Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Mollie McMullan


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.

Comments Off on Mollie McMullan

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

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.

Comments Off on Griffen LaBianca

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.

Comments Off on Zoe LaVallee

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

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.

Comments Off on Heather O’Leary

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

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?”


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.”


“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.

Comments Off on Evan Youngs

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

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.

Comments Off on Matt Keller

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

Mollie McMullan

The God-Fearing Bird Feeder

My freshman year of college was the year of the birds. Early October, I discovered that a bird flew into the kitchenette on my floor. It kept on ramming itself into windows and then hopping around on the floor, stunned. I had cornered it against a giant glass pane in the hallway, where I cradled it in my sweatshirt before releasing it out the open window. The most memorable part of this story is not when the bird repeatedly hurled itself into windows, but rather the memes that were created with the picture a girl took of me with the bird and then shared with our floor group chat. My favorite meme read: DINNER TIME, LITTLE ONE. I like this story. This is my preferred ending.

A month later, an identical-looking bird dropped dead in front of me while I was eating lunch in the dining hall. I watched it twitch on the table where an employee was sitting, talking on the phone with a friend. No one noticed but me.

That November, I went home for Thanksgiving break and visited a bird sanctuary, where I was able to feed birds out of my hand. I felt like my reputation as a fucked-up Snow White had been broken, the handcuff that tied me to morbidity snapped. Their little feet perched on the joints of my fingers while they chose the most appetizing sunflower seed from my palm. The pictures my mom took radiate with exhilaration, my mouth wide and shoulders scrunched to my ears in excitement. When I look at them, I can still feel the impossible fullness of my lungs.

The following semester, I texted my best friend about a cardinal that liked to chase me around campus. I recalled a moment a few days prior, where I was talking to a classmate about the cardinal and it suddenly appeared on a blossoming tree next to us. He never spoke to me again, and I like to think that he was scared away by the bird, rather than me. During the conversation with my friend, she texted me, “I had a dream last night that you and I were being followed by a cardinal.” This unnerved me. I hadn’t told her about the terrifying red bird until the day after her dream. She followed up with: “It feels like they are waiting for me.” I spent the rest of the week with my ringer on, waiting for the inevitable call that she was dead.

The voracious cardinal only appears after both my mom’s mom and my dog are dead. I tell my mom about the bird over the phone one day as I’m sitting on the pavement. When I detail waking up that morning feeling as though my dog’s head was resting on my side, she speaks of being haunted by my dog, and about how she and my sister both hear her collar jingling around the house despite knowing that the collar is resting in the same location as her ashes. We’ve exhausted this topic, so we move on to talking about her mom, who I have called Mummu my entire life because it is colloquially Finnish for “grandmother.” She reminds me about how, when Mummu passed, hundreds of birds sat in front of the large basement window and watched. They were gone after her last breath had been expelled. I remember thinking of the time I heard of birds being spirit guides, able to diffuse through the seam of life and death. As I’m talking, a bird swoops down and flies straight toward me, before veering to my left at the last second, as though confirming my suspicions. I’ve felt terrorized by these birds. By the cardinal that stalks me. But maybe they’re visitors from souls I lost entirely too soon. If I had been religious, I would’ve milked that for all it was worth.

One July afternoon, after working with children all day, I received a text from my mom that there was a dead bird right outside her car door, and that she left it so she could pick up my little brother. I figured I would do the dirty work and went to retrieve it. The bird, once beautiful, had been completely flattened against our driveway by the pouring rain. I had to pry it from the cooled tar, and was thankful when it wasn’t stiff from rigor mortis. I remember wondering about what led it to its demise, if it had died in the rain, but understood that its death could not be undone even if I had been able to identify the reason why it lay deflated in the driveway. It was still raining when I cradled it in my hands and placed it in a bassinet of ivy leaves. I went inside, washed my hands, and sobbed for fifteen minutes.

The summer before tenth grade, a neighbor discovered a fallen bird’s nest in the road one morning. All the baby birds had died except one and the mother couldn’t be found. My neighbor is kind of insufferable, so she decided to abandon her misery with me. She brought the bird over in an empty pizza box, oil stains and all, and left him on my kitchen table. The bird was so cold. So cold. And frail. My mom left me alone with this bird, who I named Wilbur, like the pig from Charlotte’s Web, because like him, this bird was so small.

I don’t like this memory. Don’t make me tell you. Please.

I spent four hours alone with this bird, feeding it from a little syringe when its beak would gape open in desperation. I was worried about the bird being cold and took it out onto my deck for some sun. That’s when it stopped moving completely. It lay motionless and limp under the gaze of the alarmed June sun whose rays pointed to me accusingly. At that moment, I was reminded of the guilt my mom says she feels when she sees the scar on my lip, despite not causing it. Mother’s guilt, she calls it. I had to tell my father, who I pledged I would speak to as little as possible. He dug a small hole next to the deck and asked if I wanted to say a few words. What could a German shepherd like me say to the remains of its meal? I said no and left as he piled dirt over the flightless bird.

I think about the time my dog, Lulu, ran around in circles in my backyard with a bird in her mouth. I had to cover my hand with a plastic bag while I pried it from her jaws. Once I had the bird in my hand, I noticed its stiffness. I hoped it was rigor mortis rather than fright.

I run around in the same circle, heels bloody. My dog is gone but death is not. I am still chasing a dead bird.

One summer, my sister and I discovered a dying crow between swords of beachgrass at our uncle’s beach house, where we lived at the time because our house had succumbed to flames. I often think of my sister and I standing over the onyx bird, like priests delivering last rites. The crow sleeps, I’m sure of it, incubated under a cloudless sky.

The crow sleeps. The crow sleeps. The crow sleeps. (The sun shrugs a shoulder, an unreliable witness.)

The crow died en route to the vet clinic, wrapped in my sister’s starry blue scarf. My mother thinks the fright is what killed the crow. I remember staring out the window on the way home; I am the dog. I am the dog. I am the dog.

On a particularly quiet night, I have a dream about a little bird that hops into my hand and stations itself on my shoulder as I go to class. It accompanies me to one of my lectures before I decide it’s time for it to go back to its home, wherever that may be. Along a line of trees, the bird turns to me, perched on the arm of a pine tree. I hear Thanks, Mom! before it soars into the endless blue sky. Even in my dream, I feel disgruntled. I do not seek motherhood out. It finds me in pizza boxes and driveways and on sand dunes. I beg birds to realize that I have canines, that I am a canine and I destroy and tear and devour and torture and hate and ruin. I am no friend. I am no mother. I am the undertaker.

Mollie McMullan is a sophomore English creative writing major at SUNY Geneseo. In her work, she tends to focus on issues regarding womanhood and control. When she’s home on Long Island, she can be found scavenging the beach for sea glass and trying to train her untrainable dog.

Comments Off on Mollie McMullan

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

Nicholas White


Long before I was even thought of, a man lost his struggle with despair. Not content with entering his grave alone, he shot his wife, dragged her out into the lake, and then turned the pistol on himself. He left his twin girls in the house where they hid under their bed, holding one another for comfort, convulsing from fear. This man was my great grandfather. The story was passed to me by my mother, so I only have the bones. Luckily, he had a brother who took them in and gave them the life all children deserved. But not unlike physical scars, mental scars loiter and overstay their welcome. His actions sent a ripple through the lives of his family for generations to come, and this familial rage would cascade into my own trauma. Trauma, like waves of the sea, cannot be contained.

I had been at my duty station for a few months, and I was struggling to keep a grip on reality. While enlisted, all one has to do to escape reality is walk into the health clinic and say things like, “Yeah, Doc, I can’t fuckin’ sleep, and this kink in my neck is driving me batshit.” I was given a cocktail of drugs, of which I crushed on my bathroom sink and funneled up my nose with a cut-up straw. Ripples collide and continue on. I washed it down with any alcohol I could find (including mouthwash) and ended up in the emergency room. I’ll never forget seeing the faces of everyone I love flashing across the ceiling of the ambulance, my guts doing acrobatics. It was like a sad slideshow of taunting family photos; every face was strung out with disappointment. How could I possibly leave these people behind? How could I stay with them? The last face to echo off the inside of my skull was my mother’s.

It seems like I have spent my entire life trying to please my mom, but it’s really only been since I knew she existed. I was roughly nine years old when she showed up on the doorstep. This was followed by two years of family court battles, and a smear campaign between my parents.

“Your dad put my head through a sliding glass door.”

“Your mother was a drug addict and a whore.”

“One night I came home and your father had friends over and there was an eight-ball of coke on the coffee table right next to where you were watching cartoons.”

“Your mother abandoned you and gave you up for a different family.”

“He punched out a window in my car and pulled you through the glass when I tried to take you with me. He had a fucking gun, Nick.”

The endless waves slap the shore and suck me back in.

In my high school years, I had the rebellion knob turned up to full blast. Anything I was told to do, I did the opposite. I will never forget coming home from school after losing my temper or pulling an idiotic stunt and waiting in my basement bedroom for my dad to get home. We lived in a modified double-wide on a hill in the sticks, with a gravel driveway the length of a football field. I could hear the stone and mud grind underneath his truck tires as he pulled up to the back of the house where the garage and barn stood. The worst days were when the weather was nice, and he would drive his Harley to work. He, of course, had to have drag pipes installed on the steed, so I could hear him coming from two miles away. He would boot my door open, forehead vein throbbing in rhythm with his breath like one giant pulsating organ.

The dam bursts wide open and the waves put me through the sheetrock adjacent to the sliding glass door, and fear is the undertow.

I was visiting my mother for Thanksgiving last week, and the mood was more somber than usual. After the passing of my brother, my stepfather was struggling to accept it. He was really my stepbrother, but I never looked at it that way. Eight years ago he was in an accident; he broke his neck while jumping on a trampoline, rendering him a paraplegic. He passed away in his sleep just a few weeks before the holiday.

My mother told me that she caught my stepfather sneaking into their storage barn with a rope, and had taken him to a mental health clinic. I asked him how he was holding up, and all he said was, “I hate myself honestly, Nick. I have too many people who depend on me.” As he sat with his head hung and a dead stare at the concrete patio, I knew what was happening behind his eyes.

The same chopping waters that churned behind his eyes had haunted my Grandpa Ramon for years. He was the kindest, happiest soul I had ever met, yet he struggled like many of us do. Alone. He brought me some of my most cherished memories: first time freezing my ass off in a tree stand, first rainbow trout caught from the brook behind his house, the smell of sawdust and a strawberry swisher as he gnawed on it like a cow and ran a piece of Walnut through his router. He had found a way to keep the squall under control, until leukemia ate him alive.

I’m sitting in my living room writing this essay, and my habitat is serene. String lights glow in the corner, snaked around my girlfriend’s endless plant collection. The kids just decorated the Christmas tree, and it gives off a sense of normalcy. The only sound is my dog Pork’s snoring, just like my beloved Grandpa Ray with a snort and a whistle. To all appearances, it’s calm, but inside me the waves still thrash, and the sharks fight over chum. Can the levy hold? All I know is that I need to find a way to act as the dam that blocks the waves, and keep it calm for those on the other side. Harness my anger and transform it into passion, capture rage and turn it into empathy and understanding.

Nick White is currently a student in the creative writing program at Tompkins Cortland Community College, where he will graduate this spring. Nick is thirty-two years young, a father, and an avid outdoorsman.

Comments Off on Nicholas White

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

Aimee Maduro


After a summer of orange cones and helicoptered backroads, he could finally claim the highways as his own, wanting to tame the open road with an accomplice. On a sluggish Tuesday, the two of us bunched into his old navy sedan, our drive molded through moody teen anthems blaring from the speakers; our off-key harmonies threatened to drown out each guitar solo. Despite not visiting the elementary school since our finger-painting days, we deemed its parking lot an ideal location to watch the vibrant palette of light descend beyond the trees.

Parked beside faded sidewalk chalk, he joked about the cheesy coming-of-age movies, the climax where teenage heroes defeat their greatest threat by staring at the sky from station wagon hoods. Pulling each other from the front seat and atop the car’s roof, our shoes bumped together in playful battle. The sky was a cliché blend of rainbows and cotton candy and all the majestic things poets can’t translate into language.

Later, we couldn’t recall who leaned in and initiated the kiss first, only a slow and clumsy moment of fumbling lips and hands caressing faces. The moment was quick to dissolve into humor and playground romps, tension fading with the daylight.

Moody music still echoed beside our laughter, the return home seemingly no different than the departure. But it was hard to know which direction was easier to look in: the heavy crescent and knowing winks in the sky, or the gentle hands beside me gripping the steering wheel.

Aimee Maduro is a freshman at SUNY Geneseo studying creative writing and film. Outside of the classroom, they’re bound to be spotted playing guitar or staging photoshoots with their cat. A wordsmith since day one (or so they claim), Aimee aspires to be a singer-songwriter and published author.

Comments Off on Aimee Maduro

Filed under Creative Nonfiction

Shawna Smith

I Know I’m Going to Die

I grew up in hospital beds, dragging an IV pole behind me like a wooden pull toy. Nurses piled ice on me like blocks. A TV in a cubby, like the empty one in my third grade classroom, played my favorite movie over and over again so that the last words I heard after closing my eyes were the lyrics to Part of Your World.

I didn’t know I was about to die. My mother either didn’t remember or didn’t want to take pictures, preferring her last photos to be of a seemingly healthy child and not one whose body was already pale enough for a too-small coffin.

Doctors formed a ring round my rose-stained sheets, and stuck me with needles hooked to bags full of red paint to replace what I spilled. I knew that I was about to die.

I knew my first book wasn’t a real one. Real books were thick with hard covers, not a few folded pieces of construction paper containing barely a paragraph:

One day I was bLeeding enternaly, that Mean’s im Bleeding inside My BoDy So I went to the Hosiptal and at the Hosiptal I HaD the niseist nurses in the worldD My nurse’s name’s are Kelly Koral Becky and BarB I likeD all of My nurse’s and I likeD the play room to Becase I got to Do Lot’s of craft’s I also got to panit and I Dowt relly Get to Do that a Lot and I went to the I-C-u and there I HaD the Most Butefull room ever and when I HaD to go Home I CrieD for 3 an a Hafe ouwers Stra So if you ever go to the HosaPital remBr its alot of fun oh I DiDint mechin you get free fooD.

I knew I wouldn’t live long enough to publish a real one.

Death, like growing up, was an interesting hypothetical to my friends. They agreed that I would be the first to die. It was the most logical conclusion to come to; I was the one who had to stop playing to take daily medications. They hadn’t been alive long enough to notice people were aging, that each birthday candle actually counted down instead of up. I wondered how many birthdays I had left.

When I was nine and in another hospital bed, I grew sick of the paper-thin blanket and of hiding my IV under it to sleep and of nurses waking me to take my vitals and of the IV lines tangling when I dragged the pole from my bed to the bathroom and of water getting stuck under the tape holding it in my vein when I washed my hands. I expected to grow sicker, never taller. I knew that I would die.

When I was ten I read about Alexei Romanov and how he had hemophilia. Hemophilia was a large medical word like splenomegaly. If he got so much as a paper cut, he could bleed out. I went to recess wearing a spleen guard, knowing that if I got hit by a stray ball then my spleen could rupture and I would bleed in. He died when he was thirteen. I wondered if I would live that long.

I wasn’t allowed to go to gym class with my friends. In high school, in the room meant for in-school suspension, I wrote essays on sports instead of playing them. People talk about how teenagers feel immortal and untouchable, but I always knew my life was ephemeral and not eternal.

When I was seventeen, I went to the hospital after vomiting and then collapsing in a pool of my own blood. I have outlived Alexei Romanov. I won’t live much longer.

As the anesthesia takes effect, the voices around me grow distant and unsteady. The only solid sound I can find is my own voice. I sing a lullaby, wanting it to be the last thing I hear. Is this what it feels like to die?

I have several works in progress, one of which I structured so that it would only work as a trilogy. I wish I hadn’t done that. Even the most prolific authors can only put out around one novel a year. Can I publish a real one? Will I have enough time?

When I was nineteen, I was admitted to the hospital. Then I was discharged. Then I became sick again and was readmitted. Then I was discharged. Then I was readmitted. I know that there will come a time when I’m never discharged.

Shawna Smith is a senior at SUNY Geneseo, double majoring in English and theater. Her favorite historic event is the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Comments Off on Shawna Smith

Filed under Creative Nonfiction