You Are Not Your Work

Stephanie Lenz
The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors

Moon and Stars
Photo Credit: Dennis Stauffer

The sign of an amateur is to answer your critics. Don’t ever write a letter to a bad review because then, first of all, people didn’t even know about it the first time, maybe, and then the critic gets to answer you and put you down again. I learned a long time ago, only an amateur answers his critics. Read the bad reviews once, the good ones twice, and put them all away and never look at them again. —John Waters

Kathleen Hale is a novelist and essayist with an impressive credential list and a book published by Harper Collins. She tracked down a Goodreads reviewer who posted a negative review of her work, went to a house she believed belongs to the woman who wrote the review, called her on the phone, and chased her all over social media. Then she wrote an article about what she did for The Guardian. Hale owns up to her behavior, which plays into her brand.

“Other authors warned me not to do this,” Hale writes about the act of reading her book’s reviews at Goodreads. Goodreads specifically states that authors not “engage with people who give you negative reviews.”

I read the reviewer’s comments and they’re about the work: the quality of the writing, the language, the characters. The reviewer never attacks the author.

In a previous Snark Zone, I wrote about not responding to critiques and my opinion remains the same. I wrote that responding to critiques about a finished work is akin to standing in the bookstore arguing with your reader. I’d like to modify that: arguing with someone who critiques your work is like walking into her bedroom and yelling at her while she holds your book on her lap. A reviewer’s comments on Goodreads or Amazon are just as personal as the ones on her own blog or social media page. Every reader has the right to an opinion and to express her opinion in her own space. Everyone else has the right to disagree or agree with that opinion in his own space. No one deserves to be stalked.

No one deserves to be mocked either. Margo Howard argues in a scathing piece for The New Republic: “These people [Amazon Vine reviewers] were not reviewing my book, they were reviewing me. Or rich people. Or something. And Amazon gave them the tools, through Vine, to damage my book for the casual browser. I can see the value—maybe—for man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?! Especially by people who collect free stuff, feel important because they’re getting this swag, and, forgive me, do not sound in the least like well-read people to begin with.”

As a Vine reviewer myself, I find that offensive. Reviewers didn’t “damage” her book. The reviews they wrote may have affected her book’s sales but the book itself remains exactly the same. The author, however, does not. And that’s where we come back to what I wrote nearly three years ago and what I learned as a nascent writer nearly twenty-five years ago: you are not your work.

Your work can represent you. It tells the world what you have to say. It isn’t interchangeable with you as a human being. If someone writes “I do not like this story” it doesn’t necessarily mean “I do not like this author.” It could but it’s not a given. What’s more, “I do not like this author” is more likely to mean “I don’t like this author’s writing” rather than “I wouldn’t spit on this author’s gums if his mouth were on fire.”

Rejection is part of being a writer. If your work isn’t being rejected, you’re not taking enough chances. I reject submissions every day from writers whose bios make me say “We should have a cup of coffee together.” Every single writer who sends a serious submission to Toasted Cheese has my respect. Submitting for publication shows vulnerability as well as confidence. It’s a brave act to click “send” and subject your art to someone else’s opinion.

The knife cuts both ways. Authors walk a line when satisfying readers through compelling story and characters. We want to say what we want without fear of a reader showing up on our lawns demanding that we tell the story they want to have told. From Arthur Conan Doyle to Charlaine Harris, fanatical followers have threatened writers (see also Stephen King’s Misery).

There are reviewers who use sites like Goodreads to wage an attack against an author and sometimes that attack does become personal. Thankfully those reviewers are not the majority and some recourse is available to authors when the reviewer crosses the line. In some cases, bad reviews can affect a writer’s livelihood but we have to learn how to balance our reputations in the literary world against our desire to respond to a few low-star reviews.

Bad behavior by authors and readers is nothing new. Conflict between artist and reviewer isn’t unusual. It’s all well and good to point at authors and reviewers and say “This needs to stop” but it’s another thing to actually make it stop. No one wants to take away emerging platforms for authors to engage with readers. No one wants critique of published work to be incomplete or dishonest due to fear of repercussion. So where do we begin?

The adage “develop a thick skin” is good advice but it can’t happen without going through the exact process for which we’re trying to develop that thick skin. You must be rejected. Repeatedly. You must not only be knocked down, you must get up knowing that you’ll be knocked down again.

One way we can help ourselves—reader and writer alike—is to change our language. As I wrote above, Goodreads has an author guideline page that reads “Don’t engage with people who give you negative reviews.” Better wording would be “…who give your book” rather than “you.” The language intertwines the work and its creator. We should do our best to refer to our work separately from ourselves.

I think it circles back to “you are not your work.” It’s a simple sentence but a concept that’s hard to accept, understand, and implement. Writers, like all artists, are passionate people. With time and experience, we learn to temper our passion, which is harder to do when we perceive someone attacking our efforts. What took us so long to create, someone can tear down with a few words. It hurts and it often feels like it’s not fair. But we can’t control what someone else says about our work (or us). All we can do is put out the best possible work and and let our actions and personal character show who we are.

Besides, there’s always the option of turning our critics into characters—a very writerly brand of revenge.

pencilEmail: baker[at]


Drops on the Water
by Eric G. Müller & Matthew Zanoni Müller

Shelley Carpenter
Candle-Ends: Reviews


Drops on the Water (Apprentice House, 2014) is a collection of short memoirs written by father and son authors, Eric G. Müller and Matthew Zanoni Müller. The individual narratives are separated by sections detailing author and setting, closing with two final stories from each author and an Afterward by Matthew. Their parallel stories are told in tandem chronicling their early childhood, school years, and young adulthood in Western Europe, Southern Africa, and America.

I really enjoyed reading the two introductory stories where Eric and Matthew introduce each other to the reader. Also, the father and son authorship adds a cool dynamic to the collection because they often appear in each other’s stories. In Matthew’s story, “Dorian,” he knows something bad has happened and describes Eric’s anguish in the moments before he reveals it to Matthew. “His face was bright and open before us, guilty, ashamed of itself, and his big floppy dark hair was catching the light off the kitchen ceiling and his mouth was showing all his teeth, helplessly…”

Movement is a common theme as the Müllers moved frequently. Many of the stories have exotic settings such as the Swiss Alps where a young Eric learns about the power of prayer in “The Prayer”; “The Beach in Nicaragua where teenage Matthew jumps into the surf and learns firsthand about the classic conflict, man versus nature; and South Africa where Eric traverses the landscape and finds himself in trouble in “Busted.”

Family is also the landscape that both authors draw their experiences from. There is a strong sense of self from both Matthew and Eric as they move about. What does it mean to be German-American? A young Matthew grapples with this idea. Eric, however, seems content to be a global citizen. Time and maturity play key parts in Eric’s writing experience and Matthew’s, too, while both write from very different ages and vantages.

Their voices are distinct and so very personal. Many of Matthew’s stories are about being in the moment, what it felt like to be in that one place at that one time. In “My Grandfather’s Gift,” he is introduced to his German grandfather, Opa Willie, at the airport and they escape together in a charming game of airplane; later, an older Matthew visits him in Germany. In this moment, Matthew discovers isolation and fear in a bad choice:

I was scared because I was the bad person in the family now, and even though everyone was nice they all agreed that what I had done was wrong… It was scary now to be on the outside of everyone…

Matthew’s writing is honest and quite brave in that he hits the nail straight on, capturing the shadowy side of human nature with all of its angst and grace. He also layers his story with evocative detail and beautiful sentences:

The air would be dim and thick through the curtains and all that Texas heat outside, and the incredible emptiness he must have woken to in the mornings, the absence thick in the house, as though an explosion had gone off and left a stunned silence just hanging there. (“In Their Room”)

Eric is funny, ironic, full of wonder and wanderlust much like a character in a film—part musician, hippie, rebel, and poet rolled into one. In “Streaking,” he describes the thrill of running naked across a public mall. “I felt hunted. A strange thrill charged through my blood—the adrenalin-rush slashed my fear. The turbo jets in my muscles took over and I picked up speed. I became invincible—Superman!”

Aside from being engaging, Eric’s stories are also jam-packed with descriptive details and rich language. “We fumbled with our guns, reloaded and shot. Still it flew, defying each pop, bang and boom, the wide wings moving awkwardly, though it disappeared with uncanny speed behind a koppie. Gone… Shells ejected, we stared gobsmacked across the empty veld” (“The Pheasant”). And “By now I was utterly lost, though I scurried around the key of E flat major like a beheaded turkey, hoping to find my way back to the melodic path—anywhere along the way would do…” (“Debut).

Eric’s voice, though rich in humor and irony, also reveals much about the human condition such as with a friend’s apartheid revelation in “Confession to taking care of a beloved grandmother in “After Midnight to the “addictive” attraction of traveling barefoot for a year in “Barefoot to sweet introductions to his future young sisters-in-law via a keyhole in “Meet the Sisters.”

Eric and Matthew Müller’s stories have an intimate feel to them as if they are being told or retold to family and friends gathered around the holiday table or in front of a blazing fire. Indeed, I felt like such a guest seated in warm corner as I read each one. This calls to my mind the expression that we are the sum of our experiences or perhaps, better said from a writer’s standpoint, that we may indeed be the sum of our experiences, but we are also the sum of our stories and others’ stories, too. The Müllers’ Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing Up from a Father and Son echoes this idea. Moreover, how very precious and important these big and small moments are in our making, along with the people—near, dear, lost, and far away who populate them.


Eric G. Müller was born in Durban, South Africa, and studied literature and history at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Currently he lives in upstate New York, teaching, writing and playing music. Apart from Drops on the Water he has written three novels and a book of poetry. Poetry, articles and short stories have appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Gloom CupBoard, and various other journals, anthologies and magazines. Facebook: Eric Müller

Matthew Zanoni Müller was born in Bochum, Germany and grew up in Eugene, Oregon and Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and is an Assistant Professor of English at Berkshire Community College. His writing has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, NANO Fiction, decomP MagazinE, fwriction: Review, Toasted Cheese, Prick of the Spindle, Halfway Down the Stairs, MiCrow, Literary Bohemian, Hippocampus Magazine, and numerous other magazines and journals. Facebook: Matthew Müller Twitter: @matthewzmuller

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]

My Funeral

Alexander Pawlowski
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze

drunk ghost
Photo Credit: miss line

I had never seen my home so busy in my entire life and so quiet all at once. Guests were slowly moving from room to room, softly speaking to one another and sharing their condolences. I knew them by sight if not by name. Family friends most of them.

They’d brought casseroles, a strange tradition that I never quite understood, and some had brought soups and drinks. I suppose it’s a small kindness, to bring something of little value to a wake. Anything big would be out of taste and we’ve all found comfort in food at some point. I doubt it brought any comfort now, however.

Everyone gathered there knew better than to speak to me: a lingering ghost. If my heart grew too heavy, I would not be able to move on. Yet, by simply being there, I made it so much harder for myself and for them to let go.

Guests had taken it upon themselves to clean the house and bursts of magic flashed as stains and dust were cleared here and there. It was mostly just busy work for those who didn’t know what to do with themselves.

“Eva, I’m so sorry.” Marie-Lupus, a woman with the strangest name, burst in by the front door and latched herself to my mother. “I just got back from my vacation and my phone has just been filled to the brim with this horrid news. I am sorry I was not here earlier. Maybe if I had stayed and watched over Anna I—”

“No!” My mother said, all too loudly, eyes turning toward her. She added softly, “No. Do not blame yourself. It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone and if you had been there you might have been hurt. I was her mother; it was me that should have—”

“No, no. Shh.” Marie-Lupus rocked my mother back and forth. “Don’t say anything, ifs and buts will only make the pain worse.”

My mother let herself be comforted, her pale hands limp at Marie-Lupus’s side.

I should have left the house when I died, I knew. Seeing me only made things worse. I couldn’t, I thought, or maybe I wouldn’t. However, I could not see my mother in this state much longer and hastily made my way outside.

It was a bright afternoon, the sun and sky uncaring of the reigning chagrin down below. It was a good day for a get-together but the circumstances were certainly less than ideal. Chairs floated about as guests helped my father set up the yard for their final goodbye to me.

It must have been killing my father inside. No father should plan the funeral of his child. Horribly enough, it should be the other way around.

“That man is keeping everything inside,” commented Beau Lemieux, an immigrant from France I had only met twice. “I would be horrified if my own father shed no tears for me.”

“Hush,” said Barbara Pines, an old friend of my mother’s. “I have known Charles most of life and let me tell you that man is barely keeping it together.”

And how right you are, Barbara, I wanted to say.

I knew every crease, line, and wrinkle on my father’s face and most of them he earned from a lifetime of smiles and laughter. His stoic face was probably for everyone’s benefit, maybe more for mother than anyone else. This wake had to be done and he was going to hold it together until the last guest left before he dared break down and sob into the night.

His eyes turned to me accidentally and we locked gazes for a moment. I smiled, hoping it would be enough for him to know it was all going to be all right. The flicker of anger in his eyes startled me.

“Charles, I—”

A familiar voice spoke out from behind me and my father suddenly appeared directly in front of me. His fist flew and hit the man behind my shoulder.

It was Tom Livington, an old man who had been my teacher for over ten years. Nearly everything I knew of magic, I had learned from him. Most guests there, including my parents, would say the same. Tom’s nose ran with blood, and tears mixed themselves in. He lay still, flat on his back, not caring to defend himself against my father.

“How dare you show your rotten face here, Tom. We trusted you!” Father spat.

“You have no idea how I blame myself, Charles.” Tom’s voice was slow and steady but grief-stricken. He had known me for my entire life and taught me for ten years of it; he might as well have been family.

“Nowhere nearly enough, you worthless hack.” Father’s teeth were clenched, his body very still aside from the slight tremor on his head. If a man’s rage could cause spontaneous combustion, I knew my father would have at that very moment. “You said she was ready to practice on her own. You said it was safe, that she was talented and smart. Well look what happened, Tom! Anna died and it’s your fault!”

Tom made no reply, his gaze never daring to meet my father’s.

“Charley, leave the man be. You know there was nothing that could have been done. These accidents happen.” Uncle Barley put a hand on father’s shoulder.

“Not to us.” My father shook his brother away. “We should have given her more training; she wasn’t ready to practice by herself.”

“One of the most talented in her class and nearly seventeen. There was no reason not to let her. Remember how we practiced in our days? We were barely twelve and had no clue what we were doing. Hell, remember that time when—”

“So we should have died, not her!” Father stomped away and went back inside the house. Barley helped Tom to his feet and conjured out a white kerchief.

“Don’t worry, Tommy,” Barley said as he dabbed the blood off Tom’s nose. “He’s just grieving.”

“I know. We all are,” Tom whispered, tears freely running down his chin.

More people gathered about Tom and gave him all the comfort they could. Most had been his students at some point and cared for him well. I wish I could have comforted him, too. I knew it was not his fault, though, and him blaming himself hurt me more than I thought possible.

That old saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ spoke volumes at that very moment. You meet so many people over your life and each of them showing you something new about the world. It was at that moment I realized how close of a community this group of people had been.

Over at the rosebushes, Barbara Pines pretended to be interested in the blooming roses. My mother’s friend who disliked nature for being dirty and squealed at the mere sight of a ladybug. I barely remembered her; it must have been three years ago when she taught me how to magic away dirt and stains from clothes and carpets. I don’t believe I even thanked her and thought it was a silly trick though I ended up using it more than I could count.

Crowley Small, a tall man ironically, was practically my second uncle. When I had needed a babysitter, he had been first in line to take care of me. When I needed help in school on projects he would stop by and help if my parents could not. If I was ever sick, he came and took care of me while my parents went to work.

I glanced over at Tom, now sitting on the porch stairs with a bloody cloth pressed against his nose. A dear old man, I had always liked him from the first days of school. I wondered if this was the first time he had lost a student. He had taught me everything I knew about the world and magic and I had worked hard to make him proud. It’s a shame things ended this way. A terrible accident. I wished he did not blame himself.

“Let me see, please.” Tom suddenly said as my Mother appeared in the doorway, Marie-Lupus at her heels.

“Tom, I—” Mother began.

“I need to see the place, Eva, where Anna died. If she died because of something I taught her, because of homework or practice, I could not live with myself. I don’t want to see that place but neither can I calm myself thinking I’ll never know.”

It was then I noticed the bags under Tom’s eyes. Poor man must not have caught a wink of sleep all night, spending it twisting, turning, pacing as he tried to convince himself my death had nothing to do with him. I was sorry to see he hadn’t managed to.

“Just past the trees, there.” My mother pointed toward the wild woods at the far end of the property. “She always liked practicing around nature. Said her powers were more in tune there than anywhere else.”

Tom nodded before rising. “Thank you.”

I walked beside him as he made his way to where I had died. He gave me a few glances but his eyes were soft rather than disapproving. I really should have been doing my best to interact as little with them as they did with me but I couldn’t. Not yet.

“I—” He mouthed a few words, unable to say what he wanted. “I know better than to speak to the dead. No good comes out of it. We all wish we could though; it would be nice to have just one last moment. Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to relive the memories in my head.”

That cheating, darling old man. We all knew the risk of my heart growing so heavy that I could never move on from this earth, but still his words spoke to me of his love for me and that gave me some comfort. Even if he had never addressed me, it was nice to be spoken to. Death is a lonely thing.

We stopped at the small clearing, my home still visible through breaks in the trees. It was there that I did most of my magic practice, safe and far from anyone who could get hurt if something went wrong.

Tom gave me a weary look before closing his eyes and studying the remnants of my magic. It was artful the way he did it, precise and delicate, absorbing more knowledge in seconds than most could in an hour.

I knew he wouldn’t find anything. Nothing had gone wrong. I just forgot something and I still couldn’t remember what. It’s strange, knowing you killed yourself without knowing how. I almost wanted to laugh at how absurd it was.

“It collapsed,” Tom said, as his eyes flickered open. “A simple containment field to keep magic confined within it. It’s not even harmful. Unless…” He looked at me, wanting to ask questions but did not. “I don’t know why it collapsed. I’ve seen Anna do it hundreds of times and never has it been done wrong. Even if it had, the odds of death are astronomically small. Did it drain every drop of power from you so fast your mind simply shut down? Could such an impossible accident have taken you from us?” Tom shook his head and started walking back toward the wake. He had found his answer; the universe had conspired against me.

Is that what happened? The universe decided my time was up and killed me in the most unlikely way? How did I even mess up such a simple construct? Had I been in a hurry or perhaps I got lazy? No, that did not sound like me but I must have. I’d done something wrong and here I was a ghost that caused so much grief and pain.

As I returned to the yard, all the chairs had been set in rows and most were occupied by the many guests. Tom sat alone, looking forlorn, and Barbara Pines was sobbing uncontrollably. At the sight of my body, I supposed.

There, on a table covered by a white sheet, I lay with my hands crossed. My mother had dressed me and washed and brushed my hair one last time. It must have been so hard for her. If anything could prove her love and strength, it was how peaceful, clean, and elegant I looked in my white dress. If no one had known I had died, they would have thought me asleep.

My mother approached and looked at my body. She moved slowly, as if not really believing what was happening. No one could blame her.

Everyone waited for her, as she caressed my face one last time. She was going to give me my eulogy, a terrible role for any mother. It should always be the other way around.

“It should have been me,” she said plainly before turning to face the crowd. “What mother would not give her life or anyone else’s for that of her children. We here are all witches, warlocks, wizards, and everything in between. How hard could a time travel spell or a resurrection spell be? Her soul is still with us, I’m sure you all noticed.”

No one but my mother dared look at me.

“But if we have any wits at all, we’d know such things cannot be done without consequence and if any of us sacrifices for her another would sacrifice for us as well—a never-ending cycle of death and grief.”

No one said a word, eyes glued to my mother and her tear-stricken face. I took a step forward but stopped, unable to believe what I was hearing. I wanted to beg her to stop and try to remember the good things.

“The worst of it, is that now I see her dead face here in this coffin and her face staring at me at this very moment. I know she can hear me, and I know she could speak if she chose to. But, Anna has always been a smart girl.” Mother’s tone softened. “She loved school, she loved to learn, and she had a big heart. She would not want us to grieve in anger or to do anything stupid and dangerous to get her back. She understood the costs of magic well and knew how to be careful.”

A few heads nodded in agreement.

“We may never know what happened or why my poor lovely Anna had to die. It was a terrible accident that will be with us for the rest of our lives but I hope she knows that despite our anger, grief, and questions that our hearts will heal though the scar they bear for her will always be remembered fondly until we join her in the heavens.”

It felt like a weight had been lifted over everyone. Her words were brimming with tears and the love she bore for me shone right through everyone that had gathered. Father looked over to Tom and smiled. Tom nodded at the solemn apology.

“Horrible things happen and this horrible tragedy struck home for us. Despite the anger and sadness, I hope my beautiful daughter Anna can rest in peace knowing we will always treasure the memories of her.” Mother’s eyes looked to me and so did everyone else.

I nodded and smiled at them all as I made my way down to my body and with each step felt light and warmth engulf me. Despite my fear of losing my family and their harsh actions earlier today, my mother’s eulogy for me made everything clear. Though the sadness ran deep that no one, even I, will ever understand how or why I died, they would continue to love one another and treasure the life that I had with them.

I found peace the moment they made theirs.

pencilAlexander M. Pawlowski is a Canadian-based writer with years of experience in editing and proof-reading for published and unpublished writers. He writes stories where characters move the plot along rather than the story moving the intrigue. He believes a story is as captivating as its characters and strives to show the good and bad of humanity as they deal with themselves and their environments. Email: alexander.m.pawlowski[at]

A Small Miscalculation

Amelia Diamond
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver

Silvery Cube_wb43_6527
Photo Credit: Klaus Riesner

Over the weeks she would occasionally review Mala’s lengthy apology, turning it over in her mind, looking for an emotional response that never came. She should feel hurt, angry, sad, something, anything—but the words that told of the end of their love may as well have been pebbles or leaves or dust. She would come home to her tiny ninety-first floor studio apartment with the bed still out and unmade and the sink full of dishes and stand at the windowscreen, which was always set to show a view onto the beach. Not the bright sunny white sand and crystal blue breakers beach, but always an inhospitable stretch of beach near San Francisco, low grey-blue sky, dull brown sand and jagged grey-brown moss-covered boulders with the smudged dark blue of rain on the distant horizon. As a teenager that beach had been a place of safety and solitude where she could pretend for a little while that the world wasn’t falling apart, that she wasn’t falling apart. She’d sit on one of the many uncomfortable damp rocks and look out across the sea, letting her eyes defocus until everything became a blur of grey light and white noise that she could fade into and, for a few precious moments, become nothing at all.

That was where she’d first met Mala, although it was several years later that they fell in love. Mala, always so curious, had come to that least-friendly of beaches to take samples of the rocks and the seawater as it broke on them. It was a science fair project, asking whether the increasing acidity of the seawater was causing increased erosion of the rocks that in so many places along the northern coast prevented large sections of land from slipping into the ocean. The boulders on the beach being more easily accessible than the sheer cliffs she was really interested in, she had come to that particular stretch of coastline to collect data.

Mala’s curiosity was boundless, even then, and she’d nearly forgotten to collect her samples for fascination with the strange girl she’d discovered meditating on a tall rock whose base was encrusted with barnacles. She looked like she had always been there, like she was a rock herself. Even her skin, pale brown dusted with damp grey sand stretched over prominent sharp bones, matched the surface on which she perched.

Their conversation lasted until the sun was low. Michelle helped Mala to gather her samples and they said good night. After, on the walk home, Michelle realized she had spoken more to the wiry intense girl than she had spoken to anyone in a very long time.

Now that beach was one of the many places that were not safe for people to visit. It had been at least thirteen years since Michelle had felt damp, dirty sand under her feet. She’d been in LA when it all went down, so she’d ended up in Bunker Hill, at first as a temporary resident until it became clear that there really wasn’t anywhere else she could go. So she spent her days monitoring surveillance footage from twenty-six simultaneous camera feeds, watching for anything important. Her knack for spacing out was very helpful; being completely unfocused made it easy to follow all twenty-six feeds without being so focused on one that she’d miss anything on the others. She was considered quite good at her job and was a semi-official supervisor and on-the-job-trainer of other employees.

She spent some evenings organizing and attending munches, strictly vanilla social gatherings for the local kink scene, including one specifically for trans* and gender non-conforming people. She was involved in a rope bondage club that met regularly to practice various knots and bindings on each other. She spent a lot of time on her computer, watching at a distance the lives of her remaining friends and family, some of whom she’d most likely never see in person again, watching cartoons from when she was a kid, and reading depressing and infuriating news articles. And, until a year ago, being with Mala.

There was a time when she’d practically been a celebrity. The wondrous Mala Desai, probable savior of humanity, greatest mind of her generation, inventor of the materials and techniques that made possible the nanotech with which Bunker Hill and so many other arcologies had been created. When an Indian-American lesbian did what no white man had managed to accomplish and halted the collapse of civilization just in time a great many figurative heads exploded.

Michelle, as her androgynous mixed-race girlfriend, was the icing on the cake. Mala always told people that Michelle was her muse, which was sweet but untrue. Mala was her own inspiration. People would occasionally ask her what Mala was really like in person. She’d always give the same answer: “Mala makes me care about things I’ve never noticed. She’ll get interested in something and suddenly it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. You can’t help but go along with her and end up in this place where everything is wonderful and new.” Mala’s personality was as powerful as the ocean and as good for making Michelle disappear.

Mala had ended the relationship suddenly and quite publicly with no explanation. Her reasons became clear one month later, when the President made the announcement. Our efforts to change our ways, to halt the march of climate change and ocean acidification and soil erosion and water pollution and overfishing and all of it had been in vain. A heretofore unknown set of chemical processes had been discovered occurring deep in the ocean, like an alarm clock set by some ancient god with a horrid sense of humor. It was a rapidly spreading set of reactions made possible by the increased temperature and acidity and decreased salinity of the ocean. The seawater was removing more carbon from the atmosphere than before, a discovery that was initially greeted with hope. But then it was noticed that the water was releasing large amounts of hydrogen cyanide, an extremely toxic gas. It was soon discovered that the reaction would continue indefinitely, not reaching equilibrium until long after the atmosphere became too toxic for humans to survive.

Some people were moved to heroic action. There were companies working on giant fans to buy a few more years before the toxic gas sterilized the city, developing ways to make it possible for the fans to survive the intense storms. A space tourism business created a contest: The first person or organization to produce a truly usable design for a permanent orbital colony would receive ten million dollars and a guaranteed spot on the colony after it was built. An artist built a digital clock nine stories tall showing the countdown until the current estimate of when the air would be unbreathable in this part of LA. It was the same all over the world.

Some people dove headlong into hedonism. The munches were suddenly much more popular and needed much more supervision. Every day on the bulletin boards near all the elevators there were new fliers for all sorts of parties and events, most of them involving various combinations of music, alcohol, and sex. Others chose self-destruction. Deaths due to drug overdoses quadrupled. And there were suicides, of course. Some clever person had written IP next to the ‘R’ button in all the elevators; ‘R’ for roof of course.

The giant clock said there were at least two years left. Most people just continued with their lives. Michelle was one of these.

The day the letter had come had been a satisfying work day in which she had alerted authorities to two muggings, an attempted rape, a theft of several candy bars, and a potential heart attack. She sat on her always-unmade bed, comfy on a lumpy pile of blankets. It was five months ago today that Mala had dumped her on TV. It was three-and-a-half since the Announcement, as everyone called it. She opened her laptop and signed in, username Serafine, password SaltPoint. On those rare occasions when she really focused on something she’d tilt her head forward and squint slightly and rock back and forth. Her rocking would have been undetectable except for her shoulder length braids. She maintained them, perhaps unconsciously, at exactly the right length for the frequency of her gentle rocking to set them swinging in a way she found pleasing when she noticed it at all.

Still in her work clothes, comfortable grey linen pants and blouse, Michelle briefly scanned her new emails. There was one from a name she didn’t recognize, apparently a real person. She opened it, read it, read it again, and looked past the screen at her beach, at the ocean that would kill her. Then she read again:

Michelle— I wanted to tell you why I had to let you go. I’ve been writing and rewriting this for weeks. I guess you have a pretty good idea about why we can’t be together anymore. I’m not really allowed to have a private life now. Just work work work and save the world again. Really, they won’t let me see you. Too distracting. They forget I was distracted by you when I figured out how to make arcologies work. But no, there’s more. I needed to protect you. They’ve been talking on the news like it’s a naturally occurring process. It’s not.

Do you remember that first time we met? That science fair experiment? While I was working on it I had an idea about maybe being able to use ammonium chloride from undersea vents and fertilizer runoff to produce sodium carbonate which would help pull carbon from the atmosphere and counter some of the acidification of the ocean too. But I couldn’t see any way to make it work so I just kept it in the back of my mind all these years. With the nanotech we’ve been developing recently it started to seem possible. Imagine if we could have outdoor farms again! No more Category 7 hurricanes. Trees on the hillsides, no more mudslides and flash floods and having to stay inside every day. Imagine if we could go back to that beach in real life.

Last year, June 13, we started our first experiment in a saltwater tank up on Floor 118, and it worked. Michelle, I swear it worked beautifully for months. So we released them, little nanotech robots, I call them chembots. It was very exciting, we shot them out into the ocean with a rocket. And it seemed to be working, with the weather it was too hard to actually get out on a boat and check of course. But the experiment was working so well! Until I popped up to check on it and the whole room smelled like almond extract and my research assistant nearly died.

I don’t know what went wrong. I was sure I’d thought of everything. Can you believe that? I guess I’m the only person who could outsmart me. Of course we’re supposed to spend every moment working on it. It’ll probably get worse, the chembots are made to reproduce and disperse. The truth is, there’s no way to stop it. I think and think and I can’t imagine anything that could even begin to help without being just as bad. Sooner or later it will come out that I did this and I can’t subject you to what will happen when it does. I love you, always will. Wish me luck.


Michelle sat, doing her best to not exist, until her phone rang. It was Samantha, a good friend who’d moved in for a week to keep Michelle company after Mala left her. Samantha wondered whether Michelle might be interested in seeing a movie this evening with her and her friend Cadence. The movie was predictable and dull and starred some heartthrob white male actor doing dangerous things so he could have sex with some hot white woman who only had three lines. But still, feeling annoyed and marginalized was better than feeling nothing. She went home with Cadence, a petite and fiery woman with green hair spiked in every direction, who lived down on the thirty-ninth floor. Her windowscreen showed a futuristic cityscape of gleaming chrome skyscrapers with sleek curving silhouettes stretching up to the sky. There were flying cars and a park with mushroom-shaped structures covered in fruit trees and grapevines and with benches circling the stems. People walked past on the sidewalks, outside, the way they used to, wearing shiny plastic-looking clothes in bright garish colors or billowy black dresses with hundreds of LED stars. There were even huge video billboards with beautiful Japanese women smiling and holding up objects that might have been kitchen appliances or futuristic weapons while katakana text scrolled across their faces.

Cadence, wine bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other, saw Michelle staring. “Do you like it?”

“What’s it supposed to be?”

“City of the future. Loosely based on Tokyo.”

“Oh. Do people still live in Tokyo? It must be really bad there.”

“Yeah, got a couple friends there I talk to on the interweb. They have a few arcologies. Not as romantic looking as those sexy skyscrapers and no flying cars. I guess there never will be. I guess this is all the future we’re gonna get.”

Later that night as Michelle dissolved into sleep she heard quiet crying. With an effort she came back to herself, remembered where she was and all that had happened and who was lying next to her. She snuggled close to Cadence’s back and wrapped her arms around her, narrowly avoiding being poked in the eye by Cadence’s hair. Cadence immediately rolled over and pressed her face into the space between Michelle’s shoulder and breast. Her warm little body quivered and twitched while she sobbed. Michelle stroked her hair with her free hand and didn’t say anything. She felt every tear as they rolled down into her armpit. Finally Cadence’s shaking stopped and her breathing became deep and slow. Michelle continued to hold her, long after her arm went numb, wide awake for the first time in a very long time.

It was nearly a year later that the secret got out. Riots are difficult in arcologies, there just isn’t any single place with enough room. But groups of violent, angry people wandered around breaking things and getting into fights. Three days later Michelle heard the news that Mala was dead. She’d either jumped or been thrown from the roof. Up until then Michelle had held onto some hope that things might actually work out. The giant fans were up and running, the orbital habitat was under construction, the arcologies were all being refitted to be completely sealed from the outside, with air locks and sealed tunnels connecting to other nearby arcologies. None of those were real solutions, of course, but they were buying time for Mala, who had never been defeated by anything. Michelle knew that without Mala there was no hope. Everyone knew it.

Then Michelle was summoned. She was to go to Level 214, a level which was not accessible to ordinary citizens. When she pressed the button in the elevator, red-and-gold where nearly all the others were blue-and-green, her retina was scanned. The doors opened onto a wide open area with real windows. There were groups of people and equipment in bunches throughout the vast space. A man in a black suit looked up when the doors opened and came over, a grim expression on his gaunt face.

“Miss Deveaux. Welcome. Thank you for coming. I’m Chris Klein, CIA Operations Director for Bunker Hill. Please come with me.”

Chris Klein led Michelle over to a window. She had never seen so much glass in one place. The view was toward the ocean. They were well above the scattered dark clouds that were out on this unusually clear day. Across the ocean the sky looked like a bruise, purple and swollen forever in every direction. Looking down, she could see the outer wall of the massive stepped pyramid she shared with 200,000 other people. Michelle was offered a chair and Chris Klein sat next to her, both facing the magnificent window. Michelle shivered. The room was quite cold. She wondered for a moment whether there even was such a thing as a sweater anywhere in all of Bunker Hill, where the air was always perfectly conditioned to match a normal September day in LA.

“I’m going to cut right to the chase, Miss Deveaux. Just before Mala Desai committed suicide she made this.”

He held up a metal cube that looked like tarnished silver. It looked to be about six inches on a side. He offered it to Michelle, who took it and nearly dropped it. It was much heavier than it looked. She turned it over and over but there were no markings on it. “What is it?” she asked.

“We were hoping you’d know. She left a note. All it said was, ‘Give Michelle the cube. She’ll know what it means.’ So here’s the cube. Are you sure you don’t know what it is?”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea. We hadn’t spoken in a long time.”

“You of course understand how urgent it is that anything at all made by Miss Desai be understood and in our hands?”

“Yes, of course.” She made to hand back the cube, but Chris Klein held up a hand. “Keep it. She wanted you to have it. We’ve been trying to get it open and we’ve gotten nowhere. There are more important things for us to be working on. It’s yours and it could be it’ll only do whatever it’s supposed to do for you. It probably is just a sentimental thing, though; everyone knows she was crazy about you. But if it turns out to be anything other than a big shiny cube, you call me immediately, night or day, you got that?” He handed her a business card printed on thick plastic. “All right now, get out of here. Thanks for your time.”

Riding the elevator down, Michelle examined the strange cube. It seemed solid. Mala had always liked giving Michelle enigmatic little gifts and watching her try to figure out what they were supposed to mean. When Michelle got home she put the cube on the little table next to her bed and sat facing it, leaning on the windowscreen. She focused on a point somewhere in the distance and let her eyes relax, let everything blur into pure texture and let the cube slip unfiltered into her mind. Eventually she returned to herself with no new insights and gave up for the day. The cube sat by Michelle’s bed for six weeks. She mostly ignored it, only occasionally wondering what Mala had meant to say to her. She preferred to lose herself in her daily routine and the cube was somehow jarring when she really paid attention to it.

One Saturday evening Cadence stopped over. They hadn’t seen each other or spoken since that night when Cadence cried herself to sleep in Michelle’s arms. Time was running out and neither wanted to sleep alone any longer. When she came into Michelle’s apartment she picked up the cube and sat down at the foot of Michelle’s bed, next to the windowscreen. “What the heck is this?” she asked as she turned it over and over.

“A very strange gift, I guess. From Mala.”

“Oh.” Cadence stood to put the cube back and to hide her discomfort at being reminded that she was planning to share a bed with the ex-lover of Mala Desai, the woman who’d doomed them all.

“Stop!” Michelle’s barked command startled Cadence into dropping the metallic cube. “Sorry. Please pick it up and then hold still, right there. Please.”

Cadence did as she was bid. She was watching Michelle’s burning brimming eyes, so she didn’t see the windowscreen, where Michelle walked into view carrying the cube and bore it into the water, carefully placing it so that it touched one of the larger boulders. Something greenish began to flow out of the cube as the large boulder seemed to glitter. Then the scene ended and the windowscreen again showed the empty beach.

Michelle stalked up to Cadence and kissed her hard. “You have to go. I need to think.”

Cadence placed the cube back on the table and stalked out, suppressing the desire to break things on the way.

Why would Mala have done it this way? If she found a solution why wouldn’t she just tell the people she worked for? It didn’t make any sense. It couldn’t just be a simple solution, there must be some reason why she wouldn’t have trusted her superiors with the cube. Michelle brought it close to the windowscreen again and watched the scene play out, looking for more information. Then it occurred to her to turn on the volume. Like most people, she normally kept her windowscreen muted. This time, as the scene played, she heard Mala’s voice.

“Trade one apocalypse for another. The problem with our nanotech is that once it’s released, if it spreads there’s no easy way to stop it. These will disassemble the chembots and cannibalize the metals to make more of themselves, maybe even before everyone dies. But of course after that they’ll disassemble other metal things. You can imagine what that means. I’m sorry to give you this choice. Maybe it’s better for us to die than to have to face this. It’ll only work for you. I trust you to make the right choice, if there is a right choice. I love you. Goodbye.”

Michelle switched the channel on her windowscreen to show what she’d see if it were a real window. The sky was dark, low swirling clouds to the horizon. Rain fell in a torrent like a waterfall, nonetheless blown sideways and sometimes even back upwards as the wind gusted. Something large flew by, possibly one of the few cars that hadn’t already been blown away. Huge bolts of lightning again and again struck the many tall metal towers that emanated like porcupine quills from the Hollywood arcology, leaving blue-white afterimages in her vision. It was a typical day in LA and a long way to San Francisco. She guessed she was going to need a raincoat.

pencilAmelia Diamond has worked as a gardener, environmental and agricultural consultant, energy auditor and environmental activist. She produces electronic experimental noise music, occasionally performing live with one of several bands. Mostly she works as a mom of two along with her partner of 14 years. She has been telling stories her whole life but only recently began writing them down. Amelia frequently publishes short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]



Something Wicked

Jill Spencer
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold

Double Double Toil and Trouble...
Photo Credit: Jeff Hitchcock

“Reenact a scene from Macbeth so that the class better understands and appreciates the play,’” Ailana read from the assignment sheet Ms. Cummings, their English teacher, had distributed in class. “I like that one. What do you think?” She looked at her two best friends.

Eva, who was barely five feet tall, sat at the oversized kitchen table Ailana’s mother had imported from Italy. With her freckles, big green eyes and curly red hair, she looked like a child. Or an elf.

“I don’t know,” Eva said. Just thinking about getting up in front of the class made her queasy. “I was thinking… a board game maybe?”

“Board games are for partners, not groups,” Fern told her. She had already memorized the assignment sheet.

“We could ask Ms. Cummings for an exception.”

Fern pushed up her glasses and frowned. “Yeah, but if all three of us do a two-person project, you know she’ll make us sign contracts for a C or a B.” And Fern wanted an A.

Cummings was the toughest teacher at Great Mills High School. Nobody required as much from students as she did. Making an A in her class was something to boast about in college application letters and scholarship interviews. It was a real accomplishment.

“What about the Shakespeare Festival then?” Eva asked.

Fern shrugged. The festival was a huge project. According to Ms. Cummings, no team had attempted it since 2011. It would be a tremendous amount of work, but if they did it and did it well, Ms. Cummings was sure to be impressed.


“Host the Festival? Really?” Ailana, who had been staring at the assignment sheet throughout their discussion, slapped the paper onto the countertop and rolled her eyes. “Do you two honestly think that Joss Carter and his douchebag friends would help us? Because they’d have to, you know. Hosting the festival would mean getting everyone in class to cooperate.”

And those assholes never would. Because of her.

Ailana picked up the tray she’d loaded with goodies from the refrigerator and set it on the table with a bang. Just thinking about Joss made her angry. The oversexed bully had picked on her since sixth grade.

At eighteen, Ailana was a knockout—tall, blonde and as long-limbed and lanky as a model. At twelve, she’d simply been the prettiest girl in class, and like lots of the boys, Joss had had a crush on her. But he’d been pushy about it.

Really pushy.

Fed up with his behavior, Ailana had finally confronted him after school one day, explaining in no uncertain terms that she did not appreciate his “attentions,” which included nasty texts and inappropriate touching in the hallway. Besides, she told him, she liked girls, not guys. He understood that, right?


The harassment had gotten worse. For almost six years she had endured the taunts of Joss and his loser friends. Just a few more months till graduation, she told herself, and I’ll be free. But deep down, she feared she never would be free. People like Joss were everywhere.

Fern set one of the bottles of mineral water she’d fetched from the refrigerator in front of Eva. She also gave one to Ailana, along with an “I’m so sorry” smile.

“Right. I hadn’t thought of that,” she told her. “No wonder nobody does the Festival. Oops! We forgot the crackers.”

Fern disappeared into the pantry. She spent so much time at Ailana’s house that she knew the kitchen almost as well as her own. She certainly liked it better. It was big and expensive, with granite countertops, an enormous center island and state-of-the-art appliances. Best of all, Ailana’s mother, a successful doctor, stocked it to bursting with gourmet food and drink.

It was the complete opposite of the drab kitchen in the rundown townhouse where Fern lived with her mother. That kitchen never produced anything beyond dinners from a box. It was also where Fern regularly met a depressingly long line of “uncles.” She usually saw them the morning after, scrounging in the fridge for a cold bottle of brew, dressed in nothing but jeans or the boxers they’d worn the night before.

“No worries,” Ailana told her. “I’d forget Joss, too, if I could.” She accepted a box of sesame crackers with a smile then looked from Fern to Eva. “I really do think we should do a performance. I mean it, Eva!” She smeared a sesame cracker with goat cheese and handed it to her friend. “Just imagine! Act IV, the witches’ big scene—not all of it, of course. Just the start, that’s all! We’d be incredible.”

Ordinarily, Ailana would never push Eva to do something that frightened her. God knew Eva had spent enough of her life feeling scared. But after reading about Wicca online, Ailana had ordered several books on the subject. She’d read each one, studying them, and she was convinced that becoming witches would do all three of them a world of good. They could connect with the natural world, find their own power and use it to improve their lives. Ailana’s eyes went to the dark mark on Eva’s neck. It was the size of a thumbprint. Ailana knew that teachers assumed it was a hickey, but she and Fern knew better. Eva didn’t have a boyfriend. She’d never even been on a date. But she did have an overbearing, hypocritical pig of a father, the Reverend T. Tom Patterson. If anybody needed more power it was Eva.

And a little more juice wouldn’t hurt her or Fern either.

Of course, saying, “Let’s join a coven!” sounded crazy, even to her. And Eva and Fern weren’t ready to hear it any more than she was ready to say it. But playing witches—three powerful, influential witches—could be a way to start a conversation.

Ailana twisted the metal cap off her water, enjoying the lemon-scented spray of fizz against her face.

“It’ll be fun, I promise!” she told them, her eyes on Eva. “We’ll be disguised so well, no one will be able to tell who we are. Thick stage makeup, fake noses, hairy warts, shaggy wigs. They won’t really being seeing us! They’ll be seeing the Weird Witches, bitches! Come on, what do you say?” She took a drink. “Eva? Please? ‘Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’”

At “hairy warts” Eva had begun to smile. By the time Ailana chanted “toil and trouble” in her booming b-wah-ha-ha-ha voice, she was laughing out loud.

“All right, all right, all right! Let’s do it then. I’m in.” She turned to Fern. “What about you?”

Fern, who was eating red peppers stuffed with mozzarella straight from the container with her fingers, grinned back at her.

“Absolutely.” She popped the last pepper into her mouth. Her day planner, flipped open to the “notes” section, was in front of her. A pen was in her hand.

“So… we have three weeks starting today,” she said. “Who’s doing what?”


“Dyke bitch,” Joss whispered as Ailana walked past his desk toward Ms. Cummings, who was sipping coffee by the podium at the front of the room. Fern stood next to her, talking a mile a minute.

“Will you keep my glasses for me?” Fern was asking her when Ailana reached them.


“Thanks.” Fern rubbed her sweaty hands against her pants and grinned. Her excitement was palpable. “This is going to be the best presentation ever!”

“I believe it,” Ms. Cummings said. Her eyes went from Fern’s face to Ailana’s. “You girls look incredible.”

Early that morning they had met at Ailana’s house to do their makeup. In the guest powder room that was larger than Fern’s bedroom, they had affixed prosthetic noses, chins and foreheads with spirit gum, applied putty and face paint and then liberally added coarse black hair and warts.

“Wait till you see our teeth!” Fern told Ms. Cummings.

Ailana had ordered them online. Fern’s and Eva’s were called “Purdy Mouth,” a creepy jumble of short and long square teeth that fit directly over their own.

Ailana was already wearing hers. They were called “Cannibals.” She smiled at Ms. Cummings. “Our wigs are really cool, too!” Ailana had also purchased them online. Eva’s actually had a bird’s nest in it.

Ailana was still laughing at Ms. Cummings’s shocked expression as she and Fern headed for the bathroom where Eva waited for them with the rest of their costumes.

Ailana carried the ingredients for the potion in an Igloo cooler. If Ms. Cummings knew what was in it, she would really be horrified. So would Fern and Eva for that matter. The thought made Ailana smile.

“God, girl. Even without my glasses, you look hot!” Fern exclaimed.

Eva stood in front of the full-length mirror by the stalls, pinning her wig into place. Except for her small stature, she was unrecognizable. Her body, her face, even her gray hair was as twisted and knotty as an old oak tree.

“You’re an Ent!” Ailana laughed.

“A witchy Ent.”

“Come on, we don’t have much time,” Eva answered.

The choir director at Eva’s church had given her three old robes, which she had sown strips of tattered cloth to and dyed black. Then she’d aged them using razors, Borax and sandpaper. She pulled Fern’s and Ailana’s cloaks from a shopping bag and quickly helped them into them. Then she affixed their wigs.

“Now for your hands,” she said. She had already aged her own with putty and makeup, and glued on black fingernails. “But first I have a surprise.” She pulled a funky looking witch’s hat from the bag. “For you,” she said, pinning it to Ailana’s wig. “I made it myself. And for you,” she told Fern, pulling a crocheted spider web from the bag. She pinned it into Fern’s hair. “Another Eva original.”

Standing before the bathroom mirrors, the girls cackled in delight as they admired themselves.

“We’re perfect!” Ailana whispered. “Absolutely perfect.”

Eva was the first to come to her senses. “Shit! I still have to do your hands,” she said. “Come on, hurry! We don’t have much time.”

Ten minutes later, they floated down the hallway to the classroom.

Fern, whose job it had been to design the set and block the scene, had requested that Ms. Cummings ask the class to move their desks into a U with a “stage” in the center. She’d also arranged for Selena and Robin, two girls in the class, to work the lights, sound system and fog machine for them. Fern had borrowed all three from her mother’s latest boyfriend, a drummer in a local heavy metal band. He’d also given her dry ice, which she’d placed in the bottom of the cauldron that morning.

Fern had thought the cauldron would be the hardest prop to find, but Eva had immediately volunteered the black iron pot from the Senior Citizen Center where her father “ministered” twice a week.

“They make apple butter in it every fall,” Eva had told her. Eva volunteered at the Center regularly, not just because her father insisted, but because she liked doing it. Old people were fun.

“It’s huge!” she told Fern. “And it has its own giant stand, so it hangs over the flames just like a real witch’s pot.” Eva laughed. “You know what I mean. Anyway, I know Mrs. Jackson will let us borrow it, no problem.”

Eva had been right. Not only had Mrs. Jackson, who managed the center, let them borrow the pot and stand, but she’d enlisted several old men to deliver it to the school where it now sat center stage in the classroom, shrouded in fog.

“I almost forgot!” Ailana handed a black pouch to each of them. “Your ingredients.”

Eva and Fern didn’t know they were real. During the last three weeks, Ailana had discovered that with enough money and the Internet, she could buy almost anything. And what she couldn’t buy online, she could get on her own.

Her mother had been delighted when she’d offered to help out at the Women’s Clinic. She’d been even happier when Ailana had asked to accompany her on her shift at the hospital. She’d barely noticed when Ailana had wandered off after a few hours to “scavenge” for ingredients.

“They’re numbered,” Ailana whispered, referring to the bags and bottles that she’d placed in the pouches. “Just toss them into the pot in order.”

The girls nodded and looked at each other, excitement in their faces.

“This is it!” Ailana said. “Ready, witches?”


Fern cued Selena and Robin. As they entered the room, the lights dimmed and the music started.

“Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d,” Fern croaked.

“Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin’d,” Eva howled.

“Harpier cries, ‘Tis time, ‘tis time.’” Ailana’s harsh voice, so unlike her normal voice, vibrated throughout the room, making the students shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Even Fern felt a chill of apprehension. It all seemed so real.

The girls joined hands and began circling the cauldron. As they spoke their lines and tossed in the ingredients, the pot crackled and shook and smoked. An earthy odor filled the room.

“Cool it with a baboon’s blood,” Eva sang out in the high, quavering voice she had used throughout the scene. She emptied bottle number ten from her pouch into the pot. A cloud of red smoke emerged, flattening itself and widening until the entire ceiling was covered.

Fern caught Ailana’s eye. There was only one more line left. They’d done it.

“Then the charm is firm and good.”

On Eva’s words, Ailana threw her entire pouch into the cauldron. Fern looked at her in surprise. That wasn’t in the script.

Screams and a sound like thunder filled the room. The floor shook. A thick, gray mist filled the air.

“Ailana?” Eva called, peering through the mist.

All was quiet except for the hush of running water. The classroom was gone. The girls stood in a clearing by a river. Glowing red smoke curled from a cauldron much bigger than the one from the Senior Citizens Center.

“Where in the hell are we, Ailana?” Eva sounded scared. Ailana’s witch face didn’t look made up. It looked real. She touched her own face with a gnarled hand. It was real.

“The better question is, ‘What in the hell did you throw into the pot?’” Fern shouted.

Ailana stared at them both, the beginnings of a smile forming on her lips.

“Where are we? Do you know?” Eva looked at Fern.

“We’re in Acheron. At least that’s what Hecate called it in Act III.” She looked at Ailana accusingly. “In other words, we’re in hell.”


St. Mary’s County Teenage Girls Disappear in English Class


ST. MARY’S COUNTY, MD. — Three St. Mary’s County teenage girls have been reported missing under unusual circumstances.

Deputies say three teenage girls were reported missing at about 7:00 p.m. Thursday.

Eva Paige Patterson, 18, of Mattapany Road, Lexington Park, is 5’ tall, 100 pounds with auburn hair and brown eyes. She may be wearing black leggings, a pink sweater and boots.

Ailana Adaire Guy, 18, of Rosecroft Road, Lexington Park, is 5’10” tall, 125 pounds with blonde hair and blue eyes. She may be wearing jeans, a green sweatshirt and orange tennis shoes.

Fern Cliona Fenwick, 17, of Knockeyon Lane, Great Mills, is 5’4” tall, 145 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. She wears glasses. She may be wearing khakis and a white top.

At the time of their disappearance the girls were dressed in witch costumes that included black robes, gray wigs and heavy stage makeup.

All three attend Mills High School where they are seniors. Patterson, Guy and Fenwick were presenting a project in English class when they disappeared.

“We thought it was part of the presentation,” English Teacher Cassia Cummings said.

According to Cummings, when the girls did not return to class, she notified a vice principal, who later contacted the girls’ parents.

Investigators believe that the girls staged their disappearance from the classroom using dry ice. How they subsequently left campus is still under investigation.

No foul play is suspected at this time.

“We’re hoping it’s just a senior prank and that Ailana, Eva and Fern return to their families soon,” Principal Arnold Cooper said.

On Friday afternoon a statement from the principal was posted on the school website. In the statement Cooper assured students and parents that the girls’ disappearance is an “isolated incident.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office at 301-485-7007.


“I told you I was getting the ingredients for the potion, remember?” Ailana said.

She’d turned her back on Eva and Fern, and was staring out over the river. She didn’t want them to see her face. She wasn’t sure that, even with her new appearance, she could disguise the joy she felt.

“Yeah, but we didn’t think you were getting the real ingredients,” Eva said, sounding more puzzled than angry. Like Ailana, she was more curious than distraught. And strangely hopeful.

“‘Finger of a birth-strangled babe’?” Fern quoted. “Ailana! Why in the hell—”

“For authenticity?” Ailana turned. “To make our project the best ever?” She looked Fern in the eyes.

“Oh, Ailana.”

“I added my own secret ingredient, too,” Ailana confessed. According to her research, bergamot ensured prosperity. “It wasn’t… creepy, just an herb. To make our project successful. I didn’t know it would turn us into real witches.”

Although now that they were, she couldn’t help feeling… free. And more than a little curious. If they really were the Weird Sisters then they must have their powers. And if they did, they could move through space and time. They could see into other people’s minds. And they were wise enough and powerful enough to influence evil men toward their bad ends.

Ailana thought of Joss and his creepy friends. And Eva’s father.

She looked at Eva and smiled in wonder. Eva knew what she was thinking. Exactly what she was thinking. She could read Ailana’s mind. And Ailana could read hers.

Giggling, Eva raised her arms, rose into the air and began to twirl.

“Secret ingredient?” Fern shouted as she paced along the riverbank. “Something wicked, that’s what you added to the pot.” Fern groaned. “What did we need a secret ingredient for? We already had great writing! Shakespeare, for god’s sakes! The magic ingredient for success was already in the spell. Did Shakespeare have to write that in stage directions? No, he probably thought it was obvious, because it is! The magic, the poetry, is in the words and the rhythm. If we’d just followed the script, as written, we’d be getting an A right now instead of standing around in Hell!”

“Or flying around in hell,” Eva called. She stopped spinning and now circled the air above them. “If you ask me, Ailana added something wicked good!”

She landed next to Fern and put an arm around her shoulder. She knew that Fern, being Fern, had had her own strict plans for the future, including college, grad school, a high-profile job and clawing her way to the top. And being Fern, she hated having her plans ruined.

“I know you’re upset,” Eva sympathized. “And I’m upset for you, but… just think about it, Fern! We’re witches. Powerful witches. And I don’t think we’re trapped here.” She took them both by the hands. “In fact, I know we’re not!”

Eva raised their arms and the deafening sound of rushing water encompassed them for a breathless moment.

“There we are.” She dropped their hands and looked around her. “We’re in… a fen, I think it’s called.”

Ailana bared her cannibal teeth and laughed. In the distance, she could hear the sound of Hecate’s leathery wings flapping toward them.

“We’re the Weird Witches, bitches!” She raised her arms and rose into the air. “Yeah!”

“The Weird Witches!” Eva shouted, joining her.

“Oh, fuck it,” Fern muttered. “Why not?” Rising into the air, she joined hands with her friends.

“To the Weird Witches!”

pencilJill Spencer lives in Maryland with her husband Dennis and her life coach Duke, a stumpy-legged dog with personality plus. She teaches English part-time at a local community college and is currently working on her first novel. Email: spencer.jill[at]



Eileen Gonzalez
Broker’s Pick

There's a new (old) dry erase board in town...
Photo Credit: Zach


My first thought when Kelby walked in was he looks normal enough, and I immediately regretted it. Of course he looked—was—normal, and if he was going to live with us for the foreseeable future, I’d have to stop thinking of him as abnormal or weird or non-binary or anything besides Kelby.

Caleb set the suitcases by the door as Kelby, with his hunched shoulders and stormy features, stood there not resembling his perpetually sunny brother in the slightest.

“All right then, Kel, this is my girlfriend Simone. Simone, this is Kelby.”

I smiled and shook his hand and said how nice it was to finally meet him. Just the standard script, but I tried to sound like I meant it. Kelby said nothing, perhaps sensing my reticence, perhaps being an ungrateful brat. Caleb nudged him with an elbow, which only earned him a sharper nudge back.

“Your room is down that hall, first and only door to the right,” I said.

Kelby snapped up the suitcases.

“I’ll help you unpack,” said Caleb.

“No thanks,” said Kelby.

He stepped lighter than his posture would predict, like stomping was beneath his dignity, and disappeared into the guest room.

“Your family’s nice,” I said.

“He isn’t always like this.”

“So you’ve told me.” And told me and told me and told me. As ambivalent as he felt about his parents, Caleb had nothing but unconditional love for his mopey sibling. So when Kelby got tired of fighting his parents over pronouns, Caleb insisted he stay with us. Only after Kelby accepted did he think to ask me.

“He needs a safe place to stay,” he’d said.

“I thought he was supposed to be mad at you for saying gender-fluidity is a load of bull cookies.”

“That was years ago. I’ve been trying to make it up to him since then.”

“And it worked well enough that he agreed to live with us.”

He nodded, shuffling his big-booted feet against the strip of hardwood between the dining room and living room carpets. I opened my laptop.

“I’m not going to un-invite him,” I said. Caleb looked like he wanted to thank me, but I started typing. I hadn’t even opened a window yet, but I needed that conversation to end, so I put on my work face and faked it. When I actually worked instead of pretending to, I maintained social networking sites for several small-to-medium businesses, including the Book Worm, a bookstore in Hartford; Fluffy Friends, a toy store with outlets in New Britain, Southington, and Waterbury; and Angelo’s, a swanky New Haven restaurant. I liked working for Angelo’s best. Their Facebook page was a constant stream of scrumptious photos and recipes even Caleb couldn’t ruin. On Kelby’s first night with us, he made lasagna rolls.

“Lasagna’s his second-favorite food,” Caleb told me. “I’d make his first favorite, but then he’d know for sure I was trying to spoil him.”

“I take it that’s a bad thing?”

“It is according to Kelby.”

Sure enough, Kelby thanked his brother for dinner with a mildly suspicious dip in his brows, though that didn’t stop him from taking seconds. Caleb made valiant attempts to grab his attention as we ate.

“You know, Simone is fluent in Korean. Learning about other languages and cultures is kind of a hobby with you, isn’t it?”

“I prefer Scandinavian languages, but that’s cool.”

“That sounds interesting,” I lied. “How many languages do you know?”

“None real well.”

And that was that. Well, no one could say I didn’t try.



As a lifelong Connecticut resident, I always feel obligated to tell outsiders that I can count the number of white Christmases I’ve had on one finger. White Groundhog Days, however, are a semi-regular occurrence, and it was on one such February 2nd that Kelby marched into the kitchen, announced they had no definable gender today, and insisted we use they to refer to, well, them. I beat my inner Grammar Nazi into submission as Caleb and I nodded.

The snow had largely melted two days before Valentine’s Day. Last year, we celebrated by going to Gillette Castle, the stately home of a long-dead stage actor whose idea of fun was to put guests in one room and watch them puzzle over the door’s odd locks from upstairs via strategically placed mirrors. I knew Caleb was The One when he said he would have used such a set-up to keep the kids out of his hair.

Kelby didn’t count as a kid, at least not to us; they were a year into college and paid for a good chunk of it by working at a comic book store four days a week. They stayed in their room most of the time too, studying or texting or whatever it was they did. So when they emerged from their self-imposed solitude to make a sandwich, I figured I might as well give cordiality another shot.

“Hey, got any plans for Valentine’s?”

“Study. Play Guitar Hero. Steal some of the super-expensive chocolates Caleb’s out buying for you right now.”

I gasped and smiled at once.

Kelby raised their eyebrows in a parody of surprise. “Was that a secret? Oops.” And if the words weren’t insincere enough, they smirked as they said them, but I laughed along anyway. I mean, c’mon. Chocolate.

“No, but seriously, no plans?” I said. “You’re adorable when you’re not angsting.”

“Yeah, well, no one is interested in having a girlfriend when they go to bed and a whatever when they wake up.”

They didn’t even have the courtesy to look upset about it. At least then I would have known how to react. No, they just smiled like we were talking about spring fashion. I tried to smile back in the vain hope it would banish the burning coal lodged in my chest.


The next day, Caleb bought a little whiteboard and hung it on the fridge.

“This’ll make it easy,” he said, holding out a purple marker. “Write your gender here so Simone and I don’t have to worry about screwing up.”

Kelby took the marker and wrote ‘Hello, I Am They’ on the board. It remained that way for most of the month. By the time ‘they’ got replaced by a lime green ‘she,’ the Grammar Nazi was black and blue. He’d get over it. Who listened to Nazis anyway?



Kelby sat on the couch, fiddling with his dark hair while reading a geography textbook. We never had to nag him (or her or them) about homework, and any time a presentation came up, he could spend hours practicing in front of the square mirror mounted on his bedroom wall. In short, surprisingly studious for a part-time brat. He didn’t even look up when I settled in the recliner beside him.

Work that day consisted of updating the Book Worm’s Twitter feed with news of St. Patrick’s Day savings on any book by or about the Irish. Someone asked if we’d be serving free Guinness. I didn’t dare respond, so my thoughts drifted over the coffee table (was Caleb allergic to coasters?), skimmed the couch (orange floral print seemed like a good idea at the time), and landed on Kelby. Kelby. Caleb and Kelby. Weird combination. I met their parents once, and they didn’t seem the type to go all matchy-matchy with baby names. But Kelby didn’t seem the type to give himself a name that honored his brother, so…

“Is Kelby your original name?”

“Why does it matter?”

“It doesn’t. I was just curious.”

He flipped the page in a manner that suggested I was fortunate he hadn’t flipped me the bird. Awkward, but it didn’t make the Book Worm’s Twitter feed any less stupid, so I grabbed a controller and settled in for some quality video game time.

“If you want quiet, you might want to leave. Mama needs some stress relief.”

I heard him close the book. I assumed he left until suddenly he was right there, watching over my shoulder.

“You want to play too?” I said. “It’s not hard.”


I handed him a controller and brought up the Create Character screen.


MALE          FEMALE

“I thought you said this wasn’t hard.”

“Sorry, I never really thought about that before.”

“Well, I’m a dude today, so we’ll go with that.”

He named his character Medieval Starlight and dressed him in the most distracting outfits the game provided. I blamed his initial bout of beginner’s luck on the ridiculous reindeer pelt that wiggled its antlers every time the wearer scored a hit. I swore in Korean. Kelby covered a snort with a cough.

“I thought you said you only knew Scandinavian languages,” I said.

He chuckled and shrugged. It was the closest he’d ever come to an apology, but after pounding Medieval Starlight into the ground a few times, I felt more inclined to forgive.



Sun poured through the bedroom window in direct defiance of trusted proverbs (“April showers” my foot) and my plans to sleep past six o’clock. The glow of my muted cell phone didn’t help.

Caleb didn’t wake as I stretched far, far away from the cozy warm comfort of our bed to grab the cold, cold phone. I just missed a call, apparently. The number belonged to one of my bosses, Michelle, who ran Fluffy Friends with her sister. They were nice enough, but Michelle had to be living in her own private time zone to think anyone appreciated her predawn check-ins.

I left the bedroom, mentally cursing all the way, and hid in the bathroom. Michelle spent at least a minute thanking me for returning her call so promptly before launching into a list of toys she wanted me to plug. Lacking pen and paper, I wrote on the mirror with Kelby’s lipstick.

By the way,” she said, one ruined tube of lipstick and a barely-legible mirror later, “I saw some of your more recent Tweets, the ones plugging the computer games we just got in?”


I know Twitter is hardly a bastion of good grammar, but you keep using ‘fun for all ages and genders,’ and that always looks awkward since there’s many ages and only two genders.”

“Actually, some people identify as a third gender or as being both male and female, others shuttle between two or more genders, and still others don’t have any gender at all. I didn’t want to exclude them, so I went with ‘all genders.'”


“Plus it’s easier to fit in the character limit than ‘fun for boys and girls of all ages.'”

Oh, okay. Keep up the good work, Simone.”

Yeesh. Did I ever sound like that?

I felt a little less like boss-punching by the time I joined Caleb and Kelby at breakfast. Kelby wore a plain button-up, jeans, and a face full of make-up. The whiteboard read ‘Tell HER About It.’

“Hey, babe. Hey, Kelby.”

“Hey,” they chorused. They could have been the new Queen with harmonies like that.

Kelby cocked her head. “You okay? You’re making an owl face.”

“Does that mean I’m cute? Owls are cute.”


“You are cute, though,” Caleb said.

“—it means you’re annoyed. Owls always look like someone drank all the orange juice and put the carton back in the fridge.”

“Did Caleb do that again?” I said.

“It wasn’t empty!”

“Yeah, you left like a whole teaspoon,” said Kelby.

I left them to bicker in favor of retrieving much-needed coffee. Out the window, two squirrels chased each other across a roof. I superimposed Caleb and Kelby’s squabbling over the scurrying squirrels, biting my lip so as not to interrupt the comedy routine behind me, and forgot all about Michelle until Kelby discovered her poor lipstick.



“You are not going out dressed like that!”

“I’m not five years old! You don’t get to dress me anymore!”

“Obviously I should! Is this what Mom and Dad let you wear?”

“Why do you think I’m wearing it now?”

Kelby stormed into the living room wearing a metallic black skirt and a ruby top. Nothing looked too tight or too skimpy, but Caleb must have seen it through Big Brother Vision and I knew better than to interfere in a sibling fight for any reason short of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Which, by the way? Never happen in Connecticut.

“Get back here and change!”

“You’re just embarrassed that your brother wants to go out in a dress!”

“That’s not—”

Whatever it wasn’t, Caleb couldn’t say it before Kelby snatched a clam-shaped clutch off the armchair and slammed the door. That didn’t deter Caleb from yelling, “I bought you that clutch!”

“No wonder it’s so ugly!”

I finally let myself laugh, which made Caleb mope like a puppy too short to reach a burger on the counter. He spent a full hour that way, slouching over the couch until he was almost on the floor, pouting at the television, checking the clock every thirty seconds. I was supposed to blog about the wonders of Angelo’s liquid nitrogen chocolate bars, but after the fourth sigh, concentration finally slipped from my grasp.

“Would you rather she didn’t have a social life?”I said.

“No.” His tone suggested a walrus-sized ‘but’ would be forthcoming if I waited long enough. I typed one whole sentence before it came. “I just wish she’d show half as much interest in spending time with us as she does alone or with her friends.”

“Did you want to spend every night with your family when you were in college?”

“Not every night, but I didn’t run away at the mere mention of a night with them, either.”

He returned to sulking and I returned to work. Those chocolate bars wouldn’t sell themselves. Okay, yes they would, but my boss didn’t pay me to state the obvious.


Around eleven, Kelby came back sober, dressed and smiling. I went to bed, but Caleb stayed up to hear every detail he could drag from his beaming sister.



Caleb reached for the scarlet tie draped across his pillow. I smirked into the mirror. He wore a dress shirt and slacks every day, but it never seemed to suit him. He should have been a construction worker or a sailor instead of an accountant. A very handsome accountant, but still.

I half-expected Kelby to barge in and make the snarky comments I withheld, but they had finally given into their parents’ request for a visit while Caleb and I went out for an anniversary dinner at Angelo’s. I tried not to mention the dinner around Kelby. It made them shut down, and asking why just drove them into an hour-long sulk. I remembered their comments at Valentine’s Day and kept my excitement to myself.

“Hey, help me with this, would you?” I waved my hand at the necklace that downright refused to fasten. His fingers brushed warmly against my skin as he did the clasp, promising a night of fond reminiscing and quiet laughter and then the front door slammed.

I froze for only a moment, but it was enough for Caleb to beat me out of the room. By the time I joined him, Kelby was storming by us, eyes glistening and left cheek burning red. Their only response to our concerned inquiries was the slam of their bedroom door and the intermittent sound of sobbing.


Caleb and I reheated last night’s macaroni and ate in the living room, just in case Kelby wanted to talk.


The sound of my fork scraping up eggs may as well have been the climax of an action movie. Caleb cast frequent, furtive glances at the bathroom door; Kelby had emerged from their room an hour earlier only to vanish into the bathroom and turn on the shower before any greetings could be shared. They’d been in there for forty-five minutes when Caleb finally gave up and left for work without brushing his teeth or a word to his sibling. I promised to text if something happened.

Two minutes later, in a puff of steam, Kelby crept from the bathroom. Their cheek had faded from red to purple.

“Morning,” I said.

“Hi.” They poured a glass of orange juice and took their usual place at the far end of the bar. They drank slowly while quizzing me on the weather and my job and the latest soccer scores. They didn’t say anything about the previous evening. I didn’t ask.

When I finished my own meal I told Kelby to leave the dishes.

“No, I got it,” they said, the only sign they knew of Caleb’s and my spoiled evening.

I texted Caleb of Kelby’s emergence.

How do they look? he texted back.

They LOOK fine…



Caleb must have gotten Kelby talking at some point because a week later, he whispered to me that Kelby had asked their parents to use the correct pronouns. They received angry resistance and ultimately a slap for their efforts.

He asked me not to tell Kelby that I knew.

“I don’t think they wanted me to tell you, but I figured you deserved it after what happened.”

We never talked about it again, and I certainly never mentioned it to Kelby. The bruise vanished under concealer and rouge along with any lingering hurt. I crushed the temptation to hug them and let them beat me at gender-clueless video games.



Slate clouds spat at us, though thankfully not enough to interfere with Caleb’s pre-birthday balcony barbecue. My job was to bring in the raw meats and vegetables from the kitchen and dump dirty plates in the sink. Caleb and Kelby’s job was to bicker over how well-done to make the burgers. Siblings were stupid, and so was my ‘let siblings fight in peace’ philosophy.

“Guys, you’re not gonna share the same burger. Just make one the way Caleb likes it, one the way Kelby likes it, and one the way I like it, which is nonexistent because I prefer hot dogs, which I do not see on this grill. Ahem.”

“But he likes to burn his and the smell ruins everything else,” said Kelby.

“It’s my party and I’ll burn burgers if I want to,” said Caleb. Kelby huffed an “Argh, fine” but he smiled as he said it. Caleb made a show of opening the packet of hot dogs and placing them on the grill one by one. I stuck my tongue out and disposed of the hot dog packaging.

Fight resolved. Score one for me.



I slammed my laptop shut. No more overly peppy tweeting about self-wetting baby dolls today!

Abandoning the laptop on the bed, I went to retrieve Kelby for our weekly video game mini-marathon. I almost felt guilty about planning to stay indoors on such a bright day, but we couldn’t possibly play video games outside. The TV was too heavy for us to drag all the way down to the courtyard.

Kelby’s room contained lacrosse gear, fat books, apples both natural and technical, several Beanie Babies and a stylish black coat, but absolutely no Kelby. Huh. I knew she came home on time…

Before worry could set in, Kelby returned, holding a few envelopes and a bagged newspaper.

“The old guy across the hall said he’s going to visit his grandkids for a week,” she said. “He asked me to pick up his mail while he’s away.”

George Kozlowski. He’d lived in this building since before Caleb and I moved in, and he’d probably still be there after we moved out. He seemed nice enough.

“Clearly he doesn’t know you as well as we do,” I said.

“Please. What am I gonna do, steal his AARP magazine?”

“Hey, they’ve got interesting articles.”



George came home on Labor Day. Kelby gave him an hour to settle in before gathering the bagful of junk mail and newspapers that had accumulated in his absence. She returned with a smile like summer vacation.

“He said I look just like his granddaughter,” she said, and she glowed for the rest of the day.



Kelby and I sat by the front door on barstools borrowed from the kitchen. At the sound of small running footsteps, I put on my top hat and Kelby brushed imaginary dust from his long dark dress. Yes, his. After initially resisting the Halloween spirit, he made a last-second decision to dress as Elphaba, even though he had written ‘HEre’s Kelby’ on the board that morning.

“Are you trying to make my head explode?” Caleb joked.

“It’s Halloween,” Kelby said, laughing and stealing the last strip of bacon off my plate. “You’re supposed to dress as something you’re not.”

Me, I dressed as Willy Wonka because then no one would look at me funny if I snuck a chocolate here and there (“I’m getting into character!”). Caleb just threw on a trench coat and called himself the Highlander, the lazy bum.

Caleb watched Ghostbusters while Kelby and I slowly gave away our bowl of Snickers, Almond Joys, and Hershey’s. We’d planned on giving Reese’s as well, but between the three of us, they hadn’t survived the weekend.

A knock at the door. On the other side stood Sara Hardy the pink pony from two floors down. We gushed over her cheap generic costume and gave her an extra candy for being so cute. We did that for everyone who wasn’t a six-foot teenager with a pillow case, but Sara and Sara’s Mom didn’t have to know that.

Ghostbusters ended and Caleb kissed the top of my head before disappearing into our room for the night. Kelby and I manned our posts for another half-hour. A parent or two gave Kelby odd looks, but as far as the little sci-fi villains, princesses, jack-o-lanterns and bumblebees were concerned, anyone who answered the door with candy on Halloween was fine by them.



After moving straight from my parents’ house to the apartment with Caleb (and later Kelby), being home alone still felt weird. Kelby had stayed late at school to work on a group project about the Hiroshima bombing or something equally cheerful. Caleb had gone to pick up new light bulbs to replace the dead one in the bathroom. The silence bounced around my ear canals until I popped in my earphones and turned on my Get Your Butt to Work playlist. It worked until Caleb returned, wrapping his arms around my shoulders.

“Take a ticket and don’t cut in line, sir.”

“There’s a line?”

“Yes, and this Facebook post is at the front of it. Then my email, then Scarlett Johansson, then you. No, wait. Email, Scarlett Johansson, everyone from Queen, then you.”


Caleb settled his chin on my head as I tried to think of tolerable autumn-related puns to plug Angelo’s seasonal dishes. ‘You’ll FALL for our black bean soup!’ ‘Don’t LEAF without trying our cranberry apple salad!’

“Are you trying to stimulate people’s appetites or kill them?”

“And who are you? Shakespeare?” I said, deleting the (admittedly terrible) wordplay. “Like you could do better.”

“For your information, I have a spectacular idea.”

“And it is?”

“Let’s go out. It’s been a while since we did anything.”

“Yeah.” Five months, to be exact. I missed couple time. “We could go antiquing. Because we obviously don’t have enough junk lying around.”

Caleb laughed and agreed and out we went, the wind stinging my ears with a hundred needles as we tread the familiar path to the antiques shop five blocks away. The cramped, cluttered shelves smelled of old cloth and good wood. We squeezed past ornate dining chairs we didn’t need to examine nineteenth-century jewelry boxes we didn’t want, all to the ticking of a grandfather clock that had stood in that same corner for three years now. I looked and hmmed and sneezed and critiqued but mostly I held Caleb’s hand, basking in the tranquility.



I returned from mailing Christmas cards to find the apartment looking and smelling like the world’s sloppiest bakery. Caleb and Kelby loved Christmas more than you’d expect from people who vigorously toed the line of atheism. We hadn’t even cleared the Thanksgiving dishes when Caleb cranked up the Christmas songs. Kelby dug The Muppet Christmas Carol out of his closet and we watched it that same night, snuggled under the poinsettia-covered quilt Mom bought us several Christmases ago. Sadly, that gusto failed to manifest itself as non-mutant gingerbread men.

“You know I bought cookies like three days ago, right?”

“That was the problem,” said Kelby. “We knew, so we ate them.”

Figures. Still, it was hard to argue with the scent of ginger and molasses and the sound of two very similar laughs warming the kitchen. I shed my coat and purse and leaned against the counter. The cookies looked even uglier up close. Biting their heads off would be a pleasure.

“We were thinking of giving some to our parents, but they’re a little too deformed, I think,” said Caleb.

Kelby pressed a decorative button into a cookie with unusual force. Uh-oh.

“I don’t want to go home for Christmas,” he said.

“Come on now,” Caleb said. “You agreed. We spent Thanksgiving here, so now we go home for Christmas.”

“I changed my mind. You’re supposed to have fun at Christmas, not get yelled at for ignoring anyone who uses the wrong pronoun.”

Caleb’s jaw twitched. I dug my fingers into my arm. Let it go, babe. You know you and Kelby will never agree about this. Don’t fight about it right before the holidays.

He exhaled through his nose and said, “You haven’t seen them since summer.”

“That recently?”

Another twitch. Please don’t do this, guys.

“I don’t think one day is too much to ask,” Caleb said.

“It is when it’s Christmas.”

“You agreed!”

“That was just to get out of seeing them at Thanksgiving!”

“Time out!” I said. Their boiling glares flattened into a simmer. “Now look, I know Kelby agreed, but maybe he could go home for Christmas Eve instead and then come spend Christmas with me or his friends.”

Kelby instantly brightened, turning to Caleb for approval.

Caleb threw a glob of green frosting onto a one-legged gingerbread man and smeared it around with a spoon. “Christmas Eve,” Caleb said. Serious. Confirming.

“Yes. Promise.”

“You try to weasel your way out of this one and I withhold your presents.”

Kelby laughed and nodded. The tension melted like snow on a sunny day. I smiled around a bite of deformed, lumpy gingerbread.

“Oh hey, we finished decorating the living room,” Kelby said. “Wanna see?”

I followed Caleb while Kelby skipped ahead, turning off the living room lights so the Christmas lights twinkled in the sudden darkness. The lights were strung from the fan in the middle of the ceiling, looping outward and framing that stupid grandfather clock we bought just to wipe the resigned pout from the shop owner’s face. Red and green garlands draped over bookshelves, and the small tree boasted ornaments shaped like snowflakes and superheroes and silver stars. Beneath the tree sat a modest assortment of ceramic houses nestled among white blankets, with tiny figurines spread about to bring the little town to life. Cheap plastic snowflakes shone like sun-warmed crystal.

“Wow, this is great! It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”

“‘Fairytale of New York,’ maybe,” said Kelby.

Caleb slapped him upside the head and offered to make hot chocolate.

Not being idiots, Kelby and I accepted and waited among the lights, looking around with wide eyes. Kelby turned on the radio at some point. Moments later, I reveled in the warmth of my drink and my family’s love as the first verse of a loosely familiar carol… wait.

“‘The Night Santa Went Crazy? Really?” I said, even as Caleb frowned at the incongruous violence wafting from his innocent stereo.

“It’s one of the only holiday songs I like,” Kelby said with a shrug.

“Guess I shouldn’t have gotten you that Michael Bublé Christmas album then.”

Kelby looked at me, expression wavering between suspicious perplexity and murderous intent. I managed to hold the poker face for three seconds before a giggle slipped free, and Kelby deflated with relief. Caleb took the opportunity to change stations, settling on Johnny Mathis. Kelby rolled his eyes but didn’t change it back, instead reaching for the steaming snowman mug on the coffee table. We all squished into the couch, cocoa in hand, and bickered over the music until sundown.

pencilEileen Gonzalez is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her short stories have previously appeared in The Potomac Review, Toasted Cheese and Helix Magazine. Her first novel, Jury’s Greatest Hits, will be available on the Kindle in December 2014. Email: piedpiper59[at]

Remaining Balance

Erin Charvet
Baker’s Pick

Photo Credit: Alberto Romero

Hal McHugh walked into the crowded, dingy waiting area and scratched his head. The last things he remembered were the antiseptic hospital smell, the masked faces of the doctors and some shots that had made him feel funny and fall asleep. Then a prolonged, annoying electronic beep had announced with apparent glee the permanent cessation of his vital functions. He’d done what they’d said and gone toward the light, but he hadn’t expected to wind up here, in this poorly lit place with a bunch of bored-looking people and no available chairs.

Had he died and gone to the DMV?

“Take a number, please,” said a frumpy woman sitting behind a window.

She slid a small slip of paper into the little metal tray beneath the slot at the bottom of her window. Hal picked it up. He was number 10,491,602. Glancing up at the large digital display on the wall, he saw that they were only currently on 533,754.

“Great,” he groaned. “Just my luck.”

He looked around for a sign indicating where the restrooms were, figuring he could kill some time that way, but didn’t see one. Then he realized that having relinquished his physical body, he wouldn’t need things like restrooms anymore. And if he didn’t need restrooms anymore, what else didn’t he need? This line of thought led him down a long, circular path of speculation that took up some time. A little while later somebody got up and he took their chair, so he was able to close his eyes and nap for a while. Napping—or rather, trying to—took a good bit of time as well, seeing how there were so many people shuffling about and arguing and asking one another for cigarettes and whining about being dead.

At last he stood up and began to wander the room again, contemplating his situation. He determined that although it was highly disagreeable, death at fifty-eight wasn’t the worst thing in the world that could happen. He’d had a respectable (albeit much-hated) mid-level management job for the past thirty years, a four-bedroom house in a good neighborhood and a wife who still wasn’t half bad to look at, even if she was hardly fit to boil water in the kitchen. His kids hadn’t wound up as cult members or with their faces on any America’s Most Wanted billboards, so he felt it safe to assume that his parenting had been equally satisfactory. His life hadn’t been the least bit exceptional, but he supposed that he’d gotten as much out of it as possible for someone who’d never sought even the shadow of remarkability. He might have lived another ten or fifteen years at most, had those clowns not botched his heart surgery.

After no certain amount of time spent wandering the room, sitting and standing again, striking up (and instantly regretting) conversations with the people in his immediate proximity, and examining water stains on the ceiling and walls with the closest to thing to scientific interest of which he was capable, Hal’s number was called. The woman behind the window pointed to a door, which he hurried through with the urgency of a man whose pants are on fire. Beyond the door was a colossal warehouse full of desks and ringing phones. He wandered down an endless cubicle corridor, overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the place.

“Mr. McHugh?” someone said.

Hal looked to the left and saw a pudgy, red-faced man in a tweed suit that perfectly fit his ideal of an IRS auditor. The man’s smile was so wide and artificial that Hal half-wondered if he were about to hear a sales pitch for a timeshare in Pensacola.

“That’s me,” said Hal.

“Name’s Dwight Strickland,” the man said, holding out a hand. “I’m your eternity officer. Wonderful to finally meet you in person.”

“Eternity officer?” asked Hal, shaking hands with him.

“I’m like a loan officer,” said Strickland. “Except this relationship really lasts forever!”

“I see,” said Hal. “So what is this place, anyway?”

“Sort of a stopover en route to your final destination, wherever that might be,” said Strickland. “Not quite what you were expecting, I take it?”

“Well, I’m not sure I—”

“Excuse me just a moment,” said Strickland, whose phone had begun to ring. He picked up and listened to whoever was on the other end with much intensity. There were a few uh-huhs and hmms and head nods. Then he thanked the caller and hung up. “Bosses!” he sighed, with an eye roll and a dramatic toss of the hands. “Just because we’re all dead doesn’t mean they’re any less demanding.”

You have a boss?”

“We all have bosses. You might’ve heard of mine—Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, Satan, etcetera. Some of your former associates have dealings with him on quite a regular basis.”

“What?” said Hal, blinking. “Like who?”

“Stan Ridgemore, who sold you your boat, for example. Fran Wyzinski, your old boss, and Dennis Neidermeyer.”

“My accountant was colluding with the devil?”

“We try to avoid terms like collusion here,” said Strickland. “Heaven, hell, purgatory, all it really boils down to in the end is business… and a slight temperature difference. Anyway, let’s get down to it.”

“To what, exactly?”

Strickland looked at Hal as if he were an escaped mental patient. “Your debt, of course,” he said. “Got to calculate what you still owe.” He took a big calculator from a drawer in his desk and began punching in numbers. “First of all, you were still sixteen years away from paying off that second mortgage you took out on the house.”

“That sounds like a lot.”

“Perhaps, but you really needed the money at the time. Remember how Holly just had to go to that fancy New England school with lots of big oak trees around? What you’d ‘put away’ for college barely covered her first year of tuition. Then she had to join a sorority, have a monthly allowance and get an apartment all by herself.”

“Fine, I get it,” said Hal. “Just tell me what the bill is.”

“Shortly,” said Strickland. He continued calculating. “There’s also the credit card debt, of which you still have over $48,000, not counting future interest. They’ve bumped up your rate three percent while you’ve been here, by the way.”

“Three percent already! How is that possible?”

“You’d never know, but you’ve already been dead for over a year,” said Strickland. “Sense of timing differs for the dearly departed.” He punched in more numbers. “Next we have the car.”

“But I’ve had my car since 1996!” Hal protested. “And Linda only got the Subaru because her Saab’s transmission was shot. That’s been paid off for years!”

“Not your cars,” said Strickland. “You co-signed on the purchase of Kenny’s Mercedes. Remember how he insisted on five-hundred horses under the hood and an all-leather interior being essential for what he so aptly referred to as ‘networking’? Well it turns out that Daddy’s little C-student wasn’t quite the entrepreneur one might’ve hoped for. As a result, the last several payments have been missed.”

“What else?” asked Hal, groaning.

“You owe the hospital for your heart surgery. Big time.”

“Oh no, that must be a mistake,” said Hal, holding up his hands. “I had excellent health coverage.”

“You are aware, of course, that your insurance company only covers sixty percent of the cost of successful operations?”

“But I died!” Hal protested. “I shouldn’t have to pay a single dime for that operation. If I were still alive I’d be dragging those incompetent jackasses to court right now!”

“Sound logic on your part, but here’s the kicker: if you were still living, you would have only been accountable for a forty-percent deductible, or approximately $37,600 for the operation. But because you died the insurance company pays nothing, making you liable for the entire cost.”

“That makes no sense!”

“Guess you’d better read the fine print next time,” said Strickland. “Now let’s see, where were we?” Hal put his hands over his face, the infernal clack-clack-clacking of the calculator knocking around inside his skull like marbles rolling around in a wooden box. “Now, with the new roof, remodeling of the kitchen, landscaping in the front yard, last year’s taxes, gas, electricity and dry-cleaning bills, we wind up with a grand total of $702,853.47.”

“Now hold on a second,” said Hal. “I also have a million-dollar life insurance policy. Haven’t you factored that in?”

“Correction,” said Strickland. “You had a million-dollar life insurance policy.”

“What happened to it?”

“Your wife threw a wonderful post-funeral party catered by Chez Hubert and picked out a reeeeeeally nice casket for you too. Macassar ebony and platinum with an incredibly comfortable satin interior. Top of the line, really. Almost makes you want to die all over again!”

“But the whole amount couldn’t possibly have gone to my burial, could it?”

“Oh no, of course not!” said Strickland, chuckling. “Linda went shopping on Rodeo Drive, got some plastic surgery and bought a beach house down in St. Thomas. She’s getting a foot massage right now from the cabana boy she picked up earlier.”

“Why would Linda think she needed work done?” Hal asked.

“Who knows,” said Strickland. “TV, magazines, marketing… but I tell you, she’s never looked better!”

“So now what?”

“Now we put you to work until you’ve paid off your remaining balance. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll be earning considerably less than you were at the time of your death.”

“Why less?”

“We subtract what you would have normally spent on food, which for you was a considerable chunk of your paycheck,” said Strickland, standing. “Now I’ll show you to your desk. Come with me, if you would.”

Hal followed him down the corridor for what seemed like several miles. After an uncertain number of turns, they arrived at an empty cubicle. On the desk was a rotary phone, a pen, an ancient typewriter and a yellow notepad. Strickland snapped his fingers. A huge metal cart overloaded with files came rolling their way. He stopped it with his foot.

“You’ll be reviewing these reports, and then reporting on what you’ve reviewed,” he said. “All you have to do is read through each file, type up a recap of the contents and place what you’ve typed into a new file.”

“Sounds pointless and dull,” said Hal.

“This job calls for a very particular skill set. Thirty years of mid-level management made you the perfect candidate.”

“So how long will I be here, then?”

“Shouldn’t be longer than fifteen or twenty years,” said Strickland. “About the time you would have retired anyway, if you’d made it that long. Then it’s on to good old ‘Rest in Peace’.” He looked at his watch. “Wow, getting to be that time. Enough witty banter for one day. I’ll let you get to it then. Good luck!”

Strickland spun on his heel and took off in the direction from which they’d come. Hal watched him disappear around the corner. Then he picked up one of the files, sat at his desk and began to read through.

pencilErin Charvet is an Atlanta native who studied journalism and psychology at Georgia State University. She’s been writing poems and stories ever since she can remember, and hopes to continue for as long as possible. She comes from a large family with whom she is very close, and currently lives in Paris with her husband. Email: erincharvet[at]

Missionary Man

Lisa Sagrati

Photo Credit: Wen Zhang

Ted stood waiting in the middle of the room, his arms hanging at his sides, as his companion came in and closed the door behind him.

“Hi, I’m Ted,” he said, and stuck out his hand. It hovered in the air for a few moments while the other young man set down his suitcase and walked over to him.


They shook hands, then Ted wiped his hand on his pant leg. Tom watched him silently, his heavy, dark eyebrows jutting intently, obstinately, over a mild case of wall-eye.

Strabismus, Ted thought.

“I’m sorry,” Ted said. “My hands sweat a lot, and I always mean to wipe them before I shake hands with someone, but I always forget, and then when I shake hands, I can feel how sweaty my hand is, so then I wipe it afterwards. I’m sorry, I know how it must look.”

“No problem,” Tom boomed. “I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”

“So, what do you think about being sent here?” Ted asked.

“Man, I was so relieved when I opened my mission call. I’m only a few hundred miles from home and I don’t have to deal with some completely bizarre culture.” He picked up his suitcase and headed for the bedroom they would share. “Too bad I still had to learn another language even though I stayed in my own country.”

“Huh. I was kind of hoping they’d send me abroad,” Ted said to Tom’s back. For years he had dreamed of a mission assignment to some remote village where the natives still worshipped pagan gods. He had spent much of his adolescence rehearsing speeches in his mind to dark-skinned tribes who sat rapt before him, surrounded by thatched mud huts and looming jungle foliage. He had imagined the acclaim and respect he would receive from church leaders and family for persuading people lost in darkness to accept the Prophet’s truth. But ever since he learned he would be staying stateside—not even leaving the Southwest—his mental monologues had felt uninspired to him. On the seven-hour bus ride to this small mountain town he had simply repeated to himself the lessons that had been drilled into him at the Mission Training Center.


The next morning, they biked through a working-class neighborhood where rotting double-wides mingled with well-maintained cottages. They spotted some Hispanic guys gathered around a pick-up parked in a driveway, two of them working on the truck, the others standing around holding cans of beer.

They braked and pulled up to the curb. As Ted approached the men, he smiled widely and genuinely, with “eye involvement.” It wasn’t enough to just smile with your mouth, you had to crinkle and twinkle the eyes. Ted found it easier to do if he imagined himself bathed in a pillar of light.

“Buenos días,” Ted began. The men eyed his clothes and snickered a little. Ted tried to ignore their amusement and focus on his message.

“No hablo Español,” one of them said, smirking.

“No problem, we speak English too,” Ted said. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”

“No hablo Inglés,” another man said. The group burst into laughter.

“Let’s go,” Tom muttered.

“Maybe another time,” Ted said, still smiling. He waved as they pedaled away.

“Should I have started with English? Were they insulted?”

“We’ll try again sometime. Once they get used to seeing us around the neighborhood.”

They rode up and down the empty streets. The sky was a deep, perfect blue.

“The sky seems closer here than in Salt Lake,” Ted said.

“I think that’s just an illusion. Because you know you’re at a higher altitude,” Tom said.

“Maybe.” He looked and looked at the sky, imagining it was an ocean. If he rode up the side of that A-frame cabin over there, he would take flight and land in the sky, floating along as if his bicycle were a kayak.

They passed a three-story apartment building that occupied half a block. They turned the corner and saw a young woman sitting in the small yard between the back of the building and its parking lot.

“Let’s stop here,” Tom said.

“Hold on. I should freshen up.” His buttoned-up shirt and dark pants made for sweaty riding. He took out two packets of moist towelettes from his pocket and offered one to Tom. Tom shook his head and watched wordlessly as Ted mopped his face and hands and then sealed the soiled wipe in a Ziploc bag and stored it in his knapsack.

They approached the woman. She was rummaging around in a wooden box filled with dirt. She dumped some vegetable scraps into the bin.

“Good morning,” Ted said. His voice came out in a pre-adolescent chirp. He gained control and, in more manly tones, said, “How are you today?”

The woman looked up at them. She smiled widely. “Are you guys Mormons?”

“That’s right,” Tom said.

Her hair was a solid dirty-blonde mat. She extended a hand covered with mud. While Tom shook her hand, Ted looked more closely at the contents of the bin. The soil was clumped together and slimy. Tiny flies darted in and out of it. He thought he saw movement just below the surface. He forced himself to smile and take her hand, then let his hand drop to his side. He felt the filth on his skin and thought of soap and a clean, brightly-lit bathroom with plush white towels.

“What is that?” he asked.

“It’s a vermicomposting bin,” she said, watching his face.

He gave no sign of understanding.

“A worm bin. They eat our kitchen scraps. The landlord here won’t let us have a compost pile or chickens. And this town is too backward to do municipal composting. The worm shit makes great fertilizer.” She gestured to white buckets with plants growing out of them.

Ted had worked in his mother’s garden and he recognized lettuce, kale, and cabbage.

“You grow your own food?” Tom said. “You must have good homemaking skills.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m a regular June Cleaver.” She dug in the bin for a moment, then said, “We can’t rely on food being trucked across the country for much longer, so everyone needs to grow whatever food they can.”

“Yes, the Lord wants people to be self-sufficient,” Tom said.

She rolled her eyes again and snorted. “I’m talking about peak oil and stuff, not about ‘the Lord’.” She made bunny ears with her fingers and flexed them.


“Who’s that?” a voice from above rang out.

Ted and Tom looked up.

There were two young men standing on a narrow balcony two floors up.

“Mormons,” she called.

“What do they want?”

“What do you think?”

“To save us?” the man answered in a childish voice.


Ted clenched his jaw and shook his dirty hand violently. The woman said it was shit. He wondered if he could wipe off his hand while pretending to clean his glasses.

Tom called up, “We’re just going around talking to people.”

“We like to talk to people,” one of the guys said. “Wait, we’ll come down.”

Ted looked at the woman, who continued to dig in the muck. She wore a loose tank top and baggy shorts. Her forearms were sinewy, her biceps the most well-defined he’d ever seen on a female. He noticed that her legs were covered with fine, dark hair and he suppressed a shudder. He could feel the energy of his disgust roiling around inside him as he stared, fascinated. Her legs were firm, slender, and long; they would be beautiful if she would shave them. Half-eager, half-fearing what he might see, he looked under her arms, which were stretched out in front of her as she worked with the filth. Sure enough, dark tufts of hair peeked out. His eyes glanced lightly over her breasts, enough to register that she was not wearing a bra, and then he focused with relief on her face. The bones were broad and long, her mouth huge. She could be an exotic beauty if she would only wash and comb her hair and put on some lipstick and eye makeup. Why would she deliberately make herself ugly? He noticed with a fresh, uncontrollable frisson of revulsion that she wore a nose ring like a savage.

Septum. Septal piercing.

The two men came out of the back door of the apartment building, carrying a glass jug and some empty jam jars, the labels still raggedly attached.

“Want some iced tea?” one of them asked. He was smiling broadly. His hair fell down to his chest in thick, brown ropes. A silver ring in his lower lip flashed in the sunlight.

“No, thank you,” Ted and Tom said in unison.

“Aren’t you hot, biking around? You sure you don’t want some?”

“We’re not allowed to drink tea,” Ted said.

Tom turned his head to fix Ted with his good eye. “We choose not to put stimulants into our bodies,” Tom said to Dreadlocks while looking at Ted.

“Oh yeah? How about relaxants?” He tittered and pulled a glass pipe out of his pocket. The stem of the pipe swirled with colors; the bowl was charred black.

“No thank you, we don’t smoke,” Tom said.

Dreadlocks turned to his friend, whose hair was short but whose earlobes were grossly distended, circular wooden earrings lodged inside the stretched flesh. Ted’s queasiness grew and he shut his eyes for a few moments.

Aboriginal. Indigenous.

The two men giggled.

Ted began to feel a strange sense of emptiness and aimlessness. Maybe he was still adjusting to the higher altitude.

“So where y’all from?” Earlobes asked.

“Salt Lake City.”

“You go to Brigham Young?”

Ted was sure he had actually said, “breed’em young.”

“No, we have been called to labor before we go to college,” Tom said.

“‘Called to labor’,” Earlobes repeated slowly. Deep dimples creased his tanned cheeks as he revealed straight, white, middle-class teeth.

“We’re doing a two-year mission,” Ted said, rousing himself.

“Oh yeah? I went on a mission instead of going to college. I was on a mission to save the redwoods. I was up in the tall trees for a couple years,” Earlobes said.

This information meant nothing to Ted. He tried to think of a relevant question to ask, but could only smile and nod. He began to relax. These people, these hippies, seemed friendly enough underneath their teasing.

The woman spoke. “Is this what you really want to be doing? Would you rather be in college?”

“I wanted to go to a foreign country,” Ted said quickly. “To convert the… um…”

“Savages?” the woman proposed.

“No! Just more… exotic people, I guess.”

“You wanted to travel, and experience a totally different culture?” she asked.

“Yeah! That’s it.”

“Well, why don’t you?”

“I was assigned to come here.”

She exchanged glances with Earlobes. “What would happen if you quit and decided to travel on your own?”

The question was absurd. “I couldn’t—I saved up for this—my parents are helping—this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

“But there are other things you could do. You know, if you really wanted to travel. You could join the Peace Corps. You could teach English abroad,” she said. “You could live with us for a while, get a little job, save some money, then travel. Rent’s cheap when you split it four ways.”

“Or six,” said Dreadlocks.

“Or ten,” Earlobes said, sniggering.

“No, I couldn’t do that. My parents wouldn’t let me.”

“How old are you?”


“I was on my own when I was seventeen,” she said. “You’re an adult. You can live your own life. Your parents need to live their own lives, not yours.”

Ted felt a desperate urge to run to his bicycle and pedal away. What she was suggesting was impossible. And he and Tom were supposed to be guiding the conversation. “Have you heard of Jesus Christ?” Tom asked. He seemed annoyed, almost angry.

“Name sounds familiar,” the woman said, frowning. “Look, you’re not going to convert me. I have my own spirituality, and I’m not interested in dogma or a patriarchal, authoritarian church that doesn’t let people be true to themselves. I go to the woods and the mountains and the desert to worship. And I don’t need to join a church to live right. Organized religions are for people too weak to do the right thing without someone making them do it.”

Ted felt afraid of her now. She seemed so sure and strong, bigger, hairier.

Ursa mater.

The substance of what she was saying hit him.

“Are you… are you… a pagan?” He hit the “p” much too hard, like he was spitting out the word.

“Sure,” she said, seeming to enjoy Ted’s expression of shock. “I guess you don’t have to go to foreign countries to meet people totally different from you, huh?”

“I’m sorry,” Ted said. “I’ve just never met a real pagan before.”

The three hippies laughed.

“Would you like to go out into the wilderness with us? We’re going on a three-day backpacking trip next week,” said Mother Bear.

Ted imagined the five of them sitting around a campfire as he and Tom taught them about the Prophet. When they got back to town he would proudly report three new converts to the mission president.

“Three days? How will you wash? Where do you go to the bathroom? Do you have an RV?” Ted asked.

“I don’t think we can do anything like that,” Tom said, cutting him off. “Our mission is here in the town.” He looked at Ted and gestured with his head toward their bicycles.

“Do you guys play hacky-sack?” Earlobes asked.

“I did for a little while, when I was thirteen,” Ted said.

“I never played. My parents said hacky-sack was… unsavory,” Tom said.

“Dude. That’s harsh.” Earlobes pulled a beanbag from a pocket of his cargo shorts. Half of it was black, with a white spot in the middle; the other half was white, with a black spot. He dropped it onto his instep and kicked it over to Ted, who reflexively kicked it up in front of him. He bobbed it up and down a few times, then passed it to Dreadlocks. Mother Bear stood up and joined them, while Tom backed away.


“Do you have any idea how ridiculous you looked, playing hacky-sack with a bunch of dirty hippies?”

“Aren’t we supposed to get involved with the local culture?”

Tom chewed his peanut butter sandwich. They were sitting in a park, eating their lunches.

“Okay. All right. But I just don’t think those are the kind of people we should be targeting,” Tom said in a calmer tone of voice.

“What do you mean?” Ted asked.

“Those people are lost, but it’s like they don’t know they’re lost. They think they’re on the right path.”

“Well, aren’t those exactly the kind of people who need saving the most? People on the wrong path?”

“Yes, but I think we need more experience before we can reach those kinds of people. I think we’ll have more success with people who aren’t on any path at all. People who aren’t so closed-minded.”

“You thought they were closed-minded? They seemed pretty friendly to me. They asked us to go camping with them.”

Tom was silent for a few minutes as he finished his lunch.

“I think they thought they were going to convert us. Or at least you.”

“Convert us to paganism? Do pagans do that?”

“Of course! They have cults! We should just stay away from those kinds of people.”

Ted looked up at the rock formation that dominated the western skyline. It stood out so sharply against the clear blue sky that it almost hurt his eyes to look at it. No, not my real eyes. It’s like it hurts some eyes inside of me. He pushed down the strange thought and tried to identify what he could see. Patches of gray-green scrub bearded the dusty yellow face of the outcropping. A separate ridge of rock rose like a nose along the gentle eastern slope. The shadows of tiny clouds dotted the hillside like liver spots or melanoma.

“What’s the difference between a butte and a mesa?” he asked.

“How should I know?”

“What SPF sunscreen are you using? Mine’s 50; do you think that’s good enough?”

Tom packed the remains of his lunch into his knapsack and headed for his bicycle without answering.


Ted was lying on his bed reading a book, relaxing after twelve hours of door reproaches. Tom came into the bedroom.

“What are you reading?”

“A novel.” He showed Tom the cover. Tom peered at it.

Cross-eyed motherfucker. Oops, that was bad.

“Is it a mystery? Science fiction?”

“No, it’s, um… I don’t know. A real-life story? It’s about a guy who lives in London.”

“Is it Christian?”

“No—I mean, it’s not un-Christian. I don’t think so. It’s not about religion. It’s just about his life, his relationships, his work. He goes for long walks in the countryside. There doesn’t seem to be much plot.”

“You shouldn’t waste your time if it’s not even Christian. If it doesn’t talk about God or Jesus at all, it’s probably not something you should be reading. It could be anti-Christian without you realizing it.”

Subversive. The word excited him.

“You should be studying instead.”

Ted put the paperback aside and picked up his Book of Mormon.


A Native-American woman had shooed them from her door, saying she already had her own religion and was busy taking care of her children.

“You know, I can understand why someone who already has a religion might not be interested in converting?” Ted said. “If that’s what they’ve been raised to believe? I mean, this is what we’ve been raised to believe, and we wouldn’t let anyone convert us to their religion.”

“Hello? Their religions are wrong! We’re trying to save them from Judgment? I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Are you a missionary or what?”

“I’m not saying their religions are right or that we shouldn’t try to save them. I’m just saying I can see their point of view.”

“If you can see their point of view, then you should be trying to figure out what kind of door approach will make them want to convert.”

“That’s a good point! I’ll think about that.”


They locked their bikes to a signpost in front of an apartment building. They began punching apartment numbers into the intercom. Number after number rang and rang. Finally a woman answered.

“Hello, ma’am, may we come up and talk to you about Jesus Christ?”

“Fuck off,” she said and hung up.

“People are so much ruder when they’re anonymous,” Tom said. They received a few more similar responses before a man answered who buzzed them in, cutting Ted off in mid-question.

They walked up the stairs to the third floor and knocked at the man’s door. It opened immediately. A pudgy, balding man smiled shyly at them and awkwardly waved them inside.

“Sit down, please. Would you like some herbal tea?”

They accepted and sat on the couch, as the only chair was covered with clothes and advertising flyers. Ted looked around while their host busied himself in the kitchen. The room they were in was the only living space. A narrow kitchen flanked the room on one side, with the bathroom on the other side. Ted shuddered as he realized he was sitting on the man’s bed, then hugged himself, partly to disguise his reaction and partly to comfort himself. He told himself sternly not to look into the bathroom, but he could not help himself. He saw that part of the shower wall was caved in and that someone had applied duct tape in an attempt to hold the crumbling plaster together.

Jury-rigged. Stop-gap measures. Sub-standard housing.

The man set mugs of tea on the end tables and sat down between them on the couch. Ted turned to pick up his mug and noticed a thick coating of dust on the table. It occurred to him that the wood was alive and growing a fur coat. He stifled a giggle. He glanced into the kitchen, saw a sink overflowing with dishes, and left the mug sitting on the table.

“Thank you for inviting us in,” Tom began. “We’re going around talking to people about Jesus Christ. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”

The man sat there smiling broadly. His T-shirt was stretched tautly across his flesh and was torn on one side, revealing a roll of pink fat that cascaded over the waistband of his sweatpants.

“The young people were here before,” he said. “They talked to me about Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith. The Prophet.”

“Oh really? And did you join the Church?”

“They came several times.”

Ted began to wonder if the man was simple-minded. He watched his face as Tom launched into his spiel. The man smiled unceasingly and nodded often. He eagerly took the pamphlet Tom offered him. Ted looked around but didn’t see any other books or magazines in the apartment. There was a large television opposite the couch. Soap opera figures moved silently across the screen.

“So,” Tom said. It was the first time anyone had allowed him to reach the end of his pitch. “Do you have any questions?”

The man shook his head no, still smiling.

“You’re welcome to come back, anytime,” he said, now bobbing his head affirmatively.

“So, you’d like to start receiving instruction? With a view towards joining the church?” Tom asked, unable to suppress his eagerness.

“Oh… maybe. But I don’t get out much.”

“You could still join the church. We can come here to give you the lessons. I’m sure we could find a way to get you to services.”

The man moved his head ambiguously.

“So. Why don’t you look over the literature and we’ll come back next week.”

“Oh yes! Please do come back. You’re such nice young men.”

Ted and Tom stood up, shook the man’s hand, and left.

They biked home in the early Arizona sunset. Ted began swerving, riding in big S curves back and forth across the street.

“La la la, la la la,” he sang in an ascending melody in rhythm with his pedal strokes. At an empty intersection he rode in clockwise circles.

“What the heck are you doing?” Tom said. He had slowed his pace to stay with Ted, and now he was stopped, watching him ride round and round.

Ted laughed and didn’t answer but resumed riding in the direction of the mission home, still singing softly.

That evening Ted found himself staring into the bathroom mirror. He reached out to touch his reflection. He tried to pinch the cheek of the face in the mirror, but his fingers only slid across the glass.


The next day they were standing on a porch talking to a woman who seemed not entirely unwilling to listen. She allowed Tom to come to a natural stop, then asked, “But how do you know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God? I thought all the prophets were in the Bible and already, like, accounted for.”

“Ma’am,” Tom said. “I know this is the truth because I have prayed to God and He has told me this true.”

“So God talks to you? Then are you a prophet, too?”

Ted brayed with laughter.

They both stared at him.

He covered his mouth with his hand and pulled down on the flesh, trying to iron his face back into that of a sober man of God, but giggles spattered out between his lips, and soon he was leaning against the house, supporting himself as the laughter swept through him like an orgasm.

“Elder Barrett,” Tom hissed. “Get a hold of yourself!” To the woman he said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, my companion isn’t himself today. Maybe we could come back tomorrow?”

“No, I don’t think so. But thanks for the entertainment,” she said and closed the door.

Tom grabbed Ted by the arm and dragged him to the sidewalk.

“What is the matter with you?”

“‘Are you a prophet? Are you a prophet?'” A few more moans of hilarity escaped him, but he was recovering from his intoxication. “It just occurred to me, how ridiculous we must seem to these people.” He waved his arm around. “And then I thought, how do you know, when you pray, that the answer you get isn’t whatever you’re hoping the answer will be? How do you know it’s really God answering your prayer, and not yourself answering your own prayer? I mean, how do you know?”

Tom looked at him coldly. “If your faith is true, then you know. And if your faith is true, you don’t ask questions like that.”


Ted entered the mission president’s office.

“Sit down, Elder Barrett.”

“Thank you.”

“So. Elder Bradshaw tells me you’re having some difficulties.”

“No, sir. I wouldn’t say that.”

Elder Michaels cleared his throat and looked at something behind Ted.

“You have… questions. Uncertainties.”

“Oh. Maybe. Sometimes.”

“Sometimes,” the older man repeated. He paused. “Perhaps it has occurred to you—that young men with the kind of questions you have, even sometimes, may not make for the best representatives of the Church in the world?”

“It’s not that bad. I was only wondering out loud. A few times.”

Elder Michaels set his face and addressed his desk. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints views homosexuality as an aberration. An abomination. The Prophet has made this very clear, and we will not be swayed by the propaganda that is becoming so fashionable these days.”


The mission president finally looked Ted in the eye. “If you are flirting with the idea of homosexuality, then you may not continue your work as a missionary.”

“I see.” But Ted did not quite see. Did Tom think that accusing him of being gay was the surest way to get rid of him? Or did he believe that anyone who expressed doubts about faith was suspect in every way?

“Does this mean I’m being sent home?”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to postpone your mission work until you get your ideas straightened out.”

“What will you tell my parents?”

Elder Michaels coughed. “It will be up to you to discuss with your parents the reasons you could not continue your mission work. We’ve bought you a ticket for a bus to Salt Lake. It leaves this evening.”


The bus pulled out of the station and headed toward the interstate. Ted looked out the window and recognized the neighborhood where he had played hacky-sack with the pagans.

The driver got on the PA. “All right folks, we’re gonna be plowin’ straight on through to Sin City, I mean Las Vegas, so sit tight and enjoy the scenery and our nice, clean, non-smoking bathroom. ETA Sin City 11:05 p.m.”

Ted took a last look at the butte, its edges gleaming with the greenish-gold of sunset. What was he going to tell his parents?

“Hey, missionary man.” Ted turned and looked at the young man sitting next to him. It was Dreadlocks. He wore a floppy knit hat in rainbow colors. His lip piercing looked infected. “Is your work here done?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Ya got anything to eat? This bus ticket cleaned me out. I’ve been so broke I decided I had to leave town to try to find a job. I heard there’s a lotta jobs in Vegas.”

Ted handed him the box of cookies he had bought at the grocery store on his way to the station.

“Thanks, man. You goin’ to Vegas to convert the sinners now? Or back to Salt Lake?”

“I… um… Vegas. I’m going to be looking for a job there, too.”

“Cool. Yeah, lotsa jobs there. Lotsa places to crash, too. Well, maybe I’ll see you around, then.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Dreadlocks put his earbuds in and munched on cookies. Ted turned to look out the window again, but it was twilight now and all he could see was his reflection. He pinched his cheek and saw his reflection do the same.

pencilLisa Sagrati’s writing has appeared in Red Savina Review, Poydras Review, Nerve, and Taking the Lane. She lives in Arizona. Email: lmsagrati[at]

Then We Shall See Clearly

Laura Marie

Hope Springs Eternal
Photo Credit: Denny Nkemontoh

All the houses looked different on the street where I grew up: a porch here, a color there, shutters or none. In all that diversity, my parents’ house did not stand out—it was not unusually uniform or unusually distinct. Our house was of the same order as all the other houses on the outside.

Deep down, however, my parents loved beige. The fact that they knew other people did not love that color didn’t dissuade them from wearing beige when they left the house. They would dress in matching khaki and look at each other and exclaim, “we match!” in delight, in relief. No one else wore beige, but they spent the weekends dyeing the pillows beige, painting the walls, filling the new nursery with a beige changing table, beige rug, beige crib.

When I was born, they dressed me in beige too, but they were people who thought ahead, who climbed the knotted rope of their own worry into the future; it was their favorite way to communicate.

“How?” My mother asked my father. “How can we raise her to be like us and also to be happy and accepted around other people?”

They had to think about it for years, over cups of tan tea and while I played with my taupe blocks.


As a child, I didn’t really know how to frame loneliness; it was a word I had heard and could define but which didn’t apply to me, in my parents’ house, looking longingly out the window at the house across the street. Kendra’s house.

I first met Kendra when her family moved into that house when I was four. My mother, in her first and only attempt at neighborly kindness, baked a loaf of banana bread to take to them. We only stood on their stoop for a few seconds before another four-year-old opened the door and stared at me in my beige clothes.

“Why you dressed so funny?” Kendra said.

“I’m…” I didn’t know how to answer this question, so I went with my instinct. “I’m Alisha.”

“I’m Kendra,” she said, her first question already forgotten as she turned and yelled into her home. “Momma! Some people are at the door!”

I tried to memorize everything about her: her two curly pigtails, off-kilter and nearly falling out of their pink-and-green scrunchies. Her too-large sweater was a bright teal color and her pants were printed with many colored puzzle pieces. I was instantly in love with those puzzle pants. She yelled, which I couldn’t remember doing since I learned words, and as her mother and my mother talked, I saw her return to playing with her brother and a couple of children her mom was babysitting, cousins of hers, I would later discover. They all wore colors, so many of them, chosen with abandon and forming a patchwork of motion there on the living room floor. Her house was done in many colors, more grown-up and sedate, but still: wine-reds, forest greens, with moving boxes here and there, open and overflowing with colors.

We left soon after my mother expressed her happiness that they were in our neighborhood; she had done her duty and been welcoming and could now return to her proper place. I, however, developed a habit of sitting by our front window and watching Kendra’s yard: she would play with siblings, other children, screeching and running and getting angry and forgiving. I learned what children looked like by watching her.


My parents came up with a solution to their worry a few weeks before I began school, something they were convinced would make me happy outside and inside our home. They bought panes and panes of mirror glass, and thick, sticky epoxy in tubes you had to apply using a caulking gun. In the basement, the one grey area of the house, my father turned on a fan and began assembling a suit.

That first one was too big for me but eventually was still something I would grow out of; mirrors had no give to them at all. The suit made of mirrors had one box-section for my torso, smaller boxes for my upper and lower arms, and other small, long boxes for my legs. The joints were not mirrored, so elbows and knees showed, but the most clever part of my suit was a two-way mirror for my head, a cube-shaped helmet that connected with Velcro straps so it wouldn’t slide around.

My mother sewed me a very soft beige jumpsuit to wear under the mirror suit. I thought it was a game, a game that would be even more fun with the other children. I looked at my own reflection in my parents’ bathroom mirror, a luminous, pink-tinged face, all edged up in baby fat, eyes all promise. Then I put my helmet on. I wandered back into the beige house and my parents surveyed my sides. I was all beige and their faces; I faded into their home, almost invisible.


At school for my first day, I kept catching the light, twisting to see all the things that passed over me, not sure whether to look up or down. In the classroom, there were twenty students including Kendra, all wearing normal clothes like her. I sat beside a small boy with a scar on his cheek and tousled hair that was both blonde and brown without having even a little of the calm of beige in it. I looked at him a long time, and he grew uncomfortable. When he saw my mirror suit, his eyes welled up with tears and he ran to the teacher, who held him and frowned at me. He did not explain to her why he was crying. I didn’t know how to explain anything at that point; nothing in my life had been unexplained. Nothing had caused scars either.


At first, the children didn’t know how to talk to me, because they had spent more time with other children already and knew them well enough to know the cube-headed girl was not like them. I got the courage up to try to talk to Kendra again. “Hi,” I said to her on the playground. “What’s your favorite color?”

Kendra narrowed her eyes. “I like all the colors,” she said.

“Oh,” I said, not thinking of this as an option. “I like beige best. My whole house is beige.”

“Beige is so ugly,” Kendra said. “It’s like clear. It’s not a color.”

This wasn’t going how I wanted it to. Kendra surveyed herself in my cube head, almost like she wanted to see what kind of beige-loving weirdo was behind it. I was nervous, but was disappointed when she stopped and ran over to the other girls to skip rope.


I spent years being ears and eyes. I tried to memorize all of the ways my classmates stood, talked, walked. When I didn’t talk about beige, they were softer, kinder to me, even though I was just blithely ignored more often than not. I couldn’t play many rough games without damaging the suit.

One day in second grade, a very beautiful girl named Olivia began attending our school; she had moved to our small town from New York City. At first I thought that she would be very popular and that everyone would like her, but she was so different from them and so uninterested in their suburban talk that she didn’t make any friends at first. Kendra called her “stuck up” and got put in time-out.

However, when Olivia saw me in my now-closer-to-fitting mirror suit, she smiled. “You’re as shiny as my sparkly necklace,” Olivia said.

“Yeah, if you stand right in front of me, you can see your whole self,” I said.

She did so, and surveyed her dress, her shoes, her face, and her hair, in my torso. “I look pretty good today,” she said. “In New York City, this dress is very fashionable.”

“Yeah?” I said. I resisted the temptation to ask if they had mirror suits in New York City. “What else is fashionable there?”

I think she was very lonely and missed her home, but I was thrilled. I had made my first friend.


Now that someone had befriended me, it became acceptable for anyone to do it. I amassed a huge variety of friends; I always had people to sit with at lunch, to play with outside, and to talk to between classes as we got older. I talked to friends on the phone at home or, later, wrote emails to them on the computer instead of staring out the window at Kendra. It might have been more friends than I wanted, actually, but it was like having too much air or too much water. These were resources one did not discard merely because of their abundance. I didn’t know how to talk to them all, so I mostly asked them about themselves, and they told me about their lives which, being different from my parents’ existence, were always new and interesting to me.

I grew apart from Olivia over time, but new friends replaced her without any rancor between us. She simply melted into her own friend group, sliding smoothly over my shiny surface and oozed away. Kendra did not ignore me, but she didn’t become my friend either; something about the mirror suit rubbed her the wrong way, and since most everyone else liked it she left me alone.

I asked my parents if I could invite my new friends to my house, even though I knew they’d find the beige house boring. I, even, on occasion found the beige house boring.

“Your mother needs her space,” my father said.

“All those colors that children wear hurt your father’s eyes,” my mother said.

So I wore my mirror suit in their house and was beige, and I wore my mirror suit at school, and was many kinds of people. I was content; school was so colorful, and I learned to love the lessons because they let me spend time around all those other children whose stories were becoming part of my own experience. A part of me still liked Kendra but I no longer had a good reason why I wanted to be her friend instead of any of the many others who came into and out of my childhood.


By high school, the corners of the boxy suit were digging into my sides when I walked, and the holes in the boxes were barely big enough for me; like many other teenagers, I felt like I was going to explode out of my skin at any moment, but unlike them, I would send painful glass shards into anyone in the vicinity when it happened. My parents made me a new kind of mirror suit, one that fit to the form of my body, molded glass; people could stand in front of me and when they looked into the mirror it was so perfectly formed that they thought they were looking at an exact replica of themselves. It took my father ages to make, and the entire basement smelled of solder and sanding belts and chemicals. I got it for my sixteenth birthday, and I had to admit, it was a masterpiece. When I stood before my mother’s mirror, I reflected nothing at all into infinity.

My father was about to start work on a new helmet when I stopped him.

“I don’t want a new helmet,” I said.

“But the old one is so small for you,” he said, examining the cube on my head, looking at himself in it, slicking his hair back.

“No,” I said, pulling the helmet off. “I don’t want a new one or the old one. I just want to be able to look people in the eye.”

My father busied himself putting away tools. “All right,” he said. “You were always the social one.”

I briefly wondered how and why my parents thought so little of the rest of the world when they were raised in it as children. My father was not going to tell me though; instead he and I went upstairs and found my mother so we could play a board game.


The day I went to school without the helmet, Kendra came up to me at lunch. “Hey,” she said. “Can I sit here?”

People rarely asked me questions; usually they just told me stories. “Yes,” I said. “Of course. How are you?”

“I’m shitty; my brother is driving me up the wall,” Kendra said. “But let’s talk about you. I like the new look. That suit is sexy, even if it’s still weird that you wear it. I’m glad you don’t have that creepy robot helmet on any more.”

“People liked it,” I said. “This is just… more comfortable.”

“Well, I didn’t like it,” she said. “I can actually talk to you now. So get this,” she said, and started telling me about her brother getting in trouble for having drugs and then hiding them in her room. She poured some of the chaos from her life into my head, and while it was like other talks I had before, it was also different. She wanted opinions. She wanted advice. The conversation required a lot of input, and if I said something she thought was stupid, she’d tell me right away. I tried to swim in the words and found that conversation with someone so different from me, real conversation, was choppy, always liable to smack me in the face with a wave.


The suit itself was mesmerizing. My older friends sometimes became so entranced in their own reflections that they would tell me things that they had never told anyone, that they hadn’t even told themselves because before me they couldn’t look themselves in the eye, watching for the forgiveness and understanding that they craved. I learned to be the face of forgiveness and understanding, because I loved nothing more than to hear those secrets, to hear approval in their voices in the rare moments when they spoke of me and not merely to me. If I ever did that with Kendra, accidentally, she’d get pissed and say “you’re going all robot on me.”

I chose a college, chose a major in middle grades education, but paid little attention to it, riding the high I got from talking to everyone about their ambitions.

When I finished high school, my friends scattered like children told to hide, fleeing to colleges and jobs and travels, all except Kendra who selected the same university as I did. My parents told me I was an adult now, and I didn’t need the mirror suit any more because it had always been to protect me. For my graduation gift, they gave me beige pants, shirts, dresses. I packed them dutifully, but told them that actually, the mirror suit was quite nice. I liked it. They looked concerned, but they didn’t have the words to voice complaint. I was wearing the suit they’d always made me wear; they couldn’t fight me on that without fighting the younger versions of themselves.

I told them that I’d wear beige under the suits, as had been my custom, but I began to doubt that I would. I had never had to choose between beige and other colors; beige was simply the home color and all the others were for out in the world. I was starting to think I actually didn’t like beige at all, once the question came down to either-or.


In college, however, I didn’t have to worry about beige; I chose a university far enough away from my parents that I visited only once or twice a semester. Mostly, I made more friends than ever. At Kendra’s urging, I started adding accents: a cute belt, a pair of sunglasses, some bracelets, bright jumpsuits underneath, to accessorize the suit. People thought it was pretty fashionable. Kendra had far fewer friends than I did, and she didn’t think very highly of the groups I ran with. Her friends tended to be wildly different from her, and when she had arguments with her friends that ended in laughter over their differences, I couldn’t help feeling a bit cheated, like my smooth-sided friendships could use a bit of that friction.

At the end of college, we talked to career counselors about interviews and applying for jobs. I had studied education and was now ready to begin teaching. You have an impressive resume, my counselor said, but I hope you don’t intend to wear that silly mirror suit. The students will never respect you if all they see is themselves in you. I realized she had a point. I surveyed my closet: the mirror suit, jumpsuits, and the cast-off beige clothes. None of these things was going to work. I went shopping with Kendra and bought many colored clothes, all fitting the styles that teachers usually wore, without much concern for what they looked like on me. Kendra kept telling me that she thought this looked good and this looked bad but I couldn’t for the life of me tell the difference; I was out of practice making clothes look good on my own body.


I applied to and interviewed with various school districts, and received a good job in a neighboring state. My parents were ecstatic, very proud of me, and because I was living so far from them, I never had to have a conversation with them about the beige clothes. I had heard about all the things people do after they graduate: rent an apartment, buy groceries, make new friends. I knew exactly how the mirror-suit Alisha would do these things, but I had no idea how I would do them now, and whenever I wore the mirror suit to school toward the end of college, people gave me strange looks, like a switch had been flipped and it was odd to them that I hadn’t grown up yet. Kendra had been saying it was weird for so long that I had stopped listening, so when I complained to her that someone had given me a funny look, she merely rolled her eyes and said, “Duh. It’s really weird that you still wear that thing.”

Sometime along the line, I had missed the time when I was supposed to develop a style. I wore my teacher clothes because the mirror suit no longer made eyes slide over me without seeing me.


The new town was like a dainty jewelry store: beautiful and inviting but hard to break into. My job, strangely, was the easiest part of my day, because I had studied how to do it. However, the years of mirror-suit training had made me unable to talk to people about myself; I sounded pompous or demeaning or merely inarticulate every time someone showed interest, despite my years of life with Kendra that had forced me to try a bit harder. More importantly, people didn’t seem to have a compelling reason to befriend me, and so making friends was hard; everyone was polite and friendly, but no one was drawn to me magnetically.


I went home for Thanksgiving that year, and for the first time in a long time, the beige house bothered me. “Why,” I finally said. “Why do you two love beige?”

My parents looked at each other and looked at me. “Don’t you know? Don’t you understand?” my mother said.

“We are each other’s best friend,” my father said. “And we love you very much. We just wanted to protect you—the world is dangerous and cruel.”

“I know that,” I said. “People haven’t been the nicest to me out there. But beige is boring.”

“Beige?” My mother said, surveying the house. “It’s not boring! It’s… comforting.”

“Comfort is for after you experience something,” I said. “You don’t. And I don’t really, either.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” my father said. “We gave you that mirror suit to protect you, to help you live in the world and come back to the home safe. I don’t think it worked. I think it changed you.”

“I think it did too,” I said. Dinner was getting cold and so we ate quietly, temporarily exhausted by how different we were.


I knew that our fight was quiet and tame by comparison with the ones that Kendra had with her family. I tried three, four, five times to pick up the phone and call her and let her know what was going on. A part of me knew she’d stop anything she was doing to help me, to make me feel better, but another part of me thought she would be annoyed that she had to baby me yet again. I never called her. I knew she’d gotten a good job as well, and she sent me email updates on her life, but hers were good, better than her life ever had been in high school or college, so I lied and said that I felt that way too.

One evening I came home from work on a Friday evening and got to thinking about high school, when I’d spent reasonably happy Friday nights in with my parents, playing games in the beige family room, or in college, when I’d have big flashy parties for my friends and we’d dance, even Kendra if she was around. My body became a disco ball in the low lights with everyone shining flashlights on it. I loved both of those times and I was now alone, the emptiness of a mirror in an empty room.

I angrily took both of the mirror suits out of the closet and fetched a hammer. I shattered the pieces of the suits, loudly enough to worry a few of my neighbors. “I’m fine,” I told them. “Just cleaning out my closet.”

I wasn’t angry at my friends or my family; I was angry at the suit. The suit had done it, and what was the worst was that the suit hadn’t done it on purpose; it merely existed. There was no one to blame. I swept up the sparkling bits of the suit and looked at them. They reflected light and color in all directions but no images any more.

I bought epoxy and wooden frames. Instead of canvases, I stretched the material from the beige shirts and pants and dresses out and stapled it onto the wooden frames; I liked how these canvases had seams, pockets, buttons. They drew attention to themselves for once in their existence, and I liked the perversity of that. I spent that whole weekend listening to music on the radio, humming along as the words became familiar, and painting gobs of epoxy-and-mirror-shrapnel onto the canvas, smearing them around to create pictures.

I made one picture of two children, looking at each other through a wall of windows. I made one picture of my parents in their home; I used clear epoxy instead of beige. It was, after all, pretty close to the absence of color. I made one picture of me holding onto mirror-dust balloons in the sky and mirror-colored stakes in the ground and I was in the middle, mirror-warped, pulled in two directions by the mirrors themselves. While they dried, I surveyed them. They looked like children’s paintings, rough and vague and nearly formless, but with texture, raised off the paper, sturdy. For once I wanted to decorate my house, had that impulse, without much caring what other people would think when they saw them.


I had to wait a few more weeks before I had the courage to invite people over to my house, and as it turned out, people said yes to dinner party invitations from me even though they didn’t know me very well. We drank wine to relieve some of the missing words in the room, and we played board games my parents had loved and given me for this new home. A couple people complimented me on my clothes even though to me they still felt awkward. What they liked best, however, was the art in my apartment; it was nothing like they’d ever seen before, but it made them think. “What is it made of?” someone asked.

“Mirrors,” I said. “And my old clothes.” They looked at me like someone who was different from them but within a range of acceptable variation; a person who could, with time, be explained. They began discussing other interesting art they had seen before. I tugged on my ill-fitting skirt and sipped my wine, trying to see in the canvases what they were seeing for the first time.

pencilLaura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She likes construction equipment, grumpy cats, and the color brown. You can read things she writes about writing at The Flying Writer.

Kitchen Prep with Rain and Hail

Kyle Manning

Photo Credit: ADM

For just an hour the rain fell, as in the world there are fleeting changes. It was a Friday evening and Tom and Maria were on as usual, with her punching the register and filling drinks while he cooked one pizza at a time. Maria usually liked those shifts, how they came and went quickly with the rush. But that hour was long, with the constant reminder of everything outside of a kitchen. The rain came and went, and by the time Maria left later that night the sewers had swallowed even that heavy burden.

Just after the rain began, however, just after the wind really picked up and the things outside grew into upheaval as they shook and made noise, somebody shut the front door, and the entire place began to boil in the heat of its own ovens. Tom reached for towels, drenched them with sweat. Maria chewed ice and arranged the dishes that would later need to be cleaned, fumbled around, hoped the heat would end soon, but never wanted to drop slack. Tom was a friend, but it had always been that he had given her this job.

Her eyes did wander. Customers, concerned among tables, their movements synchronized with straightened backs and head turns. Talk of tornado warnings.

For as long as it lasted, the wind and rain only grew. The water came high over the sidewalk ledge, and everyone seemed to catch it like a hint. Plates full of food grew cold, as people either scurried to watch or hide beneath their tables and chairs. The young busboy kept his gray bucket on the counter and just stood by watching the tall windows, more full of action and adventure than a movie screen.

The drone of rain became the knock of hail. Orders stopped coming in, and the seventeen-year-old delivery boy had yet to return from an in-town order. Maria eyed the phone for so many minutes before blocking Tom from reaching the freezer. “Collin should have been back,” she said to him. “Look how high the water is.”

Tom loved Maria, because he had gone through three other girls before he had found her—he said that whenever he could, in a voice as if he truly meant it, to his old friends passing through who just wanted to get their pizzas and leave.

Maria knew those girls from high school, and hadn’t seen any of them in years.

“It’ll pass,” Tom said. “Give it some time, it’ll pass.”

And it did pass—in fifteen minutes Maria was filling orders and the busboy was emptying half-full trays into the kitchen garbage can—but not before she left the counter unattended, took the boy by the shoulders and sat him down away from the window and next to a frightened family. The child was wrapped in the mother, and the father peeked out. The metal roof screamed and the tall windows cried, and it would all be over soon.

At its height, there was some great flash. Seconds later Maria felt a pound—and then a rattling boom—the sound of Tom kneading tomorrow’s dough.

pencilKyle Manning grew up in Highland Lakes, New Jersey, but lives and writes in central Maine. He studies Creative Writing and English at the University of Maine at Farmington, and his fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Sandy River Review. Email: kmanning016[at]