptly back on themselves, and there are scooping curves around the perimeter, both convex and concave. There’s even a straight stretch that would be identified as part of the puzzle’s border, but this is not a puzzle piece. It’s the shape of the three-mile route I walk each day, and refer loosely and inaccurately to as The Loop.

I walk The Loop in all seasons and all weather with, it’s safe to say, as much constancy as the postman. Traversing a mostly rural area with houses dotted at irregular intervals and pastures that host horses, llamas, goats and sheep, the course is varied enough never to grow tedious. Its shape is defined by the hills it skirts, the valley it wends through, the housing development it avoids.

It’s a morning in mid June. The air has the feel of summertime, yet the summer solstice is a few days away. I’m striding out along Red Dike Road, which is the equivalent of the puzzle piece’s straight edge, on the initial leg of my journey. One of the first landmarks I pass is the gray clapboard house where Josephine has lived for the past 75 years. Her yard is filled with the rainbow hues of rhododendrons and azaleas; a yellow rambling rose arches over the front gate and nearly obscures a small plaque proclaiming this as “Rose Cottage.”The property is still tidy even though these days a lawn-care service tends to the yard. Sadly, there is no hint of the giant blue delphiniums that towered over the lawn back when Josephine was in her prime.

Down the road a ways, near the big willow, I greet my two special friends: “Hello, Mama. Hello, Tiny. How are my buddies doing today?”

They’re near their usual spot where the willow tree hugs the side of the roadbed. On one side of their lair the Scotch broom radiates with brilliant yellow blooms; on the other, blackberry brambles repel intruders. A robin stands on a fence post and throws his entire heart into his tuneless chittering. This is a safe place.

The vegetation is crushed where they’ve been sleeping. Mama is nibbling at the dewy grass and Tiny is butting his forehead at her flank, demanding his breakfast. She raises her rear leg delicately and steps over his head. He’s already had breakfast. Tiny stands knock-kneed and is left blinking in bafflement that his mama could be so cruel.

I’m walking The Loop on another day. Along the edge of the road the grasses are as high as my chest. They rustle and bow in the wind and stain my clothes with fine yellow pollen as I brush past. Where the grasses have been broken over a field mouse stands upright and nibbles furiously on a seed head that has come within easy reach. He stops chewing at my approach and is ready to bolt, but I cross nonchalantly to the opposite side and the mouse decides I’m no threat. Glancing back, I see that his urgent chewing has resumed.

Josephine comes stiffly, cautiously, down her front steps toward the mailbox with a letter in her hand. She’s wearing a white cardigan sweater and blue polyester slacks; her pink scalp peeps through the tight, white curls of a new perm. Josephine seems quite agitated, and on seeing me, flags her arm and asks breathlessly, “Is it true?”

“Good morning, Josephine. Is what true?”

“That they’re tearing down the old company store?”

I’m not quite sure what she means. Josephine is 100 years old, but her mind is usually as sharp as a tack. Seeing my vacant face, she continues tetchily, “That old white building by the curve. Right across from the Noah farm. It was the company store back in the days when Libby was a town.”

“Ohhhh,” I finally say as it dawns on me what she’s asking. “Yes, they’re tearing it down.”

I had heard the old coal mining town of Libby mentioned many times, but until this moment hadn’t known exactly where it was located. The workmen’s hammers echo from the surrounding hills. An entire exterior wall shudders to the ground and the huge timbers that formed the building’s skeleton are exposed. Hewn from local trees, they look as though they should have withstood the ages.

Although I hadn’t known that this particular stretch of road was the site of old Libby, I had been aware of something uncanny about the location. It was as though a faint image overlay the landscape. I don’t want to call it a mirage, but there was definitely a presence, perhaps an essence of a former time. The sensation was much the same as the one I would later have in using a magnifying glass to examine the photos of old Libby. The photos were grainy and poor, and my hand would move forward and back to calculate the exact distance for the magnifier to bring the tiny dots together to form an image. Sometimes a shape would into pop into view, then dissolve into cryptic blurriness.

Another day: “Hi Mama and Tiny. It’s gonna be a warm one,” I say, wiping the sweat from my forehead. The wild red roses at the side of the road are twining up into the trees. The bees create a steady hum and the song sparrows pierce my soul with their sweet melody.

They’re standing in the shade and I’ve interrupted Mama in the process of giving Tiny a bath. His legs are splayed as he accepts the ministrations of her rough tongue. She cleans his forehead and mashes his oversized ears in her enthusiasm. As she scrubs his throat, he closes his eyes and lifts his head like a cat receiving a chin scratch. When she works her way on down his slender neck, Tiny loses his balance and tumbles, legs in the air, onto his side. Quick as a wink, he’s back up and nuzzling for more attention. Impatiently, Mama strikes her hoof to the ground once and continues licking. Mama is the best mother deer in the world.

What good fortune. The “free” box at a garage sale yields a local history book, yellowed and brittle with age. It smells of damp, the creased paper cover looks as though it has been chewed by a dog, and in two places pages have been raggedly torn out. Among the intact pages I find photos of Libby and text describing the town as it was. I bring the book home, read it and re-read it, absorbing what information there is.

The town grew up around a mine opened in the 1850s and by the turn of the century, both the mine and the town had pretty much had their day. I learn that Red Dike Road was formerly the site of a narrow-gauge rail line that carried coal cars across the marsh to Coal Bank Slough where the coal was loaded on barges. From there the coal was transferred onto ships bound for San Francisco.

Best of all, the book contains six photos that pertain to Libby. One is of the old Indian woman Libby, after whom the town was named; two are of workers at the mine entrance; one is of the company store, not by the way, the building recently torn down; and two are of the town itself. These, the town photos, are the ones that interest me most.

I pore over them with the magnifying glass and the more I examine them, the more I discover. What had appeared to be a jagged picket fence sharpens into the image of a clothes line bearing white sheets, pillow cases, undershirts. In the photo where a locomotive pulls a string of coal cars through the village, the entire town has turned out to be in the picture. People line the tracks and stand on their front porches. Just before going out of focus again, the magnifying glass alters a black dot into a cat sitting on its haunches. What appears to be unruly vegetation in a side yard becomes a garden full of tall dahlias. Oddly, a well-dressed couple stands arm in arm in the garden, looking for all the world like the bride and groom atop a wedding cake. I try to imagine their lives.

The book accompanies me on the walk as I survey the surroundings to determine where the houses in the photos were located. I study the townsite from different angles and try to match up the photo terrain with the present-day terrain, but too many things have changed. It’s as though giant earth movers and graders have flattened and tamed the landscape beyond all recognition. Inevitably, I am stymied.

It’s midsummer now and the days have a dreamlike quality. The sky is as blue as the sea and I feel certain there can be no more beautiful place on the entire earth.

I visit them in the afternoon and can barely see Mama and Tiny under the canopy of the willow. My eyes adjust to the muted light and I make out Mama lying with her legs folded under. Tiny is sleeping by her side, his white spots creating the perfect camouflage in the willow’s dappled illumination. I notice the charming way a row of dots hugs either side of his slender backbone.

Josephine is drowsing in her recliner by the window overlooking the bird feeder, which today is surprisingly vacant. Usually it shows as much activity as a major airport, as purple finches and chickadees zoom in and out and queue up for a turn at the seeds. Reluctant to disturb her, I start to walk away, but Josephine stirs, lifts her head, and on the third try, hoists herself out of the chair. I’m hoping she can add a few pieces to the Libby puzzle. She welcomes me into the cool, dim interior of the house, and while sitting at her chrome and Formica kitchen table, tells me the little she knows.

It turns out I was mistaken; Josephine did not grow up in the mining town which had already lost most of its inhabitants even before she was born. Josephine’s father did work in the mine as a boy, but as a man raised cattle on a homestead a short distance away. She recalls that by about 1920, when she was ten or so, the mine had long been boarded up and she and other children sometimes played among the derelict houses. I show her the old photos and ask if she can tell me exactly where the houses stood. “No,” she says and shakes her head sadly before launching into a story about life on the cattle ranch.

I show her the photo of the men at the mine entrance. Among them is a barefoot boy. “Could this have been your father?” I ask.

Bending close to the book, she peers myopically and shrugs her shoulders. Next I show her the photo that the book identifies as the company store and explain that this, not the recently torn-down building, was the real company store. She shrugs again and I feel as though I am subjecting her to an inquisition. For half an hour I listen to her chat about the only kind of history she’s interested in, the happy days when her children were young, then bid her farewell. No new pieces have been added to the puzzle.

It’s late summer now. The apples are ripening fast and I hear them fall during the night as I lie awake thinking of things lost. In the morning I tread the dewy grass barefoot and pull out the bottom of my T-shirt to form an apron for gathering the apples.

Knowing deer like apples, I have washed and sliced one as an offering for Mama. She is alert at my approach. “Hello, Sweets,” I say. “Come get your apple.” She blends in with the summer-dry grass and stands a few paces from Tiny, whose attention is focused on a grasshopper. Ever the vigilant mother, she moves to position herself between me and her precious offspring.

Seeing the piece of apple held between my fingertips, Mama approaches, sniffs briefly, then takes the apple with a surprisingly unladylike grabbing motion. She chews delicately, her nose wriggling, then goes nearly cross-eyed with pleasure. Tiny moves in to investigate. He sniffs too, but clearly can’t see what all the fuss is about. Mama again alters her position between me and him, this time in a manner that says, “Look youngster, these apples are mine.”

Then comes a day in early September, our most pleasant time of year on the Oregon coast. The summer winds are gone, the day dawns sweet and pure. Clusters of plump blackberries hang heavily and seem to beg to be tumbled into pie shells. Mother Nature has produced the best she has to give.

I’m putting on my shoes in preparation for another turn around The Loop when the phone rings. It’s Josephine’s daughter. Her voice is solemn as she tells me that her mother has passed away.

“It was yesterday afternoon,” she says. “I had dropped by to bring her supper. She looked like she was just sleeping in her chair. You know, the one by the window where she could see the birds. Her heart must have just given out.”

A recollection of Josephine’s hundredth birthday party last April comes to mind. Flowers overflowed the baskets that were hung all along her porch, and balloons were gaily tethered around the yard. Josephine, as regal as a queen, sat in a rocker greeting all the well-wishers who had come to pay tribute. The cries of children at play were as sharp as birdcall. Along the road cars were parked helter-skelter for half a mile.

My mood is pensive enough to forego the walk for once, but I’m not immune to the day’s allure. I also have a powerful desire to see Tiny and Mama. They’re out in the field and I arrive in time to watch a small drama unfold. Tiny has gone exploring and at a shallow spot has crossed a drainage ditch that bisects the field. He has followed the ditch to a point where it’s much deeper and now wants to cross again, but can’t. He trots worriedly back and forth and lets out a small bleat that instantly brings Mama’s head erect. Her ears turn like radar antennae and with the agility of an athlete she’s across the ditch in a flash. She nudges Tiny’s behind with her muzzle, then trots ahead to show him the way. Once back across, Mama, correctly thinking I have apples for her again, lopes toward the willow where I stand. A chastened Tiny scrambles behind.

“Good morning, Mama and Tiny,” I trill. “Isn’t this the loveliest day ever? It’s enough to make us glad to be alive.”


A vacuum whistles inside my head; the ground tips treacherously. Mama and Tiny are not alive. They’re no more alive than Josephine. No more alive than the former inhabitants of Libby.

I am struck at last by the folly of my fantasy.


It was a day in very early June and I was walking. There were enough clouds gathering to have made me consider carrying the umbrella, but it had been banished to the back of the closet. As I strolled, the wind shifted slightly, the clouds miraculously stalled, then began chugging back south, the way they had come. They were replaced by blue, blue sky and a few benign wisps of white.

In the marshy area by the slough a red-winged black bird, perched on one of last year’s cattails, was repeating kokely-wee-oo. With each vibrant exclamation I felt as though a ticklish spot inside my chest was being probed. The bird’s breast shone like black satin and the red band on his wing was the color of fresh blood. Overhead the swallows made their fearless swoops and dives.

Approaching the curve near the big willow, I noticed a buff-colored mound off to the side of the road. Drawing closer, the shape revealed itself to be a doe that had been fatally struck by a vehicle during the night. I had seen many victims of road kill over the years: birds, raccoons, cats, rats, muskrats, possums—lots of possums. They all saddened me, yet none had affected me in the same way as the creature who lay at my feet. Even in death she was exquisite.

But for the slender thread of blood at her mouth, she might have been asleep. Ludicrously, her forelegs were crossed daintily at the ankle. Her eye, the perfect liquid brown orb that faced upward, was like a jewel set in the tan velvet contours of her face and in it I saw the sky. While she was alive she would never have granted me the liberty that I took. I stroked her jaw line and ran my hand down her graceful neck. Following the path of my hand, I noticed the thickening of her middle, back near the hips. She’d been ready to deliver a fawn.

The next day I could not bear the thought of walking by the doe again and took a detour. The image of her perfect eye haunted me. Yet the day after, with my thoughts elsewhere and my feet on automatic pilot, I found myself back at the place where she fell.

I was horrified to see four turkey vultures tearing at her and a fifth glowering from the same fence post where the robin so often chittered. I ran at the filthy birds flapping my arms and screaming for them to get away. They lifted off heavily. Masters of high-altitude gliding, they had the agility of overfed swine on the ground. The vultures didn’t go far, just further down the fence row, where they regarded me sullenly.

The birds had destroyed the eye, the beautiful eye in which I had seen the sky reflected. They had savaged the doe’s belly, and there, where her middle thickened, the unborn fawn was exposed. Before hurrying on, I caught a glimpse of its big ears and the tiny white spots on its flanks.

After that, I walked by every day. What more was there to fear? I had already seen the worst. The vultures finished in just a few days; their work complete, the insects moved in. It was remarkable how fast nature reclaimed her.

An image of the doe as she must have been when alive came into my mind and I became obsessed with the idea of giving her back what she had been deprived of. I pieced together an entire life for her and her tiny baby. They would live in their lair under the willow, be forever free from pain and tragedy, and never grow older. Mama would always remain the winsome young doe; Tiny, forever a week-old fawn with spots on his russet flanks and an endearing row of white daubs on either side of his sweet backbone. He would never grow into a noble buck brought down by the hunter’s gun.


While watering the back-porch geraniums I duck to avoid a web; the autumn spiders are back and their colorfully patterned abdomens will grow larger in direct proportion to the shorter duration of the days. Guided by spider logic, they inevitably construct their webs in the most bothersome locations, but that’s stated from the human perspective. I’ve grown more tolerant these days and strive to coexist with them.

Today I walk down the road with a paper bag under my arm. It’s late September and I have been pondering whether the action I am about to take is an impropriety. The rains are returning and the blackberry brambles are sending out runners that are beginning to creep over Mama and Tiny’s remains. One side of me says to leave them in the exact spot where Mama fell; the other says to bring them home. The truth is I cannot allow the greedy tendrils to claim them. It is time for them to be moved.

There is something nearly reverent about the act of picking up each vertebra, rib, femur and miscellaneous nut and bolt that made up their skeletons. The pieces are as white and smooth as stones found on the beach. One by one they go into the bag. The jaw falls from Mama’s fragile skull. It goes into the bag along with all the other bits. There is even a tiny leg bone I am sure belonged to Tiny.

They are buried under the apple tree next to Willie, a feline friend for more than 18 years. There was no need to invent a make-believe life for Willie; he had a good life, a long one. In cat years he’d probably have been nearly as old as Josephine.

Josephine. Her house sits vacant, and it’s impossible for me to imagine it belonging to anyone else, but I know it eventually will. Time moves on. The Libby puzzle remains just that, a puzzle.

As the soil is tamped down over the grave, the rain softly begins, and I think to myself, let the melancholy days of winter come. My mind generates a silent prayer: Please keep from harm all the tiny fawns that grow inside their mothers’ bellies.

From the house I look out toward the apple tree. There stands Mama with Tiny at her side, shaking the raindrops from his ears.

In 2007 Mary Wuerth had the good fortune to win second place in the Midsummer Tale Contest. Email: geraniumgirl[at]

The Other

Beaver’s Pick
Jennifer Houston

Ford on the Farm
Photo Credit: Mary Streepy

“Tell me about her,” I ask, pretending to be more amused than hurt.

“She is so much like me,” he sighs, a slight laugh escaping his lips.

“That’s a bit Freudian,” I say as I watch a family of pigeons gather on my window’s ledge.

“Flying rats,” my lover grumbles. He suggests that he shoot them with his pellet gun.

I ignore him and continue to study them. They sit alongside each other as they coo and cluck to the sounds of the city traffic below. They strut and pose with such purpose.

Lately, I’ve become immune to the honks and squeals of the morning traffic, but I can’t help but see the paint cracks on my windowsill, and think that I need to sandpaper the ledge and repaint it. I am so engrossed with the idea of buying sandpaper that I don’t hear my lover get up until he is blocking my view of the windowsill with the back of his navy blue suit and his long blond ponytail. It’s funny how the insurance company he works for still allows him to wear his hair in a ponytail. I’d love to snip it off right at this moment and fling it out my kitchen window.

I feel my heart pound in my chest. I reassure myself again that I am not jealous, regardless of the fact that he has found another. He has done this to me before. There is something in his displaced nature that makes him seek out others. I have accepted this, allowed it, and forgiven him for it through the years. But I sense something might be different this time, something with me.

He moves to kiss me on the forehead as he says, “I have plans tonight.” He leaves, shutting the front door quietly, not bothering to ask me what I will do with my day or my evening. I look around at the bright vibrant reds and purples that adorn my living room walls, shades of passion that once resembled my feelings for him. But now I feel as if the whole apartment needs a makeover, a good once-over with a new shade of color.

It is my apartment. We have always lived separately. He prefers it that way. However, if I had it my way, I wouldn’t have separated us by blocks but by miles. I still have my little cottage upstate where my red Ford pick-up truck sits in my gravel driveway surrounded by sugar maple and white cedar trees, awaiting my return, awaiting my resolution.


I let him keep her as a secret. I don’t prod or prattle at him again about her. I lay in my king-size bed surrounded by my over-stuffed designer pillows and wonder if he is with her. I imagine them making love, his head between her spread legs, his tongue flicking at her core like a rattlesnake sensing his prey. Is she a blonde or a brunette? Is she short, but lean? Maybe she is fat? Does she resemble me in any way? I sense she is younger and fairer than me, like Cinderella. I believe my lover is in his own fairy tale. He is the hero, and I am the audience to watch and see how it will all be played out.

I believe he seeks a nymph of youth that I can no longer be for him. The years have stolen what I was once to him and replaced it with useless wisdom that he no longer seeks. He wants a firm body to touch, he wants a virginal mind to explore, not a worn-out vessel which he has had many times before. I touch myself as I imagine him kissing her tender lips while she is grinding on top of him. I run my hands up and down my thighs. I am still supple and strong. I pinch at my hardened nipples, wondering if at this moment he is doing the same to her.

My bedroom door opens. I feel him standing at the doorway waiting for something, maybe my beckoning, maybe my whispers. I give neither. But still he moves to my side of the bed and leans down and kisses me full on the lips. “She wasn’t home,” he says as he starts to undress. I say nothing.

I watch him in the dark move to his side of the bed. He is a shadow of a man as I feel him slide into bed scattering my over-stuffed pillows to the floor. Again with the sighs; they remind me of air slowly being let out of car tires or the sound a balloon makes when air is quickly released from its mouth causing it to shrivel up. I wonder if my lover feels all shriveled up, if his life has been one wasted breath.

He moves on top of me, spreading my legs with his knee. I give into his need, wondering if he is thinking of her as he is pressing into me and I cry out, knowing I will always be waiting for him, knowing I have no choice but to let it all play out.

Later he tells me that he met his other while playing his guitar on a street corner downtown with one of his old bandmates. He does this for fun some nights when he can’t sleep. He likes to howl at the moon as people throw coins and dollar bills in his guitar case. He likes to pretend that he is that same rock star of his youth and not a guy that now wears a suit and tie. She was in the crowd watching him, bemused by his songs, enraptured by his tones.

Afterwards she invited him and his bandmate up for a drink. My lover was the only one who stayed. She asked him if he was into sport-fucking. He was game. And then after a bit of sport, he tells me that he felt so at ease in her arms—as if he was drifting on a homemade raft on the lake behind his childhood home back in Kentucky. He felt as if he was fifteen again.

He confesses all this to me while we drive to the coast in the black Mercedes he bought me upon my arrival in town. I didn’t want it. I hate driving in the city traffic, but he insisted. I hate the car. I miss my old beat-up pick-up truck that I left sitting in my front yard. I imagine weeds growing around the tires and feral cats making it their home.

The car is thick with his confession. I drive faster and faster, and he tells me to slow down. We are on our way to spend Labor Day weekend with his old bandmates who are all married with children and live in the suburbs. They ask us why we never have married. His curt reply is always the same: “It is better this way.” The wives later ask me “why I put up with it” while we are all gathered in the kitchen placing bite-size sandwiches on silver platters. And I, too, have the same reply: “It seems to work for us.” I say this flippantly as I drain my wine glass and move away from their disapproving stares.

The weekend at the beach is full of forgotten memories which are tossed around like a Frisbee from one to another in hopes that something is remembered that was once of importance. I drink too much and cry out to the waves, letting the cool sound of them breaking at my feet comfort my ill feelings of what I think I might be losing if he really does fall in love with this other woman.

I taste salt upon my lips from the ocean mist as I remember the first time he kissed me. We were nineteen, and I was the one in the crowd admiring his slender build on stage. I followed him after his gig to a party on High Street where he kissed me in the corner of some dirty flophouse kitchen, telling me that it was the sweetest kiss he had ever experienced. I wonder if he says that to her. I wonder how many other women he kissed after me and said the same thing to.

Years ago, he told me that I gave him something no other gave him. I gave him an anchor to come home to. I gave him the familiarity that only comes when two people have a history together. It made me feel old, like his worn-out pair of slippers that he keeps tucked under his bed and only slips on to warm his feet when he makes his way in the middle of the night to the bathroom.

I feel the cool spray from the waves upon my breasts. I feel the warmth between my thighs. He has followed me out to the beach and continues his confession, revealing how he feels so real when he is with her. He feels so calm and young, as if he is being given a second chance.

“And who is the real you when you are sport-fucking her?” I ask.

Again with the sighs. “I can’t explain, it’s a feeling, I don’t have to talk, and I don’t have to think. I am there only in feeling.”

“And what is the second chance you seem to have been granted?”

He sighs again. “You make it sound as if she is my fairy godmother, granting me three wishes.”

“Well, is she? Is she a youthful spirit coming to rescue you?”

He walks away into the darkness. I watch as he disappears into the night air. I throw a seashell at him. I miss. I have long lost my powers of seduction on him; now I have become a quiet solitude for him, a safe place for him to repent. I wonder what he needs rescuing from. I wonder if I, too, need to be rescued. I think of my cottage in the woods surrounded by sugar maple trees, their green leaves starting to change colors to bright oranges and yellows bleeding together to become one. I think how I, too, have my own escape awaiting me.

As we lie in bed listening to the waves break against the shoreline, I let him talk. I let him feel as if I care that he has found true love on a street corner while he strums tunes of his past on his guitar. I let him think that he has found that missing part of his youth when he was so invincible to the crowd that shouted out his name and I was the young unknowing muse in the crowd chanting his name, hoping to be the one he showered with praises and kisses later that night.


Like his music he glides in and out of my life for the next three months. Days go by and I don’t see him, and then he appears like a phantom. No words are spoken as he slides beside me, and I feel his hot breath on my neck as he pushes his way inside me and tears me apart, taking what he needs. He leaves me again for his other in the morning, but I know it is only a matter of time before I grow tired. I let him have his secret, never asking about his days with her, but he can’t help telling me about her.

We are having dinner at a local diner. I am picking at my food as I listen to him tell me that he is thinking of taking a trip with her. They are planning on a two-week journey out west. “A road trip of sorts,” he says, as he takes a bite out of his well-done hamburger.

“Jack Kerouac-style,” I say between bites of my garden salad.

“Something like that, but we are going to film it; we are going to document our love.”

My fork is in mid-air, inches from my lips. The same lips he kissed hard only hours before. The same lips which suckled and tasted his essence only hours before.

He gets up, slapping down a ten-dollar bill, and pauses for a second, looking me up and down, and tells me before he leaves that I look years younger in my tight jeans and black T-shirt. “Did you do something different with your hair?” he asks.

My mousy brown hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. I haven’t bothered to wash it in two days. I smile up at him, taking in his wispy golden locks, his deeply-lined face, and say nothing.

I am left speechless as I feel my core grow hot for his touch, knowing he will take her tonight as I lie alone in my bed remembering what it was like when we first met and I was everything to him, and he was to me. I think of my lonely truck parked in my driveway with weeds growing at its tires and feral cats making it their home. I imagine it rusting away.


He tells me when he returns from his trip that she is his muse. She inspires him. He is working on some new songs, and he no longer begrudges having an ordinary job. He has found his center, his balance with himself. He whispers this to me while we are making love. I wonder, does he do this to spark my anger? Does he want me to strike out at him, to curse and cry at his feet? And then I wonder if there is really another. Maybe he is making it all up, a game to spice up our years together.

Instead, I say, “You used to be my muse; you used to inspire me.”

“And now?” he asks as he nibbles at my neck and I feel the tip of his cock nudging its way into me.

“Now I have found another.”

He stops his nibbling and looks down at me. “Another?”

I say nothing. Let him think what he will. Let him think that I have found the other half of me in a crowded street. Let him think I found this new muse on the bus or on the train, or maybe on the internet. I hear him sigh, a long drawn-out sigh. “You have never taken on another,” he says as he withdraws his cock from me, not finishing the act. I smile to myself in the dark, and turn to look at his profile. He is a shadow of a man to me now.

“Now we are so much alike,” I say as I take his hand under the bedcovers. He laughs this time instead of the usual sigh, and I hope his laugh will dispel the need for his other.


He leaves me a note the next morning next to the coffeepot, which is full of fresh coffee. He has never left me a note or made me coffee in the morning. His handwriting is so neat and legible. I’ve often remarked to him that his handwriting does not fit his personality. It is so organized, so simple in structure, as if written by an English teacher who is writing a quick note of correction on one of his pupil’s essays, not a fumbling middle-aged man who pines for his rock-star youth. I sniff at the note before reading it. Traces of his aftershave linger on the paper. My eyes drift to his words: “Still love me?”

He does not sign it. I am left to wonder if the note is even for me. I take a long shower, letting the hot water massage my sore neck. I put on my tight jeans and my black T-shirt. I style my graying hair in a manicured ponytail. My makeup is light and natural enough to put a glow to my cheeks. I do not bother to make my bed. I let the sheets stay rumpled, leave the bedspread crumpled at the foot of the bed. The room smells gamey—the aftermath of our lovemaking. I open my bedroom window, letting the polluted city air sweep away our combined scent.

Today I am in search of my little white lie. I want someone a couple years younger, intelligent, witty, but not too witty. I want him to be learned and self-assured, but not self-centered. He must adorn me with pleasantries, flirting with a hidden agenda that will never take place. I want to imagine what his kiss will feel upon my lips, his touch, his caress, his body on top of mine. It will be a game we play inside our heads never to be fulfilled, only to be imagined.

My chase begins at the local coffeehouse down the street from my brownstone. I have not researched my role; I only go by my instincts. I have purposely dressed causally, hoping my mature look will speak volumes to this phantom lover I quest for.

Behind the counter, dressed in a black T-shirt and faded blue jeans with white tennis shoes, is the perfect candidate for the mind fuck I intend to play on myself. I smile, thinking as if I am the Mona Lisa, wanting him to think: was that really a smile or a pout? I order a vanilla latte and as he turns, he winks at me. I watch as he makes me my drink. He has a nice ass in his jeans and I like how he stands with his shoulders square. His brown hair is cut short, revealing a birthmark on the side of his head. I wait by the counter for my drink, not sure where to sit. The small coffee shop is full of young college students, typing at their laptops, listening to iPods.

Our fingertips touch briefly as he hands me my drink. I meet his eyes with an open smile and thank him. “No problem sweetheart,” he says with another wink, as he turns to take another order. I feel a fluttering of arousal as I sip at my latte, imagining myself grinding away on top of his lean youthful body. I turn to feel him staring at me, a curious expression on his face, as if he has read my prurient thoughts, as if he, too, feels the sudden connection between us.

When I return home my lover is sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. I take him in. His long blond hair falls at his shoulders, a style he has kept since he was nineteen. He is wearing faded blue jeans and a loose-fitting T-shirt. He hears the door shut and looks up at me as I walk across the foyer to him. I am surprised to see him out of his tailored business suit. He seems much more relaxed.

“Where have you been?” he asks, taking me in his arms as I sit on his lap, my legs wrapped around him.

“I was with my other?” I say as I move closer to him.

“Hmm, you smell of vanilla,” he whispers as he presses a kiss on my lips.

I feel him fumbling with my pant buttons and then his own. He slides me down onto the kitchen floor. “Have you seen your other today?” I ask as I feel him nudge at me.

“No, she wasn’t home.” He sighs as he slips inside of me.


My lover visits me every night for a week. He brings me flowers and wine, and we snuggle on my leather couch as we watch rented movies. But I can’t stop thinking of my other. Does he have a girlfriend? What does he do with his days? In the morning, as I sip at my coffee, my lover mentions that I am a bit removed, a bit preoccupied with my own thoughts.

“What happened to your other?” I ask. “Why are you not spending your nights with her?”

“It’s complicated,” he says, getting up and dumping his coffee in the sink.

“And, how’s that?”

“Well, she says that I am too needy.”

“That’s funny. I thought she’d say you were too old.”

He moves toward me. A new glow in his cheeks, he takes my hands and leads me to the leather couch. As he takes what he wants from me, I realize that I no longer like the reds and purples of my living room. I want to redecorate. I want to strip my walls of their color and toss out the gold pillows and replace everything with shades of yellow.


I venture forth with my little game. I bring my laptop with me to the café. I have never tried to write in a crowd of people. I find it too distracting. I prefer the solitude of my apartment. I do not like distractions while I write, but I find a corner table next to the big glass window. I sip at my mocha. I get something different every time I come to the café. I like to taste all sorts of different flavors upon my tongue. I take a quick glance at my other behind the café counter. Two young female college students chat with him. I hear one giggle, a sort of schoolgirl giggle, and then I hear his own baritone laughter fill the café. I smile over to him; he catches my eye and winks again, as if we have an unspoken language and our own fantasies going on about the other inside our heads.

He takes a seat in front of me. We have never had a proper conversation. The café is empty. His friends have gone. He says nothing as he lights a cigarette and then offers me one. I nod my head no. He takes a big drag and flicks his ash on the floor. I take him in. He has deep-set brown eyes and a small mouth. He smiles as if he knows that I am interested, and then he says, “I need your advice.”

I watch only his mouth move as he talks. I wonder how his kiss will feel upon my own lips. I move in closer, taking in his spicy scent, a mixture of coffee and cigarettes, and something else, something very subtle in nature.

“So, I have this problem,” he continues.

I look up again meeting his eyes. Long brown lashes blink out at me. I want to take his face in my hands and kiss him. Kiss him right there, and be done with it. I want to take in his scent and wrap my arms around his taut body and feel his masculinity. But I stop myself and let him seek my advice.

“Go on,” I say, moving back in my chair and closing my laptop.

He gives me a little wicked smile, as if I know what he is thinking, as if I know what he is going to ask. He looks me up and down, and I feel his eyes fall on my lips, and then my eyes, and then down my neck. His gaze stops right there at the base of my throat where I imagine the first series of our kisses will start. I close my eyes, taking it all in. I feel a warmth brush over me as I picture his tongue drawing circles around my core. When I open my eyes again, he is still staring at me.

“You have a question for me?” I whisper, knowing that my cheeks are flushed.

“I think you answered it for me,” he says with a wink. He moves to get up.

I grab at his wrist and notice that he has another birthmark on the inside of his underarm. As I stare past him toward the quiet city street, I see my lover with a young woman, laughing and holding hands, his long blond hair caught up in the afternoon breeze. That was us ten years ago, and now all I can think about is how my red truck is parked in my abandoned driveway, and the sugar maple leaves are fading to yellow, and this young other is standing over me.

Several of Jennifer Houston’s pieces have appeared in Battered Suitcase, ABCtales, Word Catalyze, Gloom Cupboard, and recently South Jersey Underground. Email: scrappsalot[at]

A Few of Us in the Desert, Listening

Billiard’s Pick
Michael Spring

just take a pebble
Photo Credit: Pierre Metivier

He sat opposite us with his elbows on the table
Idly picking apart the fish with his fingers
Throwing the pieces into the wicker baskets
That someone had found and lined with vellum.
His eyes were like pebbles under water
As he talked of the wilderness in his heart
The weary struggle against the void.
We forgave him because his skinny arms,
Browned from the desert, were like hempen rope and
Hid mercy amongst the fine blond hairs.
Eternity won’t be like that at all he told us,
Ripping more bread into pieces and cursing
Suddenly, his fate, which was to be among us.

Email: michael[at]

The Good Fixer

Karen E. Zvarych

2 red chairs
Photo Credit: Susan NYC

The woods smell sharp, of men’s blue stick deodorant. It comes from the trees’ needles being crushed. I pull my shirt toward my nose and suction the smell of detergent. He is walking toward me.

Bud slows near the end of the field and looks behind him. Certain no one is watching, he crosses to the trees.

“Hi,” I whisper.

He nods at me. His puffy coat hangs awkwardly over his black dress pants; his navy blue hat is pulled tight over his ears. He looks cozy except for the alarmed creases around his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

He shakes his head in a nothing way.

I sit in the dirt and stretch my legs in front of me on the evergreen needles. He leans against a white spruce tree and takes out a cigarette.

“Have you ever tried to quit?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I could if I wanted to, though.” He picks up a dried-out spruce cone, rolls it around in his hand and drops it.

“I guess something has to kill you.”

He looks at me as if I’ve stolen something he’s said before.

I leap up and pace in a tight circle. He watches me. I stop and sit down next to him, my back against the same tree. The bark’s deep ribs dig into my back. It is flaky, and I can feel it skinning against my coat. I squirm and my leg hits his. He pulls it away slowly.

“What? Am I contagious?”

“Your day at school okay?”

“Your test was hard.”

He raises an eyebrow and lets his cigarette hang between his lips. “You study?”

“I even made flashcards.” My voice sounds like a child’s. I could be his child.

“That’s good. Artist on one side, period on the other?”

I nod.

“That’s good,” he repeats.

I reach for the cigarette in his hand. “May I?”

He holds his hand close to his chest and then offers the cigarette over to me. “Don’t get the paper wet though. I hate that.”

I touch his fingers; our skin brushes. He flinches.

I drag on the cigarette but don’t inhale. “You’re in the woods with one of your students.” I hand back the cigarette.

He exhales narrowly through his mouth and smiles while shaking his head. “You think I don’t know that?” He looks over at my face. We are close enough that kissing wouldn’t need a reach. I can smell him and it makes me smile.

“I can’t do this,” he says. He takes a drag from his cigarette and says, “I think about you too much. Sex is too much for me right now.”

“We haven’t had sex.”

“But that’s what comes next right?” He looks at me like I am being thoughtless.

I laugh roughly. “I wouldn’t say it was guaranteed.”

“You’re only here for a few years, and then you’ll leave, and I’ll still be here. You ever think of that?”

I hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t thought about him thinking of me as being a part of his future. I don’t believe that he means it now either. I know he’s had other students, it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned by other girls.

“So you understand?” he asks.

I glare at him. “You’re acting like you’re sixty years old instead of forty. Can’t you just live right now with me?”

“I have a plan, and I’m sticking to it.”

“And you’re not letting me ruin it.”

He nods. “That’s pretty much it.”

“You think I add to your depression.”

He stands up quickly. “You think too much.”

I stay where I am on the ground. He begins to walk away and then comes back and hovers over me. He can’t walk away from me; I know things.

“Rhonda, it’s about me. I’m almost forty-one and have no idea how the hell to be happy with myself. Is that who you want to be with?”

The fact is I have no other options, never had and was unsure if I ever would again. He was the first man I met at college who acted like he saw me. Maybe he was pretending. With my voice small and breathy I say, “So that’s it?”

He coughs loudly through his mouth and nose. It comes out like a snort. “Sort of,” he says, still coughing.

I am seventeen again; he is trying to show me that I have taken us too seriously. Only other girls get taken seriously, are cherished. He and I, we aren’t even together. We are a student and professor sneaking into the woods to share cigarettes and stories of being sad. One time he kissed me out here.

He is watching me closely to see if I will cry. Maybe I will, make him worry about me and this situation of his. I scrunch up my face.

“How about we take a break? How’s that?” He takes a long drag and drops the butt to the ground. A pile of needles spring into a flame.

“Shit!” he mutters and stamps down on the small fire.

“The needles are dry,” I say blandly.

He bends to pick up the butt and holds it delicately between his thumb and index finger. He raises it slightly, suggesting a wave of goodbye with the burnt paper in his hand. “See you in class,” he says. As he walks away between the trees, I take off my shoes and then my socks. I stand on the needles which he has set on fire. The warmth aches and I hope he looks back to see me.

I walk back to my dorm building next to the creek. Bozeman is a beautiful place but it seems like me being here has made it less attractive. I think of the Tongue Creek back home; that is still the ugliest water I’ve ever seen.

My shoes are off so gravel slips between my toes. I pick a stone out and squeeze it hard into my palm. I rub the stone in my hand and etch four letters on it with my fingernail. I arc my hand back and chuck the rock into the creek. It disappears. I bend down and pick up another stone.

I stand on the edge of the water and look into the brown muck. The water is too dark to see a reflection. I am not down there. I can stand above, a shield to disappointment, pose unaffected and still love. I can hand out grace and receive nothing back and not wilt. I can tell—order—myself to handle the selflessness and it will be enough. I select one last pebble for him. I hold it over the water but do not drop it. Instead, I put the stone in the bottom of my shoe then put my shoes on my feet.

I want a dress made of flower petals. Spinning on the bank with my eyes closed, I’ll make the air smell sweet. I’ll create the opposite of earth. My skin will reflect the soft underside of each silk petal, and when I get in the water it will fall apart all at once, and that will be okay.

He and I are talking silently on the phone. I stare at the rug on my bedroom floor and want to say, “I promised myself to never again date a guy who does drugs.” Bud moves around his house. He’s in the kitchen making pasta, then in the dining room eating. He’s at the table flipping through a home equipment catalog while my voice rests on his shoulder. I’m teetering by his ear, and he starts humming an unidentifiable tune. He sounds content. We agreed not to see each other for two weeks but we’re allowed to speak on the phone. I say, “I think drugs are a good idea.”

“Drugs are for the lost,” he says.

We talk about the rain. It’s a lot of rain and it makes us both want to sleep. “I want to invent a remote control for the sky,” I say.

Bud finds a chuckle in his toned gut to keep me where he wants me.

I am reading Rilke in bed. He tells me that young people who love wrongly with abandon feel the pressure of a failure and want to make their situation fruitful in their own way. I think of lines that could appear as epigrams before the story of my ordeal with Bud. What one woman calls humiliation, another calls growth.

I spend four hours at the small arts theatre, the Mammoth. I see one movie and then sneak upstairs and watch another. The first film has colors fit for an absinthe trip. It was filmed in south Asia and all of the main characters are pretty men. I go into it knowing it’s going to be fantastic since Bud has told me he’s heard it’s not worthy of its actors and will never see it. I sit in a row alone and hug my soft scarf. My fists grip the wool and push hard against my empty stomach. Bud’s hands are on a new girl’s stomach or breasts or face. He could have just met her in the grocery store or at the library, somewhere without me to protect him from the talons of girls hungry for his scholarly neediness. I know how determined we can be. The stretched landscape of film consoles and tries to tell me that hands are small and that their feel have a dependable trait of fading. I walk home from the movies in beat to the words: “You could be free. You could be free.”

On Monday afternoon, I am thinking about Cat Woman, the cartoon. I am not as strong as her because I want to whisper to the other people in the grocery store I don’t have cats as the giant bag of chicken-beef nuggets slips under my arm. I plow to the register and slam the bag down on the checkout belt. The cashier takes money from me that is not mine, and I drive the food to a house for which I help care. I am paid to be a family member that completes the chores but receives no love.

The hungry animals wait in the dark kitchen. They are relieved to see me. They throw their tiny heads into bowls of chalky triangles. The five fur masses have names but I do not know what they are, except for Aries because we share a star sign.

“Aries,” I say. “He told me that the reason we aren’t working is because I said I suffer for him. What do you think of that?”

Aries looks up while crunching a nugget between his tiny incisors. He doesn’t know what suffering is anymore because he’s eating. He will remember when he gets hungry again.

“I meant that I sacrifice for him. He should see that in me.”

The cat does not respond; he can’t believe Bud’s lack of appreciation either.

“I need a replacement.” I crouch by the cat’s bowl and remove one nugget. Aries watches my reaching finger suspiciously. I put the nugget to my lips as if about to eat it, and then throw it quickly back into the bowl. “I won’t,” I say.

The wine Bud threw at me—it was darker than a Cabernet. It was a few weeks ago. He’d been badly imitating a comedian, running into the table and talking about how he was trying to find the cat’s penis. “That cat is supposed to be a boy and it doesn’t have a penis,” he’d said. We talked about neutered animals getting erections. “It still needs to piss and shit,” he shouted. I said, “Are you drunk?” and he said, “No, I just had a few beers with the guys.” And I said, “Oh, the guys” and quieted. He straightened up and said, “What do you need me to imitate goddamn Sherman Alexie for you to understand it?” He threw his arm into the air and the wine went with his hand. A few drops hit my cheek. He left the room. I circled the floor. I circled the tiny red spots on the carpet, understanding that I did not know what to do.

On Wednesday, the boy named Jack who I take care of for the few hours between when he gets home from school and before his parents get home, tells me that I am lucky, that he is nicer when he’s sick. I explain that I used to be that way too, but he has no admiration for used to. I study his filled-with-the-present mind and think of the future with its smallness—miniature feet in modest socks and piles of soft blankets. Who will the smallness resemble? I suffer nostalgia for what might come. Jack would pretend he knows what nostalgia means if I were to speak it. He calls his lying pretending, telling stories. All the time he is saying, And you say you’re in college, as if I should know better. Once we were waiting in the car to pick up his older brother and I told him his voice goes up when he is lying. We played at this and high voices; I could go on as long as him, longer, forever, to play. I don’t remember playing like this when I was young. I’m sure I did but the memories are not waiting around to show themselves to me.

On rainy days the cats in Jack’s house like to bring me presents. Wednesday is a rainy day. The cat Aries, black and white like a vanilla cream-filled cookie, offers moles, rats, mice. The back door has a window; I have become accustomed to looking out and down to the cat’s scratches. The claw he uses to stun his kill now pecks at the wood, and there I inspect his mouth before his entrance is approved. Today he offers a rat, dead and wet with bristled hair the texture of sudden rigor mortis. I wish that Bud was a veterinarian so he could come and revive this useless being. But all he would be able to do is show art to the rat and then explain to it why he picked what he did. He’d bring over slides with paintings of animal death.

I yell at Aries, prize hanging from his jaw, and scowl as if he understands this is not what I want. I do not want your rat I say. Aries is a frustrated male and to show me he is immune to the affection of a woman, he sits on the porch and rips the rat to shreds. I pass the window again and again. I cannot keep my eyes away, thinking about in what moment he will eat the eyeballs, the skinny tail, the anus, the leathery skin, the tiny nostrils, the pink tongue, each sharp toenail—if they will crunch.

I take out my list of things to talk about with Bud. I write dead rats on the first line and sketch a picture of a rodent.

Later that night I pull my rat picture up in front of my eyes, “I watched a rat get eaten today,” I say into the phone. “Totally consumed—tail, eyeballs, everything.” I press my face against my dorm window. Bud doesn’t know the setup of my dorm room because he has never visited me here.

He says cheerily, “Rats, rats, rats.”

I crinkle the list in my fist and wait. I wait longer and then I’m waiting for him to say, “Hello?” to my silence.

“Hello?” he says.

I curl my toes under my foot until I hear them crack.

“What was that noise?” asks Bud.

On Thursday when Jack is sicker, Aries catches a bird. I am now sick too. Jack and I stand at the back door shouting and fighting sharp tides of infection. Aries climbs the screen of the porch; he is nine feet above the ground, he is a bat in operation. The bird is trapped at the very top, at the roof, feeling the impenetrable ceiling, hoping for a magic release, wishing he was a dove rather than a brown bird to which no one points. Aries fixes himself at the pinnacle then leaps into the air; he places the bird in the back of his jaw and bites down with what looks like malice. Jack and I watch from the door; we whimper because animals that fly are the ones who escape. We can walk away.

When I am allowed to see Bud again I take his rug to him. I tried to paint over the spot where he’d thrown the wine weeks before. I drag it from the trunk with a commanding desire to dispose of it; it’s the body we killed together. I creep into his house, not wanting to be spotted until I’d checked my hair in the hall mirror. I smooth down the wisps then shut the door loudly. He does not greet me in the hallway. I use the bathroom, flush the toilet. I find him in his room at his desk, his back to the door. Thoreau and Tolstoy are lounging on the bed. Jack London poses on the windowsill. For the past many months, I’ve known Bud to read nonfiction about art history, Buddhism, and American politics. I feel threatened by him reading naturalists and have an urge to quiz him about these books but I haven’t read them either.

“Hi, Rhonda,” he says. Something has smacked his face below the eyes and along the cheekbones.

“Hi, Bud,” I say and go to him to be hugged. He places his arms loosely around my neck.

I move backward and sit on his bed. He sits in his desk chair; he scoots in closer to me. We look at each other. I take the short orange container off his desk and act like I’m reading the label. After a few seconds I put it back on his desk next to the glass of water.

“You want me to take one with you?” I ask.

He shakes his head and smiles. “No,” he says. His hair is greasy and it falls in long mats over his eyes. Knowing I was coming over for the first time in fourteen days did not compel him to take a shower. “No,” he says. “Why, you depressed?”

I have been crying twice a day and having daydreams of visiting him with bandaged wrists in a hospital room. But I am trying to be less selfish. I can handle it. It’s love. “No,” I say. I stretch my arms in front of me with the cuffs hanging over my fingers.

“There’s paint on your shirt,” he says.

“Yes.” I jump up and go into the living room to get the rug. Back in his room, I hold my hands up high in the air and let the rug unravel. “I fixed it,” I say. I speak proudly into the back of the rug because it’s blocking my view of him.

He doesn’t say anything so I go on, “I painted over the wine spot. It took a while to get the right mix of shades, but I think it’s pretty good now.”

He’s quiet so I bring the rug slowly down below my eyes and peer over it. “You like it, honey?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. His arms are crossed tightly over his stomach as if he is holding his skin in place.

I look at him like there is science going on inside of him.

“You’re a good fixer,” he says and releases the clutch of his hands from his stomach.

I climb onto his lap and rest my ear against his chest because we are both pretending to be children. I listen for the gurgling of chemicals beating up chemicals. I locate his heart and search for the part that is saved for me.

“I’m sorry I can’t make you happy enough,” I whisper into his chest. I look down at my own and see a black bra line. That is mine and it’s supposed to be his but he won’t reach between the seams because there are other things to think about.

“It’s not about you,” he says. And then with a tinge of anger, “It has nothing to do with you.”

I wrap my fists tightly around the armrests of his chair. “But I want it to be about me,” I say quietly. I sit on top of him and grind my hands hard around plastic rather than him. I look straight into his eyes and we wait for the other to kiss and so it does not happen.

“You’re being selfish,” he says.

On my way home I pull into the parking lot of Wash & Spin. Laundromats have front walls made of glass. I sit in my car and watch the people inside. Most of them are waiting. They sit patiently. I sit with them, outside of them; we wait together.

Karen E. Zvarych received her MFA from Hollins University in 2008 and now teaches in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her fiction has been published in Paradigm, a magazine of Rain Farm Press, and The Gihon River Review. Her non-fiction has been published in The Hollins Critic. Email: kzvarych[at]


Andrew S. Taylor

Flock of Starlings swarm the London Eye
Photo Credit: Alison Kinsey

He saw the reflection of a flock of birds in the store window. He stopped. They swarmed across the dome of the reflected sky, black and rippling with energy. He turned around, but over the busy city street he saw nothing—just street lamps, with their long necks and beady heads asleep in the late morning sun, and over them the heavy lozenges of the financial center skyline. No birds.

He turned back to the window and the flock swarmed. Now that, he thought, is quite peculiar. He lifted his hand—the left hand, for the right held a small, worn briefcase—and pressed the palm against his lips. His own reflection in the window, making this gesture, reminded him of his father, who would stand there in the doorway, just like that, each morning before leaving for work. He would be wearing overalls rather than a tailored suit and would be holding a metal lunchbox rather than the briefcase, but he would stand just like that—a silhouette hesitating, looking upon his children with a kind of quiet astonishment, as if amazed at their existence.

There were birds like that always hovering over his father’s house. They would swim and spiral, and sometimes nest in the chimney or the attic. Small birds, many of them. Starlings, they were called. They had to be flushed out by fire, by poison, by loud noises, exhaled from their home like smoke. Angered, they would emerge into the dusky light, forming a scattered array that merged with the trees and telephone poles. As a child, he had yelled after them, and sang to them, the Song of the Starlings, the sort of thing children make up when they are not yet convinced that animals do not understand human speech. The birds would circle and the boy would sing, and men in overalls came and went from trucks, with brooms, with canisters and things that stank and smoked to chase the birds away.

Something beeped inside the man’s jacket and it occurred to him that he might be running late. He turned to leave and bumped into a woman moving in the other direction. “Watch it!” she snapped at him, then stalked away with her blouse in slight disarray, her curly hair bouncing with determination.

Watch it, he repeated to himself. Was that an order?

He turned to the store window once more. The mannequins were barely visible behind the reflection of the sky, through which the birds still swarmed.

He shook his head and quickly moved on. Knowing the way, he walked forward without looking. He flipped open his phone and checked the name on the inbox, his fat thumb blundering across the tiny buttons, his thumb with its smooth nail, creamy and pink, not like the chipped mica of his father’s, and the call was from a client and the battery was draining and just where did all those birds go after the fire anyway?

The image came back to him. The bright orange crown, searing and bearing down from above and the infernal, midnight dance of shadows in the hedgerows. The neighbors gathered in their bathrobes, women wearing curlers, men with hair wisped around sunken eyes, standing on the crooked sidewalk, standing next to cars—Packards and Edsels—vehicles like giant mollusks, watching and crying and holding him close, away from the fire, holding his face and his sister’s face and his brother’s face, holding and watching the open front door, the deep throat of their burning house. Orange sparks, beads of fire as large as fists, floated up out of attic windows, and he had cried because he thought the starlings were burning.

The elevator opened and he crossed the corridor and pushed aside the glass door. It was wiped clean every morning so his hand print was not on it yet. He did not look at his reflection in the glass but in the corner of his eye he could see the birds swarming behind him in the reflection. The secretary was new and she smiled affectionately. He gave her a wink and a grin and a little flirtatious banter. She leaned sideways and ran her fingers through her hair. Her neck was gentle and smooth. He imagined his thumb there, just under the ear, his fingers behind her neck. He reached down and took a butterscotch drop from the glass jar.

The attic was where his father sometimes went with Mattie. Mattie was mom’s cousin from upstate who was there to take care of them when his mother was at the hospital. His mother’s lungs were worse, and then they were better, and then they were worse again. They burned sometimes, and her face was red, and her eyes moist, but she smiled at them always. She held his head and touched his neck and even though she burned she smiled, touching his face the way he thought about touching the secretary’s face. Mattie was smaller and slimmer and looked like a kid next to his father, with freckles and curious, searching brown eyes. And Mattie’s face was red when he found her and father in the attic with their clothes scrambled and their mouths open like blind sockets, with their backs bent and their arms and legs impossibly tangled. Their fingers wormed through long swirls of hair. Hands moved underneath. The attic smelled like a hospital then: sharp and antiseptic. The chemical men had come just weeks before and purged the attic of the starlings, and now the attic was supposed to be clean. But outside, on the roof, he could hear them shuffling, beating, trying to break in again.

He sat at his desk, which was polished mahogany. His office was empty, full of empty chairs, but in the reflection on the desktop the shadows of the birds moved in great whorls. He rolled the candy back and forth across the surface of his tongue, and pressed it into the roof of his mouth. He tickled it, savored its melting roundness. He missed his mother’s lap, how he pressed his face onto it as a child and fell quickly into a deep summer sleep. His mother, breathing slowly and carefully, would stroke his hair and sing to him. Mattie would take him to Coney Island and buy him carnival rides and ice cream but she would never let him sleep in her lap like that. Mattie didn’t want children to touch her. After the long days in Coney he would go up to his bedroom and look out the window and watch the swarm, and sing, and for a moment be amongst them.

Two computer screens hovered before him, displaying tables, graphs, charts, accusations, prophecies. He pushed his fingers into his tired eyes and there were white sparks. His mother had just been back from the hospital when it happened. She had come back from the hospital, very oddly, late at night after he’d gone to bed. He didn’t know she was home until he heard her yelling. The sound was painful, and it came from upstairs in the attic. His mother’s voice was rending and bleeding. He never understood if it was the fire or the screaming that came first. He wanted to believe it was the fire, and that his mother knew the fire was coming and that she came home from the hospital to rescue them. But there was screaming from above and he sat up in bed, in unison with his brother and sister, looking at each other across the darkness, with the unnatural, early dawn arising outside the window, the flickering and dancing. And his mother pulled them out, carried them out, and they stayed there on the sidewalk and she stayed there with them, unmoving and silent, looking up at the swarming sparks of orange, and in the attic window he saw the figure of his father standing, rippling, immersed in a blinding sunrise from within their house, standing the same way, looking down in astonishment at his children as if wondering once again why he had to leave them.

He sat in the empty clean space, and checked his watch. He had gained some time on the way over. Five minutes before the conference. He would need that time, as he often did. He stood and closed the office door. He disabled the phone.

He put down his briefcase and turned to the light from the window. Outside, high up in the eaves of the city, a cloud of birds merged into the sky. On the other side, he was barely visible behind the glass, obscured by reflected blue, but the tiny creatures were just able to hear him.

Andrew S. Taylor’s first short story was published nine years ago in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Since then, his work—both fiction and non-fiction—has appeared in numerous publications online and in print, including Pindeldyboz, The Dream People, Menda City Review, Thieves Jargon, Underground Voices, Word Riot, Anime Insider, American Book Review, and many others. His flash fiction piece “Punctuation” appeared the December 2009 (9:4) issue of Toasted Cheese. His novella “Swamp Angels” is included in the anthology Needles & Bones from Drollerie Press. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart, and was recently selected as a “Notable Story of 2009” by storySouth‘s Million Writers Award. He also served for three years as Associate Editor of Menda City Review. Email: blueshift22[at]


Maria Steele

Photo Credit: nikki

Magalie was coming for me. I stood behind the hedge that circled our house and watched each car pass. I didn’t know what kind of car Magalie drove, but I would know her in an instant. I understood her black hair and black eyes and cheekbones jutted out like cliffs against the ocean. I had never seen her, but I understood.

I stayed close to the iron gate, which I unlatched so that when she drove up I could fly from that place.

When I got tired of standing I walked around the inside of the hedge and then I ran and then I stopped, crouched, listened for the next car and when I heard it I sprang up. Then I was still again.

Mrs. White came to the back porch, which she called a lanai when her friends visited. She sipped on a glass of white wine, which meant that it was fall. Mr. and Mrs. White were very specific about their drinks. No calendar could mark a season like Mrs. White switching from fall white to winter red. I knew the seasons by the content of a glass.

Mrs. White asked me what I was doing standing by the hedge all day, and why in heaven’s good name did I have my suitcase with me.

“I’m playing airport, Mom,” I said. I used the voice that sounded like I would never abandon Mrs. White.

“Well, dinner’s ready.”

“Just a minute.”

“No, now, Margaret. Your father has been promoted and we’re having a feast tonight.”

Over dinner, Mr. White told us about his promotion at his computer job. He was helping develop the Internet, which would connect us all. Mr. White talked slow and deliberate and did not jumble his words with excitement and he did not let more than a few moments of silence slip by him. He was ever diligent that way. I had long suspected that he planned the dinner conversation during his drive home from work. Mrs. White nodded her head and said “interesting” when she heard the Internet story. Then she threw back the white wine and felt around the edges of the glass with her tongue.

So everything was back to normal. They had recovered from the big talk. I knew something was up the night of the big talk because Mrs. White got to watching the clock. Every couple of weeks she worked herself up and came into the kitchen where I sat doing homework and looked at the clock and looked at her wristwatch. After that, she went back to the living room or the basement to her paintings, or wherever Mrs. White goes. When she’d waited maybe three or four minutes she came back to the kitchen and asked how the homework was coming but all the time looking at that clock. I wished she kept a clock in every room and not just the kitchen because her nerves got to me. When five o’clock came she poured herself a glass. Five o’clock is the hour when the God of the Episcopalians turns a blind eye to hard drink.

I really knew something was up when she ordered pizza and soda and let me eat in the living room without utensils. This was our heathen feast, she said. She and Mr. White watched me chew my food, which made me chew slow and deliberate, which is hard to do with pizza in your mouth.

Mr. White cleared his throat. I expected a lesson about whatever subject he dreamed up while sitting in traffic, but instead he said he had something important to tell me, but Mrs. White took over. In those days I understood that she held the secrets of the world and fed us the proportions as she saw fit.

“You’re adopted, Margaret.” she said. “We really should have told you sooner but we never found the right time.”

Mr. White squinted at the floor. “You’re our daughter,” he said. “There’s no difference. We’ve had you your entire ten years of life.” Then, as he was prone to do, he got too specific: “Well, we’ve had you since you were three days old.”

“Who had me before that?” I asked.

Mrs. White uncorked herself as she told me the whole story of my coming. I could hardly keep up. She said she could not have children of her own, that her whom was barren as the dust. She said a man who used syringes to get a feeling as delicious as candy had loved a woman and they had four children together and gave them all up for adoption.


“I don’t know, but we’re grateful for you,” she said. Her eyes glassed over, but I recognized this look, this filling up with too much of the hours, this watery substance of clear nothing. She blinked.

The Whites had picked me up at the hospital and my birth mother was very beautiful and she did not cry. Mrs. White went into some detail about my birth mother, describing her long dark hair and lovely features. I could tell that Mrs. White admired her.

“You see, she’s made a couple of unexpected visits to the home of one of the children she’d given away. And she’s been asking the agency about all her children. I mean her biological children. You are our child, Margaret.”

“Is she coming here?” I asked.

“Heavens no,” Mrs. White said. “I mean, I don’t expect that. It’s been more than ten years now. She has no legal claim…”

“What is her name?” It was a good question. But Mrs. White should never have answered.

That night the Whites settled on the couch to watch Miami Vice. They sat closer than usual, practically touching. Mr. White teased her. “You think that Sonny Crockett is handsome?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “That’s why he’s on TV, I guess.”

“You’re prettier than those women on TV.” He put his hand on her lap, but she shifted with his touch, like there was a sugar ant crawling on her thigh. She rolled her eyes again, looked at her watch and looked back to the TV.

They caught me watching and sent me to my room.

In the days that followed they watched me closely. Mrs. White righted herself about the Magalie situation, saying that it was highly unlikely that anyone would come looking for me. With her before-five-o’clock voice she begged me not to worry. I wasn’t worried, though. It was something else. I had something to look for in the world.

So I watched for her. Wherever I went, I turned my head like I was following a tennis match. I liked to guess about what life would be like with Magalie. There would be no school, of course. I wouldn’t need to wear shoes, either. My brothers and sisters would be there—the other children who Magalie had given away. I guessed there were two other boys and one girl. I was happy with the thought of a younger sister who would love me as soon as she saw me.

Waiting for Magalie was exhausting business. Every day I hauled my suitcase to the edge of the yard and walked, crouched, hopped and then stood still as a statue. When our neighbor Mr. Whitaker came by to ask what game I was playing or tell me how fast I was growing up or explain how he got his limp in the war, I told him I was playing a game where I had to pretend to be as still as a statue and, sorry, I couldn’t talk to anyone. He learned to pass without saying a word.

I could think of Magalie and nothing else. I stopped spending the night with friends. When Luella from church asked me to sleep over I told her I had better things to do. She said I was a boring friend. I told her she smelled like a half-ton of rotten cheese. She cried right there in the vestibule.

The days blurred together. The fall turned cold and I bundled myself to wait. My nose practically froze off and I wore a long red scarf wrapped around my head and face, with just my eyes peeking out. My eyes were dry all the time because I tried to see how long I could go without blinking. You never know what happens when you blink. I was getting tough because I stood in the cold for a long time, letting ice stick to my nostrils and lips and eyelashes without complaining.

Around this time Mrs. White noticed something about me that I hadn’t noticed, probably because I had better things to do. She called me inside. I was terrified that Magalie would come while I was with Mrs. White. I rocked back and forth and told her I had to go. She moved the red scarf from my head and stroked my face like I had a fever.

“I noticed that you’re getting breasts, Margaret.”

“What?” I folded my arms over my chest. I was very close to Mrs. White. I frowned at her pale eyebrows and pale, thin hair and her after-five-o’clock breath like overripe fruit.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, honey. You’re growing up fast. I think we need to take you to get your first bra.”

“Okay,” I said because I would say anything to get away from her. But she wouldn’t let me go. She told me that soon, maybe one or two years, I would get the monthly blood. I told her if she didn’t stop talking about blood that would vomit blood guts all over the place. So she let me back outside. I ran quick to wait for Magalie.

That Saturday afternoon I went with Mrs. White to pick out the bra. She took her time talking with the department store clerk about the breast situation. “They’re as big as kumquats,” she said and she held out her thumb and index fingers against her chest to show the size. Sometimes Mrs. White talked differently to women behind counters than she did to her own friends from the Episcopalian women’s group. She sounded more like herself with strangers.

The woman behind the counter smiled at me as Mrs. White talked. The two of them walked the aisles of the store picking out ice cream colors—strawberry and pistachio and chocolate and vanilla and lemon. I’d walked these aisles many times, with no feeling for myself. This day was no different. I nodded my head each time they showed me a color. I needed to get the whole thing over with quick.

Mrs. White waited outside the fitting room as I tried on each bra. I might have tried on one hundred training bras, though no one would say what I was training for. Each time she saw me in a bra, she clapped her hands like I’d just scored a soccer goal.

When I shut the fitting room door it swung back open and I saw a terrible thing. I saw myself beside Mrs. White, our hair the same cut and our skin as white as eggshells from the winter and my shape taking her shape and me exposed with a lemon bra and her with that sugar ant crawling on her thighs, bothering her all day and night.

This must be what I was training for.

I wanted to leave so badly that I put on my clothes over the lemon-colored bra and rushed out. Mrs. White pulled me back and led me to the checkout counter, where the department store clerk reached into my shirt to read the price tag.

Afterwards, Mrs. White took me for ice cream, which only reminded me of the bras and the fitting room. It was hard to escape her after that day. She was always finding a way to connect our interests. She tried to bring me to her office in the basement where she kept her paintings, each one half-finished. I hated that place because it was damp and dark and chilly as a cave. Mrs. White’s paintings made the basement worse: green hills and half a river, a pink lotus flower with six petals and no stem, a forest with two trees and the sunset sky painted like a claw. I liked only one painting—a green hummingbird poised over nothing, drinking from the white canvas—but even it could not keep me in that basement.

“Maybe you’d like to pose for one of my paintings, honey,” she said.

“Don’t you know you’ll never finish a painting?” I said. I went back outside to wait for Magalie.

At night I dreamed I was on a speedboat with Crockett and Tubbs. We sped through the daytime, past the palm trees and blue water and those women in bikinis with the plump, tan rear ends. We sped straight into night. Crockett and Tubbs never spoke, and I was afraid they would laugh at me, since I only wore short-shorts and that lemon-colored bra. With each bounce of the boat my breasts grew. They were so enormous that as the boat sped I had to hold my arms crossed over my chest to keep those suckers from flapping in the breeze. We sped straight along the coast until bright red cliffs cropped up and I knew we were in a different place. I thought they were taking me to her but the night was dark so I strained my eyes to watch for her black hair against the red mountains. I looked down and my breasts had become dough and then Crockett, Tubbs and I broke bread at a picnic feast, where a green hummingbird hovered by my ear, and then I woke.

Mr. and Mrs. White were drinking red wine now, so I could not ignore that a whole season had passed without Magalie. But I still waited.

One night before Christmas, Mrs. White spilled her red wine on the floor and said “damn it” and then asked me when I was going to stop playing that ridiculous airport game in the freezing cold. I couldn’t see how that question related to the wine and the cursing but it was one of her clock watching days so I expected some mischief.

“What is the airport game?” Mr. White asked.

I had to make up a story while Mrs. White got on her hands and knees to clean the carpet. She laid down a towel and dabbed it with both hands, softly, like she kept a pet underneath. She sprayed stain remover on the carpet and dabbed the stain again with the towel. The whole time she worked she missed a small stain to her left. As I explained airport to Mr. White, Mrs. White sat up and arched her back. When she saw the missed stain she touched her finger to it and rubbed, brought her finger to her mouth as a tiny trail of red wine ran down. She licked her finger, and sucked.

And then I saw Magalie.

There was a space as empty as canvas between the day when Mrs. White sucked her finger and the day I saw Magalie. I remember cold biting me. I remember thawing my feet by the fire, feeling like a hundred thousand needles pricked my toes. I remember the hot coming on me too, and Mrs. White putting my head in her lap to stroke away the pain. I was not allowed to play the airport game. I was not allowed outside at all. I slept but no rest would come because I could not rest for want of watching. My bed was in a damp basement with stone walls. For one hundred years I heard the drip, drip of a leaky faucet that fed the slow stream of blood that pooled on the floor and rose until it floated my bed. Sonny and Crockett rode their speedboat through the ocean of blood and sometimes they stayed silent beside me and sometimes they sped on. I could not keep from closing my eyes and so I pulled out my eyeballs and hung them on a coat hanger, which I kept on a hook by the door that led in and out of that ever-darkening room. At night my eyes slipped from the hanger and wandered the house and went outside, searching. In the morning my eyes were dry and sore and I used a syringe to refresh them, to give them a feeling as delicious as candy.

When I woke with my eyes returned to me it was champagne spritzer season. Mrs. White called me to the basement to show off her painting of a beautiful ballerina with no legs. I didn’t want to see a ballerina with no legs, or even a hummingbird with no place to feed. I was still dragging a feeling as heavy as sleep. I was quiet. She told me she wanted me to come to the grocery store with her.

“No thanks, I said. “I’m going outside again.”

“I’m not asking you, Margaret. I’m telling you. It’s high time you learned how to plan meals and shop accordingly.” She was using the voice from the Episcopalian women’s group.

So Mrs. White and I went to the store. That’s where I saw Magalie.

Mrs. White pushed the cart along the frozen food section while I kept my hand on the cart to be a part of it all. We were in search of some kind of greenery, so I took a bag of peas from the freezer and held onto it.

I kept my eyes to the ground until I saw bare feet. The feet were small, no bigger than mine, and they attached to two skinny brown legs and cut-off jean shorts. I thought I was looking at a boy until I saw the rounded hips and plump rear end and the black hair, free flowing and tangled. We passed the tiny woman slowly. She stood with the freezer door open, and all the cold from the frozen foods spilled on the floor and around, like a Halloween witch in dry ice. When we were passed I turned my head and then I saw her. Magalie.

The vapor hung around her head so she looked like a bride exposed. I saw my own face, but sweetly. She smiled at me and that’s when I screamed her name. I started to run to her. She held a frozen entrée in her hands and cocked her head to the side. I felt her knowing me. I felt her pulling me. But I was glued down and struggled against something. I was screaming. I had only said it in whispers and now I could not stop screaming her name. Magalie. Magalie. Magalie.

Mrs. White held me tight. She shook me hard, then harder. She was telling me to stop, stop right now. Other faces appeared in the frozen food section—these were only floating heads and I did not care. Magalie. Magalie.

The vapor cleared and her bridal veil disappeared. I saw her full on, with the dirt on her knees, face unpainted, just come down from that place where she lived, where I’d been dreaming. I screamed. Magalie.

Mrs. White tried to hold me but I swung around and kicked her in the stomach, where it counts. That’s when Mrs. White smacked me in the face. I saw it coming slow—her arm flung back as far as it would go, and coming down on me. My face stung hot. She turned me around, grabbed me by the back of the neck and led me out of the store without paying for our items. I still held the frozen peas and I buried my face in them to stop the sting of Mrs. White’s slap.

She cried so hard on the way home I could not bring myself to ask her the question. In all the time I spent calling her name I hadn’t looked to Mrs. White to see if she remembered the dark-haired woman. Among us only she would know.

When we got home our faces were runny with snot and tears and red streaks. Mr. White walked towards us but he stopped when he got a good look at our faces. He inspected us from a distance. He looked afraid to get too close. Mrs. White lifted her face to the sky and put her hand on her stomach where I’d kicked her. I felt low and tired and sore all over. I went to her, and placed the frozen peas on her belly, like a thousand frozen hummingbird eggs unthawing between us. She smiled at no one in particular.

And so we walked together into the house, to feast.

Maria Steele has published short fiction in Troubadour, The Blackwater Review, and Among These Hills. Also, she has thrice been awarded the Laurie O’Brien Creative Writing Scholarship offered by the University of West Florida, where she is a graduate student. Email: mgeneve.steele[at]