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Stephanie “Baker” Lenz & Theryn “Beaver” Fleming
The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors


One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present. —Golda Meir

Josie walks into a city library and asks to see an issue of a magazine from 2001. The librarian finds the magazine and places it on the counter. Josie flips to page 64 and says, “I wrote this story and I don’t like it anymore.” Then she rips the pages out of the magazine and creates an origami rendition of the Sydney Opera House before she announces, “Well, I’m off to the county library to make the Villa Savoye! Wish me luck!”

Last year, Phil published a heartfelt poem about the person he thought he’d spend the rest of his life with. That was before he got dumped in favor of his partner’s coworker, Bartholomew. Phil decides to burn every copy of the poem he can find. Not just his own copies but the printed ones that people bought and the extra copies of the anthology sitting in a warehouse in Hoboken. Phil is later arrested and wouldn’t you know that the only person he knows who can give him bail money is Bartholomew.

Lola knew she wanted to write nothing but horror stories for the rest of her life and did an interview saying so in 2004. Ten years later, she’d found a passion for writing Amish romance novels. On the sixth result page of an insomnia-fueled egosurfing session, she came across her horror-espousing interview. She just knew it would damage her reputation if anyone found it. She emailed the editor to take down the interview. At 2 a.m. At 5 a.m. At 7:43 a.m. Then every hour, in between drafting scenarios of Miriam having a meet-cute with Isaac but debating whether his brother Abe might be a more suitable match, brushing aside thoughts that Abe may just be a werewolf.

It happens.

Stephanie: Every now and then TC editors get a request from an author or interview subject asking us to remove something from our archived issues. Sometimes it’s for a reason like “that piece doesn’t reflect my current writing” or “I don’t agree with what I said then.” People change, if they’re doing this whole Life gig properly. Our literary magazine does not. The issue we published ten years ago was exactly as you will find it today.

Theryn: It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but from time to time we will get one of these requests. My answer is always the same: it’s been our policy since our inception not to remove published work from the archives. One recent request stands out, though. Usually writers request their own work be removed, but this writer wanted another writer’s work (that they were the subject of) removed. While we treated this request as we would any other, the more I think about it, the more inappropriate I find it. I should note that these pieces were originally requested by the writer and were positive about the author’s work, so it wasn’t a case of a writer being angry about a negative review or something like that.

S: There are occasions when we editors may be more flexible, like updating our information to reflect the author’s switch to his initials or when contact information must be deleted from a biography due to online harassment of the author. But those cases aren’t what’s illustrated here: changing the past as if it never happened.

T: Things we will do: correct typos, delete or change email addresses, and update author tags to reflect current bylines (here’s an example). The rest is a reflection of the time it was published and should remain intact.

S: There are a lot of reasons why we don’t like to alter our archived issues. The issue is already cached. The editorial work has value. The issue has a theme. No matter the reason, the answer has almost always been the same: we won’t change the issue but it was good to hear from you again.

T: One major reason is what’s articulated in this article: old writing on the internet has a tendency to disappear, leaving writers with no evidence they were ever published. From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want this to happen with TC. While we can’t afford to pay writers, we can give them something of value: a permanent link to their work. We’ve tried really hard when moving things around to make sure old links are forwarded to the current page so no one gets a 404 on their old work.

But it’s not just a matter of ensuring there’s a link to your page. It’s important that the entire issue/journal remain intact so anyone given a link to an older piece is able to judge where it was published accurately and doesn’t question its value because the rest of the site is full of holes and looks sketchy.

More importantly, it goes beyond live links being valuable to the writers we’ve published. It’s also about cultural value. So while an author might think, “If I take down my story no one will care,” they really don’t know. That might be someone’s favorite story; it might be the one someone teaches to their class every semester; it might have been referenced/linked to from elsewhere. There are Wikipedia articles that use TC stories and articles as sources, for example.

S: Would you remove the cheese from your toasted cheese sandwich? Of course not. The content makes it what it is. So why should editors remove the content of the literary journals?

T: Toasted Cheese isn’t your personal blog where you can do whatever you like; it’s a publication. Once work is published, it’s published.

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com | beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Swish, Swirl & Sniff

A.R. Cook
Candle-Ends: Reviews


Swish, Swirl & Sniff by Salvatore Marici

Salvatore Marici’s Swish, Swirl & Sniff (Ice Cube Press, 2014) is a lyrical road map, a journey from the ancient exotic to the homegrown fresh, in which the reader follows a seamless trail of poetry that feels both earthen and astral.

While this is a collection of poems, each with its own unique flavor and tone, there is a structured flow to its arrangement in what becomes a subtle story arc of Marici’s world. It begins with “Altitude Sickness,” dropping us right into a South American landscape:

The Andes squeeze Cuzco’s air.
Coca leaves fatten my red blood cells
and wobble.

Marici invokes a physical sensation that is both dreamlike and unsettling at times—the feeling of traversing an alien jungle. But even with harsh imagery such as “purple fruit on tangled green pads / … / and their guardian spines” and “Walls echo crashes / to a deafen gurgle” in the “Devil’s Throat” of the Iguazu River, there is still a hint of Marici’s lightheartedness and wonder. While the river’s turbulent cascades are painted as a celestial battle of warrior angels, the scene ends with the gentleness of a rainbow. Marici finds the aesthetic, and sometimes the joviality, of nature in its rawness and rage.

“Devil’s Throat” is linked to the subsequent poem through its title, “Cooking to Sympathy for the Devil,” a smooth segue into Marici’s love for food and cooking. We leave behind the Amazonian exotic for the domestic comfort of the kitchen, yet Marici retains the adventurous whimsy. Each poem in this section is a recipe in itself, as Marici describes each ingredient, texture and taste of what he is making, “Like a love potion / that comes out of a witch’s cauldron.” We also see the passion and intensity of the cooking, and how it is so deeply connected to his family, both past and present. Perhaps that is why this section of the collection was the most poignant for me—it was truly an exploration of his family and history, and how the food he loves is the bridge between his memories and his present-day life.

I appreciate the humor of Marici’s poetry as well. I have attended several poetry readings of the Georgia Poetry Circuit at my local university the past year, and there seems to be a need for the poets to tell us something profound, or to jar the audience with a dark exploration of the human psyche. But they often forget that comedy is a part of the psyche as well, and some of Marici’s poems such as “Cubs Suck” (I was raised outside of Chicago, Illinois, and I, too, rooted for the Sox) are nice little reprieves from some of the more somber and sensual pieces.

That is actually a perfect word to describe the collection as a whole—sensual—in terms of sexuality, artistic passion, and the five physical senses. The sexual tones are tenderly handled, more to convey a natural beauty or admiration for creative art:

The insides
of Samantha’s thighs
hug polished curves

sets the tone of the poem “Perfection,” which compares a cellist making music to romance. This is a recurring theme for Marici, as his poems about gardening, reading poetry or watching films have an air of sexuality to them—passion is passion, and the different types can often overlap.

The reuse of certain images throughout the collection also forms the story arc, as if these images are “characters” that symbolize an emotional entity of Marici. The moon, the locust tree in his yard, the “two-story cedar deck” (a place where he likes to observe the surrounding nature while partaking in his consumable comforts) become prominent in the last section of the collection, hinting that these things carry significant importance to the poet. When it came to the final poem “Saving a Buck,” in which the locust tree gets dismembered by a landscaper (this moment was foreshadowed in an earlier poem, when Marici watches a neighbor cut down one of his dying trees) I genuinely felt bad for the tree. For a tree. Because we see how much this tree meant to the poet, the beauty it had and how easily it was axed away. It is a sorrowful moment to end on, but it is also carries hope in what new life can grow from it, the insects, fungi, and “unstable sprouts [that] sit on top.”

I confess that I don’t always derive the full meaning or author’s intentions from poetry, but Salvatore Marici’s Swish, Swirl & Sniff is accessible to even the most poetry-adverse of readers, creating incredible canvases of verbal wordplay, colors, and scents.


Salvatore Marici is an author of two poetry books. The first was a chapbook titled Mortals, Nature, and their Spirits (Ice Cube Press, 2012). His writing has appeared in several anthologies, magazines and journals including Toasted Cheese. He was the 2010 Midwest Writing Center’s poet-in-residence. He has won and placed in several poetry contests. Marici served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and he is a civil servant retiree, who worked for the Army, mainly with the job title Agronomist. At both jobs, he managed natural resources. You can follow his poetry events at salmarici.myicourse.com and on Facebook.

pencilA.R. Cook resides in Gainesville, Georgia, and is the author of The Scholar and the Sphinx fantasy book series. She has short stories published in the anthology The Kress Project from the Georgia Museum of Art, and the fairy-tale collection Willow Weep No More. Several of A.R.’s short stories and short plays have been awarded first place and appear in various journals, such as Toasted Cheese and Writer’s Digest. A.R. was the former book review columnist for the Gainesville Times. Email: scholarandsphinx[at]gmail.com

Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


Work to Do by Bob Zeanah

One of the oldest plots in the history of storytelling is the journey: someone leaves town or a stranger comes to town. The journey can be a physical journey or an internal one. The best stories contain both. Bob Zeanah’s mystery novel Work to Do (Moonshine Books, 2014) does just this. The novel begins in medias res setting up the chaos with the discovery of a body and the crux of the mystery: who done it?

Work to Do has elements of three sub-genres within the general mystery context: soft-boiled, police procedural, and cozy. It can be called a soft-boiled mystery because the murder and other violence is not graphic and happens mainly offstage, revealed through character witnesses. Some of the characters are police officers lending police language and procedural rules to the storyline and thus, Zeanah’s novel could be described in part as a police procedural mystery. Likewise, the characters in the small southern town of Romulus are all cozy types because they are likeable, interesting, curious, and sometimes quirky characters. In this way, Work to Do has elements of a cozy mystery, as well.

Soon into the novel two protagonists emerge—the mysterious Kelci who quickly becomes the underdog character, and the good-natured, tough sheriff nicknamed Sugar Bear who provides the internal structure of the novel. The remaining characters are a diverse population: the three owners of Neat Artsy Stuff—nature-loving Ramsey; Shelley, his twin; and Joe, Shelley’s shifty husband; Sistah Laney, the apple grower; the charming Reverend Al Manning; Bertram Parker “a new breed of lawyer that operated from a car, cell phone, and post office box”; several police officers with their own agendas and more. And of course, the victim, Burl Campbell—“killed with a hole in his head that matched the hole in his soul”—whom the reader meets postmortem and later in flashback.

Each character is unique and Zeanah gives them distinct voices one could pick out in a crowd, such as the Reverend Manning who frequently quotes Bible scripture in conversation and Sistah Laney who speaks her mind freely: “You here to know what I know about Burl Campbell.”

Sistah Laney and the other characters, some of whom are antagonists and suspects, each want something for themselves and distract the reader by creating red herrings that lead the reader down other storylines—a family history, a budding romance, theft, domestic abuse, and other police matters that may or may not relate to Burl Campbell’s murder. And this generally is how mysteries differ from most fiction. The reader must remain active, alert and watchful. As Sheriff Sugar Bear sifts through clues, puzzles, secrets and questions in Work to Do, the reader looks over Sugar Bear’s big broad shoulders, working the case with him invisibly like a silent partner.

It is also interesting that Bob chose to write Work to Do in a third-person point of view with an omniscient narrator. It is an effective choice as it gives the reader more access to inner thoughts and character development (related through backstory and flashback mechanisms) that also serve in establishing motives and, if the reader is paying close attention, the method and opportunity for murder, as well.

Zeanah’s writing is also noteworthy. He takes his time describing location, movement, and introducing characters:

A lanky deputy barely filling out his uniform stepped out of the patrol car. He wore youthfulness on his face that let the world know he was eager, and would say or do something immature and he would be forgiven because he showed pride in what he was doing.

This is where Zeanah excels. His prose is wondrous in its clarity and richness in detail.

Along with the initial chaos and red herrings, a mystery needs tension-building devices to drive the main plot. Besides murder, there is blackmail, theft, violence, sex, secrets, and lies that climax with the intersection of two plot lines.

Work to Do is the first in a series of Sugar Bear mysteries.


Bob Zeanah has spent his adult life writing fiction as a hobby. After retiring from a career in education, he turned to grant writing and also teaches classes in creative writing, business writing, and editing. Work to Do is his first published novel. Bob lives on the Gulf Coast of Alabama in a place well known for churning out quality writing.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist by Margarita Engle

Award-winning author Margarita Engle breathes life into Cuban abolitionist poet Getrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814-1873) in her young adult verse novel, The Lightning Dreamer (Harcourt, 2013). Getrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known as “Tula” to her family and friends, is considered to be one of the foremost Romantic writers of the nineteenth century and one of the greatest of the women poets of that era. She wrote plays, poems, and sonnets in lyrical prose to boldly express her beliefs about the emancipation of slaves, interracial and voluntary marriage, the exclusion of women, and classism within the Spanish colony of Cuba. Engle creatively weaves together fact with fiction to conjure Tula—her voice and her world.

Thirteen is the age for dreams
of changing the world
by freeing my own heart.

Tula’s journey begins with the yearning to read and stealing quiet moments and books from her father’s glass-cased library and her little brother Manuel’s school bag. Interestingly, it is Tula’s mother who becomes her most ferocious opponent and strongest influence in Tula’s poetic narrative.

People assume that men
make all the rules, but sometimes
mothers are the ones who command
girls to be quiet
while they arrange
for us to be sold
like oxen
or mules.

At the convent library, a young Tula discovers the poetry of Cuban poet, José Maria Heredia (1803-1890), the abolitionist-poet and independista who was forced into exile. Though they never meet, Heredia becomes Tula’s invisible mentor and inspires Tula’s wild words to flow.

I think of my feather pen
as something magical
that still belongs
to a wing.

All I need
is paper, ink
and the courage
to let wild words soar.

Engle’s prose is laced with rich language and lovely metaphor as she conjures evocative and ethereal images—moonlit gardens with “the fragrance of jasmine and angel’s trumpet” and souls that “can rise and soar in dreams.” There is allusion present as well. Flying is a common element alluding to freedom and fulfilling one’s true purpose. “I rise up out of a nightmare and grasp a feather pen, feeling winged.” Tula’s abolitionist ideas grow from the seeds of her questioning and rejection of the social structures in place. “The punishment for shunning a forced marriage is being shunned.” Patience is also prevalent. Tula fans her fire with it as she waits to come of age and effect change: “…I do believe that someday silenced words will rise and glide.”

Engle narrates Tula’s story through other characters in several first-person points of view—Manuel, her brother and ally, who gives Tula the ink and paper to write her stories, plays and poems; Caridad, the old kitchen maid and Tula’s companion who still dreams of freedom; the nuns whose cloistered convent walls provide a sanctuary of books and the space to compose her poems, plays, and stories; and the orphans who are Tula’s first audience. Tula also finds friendship and love when she meets Sab, the troubled half-African freed slave whose story intersects with hers. Each chapter is titled with a character’s name and each new voice adds an emotional depth rounding Tula’s character and showing her exceptional courage, determination, and transcendence conveyed through the compassion and opinions of character witnesses.

From the first page, I heard Tula. Tula’s thoughts, her ideas and opinions are spoken in soliloquy form reminiscent of the stage that served as one of Getrudis Gómez Avellaneda’s political platforms. Tula’s voice is so vocal and her narrative so detailed and poignant that her story reads like a personal interview one might hear on NPR. Engle’s characters effectively create Tula’s world giving the reader a bright glimpse of nineteenth-century Cuba. The novel is broken into five parts and concludes with historical notes about Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and José Maria Heredia and selections from their prose.


Cuban-American author Margarita Engle grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. She is author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino, and The Lightning Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Other honors include multiple Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, as well as the Jane Adams, International Reading Association, Claudia Lewis, International Latino, and MANA Las Primeras awards. Books for younger children include Mountain Dog, Summer Birds, Orangutanka, Drum Dream Girl, and The Sky Painter. Engle’s latest story, Enchanted Air, Two Cultures Two Wings (Atheneum, August, 2015) is a verse memoir about her childhood visits to Cuba. Margarita was trained as a botanist and agronomist before becoming a full-time poet and novelist. She lives in central California, where she enjoys hiding in the wilderness to help train her husband’s search and rescue dogs.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Snake

Amelia Diamond
Dead of Winter ~ Third Place

Rubik Snake 2

Photo Credit: Kim Keegan/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

She’d found the snake in the mostly-finished attic that had briefly been her older brother’s room. She always thought of it as his lair, even now that he’d been gone a whole year. It just felt like his place, had felt like it the moment their parents agreed he could have it for his bedroom. The room was narrow, with walls that rose up three feet before sloping in toward the low ceiling. At one end each knee wall had a small square door held closed with a piece of wood on a nail. Behind those doors were unfinished storage areas. It was in those that Sarah found the bulging cardboard boxes full of old toys that she and her brother had outgrown.

She’d been spending a lot of time up there lately. At first, she’d avoided even looking at the door that opened onto the staircase. But as the leaves began their slow burning and the northern wind sucked like a vampire at the tomatoes in the back yard she found herself sitting in her brother’s comfy burgundy reading chair next to the disproportionately large round window. Sometimes she would read. She had for many years loved Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and Stephen King, but everything that had happened with her brother had soured her taste for horror. So she would sit with a YA novel or one of the dozens of manga her friend Clarisse was always lending her. Other times she would watch leaves or rain or snow fall. She’d imagine the low clouds were an ocean she could swim in and daydream herself as a whale with a song that could say all the things words couldn’t. She’d dive so deep that no therapist or teacher or friend could reach to interrupt her grieving with their furrowed brows and uninvited hands on her shoulders.

It had been one of those days, a sea day, that it had occurred to Sarah to wonder what was behind those little doors now. She’d been trained so well by her volatile older brother to never be curious about his things that she’d unconsciously restricted herself to those parts of his room, of the room, that were out in the open.

In the window she’d noticed the reflection of a little door standing open, or she’d thought she had, for when she went to the door it was closed. But she’d become curious enough to open it and pull the delicate hanging chain that turned on the light inside. She wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, certainly nothing as innocuous as a bunch of dusty cardboard boxes. The nearest bulged like a spider’s egg sac, so she pulled it out, half expecting Kyle’s scary-calm voice to ask her what she was doing. She shuddered, remembering what he’d kept in these storage spaces when it was still his room.

The box held a nest of shiny bright shapes. She stared in wonder, at first unable to place these objects in any frame of reference. Was it some kind of treasure? Suddenly the objects clicked into context and she recognized the toys. There were the kind of action figures whose legs are held on by hidden black rubber bands, now brittle and stiff. There were Sarah’s old dolls staring up at her with empty eyes that had sometimes featured in her childhood nightmares. There were little green plastic soldiers and an amazing toy spaceship that Kyle had once caught Sarah playing with when she thought he wasn’t home. She could still vividly remember the surprise of being suddenly flung backward by her hair, the sharp blinding pain each time he kicked her, and his bored expression. He won’t stop me playing with it now, she thought. But it no longer interested her, so she tossed it into the shadows at the back of the storage space.

She found her favorite My Little Pony from when she’d been little. The purple mane and tail were tangled and the moon-and-stars cutie mark was rubbed completely away. Sarah had slept with this pony, who she’d named Marabel, every night for years. She felt a pang of guilt for forgetting Marabel, so she placed her on the window sill, further claiming the little space.

Digging deeper through the box, she found mostly small plastic things until she reached the very bottom. Her questing fingers closed around a strange shape. She took it, shaking bright-colored tiny dinosaurs and bits of ribbon from its slick surface.

It was a long bunch of connected plastic triangular prisms that could be twisted to make different shapes. The triangles alternated in color between dull purple and aquamarine. There was a place at one end where the label had worn off, but she looked it up on the internet and found out it was called a Rubik’s Snake.

It was hard to say what she found so fascinating about the plastic puzzle. Maybe it was the clicking sound the pieces made with each turn. Or how she could lose herself in it, because it wasn’t meant to be completed or beaten. It was just meant to be played with. So she played in the chair by the window, watching the snow drifting from the low grey sky, mind mirroring the still grey clouds and hands busy. Click, click, click.

Visits with social workers, days at school, tense silent dinners, all blurred together. Her grades were still good, especially in math, but no one could fail to notice Sarah’s increasingly detached, vacant manner. School ended for winter break. Then there were days and days when no one expected anything from her. So she started sleeping upstairs. Her first night sleeping there she woke in the dark when a stair creaked. She froze, wide awake, holding back a scream. It was Kyle. Even death couldn’t stop him from hurting her. Screaming would only make it worse. What was she thinking hanging around in his room and sleeping in his bed?

But no, of course it wasn’t Kyle, just her parents, coming upstairs to check on her. She heard her father whisper something to her mother on the stairs, then their careful quiet treading down to their room. She released the breath she’d been holding and closed her eyes but couldn’t stop her thoughts enough to sleep. She brought Marabel and the snake to bed with her. Lying in the dark with Marabel tucked against her neck and the click, click, click, of the snake drowning out her worries, she fell sound asleep.

New Year’s Day dawned stark white like the whole world was a hospital room. Eighteen inches of snow had fallen overnight and the day was clear and sunny. Sarah sat in her chair by the window, hood pulled down to shield her eyes from the glare. A cup of tea sat steaming on the windowsill, next to Marabel and her purple phone. Click, click, click. Sarah had researched Rubik’s Snakes on the internet and found step-by-step instructions for making dozens of shapes. A Wikipedia article claimed that a Rubik’s Snake could be folded into around three-trillion unique combinations. The endless possibility thrilled her. She could do something no one had ever done every single day and no one would even know. It felt right to her to spend her days manufacturing secrets in this room.

She spent the first part of the day learning and practicing the more interesting shapes, glancing at her phone occasionally to check the next step. She made a snowman, ostrich, pinwheel, cross, and frog. After lunch she just played. The calluses on her thumbs and index fingers made soft rasping sounds that punctuated the click, click, click. The spaceship sat next to Marabel and her phone on the windowsill. It didn’t occur to her to wonder how it got there.

That night she dreamt she slept curled around her brother’s warm body, just like she had as a toddler, before everything went wrong. In the morning she stumbled out of bed and stepped on something painful. It was the top half of an action figure, one of the ones from the cardboard box. Shaken from her morning stupor, she saw that all the action figures were on the floor, laid out in a circle around the bed, in an alternating pattern of torso, legs, torso, legs, torso, legs. The snake lay on the pillow in the straight configuration she always started with. Some part of Sarah wanted so much to be afraid, but there was a weight inside her like a cold wave that caught that part and pushed it down to the silent depths. She picked up the Snake, needing the click, click, click to hold onto.

On January 7th Richard Reece, Sarah’s father, decided he should go upstairs and check on Sarah. He and Mindy, Sarah’s mom, had only been upstairs three times since Kyle’s death. The first time he preferred not to remember. The police detective and forensic psychologist had been there. But now it wasn’t Kyle’s room, it was Sarah’s. And Sarah had barely left it all week.

Richard was not the sort of man who had a hard time admitting when he was afraid. He knew very well how much it scared him to go up there, even to see the door hanging open in the hall, revealing the stairs that lurked behind it. He knew his fear was irrational, but he also knew it was legitimate. For the better part of a year there really had been a monster living at the top of the stairs.

Sarah had always been a quiet child who mostly kept to herself, easily ignored, especially as Kyle had gotten worse. But now she had a familiar vacant look that scared Richard even more than those attic stairs. So he opened the door, noting the trembling of his hand with uneasy amusement, and climbed the hollow steps. Sarah sat in Kyle’s old reading chair, profiled in the big round window, holding Kyle’s old Rubik’s Snake and folding it at an impressive and constant rate. Click, click, click. Her hands seemed to move of their own accord while she turned to look at her father. He shuddered and immediately hoped she hadn’t noticed, for when she looked at him with those vacant eyes for a moment she looked to him like a huge beetle sitting in the chair, her busy hands like an insect’s forelimbs. Click, click, click. “Hi Sarahbel,” he said in a weak attempt at comfortable familiarity. “Whatcha up to?”

Sarah blinked at him a few times and shook her head. Then her eyes focused on Richard for the first time in several days. “Hi, Dad,” she replied in a voice that was creaky with disuse. Her focus moved past her father to a place on the wall just behind him and went suddenly wide, so he turned with a start, body overreacting with the expectation of danger. It was Kyle, he was sure of it, his son wasn’t dead, at least not anymore, and there was no escape. His vision pulsed with the force of his heartbeat, but he saw what had frightened Sarah—it was just a shadow on the wall. Windblown branches and clouds had made a shadow that looked remarkably like a person, remarkably like Kyle. But it was just a shadow. Richard felt a sickening surge of guilt. Am I really this afraid of my dead son? he wondered. A touch on his arm re-ignited his panic, but it was only Sarah. She pressed close to him and he put his grateful arms around her. Can she really be fourteen? The top of her head barely reached to Richard’s chest. It was one more way she took after her mother.

Sarah inhaled her father’s scent, dusty and resinous with a trace of diesel fuel. It was a little bit the smell of the garage where he worked and a lot just an essential quality of his. It comforted her then as it had long ago when her father had whispered little stories and held her to help her fall asleep on nights when she was scared. It was for Sarah the essential smell of safety, and she breathed it deeply. She looked past her father at the shadow on the wall that looked so much like a person, watched it raise its finger to its mouth as the wind outside whispered, “Shhhhhhhh.” This time the part of her that feared was free to be afraid, but something held her body and her voice and made her look all through that hug that would have comforted her so much. She looked, while the shadow person stood impassive on the wall, while the little doors into the storage spaces both swung silently open, while the piled blankets on the bed slid and shifted the way they do when sleep is hard to find.

When her father let her go she wanted to ask him to stay, but she couldn’t. His eyes searched the room in the way of someone who knows they won’t see a place again for a long time but he made no mention of the open doors or the slow-squirming bed sheets. The door closed and she heard the sound of his footsteps descending the stairs. She picked up the snake from the windowsill and twisted it absently while she watched old toys slither out of the two closets to the bed where they tangled with the sheets. She focused on the click, click, click of the snake. She was certain if she stopped, if she let the sound cease, the fear would overtake her and she’d break. The sheet-and-toy tangle took the shape and size of a teenage boy. I should run away, she thought. I should scream for help. She had always thought those things and had never done them. Her brother was dead now because someone else had screamed for help. She knew she never would.

The Kyle-shaped thing approached her, standing too close the way Kyle always had. She remembered that his eyes had been grey like a winter sky, a trivial thing but she couldn’t look at the face before her, made of toy cars and bright plastic dinosaurs and Barbie dolls. Looking would make it real. She remembered Kyle’s eyes and she listened to the click, click, click while she chuckled at how stupid she’d been to think she could ever be safe from him.

The thing slapped Sarah hard enough to knock her down. She watched the snake skitter across the floor and stop next to the burgundy chair, where it continued shifting and twisting until it settled on a shape like a frowning face. Kyle kicked her over and over, but all she could hear was click, click, click.

pencilWriter, gardener, mother, wife, noisemaker, forest creature, queer, trans, mentally ill, and an excellent liar—Amelia Diamond copes with the misfortune of being unable to stop noticing the devastating beauty all around her by writing stories and making abstract noise music. She frequently publishes her short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com

The Others

John Howe
Dead of Winter ~ Second Place

Shadowy figures

Photo Credit: Anna/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

From inside the drafty wall cavity the shadowy figure watched the two boys as they played. He enjoyed spying on the boys though he would never admit it. The others would not understand such a guilty pleasure, such a colossal waste of time, but the figure still watched as something deep inside him, something fleeting, something resembling familiarity, danced on the edges of his mind. The cold December wind whistled through the siding boards and rattled the shutters of the uninsulated Victorian house but the figure didn’t mind the cold and he continued to watch the boys at play.

“Hey Jake, check this out,” said Jordan.

Jordan and his brother Jake were playing with the amateur forensic kit they had received as a gift on Christmas morning. It was two days after Christmas and their parents had agreed to leave them alone for the entire day now that Jordan had just turned thirteen. Actually, their mother had agreed and their father had reluctantly gone with the flow.

“These are the same fingerprints we found on Dad’s desk,” said Jordan. He carefully brushed away the carbon dust and lifted the print with the special tape that came with the kit.

Jake opened the notebook and labeled a page where the new fingerprints would be recorded.

“These prints don’t look anything like ours,” said Jake. The boys had recorded elimination prints from themselves and their parents as the kit instructions had indicated. “These are weird.” Indeed, the prints were unusual; they were abnormally wavy and exaggerated, like they had been drawn by a cartoonist, and they were all over every hard surface in the old vintage house.

Jordan sprinkled more carbon dust on the shelves of a bookcase. “We’ll show these to Dad when he gets home. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”

Jake fidgeted on his heels, starting to grow weary of the game. “Let’s go outside and smoke,” he said.

“Maybe after lunch,” Jordan said. The boys did not really smoke. They enjoyed playing in the snow and holding twigs in their mouths and puffing their breath in the cold air. “C’mon, a few more prints and we’ll heat up the soup Mom left us.”

As the shadowy figure watched, his emotional state varied between unexplained nostalgia, melancholy, and concern. The boys were dusting for fingerprints and they were finding them, lots of them. The figure knew who had left the prints and he knew he had to tell the others, though he did not relish the task as the others would not be pleased. He receded deeper into the wall cavity and started to make his way to the dusty crawl space beneath the parlor where the others slept, where they waited for the darkness when they could emerge and explore. The figure moved slowly through the maze of wall spaces as jagged plaster fragments and nail points ripped at the pale casing of his form but it did not bother him. How he managed to travel in the wall cavities was a mystery to him, but they all could do it, though it was a slow process. He battled internally with the problem at hand and wished it could be ignored. The figure did not know for sure but he felt there would be no place else he or the others could go if they were to be found out. He was unsure if they could survive if he did not come forward with what he knew.

As he progressed silently and carefully, the figure thought of the boys and the fleeting notions that had gone through his mind. He again considered his circumstances with growing anxiety. He was not a ghost, he thought, as he moved slowly towards the others, he was not a spook or a ghoul but he had been called these things and more by the cruel inhabitants of the walls in which they all existed. In truth, he did not know what he was or how he came to be here with the others. The feeling he had when he watched the boys at play nagged at him but he could not place it, could not make sense of it. The figure attempted to push the thoughts from his mind but they lingered restlessly.

As the shadowy figure feared, the others were not pleased to be awakened. The leader motioned for calmness after the information was conveyed but silent panic spread below the floor boards of the old house as the others twitched and moved about anxiously. The leader silently called for the prodigy to come forward. When she did, the others became motionless and looked on in awe as she soundlessly communicated the plan of action. Even the leader seemed taken aback by her ruthlessness but he knew from past experiences that she was always right when it came to their continued existence.

The shadowy figure led the others through the archaic wall cavities and emerged into the attic space adjacent to the second floor hallway. The leader beckoned for stillness with an impatient wave of his hand. None of them were accustomed to daytime activity and dissension was in the dusty air. The leader motioned for the prodigy to come forward and gestured to the wall. Through cracks in the plaster the others could see the boys working on the doorknobs of the bedrooms with their forensic paraphernalia continuing to play their detective game. The figure once again felt the wistful pull and fought to remain vigilant to the task. Some of the others looked at him oddly and he wondered what it was they saw.

The prodigy surveyed the activity of the boys on the other side of the wall and motioned that she needed space and the others backed away. With a balloon-like hand she traced a rectangular shape on the lath boards. The shadowy figure was baffled by this but remained unmoving amongst his equally perplexed counterparts. The prodigy traced over and over until a faded image appeared. She continued to work on the details by repeatedly tracing until an exaggerated duplication of a door emerged on the interior surface of attic wall. She rested a short while and then twisted her bulbous fist into the side of the image at the spot where a doorknob should be and kept twisting until finally a brass knob appeared. She backed away and joined the others as they waited. The figure knew the door would be visible to the boys on the other side and he hoped they would tire of their game and go downstairs to partake in other activities. But he knew of the power the prodigy possessed and he knew his hopes were unfounded.

From the darkness of the attic space the others watched as the doorknob turned and the face of a boy peered in through the partially-opened door. The shadowy figure recognized the boy as Jordan, the older of the brothers, and he used every ounce of will he had to remain still. It was obvious the boy was confused about the location of the door that shouldn’t have been there. The boy opened the door wide and peered into the space with the light from the hallway behind him. Jordan’s shadow quaked slightly as he attempted to make sense of this strange room he had never seen.

‘Don’t come in,’ the figure said to himself in vain. ‘Please just go away.’

The roughened floor boards creaked as the boy took a few steps into the attic.

The shadowy figure cringed as the room darkened and the boy turned to see the now closed door fading away. Jordan ran to it and the brass knob crumbled into his hand and then the door was gone. Jordan tried to scream but only a muffled squeak wheezed from his mouth. Upon urging from the leader the others converged and silently subdued the terrified boy with globular hands. The prodigy performed tracings over the body of the struggling boy until he succumbed and ceased to resist. The figure looked on with sadness and felt a sweeping responsibility for everything that had happened and he silently wept.

The others could hear the younger boy calling for his brother from the hallway. The prodigy once again went to work on the door and the brass knob. The others waited with eager anticipation after the exhilarating hostility they inflicted on the older boy. The shadowy figure and Jordan watched in silent horror as the knob once again began to turn.

The leader motioned for the shadowy figure to remain behind as the others departed, entering the wall cavities once again. The leader looked back before entering the wall and gave the figure a knowing look, not nearly as menacing as usual. The figure could not help but wonder what would happen when the parents returned home later in the day. Would the prodigy be called upon once again? As if on cue a phone rang from somewhere in the house. A distant voice from the answering machine could be heard.

The figure also wondered about the look the leader had just given him. It was a look of expectancy, as if it was now his responsibility to care for these boys and to teach them the ways of the others, the ways he did not understand but was somehow expected to convey. It was a duty he feared and relished.

The figure approached the trembling boys who were now faded images of their former selves. Their features were raw and exaggerated as if a young child had created two heads from clay. They looked, the shadowy figure realized, like the others and clarity began to slowly seep into his mind. His fingers caressed his own face and he wondered if he too had a similar appearance. The figure also noted that he was approximately the same size as the boys, unlike the others who were much larger. He motioned to the frightened boys in what he hoped was a friendly gesture. The younger boy, Jake, opened his mouth but no sound emerged so he held out his small distressed hand in a form of a hesitant greeting. For the first time he could recall the shadowy figure clung to a small bit of hope as the thoughts that had been dancing on the edges of his mind began to grow clearer.

pencilJohn Howe is a project manager at a design/build firm in West Michigan. Although this is his first serious attempt at fiction, he enjoys writing short stories and hopes someday to pursue it more frequently. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com


Erin McDougall
Dead of Winter ~ First Place


Photo Credit: Michael Berke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

“This is where all the unwanted stuff goes to die.”

The door of the room on the top floor of the antique shop gave a perfect, high-pitched creak on its rusty hinges as Ruth, our manager, opened it slowly.

The room was a dark, crowded mess of boxes, old dusty furniture and tables and piles full of old, rusted, broken junk. In the faint light from the small circular windows, I could see piles of stuff covered by old sheets and something hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Ruth navigated her way confidently around the heaped piles, reached up and pulled on a chain next to the lone dangling light bulb in the center of the ceiling.

“The full effect is better with the lights on,” she said as the chain made a loud clunk as the light snapped on. I jumped involuntarily and my eyes stung from the sudden flash of light.

“Obey the sign on the door; the things in this room are not for sale,” she continued “The idea is they’re kept here to eventually be repaired and then put back on display downstairs, but as you can see,” she swept her arms around the room, “that hasn’t ever happened.”

It was grimy and smelled of mildewed fabric and rusty metal. Our other co-worker, Burke, was fascinated by what appeared to be a broken puppet swaying pathetically from the ceiling. It was an old-woman puppet with a missing eye. Ruth cleared her throat obnoxiously and we snapped back to attention. She adjusted her thick glasses and fixed us with a sharp, no-nonsense glare.

Ruth’s imitation of our old boss was pitch-perfect—the way she glared at us and cleared her throat. We all broke down and started laughing.

We were like that for a good five minutes. It didn’t help when I breathed in a particularly large dust bunny and my laughter turned to violent sneezing that continued on for another five minutes.

“Jesus, Greta, you allergic to this place?” Ruth asked as she passed me a dusty handkerchief she got from who knows where. I cringed slightly as I pressed the moldy fabric to my nose and blew.

“This room is crazy! There’s a whole other store up here!” I exclaimed.

“As ‘Manager,’” Ruth said again in her ‘boss’ voice, “Only I have permission to drop things off. She made me swear not to let any of the other employees come in here.”

“She must think we’ll mess it up or something,” Burke retorted. He was examining a contingent of little robot toys whose eyes lit up and blinked. “Can you imagine actually playing with these as a kid? I love them!” He watched gleefully as the robots marched around his feet after he’d wound them up.

“It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know about this place before. We wouldn’t have gotten any work done!” I pointed out as I surveyed the rest of the room. In addition to Burke’s strange robot toys and the disabled puppet hanging in the corner, there were more toys piled everywhere. Most were broken, like the twisted heap of model train tracks and the herd of headless rocking horses. I sat down on one of the rocking horses and chuckled as it creaked loudly beneath my weight.

“Enough browsing,” Ruth said sternly. She was dragging a big, peeling chest from out of the corner and motioned for me to help her. Burke heaved a few heavy boxes off an old ripped chaise lounge and a tarnished rocking chair. Ruth opened the chest and pulled out a case of room-temperature beer and an ancient bottle opener. She popped off three caps, handed them around and raised hers in a toast:

“To surviving a very dead Boxing Day rush!”

We clinked our beers together and drank deeply. The ‘Not for Sale’ room, with its graveyard of broken playthings and odd drafts of winter wind, was then christened as our club house and suddenly felt cozy. I sipped my beer slowly, and half-listened to my friends and their tipsy stories and toasts. From what I could see out the windows, it was snowing.

Ruth stood up slowly and cleared her throat again. “On my many jaunts up here to drop off surplus stock, I’ve discovered, among the junk, quite a few little treasures. Like this,” she indicated, pulling from somewhere a heavy gold watch that dangled from a long chain. She swung it in front of our curious faces like a hypnotist. “And this,” she tossed a gleaming silver cigarette lighter to Burke. He grinned with surprise at his gift and flicked open several times.

“Not everything up here is worthless. I just think the old bat doesn’t remember where anything is anymore,” Ruth continued and pointed to an old wooden dresser draped with an old white sheet. She whisked it off to reveal it was intricately carved. An impressive collection of music boxes and snow globes sat on top. They looked polished and well-cared for and completely out of place in this room.

“This is a dying business and everyone knows it. I say we take what we can from the good stuff up here, the things that aren’t ‘dead’, and call it a reward for a job well done,” she pronounced and began to pilfer through the dresser drawers. Burke’s eyes lit up and he scampered back to the robot toys. I was drawn to the beautiful, glistening snow globes.

I picked up one of them carefully, surprised at how light it was. Tiny white snowflakes glittered and twirled around a small brick building under its crystal dome. There was a small key sticking out the back. I turned it around once and I heard a faint chime of bells. I shook it and watched the little flurry swirl around while the chimes wound down.

“Go on! You like them, don’t you? They need a good home,” Ruth goaded me.

I couldn’t help wondering how much it might be worth…

The light bulb flickered suddenly, off and on. We paused in our pillaging and in that a brief moment before the light flickered back on, I thought I saw a movement from the corner with the hanging puppet. I blinked and let out a gasp.

“What’s the matter, Greta?” asked Burke.

“Nothing… I thought I saw…” I squinted through the dim light at the puppet. It was still. I shook my head and turned back to the snow globe.

At the exact moment I looked at it, the churning little snowflakes suddenly turned black. I shook it again and watched, disturbed, as black snow delicately blanketed the familiar-looking red brick building inside. Then a small sound broke through: chimes. They were soft at first and then grew louder. But I hadn’t re-wound the snow globe, it was playing on its own.

I suddenly felt it grow hot in my hand. I yelped in surprise and tried to release it but it remained planted in my hand. The heat grew as the black snow within it swirled faster and faster.

“I— I can’t let it go!” I shouted, shocked at the hot glass and metal that was stuck to me.

Ruth darted across the room and reached toward me. She touched the snow globe for a split second before reflex withdrew her hand sharply, as though she’d touched something hot. “What’s doing it?” she exclaimed, horrified.

My hand was pulsing with the pain of the heat and my heart raced. Burke thundered towards us but a sudden gust of cold wind blasted through the room and knocked us all apart. The room was a blur as we thrashed around, caught up in some unknown force. I heard the crash of furniture and glass tumbling and shattering against the floor. The force gradually subsided and we were sprawled around the room. Burke’s forehead was bleeding from flying shards of glass and the one-eyed puppet had somehow become tangled around Ruth. The heat of the snow globe vanished instantly but I still couldn’t let it go. My hand throbbed with pain as I crawled towards my friends.

“Ruth! Come on, Ruth! Wake up!” shouted Burke, gently slapping her cheeks. Her eyes flickered open and she stared at us with an expression of sheer terror on her face.

“My fault… it’s all my fault…” she whispered.

Burke and I locked eyes, relieved she was awake but confused by what she was saying.

“Don’t try to talk,” I whispered as I helped Burke hoist her to her feet. He tugged gently at the puppet’s strings but they were too tangled. We started towards the door gingerly, afraid of provoking whatever force we’d just witnessed.

Then the light in the room went out completely.

It was unnaturally dark. The room had windows. We should have been able to see the streetlights below. But no light seeped in. We paused, terrified and trapped, unable to see our way to the door in the debris of the sudden indoor flurry.

And in that instant, I knew why it was so dark and why the little building inside the snow globe looked so familiar:

Outside, it was snowing black snow and we were inside a red brick building, just like the snow globe welded to my hand.

“It’s my fault! They wouldn’t have come here if it weren’t for me!” pleaded Ruth suddenly.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

Ruth shook herself away from Burke and me. “It heard me say we should just take whatever we want and it’s angry… it protects the stuff in here—” something cut her off suddenly and she gasped.

We heard her start to flail in the darkness. I fumbled in Burke’s pocket for the lighter she’d given him and flicked it open. The tiny flame illuminated for a split second the sickening sight of the puppet strings snaking themselves around her neck.

“No! Stop!” I screamed, powerless as the strings tightened. Burke was frozen, horrified. The snow globed burned hot in my hand again, the wind swept through the room, and once more, we were turned inside out.

The chimes tinkled three times and everything stopped. Then, I heard another sound emerge from somewhere in the darkness: the slow, mechanical grind of a key being turned in a wind-up toy.

Little blinking lights rapidly pierced through the darkness and the sound grew and grew. The lights were coming from the eyes of the little robot toys Burke had been playing with earlier. They flashed furiously as their numbers swelled and marched around us, surrounding us.

“…punishment…” rasped Ruth as she lost consciousness and crumpled to the floor.

“You aren’t leaving this store,” commanded a strange unknown voice. All the lights in the store suddenly snapped on and the wind-up noise stopped immediately. The one eye in the face of the puppet around Ruth’s neck swivelled and fixed its soulless gaze upon us.

“I have a duty to the heirlooms in this building,” the puppet croaked. “You never cared about these things, the broken and the tarnished. They may be stored out of sight but they are never forgotten. And even those that aren’t broken, they aren’t to be stolen out of greed!”

The puppet wound itself even more tightly and Ruth’s face was a deep shade of purple. Burke made a step towards her but the robots all raised these tiny arms in the air. We saw they were hand-less and the joints where they should have had hands were filed into razor-sharp spears.

I looked around helplessly and felt the snow globe grow hot in my hand once more. In the millisecond before the wind began again, my other hand reacted by flicking Burke’s lighter open. I felt a spark ignite and I shut my eyes as the wind blasted and shook the room. The flame was fed by the rush of air and fire spread everywhere.

“Noooooooo!” bellowed the puppet and the room stopped shaking. But the damage was done.

The fire leapt from one pile of junk to another, spreading furiously through the dry and dusty room. The robot toys broke ranks and scurried every which way but many were swept away by the growing flames.

In one motion, Burke snapped the one-eyed puppet’s head from its cords and scooped Ruth up in his arms. We thundered down the stairs and through the main floor, the fire pursuing our every step. The wind-up sound grew, as did the shrieks and moans of the burning toys, as we ran past the displays and their glass cases exploded, sending more fragments sailing through the air and slicing our hands and faces. But we didn’t stop, not even when the smoke was so thick and it became as dark as the sky and its black falling snow.

At last we were outside and almost to the safety of the street. I looked back and saw the antique store completely ablaze.

The flames snaked down the walls, devouring them with a ravenous pace. The roof became a skeleton of charred beams and the smoke reached its black, curling tentacles high in the air.

I felt the sudden chill of the wind on my face and through my hair, a brutal reminder that winter lingered just on the edge of the inferno that was once Heirloom Antiques. I abruptly felt an intense, over-powering pull that forced me forward onto my knees. I realized with dread that I was being dragged back towards the fire by my hand.

I thrashed and fought against it. The flames reached out to me like a giant hand, ready to curl and crush me into its fist. I heard the chimes and the invisible pull intensified. The chimes grew louder now and the fire crackled and purred in sick anticipation, about to be reunited with its last heirloom.

Using all the strength I had left, I flung my hand clutching the snow globe directly on the concrete steps of the store. As the glass shattered against the pavement, I felt blood run down my hand and I was released. I sprawled for the briefest of moments on the ground before scampering backwards towards the street. Burke was next to me and Ruth was slowly coming to. My chest heaved as I gulped in the fresh, frozen air, my heart pounded hard in my ears and I felt the sweat and tears on my face begin to cool.

As we sat shivering in the frigid wind, watching the store burn steadily, the black smoke billowed higher and higher. A gust of wind unfurled it across the night sky, where it hung like a cloud for a split second and then vanished.

At the same moment the smoke turned from blackness into nothing, the thick snowflakes turned white and fell silently from the sky.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. Before her recent move to France, she taught dance, drama and English in Edmonton Public Schools, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips on the food blog Sandwiches are Beautiful, and documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture, both in Canada and beyond, with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Cookie and George

Tony Press


Photo Credit: scarlatti2004/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

The first George was my sister’s age, two years older than me. His sister, Missy, was in my class, and they lived down the street in a house that backed up to the creek that gave the town its name, so from day one I knew who he was. He was forever the tallest guy on the block. Everyone tried to get George to play basketball but he never went out for a team. He played at recess, and in P.E., but that’s all. He’d rather draw pictures.

“It’s a game, guys, it’s just hearts or four square or Risk. Coach thinks it’s war, and who needs that?” Even in art class, where he was really good, he never put his drawings into competitions.

He was always George. Never anything else. No, that’s not true, because once I heard some jocks call him Georgie-the-queer. I looked away real quick, but I heard the coach laughing with them. Who knows? And even then, when I knew almost nothing, I knew enough not to worry about who liked what. Who cares? They were jerks, I knew that much.

The second George was George only to his teachers. To the rest of the universe, from his seventh birthday on, he was “Cookie,” because that was the word that enticed him from a dead-perfect but rapidly airless old refrigerator during hide-and-seek on that very birthday: the word likely saved his life.

Of course George is not an unusual name, but we only had the two for years, even in a high school of almost 500 students.

As life does on occasion imitate art, Cookie proved to be one sweet kid. He was adored by all: little kids, dogs, big kids, teachers, parents, the whole town. Being nothing but himself, he charmed. His smile calmed you, his laugh made people grin without knowing why. He asked you questions because he wanted to know the answers. By the time he was seventeen, the girls, and doubtless a few moms, longed to share his company, and maybe one or two did. Boys liked to be with him, too, but not for the same reasons. I suppose dads would have, too, but we didn’t see many fathers in our neighborhood, even counting those who actually lived there.

George and my sister graduated on schedule as Missy and Cookie and I finished our sophomore years. George’s mother, who worked in the dry cleaning place two towns away, urged him on to go to college, but he declined.

“Not now, anyway,” he told her, and us. “I’d go if I had a reason, but right now I’d just be taking up desk space.” And just like that, he stayed, adjusting his life to full-time worker. He told us: “As soon as we get Missy through, I’ll probably go. You know me, if I want it, I’ll do it.” Instead, he hired on at the cannery, the town’s biggest employer.

George hoisted bottles, cans, crates and pallets of tomato sauce, chili, and ketchup six days a week. My mom’s boyfriend that year worked there, too, and told me “that George is skinny, but he’s a mother of a worker.” This boyfriend, Archie, looked pretty strong himself but it never came out at our place. The one thing he did lift was my mom’s real diamond ring, from when she was married to my dad. Old Archie grabbed it one night and we never saw him again. It took a while, but eventually my mom agreed it was a fair trade.

Nine months into his job, George got a letter from Uncle Sam. Just like that, he was drafted and gone. After a quick bout of basic training in a different part of the state he was off to Vietnam. My sister sometimes got letters but she never told me anything. How all of us could have been so clueless about the draft, I simply don’t know.

Two years after George’s graduation, Missy and I were practicing our own “commencement walk” across the makeshift stage in the gym. We had three days of practice to learn how to climb three steps, walk to the center, accept a diploma, and exit the other side. I guess it was the only thing they could do to slow down the clock. Strange pedagogy.

On the program, Missy was co-valedictorian. I was not the other one, but I was one of the 112 names listed alphabetically. Cookie did not make it. He had liked auto shop, and wood shop, and nothing in between, and dropped out junior year. He was already eighteen so it was his choice. Fortunately, his mom’s hamburger joint was the place in town, and without the nuisance of the school day, he served burgers and shakes from noon to eight, and still got to see everybody.

Every graduation week shocks. For three years, every day lasted forever as we trudged toward unimaginable futures. Now, entire weeks were flashing by like minimum days. Even the chunk of the senior class that hates school is struck dumb, thinking: “Well, dang, what am I supposed to do now?” Our class—“we are mighty, we are great, we are the class of ’68”—so radical, so hip, was fooled just like all the others. One moment we were freshmen, the next we were getting measured for caps and gowns. And, if you were eighteen and male, getting mail from the draft board.

Still, our year was different. I had cut my morning classes on April fourth to walk in the hills with Cookie but the car radio shouted that someone had murdered Martin Luther King. We still hiked but didn’t talk much. In June, just after I’d gone to bed, my mom came in to say Bobby Kennedy had been shot, on live television. Graduation was three days away.

Campus was dead-silent the day after Kennedy. Missy and I were sitting on a bench, sheltered by our favorite oak tree, finally signing each other’s yearbook, when Mr. Mayfield, the vice-principal, materialized as only he could, and told her to follow him.

“Hold my stuff, I’ll be right back.” Clutching my yearbook to her chest, she left with Mayfield, both walking quickly. I figured it was co-valedictorian stuff. I didn’t see her for two hours. When I did, she still held my yearbook, but she also held the knowledge that her brother George had been dead for a week—“died a hero”—Mayfield and the army guy repeated, as they could find nothing else to say. Missy and her mother, who had come to school in the army car, clutched each other on Mayfield’s mock-leather couch, portraits of championship football teams grinning down at them.

It would be a month before we returned each other’s yearbook, our messages hopelessly out-of-date. She skipped the ceremony, skipped her speech.

Despite Kennedy, despite George, graduation week continued. Those last few nights we partied on the hill behind school, drinking and smoking until we were wasted. Some kissed, some groped, some with cars did more. Missy was home with her mom so I hung out with Cookie. Missy told me I should go out, so I did. Cookie never missed those nights that flitted between boisterous and bittersweet. He promised he would be at graduation, “in the front row!”

Only four hours until “Pomp and Circumstance,” Missy still in seclusion, I went to George’s. You could say the hamburger stand was the town’s third George, named by and for Cookie’s dad, a guy most of us had never seen, who lived somewhere in Texas. Cookie wasn’t there and his mom, working alone, just shrugged her shoulders behind her blue apron.

He wasn’t in the front row or any other row. He wasn’t at the parties. Sometime the next afternoon his mom phoned. She was crying and said Cookie had called “at nine o’clock last night,” as if the important thing was the time of the call. Then she said “he joined the Marines yesterday. He’s already there.”

In March, on a steaming Sunday morning, Cookie stepped off a path someone else had chosen, walked onto a mine and exploded.

Cookie’s mother sold the place and disappeared. The new owner changed its name, sold it again, and it finally shut down. It was empty for years but now it’s a bike shop.

My sister swore off boys and started calling herself George. She moved to Canada to work with draft resisters and said she’s never coming back. She hasn’t yet.

I went to work at the cannery and my income, plus George’s “death benefit”—that’s a weird-ass term—put Missy through the university. I overdid it once at work and got a nasty hernia for my trouble, but the damn thing kept me out of the army.

Missy’s got two degrees but I tell her she can’t be as smart as people say, because she’s still with me. I’m lucky, and lucky beats smart six ways from Sunday.

Missy designs playgrounds and I build them, and we do okay. One guy who works for me is from Vietnam and he told me they call it The American War. I never thought of that.

Last spring Missy and I went to Washington for the first time. It’s been a while since the fall of Saigon, followed soon by the fall of Richard Nixon, but young men are almost always marching and shooting and dying in the name of something that just might be oil, might be patriotism. We touched their names with our hands, our two Georges among the fifty thousand. For a moment it was the way church is supposed to feel.

pencilTony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. Good fiction, including some of his, can be found here: Blink-Ink, BorderSenses, Boston Literary Magazine, Digging through the Fat, Doorknobs & BodyPaint, 5×5, Foundling Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, JMWW, Lichen, Literary Orphans, MacGuffin, Menda City Review, 100 Word Story, 101 Words, Qarrtsiluni, Ranfurly Review, Rio Grande Review, Riverbabble, SFWP Journal, Switchback, Temenos, Thema, Toasted Cheese, Workers Write. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com


Jonathan Pauls

. Pinocchio

Photo Credit: Juliana Coutinho (CC-by)

I do behavioral support at an elementary school and I work this kid Corey a lot. He’s new this year and has been referred to me over fifty times. It’s only December. Two of the referrals have been “majors”: one for cheating on a test and another for kicking someone in the privates. All the others have been labelled “non-compliance” or “disrespect” or however the referring teacher happened to define lying that day. Because that’s what he really does: he lies.

When I got the first few referrals I didn’t really know what to do. I was only about two days into a new job at a new school, and he’s in third grade: what exactly do you do to help an eight-year-old learn how to not lie—especially when his lies have minimal consequence for anyone involved. And he was just lying about what kind of trees are in front of his house (they’re maple; he said they were oak). He also lied once about the color of his pencil (which was in front of him on the desk). Who cares, right? Well his teacher Mrs. Bouffard did, that’s who.

On day two she wrote him up for “non-compliance” so I figured I’d go with that particular frame. I gave him my finest two-minute lecture on the importance of community and common expectations. I had nothing for him really, but I did find comfort in my line about truth building trust and that really, compliance is ultimately a skill of trust-building. That truly was the shining moment of the intervention. He was giving me the are-you-done-yet stare, blank but polite, the entire time. I talked far too much, asked no questions. It was clear that I was more accustomed to my old job working with teenagers. I shuffled him back to class and he promptly sat down and told his tablemate that I gave him chocolate. Wait! No! “I didn’t actually…”

Mrs. Bouffard wrote up Corey three more times the following week. I waited until Friday morning to check in with him because, despite the lengthy and detailed descriptions of his infractions, I still didn’t see a huge problem with his behavior. Apparently he liked to lie and he was continuing to lie. Really, I was learning more about the author of these write-ups than I was learning about Corey (and I was feeling pretty smug about it). I went up to his classroom to get him only to hear his teacher berating him for lying again. She looked at me with one of those wide-eyed can-you-even head shakes and then, while walking him down to the support room, he lied about what Mrs. Bouffard said he was lying about. The conversation went something like this:

“So what was Mrs. Bouffard talking to you about just then?”

“She was wrong again. She said I told everybody that my dad’s new Ferrari was red but I didn’t. I said it was green, which I would remember because you wouldn’t think a Ferrari would be green, would you.”

I had heard him say it was red when I was still in the hallway. “Well. That is interesting, isn’t it. Just curious, what color is the actual car?”

“Black. Blackish. Blackish green.”

“I heard you say it was red.”

He paused and looked at me. I saw nothing in his eyes.

“I get it. You’re with her.”

I had made a mistake. I knew the issue wasn’t about the color and yet I asked about the color. The fact was we all knew there wasn’t any car to begin with.

So there I was charged with managing a situation of, of what exactly? One of the referral check boxes is “disrespect.” Was he being disrespectful? Was Corey disrespecting his teacher and classmates by telling stories, the assumption being that truthful storytelling lends dignity and comfort to those around you? Or was it really a case of referral check box #4: “non-compliance,” as Mrs. Bouffard had begun to define it? Was Corey not complying with the cold hard facts of our shared, communal reality? And in this objective non-compliance to the truth, was Corey’s willful disregard for “fact” cause for punishment? I was still stumped, but I was new and people expected me to fix stuff like this. My best idea was that we’d just chat for a while. You know, take a see-where-he-takes-me-and-work-from-there approach. I was feeling more and more pressure to have a plan. At the time, it seemed very important to give the appearance that I knew what I was doing. And I was sure he’d give me ample material to work with if we just spent some time together. Boy, was I right.

In all my time working with kids, I’ve never been led down such a long and circuitous road of deceit. It got to the point where I was fairly certain that absolutely nothing he was telling me was true. He was calling his older brother three different names (he only had one brother—and he was younger), he claimed to have climbed “Mt. Everett in China or somewhere,” he performed emergency surgery on his neighbor’s cow, and not to be overlooked, he literally flew (flapping his arms and all) from his rooftop to the school playground the last Saturday of summer vacation. After our little ninety-minute chat, I decided to flip through his chart to see if I could find anything of relevance. Turns out he was left for dead in a motel dumpster at the age of two weeks and was pulled from his second foster home at the age of three. When the state social workers showed up to take him away he was drunk.

Corey kept on lying. He kept telling story after story with vacant, dull eyes and a slack face. Mrs. Bouffard couldn’t have been more disappointed. She had concerns: he’s not making any friends, he’s disrupting instruction with misleading information, he needs medicine. She meant well, but I could tell her patience was waning. So I kept on responding to the referrals every few days and having circular conversations with Corey that never penetrated his cloud of lies. I knew, I knew the whole time, that the lies weren’t the real problem. But they were so attractive I couldn’t help myself: I had to refute the obviously absurd or challenge the tall tales that I was actually present for.

As you might imagine, meetings were called. We had long conversations around shiny, wooden tables with shaking heads and deep sighs and sermons on the evils of permissive, non-contingent parenting. Lots of people attended: grade-level teachers, the principal, the guidance counselor, the behavior specialist consultant genius, the speech and language guy, and me. There were iPads open and research cited and diagnoses pondered with associated medications—who should call the doctor? I mentioned the notion of weak attachment and got some rolling eyes in return. Apparently a former employee labelled every kid with reactive attachment disorder and ran knitting circles and birth re-enactments for all. Instead we mocked up an air-tight incentive plan with an 80% truth-telling target to be hit by November with opportunities to earn extra choice time and lunch with the principal.

The next day at recess Corey threw rocks at the women doing recess duty and earned lunch with the principal.

After the behavior plan was implemented the rate of referrals on Corey doubled. It appeared that the plan simply justified a reduced tolerance on the part of the adults. There were no skill-building components to his plan. The assumption seemed to be that he already had the skills to tell the truth, he just wasn’t motivated to fly right and with a few special perks dangled in front of him he’d wake up and get with the program. But in reality, Corey was just getting “paper-trailed.” We had made a plan all right: we made a plan to fatten up this kid’s file. And we all know what happens to kids with thick files.

Once all of this dawned on me, I started to panic. It was only October and the new kid in town was already being defined as unfit for education. It was only October and I was losing my first frequent flyer to the institutional machine. I had to put a wrench in the gears. I decided to stop by the principal’s office for a chat. Even though he was already late to a meeting, he let me in, and I laid it all out on the table. I told him that we needed to do something different or we were going to lose this kid. I argued that lying wasn’t really that big of a deal and that we needed to have patience. I knew that because of my newness on the job and the significant style and perspective differences between Mrs. Bouffard and myself that I didn’t have any influence on the way she approached her work or what she thought of Corey, so I asked to change the approach that we’d use in the support room. I got the OK.

I had managed to spare him the details because the truth was that I didn’t really have any details. So I used his permission as a blank check. The next time I got a referral for Corey I was going to pull him out of the classroom immediately and for a big chunk of time. I was fairly certain that this would achieve two outcomes: a) I’d get to dig in with Corey in more meaningful ways, and b) I might just gain a little with Mrs. Bouffard. It seemed she had grown to dislike Corey and clearly enjoyed the time he wasn’t in the room with her. And sure enough, I got a referral that afternoon. Apparently, right after lunch Corey came back to the classroom and told everyone he has just eaten the best steak in his life. (At first, Mrs. Bouffard was simply dropping the hammer on his lie about having steak for lunch. When it was confirmed by one of the favored students that he did indeed have a steak in his lunch box, the narrative changed to the fact that a cold, day-old steak could never be labeled “the best” by any objective criteria and that he was disrupting the class with meaningless information.)

That was the beginning of my walks with Corey. My objective was to keep him talking. Every other adult in the building was trying to do the opposite: to shut him up. But I wanted to see if the lies ever ran out. So we walked. And after a couple weeks, I became convinced that the lies were never going to run out. Upon that realization a switch was flipped. Instead of being interested in the creativity of his stories, I started getting bored. And then I started to get a little anxious leading up to our ten o’clock appointments. I needed a real plan. Out of desperation, I decided to try something new: I decided to start believing him.

It was hard at first. How do you keep a straight face when you learn that someone’s mother has confirmed sea-monster DNA in her legs? Or that random Coke cans contain alien bones although the acid in the Coke dissolves the vast majority of them because alien bones are more like shark cartilage than anything else? I couldn’t find that place inside that would allow me to just nod and move on. I couldn’t validate the invalid, as they say. If I were to continue on a path of believing, I was going to have to do something to help myself believe.

To that end, I tried something new. My work was to assimilate the new information from Corey into my larger world view: a simple game of what-if. What if his mom really had sea-monster DNA in her legs? I turned that doubt into a statement of fact and then counted the assumptions: sea monsters exist, DNA is different in different parts of the body, human chimeras exist and Corey’s mom is one of them, Corey actually knows who his mom is, and more! Add all those things into my cognition and then, and only then, move on. Don’t overplay the wonder of it all. Just take it as fact with all the conviction and faith we place in reading the newspaper.

Immediately it got easier. In fact, it got fun again. I started a notebook in order to keep track of my rapidly changing universe. And, as you might imagine, assuming every absurdity was actually truth allowed me to start inventing my own extensions of Corey’s world. Because when you believe in hover-cars you know you can drive across water. When you believe in winged horsecows, then you know you’ll never run out of milk when you compete in sky gymkhana. And when you believe that your ancestors buried Spanish gold underneath the school you’ll probably try to dig for it whenever you have a few spare minutes while on recess duty, which, in turn, sparks interesting conversations with other adults and then the principal.

I started having dreams about Corey’s world. While a little shocking at first, it opened a window to some of the smaller details of my changing reality. I re-upped my routines connected to lucid dreaming which then opened more of an interactive experience. While this led to interrupted sleep patterns (and crankier interventions with kids not named Corey), I started “living” more of this new world. I began to look forward to sleep. To be honest, I began enjoying parts of Corey’s world more than my own. Day by day, he kept giving me more gifts. He’d have a story about a new animal he saw in his backyard or a new technology that was communicated to him through the tinfoil from his sandwich. Night by night, I kept living new experiences. I would report back to Corey, through my own stories and questions, a reflection of an increasingly shared reality, if only shared between the two of us.

And then two weeks ago, I decided to take this whole thing to the next level. I decided to directly challenge Corey’s reality in an offer to match my own, but not in the way you’re probably thinking. I wasn’t going to try to drag him toward the cold, hard facts of the communal public school third grade experience. But I was going to see if he could wander from his own frames of perception toward someone else’s. It could be anyone else’s, but we’d start with mine. If this showed any signs of success it could point toward a corrective therapy that would guide Corey along a path that would begin to join with other paths, with other kids potentially. My first attempt at a bridge happened on the play structure in back of the school. We were out at recess and he brought up flying again. He mentioned that he flew in loop-de-loops from his three-story tree house to the candy factory on the other side of the mountain. I decided to take the leap.

“Corey, I have to tell you something. I didn’t believe you about the flying at first. But this past weekend I gave it a try. I climbed onto my roof and watched a group of crows for a while. I noticed that they flew a little bouncy with each other and that maybe if I tried to fly a little bouncy I could blend in and join them. I’ve always liked crows. So I got down in a squat and did a few crow hops along the ridge of my house and on the last hop I skipped over the chimney and gave a few quick, hard flaps and took off. Sure enough the rest of the crows accepted me and we went off together to the top of Mt. Howard.”

“I’ve done that, too. Crows tell good stories. Who were you with?”

“I think I was next to one named Nick and then there was a Josh somewhere behind us that he was talking to. I couldn’t believe it, Corey. I couldn’t believe it really worked. My arms were wings and they looked just like this.” I reached out my hand and my fingers had turned into a layered splay of ebony. Long, black feathers extended from where my fingers used to be. I bent my elbow and a black plume fanned out in a broad arc from shoulder to wrist. Another child’s voice, a fourth-grader named Zack, snapped me back with a sing-songy request to go to the bathroom.

I held up my feathered hand to my face and looked at Corey. His eyes lit up, but his face was still holding its same slack indifference.

“Can I? Can I? I gotta peeeeeee!”

I turned to Zack, silent. I waited for his reaction to my transformation.

“Can’t you talk? What’s going on?! I gotta gooooooo!”

“Zack, I have feathers instead of fingers.”

Zack was struck pale. His eyes darted between my hand and my face. “Uh. No you don’t. You’re crazy!” He laughed nervously and ran off toward another kid. He kept looking back at me giggling. I looked at my hand and the feathers were gone. It was just my dopey hand. I turned to Corey. I looked into his eyes; they were dull and hazy again.

“You saw it, right?”

“Are you going to fly with your crow friends again?”

“You did see it. I’m not crazy! You saw it!”

“Sometimes I fly on the back of a seagull just like the babies do when they are born. You can find mothers that miss their kids so much that they let you fly right on their backs even though you’re really too big to be doing that kind of thing. But you just can’t grab on like you want to, you have to keep flapping the whole time and hang on with your legs.”

I was still stuck on my black feathers. And I was mad at Zack for making them go away. I looked back at Corey with desperation. “I want to fly on a seagull too, Corey.”

“You can.” He paused and locked my eyes with an intensity I hadn’t felt before. “You can. Just find one of the lonely, sad mothers. They’ll look at you and believe in you like you were one of their own children and then you’ll know.”

pencilJonathan has been writing for a long time. Recently, he stopped throwing everything away half done and started contributing to local papers. He also writes a couple blogs. Jonathan lives in Vermont with his wife and children. When not writing or washing dishes, he helps kids with behavioral challenges and tends to his chickens. Email: jed.pauls[at]gmail.com

Martha Fratelli’s Kindergarten

Marlene Olin


Photo Credit: Samantha Carlson (CC-by)

Lights buzz and feet shuffle. A ruler taps the table. “It’s your turn, Rolph! Good boy!” Her voice is ladder high, as screechy as a barn owl. “Sit Rolph. Good boy!” When she claps her hands, her eyebrows jump. Lines zigzag her forehead. “Now stand up! Good boy! Shall we bring the newspaper to Miss Martha? Excellent!”

Sally stacks red blue purple blocks in the corner while Noah finger paints the desk. Lyla watches the fork travel to her mouth. Mikie flaps his arms, spins.

But the big hand’s on the twelve and the little one’s on eleven, I want to tell her. It’s hard to get our work done when it’s almost time for lunch. Blocks fall. A fork zooms through the air.

Meanwhile Miss Martha writes at her desk, her mouth sounding the words, her fingers moving like a spider. ABA therapy with the nonverbal group remains a challenge…

Tick tick tick tick. While Noah gobbles the drawing paper, Lyla being Lyla follows. Not only does she shove the paper in her mouth, but an eraser and a fistful of Crayola crayons, too. Her eyes bulge, her cheeks bloom.

The problem with pica continues, Miss Martha writes. There is a pronounced decrease in self-regulation during late morning exercises.

When the clock strikes noon, it’s time for me to run in circles. I wag my butt and cock my ears. Line me up by the trough, people. It’s feeding time!


Minutes later we are in the cafeteria. As usual, Miss Martha reminds us of our manners. She walks up and down the rows adjusting napkins, tilting sip-ups, shouting chew chew chew everybody one two three four five.

Mikie throws his casein-free soy yogurt on the floor. He eats like a bird,” says Miss Susan. “Christ, I don’t know how that kid stays alive.” Lyla bites her peanut butter and gluten-free sandwich, barfs, then shoves the whole gooey cud back inside her mouth.


A big calendar and twenty-three pieces of Scotch Permanent Double-Sided tape hang on the door. Today is Friday. Friday is the day we are herded into the school van, seat-belted, driven approximately forty-five minutes more or less depending on traffic conditions to The Happy Farm in Homestead, Florida. Friday is our favorite day of the week.


I find seven pieces of hard gray chewing gum under the seat in the large yellow bus. They crunch crack in my mouth.


When the road changes from smooth to bump bump bump, I know I’m there. My Harcourt Brace World Atlas copyright 1999 has pictures of approximately fifty-eight national parks, 388 if you include national monuments and historical sights. The Happy Farm looks like one of them. The air smells like Christmas. Trees wave their arms. The dirt beneath me is puddled in shadows. When the wind blows, the puddles jump.

“Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi!” says Luke. Luke is a very tall human. He wears overalls and a large straw hat. Work boots with tire tracks move with his feet. Attached to his hand is a rake or a shovel or sometimes a hoe like it’s all one piece. Hand rake. Hand shovel. Hand hoe. Like my favorite transformer Optimus Prime, Luke changes. One moment he is a farm tool. The next minute he becomes THE HUMAN IN CHARGE.


Where was Miss Susan? the people will ask. Can you sign can you point can you push the squares on your machine and tell us where for the love of God was Miss Susan?


I look to the tree. Miss Susan is sitting under the picnic bench. She has taken her phone out of her purse and pushes numbers. “Are we going to the movies tonight or what?” “Feel like pizza or burgers?” “Do we really have to invite your mother?”

As usual we scamper to the places we’re not allowed. First the koi pond. Two fat tangerine fish wave and bubble. Sally catslits her eyes, growls.

“Where did you run off to now?” shouts Luke. He is far away. If I look through pretend binoculars, Luke is only an inch big.

The next place we head to is the sinkhole. Curlicues of wire roll like tumbleweeds. Even though a sign says “STAY OUT! DANGER!” Noah has already side-turned his body and is squirming his way in.

“There you are!” says Luke. He scoots us toward the yard near the barn. Then he lines us up like ducks. “Be patient, ” says Luke.

The five of us huddle and wait. Waiting is hard. We rock back and forth like a swinging gate. Mikie flaps. Noah hums. Finally, Luke opens the fence and wrangles us inside. Noah heads straight for the goats, his hand stroking his beardless chin, scratching the wattles. Mikie flaps. In a flash, Sally climbs the fence and scurries towards the picnic bench. Hercules the gray black tabby is rubbing its back on Miss Susan’s leg. Sally rolls in the dirt, licks her hands.

By now Miss Susan’s taken out her nail polish. Thanks to her earphones, she can talk, chomp gum, and saw her nails all at the same time. Next to her foot, Sally stretches her neck and purrs. She has twigs in her hair. Burrs velcro her clothes.

“Or maybe Chinese?” says Miss Susan. “I really feel like Chinese.”

Luke shakes his head. Then he walks up to Sally and scoops her up by the scruff. “Here you go.” His tool-less hand brushes off her shirt, her blouse, her socks while he sings her a little song. Luke talks in song. His voice goes up down up down. It’s easy to remember every single word.

“Even kitty cats stay tidy. Kitty cats pride themselves on being tidy. Don’t you know that?”

Miss Susan blows on her nails, pushes more numbers, and looks at her watch all at the same time. Snot is rolling down my snout onto my shirt. Miss Martha will not be happy. I will not get a gold star on the CLEAN CLOTHES CLEAN FACE CLEAN HANDS chart. That is a bad thing. I point and pull at Miss Susan’s sleeve. I have no tissues. When I graduate kindergarten, I will keep tissues and a currycomb in my backpack. Miss Martha says everyone gets a backpack in first grade.

“Down, Rolph. Sit,” yells Miss Susan.

Then she honks orders at Luke. “Would you mind watching the kids while I go to the restroom?”

Luke tucks in his tail, listens.

“The door, Luke, don’t forget the door.”

The lock on the door of The Happy Farm bathroom doesn’t work very well. The five of us whizz on the grass. I’ve seen Luke whizz in a bush. Miss Susan doesn’t use the toilet for whizzing. It’s more like she’s rearranging her face. Luke takes a chair and pushes it under the door knob, gives it a little kick to keep it in place.

She disappears for twenty minutes. I time it on my Casio G-Shock watch. “Unlock the door, will you Luke?” Then she flies out like a butterfly from its cocoon, all lipsticked and perfumed. Sally is still rolling in the dirt, Mikie is flapping from the top fence rail. Lyla and Noah are eating hay from the horse bin.

“Can you spare a bottle of water, Luke? It must be ninety degrees out in the shade.”

For the last part of our fieldtrip, Miss Susan always works on her tan. First she kicks off her sandals. She unbuttons her front all the way to the lacy part, hikes up her dress and swings her naked legs up on the bench.

Luke’s eyes go saucerwide. Drops of sweat bubble between her breasts. Luke licks his lips like he’s thirsty.

“Fetch me my sunglasses, will you Luke? I think I left them in the john.”

She talks to Luke like she talks to us. Loud, like we’re deaf. Slowly, like we’re stupid. But we understand everything. Like sheep, we see all around without turning our heads. We smell like bloodhounds, climb like goats. Catlike, we hear the crinkle of leaves.

Luke knows everything, too. He scratches me behind the ear just where I like it and says Rolph, you ain’t no fool. The words may be locked inside but you’re no fool.


On the bus ride back to school I lick the sticky spots on the seat.


The last hour of every day is Vocalization and Voice. Miss Martha asks us questions. “Mikie, can you tell me what animals you saw today?” He looks up, flaps. She pulls Sally to her desk, touches the tip of her nose. “Look at me, Sally. Good girl.” Then her hands twist, turn, point. “Can you sign cat, Sally? Let me see you sign cat.

When it’s my turn, her roadkill breath blasts me like a furnace. I want to coil on the carpet, snore. “Did you have a good time at The Happy Farm, Rolph?” The clock ticks. The fan whooshes. Mikie flaps.

“Can you say dog, Rolph? I know you like doggies. Doggies are your favorite.”

I take My Springboard Communication Device out from under my desk and swipe my finger over the picture of a house. On cue, the robot voice says Roof! Roof!

But Miss Martha doesn’t have a sense of humor.

“Can… you… say… dog, Rolph?” as if saying it slower and louder will help. So I press the house once more.

While Miss Susan is lining us up for our bathroom break, Miss Martha writes her notes, her lips mumbling. No improvement this week in expressive language communication. I’m afraid that the time and expense of our visits to The Happy Farm cannot be justified. Over-stimulation does not translate into successful…”


In the hallway, I lift my leg and pee.


The next week will be our last week we are told. One more field trip is considered ADEQUATE CLOSURE. That means if we flop on our backs like fish, if we open our mouths and bray, if we stampede the grounds like a herd of buffalo, no one at the school will be blamed. Miss Martha Fratelli will have washed her hands of us. Her plate will be clean.


We X the boxes on the calendar until its Friday. Luke is waiting for us when the big yellow bus pulls up. When he helps us down the stairs, he looks basset hound sad. Extra treats today, he says. But desperation clouds our thinking. Sally runs up to the black tabby, arches her back, hisses. Noah head butts the goat. Lyla follows Luke and me like a shadow. I flash my canines and snarl.

We are all too busy to notice. As usual, Miss Susan is locked in the bathroom with the chair jammed against the door. Leaves crinkle. Puddles jump. And Mikie is nowhere to be seen.

“Did you see the bird boy?” asks Luke.

We follow his scent. The stalls in the barn are empty. The pond is still. The sinkhole quiet.

“Over there,” says Luke. Far off a white wooden house sits on four concrete squares. As we move closer, it looks less like a cabin and more like a shed.

“That’s where I live,” says Luke.

The screen door is closed. The windows shut. We lay stretched on our stomachs and look underneath. There are cobwebs and beer bottles. Dead mice and old newspapers. But no Mikie.

A breeze blows through the trees, tinkles a wind chime, and tickles my snout. It’s windy, kite-flying windy. I look up and there’s Mikie. He’s holding onto a TV antenna, ready to take flight. The tiles are slanted like a sinking ship. He spreads his wings straight out for balance.

“Roof! Roof!” I shout.

Luke looks at me. The words bubble out like a cartoon. I shout them again before they’re swallowed. “Roof! Roof!”

Then Luke hears him, too. A tile falls. Mikie flaps.

“No! No!” yells Luke.

There’s a ladder in the barn and a rope on the fence and an old mattress lying in a pile of trash near Luke’s pickup truck. Pictures race through my mind. What-ifs. Then in the slowest fastest possible way Mikie runs to edge and soars.

“Roof! Roof!” I shout. “Roof! Roof!”

Within seconds, the sky darkens. The clouds have flattened and covered the sun. Miss Susan now stands next to us, breathing hard. Six nails are red the others pink. Strings of hair cobweb her face.   Then she looks at the puddle on the ground that is Mikie. Her earphones hang like a stethoscope and when she leans over him, when she presses her hands against his chest, when she places her mouth over his lips, we can feel our own hearts thump thump thumping while we wait.

A hummingbird’s heart beats over a thousand times a minute, I try to tell her. Its wings flap up to eighty times a second. They can swoop they can hover they can stand in the air, I want to say.

But only roof! roof! comes out.

pencilBorn in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan, Marlene Olin recently completed her first novel. Her short stories have been featured in publications such as Emrys Journal, Upstreet Magazine, Biostories, Vine Leaves, WIPS, Arcadia, Poetica , Edge, Ragazine, The Jewish Literary Journal, Poydras Review and The Saturday Evening Post online. She will be published in Meat For Tea and The Broken Plate in the coming months. Email: emarkayo[at]aol.com