Forced Entry? by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Ruth Ticktin

Front cover of the novel "Forced Entry?" by Bill Lockwood. Image of a young woman with long blonde hair looking out a window, with one arm across her forehead. Teaser text reads: A daughter and her boyfriend harassing her mother, and an overinvolved neighbor.

Forced Entry? by Bill Lockwood

The novel Forced Entry? by Bill Lockwood (The Wild Rose Press, 2022) is a fun twist on the usual who-done-it.

In the first chapter, after an intriguing excerpt and a historical note, we meet Henrietta and her new boyfriend plotting to terrorize Henrietta’s mother. In the course of the novel, we follow other characters who are trying to figure out who’s behind the fear-inducing, yet bumbling, clues that continue to occur.

Lockwood’s main narrator, Max, is having a great time playing detective. A rock musician turned history professor between gigs, he loves both performing and connecting the past to present. He believes there is a relationship between the Dark Ages, about which he is teaching a course that semester, and the New Age movement gaining momentum in California, where he is working in 1971.

Living next door to his friend Leila that spring, Max meets her adult daughter Henrietta who has recently come to stay with Leila. He is asked to help when Leila calls him, frightened by the notes that appear on the doors, windows, and mirrors of her house. The paint and lipstick scribbles are made-up verses with obscure threats about killing Henrietta.

Max tries decoding the numbers in the messages by comparing them to the witchcraft events of the Dark Ages in his lectures. Unsuccessful, it’s his girlfriend’s teenaged daughter who figures out the codes in the end. Max concocts a little scheme and then a final act to discover who is behind the scare tactic actions.

The dialogue of the teenager was not always believable and Max’s college history lesson plans didn’t always actually relate, but the story sailed through to a quite smooth reading experience. Some of the characters’ development, like Max’s girlfriend and his grandpa, were cursory. Some characters were typecast, like the aging actress and the witch. Ultimately that mattered less because we clearly had our heroes and the tongue-in-cheek writing was riveting.

Lockwood gave the reader valuable food for thought. We learned of our misunderstanding about modern witchcraft and their harmless lifestyle. We realized that the happy endings of English folklore don’t always take into account the plight of the Irish and their fight for independence.

Significantly, one moral of the story lasts: good and bad is not simply black and white. There is a lot of gray area. Involving the police was done with just the right light touch, as was purposefully not villainizing the wrongdoers. In this case there was no major reconciliation but rather a realization that there are important times to let it be and move on. A bit like Agatha Christie, we readers were left reassured by this cautionary but lighthearted tale.


Bill Lockwood is a retired social worker having had a lifelong passion for writing and participation in community theater. He currently writes articles about the arts and interesting people for The Shopper/Vermont Journal and covers local community theater for the Eagle Times of Claremont, NH. The Wild Rose Press has published six of his Historical Fiction novels: Buried Gold (2016), Megan of the Mists (2017), Ms. Anna (2018), The Monsignor’s Agents (2020), Gare de Lyon (2021), and Forced Entry? (2022). His short story “The Kids Won’t Leave” appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, and his story “Pizza, Pizza” appeared in The Raven’s Perch, April 28, 2021. Bill Lockwood is a frequent contributor to Toasted Cheese.


Ruth Ticktin coordinated programs, advised, and taught ESL in Washington DC and Maryland since 1977. Always inspired by shared stories, she’s the author of Was Am Going, Recollections Poetry & Flash (NewBayBooks, 2022), coauthor of What’s Ahead? (ProLinguaLearning, 2013), coeditor of Psalms (PoeticaPublishing, 2020) and a contributor to BendingGenres Anthology (2018-19), Art Covid-19 (SanFedelePress) and more.

Was Am Going by Ruth Ticktin

Candle-Ends: Review
Bill Lockwood

Front cover of the poetry/flash collection "Was Am Going" by Ruth Ticktin. Image of a body of water looking toward the horizon. The sun is setting and the sky is pink-orange with clouds.

Was Am Going: Recollections in Poetry & Flash by Ruth Ticktin

Ruth Ticktin’s Was Am Going is a short book of poems and flash fiction, some of them excerpts, and some of both forms that have been published previously in various journals and publications. The start of her introduction really sets out what her work is all about:

Was Am Going: Recollections in Poetry and Flash speaks out to life experiences. Tales enfold and themes evolve, forming a camaraderie between reader and author. Merging the past, from the mid-1950s—a girl grows up, observes and discovers—to the 21st Century when a woman considers, recognizes, and carries on.

The title is quite clever. It tells where she was, where she is now, and where she is going.

The recollections she presents are both memoirs and reflections on her life and, actually, life in general, and the times she has lived through. Intriguing and imaginative were the two words that kept coming to mind as I read through the book. Both because of what she is telling and the way she has chosen to tell it.

Her journey through life and across the US starts in the Midwest, and it is broken into three parts. The first part takes her from growing up in Madison, Wisconsin to a post-college solo trip to the west coast and Mexico. It starts with her as a little girl by “the water’s edge,” which is the title of her first poem and a great image as well. Part One ends with her, a young adult, alone, stranded, and broke in El Paso, Texas and calling her parents for a ticket home.

The opening poem, “Wisconsin Waters,” is a two-verse quick introduction that sets the tone. It is focused on a river, and it bounces between its summer and winter states. It also sets up the first short story, “We Didn’t Have a TV,” which also then sets the time of the 1950s when she was growing up. It gives a very accurate description of the TV stars and shows of that era showing how she remembers it well. She also proudly proclaims herself “a reader of books,” though which ones and when, etc. are left to our imagination.

It then goes on with a few more flash fiction pieces describing her growing up. The fiction pieces are written in a pattern of one short line after another, mimicking the look of poetry though the words definitely have the feel of prose. I go back to intriguing and imaginative again. Then when she intersperses actual poetry again, it keeps things fresh and changing, and it certainly makes one want to read on.

I particularly liked one poem, “Ode to Stories.” It evokes all kinds of stories and fairy tale images that are somehow familiar. It starts with “Charlotte unravels her web…” and takes on “elves, witches, and phantoms hiding.” It is a very clever intertwining of all the images it evokes. So, too, is “Home for a Visit,” an image-filled recollection of working as a waitress and bringing home leftovers to her roommates.

Part One ends with “Haiku”, a poem that addressed the status of her was, am, going at the time, certainly appropriate to moving on.

Part Two finds her “a mom in a house.” It goes on with poems and stories of learning, passings, loss, and life. She covers it all. Some of the pieces in this section have been published previously, many of them in DASH Literary Journal. This section includes reflections on a “perfect mom,” the Jewish tradition of marking time after death, and a mail carrier who jumped in and stopped a car that rolled away with a child on board. She isn’t afraid to be political either. “Footsteps, a pantoum” compares the Nazis coming for loved ones to US immigration enforcement.

Part Three takes the title of the first poem in the book, “The Water’s Edge.” It covers the forty years she spent living in Washington, DC. “To Us,” a poem, and “To Washington, DC,” a flash, are both memoirs of her protesting and demonstrating for liberal causes. She has some very good images of Cuba, and she includes thoughts on the recent pandemic of 2020, noting in “A Perspective” that, “Historic fiction about the spring of 2020 will be written.” Prophetic, for sure, but then cryptic in its last line: “It is possible that some stories just end where they end.”

Not to say I loved all her pieces, but the ones I couldn’t “get into” were few and far between.

The book ends on a very optimistic note with a poem called “A Peace Prayer.” This does summarize the tone of the book, optimistic and uplifting. I would recommend it to anyone.


Ruth Ticktin has coordinated international programs, advised and taught English Language Learning in Washington, DC and Maryland since 1977. From Madison and Chicago, graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Ruth encourages sharing stories. Inspired by students, family and community, she is the author of Was Am Going, Recollections Poetry & Flash (NewBayBooks, 2022), coauthor of What’s Ahead? (ProLinguaLearning, 2013), coeditor of Psalms (PoeticaPublishing, 2020) and a contributor to BendingGenres Anthology (2018-19), Art Covid-19 (SanFedelePress, 2020), PressPausePress #6 and several other literary journals.


Bill Lockwood is a retired social worker having had a lifelong passion for writing and participation in community theater. He currently writes articles about the arts and interesting people for The Shopper/Vermont Journal and covers local community theater for the Eagle Times of Claremont, NH. The Wild Rose Press has published six of his Historical Fiction novels: Buried Gold (2016), Megan of the Mists (2017), Ms. Anna (2018), The Monsignor’s Agents (2020), Gare de Lyon (2021), and Forced Entry? (2022). His short story “The Kids Won’t Leave” appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Two Hawks Quarterly, and his story “Pizza, Pizza” appeared in The Raven’s Perch, April 28, 2021. Bill Lockwood is a frequent contributor to Toasted Cheese. This is his sixth book review.

Hollowed by Lucy Zhang

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

Front cover of the flash fiction collection "Hollowed" by Lucy Zhang. Image of a light blue background with two upturned halves of an eggshell in the foreground. The shells are pinkish and cast shadows. The word "HOLLOWED" in a stencil font is on the inside of the half-shell on the left and "LUCY ZHANG" in the same font on the inside of the half-shell on the right.

Hollowed by Lucy Zhang

Lucy Zhang’s recent flash fiction collection, Hollowed (Thirty West, 2022), is full of surprise and wonder as it explores identity and agency. Her tone seems matter-of-fact and nothing in this collection is straightforward. Quite the opposite. The short stories and flash are bursting with organic and surreal images juxtaposed to the expectations of others that clearly and interestingly intersect. Zhang’s thoughtful prose is also dazzling. There is much to say about the depth and breadth of the stories in Hollowed. This is my short take.

One striking theme is the immigrant experience. Being first or second generation and straddling two worlds. Two identities. Who am I? Who do I want to be? In “Soft-Shelled Turtle,” Zhang writes with authority about the visceral experience of eating turtle as a young girl and later as an adult traveling from Chinatown with a live turtle on the subway and the looks from others who notice and perhaps disapprove.

Why can’t they eat chicken like normal people? said the man’s facial expression. Stop staring, I thought. Stop staring…

The turtle itself may be a mechanism, a metaphor, if you will, for what is really going on in this story, the turtle being a traditional Chinese delicacy as well as traditional medicine:

It’s good for you, lots of protein, helps with anemia and fertility, my parents told me as I forced it down. (5) 

When this character receives a live turtle at age thirty, she is disturbed by the gift, knowing it is another message from her parents who make no bones about their thoughts of their single and childless daughter living independent from them.

The story also has an added surrealness. I wondered about the fairies in the kitchen playing mahjong for hours. The protagonist decides to join them, which I thought was hilarious. But before she does they insist:

We don’t want your nonexistent firstborn, they titter. We want your soft-shelled turtle. (4)

They seem not to be bothered with preparing the turtle, running counter to the protagonist who is doubly not happy about the gift she would have to kill in order to consume. The fairies presence brings a chaotic element to the story that has purpose, perhaps reflecting or balancing the duality and agency surrounding the young woman.

Another theme in the collection is the feminine. The stories, “Stone Girl” and “Thigh Gap” resonate with feminist ideals relating to body image. “Stone Girl” is also the name of the main character who is made of stone and presently being created. She doesn’t want perfection. Perfection is found in the imperfection. A beautiful asymmetry that she decides. “Thigh Gap” also relates to body image and self-infliction. This story evokes negative self images that the main character wishes to change. Cutting. Carving. Creating a new self that is disturbing and, in the end, not satisfying to the character.

Some of the stories in Hollowed invoke not just the female but an added existential ingredient. “Hatchling” begins with an outrageous first sentence: “When the egg popped out of her vagina…”  An unexpected pregnancy complication for sure! The story flashes back to childhood and an incident that happened when collecting chicken eggs. It returns to the present dilemma of this egg, which is “about the size of a duck egg, [yet] heavier…” (19). Should she tell her husband? In the meantime, the protagonist goes about cleaning up the delivery scene. It’s an absurd situation Zhang creates in a curious exploration of motherhood that goes deeper when the egg cracks.

Zhang uses various vantage points to tickle the reader. “How to Make Me Orgasm” is one of the stories where she does this in surprising ways. The metaphors—spectacular!  The structure is in the form of instructions just as the title hints. Yet each instruction is a unique story in itself.

Hold enough conviction. Don’t adjust your movements before they’ve registered with nerve endings. This is how restaurant butchers operate: unlatch a crate, lock their grip around a snake, slap it onto the ground, like whips striking tile. Aunt says snake soup is a delicacy, good for the skin. Clean and clear with big chunks of meat and a few pieces of star anise, ginger, and wood ear. Tough enough you must strain your jaw to rip sinew from the bone. Soft enough to emasculate fibers into pulp. They grip, shifting their belly scales to alter friction, rippling over hands and elbows. You’ve got to catch it by surprise. Try again if you fail. (7)

“Room Tour” held up a mirror to the protagonist when a future lover traveled back in time to see her older version, the seed of what she once was, in small gestures and remarks that take on a larger meaning: “You know, you’re not like how you are in my time” (22).  Zhang’s character begins to consider her choices and her own fabric. Does she become what her mother wished? Meet someone? Have the “nuclear” family…?  Zhang leaves the reader dangling a little bit with this familiar notion: Can people change? Should they even have to? The main character ponders the idea of a different self despite having a strong preset sense of self:

I know reality is just settling and compromising and accepting some things will never go away… (23)


But I wonder what’s so great about that: growing up, getting married, having kids, retiring old and weary and well-traveled, when instead you can live as though time stands still. (25-26)

Zhang’s transitions are seamless, rendering character backstory with carefully chosen prose. A word. A string of phrases. Elegant. Tender. Surly and ravenous. She is a master of sentence construction. Lucy Zhang’s Hollowed explores some of the biggest questions, never missing a beat as she scoops out the guts while carefully and lovingly exploring the traces of what’s left behind.


Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fireside Magazine, Toasted Cheese, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and Absorption (Harbor Review, 2022). Twitter: @Dango_Ramen.


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

August in the Time of COVID

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Laura Sweeney

Image of a tree-lined lake at dusk. The shoreline is mostly in shadow. Leafy trees are in silhouette, backlit by the setting sun, and reflected onto the lake's smooth surface. The cloudless sky is a very pale blue tinged with pale yellow-pink at the horizon. The pink of the sky is mirrored on the water.

Photo Credit: Jamie Cantrell/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s August. Or is it? In this COVID time, hard to tell. Feels more like September though I’m not from here, don’t know the weather and whether it should be more humid or less. Leaves fall, still green.

August. Five months into this pandemic. Where has the time gone? March—stockpiling like a mad woman, April—teaching Zoom class, May—thesis defense, June—post MFA collapse, July—devouring virtual conferences. This may be a forced sabbatical, but it’s not a vacation.

When my dog Freya and I first moved here, to the boot of Southern Illinois, we lived in a crappy apartment in a writer’s ghetto too close to campus and, before that, at University Village. I discovered Carbondale is a border town, an in-between place, not quite southern, not quite northern. A place in transition. Like me.

It was the Bryant family who I knew first, maybe the only family I knew in town. Cheryl, my landlady, has a good reputation and came highly recommended. She told me this neighborhood on the corner of Billy Bryan and Gher nestled between two dead-end streets, is mostly quiet, safe. I mispronounced it as grrrr, but she corrected me, said: say Gher as in Gary. This August, going on three years as her neighbor. Once she invited me to a pancake breakfast. Often, she’s invited me for cocktails, even offered furniture, which I declined. My bohemian ways must seem odd to her; she must sense there is a backstory.

Don’t know the backstory of this house, other than it was built circa 1945. I try to imagine who might have owned it then, some soldier returning from war? A Japanese mental health specialist lived here a few years back and then a couple with Dobermans who scared the neighbors across the street. But that couple moved out suddenly in the middle of the night.

And Labor Day weekend we moved in.

My landlady was right. Despite the angst of no job no prospects, there’s peace here. I often fall asleep watching a rom-com. Last night it was Nights in Rodanthe. Freya sleeps next to me, nestled in my bedding in the middle of the living room on the hardwood floor underneath the ceiling fan, and I don’t care that some would oppose such a companion.

From here you can hear the train, or is it Amtrak, rumbling downtown just like I had as a kid, awake August nights in that house with no air conditioning lying so still next to the screened window trying to catch a breeze. And here, just like home, crickets and locusts chorus all night.

Freya and I love this yard, its unfenced expanse, getting to know the neighbors who walk by with their binoculars because they say they have spotted a rare bird though I didn’t catch the name. And yesterday the badger next door poked his head out from his cubby hole underneath my landlady’s garage and watched as Freya and I did yard laps. How cute he and his badger wife are as they look both ways before they cross the street, then scamper between garages, fences, and sheds.

Bark is beautiful, one of the newscasters said. And the Bradford pear tree that fans my front lawn. The tent caterpillar nests intrigue. Even the rake resting against our maple tree and the mushrooms that sprout nearby, tiny penises that grow into Chinese hats or cocktail umbrellas. This region is rich in mushrooms and research for their medicinal properties. In Oakwood Park, just blocks from here, thrive the red kind with white dots that remind me of elves or gnomes. And earlier this month, mustard-yellow ones that grow in Frisbee-sized patches proliferated my yard till they turned brown and shriveled like funnel cake. Are they safe or poisonous? In the case of war or famine, Americans don’t know the resources we have around us. Fortunately, Freya leaves them alone.

There’s a giant cobweb strewn across my front porch, so I avoid that door. And there’s no telling what other spiders I may find. Once, while admiring one dangling from her thread, the breeze blowing her back and forth, another jumped down my shirt. Fireflies and butterflies and dragonflies flit about. And a batch of boxelder bugs camped at the edge of my garage until I doused them in apple cider vinegar. Mud wasps decorated my garage doorway, too, with organ pipe nests until I doused them with apple cider vinegar. But we’ve come to a compromise. They build their nests above the garage door. I hear them buzzing.

The garage intrigues: plenty of shelves and outlets, a couple of paint cans, a medicine cabinet, two torn mattresses above the rafters, a yellow ruler tucked in the ceiling. Also a security box that yielded no treasure. The garage door leads into the foyer and a white board with the question “How will I be resilient today?” scrawled across it.

Still, yesterday it all welled up inside me. The dominoes are falling, as my landlady says. I wanted to escape hours away but opted to drive to Murphysboro State Park just miles west of here. Passed the Smoky the Bear sign, chance of fire low. Sat at a picnic table at Waterlily Point and played fetch with Freya who found an orange tennis ball near a fire ring. Took solace in the white egret at the edge of the marsh. And the pine cones lining the parking lot.

At home, I often sit on a stack of cement blocks beside my garage while Freya sunbathes at the edge of the driveway or that nook under the mailbox. My landlady offered a chair but somehow this stoop feels better. Once I found a five-lined skink, its yellow stripes and electric blue tail pulsing. Maybe it means my luck is shifting.

Once the loony neighbor from 704, the one who claims he has seven PhDs and is a veteran of the Air Force and Navy and Marines, knocked on my back door asking me to take him to the gas station. When I turned him away, he offered a blessing. Now he walks by spewing obscenities about Hitler or holy water. I make every attempt to not make eye contact. Maybe that’s not nice or neighborly. Maybe I should ask about his time in the service or his POW flag. Certainly, I don’t want Freya wandering over into his yard.

As we do our yard laps, I pray for a vaccine, for the elections, for the essential workers on the frontlines. And to keep this a peaceful neighborhood. With the exception of the creepy dude, or the occasional domestic squabble, or the shirtless guy with his beer gut hanging out, I feel safe here. It was divine intervention the previous renters moved out in the middle of the night with no explanation. This one-story soldier cottage no basement with foyer and sun porch is perfect for a writer and her dog.

Oh, how I want to believe it’s safe here. But shopping, even though Walgreens is within walking distance, is limited. I shop off-hours, annoyed by customers ignoring the intercom reminders to wear a mask. Annoyed by the escalating incidence rate. All summer I deliberated whether to move back home. Explained to my landlady that my elderly parents live in the northwest corner of Iowa. There’s a meatpacking plant, an outbreak. But folks at the checkout counter with no social distancing or face masks are creepier.

I’m one of the immunocompromised, a lung obstruction. Limited options. No one stares or mocks or asks questions or finds it unusual at all as I insert my EBT card, then afterwards check the hand sanitizer to be sure it’s ethanol not methanol, squirt a bit and rub my palms together as I leave.

Back on my block, I check my mailbox. Two years and still don’t know when the mail arrives. I don’t wear gloves anymore the way I did back in March when I’d wipe down every grocery item. Even my landlady is casual as she stands too close without a mask and asks about fall plans. I’m looking online for freelance gigs, wonder how much to reveal to her. But heard a preacher say when you know the nature of a thing it’s easier to deal with, and the nature of a landlady is to squeeze as much rent as possible. Fortunately, she understands my predicament, was willing to reduce my rent. I looked up the property tax online. She’s still making money.

Yes, the weather seems odd these days, as the school year is upon us. This morning, signs of life at the baseball diamonds. Nice to hear the country music play as Freya and I walked the gravel path. Good to hear the whack of baseball bats and to see the camaraderie of the men hitting balls in practice.

Still, our first August here seems so long ago, as the days weeks months run together. On my good days Psalm 23 comes to mind: He makes me lie down in green pastures. This house, on this corner, in this in-between place where Freya and I walk laps. I’ve decided to leave the branches the storm leveled as yard art. But on my not-so-good days, I’m weary. Weary. And just shuffle along, wondering when this winter that never ends finally ends, what will we do? Will we look back on this time in American history as if August never happened?

Before this pandemic, all the pieces were coming together: the winding path of my education, the veered career trajectory. But now this woman on sabbatical, this woman with no makeup, this woman who hasn’t given herself a pedicure all summer though she gets a kick out of how often her dog Freya grooms her paws, longs for days to dress up. What is the look in my eyes the clerk sees peering out from my disheveled hair and multicolored kerchief?

I check my stoop for the five-lined skink, sit and open a package. The book is Life Interrupted, about Nineveh and Jonah’s shelter in the whale. The heat makes me stand and go back inside to pour myself a glass of low-sodium V8 juice and despite video fatigue watch a few more rom-coms until six p.m., then turn on ABC news. I scan the site for the latest incident rate. An hour later, go back into the kitchen and make hot chocolate even though it’s August. Freya potties outside, one more yard lap, before her last treat of the day. Maybe a splash of milk. Maybe a half teenie Greenie. We settle on our bedding on the hardwood floor to watch a movie and fall asleep.


Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in Iowa and Illinois. She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. Her poems and prose appear in sixty plus journals and ten anthologies in the States, Canada, Britain, Indonesia, and China. Her recent awards include a scholarship to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. In 2021, she received an Editor’s Prize in Flash Discourse from Open: Journal of Arts & Letters; Poetry Society of Michigan’s Barbara Sykes Memorial Humor Award; and two of her poems appear in the anthology Impact: Personal Portraits of Activism, which received an American Book Fest Best Book Award in Current Events category and finalist in the Social Change category. She is a PhD candidate, English/Creative Writing, at Illinois State University. Email: lauraswny[at]


A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Tierney Acott

Image of Sydney red gum trees looking up through the gnarled branches and leaves to the sky. The branches are reddish, the leaves yellowish-green, and the sky pale blue. Low sunlight on the left is casting shadows on the branches and leaves.

Photo Credit: Bea Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The surf rolls in on a beach in a suburban stretch of coastline. Pinks and yellows streak the sky as the sun dawns over the ocean. A few surfers on the beach stretch and wade into the water. At the end of the strand is a small cove, surrounded by sandstone rock face. At the foot of it, three brown-skinned, brown-eyed children are pulling on snorkels and fins. The small girl, Zara, about six, is fastest and plops her way to the surf. Her brothers, Ollie and Leo, follow her.

She twists through the surf, torpedoing through each crashing wave, bubbles tickling her face and chest. A school of small, glittering silver fish pass beneath her and she waves to them, making a note to look them up in her brothers’ book. She swims all the way out until she’s level with the breakwall with the red and green lights at the end, then she pops up, searching for her brothers.

Her eyes are then drawn to another pair: atop the sandstone cliff face, amongst the bush vegetation, are two majestic, twisting Sydney red gum trees. Little white flowers cluster among their branches. She sees them every morning from her bedroom window, but in the golden glow of early morning, they look ethereal, bursting with magic.

A swish of saltwater into her open mouth brings Zara back to the present.

She swims back to shore, riding each tumbling wave.

“Hey, where are you off to?” asks Leo.

“I forgot something at home,” she calls as she passes them.

On the beach, she tugs her feet out of her fins, collects her flip flops, and scrambles up the overgrown path to the coastal road, barefoot and hobbling to avoid pebbles. She dips and dodges branches on this practiced route. She walks on the curb, balancing, until she stops in front of the Sydney red gum trees.

She gingerly runs her fingers along the trunk of the taller red gum tree. The bark of the tree is peeling away. She breaks off a piece. The tree shudders, sighs, and a few flowers fall to the ground. Then, a face emerges from the patterns in the bark on the trunk. The eyes from dark spots in the bark, and the long sloping lines gave the face a gentleness. Zara’s eyes widen.

“Oh thanks, mate,” the tall tree says with a sigh. “You’ve no idea how long that was itching. Almost makes you jealous of the trees with termites.”

“Careful what you wish for,” the shorter, more gnarled gum tree answers. It has a craggy face, like Zara’s father and his friends: skin cooked and shriveled from the sun and the fires they fight.

Zara laughs nervously.

“Look at the giggling little ankle-biter,” says the tall tree. “Oh! Manners. I’m Poppy and this is Summer.” Poppy gestures toward Summer with one of their branches.

“I’m Zara.”

“It’s great to finally meet you, Zara,” says Summer. “We’ve seen the way you treat creatures.”

Zara nods importantly. “I try not to hurt anything.”

“We’ve noticed,” says Summer, gently. “Which is why we want to give you a gift.”

“For me?” asks Zara.

“For you,” says Poppy.

The three of them stand looking at each other, Zara with her goggles pushed up on her forehead and snorkel dangling from her ear. A breeze makes its way from the scrub vegetation to the south and toward them. An aliveness sweeps across the cliffside as bushes and trees dance in the wind. When the breeze hits Summer and Poppy, they both shimmy and a flower falls from each of their trees.

“Whoa.” Zara bends down to pick them up. Attached to the flowers are seeds. “Can I plant this?”

“It’d be our pleasure.”

“We like dry sandy soil, you know, a good loam,” says Poppy. “You can take a few scoops from the sand here.”

Zara, clutching the flowers in one hand, darts across the coastal road to a red brick house with a white gate and a tall bottlebrush tree in the corner of the garden. She drops her flip flops and fins on the path and snakes round to the garage, which is filled with toys: surfboards, diving gear, a dinghy on a trailer. She finds where her mum stores the gardening stuff behind the dinghy. It is dark and shadowed—redback territory. She moves slowly, carefully. She finds a small ceramic pot and a trowel. She extracts them carefully, so as not to disturb any nesting spiders.

Then she quickly carries the pot, trowel, and flower back to Summer and Poppy.

“I found a pot!”

Zara carefully takes the seeds out of the flowers and sets them on the ground. Then she fills the pot two-thirds with sandy soil. She gingerly plants the seeds. She fills the rest with sandy soil and pats it gently.

“Ar, great work there, Zara,” says Poppy.

She sets the flowers down on top of the soil as an ornament. Then she stands suddenly. “I’m going to go water it now,” she says and turns to leave.

One of Summer’s branches swoops down and stops her running off. “Hold on there, little lady.”

Zara turns, and Summer’s branch retreats.

“You can water it, but don’t water it too often.”

Zara nods.

“Don’t like too much water,” says Summer.

“Makes us feel bloated,” Poppy says and chuckles.


Winter passes without its usual storms. Shelf clouds still approached from the south, dark grey and blue, and lightning still cracked and forked down to the ocean, but only a light drizzle ever fell to the earth. All the fanfare of years past, but none of the satisfying restoration. Zara, too young to remember the heavy rains of an east coast low, asked if it was going to rain anytime dark clouds blotted the sun.

Now, along the coast, the trees were brightening into a dull green and the sun a strong, golden hue. Zara, in shorts and a singlet, reads The Lorax on her bed. A sapling sits in the ceramic pot on the window ledge, watching Summer and Poppy out the window. This is Charlie.

“I want to be big and strong like those trees outside,” says Charlie, pointing at Summer and Poppy.

Zara looks up from her book. “You can’t rush it.”

Charlie winces, trying to grow faster. “Maybe if I eat more…” says Charlie.

She squints up to the strong summer sun basking through the window. Though it is late morning, the sky is not blue, but a hazy white.

Zara giggles. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Why not?”

“Well, those trees are big and strong because they grew slowly and well.”

Charlie harrumphs, sulking for a few seconds before asking, “Can we go out and see them?”

Zara closes her book and slides her legs off her bed. “Sure.”

Zara picks up Charlie and together they go downstairs and out the front door. The air is still, hot, and dry. Even with the hazy sky, the footpath is roasting and Zara hops onto the grass, crunchy from the heat.

Charlie is bouncing in excitement. Zara pats her soil, so she doesn’t fall out.

“Look!” exclaims Charlie. “There’s a bird.”

The bird caws. It’s a magpie.

“It sounds like one of Ollie and Leo’s droids,” says Charlie.

Zara laughs. “It totally does.”

As Zara crosses the street. Charlie points to the bottlebrush tree, which is in full bloom. Every branch is covered with thick clusters of vibrant, red needles. Charlie, in awe, shouts, “It looks like it’s on fire!”

Zara clamps her hand over the sapling.

“Shh!” says Poppy.

Summer hears and whispers conspiratorially, “We don’t say that word.”

“What word?” asks Charlie before— “Whoa! Look at the ocean in real life!”

Poppy and Summer exchange relieved glances.

“I want to live here when I grow up and be just as big and strong as you.”

Zara holds Charlie up to Poppy. Charlie’s little sapling leaves reach over and touch the trunk.

“Oh, wow,” says Charlie. Then she touches her own trunk and gets all misty-eyed.

All of a sudden, apropos of nothing, Summer perks up.

“Oh, oh! It’s coming,” she exclaims, then turns to Charlie. “Get ready, little Charlie.”

Poppy joins in on Summer’s excitement, the surface sand at their roots hopping with anticipation. Out in the ocean, the texture of the surface of the water sharpens and grows dark. It approaches them.

“What? What’s happening?” asks Charlie with a thinly-veiled nervousness.

“It’s the Southerly!” says Summer.

“The what?”

“It’s the Southerly wind that comes from Antarctica,” says Zara matter-of-factly.

“Oh, I’d love to go to Antarctica one day,” says Poppy.

“It seems pretty cool,” says Summer and winks at everyone.

“It’s definitely the perfect temperature. Cools us off on a beautiful hot day.”

Zara looks at the trees as if they’re out of their minds. “You know Antarctica is a land entirely of ice and—”

“Here it comes!” shouts Summer.

The Southerly wind floats across the scrubland along the coast, rippling branches as it makes its way toward them. When it hits Summer and Poppy, they dance and rollick, whooping and cheering. Charlie giggles and joins in. Zara holds Charlie’s pot high above her head, so she can get as much breeze as possible.

“This feels amazing!” says Charlie.

“Doesn’t it?” says Summer.

“It’s the best part of every day,” says Poppy. “Especially the scorchers.”


In the biggest window of the house, a Christmas tree is visible. Handmade ornaments hang on the branches. Zara and her brothers open the gifts scattered at the base of the tree. Outside, Poppy and Summer watch the festivities. Halos surround the morning sun and the sky is orange and hazy.

That afternoon, as the sun slides west, it takes on a red glow. The front door squeals open and Zara steps out. Her brothers run out in their swimmers and head down to the ocean. Zara pulls the door closed and hurries over to Summer and Poppy, holding something behind her back.

“Summer, Poppy. What are you up to sarvo?” says Zara.

“Happy Christmas, sweetheart!”

“Thanks, you too!”

Summer leans down to murmur to Zara. “Tell me, Zara. Why do you have a decapitated tree in your living room?”

Zara’s eyes widen, then her face crumples in confusion.

“Means the Christmas fir tree,” says Poppy.

“Oh. It’s fake.”

Summer sighs in relief. “Oh, thank God.”

“I have gifts for you.” Zara reveals what was behind her back: a pair of red ribbons. “They’re ribbons,” says Zara.

Poppy and Summer swoon, flattered.

“Oh wow,” breathes Summer. “Gorgeous.”

“They’re beautiful,” croons Poppy.

“I gave Charlie a little one too. See?” she says and points to her window. Charlie sits on the windowsill of Zara’s bedroom looking outside. She has a small red ribbon around one of her little branches. “That way, no matter what, even if she’s still in a pot inside, you guys know that you’re family.”

Zara ties the ribbon around a branch of Poppy’s. Then she ties a ribbon around a branch of Summer’s. Summer gets emotional. Red sap oozing from her bark. It looks alarmingly like blood.

“Don’t go weeping, Summer,” says Poppy. “We need all the water we can get.”

Zara frowns. “I thought you hated water.”

“We don’t like a lot of it,” says Poppy. “But we haven’t had a rain in months. We’re parched all the time.”

“I can help!” says Zara and runs back across the street to her house. She goes around the side of the garden, where the hose lies coiled on the ground like a red-bellied black snake. She turns on the tap and runs across the street, dragging it behind. She stands in front of Summer and waters her roots. Summer gasps and sputters as her roots drink the water up. Zara begins to do the same for Poppy. Poppy also feverishly drinks the water.

The front door bangs open. Zara’s mum, a woman with dark hair and brown eyes, looks aghast.


Zara innocently turns toward her mum. The stream drifts away from Poppy.

“Wait, no, bring it—” gasps Poppy.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” says Mum through gritted teeth as she marches across the garden. She pushes open the fence gate with enough force it swings round and slaps the other side. When she reaches Zara, she takes the hose from her and folds it in half, stopping the flow.

“We’re in Level 3 water restrictions!”

Zara’s eyes fill with tears.

“You can’t be using the hose for anything! Only Tuesday and Saturday mornings. That’s it,” says Mum. “Do you understand me?”

Zara nods.

“We can get in serious trouble. Lucky none of the neighbors saw you.”

Mum takes the hose back across the street. Zara turns to Summer and Poppy.

“I’ll come back Saturday morning.”

“Ah, don’t stress yourself over it, love,” says Poppy.

“Just make sure the little one gets enough water,” says Summer.

Zara sighs and slumps down next to Poppy. She leans against her trunk.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” says Poppy.

Zara looks down at the waves crashing below.

Mum turns around when she reaches the fence. “Zara, this is not okay. No bickies, sweets, or TV for a week.”

Zara’s lip trembles, but she nods.

“You know better,” says Mum.

Zara draws in the dirt with a stick while Debra, a blonde-haired, tan woman and neighbor, passes by in front of the house and stops to talk to Mum across the fence.

“Happy Christmas!” says Debra.

“Oh, happy Christmas to your family too! Lovely day isn’t it?”

Debra registers the hose in Mum’s hand. “Hey, you’re not watering, are you?”

Zara looks over at Mum. A few drops of water fall from the end of the hose. Mum hides them from view with her leg.

“Oh, no. No, I wouldn’t do that. Just tidying the lawn,” says Mum.

“How’re your plants doing? All of mine are dying.”

“Yeah, the hydrangeas are looking quite pitiful. Can’t seem to hold a bloom.”

“Your parents are down near Victoria, right?” asks Debra.

“Mm. Yeah.”

“How’re they doing?”

“They’re safe at the moment.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s just hard because if it were to sweep through, you know, how fast can they evacuate?” says Mum.

Debra clucks her tongue. “I know. It’s awful. Henry’s dealing with the same thing. His parents are up near Byron. They’re in a care home. I don’t think they’ll try to evacuate at all.”

“Oh, that’s awful.”

Behind Zara, a magpie flies and lands on one of Summer’s branches. It calls out, drowning out the end of Mum and Debra’s conversation. Zara looks at the bird. It has brought food back for its chicks. She watches the parent feed the three little birds.

Poppy whispers. “Do you like our new tenants?”

“As long as they don’t swoop me,” says Zara, eyeing them warily.

“Nar. We’re teaching these magpies not to swoop. They’ll be nice magpies.”

“That’s good,” Zara says, watching Debra wave goodbye to Mum.

The magpies keep calling out to their parent, who flies away for more food. The three chicks jump around in their nest and practice flying. One falls out of the tree. It shakes its head clear, then trots over to Zara. She holds out her hand and it hops onto her palm. Zara winces slightly at first, but then relaxes.

A few minutes later, the parent magpie returns home. The chick tries to fly back into the nest, but misses it and careens into the brush.

Zara, Summer, and Poppy gasp. A moment later, the bird flies up and lands in the nest.

“He’s a wild one there,” says Poppy.

“Ah, but isn’t it gorgeous watching him take his first flight?” says Summer.


Zara wakes up. She waters Charlie with the cup on the windowsill. Charlie writhes around in the pot. She looks out the window at Summer and Poppy and the coast beyond. The sky is orange; the sun, still low in the sky, is shrouded in an aura. A few tankers troll past on the horizon. Zara checks the calendar on the wall: Saturday, December 28.

She runs out of her room, out of the front door, and around the corner of the house. She turns on the hose tap and hurries across the street, dragging the hose behind her. When she gets to the red gum trees, she unleashes a sparkling spray of water.

She waters Poppy first, then Summer. They both feverishly drink up the water. They are massively dehydrated.

After a few moments, Summer says: “Right. That’s plenty.”

“You sure?” asks Zara.

“Yeah,” says Poppy. “We don’t want to take more than our share. We’ll soak up the rest of this water over the next day or so.”

“Okay,” says Zara.

“Thank you,” says Poppy.

“You’re a real lifesaver,” says Summer.

“It’s alright,” says Zara with a shrug.

She takes the hose back to the house and puts it away. Inside, she flicks off her flip flops and walks around the corner to the kitchen. Mum sits at the breakfast bar reading the newspaper and drinking a coffee. Ollie and Leo eat four Weet-Bix with a dazed, sleepy look on their faces. Zara sits down at the table, plunks two Weet-Bix in her bowl, and uses both hands to pour milk from the carton. She looks out the kitchen window at the trees in the backyard and the clothes drying on the line. She chews methodically, wondering if those trees are alive too. Are they also thirsty?

The sky begins to darken. Zara doesn’t notice it at first, but eventually, she asks: “Is it going to rain?”

Mum continues reading the newspaper. “No, I don’t think so.” She turns the page. “Wish it would.”

Her phone sits on the countertop. It buzzes silently, hidden underneath the newspaper. On the screen is a NSW government alert: Evacuate immediately. If you don’t, you will die.

“Luckily the Southerly will keep the fires west of us,” says Mum and turns the page of her newspaper.

Moments pass.

Ollie wrinkles his nose, frowns. “The smoke smell is really bad today.”

Mum abruptly looks up from the paper and out the open window. She registers the darkness in horror. Her coffee spills as she leaps from her stool and staggers to the patio door.

Outside, a fiery blaze dances on the hills on the horizon. Charcoal black smoke rises above it, blowing toward them. The scrubland and trees on the hill are heard crackling in the heat. There are high pitched noises followed by explosive booms.

“Mother of—”

“Are they bombing the fire?” asks Ollie, stepping out onto the patio.

Mum turns around. “Get in the car. Now!”

Ollie pivots and legs it out of the kitchen while Leo and Zara scramble out of their chairs. At the front door, Zara hurries up the stairs to her room. She hears the front door open and realizes how thirsty she is. Parched like Summer and Poppy. Zara lifts Charlie’s pot from the windowsill.

“Zara! Now!” Mum calls from downstairs.

Zara’s throat is sticky and she can’t call back. She rounds the corner of her bedroom door as Mum shouts again, more frantic. “You can’t bring anything! There’s no time!”

At the bottom of the stairs, Mum takes her free arm. “Hurry!” says Mum.

Zara turns toward her flip flops.

“Forget the shoes,” says Mum, pulling her out the front door.

They run out of the house to the drive. Leo and Ollie sit in the red station wagon. Zara climbs in the back. Mum reverses out of the driveway.

“Mum,” says Ollie. “You left the front door open.”

“I know,” Mum says, doing her two-footed dance switching to drive.

Zara twists around in her seat to see Summer and Poppy. They are blowing, keeling over in the strong west winds, which are sweeping black smoke out over the ocean.

“Where are you going?” shouts Summer over the roar of the wind and bushfire on the hillside.

“Take us with you!” shouts Poppy.

Zara’s eyes well with tears. She clutches Charlie tight. Finally, she manages to choke out a few words and says in a whisper, “I’m so sorry.”

The red station wagon speeds along the coastal road. It drives up a hill just outside town. As they crest the hill, they see a long snake of cars with burning red rear lights. The car slows to a stop. Mum looks to the west where the fires are quickly moving down the hillside to the shore. Embers blow well-ahead of the fires. Houses and trees distant from the fire line ignite into a battalion of smaller ones. A rogue ember blows as far as the coastal road and slides across the windscreen.

“Mum?” whispers Leo, his eyes glued to the ember where it floats out over the cliff faces. Mum chews her lip, but says nothing.

The sky grows even darker. Cars file in behind them. People honk. Zara holds Charlie close to her and watches in horror as the small fires join to make bigger fires, like water droplets on the walls of the shower. Mum squints ahead. Amidst the ever-darkening sky, she begins to make out fresh smoke plumes ahead, on the other side of the traffic jam.

She curses. Her feet tap in panic as she reverses the car and accelerates down the coastal road.

“Are we going back home?” asks Leo, his voice cracking from fear.

“We’re going to Plan B,” says Mum.

“When there’s not enough time?” asks Ollie.

“When there’s not enough time,” says Mum.

Leo and Ollie are terrified into a wide-eyed silence. Mum brings the car to an abrupt stop in front of their house, in between Summer and Poppy.

“Are you back for us?” asks Summer.

“Get out of the car,” says Mum in a frighteningly calm tone of voice. “Hurry.”

Zara exits the car and follows her brothers.

“How bad is it?” asks Poppy.

Zara stops to answer, but Mum takes her hand and pulls her ahead. She nearly drops Charlie. Zara and Mum follow Leo and Ollie down the overgrown path to the beach.

“Zara, we need to hurry,” says Mum as Zara trots two paces behind her.

Up ahead, Leo stops his running, clutching his side. “Mum, I have a cramp.”

“Keep running.”

Zara struggles to keep up, falling further and further behind. She is barefoot and she keeps stepping on rocks. Mum backtracks, picks her up, then Mum runs down the path to the beach with Zara looking over her shoulder, watching the fireline approach the house. Leo staggers next to Mum, massaging his side.

When they reach the sand of Cove Beach, Ollie stands there, sweaty and timid, as if he had shrunk. There are a few other families down on the sand. The fear is nearly as thick as the smoke. Mum, still holding Zara, and Leo jog to the end of the path and meet Ollie.

Mum, panting, says, “To the breakwall.”

They trot and lurch down the length of the beach toward the breakwall. The boys cough, and Zara can hear a wheeze inside Mum’s chest.

The sky is now so dark it could be night if it weren’t for the glow of the inferno approaching. Loud bangs echo across the water as trees on the hillside explode. Zara watches as the magpie family flies toward them. Two fall from the dark, smoky sky, and into the surf. Two more pass overhead. They do their droid call. One of their wings is singed.

When Mum, Zara, Leo, and Ollie reach the breakwall, they travel the length of it, hopping from large boulder to large boulder. They stop at the end next to the maritime red and green light. They pant, cough, sputter. Soot and sweat cake their clothes. Mum sets Zara down and wraps her family in a hug. Ollie begins to cry—first a whimper and then as involuntarily as breathing.

They watch the fires. The fire line engulfs their house. And like a monster with an insatiable appetite, it continues. It approaches Summer and Poppy. Embers shower them. They try to lean away from it. Their red ribbons are sucked toward the fires. Their branches bow in the wind and vacuum created by the bushfire.

Eventually, the fire captures them. Zara cries and shields Charlie’s eyes as Poppy and Summer are burned.

Still the fire doesn’t stop. It sweeps down the scrubland and the overgrown path to the beach, where it stalls. The families on the beach run out onto the breakwall.

The temperatures are hellish. Everyone is sweating and covered in soot. Leo steps down onto a submerged rock to cool down. Zara watches as both Summer and Poppy’s trunks explode. She cries even harder, her tears ploughing streaks on her dirty face. She blocks Charlie’s view, so she doesn’t see.

Ash from Summer and Poppy soars into the atmosphere. It floats over the breakwall. It floats higher, across blue seas, infecting blue skies. Across New Zealand. Across the breadth of the Pacific. The ash begins to fall near the tip of Cape Horn and the Drake Passage. It lands on the Antarctic Peninsula.


Zara, a few years older, digs a hole. She is in another coastal region of New South Wales. It has a similar overlook of the ocean, but lower to the sea, without the bluffs. Next to her is a large pot with a small tree in it. Tied around its trunk is a red ribbon: Charlie.

“Is it hard to dig a hole?” asks Charlie, bending over to look in the hole.

“There are harder things.” Zara pants. After a few moments, she stops and asks, “Ready?”

Charlie nods. Zara uproots her from her pot and plants her in the ground. She pats the soil down around the trunk.

“What do you think?” asks Charlie, standing straight.

Zara smiles at her. She reaches up and, like a fussy mother on the first day of school, tightens the ribbon on Charlie’s trunk.

“I think they would approve.”


Tierney Acott is a writer primarily out of compulsion. She has written many feature and short length scripts, several of which have been shortlisted in various Los Angeles and London-based writing competitions. These include “Coupla Kooks”, a feature finalist for several festivals and selected as a table read for the Richard Harris International Film Festival 2020, and an independent comedy pilot, “The C Word,” which was inspired by Tierney’s experience with thyroid cancer. Her first novel, I, Frances, was written for her M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin and was longlisted for Britain’s Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition in 2016. Her latest novel, Nigel, was longlisted for Britain’s Comedy Women in Print 2020 Prize. Email: tierney.acott[at]

The Hardest Part

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Jessica Upper

Image of a basket of tomatoes. The basket is rectangular, wooden, with a handle. The tomatoes are large and irregularly shaped, in varying red hues. The background of the image is a pinkish wall and large window that are out of focus.

Photo credit: Susy Morris/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ellie’s* sister drove her back from the driving test centre in Marston for the second time in two months. Before they left the parking lot, they rolled down the windows in the back of Lisa’s car so that as much cool air could get in as possible on the way home. Once they reached the highway, the hot August wind whipped Ellie’s hair into her face, a few strands catching in the frames of her glasses. She pulled them out painfully and tried to hold her hair back with one hand, wishing she had an elastic.

With the windows down it was too noisy for the sisters to talk, which suited Ellie fine. What was there to say? She gazed out the window at brittle brown fields of soybeans alternating with lush swaths of leafy green corn. She had failed again, that’s all there was to it. Last time Lisa had been sympathetic and patronizing on the way home from the testing centre. Ellie had probably just had a bad tester, Lisa asserted. Next time she’d have better luck. But today’s examiner was a different person and the results were the same. He was a very kind man, Ellie had to admit, who seemed genuinely regretful when he gave her the bad news.

“Too slow,” was his verdict. “If you can’t keep up with the pace of traffic, it’s just as dangerous as going too fast. You need to drive with more confidence and that just comes with practice.” Ellie couldn’t imagine getting behind the wheel again, let alone attempting her driver’s test one more time. It was too humiliating. And yet, what choice did she have? Until she got her licence, she and the kids were stranded at home, dependent on anyone willing to give them a lift.

Maybe it was time to move into town, like John had done. How ironic, Ellie thought, that he had been the one to get an apartment in Fernville when she was the one without a car or licence. Part of her hoped his apartment was a real shithole, but when she remembered that the kids had to stay there on weekends, she took back this wish. Everything always came down to the kids.

Before long the house came into view on the horizon. Ellie usually liked travelling the highway back from Marston because of the vantage it gave of her home. Driving east from Fernville all you could see was a clump of trees, mostly white pines, just off the road, the farmhouse hidden among them like a face badly in need of a shave. But coming in from the southwest the house and most of the surrounding property was visible. It looked good these days, she conceded, especially since John had finally covered up the tar paper last fall with board and batten.

Had he already met the girl when he started all those jobs around the house? Ellie wondered. She’d imagined, in those absurdly warm early days of November, that Zoë’s impending birth had instilled a nesting instinct in him, the way that it supposedly did with mothers. But perhaps it was actually guilt that fueled John’s flurry of domestic activity, making it up to her before she even knew of his betrayal. Ellie had been relieved to see him up on the ladder every weekend as it meant she could take a break from nagging him about the siding. Now it made her ill to think that the completion of this work may have been a consequence of John’s affair.

As they got closer, Ellie turned her attention to the vegetable garden. Even from half a kilometre away, she could make out the abundant potato crop and sprawling asparagus plants, long gone to seed, the tangled mess of the herb garden, and raised beds full of ripening tomatoes. The children’s sunflowers created a radiant border along the driveway. The sight of those tall, hardy stalks, diligently and exuberantly measured by her daughter and sons throughout the summer, made Ellie’s eyes start with sudden tears. Their pleasure in something so simple as a growing plant coupled with their impulse to quantify this wonder touched her deeply.

But now was not the time for crying. Ellie had an urge to tell Lisa to slow down and let her jump, visualizing herself somersaulting from the car like a stuntman. She needed to get out as soon as possible, on to the next thing, away from her thoughts. By the time they pulled into the driveway, Ellie’s seat belt was off; she opened her door while the vehicle coasted to a stop, heat rushing in.

“Thanks Lisa,” she said, disentangling her purse strap from below the seat.

Her skin made a brief sucking sound as she pulled herself off the car’s vinyl interior. Standing, Ellie tried unsuccessfully to smooth the back of her damp shorts, then reminded herself that it didn’t matter. She was just going to change into work clothes anyway. The shorts could join the ever-expanding pile of laundry waiting for her in various hampers around the house.

Sizing up the garden as she walked down the drive, Ellie began a mental list of jobs to do: thin the new beet crop, weed the carrots, re-stake the tomatoes pulled over by the weight of their fruit. She was tempted to start right away, while the sitter was here, but the heat seemed to be at its most oppressive just now. Better to wait until the sun dropped a little, she decided. Besides, she needed to pay Dot first.

Lisa caught up to Ellie as she opened the front door. “Your zucchinis are gigantic,” she commented.

Ellie nodded in brief acknowledgment, hoping her sister was not going to stay long. Probably she should offer Lisa some zucchini, something to thank her for the ride. She had a ridiculous amount still to harvest, and should have picked them before they were the size of baseball bats. Yet, Ellie felt excessively possessive of this summer’s crops. Growing food seemed like the only thing she could do right lately. More than ever, she felt the need to hold onto everything the garden provided, like those families who farmed the land long ago, taking and preserving all they could get from the soil before the weather turned. There was no way of knowing when this overproduction of leaves, fruits, and tubers would suddenly stop.

“Mom!” yelled Rose as Ellie came through the door. She bounded over from the kitchen table where a game of Sorry! appeared to be in full swing. Pulling at the back of her own sweaty shorts, halting in front of her mother, she asked, “Did you pass?”

Ellie shrugged. “Not this time.”

“Oh.” Rose’s mouth turned down at the corners, conveying her dismay.

Ellie patted her eleven-year-old daughter’s shoulder as if she were the one in need of comforting, and hung her purse by the door. “How are things going here?”

“Great!” Rose’s cheeriness returned. She gestured to Dot, sitting at the table with Finn and Michael. “We’re playing round three. I won the first two times, but Dot’s in the lead now. She’s really good.”

Dot looked up from the gameboard smiling wanly. Ellie had the impression that the girl would rather be somewhere else. Watching her twirl a lock of blonde hair around her index finger, Ellie felt empathy for Dot, relegated to sitting around the sticky kitchen table, playing a game in which she had no interest, with some little kids.

A sudden screech emanated from upstairs.

“Zoë’s waking up from her nap,” Rose explained unnecessarily.

“I’ll go get her.” Dot jumped up from the table. Moments later she appeared back in the kitchen, Zoë in her arms. “I have a warm baby here for you!”

Ellie managed a smile. She had barely had time to take off her sandals, hadn’t even visited the bathroom yet, and here was Dot unloading Zoë into her embrace. The baby smelled faintly of zinc ointment and vinegar. Ellie could never figure out why her children’s sweat had such an acidic odour, but there was something strangely comforting about the smell. She couldn’t help putting her nose into the crease of skin below Zoë’s chin, inhaling deeply, while also making her daughter giggle. But then Zoë’s arm arced up defensively, her fist catching Ellie in the nose, the sweet maternal moment ending abruptly.

“Ouch, that looked like it hurt,” Dot said, wincing.

“I’ll be okay,” said Ellie, shifting Zoë to her hip. “Have the kids had lunch?”

“Not yet.”

“Okay.” Ellie inwardly wished she and Lisa had arrived home about half an hour later. She plopped Zoë into the high chair at the end of the table, sweeping up a sippy cup of lukewarm water from the floor and depositing it on her tray. “Thanks again, Dot. What do I owe you?”

“Twenty will be fine.”

Ellie returned to the hall for her purse. She opened her wallet, withdrawing the last bill inside, and wondered when she would next be able to get a ride to the bank in Fernville. “You’re okay to walk home?” she called towards the kitchen, where Dot was lingering. “I would offer you a lift, but…”

“I can give her a ride after we eat,” Lisa interjected.

Ellie sighed and rubbed at her temples, trying to remember what she had on hand for lunch. It was too hot to turn on the stove and the bread had run out yesterday. Her guests, she decided, would have to be satisfied with peanut butter on saltines.


The heat wave continued into the following week, even as the daylight began its slow ebb towards the autumnal equinox. Ellie tried to get into the garden as early as possible each morning, to water and weed before the sun’s intense rays undid all of her irrigation efforts.

Morning had never been her favourite time of day and now that John was gone, she resented it more than ever. Since Rose was a baby, John had always been the first one awake with the kids. He made them breakfast, sent them upstairs to brush their teeth before Ellie was out of bed. By the time she rose, coffee was waiting and the school bus only minutes away.

Of course, their morning routine had changed even before John left. Zoë, rarely wakeful during the night, was fully alert with the sunrise, crying to be nursed. Maybe she sensed that her three older siblings were early risers and wanted to be in their presence.

As usual the children were sitting in front of the television when Ellie and Zoë stumbled downstairs, eyes glued to the screen, mechanically raising spoons to their mouths from the bowls in front of their crossed legs. In the kitchen they left the cereal box out, surrounded by spilled milk and scattered golden flakes. More discouraging to Ellie, though, was the sight of the cold coffeemaker, holding yesterday’s grounds, not a drop of coffee to be coaxed from the carafe. How did anyone survive single parenting?

Last night Ellie had pulled out the canning pot and as many Mason jars as she could find, washed them all thoroughly and left them to dry on the counter. This morning the glasses sat gleaming expectantly and Ellie decided to forgo a cup of coffee until after she had spent time in the garden. She buckled Zoë into the bouncy chair beside Rose on the living room rug, turned away from the television; she would be more interested in watching her sister and brothers anyway.

“Keep an eye on her, Rose,” she instructed. “One of these days she might try to get out.”

Rose nodded, flitting her eyes briefly between her mother and the TV.

Ellie slipped on her sandals and opened the side door. The air was slightly cooler outside, vibrating with the shrillness of crickets’ song, mercifully drowning out the animated voices on the screen inside. Swallows swooped through the greenish-pink sky, scooping up mosquitoes from shady patches beneath the pines. Ellie felt a brief pang of nostalgia. She remembered moments like this growing up, when her father needed her and Lisa to go out to the lettuce patch to pick heads for the Saturday market. Just as now, she grumbled at getting out of bed early, but as soon as she was outdoors, the colour and stillness, the undeniable newness of dawn evoked an unlooked-for joy.

Ellie grabbed a basket hiding in the weeds and set to work among the tomatoes. Every plant seemed to have reached the zenith of its growth and was now evolving towards decay. Squatting, reaching among the yellowing leaves, Ellie felt some smaller branches snap off, yet most of the thick ropy network of vegetation held securely onto ripe bunches of red fruit. Ellie filled the basket easily and began loading a nearby plastic pail.

By the time she had filled a third, her craving for coffee, a slight caffeine headache behind the eyes, won out over her ambition to harvest the entire crop in one morning. There was nowhere to put more tomatoes, anyway; she had to process what she’d picked to make room in the kitchen. John was supposed to come get Rose, Finn, and Michael after lunch; so long as Zoë had an afternoon nap, Ellie could can several quarts later. She stood, swatting at an errant mosquito, feeling a sense of accomplishment, as if the jars were already filled.

She hauled the pails up to the deck, then brought the full basket into the house. The kids still sat zombified in front of the TV, their bowls now empty. Zoë was the only one moving, grabbing unsuccessfully at her toes with one hand, and chewing her fingers on the other like a dog with a bone.

While the coffee maker unhurriedly dripped oily liquid into its pot, Ellie sat at the table, allowing herself a moment of idleness. She closed her eyes to the messy kitchen, tuning out the shrill voices and symphonic soundtrack of the kids’ cartoons, bringing her fingers to her nose, inhaling the bitter, pungent tomato smell that would cling to her for the rest of the day, the rest of the season.

The phone rang. Probably Lisa, checking in. Hopefully not John cancelling. Ellie picked up the shiny black receiver and gave a tentative, “Hello?”

“Hi, Ellie.” It was Lisa. “Are you listening to the radio?”

Ellie blinked and glanced at the clock on the stove. 7:37. Usually she didn’t put the radio on until after breakfast, during her morning chores. “No,” she said. “Why?”

“They’re saying to watch out for tornadoes,” said Lisa. “In our area.”

“Who is?”

“CBC. It’s on TV too.”

“Huh.” Ellie glanced out the kitchen window where the sky was now decidedly more green than pink. “Do you really think so?”

“I don’t know,” said Lisa. “I mean, it looks fine outside here. Still hot.”

“Is it supposed to cool down finally?” Ellie asked, realizing she hadn’t listened to a weather report in the last two days.

Finn burst into the kitchen, a faint milk moustache above his lips. “Mom!” he yelled. “Are we going to have a tornado?”

Rose and Michael appeared behind him, the same question on their faces.

Ellie covered the phone’s mouthpiece. “Probably not,” she reassured the children. “Is that what you heard on TV?”

Finn nodded, his eyes wide. “I hope we do!”

“I better let you go,” Ellie said to Lisa. “Thanks for phoning.”

“Wait. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call you later,” she promised.

“Okay, guys. There’s nothing to worry about,” Ellie said to the children, who were still looking at her expectantly. “No more TV for now. You’ve rotted your brains enough for one morning.” She poured herself a coffee. “Time to get dressed.”

Rose rolled her eyes and Michael and Finn protested, but the three obligingly trudged upstairs. As soon as they had gone, Ellie turned the TV dial to the news station, keeping the volume low. Mug in hand, she rocked Zoë’s bouncy seat with her foot, watching the station’s meteorologist point to different areas on a map of southern Ontario coloured in pixilated bands that moved briskly, guided as it were by the sweep of his hand. With growing dread, she listened as he described the cold front expected later in the day, a wave of blue colliding with the yellow and red blobs around Fernville. The perfect conditions for a tornado to form, he said, droning on about weather systems and mixed air.

Ellie turned off the TV as the phone rang again.

“Hi,” said John. “You watching the news?”


“Not a great forecast,” he said. “Especially for the garden.”

She was both bothered and touched that John correctly identified her first concern.

“Do you think we’ll get one?” she asked.

John clucked his tongue, considering. “Hard to say. We’ve never had one the whole time we’ve lived here. Maybe we’re due.”

Ellie wanted to say that was the stupidest reasoning she had ever heard, but bit her tongue. “Are you taking it seriously?” she asked.

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. I feel like we probably should take it seriously, for the kids at least,” he hesitated. “And this apartment doesn’t have a basement.”

Ellie’s heart sank. Her plans for the next twenty-four hours trickled away like drops of water running into the cracks on the garden path. She kept her voice flat. “Right.”

“Uh, also…” John cleared his throat. “I wondered if you could spare me some shelter.”

Ellie closed her eyes. What a request. Unbidden, her mind played out a scene of John caught up in a black funnel cloud, shrugging his shoulders helplessly as the children looked on, as if to say: “Blame your mother.” John always did have a way with words.


The pickup truck rumbled into the driveway a couple hours later, heat still nauseatingly present despite the appearance of clouds. Michael and Finn were thrilled at John’s arrival, bombarding him with questions about what was in his grocery bags as soon as he stepped out of the truck. They had whooped for joy when they learned they were not going to his apartment this weekend and moreover that he was going to stay a few hours. Rose seemed happy to remain at home, too, but was less enthusiastic when John showed up. She did not follow her brothers down the driveway, and offered John only a small smile when he ruffled her hair in passing.

“How did your driving test go?” John asked Ellie as he approached the deck.

Ellie gritted her teeth and looked away. “Didn’t get it.”


An awkward pause. Would he have advice for her? Condolences?

“Maybe I should bring stuff right into the house,” John suggested.

“Yeah,” said Ellie, relieved to drop the subject. “Definitely the water.”

“Okay, guys, let’s go set up camp in the basement.”

“I think I’ll help Mom instead,” Rose piped up.

Was this gesture of support significant? Ellie had tried to stay attuned to her children’s feelings since John moved out in June, but it wasn’t easy to discern allegiances. There had been tears initially, of course, and some confusion, especially from Michael, who was after all only four. John and Ellie struggled to explain that they needed to live apart for a while to figure some things out, although they could not say what those things were. Finn, who at seven exhibited some of his father’s easy-going manner, seemed to adapt quickly to the new situation; if he could watch Ninja Turtles and baseball at either residence, he didn’t mind whether it was the house he grew up in or his father’s two-bedroom apartment above the laundromat.

Rose cried too at first, but asked no questions, except: would she have to share a room with her brothers in the Fernville apartment? Ellie suspected Rose had heard the late night fights between her and John that started last winter, and had sussed out the situation with her father’s new “friend.” She was mature enough to know that her dad was guilty of some transgression, even if no one said the word “affair” out loud. Ellie and John both attempted to talk to Rose about the separation, encouraging her to share her feelings, but so far Rose had kept quietly opaque. Perhaps this was her way of expressing her dissatisfaction.

While the boys wrestled sleeping bags down the narrow cellar steps, Ellie and Rose gathered supplies upstairs, Ellie pondering how to ask Rose what she was feeling towards her father these days. In Zoë’s room, Rose filled a bag with sleepers, burp cloths, and toys, while her mother prepared to change her sister’s diaper.

“Do you want to learn how?” Ellie asked.


Ellie showed Rose how to arrange two large squares of cotton on top of one another, lift the baby’s feet in order to tuck the cloth underneath her backside, then wrap the remainder up and over.

“The hardest part is putting in the pins,” said Ellie, “but there’s a trick. Watch.” She opened the clasp of a diaper pin, and gently ran the metal spear through her hair, close to the scalp. A moment later, the pin glided easily through the several layers of diaper cloth.

“Cool,” said Rose. “Who knew it was good to have greasy hair!”

Ellie glanced at her daughter sharply, but saw from Rose’s expression that her words were spoken without malice.

“Can I do the other side?”

Ellie watched as Rose carefully ran the second pin through her long, tangled locks then awkwardly pushed it through the white cloth without poking her sister or herself. The diaper was loose, but Ellie smiled her approval and demonstrated how to pull the plastic diaper cover up over Zoë’s legs, making sure the fabric was tucked inside.

“If you ever want to do it by yourself, let me know,” Ellie said, giving Rose’s hand a squeeze. She paused. “You’ve been such a good helper this summer.”

Rose squeezed her mother’s hand in return and then her eyes darted to the window. It was as if a curtain had suddenly been pulled across plunging the room into shadow. Rose and her mother got up to peer out at an early afternoon that now resembled dusk. Moments later raindrops pelted the window with such force that Ellie jumped back; the hairs on her arms rose with electricity. At almost the same moment, John bellowed their names from downstairs.

“Take Zoë,” Ellie commanded, while she stuffed more diapers in the baby’s bag, then tore down the hall grabbing blankets and sweaters from everyone’s rooms. By the time she got to the first floor and glanced out the front windows, water was streaming down, like a school play in which a rainstorm is created by people behind the scenes dumping buckets from the back of the set. As she hurried into the kitchen, a flash of lightning illuminated the room, thunder crashing a split second later, making the floorboards tremble. Somewhere in her brain, Ellie registered the dark stove clock; the power was out. In the same instant she remembered she hadn’t called Lisa back.

And then there was John standing in the entrance to the basement, waiting for her, and Ellie’s forward momentum suddenly ceased. At first she thought he was a stranger. How could this man look so out of place in his own home? Somehow the past eight months, distanced from one another in so many ways, seemed longer than the fifteen years they had been married. Ellie felt more shaken by this thought than by the storm as she moved brusquely past him.

“Ellie.” His voice stopped her as she reached the bottom step. She turned in his direction.

“Thanks for letting me in,” John said.

Before she could respond another thunderclap reverberated above them like a giant’s boot stomping down on the house; this time the lightning flash was simultaneous. Zoë began sobbing, a fearful crying Ellie had never heard before. She joined the circle of lawn chairs the kids had arranged around a camping lantern, took the baby from Rose and attempted to soothe her in a voice she hoped sounded calmer than she felt. In her arms, Zoë trembled and her cry changed to a whimper. For the next five minutes lightning and thunder continued in successive waves, crashing and insistent, until the gap between them slowly increased, replaced by a new noise.

“What is it, Daddy?” Michael whispered.

“It’s the wind.”

“Really?” asked Finn, doubtfully, and Ellie too questioned John’s answer. The growing roar outside had to be made by humans, a massive obnoxious motor intent on destruction. How could nature—the same force that had painted a serene pastel morning just for her—produce something so loud and malevolent? Underneath the roar, Ellie heard a snapping of tree branches and beyond that an icy pinging: the promised hail.

“What do you think of all this?” asked John, looking in turn at each of the children’s faces, his eyebrows raised in an exaggerated expression of fascination.

“It’s cool,” said Finn, and Michael immediately agreed.

Rose replied, “It’s pretty exciting.”

Ellie inspected the children’s faces as well, checking their sincerity. They seemed strangely unperturbed by the intense booms of thunder and alien noise of the wind. Even Zoë was nearly asleep. Perhaps they drew comfort from the six of them sitting here together after this summer apart. Or maybe it was just the novelty. Glancing around, Ellie saw that John and the boys had tried to make it cozy in the dank, cobwebby basement, placing candles on the metal shelving, laying out sleeping bags and pillows on some old skids.

“What do you think of the storm, Mom?” asked Rose.

“It is exciting,” Ellie agreed, catching her daughter’s eye, aware that she was being equally scrutinized. “And a bit scary,” she admitted.

“What about you, Dad?”

As he opened his mouth to answer, the naked lightbulb over John’s head snapped on, startling them all. John gaped in comic surprise at the bulb and the children giggled. The invisible curtain was once again yanked by an unseen hand across the only window in the room; sunlight spilled in.

“Is it over already?” asked Finn, disappointment furrowing his brow. “We didn’t even get to sleep yet.”

Ellie and John both shrugged, then sat listening. The world had gone quiet again.

“I’ll go check,” said John.

Twenty minutes later, standing shivering in the middle of what was left of her tomato patch, Ellie had the surreal feeling that she had never set foot in this place before. This was someone else’s garden, if it could even be called that. The ground around her was littered with uprooted plants still tied to their stakes, smashed tomatoes, an incongruous medley of stems, petals, and roots from other vegetables. Gone were the dusty pathways of the morning, replaced by puddles and chaos. The heat, too, was noticeably missing.

The debris in the garden and yard was significant: several saplings and large tree limbs had fallen in the wind, two garage windows were broken, the old chicken coop upended. Smaller branches, leaves, and sunflower remnants lay scattered everywhere. The garden clean up alone would take many hours, maybe days, and there was likely little to be salvaged. The three pails and one basket of tomatoes in the kitchen were all that Ellie would harvest of this crop.

At least the house was fine, she thought. The car, sitting unused by the garage, had pine boughs plastered all over it, but was undamaged. Most importantly, she and the kids and John were all safe. If a tornado had actually touched down, it would all surely be much worse. But the garden… The thing she had been holding to so tightly. All of those plants that would never be picked and preserved, the saved jars that would remain empty. Ellie looked around in bewilderment, swallowed hard. Was this the time to cry?

“Mom! Look!” Finn and Rose squelched through the mud, plastic bags outstretched between their hands. Ellie peered into Finn’s: dozens of golf-ball-sized lumps of hail clinked together at the bottom.

“Aren’t they awesome?” Finn asked.

Ellie could only nod, her throat tight with tears now. She looked up, saw John and Michael coming towards them, Zoë drowsing in her father’s arms.

John cast his gaze over the mess of vegetation. “Sorry about the garden, Ellie.”

Ellie met his eyes for the first time in months. She heard the sincerity in his voice and knew that he truly was sorry for the garden and maybe for everything else as well. But the apology could not change what had happened. The disaster could not undo itself. Little by little, Ellie knew she would let go of what was lost in the storm and the tranquility of the morning would return. In the meantime, she couldn’t stand to be in the garden nor John’s presence a minute longer. She turned on her heel and went back to the house alone.

*Names have been changed.


Jessica Upper is an elementary school teacher-librarian in southwestern Ontario. Spending her days surrounded by books is a dream, and so is the thought of writing one. Perhaps she will some day, but for now a few thousand words will have to do. Like the main character in her story “The Hardest Part,” Jessica believes that summers are for growing gardens. Email: jessicaupper[at]


Beaver’s Pick
Laurel Doud

Black-and-white image of a winding two-lane highway stretching into the distance. There is a car in the oncoming lane in the midground and one in the right-hand lane in the distance. Utility poles line the right side of the road. Low fences line both sides of the road. The landscape is rolling fields with no distinguishing features. The road curves and disappears over a hill at the horizon. There is a hazy mistiness to the photograph which gives it a dreamy quality.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

My stepdaughter was a freshman at an all-girls Catholic high school when she asked me for a song recommendation.

I had only been in her life for a year, but I knew how important this assignment was. The lyrics should embody something about herself, something, perhaps, she was striving or hoping for.

Farrah was painfully shy and socially awkward, though smart, sensitive, and good in school. She figured the other girls would choose songs by Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. She wanted something different, perhaps even something shocking.

The song “Drive”* by the alternative funk band, Incubus, came to mind. It would be surprising for someone like Farrah to choose this song and the lyrics were worthy, especially for her age group.

Sometimes I feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear
And I, I can’t help but ask myself
How much I’ll let the fear take the wheel and steer…

But lately I’m
Beginning to find that I should be the one behind the wheel.

From that freshman year on, Farrah took those lyrics to heart and drove her own life.

She pushed herself into the most challenging experiences and grew to be this marvelously self-confident young woman with wonderful friends and a wonderful heart. In college, she studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt. After college, she spent two years teaching English in the Peace Corps on an island in Micronesia that was two-and-a-half miles long and a half-mile wide. She graduated from an accelerated nursing program at Johns Hopkins and did her labor and delivery internship in Uganda. After working in the largest labor and delivery hospital in the United States, she moved from Virginia back to California to be closer to family.

A year ago I put the Incubus CD on and when the track “Drive” came through the speakers, it made me nostalgic. I called Farrah and we laughed about it, but I told her how inspiring it was that she took control of the wheel of her life for these past eighteen years.

I’m beginning to find that when I drive myself, my light is found.

Then Farrah decided it was time to have a baby regardless of her relationship status. She picked a donor—for one reason he looked Egyptian—and got pregnant.

Last month I watched Farrah deliver her daughter, Samira, who was four months premature. Samira was well formed, but too small for the NICU. She was a fighter, though, and lived for seventy minutes before dying in her mother’s arms. Farrah compressed a lifetime of love into those seventy minutes.

It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever witnessed.

In the hospital the next day, we talked about many things, practical and philosophical. We talked about what people were going to say, what we were saying ourselves. All those well-intentioned platitudes that would still sting. You’re young. You can try again. Maybe it was meant to be.

We also talked about how there are just some things we can’t drive in life; they’re out of our control. This was one of them.

When I recently finished a first draft of this essay, I asked Farrah whether she would like to read it.

Already? she texted.

Such an innocuous word, already, but it meant something profound. My ready was far different than her ready and I realized we were processing our grief on different timelines. While I was writing this to process mine, she was immersed in hers, and her Already? was a glimpse into her surprise that time was going faster for me than for her. It made me ashamed to realize I hadn’t thought about that.

The ending is weak, I texted back.

Yeah. Well, the ending in real life kinda sucks right now too. Can’t help you with that. Can I read it tomorrow?

Another word that resonated in my head. Tomorrow. I knew she was having a bad day and it would be tomorrow, or the tomorrow after that, before she might feel strong enough to read this. Just not today.

It also made me realize that tomorrow means so much more than the concept of future time. Tomorrow is a declaration of hope. What we didn’t get done today, what we failed at, what was too overwhelming for us to complete, we can find tomorrow.

Farrah may not be able to fathom this yet, so while she grieves at her own pace on her own level, there’s not so much that I can do but continue on mine and be there for her when tomorrow comes.

Whatever tomorrow brings I’ll be there
With open arms and open eyes, yeah
Whatever tomorrow brings I’ll be there
I’ll be there.


*“Drive” by Brandon Boyd, Alex Katunich, Michael Einziger, Jose Pasillas, Chris Kilmore


Laurel Doud’s novel, This Body, was published by Little Brown, translated into German as Wie Das Leben So Spielt, and optioned to Hollywood where it disappeared into development hell. Bummer. Her short stories and creative non-fiction essays have been published in various online magazines and literary journals such as Air/Light, Into The Void, Goat’s Milk Magazine, Blue Mountain Center Commons and others. She lives in the Sierra Foothills of California and is an academic librarian at a local community college. Email: ldoud555[at]

Remembering Beth

Sarah Turner

Image of a woman in a knee-length red raincoat and knee-high black boots walking on a rain-slicked sidewalk toward the photographer. A red bag is slung over her right shoulder. Her left hand is tucked into her pocket and her right hand holds the handle of an umbrella. The umbrella, along with the top of her head, is out of frame. Her face is obscured by shadow. The background cityscape includes other people carrying umbrellas on the sidewalk, vehicles including a yellow taxi and white van on the street, and tall buildings on both sides.

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

Frank had said it in passing, but I couldn’t let it go. I stood up, paced to the window and said, ‘I don’t think that’s fair. Our mother was very fond of Beth.’ It was an understatement and as soon as I’d said it, I wanted to say more, but my chest was tight with the weight of everything I was feeling about Beth and I was struggling to stay calm. Frank was a stranger, I reminded myself; he had no right to make judgments like this about my family. Besides, it was years since he’d really known Beth. All the same, he had said it with so much authority, I couldn’t shake it off.

He was watching me closely as I turned back and he must have seen the agitation in my face, but he didn’t soften his tone. He said, ‘Fond? Oh yes, I’m sure she was, but one tends to expect more from one’s own mother. Beth did, anyway. She needed more.’

Our eyes met and I wished I hadn’t come to see him. It was too soon after Beth had died. Frank pushed at his glasses, closing his eyes for a second behind them, and focused on me again, rearranging a strand of white hair, as though suddenly conscious that I was watching him.

‘You know, Beth had no confidence when she first got to New York,’ he said. ‘At home, she’d always been the black sheep of the family.’ He had given the phrase ‘black sheep’ an ironic emphasis, suggesting that it was the kind of thing I might say, but that he would not. For a moment, I was almost amused by this assumption, but then it occurred to me that when he talked about Beth to people who knew nothing about us, this was how he would explain it. Beth’s family had been repressive, he would say; we had stifled her.

‘That isn’t true,’ I said. ‘Mum was proud of her. We all were.’

I’d turned to him as I said it, but I looked away almost immediately, because the half-amused, half-saddened smile on his face annoyed me as much as anything he’d said. He was toying with my memories of Beth, making me feel as though I’d hardly known her.

He turned his hand over with a slight yawn, examining the blemishes on it. His face was more angular than it had seemed in Beth’s photographs. He sat back in his chair with his legs crossed and swung one of them forwards from the knee repeatedly. It was the first sign I’d seen that he was not quite relaxed.

‘Oh sure,’ he said. ‘Everyone was proud in the end. But it was different when she was just starting out. She had no self-belief. She would’ve stopped acting altogether, I think, if Lucy hadn’t given her a little confidence.’ His eyes passed over me, to the window. ‘Lucy was a mother to her, as well as a friend.’

‘Beth already had a mother,’ I said.

He didn’t reply immediately. Outside, in the December sunshine, a crow landed on a rooftop with a twig in its beak. I watched as it dropped it and felt for it again. Frank sighed and carried on talking in the room behind me.

Beth had felt like a failure until she was in her mid-twenties, he said. ‘Your mother was so academic. It was important to her. But Beth—she just wasn’t like that.’ He shrugged, explaining that his wife had felt an immediate connection with Beth, that she’d talked to her endlessly, discussing her plans. She, more than anyone Beth had known up to that point, had given her confidence, convincing her that she could become an actress. ‘Helping her was one of the things Lucy was proudest of,’ he said. ‘Beth had so much potential. She just needed someone to unlock it, it had been buried so deep at home.’

All the time he was saying this, I wanted him to stop. He was pushing the past into a shape I didn’t recognise, relentlessly lifting and dropping it like a garden worker turning earth, shaking my sense that I had been close to Beth. I tried to gauge from his face why he was saying these things, but his expression was perfectly composed and I could see no emotion in it. He was talking in a measured way, as if he was listing simple facts. I glanced at the clock and wished again that I hadn’t come.

Ironically, it had been my mother who had asked me to visit Frank while I was in New York and I’d agreed because he’d been so good to Beth. Frank had not been able to come to Beth’s funeral. He had been too fragile, after an operation for prostate cancer, to take a transatlantic flight, but he’d sent a letter that brought Beth back to me more vividly than any of the other cards or notes we’d had at the time. Most of the letters had upset me; it had struck me as peculiar that people should outline Beth’s qualities in them, as though they were trying to justify our grief to us. My sister had died before she was forty. I didn’t need anyone to justify the way I felt.

Frank’s letter had been different: he had not attempted to sum her up, but had simply described his strongest memories of her, beginning with her as a shy young woman meeting him for the first time in their apartment, when she’d come to talk about the nannying job. He had written about her long hair falling over an unbelted raincoat, the mini-dress beneath it, and the sudden, magnetising smile she’d given when his daughter first appeared. He’d described the long conversations she’d had with his wife late in the evenings, after he’d gone to bed, outlined the intense friendship that had developed between them, and then described the first time he’d ever seen her on stage and realised just how talented she was. ‘Hard to believe it about someone you know,’ he had written. ‘But there was no denying it. I miss her. Please look me up next time you’re in New York.’

His letter had been concise but extraordinarily detailed. I’d liked him instantly, on the strength of it, and had looked forward to meeting him. I suppose I’d thought he would reinforce my memories of Beth in some way, or that talking to him would bring me closer to her, giving me access to the years she’d spent here, away from us.

Remembering this now, I softened and said, ‘She enjoyed her time here. It was important to her.’

He nodded, but though he smiled briefly, the expression was quickly replaced by a thoughtful severity. ‘It was very important, I think, because it was so good for her. She started to develop here—it was like she hadn’t been allowed to before. My wife understood Beth so much more clearly than her own mother had.’

My heart beat faster—my mother had adored Beth—and when I looked down at my hand, I saw that it was clenched. I let my nails dig deeper into my palm and deliberately calmed my tone,

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ I said. ‘My parents wanted Beth to get some qualifications so she’d have something to fall back on, but really, it was just accepted: she wanted to be an actress and we all knew she would. No one tried to hold her back.’

He didn’t seem to have taken this in; he was nodding as I said it, but rather distantly, looking at the light that was flooding in through the upper panes of the window.

‘Oh, I’m sure you’re right,’ he said eventually, in a remote, distracted way. ‘In retrospect it must seem like that. But at the time it was different. Beth was always negatively compared to you. She had very little confidence when she first arrived.’

He had looped back to the beginning of our conversation, repeating what he had said then almost word for word, as though he had taken in none of what I’d told him. His certainty about my family annoyed me. Beth and I had been close, and I knew she hadn’t come to America to run away, so much as for the opportunities she’d thought she might have here. Her letters and calls from that time were energetic and enthused. Just before she’d left for New York she’d been excited, blissfully optimistic, planning it all out in the kitchen with my mother. She would attend acting classes here, get to know people who could help her. All of us had gone out of our way to help her prepare.

I told Frank some of this, and he explained, in his careful, roundabout way, that it couldn’t be true, and we went on like this for another ten minutes, both of us eager not just to make our point, but actually to make the other admit that they were wrong, until I gave up and, in a depressed attempt to change the subject, asked him how his own children were. He glanced at me and hesitated. For a moment, I thought he was so determined to talk about Beth that he wouldn’t let himself be diverted, but then he shifted in his chair, shrugged, and began to tell me about his daughter, who was an attorney in Washington, and his son, who worked for a magazine downtown.

It was difficult for me to focus; I was still distracted by what he’d said about Beth. I thought of my mother holding my arm at Beth’s funeral as we followed the coffin into the church, her lips pursed, and her eyes entirely blank. Nothing any of us could say could help her. Her own brother had been killed during the Second World War, and when they’d received the news, in the tiny Northumbrian village where they lived, her mother had pushed her arm away as she’d tried to comfort her and flatly said,

‘I have nothing to live for now.’

It had been the largest, most devastating rejection of my mother’s life, and she didn’t repeat those words to any of us as we walked into the church, but I thought that perhaps she’d understood them for the first time: they were there in her eyes and in her shattered face.

Frank couldn’t have talked like this if he’d seen her then, I thought, but he hadn’t come to the funeral—he’d only seen her composed, punctual reply to his letter. It had been restrained and dignified, but I suspected that he’d seen only coldness in it, a lack of feeling that confirmed everything his wife had told him.

I wanted him to stop talking, so that I could begin the story with him again and make him see how loved Beth had been, but I couldn’t find a way to start, and I knew I wouldn’t convince him, in any case. He was saying that his son came over to see him often, that his children were a comfort to him, now that his wife had died. I said again how sorry we had been to hear that news. It was a little more than five years since it had happened. Beth had been extremely upset. He nodded, rubbing his left eye with a finger beneath his spectacles and glanced past me, at the window again.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well, there we have it. We’ve both been through it.’

I recognised the sparseness of his reply. He was shutting himself off just as I had done after Beth had died, when what I’d felt had been so devastating and at the same time so commonplace, that I hadn’t found a way to discuss it with anyone.

We sat facing each other for several minutes without speaking. Eventually, he asked whether I’d like more coffee, and then said, tentatively, as though he was suddenly conscious of the tension between us,

‘I have some photos—of her time here. I don’t know if you’d like to see them?’

It was the kind of thing I’d hoped for when I’d first called him. ‘I’d love to,’ I said.

Frank disappeared into a room off the hall, closing the door behind him. When he came out, he was carrying three photograph albums and he gestured towards the sofa, indicating that I should join him there. As he lifted the cover of the first album, I was almost nervous. I suppose I was afraid that I might cry. I bit the inside of my cheek, hard.

He showed me all the photos quickly, starting with the early ones of his children before Beth arrived—the little girl already walking, the boy wrapped in blankets in his mother’s arms—but didn’t comment on them, glancing down at the pages with a self-conscious detachment, as though these photos had very little to do with him. I wondered briefly whether that was how it seemed to him. Beth had given me the impression that he’d seen very little of his children when they were small, and I was careful, as he turned the pages, not to ask anything that might hurt him, now that his wife had died, or remind him of things he would rather forget.

‘Ah, here we are,’ he said. ‘This was Central Park, and quite early on. Look, you can see she’s still wearing English clothes.’ It wasn’t clear to me how he knew they were British—she was in a skirt and boots that could have come from anywhere—but I let it pass. Beth’s front foot was angled sideways in front of her. Her hair was down across her shoulders and the big smile on her face was for Nicole, who was waving at her from the top of a climbing frame.

It was some time since I’d seen a photo of Beth at this age, and the excited rush of recognition it brought back to me was quickly followed by sadness. There were more photos of her with the children; one of her looking serious, painting with Nicole at a small easel, and one of her sitting reading on a bed with both children. They were leaning against her, laughing. He paused at a photo of Beth and an older woman sitting in deckchairs amongst pots of geraniums, staring at it for several seconds before he could go on.

‘That’s Lucy—on the roof of the apartment we had then. They used to sit out there a lot after the kids had gone to bed. That would’ve been the first summer Beth was here. I was working a lot at that time.’

I scanned the photo several times. Lucy had short, very dark hair. She was in a knee-length skirt and sandals with a cigarette raised to her mouth, frowning at the camera. Beside her, Beth had been unexpectedly disturbed in conversation. I’d forgotten how she’d moved her hand like that to make a point at that age; it was a gesture she’d had for a while, and then discarded. She looked happy. I looked at her face for some time, trying to work out what she’d been feeling, and why she’d talked about her family in the way she had.

I’d seen very little of Beth while she’d been away. The first year she was in America she’d come back twice, once at Christmas, and again in July, but I’d been away myself in the summer, and in the second year I hadn’t seen her at all. She’d seemed different when she’d moved back, it was true—more determined, more sure of herself—and I wondered, thinking about what Frank had said, whether there had also been a new absence in her.

Coming home had marked the beginning of her success as an actress, and I wondered for the first time now whether she’d had to make some sort of mental break with us in order for that to happen. I hadn’t been conscious of her doing that at the time, and I stalled on that fact, not letting myself think further. I looked at her face again, and turned the page quickly, but though I sat with Frank for another half an hour and though the conversation moved on to other subjects, I couldn’t stop thinking about Beth.

As we talked, I told myself that he was wrong, that all of us had been close to Beth, but as long as I knew he thought otherwise, I couldn’t convince myself that it was true. Even as I left I was regretting the fact that I hadn’t been able to make him admit he was wrong. I walked across Lexington and Fifth avenues to the park preoccupied, wanting, in short, angry bursts, to go back to his apartment and make him go through it all again.

The morning frost had melted in a bright sunshine and the streets were full of people. I threaded my way amongst them, waiting at the edges of pavements for the lights to change, but I barely saw anything; my mind was still on Beth. When I got to the park I walked for a long time, moving quickly until, circling back towards the lake, I remembered that Beth had walked here often, and a sudden, vivid, memory of her as she’d been then made me feel calmer.

The lake was empty and very still. There were leaves on its surface and here and there, around the edges, there were patches of ice. I climbed onto a rock next to it, looking across at the buildings opposite, trying to work out why I was in this state.

I stood still, wanting to deal with this easily. I reminded myself that Frank was still grieving, too. It was important to him to preserve his memories of his wife, important to believe she’d helped Beth more than anyone else, but it seemed to me that Frank had distorted my memories of Beth, pushing her further away from me. He’d raised issues Beth and I could never resolve. I wished I could forget everything he’d said.

I went on for a long time, until I had circled the lake completely, and was walking south, past the horse carriages and the hotels by the time I realised that thinking like this had unleashed something in me and I was remembering Beth more clearly than I had for some time. Incidents I thought I’d forgotten were flooding back to me now, and they made her seem fuller, more real, than she had since she’d died.

At the skating rink, small groups of people were circling the ice. I stood in the sunshine, where it was warm, watching them, focusing especially on two little girls in matching hats and scarves who were holding hands, laughing together at something one of them had said. It didn’t seem long since Beth and I had been that age. I stood watching the skaters until long after the girls had gone, thinking about Beth—the whole of Beth—and piecing my memories of her together again.


Sarah Turner studied English at the University of Oxford and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is working on her first novel, This Is Not a Confession. Email: sarahturnerfiction[at]

The Photo

Victoria Kemsley

Image of an abandoned prairie homestead consisting of several woodframe buildings. A two-storey house is the largest building on the left, with two smaller buildings to the right of it, and another to the far right partially obscured by trees. A foreground of green grass and scrubby trees makes up the bottom third of the composition; above it is a darkening sky with a hint of sun peeking out from gathering clouds. The slanted sun casts a warm glow on the homestead.

Photo Credit: Jeff Wallace/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“No, Hugh. No.” Melvina fell into a coughing fit. She signaled with her hand to wait. Hugh waited. “I’ll not have my children remember their mother like this. Sick, skinny, coughing. No.” Melvina wiped the blood from her mouth.

“Your children will remember you for the loving, beautiful mother that you always are. Come outside and have your picture. The whole family. We have never had a photograph with the whole family.” Hugh pulled Melvina’s Sunday dress out of the cupboard and put it on her bed. “That Resilient Realistic Pictures fella is not going to be here forever.” Hugh started to put the dress on her as gently as he could.

She shook it off again.

“I get the feeling… Hugh… that… you are not listening to me.” She started to cough again.
This argument had been going on for near on a week. Ever since they heard that an itinerant photographer was coming to Starling County. Such excitement. All their neighbors were chattering about what they were going to wear, and getting haircuts, and comparing notes about the best place on their properties to pose for the picture. There was no other topic on the streets in town. Just yesterday the good ladies of the Women’s Institute had been over to the farm for their bi-weekly visit. They about drove Melvina to put a pillow over her ears.

“I think my blue hat, don’t you, Cilia?” Mrs. Jones checked out her reflection as she swept the kitchen floor.

Mabeline, the teenager that worked for her, held the handmade dustpan. “No hat for me, Mrs. Jones. My curly hair will be piled high with a ribbon. The wind will be the ruin of the entire picture. Pray for me.” Mabeline was almost as pretty as she thought she was.

“It’s going to be fight getting my boys into a bath in the morning. I’m going to take my bath the night before so I can be ready. He won’t be at my house until Thursday, so there’s time for them to get used to the idea.” Mrs. Jones shouted more than spoke. Probably due to her years in that factory in Calgary before Tim Jones convinced her to make her life as a farmer.

“Hand me down that flour, will you, Della? This stew is like weak tea. I’ll stop by after supper, Mabeline, and wind the rags in your hair tomorrow. You can sleep in them, and take them out gently, mind. Your long hair will just flow like a river. You are so lucky.”

“I’m tempted to wear my wedding dress,” Sally Ferrell declared. “I really am. May as well get two uses out of the darn thing. That is a fine looking stew, Lily. Nothing like your fine rabbit stews, Melvina, but just dandy.”

“First thing I ever learned to cook on my own.” Melvina sat up and tried a little smile. “He was senior cook just before I came away. He declared that he was afraid that my new husband was going to starve to death if he’d had to survive on the state of my cooking. Non-cooking really.”

The ladies talked of nothing but the photographer for near on the whole hour of the visit. They never stopped working, though. Sweeping, cleaning the windows, freshening her sheets, cooking up a big rich meal for the family, complete with biscuits, cake, and pie for tomorrow, beating the one rug the McLarens owned. Young Mrs. Lawrence took all the dishes off the shelves and scrubbed them down while declaring herself too ugly to have her picture taken at all. Melvina was exhausted by the time they left. Nice though. So much happy life in her house.

Hugh was never much of a talker, but he stayed determined to have his way on the photo session. He had met his match in Melvina though. Other wives did just what their husbands said to do. Melvina knew her place to be a full partner. In this, and so many matters, she stood her ground.

“I want a nice picture of my husband and my babies. Right here on my table. I can look at it all day long. I’ll hear you outside and just look at you. Sandy’s new sweater is all finished now. Slick their hair down, Hugh.” Melvina still had enough energy to sew on the last of the cardigan’s buttons.

“You will be in the picture. The end.” Hugh stacked the wood by the stove.

“Helen can dress Phyllis if you can manage Jeannie. Helen can wear her little church dress. It’s a tiny bit small, but will look just fine if she wears that pretty apron that Jean Guilliame gave her last Christmas.” She bit the button thread off. “Do this for me, Hugh. I need my family right now. Will you do this for me?”

Hugh stopped arguing. She was right, of course. She did not look like the beautiful girl in that portrait she had sent to him during the war. Inside she was the same, but the outside was pale and boney and would break your heart to see.

“They want a photograph of their mother.” Hugh fed the stove to get it roaring for supper.

“Hand me my English box, please, my good Hughie. You know the one.”

Melvina’s mother didn’t write her very often, but once Dahlia came to accept that they were never coming back, she started sending little treasures over. The wooden box was Dahlia’s most prized possession. Lady Winston had uncharacteristically given the staff gifts on the occasion of the King’s coronation in 1911. Chinese boxes were all the rage then. Dahlia used her little box to hide her treasures and Melvina continued that tradition. At the moment it held the princely sum of $2.17 that it had taken her nearly a decade to accrue. The most recent $1.50 coming from the last sweater she had been able to knit. It was not a perfect fit despite Lesley Wilson declaring it to be.

“I believe he said two dollars, didn’t he, Hugh?” Melvina opened her little box.

“I have the two dollars. You don’t need to…” He started to shut her little box.

“I know you do, my husband. But let me do this with my own money, will you? Then you can tell my children that their mother gave them this gift. That will be better memory than a picture of a weak, sick and sad woman.” She carefully counted out all the pennies and nickels and one true dollar bill.

Hugh put the money in his pocket and left her to finish his chores.

When the day came for the photograph, Hugh decided that the picture was to be taken with the wide open prairie for a background, not the house or the barn as some people chose. He wasn’t so house proud yet. The boys wore the matching sweaters Melvina had made. Archie’s was, of course, worn by Sandy first. Melvina combed everybody’s hair one by one and had a quiet moment with each of them before they went outside.

“You’ll give your biggest smile, won’t you, Helen? You have such a pretty smile, my big girl. If you smile, your sisters can’t help but join in.”

“Jeannie, sweet girl, you are going to make a picture today with your Daddy, won’t that be fun? Then your pretty picture will sit right here on my table. I’ll look at it all the time, even when you aren’t here. I like that idea. Do you like that idea?”

“Yes, Mama.” Jean was just a toddler, but she could feel that this was a big moment. She started to cry. She snuggled with her mother until the last minute.

“Archie, don’t be frightened. It doesn’t hurt to have your picture taken.”

Archie squirmed as his mother gently combed his hair while he perched on her bed.

“You see my picture over there, Archie? I had to sit still, still, still. I’ll tell you a secret. Do you want to hear a secret just between you and me?”

Archie nodded.

“See how my arm is set across the front of me? Would you believe it? That is hiding a big pole that I had to put my chin on so I wouldn’t move. Isn’t that funny? See how my other hand is hiding the bottom of my chin? That’s hiding a metal platform. Mama’s whole chin sitting on a platform?”

Archie started to smile a little with the thought that he had a secret just for him and Mama.

“Back in those days you had to sit still for hours it seemed. But aren’t you lucky? You can just stand big and tall on the McLaren farm without a pole and smile like you heard a good joke. Can you do that, Archie?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“It’s up to you, Sandy. You are my big boy. My firstborn. I couldn’t be more proud at how big and strong you are growing. Almost as big as your Daddy now! You will show the others how to act, won’t you? Big and strong. Stand tall, my handsome son. I want to see if you can be taller than Daddy in the picture. I bet you will be. Let’s not tell him until we see the picture next week. It will be our secret.”

It was no good. They stood there, tall and straight as they promised. Everyone clean, shaved, combed, ironed, but sad. No one could smile knowing that Mama was waiting in her bed. Listening carefully for what was happening outside. They all tried to muster a smile like they said they would, but when the photographer came back the next week with the picture, it was clear. Hugh held Jeannie in one arm and the other two little girls leaned up against him. The boys stood on either side of him, staring at the camera suspiciously. Not a smile between the six of them. This was a sad family. With a missing mother.

“Well, look at this!” Melvina exclaimed when she saw the photograph. “My fetching family. You boys look so grown up. I don’t believe it! You look like a mirror of your father. I imagine when you grow up no one will be able to tell the difference between you.”

“Thank you, Mama,” Archie managed to squeak out before he ran out of the house.

“I can make you a frame if you want, Mama,” Sandy said.

“My goodness, Sandy. My cup runneth over. Thank you. Don’t neglect your chores though, or your Dad will have my head. I will put the photo with your nice frame right here on my table that Uncle made. I’m so lucky.”

The three little girls were curled up on her bed. They stared at the photo, not really understanding what was happening. Helen thought she was in trouble somehow. She didn’t know why, but the picture was not quite right. She had seen pictures of herself at school, this was not the same.


“It’s just fine, Hugh. This is my family and I’m proud to have the photo. Thank you for doing this for me.” With that she had a coughing fit, and the girls were scrambled off her bed and out the door. When she settled back on her pillows again, and she was alone, she took a real and true look at the photograph. She brought the photo to her chest and the tears came then.

Uncle crept up to the door of the little house to look in on Melvina, as he liked to do, then just as quietly backed out. He waved Hugh off when he saw him coming back into to check on her again.

“Leave her be, Hugh. She’ll not want to disappoint you.”

Hugh took a few paces back from the door and waited.


Victoria Kemsley teaches writing to seniors at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. She follows the ‘Learn then Teach’ philosophy. But sometimes it’s ‘Teach then Learn’. This piece is part of an anthology called Prairie Stories, that traces the life of her Grandfather and Grandmother who homesteaded in Delia, Alberta after the first world war. Email: victoriakemsley[at]


Kathryn Bashaar

Black-and-white image of a group of elementary-school-age children, a dozen or more, in a crosswalk marching toward the photographer. The girls and boys are dressed in 1970s-era casual clothing, mostly short-sleeved shirts and pants in various styles and patterns; a few of the girls wear short skirts or dresses. In the background, a large leafy tree fills the right side of the photograph, a utility pole and "WALK" light are directly behind the children, and to the right, a semi truck and trailer is in the street. The street slopes gently upward and houses and trees dot the hill. Utility poles line the street and a few 1970s-vintage cars are parked on the sides.

Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr (CC-by)

Marky Murphy had lived more than twice as long as the doctors expected at his birth. I took my frail mother to the funeral home, where she hugged his tiny, comma-shaped mother. Mrs. Murphy wiped her eyes and shook her head, speechless with grief.

I approached the casket and gazed at Marky, whom I hadn’t seen in almost fifty years. Wisps of gray hair on his round head. The slanted eyes, the stubby fingers, the look of complete peace—and the scar. He still had it, a white slash above his right eyebrow. Ancient guilt stirred in my chest.


The neighborhood where Marky and I grew up was dominated by two enormous families: the Connors and the Santinis. Mrs. Connor and Mrs. Santini reproduced prolifically, an average of a child per year, sometimes delivering twins, so that each of them had five children between the ages of six and ten roaming the streets and woods and terrorizing the rest of us, and two or three more still confined to the yard, preparing to terrorize our younger brothers and sisters.

They were clannish, mean, bossy and capricious. One day you were allowed to join their games, another day not, for obscure reasons. The rules of their games changed to suit them and if you didn’t like it, too bad, go home, they still had more than a baseball team between them and you’d hear them enjoying themselves while you, a member of the rejected rabble, listlessly played with paper dolls in your room or jumped rope alone on the concrete patio.

But I don’t think they meant to hurt Marky.

One summer, they had a clubhouse in a small wood near the Connor home, a sprawling ranch with a two-car garage, bigger and grander than the average house in our neighborhood. There was a path to the clubhouse from the Connor yard. They’d built the clubhouse out of soda-pop crates and some wood scraps that their dads had around, and they had a cigar box which they were very mysterious about. I desperately wanted to know what was in that box. They referred to it often, in vaguely threatening tones, hinting that the box contained objects of great power and possible danger.

Other than the path from the Connors’ yard, the only way to the clubhouse was through a particularly brutal thigh-high stand of thorny underbrush which we called “jagger bushes” or just “jaggers.”

I raced my bike around the Connors’ dead end one blinding summer morning two weeks before my tenth birthday. The sun was high, white and jagged in the hard, blue sky, and the concrete sidewalk radiated heat. I looped the dead end languidly, hoping a Connor would emerge from their house and invite me in to play. For all that her children were the terrors of the neighborhood, Mrs. Connor was very particular about being disturbed by other people’s children. She didn’t like children who came to the door too early in the morning, or during meals, or who came in wearing dirty shoes or who “made pests of themselves” by coming too often.

I pretended not to notice when Sandy Connor emerged from their spacious garage on her own pink two-wheeler, until she started riding beside me, blonde ponytail swinging, trying to cut me off. Finally, trying to avoid her, I wobbled to a stop and put a foot down. Sandy stopped in front of me.

“Patsy Place!” she called, although I was right beside her.

“Yeah.” My heart fluttered a bit.

“What are you doing here?”

“Riding my bike.”

“This is our dead end.”

“Other people can ride on this street if they want to.”

“No, they can’t. My dad said. The street in front of our house is our property. You can’t be on it unless we say. It’s a law.”

“I see other people riding here,” I argued.

“Because we say they can. We didn’t say you could ride here. And you can’t come to our club unless we invite you either.”

“Well, can I?”

“Can you what?”

“Can I come to your club?”

“Maybe. I’ll have to ask everybody. We’d have to have a vote. Come to the woods after lunch and we’ll have the vote.”

“Okay.” I smiled ingratiatingly. “See ya later.” And I rode off, in case what she said was true, about the law.


On my way home, Marky was in his front yard playing with his pet rabbit, Din. As I passed, he called out to me and waved me into the yard. I laid my bike in the grass near the curb.

Marky poked a carrot through the bars of Din’s cage, smiling at me. “Din,” he said, handing me the carrot and indicating that I should try feeding the rabbit. We laid on our stomachs in the prickly, summer-dry grass. Grasshoppers popped around in front of us, and ants crawled on our sun-warmed legs.

I tried poking the carrot at the rabbit. Din ignored me at first, but then I waved the carrot under his nose and he took a nibble.

“Ayesh!” Marky cried approvingly. Marky said some regular words, but he also had a language of his own; that was why Din had such a funny name. “Ayesh” meant that he was either very happy or very upset.

We vaguely knew that Marky was different from the rest of us. When his parents allowed him to come out and play, we included him. We were casually cruel to him, but only in the same way that we were cruel to each other. We made fun of his cries of “ayesh!” just like we made fun of Jane Mulvaney’s lisp, or like the Santinis taunted me when they caught me picking my nose one day. Mrs. Murphy was protective, though; she usually kept Marky in the yard.

She came out the front door now, to check on us. Her worried brown eyes rested on me and relaxed a bit. “Hello, Patsy,” she said.

“Hi, Mrs. Murphy,” I replied, not looking up, still waving the carrot at Din.

“Din,” Marky said to his mother, pointing to the cage, making a gesture like rocking a baby, and then pointing to me.

“You want Patsy to hold Din?”

Marky nodded. “Ayesh!”

“Would you like to hold the rabbit?” Mrs. Murphy asked me.

I nodded, and she opened the cage’s latch. Marky fetched Din out very gently, his mother hovering over him, and handed the rabbit to me.

“Hold on to him,” Mrs. Murphy warned.

I’d never held Din before. He trembled in my arms, his pink nose twitching.

Marky smiled and nodded at me, making a petting motion.

I cautiously held the rabbit in one arm, and petted his back with my other hand. His black-and-white fur was very soft.

Marky nodded again. “Nice,” he said.

“He’s so cute,” I said. “I wish I could have a rabbit.”

“You’d have to ask your parents about that,” Mrs. Murphy said. She took Din from me. “I think he needs to go back in his cage now.” She dropped him into the cage and closed the latch.

“Bye, Marky,” I said. “Thanks for letting me hold Din.”

“Come back any time,” Mrs. Murphy said.

“Bye, Patsy,” Marky called as I picked up my bike and pedaled home.


I had a baloney sandwich, a glass of milk, and a plum for lunch, my thighs zipping off the sticky vinyl chair when I rose from the kitchen table. My mother was cleaning my little sister’s face and didn’t look up, just said, “Be back in time for dinner.”

I jumped on my bike, pedaled to the Connors’ and shyly rang the doorbell. They had the fancy kind of screen door, with their initial in wrought aluminum.

Sandy came to the door. “We’re still eating,” she said. “My mom’s mad. It’s rude to come to the door when people are eating.” She had a half-eaten Oreo cookie in her hand, a treat we were never allowed at our house, and her teeth were flecked with black crumbs.

“Okay,” I said humbly. “I’ll wait.”

“No, just meet us at the woods.”

“Okay.” I started towards the path that led to their yard.

“No, not that way.” Sandy opened the screen door and poked out her head. “You have to go in the other way.”

My stomach twisted. The other way led to the jaggers. But one did not disobey a Connor.

I waited where the path ended in jaggers for what felt like a very long time, and was ready to give up and go back home to my paper dolls and my jump rope when the Connor-Santini clan appeared on the other path, bearing the cigar box.

When they had gathered behind their barricade of soda-pop cases and scrap wood, Sandy called out, “Patsy Place, do you want to be in our club?”

“Yes,” I called back.

“Who votes that Patsy Place can be in our club?”

Petey, the biggest boy, replied, “I vote that she should have an initiation.”

“Who votes for an initiation?” Sandy asked.

Ayes came from all the Connors and Santinis in attendance, from Petey down to six-year-old Anna.

“It’s voted,” Petey declared. “The initiation is that Patsy Place has to come to the clubhouse through the jaggers.”

My heart raced and my baloney sandwich heaved in my stomach. Between me and the clubhouse lurked a five-foot-deep, two-foot-high snarl of thorny scrub. I was so close to being in the club. But I hesitated.

“Patsy Place, do you want to be in our club?” Petey called.

“Yes,” I quavered.

“Then you must walk through the jaggers,” he decreed.

I bit my lip and lifted my right leg as high as I could, stamping a section of jaggers under my red, rubber-soled Ked. It was harder to lift my right leg and tramp down the next section. I felt the prick of the thorns on my inner thighs. But not until I contemplated my next step did I understand the trap I was in. As soon as I lifted my right leg again, the jaggers behind me would spring back up and trap me from behind. But some pride or determination or abject desperation drove me on, and I lifted my right leg again.

My red knit shorts were now pinned by half a dozen thorns from left, right and behind, but I was halfway there. I patiently detached the branches from my shorts, drawing pinpricks of blood from my small white fingers, and took another step. I felt the sharp scratches on my legs and refused to look down. The jaggers were a little higher here towards the barricade. My shirt and shorts were both caught and the bushes were too high in front of me to tramp down. But I was almost there. I moved forward. I could feel my clothes snagging and ripping. The jaggers tore at my arms and legs like tiny, vicious teeth.

I emerged at the barricade with a branch stuck to the front of my shirt and another one in my hair. When I looked down, I saw that my arms and legs were covered with small gashes, some of them with thorns still embedded. My shorts were a fuzz of snags, my white cotton shirt had a large tear and dozens of pulled threads. One fingernail burned, a thorn embedded beneath it.

Petey was laughing. “I can’t believe she actually did it!” he said to his sisters. To me, he said nothing.

“You’re bleeding,” Anna observed.

“So, am I in the club?” I asked.

“Who votes that Patsy Place can be in the club?” Sandy asked.

Ayes all around again, and I sat down on one of the soda cases. I didn’t notice the pain in my fingernail any more.

“That was funny,” Petey said. “I can’t believe you did it.”

“You’re going to be in trouble when our mom sees your clothes,” Kim Santini warned.

“No, I won’t,” I lied. “So, what do we do in the club?”

“We don’t have to do something every single time,” Sandy snapped. “Sometimes we don’t do anything. It’s just a club.”

“What’s in the cigar box?” I asked.

The mood turned somber. “You have to promise not to tell anyone,” Kim said.

“She won’t,” Petey said, “because if she does, I’ll beat her up and take her pants off and she’ll have to run home naked.”

Everyone laughed except me.

“Okay,” Petey said, “show her.”

Kim slowly lifted the box lid to reveal a bone nestled in dead leaves.

“We think it’s a human bone,” Sandy whispered.

“We’re going to find the rest of the body and then we’re going to find the murderer,” Kim added.

“Maybe it was you!” Petey yelled at me suddenly, and then laughed at my startle, slapping his knee repeatedly. When he finished laughing, he said, “Okay, meeting adjourned for today. Same time, same place tomorrow.”

I proudly trailed after them down the path that led to the Connor yard. “Bye, see you tomorrow, good meeting,” I called as I ran to the other entrance to retrieve my bike.


I went to the Connors’ door after lunch the next day. Sandy came to the screen door again. “My mother says you’re making a pest of yourself. Wait in the yard.”

I hung around in the Connor’s yard for a while, wishing to be invited in for Oreos and admiring the litter in their yard: dented bikes, seam-ripped baseballs, hula hoops, jump ropes, scratched metal trucks, and a couple of naked, disheveled Barbies with glitter nail polish chipping off their hands.

“Don’t touch our toys,” Davey Connor warned as the Connors flooded out of their house.

“Come on, let’s go,” Petey said, and we all ran into the woods, where the Santinis were already waiting for us.

Freddy Santini passed around a bag of Wise potato chips and everyone took big handfuls. I was on the end and got mostly crumbs. I licked my fingers and plunged them to the bottom of the bag to draw up the greasy remains of salt and potato.

“Ewww,” Kim exclaimed, pointing at me. “She got her germs in the bag. I don’t want any more.”

Although I longed for more crumbs, I put the bag down.

“The meeting will now come to order,” Petey announced. “First order of business: new members.”

My heart sank. I was enjoying the distinction of being the only non-Connor, non-Santini member of the club.

Freddy’s hand shot up. “I know who we can invite: Marky Murphy.”

“I don’t think we should invite Marky,” I said. “Isn’t he… retarded?”

“That’s a bad word,” Sandy scolded.

“Yeah, you shouldn’t say ‘retarded,’” Freddy agreed.

“All in favor of asking Marky Murphy to join our club say aye.” Petey said.

I reluctantly added my aye to the chorus.


The next day, rather than make a pest of myself, I wandered through the Connors’ toy graveyard, right into the woods where the Santinis and Connors already waited. Sandy, Petey, Marie, Jill, Nicky, Anna, Kim, Debbie and Tommy were in the clubhouse. Freddy stood with Marky on the other side of the jaggers.

Nobody greeted me or seemed to notice that I had arrived. They were milling around with an air of excitement and agitation.

“Shh, shh, shh,” Petey said, then intoned, “Marky Murphy, do you want to be in our club?”

Marky grinned and yelled, “Ayesh.”

The girls giggled.

“Then you must walk through the jaggers,” Petey commanded.

Marky looked confused.

Freddy explained, “Just walk through the jagger bushes to the clubhouse. Then you’re in the club.” He took one step forward, then stepped back and nudged Marky forward.

Marky frowned, folded his arms and shook his head.

“C’mon, Marky!” the girls yelled. “Please! We want you in our club.” They beckoned to him. “Pleeeease!”

Marky shook his head again.

Freddy gave Marky a shove. “C’mon. It won’t hurt you.”

Marky was bigger and stronger than Freddy, but he was caught off guard. He went down on his hands and knees. “Ayesh!” he wailed. His T-shirt and shorts were caught and his face was marked with a dozen scratches. He panicked and began to flail, trying to escape, lost his balance, and went into the brush head first. When he rose back onto his hands and knees, blood streamed over his right eye.

“He put his eye out!” Freddy yelled.

“Jesus Mary Mother of God!” Petey said. “Get out of here! Everybody out of here!”

We ran. I found my bike in front of the Connors’ house and raced home. I ran to my room, leapt into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and cried into my pillow.

I should tell, but then Petey would beat me up and take my pants off. Somebody would go looking for Marky pretty soon, and then the dads would know how to get him out of the jaggers. And he only lost one eye, so at least he wouldn’t be blind. That wasn’t really so bad.

Finally, I stopped crying and realized that I had to tell my mother, even if Petey did beat me up and take my pants. Just as I was getting up, my mother stormed into my room. “Patricia!  What did you kids do to Marky Murphy?”

I started to cry again. “It wasn’t my idea! I was going to tell you, just now!”

“Those Connor kids said it was your idea.”

“No, it wasn’t! It wasn’t me! It was Freddy!”

My mother sighed. “I can believe that.”

She sat on my bed. “What in the world were you kids doing in the woods anyway?”

“It’s a club,” I choked. “You had to walk through the jaggers to get to the club. I told them not to do it.”

“I see,” my mother said, glancing down at my own scratched legs and arms.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. But at least he’s not blind. At least he still has one eye.”


“Marky’s eye. He put his eye out.” The tears started again.

My mother put her arms around me. “No, honey, no. He didn’t lose an eye. He was just scared and scratched up. The Connor kids told their mother and she called the fire department.”

“Are we going to jail?”

“No, no, the fireman had to cut through the brush.”

“I feel like I should go to jail. I feel terrible. I’m sorry, Mommy.”

“I know you are. But I want you to think about what you did and take a lesson from it. You’ll have to apologize to the Murphys. Your father and I will talk about whether there will be any other punishment.”

She rose to leave. “I think you’d better stay in your room until your father gets home.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and nodded, eyes and nose still running.

I wiped my face on my arm, crawled back under the covers and pulled them back over my head, although it was a hot day. I would rather anything than have to face the Murphys. Rather go to jail, rather if my father would spank me every day for a year. I would rather be yelled at by every teacher in every class every day for the rest of my life, rather have leprosy, rather be kidnapped by Communists, than apologize to the Murphys.

The Murphys were nice people. Everybody else in the neighborhood only had little kids, but Marky was the younger brother of two pretty, friendly teenage sisters who wore miniskirts and mohair sweaters and babysat the little kids sometimes. They gave me chewing gum and their old issues of Girls’ Life magazine. Mrs. Murphy was easy to talk to and had a candy jar. She was friends with my mom and came up for coffee and sometimes brought coffee cake that had crumbly cinnamon sugar on top. She had pleading dark eyes, especially when Marky was around. I would rather go blind myself than ever have to look into those eyes again.


That same evening my parents marched me two doors up to the Murphys’ little ranch house. The teenage sisters weren’t home. Mr. and Mrs. Murphy sat on the couch, Marky between them. Mr. Murphy was a city policeman and it occurred to me that he might still send other police to arrest me any time.

I stood in their dim, silent living room, with the candy jar on the coffee table, flanked by my parents, hanging my head.

My mother nudged me. “What do you have to say for yourself, Patsy?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Murphy,” I burst out, sobbing. “We didn’t mean to hurt him!”

“I’d rather if you directed your apology to Marky,” Mrs. Murphy said gently.

“I’m sorry, Marky,” I choked out. My eyes were squeezed shut. I couldn’t look at them. My head hurt. The room was warm and felt like it was swaying gently, like a boat.

My worst fear was that they’d ask me why I did it. I didn’t know why. But, instead, Mrs. Murphy said, “That’s all I wanted to hear. I know you’re a good girl.”

Mr. Murphy didn’t say anything. My parents ushered me out into the evening’s waning heat.

“Bye, Patsy,” Marky called.


My punishment was to play only in my own house or yard for a week, no friends. I didn’t want to go out, anyway. I played house with my little sister, jumped rope, drew new clothes for my paper dolls, read Nancy Drew mysteries. It felt just that I should be cloistered like a nun. It felt safe.

The second day I was allowed out, a Red Rover game was starting in Jane Mulvaney’s yard. Jane had cousins visiting from Ohio and so we had a respectable number to play even without any Santinis or Connors. It was after dinner. Cicadas screamed and fireflies blinked lazily in the blue evening light.

We were sorting ourselves into sides when Marky approached, smiling as usual. He took a place beside me, raised his arms and cried, “Ayesh!”

Chuckie Siebert laughed and nudged the boy beside him.

I froze. The chatter of the other kids receded and the world again began to tilt like a ship at sea. I felt like ants were crawling around right under my skin and I wanted to run back home, but something kept me rooted.

“Do we have to have her on our side?” Chuckie whined. He jerked his head towards one of Jane’s cousins. There was something wrong with her. She was skinny, not normal skinny like me, skinny like a starving person. Her glasses looked huge on her bony, big-toothed face. She looked around nervously.

Jane folded her pudgy arms. “My mom said we have to let Tracy play.”

Chuckie rolled his eyes and puffed out an annoyed sigh.

“There’s something wrong with her,” Alicia Smith whispered to me. “What’s wrong with her?”

Jane heard her. “There’s nothing wrong with her,” she insisted.

“Come be on our side, Tracy” I said. I could hardly believe I said it. As soon as it was out of my mouth, the ants were back under my skin and my stomach felt fidgety.

“Oh, great,” Alicia muttered. “Now we’ll definitely lose.”

“Come be on our side,” I repeated, and beckoned to Tracy.

Tracy looked around as if seeking someone’s permission, then walked across to our side of the lawn. She took Marky’s hand at the end of our line. Marky patted me on the back. “Nice,” he said.

“You’re going to lose,” Chuckie taunted.

“Let’s just play,” I retorted. I took Marky’s hand and squeezed it hard.


I looked down at Marky now, the man who had beaten the actuarial odds, the boy who, at age ten, had surpassed me in courage and character. I kissed my index finger and lightly touched it to his scar, then knelt to say my prayer.


Kathryn Bashaar‘s first novel, The Saint’s Mistress, is published by CamCat Books. Her shorter work has been published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Civil War Times and the literary journals Metamorphosis, PIF, Grand Dame and Persimmon Tree. My story “The Girl From Bethel Park” will appear in the anthology Children of Steel later this year. Email: kbashaar[at]