Category Archives: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Jocelyn Paredes

Thinking Ahead

“Question two: are you feeling down, depressed, or hopeless?”

For the last six months, I’ve taken these questionnaires enough times that you’d think I’d be able to plan my answers out ahead of time. Yet sitting here, I take all sorts of mental notes, hunched over, while my sour hot coffee breath ricochets off from my mask and into my nose, thinking: Have I been feeling down? Depressed or hopeless?

“Nearly every day,” I answer.

“So, what are you studying? You said you’re in college, right?” She asks me later after the questionnaire. This, like the questionnaires, I’ve considered routine during these appointments. I’ve lied to other doctors, even my primary one. It’s easier to tell people I’m still going to become an English teacher; there’s less judgment that way. Somehow, pursuing a career in education seems more respectable. But this doctor sees me. I notice her hand, the way it maternally comforts my thigh, and when she speaks to me, she doesn’t sound clinical. This time, I convince myself it will be different.

“I’m an English major with a minor in creative writing,” I say.

She stares into my eyes blankly as if she were in a daze. She doesn’t say anything at first, and it feels like we’ve sat there for hours trying to paint portraits of each other, trying to hone in on specific details like exactly how many eyelashes we have or how many obvious pores on our skin. Crap, I’ve made a mistake. I avert my gaze, breaking our eye contact. She waits to speak until I look at her again.

“You’re a writer,” she says, finally. She wears a mask too, but I can tell that she’s smiling because her eyes arch with delight; they look like little umbrellas on her face.

“Yes,” I say, recognizing that this is the first time I’ve called myself a writer, out loud, to a stranger—much less a doctor. “I am.”

“Wow,” she whispers. She shuffles the papers attached to her clipboard before setting the ensemble down onto the table behind her. “Writers are powerful. They’re also one of the hardest things to be.” She puts her hand on my shoulder softly and assures me, “That’s great, Jocelyn.”

I’m speechless. This doctor, who has likely spent an agonizing amount of time and money to get to where she is, who saves lives on a regular basis, is sitting here telling me that I’m powerful? She has my life in her hands—she placed it on the table beside her earlier—yet, what piques her interest is that I’m a writer? There is no response I could ever write to express the way I’m feeling.

I settle for this: “Thank you.” It’s all I can say. Again, I see the little umbrellas. I obsessively replay this encounter in my mind: I have to remember this.

“How long would you say you’ve suffered with your mental health?” she asks me towards the end of my appointment.

Oh, easy. “Since I was fourteen, but I didn’t do anything about it until about last December.”

She looks at me for a long time. I long to see the umbrellas, but I don’t this time.

“Six years? I’m just so happy you’re starting to feel better,” she says, but I feel her pity in my sinuses.

Now, I’m sitting in my car, the one carpeted with the paper bags from various fast food restaurants and the stench of sour milk from a latte I’ve yet to discard. I wipe away tears with a used napkin, trying to avoid the dried up blobs of ketchup. Are you proud of yourself? I jot down details of the visit on my phone. I smile into the blue-tinted screen, creating a ramp for my salty soldiers to follow in the process, inspiration sizzling in the back of my mind. To be a writer is to use yourself as just another source for content. It’s upsetting to me how much I miss out on; my existence, according to my brain, is a database and there’s no room for “living in the moment,” as they say. There is only the craft. And as much as I bargain with myself, Just live, silly girl, live! Those moments aren’t for me.

I title the page, “To Be Used In A Future Piece.”

Jocelyn Paredes is an emerging writer based in Long Island, New York. Currently, she is working to obtain her BA in English and writing at the SUNY Fredonia. Her work has been previously published in Gandy Dancer and her short story “Captured” received the Mary Louise White Fiction Award.

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Chris Murphy

Ascend, Descend, Amygdala in Duress

Lately, the word ascension has been surfacing more and more, along with ascend, its root. The term originates from the Latin ad, meaning “to,” and scandere, meaning “climb.” The word and its different forms of speech have been adopted widely as western terms to describe the climbing of many things—ladders, stairs, social strata, thrones, morality, afterlives, celestial position, and countless other inclines. Inclines that lie ahead in space and time. To move toward higher elevations is to ascend to them. The experience of ascension is appealing, magnetic. Some are drawn toward it, upward to it, as an optimistic conclusion to whatever low living came before.

There is a specific type of almond called the bitter almond. Unlike their milder, tastier supermarket relatives, the bitter almond is unsavory to humans, the result of an aversion developed over the many thousands of years humans evolved in the region now called Iran. The bitter almond is still abundant in this region, but foragers beware. What’s bitter about this almond is a toxin capable of natural molecular decomposition once it is ingested and digested by humans. Its sugar and hydrogen molecules break down, leaving a different compound behind, called cyanide. Cyanide first makes the body feel hot and sleepy before it makes the body dead. The naturally occurring, bitter-tasting compound found in bitter almonds is called amygdalin, from the Greek word, amygdale, which translates to almond. In summary: early Mesopotamians gathered and ate deadly almonds, deadly enough that they began to taste nasty, until a scientist in 1830 finally decided to name its toxin after the nut, rather than proposing a name change to the nut itself. Amygdalin: the almond toxin.

I am suddenly a child again, of an age somewhere between four and nine, young enough to be frightened by nightmares but old enough to remember. My mother calls me the man of the house, which feels forced because at such a young age I cannot grasp manhood. Anxious, I ask her what she means, and she clarifies; it is only for a few days and my father is going to return home before I know it. I believe her. I trust her. No reason not to because she doesn’t lie. I don’t have a sibling yet and my mother doesn’t work, only my father does. He travels for business; not weekly, but often. So, she pays me more attention than is enough and brings me to all of the places she believes are important. To school. The drug store. Neighbors’ houses to socialize. The library. The summer carnivals. She tucks me in each night and like the exemplary mother that she is she wishes me to have sweet dreams. However, while I’m the man of the house, my dreams are often not sweet. They can be bitter, foul, and emotional, those terrific nightmares that invade and overtake. I lay in bed, sweaty and worried, hot from all my blankets, unable to sleep until sleep’s descent turns involuntary.

The full definition of ascend cannot be construed without also considering its antonym, descend. This is because descend carries an equivalent yet opposite complexity, descending the physical—ladders, stairs, planes, hot air balloons—and descending the conceptual—ranks, ethics, emotional states, afterlives. To move toward lower elevations is to descend to them. Much like ascend, one can descend to or from, the direction dependent upon the contextual demands. Descending to someone is different than descending from someone; the former by choice as one might bequeath something, the latter by unavoidable inheritance. By surname. By parental edict. By blood. A descendant. Oddly–no–dreadfully, one can also descend upon, implying that harm is to be done.

Amygdalin can be found in the seeds and pits of other fruits. Apricots. Peaches. Plums. Apples. Cherries. Fortunately for fans of these fruits, the pits are too big and typically tossed aside, or they are small enough to be passed if accidentally swallowed down. To repeat the warning is prudent; grinding or chewing these kernels, seeds, or pits too much will cause fatigue and occasionally death. Both mild and severe cases requiring medical intervention have been reported. Eating the sweet flesh of the fruit will have the opposite effect, though. Rarely are these cases reported upstream. Peaches and apples, favored especially when hand-picked, can make for especially lively afternoons.

In the nightmare it is dark and I’m lying in my bed staring at the invisibly black ceiling, my bedroom door always open a crack. Light creeps in. Again, I’m only this many years old, so my senses invent fear and demand the security of light, even if artificial. That is when I hear glass break. The glass breaks at the same volume every time, from the same direction. It is only twelve steps from here to there, through the doorway to the end of the hallway. I’m lying in bed counting the steps, another three to the top of the stairs that descend to the front door. A short staircase in what my mother calls a raised ranch. The glass. It might be a water glass, except that I hear the twisting metal handle and peeling weatherstrip sounds of our heavy metal front door beginning to wax open. My mother is asleep almost directly underneath me, below in the basement bedroom, alone. We’re both alone. We’re both heavy sleepers, but I’m wide awake, the covers now tossed aside while I sweat my silhouette into the sheets. My feet barely touch the floor, so I barely make a sound. Someone else, whose feet can touch, do touch, touching and dirtying the foyer landing, some hulking shadow is there. In the house. I decide.

Ascendent is naturally confused with ascendant. An ascendant ascendent is a rising parent, or, more generally, an upward-moving position of power or control. An ascendent ascendant, oddly, dreadfully, perhaps nightmarishly, can mean the same exact thing. One retains its Latin etyma while the other adopts a French variation. They are both a noun and an adjective. Both. So, too, are descendent and descendant. Kindred and symmetrical is each interchangeable pair. Coincidentally concurrent and perhaps altogether ascendant.

This information about the brain, is another adjacent scientific fact related to bitter almonds that kill and to peaches that enliven afternoons. In vivo, at the center of the brain tissue, confined deep beneath the cerebrum, south of the thalamus but north of the cerebellum, nestled alongside its alma mater the hippocampus, is the almond-shaped mass which neuroscience calls the amygdala. One of its primary functions is to control emotional response as it relates to survival. Anxiety. Fear. Flight. Aggression.

In the darkness of the hallway, I am peering around the corner into my father’s normally empty office, opposite the staircase. The man is dressed in black, very tall and slouching over, almost headless from this anterior angle, all heavy in the shoulders and hands. Gloved hands, leather hands. In his right hand is a crowbar. Sometimes, this is when I wake up, anxious. Other times, the office is empty as usual, and when I peer to the right, toward the staircase, at what is practically eye level for someone ascending the first stair, I see the black leather gloves, reaching in through the broken glass, unable to reach far enough inside to turn the knob. Then the glass breaks again, and again, angry at me, and I’m seeing the huge shoulders, entering and closing the door behind him. In his right hand is the crowbar. Sometimes, this is when I wake up, afraid. Other times, the office is empty as usual, and looking right I see the door that is already open. Too late to witness the breaking and entering, I begin to rise slowly from crouching, seeing glass broken, angry already, and I’m looking down to see the man there below. He is broad, heavy in the shoulders, and hunching over, ducking down into the basement from the lower flight of stairs, to descend upon the basement bedroom, and I don’t wake up. I don’t wake up at the sight of his crowbar. I don’t peel away in fear. Instead, I see myself leaping over the banister, wrapping my arms around his huge neck. I make myself heavy, heavier than his shoulders. A brave stunt meant only for dreams, never nightmares. He is shouting, angry and leathery, which is all I truly want. A shout to send a warning call downstairs to my mother—to be the man of the house. In the end, the nightmare mandates that his right hand drops the crowbar, and that there be a moment of terror in the time it takes the crowbar to hit the concrete basement floor as his leather hand reaches for my face. I’m never sure if I make a difference. The crowbar sound always wakes me up.

Chris Murphy is a junior English (creative writing and adolescent education) major at SUNY Geneseo. He lives, works, and plays in Rochester, New York and plans to pursue a career in teaching and creative writing. Some of his recent inspirations include his new nephew, instrumental post-rock, and reruns of Lost.

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Emma Rowan

Stony Brook Girl

I threw my flip-flops on and grabbed my string bag off the chair, tossing sunblock, sunglasses, bugspray, Band-Aids, bacitracin, two waters, two packs of fruit snacks, and a toy dinosaur inside it before lifting the toddler into my arms. We were just about ready to go. I opened the screen door and grabbed my cousin’s hand, lifting her slightly above the big step to the lawn below. We made our way down the hill while her brother pointed out the colors of everything around us: the white clouds, the blue sky, the green grass. Once we reached the road, I looked down at the top of Ella’s head, her braid coming apart, revealing wild curls.

“Ella, are you sure you don’t want to wear your flip-flops? The ground is really hot.”

“No, I don’t need shoes. Mommy says we’re Stony Brook girls, we’re tough.” She quickened her pace and hurried us across the hot street. “I’m a Stony Brook girl, I don’t need shoes, I’m tough!” she sang.

I smiled like my mother would’ve and adjusted the baby at my hip as I followed her to the beach, kicking off my shoes and meeting the scorching sand.

My mom grew up in Stony Brook in a house just a minute walk away from where I was watching the kids, right up the block—kind of in the center of the block actually. A long gravel driveway from the street led to a big brown house up on a slight hill, where at each window you could see a different side of the neighborhood. There were light blue and lavender hydrangea bushes lining the side yard and a magnolia tree in the front that seemed to bloom and fall so quickly, the white petals drifting to the ground like feathers. Cardinals and blue jays flew past the wide bay window of the living room and squirrels were constantly breaking into the bird feeders. My grandma’s unfinished portraits were hung on the walls above china cabinets and bookshelves covered in dust. Antique Persian rugs sat on the hardwood floors under furniture enveloped in florals. That was years ago, though. I’m sure it looks much different now. My aunt inherited the house after my grandparents passed away and was now shuffling around its innards like a young girl shaking a dollhouse.

My mom’s room was in the attic, so she used to get away with everything. She used to tell me how she would sneak out all the time as a teenager; climb out the window to go to some party at the beach, or just to meet up with my dad on the roof of the pavilion, sneaking drinks and looking up at the stars. I was always jealous of that, of how much fun she had. Of how she had gotten to grow up here. I wish I could’ve known her at that age. I wish she could’ve told me more about it. With my mother gone, I am constantly clawing at puzzle pieces of her life to put together, to fill the outline she’d drawn of herself in my mind and never finished.

Something changes in that moment when I make the final turn onto Soundview Private Road. Everything just feels a little more…magical, maybe. The plastic monotony of the suburbs is replaced with storybook cottages with ivy climbing the sides like beanstalks and dainty bird baths in the front yards. The short stone walls that border the houses are covered in moss like patches of fur, and the chipmunks that dart behind the prairie rose bushes might even sing if you ask them nicely.

The trees’ towering branches waved at me as I rolled down the bumpy road. The gravel under my tires crunched to a halt as I pulled to the side and parked the car. Savoring the last few moments of air conditioning, I took a second to peer out my driver’s side window. It looked the same as it always had: a little brown cottage up on a small hill with a screened-in porch, petunias in window boxes, a family of duck figurines on the lawn to welcome you inside, and anthill cities around the flat stone circle by the front door under a couple of wooden beach chairs. I pulled the key out of the ignition and opened the door.

The summer heat hugged me tight, and a slight breeze from the shore across the street blew some fly-aways from my ponytail in my face and landed salty air on my tongue. I glanced between the high bush blueberries that lined the other side of the street and saw a sliver of sapphire blue, the rising tide of the Long Island Sound. The faint sound of kids screaming coming from the porch made me whip my head around to face my aunt’s house once more. My cousin was waving at the front door, and I waved back, making my way up the grassy hill, passing through the gaps of sunlight from between the sugar maple tree branches overhead. Some bumblebees bopped about a rhododendron bush.

“Hey!” She opened the door and invited me in.

“Hi!” I replied, smiling awkwardly. The screen door slammed shut. I hadn’t seen my cousin, Charlotte, or her children in a couple years; I was a little nervous to be honest. I wasn’t sure I’d be a good babysitter, if the kids would like me, or if I’d be able to make good conversation with a four year old. Charlotte was wearing a long navy blue dress, and her stomach had grown so big it could’ve had its own gravitational pull. She had short brown hair pulled back in a claw clip and thin-rimmed glasses. She was so much more of a mom than when I’d last seen her—when she was in her early twenties, had graduated college and gotten engaged to some guy named Mike. Now she was seven months pregnant with her third child. I looked down and saw a little person attached to her legs.

“Ella is being shy.” Charlotte reached down and tousled the little girl’s hair, who was sneaking glances at me around her mom’s thigh. Ella had tight brown coils framing her face, a small button nose, slightly pointy ears, and smiled like someone who was always causing trouble. “Don’t worry, this won’t last long.” Charlotte smiled like someone who knew her daughter better than she knew herself. Then a second, smaller human stumbled onto the porch.

“Look who’s here! Say hi, Jack!” The little boy did not respond but attached himself to her other leg instead, and stole a peek at me from behind her left knee. Jack had brown curly hair too, but he was more of a mellow garden gnome whereas Ella was a mischievous elf. His head constituted half of his round little body, and an inch of his belly stuck out at the bottom where his Spiderman T-shirt couldn’t stretch. “He warms up a little slower,” she assured me. I wished I had someone’s leg to hide behind.

“So, I’m thinking you guys can just hang out here for a little bit, let them warm up to you.” She explained how she thought today would go as I looked around at the porch. There was an outdoor rocking couch to my left, scattered markers and building blocks and tiny figurines ducking for cover underneath. A small table sat at the center of the room, covered in a teal cloth with a dainty lamp, some baby wipes, two applesauces, two spoons, and two packets of Cheez-Its. A smaller, red, wooden table was against the wall, decorated with various stray lines in crayon and marker, joined by two tiny green chairs. There was no TV and hardly any cell phone service. No air conditioning and no fan. I felt my T-shirt sticking to my skin.

“Anyways, I really should get back to work. Ella, why don’t you show Emma your doll?” she said. Ella snuck a smile at me and dashed into the living room. Jack babbled something and Charlotte explained to him that he was going to hang out with me for a little while. Ella ran back in seconds with a princess doll the size of my palm and introduced us. Jack got curious enough to pry away from my cousin’s calf and stomped over to see what all the commotion was about. Charlotte winked at me and made a swift exit while they were distracted.

I sat down on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, and it was barely a minute before Ella had planted herself in my lap.

“My name’s Ella Anne Ciabado and I go to the bestest preschool in Massachusetts.” Except she said it all in a single breath, and Massachusetts sounded more like “mash-chew-shitz.”

“Cool,” I said. Jack waddled towards the box of toys, no longer interested. Ella grabbed some of my hair in her sticky fingers and started poking at my face with the other.

“How do you know my mommy?” she asked.

“We’re cousins, so your grandma is my aunt.” Of course, this made absolutely no sense to her. She cocked her head in confusion but was quickly distracted by the surprisingly loud thud of a two year old’s feet hitting the floor when Jack barreled over, plastic garbage truck in hand.

“Truck!” He stuck the toy in my face. His chubby hand smelled like peanut butter. I wondered if I was supposed to throw it, like when a puppy shows you its favorite ball.

“Yes,” I agreed. That was a sufficient response, I guess, because he turned and ran back to get another to show me.

“Massachusetts is my home, but we’re staying here in Stony Brook for the summertime,” Ella said.

I knew that part. My cousin had texted me back in May asking if I’d be around and willing to babysit. She and her husband planned to stay in my aunt’s cottage in Stony Brook for the first half of the summer before she was due in August and had to return home. Since they both could work online last year, she felt this would probably be the only time they’d be able to come down for a while. I think she was pretty desperate for someone to keep an eye on the kids while they worked from home. When I didn’t answer for a week, she asked me again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see my cousins and help her out, it was that I wasn’t sure if I could handle it…

I wasn’t sure if I could handle being in Stony Brook again.

In Stony Brook, at Soundview, she is everywhere. There’s just something about the way the setting sun hits the saltwater at high tide; the way the ospreys seem to glide across the clouds as they leave their nest on the light pole, going to find food for their young; the way the sand crabs scurry back into their self-made labyrinths, leaving tiny bundles of sand in piles around their doorways to the underground, that makes me think of her. The little blonde girl that runs into the water, laughing and utterly fearless, is her ghost soaking her sun-bleached hair in the saltwater one last time. The butterfly I spot fluttering around a patch of daisies by the pavilion is merely her spirit coming back to see if the boardwalk’s changed. I can hear her laugh in the seagulls’ calls, see her hair whisking around her face as a breeze pulls my bangs over my eyes, feel her feet touch the hot asphalt as I cross the road to the beach, carrying Jack in one arm and holding Ella’s hand with the other. When I chase Jack—who is clad in a diaper and laughing hysterically—all around the front lawn, it’s her legs that eventually catch up to him before he squirms out of my grasp again. When I change a diaper for the first time and nearly puke, it’s her hands that fold the flaps of white fabric around the baby’s soft belly, fixing it from facing backwards.

I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife or ghosts or whatever, but if my mom’s soul is still hanging around, she’s here. She used to joke around and tell me that when she died, we could just go right ahead and throw her ashes in the creek. A Stony Brook girl’s burial at sea.

The way my mom talked about Soundview, I was convinced that leaving it was her biggest regret. When they got married, my parents moved to an apartment deeper into the suburbs, far from the seashell-lined shores and marshlands my mom was used to. When she told me the stories of her childhood, her whole face would light up and she’d smile like the little girl she once was. It was a beachy glow that couldn’t come from the shade of our suburban apartment, overshadowed by shopping centers and empty parking lots. My mom and dad had moved looking for a bigger place for their future kids after being unable to find one back in Stony Brook. I couldn’t help but feel like it was all my fault somehow. As the first-born daughter, it felt like I was the reason they had to leave. I had pulled her away from the home she had loved so much and dragged her here. I used to imagine the summers I would’ve had if they’d stayed on that same block, if I had grown up there. I saw myself as the main character of her stories: camping out on the beach with friends, taking a canoe down the creek and exploring the marsh, getting into all sorts of trouble with blonder hair, tanner skin, and more freckles on my nose. I think she would’ve been so much happier in Stony Brook—we all would’ve been. I know at least that I would’ve been happier if she was.

There was a short time my mom had gone back to that room. She had gotten sober, for what we hoped was the last time, and ended up back in the place she’d grown up in at forty-something years old. This was a couple years after she’d left, after my dad had told her she had to choose between us and drinking and she’d walked out the door with a half-empty bottle in hand. She spent the years in between trying to stay clean and failing, flipping through apartments and jobs like pages in a book. She could never stay sober for long. All the while I wanted nothing to do with her. I was so mad for so long. She had walked out of my life when I was eight years old, and she always thought she could pop back in as she pleased. Now, she was back in her parents’ house after giving up on being a parent herself.

I shouldn’t say that. My mom never gave up on anything. Not fully. All the times she picked up the bottle she’d eventually put it back down. It was those times that were so confusing. There’d be months of rhythmic tides, calm ones of weekly visits and promises of birthday presents. Then, there’d be months of home-wrecking, car-flooding waves, of calls going to voicemail and late night hospital visits. When she would come over on Sundays, she would try to talk to us like everything was normal, like nothing had happened. I couldn’t do it, and I resented the way she could. I would lock myself in my bedroom when she’d visit, holding my hands over my ears with tears streaming down my face when she’d beg me to let her in. I wanted to be happy that she was finally okay—I swear I tried to be, but I couldn’t trust it. It was like waiting for a rip current to drag you under by the ankles, to pour black water into your lungs and sink you like an anchor to the ocean floor.

I was in second grade when I realized my mom wasn’t going to be there the way she should’ve been.

The bus driver had looped around the block twice before he had to let me off. His eyes were filled with pity as they met mine in the rearview mirror.

“Sorry, kid,” he said, “I got other stops to make.” I looked down at my Skechers and shifted in my seat, poking around in the dusty brown leather cushion to the spongy inside. There were a couple other kids still on the bus, looking outside at the empty street and looking at me, confused. ‘Where is her mother? their tilted heads and peering eyes seemed to ask. I sighed and looked out the window, the smell of gasoline and old pencils filling my nose. The sunlight shone through the trees that lined the opposite side of the road without warmth. The opened door had let in an autumn breeze, goosebumps rising on my arms underneath my Hello Kitty T-shirt. The engine whirred.

“C’mon, I’ll wait here until you wave from the deck, okay?” He had creases on his tanned forehead and wrinkles at the corner of his kind eyes under gray bushy eyebrows. I didn’t want to be difficult. I got up without meeting the other childrens’ gazes and hopped down the bus steps, muttering a quiet “thank you” to the driver as I got off. I stepped onto the curb, pushed open the green gate to my backyard, and ran to the stairs of the deck without looking back, the crisp scent of fallen leaves and dirt filling my lungs. We lived in the upper half of a duplex, so our deck was a whole story off the ground, giving a perfect view of the backyard below and the side-street.

The loud thud of my sneakers hitting the wooden boards disrupted the calm October afternoon and birds fluttered from their spots in the trees as I reached the top of the stairs. Panting, I walked over to the railing and waved at the big yellow school bus, which roared to a start at my signal and rolled down the block.

The back door was open. I threw my pink backpack on the kitchen floor before dashing down the hall to my parents’ bedroom, skidding to a stop at the doorway. Suddenly, I was scared; what if something had happened and that’s why she hadn’t come to the bus stop? What was I going to find? With two tiny hands gripping the wooden doorframe, I peered into the room and spotted a lumpy figure on the bed, the afternoon seeping in through the blinds and placing lines of light across the covers. I tiptoed over to my mother’s side. She was sleeping. Her golden hair was splayed out against the dark blue pillowcase and her long eyelashes casted a small shadow on her cheeks, tiny clumps of mascara sitting around her eyes. Her cheekbones were higher than mine and her nose was straighter; it didn’t have the awkward bump on its ridge that I would grow to despise. I reached out a hand and gently shook her shoulder. She shot up, startled.

“Wha—What? What’s going on?” she asked, eyes still half-closed. When she made me out, her eyes went wide. “Emma? What are you doing here?” I didn’t say anything. I watched her eyes move to the alarm clock on the cluttered nightstand and grow even wider. “Oh my god, is it that late?” Her breath smelled like wine. “I must’ve overslept.” It was half-past three. I shifted, pulling at a strap of my overalls.

“The bus driver was waiting,” I said, picking at the Snoopy Band-Aid around my index finger with my thumb.

“Boo, I’m so sorry.” She reached up to cup my face in her palm. She always called me that. Something gleamed in her blue eyes that I couldn’t make out. The poof in her bangs, what she liked to call her “Farah Faucett hair”, was squashed on her forehead from the pillow. Her nails were polished bright cherry red. They always were. “Let’s not tell Dad about this, okay?” The corners of her lips turned up in a forced smile, her pink lipstick smudged. I nodded. “That’s my boo,” she said, “and this won’t happen again.”

It did. A couple more times, in fact. Eventually, the bus driver wouldn’t loop around, he’d just let me off and wait for my signal at the back door. Eventually, I stopped expecting her to be there.

I later decided in my teenage years that I was going to shut her out at all costs. I didn’t need her. I could do everything on my own; I was tough. I wasn’t going to be sad; I was going to be angry. The times when she’d come knocking at my door expecting forgiveness or pity were annoying. I didn’t want to be reminded of her because a reminder of her was a reminder of all the hurt she’d caused. Anytime I had to speak to her, we’d always just end up screaming at each other.

I can’t even remember all the fights we had, all the things we said to each other. I know they were almost always about her playing the victim, deflecting by blaming me for not doing enough around the house— angry with me for not filling the mother-shaped hole she had left. I know that she never understood why I was so angry with her, that she would beg me to talk to her again. I know that I yelled a lot of things without saying anything at all, that I begged her to understand all the things she’d done wrong, that I just wanted her to apologize, that I just wanted her to be there, that I just wanted absolutely nothing to do with her. I flinched when she’d try to hug me, the pungent smell of perfume failing to cover the smell of vodka and the sharpness of her shoulder blades piercing my fingertips. I know that I hate myself for it. That more than anything now, all I want to do is apologize. I wonder now if she died thinking I hate her, if she died hating me. I was so stupid to be so angry, to be so stubborn. If I had known how little time I had, I would’ve made better use of it. I would’ve begged for more stories. I would’ve taken her down to the beach and let her stay there for hours. I should’ve hugged her more. Maybe I should’ve forgiven her, even if she didn’t apologize. I know now that love and hate are closely intertwined, that you could only hate something you truly love. I don’t know if I ever hated her, but I know now that I always loved her, even when I didn’t want to.

My mom was resilient in every way. She was always emphasizing her strengths when she could, a smug tilt of her chin upwards as she repeated the moments she was proud of: the marathons she had run in her thirties, the time she’d beat up a kid for pouring ice down her best friend’s back in middle school, the time a nurse had messed up her epidural during her second childbirth, nearly paralyzing her. She had this fearlessness I had admired, but it gave way to this false indestructibility she convinced herself she had. She was lucky, but she was reckless. She couldn’t stay drunk for long either. A hospital visit would usually scare her into sobriety, revealing a liver that was bruising with every sip and gasping for air. It didn’t make sense that she had survived for as long as she did, and she kept testing her little miracles. My mom lived off of second chances until she couldn’t, until it was too late. Even then though, last fall, as she laid dying in the hospital bed, I half-expected her, needed her, to get up and yell at us for just sitting there, weeping. To get up and reprimand us for thinking we could get rid of her that easily. She didn’t though. And now her ashes sit in a box in my dad’s bedroom.

The kids and I became friends fast, despite how nervous I was. I liked hanging out with Ella and Jack; they had so much imagination and so much energy. It was a lot, but I was definitely never bored.

Whenever Jack was asleep and Ella needed to get out of the house before she started bouncing off the walls, I’d take her on a walk. Well, I would walk. She would always end up on my back somehow, her little arms wrapped tight around my neck and her heels digging into my ribcage. The first time we went, I made up a game. Everything we saw was a magic something that could turn you into something else. “Ella,” I’d say, “don’t eat those berries off that bush over there, if you do you turn into a smelly toad!” Then of course, because Ella is Ella, she had to do the opposite of what I’d say and “eat” whatever it was I told her not to. If it was a pinecone that would turn her invisible, I’d pretend to go in circles calling out for her. If it was a flower that could turn you into a heavy boulder, I’d slump down and pretend I was Atlas climbing up the hill, stomping my way up the street as she giggled over my shoulder. This really cracked her up for some reason.

One day we reached the corner of the block at the top of the hill, in front of my mom’s childhood home. I took a breath and braced myself to look. Bright blue flowers had bloomed on the hydrangea bushes, and little moss had grown over the stone path to the front door. I tried not to imagine her manicured finger ringing the doorbell or her flip-flops slapping the rock as she ran to the front gate, leading the way down to the beach. It looked the same as it always had, but it was so still. The only movement seemed to be a butterfly fluttering about the wildflowers surrounding the mailbox. It stood now as a sort of empty mausoleum, one that was resisting its new condition. It seemed to be waiting patiently for life— or rather, for a return to the life that had filled it so long ago. It was surrounded by life and yet trapped in purgatory. I decided it was no place for the living. All was quiet, and I made sure there were no cars around.

“Ella, that tree over there turns you into a big, hairy, scary monster!” I pointed at a tall sycamore tree in the nearby wood and watched a bunny dart behind the trunk.

“Does it really?”

“Yes, it really does.”

“Does it really, really, really?” Ella had that way of talking that made her sound like a cartoon character.

“Yes! So whatever you do, don’t eat it.”

I could practically see her mischievous grin behind my head as she reached a tiny hand out towards the tree’s towering branches.

“Nomnomnomnomnom mm-mm, so good,” she said, making loud chewing noises.

“Nooooo!” I yelled. “Oh no! There’s a big hairy, scary monster on me!” I jumped and hopped and spun around in circles, pretending to try and knock her off my back. I hollered as I ran down the empty road; Ella’s laughter, and mine too, filling the whole neighborhood.

I’ve never seen my mom as proud or as happy as when she could take my sisters and me down to the creek. That was her favorite place in the whole world. When I was much younger, before everything was terrible, we’d visit my grandparents at the house. Afterwards, we would go down to the beach and climb out onto the sandbar during low tide. The sandbar was reached by walking down the dock near the volleyball net and stepping down a small pile of rocks onto the wet sludge below. It was pretty far below the main beach, so the tide had to be really low to see it.

To a seven year old me, this was the most spectacular place in the world. It felt like the sandbar only revealed itself to me, to us, when we wanted it to. I chose to believe that no one knew about it but us; it was our special place. It was our saltwater kingdom and my mom was the queen. The black claw clip that pulled her wispy, golden hair back was a makeshift crown, and the blue of her irises were reflections of the clear sky above and the saltwater below. The small pile of rocks that I walk across in two steps now seemed like a mountain one wrong move from an avalanche back then. My foot used to stand on a single stone. I’d welcome the gray mud that I’d sink into after the bumpy rocks had hurt the soles of my feet, the damp black sand below squeezing between my toes. It always smelled worse down there, like the worst level of low tide, but I was too happy to care. I’d sprint across the length of the sandbar and stand at its tip, staring out at the surroundings of my castle. I could see the shoreline from there on one side and the green marshlands on the other, and if I looked down, I could see the dark black pits of the drop-off, just a step away. At the sandbar’s less steep edges, there were tiny snails in the shallow water. My mom showed us how if you scoop up a handful of them in your palm and chuck ‘em out into the water, it sounded like popcorn kernels. One day she showed us how to be a god.

“See these little holes in the sand here?” She held up her yoga pants with one hand and pointed at the ground with the other. She seemed so tall to me then, casting a long shadow against the damp brown sand. These were arms and legs that had helped me take my first steps, that decades later would become too swollen and yellow for an open casket.

I ran over to the spot where she was standing and looked down. My feet were half the size of hers. Tiny pinpricks in the sand were scattered about like stars. My mom smiled at me, mischief flashing across her face, and stomped. Water shot up from the sand below like fountains and splashed on her calves. I squealed and started stomping too.

“It’s the mussels underneath, spitting water up,” she said.

We stomped and jumped and came crashing down all over the sandbar, scaring the mussels below half to death like careless, happy giants, and watched as the sun set over our oceanic realm, casting the beach in a soft orange glow.

There were times when Jack would come with us on mine and Ella’s walks. Mostly when he refused to take a nap, and I couldn’t take them down to the creek and have them get all dirty before lunch. These were the times I would pull the two of them around the block; their horse-drawn carriage taking the form of a red Radio Flyer wagon. After a couple minutes of fighting about who could sit in the front, who could bring what toys, and who was putting whose stinky feet in the other person’s space (it was always Jack, and he didn’t know what he was really doing, only that it was making Ella mad and that that was funny), I’d pull the wagon down the hill from the front door and up the block. That was when I came up with another game.

“Ugh, Jack! You’re sitting in my spot! You big—”

“Ella, wow, look at this!” I gasped as I picked up an empty acorn top from the side of the road. She stopped sticking her tongue out and shoving at her brother to look over at what I’d found. Jack just sat there, binky in his mouth, unbothered. “Do you know what this is?”

“No, what is it?”

“I think it’s a fairy boat for when it rains.”

“Really?” She scrunched up her nose and tilted her head.

“Yeah, there’s lots of magic lost things if you just look for ‘em.”

And then that was our thing: finding the magic-lost-things. A dandelion was the last ingredient in a witch’s brew, a broken-off piece of asphalt was a space rock from a blazing comet, a clover was good luck even if it only had three leaves. All of them were magic-lost things, grateful to be found by us. We knew just how special they were.

Ella began to bring a small plastic pink purse to carry them in. At the end of each day, she’d go up to Charlotte and show her all the things we found, telling her she had to hide them in a secret, special place where nobody could find them.

Once, Jack fell asleep on our walk. I had taken a glance backward to check on them, wondering why it was so quiet, and found his little head slumped down, his binky still in his mouth. Ella was fascinated with our latest find, staring at the halved rock, which was actually a broken troll egg, that I’d picked up a couple minutes ago. When I’d brought them back and passed him off to Charlotte, she’d been shocked.

“It’s usually so hard to get him to fall asleep,” she said, her eyes wide.

Ella took advantage of the opportunity and grabbed my arm, pulling me back out onto the porch. There was a big princess party we had to get ready for. We were already running late.

He didn’t always go to sleep so easily. On a particular day in late June, all Jack wanted to do was drive me crazy. He and Ella had been bickering all morning, and he absolutely needed to take a nap. He had pulled one of her curls for the fourth time when I finally just scooped him up and took him into the living room and told Ella to wait for me out on the porch. We had to be quiet in the house since their parents were working and I tiptoed over to the daybed.

The living room was all wooden: wooden floors, wood-paneled walls, and old, dark wooden furniture. A faded, antique-looking rug covered most of the floor, scattered across it were toy cars and picture books and tiny socks. Pictures of my aunt on her wedding day and my cousins’ baby pictures adorned the walls, in addition to an old cuckoo clock and a map of Long Island. There was a daybed that folded out of the couch in the corner, next to a small table home to a stack of diapers and baby wipes. I laid Jack down on the mattress, making sure pillows were surrounding him so he couldn’t roll around and fall off. The second we sat on the bed though, he wasn’t tired. He immediately got up and started jumping into the pile of pillows I’d made.

“Jack!” I shouted in a whisper. He laughed maniacally. I shushed him to no avail. Everytime I’d catch him and put him down, he’d just get right back up and do it again. I can’t remember how long this went on for. At one point, I laid my head down and pretended to sleep, hoping he’d want to copy me. Instead, I opened my eyes to him hanging an inch over my face and lighting up once he saw I was awake. It had become a game. Ella had begun to yell at me from the other room.

“Emmaaaaaa,” she yelled. I dashed from the bed to the doorway of the porch and begged her to just be a little more patient.

“I promise I’ll be right there. He’s just about to fall asleep, just please be quiet.” She wasn’t, of course, and this happened about five more times. I got more and more worried Charlotte could hear all the commotion.

I thought I might lose my mind. I decided the bed wasn’t working; I picked Jack up in my arms again despite his squirming and whining and stuck a binky in his mouth. He still had that baby smell, even though we’d gone to the beach earlier that day. There was some sand in his hair; I brushed it out with my hand. I did the only thing I could think of: I started rocking him in my arms. Even he was surprised, I think, because he stopped wriggling and looked up at me with his big brown eyes. I’d never done that before. It was like some weird instinct I never knew I had. I felt ridiculous. I even started singing something quiet.

It actually worked too. He finally closed his eyes and fell asleep against my chest. Everything was finally still. Looking at the sleeping boy, I thought I might cry.

It got to be really hard going back to Soundview every day. After a couple of weeks, I started to dread the drive there, the final turn into the neighborhood. It felt wrong going there without my mom when she couldn’t be there. It was like walking into somebody’s bedroom when they weren’t home. It hurt to be reminded of her, to have her thrown in my face with every gust of salt air and every pointed pebble digging into my heel. I wanted to walk out onto the edge of the sandbar again and just scream, kick the sand and scream until I had nothing left in me. I wanted to walk out onto the edge and stare into the abyss of the drop off and let it swallow me whole. It felt like the summer after I’d lost my mother I’d become one. Not really of course, but sort of. There was a twisted irony that I hated to think about. My mom would never meet my kids if I had any. She would never be able to show them this place she loved so much. I could do my best to try, but I’d never know it like she did. She couldn’t help me be a mom, even if she was still here; she’d barely known how to do it herself. I pushed her away as my mother for so long, so why did performing this motherly role make me think of her so much?

Underneath it all, I missed her. I had tried to push her out of my mind for months; I couldn’t do that here. I’d been so mad at her for so long, but all I wanted now was to have her back. I’d suck up the whole sound through a straw if it meant I could have her back, just to tell her I’m sorry. It’s an ache in my chest, a pit in my stomach, a tug on my hair that will never leave me.

I started to realize though, why my mother couldn’t ever really give it up. I loved these kids so much. I wanted to protect them. I wanted to help them. I wanted to make them happy. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to hurt them. Why could my mother do that so easily?

My mom used to say that she loved us more than anything in the whole world. I remember her saying once, that nothing compares to the love a mother feels for her daughter. She used to say that all the excruciating hours of labor were worth it, forgotten even, once she’d seen my squishy, red face, how she knew then that being a mother was what she was made to do. If that were true though, how could she leave? What could’ve been more important?

On a hot, sunny, July day, we ran into my aunt at the beach. Jack was back at the house, so it was just Ella and me. She was burying my feet in the sand when Dawn walked over to us with her dog, a light brown, long-haired dachshund. Her name was Sadie. When I was really little and used to go over to my aunt’s house, Sadie would run under the nearest bed once she’d heard my light-up sneakers hit the hardwood floor. She was older now and came right up to us, her tail wagging.

“Emma! I heard you were down here.” She smiled at me, and I stood up, brushing the sand off my legs.

“Hey, I wasn’t finished yet!” Ella crossed her arms and furrowed her brows.

“She’s a character, isn’t she?” my aunt said, chuckling. She had light blonde hair and blue eyes that crinkled when she smiled. Her bangs framed her heart-shaped face, and she always wore some dainty necklace and earrings to match. Dawn was one of my mom’s older sisters, and she looked the closest to her out of all of her nine siblings. She was what my mom should’ve been: happy, alive, home.

“She is,” I said.

“Hi Grandma,” said Ella.

“Hello sweetheart.” Dawn bent down to tousle Ella’s hair. “I’m so happy they’re down here and I get to see them.” A pang in my chest—jealousy maybe, hurt mostly. “She can be quite a handful though I bet.”

“Maybe, but mostly it’s fun.” I smiled, letting that hurt pass. I meant it too.

We talked about how things were going. She told me about the house she’d bought down the street, how they finally finished the renovations to the patio. She had a garden growing in the backyard, and told me parsley attracts black swallowtail butterflies. She told me how I’d have to bring the kids up to her house for lunch soon, how Ella loves the tree swing in the front yard.

“Emma, come onnnnn,” she interrupted, pouting.

Dawn laughed. “Alright, alright. I’ll let you go. Ella, you be good, okay?”

Ella didn’t respond, just reached up and tugged at my shirt. Dawn and I hugged, and I watched as she made her way down the road to the big white house on the corner, Sadie trotting along at her ankles.

“Why don’t we go down to the water, put our feet in,” I said, shielding the sun from my eyes. I was sweating and sand was getting in my shorts. We sat way up at the top of the beach, at the start of the ramp to the pavilion and beside the wild blueberry bush. Ella shifted. “C’mon, I’ll carry you across the crab lands.”

Ella was terrified of the sand crabs. She always began to cry within two feet of the holes that populated the upper shoreline. It was odd to see her scared; she was very much the type of kid that wasn’t scared of anything. I didn’t like to see her upset, but I knew how much she liked to splash around in the water. She needed to get over her fear. She hesitated still, but I rose to my feet and lifted her up. She winced as we made our way down the beach.

“Ella, it’s okay. I promise.” Her hands were over her eyes, and she buried her head in my shoulder. “The crabs don’t wanna hurt you. I got you.” She moved her fingers and peered through the crack between them to the ground below, still whimpering. I was on my tiptoes, dodging the crab holes like landmines. “Ella, I thought Stony Brook girls were supposed to be tough?” She let her hands fall and looked up at me through narrowed eyes, not liking that I was right. But then she turned and looked out at the beach, stopping her squirming with a calm resignation. When we passed over their little universe, and reached the darker, damper sand, I plopped her down. She sped off to the water. I followed and grabbed her hand before she could go in past her knees.

The water was cold. I welcomed the breeze that rolled off the incoming tide. The green marsh in the distance sat under a cloudless sky while an osprey flew overhead. Black snails were collected on the seafloor like dropped marbles and schools of tiny brown fish swam around our legs. Bunches of seaweed floated about near broken reeds. Empty mussel shells and horseshoe crab skeletons rested behind us.

As I stood there and looked out at the sound, feeling the sunburn form on my scalp, holding the hand of my self-proclaimed “Stony Brook Girl,” I wondered what would happen if I had thrown my mother’s ashes in. Would the creek bring her back to life, back to me, molding her a body of mud and smooth stones with saltwater in her veins and the breath of the tide in her lungs? Or would it take her back, swirling her cinders in with the rest of the broken, dead, alive things and letting some settle on the banks of the sandbar before pulling the rest out to sea? I wondered if she’d be happier that way, if I’d taken some happiness from her. I wondered if she was there then, watching me standing at the edge of her world, of her kingdom I’m not fit to rule, and if she’d think I was doing any of this right—and if it would even matter.

Emma Rowan is a junior at SUNY Stony Brook. She’s studying English and creative writing and can often be found on campus with a stack of books in one hand and a much-needed cup of iced coffee in the other. She spends her time taking care of her twenty-two houseplants and wondering where she’ll find room for just one more.

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Rebecca Yoo

Mother’s Hands

Shoved with a xenophobic passion, my mother toppled to all fours like a creature. She was an object or something to be objectified. He spat at her like she deserved a punishment, like she was a puppy who couldn’t meow for this disgruntled man. The chalky cement gnawed at her fragile knees, as did her safeguard to leave the house. The bruises on her knees and the scratches on her hands demanded that she shed the yellow undertones of her skin. If she didn’t pull out her silky black hair, the cement might make another abrupt visit. What if another man decides that she’s also worthless and deserves to be reprimanded? My mother pleads with me, “베키 같이 코스트코 와 줄래? 그 아저씨 Q66버스 타 거든.”1

As a teenager, my mother, then called Jae, journeyed the globe and finally arrived in the United States. Her father, a brave South Korean ex-marine, would look back toward the sea and reflect, “I don’t trust the Korean government.” America set the stage for a new venture, a new life, and unexpectedly, a new name. Jae’s name was met with ridicule and shame for being a boy’s name. She desperately yearned to be respected highly wherever she went, as did Queen Elizabeth. Thus, Elizabeth prided in her new name. She may not have exactly lived out the privileged royal lifestyle though, her body instead laboring at physically demanding jobs. For if she did not have the wisdom of the English language, her physicality had to make up for it. Her broken English worked her hands tirelessly until they swelled. Holding her hands was a testament to sixty years worth of sacrifice, to a single mother who only knew the life of survival. Still to this day, Elizabeth continues to stand on her feet to go to work.

Her pride was taken away from her decades ago. She knew the moment she stepped foot in the “land of opportunity” that her language, her culture, her entire essence was no longer accepted. She was expected to fully accommodate to the new master’s rules. America gawks at her, saying, “As long as you’re in my house, you follow my rules.” The same power play motive that shoved Elizabeth to her knees also lunged a piece of chalk across the room at her. Elizabeth’s first American high school teacher scowls, “Answer me! Why don’t you know English?” The face of a supposed caregiver, a guide to the American dreamer, was staring dead straight through her worth. As a puppy expected to howl like a wolf already, Elizabeth was innocently punished. For as long as she can’t pronounce her W’s and add an unnecessary syllable to each word, she will always be the victim. If her verbs come grammatically last in a sentence, then so will her acknowledgment in America. English is her crutch, while all at the same time, English is her savior. English is a capable bird that sweeps the skies and calls out to an open terrain. But like a puppy on a leash, drooping eyes and a tucked tail, so did Elizabeth’s wrinkles on the edges of her lips. The sparse gray in her hair creeps from the thinning of the shadows. She hides away her apple cheekbones, which used to be lifted to the heavens by a set of smiling eyes. The sad crease of her eyelids blankly stares back at the cash register, the bank accountant, the bus driver, anyone and their mothers. She whispers, “영어 잘 못해요.”2

Home is where my mother prepares kimchi stew, the only kimchi stew that I trust. From time to time, I see in my peripheral vision her peering over at me while she waits for the stew to simmer. The daylight peers into the dainty condo, along with two bamboo lamps sitting in opposite corners of our living room, altogether radiating a warm hue of security. We name our Wi-Fi “Woori Gip,” a romanized-Korean translation of “Our Home.” If only the Wi-Fi provider allowed “foreign” characters, then my mother wouldn’t be so confused to acknowledge “Our Home.” But regardless, home is the cocoon in which the silky webs nurture. A filled refrigerator, dishes still yet to dry, as the water rumbles in our tea kettle, Woori Gip has a living heart beat. We made sure to breathe life within each and every crevice. As the pigeons rest right outside our fire escape, the seven train whizzes by, reminding us that a space of belongingness must be created, despite the pushback of the world that pursues to reject it. It is curated and loved on, a space that invites you in, upon entry of that “Welcome Home” mat.

From the opposite corner of the kitchen, I sit crouched over my desk to retain my news article for my class presentation. My mother always preached the importance of an education. Practicing my speech over and over again until I make sure I reach the ten minute mark. No less, no more. But then I get a whiff of the red pepper powder dancing into a sweet and salty tango: my mother’s kimchi stew. The same smell that pervades the hallways of my building to hug me back home. Only this time, I’m already home. My nose perks towards the lead of the smell, and I see my mother already gazing over at me. She holds her evidently worked hands in front of her stomach. Her pursed lips lift her rosy cheekbones as her eyesight blurs and gleams in the light. My mother softly whispers, “영어 잘한다.”3

1. “Becky, please come with me to go grocery shopping. That man takes the Q66 bus.”

2. “I don’t know English very well.”

3. “Her English is perfect.”

Rebecca Yoo, the daughter of Korean immigrants, currently attends the Fashion Institute of Technology for her Bachelor’s in international trade and marketing, with minors in English and international politics. She plans to one day work as an editor for fashion, art, and/or culture topics, to ultimately spread awareness of the Asian American identity and inevitably build a space for her Asian American community to share their stories and creative genius.

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Mollie McMullan

On Bruised Knees

You’re four and sitting on the white bedsheets as a nurse cleans out your mom’s c-section incision that refuses to heal. He’s all smiles as he sterilizes the open wound, making jokes to your mother, whose eyes are shut tight. His assistant appears a little more sensitive, trying to hide the bloodied gauze from your prying gaze. Curiosity triumphs over any sense of self-preservation, so you stick around. The scene is reminiscent of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” just a little less bloody and a little more contemporary. Your mom turns her head away from you but can’t manage to stifle the occasional hiss of pain. You’re still perched next to her like a loyal little bird, but can’t seem to leave your post to comfort her. She’s been reduced to an open wound. These sessions are where you learn what sepsis is and just how lethal it can be.

You’re five when you decide you don’t want to be a mother. You own baby dolls who won’t die from SIDS, the mysterious phenomenon that you had heard about on some TLC show, so they’ll have to do. You tell your mother that you’ll never have children, even when you’re thirty, which seems like centuries away. But, again, you’re five and haven’t quite figured out the difference between minutes and hours. With a laugh, she tells you that she felt the same when she was your age. This is the first time you remember feeling fear. It is all too familiar now.

When you’re six, you tell your mom that she’s like Cinderella, your current favorite princess, because she’s “always cleaning on her hands and knees.” Being a mother means cracked palms and sweat, and you’ve pledged yourself to being clean and whole, like Cinderella post-fairy godmother. Every time you look your mother in the eyes, you hear her wistfully recount sitting in the back of her high school boyfriend’s truck and drinking grape soda. Your mom loses pieces of the woman she used to be each time she bends down to pick up a rogue Cheerio that strayed from your little brother’s highchair. Where is her fairy godmother? Where is her grape soda?

You first start going to church at eight as per your father’s requests. You supposed he wanted to put your baptism to good use. Every Sunday, you would panic upon waking up, dreading the large cold room and the monotonous hymns. You try to bury these mornings, but memory prevails. The most memorable service was about Mother’s Day. Towards the end of the service, the pastor asks all the mothers in the room to stand up to be appreciated and applauded. Your father misunderstands the request. He thinks the pastor wants all future mothers to stand. He tries to pull you and your sister up into standing positions despite the ache in your knees from coming up from a kneel too fast. With his hands around your wrists, he grits into your ear, “If you don’t stand up right now, you won’t have technology for a week.” This threat scares you. You’re eight and addicted to Minecraft. How else are you supposed to spend your time without the game? You and your sister stand for the longest three seconds of your lives before slamming down into the pew, heads down, cheeks ablaze. Shame has coiled itself in between each individual rib, snaking up into the cavity your heart lies in. You do not repeat this story for another five years before it hurts less. Your mother doesn’t even remember it. For eleven years, you do not know exactly why you were so ashamed. But now you do. You were being groomed to be a mother. And that was terrifying. You saw the ferocity of your father’s desire to be a future grandfather, as though your worth was aligned with your status as a prospective bearer of menstrual cramps and children. You do not want to be Mary, who was forced to carry a child because of the will of the Holy Spirit. You think you deserve more autonomy.

Your father and his absurdity is stained on you like red wine. You know how tough that shit is to get out from your seventh grade stint with Mrs. Ristau, your unforgettable home economics teacher. Every other day, in between sewing tutorials and laundry dos and don’ts, you listen to her tales of being a tireless wife and mother. You wonder how she’s still standing. She laughs when recalling how she got rug burn from scrubbing the carpet on her hands and knees while her husband shouted at the TV, watching a particularly rough tackle. You and your female classmates are baffled. There is nothing funny about existing just for your usefulness. Hearing this story makes you, for the first time in your life, want to fail a class. If you learn nothing, you will not have to take care of men. Your napkin folds get sloppier, and suddenly you forget how to fold ingredients into your batter mixtures. The guys in your class elbow each other and grin. You’re certain they have the same smiles as their fathers. Every night, you see your mother tend to your father’s every need. She doesn’t even eat dinner with you anymore, not even her favorite meals. The man she married is too demanding. This is motherhood. This is wifehood. You don’t want either.

In tenth grade, when your best friend walks into a church next to her mother’s coffin, you don’t let your tears escape from the confines of your waterline. No tears of yours can resurrect the mother she lost. There is no use trying to water a flower that has already started to smell of the sickly sweetness of rot. The bagpipes outside the church walls wail into the gray sky. They sound as shrill as a hungry newborn. Three hours later, after her mother has been buried, you sit next to your friend in a local diner across from her father, who is now a gutless willow tree, which is how you’d describe her mom, too. His suit is too big, cheeks too gaunt. He is hollow. You almost write “fuck” in cursive on a napkin, because man this fucking sucks. Your best friend stops you. Since then, her house has felt empty. There is a stillness that her mother used to occupy. She was the glue that kept the seam of your best friend’s life together, and now she is gone. This understanding allows you to reinforce your anti-motherhood sentiment. You will not permit yourself to be depended on so heavily that your loss disturbs the very foundation that your children had been growing up on.

The next thing you know, it is the summer of 2020 and you are cleaning out your hoarder father’s garage. Quarantine had left you stir-crazy and anxious to remove all traces of him from your life. You come across a mysterious jug labeled “poisen.” The man can’t spell. You think it’s funny. It is then that your mom laughs. With a smile, she speaks of how antifreeze cannot be detected when testing for drugs, something she picked up from one of her Forensic Files binges. Her eyes harden into obsidian despite the glare of the sun. Here’s the important part: when she gives you her bank account information in case your father kills her with the sweetness of antifreeze, do not freak out. You are allowed five seconds to silently panic before she starts to furrow her eyebrows and worry that she should not have told her seventeen year old, who can’t go to the dentist without taking Xanax, that she feels her end is near. You have spent your entire life trying to calm the waters your mother has to sail on. You cannot do anything this time. You are not Poseidon. You are Medusa. It is better to look away.

You grow up thinking that motherhood means being torn in half from your center, going hungry, being on your hands and knees like you’re praying. Being a mother often means engaging in the affairs of dangerous men. Men who don’t nibble. Men who sharpen their teeth with pocket knives and devour. Motherhood is perilous and sacrificial, and you cannot afford to lose more pieces of yourself. You are aware that there are mothers who happily choose the lives they live, who smile when stirring in ingredients for a meal meant for five people. But that is not you. You were not meant to be soft and pliant. You were born with thorns.

Logically, you also know that not all mothers are wounded creatures or broken women. But you were a pink, fleshy child who grew up being nestled against the breastbone of a skeleton. Your mother was a woman slaughtered by motherhood and its expectations, who unconsciously led her daughters into the house of a butcher. You were a pitiful “for just seventy-nine cents a day…” child who grew up to be incapable of caring for your beloved fuzzy cactus, Frank. You were a shelter dog to your friend’s mothers who wanted to nurture you, to feed the starving dog that you were. You don’t know anything else. You are a victim of motherhood, a redness that metastasizes. You want no part in it.

Mollie McMullan is a student at SUNY Geneseo. When she’s not playing with her dog somewhere in Long Island, she’s lip-synching to the longest songs possible and illustrating birthday cards.

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