Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Holly Michelsen

 

Twilight

It’s August. The sky hangs over the lake. There is no wind. The evergreens stand at every point along the lake’s shoreline. The surface is wrinkled like the back of an old woman’s papery hand; the color, like the iridescent neck of a pigeon. The clouds look like white jellybeans melting in the blue flame of the sky. The air shimmers. The lake and the sky and the trees and the air and I could all be described as expressionless.

I have to remind myself to look out across the lake rather than stare at my feet on the metal dock. I have to remind myself to look at the lake because I am afraid I will stop remembering it as soon as I leave it. It’s happened many times before—my memory is fickle in that way; I get this from my father—so I take great care to remember now.

My father swishes backward into the lakewater with an audible chill. The expanse of it all makes him appear far away, although he is right in front of me. The evergreens seem to grow taller.

He says that the water tastes the same as it did when he swam here forty years ago. This makes me feel dreadful. I smile.

I’m afraid I will know how he feels—if in forty years I’ll have memories forced upon me like water forced up my nose after jumping into the same lake. Real memories, not just a recitation of facts, not just an amalgam of other family member’s recollections that I’ve poorly stitched together and placed myself in the center of, not just an empty nodding of my head plastered with a phony thoughtful gaze so that the conversation can continue and I can hear more about these memories that are supposed to be mine.

I pick my eyes up from the dock and look out across the lake again.

If the lake were a room it would be caked with dust, musty as all hell, stacked to the ceiling with things that people left here for good keeping but have now rusted and lay unremembered. It would be filled with things that were loved and left there out of love—but abandoned, still—so that new people could find them and love them anew. If you walked into this room you would not feel sad.

A quick sound of splashing water resurfaces me. My father points to an eagle in the sky returning to its nest to feed its hatchlings. “Look,” he says. We watch together. I remind myself to remember this.

All that can be heard is the sound of thousands of insects chittering as one. I know—without knowing—that this is exactly how it sounded when my father was a child here and that it will be exactly how it sounds when I am gone. When I listen for too long I feel like I will be swallowed whole by guilt that I can hardly explain. I see my father swimming in this lake and I am seeing time crushed onto itself like a tin can.

This is real memory—a full-bodied possession of the senses, nostalgia gone sour as soon as it lands on the tongue. It’s one thing to be able to recall the lake, but it’s another thing entirely to taste the water and become rigid with the knowledge of forty years passed.

The eagle leaves its nest once more and once more we watch it fly. I make special note of this so that I may experience the full weight of this gut-punch memory when the time comes.

The sky hangs over the lake. The water looks like a mirror but it’s too murky to reflect my face. He says that the water tastes the same as it did when he swam here forty years ago and I don’t know how he can stand it.

I sat on my heels in the sand with my sister making sand-pies and sand-meatballs. We were young and hidden around a corner from Grandma’s beach house. My mother kneeled with us in the sand to look at our pseudoedible creations and we invited her into our world. We wanted to be praised and she praised us. This was when my mother felt most like my mother. The sun was setting over the ocean, and the sand and she and my sister and I were softly glowing; around this corner, we were three haloed angels. The waves lapped upon the shore in front of us, our backs were to the barnacled wave breaker, and we were pressed tightly together between the sand and the setting sky; these were four walls. Then, there was the sound of splitting wood and a chilling bellow. I remember my mother telling my sister and I to stay there in the instant before she was running through the sand and disappearing around the corner. We were young and hidden and scared, so we stayed for a while before we slowly got up and abandoned our sand pies and sand meatballs to make our way to the beach house deck; twilight, with the tide way out and our feet cold in the damp sand.


Holly Michelsen is a psychology & English double major in her last semester at SUNY Geneseo, where her love of poetry and creative nonfiction has grown immensely. She pulls inspiration from writers such as Alice Fulton, Annie Dillard, Bob Dylan, & anyone who manages to string words together with enviable competency.

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Brianna Gamble

Elderberry Wine

The geese leap into the air in a snow-feather storm, startled by the thunder of my mother’s voice. The lightning of her words will roll between her, and her mother, until we three flee the cabin hoping that the barometric pressure of my mother’s hate will loosen. We walk the shores of Farlington Lake, one of the largest strip pits for which Pittsburg, Kansas is named. We walk along the edge of the pond, its bowels pregnant with black water, blue tar, old coal. The stink of the lake will walk with us, louder than even the queasy silence.

A little shop sits along the shore of Farlington, serving both lakeside and Route-66 customers. A pragmatic sensibility for a midwestern folk. Inside I find a smiling woman, whose years sit on her shoulders comfortably, like a well-worn, well-loved, coat.

She implores me, “Try the honey! It’s local.”

Like a dreamer remembering the waking world, I remember the man who raised me. My grandfather was a beekeeper, a farmer, oft-divorced, and ceaselessly kind. Not far from these poisoned shores, his gentle hands tended to hives, crops, wooly beasts, and the child I was—all with the same tenderness. My aunt said his craggy face smiled when he spoke up and said, “I can take the fella,” when the courtroom said my mother couldn’t. That same craggy smile would beam as he traded sugar water for comb-covered gold from amber-clad queens. He’d hum with the razor in his hands, as he used it to separate sheep from their roasting blankets, just before the summer would turn the dial of the sun so high that all living things trade breathing for baking in the oven of the world. Those same hands would tenderly, tenderly bandage my skin, boiling from the wasp stings an adventurous child tempted.

I wonder if the bees that gave the old shopkeeper her honey were descended from my grandfather’s. After he passed, and the courts passed me back to the cyclone from my past, my mother told me his hives were to be donated. If these bees were in the same line, could they know how noble their lineage?

The shopkeeper clears her throat politely, bringing my mind back to the here, back to the now.

She says, “If you’re a fan of local, the elderberry wine is good too.”

The berries are printed on the bottle in blood black with the ichor of nostalgia. Quickly I will swap cash for memories, and—abandoning mother and grandmother—rush back to the cabin alone, my hands holding treasure. The first taste is harrowingly sweet, more berry syrup than wine. The second is stupefying. I drink and I am sinking, falling, entering a place long ago. There, I watch my grandfather’s bent back as he tends to his own elderberry crop.

A hose is coiled in my hands like an emerald serpent, and the thumbs of my three-year-old self are covering the open maw of the hose. The hose’s mouth is open only a little, the pressure blasting water across the blue horizon. The water flies like a crystal arch across a cerulean sky. My eyes had seen the same shape in the metal arch of St. Louis. Here, now, in the past and the present, this arch of water is landing on my grandfather’s straw hat, splashing onto his work-shirted back.

Soaking, he turns and says to me, “You cut that out.”

Laughter bubbles out of my belly, across the years, to ring the cracked bell of my heart.

And here, now, I am laughing again, and the sun is reaching across two decades of hurt to warm me. I don’t remember the sound of his voice, but I remember the cadence, the rhythm. And I am crying, my tears arching back across the tempestuous years between us to soak his work shirt again.

And he says, “You cut that out. I’m still here ain’t I?

And when he says ‘here,’ he is pointing at my belly, still bubbling with laughter, now thick with the bittersweet of elderberry wine.


Brianna Gamble (She/They) is a student in her final semester at Monroe Community College. She studies creative writing, vampires, and how to make a mean gumbo. She has not previously been published.

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Kendall Cruise

Raise the Dead

Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place, but what else is there to do when you are ten and like an older boy, so—there I was. The funny thing is, I don’t even think it was summer, the chill of autumn—maybe even winter—hung in the breeze. To be frank, we were bored, and the boys could only be in the house for so many hours before their mother kicked them out to go play, so Noah suggested we go explore by the creek.

They were my grandmother’s nextdoor neighbors, and the only other kids in the neighborhood; what other choice did we have than to have my two siblings and I, like ducks in a row, cross the threshold between their two yards and give a polite knock upon the door. We’d spend our days over Hulk video games and increasingly more violent games of hide and seek, chasing one another around the house endlessly, too proud to be the only one to wear shoes as we traversed over their rocky patio that poked the arch of the foot. When together, there was no need to ask where their dad was, or why we were only at our grandmother’s every other weekend. In these moments, for once, we were all just kids.

Mason was a year younger than me and an absolute crybaby. While I enjoyed him to an extent, I always found myself paused, waiting to see when he decided that Noah had committed a grievance worth crying over—which I usually perceived as a spilled-milk equivalent. He was a curly mop of a boy, with freckles like a speckled rock and pale as proofed bread. Everything about him was like fine china, which is my kind way of saying he was sensitive, which is my kinder way of correcting my harsh “crybaby” dubbage. He was always sick, always injured, always wanting something else for dinner.

There were times that I would hold my breath, wait to see if—for once—he would decide he felt too sick to play. If the holding of the breath was more than metaphorical, I would have gone blue in the face and passed out on the floor.

Now Noah was as close to what a ten-year-old could conceptualize as a Greek God. I make this comparison for the fact of his nose. It is the one of any Greek statue my mind can remember—beak like, dipped at the top of the bridge with a bony protrusion to mark the start of the slope proper. He was four years older than me, and he was our ringleader.

He had wanted to explore the creek a little bit outside of the cul-de-sac and there was no way we would have been allowed to go over if we asked so—our solution was not to ask. The five of us toddled our way through their backyard and a small field before entering the treeline. Goosebumps coated the skin as the breeze from the rushing water pushed into us.

We walked along the edge over rocks and twigs, sized up branches and bits where the terrain became steep and uncertain. I don’t even remember how it happened. One minute I was up over the water just cresting the beginning of the depression and then I was in it. I must have just plopped, I don’t remember a roaring tumble, any scraped knees, not even wet hair. Just white hot regret.

Noah must have ran to get someone. He seems like the only one who had it in him—a boy scout through and through. The others tried to coax me out of the water, told me to come back to the edge and climb up, or to walk across the creek and get up on the shallower land. All I could seem to do was babble and half cry. The water was too fast, my legs were frozen and shook in fear, I couldn’t catch my breath.

Then, the sound turned all splashing. My father fought against the current, looking nothing short of barbaric in his fear. It is the only time in my working memory that I can think of him lifting me onto his shoulders. He hoisted me up, heavy with water, and carried me back up to the shore.

How was I to know that in this moment, I had allowed a past to be rewritten? A grave to be pulled from the dirt—unlidded.

He died the first night my dad ever drank. Being the oldest of five in an Irish Catholic family inspires a certain degree of rebellion—and there was little else to do at twelve years old in the 80s than cause a little trouble. I imagine he staggered home a little hazy, but cognizant enough to put on a good show.

I only know my Uncle Brian even existed due to tidbits exchanged from my mom’s mouth when Dad wasn’t around to hear. His very existence—some unspoken absence everyone seemed to have agreed upon without my knowing. The events of the night piecemealed together in some panoramic collage, still left unfinished.

I imagine the first thing my father saw were lights. The blue and red flickering across the side of his childhood home. The front door was left open, and the house empty, unsure whether it would be wise to approach the scene still alcohol-ladden.

Brian had fallen into the creek and gone blue in chill and death. You know, it is often said that history has this pesky little habit of repeating itself, maybe as some fucked up test to show it you have learned.

While my father warmed his spirit with spirits alongside some neighborhood boys down the street, his siblings were playing outside—waiting for the call of dinner. They had been exploring by the creek, four of them, missing their fifth, and Brian had slipped. His body cracked through the ice upon impact. I’m not sure what my aunts and uncle might have done. Looked around at one another or the water in shock, called out to Brian, one of them making some daring escape to the side yard where my grandfather spent his afternoons fixing bicycle chains and refurbishing tables? Wished my father was there? Wished the eldest child was there to tell them something, anything was the right thing to do in the way only an eldest can?

The ice had frozen back over before Brian could pull himself back up to the top, his body a dark and squirming shadow growing cold and panicked. I imagine he gulped the first water into his lungs, his instinct a deadly hyperventilation. I imagine his thin arms, his legs—still growing—kicking against the water, against the current his body was in the process of swallowing whole. I try not to picture what it is my aunts and uncle could see, finding my mind pulled back again and again to the view of Brian buried beneath the winter. I try to forget he was seven.

My father received three DUI’s before he was nineteen and lost his commercial driver’s license before he quit drinking. I wonder if he liked the way it combated the creeping cold. If it was the only way he could play through the motions again and again. In one rendition, he does not go to his friends and stays alongside his siblings. From there he poses two possibilities: the one where he dives for Brian and the one where he dives for the house.

In the first, his body would arch gracefully into the Brian-shaped ice fishing hole, pull him to the edge of the bank and wrap his own body around him in an attempt to return the warmth. Brian would cry into his shoulder.

In the second, he goes running for his father, the only man he knew with hands more calloused than his own, and the ice is broken with one of many tools, Brian is retrieved, turned over to his stomach on the bank as his father pounds between Brian’s shoulder blades until all the water has come up and a gasp, as sweet as a baby’s first cry, finds the frost.

He attempts to play through the reality of the night—he is not there. In every rendition of these hypotheticals—Brian dies. This is the way the story goes. This is what he likes to forget.

What do we do, with all that we do not yet know? What do I do with my imagined life, zombie uncle and all? What does my father do with it?

My father dropped out of high school his sophomore year, two years after Brian’s passing. I often imagine my father walking across the stage. Taking graduation photos in the middle of the football field. Maybe he would have picked up a formal trade, like his father. Maybe he would’ve had it in him to stick with it, try out community college. Go into healthcare, like his mother.

I imagine him flipping adamantly through his anatomy textbook, learning every part of the lungs, imagining the contractions of Brian’s, of his throat as he expelled imaginary water onto an imaginary shore inside of this imaginary imagining.

What is it my father felt when Noah told him what had happened? Who did he picture as he trudged into the creek, twenty years sober, and pulled from it a thin-armed body gone cold from the water? When he placed me on the shore was he surprised to see a blonde? Was some part of him pulled from fantasy and back into grief? He finally got his chance to show what he had learned and pulled up—me.

I cannot help but to think he must have paid for my life with his. The price of his life, some butterfly effect’s wager. How do you determine what one child, maintained alive, is worth against that of the figment of one, now realized?

What kind of sick reincarnation tale can be found here? What sort of patient god?


Kendall Cruise is a junior at SUNY Geneseo studying English (creative writing) and adolescence education. They have been previously published in Gandy Dancer and Iris Magazine, and are the current managing editor of their college’s newspaper, The Lamron.

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Anna Lanze

Julia

Your youthful laughter full of innocence fills the air. Julia lies beside you, and together your tiny hands mend the worn-out blanket. You both giggle on the couch as you play an R-rated movie, something you two, once again, are not allowed to do. Within thirty minutes, you’re screaming at a jumpscare. This alarms Julia’s mother, your “Aunt” Erin. Aunt Erin, with her arms flailing in the air and her forehead vein protruding, storms into the living room yelling, “What business do two eight-year-olds have watching this film? You both have no business watching a film filled with blood and gore, but that’s probably why you tried watching it.” The two of you laugh in defiance and rebellion.

And there you both are…

“Three…two…one…MINT!’’ comes out of both your mouths synchronized. In a garden of youth, four tiny hands are suddenly ripping leaves from a mint plant and shoving them into seemingly ravenous mouths. The mint leaves burn, but you disregard it because that is the entire point. Julia, ever determined, is scarfing down many more leaves than you are. You are sweating not because of the scorching sun, but because of the leaves you are determined to consume. As your body temperature rises so does your hand, signaling a forfeit. “I CAN’T!” you exclaim. Julia mimics and mocks you, perpetuating her streak of victories, and leaving a trail of memories in the sun.

And there you both are…

You and Julia are wearing neon colored bathing suits with frills and polka dots, and bright pink burning skin on the apples of your cheeks. You two are blowing air into your swimsuits, causing your tops to inflate, giving the illusion of breasts. “I can’t wait till we get older and actually look like this,” she exclaims, her voice leaving echoes of teenage dreams. In what she thinks is a teenage-sounding voice she blabs, “Look at these boobs! I kiss so many boys with these boobs!” The pool contains more laughter than water. The thought of you two being teenagers together thrills you both, but provokes a dark punch to your gut and you know it punches hers too. You two are thinking the same thing but neither of you dare to mention it.

And there you both are…

You’re fully immersed in the pool’s embrace as Julia stands with her toes on the edge of the diving board, water dripping from her short curly hair. She’s wearing a massive grin paired with goggles far too big for her face. Sunrays beam on your skin; the chlorine and friendship-scented air feels refreshing. “Ready?” she snorts as the goggles press down on her button nose. At once you smile and begin waving your arms, screaming for help in your high-pitched voice. The playful charade prompts Julia to jump in to “rescue” you. The splash from her jump fills the majority of your vision, but out of the corner of your eye is Julia’s grandmother sprinting. Not knowing this was all a part of your game called “lifeguard,” her grandma is in a state of terror. Just about to leap into her pool fully clothed, she recognizes snickers of mischief she knows too well. Yours and Julia’s laughter prevails in the face of her grandmother’s scolding and your friendship is immortalized in the sunlit waters.

And there you both are…

Once again, your parents and Julia’s parents fill the backyard with whiskey breath, music, and obnoxious laughter. The back door slams behind you as the two of you approach your parents, who welcome you with applause and hysterical screams. You get into your not-very-well-thought-out positions, fixing the wigs that cover your eyes and identities. You hear your mother whisper about the old costumes you’re wearing, wondering where the hell you found those. You yell, “HIT IT!” and the two of you begin flailing your tiny limbs in various directions. You two are not dancing to any music other than the melody of true friendship. A dance of sheer delight in a symphony of giggles. Howls of laughter from your parents fade into the background as you lock eyes with Julia. She really is your best friend.

And there you both are…

“JULIA!! Do you think we’re being too mean?” you ask innocently while your fingers slam on your keyboard, typing cruel insults to a virtual penguin. “Who knows? Who cares?” she scoffs with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. You giggle and rearrange how you are sitting at your dining table. On a cup of water next to your laptop is Julia mischievously smirking through your iPod screen. You look at the screen and notice she has really long hair today; you compliment it because she usually wears bandanas or hats. “NO WAY!” she yells. You do not question her yelp because you know what just happened to you both. “Banned from playing Club Penguin. Are you girls fucking serious?” hisses Julia’s mom over the phone.

And there you both are…

“GRAB THE WATER GUN RIGHT NOW. IT NEEDS TO DIE!” she demands with her eyes fixed on the intruding insect. You’re paralyzed in horror as a massive bug you can’t even name asserts its presence in front of you both. Julia notices your hesitation and catches a glimpse of your fear. Without a moment’s hesitation, she darts out of the pool and swiftly grabs a yellow plastic gun, showcasing her unwavering bravery. Precisely loading it with water as if preparing for battle, she courageously fires it at the bug. She was always the brave one. “BITCH!” she barks after confirming the insect’s death. She turns to you with her hand on her mouth acknowledging her profanity. You both exchange glances, knowing that if Grandma hears that you’ll get in trouble again.

And there you both are…

You and Julia, partners in digital adventures, tap away on your brother’s laptop. With laughter as your guide, you download an endless stream of Minecraft mods. Consequences arise as the laptop’s screen flickers and goes dark. Your brother erupts in frustration at the sight of this, but his frowns and reprimands couldn’t dampen the spirit of two girls caught in the enchantment of their own world.

And there you both are…

Jaws, the shark movie the two of you have been looking forward to watching all day is interrupted as Julia hesitantly blurts,“What do you think happens after we die?”

Her slim finger hits her tablet screen pausing the film. She’s bundled up in her wool blanket, looking cozy and adorable with her doll-like face. But that wool blanket is wrapped around her as if it was armor shielding her from the impending reality. You, her best friend, know what she’s feeling. You gaze into her wise doe eyes and let her dreadful feeling, an impending sense of doom, transfer to you. You do not respond for a moment, letting those words linger and tighten the air in the room.

“I don’t know, Jules. I just hope we see each other again.”

“Please God…Please let her live,” you whisper with a fragile plea, desperately clutching onto the remnants of hope. Your eyes ascend to the ceiling that holds Jesus on the cross. Your quivering index finger presses a tiny brown button that illuminates an electric candle. A deafening silence surrounds you as dark turmoil consumes you.

There is no sun in the sky; there is no light at all for that matter. The lights are on but the room feels exceptionally dark. The carpet is red, the walls are beige, your dress is black, and the air is suffocating. With a somber weight on your shoulders, you take slow and measured steps toward the hushed room full of adults. Your parents follow behind you, helping you carry the weight of your sorrow. You reach the doorway, a gateway to the brutal reality, as your heart reaches your stomach and your hand reaches your mouth. Your feet follow your eyes that beg for your best friend.

And there you both are…

You stand as Julia lies before you. There is a cushion to kneel on, but your knees are locked in place and your eyes are locked on her. Soft copper curls frame her beautiful porcelain skin and her lifeless face. Her white dress is nice, but she would have chosen something with color. Her makeup looks pretty, but cannot mask the absence of her vibrant spirit; she would have chosen red lipstick. You see her bracelets that will forever rest in silence, but you imagine the sound of them clanging together. Her spirit is now stilled and her familiar face is now frozen in a serene repose. Your gaze lingers on her chest, hoping it will suddenly move again, attempt to take in air. Your nine-year-old hand grazes her forever ten-year-old hand. Her hand is cold, and you want to warm her, but you realize a few things: she is cold but she doesn’t know she is cold. You cannot warm her; you will never warm her, laugh with her, get in trouble with her, or be with her ever again. The finality of the moment crashes upon you. You realize this is the end. You weep and wail into the pools of grieving tears that are your palms. Adults approach you with comfort, but only deepen the pit of grief because how come they get to grow up? There is a void in your life that only she could fill.

You feel different. The world feels different. Regardless of sunlight, the world is darker, colder, and infinitely more complex without your companion. The echoes of your shared laughter cease in the ache of her absence, now only resonating as whispers in the wind. In fact, laughter becomes a haunting soundtrack that reminds you of what used to be. Your hands, once seamlessly entwined with Julia’s, now fumble in the shadows of sorrow, desperately trying to hold onto intangible memories slipping through the cracks of time.

Two girls embracing, Anna on left, Julia on right.

Anna (left), Julia (right)

 


Anna Lanze is a freshman at SUNY Suffolk Community College. She wrote this piece in the fall of 2023 when she was studying at SUNY Oswego.

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Mollie McMullan

Sugar

She asks me if I am happy he is gone. I ask her if she remembers me sitting vigil over angel hair spaghetti like a museum exhibit about the nuclear family. Cramming raw, masticated broccoli down my throat in order to be excused from the table. I think of Sunday mornings and large fingers probing beneath the skin of a grapefruit, of Father’s Day when I scrubbed a kiss from my virgin lips with toilet paper after escaping from the oak table. The place where I became an electric fence, untouchable. Where I used to sit across from the man with hungry eyes, who wouldn’t waste anything, even going so far as to lick crumbs from his collared polo. During dinner, as I listened to him scrape his knife against the floral trim of his plate, I used to wonder how far he was willing to go to devour me completely, too.

As a little girl, I would cry at the head of the table, the closest chair to the door, teardrops maiming the pages of my homework packets. He would coil like a snake, teeth bared, poised to strike. I liked to taste the saline tears from my Cupid’s bow and roll eraser shavings between my fingers. He liked to groan at the wet paper and rip my pencil from my cramping hands. If you just stopped crying, this would be over sooner.

Some days, when my mother would come home from work, he would push his mouth onto hers. And I. Would watch. And freeze in tandem with her. In a dream one night, he appeared as a snapping turtle. I woke up feeling a chunk of skin missing. There, at the kitchen table, I learned how to play dead, hiding my face in the rims of ceramic cups, anything to dodge the iron-jawed man. Even the dumbest of mutts can learn a trick or two. This is a skill I haven’t forgotten.

And now he’s gone, nestled in a little house atop sand dunes, which is more than I think he deserves, sometimes. We eat in separate kitchens at separate tables, sharing nothing but the moon. On particularly quiet nights, I trace the grain of the wood table, picking out crumbs with my fingernail. How many times can this surface be scrubbed before I can sit here without fear of filth? How many showers will I have to take until I rid the stickiness of grapefruit juice from my skin? I swear I can still hear him slurping pulp from a spoon, legs spread wide under the kitchen table. I can see the tangy nectar drip from the corner of his mouth and onto his shirt. I feel him nudge my arm, asking for more sugar.

She asks me if I am happy he is gone. I lick toilet paper from my lips. I think about what “yes” will taste like.


Mollie McMullan is a junior at SUNY Geneseo. In her spare time, she enjoys chasing her dog around in circles and cutting up magazines for collages she’ll never complete.

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Griffen LaBianca

Little Eulogies

The funeral service was for my friend.

It lasted for nearly six grueling hours. Twelve if you counted the second day and the small eulogy given by the pastor of the church his family went to. I vaguely remembered him talking about his Sundays at church, as irregular and infrequent as many other middle class North Shore families on Long Island. In my family, church was a thing to laugh about, it was my brother whispering “Ooo hot,” as he dipped his finger in the small bowl of water that sits at the entryway of every Roman Catholic church. It was my father joking about being struck by lightning if any of us walked into a church on Christmas. “Bad Churchgoers,” my mother jokingly called us.

The house had been abandoned for as long as any of us could remember. It sat strangely on the corner of a neighborhood and reminded us of a haunted house from a Stephen King movie. Tall cypress tree with an abandoned tire swing and all. It was the summer of our freshmen year of high school, and the heat felt like you were sitting in a car with the windows up. Stagnant and windless. A pool sat in the backyard, pond scum overflowing the tarp that had slowly rotted away with age and changing seasons. Some of us joked about cleaning it up, skimming out the muck and coming here on our days off from whatever countless summer jobs we worked at. Deli counters, vet offices, pool lifeguards.

The boy who had scoped out the house, a friend of a friend, was a gambler driven by equal parts growing up poor around rich kids and growing up angry around poor kids. Six years later, his Instagram page reveals a man rounded out and softened up by time and work as a real estate agent. He’s married to his high school sweetheart who no doubt had a hand in flattening out the rough edges of his younger self.

Our friend group consisted of a hodgepodge of kids like this, athletes who didn’t take sports seriously enough to make it to college playing, honor students too stupid to stay in class when they could skip and sit in the cafeteria. Smart kids doing dumb stuff because the dumb kids did worse. Troublemakers who never did enough to get more than a wagging finger from a teacher instead of a suspension or a fine.

The kid had found a way into the house through a back glass door, less lockpicking and more jangling an old, rusted door frame until it snapped open. The first thing about the house was the smell: it was fresh, rather than the mold and rot that most of us expected. It was clean, as if it had been robbed rather than thoroughly scrubbed down. Kitchen cabinets and drawers were pulled out, silverware stripped clean from its holsters, the only things left were plastic plates and wooden spatulas. It felt more like the memory of a house than one that anyone had lived in.

The living room, connected to the kitchen, was open and an old leather couch was torn up and tossed over. Some of us marveled at the ceiling where a chandelier dangled high above, and the stairs snaked around the whole of the interior up into the second floor. It looked like a house from a movie, all glowing in the hot summer daylight. There were six of us, and we walked around the house with a tepid worship as if we were in a church, careful not to disturb the cobwebs and broken glass crowding the corners of the rooms. The only one who wasn’t careful was Mike. A broken leg earlier that year left him with a big black boot, so he stomped around the wooden floor of the house. Never mind the fact that he was a giant who had a knack for crowding up open places with all six foot four of himself; a height that is either accurate of how tall he actually was, or one clouded by the reverence of my younger self. It was hard in those days to tell what took up more of the room he was in, his body, or his laugh. Whenever he chose to laugh, it meant shaking the room you were in; it was a call, like those big Viking horns people used to blow through. It ordered everyone else in the room to laugh as well, not in intimidation, but because it felt wrong not to laugh along with him.

The funeral home was the biggest in our hometown, a necessity for the waves of people who came to pay their respects to Mike, and his family. At this time, it seemed to me that it would’ve been unusual for someone we knew not to be there. The line snaked around the halls of the building, people lined up, around tables and chairs, up the winding stairs that some of us joked reminded us of that old house we snuck into.

Anger shadows most of my memories of those two days. Anger at the adults, anger at our school, anger at ourselves, anger at Mike. It was a poison in me—more mist and fog than seething and red as it had been a week earlier. The first day was quiet. Those of us who were close to him had nothing left to say to each other, and those who felt they were close with him had no idea how to talk to us. It was nice in a way; misery was left to itself at the entrance of the big hall doors that lead into the room where his body would be. They were closed for the first hour, things getting set up, appearances getting ready. A part of me wonders now if that hour was more for us than it was for them, to prepare ourselves before we saw him for the first last time.

By the time I realized most of my friends had circled around me, leaving me alone and in the lead of the moshed crowd of people waiting, the doors had already begun to open. The man who opened them, a worker for the funeral home, was dressed in a tight collared penguin suit that looked a few sizes too big for him. At the time, I might’ve thought he was far older than any of us, but time and memory put him no older than any of us had been.

The few seconds before anyone made their way into the room were agony and lasted for an eternity. Everyone was breathing on top of each other, and despite the wilting summer heat of late August and the long sleeved tight buttoned suits we all wore, it somehow felt cold in the parlor. Eyes seemed to flicker between the door, to me, to the door, to me, to the door. Eventually, thought caught up with motion as I had already begun marching through the large double doors. Thoughts bled from me as panic churned in my guts. What came first? Respects to the family? Isn’t there something to sign when you walk in? What about those little cards with the prayer on the back of an old photo of the deceased? It was too late for decision making by the time I realized I was sitting down with the others in a small bisection of the room, in a corner seat, away from his family, their backs turned as they sat on a red and green flowered couch that would’ve matched the interior design of an eighty-year-old woman’s house.

Even as I think back on those grueling hours sitting and staring at the wood casket looming at the center of the room, I can’t remember the face of Mike in that wooden bed.

The next hour or so in the abandoned house was equal parts exploration and graverobbing. Or at least, that was how it felt to us the longer we walked around. The family’s history in the house became apparent, pieces of the inside were littered with the small memories of people who once lived there. As Mike and I were left to walk through the old turned-out bedrooms upstairs, the others looked through cabinets, closets, and the shed outside. Normally he was loud, not in an obnoxious way, but his voice used to carry a weight to it that seemed to absorb my attention.

A lot of us were smart, or at least good students, but Mike was on a whole different level. Academic awards were piled high on tables and on walls in the office he shared with his father, a fact that I and the others learned years later when we visited his family after he passed. The office felt small and cozy, and his computer was still set up next to his father’s. Posters of World of Warcraft and rap album covers were tacked up behind the monitor. It was the place where he spent hours playing Dota 2 with us online and yet in that moment it felt alien, a side of him that had been invisible between monitors and the static mic quality of TeamSpeak and Skype calls that lasted late into the warm hours past midnight on school nights.

In the old empty bedrooms upstairs in the abandoned house, books, toys, or anything not important enough to be carried away were left scattered across the floor or on top of empty open dressers. Mike had been quiet that day, a fact many of us never noticed until weeks later, he had been joking throughout our trip to the house, talking to Peter, a close friend who introduced me to Mike through our shared interest in Melee, a game we both attempted to play at tournaments. Only Mike’s attempt was loose and fast, more a hobby than my own obsession with it. A fact I would learn later about Mike, through Peter, was that if he wanted to master something, it was only if time let him. Whether it was a video game, a sport, or Quantum mechanics; the only thing seemingly inexplicable to Mike was himself.

Mike slowly, and carefully, grazed his fingers over the journals and loose photos that sat on a faded pink nightstand next to a dust covered mattress. Despite his size he was gentle with the memories, a light blue journal or diary, its contents still a mystery now, as Mike refused to let anyone else read it. His jaw clenched tight in the way that said “no” and left no room for rebuttal. He left it to sit alone forever on the windowsill of the room in the sunlight. The photos that were scattered loosely on the floor were of a young girl. I couldn’t place her age, possibly early high school, the same as us, but something about the pictures seemed ageless. The way the sunlight stained and discolored the photos, and the shirts and outfits of the girl and her friends in the photos couldn’t be put to time, memories left scattered behind on the wooden floorboard of an abandoned home.

Little eulogies were spelled out everywhere in that home. In the master bedroom, old copies of Hemingway rested dusted and lonely in a drawer. Old beaten-up sneakers sat mud stained at the front door, laces chewed through, aglets cracked and frayed from what must’ve been a particularly busy dog. Small notches were carved alongside dates and names in the doorway of a bathroom, ages of heights lost to the fading of sharpie ink against time. Posters of Justin Timberlake and Coldplay blanketed shoe boxes full of burned cd’s with “Cassie’s Mix” scribbled across the neon-colored plastic casings.

It was a house both left behind and completely forgotten by time. Only the sun and the rain and the dust left any measure of their age.

It took me nearly an hour to eventually get in line and give my respects to Mike’s family. An hour more of standing in nauseating, gut churning anxiety. And then another hour after sitting alone with my friends in what felt like bleacher chairs near the casket. Teachers who knew us, or knew Mike enough to know us, came up and gave their respects to us. We quietly, or silently gave our thanks and they either left, or stayed long enough to talk to other teachers. Either about how horrible it all was, or how horrible they all felt for us, or how horrible they felt for Mike’s family, or how horrible the ones closest to Mike must be feeling.

It was unique in a disappointing sort of way how people older than us spoke about death. Grief was never admitted, as if acknowledging your own pain was somehow selfish to the suffering of others. Perhaps that was the case, or perhaps the pain in which we felt lonely together was more than what the teachers or administrators or coaches felt. Or perhaps no one was ever really close enough to Mike to admit how upset they were. I didn’t cry at either of the services. Neither did my friends who were close with him. Part of me wonders if it was because we knew how long Mike had been hurting for. Or maybe, it was because none of us felt we had the right to cry for him, as if none of us ever truly knew him.

Eventually we were chased out of the house by a neighbor in a pickup truck. We scattered from the innards of the house like rats from a hole and spread out across the neighborhood, sprinting, the pickup truck spewing black smoke like some beast from hell out to punish us. This was the fervor and panic that could only accompany the thoughts of kids who weren’t really bad but had been bad enough to do something stupid. I ran alongside Mike, his big boot stomping and dragging through the pebbled, potholed street near my house. Eventually we made it to the front stoop of my house, both of our cellphones were dead, so we sat waiting for Mike’s sister to pick him up after he used my home phone to call.

I’ve owed Mike a eulogy for nearly six years now after the pastor asked if anyone had any words they’d like to say, and I stood there silently. Too nervous or too weak to say anything. After a pause that felt too long, and a few words spoken by the Pastor, they played the song “See You Again” on a speaker that had been wheeled out on an old plastic cart. Like the ones we used to have in grade school if we were about to watch a movie in class. In the awkward quiet of the funeral parlor, I laughed, only a chuckle loud enough for Peter to hear. Then he laughed as he felt it too. The tug of an old memory, both of us remembering Mike ranting and joking about how stupid he thought the song was late one night on a skype call.

The laugh felt easy, a little acknowledgment between us about our shared memory with him. It was a little memory, and as I remembered it, I began to remember the many hundreds we had made with him together. Easy memories that made me chuckle into the collar of my too-big dress shirt. quietly enough for no one else to hear. Memories of his laughing, or old jokes he made, or old arguments we had. Little memories that made me feel like a “bad churchgoer,” laughing at my own little eulogies.

My time with Mike was filled with moments like this, moments where we were alone together but not lonely together. Sitting, talking, joking, or even arguing, but rarely ever silent with each other. The sun was going down in the way that late summer makes lovely, all deep orange, pink and lavender. Or maybe it was just going down normally, the sieve of time diluting my memories of Mike into abstractions of beauty that I might’ve wished for quietly to myself. We sat in the silence of a suburban neighborhood in July, young kids squealing and laughing from somewhere unseen, trees shifting in the wind as the heat began to break for the cool comfort of night. Just together, waiting. A part of me puts my hand against his, or rests my head against his shoulders, or just blathers out all the ways I feel about him but can’t tell him.

The real me sits there quietly with him in the twilight before the dark sky rolls in with the night and all its stars scatter out like old memories against the floorboards.


Griffen LaBianca is an English (creative writing), environmental history alumni from SUNY Geneseo. He spent his time at Geneseo playing rugby, getting injured playing rugby, and writing sappy romance stories that, hopefully, will never see the light of day. He is currently working on publishing his first novel.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Postscript

Zoe LaVallee

Serenading Flesh

The first time I cut myself was with a mint-green plastic floss pick. The type that the dentist gives you in a small bag after they tell you to floss more. The ones with the sharp pick at the end designed to dig the plaque from the crevices of your teeth. Meant to expel bacteria from your mouth and ensure good oral hygiene.

The second time I cut myself was with a piece of sea glass in the glass bowl that sat on top of the upstairs toilet. I dragged the rough edge over the flesh of my thigh, but didn’t manage to leave much but a small, stinging scratch. I reveled in the sting and for that moment, it was enough.

I tried an old pocket knife my dad had given me. The blade was basically rounded. It didn’t do much. He didn’t know that his gift had been used as a vessel for my own self-hatred.

I soon upgraded to a butter knife. I felt like a thief in the night, sneaking into the kitchen drawer to slip the knife up my sleeve. It only felt like a mission to me; no one would have batted an eye if they saw me grabbing something as insignificant as a butter knife.

I sat in my bedroom and took the butter knife out of my nightstand drawer. I ran my finger over the dull, jagged edge of the blade. I pressed it to my wrist and pushed down, dragging the knife’s small teeth over the tender skin. I pressed down over and over, eventually forming an angry red line. Staring at the knife meant to be dripping with syrup, I instead saw traces of my pain.

Eventually, a mini Exacto knife came into my possession. I have no memory of where it came from, but it was the most effective tool I had used thus far. It danced into my hand and seduced my fingers. The blade was the Sirens and my skin the sailors. The sweet serenade of bare flesh begging to be painted on. Please mark me, it whispered, show me your agony, breathe me your sins. I let the cool metal glide over my skin like my mother skimming the top layer of cream off our milk.

I gathered up my internal pain and forced it to the outside. Please look at me. I wore short sleeves in gym class and nobody looked at me. They didn’t see, or they didn’t want to. Besides, all I had managed to do was make my arm look like I swung it through a bramble patch. There were no deep gouges or trickling wounds. There were only half-committed attempts at pleading with the world to see me.

When I was a child, I often felt a well of guilt bubbling in my stomach. There were times in which I was sad, too sad, and I had no valid reason as to why. Unlike many of my friends, my parents were not divorced. In fact, they loved each other very much and still showed their love to each other in a way that often dissipates in long marriages. They were incredibly supportive of me and my younger sister, telling us they were proud when we brought home good grades or won an award at school. I was extremely close with my little sister, feeling that she was more of my twin rather than two years younger. We would spend hours in imaginary worlds, needing nothing but each other’s company to fill our time.

My family was steadily middle class, sometimes dipping lower, but seldom revealing that fact to me or my sister. We went on vacation to Florida, we got new clothes for the first day of school, and our Christmases were plentiful. We lived in a small, safe town. We were liked by others in our community. On the surface, I had absolutely nothing to complain about.

My friends talked about fathers who left them on the side of the road in a fit of anger, fathers who cheated on mothers and put their children in the middle, mothers who got pulled over for DWIs while their child was in the car. My parents had never yelled at me. They read to me when I was little and stayed in my room until I was ready to go to sleep. They played with me. They parented.

I wanted something to be wrong in my life, so I could have a reason for feeling the way I did. I didn’t yet know about chemical imbalances. I was unaware of the mental illness essentially spilling out of both sides of my family. I was unaware that while I was growing up and feeling lost, my grandmother and uncle were squatting in our old house. That my parents filed a restraining order because my uncle threatened to kidnap my sister and me. That my loving grandparents had made my mother’s adolescent life miserable. That my father’s adopted side of the family saved him. That there was deep-rooted generational trauma overflowing in my veins. That I was the way I was for a reason, though those reasons hadn’t yet revealed themselves to me. I had a sixth sense when I was young that I was on edge for a reason. I knew there was something wrong, I was just too young to be exposed to it all.

Trauma is genetic, and my parents had enough for all of us. They wanted better for my sister and me, and because of this, they tried to be the most exceptional parents there ever were. Trauma can sneak up on you. I think that maybe it snuck up on all of us.

As I got older, the bubbles of guilt turned acidic and ate through my insides. Why was I always so on edge? Why could I never breathe? Every time my parents were late to a soccer game, I was convinced that they were dead on the side of the road with our car burning beside them. Fear came along with the deep sadness emanating from my core. I did not understand myself. Why did I want something to be wrong with me so badly?

This past summer, my mother and sister traveled to Switzerland on a school trip, and brought me back a Swiss army knife with my name engraved on the front; a classic tourist souvenir. I said nothing. I smiled at my sister and thanked her. Why are you giving me this? I wanted to scream, why are you handing me all that taunts me? I had never directly told her about my relationship with knives, but my mother knew. She knew, and she thought it was fine to put it in my hand. The smile on my face felt plastic. I felt sick. Yes, I was doing so much better. Yes, I had been in therapy for three years and was almost one year clean. It felt like a test that my mother was unaware she was giving: Are you better yet?

I told my boyfriend about it. He told me to get rid of it. I said I would. I didn’t.

A month or so later, he asked me if there were any knives in my apartment, and I pulled out a small blade. I kept it hidden like a security blanket. A just-in-case. A last resort. He told me to get rid of it and reminded me that I had promised before that I wouldn’t have knives around me. He told me that if it happened again, we were done. I didn’t let the tears fall. Would he say the same thing to a heroin addict? I watched him inhale sickly sweet-flavored nicotine and blow a cloud around us. We all have our addictions, don’t we?

When I traveled home for a funeral, my mother had laid out the Switzerland souvenirs that I hadn’t taken with me to school. “You forgot these.” No, Mom, I really didn’t. There was a keychain, a small bag with the country’s flower, and the knife. I hadn’t even remembered where I had put it, how had she found it?

I picked up the knife and flipped it open. The current state of my life was dismal. My great-grandmother had died, and while that in and of itself was sad, it was not unexpected. However, the familial chaos that ensued was exhausting, and I was old enough now to hear the conversations and nod along. I edited her eulogy. I stood at the front of the church and read words from the Bible that meant nothing to me. Hardly anyone in the family stepped up, so I did.

I ran my finger over the sharp blade. It was clean, it wasn’t dull, it was perfect. The skin on the back of my wrist was screaming at me, begging me. Caress me, it screeched, let me take your pain.

The blade kissed my flesh but did not bite it. I put it down, shuddering. I wanted someone to tell me they were proud of me. I had to settle for myself, for my unmarked skin.

There are so many stories I could tell. Stories with pages of backstory and context. There are reasons upon reasons that I have dissected in therapy. Observing myself and my actions like a specimen, why am I the way I am? There are times that I am so grateful for the life I have that it is hard to believe I could ever hate it or myself. I see my privilege spell itself out to me, and the guilt from my childhood sneaks back in.

We all hurt. We probably always will. And sometimes it will pull us under and we will fight not to drown. I have days where I remember the darkness, the all-consuming blanket it threw over me. I remember why I serenaded my flesh with violence, and I consider doing it again. I crave the release.

Then I am reminded of how circumstances change, and how quickly. I think about days when I smile so hard it hurts, in the most beautiful of ways, and my side cramps up from laughing too hard. Pain can be lovely. I think about the people who care for me, genuinely, and it shocks me a bit how many faces flash through my mind; the same mind that told me I was worthless, that everyone hated me, that they were better off without the constant drag that bore my name.

I hurt to feel and I feel to survive. I hope you do not understand.

But if you do, try to let the sun sing you a lullaby. Find other ways to scream.


Zoe LaVallee is a junior at SUNY Geneseo, where she studies English (creative writing) and adolescent education. She is a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society.

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Heather O’Leary

Can’t Sleep

Waking up to someone staring at you is never fun. Waking up to someone staring at you at four in the morning while you are trying to sleep on a couch, having only passed out an hour and a half prior, is somehow even less fun. It took every bone in my body not to immediately start swinging at whoever was staring at me at first, but even though I was slightly dazed from lack of sleep, I recognized that it was probably not a threat. Slowly, once my eyes adjusted to the dark, I turned my head over to see who was looking at me. I saw my youngest sister, Beth, only eight at the time, going back and forth between staring at me and staring at all of the presents underneath the tree, which had thankfully been placed there before she woke up.

I was very grateful that I wasn’t in danger and hoped that if I stayed very, very still, she wouldn’t realize that I was awake, and then I could go back to sleep. I was nineteen, and still kept my sleep schedule from high school, which meant a minimum of ten hours of sleep was needed to function. I knew I wouldn’t be getting that, but I wanted as much as possible. After about a minute of silently wishing that my younger sister would just go back to bed, I realized two things. First, Beth, who already had problems sleeping, would not be going back to sleep anytime soon. Second, I’m the older sibling and therefore the adult of this situation, so I had to be the one to do something about this. I considered waking my mom, but I knew she needed the sleep even more than I did considering how chaotic the house, which she kept functioning, was.

“Are you alright?” I whispered. Again, I prayed that she would say yes and go to bed. Christmas Eve is as big as Christmas at my dad’s house, so I was up late on the twenty-third prepping food, then up at seven the next morning, cooking and cleaning while also entertaining guests the whole night. Then I drove from my dad’s house to my mom’s house at two in the morning, and crashed on this scratchy, shriveled couch. Even when I was laying on my side, I was falling off it. Unfortunately for both of us, she said no. After cursing internally for a moment at the fact that sleep would be delayed, I asked her what was wrong.

“Can’t sleep,” she muttered. No shit, I wanted to say, but she was eight, and I always try to be a role model, so I didn’t. I had her take me back to her bedroom, hoping that distracting her from the gifts might calm her down enough to sleep for a few more hours. It did not.

After turning on her white noise machine to make ocean noises, turning on her weird color projector that painted the ceiling in waves of blue, and telling her a story, she wasn’t any closer to falling asleep. I wanted to give up and go to sleep on her bed, a large futon that was way more comfortable than the couch, but I kept telling myself that this was probably an important moment for her development or something.

When I was growing up, my older sister who is older than me by seven years and had moved out of the house with her father before Beth was born, had helped me out. She was my role model. She didn’t curse, she played with me even when I was annoying her, and she stayed with me when she was exhausted if I woke her up late at night or early in the morning. It let me know that no matter what I always had someone who had my back. I’m about ten years older than Beth, but I wanted to have a similar relationship and to act as someone she could always come to without getting pushed away.

I ended up giving up hope that she would go to bed. We talked about it for a little bit, in whispers so we didn’t wake anyone. My family was, and still is, notorious for being confused and angry when they get woken up, so neither of us wanted to wake anyone.

“I had a nightmare,” Beth said, looking down at the stuffed raccoon she was holding.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, desperately trying to keep my drooping eyes open.

“I don’t remember. Just that it was scary. And now I want to open presents. And eat candy. But mostly open presents. And I want to talk to you.”

An unfortunate part of divorce is the separation of half-siblings. Beth never met my father, as our mother had divorced him years before she was born. She grew up with me in and out of the house, staying with my mother during the weekdays and every other weekend, but living with my dad for the rest of the time. It wasn’t a messy divorce; it was our normal, as our step-siblings would also be in and out of their mother’s house on weekends. Eventually, the most financially sound decision for everyone was for me to move in with my dad, who had no other children, rather than stay with my mom, who was supporting my four younger siblings. I hadn’t realized how hard my move hit my youngest sibling until that night.

“I miss you,” she told me, surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals, the waving blue light reflecting onto her face. She told me that she missed how we used to read together, how much I used to play with her, and how I helped her with her homework. Our other siblings were at the age where they didn’t want to talk with anyone in the family anymore, so she was getting used to playing by herself, but it wasn’t going well. She was lonely. Our mom was also not known for explaining things well, so school wasn’t going much better for Beth either. She also struggled with making friends, which made her lonely wherever she was.

I did the proper older sibling thing and started explaining ways that she could play alone without getting lonely and ways to get others to play with her. We briefly went over how to ask better questions so the answers might be clearer. I made a tired promise to come around more, and told her to practice telling herself a story to help her fall asleep by telling me a story. It was one hundred percent a ploy to get her to stop asking me questions because it was five in the morning at this point, and I could look like I was listening to her while actually getting a bit of sleep. Five minutes into her story, the thundering steps of three kids poorly trying to sneak downstairs let me know that an hour and a half of sleep was all that I would be getting.

When the rest of my younger siblings broke into Beth’s room, we turned off the noisemaker and the projector, turned the normal lights on, and started talking about anything and everything and played games. God, I was so tired. My eyes were burning, trying to stay open. I’d find my head snapping up when I almost fell asleep and got whacked in the face with a pillow, courtesy of one of my siblings who couldn’t imagine how I could be tired on Christmas.

At six, my mom, stepdad, and grandmother woke up. My mom took one look at me and handed me my stocking, filled with Reese’s Pieces, and made me a hot chocolate. I was very grateful for sugar.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t realize how much my half-assed attempt to get my younger sister to go to sleep would actually affect her. She held me to actually visit more through her expert use of tears and guilt, and even with working over forty hours a week and living in a different house with other familial obligations, I still kept my promise by seeing her at least once a week. She demanded that I let her read to me and let her tell me stories, even after the holidays. She was able to make more friends and get her siblings to play with her more. The most shocking effect was that even months afterward, my mother told me that Beth would still tell herself stories, often out loud but eventually just to herself, until she fell asleep.

“I don’t know what you said to her,” my mother told me months later, as we watched Beth chase our brothers with a plastic baseball bat, “but it got her to rest.”

It’s no secret that children take what parents say to them very seriously, but I never realized until that night how seriously they take what their siblings say to them as well. I got lucky. Very, very lucky. My sleep-deprived mind was able to come up with good advice and enough sense not to brush her off. It made me think about how often I had told her or my other siblings to go away or leave me alone or something worse. It wasn’t just that I had to make sure I didn’t accidentally tell them something stupid like to do drugs, but I needed to be present and active in their lives. This was equally as important.

I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if I had given in to sleep, told Beth to go to sleep, and pushed her to the side. She might not have continued to come to me for help later on in the year. She might not have gotten those friends or learned to fall asleep on her own. She might have become aloof and angry.

I’ve seen it happen in some of my other younger siblings. We’ve mostly grown up together. I was growing up while they were. I didn’t have any words of wisdom for them because I was still searching through Life’s dictionary to find them for myself. By the time I mostly got through high school, I knew enough to help a bit, but the damage was done. At that point, they had already either turned inward and pushed others away or made meaningful relationships with friends and were on their way to being fully matured people. Our older sister had moved out during one of the divorces. Though she was able to help me when I was younger, the siblings closer to my age are step-siblings who didn’t arrive until after she had left, so they didn’t have her help. They just had to deal with moving and divorces without an older sibling’s guidance.

My mom telling me about the progress Beth made had led me to an “oh shit” moment. It’s like pausing for an extra second after the light has turned green, narrowly avoiding getting hit by someone who decided to run the light, or it’s like nearly dropping the phone that you can’t afford to replace, but fumbling and catching it after all. I could’ve very easily messed up an important moment with my sister.

I’m grateful that I was able to help my youngest sister, and every time I groan about having to go hang out with my younger siblings after eight and a half hours of dealing with horrible customers, I try to remember how much an older sibling’s support can mean. I force a smile onto my face and watch them play Roblox for the hundredth time with no complaint. I know I wouldn’t do anything differently given a second chance, and I say that knowing that I might have to do it again this year.


Heather O’Leary is a senior at SUNY Fredonia double majoring in English adolescent education and writing. Heather’s work has been published in The Trident, SUNY Fredonia’s literary magazine.

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Evan Youngs

Requiem in Dee Miner

“I liked how it took place in 1981.”

“What did you like about it taking place in 1981?”

“Because I was 16 then. And it brought back memories.”

“Are you crying?”

“No.” She wipes a tear. “I’m not crying. It’s just…it brought back so many memories.”

For someone who frequently says to me that she is driving on phone calls, Marilyn has not removed her eyes from the road. When I sit in the passenger seat I feel as dependent as before I got my license. Before we left for the movie theater, I had the choice of seeing either Empire of Light or some movie about father-daughter bonding. I did not want to endure her post-viewing interrogation on the ride home about whether I really love her as a mother: “Who do you love better, me or your father?” “Remember, you’ll always be my baby,” or why I am such an asshole. So I chose Empire of Light, which I knew nothing about. It does in fact take place in 1981, England.

“And the clothes and the music, it was very accurate. And I thought about being sixteen and young.” Her voice still sounds nasal and it trembles. “I didn’t think you were gonna like it because it was too sappy.”

“I liked it. I don’t really like sad movies, but this one was okay.”

“It wasn’t really a sad movie, just…I thought the saddest part was when he was beat up.”

Empire of Light is about a middle–aged bipolar manager of a cinema who begins a secret romantic relationship with her new coworker, a college-bound black man. Her coworker introduced her to two–tone, a then–burgeoning genre that fused British punk and new wave with Jamaican ska and reggae. A flock of skinheads invade the cinema and viciously beat up her coworker.

“I didn’t realize they had racism back then. I thought it was just an American thing.” It surprises me that Marilyn even considers racism an American thing.

“The racism in Europe is way worse than the racism in America.”

“Well in America we had the Civil Rights Movement and the…riots. I think it was worse in America.”

The seclusion of Marilyn’s car gives her the liberty to force me into any conversation she wants. I try to combat this by wearing my big over–ear headphones. On the way to the Rome Capitol, I listened to the debut of Mr. Bungle’s album as protection. It is too late now to suction the headphones onto my ears without it being a rude statement. I want to change the subject to something that would spark neither emotional bonding nor an angry political debate. The first thing that always comes to my mind is music.

“You want to know what’s funny?” I remember that we just finished talking about a race riot. “Well, not funny, but, you know the soundtrack to the movie?”

“I didn’t know there was a soundtrack.”

“I mean all the songs in the movie. Not the songs like the records. I mean the ambient stuff.”

“The background music.”

“Yeah. You know who produced it?”

“No.”

I assume Marilyn, a leftover of the nineties, would recognize a name that is certainly not within the mild vibe of Empire of Light. “It was in the credits at the beginning if you caught it.”

“Who?”

“Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.”

“Well, I don’t know who those people are.”

“They’re Nine Inch Nails.”

Her face brightens with confusion. Her mouth becomes an oval. “Really?

Former edgy industrial rockstar sex symbol Trent Reznor is now mostly making ambient stuff. The Brian Eno type. The guy who screamed “I want to fuck you like an animal,” and “I’d rather die than give you control,” won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for scoring a Disney film. For him, the nineties are over.

“Did I ever tell you that my ex–husband Bob’s brother played with Nine Inch Nails when they were starting out? Look it up. Dee Miner. His real name was Larry Meinhold but his artist name was Dee Miner.”

She tells me this story every time I mention Nine Inch Nails. It is probably not true. Nine Inch Nails effectively began as a Trent Reznor solo project and existed as a true band only in touring. There were a few bands that did open for the band’s first 1990 headlining tour that have faded into unresearchability: Monkey Fear, This Is Our Daughter, Dharma Head. Still, because Bob Meinhold told Marilyn the quintessential Boomer claim of attending Woodstock, I find Larry’s claim of playing with Nine Inch Nails questionable.

“Well, Larry played with them when they were starting out. Look up Dee Miner. D-E-E Miner, M-I-N-E-R.”

“Was he on any of their albums?”

“No…he’s still playing in Los Angeles. He tried to make it big as a rock star.” Her voice turns cynical. “Never really got anywhere I guess.”

I search on my phone for as much information as I can get about Dee Miner. The only band the Internet lists him with is Black Tongued Bells, a Los Angeles blues rock band with one album from 2013 called Every Tongue Has A Tale To Tell. They have a Facebook page and the most recent post is from last year, advertising “a celebration of the life and music of the late great Dee Miner.”

Diane Martin: He was one of the BEST!!

Donna Norman: Dang, I’m on the wrong coast, but I’ll definitely be there in spirit!! One of the best!! RIP LM

Paul Balbirnie: hopefully you will post some video of this event. he would be really delighted I’m sure

Another post further down announces his death another year prior. Donna Norman shares a very blurry photo of another very blurry photo of Dee Miner in shaggy hair, a cherry red guitar, and a black chest-baring shirt straight from Lindsay Buckingham’s seventies wardrobe.

I break the news to Marilyn that it seems like Larry “Dee Miner” Douglas Meinhold died in July, 2021. She gasps louder than I expect her to. She tells me more about Larry/Dee than the factoid she usually dispels. When she and Bob lived in the rentals across the canal, Larry would stay in their house between tours.

“He was the only one that was nice to me at Bob’s funeral. He was the only one in that family I actually cared about.” She sniffles.

Bob died twenty-six years ago in Toledo, Ohio while visiting family. It was liver cancer; Marilyn says he was an alcoholic. According to Marilyn, the Meinholds hated her so much that they did not inform her of her husband’s death until much after the fact. This was probably because their marriage was not functional. It does not surprise me when Marilyn says they argued a lot and would estrange themselves for days. They never had kids, only intermittently foster children. Marilyn thought she could not conceive until she tested positive for my sister. In reality, Bob’s time in Vietnam exposed him to enough Agent Orange to castrate him.

I feel a tension of curiosity and unease whenever Marilyn talks about life before she met my father. When she does, it is like I am looking into a past that can yield a much different future in which I am somebody completely different. What if Bob became my father? What if I lived pre-Internet? What if Bob died later letting my mom know her fertility status even later, and she raised me on Peppa Pig instead of PBS? What if I never had a sister? Or I had a brother? What if I never existed at all?

Where would I be, but also, where would Marilyn be? Would she even be my mother?

The car ride home is silent. Marilyn’s tears dry. I keep my headphones around my neck instead of covering my ears. I keep the Mr. Bungle album I am listening to on pause. The flailing randomness of the music would feel like I am hiding the duration of her reaction behind the music, something that can exist at any time. I return to it the day after when I walk my dog alongside Oneida Lake, the water I call home. I write about home miles away from here near another, larger lake. I am far from marrying, but I constantly decide to never raise kids. I do not think I could bear to explain my life prior to them and burden them with questions and hypotheticals. I keep walking my oblivious dog, who knows nothing about my personal life other than how much time I spend in the forbidden upstairs, and that “walk” is a keyword for going outside and seeing the world he can not explore alone. I wish I was more like him.


Evan Youngs is an undergraduate student at SUNY Oswego, where they are studying journalism and creative writing. They have been published in the Great Lake Review, Rain Taxi, and Brevity. They also edit the entertainment section of the student newspaper, The Oswegonian. In their free time they enjoy hiking on gorge trails, watching Jeopardy, and shoplifting from supermarkets. They live in Vienna, New York.

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Matt Keller

Laws of Conversion

The step off the back door of the church wasn’t a steep one, but it was unexpected. One moment you’re in the bedded warmth of God’s grace, the next you are splayed out on the concrete, staring up at the steeple without feeling in your legs, blood pooling beneath your skull.

Mrs. Stein had something of a reputation in the First Presbyterian Church, one that dated further back than many of the members could remember—myself included. I knew her as the one to be avoided: the one who stood out, yet always worked in the background. Short, dyed, blood-red hair, the same white turtleneck every Sunday. Hands on hips, as if perpetually disappointed. Unlike the other “mean” churchgoers, the children of First Presbyterian knew Mrs. Stein was different. She wouldn’t just speak down to you, no. Your parents, your grandparents, your visiting family, the preacher. No holds barred.

It wasn’t a particularly large leap in logic for a nine-year-old like myself to see her fall off that back step as divine. It wouldn’t be a stretch for anyone, no matter how religious, or what religion. In Christianity, it’s Proverbs 22:8: “whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.” In Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s Karma. In science, it’s Newton’s third law. The truth remains the same no matter what you do (or don’t) believe in.

I still wonder, every time I walk over a thick sheet of ice, what Mrs. Stein called it as she laid on the frozen sidewalk, staring up at the cross perched on the steeple. She had a whole night in the frigid December weather to think before anyone found her. Did she call it divine?

In a moment of cosmic irony, H. P. Lovecraft lamented, “In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.” Despite becoming part of the literary canon for his writing of gods and daemons, Lovecraft could never find the space within himself for faith. Since breaking off from the church and growing old enough to think for myself, I’ve experienced the exact opposite. Perhaps it’s been drilled into my consciousness, but the more I search for a reason to not believe the faster it chases me. In theory, I am an atheist, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an agnostic.

Unfortunately for Lovecraft and myself, neither of us will live to find that radical evidence, nor will we live to see even a prospect of that evidence in the future. Thus we are stuck, like many of Lovecraft’s characters, stumbling around the darkness of our beliefs, unable to prove or disprove anything, a speck in the universe. Two sides of the same coin.

It’s equally impossible to prove whether I wish to find that perfect piece of evidence to forever cement my place without God or faith, or whether I cling so tightly to moments that seem divine so as to allow myself the comfort that human limitations have purpose.

The first thing a child must focus on in the First Presbyterian Church is finding alliances, as silly as it may seem in a house of peace. It came quite quickly for me, fortunately enough, with a boy named Alex. We were both three, passing the time each Sunday by drawing stick figures and having them battle to the death, all under God’s roof. And it was God’s roof back then. No questions, no doubt—the kind of faith only a three year old could feel. A passing shun from Mrs. Stein at seeing the pool of blood noted by a thick scribble of pencil.

It may not seem like much now, but spending every Sunday as an only child with another boy your age has some significant consequences. He was, in essence, me. I was him. Not in terms of history or family or life, even, but whatever our consciousness is made of, Alex and I became the same.

It was, of course, grounded in the mutual understanding that we did not belong at church.

We wanted to be free, to be able to talk above a whisper, to be able to spread our colored pencils and crayons out over a big table rather than carefully around us on the pew. There was something of a mutual resistance—a mutual repulsion—for the ones that stopped us from doing that and for the God that they were worshiping.

That resistance only evolved in me, despite having little reason to. For Alex it was the opposite. Upon being faced with a tragedy I struggle to imagine for myself today, Alex found faith in life’s grand joke.

When Mrs. Stein returned after a few Sundays, her head wrapped and her ankle casted, most would say it was like nothing had happened at all. Same stance, if a bit more tilted, same downward gaze even to those who towered over her. I think—rather, I know—that only the children could see the change. It was in her eyes, some “loss of innocence,” but that’s not the right word. Like a child who ages out of believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, it seemed Mrs. Stein had lost the glimmer in her eyes. She had changed, and as someone who lost that childhood wonder fairly early on in life, I looked up at her and felt pity for the first time. When she looked back at me, it seemed she sensed this.

She continued in her infamy, many questions unanswered. Who had found her? What was she getting so late at night, alone? Where were her kids? Her husband? The boy she was tasked with caring for? One question stood out over all the others: the logical next step after falling and breaking an ankle, splitting your skull, is to yell for help, even if it is late. To scream at the top of your lungs when you realize that God’s hand isn’t coming to grab yours and lift you up—or if He does, it means, certainly, that you are dying. Mrs. Stein never made a peep. Perhaps, as some whispered around the pews in the weeks after, the shock made it impossible. She’d fried some sort of nerve in her brain.

Faith in the unfathomable tells me that she thought herself better than help, or at least the help of the mortals around her. In one climatic moment that would outshine all others in her life, she chose God. Though she survived, and even returned to church eventually, she knew what God’s response was.

In theory, she was a Christian, but with the appearance of radical evidence, she must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.

I suppose philosophy is a sort of religion on its own, even if the two seem at odds. Nihilism, Existentialism, even Marxism. There’s something inherently sacrilegious in looking for answers within oneself rather than within a god. Thus, I suppose, rather in parallel, that in some way we are our own gods, or at least the closest we will ever get to one. And thus again, rather contradictorily, there can be no search for truth without sin.

Absurdism has stuck out particularly in recent years for me. There are a number of definitions, whether they be about the chaotic nature of the universe, the lack of a higher purpose or meaning, or that reason itself is a lie to begin with. The fact that one idea can mean so many different things seems to prove absurdism, in a sense, and yet our ability to choose the definition that best supports our own consciousness is an exception that proves the rule. My favorite definition calls absurdism a comedy: there is no higher purpose, there is no universal truth, there is no key to life itself, and yet humans will always and forever search for it. It’s the greatest joke of all.

It seems I had an inkling about this great joke before I had discovered absurdism. I was never meant for faith. In fact, the idea seemed to bring out the worst in me. With a family full of Christians, I became a menace. I refused to bow my head and close my eyes at the dinner table. I would pick fights, try to get them to admit they hadn’t read the Bible the whole way through, try to get them to admit to breaking its rules in a world where it’s impossible to follow them. They would say that it’s up to interpretation, fueling the flames. I would tell them that they’re fake, that their faith was fake, that their God was fake. I would tell them about the trafficking circles in the Vatican, about the historical genocides, about the lengths people went to preserve this falsehood. I tried to break them for years and, of course, I failed.

At the end of all things, I realized how pointless it all was, how heinous even. Then I understood the joke: I had found faith in destroying it in others. I had become the blind follower I had been fighting against.

We were driving back from a Christmas Eve party, my parents, my grandparents, and me. We passed Alex’s house, a place we’d always taken note of, even waved to when I was younger.

We didn’t wave that day. There were people outside, cars lining the yard and the road, blocking other driveways. It was the biggest event I had ever seen in my tiny town; it seemed like the whole world was there.

I don’t remember if I asked what it was, or if it was one of my parents, but the answer was the same: Alex’s father was dead. This wasn’t a party; this was a wake. At only five, he and his sisters had lost their dad, and were orphaned.

I sit here, wanting to introduce Alex’s dad earlier in the piece, to make this seem more impactful, to say that I remember his big smile and pats on the back and him laughing at our stick figures, but I can’t. I don’t remember.

I have a feeling that Alex doesn’t either.

One sister went to one aunt, the other to the grandparents, and Alex went to a more distant relationship. He was told to call her aunt but it wasn’t true. We had only known her as Mrs. Stein.

To this day I cringe at the idea of calling her by her first name; it seems almost dangerous. To imagine others calling her that is like watching them curse each other. Alex would try, he would say “Aunt Stein,” but you could tell it was forced. At five years old, you may not be able to understand death, especially the death of a parent, but you can understand what having someone like Mrs. Stein as your guardian means. Something changed, inevitably. He was no longer interested in drawing stick figures. He would sit quietly and stare off into the crowd like he was expecting his dad to be there, smiling. Was he remembering or imagining what the man looked like?

Though we remained friends, we were never as close. He found solace with the other kids who had been through something unimaginable, and that was a group I couldn’t and wouldn’t insert myself into. In high school, with drivers’ licenses in hand, we would go out for breakfast with just the two of us and talk about what we remembered. He never talked about his dad, and I never asked.

But I would ask him about faith, about all the horrors of it. When I was still crusading against the injustice of it all, the systemic oppression brought about by believing in something that could never be proven, I would tell Alex how I confronted a family member or friend about how nonsensical it all was. I expected excited nodding, cheering confirmation, but Alex never said anything about it. He would listen and that would be it.

When there was room for hate in me, I began to see it seep out. It seeped towards Alex now and then. When he sat, almost carefree, listening to my rants against the church without adding a single word, I almost accused him of being one of them. How could a kid, with so much reason to find faith repulsive, be so nonchalant on the topic? How could he not see the injustice I see? How could he not care?

I mistook acceptance for ignorance—a mistake I won’t make again. Though Alex has surely never thought about Absurdism, Nihilism, or Existentialism, he understood them then better than I ever will. He found peace in living a life free of faith and belief, either in the church or against it. Not only was he free of that repulsion that brewed and festered, making me into someone as blind as those I resented, but he was free of the pain that comes from wondering why.

When Mrs. Stein fell on that ice, she began to learn that unknowable truth. It terrified her to be told her whole life that all the good and the bad, the noble and the cowardly, the love and hate, was all leading up to a not-so-steep step. Taking it all away was a joke she didn’t find funny.

But finding the humor in life starts with finding the humor in death. It is, in fact, the only thing we have radical evidence, practically and provisionally, to believe in.


Matt Keller is a senior English (creative writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. He is the president of the Creative Writing Club at Geneseo, has traveled to the English Honors Convention twice to present his literary research, has won the Jérome de Romanet de Beaune Award for diversity research, and his prose work has appeared in Iris Magazine and MiNT Magazine. When not reading and writing, he is likely pampering his chinchilla and two guinea pigs.

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