Outside In

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

Photo Credit: Steve Rotman

A few months ago, when VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published stats with respect to the gender disparity of book reviewees and reviewers (they’re primarily male in case you hadn’t guessed) in a number of major publications and Twitter exploded with either “ohmigod, how can this be?” or “duh, obviously,” I did a quick perusal of Toasted Cheese’s authors for 2010 and tweeted:


Granted, these weren’t stats for reviews, but for creative nonfiction, poetry, and short fiction. But still, there it was. Our numbers were nearly equal. I decided [insert portentous music here] that this would be a good topic for a Snark Zone.

Then, just last week, VIDA released another count, this one a breakdown of the Best American anthologies. In this case, both the essay and poetry series were heavily weighted male, while the short story series was closer to equal. The data also reveal that even when the guest editor is a woman, often a majority of authors are men.

Also: Esquire republished a list of “75 Books Every Man Should Read” that only included one book by a woman, and V.S. Naipaul declared that all women writers are inferior to, well, him. What year is it again?

Obviously, I can’t control how much (or little) women writers are valued. I could take to Twitter, and rant about male bias, but considering my lack of followers (aside: what’s up with that? as an editor, shouldn’t I be more popular? why aren’t all you nice people sucking up to following me?), I’d be ranting into the abyss.

But I, along with my fellow editors, do have control over what’s published in Toasted Cheese. And with that control (muahahaha!), we’ve somehow managed to publish a fairly diverse assortment of writers, not just with respect to gender, but also experience, age, education, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. Perhaps most gratifying, given the difficulty some of the more established publications seem to have achieving any diversity at all, is that this has happened rather organically.

One of the things editors said in response to the VIDA stats was that they publish more men because they get more submissions from men. And maybe to some extent, this is true. Because if you’re a writer and you’re doing your market research and you’re asking yourself is this publication going to be a good fit for me, for my work, and you see that nearly all the bylines in Publication X are male and you’re not, then maybe you’re going to decide to submit to Publication Q instead, which while perhaps not as well-known, has a better track record when it comes to gender diversity. So maybe that is a part of it, but it isn’t the whole story, because many of the major publications aren’t publishing much slush anyway. They’re soliciting work, that is, choosing who they ask to write for them.

In contrast, Toasted Cheese has been built on unsolicited work. In the beginning, we didn’t really have much of a choice; we had no networks to tap into. We were then, and still are in many respects, outsiders. Not just because we were founded by women (which, apparently, is notable) and have always had a predominantly female editorial board, but because we’re not based in a publishing epicenter, we’re not affiliated with a larger organization, we haven’t been on the receiving end of any angel funding (but, you know, if you have a million to spare, call me). And while not being close enough to mix and mingle with the cool kids or having the affiliations and funding that would give us the cachet that would be a draw for A-list writers can be a disadvantage, in terms of diversity, I think it’s an advantage.

Toasted Cheese was a blank slate at its inception ten years ago, and to a certain extent, we’ve let our writers decide what they want it to be. Yes, we decide what goes into each issue. But without submissions, we’d have no decisions to make. It’s the writers who’ve chosen to submit to us that have given us the raw material, the opportunity to be what we now are. And that is, I hope, a place where writers of all backgrounds feel welcome.

Drawing attention to gender disparity in literary publishing is admirable, but it’s just one strategy. Another is to support the publications that are already doing what you wish the major publications were. Spread the word about them. Subscribe. Donate. Volunteer. And most of all, if you’re a writer, submit to them. Because it’s not enough just to create alternatives. To effect real change, the new venues need to be where everyone wants to be. And that requires putting your writing where your mouth is.


Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com


Three Cheers and Tiger ~ Bronze
Gillian Brent

Wentworth Falls
Photo Credit: Cor/redphayze

My phone said: “RAINBOWS!!!!!”

I cursed. This meant I was late meeting my sister and my beautiful niece for our Saturday walk by the creek. It meant that Penny was grumpy with me because I wasn’t there yet, it meant she thought she was being clever by instead telling me what little Cecily had seen (the tweet was from the @CecilyCuteStuff account she had set up), and it meant it was raining. Dammit.

Diving out the door, I grabbed the brolly leaning against the wall and then blinked in the bright sunshine. No rain. Not a cloud in the sky. Double-drat—then they’re down at the falls already, Cecily trying to lean forward to put her fingers in the water as it cascades over the ledges, and Penny attempting to keep her as dry as possible. I grabbed a hat and sunscreen instead, repositioned my backpack (and cursed at the weight—how much food and drink could a five-year-old consume anyway?) and jogged down the road to the path by the creek.

It was only a few minutes later when I caught up with them at the bridge over the old swimming hole. I’d slowed down as I approached, trying to catch my breath, when an eager child ran at full tilt into my stomach. Cecily hovered over me for the whole time it took for my muscles to remember how to inhale again, while Penny merely looked up and down the creek, scanning for possible wildlife. That was the point of the walks as far as she was concerned: a nature excursion for her daughter. For me it was a load of fun to listen to Cec’s excited chatter, and a chance to work off some of the flab that accumulates when you sit behind a desk all day.

“You were ever so late, Auntie. We waited for ages and ages, and Mum talked with some other walkers, and we saw two wattlebirds, and we only just got to the first bridge!”

“Sorry, pumpkin. I was up too late last night. Now where exactly did you see those wattlebirds?”

Cec pointed back upstream, her finger wavering somewhere between the school and the old garage that sits across the creek at the highway. The creek runs through the town, under the highway and down to the falls, and used to be the water supply for the trains back when steam was a way of life. Later, it was the rubbish dump for half the businesses in town, and it was only the last twenty years of incredibly hard work by the local bush care clubs that had brought the cleanliness of the creek back to something the animals could enjoy. The clubs had also cleaned up the old path down the side of the creek, removing non-indigenous trees and encouraging native plants, with the lovely effect that the bird life was returning as fast as the quolls. And the tourists. And locals wanting a pleasant walk. It was not unusual on a Saturday to run into other people enjoying the sunlight and the sound of the running water. If you were lucky now, you could see a yabby.

The town of Wentworth Falls, “Wenty” for short, is more of a village. There’s only one hair salon, one cheapy junk shop, and one pub. Want a carton of milk after nine o’clock? Not a hope. But want the most evil sour cherry danish pastries this side of Sydney and I’ll point you to the bakery and insist on accompanying you to make sure they’re still as wicked as ever. There are a couple of real estate agents, the mechanics’ garage at the bottom of the hill over the creek, and two butchers. But sod all else.

We rounded the next turn, about fifty metres up from the falls themselves—a two hundred metre sheer drop down sandstone cliffs—when the blue-clad group gathered on the path caught our eye. It’s not often you see a policeman on foot in the area, so to see a dozen all gathered around a pile of ropes and pulleys was a shock. They were accompanied by some of the professional climbers from the area—that usually meant bad news. A tourist wanting a view of the falls closer than the fence allowed, or a desperately miserable person wanting to go out with a long drop.

I knew some of the climbers from my work at the tech college up the road. Tom, the Head Teacher for Outdoor Guiding, waved and ran up to us.

“Mary! You’re looking fit!” This was kindness on his part—I was red-faced and sweating, and nothing on my body could remotely be called “fit”.

“Heya Tom. What’s the story?” I looked around at the pile of equipment. They included roll-up canvas ladders, full packs, and torches. It was obviously important and going to be difficult—hard enough that they expected to be out all night.

He smiled at me, and gestured me to a shady spot a little way from the rest of the group. The sergeant from the local cop shop was outlining search limits, but Tom obviously already knew the deal. “Not something you want the small person to hear, OK?” I nodded, and he continued. “You know that robbery yesterday down the mountain? The one at the jewellers where they clobbered the assistant and cleaned the place out?”

“Oh yeah. Car chase up the highway, and some fast turns around the Linden Bends. The cops couldn’t keep up, which means the gang are probably locals with knowledge of the area. How much did they get?”

“Our friends in blue won’t say.” Tom rubbed his fingers together in the age-old sign for money. “But I’m sure there’s a reward. And more importantly, we think they hid the jewels somewhere around here. The Lithgow cops caught the gang last night, but no sign of the shiny things. Our boys found the first car abandoned in the Bowling Club car park this morning. We thought it might be just car-swapping, but then we found footprints heading down the creek.”

He glanced over to where Cecily was dabbling her toes in the creek, and looked back at me.

“A hiding place? How much space are we talking?”

“About the size of a football. So look out for anything unusual. ” A yell from the group behind him jerked him back into “professional” mode. “And I’d best go. Keep your eyes out.”

“I will.” I clapped him on the back, and he hoisted a coil of rope over one shoulder and set off down the creek with the others. Cecily came running over to me, a tadpole cupped in her hands and mud all the way up her shoes and socks.

“Auntie Mary, I caught a fishie!” The next few minutes were taken up with a description of the life cycle of frogs in a manner suitable for a small child, and then the rapidly expiring critter was returned to his muddy puddle at the side of the creek and we pushed on down the pathway. Penny and I mused over the possibilities—both the fate of the gang, and the many and varied ways a pair of eager women can spend a hypothetical reward.

“A holiday. Somewhere where I can relax and not be the mother all the time.” Penny’s dreams were a little more realistic than mine. “And one of the gems would be nice, too.”

I laughed—my sister is the “jeans and sneakers” sort, and didn’t have the inclination towards make-up and jewellery even before Cecily came along. “And a new set of bookshelves for me, and perhaps some books for them.”

“As if. Your shelves are already double-packed. And where would you fit them? You’ve turned your spare bedroom into a library already, and it’s completely full.” She turned back to Cecily, who was watching the sunlight glint off the water at the last still pool. Cecily was trying to catch something, but every time she lifted her hands from the water she looked disappointed.

I used the prerogative of annoying younger sisters to splash Penny from behind while her attention was diverted, and the next little while passed wetly. Cecily decided that she needed to be part of it too, and by the time we stopped we were all soaked and muddy, the light sparkling through the drops on our clothes as they fell to the ground. They looked like diamonds and I was recalled to our new purpose.

“So if we’re getting this amazing reward, we need to think like jewel thieves.”

Penny had removed Cecily’s wet outer clothes and let her frolic for a while in her undies while we unpacked the picnic gear. “All right. We’ve got something with us that’s small.”

“Like me?” Cecily galloped up to us, her eyes on the lunch. “I’m going to be even smaller if I can’t have lunch.”

“Hang on, Pumpkin.” I laid out the sandwiches while Penny poured the juice. “There are plenty of places off the cliff. But that would mean chucking a bag of jewels down, and at night you wouldn’t see where it could land. It would work if you were trying to get rid of them, but not if you want to hide them for later.”

“Agreed.” Penny frowned, and absent-mindedly rubbed her ankle. “And you couldn’t carry stuff down those steep goat tracks at night. Just trying to climb them yourself isn’t easy. I can still feel that sprain.”

“Yeah, you’d need your hands free. No, you don’t want to spend time doing that. Pass the nappy.” This last comment might seem a little strange to outsiders, but when we were kids, our mum had always packed an old clean nappy soaked in water with the picnic gear, so that hands could be easily washed. I scrubbed at my own hands, surprised at how resistant the mud was being, then passed it to Penny who attempted to remove some of the creek’s finest silt from Cec’s face and hands. Little Miss Five submitted to this treatment with resignation, then began what she thought was a stealthy raid on the fairy bread. Alas, she looked up just as I was scowling, and hurriedly went for a cheese sandwich instead, which she took to the water’s edge and ate as she looked at the water.

“If that’s the case, then they’re looking in the wrong place. That doesn’t seem logical.” I took a bite from a sandwich myself. “I could understand that if you were by yourself and hiding out for murder, especially if you knew the area. But not for a jewel heist. You can’t sell the gems out in the bush, and you’d need to know you could get back to them. No, they’ve hidden them somewhere else.”

“And taken off with a new car that they left at the Bowling Club. Lucky it wasn’t a Thursday night, or they would have had the cheap meal contingent on their case.” We giggled at that. The Bowling Club sat up the hill from the creek, on the same highway as the pub and the garage. Thursday nights the place was packed, as the meals were only five dollars per person and every pensioner in the area regarded it as a sacred duty to have the meal and play the pokies for a couple of dollars’ worth. The food wasn’t bad, and I’d often treat Penny and Cec to a dinner there. But the car park would have been packed Thursday night, so the replacement vehicle must have been put there on a Friday. Probably some kind-hearted worker at the club thought it was left by someone doing the sensible thing and catching a cab home instead of driving under the influence. I looked up at Cec, who was once more bending over the water, her sandwich forgotten beside her and now the province of a line of starving ants.

“Cec, hon, don’t lean in. You’ll fall.”

“Auntie! Rainbows!”

I looked at Penny, who shrugged. “She saw some this morning, in the water. Made me put it on the Twitter. Nothing special.” She turned to her daugher, who was looking now at the water and jumping up and down in that excited summoning way that only small children can.

“My turn, I think.” I pushed myself up and staggered over to my niece, who grabbed my arm and pointed into the water. Sure enough, floating on the surface was a fine film of oil, the sunlight catching it and turning the slick into a prismatic wonder. The colours shone brightly, reminding me of wild nights and early rising and rainy days and wet roads.

And my stomach turned and I grabbed Cec’s hand and pulled her back to Penny. “Have you got any soap on that old nappy?”

“Some. Why?”

I grabbed the rag out of Penny’s hand and cleaned Cec’s face and fingers roughly, the small body starting to shake as she cried from the startling and the scrubbing. Looking at the rag, I saw the oily scum had stained the cotton, and folded it over to a new spot to clean my own hands.

“Don’t eat anything else,” I told Penny, handing the rag to her as I held and comforted my niece. “And I’ll tell you why after, but you and Cec need to go home and have a good wash before you finish lunch. And I need to go talk to Tom and the sergeant.”

She looked quizzically at me, then picked up her daughter and started striding back up the path, Cec’s cries of bewilderment drifting back to me as I abandoned the picnic. Some things were more important than fairy bread.

Three hours later, Tom knocked at my door, the smile on his face telling me the important facts.


“I’d love a cup.” He shed his muddy boots on the verandah and followed me into the kitchen. “But you have to tell me, Mary—how the bloody hell did you know they’d buried the gems under the old garage?”

“Did you never hear how the garage spent half a century dropping oil and old engine parts into the creek, before the council came down on them twenty years ago and made them clean up their act?” I turned on the kettle and unearthed the teapot. “When Cec saw the rainbows, what she was seeing was the oil that had come out of the old creek bed when they disturbed it to dig the hiding place. The creek had been so clean for so long, it was a shock to see that scum in it.” I threw two teabags into the pot, then turned back to Tom in distress. “And now, the bastards, that oil is going to leak out for ages.”

“So spend your reward money on the clean-up!”

“Maybe. If I get it. If not—well, Cecily always does like mucking around in the creek.”


Gillian Brent is a tall red-headed computer tech who is finally allowing herself to think she can write. Mother of two grown boys, now mother of two overfed dogs. Cook, knitter, sewer, she-who-wields-the-drill. She grew up in a sceptical household (daughter of a mathematician and a journalist) but fell for the glory of fantasy at an early age. Now she has a foot in both worlds, although her best work seems to come from the truth. And she’s been addicted to Cadbury Creme Eggs for 25 years. Thank goodness Easter is only yearly. Email: gmbrent[at]optusnet.com.au


Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Laura Magalas

The Prypiat River and a part of the Chernobyl NPP
Photo Credit: Andrzej Karon

It’s her third trip in the last two months and I haven’t heard from her since she left. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind her going on trips. She goes on them all the time for work, taking water samples or pictures or whatever it is that ecologists do. She works with the water people in our more rural areas of New York, running tests and making sure that our water is just as bad as it is in Jersey and the other states around us. She’s gone to Washington to see how bad it is on the other side too. I don’t mind her work trips. It’s what she does.

I don’t mind the apartment being empty either. That’s the great thing about being a freelance writer. I make up my own schedule. And with her being gone, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the TV is too loud. I don’t have to worry about using up all the hot water. I don’t even have to track down a coaster to put under my beer (which I do anyway, what with self-preservation being very important to me). I don’t mind any of that.

What I do mind is that the trips seem to be getting more frequent. They also seem to be getting longer.

See, it used to be a weekend here or there. Then it was a few week-long conferences and lab trips once in a while. But over the last six months, it’s become regular. Once the month starts, she’s gone for the first two weeks of it. It’s not the fact that she doesn’t call that worries me. We call each other twice when we go on trips away from each other: once to say we got there safely and once to say when to be picked up at the airport. She hasn’t called me once in the last three months to come get her at the airport. I’ve just been sitting at the table or on the couch or in the kitchen when she walks in. Up until then I’ve been nervous or wondering where she’s gone now, but when she comes home weighed down with her gear and suitcase… everything else goes out the window. I’m just happy she’s home and we make up for lost time.

I’m such a goner.

“Still no word from Alexa?” asks my brother, Mike. I’m at his house for dinner. He’s at the sink trying his best to wash some salad without getting it everywhere. Most guys would have let themselves go by now, but not my brother. Divorce looks good on him. “I’m surprised she hasn’t called,” he says.

I tap my hands from where I’m sitting at the island in the middle of the kitchen. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

“You worried?”

“Why would I be worried?”

“I don’t know,” he lies. I’ve talked to Mike about Alexa’s trips more than once. He knows I’m worried. But it’s not her safety that has me concerned, and he knows that too. He’s just trying to be delicate, which is why he says, “Maybe she’s just out of reach.”

“Yeah,” I say, liking this game.

“Or maybe she’s just cheating on you.”

And just like that, my initial fears return. I look at my niece Cora sitting at the end of the island, clearly pretending to be doing her homework. She shrugs at me. “What?” she says. “It’s possible. I mean, Mom cheated on Dad, right? Everyone always thinks it’s the guy who does it. Girls do it too.”

“Enough, Cora,” says Mike.

Cora puts up the typical teenager defensive, but her affection for her dad makes her apologetic tone sound almost genuine. “What? I’m sorry,” she says before turning to me. “I’m sorry Uncle Nick. I shouldn’t have said that. My bad.”

She looks at me and all I can see is my twenty-three-year-old brother holding a pink-wrapped bundle in his arms. I give her a smile. “It’s okay.”

Her face lightens. “Besides, she has to come back. I totally hate having to do bio by myself.”

“Speaking of bio,” says Mike, making a brushing motion towards Cora’s books. He puts the food in the empty space. Within minutes our plates are filled with Caesar salad, steamed vegetables and some kind of cheese pasta that is so rich, it almost leaves our attempts at being healthy completely pointless.

“So how’s school going?” I ask Cora. She gives me her typical response of “the usual” and I try again. “Well, what are you working on in biology?”

Now she becomes more animated, and it’s not in a good way. “A report. They’re making us take our own samples of the river that runs behind the school and compare it to other rivers. I was hoping Alexa could give me a hand with it, you know, because of all the stuff she does.”

“Looks like you’ll have to learn to do it on your own,” says Mike.

Cora rolls her eyes playfully at her dad. “You think?” she says. “Maybe I was secretly hoping that Uncle Nick could help me with it.”

Mike shakes his head and I speak up. “Well, I can’t guarantee anything, but if you wanted me to read over your report and see how it sounds, I can do that. Give it a little edit, maybe tighten it up?”

“If it was any tighter, it’d be giving itself a hernia,” she says, before looking at me thoughtfully. “But that actually sounds pretty good. Thanks, Uncle Nick. I might take you up on that.”

Conversation turns typical after that, with father and daughter talking about their school and work days, enemies and allies and co-workers encountered, and articles that I have yet to write. I always enjoy Sunday dinners with them. They’re all the family I have left.

I’m enjoying myself so much that I almost forget the empty seat next to me and Cora’s earlier comment. Almost.

I think Alexa’s cheating on me.

This isn’t exactly something that has happened to me before, so I’m not sure whether or not this is a regular suspicion or something that I should be completely ashamed of thinking. But it’s the truth. I don’t want it to be the truth, but I think it is. I hope I’m wrong. If I’m right, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Alexa is what my father would call a “perfect catch.” When he wasn’t using the phrase to describe a marlin he almost caught once, he would use it to describe my mother: beautiful, smart and funny. Alexa has this way of always making you feel like who you are and what you do are the most important things in the world. I love it when she asks what I’m working on. She always reads my articles before they’re published. I came across a collection of all the magazine issues I’ve been published in when I was in her room the other day. This filled me with two thoughts. The first was that I don’t know half as much about her work as she knows about mine.

The second was that I’m having so much doubt about her going on trips for work, I’m reduced to going through her things.

Not that I’m going through anything serious. I’m not raiding her closet and digging through drawers. I’m just thinking about her. The next thing I know, I’m in her room. It just sort of happens. I end up in there every few days, just sitting. Her bed is creased with spots where I’ve sat, releasing an air of perfume—the raspberry scent that I bought her this past Christmas.

I sat down at her desk the other day. It’s an old, beat-up piece of oak with every available surface covered with all kinds of notes and papers from her work. The more I read, the more I realized how little I know about her work. I didn’t know what any of the papers meant. There were graphs and statistics, spreadsheets and reports. She is always so willing to hear about my work, about what I’m doing, that I haven’t thought to ask about hers outside of the usual “How’s work?” She sometimes goes into detail about the specific rivers that are being analyzed, but other than that, nothing. I always get lost in all of the complicated terms and language that she speaks. She notices and tries to summarize it as best as possible.

I’ll start researching biology now if it means she’ll come home.

It isn’t just the extra trips that are making me suspicious. It’s how she doesn’t want me to pick her up from the airport anymore. How she isn’t really sure where she is going until she reaches the airport. I’ve even noticed that she’s started taking a different bag during some of her trips. We’ve been living together for the last four years and I haven’t even met her parents yet. She has a brother who lives in Minnesota, but I only met him once when we first started going out.

Our first meeting was completely random. My car was in the shop. For the first time in forever, I took the bus. She got on the bus with crutches and I was the first person out of my seat. We started talking. We both missed our stops. Everything went from there. I found out about her work and she found out about mine. We talked about anything and everything, from how her Ukrainian parents hated her being out past nine o’clock to the guy on my little league team who terrorized me into quitting baseball. How I’d never learn the name of her hometown (something starting with a P that I wouldn’t be able to pronounce) and how she didn’t like any sport but soccer. All of the smaller details, the early days when we used to talk about anything and everything that crossed our minds.

Maybe she has someone else to talk to now.

I’m at Alexa’s desk when the phone rings. It’s been more than two weeks since she left. I’ve given up hoping that she’ll call. When she comes back (and I emphasize the ‘when’ in my mind for hope), I won’t know she’s coming until she gets here. I answer it on the third ring. It’s Cora.

“Is it okay if I fire off that report to you now? I’ve finished it and I need you to read it over.”

I smile. “Is that because it’s due tomorrow?”

There’s a beat on the other end of the phone, then: “So can you still do it or not?”

I tell her yes. She says that she’ll email it right now. She doesn’t say it, but I can hear her relief. As a writer, I know stress and last-minute writing when I see it. It’s nice to be on the other side for once.

I head over to my computer and check my inbox. Nothing yet. Waiting and not wanting to let her down, I log onto my real Facebook. When I first decided to write under an alias, my family was divided. My dad and I liked the fact that I could write something without anyone immediately knowing who I was (not that I write terrible commentary but people get offended by everything nowadays). My mother and brother thought that I’d do myself more credit using my real name. I’m not famous by any means, but I’ve never regretted my decision to write under a pseudonym. Under my real name, I have fewer than fifty friends (which by today’s standards, makes me a loner).

I check out Cora’s Facebook page (which makes me a stalker, apparently). Some girl named Kate is taking up most of the page with things like “OMG, no way” and “I hate this assignment” and “You sure I can’t steal your measurements?”. One sentence catches my eye. It says “4pH in our little river isn’t so bad. Could be worse… Could be Pripyat River.”

Something tweaks inside me. Before I can figure out what it is, a chat window pops up. Cora’s sent the report, and could I please not be “super mean.” I pull it from my inbox and read it over. I change a few sentences here and there, but my heart isn’t in it. The back of my mind is still trying to figure out where I know the name from. Overall, it’s a good report. I send it back to Cora and message her that it’s all done. She asks if I got lost in all the extra measurements and charts. I tell her that I navigated it pretty well. I’m about to tell her that I recognize most of it from the notes on Alexa’s desk.

That’s when I stop.

Alexa. Pripyat.

Pripyat is the name of the town that Alexa came from. It’s where she was born and raised. Waiting for Cora to respond, I type in the name of Alexa’s hometown to see what comes up. I freeze.

A lightning bolt could have struck me. I wouldn’t have felt a thing.

I say goodbye to Cora and she thanks me for reading her report. My mind is buzzing. Everything is slowly starting to make sense. Picking up my laptop, I take it to Alexa’s desk. I look through her paperwork again, only this time, I know what to look for. I do some web searching. She has electrochemical analysis readings of different rivers, pH measurements and charts. In a pile of papers, I find different readings. A non-science person wouldn’t have noticed the difference. By the time I’m finished researching and learning about Becquerel and Curie measurements and comparing them to her readings and notes, I feel like attending a conference. It all makes sense: why she doesn’t want me to get her from the airport, why I haven’t met her parents.

Why she didn’t tell me where she was going.

I’m still sitting at her desk when I hear the apartment door open. I hear her put down the bags, including the extra one that she’s started taking. The one that probably has some extra items. Gifts for her parents. Maybe even a Geiger counter.

She sounds tired from the trip. I would be too, getting off a plane and having to go through customs. Especially after coming from Pripyat. They probably checked her thoroughly. Since the nuclear reactor blew there, it’s been a dangerous place to visit. No wonder she didn’t want me to go.

She’s surprised to see me sitting at her desk. I’m happy she’s home safe. I watch her carefully, wanting to see the change in her reaction when she realizes I know where she’s been going.

“I missed you,” she says.

“I missed you too,” I say. “How was Chernobyl?”


Laura began writing stories on her grandfather’s typewriter at the age of ten. Since then she has continued to write and daydream excessively, feeding often on the support of her friends and family. She, like half the population of the world, is currently working on a novel. Email: atellix[at]hotmail.com

A River Trickles Through It

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Shannon Schuren

river low
Photo Credit: Zen Sutherland

The two women followed the path that led over the walking bridge and back to the main property. “How soon will you be moving in?” the realtor asked, tucking the contract into her briefcase as they reached the driveway of the old mill.

“As soon as possible. I’ve been staying at a hotel in town, and I can’t wait to get out,” Mel answered.

“A hotel?” Rowan squinted. “You must mean Douggie’s place. Roach motel is more like it. But it’s the best Little Hope has to offer. So, what are you going to do with all this land all by your lonesome?”

Mel had to smile. Now that things were official, Rowan was more gossipy neighbor than real estate professional. “I’m going to turn it into a one-stop wedding venue. I’ve already got the church, and the top floor of the mill can serve as dressing rooms. If I take the basement apartment, that leaves the entire main floor and the yard for receptions.”

Rowan turned back to the river. “It could work, but I daresay you’ve got your work cut out for you.”

“What kind of work are we talking about?” The deep voice seemed to come from the trees, and Mel started as two men approached from a path at the bottom of the hill and rounded the bend of the river.

Rowan’s smile cooled. “Wyatt. Finn. Come to welcome Melora to town? How neighborly of you.”

The first man shoved his hands into the pocket of his jeans and grinned, a lock of chocolate hair falling into his eye. “Ain’t it just.” He extended his hand to Mel. “Wyatt Donovan. I live just up the hill.”

Mel took his hand, which was warm and rough, his grip firm. “Melora Jasper. I just bought this place.” Which, she realized, was probably the most obvious thing she’d ever said. Her cheeks turned pink. “I mean, we just signed the papers. It’s official.”

His eyes narrowed for the briefest of seconds, so quickly that Mel may have imagined it.

The other man stepped in, a tall lanky blond with skin that looked like it spent more time outdoors than in. “Finn Lachey. Welcome to Little Hope.”

“So you’re some sort of wedding planner,” Wyatt interrupted.

“Actually, I’m an ordained minister.”

She probably couldn’t have surprised him more if she’d slapped him across the face. Finn dropped her hand as if it were on fire and Wyatt shifted his feet. This was usually the response she got from men when she told them, and though sometimes it was disheartening, she’d learned to use it to her advantage. She wasn’t sure why she’d chosen now to break the news to them, other than the fact that Wyatt seemed a little to sure of himself and Rowan didn’t seem too fond of either of them.

It didn’t help that she found them both attractive.

“A minister, you say.”

Rowan showed off a toothy grin.

“You plan on marrying all those couples yourself?”

“I do,” Mel agreed. “It makes things easier.”

“What church are you affiliated with?” Wyatt asked.

“This one,” she snapped, clenching her fists before forcing herself to relax. He couldn’t know how much that question rankled.

“So,” Finn said, clearing his throat after a moment of awkward silence, “I was wondering if you’d be willing to let me put up a sign. Seeing as how it affects you now that you’re a landowner.”

“Finn is our local activist,” Rowan explained, as Mel examined the sign.

“Stop Proposition 23,” she read.

“They want to build a hydroelectric plant up the road,” Rowan said.

“First they want to dam the river,” Finn said, his face reddening, “which will kill it.”

“You seem to feel pretty strongly about it,” Mel said.

“It’s my life,” he said simply. “My brother Tucker and I run a rafting company. If the river dies off, so will we.” He stared off into the distance for a moment, then seemed to collect himself. “If you’d be willing to put that up, I’d be very grateful. Rowan.” He nodded at them and turned and walked back into the woods. Wyatt said goodbye and followed.

“One last thing. You said your daughter had her pictures done here? Do you think there’s any chance I could use some of them? I mean, for brochures and such, once I get the place cleaned up.”

“Absolutely,” Rowan said. “They’re on Wedbook. The Burnett-Gustman Wedding. Take a look and let me know what you think.”

Two weeks later, Mel was all moved in. She tucked the last empty box into the storage closet under the stairs and dusted off the seat of her jeans. Then she grabbed her coffee mug off the counter, blowing on it as she ascended the stairs from the basement to emerge in the large main floor. It was one big and airy room, with a high, beamed ceiling and wood plank floors. The focal point was the picture window, which took up nearly a full wall and looked out over the river as it snaked through the back end of the property, around her little island, and came back past the mill. It was a view she knew she’d never tire of, and neither would her clients.

At least, that’s what she was counting on. That and the quaintness of the tiny church were the two main selling points for this venture which she’d staked her entire life’s savings on, and then some.

She sipped her coffee as she stepped closer to admire the view. In a place like this, it was easy to believe in the presence of God. If Mel wasn’t careful, she’d be praying left and right. But organized religion left a bad taste in her mouth. She wanted to connect with the Big Guy on her own terms. Like her father always said, God didn’t go in for all that ostentation. He liked his churches tiny, that way he didn’t have to raise his voice.

Just like her church.

She pulled on the barn jacket she’d hung on a nail by the door and headed out for a tour of her new property. The water was so clear and crisp. She kicked off her shoes and socks and slid into the water. The red and gray pebbles were smooth on her feet; it was less of a chore and more of a treat to move forward with the current, which occasionally gave her a nudge but mostly swirled gently against her calves.

The riverbank was clean, if a little overgrown. She moved around the bend, toward the path that led up the hill to her neighbor’s house. The thought of having Wyatt Donovan as a neighbor unsettled her a bit, and she stumbled. As she reached out a hand to steady herself, she saw something narrow and black tucked between the rocks.

“Snake!” she shrieked, backpedaling. She landed on her butt with a splash that she hoped didn’t attract the filthy animal.

But it wasn’t any snake hidden in the rocks. It was a pipe. And it led straight into the river.


Mel paced in front of the mill as she waited for the Department of Natural Resources agent to arrive. The dispatcher had promised to send someone out as soon as possible.

A car pulled up beside her, and Wyatt Donovan stepped out.

“Ms. Jasper,” he said.

“I don’t have time right—” she broke off as she realized he was wearing a uniform. “You’re the DNR agent?”

His grin widened. “Did I forget to mention that?”

“Yeah, you did.”

He tapped his clipboard. “So, the dispatcher mentioned something about a possible source of contamination?”

She nodded, her thoughts back on the hose. “Follow me. It’s near the path you were on the other day, actually. You could have stepped right over it and never even known.”

She stopped at the foot of the path and waited for him to catch up. He was moving slower, scanning the riverbed from bank to bank, his eyes on the rocks at her feet. “So where is it?”

“Right here.” Mel flipped over a rock. Nothing there. She rocked back on her heels, considering. She’d been in the water at the time, so maybe she’d misjudged. She flipped over the one to the left, then the one to the right.


Wyatt Donovan’s expression was completely blank.

She snorted, causing her bangs to flip up and flutter back down. “It was here.”

He shrugged, a little one-shouldered gesture, but she caught it.

“I’m not a liar, Mr. Donovan.”

“Didn’t say you were.” His tone was neutral, but there was a light in his eye that made her bite her tongue.

“Maybe it was a snake after all,” she heard herself say, her voice loud and false against the clear sound of rushing water.

“Maybe.” This time, the smile didn’t reach his eyes.


Mel couldn’t sleep, plagued by nightmares in which watering the garden turned into a life or death wrestling match with a big, black snake. Giving up, she got out of bed and booted up the computer. She’d been meaning to check out Rowan’s daughter’s pictures, and she just hadn’t gotten to it. She logged onto Wedbook and searched for the bride and groom, then clicked on the tab for photos.

She smiled at one titled, “Throw her in!” The photo showed the bride and groom pretending to fight. The groom had his wife around the waist, and looked ready to hoist her into the water behind them. Several of their friends had left comments. Among them were, ‘Do it already,’ ‘Not the dress!’ and ‘That water looks deep. Hope she can swim. LOL.’

Mel studied the screen. Huh, she thought to herself. The water did look deep, much deeper than the river that currently trickled through the property. Could it be a difference in the time of the year? She glanced at the wedding date printed at the top of the page. A few days shy of a year ago.

She clicked off the computer and wandered upstairs to stare out the window. Was she imagining it, or was the water level noticeably lower? Was that what Finn had meant about the river dying? She’d assumed he was referring to the dam, but this was potentially more serious. If the water was just gone, there was no way to get it back.

But gone where? Evaporation? Global warming? And then her gaze strayed back to the bend, back to where she’d seen the pipe. She knew where the water was going. At least, she knew how it was going. She just needed to prove it.

She slipped into her jeans and pulled on a black sweatshirt. She grabbed a flashlight, but it turned out she wouldn’t need to use it. The full moon was high in the sky tonight, glittering off the river like shards of glass.

As she rounded the bend, she heard a twig snap in the trees. She froze, vulnerable and exposed in the moonlight.

“Who’s there?” She shot the flashlight beam into the darkness, and was rewarded with the sound of cursing, followed by a crashing sound.

“Turn that goddamn thing off.”

She lowered the light but kept it ready to use as a weapon for whomever came out of the woods.

Wyatt stumbled out, clutching his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“Going blind. What about you?”

“I figured out what the pipe is for.” As soon as they were out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake. The pipe had to be his. Why else would he be out here in the middle of the night? “I mean, not that it’s any of my concern or anything,” she backtracked.

He peered in her direction, then broke into that infuriating grin. “You think it’s me, don’t you?”

“You’re trying to run me off this property.”

He shook his head. “Nope. But I plan on finding the bastard who is.”

“He’s not polluting, you know. He’s stealing the water.”

Wyatt frowned. “Why?”

“Don’t know. But look.” Mel had recovered enough from her shock to begin digging. She pulled aside a rock to reveal the black tube, which went all the way down into the water, fully submerged. She traced along its length, then tucked her fingers around the end. The force of the suction pulled them in like a vacuum.

Wyatt crouched down to watch her, then turned slowly to stare up the hill.

Mel rose to stand beside him. “Let’s follow it and see where it comes out.”

He looked ready to protest, but after one look at her face, he relented. “It cuts right through the heaviest brush. I’ll go first. Stay close, and don’t make a sound unless you get into trouble.”

Mel nodded, hoping fervently they didn’t see any snakes.

Finally, they reached the top and emerged into a clearing, which as Mel’s eyes adjusted to the moonlight once more she realized was someone’s backyard. The pipe trailed alongside the garden and ran through a hole in the side of an old barn.

Wyatt swore softly, a look of regret on his face.

“Who is it?”

Mel was so focused on his answer that she didn’t hear the man behind them until he cocked his rifle.

She froze, and automatically raised her hands. Turning slowly, she saw a man who looked a lot like Finn staring down the barrel of his gun.

“What the hell are you two doing snooping around here?”

Wyatt had his own hand on his hip, and Mel realized he might be armed, too. So much for peaceful country life.

“We know about the water, Tucker,” Wyatt said.

He lowered the gun. “What about the water?”

“You’re siphoning it off into the Coral. That’s why your business is doing so much better than Finn’s.”

Tucker chuckled. “You’re joking, right? Don’t think I haven’t wondered why Finn is having such a hard time. But it ain’t because of me.”

“Well, someone’s diverting that water.” Wyatt took another step closer, only to be stopped by another voice.

“It was me.” Finn stepped out of the shadows.

“You?” Mel studied his face for a clue to the mystery. It was there, in the dark shadows under his eyes, in the clenching of his fists. “Proposition 23,” she said softly.

He nodded. “That dam will destroy this town. The river will run dry, the wildlife will die off.”

“So you sabotaged your own business?” Tucker demanded.

“I had to. It was for the greater good. I figured once those surveyors came out, they’d see how low the river was and have to rethink their plans. After all, a little trickle of water isn’t going to give them the power they need to run that plant.”

“The surveyors were in today,” Wyatt said softly. “I had to drive them around.”

“And?” Finn’s eyes were big in the moonlight, his skin so pale Mel could see the vein throbbing in his temple.

“And it worked. They aren’t going to put the dam on Vermilion River.”

Finn slumped with relief.

Wyatt turned to Tucker. “They want to put it on Coral.”


Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, WI with her husband and three children. She finds writing both emotionally rewarding and the best way to quiet the voices in her head. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Big Pulp, Concisely Magazine, Howls and Pushycats, and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Email: schurshan[at]gmail.com


Boots’s Pick
Nathaniel Tower

Turkey Sandwich
Photo Credit: FotoosVanRobin

A friend of mine told me I couldn’t imagine a sandwich the size of Montana.

“Of course I can,” I reasoned. “I can imagine anything.”

“You can’t imagine that which you cannot perceive,” he told me.

So I set out to prove him wrong.

The first thing I did was search for a plot of land the size of Montana. I tried to purchase Montana itself, but there were more than a few residents ready to raise objections. I set my sights further north.

After not too much searching, I found a nice vacant piece of land up in northern Canada. The few residents there didn’t seem to mind when I told them what I was doing and offered to buy them out. The wildlife didn’t refuse either. Northern Canada actually ended up being a much better spot because there I could keep my sandwich under permanent and natural refrigeration. I knew it would take quite some time to eat such a colossal meal, and I certainly didn’t want it to spoil after all of my efforts.

With my plot of land secured, my next step was to bake the bread. I consulted several master bakers along with a few architects and some mathematicians in order to determine the appropriate amount of each ingredient I would need. The first baker told me it couldn’t be done.

“This is lunacy,” he said. “Do you even know how big Montana is?”

“Yes,” I told him. “In fact, I just purchased 147,046 square miles of land in Canada on which to create my sandwich.”

He tried to explain himself further. “Look,” he said, “let’s just say the average loaf of bread is one square foot.”

“Okay, but I don’t think it is,” I told him.

“Well, let’s just imagine it.”

I tried to imagine it, but I couldn’t. I had seen too many loaves of bread in my life to believe that the average loaf was one square foot.

“Fine,” I told him anyway.

“Okay. It takes about two teaspoons of yeast and four cups of flour to create that one square foot of bread.”

“Got it.” Those numbers were easy to comprehend. Since I had never made a loaf of bread, I had no trouble accepting his calculations.

“Do you know how many square feet are in a square mile?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Okay. So to make a loaf of bread that is a square mile, we need to multiply our ingredients by 27,878,400.”

“That’s a lot of flour,” I told him.

“And that’s just for one square mile. Then you will need to multiply that by another 174,046. So now you see my point. It can’t be done.”

I shook my hand. “I have the land. It can be done.”

Now I had two people to prove wrong. I just need a few imaginative people to help me.

For the next three weeks I recruited my team. Thirteen bakers, four architects, two mathematicians, one surveyor, two engineers, and three employees from a local sandwich shop. When we all sat down together at our first meeting, I knew we had the brainpower to put together the sandwich.

“There’s one problem I see,” the lead baker told me.

“And what is that?” I asked.

“We’re going to need a rather sizeable oven to pull this off.”

“Not a problem,” said one of the engineers. He got to work on it right away.

For the next seventeen months, my bakers put together all of the ingredients with the help of the mathematicians to make sure everything was just the right amount. We weren’t sure exactly what the number was called that represented the amount of flour we needed, but we did know that it was over 999 trillion cups. They slaved away night and day, and their bodies were so caked in flour that I couldn’t tell which was which. But never once did they complain or doubt or even ask for a break or any money. Truth is, we hadn’t discussed compensation, but I felt all along that they were just excited to be working on such a prestigious project.

During that time, my engineers and architects worked on assembling the oven, and the sandwich shop employees, who had all quit their jobs, collected the meat and toppings for the sandwich. We decided on a relatively simple sandwich that consisted of thinly sliced turkey breast, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, pickles, American cheese, and just a little bit of mayo, low fat of course. Although we had to throw out a few bad tomatoes and some moldy cheese, the three did an excellent job gathering the sandwich ingredients. Their job might have been the least impressive, but it was a necessity nevertheless.

At the end of the seventeenth month, my surveyor approached me with what he saw as the first real snag in my plan.

“You need more land,” he told me.

“What? Did Montana grow?”

“No. We’ve taken up more than half of the land with the oven and the ingredients. You’ll need more land to build the actual sandwich.”

This news was a shock to me. The engineers and architects had pulled off an amazing feat. Rather than building an oven the size of Montana, they built an oven exactly one-fourth the size of Montana. We would simply cut the bread lengthwise and then fuse the pieces together in order to get it just the right size. But we had never even considered needing extra land to create the sandwich.

Somewhere during those seventeen months, my buddy came up to me and told me that I could stop. I had taken it too far, he said, and although he was impressed with my determination, he didn’t see the point of building the actual sandwich.

“You’re missing the point,” he said. “By building the sandwich, you are taking it out of the imaginative realm. You still aren’t imagining it. You’re just creating it.”

“But how can you create something you don’t imagine first?” I asked him. I wondered what Descartes and Plato would’ve thought about my question. But my buddy just shook his head.

When the dough was finally ready it had risen a little higher than we had anticipated. We had to have the engineers come help to punch it down. Then everyone on the team had to assist in getting the massive ball into the oven.

There was much debate over how long it would actually take to bake the bread. I contended that if the oven had been built correctly then it shouldn’t take any longer than a normal loaf of bread. One of the bakers said it would take weeks and possibly even months. We agreed we would set the timer for an hour and check often. It was ready in just under two hours.

Cutting it was a bit tricky, but we managed. We also managed to fuse the pieces together. The bread didn’t quite fill up the land mass though. I blamed the bakers for rolling it out a little too carelessly. By my count we were only a few square feet short though, and I didn’t think that would really make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Someone could always just imagine that the sandwich occupied those last few feet.

Putting on the meat and toppings wasn’t as much of an adventure as we anticipated. We had to ward off some birds and bears, and at one point we thought we were going to run out of tomatoes, but it ended up being just the right amount. Those sub shop guys sure knew what they were doing.

The mayo was the most fun part. We rented a small biplane and flew it the length of the sandwich, crop-dusting the mayo all along the way. We ran out just a few inches before we reached the end, which I was pleased with because no one wants mayo in that spot at the end of the sandwich where the toppings really thin out and it’s mostly bread.

When we were all finished putting the top piece of bread in place, we admired our work but regretted the fact that we couldn’t see it all at once. I asked them if they wanted to rent a helicopter and fly up until we could see the whole thing. They said they had best be getting back to their lives. It was a bit of a shame, but I knew more or less what it looked like. After all, it was a normal sandwich that just happened to be the size of Montana. I waited for my friend to come and apologize. He never did.

Turns out that my crew did expect some pay after all. The sub shop guys had been tracking every hour they worked, including their travel time. The engineers gave me a flat rate. The mathematicians provided some formula I couldn’t comprehend, but it seemed they wanted to be paid per square kilometer. The others had their fees as well. None of it was reasonable.

Except for one of the bakers. He said he was happy just to hone his art. I laughed at the notion that making a sandwich was art.

I ended up telling them that their checks would be in the mail. They were happy with that and went about their business. I wonder if the sub shop guys ever got their jobs back. They would be the most experienced sub shop guys around, so I can’t imagine they had too much difficulty.

I stayed in Canada with my sandwich for a few days. I wanted to take a bite, especially since I had no money left to buy any other food, but I couldn’t stand the thought of having a sandwich smaller than Montana (even though it already was slightly smaller). So I just feasted on berries and other miscellaneous items I could find in the Canadian forests. There was quite a chill in the air, which was both a blessing and a curse. I was cold, but at least the sandwich was comfortable.

After a few days of roughing it in the cold, the temperature took a turn for the worse. For the sandwich that is. We hit a patch of unseasonable warmth that I heard would last for weeks. My sandwich would certainly spoil, so I did the only thing that made sense. I called up my friend, the one who started the whole argument to begin with. I asked him if he would help me eat the sandwich. He said sure.

“I never thought it would go bad so quickly,” I told him as we munched on a little piece of the sandwich that could probably feed the world.

“That’s how imagination goes,” he replied.

I still haven’t figured out what he meant.


Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online lit magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has appeared in over 50 online and print magazines. A story of his, “The Oaten Hands,” was named one of 190 notable stories by storySouth’s Million Writers Award in 2009. His first novel, A Reason To Kill, is due out in July 2011. Visit him at Bartleby Snopes. Email: bartlebysnopes[at]yahoo.com

The Dried-Up Seahorse

Baker’s Pick
Emily J. Lawrence

Photo Credit: Gaby Av


Rachel Galindo’s mama, when Rae was thirteen, forbid her daughter to wear bikinis, proclaiming, “I did not dedicate you to the Lord for you meet Jesus in ‘ocean underwear.'” Even though all her friends’ mothers allowed their daughters to wear them. They lined the beach in their key lime, sherbet, and polka-dotted bikinis, swimming in the ocean like a league of mermaids.

Rae would whisper to her collection of Kewpie dolls by her bed how she coveted a slim, yet tasteful, bikini the color of cherry Laffy Taffy. Also, she told her Kewpies, her name should be “Mandy.” And she wanted a boyfriend who was smooth and dark like Dove chocolate.

That night, nineteen years later, sitting in the grove of trees on the white sand with the manipulator Sal Hernandez, while the punk-rocking babysitter, Clara, ‘sat her daughter, Rae’s naked toes pulled out the strings of a lost bikini top. It was red velvet, like the cake. The words “Siempre” and “Coca-Cola” were across the breast triangles. She looked at it through salty red eyes and inside her all her middle school yearnings bloomed again.

There was her bikini. And beside her, telling his story of woe and self-fulfillment, was her dark man. You could say that her heart was lost in his Cherry Coke hair, clay skin, and his voice which they could vend at any booth along the beach.

That night she heard the words that killed her. Stuffing the bikini top into the pocket of her Capris, she clutched onto the feeling of hearing them. She drove home, and curled up beside her daughter on the hideaway bed in her sandy clothes. Several nights after that she held the bikini top in her hands and stroked its synthetic threads and thought about the weak man, Sal Hernandez.


Sal Hernandez’s lemon-slice smile, which made the hair on the back of Rae’s neck suspicious, found its way to the open door of her new apartment the day she and her daughter, Miley, moved in. In his hands—lotioned, unlike most men’s—was her television box marked “shoes” in purple crayon. “Cheap movers you’ve hired. Told me to carry this since I was coming up anyway.”

Rae protectively took her box of shoes from the intruder with a curt thank you, nothing less but nothing more.

“Only a pretty lady would have so many shoes.”

The alligator’s teeth shine bright before he takes a bite, her mama’s words ran through her mind, and being recently divorced, Rae’s male-bull crapometer was exhausted. “Yeah.” She was not impressed.

He saw that she was waiting for some justification of his presence. “My name is Sal Hernandez; I used to live here.”

Behind Rae, Miley ran into the hallway in her mother’s yellow sundress and a string of pearls twisted into a diadem. Her skin, like her mother’s, was the color of pork ‘n’ beans. Her eyes, little black raindrops. She didn’t feel safe enough to squeal and laugh like other five-year-old girls, not yet, but she grinned until her ears stood tippy-toe. When she saw the strange man in the doorway, she froze and flitted off the same way she’d come. She was afraid of men. Rae didn’t call back her little one but turned to interrogate Sal with her eyebrows.

“Wants to be like Mama. That’s the difference between boys and girls. I have a son a little older than her,” he said. He was a little older than Rae, nearly forty, though he appeared closer to forty-five. Rae was thirty-two.

As he chatted, almost flirting, Rae thought: here’s the man that burned cigarette holes in the carpet and let water rings form on the ceiling. “I guess so,” she said.

The portly moving men, with an orange couch, interrupted their conversation.

“So anyway,” Sal said, reappearing. “Could you hold my mail here for me for a few weeks? I could pick it up on the weekends?”


Once the audacious but gorgeous man had gone, Rae stirred up a box of macaroni and cheese, the only meal Miley would eat, and the only one Rae could afford. At the table, with steaming plates and glasses of Juicy Juice before them, they yelled “It’s dinnertime!” as loudly and as many times as they wanted.

After dinner they played mermaid in the bathtub. Rae captured a galloping Miley in a towel as soft as bedtime and picked her pajamas out from between couch cushions. However, Miley insisted she sleep in the yellow sundress or she wouldn’t at all.

Swaddled in the cotton-woven dress Rae had bought from an Indian lady vending dresses, sunglasses, watches, and Spirit stones, Miley curled up like a rabbit babe in the hideaway bed they shared. Her mother laid a cupid Kewpie doll in her palm.

“Do you know what a kiss is?” Rae said quietly.

“I shall know once you give one to me,” Miley recited, playing with her fingers.

Pushing back the hair on Miley’s brow, Rae examined her daughter’s forehead. The gash was long since healed but Rae always looked just in case curses were true, just in case the worst mistake of her life might still be there. A little white indention remained; to Rae it seemed more noticeable than to other people.

“Why did we leave Daddy?” Miley asked.

Rae brushed Miley’s forehead with her thumb. Their fingernails were the same color, the color of seahorses. “Because he did the one thing that would ever make me leave him.”

“Is it because of me?”

“Everything I do from now on will be because of you, mija.” She pressed her lips to her daughter’s eyebrow. “That is a kiss.”


Sal came for his mail inconsistently for two months. He would knock on their blue apartment door on a Friday or a Saturday and Miley would run and hide behind the toilet. He may have come on Sundays when they were at church; Rae didn’t know. She was becoming irritated. “How long does it take to fill out a change of address form?” she asked her five-year-old who replied, “Last night I dreamed I was a pony-mermaid.”

One day a letter came for Sal that wasn’t a bill or a credit card offer. It was a little envelope with a full tummy. Inside was something hard and jagged. Curious, Rae held the envelope up to the seashell lamp by the door and stared at the object for several minutes. Then she realized it was a green toy soldier. Flipping the envelope, she saw “Max”—no last name—in the top left corner along with an address for a town down the coast.

The day Sal retrieved this letter, Rae followed him, keeping an eye on his varsity jacket, which wobbled on his Vespa through traffic. What grown man wears a varsity jacket? Rae thought. Sal pulled into a parking lot on a secluded part of the beach, away from the swimmers and their colorful umbrellas. The white sand was naked and free, cropped by a friendly grove of trees. Sal took off his helmet, took the large paper bag he’d been balancing on his lap, and walked into the grove.

Rae silently pulled her Jeep closer. Through the ashen trunks she saw a little navy-colored tent. Sal unzipped it, crouched down and crawled in. Homeless? Rae wondered as she sat in the parking lot. Her mind wove together several sob-stories for him before she drove away. Her heart began to soften like a potato mashed by a fork.


The next two weeks Sal didn’t come for his mail, leaving Rae alone and unsupervised with two little envelopes, each with another object inside. She held them to the light. One, she decided, was a Tech Deck skateboard. The other was easier to discern: a miniature squirt gun. When a third envelope arrived, bursting with a seashell, Rae felt the urgency behind the letters. This little boy, this Max, really wanted his letters to reach Sal. Leaving Miley with Clara, Rae drove to the empty beach. On feet pregnant with nerves, she tiptoed through the grove to the navy tent.

Sal didn’t look as surprised to see her as she’d expected. She stuck out her hand, full of mail, the three letters from Max on top. “I thought these might be important.”

He took them, thanking her, but obviously he didn’t believe it required immediate action.

“Is Max your son?”

“Uh. Yeah. He’s at his grandparents’ right now.”

“He seems to really miss you.”

“Yeah. Well, ever since his mother died… Yeah, he’s a good kid.”

“Why do you live in this tent?” Her tact momentarily slipped.

Sal chuckled softly, looking at the ocean, then turned an eye on her. “Have you ever gone on a trip to find yourself?”

Rae dragged out her answer. “No. I never had time for that. I married directly out of high school and my husband wasn’t the type to… let me do that.” The sudden thought of her ex-husband made her insides cry. “He hosted an all-night eighties radio show. You may have heard of him: Joe ‘The Tornado’ Galindo. I couldn’t even run the blow dryer in the morning or he would scream and cuss and…” She noticed that she was swallowing a lot.

Suddenly Rae realized it wasn’t her insides crying but her outsides. Once this realization hit, Rae unleashed every tear and sob she had in her. She needed a toilet to hide behind. There was not a toilet, but there was Sal Hernandez, the next best thing.


“One night I sent Miley up to tell Joe it was dinnertime. She came downstairs bleeding. He hit her in the forehead with the alarm clock.”

Sal’s nose curled and he spat out a dirty name for her ex-husband that jarred her but she couldn’t debate it. “You were right to leave him.”

Rae tried to see how deep she could bury her feet. She used to do this when she was a kid. That seemed too long ago. “I didn’t leave right away,” she said. “I sent Miley to my mother, who begged me to come, too, but I stayed. He was my husband.” Rae didn’t need a better excuse. She believed in the sanctity of marriage; she wanted to do the good Christian thing. But it was no use.

“What changed your mind? Did he hit you?”

“No.” She smiled. “I missed my daughter. Oh, he apologized at first, then his apology turned into ‘It was an accident.’ How do you accidentally draw blood? When I couldn’t forgive him as much as he thought I should, he became angry, stopped saying he was sorry. I finally left after Miley called me one day to say she missed me. I asked if she wanted to come back home but she began to cry. I told her everything was okay but… she said she was happier staying with grandma.” Red clouds of emotion stung her face.

“The worst part is, I still want to be with him. I want to go back and live like we were. I know I shouldn’t. Sometimes I don’t care that I shouldn’t. It’s what I want. People talk like I’ve had some sort of epiphany but I haven’t learned anything! My therapist—I see a therapist now!—says we can never have a healthy relationship.”

She punched the sand. “I realized that my best friend in the whole world is my five-year-old daughter and yet I keep whining about going back to that, that man who abused her, that, that…”

Sal repeated the dirty name he had said.


Sal didn’t put his arm around her as she wept. The cold vinyl sleeve of his varsity jacket didn’t paste to her cheek. Its absence was a clue Rae missed. Not five minutes later, he steered the conversation to himself, to his beloved dead Celaya, and his quest to comfort himself.


Celaya, beautiful as her name, Rae imagined, struck with leukemia at age twenty-nine, Sal’s wife. Nearly a year ago she had died. Sal grieved without stopping and their son, Max, was left motherless. Sal confided this to Rae as her feet wormed down in the sand, white as in an hourglass.

“I was lost. I separated from my body like oil from water and flew off, away, long off up the coast,” he said, sweeping his hands vaguely upward. “I had to go find myself, right? So I packed up, dropped Max off at her parents’, hopped on my Vespa and now… I search.”

Like Peter Pan for his shadow, Rae thought.

“Celaya took care of everything, school fees, clothes shopping, shots. Hey, I was a good father! When she told me she was pregnant, I didn’t complain, I didn’t ask her to get rid of it. I picked up an extra shift, worked hard, brought home the money. I did my duty. I came home and played catch. Bought Christmas. Now that she’s gone… I can’t do both duties.”

Rae sighed. “Being a single parent. It’s hard, so much harder than anyone understands. You live from one box of macaroni and cheese to the next. And those little I-love-yous keep you warm at night though you know the cold is just outside your door, waiting for you; you’re right smack in the middle of it.”

“What do you do?” Sal asked.

Rae chuckled. “Pray. Like the Lord has taught me,” Rae said, and when he asked if it worked, she replied, “It hasn’t stopped my desires.”

“Maybe you pray to the wrong thing.”

“What do you pray to?”

Sal shrugged. “Maps, mirrors, and most nights, waitresses.”

An unbeliever. May the yoke be not uneven, she remembered. She could change that about him. She’d once thought she could change that about Joe. It would be different this time, she promised herself.

“I just don’t know what to do with him anymore.” Sal’s voice was husky with emotion, his face dusky with embarrassment. These were the words that killed her.

Rae place a hand on his knee. “I’ll help. I’ll do whatever you ask me to do.” Oh, she wanted him to need her.

At this point with a woman, Sal would lead her to a dark place, by an ice machine outside a bait shop or a gas station bathroom, even a port-a-potty at the Pier, reach behind her and strip off her bikini top, like the one Rae suddenly pulled out of the beach with her toes, and throw it to the moon, the girl giggling. The last time Rae ever saw Sal she looked him in his weak eyes. “Why not me? All those women but why not me?”

He told her. “Because of your daughter.”


Rae stuffed the bikini top into the pocket of her Capris and walked to the Jeep. Being with the gorgeous dark man reminded her of the Embeth Bridge. As a girl she rode her bike across the bridge to buy candles and Windex for her mother. Not knowing why, Rae had the yearning each time she peddled across the loose boards to shed her clothes and jump naked as a Kewpie doll from the wooden rail into the snow globe blue water and swim. Swimming over rocks, swimming in the coolest water on earth. A mermaid. This desire was most strong when the time of month prevented her from swimming.

One day in the drive-thru of McDonald’s she confessed this to her mother. Instead of a lecture which she expected, her mother nodded. “Yes. Everybody thinks of things like that. That is one of those natural desires we enjoy but must keep dressed up inside us.”

Rae called her mother when she returned from the beach, after she paid Clara and passed a hand over Miley’s sleeping head. Over the phone, she asked, as if she were still belted in the old Toyota Starlet, waiting for her number three, no pickles or onions, “Finding yourself… Going on such a journey of risk isn’t wrong, is it?”

Her mama repeated the question then answered, “Risks are good. Adventure is good, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Rae told her about the gorgeous man and his search.

Afterwards, Mama was pensive. “Stretching yourself and finding yourself are good things. God calls us to do this, mija. But be wise! The heart’s desires can be deceptive. Giving into them, you may lose what you’ve been responsible for all this time.”


One day Rae returned home from her job at the BMV and paid Clara, who was a nice girl despite the safety pins in her ears. Clara paused outside the door and said, “Oh by the way, some guy came by to get his mail?” She possessed the 19-year-old characteristic of turning declarative sentences interrogative.

“Yeah. He used to live here. Did you give it to him?

Clara scratched her cheek. “Uh, yeah, but at first I thought he was your ex, so I kinda slammed the door in his face, told Miley to hide in the bathroom, and picked up that seashell lamp. I was going to beat the shit out of him if he tried to hurt Miley.”

“I appreciate that,” Rae said, amused.

“But he told me the mail was in the magnetic clip on the refrigerator. The name he gave matched the one on the mail, so I gave it to him. He’s a smooth talker. Is he your friend?”

“Well.” Rae twisted like an embarrassed preteen. “He’s not exactly my friend. Thank you, Clara.”

“Yeah, sure.” Clara slung the golden checkered bag higher on her shoulder and walked down the terrace and cement stairs to the parking lot.

When Rae dragged four leaking white trash bags to the dumpster five minutes later she had just missed Clara, arms around Sal, riding off on the back of his yellow Vespa. She didn’t know that night Sal and Clara drove to the Leviathan Bar and Grill, danced to cheap metal music, drank vodka and cherry Coke…

Sal talked about Celaya, got Clara’s blue mascara on his face, led Clara back to the handicap restroom. Rae didn’t know, didn’t want to know! didn’t want to know! that Clara cracked her forehead on the porcelain tank of the toilet, that her palms turned cottage cheese white on the loose, clapping, toilet seat. And that those achy hands held Sal’s head as he vomited into the toilet after they were done.

With his hot hair in her eyes, Clara remembered the way her father held back her hair when she got sick into Wal-Mart bags, or on the white line by the highway, when they drove over the mountains. That is, until one day as she lay home from school with a stomach virus, he said she was old enough to hold her own hair.

Angry, she marched to the bathroom and retched loudly, even screaming, as the puke rushed into the toilet. But, he didn’t come. He yelled at her to shut up, stop being a brat. Then, he turned the TV louder. He was never the same after he lost his job. Never did what she needed him to do and never needed her either.

She whispered all this into Sal’s back as he coughed. “I’ve never done this before,” she said, meaning, have sex with an older man, a man old enough to be her father. She said this knowing that Sal knew it was a lie.

The next day, Sal didn’t call Clara, wouldn’t ever call her. Rae gasped at the ugly swell on Clara’s forehead and gave her a scarf lined with ice. A week later, Clara called her at the office weeping and Rae took the day off. When she arrived home, Clara’s face was dried cement. “I have to go home,” she repeated two or three times as Rae tried to understand what had happened.

Finally, Clara looked at her and said “You should tell that man to get his mail somewhere else.”

“Did he come again today?”

“Yeah,” Clara’s dragon mask face said. “He came.”

Rae asked if something happened and Clara spilled out all that did, right on the brown living room carpet. The dragon mask began to crack. Then she cursed. “Last night I saw that…” she wrenched out several adjectives “jerk spanking some girl on the balcony of Hotel Aquarius.”

“Clara,” Rae said after a long silence. “I think I need to find another babysitter. For your sake!” she added quickly.

Clara nodded and left. Rae began looking for a replacement. All the while, she replayed Clara’s testimony in her head and thought: he may find momentary release with these women but he only shares his pain with me.


After asking a dozen questions about why Clara wasn’t coming back, Miley finally fell asleep with puffy eyes and Rae opened the kitchen window to get a breath of night air. She noticed Sal’s mail in the magnetic clip on the refrigerator. Clara had been too upset to give it to him. Another letter from Max was among the grocery coupons. This time, though, nothing appeared to be in the letter other than the letter itself. Odd, Rae thought. Then, something crunched under her thumb. Very odd.

Rae stood with the little envelope in her hands, wondering what was inside, and decided to make the rice for tomorrow’s breakfast. Steam eventually spouted from the rice cooker and Rae was still standing over it with Max’s letter in her hand. The glue loosened and the envelope flap gently rose. “Oops. Look at that,” Rae said.

She upturned the letter and five tiny, dried seahorses flitted into her palm. Also, a pile of dust that had once been a sixth. Rae felt a warm wave through her body. The seahorses lay on her hand, dead leaves of the sea. She imagined the son of the gorgeous man: a dark little boy with bangs in his eyes and swim trunks exploring the shore. Waiting for his father to return home. This made her very sad.

She wanted Max to come here, come to her house where she could care for him. And his father would be near. Yes, he could move in. They’d all live together. Peter Pan would find his shadow on the wall of Wendy’s house.

Rae returned the seahorses to the envelope. She would tell Sal it was damaged in the post office. Then, she would suggest Max come to visit.

But, Sal probably wouldn’t come for his mail again, Rae realized. He’d be afraid Clara would open the door. Poor Max. He needed his father.

Rae turned out all the lights except the bathroom light, in case Miley woke up and had to pee. She would only be a few minutes, she promised her sleeping daughter as she grabbed the keys. She spoke a prayer for the dead bolt then ran down the cement steps, and drove to the deserted beach in the pouring rain. Sal should come home with her, she thought, and get out of this storm. She pulled into the deserted parking lot, got out, saw Sal’s tent, lightning flashed, she got back inside and drove away.


“Lord, why? Why do I pursue men who use me? Who don’t love me, don’t want to be with me? Even after I obey their orders or forgive their sins? Even after I give all of myself away. All I want is to marry a man who loves his family. Will I ever be healthy?”


Rae encouraged Sal to let Max come see him when he came for his mail the following Saturday, her hand on his arm. He looked at the “damaged” letter instead of Rae’s face. “You could bring him here, he could play with Miley, maybe go to the beach and swim, we could make a day of it.” Sal nodded and Rae set a date, two weekends away. Her heart was jubilant and desperate.

Over the next two weeks she talked Miley into playing with Sal’s son. Her daughter nodded silently, dragging a crayon across her coloring book. Rae still hadn’t found a babysitter. Miley sat under her mother’s desk at the BMV, coloring or playing with Kewpie. After work the last Thursday, they went to the grocery store and splurged on dinner for the upcoming weekend: pulled pork and black beans, peppers, and red onions for fajitas.

At night, with her deflated daughter snoring behind her back, Rae lay on her side, the bikini top in her palms. Her body was remembering how it felt to shop and cook for a family and electricity tickled her nerves. The sound of rain began to creep into the apartment and suddenly she thought of Clara. The ugly gash on her forehead bled all over her mind. Something tugged at her but she quieted it.

I didn’t fire her because she slept with him.

Then, her night turned stormy. The lightning filled her eyeballs, she saw the tent wall, illuminated to point that the navy looked white. Shadows inside. The way they moved made her heart pound and her teeth ache. Rae forced herself to look at the bikini top, only the bikini top, only the hope of being a wife and a family again.


Sal showed up at Rae’s door but this time without a lemon-slice grin. His eyes were blackened and deficient and he wouldn’t look her in the face. In front of him stood Max, just like Rae had pictured him: dark with long black hair. He had a pink spot on his cheek that may have been a scar or a birth mark, she couldn’t tell. Max also looked sad, like a dog who knows it’s entering someone else’s house for a reason.

Hooked to Sal’s arm was a girl, younger than Rae. It was obvious she had smoked too much in her life. Her shirt is too small, Rae thought then realized it was a bikini top. And her hair was too big, frizzy, messy, which she didn’t seem to notice. Rae wondered if those legs, those shadows so sharply defined when the lightning struck, the legs Sal rocked into, belonged to this woman.

She regarded Rae nonchalantly and that’s when Rae realized: the woman was looking at her like she would a babysitter.

“Thanks for watching him,” Sal said and the woman squeezed his arm.

Something kicked on in Rae; a mode, like she was a machine. Like a light switch, a smile flipped on her face. “Oh, no problem! Miley will love having someone to play with.”

Sal scooted Max inside. Rae bent down and said, “Hey there, Max. It’s nice to meet you.”

Max nodded, the way everybody had been nodding around her recently. Pretend. They were humoring her. They were letting her play pretend.

She guided Max down the hall. “Miley’s in the living room with some coloring books.”

Sal kicked at the threshold despondently. “We’ll be back,” he said. So vague.

“Yeah, okay,” Rae said.

Sal and his woman slowly turned and walked away. Rae closed the door and held the cold knob in her hand. What would have happened if Peter Pan left Wendy for one of the mermaids?

Rae turned and saw Sal’s little lost boy staring at her. “Where’s my papa going?”

“Max,” she asked, “do you like macaroni and cheese?”


Emily J. Lawrence is a bruised paper bag marked “Surprise” sitting in a dollar store. She broke into herself years ago and what she pulled out is what you read in her stories. These can be found in A Capella Zoo, Hawk and Handsaw, Pif, and Cheek Teeth. She’s a fiction reader at A Capella Zoo. Her blog: Buys Paper, Writes on Napkins. Email: emilyjessannlawrence[at]gmail.com

Standing on the Walls of Jericho

Bonnets’s Pick
Caleb J. Oakes

no vacancies
Photo Credit: LeRamz

Abraham slept with
his concubines. Fathering
a nation is tough.

Washington had sex
with his slaves. True or not, we
embrace the scandal.

My friend’s fiancé
is Chinese. He told me that
their sex makes him feel

like he is in the
Olympics. I asked him if
they award medals.

The pope still decides
the fate of our testicles.
He rides in parades

behind three inches
of bulletproof glass. That’s what
I call faith in God.

I think about sex
when I’m in church and about
God when I have sex.

I haven’t read my
bible in a year. But I
kiss it before bed.

I used to think it
helped but now I’m not sure.
I woke laughing when

I dreamt Elijah
spoke to me. He told me that
heaven has brothels.


Caleb J. Oakes is a senior at Florida State University. He will be graduating with a BA in creative writing this spring. He would give up his car and his right arm (he’s left handed) before he would give up writing. Email: cjo3[at]students.uwf.edu

The Talk

Rick Nordgren

Mime 5687
Photo Credit: Stephen McGrath

Nancy and the mime sat on opposing ends of a card table, a flame on a candle stump casting light and shadow across their faces. Nancy broke her gaze from the spaghetti in the bottom of the cardboard package before her. Using a plastic fork, the mime twirled his noodles. Nancy frowned—at dinner the previous two nights, she hadn’t spoken much and he hadn’t mimed much. She thought of some non-threatening conversation, like asking about the street corner that day. Then she thought of the pile of bills on the counter, some still in their envelopes.

“Clowns get paid more,” Nancy said. It just came out.

The mime continued twirling the noodles, his gaze focused on the action of the fork. He cleared his throat and propped his head against a closed fist, an elbow on the table. The card table swayed. Nancy felt her cheeks flush. She was getting the silent treatment—from a mime. Maybe she could push a little further.

“Why don’t you ask Bozo if he needs a helper?” she said.

At this, the mime looked up and threw his fork down on the table, the plastic utensil bouncing without a sound. He leaned back in his card-table chair; the rubber caps on the chair’s back feet squeaked against the linoleum. The mime frowned and cocked his head, his arms folded.

“Oh c’mon… c’mon, don’t give me that. I’m trying to help,” Nancy said. “I’m trying to help… us.” She was the one who opened the bills, who made sure they were paid, who tracked the balance in their bank accounts. Right now, the money in their accounts combined wouldn’t be enough for an engagement ring; that is, if the mime was thinking about surprising her any time soon.

The mime scowled, the white makeup accentuating his forehead lines. He adjusted his beret, sat forward, slid his chair back, and, with gloved hands, created a doorframe in the air between him and the table. A gloved hand rocked an imaginary door back and forth—testing it—before slamming it shut. Nancy recoiled.

“I can’t believe you just did that.” Her cheeks flushed again and she scowled. “Can’t I ever give you advice without you getting all huffy?” Nancy said.

From behind the door, the mime began winding an imaginary rope.

“Maybe you should join a traveling circus. Then I won’t be around to nag. Then maybe this family would get two regular paychecks instead of one,” Nancy said. She folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. She wanted to say something to make him acknowledge her, to throw him off, to hurt him. Buried frustrations began surfacing in her mind.

“Maybe then, on the road, you can hook up with that… that… with her,” Nancy said.

The mime seemed to pause in his rope winding. He knew whom Nancy meant. Binkie the clown. At performer conferences and circus conventions, Binkie draped herself over any willing, face-paint wearing male. With her slutty clown costume and pom-poms in strategic places, Binkie drew the stares of he-clowns and drew the hatred of she-clowns. And Nancy.

Nancy noticed when the mime checked out Binkie, which he had done on multiple occasions. He and Nancy had fought over this. However, Nancy had also noticed Binkie’s look of disappointment when the mime would not give her more of the attention she craved. Thus, Nancy didn’t feel too threatened by Binkie, but the issue was still raw between them.

The mime began eating imaginary corn from an imaginary cob, his head moving like a typewriter.

“I’ve seen the way you look at her. You don’t think I notice that she’s always wearing that getup with the fake pom-poms when she knows you’ll be around? The way she cakes on that face paint.”

Without looking up, the mime threw down the cob and spit imaginary corn kernels across the linoleum.

“I know Bozo is a jerk,” Nancy said. “But you have to start somewhere honey. You’re so much better than all of the other mimes. And your street corner? I mean, c’mon, you put on a great show for the bums, but they aren’t the ones with the money. You could at least go farther down the street with the white collar crowd.”

He had seemed so ambitious when they first met, setting up at the street corners near the big office buildings, street corners he now seemed to avoid. She thought of when she first saw him, a mime at the corner of Third Street and Main; she had watched as he, with gloved hands, gently stroked an imaginary bird and lightly patted the head of a pretend child. She watched him smile at each passerby, most times receiving a frown in return. She watched as bills, deposited by the dressed-up businessmen and women, crept toward the top of his jar.

A week later, she had stood at the same corner, ten minutes late for work, holding her morning coffee, watching the mime open and close an imaginary door, her co-workers, six floors above, no doubt becoming aware of her absence. The mime’s eyes, each embedded in a black diamond, lingered on her. Five minutes later, she called in sick and sat on a nearby sidewalk planter, her back to the street with its blur of cars and buses and bicycles. An hour later, Nancy’s coffee was cold and dumped into the planter, and the mime, though surrounded by a crowd, tossed a fake ball to her, produced an invisible rose for her, and tap danced for her. That night, when Nancy and the mime were alone, she told him of her dreams, her fears, her thoughts. The mime listened.

Now, two years later, in their one-room rental, she didn’t think the mime was listening. He was, in fact, throwing an invisible ball up and down, up and down. Nancy sighed. She turned out exactly like her mother, shacked up with a mime who wouldn’t marry her.

“I should have chosen the acrobat—he really liked me, he would’ve married me,” Nancy said.

The mime caught the nonexistent ball and paused, staring at the ceiling. He began to blink, the black diamonds smearing at the corners of his eyes. Nancy sighed again. She wished she hadn’t brought up the acrobat.

“Baby, baby, look at me. Look at me,” Nancy said.

The mime tossed the ball aside, leaned forward, and cracked the door. He peered through the opening with one eye.

“It’s just… a girl at the office got engaged last night and she had the ring and her nails were done and everyone saw.”

Gradually, the mime pulled his eye back from the opening and began to inch the door closed.

“No, no, I love you and I want to be with you. That’s all. And I know you want to make it right and do it in style, and that takes money. I get it. I get it,” Nancy said. “I just get impatient sometimes, that’s all.”

Now they both sat. The kitchen faucet dripped. The refrigerator kicked on, shuddering before settling into a hum.

The mime moved first, placing a gloved hand on the imaginary door handle and turning it. The door didn’t budge. The mime placed another hand on the invisible doorframe, and gave several jerks; the door popped open. The mime locked eyes with Nancy. He reached into the pocket of his black pants and pulled out a wad of bills, folded with a rubber band.

“What is this?” Nancy said.

The mime tightened an imaginary tie.

“You changed street corners to the business district.”

The mime nodded and tossed the wad onto the table.

Nancy picked up the wad and felt the weight. Ah, the white-collar crowd.

Nancy’s eyes shifted from the bills to the mime. She smiled. He did care.

With the door open, the mime unwound several feet of imaginary rope forming an imaginary lasso.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Nancy said. But she smiled as she spoke.

The mime tied the lasso and swung it over his head like a rodeo cowboy. After lassoing Nancy, he began to pull the rope, hand-over-hand, walking closer to his girlfriend with every tug. The imaginary rope pulled Nancy from her chair and she stood, the mime drawing her close.

Nancy looked at the mine, her mime, and said, “I’m glad we talked.”


Rick Nordgren is a practicing patent attorney in Salt Lake City. Having recently rediscovered his love of creative writing, he works on his stories after the kids are in bed or before they wake up. Email: me[at]ricknordgren.com


Jennifer Hurley

Chihuahua Chic
Photo Credit: Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

I stood at Kim’s front door—which had once been my front door—with Daphne’s baby gate separating us. I’d stopped by to collect some leftover pieces of mail. They were just ads, Kim had kept saying on the phone, but I came anyway. I hadn’t intended to tell her about losing my job, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Kim did not ask why I’d been laid off, or whether I could pay my rent. Instead she looked thoughtful, and after a moment asked if I would be willing to visit Daphne every weekday at lunchtime. I was not surprised. I was beyond expecting Kim to show any concern for me.

“What do you want me to do with her?” I asked.

“I want you to walk her, dummy,” she said.

“Does she even know how to walk on a leash?”

“Peter, you don’t need a lesson to walk on a fucking leash. She’s four fucking pounds and you’re what—two hundred? You think you can’t control her on a leash?”

I was tempted to correct her—I only weighed one-ninety-five—but I stopped myself. Four years ago, when I started dating Kim, I was a lean one-seventy. I was a runner then. But now I had bad knees, the same ailment that had troubled my father and my grandfather. I was only thirty years old, but my knees felt ancient.

“Will you do it? Come on, I can’t afford to keep taking her to day care five days a week.”

Kim had used money we didn’t have to buy that dog a satin bed, a personalized water bowl, and a fleece-lined parka, even though the temperature in Oakland barely dipped below forty. Each time she gave the dog a bath, she wasted a dollar-fifty’s worth of quarters warming a towel in the dryer. This behavior would have been troublesome under any circumstances, but during the time when Kim was shutting me out, on her way to breaking up with me, it was almost impossible to endure.

“I’m going to get another job. Soon.” I hated the way my voice sounded, as if I were trying to justify myself.

“Of course. I’m just asking for now,” she said.

Just then Daphne appeared on the scene with a squeaky toy in her mouth. She was a tiny, trembling black-and-white Chihuahua, a ten-year-old rescue with an arthritic hip that made her look a little lopsided. She had been an impulse buy on Kim’s part, from the ASCPA booth at the gym. I had nothing against Daphne per se, but I’d grown up with a Doberman Pinscher, and I could not for the life of me understand why small dogs should even exist. They could not guard a house, hike a trail, fetch a ball in the ocean, or sit at your feet by the fire—in short, they could not do anything that made a dog a dog.

“Hi Daphne,” I said.

“Try to act like you care about her, just a little,” Kim said.

On the way back to my apartment—a studio with broken mini-blinds located above a Chinese restaurant—I cursed myself for giving in to Kim again. She’d dumped me, basically communicating that I and my ruined knees were too boring for her, and still I couldn’t say no to her. A year ago, when she wanted to move to California, I agreed even though I had a job lined up as a docent in a history museum. I drove every single one of the 2,827 miles from Maryland to California while she chose the music. In California, Kim pursued her personal trainer ambitions while I found admin work in a San Francisco office, the same office that had just laid me off.

To feel better I told myself I was walking Daphne for my own benefit, so that I’d get out of the apartment every day and not be tempted to sit around in dirty sweatpants. But it had not occurred to me what it would be like to walk a dog like Daphne on the streets of downtown Oakland, past the old man hat shop and the place called Gold Teeth Master. Several men on the street openly laughed at me. And I couldn’t blame them. Daphne was outfitted in a pink leather collar with rhinestones, obviously not of my choosing. She was small enough to fit the inside pocket of my bomber jacket—and I admit, I did that once when it was raining, because I couldn’t stand to see the pitiful little thing shiver.

It worried me passing homeless people on the street. Probably they’d been sane and freshly showered once, but something happened to them, something like losing a job, and now here they were, cold, filthy, and drugged, repelling passersby with their smell. I wondered if some of them had a humanities degree like I did, and if they’d once thought they might embark on a meaningful career. I’d given up on that idea. Instead I’d become a master of trivial office skills. I could debug networks, repair HTML errors, and generate a slick, color-coded graph using Excel. I knew how to fix the most intransigent paper jam on a touch-screen Xerox machine. I was the most competent fucking admin guy in that entire office, and it made no sense that I was the one to get laid off first.

I lugged my laptop around on walks with Daphne, intending to surf the job sites at an outdoor cafe. Instead, I found myself occupied keeping an eye on Daphne. I was worried someone in workman boots or high heels might step on her and then Kim would make my life a fucking hell. So I made sure Daphne was sitting beneath my chair, out of the way of pedestrian traffic. I’d bought her a harness in camouflage material. People still laughed, but they had way more respect for a dog in camo. Lots of women approached me wanting to meet Daphne. If they seemed kind and gentle—different from Kim, basically—I let them pet her. If not, I told them Daphne was a vicious biter. I liked to see these women draw back their hands, their smiles fading.

The fourth or fifth time I came to pick Daphne up, Kim had left me a note: Peter, please don’t try to comfort Daphne when she is whining. Cesar Millan says that’s just rewarding the unwanted behavior. I noticed that she is whining at the door a lot since you have been walking her. —Thanks, Kim. I laughed out loud, and then I felt annoyed. Here I was, walking her pipsqueak dog out of the goodness of my heart—picking up her dog’s shit, for god’s sake—while Kim was searching for reasons to criticize me. I looked down at Daphne, who was leaping up my pant legs, trying to get my attention.

“You don’t ever whine around me,” I said to her.

Daphne wagged her tail as if to say, “Who cares, let’s walk!”

Several weeks went by and I still had not sent out my resume—I was touching it up, and it never seemed finished. When I thought of myself sitting in a cubicle again, smelling air-conditioning and printer ink, it was as if a belt were being cinched around my chest. The walks with Daphne made me feel a little less anxious. Each morning I showered, iced my knees, and grabbed a cup of coffee and a donut before walking the twelve blocks to Kim’s apartment. Using the key felt different, the way it feels to use a key in a stranger’s home. I was relieved when Daphne came running to the door, breaking the silence with her squeaky barks. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say she was thrilled to see me. Kim was always bustling about, so busy that she probably didn’t bother to look the poor dog in the eye. And Daphne made great eye contact; she had big, brown, soulful eyes, probably her best feature.

I could tell that Daphne’s hip stiffened up in the cold, just as my knees did. So once, on a particularly cold day, I took her over to my apartment, drew the broken blinds, and we watched movies for the afternoon. Daphne curled up in my lap, a furry ball of warmth, and I felt so relaxed that I fell asleep, waking with a start when my cell phone rang. It was Kim’s angry voice, demanding to know where Daphne was. I had slept until six o’clock—and so had Daphne, who was now on my carpet doing her sleepy yoga stretch. I carried Daphne back to Kim’s in the dark, upbraiding myself the whole time for allowing myself to sleep like that. I had promised myself I would not do that—I would not become an unemployed person who slept at odd hours. When I got back to my apartment, I immediately went online and started emailing out résumés. It was crazy that I’d waited so long; my unemployment benefits were already starting to run out.

Between phone calls and emails, I walked Daphne. I didn’t get any more notes from Kim, but one time she left me an envelope of photos she’d taken of Daphne at Halloween, outfitted in a ludicrous bumblebee costume. I stretched out on Kim’s bed as I flipped through the photos, careful not to touch the covers with my boots. This was her new bed—I had taken the old crummy one—but it smelled the same as I remembered. She still had the same yellow sheets with tiny bluebirds on them and the battered headboard that had once been her grandmother’s. She’d insisted on paying movers to move that poor old headboard all the way from Maryland. Once I gashed my forehead on it when we were play-wrestling on the bed. Kim drove me to the emergency room, but when the woman at the counter said the wait would be at least two hours, Kim would not hear of it. She took me right back home and stitched me up herself with a needle and thread, five perfect, painful stitches that had not left even the faintest scar.

I should never have lain down on Kim’s bed; I should’ve known it would make me sad. Plus, while I was reminiscing away, Daphne was busy chewing up a pen in the other room. Thankfully I caught her before she swallowed anything dangerous. I hid the ruined pen in my laptop case to throw out later. When I left Kim’s apartment that day, I lingered in the hall a few minutes to see if I could hear Daphne whining for me, but she was quiet.

A few days later I got an interview for an administrative assistant position at an office supply company in San Francisco. The commute by public transit was atrocious and the pay was mediocre, but when I was offered the job, I took it immediately. Riding back to Oakland at rush hour on BART, I felt like I was part of things again. I had somewhere to be, and someone who cared if I showed up. I had a reason to shave and to iron my clothes.

I hadn’t thought about what would happen with Daphne when I went back to work. When I called to tell Kim about the new job, she thanked me for taking care of Daphne and said she’d mail me a $20 gift card to Starbucks that she wasn’t using because she’d quit coffee. I wanted to ask her whether I could stop by the apartment to say goodbye to Daphne, but I knew Kim would think I was inventing an excuse to see her.

“OK, then,” I said. “Say hi to Daphne for me.”

“She’s a dog, Peter. She can’t understand English.”

“Well, maybe I’ll see you around then. Or I could pet sit when you go visit your parents.”

Kim sighed. “Oh, Peter,” she said. “I feel so strange about telling you, but I started seeing someone, not serious or anything, but he thinks it’s weird, having you come to my apartment all the time, and I guess it is kind of weird. I was going to say something, but then you called and said you had a job, so— anyway, you probably shouldn’t come by anymore.”

Blood was rushing to my face and for a moment I couldn’t speak. “Oh,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Kim said. “I’m sorry about so many things.”

I could hear now that she was crying. I didn’t know what to say. “It’s OK. Everything will be OK,” I told her.

“Are you OK?” she said.

There was a catch in my voice, too, and I didn’t even care if she heard it. “I’m doing all right,” I said. “I’m about to be a functioning member of society again.”

She laughed, and then covered the mouthpiece to muffle the sound of her blowing her nose.

After we hung up the phone, I was surprised to find that I felt fine. I was getting over Kim, I thought to myself, and I wanted to tell someone. But I hadn’t returned any calls from friends or family for at least a month, and I wasn’t up to making the introductory small talk a phone call would require. It was silly, but what I really wanted to do was talk to Daphne, just to speak my thoughts aloud to her unassuming, uncomprehending presence.

When the weekend came, I decided I would try a slow jog around Lake Merritt, something that once would’ve been a warm-up. Kim and I used to run multiple laps around that lake. That was back when we still had fun together, before my knees gave out, before Kim made a slew of new friends that were never friends of mine. We would take our runs at sunset, watching the light on the lake turn pink and orange, and then we’d go home and make huge plates of spaghetti. Because of our runs, we were eating all the time. These days, I ate plenty but I never felt hungry.

I put on my running clothes and sneakers and went out at dawn, thinking I might bump into Kim and Daphne on their pre-breakfast powerwalk. The lake was slate blue in the morning light. I started jogging. It was terrible—with every step, my knees felt like they being stabbed with invisible knives. But I pressed on, concentrating on the cool air pushing through my lungs. The thing I hated most about office jobs was the stale, overheated air. It stank of chemicals and a mix of bad perfumes. If only I could open a window, I could work a job like that, no problem. But in the office where I had worked previously, and in the one where I’d begin work on Monday, the windows were sealed shut against the elements. You could look outside, but you could only look.

I ran around the entire lake, and when I was done, I collapsed on the grass. I sat there for a long time, rubbing my knees, trying to ignore the homeless man in a sleeping bag nearby, shouting in his sleep. There was no sign of Kim and Daphne. I sat there until it began to rain, scared that I wouldn’t be able to walk the half-mile back to my apartment. Somehow I managed to limp back. I was less mobile than the old woman who rolled her cart through Safeway, her back so hunched it hurt my heart to look at her.

I woke up on Monday morning aching all over and feeling jittery about the new job. I put on my work clothes—khakis, a white button-down, and a tie—gave myself a good shave, and even flossed my teeth. I took five Advil to combat the searing pain in my knees. But before I even got outside, I knew I wasn’t going to that office building in San Francisco, despite the fact that my checking account held less than eighty dollars.

It was a perfectly crisp late-autumn day, and I inhaled the cold air as I walked, my hands trembling as they had when I was almost hit by a car a few months before. At Kim’s apartment, I let myself inside with the key that she had forgotten to ask me to return. Daphne barked and wiggled and licked my face. I scooped her up and held her in one arm while I dug around in Kim’s foyer cabinet for the camouflage harness and leash. We went to the lake. We walked the three point four miles slowly, our bodies aching, stopping frequently just to look at things: the geese squalking, babies being pushed in strollers, people with good knees taking a run. At the end of the walk, we sat on a grassy bank by the side of the lake, a place where no one sat, not even the homeless, due to the abundant goose poop. Daphne, of course, didn’t care and in fact seemed to enjoy sniffing each individual pellet of poop. I lay on my back, studying the sky, which was a bird’s egg blue with puffy white clouds. I had not previously noticed how the clouds seemed to come together, then push apart, as if they were breathing.

My cell phone rang. It had to be my almost-boss wondering where I was, or Kim in a panic looking for Daphne. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. In fact, the ringing of the phone sent a flash of anger through my body, which I could feel in my knees. I felt like I hated everyone, like the whole endeavor of being around people was not suited for me. I took my cell phone out, and without looking to see who had called, covered it with a pile of leaves. Then I called Daphne to me. She rushed to jump into my lap and curled into a ball, looking up at me as if to say, “Let’s nap!” It was really too cold to sleep outside, but with Daphne next to me emitting her waves of little-dog heat, I could almost bear it.


Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has appeared in Front Porch, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Slow Trains, and The Mississippi Review, among others. An alum of Boston University’s graduate creative writing program, she currently works as an Associate Professor of English at Ohlone College in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives in the island town of Alameda with her husband, four cats, puppy, and innumerable books. Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu

Breathe Small in the Light

Josh Hauser

Photo Credit: Jalal Hameed Bhatti

The dead refrigerator is entirely empty except for a single pickle in a single pickle jar, in the middle of the middle shelf. It’s the last morsel of food in the house and I’m starving, but I don’t dare touch it because it might be holding the world in place.

Outside the weather is loud, with white skies and blinding sunlight. I wander into the noise, cowering and squinting at the atmosphere. My skin feels itchy and warm like I’m wearing wool, so I pinch and pull to try to make it loose and comfortable. My feet are moving, but I have the strangest feeling I’m walking in place, like the earth is a giant treadmill.

Scenes changing, I head through the forest and into the wide openness, a grassy area a mile long by a mile wide. I avoid the middle because I think I will fall through. The field is endless and the sky is inches from my head. I now understand that there are things that I cannot understand. That’s likely better than most. Breathe small, if at all. Open field ahead, chaos above.

I eventually find the traps and notice they’re still alive. My voice falls like steel, and the earth rumbles below my feet. I pick up all the meat I can carry and put it in my pack. I don’t reset the traps.

There is an organized group who give daily updates. They don’t reveal their location because they can’t explain where they are. They say the ground is unstable, and the event from last year was just the beginning. I don’t know how they know this, but I don’t know much of anything anymore, except that the light is here. And so am I.

I keep waiting for my eyes to adjust to the new light, but of course they never do. Walking through the field again, I notice the land dips drastically downward like water over a falls. There are no canyons or valleys here. This is the curve of the earth.

“Welcome back,” she says, blankly.

“Thanks,” I say, and put my pack on the kitchen table. “This should last us for about a week if we ration conservatively.”

“They made an announcement when you were gone, something about rain.”

“There is no more rain.”

“They say it’s in the forecast.”

The same forecast broadcasts often, promising heavy amounts of cool, beautiful rain. It never comes. Brightness is the new weather. Brightness and light so abundant it swallows everything, erasing the outdoors.

“I think we should leave this place,” she says, pushing her tired black hair off her face and adjusting the top of her bright yellow sundress.

“You know we can’t do that,” I say, removing the contents of my pack onto the table. “There is nowhere else to go, and even if there was, we wouldn’t know how to get there. We are alive; we are rulers of the earth.”

“I don’t understand.”

It’s night but the light continues to shine. We start a fire outside because the stove is broken and we don’t know how to fix it. Cracking and whipping, the fire swells to an adequate size for cooking. I watch the meat transform color as the fire surrounds it, like the light that surrounds her and me. The meat is tough, overcooked, and overall tasteless. We wash it down with unlabeled bottles of sweet beer. Our basement is full of these, although we only drink now to remember, not for the moment. The backs of our hands touch as we sit indoors after our meal. This contact is important, as it reminds me that she is beautiful. I tell her this.

“You said I was alive,” she says.

“You are, and that’s everything.” I adjust my tie.

Our bedroom windows have been boarded up for months in order to minimize light. Some always gets in, but we are able to sleep for a few hours each night regardless. She sleeps better than me. I watch her on occasion, wanting to be like her, too confused to figure out how to die.

We awake at the same moment, and the backs of our hands are touching, barely. It’s hotter outside than yesterday, significantly so. I turn on the radio to listen to their message. Rain is coming soon, they say. It’s the same message as yesterday and many times before. The man speaking sounds tired and worn. She enters the room, yellow sundress disheveled but bright as the outdoors, and sits next to me and listens to the broadcast. I stare at her, hoping to drink her apathy. I don’t tell her the traps haven’t been reset.

The broadcast ends and we wander to the porch. We sit, and the light sits with us.

“Think of it like music,” she says, her eyes gently closed, as if she’s enjoying a breeze.

“Excuse me?”

“Our light is the new melody.”

The day—if it can be called that—passes slowly. The earth is a broken carousel, spinning without end, all its trapped riders wanting nothing more than for it to stop.

We sleep, restlessly.

Wait for the rain. Wait for the rain. Pray for the rain, they say. The message today is desperate, pleading, like our collective wills must bring rain or everything will cease. Needing rain has become less about basic hydration and more about normalcy. My morning is filled with thoughts about the life of the light, and if it’s alive it has to rest. It has to. And I look forward to that.

Beaming and blaring outside I tumble over my phrases, craning my neck to escape everything, finding no solace in consciousness, sight line on any color other than bright and fixate as she follows, blindly, smiling. The light breathes, invites us in and we accept without thought. I think we are in the field, but I can’t be certain, as the power of the light has increased. A wind pushes through the sky and hits me in the chest and scatters, and I look to her. We move our bodies like we remember how, bending, jumping, arms flailing wildly, laughing for hours and days and forever. We dance for each other, for everyone, for the light. Inside the light our insignificance is abundantly clear, so we let the skies push and pull us, like the invisible dust we are.

We fall back into our house, panting and smiling. Lie down in the light and rest, I think aloud. I look at her sitting on a kitchen chair, rotating her eyes around and around, trying to trap the day in memory. I walk over to her and verbally repeat our dance over and over, helping her secure it, but her memories are held together loosely with string. They will untie, or snap.

Eventually we prepare dinner. Most of the meat has gone bad, so now we only have enough for a few days. I don’t tell her this, but I feel strongly she knows. We fill our thin stomachs and don’t speak. She grabs the meat with her fingers and stuffs it into her mouth, and before she begins to chew she takes a large gulp of sweet beer. Our house is a dead spot in the light that will inevitably fall victim to its strength, as it’s undoubtedly tired of fighting. In the moment, we are the fortunate inhabitants of the house, somewhat protected from the hot light, chewing food and swallowing beer.

I don’t wash the plates, and instead let them rest on the kitchen table.

“Maybe we should sit in the porch tonight,” she says.

Her suggestion fills the earth, fearless of the light.

“I think it would be nice,” she says, genuinely, as she stands, adjusts her dress and tries to smooth the creases, and steps toward the porch.

I watch her walk in and disappear, and for a time I remain seated in the kitchen, looking at my folded hands. I let my eyelids rest on one another, gently, and brilliant red floods in.

Screaming heat greets me at the porch entrance, pouring over my head and dripping down the walls, flooding, stealing the breath from my lips. I sit next to her, endless and perfect light surrounds us, my tie glibly dangles and she reaches over and tightens it, and we hold hands and pray for rain because that’s all there is, and all there ever was.


Josh Hauser is the Communications Coordinator for a non-profit called Tubman, at which he writes, designs, plans, fund raises and fixes the printers (majority of his work). Much of his academic career consisted of writing and reading, and cooking unhealthily for himself and anyone else who dared to consume. Email: jdhauser[at]gmail.com