The Shot by Anne Greenawalt

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

The Shot by Anne Greenawalt

The timing for Anne Greenawalt’s latest novel, The Shot (GreenMachine, 2021), a light speculative thriller, is spot on as it compellingly mirrors the realities of the current COVID pandemic’s political, health, and social concerns which no human being on this planet is unaffected by. Most of us never saw this coming. Strangely, Hollywood may have. How many films in the last decade have been about a virus that conquered the world? But in their scenarios, humans fought and persevered… and, in the end, humanity won. I think. But for us in the here and now, our story isn’t over. The script hasn’t been finished. When the vaccine was being developed, many of us counted the days until it was ready to be released and when it finally was in the U.S. many people decided not to get it and are still opting out. They have big concerns: Would it work? What are the long term effects? Is it safe? What about children…? What about them, indeed? People feared other things, too. Many of the conspiracy theories are based on government control from tracking devices attached to the vaccine that would infiltrate the human brain or DNA. Maybe both. And fertility concerns. Those seemed viable. Is the COVID vaccine safe for pregnant women? Would there be complications later when people wanted to start a family?

So when Anne Greenawalt’s review request appeared in my inbox with her cutting edge story, it gave me pause. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. As a reader, I’m a little bit of a scaredy-cat. I am a true lover of old-school horror and sci-fi but The Shot’s premise made me wonder. Seriously, I wasn’t actually afraid to read the novel even though Greenawalt’s story so closely mimicked the here and now that I did wonder if it would change my thinking about the pandemic. And if it did, how far away from what I consider my personal true north would my opinion-compass spin?

In the end, my curiosity won out. And I was very glad it did. Let me tell you about Anne’s novel:

It is a very compelling story. And I don’t use that word lightly. It’s a true page-turner. I had to stop and pace myself from plowing straight through it in a few readings. Greenawalt is adept at setting up this thriller. From the first few pages, I was all in. The setting was picture perfect for this type of story and also served to move the plot along. She thoughtfully introduces the main characters and subtly begins to weave the beginnings of the conflict using white noise from the media the characters read and think aloud about and also watch on TV. The characters are believable and likeable. The main protagonist, Sam, is a college English professor in a nameless college in a nameless city or town somewhere I believe to be in the U.S. And that is all the reader needs to know.

The novel also keenly uses government propaganda in the classroom on the first day of class as a teaching point to introduce the idea of writing with purpose for a particular audience but what is really cool is that it’s also a mechanism, a plot device, as it conveys to the reader the conflict illustrating the political space in which these characters exist:

The vaccination poster was one Sam hadn’t seen yet with Smokey the Bear pointing his finger: “Only YOU can prevent bio warfare.”

“Do you see that poster?” Sam asked.

Thirty or so necks craned to follow the path of Sam’s pointed finger where the poster, tacked with Scotch tape, hung beside the light switch. …

“What can you tell me about that poster?” (3)

Keeping with this idea, the posters were a classic method of “showing” the reader versus “telling” the reader and a useful foreshadowing tool, as well.

That said. Much is revealed in Sam’s college writing classroom and as the novel progresses with it a sense of dread that slowly—tick tick ticks—and masterfully begins to manifest as the political posters change form and frequency with their messages ramping up. Think Orwell’s 1984 meets early Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, rumors begin to circulate about the virus, the vaccination, and the people who have opted not to get it despite government pressure. Sounds a little familiar? However there are no vaccine lotteries in this reality. Democracy seems to be slowly fading into the shadows as a new government begins to rise with the newly-created Department of Family Services which issues parenthood licenses to those who meet their directives and more. While in the classroom Sam and her growing Scooby gang shine a bright light on conspiracy theories that may actually be true and, as the narrative picks up speed, they act on it.

Door bells ring at unexpected moments. People appear. People disappear. Many of the chapters end with suspense. All of it cranks up the tension. These moments are spread out in a linear plot that follows a collegial calendar, noting holidays, breaks, and final due dates, which I particularly appreciated because there was never a moment that I didn’t know where I was in my reading space and where and what my new friends were up to, as well. The Shot has a simple narrative structure that is as effective as it is elegant.

On that note, a quick aside: It seems lately that structure is the new play toy for writers. Constant flashback and revolving points of view sometimes make me dizzy and disoriented in my reading when over done. It affects what I have read and what I think I know about the story.

In Greenwalt’s novel, there is exceptional writing that I also noted as I read. Greenawalt takes her time rounding her characters with snappy, provocative dialogue combined with crisp detail that literally pans the room for the reader to see, hear, etc. while the characters move about with intent and ease. And I, the reader, am there, too. I can see everything happening as if I was a ghost in the pages.

A 19-year old who would normally be in a nonstop, stream-of-consciousness monologue with whoever would listen while also maybe teaching his classmates hip-hop dance moves, hadn’t spoken yet that morning, but his blue eyes were wide and alert as he looked from classmate to classmate. A grandmotherly woman originally from Sudan, sat with a pen poised at her composition book. A former high school shotput champion, and her best friend with the voice like Minnie Mouse also sat silently and tracked Sam’s every move. A young man who wrote his narrative essay about his sexual orientation but had an unexcused absence on the day of narrative presentations, kept poking the tip of his tongue into the piercing between his bottom lip and chin. Riley sat at one of the tables near the back of the room, and when she caught Sam’s eye, she gave her a coy half-smile. (43)

I also particularly enjoyed the small moments of humor that serve as respites between plot points. Two characters stood out in this regard. Maura, the colleague, and Riley, the student. They were real scene stealers. These small moments that sometimes have nothing really to do with the story have everything to do with the characters, making them fully-realized and believable. More human. The extra space on the page for small moments of humanity never distracts from the narrative. It enriches it. This is not a new notion. Both in print and in film, good writing is about character development and making connections to the reader.

The Shot progressed up the story arc and at the very top, just a few chapters to the end, it hovered rather excitedly. Much was revealed and spoiler alert: much was still left to write. The novel ended on an exciting note much like a Hollywood blockbuster cliffhanger that, although no mention was made of a Part 2, cracked the door open for a possible sequel.


Dr. Anne Greenawalt is a writer, competitive swimmer, trail adventurer, educator, and dog lover. She earned a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University and a master’s degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia, and works as the training manager for a nonprofit that provides residential and clinical services for youths who have experienced trauma. She writes for WOW! Women on Writing,, and StoryTerrace. Twitter: @Dr_Greenawalt


Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]

The Night on the Rock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Christina Hoag

Photo Credit: WhatsAllThisThen/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Richie coasted down the hill in his Plymouth Duster and turned into the shopping center. Three cars were parked in the middle of the empty lot. Their drivers lolled against the fenders with ankles crossed, smoking and drinking from bottles in paper bags like they owned the asphalt. Richie knew them from school, who didn’t? Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien. They’d just graduated.

Richie cranked up Lynyrd Skynyrd on the eight-track, checked the windows were rolled down and pressed on the gas. The engine rumbled. As he sped past the three guys, he glanced in the rearview mirror. They didn’t even turn their heads. Douchebags.

He spotted a parking slot under a light. He braked and spun the chrome steering wheel with the heel of his hand, so the Duster stopped within the white lines. He got out and stood for a second to admire the wax job he had spent the afternoon on. The car gleamed. He had bought it three months ago with his dad pitching in a thousand bucks for his seventeenth birthday. So it wasn’t Mark’s 357 Mach II Mustang, Butch’s black-and-gold Trans Am or Lenny’s metallic blue Challenger with a white double-stripe, but that was why he had signed up to take auto shop as his senior year elective instead of art. He’d make his ’72 Duster into something those assholes would have to look at. Deck it out with a spoiler, jack up the rear suspension, give it a cool paint job with the money from his job at the car wash.

Twirling his keys on his forefinger, he sauntered over to the blacked-out storefront of Palace Games. It was just after nine and summer’s darkness was settling into a Friday night thick with invitation. The manager was ushering the last customers out of the supermarket and locking up. The arcade and a dusty fabric store were the only other tenants in the strip mall. The rest of the windows bore “for lease” signs and whitewash curls.

Richie swung open the door to Palace Games and was greeted by a blast of cigarette smoke and the driving bass line of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever.” He fished a couple quarters out of his pocket and jingled them in his palm as he roved. Clicks from the air hockey tables and the tinny bells of pinball filled the air. Kids crowded around the new Space Invader game machines. Keith wasn’t around. He was probably at the Dairy Queen waiting for Charlene to get off work. He’d been asking her out for two weeks and she kept turning him down. Richie had told him to give up already, but as Keith pointed out, what did Richie know? He’d never had a girlfriend.

Richie knew all the kids from school, by sight if not by name, except for two girls wearing tight Sasson jeans playing Star Trek pinball. He was good at pinball. That and welding sculptures out of scrap metal with his dad’s oxyacetylene torch. Everybody thought his stuff was weird, except for Mr. Sampson, the art teacher, who was always encouraging him to enter contests. He had won a couple. But the prizes didn’t mean much to his father, a welder at the Ford plant. His dad would stand with his hands jug-handled on his hips, head cocked, as he considered his son’s contorted shapes. “Good seams,” he’d say finally.

“But what do you think of the form, Dad, the expression?” Richie would ask. That was how Mr. Sampson talked. He’d say things like the “expression of the piece,” “the evocation of emotion,” “the resonance.”

“Well, it’s a piece of fine cutting, just like I taught you,” his dad would answer. Then he’d take Richie to the salvage yard and they’d pick out bits of metal for Richie’s next welding “practice.” At least, Richie got to keep making his sculptures, but he wished that just once his dad would see the creation, not the welding.

Neither girl looked up when Richie sidled up to the machine and shook out a Marlboro from the soft pack, plucking it out with his lips. He shot a look at them over the lighter’s flame. The one playing had wings of brown hair hanging in front of her face as she leaned over the machine in concentration. She was as tall as Richie. The other was baby-faced, shorter, with a dirty blonde Dorothy Hamill haircut.

The ball rolled into the chute. “Game over” flashed on the board.

“Agh!” the one playing threw up her hands.

“You did good. You scored a lot more than last time,” the short girl said.

“I did shitty.”

“That’s not bad,” Richie said. They noticed him for the first time. “Mind if I take a shot?” They moved aside and he slid a quarter into the slot. As he hoped, they stayed to watch. The silver ball popped into the launching chute. With the cigarette dangling from his lips, he pulled back the spring-loaded lever as far as it would go and released it with a twanging thud.

The ball zinged from pillar to pillar as bells pinged. Aware he was on show, Richie put extra effort into swiveling his slim hips to the rhythm of the flipper button he pressed and thrust his pelvis forward when he hit both at once. Points mounted to an impressive total at game’s end.

“You’re really good at this!” the short girl said.

“I’ve been playing a long time.”

“Oh, that’s why,” the slim one said.

“I haven’t seen you ’round here before. What school do you go to?”

“OLPH,” the short one said.

The local parochial school.

“How ’bout you?” the slim one asked.

“Indian Hills.” Richie jerked his thumb in the general direction of the high school.

“What grade are you in?” the slim one said.

“Senior. Going to be.”

“We’re sophomores,” the short one said.

“So, ah, what are you girls doing tonight?” Richie looked at Spock’s ears on the machine’s backboard and felt his own ears get hot. “Want to go for a ride?”

The girls looked at each other. The slim one leaned into the short one’s ear, then straightened.

“We have to be back by eleven-thirty,” the short one said.

“Sure, no problem. I’m Richie, by the way.”

“Lisa,” the slim one said.

“Vicky,” the short one said.

They walked out into the parking lot. Richie looked for the muscle-car trio, but they’d gone. Figured. Just when he had girls to show off.

“Our parents think we’re at a birthday party tonight,” Vicky said. “They’d never let us come down here by ourselves.”

“So, you’re playing hooky.” Richie got in and leaned over to pull up the passenger side lock. He was glad when Vicky slid in first on the bench seat, then Lisa.

“Can you cop us some beers?” Lisa was combing back her feathered hair.

His hand accidentally-on-purpose brushed Vicky’s knee as he put the car into drive. “Er, sure.”

Richie drove down Oakland Avenue, past the car wash where he worked, to the DQ next to the bowling alley. He hoped Keith was there. He’d know what to do. He pulled into the DQ lot. Keith’s Chevy Nova was parked three slots down from the entrance, as usual. He exhaled.

“Shit!” Lisa slid down in the seat. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going by the bowling alley? My dad bowls every Friday night. Get down, Vicky. He knows I’m with you.”

She grabbed Vicky’s arm and tugged her down. “Don’t worry, Lis. He’s probably inside.”

“I’ll be right back,” Richie said.

Keith was sitting with a soda and playing drums with straws on the table. Charlene was wiping down the counter.

“Hey, man,” Keith said.

“Hey. Any luck?” Richie gestured his head toward Charlene.

“She’s coming round.”

That’s what he said every time.

Richie slid into the booth and leaned over the table. “I got two chicks in my car ready to party.”

Keith stopped drumming and looked out the window. “I don’t see anyone.”

“They’re on the floor in the front. They’re scared their old man might come out of the bowling alley and see them.”

Keith grunted and resumed drumming. Richie slapped his hand down on the straws. “They want to get some beers. What the hell do I do?”

Keith removed Richie’s hand and resumed drumming. “Go hang out at the back door of Oakland Liquors and ask someone to buy you a six-pack.”

“I never did that before.”

Keith gave him an oh-come-on look. “Man, you are such a dork.”

“Come with. Charlene’s not going with you and you know it.”

Keith looked at her bobbing ponytail as she wiped down the ice cream machine. “What do they look like?”

“Real foxes.”

“I have first dibs.”


Keith slipped out of the booth. “Later, Charlene.”

She looked up surprised. “Hey wait, Keith…” The door closed on her voice.

They laughed. “‘Bout time you showed her, dork,” Richie said.


Richie struck out twice with asking people to buy him a six-pack. It wasn’t as easy as Keith had made it out to be. One man gave him a dirty look. Another told him he should know better than to drink at his age. Richie lit a cigarette and inhaled. Smoking scratched his throat, but he liked hanging out with the cool crowd in the smoking courtyard at school, so he kept doing it.

Laughter rippled from the car. He glanced over.

“Hey, what’s taking you?” Keith yelled.

Richie shot him the middle finger.

A Harley pulled in. A guy and a girl dismounted, pulling off their helmets. Bingo.

Seven minutes later, Richie trotted back to the car with a paper bag containing two six-packs of Lowenbrau. Much to his annoyance, Keith was sitting in the backseat with Vicky. Lisa was riding shotgun.

“Party time!” Richie sang.

Keith grabbed the bag and handed the girls beers as Richie put the car in gear. “Let’s go to the rock,” Keith said.

“At night?” Richie said.

“It’s summer, man,” Keith said. “Live a little.”

“We’ve never been to the rock, have we, Lisa?”

“No, let’s go,” Vicky said.

“Don’t worry, man,” Keith said. “The trail’s easy. Here, have a Lowie. Loosen up.”

“I have a flashlight in the trunk, I think,” Richie said.

Lisa shuffled through his eight-tracks in the glove compartment and held one up. “I love this album.” She slid the tape in. The Allman Brothers’ guitar riffs twanged as they passed the “Welcome to Oakland, New Jersey” sign and wound up the mountain.

When “Ramblin’ Man” kicked in, Richie belted out the lyrics while Keith air-drummed. The girls laughed and joined in the chorus. Richie chucked his empty out the window as they rounded a bend. Keith did the same and then plucked the bottles out of the girls’ hands and tossed them.

“I didn’t finish that one yet,” Vicky protested.

“Spit and foam at the bottom. Have another one.” Keith stuck his head out the window and wolf-howled. Richie howled even louder. Keith was right. There was something about a summer night that stretched the possibility of everything, made life large.

Richie pulled into the entrance to the Ramapo Mountain Reserve, parked and got out. He was pretty sure his father had a flashlight in his emergency kit. He opened the trunk and found it. He switched it on and shone the light around the lot. The beam caught three parked cars, cars he knew.

“Let’s gooo,” Keith called.

They followed the cone of light along the path. The rock lay a mile up on the mountain ridge. It was a huge slab of stone that sloped down to a lake surrounded by pine trees. The trail narrowed as it grew steeper and stonier. The girls panted and stumbled. The boys grabbed their hands and pulled them along.

“This is really far,” Lisa said.

“It’s kind of creepy,” Vicky said.

“Almost there,” Keith puffed.

The climb finally gave way to a “Swimming Prohibited” sign. They stood at the water’s pebbled edge catching their breath. The moonlight glistened on the lake’s black surface surrounded by the dark silhouettes of trees. The air was still and summer-sticky. Richie’s spine prickled. A whoop of laughter from down the shoreline invaded the silence. Richie remembered the cars.

“Party up ahead. Let’s go.” Keith started down the narrow track along the shore. Richie and the girls fell in behind him.

A few minutes later, they climbed onto the rock. Richie looked around. No one. Then a grating rumble sounded. He shone the flashlight up the slope. Three beer bottles rolled down, then a voice called out of the darkness.

“Hey, move. You’re in the way!”

The group shifted to the side. Mark Ambriano, Lenny Wosniewski and Butch O’Brien came into sight as they raced after the speeding bottles, which hit a stone at the bottom with clinks.

“Mine won!” Mark said.

“Who’re you fooling, man, it was mine,” Lenny said.

Butch leapt down to the stone where the bottles had rolled to a rest and smashed them against the rock. Only Keith laughed.

“Butch, quit that shit!” Mark said.

Lenny walked over to them. “You guys wanna party?”

“You got the brewskis, we got the weed,” Mark said.

“It’s decent stuff,” Lenny added. “Sinse.”

Richie, Keith and the girls followed the three guys up the slope. Lenny, Butch and Mark sat next to the girls, leaving Richie and Keith sitting next to each other across from them in the circle. Keith looked at Richie, twisting his mouth as if to say, “This is bullshit.” Richie shrugged.

Lenny expertly rolled a joint from a baggie of pot. A bottle of Jack Daniels came from somewhere and was passed around. Richie felt like he was floating above the scene. These guys would never give him a second look at school. Now he was partying and bullshitting with them like they were buddies.

After a couple joints, shots and a beer, Richie’s head was fuzzing. Voices blurred. His closed his eyes and saw the star-speckled sky on his eyelids. He opened them and wondered vaguely how he was going to get back to the car. He looked around. Keith was lying on his back. Butch was rolling another joint. Mark’s arm had disappeared around Vicky’s back and she was leaning into his shoulder. Lenny and Lisa were making out. The night that had seemed in the palm of Richie’s hand had slipped from his grasp. He elbowed Keith.

“Let’s get out of here.”


They stood. Richie’s head swam. He grabbed the flashlight and lurched down to the lake. He splashed water on his face. The cold wetness broke his stupor. Keith stumbled behind him. He threw some water on his face and shook his head.

“That reefer was wicked.” Keith’s voice sounded like it was in slow motion.

They started down the trail. The moon had brightened, silvering the lake. Richie switched on the flashlight, took a few steps then heard a retching noise. He turned and shone the flashlight. Keith leaned on a tree trunk and and wiped his mouth with his T-shirt.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, now that I barfed,” Keith croaked. He walked to the lakeside and splashed more water on his face.

The flashlight was faint. “Not much battery left,” Richie said. “If we hurry, we might make it before it goes dead.”

A high-pitched scream pierced the air. Richie and Keith froze.

“Hold her!” Butch.

“Leave her alone!” Lisa.

Another scream.

“Shut the fuck up!” Lenny.

A girl’s sobs. “Leave us alone!” Lisa.

“Shut your fucking mouth! It’s your turn next.” Butch. A slap. A cry. “I told you, shut it.”

Keith and Richie looked at each other. “Jesus fucking Christ,” Keith said in a loud whisper.

“What do we do?” Richie whispered.


“We got to go back.”

“Are you shitting me?” Keith snatched the flashlight. “They’ll think we’re part of it.” He set off down the trail. Richie was paralyzed. “Richie, they’re just goofing off. Come on.”

He hesitated, then followed Keith. They skidded down the first steep stretch, then Richie paused and listened. Crickets chorused, nothing else.

Keith turned. “What the fuck are you doing? Come on, man. We don’t want those guys on our asses.”

“I don’t know.”

“Those girls were going along with them. You saw.”

Richie couldn’t move.

“Listen, if you want to be a dork, that’s your fucking problem.” Keith moved off at a fast clip.

The flashlight’s beam bobbed into the darkness. Keith was probably right. The girls were looking for trouble. He’d go back and find them all laughing. He’d look like a real douchebag. Richie jogged to catch up with Keith, but a lump formed in the pit of his stomach.


The rest of the weekend, Richie worked his hours at the car wash then slumped on the couch in the basement watching All in the Family reruns.

“You feeling all right, Richie?” his mom called down the stairs.

“I’m fine, Ma.”

As the laugh track played on the TV, Richie played the night over in his mind. The screams. The crying. “It’s your turn next.” Something bad happened. He should have gone back. He should have told Keith it was a lousy idea to go to the rock in the first place. Why did he ever listen to him?

Maybe it was just the pot that spooked him. Those guys would never have done anything to the girls, would they? They were just roughhousing, got carried away, like Keith said. And those girls really did ask for it. They wanted to go to the rock. They were making out with those guys. He wasn’t responsible for them. Or was he? He drove them there.

Richie felt a weight on his chest that made it hard to breathe. He’d experienced that once before, when he was ten and playing in the sea at Wildwood, letting the waves dance him around like a piece of driftwood. It was fun for a while, then the waves got rough, crashing over him and clawing him under. As soon as he got his head above surface, another wave slammed against his body, submerging him. He kept swallowing saltwater and his throat was burning. He thrashed and flailed but he couldn’t get his head above the surface. Then suddenly he was breathing air. He couldn’t remember how he got out, but he was able to swim to shallower water and walked back to his towel and collapsed.


Monday was a good day at the car wash. Richie made fifteen bucks in tips. Feeling lighter than he had all weekend, he strode into the kitchen after work and opened the fridge.

“Get out of there. Dinner’ll be ready soon.” His mother spoke without looking up from the newspaper she was reading at the table.

He grabbed the milk carton, poured himself a glass and gulped.

“There was a gang rape of some teenage girls up at Ramapo. They’re looking for the suspects.” His mother turned the page. “I always told you kids got up to no good up there.”

Richie spluttered on the milk.

His mother looked up in alarm. “You okay?”

He wiped his mouth with his forearm. “Went down the wrong way.”

He rushed into his bedroom and flopped on the bed, burying his face in the pillow. Gang rape.

He was responsible for two girls getting raped by three guys. Was he an accessory? An accomplice? A witness?

Richie didn’t feel like eating, but he didn’t want questions from his parents, so he shoveled down his dinner and retreated to the basement. Laverne and Shirley was starting when he heard the doorbell. A minute later, his mother opened the basement door. “Richie, some boys are here to see you. Mark, Butch and Lenny.”

His stomach clenched. “I’m not home, Ma.”

“I already told them you are. They said it’s important.”

Richie hauled himself up the stairs and out to the front porch, carefully closing the door behind him. His parents were in the living room, playing along with Jeopardy.

Mark stood on the porch. “Hey Richie, got a sec?” Mark cocked his head toward the driveway, where Butch and Lenny hovered. They walked over. Richie shoved his hands in his pockets.

“So, ah, you know the other night, well, nothing really happened, you know,” Mark said.

“You didn’t see nothing anyway, right.” The way Lenny phrased it, it wasn’t a question.

“We’re just saying because those girls were real wasted, and they might be going around saying stuff, but they were real easy, real teases, you know. Nothing happened like they might be going around saying. And you were there, and your buddy Keith, so they might have got all us guys mixed up. It was real dark, you know what I mean?” Mark arched his eyebrows.

Yeah, Richie knew. He was trapped. He wanted to knock that smart-ass look off Mark’s face with a right hook like his dad had taught him with the punching bag slung up on the tree in the backyard. He slapped at a mosquito on his arm instead.

Butch took out a hunting knife and cleaned his fingernails with the blade tip. The steel glinted. His old man was the police chief. Mark’s dad was a lawyer. And Lenny, rumor had it that his father was in prison for killing someone. Richie’s chest felt tight. He cleared his throat. “I really don’t remember much of that night. I was pretty shitfaced.”

“That’s what we kinda figured. We just wanted to make sure,” Mark said. “So now we got that all straightened out, we’re cool, man, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Richie’s skin squeezed his bones.

“Let me know if you want some help with that Duster,” Mark said. “We could do a real cool paint job on her, a racing stripe or flames on the fenders even.”

“Yeah, sure,” Richie mumbled.

Keith. He waited until they left, then he got in the Duster and cruised down to the Dairy Queen, keeping right on the speed limit although he wanted to go faster. As he walked to the door, Richie could see Keith through the window, scarfing down ice cream at a booth. Charlene was serving cones at the walk-up window.

“How’s it going?” Keith’s spoon clattered into the empty banana split dish as Richie sat across from him. Keith pulled a napkin from the dispenser and swiped it across his mouth.

Keith leaned over the table. “Charlene’s going out with me after work. Told ya I’d get her. Take it from me, girls like the chase.” He grinned. “I took a bottle of Southern Comfort from the liquor cabinet. The old lady’ll never miss it.”

“Cool.” Richie grabbed the salt shaker and spun it. “So Butch and them just came by my house.”

Keith lowered his voice. “I told them I didn’t see nothing, hear nothing, I was wasted off my ass. I don’t even remember how I got home. That’s what happened.”

“But we heard them, the girls screaming and all that.”

“Richie, we left. We didn’t hear jack. End of fucking story. You say any different, we’re going to land in a major pile of shit, capisce?”

Richie tipped the shaker and poured the salt onto the table. There was something soothing about watching it flow into a perfect white mound.

“Would you quit that? Charlene’s going to think I did it.” Keith glanced over his shoulder and brushed the salt on the floor under the table. He grabbed the shaker out of Richie’s hand and set it aside. “Besides, no one’ll ever believe us over them. One of them’s old man is the police chief.”

“It was your fucking idea to go to the rock.”

“Don’t dump this shit on me.” Keith jabbed his finger at Richie. “You were the one who begged me to go with you. Those girls were sluts. They were looking for trouble and got what they deserved.”

“Keith, I’m closing out the register. I’ll be done in five,” Charlene called. “Can you bring over your dish?”

“Sure.” Keith stood. “Think about it, Richie. You’ll see I’m right.” He grabbed the dish and walked to the counter.

Richie drove home and opened the garage door. He fished a wrench out of the toolbox and unscrewed the Duster’s rear bumper. He put on the welding mask and gloves and fired up the oxyacetylene torch. He twisted and melted the bumper into a contorted figure until his arms ached.

The next night after dinner, Richie went into the garage and dismantled the Duster’s front bumper and grill and started welding. His mother peered through the half-open door as she wiped her hands on a dish towel. Her brows knitted. A few minutes later, the door flung open. His father marched in, a rolled up newspaper in his hand.

“Son, what in God’s name are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”

Richie focused on his seam.

His dad whacked the newspaper hard on the tool bench. “Richie, you pay attention to me when I’m talking to you! Turn that torch off!”

Richie didn’t stop.

His father took two steps and yanked off the spigots on the oxygen and acetylene tanks. The torch’s flame fizzled. “Get in the house!”

Richie, still wearing his welding mask, got up and turned on the tanks.

His father’s face looked like all his blood vessels had burst.

“Richard. Get. In. The. House!” His dad’s arm shot out toward the door. Richie lifted the torch. Its 3,000-degree blue flame spit directly at his father, who reeled back and crashed into the garbage cans.

“I never should’ve given you the money for that car. You’re goddamn spoiled!” He hauled himself up and went into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ, he almost killed me with that torch! I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” His dad’s voice floated into the garage.

“It must be girl trouble,” his mother said.

The door closed. Richie kept welding.

The next night, Richie came home from the car wash, took his dinner plate into the garage and started working on the hub caps. His father entered and sat on a milk crate.

“Son, you can tell your old man. You got some girl knocked up?”

Anger rose in Richie’s throat. He wasn’t going around knocking up girls. He ignored the question.

“Jesus, Richie, this is crazy.” His father combed his hair with his fingers. Then he got up and retreated to the kitchen.

“It’s that goddamn art teacher,” he heard his dad say. “I’m going to fix this once and for all.”

The next night, Richie went into the garage and flicked on the light. There was an empty space where his welding equipment and sculpture had been. He got into the Duster and banged his forehead against the steering wheel. He slid the key into the ignition and backed out the driveway. He roamed downtown for a while, feeling his rage descend into a dark but stable mood, then decided to head to Burger King for a shake.

“Hey Richie!” Mark, Butch and Lenny were sitting at a table with trays of burgers and fries. Shit. He considered walking out, but he’d look like a wimp. He nodded at them and ordered a chocolate shake, then added a Whopper and extra-large fries that he didn’t want. Maybe they’d be gone by the time his order was ready. But they weren’t.

“Richie, over here!” Mark waved at him. He twisted toward them, pulled by the string of obligation, and sat at their table. “We’re going to borrow a swimming pool, if you want to come.” The others chuckled. “The Politanos are away so we have a little swimming party there at night. The house is set back. No one sees us.”

“Sure.” Richie heard himself say. His chest constricted again, the waves buffeted him, closing over his head. He couldn’t breathe.

“Let’s pick up Veronica on the way,” Lenny said.

“We know what that’s about,” Butch said.

“You betcha!” Lenny wiggled his eyebrows.

They all laughed.

Richie tried to smile, to go along, but he couldn’t. He knew his father would kill him for sneaking into someone’s yard. Did he really want to turn into another Mark, Butch or Lenny? Did he really want to join their club? Then memory struck him like a lightning bolt. It was his father who had plucked him out of the ocean all those years ago. Dad had deposited him in shallower water where he could safely swim to shore.

He stood up. “I just remembered. I gotta do something.” He walked off.

“Hey, you want your food?” Butch called.

“You can have it,” Richie said.

He drove home and entered the living room. His father was in his recliner, watching Wheel of Fortune, a folded newspaper on the table beside him.

“Dad, you gotta minute?”


Christina Hoag is the author of novels Girl on the Brink and Skin of Tattoos (Onward Press). Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary reviews including Lunch Ticket, Shooter, the Santa Barbara Literary Journal and the San Antonio Review and have won several prizes. She is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press and Latin America foreign correspondent. Email: choag24[at]

Boys Will Be Boys

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Robin Kirby

Photo Credit: rockpool73/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“I think Toby Gardiner lives in that house.” Miranda pointed at a low-set fibro beach shack, set in an overgrown garden. “Do you want to see if he’s home?” The house itself was unimposing, but the places along this stretch of dirt road backed on to the open sea. My parents’ beach house was a luxurious high-set with views forever, but it didn’t have that mesmerising sound of waves breaking on the shore night and day.

It struck me that Miranda may have contrived staying with me for the sole purpose of putting herself in the path of Toby Gardiner. She had mentioned this latest crush when we were discussing our plans for the summer holidays.

“He’s such a doll.”

Toby Gardiner was a year older than us and had attended a different school. He would be going to university down south soon. Miranda had met him through a friend one weekend and had watched out for him when we attended the end of year inter-school swimming carnival. Neither Miranda nor I were very sporty, but we’d been in the cheer squad, dressed to kill in short skirts and tight T-shirts. During their animated conversation, she’d found out that he was an only child and that his father had recently died of a heart attack. She had also found out that his family beach house was walking distance from mine.

“OK,” I replied, “but if he’s there I don’t want to stay very long.”

Miranda sauntered to the screen door. “Anyone home?”

“Hey, Miranda, isn’t it?”

I had to admit that Toby was pretty cute. He had a bit of a surfie look about him: bleached blonde hair, bronzed skin. A shame all his attention was on Miranda. Boys always seemed to go for Miranda. She was my best friend and all, but really, she wasn’t what you’d call beautiful. A little on the chubby side, baby blue eyes, blonde curls. I guess buxom was the word that fitted best, maybe even voluptuous.

It turned out that his mother was due home in a few minutes, but would be at work the next day. While she was away, some of his mates would be coming over for a game of cards and a few drinks. Toby said it would be fun to have a couple of girls there as well. How about it?

“Bingo,” said Miranda as we meandered back home. The sun beat down relentlessly on our bare heads, but we hardly noticed as we giggled together and concocted a plausible story to tell my parents about what we’d be doing the next day. I wondered what the other boys would be like.


“That’s it for me,” said Shane, throwing his cards into the middle of the table.

I had been checking him out for a while. He was the one who owned the dust-streaked car outside Toby’s place. He had been intent on the poker game and his restless eyes rarely left his cards. The boys had started with piles of coins in front of them, but his had now dwindled away to almost nothing. They were drinking beer from cans and laughing about the fun they’d had last night when Shane had hit 100 miles per hour down the straight stretch of Harbour Road.

It felt like Miranda and I were privileged to be on the sidelines. I didn’t know what to make of the third boy. They called him ‘Cliffo’ and when we sat down, he announced with a perfectly straight face, that he had a certificate proving he was sane. He didn’t sound like he was joking, so I repressed my desire to giggle. I had no experience with mental illness. He might be for real.

Shane and Cliffo had been hurling the empty cans through an open window in some kind of ‘who can get his can the furthest’ competition.

“Hope you’re going to pick those up,” said Toby.

“Ya going to make us?” said Cliffo.

“Thought my mum scared you shitless.”

Shane shrugged and wandered outside and collected the cans, put them in the rubbish bin, then grabbed his car keys. It turned out he was off to meet his girlfriend in town. Drat. The three boys had a muttered conversation near the door, there was some skylarking and laughter and I heard the car spin its wheels in the dirt as it took off.

Toby came back to the main room with Cliffo. By now, Miranda had gone to sit on the lounge and Toby sat down close beside her. There was some desultory conversation about holidays and school and how hot it was. I could see that Toby had an arm around Miranda and I tried not to watch as his hand surreptitiously slipped inside her blouse. She blushed and moved side on so we couldn’t see.

Cliffo watched unblinking for a minute and then went and got himself another beer from the fridge. He came and stood right in front of me and I noticed for the first time that he was tall and that his eyes were an intense blue.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said.

Suited me. I just wanted to get away from the embarrassing situation of sitting around watching my friend being seduced.


Cliffo walked through a doorway and I automatically followed. He closed the door. We were in a starkly furnished bedroom. I panicked, but then realised that there was probably nowhere else to sit down in the small beach shack. At least we couldn’t see the others.

We both stood in silence. He took a few sips of beer then handed me the can.

“You finish it. I’m not supposed to drink ‘cause of my medication.”

I walked to the window but couldn’t see the sea, just bushes. There was no breeze. The room was stinking hot. No fans. No air-con. I’d never actually drunk a full can of beer before. It was bitter on my tongue, but at least it was cold. Perhaps I’d relax a bit more and be able to string more than two words together if I got a little tipsy. I gulped it down and put the can on the sill. Cliffo was still standing, just watching me.

“Did they tell you why I was in the funny farm?”

“No. No one said anything.”

“Tried to commit suicide.”

For some reason, that made me feel better. I could relate to depression and suicide. Not like madness, which to me was a scary kind of unknown.

“Oh. Sorry.”

The room was starting to spin a bit and I felt a little woozy. I sat on the edge of the bed. Cliffo lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.

“It’s OK,” he said. “I’m not going to jump you or nothin’. You can lie down.”

It was tempting. I was decidedly dizzy by now, so I carefully stretched out, keeping to the edge of the bed.

After a few more minutes of silence, Cliffo propped himself on his elbow.

“You’ve got a nice belly.”

I was wearing black footie shorts and a midriff top. Yeah, my stomach was toned and tanned. Looked pretty damn good really, despite the sheen of perspiration.

“Can I touch it? Just gently?”

What could be the harm? It wasn’t like a sexual thing. And anyway, he was suicidal. If I said no, I might hurt his feelings.

“OK, but nothing more. Alright?”

Up ‘til now, I had only experienced some sweaty handholding and a couple of sloppy kisses from pimply youths at school. I was starting to worry a bit about being left on the shelf or that maybe I came across as an ice princess or something. I was nearly sixteen, after all.

He lay a hand on my stomach. It was warm and not unpleasant. After a few more minutes, he gently began to draw small lazy circles around my navel. I closed my eyes. I felt less nauseous that way. And I could almost imagine he was someone else. Some romantic hero from that shadowy world of my imagination.

The lazy circles slowly, slowly expanded and a distant part of me was aware that disembodied fingers had ever so gradually pulled down the elastic waistband of my shorts. Those sensitive fingers were now trailing across my lower belly, creating pulsating tingles lower down. The beer had certainly relaxed me and I experienced these new sensations with a dazed sort of detachment.

Something in the back of my mind was tugging at me, bothering me. It was that irritating goody two-shoes part of me demanding to be heard, to remind me that this was wrong, and nothing like the romance of my imagination.

He wasn’t the one. This person beside me had discoloured teeth and I was becoming increasingly aware that he smelled of stale beer, cigarettes and rancid sweat. While I tried to summon up the wherewithal to somehow extricate myself from this situation, I lay inert like a rabbit in a spotlight. The problem was that a wilder, more untamed part of my nature that I barely recognised was willing me to continue, to keep exploring the sensuous mysteries that Miranda was no doubt experiencing in the other room.

I felt a clumsy, inexpert fumbling between my legs. OK, enough was enough. This was downright tacky now and most definitely not what I wanted. I started to pull away but he was big and heavy and kind of pinning me down. There was a rough probing into the area my mother euphemistically described as my ‘private part’ and I finally galvanized into action and yanked frantically at his hand while desperately trying to pull my shorts up. God, surely that wasn’t the end of my virginity.

Without warning, he leapt off the bed and headed out the door, gleefully shouting to the others. I sat up, stone-cold sober.

“I win. I win. Fingered her. Come on, Toby, pay up.”

I felt my face flushing. I ran from the room, not caring what state of undress Miranda was in. Slamming the screen door, I pushed blindly through the bushes to the road, hoping against hope that Miranda would follow.

She did. “Are you for real? You let Cliffo do that?”

I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t bear the thought of her judgement or her pity. “He was lying. He just touched my stomach. That’s all.”

“Didn’t sound like it,” she said.

“I didn’t want to say anything back there, because I felt sort of sorry for him. You know, because of the depression and suicide and stuff.”

“What? He told you he was suicidal?”


“The lying toad,” said Miranda. “Toby reckons he’s a bit of a psychopath. Really weird if he’s off his meds.”

“So, it’s because he’s insane that he made that bet with the others?”

“Nah. Boys will be boys. That’s what a lot of them are like.”

That was the initial turning point of my summer. It hurt me right to my very core that the other boys had gone along with the bet, that they’d laughed about it and thought it was a great joke. I was deeply ashamed about the way my own body had betrayed me. Deep inside, I knew that never again would I put myself in a position where I could be humiliated by anyone. I didn’t care anymore if boys thought I was a prude or if I became an old spinster. No male would ever make a fool of me again.

“So Miranda, what about you? Was Toby trying to win a bet too?”

“God no. Toby and I are in love.”

Later, Miranda and I sat on the warm sand watching the dancing, foaming waves as the shadows lengthened. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I told her the truth about what had happened.

“You should report him,” she said.

“Who to? It’s not like I kicked and screamed.”

“But you didn’t say yes and you certainly didn’t know he was just doing it for a bet. That would have to be deception or false pretences or something.”

“You know how embarrassing it would be to tell a cop? Or my parents? Anyway, he’d probably say I led him on.”

“Yeah. I get what you mean. Guess you’re just going to have to live with it.”


A few weeks later and the humidity was almost unbearable as the torrential rains of the wet season threatened. Miranda and I were back at school, and it wouldn’t be long until Toby left for university. I didn’t care what Cliffo or Shane were planning to do with their lives. I hoped I would never see any of those boys again as long as I lived. I received sporadic reports from Miranda about Toby’s phone calls and the frenzied trysts in the back of Shane’s car, on the occasions when Toby could borrow it.

On my way out of the house one oppressive morning, I glanced at the daily newspaper on the dining room table. The macabre picture of a smashed-up car caught my eye. The impact had been so forceful that the car had split into two and the roof had peeled back, as if a giant had opened a can of sardines.

Toby Gardiner and Shane Walker had been killed in the single vehicle rollover.

For a moment, I could scarcely breathe. Miranda would be devastated. Then it was almost as if a switch had been flicked, and I turned and walked into the mind and spirit of my more mature self. I breathed deeply and was calm and in control. I would be Miranda’s support. I had been a part of her idyllic summer and we would weather this together. I understood. I was the only person who had known the unfolding of her first real love. I knew I could do this.


The small church was filled to overflowing for the double funeral, despite the teeming rain. Miranda and I stood at the back and vainly scanned for spare seats.

“We should be up at the front with Toby’s mother,” whispered Miranda.

“But you’ve never met her, have you?”

“Yeah, but I was his girlfriend. Do you think I should introduce myself before the service starts?”

I instinctively knew that would be a disaster. I had noticed a woman come and sit in the front row by herself and guessed it would have to be Toby’s mother. She moved like an automaton, face drawn, eyes dead. And so alone.

For a few moments she sat staring at the two coffins. I felt that she was trying to work out how she would ever bear the dreadful weight of the deaths of first her husband and now her only child. Then people came and surrounded her, hugged her, kissed her cheek. Cliffo was among them. I shuddered.

Miranda and I remained squashed among those standing at the back. We sang the hymns and said Amen at the right times in the prayers and then the eulogies started. A petite slip of a girl came to the front. She looked Eurasian to me. Thick black plait, liquid eyes. She took a deep breath and began:

“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Raya. I’ve been Toby’s girlfriend for two years and we were the world to each other.”

There was an audible gasp from Miranda, thankfully drowned out by people fanning themselves with their service sheets.

“Of course, there was another woman in his life…”

I felt Miranda stiffen.

“…his beautiful mother, Leila, who is heartbroken.”

Raya went on to explain about Toby’s mother sending a telegram to her in Malaysia, where Raya had been caring for her sick grandmother. She talked on about the plans she and Toby had made for opening a mental health clinic for disturbed youth once she and Toby had qualified, plans to volunteer overseas, to marry, to have a family.

I whispered in Miranda’s ear. “Do you want to go?”

She tearfully nodded and we quietly sidled out into the damp churchyard and found a sheltered seat on a low brick wall.

“I think I need to set the story straight,” said Miranda. “I think Toby’s mother and Raya need to meet me, to know that Toby had fallen in love with me.”

I was silent for a minute. It was clear to me that Toby Gardiner wasn’t the Mr Nice Guy everyone painted. He had been quite content to keep his exotic princess as his long-term plan but to have fun with my friend Miranda while Raya was off the scene. This was a powder keg just waiting to be ignited.

“No, Miranda. What good will it do?”

“It would make me feel better. Less like a bloody stupid idiot.”

“I know you’re hurting. But if you tell them, then three people will be hurting. It’s not like Toby’s mother or Raya did anything wrong. They knew Toby for a long time and shared heaps of experiences with him. You’ll make their memories of those times ugly and distorted. Would that be fair?”

Miranda dabbed at her eyes with a damp, twisted tissue. “Guess we’ve both learned a lot about boys this summer,” she said, with a weak smile.

More than that, I thought. We’d learnt a whole lot about life.


Robin Kirby followed her heart and studied English Literature at University in Townsville. It taught her to appreciate great writing. A Creative Writing course gave her the practical tools to try herself out as a freelance writer. As a result, she was fortunate to have a few short stories published but that was many years ago and it didn’t seem she could make a career of it. She turned to other professions and also saw a bit of Australia, moving from Townsville to Darwin, then on to Perth and finally back to the Tropics again. Working as a psychologist in a psychiatric unit gave her insight into personality and behaviour; university administrative positions encouraged her to be meticulous and to respect high standards; teaching piano lessons opened her eyes to the rhythms and cadences of expression. Family? Well, family is her reason for being. Full circle. Now she’s back following her heart, but with a lifetime of experiences to add colour and authenticity. Writing. Email: robknibb56[at]

My Virginity and Other Losses

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
April Vázquez

Photo Credit: dianne.dacayana/Flickr (CC-by)

The first thing Kyle Mayhue says to me when he opens the door of the trailer where he lives and finds me standing on the front step is, “You look tough with your hair like that.” He pooches out his mouth in a pucker and nods approvingly.

I haven’t seen him in over a year, since he dropped out of high school and stopped riding my bus. He looks older, like an adult almost, with a sparse reddish beard and tan, muscular arms. His curly, dark auburn hair is a little longer, but his face is unchanged besides the beard: coarse, with a wide nose and a long, deep scar on his right cheek that crinkles into a dimple when he smiles. I probably do look different to him, with my eyeliner and bizarre clothes. My hair is shaved down to an inch on one side, and down to my chin on the other.

Kyle works third shift at the factory at the bottom of the road. He lives here on a dirt hill with his grandmother in the wasteland of shacks and trailers that lie between the factory and Kingstown, the Black neighborhood at the edge of Larrimore. Even from the doorway, the place smells like fried food and cigarette smoke. Behind him I can see a box of powdered sugar donuts on the kitchen table among a mess of papers and clothes, under a glaring light bulb with no shade. A dreadlocked dog shuffles around the dusty yard on a long rope.

I’m here, ostensibly, to buy weed from him, but what I really want is to get into the habit of seeing him again. What I’m buying is his time.

“Come in,” he says.

I visit him once a week all spring, buying marijuana every time. When I’m there I smoke a little with him, but what I buy I don’t smoke. I scatter it out in the woods and rake leaves over it with my foot, then I wad up a piece of notebook paper around the baggies. The truth is that I don’t really like to smoke it. It’s just a way to justify my visits.

Kyle’s grandmother, Marlene, is loud, vulgar, and good-natured, with a raspy voice and wheezy laugh. She has a big bosom and disproportionately small waist, and she draws on her eyebrows in thin, brown pencil lines that give her face a quizzical look. She chain-smokes Marlboro Reds and loves the Jerry Springer show, which, because it conflicts with her work schedule at Ruby’s convenience store, she watches when she gets home at night. I’m here in time to see her today because it’s a teacher workday.

“You gonna tape Jerry for me or what, Kyle?” she says, twisting her lips to exhale out her cigarette smoke to the side.

“Naw. I’m sick a you watchin’ that shit. It’s embarrassin’.”

“You know what’s gonna happen if you don’t tape it,” she says, balling up her fist and shaking it at him.

This is their shtick. He gives her a hard time, but he tapes the program for her. He even watches it. One day I arrive in time to catch the last part of the show with him. Two surly brothers are in love with the same girl, a scrawny, pasty-looking child from Alabama, not yet in her twenties. They scream and curse one other as the audience chatters like primates, urging them on to an open brawl.

“Ain’t this sick?” Kyle asks, yawning.

“Yep,” I say. But we keep watching it.

As time goes on, I stop buying weed from Kyle, and he eventually stops offering it to me, even to smoke. Instead we watch TV or play video games or listen to CDs. To listen to music, we go into his room, where the stereo stands between a weight bench and the bed along the far wall. At first we sit on the floor, which is covered with thick, orange carpet and smells faintly musty. Then we sit on the bed, on top of an old green sleeping bag, then eventually we lie on the bed, though we don’t touch. I begin to visit every day, inventing excuses for being out in the afternoons. I say I have activities after school, science club, Spanish club, National Honor Society. Or that I go to Becca Bradham’s. I know my mother won’t check up on this story; she considers Becca’s family beneath us.

Kyle never touches me. He lies on the bed and smokes cigarettes and softly sings Pink Floyd songs, occasionally getting up to change the CD. He waits until I’m ready.


On the day I’ve chosen, I skip school. Anyway, it’s winding down now; the seniors are out already, leaving the rest of us restless and indignant about having to show up. We’ve come to the purgatory of post-yearbook signing and academic awards, with nothing to look forward to except interminable exam reviews and, finally, the exams themselves. Crestdale High can spare me for the day.

I spend the morning at Don’s Pancake House, having a leisurely breakfast, then on a bench under a maple tree at the city park immersed in The Bell Jar. I wake Kyle up at just after one o’clock, knocking softly, then louder, on the door of the trailer. It’s hot as hell, the hottest day this year, the kind of sultry summer day that makes the whole outdoors feel like a sauna in central North Carolina. The top of Kyle’s Buick radiates heat in squiggly waves, and as I stand on the cinder block step, sweat beads on my upper lip and brow and makes a pool in my bra.

He comes to the door bleary-eyed, with a slight flush to his skin. He’s wearing only pajama bottoms, emblazoned with the Duff’s Beer logo. “Why didn’t you come earlier?” he says, squinting into the sunlight, grinning. He closes one eye, scratches his chest. “Come in, lemme brush my teeth.”

When he comes out of the bathroom, he has little drops of water on his face. They glisten in the sunlight. I walk over to him, stand in front of him, closer than I’ve ever stood before, and with one finger wipe a drop of water from his cheek down through the groove of his scar.

“Be soft with me,” I say, biting my lower lip. “It’ll be my first time.”

His skin is salty. He keeps his eyes closed, and I see that the lashes are longer than I’ve ever noticed before. His back gets slippery with sweat, there’s more hair than I thought, and a dog howls, far away, from the direction of the factory. The air conditioner rattles. It hurts, but not too much.

When it’s over I notice there’s a little blood on the sleeping bag. “I’ll tell Grammaw it’s motor oil. She prob’ly won’t even notice,” Kyle says, kissing my nose. I decide I’ll keep a tally, I tell myself we’ll do it twenty times. Surely once you’ve done something twenty times, you know how it’s done.

This is how I begin, but the weeks spread out into months, and I lose count of my tally, knowing the number was well beyond what I’d planned. There’s nothing I can really pinpoint that I don’t like about Kyle. I keep waiting to tire of him, not to want to see him anymore, but the feeling never comes. So not seeing him has to be a planned act, a decision. Just like going to bed with him was, but harder to make. Anyway, it’s summer, and the ungodly heat seems to have trapped me into a sensual lethargy. Like Daisy Buchanan on the day in New York City when Jay Gatsby challenges her husband, I can’t imagine taking any serious action, making any change in such heat.

I keep it up till September. It’s only when the mornings grow cooler and the first leaves show a pale cast of pale orange and yellow that I begin to imagine letting Kyle go. On the day I’ve chosen, it’s raining.

“I can’t see you anymore,” I say to his shoulder as soon as I walk in. I look up at his face, where his grin has frozen, then, in an instant, he’s made his expression blank. He takes a step back, his movements stiff. I watch him pick up his denim jacket where it’s slung over the arm of the couch. A fine white cat hair sticks out from the collar, reminding me of the thistles I used to get stuck in the cuffs of my pants when I played outside as a child. Like tiny archery arrows.

“You getcha a boyfriend?” he asks. “A rich one, that you don’t have to sneak around with?”

“Yeah,” I say softly.

“That’s cool. I’m just gonna run out to the store, get me some cigarettes. I’ll see you around.” He doesn’t look me in the eye.

While he pulls on his jacket and gets his keys, I look out the window at the drizzle hitting the leaves of the nearest tree, light green but veined with red-purple lines that bespeak the cold to come. I feel it already, in all the blueish veins that lead to my heart.

Kyle leaves without another word. He’s never looked as good to me as when he walks out the door.


April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and Carve’s Prose & Poetry Contest, and her work has been nominated for Best of the Web, the Orison Anthology Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in dozens of publications, including Salon, Ruminate, The Windhover, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. Email: aprilsosaso1111[at]

Five Poems

Baker’s Pick
Russell Rowland

Photo Credit: June Marie/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

On Hold

Shadows lengthen, hours since I shaved;
the tune da capo, recorded fib recycles:
“Your call is important to us.”

In our meetinghouse, a higher call:
we celebrate recurring Advents and Lents
together—lections of patient attendance.

Once, my newly-licensed daughter
dared drive in a whiteout, to reunite
with her boyfriend. Awaiting her message
of arrival, each minute was worth my life.

When she was at Speare Memorial
for what would be Emma by caesarean,
no news was not good news. Before
my own eyes I aged into a grandfather.

Holding the phone to alternate ears today,
I had started doubting providence,
death’s distance, when the ditty cut off.
“This is Shelly, how may I help you?”



Along the Tilton-Sanbornton town line
live two of Ted’s former wives: divorcee
and widow. One each side of the line.

Sometimes the women meet and pass
on walks along the dividing dirt road—
civil in address. They don’t really have
the same Ted in common. Awkward
subject. But no noses up or anything.

Whose husband he might be in heaven
depends on what you believe about
a lot of things, divorce and heaven
included (Jesus addressed that one).

Bereavement and court decree are two
valleys walked alone, to reach in time
greener pastures, more tranquil waters,
the lines fallen in pleasant places.

Ted learned more than some men
about women, but took it all with him.

There is a drawer in a hope chest
for what worked with one of his wives,
the Sanbornton landfill for what
didn’t work with the other, and a plot
in Tilton where Ted can think it over.


Ignored by a Chickadee

Among snubs collected in a life
of putting myself out there, this

is minor: a black-capped extravert
pecks diligently at the leaf mold
within a pace of my hiker’s boots,
ignoring me and my propensities.

Weighed against fall’s fat storage,
I am of course nothing—plus
in a crisis there are always wings.

This discipline of standing still
long enough gives other dwellers
in the arboreal city time to forget
I’m here: in nature the motionless

is invisible. Chipmunks overrun
your boots. A fox comes sniffing
right up to your trouser leg. It is
a great blessing, but hunters use it.

Leaves become eyes, the chickadee
flutters up to safety, when I move
along, aware I’m loved back home.


for Emma

I am Grampy and a rock.
Climb up, agile granddaughter,
I won’t roll out from under you.

Gaze in my eyes,
as into an ornamental Easter egg.
You see the Garden earth once was,

unless I begin to weep—
then you’ll watch a Deluge make
the world anew, for animals and you.

Put up with my voice—
you will hear old funny songs
you catch yourself humming in bed.

Take hold of my hand—
I emptied it of wealth, of pretty things
like rings. Your hand was all it wanted.

I am Grampy, cannot
help it. I was born with whiskers.
Gracious years intended me for you.

Walk beside me, watch
for surprises I can already see—
the grown-up lady you, the absent me.

You made me Grampy.
But for you I would be browsing
store shelves for a name.


The Keeper Leaf

Hands held, they stroll fall’s litter
of colors. The ostensible conceit—
due diligence here helping to hide
a nervousness that often precedes
some expected consummation—

is to identify and take back home
to a bedroom only one of them
has slept in before tonight, a leaf:

an unsurpassable representative
of fall’s foliage at absolute peak.

Each contender is discarded for
the next and next, more brilliant
to the vacillating tastes of youth,

the search itself mostly pretense
that two heads are not obsessed
with intimate liberties at night,
pleasure’s forever-elusive peak;

that whatever drew them close
could never prove ephemeral,
its aftermath just barren limbs;
a dead leaf nothing much at all.


Seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee Russell Rowland writes from New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, where he has judged high-school Poetry Out Loud competitions. Recent work appears in Poem, The Main Street Rag, and U.S. 1 Worksheets. His latest poetry book, Wooden Nutmegs, is available from Encircle Publications. Email: russellrowland15[at]

Two Poems

Beaver’s Pick
Jenny Hockey

Photo Credit: Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr (CC-by)


Submerged in our north-facing bath
I remembered you’d had no evening feed.

Tummy to sheet in your cot,
by then you were soundly asleep

and so they were over for good
my long damp hours in big white bras,

so soon in our years of making a start.


Lost for Words

Miss Stanage is usually mute, lies on her bed
being ninety—a swaddle of plaid blanket,
a long, thin shape. It haunts me

now I’ve seen them wheeling Elsie
to the morgue, careful to block
the view of the armchair-bound,

nags me like the question of how well
you and I are not getting on
and whether I should leave,

of whether I can complete
my research on old age
that no one has funded

and what to do about my shoes
that make me sound like Matron
and frighten staff on a sly puff break.

Miss Stanage rarely speaks—
I go round scouring the sinks,
suddenly mute when she asks me:

‘So what are your special interests in life?’


Jenny Hockey lives in Sheffield, UK. She belongs to Tuesday Poets, Hexameter, The Poetry Room and Living Line – with poems in magazines such as The North, Magma, The Frogmore Papers and Orbis. She retired from Sheffield University as Emeritus Professor of Sociology to write and read more poetry and in 2013 received a New Poets Award from New Writing North. Oversteps Books published her debut collection Going to Bed with the Moon in 2019. Twitter: @JHockey20 Email:[at]

The Not-Boy

Creative Nonfiction
Kolton Knapp

Photo Credit: Angela C./Flickr (CC-by-sa)

A regular boyhood is defined by cuts and scrapes and bruises. The sound of my boyhood was my mother’s anxious screams—my father’s hand clasping my shoulder and saying “you’ll be a man someday.” I remember my father’s hands: coaxing, soothing. They guided me vaguely—shadows of instructions that gave me small parcels of help. For the most part, boyhood was about being left in the woods to discover what being a man truly means.

While my boyhood had its fair share of leaping and bleeding, I didn’t bruise the way most boys did. They bruised in black and blue, and I, in rouge and pink. My bruises grew on my skin like wildflowers, but the bruises of other boys were placed on them like war medals.


The trampoline in the backyard of my childhood home sat in the shade of a tree. I loved climbing above the leaves, using my body weight to sway the branches. I’d watch as the leaves danced and crinkled with the movements of the wind. I’d hoist myself backward violently, bringing the bending branches to a horizontal position before throwing myself from the tree. I’d catapult in the wind, falling abruptly on the stretchy surface of the trampoline.

In other words, I was a ‘typical boy’ in that respect: a curious child with an eye for danger. I loved scavenging the woods, and late nights by a campfire with the smoke burning my eyes.

There were other things I enjoyed, however, that were unexpected.

For my fifth birthday, I was given a Spider-Man wallet. I remember the confusion I felt when I opened the gift. I was familiar with the character—how could I not be?

What confused me, was the fact that it was given to me.

“You like Spider-Man, right?” my grandmother asked eagerly. Without waiting for an answer, she turned away and began another conversation. Of course I liked Spider-Man, she had assumed. All little boys love superheroes.

I hated the picture. It was clunky with different shades of blacks and reds—my two least favorite colors. Spider-Man extended his arm, a string of web flying towards me from behind the two-dimensional fabric. The web looked sticky, with silver goo dripping from its thick strands. It seemingly yearned to break the fabric open and latch onto me.

I let the wallet slip from my palm to my fingertips and imagined it was something else.

I could see the vivid purples and pinks. The wallet was bigger than palm sized—it was a purse. Like the one Daphne wore in the Scooby-Doo movie.

So I stole my mother’s scarlet Halloween wig and put on a pair of rain boots. I walked around the house clutching the wallet as though it were a purse. Flipping my red hair about, I would utter Daphne’s catchphrases. “Creepers,” I’d gasp, feigning exasperation. I’d pretend to be a damsel in distress—the pretty girl everyone wanted to save. I was the face without a blemish, the dress without the body.

My impersonation of Daphne confused everyone. I should do boyish things—like wrestling (which I did) or disobeying the rules (which I also did often). My mother frequently found me in places I shouldn’t be—the sewers, the roof, or hiding in the tops of trees.

But I wasn’t regular. I played with dolls. I liked Disney princess movies. When my father forced me to join baseball I would sit in the outfield picking the heads off dandelions. The ball would roll past me, and I’d be busy sewing together a daisy chain.

The other boys hated me for this. In school they told me I was gay—I never corrected them; I had no idea what it meant. They told me I was a sissy who liked dresses and dolls.


I wanted to play with the boys, but something separated us. The web that stretched out from the wallet seemed to stretch between me and my peers. I couldn’t cut through it—the other boys held the knives. I would sit on the other side of it, shaking it with balled up fists, begging them to let me in. I realized they never would and began spending my recesses walking around the playground—singing to myself.

I knew the boys hated me. They hated me for being ‘gay’—whatever that meant. They hated the daisy chains I made, jewelry from the outfield.

And then, suddenly, it all made sense to me.

I’m not a boy. Not to them. To them, I was no better than a little girl.

So, I befriended the girls.

But there was still something holding me back from them. I could come for the birthday party, but I had to leave when the sleepover began. The girls I was friends with developed deeper relationships with each other—and without me. When night fell they would spill secrets they’d never tell in the daylight. Secrets my ears wanted to hear, but never would.

The fathers of my friends refused to smile at me. They would lay a heavy hand on my shoulder, hands that felt nothing like my father’s, and their eyes would fill with the rage of a storm. The hands of these men were firm, as though they were holding me back from something.

“Now, you may think I don’t know what you’re up to, son.” Their father’s voices were all deep, dragging across the floorboards the way horror villains drag their axes. “But I know what you want. I know what all of the boys want.”

It took me longer than it should have to realize what these strange old men were saying to me.

What do I want? I’d wonder as I braided my girlfriends’ hair.


I realized what they meant when the other boys went through puberty. I’d listen to them with disgust as they talked about a girl’s breasts or the shape of her curves.

“It’s all I notice,” my male cousin told me when we were about twelve.

I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

I saw none of what the other boys saw—just the bright red lipstick, their diamond-like faces. I could see the pretty dress, but I was blind to the body beneath it. My silence in these conversations damned me. It reinforced what I had been trying to run from my entire life.

I am not a boy.

I don’t belong in the boys’ club. I don’t have the same ‘wants’ that the fathers of my friends believed I should have.

When I was thirteen, I told a youth pastor my favorite color was pink and he ‘took’ my figurative man-card from me.

So now I don’t even have that, either.


I was a foreign species. Everyone saw it. Even the girls could see I was different. I remember hearing my friend scream at her brother: “No boys are allowed in my room!” I was sitting on her bedroom floor, cross-legged. It was a birthday party, and there must have been at least ten other people in the room. I was the only boy.

My presence was noted by a girl I didn’t know. “Why is he here, then?” She gestured at me. My friend laughed at her like she had just said the dumbest thing she had ever heard. “That’s just Kolton, he’s not a boy. No offense, Kolton.”

And I said it didn’t bother me. I laughed because it didn’t bother me. Her words felt like a form of endearment, as though she could see the web spreading out before me that kept me from being a boy.

There was something that settled over me after that, and the feeling lingered like a bad aftertaste.

It did bother me. I hated myself for it, but her words crawled under my skin—embedding themselves into me. I wanted to embrace what she said like the intimate words I believed them to be, but something stopped me. There was a part of me that wished the words weren’t true.

I wanted to be a boy.

And I knew I couldn’t be a girl.

So, if I couldn’t be a girl, and I couldn’t be a boy—what was I?


I was a child made of glass, transparent. Everyone could see what was inside me, before I could see it myself. My femininity couldn’t hide behind my skin, it glimmered in the sunlight. I might as well have it etched into my forehead: ‘Not-a-boy.’

I thought I could hide the things that made people see me this way. I could walk differently. I could speak in a deep, monotone voice. I could restrict my hands, which move like the wind when I talk. No matter what I’ve done, everyone seems to know the truth.

When I turned sixteen and got a job, people seemed to identify me with my feminine behaviors. I was called a faggot long before I came out as a homosexual man. Angry slurs were uttered in whispers by pissed off servers at the restaurant I worked at. Sissy was often used by managers.

“All the girls are jealous of you,” a man who washed the dishes said to me once.

“Why?” I asked, confused.

One of my friends, who served alongside me, laughed at his comment. “We were just talking about the way you walk—we wish we walked like you.”

“You don’t walk,” another server corrected. “You strut everywhere you go.”

I was completely flattered—I felt my cheeks flush. Part of me swelled with pride, beaming at the compliment. But the pride faded quickly. The flush in my cheeks turned into burning shame. Just like when my friend had called me a “not-boy,” I wanted to feel only elation.

Yet, it was a feminine trait of mine. It was the girls who were jealous of my walk. The boys held no envy for me—the child trapped in the spider’s web. I’ve tried to strangle my femininity for years, but it has proven to be unstoppable. The sway in my step, the voice like wind chimes, the bruises made of wildflowers—no matter what I try to smother these traits with, they survive. In fact, I can never seem to get these parts of me to leave.


“You’ve got something on your eyes,” my father said to me sarcastically the other day.

“It’s called eyeliner,” my stepmother—a goddess—corrected him. “And he looks amazing.”

I smiled at her compliment, but my father’s passive voice lingered in the back of my mind. He had never been the aggressive type—always saying vague statements that could be misunderstood or misconstrued. Sitting at his dining room table, it reminded me of another time, years ago.

I was eleven when I wore a dress for the first time. I had snuck into one of my older sisters’ room and rummaged through her closet. I found what I was looking for—her golden sparkly Easter dress with a tulle skirt. I rushed into the bathroom with excitement churning in my stomach. I slipped the dress on over my head and looked at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t me that stared back. A beautiful princess stood in my place.

I smiled at myself before taking a deep breath. Keeping the dress around my shoulders, I stepped out of the bathroom. I walked into the dining room where all eight of my siblings and both of my parents were eating lunch.

My mother and sisters burst into laughter immediately. I laughed too, spinning in my gold sparkly dress. I felt gorgeous. I never wanted to take it off—and I didn’t care if they were laughing at me or with me.

But then my father’s deep voice broke through the noise. “Go take the dress off,” he said blandly. He wasn’t angry; his voice never rose. I looked into his eyes and all my emotions shifted. His blue eyes froze over like a crystallized swamp. He wasn’t mad; that wasn’t the feeling that pierced my soul. He was disgusted.

I turned quickly and ran up the stairs. I slammed the bathroom door shut. Turning to the mirror, I no longer felt pretty. I watched tears well up in my eyes as I realized the princess had vanished. A little boy stood in front of me, wearing a dress that hung limply from his body—a dress he could never hope to fit into.

And then I felt disgusted with myself, too.

When will you learn? My father’s eyes seemed to shout at me—almost begging me. When will you learn to be a man?


Only one person knew how confused I was—how lost and lonely I grew up. She was the only one who knew that I had no idea what being a man was. She knew because she felt the same way.

My sister, Keisia, was my solace. As children we’d climb beneath blankets like they were a cave. The darkness would hover around us as we whispered.

“I hate being a girl,” she told me. “I hate going to tea parties with mom, and I hate playing with dolls.”

I told her she was ridiculous. She was the one with the perfect childhood and I was the one who was forced into a mold I knew I would never fit into.

She disagreed. “I want to go hiking with you and dad,” she whined. “I want to be a boy, like you.”

I shook my head. “I want to be a girl. I don’t like how the other boys make fun of me.”

My sister put her arms around me. “They only make fun of you because you’re smarter than them. They wish they could be like you.”

I didn’t believe her then, and I don’t believe her now.

We continued holding each other, even without the blankets to hide us. She was forced to be the perfect little girl, and I, the perfect little boy.

Yet every Christmas, when I got the Nerf guns and she received the Bratz dolls, we would trade them in secret. We knew we saw each other for who we were.

She was a little girl. I was a little boy.

She liked getting dirty. She wanted to go hiking, to play in the forest. She wanted to get bucked off of horses while riding them too fast.

I wanted to play dress up or read a good book.

Everyone hated that we wanted these things—they hated that I’d put wildflowers behind my ears. They couldn’t see her, placing the petals in delicate rows along my blonde hair. They couldn’t see me, running along muddy creaks with my sister who should’ve been inside sipping tea. I realized then that we both stood behind the same web, trapped from being who we felt we were—ostracized from the other kids.

We grew up with the childhoods the other wanted, just centimeters apart.

Yet, we stood on opposite sides of the world.


The pain and confusion I felt as a child has subsided. The pressure to conform to the standards of masculinity, however, has not.

Around a year ago, I started seeing a therapist. I knew I had wounds that needed healing, but I was certain I could not cure them myself. Her voice is soothing, like a salve on the fear of vulnerability that nearly crippled me the first few meetings. Eventually, I began to truly speak—not just about traumas, but emotions that I was confused by, worries that lurked in the corner of my mind. I told her I didn’t know who I was. I knew I could never find him—because, maybe I didn’t want to find him.

My therapist told me in order to truly know myself, I must find a way to look in the mirror and see who I am. Then, I must accept what I see.

She asked me, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you what your personality is like?”

I knew the answer immediately. I’m feminine.

It was the only definition I could think of at the time, as I was completely lost to myself in the fray of life.

My tongue held me back. I’m not feminine, I had always told myself. I had known from my time as a femme boy that being girly meant I was weak. The internalized misogyny that hovered over me wouldn’t let me admit the truth to my reflection. Even though that reflection only seemed to show me dainty trinkets and glass skin. I can be feminine at times but that’s not who I am, I would insist to myself.

In that moment, with the excuses running through my head, I realized something I should have learned a long time ago. If I deny myself who I am, I will never learn who this creature is that I am forced to spend the entirety of my life with.

I denied myself—because I was still disgusted with myself.

Flashes of who I am in other’s eyes flickered before me like an old fashioned film reel. I saw me the way the other boys saw me, a weak and shriveled flower. I saw me the way grown-up macho men saw me. I could only see the things I was not—masculine—and so I hated myself for who I was.

I didn’t blame the boys for holding me at arm’s length. If I was in their place, I would segregate myself as well—as if femininity in a man was a disease.

My therapist’s office was dimly lit. There was a faint scent of lavender and mangoes that coupled with her soothing voice made me feel like I could speak.

So I told her everything. Spider-Man with his web, shooting towards me, reaching for me—though I never asked for it. The boys and their knives, and the web that held me back. I told her about my father telling me that I’ll be a man someday. I told her I had no idea what that meant.

I told her about the fathers of my friends, with their angry hands and rough voices.

“Those boys aren’t here anymore,” my therapist said. “Their knives are dulled, the web needs only to be swatted away.”

But it could never work that way. The web seemed to stretch over the entire earth—and if I dare even touch it my flesh would get stuck. It would wrap around me and feed off of me until all my femininity was gone. But I knew what she meant.


Every day, my femininity sparkles on the surface of my skin. I’ve spent my entire life trying to hide it behind baggy clothes or crumpled in the palms of my hands, tucked deep in my pants pockets. I’ve grown tired of hiding it. It’s become too exhausting. Forcing myself to see my own face when I look in the mirror has all but cured me of my want to be masculine.

I wear eyeliner on my eyes, a choker clasped tightly to my neck, and a crop top that vanishes around my abdomen. I’ll go out in the city—to the bars, to the lake, or to parties—and I get the same reaction every time I step out in the light of day. Old white men will gawk at me shamelessly. People whisper as I pass by, as if they’ve never seen a man with a sense of fashion. They tuck their faces behind their hands—afraid I’ll read their lips—as if I care enough about what they have to say.

With all the eyes on me, I throw my shoulders back. I strut like I own the sidewalk, the city. In the clubs, I dance with reckless abandon. I tell myself to ignore the stares. My body naturally moves in a feminine way, even when it’s the music that moves through me.

There’s always at least one comment. Without fail, someone’s tongue lashes out at me like that web from Spider-Man’s outstretched arm.

“What is that?” A man will cringe in disgust, pointing at me obnoxiously.

“I love your confidence.” A talkative girl will offer this as a compliment, but I know that it’s not. You’re not supposed to wear that, she says with her eyes. Yet here you are, bare skin under a belly shirt.

“Are you asking for a hate crime?” a friend will ask me, concern sewn delicately into their voice.

Pretending to be masculine was exhausting, but this… this is exhausting.

I go home every night and I wash off the eye liner. I hold back tears, symptoms of hurt that I despise to feel. Something heavy congeals in my chest, turning my strut into a slouch. What was I thinking? I ask my reflection.

I feel the web as it closes in around me. It ties me up, longing to suck the rouge itself out of my cheeks.

I’m never doing that again. I will never go out wearing something like that again. I vow to myself to burn all my clothes.

I curl up in bed and force myself not to cry. These words mean nothing to me—but if that’s true, why is the eyeliner washed away?

These nights, once I’m safely inside, I think of all the femme boys who are forced to pay a steep price for their femininity. Boys get beat up; they get murdered—crimes inspired by the same anger I see in the eyes of men who look at me and decide immediately that they hate me for what I am wearing.

In the morning, I’ll have to try again to be less feminine, I think to myself. It’s a dangerous world to be a not-boy in. It’s for the best—for my own safety.

But in the morning, I wake up, and with shaky hands, I’m lining the edges of my eyes again.

Nobody knows if I’m worth the potential price. Perhaps one day I’ll live to regret letting my femininity be so obvious.

But until then, I will let myself live.


I have found myself turning away from the web. I’ve stopped seeing myself in the eyes of others, at least in this one respect. Spider-Man’s web still reaches for me, but it will never have me.

I am feminine. I like dainty things—like quiet conversations on busy streets and lemon in my iced tea on warm afternoons. I like my hair long, soft, and wavy. I blare Britney Spears from my car’s stereo. I crop way too many of my T-shirts and wear them any chance I get.

I dress up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. I go to parties in her white dress. I wear my rouge on my face along with red lipstick and a fake beauty mark placed directly above the corner of my lips. I go into public as her and nobody sees me. They see her—the image of femininity.

It’s what I want them to see. I want them to see the not-boy: free of the webs and expectations I can’t hope to learn to live up to.

And I tell myself that I can shatter the mold of what a man is capable of being.

So, I wear my high-pitched voice like a necklace. I strut with a sway set low in my hips.

I wear makeup. I’ll wear a dress.

Because, damn it, my ass looks good in a dress.

pencilKolton Knapp was raised in Des Moines, Iowa in a family of 11. Currently enrolled at Drake University, he intends to graduate in the Spring of 2022 and pursue a career in writing. Email: koltonknapp202[at]

The Charm of Novelty

Creative Nonfiction
Elizabeth Bernays

Photo Credit: Linda, Fortuna future/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

In the small, shabby living room of an old house in downtown Tucson a dozen women sat waiting. We were at a lesbian support group run by Wingspan—a non-profit center for the LGBTQ community. The large facilitator came in, plonked down on a dilapidated armchair, and greeted the group as she passed around a sheet of paper for names and email addresses to be shared. She then asked each woman to speak about herself and what brought her to the group.

It was a motley gathering and each woman had a different concern.

“How’m I going to talk to my husband about being gay?”

“What’ll happen to my children when I tell them I’m a lesbian?”

“It’s so lonely being a lesbian. I got no friends.”

Most extraordinary was the small, swarthy woman with a strong London accent, who ranted and raved about a guy who kept trying to kill her. There were other stories of loss and despair. Several women expressed real hatred of men. After having had a wonderful husband for thirty-seven years and still mourning his death, I found them annoying, but did wonder what experiences had caused such powerful aversion.

Across from me a darkly tanned woman in shorts cried uncontrollably, but she finally managed to explain. “I’s married to a man who knows I’s gay, and I had this lover, but she’s just dumped me.”

This was Linda, whom I noticed in particular as I sat diffidently, amazed at the story. Did he really tolerate a wife who had affairs with women? And what was that rough-sounding accent?

There was no way I could tell the whole story of how close my husband, Reg, and I had been, how perfectly woven together our passions for research, classical music, reading and theater. Our marriage had been one of true soulmates, and we worked together on biological problems in different countries all around the world. Quietly, I simply spoke about misery since the death of an adored partner, and the emergence of an intense physical attraction to women.

I sat in subdued clothes with my hands awkwardly clutched. Later, Linda told me that she thought I was a timid housewife type. When the session ended I took note of the three emails belonging to women who had mentioned the complication of a man in their lives. I thought we might have something in common. Then we scattered and each of us went off alone.

At home, I emailed the three women who had husbands, but it was only Linda who replied. She sent the cursory message: “See ya next time.”

As the same old stories were recounted two weeks later at the next group meeting, I looked across the room to Linda and our eyes met. I felt there was a mutual recognition that this was going to be tedious, but a connection had definitely been established between us. At the end of the session we left together.

Linda said, “Did ya hear that girl whose been going for six years? Fuck, that’s not for me.”

I replied, “If people need it for so long, it can’t be all that useful.”

I looked at Linda. I was strangely attracted to this boyish woman, with unfamiliar mannerisms and speech. “Let’s not go back.”

We were silent for a while, and I desperately wondered how to prolong our walk back to the parking area. I said, “Want to go and get a drink?”

“I guess.”

Not much enthusiasm I thought, and then it turned out Linda didn’t drink wine or beer; didn’t want tea, coffee, fruit juice or soda. I was perplexed, but we went to a small café where we sat at bare wooden tables and drank plain water. I thought, this is weird—I got her in here but what the hell do we talk about? We sat in silence and the minutes got longer. So I began.

“Where are you from?”

“Dallas, and you? I don’t recognize your accent.”

“Oh well, I am Australian really but lived in England for twenty years. Been in the States since 1983—hybrid.”

We looked each other over. We were of similar height but that was where the similarity ended. Linda’s fine tanned skin, very bright dark eyes, and black hair in a buzz cut somehow made her look younger than her 49 years. By contrast, I had wavy hair, fair skin and a distinctly female figure. At 62, I too looked somewhat younger.

Linda gulped down her water. “Whatcha do for work?”

“Retired from teaching. And you?”

Linda looked away and after a long pause replied, “Freelance photojournalist. Where’d ya teach?”

“I was at the University of Arizona.”

“Gees, you a professor or something?”


“I never met a professor.”

I took a sip of water, wishing it was something alcoholic as I desperately tried to think of something else to say. During the long minutes of silence, her face grew serious, and I felt the evident ache she suffered. Seeing her sadness made me feel my own deep ache, made me feel closer to her. The short hair made her seem vulnerable and I decided that for sure she was very attractive.

Eventually Linda leaned over to me. “I dropped outta school in eighth grade, but you gone ta college!”

“Yes, I went to University in Australia, and also in England.”


I laughed and went on, “I studied insects and got a PhD in entomology.”

“Well! I thought you never been anywhere the way you sat there all prim and proper.”

She smiled at me and it was a smile that lit up her tanned face so her eyes seemed brighter than ever. This sassy boyish woman was unlike anyone I had ever met.

“What else?” I said.

I took in the Texan accent as Linda proceeded. “I dropped out, like I said, and didn’t want to work a regular job, and guess what, I was stoned outta my mind for years and years.”

Everything we each said made it plain that no two women could have backgrounds that were so different. I had had what my mother called a “proper” upbringing in Australia, and then, after a period of going a bit wild and drinking in every pub in London, became a scientist and then a university professor. But I was attracted to a new side of life. Linda seemed doubtful about a weirdo from a world she couldn’t even imagine. Later she told me that she did think to herself, At least she don’t seem uppity.

We left the café and wandered to our parked cars. I found her so physically attractive and fascinating that I turned to her and suddenly said, “I love you.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she replied with surprise and impatience, upon which we parted with awkward goodbyes.

I was quite excited by the very idea of a possible relationship with someone so different from everything and everybody I had ever really known. It satisfied another part of me—delight at bucking convention. I was careful, though, not to reveal how much I was physically attracted to her in case it was not reciprocated. It was such a new feeling to be attracted to a woman after a relationship with a man I had loved for so long. Reg had been a lover and best friend. We shared everything. Our tastes were so similar and our communications often required no words, even as he lay dying in our desert home. It was after eighteen months of loss and desperation, that I discovered Wingspan, and a support group that concerned friends had been pressing me to find.

Linda and I emailed each another, and a week or so later she agreed to visit me at my ranch house in the Tucson foothills. We ambled around in the pristine Sonoran Desert landscape looking at cottontail rabbits, lizards, and quail. Look at that tarny bunny, and that big o’fat lizard, he’s a football! Linda was always fearful of snakes and when she saw a stick: Wot’s that thang? Whoa, looks like a snake. In spite of the possible dangers she seemed to enjoy our walk and my sharing occasional bits of natural history. Until, I’m wore out, and we went in.

Inside, Linda gazed around at the large old ranch house with huge beams, red cement floors, and picture windows looking out to desert views of saguaros and prickly pear with the Santa Catalina Mountains beyond. She took in the oil paintings and watercolors on the walls and was fascinated by a picture of African village life created in bas-relief on beaten aluminum.

“What’s that?”

“Reg and I bought that when we were working in Nigeria. The artist is Asiru Olatunde, and he worked with just a hammer and nails. We got it for just a few dollars back then, but it is worth thousands now.”


She looked around the Arizona room with its metal stove, old TV, and glass sliding doors leading out to a big patio and the desert beyond. Finally, she looked at all the shelves of books.

“You read all these?”


Then she saw my old Bible among the poetry books.

“Your religious or something?”

“Not at all, but I had a religious phase when I was a teenager, and I never throw out a book.”

“Yeah, well I knew I as an atheist when I got to about ten and just stopped going to the church with my parents.”

“What did they say to that?”

“They never said nothin’ against what I did.”

After a short silence she smiled. “Well, we got something in common, eh?”

Conversation stalled and Linda took to organizing the books on one of the shelves so that the titles all went one way. “Gotta have them straight.”

“I only need to know where things are,” I replied.

At last we both relaxed a bit and Linda went on in her Texas dialect and drawl. “I guess I like reading. I got a list of 100 top books from the New York Times, bought them second hand at Bookman’s. I’s reading them one by one.”

Clearly, this attractive unschooled woman was not just smart and funny. She read books.

“Would you like tea?” I offered.

“Nah, just water.”

“What about some dinner?”

“I gotta go home.”

She was sitting on the old leather sofa as I stood in front of her. We looked at one another for several minutes. I saw that round smiling face with dimpled cheeks and badly wanted to kiss her. Perhaps Linda saw that because she quickly left with scarcely a goodbye.

A couple of weeks later we agreed to meet at a Wingspan social. Linda mixed with dozens of others, chatting and laughing, making me feel my awkwardness, but I eventually struck up a conversation with a woman of about my own age who was interested in conservation. We discussed places to visit for bird-watching, and the woman recommended a new book about birding in Arizona. I took out my ever-present notebook to write down the title and author.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Linda was there kissing me on the mouth.

“She’s mine,” Linda shouted.

I laughed with surprise and pleasure. “Look, she’s told me about a great book on birding.”

Linda exclaimed, “I was over there talking and thought you was getting her phone number and Brenda said, Watch out that lady is taking your new friend, so I come over to get you. Well, nothing but a stupid book—let’s see.”

She looked at the notebook and then at me. We gazed at one another for a time that seemed endless but was probably no more than a few seconds before Linda broke the silence with a loud laugh. She was excited now, too.

Later, Linda said Brenda told her that scientists in lab coats were the most exciting for sex. “Not that I care what Brenda thinks, but it is pretty funny—do you wear a lab coat?”

That evening, as I sat looking out at the desert scene I had come to love, I thought about the social. I had met a very diverse group and what a new experience it was to meet a lot of lesbians. In the normal course of events in my life there was no way that Linda and I would ever have met. If we had somehow been brought into contact, neither of us would have recognized the other as someone to know or befriend.

Next time we met it was on a date. Linda picked me up in her old Toyota truck on a warm, summer Saturday evening, and we drove to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It is a place and time for great sunsets, stars, night-blooming cereus and evening primroses, bats and raccoons coming out from their daytime sleep. That evening we were tense and awkward, each aware of the other’s attraction. We were also exhilarated by a storm over the valley, with dramatic clouds and intermittent thunder and lightning. It presaged an exciting chemistry between us, but I wondered if Linda might be hesitant about being involved with a professor type. We made occasional awkward comments as we walked along the paths.

I wondered, Will I ever get to know this curious Texan?

I know now that Linda wondered, What the hell am I doing with a fucking professor?

On the way home Linda drove into a lonely picnic area surrounded by Palo Verde trees and cactus where we kissed seriously for the first time. I wanted to linger, but before I could say anything Linda started the engine and drove back to my place. She left immediately, almost without a goodbye.

It wasn’t long before she came to visit again when I proposed cooking dinner. By this time I knew that Linda had a very limited diet—nothing fancy or spicy or unusual. I served steak, potatoes, and beans, which met with her approval.

Linda was at ease and affectionate while making fun of me or others. On the other hand, I needed wine to relax and make talking easier. I felt, though, that we were gradually learning to understand each other. We each had a bath and we kissed, then Linda suddenly left me to sleep in the spare room. I was mystified.

The following week Linda offered to cook the meat on the barbecue. I could see her in baggy plaid shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers out on the patio through the sliding glass doors. No bra, shapely brown legs, confident walk, happily wielding tongs by my old Kettle barbecue grill. I watched her with pleasure and desire as I drank my wine.

“When did you leave Australia?” she asked as we ate.

“When I was 22, I left Sydney by ship with my friend Lucy. We disembarked in Gibraltar and hitchhiked all around Europe.”

“Then what?”

“Well, we had a bit of a wild time, then I taught high school, and eventually I did a PhD at the University of London. After that I was a British Government Scientist and worked in places like India and Nigeria and Mali.”

Linda kept sipping her water, then, finally putting down her glass said, “Well, I don’t know whatcha want with a dropout who did nothing.”

“You were a photojournalist, so that’s something.”

“I guess. I did sell stuff to the Dallas Fort Worth Times Herald and the AP; mostly I worked with the Fire Department.”

It wasn’t until a lot later that I discovered she was a pro when it came to any photographic work involving quick decisions. Linda was friends with the local fire chief in Dallas and began by taking photographs of fires and first responders. She said she enjoyed the adrenaline rush and always got to the scene fast. I knew she was quick so it made sense that she would be the one with the best shots. Not until a year had passed did she show me the papers nominating her for a Pulitzer.

Linda turned to questions that I had no quick answer for: What do you do for fun? What do you watch on TV? But she didn’t really seem to need answers. She spread out on the sofa, seemingly relaxed.

I said, “Would you like a massage?”


“Well then, here I come,” and I leaned over to kiss her.

“No, you don’t,” she said, jumping up.

Later, she would say, “You pounced on me that night.”

On other occasions she left quite suddenly and without explanation. It was not until much later that Linda confessed she had sometimes left because she was nervous about me and nervous about anything physical. Alone, I was left wondering. What made this woman tick? What kind of relationship did she have with her husband, John? Is she interested in me really?

One summer day she suggested that I come to a bowling alley where she and John would be bowling and I would meet him. It turned out that the date, August 13th, was their wedding anniversary so it felt terribly awkward. Still, nothing was going to stop me from going to see her bowl. Only later did I find out they had not been intimate for years.

I watched them; they were both good bowlers. They had their own balls and they often made strikes. My eyes were mostly on Linda, so alive and so limber, joking with all and sundry. Her tall husband with scruffy hair and beard was quietly friendly. How was it possible that John accepted me, knowing that Linda and I were already close? In any case he apparently became aware of electricity in the air.

“Lin, do you and Liz want to take off?”

That’s all it took. The two of us went to my house and we sat in the Arizona room, watching Gambel’s quail marching around outside.

“Does John really not mind your having an affair?”

“Oh, he got used to it when I went with Kim. John and me’s friends, and we got Trooper. He’s a yellow lab and the best dog we ever had.”

“Did you always have dogs? I’m more of a cat person, but we couldn’t really have a dog with Reg and me working long days.”

“We got Wookie too. You would love him. He’s a Yorkie and such a character. When it’s raining, he can open the doggie door and pee through it without going outside and getting wet. He’s got a million tricks.”

I thought back to my teenage years when we had Australian terriers that are very like Yorkies, but Linda had moved on from dogs. Another time.

We ate dinner on the patio just outside the open sliding glass doors where a breeze from the swamp cooler bathed us in cool, damp air. It was the usual—steak, potato, and beans, while Linda drank water and I had my favorite red wine. Bats flew by and stole sugar water from the hummingbird feeder, javelina trotted past the patio, and a coyote howled in the distance.

Later, I was in bed when she came into the bedroom and announced, “I am going to make love to you tonight.”

I found this amusing. I lay there warm and excited from alcohol and pondered this strange relationship as she showered. There had been a time, perhaps twenty-five years earlier, when I began to fall for tall, handsome Sandy, an imposing woman who reminded me of Miss McCallum, the math teacher I had a crush on in high school. It was Miss McCallum who taught me I was actually good at math and not the hopeless student I believed myself to be. Well, nothing was going to interfere with my relationship with Reg. He was everything, so I stopped seeing Sandy, who anyway had her own partner. The short lesbian flash faded completely.

I was still musing on the past when a warm damp Linda jumped in beside me and we kissed. Slowly then, we explored one another’s bodies. And so began the affair and the most unlikely partnership, with each of us unsure if it would lead anywhere in the long term.

Linda joked, “Anniversary of our first night gonna be the same date as me and John’s wedding anniversary!”


Elizabeth grew up in Australia, became a British Government Scientist in London, and then a Professor of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley. From there she was appointed Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona where she also obtained an MFA in Creative Writing. She has published forty nonfiction stories in literary magazines and last year, her memoir, Six Legs Walking, won the 2020 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award for memoir. Email: eabernays[at]

House Cats

Ann Zhang

Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

My second cat Janie has some rudimentary understanding of physics. Ever since she got spayed she’s been moving like a lizard, her neck a downward slope from her elfin shoulders to her head, which looks larger than usual wrapped in the vet’s semi-translucent cone. She’s tried rubbing the front of her body against wooden objects, moonwalking until her hind legs hit the kitchen wall, and if no one had invented Velcro, her tricks would be working.

I was too young to remember the weeks after my parents took my first cat to the vet. Meow-Meow was a grey tabby who liked to catch flies in his mouth, sometimes a wasp of below-average mobility. In his middle age, he impregnated the cat two doors down the street, whose owners demanded one hundred dollars and Meow-Meow’s punctual castration, or at least that’s what my brother told me. Before he told me that, my brother counted the stitches on Meow-Meow’s stomach aloud, explaining in psychedelic detail how the vet carved the balls out of our cat. He said to imagine my own balls as walnut seeds.

Sometimes I can’t help but think about Janie in terms of Meow-Meow: her eyes far bluer, her existence a touch less ordinary. She has a downy white coat that makes her the feline equivalent of a very pretty girl. Just then Janie begins grinding her cone-ridden head against the maple leg of an armchair where Meow-Meow used to sit, licking his stomach while my brother tapped out one-handed rock covers on the electric keyboard.

The one thing my brother was really good at was speed stacking, that game where you build pyramids out of cups and then take them apart in the smallest possible number of motions. He set a world record in the 3-3-3 stack, actually. There’s a video online with thousands of views and adults in the comments raving that he’s the fastest eleven-year-old they’ve ever seen, and that he should consider learning classical guitar.

On the edge of the table across from Meow-Meow’s favorite armchair, my brother kept a bright blue place mat and a special timer that he would smack with both hands whenever he finished his routine. Plastic cups splayed across every flat surface of the house like party aftermath, memorialized: a red set, a purple set, a glow-in-the-dark set the color of honeydew. By now my parents have donated boxes of my brother’s stuff to our younger cousins who wanted to catch up with him, never came close. Although a kid from Korea soon stuck a new world record.

Around the time we thought about adopting Janie, my parents and I were the only ones left in the house. My brother had wrapped up his high school legacy of state-school grades, skipping homework to drive into the night with such urgency that I suspected he played a pivotal role in some secret mission to save the world. Turns out he was visiting girls’ houses as soon as their parents left town, and now he was somehow off to West Point. At the animal shelter, my mom kept asking me which cat I wanted. I cried on the cool, paw-printed floor because I couldn’t bring myself to choose.

Four years later, we came back, and my dad helped me calculate the shelter’s nicest cat. Janie liked to brush her face against my hand, which my dad deemed a signal that she wanted to befriend me. She’s been trying harder than ever to befriend me these past few days, probably since she can’t quite scratch her own face with the cone. I have to itch her myself, especially the bald patches in front of her ears, the solid bridge of her nose. Afterwards, I run to the sink to wash my fingers of the wet crust that tends to accumulate around the inside corners of her eyes.

My brother sends home bi-monthly updates about his life at West Point. Last I heard, he was in the middle of survival swimming, a unit that consisted of leaping with all your clothes and equipment into a simulative pool of massive waves. For the final test, his superiors hoisted the crests even higher, added lights and fog for limited visibility, recordings of machine guns and people screaming. When my brother couldn’t unclip his vest, he had to drop his rifle and use both hands. He would be required to retake the course in the spring.

I remember that right before Meow-Meow died, the poor cat started crapping in different rooms around the house. Back then I was spending a lot of my free time tracking tropical storms, probabilities blazoned in yellow, orange, red. A hurricane swept into Texas from the Gulf of Mexico on the same day that we found Meow-Meow motionless, curled into a ball inside the walk-in shower that my brother and I used to share.

The main reason my mom eventually drove us back to the animal shelter was not that she had in any way pardoned my lack of resolve, but because Meow-Meow’s body was decomposing beneath the peach tree in our backyard. On the ride there, my mom kept asking if my brother ever texted me. He didn’t, and I couldn’t figure out how to lie to her. While my dad led me through the aisles of cats in cages, on suspended platforms, crouched around metal bowls, I spotted my mom holding her hand out to a litter of grey tabbies. Bird-sized things that wouldn’t stop shrieking as we left the room.


Ann Zhang is a student at Yale University. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Twitter: @annleezhang Email: annleezhang[at]


Minh-Tam T. Le

Photo Credit: Dan Weisz/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Kalisa straightened the black silk ribbon wrapped around her red straw boater. Pinching the wide-brim edge, she balanced it on her silver head and smiled as it found its usual landing. She waved at the director—a man young enough to be her son.

“We’re almost ready Mrs. Lomidzei. One minute,” said the director holding up an index finger.

She nodded and turned to fix Hubert’s bowtie—ocean blue with diagonal red stripes. Even in their seventies, she still wanted them to look splendid. After all, the animals were counting on them.

Hubert grinned at her through a suppressed yawn. He had stayed up late with their great-great grandson Leo working on a tropical rain forest diorama.

Staring out at the crew around them, Kalisa felt like a coral reef fish in a glass bowl. She was used to being in front of crowds, but this was different. The audiences would be invisible, tucked behind their screens.

“Let’s lock it up,” yelled someone.

“Pictures up,” said another.

“Rolling, rolling, rolling.”

A girl with a pixie haircut and crew uniform held up the clapperboard in front of the camera. “This is scene 1, A, take 1.”

Kalisa made a mental note to google some terms. Hot brick. Clapper loader. Strangely, that reminded Kalisa of the flappers. Her grandmother was a flapper. Always with a neat bob and an almost tangible Georgian accent. Although she didn’t touch alcohol after pancreatic cancer became a thing, Bebia hung onto the Slims until her last breath.

“Marker.” The pixie hair girl snapped the stick shut and moved swiftly from the camera’s view.

Kalisa smiled at the camera, despite the butterflies in her stomach. She leapt into her rehearsed intro. “Good morning animal lovers. I’m Kalisa Lomidzei.” After a few seconds of silence, she glanced at her husband, snoring loudly beside her in the velvet loveseat. Nudging him, he sat up straight as a board.

“And I’m Hubert Lomidzei.”

“We’re the zookeepers of Bonnie and Clyde.” They grinned as practiced in front of the bathroom mirror at least three dozen times.

Kalisa watched the subtle shift of the camera onto the two songbirds.

Hubert tugged at his bow and smiled. “We’ve been the proud zookeepers of the Grand Adventure Zoo for forty-three years and we can’t wait to see you during the next three Sundays.”

Together, they animated the discussion of their roles with Bonnie and Clyde singing and hopping from one shoulder to the next. They repeated it in segments another three times before the director was satisfied.

“Cut. That’s a wrap. Good job everyone,” said the director. He sprang from his black chair and shook their hands. “My children are fans of your bird shows.”

Kalisa sighed with relief as the air lost its tense vibrations like the exhale of a child after spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird over honeysuckles.

After the director left, she turned to Hubert. Kalisa’s eyes softened. He was already asleep. The birds were nestled in his silver waves. Well, more like silver strands. She missed those days, running her fingers through his wavy mahogany locks. They were once thick and soft like plumes of a young ostrich. Leaning down, she kissed his nose.

Hubert stirred and opened his eyes. Moonlight broke on his lips. “The show’s over already?” he murmured.

“Yes, darling. Let’s go home.” Instead of driving to their bungalow at 21 Privet Drive, Kalisa parked their Volkswagen van in front of the zoo. She grinned as sunlight burst from a flock of clouds onto the zoo’s entrance. They were blessed as the zookeepers, aka “badass guardians of Grand Adventure Zoo.” That was Leo’s name for them.

Hubert puffed out a burst of air between snores as if in agreement.

Kalisa leaned back, feeling the soft hum of their love and chuckling at the image of them in a squad with Jane Goodall and Steve Irwin.


Minh-Tam Le is a primary care physician assistant in Winston-Salem, NC. Her most recent publications are in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Down in the Dirt, and Literary Juice. She won a place in the Writer’s Digest’s 87th and 82nd Annual Short Story Contest, Mainstream/Literary category. From 2012-2019, she served as a blogger and then a board member of Sparks Magazine, a student-run, mixed-media platform for the Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) community. Twitter: @takikoazn Email: tamle.nihon[at]