Cherry Blossoms

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

Cherry Blossoms
Photo Credit: Theryn Fleming

For many of you, this time of year, almost spring, means piles of slush.

But for us west coasters, it means cherry blossoms.

Sometimes I see statistics on slush piles posted, e.g. if a publication gets 1000 submissions and it publishes 10 of those, then anyone submitting there has a 1% chance of being published. Such stats assume that publication is like a lottery: you buy a ticket and if you’re lucky your number is drawn.

Of course, that’s crazy.

“Anne,” who writes well, follows guidelines, and submits her work to publications where she knows it would be a good fit is not comparable to “Bob,” who hasn’t mastered the basics of writing, ignores guidelines, and submits his work to unsuitable publications.

Anne has a good shot at being published regardless of how many other people submit. Bob is unlikely ever to be published regardless of how few people submit.

Potential for publication also depends on how seriously journals take their slush piles. Are they truly interested in wading through the slush to find the cherry blossoms—or are they just going through the motions?

Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways recently wrote an article titled “The Death of Fiction?” In it, he complains about the number of submissions VQR gets in a year (15,000) versus the number of subscribers VQR has (1,500). According to Genoways’s logic, this means that everyone is writing and no one is reading, a situation he attributes to writers no longer concerning themselves with what their potential audience wants to read.

Well, he may have a point there. However, I think Genoways rather misses the real reason for the discrepancy between VQR‘s submissions rate and its subscriber rate. Publication in an established, prestigious print journal is a dream for a lot of writers and so such publications are likely to receive a disproportionate number of submissions.

In “The Death of the Slush Pile,” Katherine Rosman writes that although “[g]etting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot” because it did happen occasionally, “the slush pile represented The Dream.” While it’s unclear from Genoways’s article how many slushpile pieces, if any, VQR publishes, Rosman cites The Paris Review as a publication that still values the slush pile, noting that all its unsolicited submissions are read, albeit by interns. However, of the 12,000 submissions TPR receives annually, it publishes only one. ONE. Which makes it hard not to laugh when the journal’s managing editor is quoted as saying: “We take the democratic ideal represented by the slush pile seriously.”

Presumably there is more than one publishable piece in the 12,000 they receive each year. (Come on.) TPR has chosen to instead to solicit already-established writers. That is, of course, their prerogative, but it’s also a very particular mandate.

What is hard not to escape in “The Death of Fiction?” and “The Death of the Slush Pile” is the narrowness of the writers’ perspective. In their world, literary journals only count if they’re print and old (venerable) and preferably sponsored by a university or some other institution (so they can afford to pay writers). Whereas, as Seth Fischer, editor of The Splinter Generation, points out, “There are hundreds of new sites that thrive on slush piles. There are countless small journals that do so, too. Does nothing count unless it’s Random House or The Paris Review?”

Toasted Cheese is online-only, and while we’re old in internet terms (this is our tenth year, can you believe it?) we’re still an upstart compared to the big-name print journals. Oh, and of course, we’re self-funded, which means, as much as we would like to, we can’t afford to pay our writers at this time.

But everything TC publishes—aside from Best of the Boards and our editorials—is slush. All of it. It is explicitly part of our mandate to publish new voices. From our submission guidelines:

Toasted Cheese publishes flash fiction, fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Our focus is on quality of work, therefore the number of pieces published in each issue will vary. We accept approximately 5% of the submissions we receive. We encourage unpublished writers to submit to Toasted Cheese. We are impressed by quality writing, not by a list of credentials.

Five percent may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind TC‘s slush publication rate is 600 times higher than the The Paris Review‘s 0.0083%.

Everything we receive is read by two editors. If one or both of us feels the piece should be considered, it is shortlisted. We shortlist around ten submissions per month, regardless of the total number of submissions received.

At the end of a three-month submission period, the shortlist is read by the complete editorial board and we make our final decisions. If your submission makes it this far, you have two ways of making it in to TC. The first is for your piece to receive yes votes from a majority of the editors. The second is for your piece to be chosen as an editor’s pick, which means at least one editor feels strongly enough about your work to champion it.

And so, after all this, when we send an acceptance letter and we receive back, “Oh! Thanks, but it’s been accepted elsewhere! Isn’t it thrilling?!” I have to say, no, we’re not thrilled. We’re annoyed.

At this point, we have invested a lot of time in your work. We have told many other people, sorry, no, not this time. We ask upfront that you do not send simultaneous submissions (obviously many writers ignore this). We shortlist promptly (at the end of each month). We shortlist relatively few pieces (so you can be sure that if your piece is shortlisted, it is under serious consideration). This schedule is posted on our guidelines page and we adhere to it. Everyone who submits gets read (assuming you’ve submitted correctly) and gets a response.

We put a lot of work into reading and evaluating submissions. And unlike Ted Genoways, who sounds like he would prefer most writers to just go away, we do this for free, on our own time. We do this because we love writing and reading and discovering new writers.

Unlike Genoways, I do not mind reading unsolicited submissions, even the very very bad ones, because I know that if I keep reading, eventually I will find some cherry blossoms buried in the slush. What I do mind is the growing amount of impatience we have to deal with.

We tackle the reading of submissions in chunks as opposed to reading them as they come in because it is more manageable for most of us to set aside a day or two to read submissions than to be constantly thinking about them. Additionally, reading submissions one after another allows for the comparison of different pieces, to not only see how submissions stack up against each other, but see how they fit together. Many of our issues end up feeling like they have themes even though we did not explicitly set out with one in mind. In other words, the lack of an immediate response on our part is not arbitrary; we’re not making writers wait just for the sake of making them wait. We have good reasons for sticking to the schedule that we do.

Meanwhile, we have writers withdrawing only days after submitting, occasionally within 24 hours. We have writers withdrawing after we send them them shortlist letters. And we have writers withdrawing after we send them acceptance letters. To be honest, the ones that are withdrawn before I even have a chance to read them don’t bother me so much. But when I spend a lot of time reading a piece and making a decision about it and sometimes even editing and preparing it for publication, it irritates me to no end to receive an “Oh, sorry! It’s been accepted elsewhere!” in response. In the case of our Editor’s Picks, sometimes an editor has made a difficult decision between two pieces, only to have the chosen piece be withdrawn. Not only is this annoying from an editorial standpoint, it’s upsetting as both an editor and a fellow writer to know that a lack of courtesy meant the second writer missed out on an opportunity to have his or her work published.

A few points: if a publication says “no simultaneous submissions,” then don’t send them a simultaneous submission (i.e. submit your piece to more than one publication at the same time). If you are simultaneously submitting (and some publications are fine with them), this should be noted upfront in your cover letter. If you have simultaneously submitted, and your work is accepted by one of the publications, immediately notify the other publications to which you have submitted. By waiting until they contact you, you are not only being incredibly disrespectful of the editors, you are sabotaging yourself. Editors do keep track of such transgressions (and share information with each other), and any future submissions, regardless how good they are, are likely to be viewed with suspicion. Why should an editor put time into something that is likely to be withdrawn?

Recently, literary agent Nathan Bransford advised against the shotgun approach to querying. Instead of querying every agent you can find at once, he suggested querying in small batches. His rationale is that if you fail on your first try, you are then able to tweak your query and try again, but if you query everyone at once, then you are done.

I think the same principle can be applied to submissions. When you finish a piece, make a list of potential markets for it. Think of it like applying to university: pick a couple ‘reach’ markets, a bunch where you think your work would fit right in, and a few ‘safeties.’ Submit to one journal at a time, starting at the top of your list. While your work is under consideration, leave it alone. Work on something else. When you get a rejection, take another look at the piece with fresh eyes and fine-tune it. Send out the updated version. And so on.

Submitting this way might sound slow and tedious, and perhaps it is in the short-term. In the long run, however, writers who take this approach will end up with more polished work, stronger publishing credits, and a better relationship with editors. Their names will be out there as people editors want to work with and would be pleased to include in their journals. Their work may even be solicited by fancy-pants print journals, which means they won’t have to worry about the slush pile anymore.

They will be perennial cherry blossoms.

Email: beaver[at]

The Regular

Best of the Boards
Amy Gantt

So You Like Coffee, Eh?
Photo Credit: Jeff Chin

It’s Sunday, which means it’s time for me to write another story, in my quest to fulfill my New Year’s resolution, such as it was. “Tell more stories” seemed like such a reasonable thing to promise myself at the beginning of the new year. It’s not even the end of January, and I’m having a hard time coming up with a story I both want to and can tell. There are plenty of stories I want to tell, and some of them I probably will at some point, but right now, they’re in quarantine.

It’s not been the easiest week for me. It began with a funeral, and ended with some potentially devastating news about a family member. In the middle, there was work, and solving problems, and laughter, and bad weather, and no bicycling, and writing emails, and hoping, and walking too far in kick-ass new boots. There are stories in the last week, but they’re either in quarantine or they just bum me out too much to write them. I am not in the mood for a maudlin or sentimental story today. Instead, I’ll tell you about my Sunday morning.

Every Sunday morning, I wake up at six a.m. and I groan. I wait until I hear the coffee grinder whir, and then I get out of bed, find my ratty blue bathrobe, and wander downstairs to start the day. Ana and I go to the 9:00 mass at our church on Sunday mornings, and Ana has to be there at eight to warm up for the choir. I spend the time between eight and nine sitting in the Starbucks on the corner of Charles and Beacon streets in Boston, across the street from the Boston Common, right in the midst of Beacon Hill. For that almost-an-hour, I read, or I listen to an audiobook and play Tetris on my phone, or I listen to music and stare into space. Occasionally, someone I know comes in and shares a table with me and we make small talk until it’s time to head the few blocks down the street to the church.

As a coffeeshop, its identity is somewhat schizophrenic. Are all Starbucks like this? This one is the only one I really know, since I gravitate toward independent coffeeshops with clienteles that look something like me, or versions of people who I think I’d probably like. People I wouldn’t mind sharing a table with. Like the Diesel Cafe in Davis Square, or Darwin’s on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge. I feel at home in those places. They play music I like. Their service staff are young and cute and tattooed. And they don’t call themselves ‘baristas,’ I don’t think.

Starbucks isn’t a home, not this one at least. It’s just a place where I can get an overly-sweet soy chai beverage and kill some time trying to wake up before I go to the church where I can pretend not to doze in the pew. In part, this may very well be due to location. Beacon Hill, for those not familiar with the peculiarities of Boston neighborhoods, has no public school because no one who lives on Beacon Hill would stoop so low as to send their precious trust fund baby to a school with people making less than 1 beeelion dollars in bonuses. Okay, so that probably isn’t fair. I don’t much care, the point stands. Beacon Hill is rich and white. It also borders the Boston Common, of course, and it’s a tourist destination, and it’s the center of state government, and it’s where god-knows-how-many charity walks/runs/rides/fairs/etc. begin and end. The Starbucks there on the corner brings in a hodgepodge of these people, including the regular homeless people—a blonde woman who wears a puffy coat through the summer and pulls apparently everything she owns in a remarkably sturdy piece of wheeled luggage, and a small bearded black man who has a friendly word to say to everyone, even when he isn’t panhandling. I’ve given him my share of cups of coffee and sandwiches and change. I like chatting with him.

Then there are the women who come in with purses casually slung onto the table, purses I’m sure cost as much as my bike, and their full-length fur coats, and their air-kisses with one another. They don’t see anyone below their social station, though I’m sure they do charity work and buy organic vegetables and bleach-free tampons. I always want to accidentally spill something on them, just so perhaps a small amount of emotion might creep through their tight, controlled faces. And there are the runners/walkers/bikers/fair-goers who pop in, not every really stopping, to grab a skim no-foam latte.

And then there’s The Regular. I don’t know his name. I first noticed him a couple of years ago, when my friend A’s twins were infants and he commented on them. He wears black plastic-rimmed square glasses, and looks, at first glance, like an aging homosexual from another era. He’s in his late 60s, probably, and he has thick gray hair, swept back from his face, and he purses his lips when he smiles.

He makes me crazy. I want to punch him every time I see him.

He wears this combination of clothes that are halfway between rich preppy and old golfer. His perfectly-pleated cranberry-colored slacks are belted under his ribcage. He has tassels on his leather moccasins and he wears no socks. His bare white ankles are speckled with dark, coarse hairs. Today, he was wearing a multicolored striped shirt with the collar flipped up in back.

The first time I met The Regular, I thought he was probably an okay guy. He cooed over the babies for a moment and then moved on. Since then, though, he has been in the Starbucks every single time I go in there, and first, he’s loud. And he never stops talking—to the other customers, to the baristas, to himself. He laughs loudly at his little jokes. He invades the personal space of every female who comes near him. It is clear from his body language that he finds himself utterly and completely charming. Everyone else should know this about him, too, right? And so he chortles at his own jokes and flamboyantly dances through the coffeeshop in search of the restroom key, pausing to say hello to anyone who catches his eye.

Once, I was in the Starbucks on a Sunday afternoon, while Ana warmed up for some choir something-or-other, and I caught the eye of a young Indian man, clearly a graduate or professional student based on the bags under his bloodshot eyes as he looked up from his MacBook.

“What is this?” he asked me, gesturing at The Regular. “So fucking loud!”

“Yeah,” I said. “He drives me fucking nuts, and he’s always, always in here.”

“Why don’t they do something about him?” he moaned, rubbing his forehead.

“I don’t know,” I said, with no small degree of despair. “They probably just can’t get rid of him. I just always make sure I have my iPod when I’m in here.”

My new friend went back to his MacBook, rubbing his temples. When The Regular exploded into laughter after a particularly screechy observation, he looked back to me. “Can you watch my stuff a minute?”

He got up and went to the register. I couldn’t hear what was said (I, of course, had plugged my earbuds back on as far as I could), but I could tell exactly what happened.

Graduate Student: Can you tell that guy over there to shut the fuck up so I can get a little work done on my thesis, away from my infant daughter and my wife who thinks all I do is go class three hours a week, so why can’t I change a diaper occasionally?

Barista, shrugging and smiling apologetically: Sorry, dude. We’ve tried everything we can. We’re pretty sure he has a nest in the walls, because even the exterminators couldn’t get rid of him for long. He just keeps coming back.

Today, The Regular was smirking as I walked in. I’m afraid he’s beginning to, after two years, recognize me. I sat at my table and pulled out my writing notebook and set my iPod on “loudly shuffle almost everything.” Tori Amos, played at top volume, would drown out a tornado, and it almost drowns out The Regular. Until he comes near my table, holding a $20 bill in his left hand. A barista is coming toward him, holding a broom on a mission from some chore or another. He grabs her wrist, and I see the muscles in her arm bulge as she tries to pull away. She’s young, in her early 20s, probably, but she has that server smile that says, “I’m doing this for the money, but don’t push your luck.” I mastered that smile once upon a time. He didn’t let go. She took the twenty, said something, and tugged at her arm again. I removed one earbud. I did not want to get involved with this asshole, because I’d never be able to return to this Starbucks for my weekly sugar bomb, but I couldn’t not step in. At that moment, he let go of her wrists and flounced around to the restroom area.

She fled back behind the counter before I could say anything to her.

Like I said, every time I see him, I just want to punch him in the face. The smug, entitled son of a bitch.

Maybe I need to find a new place anyway.


Amy Gantt writes fiction in the grantwriting genre for a university in Boston, Massachusetts. In her spare time, she writes nonfictional stories about her life, walks her whiny dogs, feeds her always-starving cats, and cooks complicated meals for herself and her partner. Stories have always been the way Amy finds meaning in the world: if it can’t be story-shaped, it likely can’t be—or shouldn’t be—understood.

Whitcher Cemetery

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Erica L. Ruedas

Old Family Cemetery
Photo Credit: Richard Freeman

There was a graveyard at Fort Ord.

Madge found out about it on her second night while patrolling with Ronnie, the cocky sergeant. He took her out beyond the barriers on Inter-Garrison, where only bikers, hikers, and cops and military personnel were allowed.

“See the kennels over there? The military used to keeps dogs on the base, and they’d have guys sleeping in those buildings nearby. Some of the fellas here, they say they can hear them howling at night when they drive by. I’ve never heard it, though.”

Madge sipped her coffee and stared out the window. The moon was out, and Monterey’s famous fog had left off for the evening so the kennels stood out clearly. They looked like everything else did on this base—old and abandoned.

Ronnie tossed her a grin and put the car in gear and they travelled a little farther down the torn-up road. There were more abandoned buildings, which Madge knew she should get used to on this campus, but Ronnie drove past them without comment and pulled up next to a small clearing surrounded by a chain link fence on two sides.

“Now, take a look here,” he said, glancing at her to make sure she was looking. “Now, not too many of the students know this, but there’s a graveyard here. Belonged to some family a long time ago, like 1800s or something. But anyway, when the government came ’round looking for land, the family sold it to them under one condition: that they could come visit this graveyard to pay their respects to their ancestors whenever they’d like. Military agreed, and they were the only ones allowed on this base during times of war, when the whole place was locked down.”

Madge nodded, but she was staring at the headstones outlined in the moonlight. The graveyard was small, with one large cross and one or two small headstones. If they had been closer, she would probably make out more, but Ronnie drove off again.

“You know,” he said, after a moment, “they say sometimes a little girl goes down to the kennels at night, wearing a blue silk dress. Those headstones all belong to kids, but they’re all really little kids, like two years old. Some of the fellas think it’s a girl killed by the soldiers, to hide evidence or something. And she hears the dogs howling, and goes down to the kennels to play with them, cuz it makes her forget the horrors she experienced here.”

Madge rolled her eyes. Ronnie was taking her silence to be fear, when really she was just wondering about the family buried in the graveyard. She loved history and visiting cemeteries.

They finally drove back to the station and spent a few hours filling out some paperwork and watching training videos from the eighties before everyone on the night shift packed up their gear and went home. Madge had taken a townhouse in the staff housing two miles away from the station, and, as she had sold her old car before moving, she hitched a ride with the campus shuttle on its second lap around the campus.

There was no one getting on the shuttle from campus to housing, so Madge struck up a conversation with the student driver. She was a business major, named Emily, and was in her second year. She shared Madge’s love of the history of Monterey, and on the short drive the two of them traded facts until Madge’s stop.

When she got back to work again that night, the office staff of the student transportation and parking services were leaving from their office next door. Emily was among them. “Have you been here all day?” asked Madge, shifting her gear to get at her swipe card to unlock the police entrance.

Emily separated from the group. “No, I just take a second shift on Tuesdays. Hey, have you been around the area yet?”

“No, not yet, I’ve barely had time to go grocery shopping.”

“Well, leave a message in the office—my boyfriend and I can show you around this weekend.”

“Cool, thanks.” Madge finally found her keycard and let herself into the station, waving goodbye to Emily.

An hour later she was in briefing, where she learned she was to be partnered with Sam, a tall, good-looking detective who was popular with the students. She also learned that she was in the driver’s seat.

“So, have you been learning the streets?” Sam asked her in the car as he made adjustments to his seat.

“Yeah, east/west streets are given the designation ‘Street’ and the North/South ones are ‘Avenue.’ I’m still figuring out the housing blocks—which one is Civil War again?”

“That’d be Frederick Park 1. The first left when you get past Inter-Garrison. Frederick Park 2 is Revolutionary War, and Schoonover is all on its own—that’s where you live right? Want to drive around there for a while?”

“Sure.” Madge called it in to dispatch and they drove the two miles back to the campus housing. They’d been driving around for a few hours when Madge asked about the graveyard. Sam laughed.

“Yeah, Ronnie likes to scare all the new guys with that. New girls. People. Sorry.”

“S’all right.”

“Anyways, there is a graveyard back there, but I’ve never heard of any ghost girls or ghost dogs or anything like that. Nothing much happens out there, anyway. It’s just a place to go when you get bored at night.”

Within a few weeks Madge was driving a car on her own, and as the students settled into the fall semester the station got busy at night with party bust-ups, disturbance calls, and one particularly interesting marijuana bust in the dorms where an R.A. discovered a student growing pot in her dorm room. She hadn’t had a chance to drive past the barriers on Inter-Garrison to see the graveyard yet, but it was hanging at the back of her mind. Thanks to Emily’s tours she’d found the cemetery in Monterey, but it was small and uninteresting compared to the mystery of the graveyard on the military land.

Just before the school’s fall break, Madge found herself driving around one night with nothing to do. She had already done a few sweeps of the abandoned buildings down by Second Ave, where students liked to steal souvenirs or smoke pot, so she drove down Inter-Garrison and through the barriers, trying to remember how to get to the graveyard.

She found it quickly, despite not having any landmarks back there, and as she approached the kennels her hands slipped on the steering wheel. She was more afraid of being found there by the MPs, as she didn’t know how to explain why a campus cop would be out here alone, but there wasn’t anyone else around. From the road near the kennels she realized she could see the headlights going up and down Imjin to Marina, something she hadn’t seen the last time she had been here, but as it was nearly three a.m., there were few headlights.

She don’t know why she did it but she got out of the car. She wished she had a camera so she could photograph the kennels by the half-covered moon, and she left the car running with the headlights off just in case. She could always tell the MPs she thought she saw someone moving out there.

The kennels were falling apart, some missing their gates, but Madge stood there awhile, imagining she could hear the dogs sleeping inside. The moon went behind a cloud, and it took a minute for her night vision to kick in. She had a flashlight on her belt, but she didn’t want to take the chance of it being seen.

When the moon came out from the clouds again, she suddenly heard a howl, and then another. She froze, staring at the kennels, but nothing was moving. The howls stopped, and Madge suddenly remembered it being mentioned in her orientation that there were still animals on the base, like deer and coyotes—and mountain lions. She realized that this was a stupid idea, to be in such a strange place by herself with nothing but some pepper spray and her gun, and she was heading back to the car when she saw the girl.

She had materialized behind a dilapidated building about a hundred feet from the kennels and was walking towards Madge, wearing an old-fashioned blue dress that shimmered in the moonlight. She was about seven or eight, and she was looking right through Madge at the kennels.

Madge stood staring at the little girl until her radio crackled to life and she jumped and ran to the car. In the car she chanced a glance back at the kennels and the little girl had disappeared. The radio crackled out something again, and Madge turned it up and heard dispatch calling her to suicidal student out in FP1. She acknowledged the call and drove back to campus, where she spent the rest of her shift counseling the distraught student and seeing her safely onto an ambulance to the hospital.

Two days later, Madge was walking around campus when she ran into Emily near the library.

“Hey, Officer Stevens, taking a class?”

“Oh, no, just looking around.”

“Well, be sure to check out our library. I think it’s the smallest university library ever.”


“Yeah, it’s in the Guinness Book or something. Anyways, I gotta get to class. See you at work!”

It occurred to Madge that she might find some history about the cemetery in the campus library, and as she was technically staff of the school, she had a library account. From the outside the library looked small, but inside it was even smaller. A nearby librarian spotted her and greeted her: “Can I help you find anything?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for some books on the history of Fort Ord.”

“Is it for a class?”

“Oh, no, I’m not a student, I’m actually a police officer that just started. I wanted to learn a little bit more about when this all used to be a military base.”

“Sure, we’ve got some books, but it might be best to try the city library.”

“Yeah, you guys are kind of small for a university.”

The librarian smiled apologetically. “Well, the school itself is only ten years old, and we don’t have much of a collection yet. But we do have a great interlibrary loan system, and there’s plans to build a much bigger library in the next five years or so.”


The librarian spent a few minutes showing Madge some books on the history of Fort Ord then she left to help another student for a class. Madge picked up some of the books and took them to a study table so she could look through them. She flipped through several of the books, but none of them had any information about the land before it had been sold to the military by David Jacks. The librarian came by again and peered over her shoulder.

“Any luck?” she asked.

Madge sighed. “No, not really. None of these have the information I want.”

“You might want to try the city library—it’s behind downtown on Pacific Street. I think they’ve got a historical exhibit right now.”

Madge followed the librarian to the desk and took the slip of paper with the city library’s address. “Thanks.”

Rather than waiting to find someone to take her out there, Madge took the bus from the stop outside the library. She hadn’t been able to shake the image of that girl from her mind. She came home later with a stack of books about the history of Monterey, and she grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat down to read. There was still very little history mentioned prior to what she had begun to dub “The David Jacks Era,” but she eventually fond a footnote somewhere that said that a family called Whitcher had once lived on the land. There was no more about them in any of the books.

Just before fall break, the university started advertising a Secrets of Fort Ord tour for all the potential students coming to view the campus. It was a two-hour bus tour that went around the military land. Madge found that she was off that day, so she signed up. When she ran into Emily at work she found that Emily had signed up as well, and they agreed to go in the same bus.

“I hear there’s a graveyard out there,” Emily said, lowering her voice.

“There is, I’ve seen it.”


On the day of the tour they met up outside the main university building with a large group of teens who were looking around nervously. “Ever been on the tour before?” asked Madge, craning her neck to see down the street.

“Nope, but my friends went on it last year and said it was cool. That’s how I found out about the graveyard. There’s really one out there?”

“Yeah, it’s really small, though.”

The guide they had was an old colonel who had been stationed on Fort Ord in the seventies. His commentary was dry but informative, and he was able to pepper it with some of his memories. At certain spots they were able to get out and walk around, except where there was a live training being done, and people crowded the windows to watch soldiers in full gear storming a building with their M-17s drawn.

They finally drove to the area by the graveyard, and everyone got out to look around. The fog had started to settle, so the colonel warned them to watch their step, as there was still a lot of hazardous material around, and Madge got a chance to go over to the small graveyard. There were only five headstones, and Ronnie had told the truth about them all being toddlers, except one, who had been an adult buried in the thirties. She couldn’t see where the little girl might have come from.

Emily came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. “Not much to look at, is it?”

“No, not really. Wish someone knew more about them, though.”

The fog grew heavier as the party walked down the road to the kennels, and Madge was enjoying seeing them in daylight when they all heard the howling. A few people laughed nervously, but the colonel explained that it was probably just coyotes.

“Those aren’t coyotes,” someone said.

“Well what else could they be?” asked Emily.

“That’s some kind of dog. There’s a dog out here.”

Everyone looked around, but no dogs appeared. Then Emily suddenly screamed, and the colonel ran over.

“What is? Did you step on something?”

Emily shook her head, pale under her make-up. “No, I thought I saw a little girl over there by that building,” she said, pointing to the corner where Madge had also seen the little girl.

“There’s no children on this tour,” the colonel pointed out, sounding irritated.

Emily shook her head again. “It was definitely a little girl.” She turned to her Madge. “One of the cops told me there’s this ghost of a little girl out here. I bet it was her.”

“Was it Ronnie?” asked Madge, as the colonel started herding them towards the bus.

“Yeah, him, I had to do a ride-along with him my first month and he took me back here and tried to scare me. I didn’t believe him, but…”

“Yeah, he told me the same thing too.” They got back on the bus and Madge followed Emily to the back, where Emily leaned her head towards Madge’s.

“You know, I bet it’s someone from the graveyard over there on the other side of the road.”

“All the people buried there are under five or over thirty,” said Madge.

Emily looked disappointed. “The girl I saw was around eight, and I know I saw her.”

Madge peered over the seats and lowered her voice. “I’ve seen her too.”


“Yeah, a few weeks ago. Was she wearing a blue dress?”


“Same girl.”

Back at work the next day, Madge went to Ronnie immediately. “Did you try to play a joke on us this weekend?”

“No, I was up in the Bay Area with my girl. Why?”

Madge had known that, but she soldiered on. “Someone tried to scare one of the tour groups, out at the cemetery.”

“Oh, that Secrets of Fort Ord tour? I been on that a few times. Probably one of the theater students doing his own Blair Witch thing.”

“They saw a little girl in a blue dress.”

Ronnie laughed. “Oh, come on, you don’t believe that, do you? Hey, Sam,” he said, as the tall detective came into the room, “our newbie here believes that old ghost story.”

Sam laughed at the irritated look on Madge’s face.

“You want one of us to ride with you, huh? You too scared to go alone?” taunted Ronnie, getting too close to Madge. She punched his arm and walked away, slightly satisfied when she saw him rubbing his arm.

Emily met her for dinner the next day.

“It definitely wasn’t Ronnie,” said Madge, as they sat down.

“Well, what else do you think it was?”

“I don’t know. I looked it up and the family those graves belong to is called Whitcher, but none of those graves belong to an eight-year-old girl. And I can’t find anything else.”

Emily chewed her pizza thoughtfully.

Madge spoke up again. “Look, it’s not the best source of information, but Ronnie said maybe a girl was molested and killed out there, and they buried her to hide the evidence.”

“You think there’s someone else actually buried out there?”

“Maybe. It doesn’t have to be from when this still belonged to the military. It could be someone more recent, and no one’s ever around out there, so it wouldn’t be too hard not to get caught. Either way that makes it a crime and I have to investigate it. What if someone’s really buried out there?”

“Well, get the other cops in on it.”

Madge knew she didn’t have enough evidence to even mention it to Sam, and she was more interested in getting to the bottom of a possible ghost story. “They won’t believe me, not after I got after Ronnie for trying to scare us,” she said.

They finished their lunch and Emily got up to head back to class when Madge caught her arm. “Hey, go on a ride along with me next week. We’ll head out there again, look around.”

“Sure. When do you work next?”


“Cool, I’ll meet you at the station, then.”

Up until Madge grabbed the shuttle to work, she tried to find information about any missing girls in the area, but nothing came up. She finally printed out some pages that she knew were going to be irrelevant and ran out the door. To her surprise, Emily was driving the shuttle.

“Someone called in sick, so I’m driving till 7:30. I’ll come by then, though?”

Madge got to work and filled out the paperwork for a ride-along, then grabbed her car and drove around the housing for awhile. The night was quiet for a Thursday, and she was able to drive back to the station to pick up Emily.

“Here’s some stuff I printed out earlier, but I don’t think it’ll help,” she said, tossing the print-outs in Emily’s lap.

Emily went through them quickly on the way to the road blocks and shook her head. “There’s nothing here.”

When they got to the kennels, Madge shut off the car and the headlights. They sat staring at one another for a minute, and then Madge took a deep breath and got out of the car. Emily followed her.

The night was foggy, and Madge felt safe enough pulling out her flashlight. “Stay close to me,” she said. Emily hugged herself and followed Madge to the kennels.

They spent a few minutes looking around, but Madge never found anything suspicious. She was about to tell Emily she was going to call it quits when Emily gasped and pointed to the shed. Madge shone her flashlight in that direction and saw nothing, but Emily grabbed her hand and pulled it away, and Madge saw the little girl coming towards them.

Once again, she was looking right through them towards the kennels, but this time there was no howling. The fog rolled across the field, and Madge’s blood froze as she watched the little girl pick her way to them. She was within twenty feet when Emily’s hand seized Madge’s and tugged her away.

Madge nearly dropped the flashlight as they ran to the car, and was adjusting her grip on it when Emily tripped just ahead of her. Madge stopped to help her up and turned around, but the girl was gone, or at least had gone far enough towards the kennels that she couldn’t be seen. Panting, Madge pulled Emily up and turned on the flashlight to make sure she was okay, and Emily gasped again.

At her feet was a greying bone.

This time, Madge grabbed Emily and pulled her to the car, where she started it and kicked up clouds of dirt taking off.

They drove around for an hour or two to calm down and decided that they would report it to Sam. When they got back to the station, Sam listened to them quietly, then radioed for a back up team to go out there, where Madge and Emily led them to the bone. It was bagged up and taken as evidence.

A few days later, Madge joined a team of MPs, Ronnie, Sam, and a few other cops as they went over the ground near the kennels. A dog had been brought in, but he found nothing until they got to the place where Madge and Emily had been standing the other night when they last saw the little girl. It was there that he started whining and growling at nothing, and tugging on his leash.

“What’s wrong with him?” Sam asked the handler, but the handler just jerked the dog away.

“Get away from the area, folks,” he said. “Hey, Parkins, you want to get an air quality tester over here?”

A couple of hours later, more MPs, in masks this time, were going over the area. Carbon monoxide, in concentrated amounts, had been detected near the kennels. Sam wanted to go back to the station, but since Madge wasn’t actually on duty, she elected to stay.

She was there when one of the MPs fell through the dirt, and his teammate barely caught him before he dropped fifty feet into a well behind the kennels, and she watched as they uncovered the rest of it, and blasted the carbon monoxide out of it.

By the time the city historians got there, it had been worked out that the well had belonged to the Whitchers, and vandals looking for metal had disturbed a lot of the surrounding soil, allowing the carbon monoxide to reach the surface. The gas, along with the story Ronnie had planted in Madge and Emily’s heads, and a nearby family of coyotes, had been the source of the bone, the howling, and the apparition. The little girl was never seen again.


In her day job, Erica fixes software and databases, but at night she is a dancer, writer, and photographer. Email: eruedas[at]

The Red Blanket

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Tamara Eaton

Warm Furry Blanket
Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson

The Pueblo—1682

In the time of the great disease she watches as one after another the people of her pueblo sicken and die of the fever from the pale-skinned ones. Her husband falls ill. The pueblo shaman performs the healing ritual, but when the chants and prayers are complete, she stares at her beloved’s lifeless body. She wrenches away from the bed pallet. On the other side of the room the baby cries. With a last look at her husband, the young mother clasps the infant in her arms, and runs across the village.

She enters the church at a rush. “Padré, help us! Tell me how to save my daughter. You know this sickness. You are well. Tell me what to do,” she pleads, her tongue tripping over the foreign words.

“You must remove the child from the village,” he instructs her.

She acquiesces. “Gracías, Padré.” Turning, she walks back down the center of the small church.

“Wait,” he says. “Let me pray with you.”

She stops and kneels facing the altar. His voice drones an echo in the dim chapel. The aroma of burning candles normally consoles the Indian woman. Nevertheless, at this moment, the fragrance oppresses her and a slight nauseated sensation reels her stomach. Breathing deeply, she regains her equilibrium. The woman parrots memorized lines, finding no comfort in the foreign language. The baby squirms, uttering a short whine.

“Shh.” The mother strokes the young infant’s cheek. The prayer ends. The woman nods to the elder Franciscan priest, rises from her knees and retraces her steps.

Vaya con Dios, my child,” he calls to her retreating back.

Walking through the village, she hears the moans of sick friends and family hanging on the crisp air. Saving her daughter’s life is her only concern. The mother ignores the misery of the others and returns to her plain adobe room.

Her preparations are simple, and she tells no one her plans. To protect the small one from the bitter cold she bundles her in the red blanket, a gift from her grandmother. Trembling hands place corn into a pack for the journey along with a skin of water. A small leather bag contains corn pollen. She concentrates on the effortless tasks, shunting her own fear to the back of her mind. The mother lifts the baby into her arms and exits the warmth of the shelter into the high desert winter.

She wanders for hours before coming to a path leading up the mesa. The trail is long and treacherous. Many times she stumbles. The precious weight in her arms does not cry. Shivers no longer rack her or the baby. At long last she reaches the end of the trail. She sets her valuable burden down on a rock outcropping.

Sprinkling the white corn pollen in the wind, the woman prays, “Please Great One! Hear my prayer! We can go no further. Protect us here from all sickness and death.” She bows her head and snowflakes alight on tangled black hair. Tears run down her cheeks.

It is her grandmother’s voice she hears on the wind. “Keep the baby wrapped in the red blanket, and she will remain safe.”

A great sigh escapes her and she brushes the wetness from her face. Confident in the protection of her ancestor, the woman returns to her infant. Holding the baby to her breast, she feeds the child. She reverently touches the blanket, stroking it and cherishes the warmth of the precious little one inside. Wind whips violently around mother and child. She ducks her face away from the icy currents lifting her hand to protect her eyes. In the brief unguarded moment, a gust rips the red blanket away from her daughter. It flies away, swirling in the breeze.

Recalling the promise of her grandmother, she rushes after it, the infant in her arms. She must not lose the red blanket. Placing the babe on the rock once more, she runs over the mesa chasing the treasured fabric. It dances, calling her to play, teasing her mercilessly. The wool cloth flies up and skirts the rocks before being lifted again on another blast of air. A cry from the baby jerks the mother’s gaze back to her daughter. The baby appears small in the distance. The woman is surprised how far she’s run in such a short time, but she’s nearly to the edge of the mesa. Lying on the rock, the child will freeze without the warmth of the blanket and her mother.

“Be strong little one. I’ll be back in a moment,” she calls. Again, the woman turns to watch the blanket. She scrambles over the sandstone rocks and sees the cloth caught on the branch of a mesquite tree at the cliff rim. This will be the last chance to reach it. Balancing precariously at the edge of the slippery rocks, she strains toward the bright wool. Her hands grasp a handful of air. Another sharp gust rips at the white elk hide she wears and the shifting weight causes her foot to slip. Grabbing a tip of the red wool unbalances the woman and she topples to the sandstone shelf above the canyon. Her neck snaps on impact and her wail echoes on the wind.

The child lying on the rock whimpers, falls asleep, and wakes no more.

On his herb-gathering walk after the weather clears, the priest finds the child lying on the mesa in death’s sleep. He says a prayer for the little one and builds a small cairn of rocks over her. A short while later, he spots the woman’s broken body whose hand clutches a red blanket. He shakes his head and expels a soft moan. His advice to her had not saved her or the baby. He prays over the woman and spends an hour gathering rocks to gently place over her body. Before setting the final stone atop the makeshift tomb, he uses it to scratch a name into the cliff.

In passing years sagebrush and scrub oak grow around the lone grave hidden below the mesa rim. The marker: a cairn of red stones. Visitors to the concealed burial place are an occasional deer or elk wandering down the slightly worn animal path along the edge of the mesa. The harsh desert climate reclaims the land.


Nuevo Mexico—1785

The vaquero sits tall in the silver-trimmed saddle and rides his horse up the steep path cresting the last rise to level out onto the mesa. Far from being lonely, he takes pleasure in his solitary travels over the ranchero’s vast terrain. Today he’s looking for stray cattle possibly left behind in the summer pastures after the fall round-up. Gathering gray white clouds foreshadow an impending storm. He gathers his jacket closer to ward off the dropping temperature, and pulls his sombrero down so it won’t fly off in the rising wind. Hoarfrost covers the brush, creating a bleak, peculiar landscape. Creeping over the mesa, the fog flows through the crags and crevasses of the canyon below. Within a few moments he can see only a few feet in front of his mount. The familiar site becomes a strange foreign land surrounding him. The horse spooks, bucking him in his saddle.

“Whoa! Easy El Diablo. What’s wrong?” He pats the horse’s neck to calm the animal.

Hearing a noise, he turns in his saddle toward it. He reaches his gloved hands for la riata, taking it off the saddle’s horn to prepare a lasso before dismounting. Usually he’d remain on the horse, but with limited visibility, he prefers to have his feet on the ground. His leather boots scuff the loose sand on the mesa. He leads El Diablo by the reins, peering into the freezing fog surrounding him. The sound reaches him once more. He is convinced the whimper is a calf so he continues toward it, rope in hand.

Through the mist an Indian woman materializes. He drops El Diablo’s reins and darts back to hunt for a hiding place. A sandstone indentation provides cover. There hasn’t been any Indian fighting in the area, but he warily watches the woman. Though he thinks she must hear both his footsteps and those of the horse on the sandstone, he sees no indication that she sees him yet. He is ready to run if she shows any signs of hostility. He lets out a breath he is surprised to find locked in his chest.

She strides back and forth, not more than twenty feet in front of him. Her gaze searches, without seeing him. He stands. The woman’s focus lands on something beyond him. She runs toward him. He sidesteps to avoid her, but she brushes past him and a flash of colder air enshrouds him. He gasps drawing his knife, spins around, he makes the sign of the cross and watches her whirl to stand opposite him. Her eyes widen, eyebrows arched.

Mí niña? Have you seen my baby?” Her voice is desperate.


“Please find her. She will freeze without the blanket.” The woman raises a red blanket, supplicating the stranger for help.

He backs away crossing himself once more. “Bruja? Please don’t hurt me.”

“Help me.” She pleads. “I must find my baby.”

The vaquero shakes his head. “No. There is no baby here.” His voice quivers and he trembles. “Madre de Díos.”

“Ask her to help me find my baby. She is a mother. She understands.”

Is she asking him to pray for her? He shakes his head again.

“Please. Ask the Virgen de Guadalupe to pray for me. She will hear your prayers.”

He kneels in the dusting of snow covering the mesa now. He closes his eyes and folds his hands in prayer. “Madre de Dios, protect me from this spirit.”


He repeats the prayer and lifts one eyelid. Is the specter crying now? Yes. Her tears slip down her pale red-brown cheeks. He hangs his head; sadness replaces the fear his heart. “I cannot help you, Spirit.”

“You must.”

Her simple request is hopeless. How can he make her understand? “Señora, it is not possible. You do not live in my world.”

The fog lifts expanding the visibility. He gazes around seeing the mesa once more. “Where are you from?”

“The pueblo.”

“Why did you leave your village?”

“The sickness. To save my baby.” She shrugs her shoulders.

“Where is she?”

“I left her on the mesa so I could catch the red blanket.” She raises the wool cloth in her hand. A sigh of exasperation escapes the woman’s throat.

“Where did you find the blanket?”

She points to the edge of the mesa. The man follows the direction of her gesture and glances over the cliff. There is a cairn of stones. He nods in understanding. Circling back toward the spirit he finds no one.

Emotions conflict in his mind. He understands the spirit is in pain and wanders the mesa looking for her lost child. As much as he enjoys the solitude of the setting, he cannot imagine eternally drifting over the mesa. How can he help her rest peacefully in her grave? The solution is obvious—if he buries her body and hides her grave, the spirit cannot roam perpetually restless. This he can do. In the frigid wind and snow flurries, he clambers down the side of the cliff using the animal trail. Upon reaching the cairn, he dismantles it with trembling hands. Clean stark white bones, the result of a century of heat and dehydration, are unveiled. With a shovel-shaped stone he digs a small hole in the sand and places the dry bones inside. He covers the grave with sand. Perhaps the spirit can now sleep, but he doubts he will sleep this night. The vast uninhabited mesa loses its allure for the young vaquero. He climbs the path to find El Diablo waiting. Lost cattle will wait. The young man mounts his horse and heads down the trail.


Flat Top Mesa—1888

She paces the floor of the cabin. Ten feet one way, turn, ten steps the other direction. Four walls built for comfort and shelter trap her inside. Her life is framed in waiting moments. It will be at least two hours before he returns. If she stays here, her imagination will take over. Her husband often pokes fun at what he terms her “tetched thoughts”. Unable to bear the silent aloneness of howling winds any longer, Maggie wraps her shawl tight around her auburn hair and rounded belly, opens the door to escape the cabin’s clutches. Animals need tending: an excuse and a necessity force her outside. The door wrenches out of her grasp. Pulling her full weight on the doorknob she latches it closed.

Head down, she presses through blowing snow flurries of the dim afternoon toward the barn. Frigid temperatures threaten blizzard conditions on the top of the mesa. She’s lived here a mere two years, but experience makes her aware of nature’s deadly dangers.

I hope Arthur makes it back before it hits, she thinks. If not, I could be stuck alone here for days. Thrusting the thought from her head, she plods on to the barn; watering eyes blur her vision. Each step exerts energy from her already exhausted body. Her extra load weighs her down in this eighth month. The short trip takes her an extra ten minutes this late afternoon fighting the gale. At last she arrives finding the barn door open. Maggie gaze searches the murky shadows to find no cow or calf inside. She must find them. They depend on the milk for the winter. Bracing herself for a moment on the doorframe she turns to renew her struggle against the winter.

Slow measured steps. To fall now would be a deadly misstep. She peers through half-closed eyes to make her way toward the pasture. Her best guess is the animals went to find water at the well. Buffeted by the wind she continues the search. Clouds darken the afternoon further to early twilight and the wind pushes her long skirt against her legs. Ignoring the cold, she continues. The first pain doubled her over with its force. She grips her belly and a wetness slides down her legs. Maggie slumps to her knees. Snow falls now in heavy freezing wet sheets blinding her to everything except the red sandstone disappearing beneath the snow.

“Uhhhh,” she gasps. “Not now, baby. I need to find the cow.” Maggie lifts her heaving body. One step before another contraction rips through her abdomen. She pants puffs of frozen air. Knifing pain brings her back to her knees. Teeth chattering and legs weak she lifts one leaden leg and then the other to stand up.

“Oh God please!” the wind whisks her scream away.

Scarlet drips onto the snow. She watches in disbelief. “No!

Strength she didn’t realize she possessed allows her to leverage her body against a frost-covered rock. Trance-like, she places one foot deliberately in front of the other.

A low fog now obscures the visibility. Blowing snow masks the landscape into an unfamiliar mysterious ice-shrouded world. She hears a cry. It sounds like an infant bawling. Confused, Maggie berates herself for what must be a ploy of her active imagination. The sound comes again on the wind, more definite this time. A babe’s whimper. She was sure it was more than the wind. It must be the calf bleating. Gritting her teeth to block the pain she heads the direction of the sound. She creeps forward toward the mewling noise.

Maggie catches herself in a stumble: a girl-child of no more than two months old lies naked brown against the snow. The baby whimpers now, hiccoughing, gasping for air. Impossible. The agony must be playing tricks with her mind. Shutting her eyes, she takes a deep breath expecting the vision to disappear. Delusions occur in dire situations. Barely raising her eyelids, she squints, disbelieving her own senses.

“Save me and you save your own babe,” the child says in a woman’s voice. “Leave me, and your infant is lost.”

Maggie staggers back from the naked girl, but maternal instinct urges her forward. She reaches a tentative hand out to touch the child. The baby’s skin is frigid underneath the woman’s fingers. At the edge of her vision the small whiteness her world has become at the moment, she sees a patch of red blow toward them. Reaching for it, she recognizes the scrap as the wool of a small blanket. She wraps the babe within it and cuddles her close to her own tender body, sharing her heat. The animals will have to fend for themselves. She turns, finding her bearings, retracing her steps. Snow obliterates the trail she’s left before she can follow it. She turns, but cannot see the house or the barn. Dim pale clouds surround her in the darkness now complete.

An elk emerges white and ghostlike out of the fog, staring intently at the woman with the child. It walks toward her and then away. Maggie’s never seen one so tame. She watches it watch her and the baby. They stare at one another for long moments. The elk seems to beckon her. On this evening filled with strangeness, she doesn’t question this vision and walks toward the animal. In the presence of the elk, a strange lethargy quiets Maggie’s anguished body. Trusting the magic of the moment, she chooses to follow. The animal leads her watching, leading, turning, watching, and leading once more. With the assistance of the elk, the return journey is shorter.

The cabin comes into view through the blizzard. She rushes toward it, opening the door to enter. Before she closes the door, she turns to look for her animal guide, but sees nothing except blowing whiteness and fog.

Laying the baby on the bed, she stokes the fire and begins to heat some water. Maggie lights a lantern. Pain returns to her distended belly, tightening snake-like around her middle. Catching her breath, she leans against the rough-hewn table. The wetness she felt out on the mesa returns. Her time has come; she has no doubts now. There is nothing to be done but to prepare to have this baby. She lurches to the bed and another pain seizes her. Closing her eyes, she catches her breath and lies on the straw mattress.

A soothing warm hand strokes her cheek, “Shhhh. My sister, shhhh.” Maggie’s eyes flutter open. An Indian woman stands next to her wiping her forehead with a cloth.

“Who are you?” Maggie asks. Her eyes are unfocused. She shakes her head, trying to clear the wooziness.

“White Elk Woman.”

“I don’t know you.” She pulls away from the woman and a contraction takes hold of her belly.

“It’s all right, I’ve come to help.” White Elk Woman’s soft voice gentles the skittish woman.

“But who? What?” The baby. “Where is the babe?”

The labor pains rack her body. White Elk Woman eases Maggie into a sitting position, stuffing pillows behind her.

“The child comes.”

During the next protracted minutes, time speeds by. Maggie follows the terse directions of the black-haired woman, confident that someone capable is assisting her.

“I need to turn the baby. It will hurt. I will try to do it fast.”

Unbearable pain is tolerated. The child Maggie carries slips into the stranger’s hands. White Elk Woman bathes the child, wraps it in a red blanket, and places it in Maggie’s arms.

“Keep her safe,” the Indian woman says. “Close your eyes. Your work is done for now, my sister.”

Maggie looks at her baby. The girl-child sleeps, worn out by her recent ordeal. The mother, too, is exhausted and her eyelids droop before opening wide, “But wait, where is the baby from the mesa?”

White Elk Woman smiles. “The baby from the mesa is safe now.”

Maggie’s heavy eyelids close.

“Thank you Maggie” is the whisper she hears before fatigue overtakes her and she drifts into a dreamless sleep.

The new mother wakes to a clear, calm morning, the storm having blown itself out overnight. Her babe snuggles close in her arms. She gazes in wonder at her miracle.

Arthur bursts through the doorway. “Maggie, I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it home last night. The blizzard came up so fast.” He stops short at seeing the bundle in his wife’s bed. He looks from the baby to his wife. “Oh Maggie. How? What?”

“It’s all right, Arthur. White Elk Woman helped us.”

“Who? What?”

Maggie explains the arrival of the Indian woman of the night before.

“But where is she?” he asks.

“I don’t know. I fell asleep.”

“Honey, it must have been horrible for you. I’m sorry you had to go through this all alone.”

“But I wasn’t alone,” she counters.

He shakes his head. Arthur loves his wife, but he knows she is liable to imagine stories. His gaze explores the small cabin. There is no evidence of anyone’s presence other than his wife. “There is no one else here.”

“She was. Maybe she took the baby and went home.”

“The baby is here.” He holds his wife close. He can’t imagine the strength of this woman, to have endured the pain and birth of a child all by herself.

“No, the other child,” Maggie says.

“Other? Sweetheart, rest. I’m here now.” He strokes her tangled auburn hair.

Arthur backs away as he sees she sleeps.

He goes to tend the animals. Finding the barn door open he searches the pasture for the cow. A mooing comes from the edge of the mesa. Walking over, he sees an animal path he’s not noticed before. He cautiously makes his way down the cliffside. He finds his cow with her calf lying on a ledge. He ties a rope around her neck and leads her and the calf up the path. On an outcropping he reads and mentally translates the faint Spanish scratches in the sandstone: White Elk Woman.

Tamara Eaton is a former high school English teacher who is taking time off to rediscover her muse. She is a “snowbird” who splits her time between Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota where she is helping to renovate a ninety-year-old brick high school. Email: tamarae9[at]

Inside Voice

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Lana Thiel

Free Scared Child Alone in the Dark Creative Commons
Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

She wasn’t opposed to the bitter cold; at times she welcomed it. The icicles clinking outside of her window summoned noise to drown out the voices. The wind ricocheted against the glass begging her to allow it inside. Violet remained focused on her work, ignoring the temperamental outbursts. She was never satisfied with her accomplishments; a small mistake could cost her. Everything. She sewed quietly, weaving the needle in and out, as she rocked in the creaky wooden chair. It had been her grandma’s. Grandma Ninny, with the slanted eyebrows and crooked mouth, who said children were to be seen and not heard. Ninny, who wore pleated wool skirts that smelled like mothballs and worn shoes. Ninny, who scrubbed Violet’s hands with bleach and antiseptic when she wrote with her left.

Violet’s hand shook as she stitched the pieces together, back and forth, one red button, then another. Her right hand steadied the material. But something wasn’t right. Something was always missing. Violet held her project up to the light. She could feel it pulsing in her fingers as she lost her grip and it fell to the cold floor.

The rushing wind screeched against the house. Violet peered through the curtains hoping to see the wind as it raced by. But the street was quiet, blanketed with the dark shroud of night, and everything was still for the moment. A few burnt orange leaves clung to the very tops of the trees, arrested in fall, as winter advanced. She scrunched her face into a tight fist as she complained of the noise outside. She spoke in a low, unpleasant tone. “Should be seen, not heard… seen, not heard.”

Violet continued gluing gray yarn to her project, making sure it was short and even. If only she had musky perfume, she thought, to make it come alive. To make her come alive. There were times she could see through the yarn for what it was, a mess of split ends from constant hair rollers that left puzzling shadows on the wall, the beady red eyes that warned her, “Practice makes perfect.”

Violet repeated the phrase as she sewed the object together. She spanned the room to marvel at her creations. This one would make the collection complete. The blinds rattled, as if someone had opened a window inside.

“You ruin everything you touch,” a low voice sprouted from Violet’s stomach.

Violet began to cry softly as a hand reached up and slapped her cheek, sending her backward. She slid to the floor and crept around the room, crawling under the table. One by one the feet appeared beneath the chair.

“Come out, come out,” the low voice said, snickering.

Violet clutched her project in her hands as the feet glided right, then left, and the small round objects appeared on the tablecloth looking like twisted hair. Rollers. A scream resonated in the old house.

“Use your inside voice!” the deep voice scolded.

The shape disappeared from the tablecloth. The feet went missing. Violet climbed out from her hiding place. She kissed the half-finished doll, brushed her hands through its gray hair, which caused some of it to fall to the floor.

“Look what you did,” the voice snarled again.

The glue stuck to her left hand, drying to her fingers. Bits of hair decorated them.

Thump. Thump. Thump. The doll moved in her hands. It was almost time for it to join the others. Only a little while until she’d be here. Violet clutched the gold cross around her neck, pressed her fingers into the points. A door leading to the attic rattled and she knew what she had to do. It was like he said, “Upon this night you shall be healed.” Everything seemed clearer now.

She lifted the doll to her face and swung it between her fingers as the wind rushed outside, laughing with unwarranted cruelty. She lost her hold on the doll and it spun to the floor and slid toward the closet. She had spent a great deal of her childhood in there, playing hide-and-seek, hanging by scratchy rope which rubbed against her soft skin. She remembered the sound of the wire hangers clanking together, a sound that induced pain in her stomach.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” the low voice growled.

“Too tight, too tight,” she whined.

Violet picked up the doll and brushed its hair. She wondered how the closet felt: too warm, too tight, too cramped. She picked up another doll from her collection, one she had spent hours on. It had black button eyes and a rosary draped over its head. She fondled the beaded rosary and held it against her body.

“Look what you did,” the voice said.

Violet knew she was ruining everything but she couldn’t stop. The house rattled from inside. Violet gathered all of her dolls, dolls she’d made in the past few days to prepare for this night, and walked to the window. The trees were bent in half, right outside the glass. She thought about stepping away before the wind shattered it, but she held out her hand instead, yearning to touch the wind, to feel it slip between her fingers. Violet dropped the dolls and watched as the glass shattered and embedded itself into the skin on her left hand.

“I caught you—red handed!” the old woman said, and grabbed her tightly by the wrist. She dragged her to the kitchen table. She saw them, adorned with red fingernail polish.

“It’s the devil’s influence before my very eyes,” Ninny said. She scraped each nail until the beds were bloody and scarred.

“That’ll teach you. That’ll teach you good,” Violet bellowed. She gathered all of her dolls again to rush to the attic where they would be safe. She needed to escape from the wind.

“Not so fast, young lady,” the low voice said.

“Gotta get out… gotta get out,” Violet repeated and turned the old key in the door to the dusty attic.

For a moment the house was still again. A calming smell drifted through Violet’s nose as she climbed the stairs. She placed the dolls by the others, covering the slowly expanding shadow on the interior wall of the attic, the storage space that now bowed out. The dolls sat, making a silhouette on the wall that looked like the outline of a frail body, a dark set of eyes, an angry grin.

Violet turned away from the shadow, afraid that if she looked any longer, it might emerge and become real. She faced the stairs and thought about the way Ninny’s legs had lifted, how her body had danced down the stairs like a clumsy bird in flight. Foot, shoulder, knee, head. When she danced Violet had sung a sweet melody in her head, “Upon this night… upon this night… upon this night.” She remembered how her body had opened up, how all of the meanness had spilled out of her and stained the stairs. Each movement had been so effortless, so elegant.

Violet heard the wind push its way through the house until it knocked on the attic door. She scrunched her eyes, focusing on the doorknob, turning right, left. She’s arrived, she thought, she’s finally come for me. She scooted her body closer to the crowd of dolls lined up against the wall next to the looming shadow. The shadow that would not go away, that refused to be buried, even in the dark. The intense smell breezed past her, filling her body with calm and nausea.

That’s when Violet heard a light rap-tap-tap on the attic window. Rap-tap-tap! She gathered her dolls in her arms and leaned against the wood, against the shadow. Warmth spread over her back as she petted the dolls’ hair and stared at their button eyes. Then she noticed the blood trickling down her left hand, smearing the faces of the dolls. She smiled as she rapped lightly on the wall behind her. And the wind came to a sudden halt.


Lana Thiel is from Appleton, Wisconsin where she works as a high school English teacher. She enjoys writing poetry and fiction in her spare time and has self-published one novel. Email: fionashakespeare[at]

Jenny’s Apartment

Boots’s Pick
Anne Greenawalt

Living room
Photo Credit: Jeff Croft

Jenny’s apartment was a shrine to her ex-boyfriends, Jason decided when leaving her apartment after his fourth visit.

On his first visit, Jason noticed the paintings on the living room wall. They were the types of pictures that looked like splattered paint on a canvas, something his six-year-old niece could have done with her eyes shut. The term “vomiting rainbow” came to mind.

“Those are… colorful,” he said. He didn’t want to be rude.

“Aren’t they?” she said. “They brighten up the place. One of my exes was a painter.”

His name was Chad and she’d met him randomly at the grocery store where she liked to shop on Thursdays at midnight.

The second time at Jenny’s apartment, which was the first time they slept together, Jason noticed the set of hand weights on the floor of her closet where most women keep their shoes.

“So you lift weights?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do,” she said and shrugged. “I dated this guy for awhile—he was really into bodybuilding. He gave me those.” She winked at Jason and said, “It keeps me fit.”

Jason put his hands on her waist then snuck them up under her blue sweater. He felt her soft skin, which was just a thin layer over very tight abs. The bodybuilder, Dave, was her most recent ex, who, luckily for Jason, lived a few states to the west.

His third time at Jenny’s apartment, they cooked dinner together. Jason opened the bottle of wine while Jenny prepared a meal of roast duck, butternut squash loaf, and homemade bread. Her kitchen was filled with the sharpest set of knives, the best food processor, the most expensive blender.

“Where’d you learn to cook like this?”

“An ex,” she said. She flicked her hair behind her shoulder with a quick twist of her neck. The light from the kitchen lamp reflected off her hair and he could see, for the first time, flecks of red mixed with her soft chestnut-colored hair. “He was a chef. He got me hooked up with the latest appliances. Taught me how to use them, too.”

That was Chef Sherman.

On his fourth visit to Jenny’s apartment all they did was cuddle on her couch and watch TV. An ex-boyfriend had gotten her hooked on the show 24, so they watched that. Jason didn’t mind what they watched as long as he was near her.

“This couch is so comfortable,” Jason said. It was soft and molded to their bodies like memory foam.

“Yeah? I guess it is,” Jenny said. “Scott and I bought it together. He insisted that I keep it when we split up. So I guess I’m glad I did.”

Scott was her college boyfriend. He majored in business. They had an apartment together their senior year.

Jason wondered if there were any traces of ex-girlfriends lingering in his apartment. Other than a shoebox of photos on the top shelf of his closet, he couldn’t think of anything. Girlfriends had bought him clothes—sweater vests and ties and even a fleece jacket once—but those items were promptly donated or dumpstered when they broke up.

On Jason’s fifth visit, he got curious and pointed at random objects in Jenny’s apartment and asked about their history.

“What’s that?” he asked. “Where’s that from? How’d you get that?”

Jenny answered each question calmly. “That’s a tool chest Greg insisted I get in case I need it.” “Ralph got that for me when he went to Mexico.” “Barry got me that when we went to San Francisco a few years back. It’s from Chinatown. It’s a stamp with my name in Chinese.”

Jason stroked his beardless chin with thumb and forefinger. If he and Jenny broke up, he wondered what piece of him would linger in her apartment. What part of him would she keep with her? He’d treated her to dinners and movies. He even made her a handmade Valentine’s Day card a few weeks ago. But he had offered her nothing on the scale of Mexican maracas.

Despite five dates and seeing this girl naked, Jason realized he knew nothing about Jenny.

“What’s wrong?” Jenny asked. “You’re not jealous, are you?” She gave him a teasing grin.

“Me? Jealous?” Jason said.

She put her arms around his waist and squeezed. Her head fit perfectly on his shoulder. Her hair smelled faintly of vanilla.

“It’s just that I’m wondering… is there anything here that’s yours?”

Jenny lifted her head from his shoulder so she could look him in the eyes. She cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean? Everything here is mine.”

“Yeah, it’s yours because you own it. But what’s yours? What do you have here that you got for yourself because you like it?”

“I don’t know,” Jenny said. She looked genuinely startled. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“Ok,” Jason said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just curious, that’s all.”

“I’m not upset,” Jenny said.

Sometime later, Jason didn’t know what number visit it was because he’d been to Jenny’s apartment so many times by then, Jenny pulled him by his hand into the lounge and said she had something to show him.

“Look!” she said and pointed to the corner where there was a snowboard standing on end.

It was odd to see a snowboard in the middle of summer in someone’s living room. It was red with a floral design like you’d expect to see on a surfboard. It was a top-of-the-line snowboard. He knew from experience and could tell by looking at it.

“Wow, that’s great!” Jason exclaimed.

“Yeah, well, I was thinking how you said I don’t have anything for myself. So I bought this for me.”

Jason felt his face slacken a bit, but Jenny was excited—and serious.

“But, Jenn, you don’t snowboard.”

“But I’d like to.”

“But I snowboard. That’s my thing.”

“I thought it could be something we do together.”

“Yeah, I mean, definitely, but the board isn’t really for you then, is it? It’s more like you got it for us.”

“But I’ll use it. It’s too small for you.”

A few weeks later Jason and Jenny broke up. Jason no longer wondered what he’d left behind in Jenny’s life—a snowboard, even though he hadn’t bought it. And unlike the chef and the bodybuilder and the others, he’d left before he had a chance to show her how to use it. He did wonder if she’d ever use it, if she’d become a master snowboarder, or if she’d just store it away in her closet as another item for her shrine.

Months later Jason found himself driving past Jenny’s apartment to get to his new girlfriend’s house a few blocks away. He saw Jenny coming out of her apartment as he passed. She was wearing a varsity letter jacket, the kind that football players in high school used to wear. The jacket was old, vintage. It had a large maroon M on the back and the word “Soccer” stitched in maroon on a grey background. Jason knew she’d never played soccer. She also wore grey shorts that showed off muscular legs hidden from the ankles down in brown work boots that were clearly too large.

The sunlight caught her hair right before she closed her apartment door. Jason slowed down to watch the sun reflect the many shades of her hair. He noticed there were no more flecks of red. “That’s a shame,” he thought.


Anne Greenawalt graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. In 2008 she was runner-up in a short story collection competition, which resulted in the publication of her collection entitled Growing Up Girl. She now lives in her hometown in Pennsylvania. More information on Anne and her writing can be found at her blog. Email: greenawalt.a[at]

Adjusting Little Things

Beaver’s Pick
Lori Volante

back door
Photo Credit: Stephen Cummings

His routine smell of 5 a.m. coffee strongly brewed like the thick air of July percolates in her mind. It is Saturday. She listens to the calico scowling at the man who can’t resist his urge to pester.

It is on this day, the wife begins to count the number of times her husband enters and exits the back door announced repeatedly by the squeak of the pull chain and final retraction to the frame. What he does with all this entering and exiting is an adjustment of little things. Like how her eye doctor flips lenses. Asking, can you see clearer with lens one or two? Here’s one again. Any difference?

Outside, the husband pulls a small flowering weed from the rock garden. Inside, he pushes the front window open three inches. Outside, a handful of scattered tree buds are quickly swept with a heavy bristled broom from his white cement driveway. Inside, the curled feline gets her fur stroked the wrong way. The wife hears fourteen door closures before sliding out of bed and losing track of counts in the hot shower.

Her husband once told their marriage counselor that he saw himself as “a happy-go-lucky guy” while his wife first chuckled at his sarcasm then blinked shocked at his perceived personality. Well, maybe at family parties, she considered. Picturing his twitching smile while he shouted CANNONBALL, slamming shots of Apple Pucker Schnapps between euchre hands. It could have been Christmas in 1997 or the last Memorial Day. The scene has repeated countless times with all the same lines from Caddyshack quoted by her husband and his brothers.

At seven a.m. while drinking cinnamon tea, his wife watches him wring the red checkered washcloth (twice) in the kitchen sink and place it very rightly over the long neck of the stainless steel faucet. She wonders when he became so obsessive. Before the presidential election? After his father died? Lately, it feels as if she’s observing the compulsive pacing of a mad man. It is making her a bit insane too. Should it matter if the blinds are up or down in the bedroom when he isn’t using that room? Does every tomato plant need a cage? Why do the newspapers have to be put in the recycling bin before lunch?

But this Saturday morning is different from last week. This Saturday morning she is making pasta salad for a backyard barbecue and she happens to notice that as the clock ticks 10:59, he opens the refrigerator for a cold Busch (it’s noon somewhere, she’s heard him say before). And the beer isn’t the difference but on this morning she notices his adjustment of little things decline with each trip to the fridge. After three beers and forty minutes, the cat purrs quiet on the couch and through a freshly wiped pane of glass, the wife sees her husband comfortably adjusted in a camp chair by the garage, listening to sports radio, clutching his happy-go-lucky personality.


Lori lives in Michigan where she works for InsideOut Literary Arts Project—a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the passion and power of poetry to young people. Email: lvzeke[at]

Body of Water

Baker’s Pick
Kristi Denke

Project 50 - Day #7 (Underwater)
Photo Credit: Sean McGrath

August hadn’t taken a bath since he was six.

It was at that point that his father had closed the shower doors around him and declared him a man. A real man didn’t take baths.

He wasn’t sure he’d fit at first. His adult form didn’t seem small enough, but there he was. His lower back at one end, his toes peeking out of the water at the other.

What his dad had said made sense.

August didn’t feel much like a man. He dipped his toes under the water and held them still. Perhaps he was waiting for them to float to the surface. But they were held by his own will below the still, clear water.

It had taken him months to get clean. The sand still irritated the pores of his bald scalp. There were clothes that still smelled of the place, in a bag he’d thrown into a closet. Letters, a camera, even a flask of dirt he’d bottled up from the desert when the feeling was young.

Back when he’d felt young.

He steadied himself on the edges of the tub, bending his knees and bringing his head backwards into the water. The water sloshed over his ears and the world went still.

He listened to his heart. He waited for it to stop.

His cell phone asked to be answered. It vibrated across the counter, across the letter delivered days before. The summons, the orders, the call to his duty to serve at the will of higher powers.

Oath conquered will. But August could not go. The shrink had cleared the way. But August stared at the bathroom ceiling, unblinking.

August would not go.


Kristi lives in Atlanta and splits her time between writing and study of the craft of coffee. A native of Colorado, she is a member of the Colorado Poets Association and has contributed to Ydragsil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts. Email: k.a.denke[at]

Ducks and the Dead

Creative Nonfiction
Andy Shalek

Mother Duck And Her Four Ducklings
Photo Credit: Audrey

There is a wholly different feel to the morning when you come upon it from the other end. Waking up to the sun shining in a bedroom window, a person is completely clueless about the things that have happened overnight. The truth is, watching the sun come up at the tail-end of a shift is akin to watching a golden bath wash a city clean of the deviance, the debauchery, and the death that commonly hide in the dark hours of early morning. I know this now. I have been the reaper’s witness on occasion, heard the crying of the family and smelled the awkwardly comforting hominess of the houses where the bodies lie. Over time I have come to conclusions about life and death and how to deal with it as a paramedic, but I haven’t always had these ideas; every healthcare worker must go through a period of uncertainty and growth during which they form an attitude towards the end.

When I was nineteen years old I secured a job in the transportation department at Tucson Medical Center. I had just completed my training as an EMT-basic and was eager to get out there and start helping people. This being my first experience in a hospital, I was nervous and anxious and all the things that go along with being nineteen in your first position of any responsibility. Training went easily and I soon discovered all the hiding places to take a break. There was a small courtyard with a pond and a few tables that I took a particular liking to. It was situated directly across the hall from the hospital cafeteria, making it a natural choice for a post-lunch spot.

On one of my first days working, I noticed a small sign in the window of the courtyard which read: “Please don’t feed the ducks.” I thought it was an odd sign to have posted in a place where there were no ducks. I came back later that day, thinking that I might find the ducks were only there in the afternoon. They were never there. Day after day I would walk past that courtyard and never once did I see a duck. Not one. I asked various coworkers about it and the best answer I was ever able to get was a disinterested shrug. It seemed that there had never been any ducks; even Jerry, who had been there for seventeen years didn’t remember ever seeing ducks, and had no explanation for the sign. Still, it sat there, posting warning to all those who ventured out into the courtyard to eat their lunch in the Arizona sun, or to chain-smoke cigarettes on one of their short breaks—hospital administration had a clear policy on the subject of ducks and the feeding of them.

One of my many duties as an EMT transporter at the hospital was to move patients from one place to another. Often these destinations were testing areas, or rehabilitation centers within the hospital. Other patients would need to be transported off hospital grounds to receive either treatment that was not offered at TMC, or to be taken back to the nursing home they originally came from. Also, I had the responsibility of taking people to the morgue. When a patient expired, I was responsible for taking the body there.

The morgue was locked with a combination and a key. Inside this door was a small room with cabinets lining the walls, and to the far left was a thick metal door, just like the doors I’d seen leading to a walk-in cooler in the back of a restaurant. This door was again locked with a padlock, and within, there were four metal carts. These carts generally held one body apiece, though when the morgue was particularly full and the local funeral homes were overworked, it was possible to double up, keeping as many as eight bodies at once in the small walk-in. On the right side of the cooler there was a shelf at about the height of an average person’s head where dead babies and miscarried fetuses were stored. There was also a red plastic trashcan lined with a red biohazard trash bag. This was for the purpose of dumping amputated limbs. Although all bodies were kept in body bags and weren’t directly visible as human, it would have been immediately evident to anyone who stumbled across it that this was not just any walk-in freezer, and that if you were looking for food, you had made a serious miscalculation.

On the door of the cooler there were two signs. One was meant to remind those who might forget that these people had families and that one should treat them with respect. The other sign read as follows: “You must put all bodies back in the cooler. If you cannot do so, you must find someone who can.” I always wondered if this was a problem. Had someone walked into the front room of the morgue to find some poor old bastard lying on the floor? Was there an incident of an employee who thought it would be amusing to pose the bodies, perhaps sitting at a card table, playing gin? I always imagined them wearing party hats—I don’t know why.

I was sitting in the duck-free courtyard one afternoon after only a few weeks of working at TMC when my pager went off. There was a patient who needed moving, and I needed to call the hospital’s automated phone system to find out the specifics. It turned out that a man who had been a patient in the ICU had died, and it was now my job to take his body to the walk-in cooler. When I arrived in the unit I found that I would need some extra help. The man, only thirty-four years old, had weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of four-hundred-and-fifty pounds and it would be quite impossible for me to move him on my own. The nurse who had been caring for him while he was alive said that she would help me, but it was obvious that we would need more than two people.

I used the automated phone system to have several of my coworkers paged and sent to my location. We then proceeded into the room to help the nurses place the patient into a body bag.

Something about body bags that most people don’t know is that they come in different sizes. They range from small to extra-large—we were all out of extra-large.

Problem solvers that we were, we decided to place a sheet under him, and another on top of him, tying the two sheets together at the corners, above both of his shoulders. When my backup arrived, we placed the man on the cart designated for this kind of thing. It was a struggle to move his massive weight, but there were enough people there to help and we moved him without enormous difficulty. Once transferred and covered by the green canopy which prevented the general public from being exposed to the pale grayness of death, we walked the body down the halls to the double-locked door. There were six of us and we flanked the stretcher three on each side, walking with it like Secret Service men walking alongside the President’s limousine. It occurred to me that this was probably the most important this man would ever appear.

Once in the morgue, we were faced with a problem. The body bag serves not only to retain the dignity of the dead, but as a functional tool, something for us to grab onto while sliding the body from one cart to another. Without a body bag, and with our numbers fewer than they had been in the ICU (two nurses helped with the move), we were forced to grab arms and legs, and one unfortunate person had to slide her hands under the man’s shoulders.

We were poorly coordinated, and there was an attempt to move him before everyone was ready. The jostling of the body caused his left arm to fall, landing the hand squarely in my groin. His limp, cold hand gently cupped my scrotum through my green scrubs. Had I not been so mortified at that very moment, I would have described the nature of the touch as caring, even loving.

I leaped back, screaming much like a twelve-year-old girl.

Though I was told many times that my reaction to the incident was hilarious, I had a hard time finding the humor in it. I claimed that we should not laugh about the dead, that there should be more respect.

“Listen, this guy is dead and he was only like thirty-four years old. We should have more respect.” I said to them, trying to break in between fits of their laughter.

“Oh come on! You should have seen the look on your face, man!”

I was surprised then, and still am by my reaction to the situation. I was still a kid. I had graduated high school and done some traveling, but the real world was still new to me. I wasn’t completely comfortable making any kind of moral stand, especially in a new job where I didn’t know many people well. Looking back on it, my reaction was more out of embarrassment than personal beliefs—to be honest, it must have been pretty funny to see.

Life in the hospital is cyclic. One week there would be nothing but morgue run after morgue run, and then the next week we would have nothing but pregnant women to take to testing centers. Throughout every cycle, though, the movement of the place itself continues uninterrupted, as if this ebb and flow of life and death meant absolutely nothing to the great community that was Tucson Medical Center. Every day I would go to work, and everything was always the same. The cafeteria served the same food, the nurses had fixed shifts so there would always be familiar faces in every unit, employees had meaningless and banal conversations, people continued getting sick, and relatives continued to visit them.

There were only a handful of places that people could go to relax during our long shifts. Naturally, the cafeteria was one, and there were scattered break rooms in the different units, but the place I made my own was the courtyard. I spent many of my breaks there, usually excluding myself from the social groups and sitting alone in the shade, smoking cigarettes and thinking about the things that happened at this strange place. Whenever I was present for the end of a life, or witnessed something particularly bloody in the emergency room, I would retreat to the courtyard and reflect on how I was affected. It was also the place where I was beginning to form my own opinions on life and death, and the healthcare field. Everyone in medicine eventually comes to conclusions about the mortality of others. It’s a necessity, really. We see it so often, we would be lost or burned out or worse within a few years if we didn’t come up with defense mechanisms.

On the occasion that I didn’t feel like excluding myself and desired social contact, I would sit with coworkers in the cafeteria or one of the other small patios at the hospital and tell stories about the “gross” things we saw. We would joke about the patients, talk about smells and sounds that people on the outside of medicine never encounter. The infamous “code-brown”—what we called it when a patient defecated in their bed or their pants—was a typical subject, along with other body fluids and the stains they had a tendency to leave.

“We had this one guy, like, six months ago. It was so fucking gross…” Rikkie, one of the other transporters who always had some story to tell, began one of her personal favorites.

“What happened?” I asked, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket and leaning forward to hear her better. I was sitting outside with Rikkie and Jesse. I had known them both since my first day at the hospital. Jesse was my trainer during my first week, and she and Rikkie were close friends. Often, when I spent time with anyone, it included at least one of these two.

“Wait just a fucking minute and I’ll tell you.” Rikkie said to me, cigarette in her mouth. She paused the story to light her second Marlboro 100 in a row. She was young, only a couple of years older than me, but already had two children. She had reddish-brown hair that was usually unkempt, and she was skinny. She talked like a sailor, using profanity to accent most of her sentences and was obsessed with sex.

“Right. Sorry.” I said, looking down. I was always a little intimidated by Rikkie.

“So this fucking guy, he was some homeless dude, and he came in to the ER. I think he was here for an infection on his balls or something. Anyway, when they looked at it, the sore was so bad that they had to lop off the whole package. There were even maggots living there, right there at the base of his cock. Stupid fucker didn’t even know they were there. He kept asking if the nurse was tickling him.” She talked as if the man had intentionally lost his penis, and that it was a great personal hardship for her to have been involved with this patient.

“Are you serious?” I asked, realizing how naïve I must have sounded.

“No shit. Honest to fucking God.” Rikkie said, crushing her cigarette out on the ground and checking her pager. “Fuck, I’ve gotta get back inside. See you later.”

I wouldn’t say that Rikkie was being cruel, and she wasn’t the only person who told this kind of story. I think that it was just our way of dealing with stress and pushing out of our minds the ugly things we saw every day. I had mixed feelings about these talks, though. I felt that we should have respect for these people, that we should remember that they were here to feel better and not for our entertainment. I wasn’t above it though, joining in frequently and never voicing my concerns about the subject matter. It was easy to forget that we were taking care of human beings. It was easy to forget that these were people.

There was a man named Mr. Davis who came to affect me quite personally and taught me my first lesson in compassion. I met him when I was moving his wife from her room in the hospital to the radiology department. He was an old man, but still seemed spry and full of life. He wore flannel shirts tucked into jeans and a baseball cap which advertised some truck stop in California. Though he acted young, his glasses, wrinkled skin and old-man odor gave him away. We chatted as we walked down the long tiled halls; the conversation wasn’t terribly deep and I had probably had the same one with six people already that day.

“Gettin’ hot! Pretty soon I’ll be up on the roof getting the swamp cooler ready. Have you lived here long?” Mr. Davis started the conversation after a minute or two of silence.

“Oh, yeah. I grew up here.” I replied. “I don’t mind the heat too much. Just stay inside during the day.”

“Yep, it’s the only way. So I bet you like workin’ at this place, nice people and all these pretty nurses!” he said, winking at me. Had we known each other better, he probably would have been digging a knuckle in my ribs.

His wife, Mrs. Davis, would chime in every now and then with a typical elderly lady phrase: “Oh, Roy, leave the poor boy alone! You’re embarrassing him!” The conversation continued like this until we got to the MRI machine, and I took my leave of them.

I never found out what Mrs. Davis was there for that first time; to be honest, I probably wouldn’t remember now even if I had found out. She was just one of the many people that had the misfortune of getting sick and requiring tests as an in-patient at TMC. There were so many of them that I would never be able to count, nor would I ever really care to. This man and his wife, though, left a mark on me not because of the first time I met them, but because of the subsequent times I saw them.

The next time we met was around a month later. I was slacking off in the emergency department, and after two or three cigarettes in the ambulance bay, I decided I should make myself useful and see if there was anything lying around the ER that needed to be taken to the lab. I asked Renee, the tall, blonde, mannish nurse who had taken me under her wing and referred to me as her “nicer, more Jewish son.” She told me that there were some specimens at the west nurses’ station to go to the lab, and I not-so-hurriedly made my way over. When I got there I found two large bottles of yellowish fluid marked for the lab. I grabbed them, one in each hand, and turned to start on my way. I was stopped by a voice from behind me “Be careful with those, that’s precious cargo you’ve got there!” I turned to give a polite laugh, but when I looked at the owner of the voice I realized that it was Mr. Davis.

I stopped and talked with him for a few minutes. It was out of character for me at that time; I was accustomed to making very brief acquaintances and then moving on, but for some reason I felt like I needed to stay there and talk with this guy. To this day I have no idea what possessed me to become more involved in his problems. His appearance hadn’t changed, though he looked tired. He was still friendly and joking, but when he spoke about his wife his voice became monotone and he looked mostly at some spot behind and to the left of me. Evidently, the fluid I was taking to the lab had been “pulled off her lungs” and needed to be tested to see if there was infection present. Mr. Davis proceeded to tell me about his wife’s failing health, and how she had been in and out of doctor’s offices and clinics ever since I had seen them last. He was hopeful though, this place had “saved her once before,” he said, “and by God those smart doctors and nice young fellas like you are going to make sure she’ll be ok this time too.”

I pondered this meeting on my way down the hall.

That must suck. Poor guy, having to be here so much. I wonder what she’s here for this time… I wonder if she’s going to be admitted or let go from the ER. I actually feel bad for the guy. Huh.

I passed the morgue and thought about the finality of the place. I had been there so many times, but had never stopped to think about the spouses left behind to sit alone in quiet living rooms. After I dropped off the specimens I walked over to the courtyard and sat down in the shade. It was hot but humid that July, and the monsoon clouds were starting to roll in just like they do every afternoon during the season in Tucson. I thought a little about whether or not it might rain, or just threaten like it does, and then I caught myself thinking about Mr. Davis again. I had a clear picture of him in my mind from the first time I met him, and I realized that he was probably in his seventies at least. It was strange; I normally didn’t think about patients unless they were bleeding or particularly funny, but this time I was absorbed in the sound of the old man’s voice, and the look in his eye as he painfully tried to explain what was happening to the love of his life.

I wonder how long they’ve been married. Wow, I hope I never have to be here with a family member. I wonder if they have friends, of if they just spend all their time together…

I began to wonder if I would ever know what it felt like to rely so completely on just one other person.

Two days later I ran into Mr. Davis again. This time I was already headed for the duckless courtyard. He had fallen apart. His wife had apparently had several strokes over the past forty-eight hours and she was being treated in the ICU. I knew what that meant, even though I still had a somewhat limited knowledge of medicine at the time. It didn’t look good for her. The man stood there, silent for a minute, looking at me as if he had asked a question and was waiting for an answer.

He looked smaller than he had before, and it made me uncomfortable. He was wearing the same clothes as the other day, but they looked worn out and tired. He slumped when he walked, and when I went to shake his hand in awkward greeting, he gripped my right hand and looked into my eyes. “She’s… she’s all I’ve got, kid…” he said, his voice breaking and his eyes becoming glassy.

I was trapped in a situation that I was completely unprepared for. This man wanted me to say something to him that would make him feel better; he wanted reassurance that his wife would pull through or that he would be strong enough to deal with it if she didn’t. In the space of just a few seconds, my mind jumped back to EMT school, and the video we watched about consoling family.

“I’m very sorry, ma’am, we’ve done everything we can, and there has been no response to our efforts. I’m sorry, but your baby has passed away.” The movie went on to describe some of the things you shouldn’t say, for example: “He’s in a better place now” or “We should not question the will of God.” The training was not much help in this particular situation. My brain was working overtime.

I wish that this was the part where I could tell you how well I handled the situation. I didn’t. I looked at him with my most sincere sympathetic face.

“Well,” I said, “this is life.”

I exploded inside. My face became hot and I started to sweat, realizing what I had just said to the poor man. You stupid fucker. I cannot believe that you just said that to this man. He wanted reassurance, and you give him what? “This is life?!” I screamed at myself in my head. I felt sick.

Mr. Davis, in either a profound act of kindness and understanding or simply the haze of a man about to lose the one thing in life he thought would be a constant didn’t respond to me. He gave me an out that I probably didn’t deserve; he just looked down at the floor, released my hand and shuffled aimlessly into the cafeteria. I don’t think he was hungry.

That was the last time I saw the man, but I know that his wife passed away only a few days later. I was called to the ICU to transfer yet another body to the meat-locker. When I arrived, I realized that it was Mrs. Davis. Her husband was nowhere to be found, though I imagine he spent a long time sobbing next to her bed after she passed. The room was quiet, and her body was already in the body bag. It smelled like a new shower curtain; I remember that very clearly. I had never noticed the way body bags smelled until then—they must be made of the same kind of plastic. I looked at the tag on the bag, curious about her first name and her birthday. I don’t know why. Her name was Elizabeth and she had been born in nineteen-twenty-six. I stood there wondering for a minute how she and Mr. Davis had met, how long they had been married, and if I too would someday lose someone I loved. I forced the thoughts out of my head and took her down the long blank hall. I imagined that we were having a conversation while I walked, and though I can’t be sure, I may have let slip a few words aloud while I was in the cooler with her.

“I was young once, too, you know,” she said.

“I’m being too hard on myself, aren’t I?” I asked her.

“You’ll get better, dear. You’re still so young,” she said.

“I know.”

“Everyone dies.”

“I know.”

She told me—more accurately, I told myself—that Mr. Davis had forgiven me for the poorly-handled condolences and I felt at ease. Once again, I headed straight to the courtyard as soon as I had locked up the morgue.

After working at the hospital somewhere in the neighborhood of a year I saw a flyer in the ER advertising a paramedic training program at the University of Arizona. I was excited; I realized that I could actually do this and that my career might finally move forward. I had begun to feel as though I would be stuck at the same level, in the same job, forever. I thought that maybe I would be just like so many of my other coworkers and make a career out of Tucson Medical Center. The place was my world, my life. I knew my way around better than most, I knew all the nuances and the places to hide when I didn’t feel like working. I knew the nurses, the techs, the docs, maintenance and all the volunteers. I wanted more though, so I took down the phone number on the flyer and began the application process.

When I was accepted to medic school I was faced with a decision: I would have to quit my job in order to devote the time needed for the training. I was hesitant for a day or two. I walked the halls of the hospital that gave me so much experience and so many friends. I talked to my girlfriend at the time, who worked at TMC in my department. I knew that if I went to paramedic school at the University I would spend most of my time at University Medical Center, a whole new world for me to learn, all new people whom I had never met. I also realized that as a paramedic, I would transport patients all over the city to every hospital in Tucson. St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s sandwiched the city like two bookends—one in the east, one in the west. There was Northwest Hospital near my house, Kino down on the poor south side, and El Dorado that served a small contingent of rich. It occurred to me that in each of these medical institutions thrived a world just like the one at TMC, they all had their morgue and they all had some version of the duckless patio.

After I ate lunch one Thursday, I went across the hall and outside to the courtyard. I noticed that the sign regarding the ducks had been taken down, and when I sat down and lit a cigarette, I saw the impossible. There was a family of ducks: two adults and at least six baby ducks waddling around the courtyard, paying little or no attention to the people watching them. Nurses broke off pieces of bread and fed the ducks. I knew that it was time for me to go. Somehow the place had shifted. I felt like it was telling me that things were changing, that I needed to move on. The seasons at the world that is Tucson Medical Center were shifting and I was not a part of it. Had I stayed, I would no longer have felt at home.

When I finished my cigarette, I went to my supervisor and gave him my two-week notice. I told him that I needed to move on, that paramedic school had been my goal all along and that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I wanted to thank him for the job and tell him about all that the place had done for me. I wanted to explain the ducks and the morgue and Mr. Davis, but I didn’t. I guess I just needed to make a clean break.

Once I finished school and I was working the streets as a paramedic in an ambulance, I ended up at TMC quite frequently. I still knew many of the nurses in the ER, and they all congratulated me on my career advancement. The cafeteria was remodeled and they made the duck patio non-smoking. I still knew my way around the hospital, but there was minor remodeling going on all the time and occasionally I would get lost. It was no longer my place, and I was glad I made the decision. I got comfortable at the other hospitals in town and I learned that any world can be made your own given time. I felt good working the streets.

Sometimes people die in my care. When I speak with the family, I have more memories than the video from my EMT class to fall back on. Most of the time, I remember Mr. and Mrs. Davis, and I feel at ease looking these other people right in the eye. My brain doesn’t scream at me as often anymore, and I know that all the patients I see are people.

Andy is 27 years old, grew up in Tucson, Arizona and currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he works as a paramedic. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats and a turtle. Email: andrew.shalek[at]

Blue Baby

Joseph LoGuidice

I Feel Like A Freight Train Almost Ran Me Over
Photo Credit: Thomas Ott

Arthur Muro liked the sound of trains. He rarely took a train, and had never had a train set, but he liked the sound of trains. Especially one blowing its whistle in the night while he was lying in bed. It comforted him, the mysterious train moving away, speeding. Possibly it was an association with youth; there is innocence with kids and trains. Whatever it was, it would require some thinking. But Artie lay in his bed preferring not to ruin things with too much thinking. It was better to let the sound of the train remain a pleasurable mystery, not another thing exhausted by overanalyzing. That was a habit Artie possessed dormant like a virus resting at the tips of his nerves.

Even during the winter months he would keep his window cracked so as to hear the train, and let it carry him to a place beyond Artie Jr. and sick Madeline, or Maddy, and the manic-depressive ex-wife who had left him and the kids ten years earlier. He was in the rural New York of his youth and near the tracks that crossed the towns. His father stopped in front of the railway arm that dropped as the bell rang ding ding ding ding ding ding ding while the freight cars rumbled past. Arthur watched the last car trail off while holding his baseball glove. The jays shrieked once again within the humidity and still weeds. The crossing arm raised and his father drove over the tracks. This was the image given by the train in Artie’s distance.

Cutting out paper hearts in school for Valentine’s Day was Maddy’s earliest grasp of what it meant for a person to have a heart. She traded with her classmates the little sugary candy hearts of pink, lavender, and yellow that said, “I LOVE YOU,” and “BE MINE.” Every heart cut out by her classmates was as simple as it was beautiful: two fully rounded tops connected and curving down to a pointed bottom. Surely, no matter what the doctors said, her heart must look that way, too, the one inside her chest. Maddy grew with this thought, but the doctors wouldn’t let her forget that it wasn’t that way for her. A real heart was made of flesh and muscle, not a construction paper cut-out.

Maddy had a bad heart. It was a giving heart, a loving heart, even at times a broken heart, but it was a bad heart, too. The first of three operations to create new blood flow came only days after being born because Maddy had turned blue. Cardiologists diagnosed her with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition where the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. It’s almost like being born with half a heart. There was a second operation five months later, and a third at two years. They had cut into Maddy’s young flesh and cracked her chest bones as if she’d been designed only to be taken apart.

After a fourth operation at thirteen, Maddy, Artie Sr., and Artie Jr. learned that all arrows were pointing to a heart transplant. But Maddy wasn’t sick enough to be put on the list. She would have to get sicker first.

Two weeks before Maddy’s Sweet Sixteen, she lost her breath in a way even she had not experienced. It happened after climbing the first of two flights of stairs at school.

Sarah, her best friend and neighbor two houses down, placed her hand on Maddy’s back when they reached the landing. “Okay?” she said.

Maddy leaned back against the wall while a rush of students passed. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m okay.” Maddy ran her hand through the newly-styled bob that sat on her head like a black olive. Her forehead was sweating, and Sarah wiped it with a tissue. Maddy dumped her books and vomited on the second flight of stairs. Boys yelled and girls screamed. Sarah braced Maddy from behind while everyone else cleared out—more in deference to the vomit than respect for Maddy.

Artie Jr. overheard the fresh rumor blazing through the halls. He threw open the stairwell door and sent it smacking against the wall. “Maddy,” he screamed. Sarah called out to him and he raced up the stairs. Artie tossed two ogling freshmen aside and knelt before his younger sister who was collapsed on the stairs with her back against the wall and her legs splayed out.

“Shit, she’s blue.” Artie grabbed Sarah’s shoulder. “Get the nurse to call an ambulance, now, go.”

Artie Jr. put his hand to Maddy’s face and forehead. “God dammit, Maddy, you’re freaking blue.”

Maddy rolled her head. “What?” she said in a disoriented voice.

Artie Jr. was a toddler when Maddy was born sick, and he knew the story of the blue baby. The vision he carried wakened an eeriness of blue babies floating in his dreams, reaching for him and for each other but never touching. The bell rang, and Artie Jr. shielded his sister from the last straggling kids. The stairwell door closed like a vault and all was quiet. Sicker had come for Maddy.


There was a time when Arthur Muro was a hungry insurance salesman with a young, attractive wife, a new condo, and a Corvette that raced with the winning thoughts in his mind. He and Sandy would get pregnant, twice, and buy a house. The kids would be winners, too. Athletic like him, deep and thoughtful like Sandy, and individualistic enough to test them both, but not so much that they wouldn’t be perfect. Something went wrong. Many things went wrong. The petals of Arthur Muro’s life seemed to unfold beneath a crooked sun.

Arthur knew Sandy had problems before he married her, but she was merciful to strays, a phenomenal sketch artist, and indisputably gorgeous. Her silky black mane and icy blue eyes were enough to make him forget her warnings about the bouts of depression that had begun when she was in college. After Artie Jr. was born, Sandy couldn’t feed him, clean him, or find enough energy to love him. When a daytime nurse was needed for his wife and child, Arthur absorbed the ugliness of mental illness and its ability to incapacitate. It would be three months until Sandy could care for her son on a regular basis, and much longer before Arthur felt safe in her doing so.

Short memories can plague young couples. Artie Jr. had just begun stringing sentences together when Sandy became pregnant with Madeline. Arthur and Sandy knew the possibilities, planned for the worst Sandy’s depression might deal them, and prayed their heads off. They prayed so hard for Sandy that they forgot about Madeline, and there didn’t seem enough prayers in heaven to keep Sandy from cracking after her baby turned blue and went under an emergency knife.

But the prayers did work for almost three years, and it wasn’t until Maddy was safe from the operating table that Sandy came apart. She had held much back during Maddy’s treacherous run, but her dam was giving way. There was the normal crack of fear about her child’s health—that one was always spraying. But there was another crack, one with a torturous drip of dark water. Sandy had an obsessive thought that she would harm her blue baby in some way, that the blue was a sign of suffocation and that maybe she, Sandy Muro, the one who could and did save a bug and an old dog in one day, might somehow harm her own sick child. It was part of the mania. It wasn’t real, but it was sad. Sandy left. She moved to a low-income apartment complex and found a part-time job in an art school while Arthur and the State of New York helped her with the rest. It was the best Sandy could do with her irrational demons.

Arthur’s office was on the third floor of a corporate building in White Plains, New York. His view was a parking lot with Interstate 287 beyond, affording him the ability to estimate his short trip home to Sleepy Hollow. If the I-287 main artery was clogged, there were other, smaller ones to shoot through. Either way, Arthur spent much of his time gazing at the flow of traffic, faithless by the amount of people in motion. Like a powerless, apathetic god, he wondered if it all mattered when everything from afar seemed more like the movements of ants, only much less organized.

His only office appointment of the day came about an hour before Maddy got sick in the stairwell. Arthur greeted a young man named Terry Collins and they sat down to talk about life insurance. Arthur had known Terry for six years and had sold him auto, renters, health, and even personal liability for his electrician business.

“So, you’re engaged,” Arthur said. Remembering to make the effort, he leaned across his desk and shook Terry’s hand. “Congratulations. Sure you want to do it?”

“Everyone keeps saying that,” Terry answered. “The married guys, anyway. Still married I hope.”

Arthur leaned back with a smile. “Was,” he said.

“Oh, wow, so you really mean it,” Terry said.

Arthur broke eye contact with Terry and reached into his desk. “No, absolutely not. Marriage can be a wonderful thing,” he said while thumbing through a manila folder. “What we’re doing here is talking about reality,” Arthur said. “Because so much of everything else is fiction.”

“What do you mean?” Terry said.

“So you’ve got these great plans, right? And you should, you should have these plans, but you need some backup because shit can happen. Trust me.” Arthur didn’t want to scare the kid, but bluntness had become his way with the younger clients. He wanted to smack them, not for being young, but because they barely had the sense to creep over the threshold and consider the possibilities, and even their considerations were wrong. Worst of all, it wasn’t their fault.

“Yeah, like maybe I’ll cross the wrong wires one day and fry my ass to death,” Terry said.

Arthur closed the folder and sat back in his chair again. “You want the truth,” he said.


“All this,” Arthur said, and tossed the folder at Terry. “What does it guarantee? Nothing. It just makes you feel better when things are going well because you’re doing the right thing for the people you love, but even so, God can have other plans, and He doesn’t give a shit about your money. Peace of mind has its own price, and money can’t buy it and… ah hell, forget me.”

Terry locked his hands behind his head and exhaled. “If I didn’t know you I might have walked out mid-sermon. So what are you saying, this doesn’t matter.”

Arthur stared at the folder. His killer sales instinct was gone, along with the Corvette, the beautiful wife, and the perfect, healthy kids. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“Well, I’m buying this damn death insurance let’s call it, regardless.” Terry reached across the desk and made Arthur take his hand. “My man I’m no shrink, but you need a cold beer. Maybe several,” he said, rose and went for the door.

“You’ll need a blood test,” Arthur said.

Terry stopped. “What?”

“A blood test. No big deal, they just want to make sure you’re healthy before initiating the policy. They’ll send someone to you. You’ll get a call for set up this week.”

“All right,” Terry said. He opened the door then stopped. “Oh, and Arthur?” Terry held up the folder. “This matters. Everything matters.”

Terry closed the door behind him, and Arthur swiveled his chair toward I-287. His cell phone went off. He let it ring six times before answering.


A meek but friendly pulmonary specialist introduced a new word beside Maddy’s hospital bed to explain what was happening as a result of her ill-formed but intrepid heart working doubly hard for sixteen years. It was cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle, which made it difficult for blood to reach deep within the place that pumped life to Maddy’s soul.

“Cool, a new word,” she said. “It’s been a while.”

The doctor smiled at Maddy’s sarcasm, but the news that the new word carried with it only intensified the jaded misgivings Arthur had vented on Terry at the office. He stared at his daughter, sick all her young life, and absorbed the news that the dominant organ in the Muro household was dying, and a green light would be given for more pills, anti-rejection types this time, possible infections, and a new litany of mortal uncertainties that came with the next operation. Maddy was going on the list for people who needed another person’s heart.

Arthur closed the door when the doctor left, and slid a chair alongside Maddy. Artie Jr. was there, too, sitting elbows on knees.

“Well. This is the part we always talked about,” he said. “What do you think, kid?”

“I think I like my new word. Cardiomyopathy. Weird. I now have thick heart muscle. Almost sounds like it should be stronger, huh,” she said.

“Yeah, that is weird,” Artie Jr. said. “All you ever hear is doing double the work is a good thing.”

“Yeah,” Maddy said. “Like when you lift weights doubly hard and never get any bigger.”

“Yeah, right,” Artie Jr. said.

“I mean you,” she said, looking at her brother.

He took his cap off and repositioned it. “Yeah, I know what you meant… ass.”

“Anyone call Mom?” Maddy said.

“I got a message to her,” Arthur said. “She’s down at some art convention in Baltimore. I’m sure you’ll see her tomorrow.”

Maddy stared at a print on the opposite wall. It was of a faded, somewhat dilapidated barn under a mass of descending swallows before an orange horizon. “Will I be home tomorrow?” she said.

Arthur leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Yes, you will be home tomorrow.”

“I like barns,” she said.


“Barns,” she said. “I like them.”

“Since when?” Artie Jr. said.

“Since now.”

They followed Maddy’s eyes to the wall, and for a few moments stared at the barn, the swallows, and the orange horizon.


Arthur lay in his bed thinking of Maddy’s barn. It wasn’t unlike the ones he knew upstate as a child. They all felt the same, smelled the same if you worked in enough of them, but it seemed strange that a generic painting hung on a wall not for its merit, but so that the wall wasn’t bare, was enough to strike Maddy. Surely he never exposed the kids to his rural childhood. They were children of Westchester who liked to romp in New York City and go to ball games of every sort. They would have thought it boring to experience the simple things he loved as a child, the things he revisited when his train passed somewhere in the night. Those were his times, the times of promises that wouldn’t break, and every dream would be seen through because life was fair and dreams were to be lived and never mourned over. That was Arthur’s time, protected. It wouldn’t have mattered to them.

The hours that had passed since his meeting with Terry Collins seemed instead like many days. He rolled his head to see the digital clock that read 11:35 PM. The train would be coming within minutes, and he wondered if maybe he had jumped the gun on Artie Jr. and Maddy for the good part of a decade. Maybe through his bitterness he had assumed too much. He closed his eyes and prayed for his blue baby to be home.

Maddy did come home the following day. Her heart had stabilized, but the deteriorating condition had moved her up on the candidate depth chart. Arthur helped her off with her coat after stepping inside.

“Wow, thank you. Car doors and now jackets. See, chivalry could help you with your social life. You should pretend every woman has a bad heart.”

Arthur smiled and hung Maddy’s jacket on a hook. “I’d be better off lining their paths with greenbacks, I think,” he said.

“Tsk tsk, so bitter,” Maddy answered. “And you, are you paying attention?” Artie Jr. had walked in from the kitchen chewing a bologna sandwich.

“To what?” he said with a mouth full of food.

“Useless, just useless,” she said, and waved him off.


Maddy sat on her bed and pulled her damp socks off. Her feet had been sweating inside her boots, and the effort caused her heart rate to jump. She rested her clammy feet on the warm carpet, closed her eyes, and took shallow breaths until her heart quieted. This was it, now. There were no improvements left for this heart. They would be parting ways, and she could not give her heart to anyone because no one would want it. Instead, Maddy needed the most beautiful of gestures gained through misfortune.

Sunny Saturdays were Maddy’s favorite times when the winter months came. Sunny Sundays were nice, too, but Saturdays were between realities, after last week, and not yet next week. She liked the way the afternoon sun beamed through her bedroom window and hit the floor, giving her a chance to sit on the warm carpet with a book. While other kids were always trying out for the stuff of racing hearts, Maddy was reading. Her favorite escape was with Ponyboy in The Outsiders. That’s where Maddy turned when her chips were down, and she sat on the floor with her feet in the sun and opened her book. Maddy liked to finish The Outsiders before the sun was gone, and never once think about her heart.


It was a small, wiry boy named Henry that some called Crazy Hank; he answered the dark dream of the Muros. Henry had lived an hour south in Jersey, and liked to race his vintage 1979 BMW 3 series on Saturday nights. He had worked that car over in his high school shop class and in his parents’ garage since before his driving status was legalized. The public streets had been his proving ground, and the darker and more desolate the better. But Henry’s Saturday nights layered one on top of another until a curve too sharp made his fate too heavy. Henry had the donor symbol on his license as if he’d always known. It was 6:30 AM when the phone rang at the Muro house. The suitcase had been by the front door for almost a month.

Maddy, like a bullpen ace, was entering the biggest game of her life without much time to warm up. They drove in silence knowing only that an accident had happened and the heart of a young boy, a match for Maddy, was put on ice and would be waiting for her. Arthur and Maddy were caught somewhere between the mystery of a death, and the excited nervousness of Maddy’s potential life. She clutched her copy of The Outsiders as the car raced under the rising sun.

A panic attack hit Arthur. His face turned white and his fingers began to tingle as the blood rushed from head and limb, and he had all he could do to breathe and keep the car straight. Somehow, someway, his apathy began to disintegrate. A boy had been killed. Arthur knew that. Along the boy’s way something had happened, a bad decision maybe, and it made the difference. The tremendous ripple effect blew Arthur away. Families, friends, doctors, science, and yes, even insurance companies like the ones Arthur used to hawk with devotion would be affected.

Everything was set, from the surgeons who were called in to the iced heart awaiting Maddy’s chest. All that was needed was the girl who would once again assume a familiar position under bright lights, masks and hairnets, and sterilized instruments that moved centimeters while dancing on the tightrope of life and death. They gave Maddy a room with a window while she waited to be brought down for surgery.

“Dad, you look exhausted,” Maddy said. She was still holding The Outsiders.

“I’m fine,” he said turning from the window. He was exhausted. The panic attack he had endured and restrained from Maddy had left him drained.

“You look like you’re going to drop,” she said. “Go get some coffee or something. I’ve still got some time here.”

“Maybe I will.”

“I demand that you do.”

“I wish I could bring you a hot chocolate,” he said.

“Hold that thought for me,” she answered.

As Arthur turned for the door he saw Sandy. She was standing with Artie Jr. who had met his mother at her apartment because she didn’t want to go to the hospital alone. Sandy hugged Arthur and went to her daughter’s bedside and took her hand. She was shaking a little, but smiling into Maddy’s eyes. Regardless of how sick Maddy was, Arthur knew how hard it was for Sandy to be near a hospital let alone be in one. Sandy was sick, too, but in a different way. Showing up for Maddy was huge, and if Sandy had to leave during the surgery, then so be it. It was the best she could do.

The panic attack in the car was not the end of Arthur’s epiphany that day. A voice called his name as he carried his coffee past the lobby towards the elevator. It was Terry Collins.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur said.

Terry was with his fiancé in tow. She was a petite redhead except for the distended stomach. Arthur hadn’t known about any babies.

“I meant to call you, but I’m glad I can thank you in person,” he said. “Oh, this is Michelle.”

Arthur shook her hand. “Thank me. For what, being an old cynic?” he said.

“Well, no. For all the times you used to tell me to think about life insurance. My white blood cell count was way up. Come to find out I’ve got Hodgkin’s.”

Arthur squinted in disbelief. “Holy Jesus, I’m sorry.”

“It’s early, though,” Michelle said. “Stage one.”

“Yeah, doctors say my chances are favorable,” Terry added. “Hey, what are you doing here?”

There was no panic in Arthur this time. “It’s Maddy. She’s getting a new heart today.”

“No kidding,” Terry said.

The bell rang and the elevator door opened. Terry stepped forward and hugged Arthur. Michelle gave him a kiss on the cheek and took his arm. “Thank you. Good luck,” she said.

Artie stared out the window in Maddy’s room. At the entrance below a teenager was being wheeled out to a waiting car. His leg was in a full, blue cast. People coming in stopped as he was helped from his chair, and then continued on.

“What are you thinking about?” Maddy said.

Artie stared into the sunshine. “Trains and barns… and you.”

An ambulance raced from the left side of Artie’s view, its sirens fading into a busy world. The boy with the broken leg was driven away, probably toward home and a meal and the things that would help him pass the healing.

Joseph LoGuidice’s writing credits include non-fiction pieces in True Story and ADAA (Anxiety Disorders Association of America), and an Honorable Mention for fantasy/horror in Writer’s Journal Magazine. He put aside short story writing to complete his first novel, Little Gods, and is currently pursuing representation for that book. Email: jloguidice[at]