Joy to the Word

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe

Beyond Pow!
Photo Credit: Barbara Holbrook

I have recently been taking acting classes that focus on Shakespearean verse. One of the many fun things we learn is exactly how much you can trust the Bard to get it right, and how much the characters revel in their choice word choices. If you truly give in to the words—to the sounds of the words, to the alliteration and the assonance—you find out a lot about the character’s feelings and state of mind.

My most recent monologue was “mad” Queen Margaret‘s speech to Queen Elizabeth (no, not that Queen Elizabeth, but Edward IV’s wife) from Richard III. Margaret lost her power, her son, and her husband Henry VI to Edward IV during the War of the Roses. At this point in Richard III, Elizabeth has also lost her husband and her power to Richard and has just found out her two young sons were murdered by him as well. Margaret has been hanging around England to watch the downfall of the house of York, and the speech is about her schadenfreude and about her twisting the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds. The full speech can be found here.

We talked a lot in class about how awesome Shakespeare was with his words. So one week, I just totally gave into those words. I really drew out all the consonants and vowels, really gave in to them and let them tell me the character’s feelings. Interestingly, I got a map of what she was doing and feeling.

At the beginning of the speech, Margaret is showing her contempt for Elizabeth, saying she was barely worthy of being queen as it was. She calls Elizabeth “poor shadow, painted queen, the presentation of but what I was.” Say that line, emphasizing every puh and buh. Sounds like you are spitting venom, doesn’t it? Pttthb!

Later, when Margaret is essentially saying that Elizabeth deserves all this pain (because, after all, these horrible events just mirror what the Yorks, lead by Elizabeth’s husband, did to her earlier), the speech fills with s sounds. Hissssss. “Thussss hath the coursssse of jusssstice whirled about…” And, having twisted the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds, she wallows in the schadenfreude: “These English woes will make me smile in France.” Catch the alliteration and consonance here? That’s right… mmm mmm mmm.

These aren’t the only juicy ways in which the words do Shakespeare’s work for him. There are many more examples sprinkled throughout the speech. The phrase “wails the name” for example, sounds like wailing if you draw out the a sound. Wail is onomatopoeic, and the a sound in name reinforces the “waaaaaah! aaaaaaah!” feeling of the line. Fun stuff, especially when you are acting it or reading it out loud.

We spend a lot of time as writers picking “the right words,” searching for just that nuance of meaning that hammers our point home. How much time do you spend on the sounds of your words? When you read your work aloud to hear how it flows, do you also listen for how it sounds, and whether or not the sounds reinforce the feelings you are conveying? Sometimes you’ll see it happening even if you didn’t plan it. Look for those instances. Revel in them. When your character’s “teeth chatter on a chilly day'” notice the ch ch ch of chattering teeth in that phrase. When your harried and hurrying character uses several words in a row starting with h, is it possible the hhu hhu hhu is showing you that he is out of breath?

Every once in a while, just give in to the words. Let them do your work for you. Let it be fun. Let it sound like what you mean as well as reading like what you mean. Enjoy the word play and enjoy the sound play. It’s a subtle thing, yes, but your writing will be the richer for it. And who knows? Maybe English students four hundred years from now will be pointing out these instances of word joy in lengthy essays or class discussions. So go for it!

In this post-NaNo season, my wish to all writers is: Joy to the Word!

“For what, we ask, is life without a touch of poetry in it?”
—The Pirate King, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.


Email: bellman[at]


Best of the Boards
Lizanne Herd

Born Slippy
Photo Credit: sandman_kk

“Seriously creepy.” —Ana George

“Awesome in its horribleness.” —Lisa Olson

Lizanne is currently shopping this story and waiting to hear back from the markets she’s submitted to, so we’re not able to publish it here. For now, registered members of Toasted Cheese can read “Offal” at the forums. Best of luck, Lizanne!


Lizanne has been writing speculative fiction since 2005. Her work has been published in a variety of online magazines and podcasts, along with her art and occasional voice talents. Email: mizem55[at]

Eva’s Judgement

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Tamara Eaton

Apple Blossoms
Photo Credit: Deron Staffen

First, I cried. Next, I lifted my head to gaze at the twin pink moons hovering full on the horizon. Alone. The word resonated within my soul. The ship departed with the dawn and now I faced an eternity of emptiness. The knowledge pressed down anchoring me to this spot where I’d watched the last remnant of the failed colony levitate, boost, and rocket out of the atmosphere.

Perhaps in a year or a decade some lost or wandering ship might find this forsaken outpost, but I couldn’t make myself believe it. Not in the first moments when I looked out over the red Needles of New Plymouth rising out over the crater floor.

After what may have been hours—or was it days—I raised my body and trudged off to the village. The food stores held more than enough to sustain me for a lifetime even after the ship loaded enough for the colonists’ journey to the next galaxy. The final mercy or torture, I wasn’t sure yet.

The meeting house came into view and the sight twisted my heart. A month had passed since the Judges sentenced me. A mere thirty days, according to the Earth calendars we still used. If not for my shock, the efficient organization of the colonists would have made me proud. From the judgement day until this morning—only thirty days. They had sorted, packed, and loaded the ship in order to leave New Plymouth, now referred to as the Tainted Place, as soon as possible. All proceeded in record time because of me.

From the moment of judgement, the colonists ostracized me. I was forbidden to speak with my husband or children. Though I remained in my husband’s house, my family treated me like an unseen spirit. The baby, Ahmed, followed me around the two-room house, tugging on my skirts. He never understood why mama didn’t hold him, couldn’t comfort him. Ahmed’s cries and screams wrenched my heart and I searched my husband’s face for a hint of forgiveness, but he averted his eyes, lifted the child in his arms and turned away.

During the colony’s short existence, we lived in peace. The dream of the Pilgrims, as we called ourselves, to find a place to worship and to live according to God’s will, came to life. We lived in equanimity and built New Plymouth. One hundred fifty of us worked and worshiped in serenity bringing into existence God’s Plan. The Lord guided us to this bountiful place and saw to it we lacked for nothing. Those early days I delighted in the simple pleasures of working hard and praising my Lord.

Our ancestors once crossed an ocean to find the Promised Land, and we crossed a universe. The prayer the ancients recited asked for: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We found a New Earth, which we named New Massachusetts. Our goal was always to honor Him and build His kingdom. In five years we’d accomplished much. We lived a life filled with His glory. My family grew. Abraham arrived in the spring of year one, the first child born to the new colony, and then Ahmed made his appearance three years later.

But I neglected to pray as the old ones did, to be led from temptation. No, I, Eva Maria Johnson-Xing, never said the prayer and never asked for guidance from the Lord. This oversight caused the demise of the colony and my everlasting exile in this Tainted Land. During my trial, repeatedly the Judges and the colonists asked, “Why? Why did you not flee from the trap set before you?”

I only shook my head, lowered my eyes and let heat invade my face. The Judges refused me the cover of my veil. The colonists stared and I heard the whispers. I had nowhere to hide. The men gazed upon me with disgust, but I also caught several giving their wives sideways glances. They seemed to wonder if their wives could also be led astray. The village women, who now blamed me for the difficulties they’d encountered over the past five years, murmured remarks beneath their veils.

“She always seemed so pure, but those are always the ones to be wary of, you know.”

“The roses she planted in her backyard were the first clue.” Another nodded.

My roses? I threw her a disbelieving look. They’d never know those roses saved my life. The roses weren’t to blame. No, it was the apple trees. The sweet apple blossoms appeared last season with a scent seductive, inviting, tempting. I became powerless beneath the spell. How could I explain the lightness of my heart to these women who never breathed the sweet air? How could I explain the giggles rising when no one else observed? They called me to float on the breeze to waft across the Plains of Providence.

And I did. I floated. I danced. My soul lifted to a realm I’d never experienced before. Knowledge of things before unknown filled my mind. My head reeled, spinning with the answers to questions of this world and all the other worlds. At first, I feared insanity had invaded my being, the demons of mental illness taking me from my senses. Then I embraced the knowing. With acceptance came peace indescribable.

My husband, Jericho, noticed within a week. “You’re different. What’s happened?”

“I know not, my husband. Since the change of the season, my head is full of much awe and wonder. God has blessed me.”

He smiled. “Yes, He has blessed us all.”

Jericho’s inquiry went no further, but others began to notice, too. One day while out planting seeds in the field, Cyrus, the scribe, came to me. “Mrs. Xing, something has happened to you. What is it?”

I shook my head and pulled my veil close.

He stepped closer and bent his head to my ear. “I feel it too,” he whispered. He inhaled deeply and winked.

I gasped. “No. You’ve felt the breeze?”

“The blossoms’ scent assails my heart and mind. I can’t escape it and the knowledge fills my head with ideas I’ve never dreamed before.”

The revelation bared before me. I am not alone in this. Perhaps Cyrus and I are meant to share it with the others. The thought niggled my mind, but I pushed it away.

“Meet me in the grove at sunset,” he said and walked away.

The daystar dipped low, sending golden rays over the landscape. I’d struggled all day telling myself I dared not go. The last light sank below the horizon and the crescent moons rose. The choice stood before me. Stay within the secure walls Jericho built for us, or seek the secret knowledge hinted at in the breeze.

After laying Ahmed into his crib, before courage deserted me, I told Jericho I wanted to walk. His head, bent over the colony accounts, didn’t even rise. He nodded.

My heart sped and I raced to the grove. We had little time before someone might see us wandering together, a married woman and the scribe. Why did I go? I’ve asked myself the same question the others have asked me so many times since that evening, but no answer comes except want. I wanted more knowledge, more peace, more of this magical feeling invading my mind and spirit. The sharing might bring me more. It makes little more sense now than it did then.

“Eva.” His voice drifted on the soft wind.

The moonlight left speckled shadows in the grove. Moving through the shadows, I followed the sound with my heart.

From behind the last tree, he grasped my hand and electric sparks sizzled in the air. We spoke without words in some way not known to me before that moment. His voice appeared in my mind without my ears hearing it first and mine did the same within his mind. Our minds were joined in a knowing.

“I can’t. Jericho and my sons are too important to risk.” I removed my veil. “The Colony is too important to endanger.”

“This is more, Eva. More important than me, more important than you, Jericho, or your sons. Yes. It’s more important than the Colony. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t be here. We are the fulfillment of all that has come before.”

I sought to pull my hand from his grip. “It calls us to sin, and we must fight it.”

He pulled me closer, enclosing me within his arms. “Not sin, but perhaps a new knowing. Your wanting fills me too. We must not fight it. We must choose to let it flow within us. This is our destiny.”

Need flooded me, not a need for this man, but a need for the knowledge we could share. A desire bloomed unfettered within my chest. The scent of apple blossoms enveloped us and his lips met mine. Destiny, I thought, and a blast of light exploded into tiny fragments raising us both off the ground.

What happened next—only vague remnants of memory remained afterwards. I couldn’t tell the Judges or Jericho, though I strained for days to recall. One moment Cyrus embraced me, filled my mind and body, and the next second he vanished.

I landed in my roses.

They searched for Cyrus many days, but never found him or any sign or track. They’d never have believed my story anyway, so I let them assume the most common explanation. For them it varied. One colonist swore an oath she’d seen me go to the grove that night and she said she’d heard Cyrus’s voice call my name. All true, as far as it went. She maintained I’d obviously murdered the man in a fit and done away with his body.

Within a fortnight I stood trial before the Judges and faced the colonists. The verdict didn’t surprise me. They left me in this Tainted Land, stranded for all time. I helped Jericho and the boys pack their belongings for the journey. The women and men of the Colony loaded the ship and didn’t shun my assistance with the work. Silence engulfed me. The peace I’d reached before the verdict departed. My mind churned with the injustice I faced.

Alone. The word permeated my mind. The new knowledge I possessed since the night in the grove gave a connotation to the word with all the nuances a lifetime of solitary existence would entail. I wandered the deserted village listening to the silence. No children’s laughter from the ball field, or chatting women hanging clothes out to dry. The sound of animal calls in the wilds outside the village perimeter. Nature’s abundance encircled me.

The nipping air denoted the change of seasons. The grove trees weighed down by apples called me. The summons was no less tempting than the springtime blossoms, but somehow fuller and richer than the effervescent flower perfume. I walked between the trees listening to wind whistle through the branches. A bright red orb of nature’s bounty plopped down from the bough above. I caught the fruit, polished it with my sleeve and took a bite. The crisp apple burst sweet and juicy on my tongue.

A flutter within my womb startled me. Could it be? I placed my palm against my belly and laughter bubbled from deep within. Alone? Not any longer. Life pulsed inside me along with the knowledge this new babe would be the first of a new breed of humanity filled with wisdom and understanding.


Email: tamarae9[at]

Nightmare of Hope

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ted Doolittle

Mars the Mysterious (NASA, 1997)
Photo Credit: NASA

Brad Pendleton focused on the catcher’s fingers and nodded acceptance to the pitch choice. His arms lifted high above his head, pausing as he concentrated on the catcher’s mitt.

Lonnie Sanders, batting for the third time in the game, focused on the pitcher’s right hand, now hiding inside the hurler’s brick red glove.

Pendleton flung the ball, his arm stretching toward Sanders as he hurled the little white sphere. The ball suddenly dove in front of home plate, bounced in the dirt and was snagged by the catcher.

“Stee. Rike.” The umpire’s metallic call bleated over the stadium’s speakers.

Lonnie twisted his tall muscular body to glare at the misaligned machine. He smiled inwardly, imagining the heap of scrap metal his bat might enjoy creating.

“Get a grip Sanders,” the catcher said. “Umpires are never wrong.”

Lonnie glanced at the catcher then returned his gaze to the pitcher as another ball flew past him into the catcher’s mitt.

“Stee. Rike. Two,” the umpire said.

Lonnie didn’t pause to argue or glare as another pitch was racing toward him. He timed his swing perfectly and laced the ball in between the center and left fielders for a stand-up double.

“That’s his third double today,” the play-by-play announcer said to those listening or watching away from the ballpark.

“That’s right, Bob.” His partner’s encouraging voice reminded the listeners how the team failed to score runs earlier. “He doubled with two outs in the first and was left standing there when Sammy Grimes struck out. He doubled to lead off the fourth just before the rains deluged the field. The next three batters couldn’t get the ball out of the infield, leaving him on second when the inning ended.”

“You are so right, Hal,” Bob said.

Lonnie stood on second once more. Again with two outs. His heart pounded. Sweat streamed down his face and soaked through his uniform. He glanced at third base. He had to get there. Then home.

What if he didn’t?

Lonnie stared at the crowds that pressed in on him as the stadium spun in circles and closed in on him like a cage. The fans stretched oversized hands and shook their pointy index fingers as if mocking his inability to completely round the bases.

Please let me make it, he prayed to no god in particular.

“Sammy drives one deep to right field—”

Lonnie watched the ball sail high over his own head and soar toward the stands.

“—John Whitmore, the left fielder, is racing toward the fence—”

Would this be the time Lonnie finally advanced past second?

“—and he reaches up—”

Get over. Get over. Get over.

“—and makes the catch.”

Lonnie collapsed to the ground as the crowd released a collective groan. Suddenly remembering the left fielder, he scrambled back to second before the throw could double him off the base.

“Sammy hasn’t been on base all day.”

“That’s right, Bob and, uh-oh, here come the rains again.”

Water descended on the stadium in sheets, drenching the players and the fans. Lonnie closed his eyes and wished the deluge away. No luck.

“Those pesky storms hit almost every ten minutes,” Bob said.

“That’s right, Bob. But fortunately they never last more than a minute. By the way, Bob, did you know that sixty-two years ago they actually postponed games when it rained? They would play ‘make-up games’ on days no other game was scheduled or sometimes play two in the same day.”

“I didn’t know that, Hal.”

“They were called doubleheaders, Bob. We don’t have any doubleheaders today.”

The rain stopped as suddenly as it began and was followed by a sudden strong wind. Lonnie grabbed his hat and gripped second base with both hands.

Then Martino Oquendo struck out and the crowd groaned deeper. Baseballs flew from the stands, lofted like old-fashioned grenades, the fans angry that Lonnie Sanders was left on second—again.


Lonnie opened his eyes.


He didn’t like reality. However frustrating or painful his recurring nightmare, he much preferred that to reality.

He saw a handful of spindly creatures, each a different color, approaching his impenetrable plastiglass cage.

He counted seven, and the guide.

The tour guide spoke to the small crowd. “This specimen was discovered on Mars.”


She smiled at him. At least he imagined she smiled.

“He appears to be a younger male version of the humanoid species that originated on the planet Earth.”

“How do you know he’s male?” one of the smaller creatures asked. Some curious child always asked that question.

“Well,” the guide hesitated; “You can look at him—” She cleared her throat and looked toward one of the older creatures for help that wasn’t given. “—and see his genitalia.” She hurried her final words.

Lonnie wondered if she blushed. He hated that they took his clothes and put him on display for all the visitors to stare and comment and “see his genitalia.” He didn’t want to hear their questions or comments. He usually turned off the Universal Translator installed by his captors, but one of the cage cleaners must have flipped it back on while he slept.


He remembered Mars.


He remembered a very small cave, his mom cradling him in her arms as they slept. His dad near the cave’s opening to protect them, keeping their small fire glowing all night.

Their Personal Space Car sputtered on the way to Pluto—officially a planet once again—and they were forced into an emergency landing. Though previously settled by humans determined to leave earth behind, the limited water and unending red dust sent everyone back to Earth. So his family was alone.

They’d set out for Pluto after his one-year-old sister died.

“I told you we should have taken her to the MediCenter,” his mother had said.

“We couldn’t afford the MediCenter,” his father reminded her.

That was the end of their argument and seven days later they’d sold their house and were on their way to Pluto.

“They say there’s life on Pluto,” his mom told his dad.

“Who are ‘they’?” his father asked.


“What’s Earth?” another child asked the tour guide.

“Planet number three. We call it Tres, but they call it Earth. There is only a small portion on the caps that would be habitable by our species.”

“Is it the one right after Mars?”

“Yes, Kittle, that’s the planet. You’ve been studying your astronomy book haven’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good for you.”

Without warning an oversized bucket tipped above him and Lonnie cowered as the medicated water pounded him, allegedly keeping him clean and the visitors from picking up any of his diseases. Almost as soon as it started, it stopped and a giant fan blew Lonnie and the cage dry.

“So far he has survived one-and-a-half circulations in captivity, and has grown and still appears in excellent health. We hope to find a female of his species. We want them to reproduce while in captivity and possibly keep the baby for ourselves.”

As if they weren’t keeping me for themselves, he thought.


Lonnie awoke shivering that ill-fated morning on Mars. The fire had died out and he couldn’t find his father’s silhouette. He sat up, his thin body unable to fend off the cold Mars air.

He listened.

He heard wind howling outside the claustrophobic cave and sounds of some kind in the distance. Perhaps his father had heard the sounds as well and left to investigate.

Maybe, he thought. But there was something wrong.

He didn’t hear his mother breathing.

“Mom? Dad?” He spoke tentatively and nothing outside the cave could have heard him.

“Moooooooooom.” A little louder this time.

He crawled to the opening, palms sweating in spite of the cold, fighting back tears. In the distance he heard the sound of voices. Heated words of two men and a woman. And the small reverberation of a rocket waiting to take off. Not the family rocket—Maria they called her, after his favorite babysitter—he would have recognized the distinctive rattle of Maria’s engine. This was a different rocket.

Someone had come to rescue them.

The voices grew louder but he couldn’t distinguish any words and crawled onto the ledge just outside the cave. In the valley far below—at least a thirty-minute climb—he saw his mother and father, standing beside a small rocket, arms gesturing emphatically.

Lonnie’s mother glanced up and saw Lonnie in the cave opening. He smiled and waved. She didn’t return the greeting.

The stranger flung his arms in an I-give-up gesture and climbed into the rocket.

Lonnie’s father grabbed his mother who clearly screamed as he dragged her up the ladder. She pointed toward the cave but he pulled her into the rocket and slammed the hatch.

“Noooooo,” Lonnie shouted.

This new rocket slowly rose from the ground, the sun rising over the horizon behind it. Lonnie ran from the cave and fell, slid, and rolled down the hill toward the valley below. Bruised and bloody, he stood and ran, shouting and waving his arms as he raced toward the launch pad. He jumped in the air as though he could reach the rocket and pull it again to the earth. He jumped again and again, trying desperately to grab the disappearing machine.

“Moooooooom,” he shouted in silence.


A female of the species, Lonnie thought. Yeah, that would be nice—in a few years. He was only nine and couldn’t care less about girls right now. Except his mom. How about bringing me my mom?

“Have there ever been other humanoids to visit our planet?” one of the adults asked.

My parents? Lonnie wondered.

“Now and then,” the guide answered. “But they never stay. They find our climate too cold for them.”

“They haven’t learned how to live underground,” Kittle giggled.

“No, they haven’t,” the guide answered.

“What about the rocket that’s up there now?” another small one asked.

My parents?

“How did you know about that, Jimson?” asked the guide.

Jimson shrugged.

“It’s a stubborn couple,” the guide continued. “This is their third trip here and this time they’ve lasted an entire week.”

My parents!

“We’ll keep an eye on them and see what happens. They’re seeking something.”


The group asked a few more questions, which the guide patiently answered, then they moved to the next exhibit.

No. Don’t go. Ask more questions. Find the humanoids. Bring them here.

The sleeping gas filled his tiny chamber and he fought not to sleep this time. He had to see these humanoids. Please, he begged as his eyelids shut and he drifted again into the same frustrating dream.


“Yes, Bob, Lonnie Sanders is batting for the third time today.”

“Hal, he’s been stranded on second base after each of his first two doubles.”

“He certainly has but we can always hope.”

“We can.”

“And there’s a line drive into left field and he has another double to his credit.”

“Yes, Bob. In fact, Lonnie Sanders leads the league in doubles.”

Lonnie stood on second. He spent so much time there it became his home.

“Maybe the team won’t strand him this time, Bob.”

“Maybe they won’t.”

Lonnie stared at Sammy Grimes. Come on Sammy, he thought. You can do it.

“Sammy drives one deep to right field—”

Lonnie watched the ball sail high over his own head and soar toward the stands.

“—John Whitmore, the left fielder, is racing toward the fence—”

Would this be the time Lonnie finally advanced past second?

“—and he reaches up—”

Get over. Get over. Get over.

“—and it’s gone. A home run.”

Lonnie jogged slowly toward third. This had never happened before. The base kept pulling way from him, but with a determined stretch his right foot landed on the bag and he turned toward home.

Let me wake up now, he thought. This is all so new. I’m actually headed home.

Let me wake up now.


Ted Doolittle is a writer and actor in Houston, Texas. Email: tedwrites[at]

Moonlit Games

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Carrie Rogers

a fairy house for midsummer eve
Photo Credit: Iris Shreve Garrott

We zipped through the air, laughing in the midst of our games. We of the Fair Folk are all for games and challenging rules, and I am the best player. It isn’t hard for me to race my dragonfly through moonbeams or sing the names of roses. I can dance the colors of the autumn harvest and charm the ivy up a wall.

The game we played that night was an old one. We jumped from one child’s dream to another, touching each dream without waking a single soul. We would report back to the queen and tell her all the things we saw. The one who remembered the most—me—would be rewarded with the prize of the night. The last to return would be punished by being left in the mortal world.

Who was I to care for losers? I touched one mind, and then another. Their sweet imaginations tickled my skin and warmed me like no sparkling starlight ever could. One girl-child dreamed she was a princess pampered in a shining palace. A boy-child dreamed of hunting in dark forests. One after the other I jumped and skipped and twirled, exhilarated by the thoughts that surrounded me. I was determined to see into the dreams of every child.

It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t see the time. The sun rose without warning. It blinded my eyes and I fell, wheeling in the sky. Once the sun peeked over the treetops our game was at an end. I, of all my brothers and sisters, was left stranded in the human world.

Inconceivable! I, of all of us, had stayed too long. I had not been the winner granted the prize of stealing a child away. Instead, as the last of us to return, I had been forced to take its place. I could already feel my powers draining and my body changing shape. I was of the Fair Folk, but now I was stuck in this ugly mortal world of cold iron. I couldn’t fly. I couldn’t call the stars. There were so few things left to me; all I could do was cry. No, I didn’t cry. I wailed.

From my crib I wailed and screamed and cried, a changeling stranded in the human world. I woke the house with my tantrum, and I would not stop until I woke every living creature on that street.

The sound of footsteps heralded a woman coming into my new bedroom. The mother—for she was not my mother; my mother was beautiful, a queen—made shushing noises as she gathered me in her arms. In return, I bit her on the ear. Her surprised screech wasn’t satisfying. I was still trapped in this human body and nothing was going to change that.

I was doomed to live out my days as a mortal whelp unless the rest of the game was played out. Oh yes, there were still rules. If I could drive the parents mad, if they remembered the old ways, they could yet free me from my imprisonment. The ways were painful, but my pride was already wounded. I could stand a pinch more if it meant returning home.

So I cried, and I cried. I cried for days, stopping only to sleep or eat. And did I eat. The doctor they called said I looked a little pale for a human baby, right after I snapped at his prodding fingers. He said they should feed me more, and I wasn’t opposed to that. Eggs, ham, and that wonderful honey porridge, I ate everything until I was sated, which was a long time in coming. It was the only thing that made my exile tolerable.

I cried, I threw tantrums, I spat back food and snapped my teeth at anything that came near my mouth. I was the best player, and I would make them spite me. But every time I lashed out, the mother drew me close and held me as she sang soothing lullabies. Her songs lacked in imagery and resonance, but the love that poured from them told me that she could never bring herself to be rid of me. It became clear to me that the mother would endure my torment for years on end before she would throw me on the fire. I quickly lost all hope—until the day she tried feeding me with an iron spoon.

It had been bottles and wooden tools up until that morning.

“Open up for Mummy,” she said.

I would have none of it. Despite my condition, I was still of the Fair Folk. I would not let the iron touch my skin for all the honey in the world. I pushed away, I held back, but sitting in that high chair, it was only a matter of time before the spoon made contact with my skin.

I didn’t cry this time, I howled in pain so unbearable that I scratched and kicked to be away from the spoon. The mother finally relented. When my cheek did not burn so much, I looked up at the mother to give her a piece of my mind, but as I looked up I saw her looking down at me. Her eyes grew wide as she looked at my burned skin, and I saw recognition spark. She knew what I was.

The mother dropped to her knees and took my tiny hands in hers. “Please,” she begged. “Please give my son back to me.”

I smiled, knowing there were still rules to follow. Unless she threw me onto the fire and had done with it, I could speak no word that gave away my true nature. I could not freely transform and leave her care. For all purposes, I was a human child, but this was just another game, and I was the best at playing. I had found a way home.

I gave her no answer to her pleas, but the mother watched me carefully now, as I did her. There was a way for me to use her. I had only to orchestrate the actions that would lead to my release and we would both get what we wanted.

That night, I crawled from my bed and crept through the house. It was easy for me to scurry and unlatch the door for my moment of sweet freedom. But so long as the mother did not act, I would have to return to being her darling child. This did not give me much time. I could not reveal myself prematurely, but there were things I could do to help the mother along with her guessing. It was difficult to pluck my desired branch from the tree with my stubby fingers, but that morning it was worth the effort.

I waited until she was alone in the house and crawled to her while she darned socks in the parlor. It was the first time I had actively sought her out, and she watched me from her comfy sofa seat, her eyes wary. I stopped just close enough and held up the holly branch I had gone looking for in the night.

The mother looked surprised at my offering, though she did accept it. From the way she examined it, I saw that she did not understand the purpose of such a gift or recognize the knowledge I was trying to impart to her.

“When is food?” I asked. There was need to help the stupid human.

I had demanded food before, so my words were of no surprise. She told me in a flat and weary voice, “You’ve already had breakfast. You’ll have to wait awhile.”

I would show her waiting, but for now I shouted, “No lies.”

She sighed, not comprehending my meaning.

I had to make myself clear without giving it away. I shouted next, “You have to speak the truth!”

She frowned at me now, clearly not understanding the favor I was doing her. I dared not point to the holly in her hand, but could I look at it? I stared at the holly and repeated myself, and this time the mother got it. She looked from the holly and back to me.

“Is there a way to get my son back?” she whispered. “Is this the way?” She waved the branch back at me, but none of it touched me, so I could not answer her. Instead I crawled away, leaving her to figure things for herself.

And so it began.

At night I went through the kitchen and searched the garden outside. I brought the mother tools she could use against my kind. They were hints and nothing more, but she watched me and accepted my gifts when given. And she learned.

She did not move against me because she needed what I knew, and I did not bite so often in that time or cry so loud. I needed her to trust me and to watch me.

On the day I sensed the full moon coming, I threw a fit like she had never seen. Nothing stopped me, no bribes of honey or threats or being left alone. The father nearly lost himself to violence over it, but the mother worked to understand my message. She rushed into the kitchen and retrieved the branch of holly from the cupboard where she kept all the things I had given her over time. She waved the holly in my face and I grew still.

The father looked on in wonder and asked her what she’d done. The mother said nothing as she nodded at me, and in that moment I found myself nodding back. She had understood. The day had finally come.


It is night now, and I can feel the moon rising, calling for me to dance even when I cannot. The mother must have sensed the change as well. I hear her rise from her bed, careful not to wake the father. My eyes are open as I listen to her move through the house. She goes to the kitchen to collect the items she will need, the things I have carefully been giving her for weeks now.

For once I do not think to cry out, to scream and wake the household for the pleasure of disturbing their rest. The mother cannot be stopped tonight. Tonight she will travel to the place where my brothers and sisters dance.

If she isn’t stupid she should know how to call one of my kind to her. She will lure him with rosemary and thyme and snare him with sweet honeysuckle. The holly pressed to his skin will compel him to speak the truth, and with that she will find the way to retrieve her lost child.

She will go to the dance and show the flowers and say the words, and when the child is returned to her the game will be over. And with my powers restored I will be welcomed home. How I have longed for the golden halls and silver trees of my home, for a world filled with music and song. I wish to be rid of this cold and hateful place.

Let the woman have her now aged son, so blessed by his time spent dining at the queen’s table. I laugh a little at how she will lament, because I have played the game fair. I have followed every rule, even if she did not know them all. I have bested my brothers, even when I lost. And when next I play I will be faster and dance better than the rest and leave one of them behind to spend his time stranded in the human world. We’ll see how well he handles iron spoons.

I smile to myself in the shadows as the mother closes the front door behind her and leaves for her quest. Soon I will be the winner, and soon I will be home.


Carrie Rogers is a quality editor living in Minnesota where she is involved in the diverse literary community found there. She has previously been published in Studio One and The Drabbler. Email: carrie-rogers[at]

Be Happy

Boots’s Pick
Jennifer Spiegel

Toasted sprinkled fried scrambled served
Photo Credit: Sarah Ross

New York, 1995

Every year, Sheila’s family goes to Milwaukee for a square dancing convention. “Maybe it’s a polka festival—I can’t remember,” my friend Sue explained. Sheila lives in Archie and Edith’s house in Queens, she’s never eaten Thai, and she’s seen every Tony Award–winning musical since 1981. “Each month, one of her cousins gets married to the boy next door—excuse me, the goy next door—and Sheila’s a bridesmaid.”

Plus, Sheila loves—I mean, adores—Happy’s ice cream.

Sue and Sheila work together and, lately, my friend has been enamored by Sheila’s down-home charms. “She’s like Planet of the Apes movies,” Sue explained. “You know how they make you long for the days of lunch boxes, stirrup pants, and the dawn of MTV?”

“Yeah?” That, I get.

“Well, Sheila makes you crave normalcy. Didn’t we once have normal lives outside the concrete jungle?”

More and more, my friend has been saying how we’ve got to get out of New York City while we still can. To compliment her lamentations, she goes on and on about Sheila. Sheila this; Sheila that.

Don’t be dense, true friend. Don’t be naïve. You think we can make it outside the city? You believe that? Watch us curl up and die. Watch us sink into ourselves and become eccentric introverts. Don’t count on acceptance. Don’t you dare count on normalcy.

We made a special trip to Happy’s, since it would be a good opportunity to test our suburban survival skills. Apparently, elsewhere in America, Denny’s, Coco’s, Happy’s, Village Inn, Stuckey’s, Big Boy, and the like, positively thrive. Two men from Manhattan joined us: one from uptown, one from downtown. Someday, the uptown man may get a job transfer. Someday, the downtown man may get a job.

I’ve been on this road before. Once, I went to the Mall of America in Minnesota. A business trip, if you can believe that. The strollers, frozen yogurt–eaters, and handholding couples scared the hell out of me, but I liked the rental car quite a bit. In the final analysis, I couldn’t wait to get back to my local beggars and anonymous neighbors.

Happy’s smelled like old grease. Our waitress looked like a dirty Alice from The Brady Bunch. A high school kid mopped the floor. As we carefully hopscotched across the wet tile, I whispered to Sue, “Remember, Sheila suggested lunch so we can eat ice cream afterwards.”

Sidling up to a booth, Sue sneered. “Screw lunch. I want breakfast.”

Alice, peds on feet, approached. “What can I get you folks?”

The four of us city slickers studied our laminated menus. Speaking in a singsong voice, Sue said, “I’d like the French toast with crispy bacon, please.”

Alice didn’t move. The wrinkles around her mouth began to tremble. “I’m sorry. We don’t serve breakfast after eleven.”

We all looked at our watches: 11:17 on a Saturday morning.

Sue looked at Alice as if she were crazy.

Alice quaked.

Sue’s eyes were like the pig’s in The Amityville Horror: red, beady. “You don’t serve breakfast after eleven?” It sounded like, Are you fucking nuts?

I tensed up. So did Uptown and Downtown.

Alice smiled sweetly. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Is there something else I can get you?”

Silence followed.

“I’ll need a minute.” Sue ducked behind her menu.

“I’ll be right back.” Alice shuffled off in her peds.

When Alice was gone, Sue’s mouth dropped open. “Can you believe this? Can you believe they don’t serve breakfast after eleven? I was so ready for French toast! You have no idea—no fucking idea!” She dropped her menu on the table. “Who ever heard of not serving breakfast after eleven at a shit diner?”

“Order something else, Sue,” Downtown broke in.

“I don’t want anything else! I want breakfast.”

Mental institution material, right here, folks. Sue slapped both hands down. “This is why I can’t leave New York City. This is why!” She looked at us, wildly. “In New York City, you can get breakfast anytime. There are no designated breakfast hours! If you want breakfast at eight p.m., so be it. Three thirty in the afternoon, that’s fine.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Do you realize that the rest of America only eats breakfast before eleven?”

“We’re actually technically still in New York City—this is Queens,” said Uptown.

Downtown, more comfortable with idiosyncrasy than Uptown, put a hand on top of Sue’s. “That’s right, Sue. That’s why we live in New York City. So we can get breakfast anytime we want.”

“Damn right,” she responded.

Uptown pointed to the corner of his menu. “Get a cup of soup.”

Everyone shot him a look of disgust.

“I really wanted breakfast,” Sue whined.

I reached across the table to touch her arm. “I know, honey. But if Sheila were with us right now, she’d be having lunch.”

Sadness spread across her face, clouding her eyes. “I’ll never be able to leave.”

I watched the grief drift over her forehead. I studied the anguish unfurl across her brow. Sue could never leave New York City. She loved her French toast too much.

Alice cautiously returned. “Have you had time to think it over?”

Sue stared up at Alice. In an itsy-bitsy, sugary-sweet voice, Sue said, “Can you make an exception just this once and prep an order of French toast and crispy bacon?

I didn’t think she’d go this far. Under the table, Downtown pinched my thigh. Uptown stared in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. We can’t do that.” Alice, stiff-legged and poised to write on her paper pad, probably desperately hoped that this weird witchy woman would just order a damn turkey club.

Sue, completely fraught now, clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. “Surely you have white bread and eggs. Pretend you’re making a B.L.T., but mess up.”

Downtown flipped. “For God’s sake, get a goddamn Reuben sandwich!”

Sue, red-faced and teary-eyed, said, “Could you just tell me one thing?”

Alice cautiously stepped back. “What?”

“Why can’t I have breakfast after eleven?”

Alice stared at her head-on. “Happy’s policy.”

Sue exhaled deeply. “Get me a cup of soup.”

Yes, I’ll tell you. I’ve lied. When people ask me why I stay, why I choose to live in mayhem, isolation, extravagance, and disease, I lie. I mutter something about art, diversity, the naked truth. That’s my usual one: truth. On and on I go about the rawness of the streets—the hard, cold facts. I say that’s what I need. I need to be surrounded by reality, engulfed in it, nearly swallowed by its gritty, truth-telling jaws. That’s when I feel honest. That’s when I feel like I could sincerely love the world.

That’s when.

But it’s a lie. The truth is this: I like French toast after eleven. I like it so much that I’ll never leave New York City. Give me that, above everything else.


Dzanc Books will publish Jennifer Spiegel’s collection of short stories, The Freak Chronicles, in 2012. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and journals, ranging from The Gettysburg Review to Nimrod. Recent work can be read online at Pank, Kill Author, and The Waccamaw Review. Please visit her at Email: spiegelbell[at]

Out of Bounds

Beaver’s Pick
Wes Prussing

Photo Credit: Alexander Ljung

Look: a blacktop court framed by a tall chain-link fence that droops ominously between rusted posts. The posts are twisted inward like busted soda straws. Closer now, see: a metal backboard stenciled with marble-size holes. A chain net hangs from a steel rim by three hooks. The net is hopelessly knotted and serves no purpose other than providing a spatial reference for shooters who cannot gage the hoop’s curious elliptical tilt. Balls fly through the hoop but do not disturb the net. Balls bounce off the backboard and are tipped back up. Moist palms smack against leather and against damp flesh. Rubber soles squeak. Sweat runs everywhere, drips on skin and cloth, tints color. Everything looks faded, washed out. There is little talk, just the occasional, “Yes! … Three! … Shit! … My Bad!”

Center Court: two captains are choosing sides. They hammer the air with their fists, counting in unison: “one… two… three.”

Everyone stops. Looks. Waits.

“Yes! Odd!” shouts the smaller captain. He quickly retracts his arm. “I’ll take Kenny,” he says, and out shoots his arm again, this time pointing at a tall, lanky boy in a Lakers jersey.

Others move in closer but not so close as you’d notice. Desperation means weakness. Weakness means loser. Nobody here wants to lose.

Me? I stay right where I am. I do not move. The game is twenty-one, four on four, eight players in all. I look around and count heads. I know it’s hopeless. I know that if there are even nine warm bodies, I’m still out. But I count anyway… force of habit.

Mark’s turn now. He doesn’t glance around. Doesn’t move a muscle. He barely draws a breath. “Wannamaker,” he says, and slicks back his hair, subtly indicating his impatience.

Mark is the best player on the court. His choice of teammates is of little consequence. He knows he’s going to win regardless of who he picks. He knows the whole process is simply theater, an amusement. Wannamaker will not hog the ball, will not chuck it or make stupid mistakes. He won’t throw the game away. Why make it more complicated than it is?

Andy’s turn again. He studies the field, feigns consternation, lets a few seconds tick by. “Dunn.”

As he says this Kevin Dunn lets fly a short ten-footer. It bounces off the front of the rim and lands right back in his hands.

“Nice pick, Andy,” someone shouts.

“Kiss my ass,” he answers and cups his hands around his mouth like a megaphone: “You suck Dunn! Ya better not do that during the game.”

And the ritual continues, each captain choosing a player, then waiting for the other to do the same. Soon Mark is down to the last pick. There are two of us left. I’m at the far end of the court squatting on a ball, rolling it around under my ass—better than sitting on the sticky blacktop. I hear Mark make his pick; there is no name just, “…him.”

I see Dennis, who is standing off to my left and closer to the knot of chosen players, scoop up a ball with one hand and aim it in my direction. The ball blocks my view of his face but I know he’s laughing at me—the lone outcast in this tedious ritual.

The ball squirts out from under me and I flop onto the court banging my elbow. I hoist myself up and swat at the daisies of tar and dirt clinging to the seat of my shorts. The ball is rolling along the edge of the court and I start off after it.

Dribbling past me, Dennis snarls, “Where the hell you going?”

I stop and he tosses the ball over my head toward midcourt. I hear someone call out, “Let’s go Leslie, you asshole.”

“Dickwad,” another adds.

I head toward Mark who is at the top of the key bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet. His game face glares at me. “We playing or what?” He flips Dennis’s ball to me. “Let’s go!”

Andy is standing just outside the midcourt line with his arm raised over his head. “Our ball out,” he announces to no one in particular. He drops his arm, signaling his teammates. I bounce-pass the ball to him.

As I move into position, I steal a glance over at Dennis who sits sullenly against the fence. He nods when he spots me looking over at him and flips me his middle finger. I acknowledge this gesture by grabbing my crotch and giving a tug.

I’m in, I realize. I’m in the game. I’m as surprised as anyone.

Thirty minutes later, it’s over. We dominate. We slaughter them. Mark hits for thirteen. Incredibly, I hit for three, second only to Mark. I’m ecstatic. No one sneers when I offer a high five. They call me by my name: Leslie or just Les. Not ass-wipe or dipshit—two of the more innocuous labels reserved for the faceless, sorry-ass losers who never get picked. I am pumped. I’m psyched. I want to go another game but already some of the guys are leaving, heading home for supper.

I spot Mark near the foul line popping off shots that drop flawlessly through the hoop—nothing but net, as they say. When he stops to retrieve the balls I say to him, “Hey, good game.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Way to hustle out there.”

“Thanks. I thought those guys might make a run for it toward the end.”

He shrugs. “Ya gotta let ’em stay in the game. Keeps things interesting.”

I nod, unsure if I’m at all competent or not to agree. “Well… I better take off. After six the bus only runs every hour.”

Peeling off his sweatshirt, he says in a muffled voice, “You live by that new pizza place don’t you? Right off Springfield.”

“Yeah. On Conduit. The corner house with the big porch.”

“Right, the big porch.” He stuffs the sweat-soaked shirt into a gym bag and pulls on a clean white T-shirt. “Look, my sister’s picking me up in a couple of minutes. You want a lift?”

“Sure. That’d be great.”

He doesn’t say anything else, just flops down with his back against the fence. He stretches out a leg and probes his kneecap. It appears swollen and he pokes it with his index finger, examining it like a paleontologist might study a fossil. I stay on the court and dribble around. I say nothing more. Why tempt fate?

Five minutes later a powder blue Firebird convertible pulls up to the curb and honks twice.

“Here’s our ride,” he says, rising to his feet.

He tosses his ball and bag into the back and crams into the front seat. I push his stuff over and hop into the back. Before I can get comfortable, he reaches down, grabs a lever and gives a quick push. The seat slams against my shin. I groan and try to slide over a bit.

His sister turns and sees my knee jammed up against the center console. “Oh my God. Are you hurt?”

“It’s okay. My leg’s just cramping a little. I’m fine, really.”

“Are you sure?” Her fingertips press lightly on the concave edge of my quadriceps. I try to hold my leg still but her touch is like a tuning fork against my tired muscles.

“Un-huh.” I swallow hard. “It always does this after a game. Just a little sore.”

She lifts her hand and smiles at me. Her eyes are a warm, watery blue. Her lips are full and cinnamon-colored—just moist enough to reflect tiny specks of white light. The lipstick is just right. It goes well with her finely freckled cheeks, which are tinted with the pink and gold hues that filter through the front windshield, softening everything around us. “I’m Jenny,” she says. “Mark’s sister.”

“Hey Jenny. Leslie.” My voice sounds too high. I drop it down an octave. “Mark’s friend… we play ball together. You know, basketball.”

I brace for a rebuke from Mark. We’re not really friends. Before today I doubt he even knew my name. He either isn’t listening or just lets the comment slide.

“I told him we could drop him off on the way home,” Mark tells Jenny. “He lives near that new pizza place, on Concord.”


“Yeah—right, Conduit.”

“Of course we can, Mark,” Jenny says, beaming. “I’m always happy to give one of your friends a lift.”

“You can let me off right where you get off the highway,” I tell her. “That way you can feed right back on without getting stuck in the traffic.”


She nudges the stick into first and we glide down the street and head for the highway. After fussing with the radio she settles on a soft rock oldies station: Mamas and Papas, James Taylor—that sort of thing.

Is this what she likes, I wonder. I try to guess her age. She’s got a license so she must be at least seventeen. I glance up at the rearview mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of her face again. I’m careful to avoid any eye contact but it’s not easy. My feet are straddling the center hump. It’s uncomfortable but I want to stay in the middle of the seat. I try to act like I’m interested in the song on the radio and crouch over the console. I think I can hear her singing along but maybe it’s just the wind. She downshifts and the back of her dress bows out exposing a pale blue bra strap that looks so lovely and delicate I feel a rush of excitement mixed with nervous guilt. I slide forward and see a thin, feathery line of gold-tipped hair that begins between her shoulder blades and ends at the base of her neck where it suddenly darkens to a soft ochre. She scrunches back in the seat and squares her shoulders. Her hair spills over the headrest and snaps like a pennant in the stiff breeze. I melt back into the seat and gaze straight ahead. Her scent, her cinnamon lips, her blue eyes, her cool touch: it all races past me as we speed down the highway. And I drink it in—all of it.

She’s twenty, I find out later. I’m fifteen—almost sixteen. She may as well be fifty.

As we exit onto the service road I catch her eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Hey, how we doing back there?”

“Fine,” I say.

“Gets kinda windy, doesn’t it?”

I grope for words but end up blurting out, “Feels good.”

We stop near my corner and I hop out.

“See ya,” Mark says tonelessly.

“Yeah, see ya.” I say back and turn to Jenny. “Thanks for the ride. I would have had to take the bus. I’d probably still be waiting for it.”

“You’re very welcome, Leslie.”

I feel a rush at the way she says my name: Lezzz-leeee. Like we share a secret or something. My face must betray what I’m thinking because she suddenly says, “You know, now that I think about it, you’re the first Leslie I’ve ever meet. So what do you prefer? Do you like—let’s see—Les or maybe Lee or—”

“Leslie,” I stammer. “Leslie is fine.”

“Good. That’s what I prefer too. Leslie. I like Leslie.”

“Well, bye,” I say.

She smiles. “Bye Leslie.”

I watch the convertible disappear. I head for home and the whole way I can hear her saying my name over and over: Lezzz-leeee. No has ever said it quite that way before. It sticks in my head all though supper and is the last thing I hear before finally falling asleep, forgetting all about, what was up to now, the single greatest game of my life.


Weeks later Mark and I are shooting baskets in his driveway. It’s July and we shoot baskets almost every day. Turns out we both have a lot in common even if we’ve existed in nearly separate universes since grade school. For some reason he keeps inviting me over to shoot hoops in his driveway. Soon we’re friends, horsing around, hanging out, chasing girls, and working out.

He spots me eighteen points in a game of twenty-one. I lose repeatedly. The sun is merciless. In three weeks I’ve sweat off almost ten pounds. My stomach flattens and my endurance increases dramatically. Mark, too, grows even stronger and more imposing. His arms and legs swell with new muscle. Veins ripple down his forearms and coil around his calves. Every morning before we shoot baskets he bench-presses two hundred pounds, thirty times. I can never catch up, but at least I’m not as out of shape and slow as before.

When I’m at Mark’s, I watch for Jenny all the time. I want her to notice me shooting baskets. See me playing ball. Mark’s best buddy.

One afternoon we play four games of twenty-one without a break. We collapse on the porch steps and watch rain clouds gather in the summer sky. Jenny makes Kool-Aid and serves it to us in plastic cups. She is wearing pink shorts and a yellow blouse that ties in the back. Her hair is pulled back and bound with a scrunchy. Her skin is a moist buttery tan that glistens in the refracted waves of the afternoon heat. When she leans over to refill our cups I catch a peek of the milky white half-moons at the top of her breasts. She is so beautiful it hurts and my heart gallops in my chest when I imagine touching her, kissing her.

While we chug down the Kool-Aid she tries teaching us Hearts—a game she’s picked up in college. We try to act interested but end up flicking our cards against the garage door, just like we do with baseball cards. Later, she brings out a big floppy beach hat and makes up a game of high card. She holds the hat out between us. When I reach in to pick a card she delicately slips an ace into my groping fingers. I leave my hand in the hat making it look like I’m still digging around. I feel her fingertips brush against my palm. I look up and catch her staring straight at me; it’s a brief, ephemeral connection but it makes my skin pebble and my face flush.

My circle of friends narrows. My circle of acquaintances expands. We’re back in school—sophomores now. Mark makes the varsity basketball team. He gets me into the big games for free. I hang out with some of the players. Some are juniors and seniors. I follow Mark and his teammates around like a slave. I run errands for them. Help out after practice, put equipment away—anything to be part of the group.

Mark is dating Heather. She’s a cheerleader, beautiful and stacked. They’re both popular. Just being around them makes you feel important. I date Callie. She lives across the street from me. Her real name is Catherine but I’ve been calling her Callie ever since I was five and had trouble pronouncing her name. Somehow the name stuck. Even her mother calls her Callie sometimes. She doesn’t seem to mind. She’s really thin and has mousy brown hair, which she wears in a sort of pageboy style. We make out a lot but that’s about it. Every time things start to heat up, the passion melts away. Maybe I’ve just known her too long. Maybe we can’t get past being friends. I don’t know. I’m confused all the time. I think about Jenny more and more—even when I’m making out with Callie. Something’s wrong. I can’t waste time. No one seems to understand this.

Jenny is in her third year at City College. She dates a lot and seems to spend hours getting ready. Sometimes her dates shoot the bull with me and Mark while they’re waiting. Mark goes out of his way to ignore them. Not me. I study them. I critique them. They’re all losers, if you ask me. Her current boyfriend, Lawrence, has a chopped-out Harley. Not Larry, you understand; Lawrence. How many Lawrences you know ride choppers? Jenny says he’s in advertising and works in Manhattan. He’s tall and thin and has long sideburns. He is very pale and always looks like he needs a shave. Jenny seems to enjoy riding with him. Once in a while he even gives me and Mark a ride. Mark tells him that he is saving for a bike, too. They talk about motorcycles. They talk about stuff like ape-hangers and sissy-bars. I’ve no interest. I sit and wait for Jenny just to see what she’s wearing or just to hear her say my name. Lawrence calls her ‘babe’. She calls Lawrence, Lawrence. I really don’t like this guy but what can I do?

The warm weather disappears. It’s windy and overcast all week. Jenny seems to be losing interest in Lawrence and his chopped-out Harley. By late November he’s history. So are the motorcycle rides. I kind of miss them now that Lawrence is gone. Life’s like that, but you gotta learn to move on. At least that’s what I’m told all the time. Jenny seems to take it all in stride. Maybe she just wanted to ride in a car once in a while. Who knows?

Jenny dates other guys. From what I’ve observed they’re even bigger losers than Lawrence. Some look much older. One guy is in an oldies band and is always singing doo-wop songs. You can imagine how annoying that can be. I practically live at Mark’s house. Sometimes I go straight to his house after school. We play ball or watch TV until dark. Sometimes he takes off right in the middle of a game or vanishes when I get up to take a leak. I don’t mind. He’s got lots of other friends. He doesn’t want me around one hundred percent of the time. Sometimes, to be honest, it’s a relief.

If Jenny is home we sit and talk. She tells me about books she’s read or movies she’s seen. It’s nice when Mark’s not there. It’s like we’re on a date or something. Sometimes we sit on the couch together, our legs or arms touching. Once, while we were watching TV, she fell asleep with her head resting on my shoulder. I didn’t move a muscle for nearly an hour. I could feel her heartbeat we were so still. I ended up missing the last bus home and had to walk to the train station. It’s only one stop but it costs two bucks just to ride for ten minutes—then you have to walk almost a half-mile just to get to my street. It was worth it, though—that one hour, alone with Jenny. I’d have walked a hundred miles.

When Mark and I get tired of basketball, we play stickball. We play it with a sawed-off broom handle and a pink rubber ball called a pinky. Mark can pitch incredibly fast. I’m a pretty good hitter. Mark always wins but at least he doesn’t have to spot me a million points.

We usually play on the handball courts near the community college. There are about a half-dozen strike zones painted on the tall concrete walls. Occasionally you’ll find a few people hitting tennis balls or playing roller-hockey inside the fence. I’ve never seen anyone playing handball. Not even Mark and I play handball.

It’s mid-afternoon and in the low fifties. I’ve got on a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. It’s one of those cloudless, clear days that make you feel completely alive and strong.

I’m hitting pretty consistently. I’m up two runs in the last hitting. Mark tells me his shoulder is sore but he’s burning them in pretty good. Like I say, it’s just one of those days; very little is getting past me.

I’ve got the bases loaded and can put the game away. Mark peers at me from beneath the beak of his Yankees cap. His face looks red. He mops his brow with his shirtsleeve and glares at the rectangle of black paint behind me. When he finally throws the ball I hear a sound escape from deep down in his gut. I’ve heard this sound before. It’s the sound you make when you get kicked in the balls.

I try to duck but the ball catches me on the left ear. A lightning bolt of pain rockets through my head and suddenly I’m on my back. I try to gather my thoughts but my ear is ringing like a one-note church bell. I see Mark’s face float into view. He’s grinning. He says, “Hey asshole, you all right?”

I nod and try to stand.

He grabs my hand and helps me up.

“Damn, that really fuckin’ hurt.”

“You shouldn’t crowd the plate like that.”

I nod again, not really listening.

“C’mon, let’s finish the game.” He puts the bat in my hand.

I take a couple of practice swings and feel my head spin. “I’m done,” I tell him.

“Whaddya mean? You quit now, you forfeit the game.”

“Fine, I forfeit then.”

He snatches the bat from my hand. “Pussy.”


Jenny is not home much anymore. She spends a lot of time in the city. Mark says she’s going out with some guy who owns a restaurant and she hardly ever makes it home for dinner. Sometimes she stays out all night. Occasionally I’ll spot her hurrying from her car with a small travel bag slung over her shoulder. She always looks tired.

It’s too cold outside to shoot baskets but I hang around at Mark’s house anyway. We watch football, play cards, work out in his basement.

Sunday afternoon we’re up in his room. A freezing rain is falling outside. They say it’s supposed to turn to snow before dark. We’re playing Monopoly, waiting for a four o’clock Jets playoff game to start. We’re just killing time but I’m enjoying the Monopoly game. I haven’t played it in years, but it’s not something you forget how to do.

Mark is buying like crazy: houses, hotels, utilities—anything he lands on. I, on the other hand, have only a single house on Baltic. When I pass GO I collect my two hundred and add it to my stash. I’m filthy with money. I shove it beneath the board in nice even stacks.

As the game progresses I begin landing on Mark’s properties. When I do he whips a card off his stack and taunts me. “Let’s see… with one hotel… that comes to… oh… three-and-a-quarter big ones. Pay up, asshole.”

I hand over the money and he counts it out while eyeing me like one of those card sharks you see in the movies. Soon I’m down to my last hundred. When I land on Marvin Gardens he howls with delight and says, “Yes, with two houses—hold on while I look this up…”

There is nothing I can do. I’m busted. He agrees to spot me a few bucks so we can continue the game, but I know I’ll never catch up. Just like with everything else, he’s better than I’ll ever be. I don’t want to take his money. Why delay the inevitable?

I hear footsteps on the stairs and look up.

“Hi guys,” Jenny peeks around the door, looks down at the board. “Who’s winning?”

“Who do you think?” Mark cracks wise.

“Leslie, Leslie…” She shakes her head, clicking her tongue.

She’s holding a fistful of hangers, trying not to let anything drag on the floor. The garments are wrapped in blue plastic. She hooks the hangers over the top of the bathroom door and disappears down the hallway.

Mark hops to his feet. “Hey man, ya thirsty?”

“I dunno. Whaddya got?”

“Dom fuckin’ Perignon. Whaddya think?”

“I can go for a Coke.”

After he leaves, I study the board with despair. I want to flip it over and end my misery. I survey my properties. At least I’ve got one railroad. He doesn’t own everything.

Mark’s houses and hotels are all neatly arranged at the top of each square. His stack of cash is now so thick he’s weighed it down with a first baseman’s mitt. I stand and stretch and try to walk off the pins-and-needles in my left foot. I brush past the bundle of clothes hanging on the bathroom door. It’s hard to make out what’s under the plastic so I flatten out the wrinkles with my palms. I see a wash of blue-tinted hues: pinks, whites, yellows—even blacks. I lift the plastic. My eyes sweep over the lingerie: bras, panties, teddies, slips. Other stuff I’ve only seen in catalogs: garters with pearl snaps and tiny bows, see-through tops, a corset laced with satin ribbons. I run a finger down the side of a black nightgown. The fabric is so sheer it looks like vapor. I lift a pair of flesh-colored stockings off a hanger; they’re nearly weightless and slide through my fingers, more liquid than solid. I smell perfume. My head feels light. My heart hammers in my chest.

“Gimme a break,” Mark barks. He is standing behind me, gripping two cans of Coke like he’s just drawn a pair of six-shooters. “Fuckin’ pervert. Don’t go touching that stuff.”

I let the plastic drop and try not to act startled. “I was just checking it out.”

“Yeah right.” He sets the sodas down next to the board. “Wait till I tell everyone about this. You practically jacking-off over my sister’s honeymoon stuff.”

“I wasn’t jack— What are you talking about, honeymoon stuff?”

“Jenny’s. All that Frederick’s of Hollywood crap she bought in the city.”

“She’s getting married?”

“That’s what usually comes before a honeymoon, isn’t it?”

I am shipwrecked.

“I didn’t know she was getting married. Who is it? Is it that restaurant guy?”

“You don’t know him,” he says, dismissing the question with a quick wave. “Hey, know what? Maybe I’ll call him up and let him know what you were doing. He’ll probably kick you ass just for looking at that stuff.”

“I was just—”

“Yeah, yeah. I know what I saw, slimeball.”

“Jeezzz, Mark. Just don’t say anything to Jenny. Okay?”

“Hey, Jenny,” he calls out, like I’d just given him an idea. “Come here for a minute, will ya.” He grins at me, his face frozen so there’s not so much as a twitch—like he’s looking at me from behind a mask.

“Come on, don’t,” I plead, and try to shove my hand over his mouth.

He knocks it away easily and calls her again.

Jenny calls back, “Stop screaming, I’m right down the hall.”

We hear a drawer slam shut.

“I’ll be there in a moment.”

“Wait till she hears about this,” he says salaciously. “She’ll probably want to get everything dry-cleaned or something. You should at least offer to pay for it.”

“Cut it out, will you. I didn’t do any—”

The door swings in and Jenny looks down at us. “Okay, you two, what’s all the commotion about?”

Mark has picked up a stack of bills and is meticulously counting them out. He is grinning and humming to himself. When he finishes counting he says, “Just thought you might be interested in knowing what Leslie was doing while I was getting some soda from—”

I react so quickly I forget to make a fist. I smash the heel of my palm into his nose with all my might. I hear cartilage crunch and immediately blood streams from his nose and shoots down his shirt.

“What the fuck!” he screams.

I jump to my feet and leap across the board.

Jenny’s hand is over her mouth and she’s shouting, “Oh my God, Mark you’re bleeding! Just sit still… Tilt your head back… Oh my God…”

I duck by Jenny and bound down the stairs. I fly by Mark’s mother who is already on her way up.

“Leslie,” she calls after me. “Are you all right? What’s going on up there?”

I’m out the front door and into the street. I can hear Mark’s mother shouting something as she climbs the stairs.

My shirttails flap wildly in the wind. The snow and frozen rain beat against my face and bare arms. If only I’d remembered to grab my jacket. From where I’m standing I can see Mark’s bedroom window. Shadows play against the small patch of wall visible beneath the half-drawn shades.

I stiffen as a shiver slides down my back. I glance down at my new Adidas cross-trainers. Sixty-five bucks. They are barely visible in the clumps of filthy slush. The salesman said they’d improve my vertical leap, make me faster, make me a better player. None of it was true, of course. I just wanted to believe it.

The icy water soaks through my socks and seeps in between my toes. I start running next to the curb, splashing through the half-frozen puddles lining the gutter. There is hardly any traffic so I move back into the center of the street. The wind hits me dead-on making it hard to breathe but I dig deep and suck in the cold air. I pass some old guy in a topcoat and gray hat. He’s leaning on a long-handled shovel. His back is bent and his arms and shoulders look liked they’ve been pinched together. At his feet is a low ridge of grimy snow. His chin retreats back into his collar when he spots me running by. It hadn’t occurred to me how crazy I must look. My limbs feel thick and weighted down, like gravity’s been torqued up a notch. I wonder: Is this what ‘old’ feels like?

And I’m running… running… running, away from my first real friend and my first true taste of love, lust, and loss.

Up ahead the gunmetal sky presses down on a delicately etched gray-and-white horizon—an attenuated, bleak crease of dying daylight. And I’ve no idea where I’m running to or really what I’m running from.

I push on anyway, my arms aching, my legs failing. I push on… not a winner and not a champion…

Content just to be in the game.


Email: wespruss[at]

Four Poems

Baker’s Pick
Jeff Alan Russell

Reliance, Tennessee 37369
Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson

Waitin’ on Mail

There’s nothing
Like a warm day in November
or the Hutsons’ dogs getting some sun,
or waiting on the kids to give them
their brand new shoes—
they gotta have what the other kids got—
I love those big smiles.

It’s time
for the mail to run this afternoon
and maybe the big check will be here on time,
or just enough to get some new coveralls
and a few smokes—
The boys are little late today—
just tappin’ my foot.

Need to get
some meat or a roast.
The lady loves good roast,
always singing while the potatoes start
dancin’ in the pot—
Can’t wait to see the boys—
Loosen my shirt ’cause it’s little warm.

Serve it up
’cause the boys will eat it up,
and will be ribbin’ each other,
squakin’ elbows all awkward and stuff.
They’ll tell me about their days and I’ll smile—
Only telling them about how good they are—
Praisin’ Jesus, being thankful.


Sundown on Indiana Street

Waiting by the side of the busy road,
my old legs don’t move too fast,
as the cars roar by blaring their radios.

Guess I better hurry ’cause it’s nearing dusk,
I gotta get to work early—
and I gotta take Betty to the doctor.

Up before dawn and down by nightfall,
I get so tired of running and running—
It was so much easier back then.

So many cars, so many houses, just so much—
it’s grown up around here with all the business
that I don’t recognize it sometimes.

I miss the old street with the old people and the old ways.
I miss Pappy’s little store down the road—
too bad they tore it down last year.

At least I can go by Rosie’s shop a little farther on down—
I got to walk a little farther ’cause it’s Betty’s favorite—
Betty likes those chess pies with all that sugar.

It gets hard to find your way home when it gets dark,
’cause my eyes ain’t what they used to be—
all these cars running by, all these young kids.

I know my legs hurt but Betty’s waitin’ on me
as I let the cars pass by me on my right—
I just hope I can find my way home.


Blessing Garden

Lend me a new hand,
as I watch over my beautiful plants,
soft and green, so beautiful, so pretty.

This garden was given to me from my father,
who died over thirty years ago,
during the drought of ’77.

He toiled these plants with his large hands,
after he came home from the factory,
pouring sweat from his boots.

He would always sing about Jesus,
lovin’ the gospel with all his soul,
waitin’ for his day of glory.

He would always says t’is garden was a blessin’,
a blessin’ from Jesus to take his troubles,
and he would cry every day in happiness.

Momma said his tears were for his children,
and the squash and greens would grow bigger,
feedin’ all the family from his heart and prayer.

Now, I feed my children with this garden full of greens,
but I’m afraid I’m getting too old with bad knees—
I never had strong hands like my father.

I know the garden since I was a child
Working with my father at night and early mornin’,
It’s what makes sense to me.

Now, I ask you my son, to help me with God’s gifts,
Cause my tears are not enough—
I hope you can understand.

Lend me a new hand and new heart,
and please help me with these here squash—
they need to get picked before it gets too hot.


The Waiting Trail

Looking out by the treeline,
losing all ambition as my
lungs take in the damp air,
twigs breaking in different places
by the well-beaten trail.

“Away with it all,” she says.
Anxious sweat beads on my brow
as her lips speak to the birds
perched on the birch branch.

Taking a quick drink,
the river water stops the bubbles
rising in my cracked throat.
She puts my hand into a fist—
“Let it all go” she says.

Whispering trees and a cool wind,
falling softly upon my shoulders,
her fingers slowly running,
moving to the rhythm of
the rushing creek,
as she slips through
the cracks of the woods,
in between my memories,
blinding me with visions
following me along the river.

In the distance, silos run
parallel to the creekside as I stare
at the spaces in between the pines,
as the wet leaves press
gently across my gaping mouth.

Waiting for this southern girl—
looking for the northern lights
as the wind hits my pale face.
I just want to know my place,
to know behind those eyes.

I watch her float effortlessly—
laughing like the banshees
hiding in the common ground,
as I try to catch twilight,
turning over jars
full of pebbles.


Jeff Alan Russell graduated with a Master of Arts in English from Belmont University this past summer, and he has also been published several times for his work in Middle Tennessee State University’s Collage: Journal of Creative Expression and The Murfreesboro Pulse. He is a newlywed and is currently living with his wife and dog in Maryville, Tennessee near the Smoky Mountains. Email: russellja[at]

Why is it that All the Republicans I Know

Bonnets’s Pick
Ron Riekki

Do people really dress like that?
Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski

tell me
they grew up poor
but then when I see photos of them
when they were younger
you can tell
they were rich
as fuck


Ron Riekki’s novel U.P. was published by Ghost Road Press. Gypsy Daughter Press publishes two of his upcoming poetry chapbooks—Leave Me Alone I’m Bleeding and Poems about Love, Death and Heavy Metal. Chicago’s Ruckus Theatre performs his play All Saints’ Day as part of their 2010-2011 season. He’s a fan of Fiona Apple, Rage Against the Machine, and the Detroit Pistons.

They Call Me Lucky

Creative Nonfiction
Ann Hillesland

The Lucky Bar
Photo Credit: George Oates

When your name is Ann, you don’t need a nickname. It’s one syllable, three letters, a name that can double as an article, an indefinite article at that. So when I joined a singing group that included another woman named Anne, and they asked me if I had a nickname they could use, I was stumped. My father never called me Punkin, my hair isn’t light enough for Blondie. There wasn’t even a distasteful nickname—I had never been Fatty, or even Four-Eyes for any extended period. Yet a founding member of the singing group had already laid claim to Anne. (She spelled it with an “e” on the end, a superfluous affectation, like “Ye Olde” in a shop name.) She was first, so I had to be the one to switch, to become someone I never was before.

“You must have had a nickname sometime,” one of the singers said, leaning forward.

It began to seem like a character defect, never having had a nickname, even a repulsive one. As if no one cared enough about me one way or the other to call me out as special.

We were sitting in a semicircle, so I was surrounded by people who probably had exciting nicknames in their past, names as fabulous and hidden as a superhero’s secret identity. Diva. Cinnamon. Lightning. I could imagine those kinds of names, but no one had ever given one to me.

Ann is a very plain, unobtrusive name. I think that’s why so many people have it as a middle name—so it won’t outshine the first name. Often when I introduce myself to another woman, she’ll exclaim, “Ann is my middle name!” as if I have never heard this before. Like she’s saying, “You’re not so special—that name of yours? I’ve got it too. Of course, it’s not good enough to be my first name, but still, it’s an acceptable second string. I’m sure it works out fine for you.” Often she’ll follow up with, “How do you spell it? Oh, mine ends with an ‘e’.”

As I sat there with nine singers watching me, waiting, I flashed frantically through my life, looking for some brief period when I was called something else. I rejected the few weeks in grade school when I was called “Ann-a-than” as part of some odd childhood rhyming name fad. There was a Ron-a-thon, too, I remember. In fact, he was the first to have the nickname. Ann-a-than was just a copy of his nickname—it wasn’t even uniquely mine.

The rest of grade school, nothing. Junior high school, mercifully, nothing. High school, nothing. College, nothing, nothing, nothing. Then I hit upon it.

When I was in my first job out of school, writing computer manuals for factory-management software—which, come to think of it, was a job a lot like the name “Ann,” sturdy, non-descript, a job that no one was very passionate about—I finally got a nickname. A coworker and I played the lottery, dreaming of escaping our warren of teal cubicles. “We’ve got to win!” we’d say, changing it to, “We’ve got to win big,” after we hit four numbers out of six and pulled in an astounding amount in the low three figures.

Finally, one day, my lotto partner, Smokey (now there’s a nickname!) said, “Maybe we’d have better luck if we started calling you Lucky.” And so, every Thursday morning when it was time to check our numbers, she’d say, “Ready, Lucky?” I’d trot over to her cube, she’d unfurl her newspaper, and we’d read numbers until our hopes of becoming millionaires came to nothing. Again. But for the brief time it took me to walk from my cubicle door to her desk, I was Lucky.

Being called Lucky reminded me of Johnny Apollo, a Tyrone Power movie in which Dorothy Lamour played the gangster’s moll. “They call me Lucky,” she pouted, lowering her extreme eyelashes until her eyes were sultry slits. She had that silvery, smoky glow that only sirens in black-and-white movies have, and a fur coat that wafted whenever she moved.

I looked at the singers around me, the pianist with her graceful hands hovering ready over the keyboard.

“Well, you could call me Lucky,” I said, tentatively. But inside, I was lowering my eyelashes and raising one shoulder seductively so it slipped out of the fur coat, revealing a shimmering evening gown. “They call me Lucky,” I purred. “With a ‘y,’ not an ‘e’.”


Ann Hillesland’s work has been published in literary journals including Open City, North Dakota Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Bellowing Ark, Going Down Swinging, The MacGuffin, and Red Wheelbarrow, and is forthcoming in the anthology A la Carte: Stories that Stir the Foodie in All of Us. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Email: annchw[at]