Category Archives: Fiction

Mollie McMullan

Curse of the Ninth

Virginia is born in 1947 in the middle of a blizzard when the storm of snowflakes are so dense that the hospital room is coated in a film of blue shadows. Her mother curses the entire night, red-faced, and sweaty. Even after Virginia appears from between shaking legs, her mother refuses to let her husband into the room. Virginia hears this story later, how her mother was too afraid to tell her husband that the child they prayed for was a girl. Virginia wonders why her mother didn’t just leave her father then.

Virginia’s father is absent for the majority of her childhood. After a series of miscarriages her mother suffers through, he moves into the bedroom at the other end of the house, only appearing at six o’clock for dinner before turning the radio back on and drafting up blueprints for his current project. He never says what he’s working on and she never asks, nor does her mother.

When Virginia is seven, her mother hires a piano teacher and retires to the main bedroom, where she smokes Chesterfields and watches the walls yellow while her daughter learns to elongate her fingers, to make mistakes without crying, to smile without teeth. Virginia knows the ins and outs of every music sheet before she knows her mother’s favorite color. It’s purple, but exists nowhere in the home. For Mother’s Day, she makes a card with pressed and dried purple anemones and presents it to her mother with a proud grin. Her mother places it on the windowsill, allowing the light to leech seemingly impenetrable color from the construction paper, which exposes the numerous passes of the glue paste that had dried to the card.

Virginia has fourteen summers before her father dies from a sudden heart attack. In a rare moment of honesty, her mother says that they’re better off. They spend her fifteenth summer up in Maine, where the two rent a bungalow for the week and lick identical ice cream cones before they can melt down their chins. For a week, Virginia wakes smiling and immediately shucks on her bathing suit before breakfast. She swims in circles in the ocean, waiting for her mother to dip a toe into the foam that gathers on the shoreline. Her mother never swims, though she bathes in sunlight in an area where she can keep an eye on Virginia despite her daughter being old enough to swim on her own.

Her junior year of high school, Virginia falls in love with a tall boy named George. He’s a year older, and by their first anniversary is already in college pursuing an engineering degree. She makes scrapbooks for him, borrows lace and glitter from her best friend, Ruthie, and stains blank pages with kisses using her mother’s Avon lipstick in the shade “Wild Honey.” She finally understands the other girls who squeal over the half-baked boys in the hallways. She wants George’s eyes on her all at times. She wants to search the planes of his hands until she can read them like braille. Virginia graduates from high school as valedictorian and credits George in her speech for being her guiding light. Her mother scowls in the audience, arms crossed over her chest.

Virginia moves into Willimantic State College when the viridescent leaves burn to orange. She decides to study education, figuring she can make a living being a music teacher. One day, while navigating through the hallways in the arts building to avoid her roommate, she hears a melody of clarinets and trumpets, a sound so bright she can see their conjoined resonances gleam. She gains the courage to make herself known to the artists before her nerves tell her to turn and run, and finds a group of five people who all look at her like they’ve been caught red handed. Virginia fumbles through an apology, telling them she heard them and they sounded simply magnificent and she’d love to play the piano with them sometime but if they say no that’s okay too. The leader, a pretty red-haired girl, laughs and says being discovered was inevitable and she’d love for Virginia to join them on a trial basis. Virginia leaves with a smile on her face, and comes back that Friday with a book of sheet music. She plays with that same group every week—with the exception of the week she was sick with the flu—until she graduates.

George proposes to Virginia when she graduates from a college twenty miles from her childhood home–though he promises she’ll never use her degree in education. She finds a lacy cream gown with long, ballooned sleeves and wearing it, understands what it’s like to feel supremely beautiful. In a short veil, Virginia marries George in the courthouse on Main Street in front of a small audience and together they move into their first home in Windham Center, a nice county in which to raise their future children. They buy a beautiful sage green house on a corner lot that welcomes the couple inside and promises to never let them go. Virginia spends a lot of time outside in the garden, stroking the wilted stems of her daffodils. George never mentions the flowers, though the neighbors have a lot of positive things to say. The women coo at the hyacinths and offer advice about the best type of soil to plant hydrangeas in. Virginia likes what they have to say, though sometimes she wishes the women would talk about something other than their married lives.

Virginia gets pregnant within the first year of their marriage when she’s twenty-four. She gives birth to a daughter on the cusp of spring, and when her daughter takes her first real breath, Virginia vows to teach her how to play the piano, or perhaps pay for string lessons. She wants her to be soul-beautiful, not just pretty. Her daughter is destined to be better than her. Virginia sees the entire world in her daughter’s wrinkled palms. She finds a grand piano at a music shop downtown and tells George she’ll never ask for anything else in the world. Just this one thing, just this one time. Monday through Saturday, while George is at work, she sets up her daughter in a bassinet behind her and interrogates the piano keys until she is certain her daughter knows every note, every chord.

Virginia has two more children with George before telling him she’s done having his children. Her marriage starts to crumble after her youngest is born, though it doesn’t collapse completely. The baby wails all night and disturbs the older kids, and George most of all. More often than not, George sleeps at his office, slumped across the coffee-blotched sofa he found on the side of the road. Virginia picks at the stains on her shirt, smoothing over her hair as she shuffles through the darkness of early dawn in the bedroom. When she walks into the bathroom, she finds a towel and covers the mirror. She longs for George to come home, to wrap his arms around her the way he used to at night. Virginia has shriveled underneath the lens through which George looks at her. She gets back into bed and stares into the dark walk-in closet until the sun scorches her dry eyes through the window.

When her children are all old enough to be unsupervised, Virginia plays Beethoven on summer weekends, fingers feverishly probing the piano keys, never fumbling, while her children play in the pond out back. Her husband comes home from work, but she pays him no mind just as he does her, navigating the first movement of “Moonlight Sonata,” bent over the piano in prayer. When night falls and the children are back from their adventures, she wrestles them into their beds, smells the cherry-scented detangler on their scalps, and tells them to dream of birds. As she brushes back her son’s hair, she tells him to imagine a hummingbird nestled in the shell of a giant honeysuckle, its belly full. Imagine the absence of hunger. Imagine being able to fly. Her son giggles, bookended between a dream and consciousness.

“People can’t be hummingbirds, Mama. You know that!” he exclaims. Virginia smiles.

After George leaves her in ‘89, she finds a job working at an art supply store where she is paid five dollars an hour. She unloads the truck with her coworker, Irene, breaking pink nails on boxes and boxes of oil paints and brushes and colored pencils. One day, while sorting the display of art portfolios, she accidentally scratches one. Her manager does not fire her, but takes from her pay until he’s reimbursed. It takes two weeks of shifts to pay off the damage. She can’t find it within herself to apologize to her son about the lack of birthday presents, but bakes a cake using leftover ingredients from the thinning pantry. As she watches her son blow out the birthday candles, waxy smoke in her face, she imagines her home going up in flames. She feels guilty later for the way the image of her charred body brings relief.

Virginia reconnects with Ruthie—who goes by Ruth now. The two share vodka tonics at the dive bar in Storrs, leaning together in a two-man huddle to drown out the college students stumbling through the fifth karaoke rendition of “Friday I’m in Love.” They laugh until they cry, gossiping about their old choir teacher and their children, falling out of their chairs when the alcohol turns coherent thought into giggles. Ruth closes out their tab before they spill into a shared cab and wind up at Ruth’s place. When Virginia wakes up the next morning, she eats breakfast with Ruth in silence. The cornflakes stick on her too-dry tongue, which the tang of orange juice does nothing to solve. Their friendship has been dulled by sobriety. Virginia wonders when it became so hard to have friends, or perhaps when she became so unlikeable.

Most of Virginia’s children have families now. Her daughter has two children who seem to never leave their mother’s orbit, circling her as though she were the sun. Her son adopts a beautiful little boy with his wife, and Virginia can tell from Facebook that they’re happy. Her youngest son comes back home to live with her after a series of what he calls “uninformed” financial decisions. For three years, she watches him leave for work, though he never manages to leave the bedroom in her basement. The selfish part of her is happy. She feels her tether slip from her fingers every day. Virginia figures that if her son’s here, if he always has a room here, then, at least someone needs her in some way. Every night, the two share a bottle of the cheapest vodka, sitting across from each other among the hum of the T.V. static.

Years bleed into one another and Virginia begins to forget the notes of the piano. She spends an afternoon fumbling over flat keys and slamming on the pedals of the piano. She knits until her fingers atrophy into a stiff mess and the scarves unravel. She stops visiting her grandchildren, having nothing to offer except herself. Virginia can’t stand her daughter’s husband anyway, so she decides that it’s for the best. She watches cooking shows and shouts into a sour glass of chardonnay when the chef adds too much spice. It’s the most she talks all day. At night, Virginia stumbles into bed and pulls a pillow to her chest, trying to soothe an ache that doesn’t seem to have a remedy. She listens to the crickets haunt the night outside her bedroom window, how they scream until the birds wake.

Virginia can’t leave her recliner anymore without help, and dispatches her son at 7:30am every day to make a screwdriver and microwavable Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich. She eats half every morning and requests that her son leave the other half outside for the black cat that slinks around behind the trees in the front yard. Virginia won’t eat again until the next morning. The process repeats itself until she falls three times in one day, and the paramedics tell her she has to come to the hospital. When she says no, they refuse to listen.

All of her children come to the hospital at varying times. Her daughter is the second to arrive, though she comes all the way from the West Coast. Virginia can’t look at her from where she lays in the bed, fluorescents surrounding her daughter’s head like a halo. Virginia wants to scream. She wants to get violent, wants to spit on the nurse’s face and demand to be transported back to the safety of her worn recliner. But she does nothing. Virginia closes her eyes, ignoring the ways her children gasp after hearing about her liver, how it’s a miracle she’s lasted this long despite the drinking. Somehow, however, she finds her way home.

When she’s seventy-six, the hospice nurse turns on Mozart. Virginia yells at her daughter to be quiet, silencing her oldest’s farewell. She turns her head, good ear pressed away from the flat pillow. She raises a limp, yellow arm and slowly wiggles her fingers to the tempo. Violins whine and dip in the bedroom air, coming to an impressive and devastating crescendo before ceasing completely.

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

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Leah Beecher

Dish Pit

The dish pit is the bottom of the barrel. However, “from here, you can only go up!”

This last light-hearted phrase is the type of thing that Carlos’s Gramma Lewis likes to say. Her favorite is: “Money ain’t everything, but it sure helps.” He notices people like little sayings. His favorite teacher in school was his second-grade teacher, Miss Anderson. “Friends listen first, talk second,’’ she would sing out at least nine times a day whenever the twenty-three children inside room number forty-eight at Frederick Douglass Elementary School would clamor to tell her something wildly interesting about themselves or their pet. In Carlos’s memories, Miss Anderson is always in a polka-dot green dress, her blonde hair gathered in a floppy bun on the top of her head. When she smiles her teeth are gleaming white and luminous.

Here in the brightly fluorescent-lit kitchen of Lakeview Restaurant, catchy little phrases are not how the line guys talk. Unless you count “what the fuck!” which is spat often in the kitchen since everyone is always in a bad mood and a hurry. In the kitchen, you need to be fast. Carlos has no problem with that in the dish pit. He is fast with his hands, but clumsy when he has to leave the sink. Also, you don’t complain that it’s hot. Carlos doesn’t complain. Ever. On his first day, the manager, Chloe, told him three things:

First, “Mark, the owner, is a cheap bastard and buys dollar store dish detergent that won’t work and will dry your hands out like crazy, so most dish guys just buy Dawn themselves. But you know, whatever.”

Second, “Do whatever the line guys tell you.”

Third, “If you have any questions don’t ask Dave, the head chef.”

Then she left. She has never spoken to him again. That was over a year ago when Carlos was still in high school and only had a puny couple hundred dollars saved.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the back of house staff has just survived Labor Day weekend, the busiest weekend of the season. Carlos, returning from his late lunch break, stumbles a bit navigating his body through the kitchen’s employees only back door. The door is permanently open during business hours and has heavy black plastic curtains that act as flapping screens, suspended and sweeping to the ground, to keep air moving and the bugs out. It’s always awkward for Carlos to step through the swaths of netting. The open door doesn’t help the oppressive heat in the kitchen. It read ninety-two degrees on the big digital clock outside Community Bank that Carlos passed on his bicycle, pedaling quickly on the way to Biggies to get smokes. That means it is over one hundred and ten degrees, easy, in the kitchen. The dish pit, the back-back of the house, is even hotter. Only a few pans await in the gray water. The stainless steel counters on either side of the sink are shiny and clean because Carlos meticulously scrubbed them down before he clocked out for lunch. He always does this, despite how much his leg aches by lunchtime. Dave thinks it’s crazy.

“You’re not saving yourself any time, come closing,” he said the first time he witnessed Carlos wiping long, methodical strokes on the counter with a small scour pad.

With a smirk, Dave had noted the concise falling of sudsy liquid and wet food particles from the counter to the drain where Carlos was working intently. This drain sink was at the end of the counter, bolted against the dingy side wall where they store empty gallon jugs of mayo, ketchup, mustard, ranch, tartar sauce, Italian dressing, odd-sized lids, and wooden spatulas that no one uses since they are unsanitary, but no one will throw away, either.

“I know,” Carlos had said. Then, finishing his last wipe so the metal shone wet and beautifully blank, he added, “It will make me feel better when I clock back in.”

“Huh,” Dave had grunted, taking a drag from his Marlboro even though smoking inside the kitchen wasn’t allowed.

Today, Dave isn’t around. No one is at the moment. The heat hangs heavy with the smell of grease and onions. Two servers’ heads can be seen through the round windows of the kitchen’s swinging doors, which connect to the short hallway that spills into the main dining room. Carlos can tell the servers are on their phones and having a conversation at the same time, even though the mounted ceiling fan and the speaker currently playing Metallica make it impossible to hear. The brunette head of the new girl, (Kaley? or Kiley?) and the reddish-blonde head of Gretta, who has worked here as long as Carlos, are both bent down. Their faces will suddenly rise, somewhat reluctant, turn to the other and say something in just a flash, before their chins tuck down into their neck and their eyes narrow in concentration. Like smoking, being on your phone while on the clock isn’t allowed. That’s why the servers are huddled like fugitives by the swinging doors. Suddenly, the familiar sound of silverware clanging rings out. A busboy, who is actually a grown man with a receding hairline and a kid of his own, has just dropped the dish tub onto the scraping board a few feet from the girls on their phones. Kaley/Kiley laughs out.

“You scared me!” she shrieks, laughing. She doesn’t look down at her phone again. Carlos can’t hear the rest of the exchange, but he can guess. The new girl is very pretty and laughs at everything. Even the Dad Joke of the Day calendar that hangs in the break room. Kaley/Kiley always laughs out loud at the puns, then repeats it to whoever is in the break room with her.

“Why are piggy banks so wise? They are filled with common cents!”

“Common cents,Kaley/Kiley muses with an affectionate head shake. It’s kind of lame, but it’s nice to be around a person who laughs a lot, Carlos thinks. He has yet to admit to himself that he likes Kaley/Kiley. Knowing her actual name will help.

With nicotine in his bloodstream and gleaming stainless steel in front of him, Carlos is feeling good despite the humidity in the kitchen which makes him sweat the second he walks through the plastic screen curtains. Prep for dinner rush will start soon. The servers love the dinner rush. The back of house hates the dinner rush because they don’t get any tips; they get yelled at more. Carlos is not really impacted that much; he’s marooned with a wet T-shirt in the dish pit. No tips, no getting yelled at. Just gray water, fuzzy bubbles, and smears of food that must go. The dishes stack up faster during the dinner rush, but Carlos knows he can get through them fast. His job is always the same. His pay is always the same. Now that he has finally graduated from high school he can work doubles, meaning he can save even more money. He has become obsessed with his savings balance. Smiling to himself, he recalls the last time he rode his bicycle to Community Bank to deposit his paycheck. (Carlos always bikes, never walks.) The small, gray-colored, typed number on his last bank deposit slip read:


Halfway there. Only up from here! This is what he thinks in his head, but it’s in his Gramma Lewis’s voice.

His mom’s ex-boyfriend’s cousin promised Carlos to sell him his 1999 Softail Harley Davidson for five grand the summer before he went into eleventh grade. That was two years ago. Carlos Blue-Booked the value: ten grand. Its black metal and shiny chrome body is as sleek and perfect as glass. Its two burnt-orange fins curve in a luminous gleam, large in the back, hovering over the back wheel, smaller in the front, protecting the gas tank. It’s downright sexy.

“Classic old school,” is how Bear described it.

Bear named it Marilyn, after some old-timey movie star, apparently. Carlos can’t remember her full name, but he does remember Bear’s surprise that he’d never heard of her.

“Oh man, I am getting old,” Bear laughed. Bear only laughs at himself, never at others. That is what Carlos noticed right away.

Regardless of the name, the Softail is fast. So fast. Carlos was a freshman in high school when he met Bear. Unbelievably, it is thanks to his mom’s then boyfriend, Kyle, that Carlos stumbled on what would be his ticket out of his depressing, stunted life. Like all her boyfriends, Carlos had hated Kyle, but was grudgingly grateful that Kyle slid into their lives for a few years, or he would’ve never met Bear. He wouldn’t be halfway to freedom, finally a man. Kyle and his mom had been together for about a year then, and he was living with them, not Gramma Lewis, during this stint of time. The warning signs of their impending break up were flaring up like a bad `rash. It was a nervous time for Carlos. He hated all the boyfriends, but “without a man, the bottle is her boyfriend.” This is the only cheerless phrase Gramma Lewis ever uses. While Carlos couldn’t stand his mother’s boyfriends, at least when she had one she stayed sober. Held down a job. When the boyfriend left, she fell apart. Stopped going to work. The fridge dwindled to condiments and Mike’s hard lemonade. Then Gramma Lewis would show up. “You’re just gonna stay a week or so until your mom finds a new job,” turned into Carlos living with her for a year, or more.

Bear was about forty, skinny, always smoking, and had a longish, thin ponytail. He looked nothing like a bear, which surprised Carlos the first time he met him. He looked remarkably like lots of other white guys around that age who lived in the trailer park side of Ontario County. The nickname was unique, but having one was not. No, the reason why Bear is one in a million is because of his garage. Twice as long and wide as his single-wide trailer. His garage is permanently crammed full of motorcycles and motorcycle parts. The walls are covered with old motorcycle license plates and a few yellowing Harley Davidson posters. Like the kitchen restaurant, it has a permanent smell: motor oil and cigarettes. Unlike the restaurant, no one ever yells, unless something catches on fire. But that’s to be expected. The “Meeting Bear Day” as Carlos has come to think of it, was when he was fifteen years old, and he had no idea why Kyle dragged him and his mom there. Turns out, they were not even there to see Bear. Some other guy was there, and the two men started to use tough guy talk, saying “dough” instead of “money.” Whatever. Bear was just standing there, smoking and looking bored, like the teachers’ aides who had to watch the students in the cafeteria. Except for the cigarette, of course, the teachers usually scrolled on their phone, observing nothing, especially not any middle-school cruelness. Carlos was genuinely startled when Bear asked him if he wanted to check out the bikes. The bikes? Carlos’s initial thought was that this guy was way too old to be riding bicycles. He remembered mumbling, “No thanks,” while looking around the front yard, at the fence, at the plastic chairs, at the folded gold and tan umbrella sticking up crookedly from the round plastic table. Everything was covered in grass clippings; someone had weed whacked the brick patio edges recently. Carlos looked at anything except the guy who wanted to show him the bikes. Kyle started to yell at his mom,

“Why the hell didn’t you grab the damn check book, Tam!”

Kyle apparently owed some money to the other guy and, of course, this was now his mom’s problem.

“Why don’t you go with Bear, Carlos.”

It was not really a question. It was his mom’s tight voice; half annoyed and half nervous. It was a request to leave the scene. Carlos decided it’d be less hassle dealing with some old guy making awkward small talk. Some adults did this. Carlos just wanted to be left alone most of the time. He shrugged and shuffled through freshly mowed grass, not looking at anyone.

The rest, as they say, is history. A door opened in Carlos’s world. One of greasy metal parts, bruised and bleeding knuckles, and shiny tools of mysterious function that were no longer mysterious, but more like faithful friends. Within the first two minutes, the feeling that Bear pitied him drained away like greasy water down a sink. It was replaced with a light, airy wonder that such a place existed and let him, Carlos, in. He knew that it was no exaggeration that the past four years had changed his life. He can’t even fathom what he’d be doing with his pathetic existence if not for meeting Bear and spending his evenings in his motorcycle garage. There were a few evenings where they never got around to picking up a single tool; instead they just talked about what he hated about school and what confused him about his mom. Bear always listened, and gave only a little advice.

He usually ended with, “Have patience and try to forgive Tam.”

Carlos never made a reply.

So many changes in four years. Hot water running, steam rising, lunch pans soaking, Carlos is shaking his head thinking about how ninth-grade Carlos had yet to go through all of puberty. Now, graduated-from-high school Carlos has a full-time job and is an almost-owner of a vintage Harley Davidson Softail. Soon, he would never have to pedal up that stinking, long Sunnyside Hill Road to Gramma Lewis’s house again. He would fly up there.

Gramma worries about him on his kid’s bicycle. He knew she was not a fan of those loud, dangerous machines, but she didn’t forbid him from saving up to buy the Softail. Even if she tried, it wasn’t up to her anymore. When he was little, she forbade Carlos from doing almost anything except going to school and sometimes visiting Mom on the weekends. He couldn’t go to the park a block away by himself until the sixth grade; the grade that kids stopped going to the park because “it was for babies.” Soon though, no one would be able to stop him from going anywhere he wanted. Wherever he went, people would notice the sleek machine under him first.

Carlos turns the huge Dawn container upside down, squeezing the last of the blue liquid soap into a white, frothy foam of hot clean. The kitchen door slaps open. Craig, the man busboy, walks through. A large gray busser bin, filled to the top with silverware leads the way; Carlos will have to sort through the bin and then run it through the industrial dishwasher. Craig smirks at Carlos.

“What’s up, bro?”

Carlos doesn’t reply because Craig isn’t really inquiring. Carlos knows this. “What’s up, bro?” is basically Craig’s filler.

“That Kaley is hot,” he announces, exaggerating the word hot.

“It’s Kiley,” says Carlos with conviction, even though he has no idea if that’s actually her name. He hopes to God he’s wrong.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” says Craig with the faith of a child.

He does a weird quirk with his mouth, the top lip going up and to the side, which Carlos assumes to be part conspiratorial, part ironic, all bro. He saunters out, pushes the door open, and says very loudly in mock surprise, “Kiley, you are still on your phone?”

A giggle and, “It’s Kaley,” is all Carlos can hear before the door swings shut with a bang.

Carlos smiles into the billowy white suds and the perfectly smooth gleaming stainless steel counters, mooring him, to his left and to his right.

It was a slow night and the dishes were done before 9:30 p.m., which makes the night feel like a vacation compared to the holiday weekend. The dishwasher is almost always last to leave. Carlos wipes down every stainless steel surface one more time and walks out of the kitchen towards the breakroom. He’s surprised to hear laughter coming from it. It’s high and female, so, a server. Usually, the servers are gone by the time he clocks out. The door is half open and Carlos’s frame is small so he just slips in. He sees Craig’s backside first and Kaley’s laughing face, hand covering her mouth, trying to stifle her giggles, shaking her head, and saying through her hand,

“You’re so bad,” to Craig who is doing something strange.

In that first second Carlos, for some reason, thinks of the Dad Joke of the Day calendar, and feels a stupid laugh bubble, despite not even knowing the pun. Then Craig drags his left leg with an exaggerated limp and Carlos goes cold. At the same time, Kaley’s eyes go wide, she stops laughing, and stands up straight. Carlos says nothing and takes a very slow deliberate step to the left, where the punch-out clock is located.

“What’s wrong? Oh, shit,” Carlos hears Craig say.

Carlos’s back is turned. His heart is thudding, erratic, and uncomfortable. He can feel his face burning red. He can’t remember his employee number to clock out, even though it’s his birthdate.

“Have a good night, bro,” Craig sings out before leaving the silent break room, Kaley trailing behind like a puppy, her head down.

Of course, the dishwasher with a limp is an easy target. Carlos graduated from high school that June, thus ending four years of predictable hell. It is easy to simply shrug it off, lie to himself, say, “I’m used to it. It doesn’t matter.”

The restaurant’s back of house men are all gruff, foul mouthed, and show zero sympathy, but they never mock him. Once on a smoke break, Carlos with his menthol lights, Demitrie with his vape had asked him how he got the limp. No sarcasm. No sympathy. Just a question.

“Car accident,” is all Carlos replied.

A normal story.

“Fucking sucks,” was Demetirie’s reply.

A thing he said about everything.

“Yeah, sure does.”

After finally punching his employee numbers in correctly Carlos walks as fast as he can to reach his bicycle in the narrow alley behind the restaurant. It’s dark here and smells of rotting garbage. He hitches his leather backpack with its Harley Davidson patch a bit and gets on the grungy bicycle he’s had since ninth grade. It takes a moment to kick the rusty kickstand up for some reason. His leg hurts. He finally manages to get a good push-off and pedals slowly down the alley that cuts to the north end of Main Street, which will eventually lead him to Sunnyside Hill Road, then home. Gramma will likely still be up and watching recorded episodes from the History Channel or cooking shows. Emerging from the dank alley and into the pretty, warmly lit up Main Street, Carlos can clearly see his hands gripping the bar handles. Dry from all the dishes, but sweaty from the humidity. He can count on what his hands can do, in a way he can’t ever count on his feet.

An image flashes, unprovoked, as he pedals north—fuzzy mittens. Specifically, the fluffy red mittens his second grade teacher, Miss Anderson had bought him for Christmas. He never wore mittens to school and after a while, his teacher stopped asking where they were. All the students got a book and some candy but Carlos had a little extra present; those mittens. Bright red and definitely not from Walmart. He can still see the neat, green stitching at the bottom cuff that spelled out L.L. Bean. He had never heard of it and thought it was weird it was named after food. Thick red mittens, white fuzzy lining, green stitching. Perfect Christmas colors. It was the last day before the long Christmas break. Students and teachers alike were relaxed and in a good mood. His mom was the opposite: uptight and sad. She’d had a bad break up the week of Thanksgiving. It was the first time he heard Gramma use the phrase “without a man, the bottle is her boyfriend.” That same Friday night his mother pulled into the parking lot of some local dumpy bar just as the evening was turning purple. Seven-year-old Carlos, who was still so short and weighed next to nothing, was forced to be strapped into a booster seat.

Twisting around from the front driver’s seat she had told him, “I’m just gonna pop in to say Merry Christmas to Rachel.” Rachel was her best friend. She came over a lot and they got very happy and turned the music up loud and danced. Carlos doesn’t remember much after he watched his mom walk towards a windowless building. He remembers reading “L.L. Bean’’ over and over. He remembers trying to unlatch himself out of the booster seat, but for some reason, he didn’t want to take off those mittens. With them on he couldn’t get the seat belt buckle unlatched, and gave up. He was tired and fell asleep. Then it was black outside. He remembers being cold. So cold. Then, a lot of pain. Lots of lights. Red and blue with snow shooting between them. Not really Christmas colors, but close. He was in the hospital for a long time. He didn’t see his mom again until he was ten. He didn’t return to school again until Saint Patrick’s Day. The festive day he finally returned back to school, unbeknownst to him, was also known as “naughty leprechaun day” in Miss Anderson’s second grade classroom. The students had been preparing and looking forward to it. Carlos knew none of this, of course. Upon arriving that morning, he was greeted by his fellow classmates whom he hadn’t seen in three months, jumping, pointing, and laughing, at something just inside the room. Very confused, Carlos was finally able to peer inside the classroom and saw that all the tables had moved to the center of the room and a few chairs were even upside down. Green crepe was paper drunkenly strewn all over it. Carlos burst out crying, thinking something horrible and unexplainable was now happening at school too.

Miss Anderson had taken him to the hall, and kept saying over and over, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

His Grandma Lewis had made the comment, just once, that it was too bad that Carlos had those fuzzy mittens on the day her daughter forgot about him and left him locked in the car for six and a half hours. His grandmother insisted he would have been able to unbuckle himself and figure out the locked back door with bare freezing hands. Then Carlos would not have lost three toes on his left foot and the pinky on his right from frostbite. Carlos used to wonder about this too. But now he knows the truth: it was a miracle of Saint-like proportions that he had those mittens. He probably wouldn’t have figured out the buckle or how to unlock the door, and even if he did, he would’ve been too scared to walk into the bar at night looking for his mom. He would’ve still fallen asleep and lost some fingers, too. Without fingers, he really would be completely worthless. Bear would’ve never been able to teach him to drop a tranny, to make a bike ride and sound new. He would be mocked by some because he was the kid with a limp, but those mittens, saving his fingers, meant soon, he would be the guy with a Harley, who was fast. Carlos, lost in his fantasy, has forgotten about the man busboy, about Kaley laughing at him. He’s forgotten how much he hates pedaling up stinking Sunnyside Hill Road. All he sees is himself hugging the curvy, paved State Route 21 that runs the entire length of Canandaigua Lake, leaving it all behind in a cloud of dust.

Leah Beecher lives in the beautiful and secluded little corner of New York State known as the Finger Lakes. While the region is famous for its wines and lakes, Leah seldom drinks New York State wine or swims in lakes, preferring Italian red wine and oceans. She is a mother of four daughters and has been married for over twenty years. Ever since she finished reading The Secret Garden, the summer she turned ten, she’s known she had to write stories.

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Ailie Kinnier


Foie Gras

I own a sixty-acre goose farm forty miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming. The town is called Eden. Most of my property is gray dust; I give the patches of grass to the animals. I feed them acorns and dried corn and leftovers. The corn smells like the inside of an old dresser. When I let the pebbles go, I watch the sided eyes glare out as their gray siphons pick them up like cards. I know my birds aren’t robots because I raise them myself. And I know the weather isn’t engineered over here because I watch my own water evaporate from their drinking buckets.

The acorns fatten the liver. The finished product is a burnt buttery yellow. Thirty geese at a time, and I do it all myself. It’s not what they do in the factories. It’s nothing like that moral upchuck. You treat an animal like an animal before you kill it. Otherwise it’s already dead. That’s what most people are consuming. The livers of molested birds.

“Don’t you know how much you could sell those jars of fat for?” That’s what Casey asked me last night while straddling my bare stomach. She’s twenty years younger, and we met via a dating app. She messaged me first. Casey is always regurgitating business tips; she goes to school somewhere.

“I’m sure with the wrong mind I could be making enough to get you all the pricey garments you always ask for.”

She smiled and undid one of three of her jeans’ buttons. “I read on the internet about a man selling half the size of the jars you sell for three times the price.”

“Is that so?”

“Don’t you see there’s potential?”

“I like how I’m living.”

“We could travel.”

“I couldn’t raise geese if I traveled.”

She frowned and buttoned. “I’ve been living a fucking goldilocks narrative.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means, well, the last guy I saw was too gentle,” she said with strands of her hair stuck to her cheek. I grabbed at the back of her head, grabbing fistfuls of silk and scratching her scalp.

“It was always so slow and so polite.”

“Polite is good,” I told her.

“Polite is good,” she affirmed, “but polite is boring.”

She didn’t shave her thighs. I was rubbing those as she spoke, the hairs barely detectable.

“I was seeing this nasty fellow before that one—he would slap me down if I even thought about taking control.”

I nodded and continued fidgeting, remaining silent. I didn’t like talking about other lovers.

“You think I’m gross.”

“Not at all.” I squeezed her in reassurance. I don’t normally choose wild girls like Casey. They accumulate dirt. Ironically, Casey’s sneakers are as white as they were when she picked them off the shelf. I watch her tie them every morning. My ex-wife lost it to me. That’s the kind of woman I was used to.

It’s difficult for me to relate to Casey; I don’t always get her words. She’s usually talking about the internet or trying to convince me that I’d enjoy electronic music. Once, she came home after her night class, hopped on the bed, kissed me with her soft lips, and the first thing she said was, “You know that fucked up commercial where a pop tart is running from his suburban house which is really a giant toaster?”

“I can’t say that I have.”

“It’s funny. In the car I was thinking, what does that say about the American home?”

Casey tells me I’m the porridge that’s “just right.” Sometimes I have to pretend I’m tired to avoid her libido. She doesn’t realize how sexual our relationship is. She hasn’t been with someone long enough to find out there’s more to do than fuck.

One night, I dreamt of what was supposed to be her former lover. I saw him in our bed. He had her turned over and the bed moved as if it was floating in water. I saw lily pads in the dark surrounding the mattress, beneath a white moon. I heard the sounds of suffering geese, geese being force-fed. I saw them screaming inside silver cages, the metal rods scored into their feet. Their eyes were wild and untrusting, moving rapidly. Then the image of the floating bed returns and I get desperate. Suddenly I’m trawling my shins through the water, my entire might against the tide. The lily pads turn into gray garments. Where I saw seaweed, I got old wires. Water bottles, loose bandages and half dissolved-paper. Then I was waist deep, and I felt truly cold. I looked up and distance looked at me like a man standing a mile away. I saw it anyways and heard it just as clear, the atrocities that kept on the convulsing bed which belonged to me, floating farther away and getting louder.

Then I woke up and walked to the kitchen. I looked out the window to see thirty geese a few yards away, asleep like dogs. I realized soon that the sounds in the dream were meant to be Casey’s sounds. I stood in my kitchen for a while. Not eating or doing anything. Just standing straight. When I came back to bed, I found her asleep, naked, the blanket kicked onto the floor. I never met a woman so comfortable.

In the mornings I drink black coffee and stare at the kitchen table. Casey put a red and white checkerboard tablecloth over it. She laughed when she said, “It makes sense. For your country home.”

I found a dark glossy stain on the side of one of the kitchen chairs. It was nail polish. One night I asked her about where the stain might’ve come from, and she pretended she didn’t know what I was talking about. It was the night I made mashed potatoes and a roast chicken and string beans. She complained I used too much oil, and I got a call from my brother—my nephew was in trouble.

“Who is this?” Casey asked, moving her food around in a childlike manner.

“My nephew, Jerry’s son. Kyle. Said he might get kicked out of college.”

“Did he say what he did?”

“No, he wouldn’t tell me. But he said he didn’t do it.”

“He probably fucked with some girl.” She tried to push her plate to the center of the table to signal her miserableness, but the table cloth bunched up around the porcelain preventing its movement. Her fork fell. I looked out the window while she fetched it. A black square.

I never asked myself where Casey came from. Then I found the purple stain on the kitchen chair. I was less attracted to her. Even though she was blond and skinny, she talked too much, and she talked to seem smart or to provoke me. It made my teeth stick together. But her long golden head was there heavily sinking into the pillows when I left to feed my soldiers in the morning, and it was there when the birds were asleep, when they let the sun leave. When they manifested into the shapes of a bunch of fat rowboats she was there, crawling on the sheets like an insect on the water. Sometimes you say a thing to a woman and it becomes like a hollowed out tree. Still full of life, to them. It goes back to their younger dreams about fairies and playing with worms. Making soup out of dead leaves, little berries, and damp dirt. But you don’t mean to say it. And perhaps you say it because you know what it’s going to mean to them. Even if it’s not true.

You know they’ll look at you a bit deeper which’ll make them feel a bit warmer. The voice in them will hold more sound. All four limbs will tighten around you stronger, like they’re dangling at a fatal height. Sometimes, I tell her because I feel that I have to: “I don’t want you to love me.”

But she is silent when I say things like that. Maybe she’s smarter than I know. I reckon though, that women are more wary about saying the wrong thing when they find themselves in bed with a good man. Or even a nice one. Someone who works. Not just labor but sheer functioning. I still dream repulsive dreams. I asked her about the men she’d been with. She was more than glad to share it.

When she finished, I asked her, “So you like being pushed around?”

She was silent again. She was still. Wouldn’t look at me. From what she told me, she did things I’d never pictured until then. Things not natural to me, though maybe things I wanted. But I knew she wanted those things. If she wanted them before. I showed her she wanted them.

In each group of geese that I raise, I suspect a secret agent. One goose that is aware of what I mean when I come out before sunrise, the usual feeding time, on a particular day in fall. My parents used to joke that it’s called Fall after a guy who couldn’t pronounce the word fail.

The man meant that he failed to do certain things when it got cold.

Outside, I walk slow but deliberately punch my feet into the frozen grass among the sleeping crowd. They get up. I’m still looking. Looking for one goose. One goose whose heartbeats faster than the others when I shine the big light slowly. Like I’m warning distant mariners. When I sing like a broken bell, and I do, and I bellow low so my mouth resembles an O trembling, they will collapse soon after. But I search quickly. In the crowd for a pair of eyes full of fear not hunger. Eyes wondering why no one else is flying away. I look for, even hope for it, my stomach sharp and raptured at the image—of a hesitated flap of black wings. But they all collapse when I’m finished. They all get harvested.

I kept seeing Casey and our intimate moments became more experimental. For her it was like rewatching an old, favorite movie, something we also did. One of them was a black and white movie with a famous man and an Indian. Though she said that’s not what I ought to call them. But that’s what they look like to me. Either way, the both of them, traveling to die already dead.

We were half way through it but I stopped watching. The dying man laid himself down next to the dead fawn. Someone shot it. Right through the eye. I looked at Casey, and her pallid skin looked, almost glowed blue in the TV light. And I started kissing her and kissing her. I moved her clothes out of the way so they caught at the ankles and the wrists. She let me pin her down. I told her I knew what she wanted. I told her a few times. And I heard it again, from the dream, except this time reverberating off the blue flickering walls, that sound. Like a suffering animal.

Ailie Kinnier is a senior at SUNY Purchase studying literature. She lives with her mom, her younger sister, her two cats, and dog. She would like to someday visit all fifty states, but until then, she loves Arizona because of the giant cacti.

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12.1 | Fiction

Foie Gras
Ailie Kinnier

Dish Pit
Leah Beecher

Curse of the Ninth
Mollie McMullan

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Greta Flanagan

Kiss to the Fist

Peter had never been this close to a freight before. He had little need to leave his small Virginian town and could only ever catch glimpses of those black rails from up on the hills. They’d looked like a row of ants then, set single file through the valleys. Up close it was a gear-toothed monster, chuffing up steam and screeching something awful as the axle began to spin. He’d never thought he’d see a train up close, let alone that he’d be trying to hop one.

Well, he thought, fist digging into wet grass as he lifted into a runner’s crouch. Times change. Rosie would blow her wig over this.

The train inched forward on the tracks, groaning at the push of its own weight. Peter stole a quick look behind him, at the boorish freight guard down at the caboose who had his back to him. His hand was on the gun at his belt, and he held his broad shoulders high like some stalking wolf.

Peter threw his entire body from the ground, long legs flying through the bushes as he raced for the open car. The weight of his satchel on his back was a hassle he’d underestimated, and the corner of his journal whacked into the small of his back with every stride. He ran neck and neck with the door, hands latching onto the side just as a shout started behind him, muffled by the tracks.

Peter jumped with all his might onto the accelerating train, overcompensating for the weight on his back and tumbling far into the dark car.

He rested on the floor for a beat, gulping down quick breaths. The floor rumbled below him, and while dark and musty, the car was far from quiet—it shuttered and rattled with every shifting cog. Scattered through the car were large wooden crates, held to the floor by their weight. Each had peeling blocky letters. FORD AUTO PARTS, Peter read as he traced the dust off one with his finger.

His knees tightened in protest as he picked himself up, brushing dirt from his pants and shifting his pack off his shoulder; it landed clunkily on the wood. He rolled his shoulders, hand pressed to the space where his journal had decided it wanted to bruise his spine and turned toward the open door.

Outside the world moved in dizzying arrays of green and blue, smudged like his old family photos—where he moved too soon and smeared himself across the page. Still, he could make out that little town on the hill, its image cut by the trees lining the tracks. The church spire stood out along the hill, the only building tall enough to be seen from the valley.

The train lurched under him with a horrible clanking noise. Peter lowered himself back to the floor.

He’d never gone very far from Middleburg. He’d only ever reached about two towns over, when his father had taken him in search of a mechanic. That town was much bigger than his—not a city, not even close, but it had streets lined with automobiles and throngs of people in the marketplaces. That was the most people he’d ever seen in one place, and he’d been enamored.

There was a sweltering heat building under his ribcage, and Peter clawed at his collar. Wytheville wasn’t a city, and he’d still felt lost there. He had no idea how big New York actually was. A hundred times that size, probably. A steel jungle. Peter had never been somewhere where he couldn’t see trees.

He suddenly wasn’t quite sure what he was doing on this train.

But he knew it was better than staying in that forsaken town.

Still, leaving Middleburg felt like cutting off a rotten limb. A necessary amputation, surely, but one that left him with phantom pain all the same. He wondered what his parents would tell Rosie of his absence, or what her classmates had already told her about his situation. Peter hoped she didn’t hate him if she knew, and if she didn’t, well, he hoped she didn’t hate him for leaving. Mostly, he just hoped she’d never step another foot near that church.

He settled himself against one of the dusty crates, grabbing the lip of his satchel and rummaging through its contents. Fruit, water, the wad of bills he had stolen from his father, and at the bottom, his old leather-bound journal. The freight would stop through another town at some point, someplace where he could mail this letter. Rosie deserved a final goodbye from him, and some semblance of an explanation.

Peter flipped through the pages, finding an empty one in the middle. Whatever letter she got from him his parents would surely read, if they didn’t throw it out first. He would just have to be vague if it had any chance of reaching his sister. He tapped his pencil on the page in thought, once, twice, thrice, before starting:

Dear Rosie,

I’m on a train car right now. I hopped right in it and nearly got gunned down. I wish I could tell you all about it in person but you probably shouldn’t be seen with me I wouldn’t want you to get any stupid ideas of your own. You probably don’t get why your big brother just up and left and why everyone’s so mad. Or maybe everyone’s told you already and you want me gone too. I want you to know that I don’t regret a single thing. That town may not forgive me but God will and I know he would never have let me into heaven if I ignored what I’d seen. And I hope that awful place goes to Hell for all their silence I hope you’re safe and okay and don’t trust strangers okay? But also don’t trust the people you’re forced to be near Stay in school and do good and help Dad with his work.

Miss you and Mom and Dad.

Love, From, Sincerely,


Peter dug the graphite of his pencil deep into the paper. The last swoop of the r dark and stilted. He wouldn’t be able to send this—this scrawling, scribbled mess of rage. He dug the tip of his pencil on the paper, over and over, under the page tore from his journal and crumbled on his lap. A useless letter from a useless kid. His eyes burned, and he shoved the meat of his thumb into his mouth to stifle whatever anguished whimper eked through.

The paper wilted pathetically on his thigh. He crumbled it into a ball and tossed it out the train. The wind took it in seconds.

Hours passed in a tumbleweed of cycling emotions, rocking to and fro with the beat of the train. An open field would appear outside the box door, and Peter would feel elated at the freedom, stretching his arms as he watched pastures tumble by with ease. Then, a distant town would pass, and the confidence would blow out of him like that torn-up journal page. By the time the train began losing speed, Peter’s eyes were swollen, and his hand was red and sweltering from his teeth.

The train came to a complete stop, its brakes shrieking under the loud chuff of steam. Underneath the noise, Peter could hear the booming shouts of rail workers and guards alike as they bustled around the docking train. From the open door he could see the busy downtown area, its citizens moving around like mice.

Peter glanced toward his journal. This town would surely have a post office, but he had yet to begin another letter. He moved to grab the cracked leather book when a shrill whistle pierced his ears.

“All right!” a booming voice shouted. “Make your rounds, boys.”

Panic needled Peter’s skin, and his arm erupted in goosebumps. He shook his hands, frantically looking around the cart for a place to hide. If he was caught, it could mean a beating. Worse, though, it could mean being sent back to Middleburg.

He dropped to all fours, crawling through the narrow gaps between the thick boxes until he sat with his shin pressed against the wall of the boxcar, and his back flush against the shipping crate. The train had settled its grumbling, and the fitted space swallowed the outside bustle of the rail workers until he could hear only the roaring of blood in his ears and his rasping breath. He shoved his hand into his mouth again. Quiet, quiet, an older, gruffer voice whispered in his head. Peter squeezed his eyes shut.

“Clear,” a voice sounded, just outside his cart. Peter did not move until he felt the train lurch forward again. He wrenched himself away from the narrow space, heaving in a breath and rubbing at his eyes as he sat at the far end of the boxcar, hidden in the shadows.

That’s when the yelling started.

From the bushes, behind trees, people of all colors and ages made that same mad dash to the tracks as Peter did. They scurried like rats, tossing their packs and bodying the guards in their haste. Shots went off, the loud pat-pat-pat jolting Peter into grabbing his satchel and pressing it against his chest like a shield.

The train was gaining speed now. He heard screams over the creaking of the tracks. Just as he thought they started moving too fast for someone to hop in his car, a knapsack soared into the train car, sliding over the wood until it hit Peter’s boot.

A hand followed it, gripping the metal frame tightly. He could tell that the man was struggling to pull himself in, eyes clenched shut against the wind as he threw himself forward, rolling on the floor until he settled on his back and panted into the air.

Peter was frozen, still clutching his satchel to his chest like a lifeline. The man was filthy, his green jacket covered in mud and his face unshaven and patchy. There was a hole in the fabric over his armpit and sweat stains on his collar.

Eventually, the man rose, groaning as he stretched upwards. “God damn,” he muttered to himself, before turning his head to look for his forgotten knapsack.

The knapsack that lay on Peter’s foot.

“Hey, kid,” the man started, gesturing with a come-hither motion. “Pass me that thing, would ’ya?”

Peter kicked the knapsack across the floor, never taking his eyes off the stranger. It slid about halfway before flopping pathetically a few feet away.

The man groaned, hauling himself off the floor with great effort. “Could’ve just handed it to me, I won’t bite.”

I will, Peter thought. I’ll bite you and claw at your eyes and toss you onto those tracks. The idea came to his mind so quickly that it nearly scared him.

The man pulled water from his back and guzzled it for several seconds, much of the water spilling down his chin. “I’m surprised a kid like you managed to freight-hop this thing. Those damn Bulls are vicious. They don’t hesitate a single second before shooting you down.” He rubbed a hand through uncut blond hair. “Forces everyone to hop a moving train. Dangerous business, the guy just next to me fell. Crushed his damn head like a watermelon.” He slapped his hand together, turning to look Peter in the eye. “Bam, just like that.”

Peter supposed the Bulls were the rail guards. He shrunk back. He knew train-hopping was dangerous. Between the guards and the train itself, it was a recipe for disaster. But he hadn’t realized just how lucky he’d been, living in such a secluded area. The security had been much lower.

Looks like he’d just have to wait until he reached the city to mail that letter. At least he had more time to write it.

The man whipped his pack behind his back before he laid down on it like a pillow. “Anyhow, looks like we’ll be stuck with each other for a while. Name’s Herby, what about you, kid?”

Peter hesitated. Herby hadn’t approached him. He looked like he wasn’t going to at all. A name couldn’t hurt. It didn’t mean anything. “Peter.”

“Nice name,” Herby said, and raised his hand to his mouth, making a fist and kissing it. “You taking this train to the city, Pete?”

Peter blinked, baffled at the motion. He hummed an affirmation distractedly.

“Course you are. Everyone’s going to the city. Including me, that’s where all the jobs are.” Herby stretched his hands above his head as if reaching for the sun. The bones of his elbows popped. “Shouldn’t’ve left. That’s my home turf, good ol’ New York City. Truly a delight she is. Yessir. Went out west to get gold, and struck dirt. Hitching a ride back to my Ma now that the economy is shot.” He kissed his fist again, with a grin.

“What about you, Petey? You’re a little baby-faced to be freight-hopping. You a runaway?”

Shock rippled through Peter, and he tightened his arms around himself. The truth must’ve shown in his eyes because Herby went on.

“What’cha running from?”

His parents, he thought. Their cold denial. His teacher’s whispers. White robes and wooden pews and a golden cross. God, maybe.

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” he said instead, adjusting himself so he wasn’t so hunched up. Too vulnerable looking. He held his chin up. “I’m gonna be a city kid. That’s all that matters now.” I’m gonna be away from that town. And that’s what really matters.

Herby barked a laugh. “Drink to that!” He kissed his fist. “Maybe we’ll end up with the same shitty factory job. Wouldn’t that be great.”

Peter didn’t know about that. But having someone who knew the city close by might be helpful. Herby still hadn’t moved toward him, that was a good sign.

They lapsed into silence, Herby had closed his eyes and fallen into a slumber, his mouth hanging open. Peter stretched out the cramp in his legs. They were passing by a river; he watched its meandering path as the hours passed.

The sky was yellowing when Herby woke up again. He yawned the same way a bear would, with one drawn out bellow, and tilted his head toward the sun. “Look at that beautiful view!” he cheered, bringing his lips to his fist.

Peter furrowed his brow. “Why do you do that?”

“Do what, Petey?”

“That thing with your hand. You keep kissing it.”

“That!” Herby exclaimed, holding up his hand and pointing to it. “Is me showing love to myself, and the lovely world beyond us. You always gotta show some love to yourself in these trying times, kid. Else you’ll go crazy.”

Peter looked down at his right hand, the skin was mottled with short, dimpled scabs that had never quite scarred over. He flexed his thumb. It spasmed.

“Sun’s settin’, which means we’ll be reaching the city soon. We’ll get in after dark. Blessin’ and a curse, the night’s dangerous, but it’ll cover us from the Bulls and make runnin’ easier.”

Peter nodded, his eyes vacant. He didn’t know what he’d do when they got to the city. He had enough money for a room, maybe. But what if they got in so late everything was closed? He mouthed over his thumb with his lips. Would he have to ask Herby for help? Would that be safe?

Herby was laying down again, hands waving in the air. He was muttering something under his breath over and over.

“Pete. Peter. Petey, Pete. Saint Pete,” he was saying to the ceiling.

“What?” Peter asked.

“Nothin’. Just sayin’ your name,” he replied. “Say, your parents Christian? Name you after Saint Peter?”

Peter’s shoulders shot to his jaw, and he crawled back into his collar like an under-zealous turtle. His parents had named him after Saint Peter, and Rosie after Saint Rose. He’d always been proud of this as a kid before he actually learned about who he was in school. Saint Peter was the first Pope, sure, but he was also the one to deny Jesus thrice. Peter had always tried to make up for that when he was younger, always praying, going to confession, and agreeing to extra lessons with Father Dominic.

Fat load of good it did him.

His eyes stung with unshed tears. Herby hadn’t noticed, barreling over his silence with ease.

“Good name to have, Saint Peter.” He nodded to himself and raised his hand again, poised to kiss.

“No, it’s fucking not.”

Herby froze with his hand still in the air. Startled, he turned his head toward Peter. Peter’s head felt hot; it felt like there was so much dust in the room he couldn’t breathe. Embarrassed by his own outburst, he shoved his thumb into his mouth. Bit down until he tasted iron.

Stupid, stupid. Be quiet. Don’t fucking say anything. Don’t tell anyone. It doesn’t do anyone any good.

“Woah, Pete,” Herby began, at a loss. “It’s okay, you’re okay. Take a deep breath for a second.”

Peter shook his head, gasping around the skin in his mouth. Fuck those after-school lessons. Rosie had wanted to follow his example and wanted to start them the following year. Peter choked on a sob and bit down harder. He couldn’t believe he left her there.

Herby sat up but didn’t approach him. That was good. Peter didn’t know what he would do if Herby came near him.

“You can’t be doing that to yourself, Pete. You gotta let go of your hand, there. C’mon now, you’re gonna destroy it, then how are you gonna get a job?” He laughed, a trembling thing. “Huh, kid? No one’s gonna hire a guy with a screwed up joint.”

The gentle threat brought some clarity to Peter’s brain. He unclenched his jaw, his hand a bloodied, red mess. He wiped it on his pants, grimacing at the pain.

They both sat in silence for several beats, the air tense.

Finally, Herby asked, “Do you, uh, wanna talk about that?”

Peter was barely paying attention. He wiggled his thumb, uncaring about the throb. All he could think of was Rosie. Rosie, who was four years younger than him. Rosie, who always followed in his example, even when it pissed him off. Rosie, who he’d left there.

Peter ripped open his satchel, grabbing his pencil and the journal. He flipped past the torn-out page.

Rosie, he started, with sure strokes.

I’m in the city. When I get enough money, I’ll send for you. I’m sorry this is confusing. That place isn’t safe for you. You have to trust in your big brother. I’ll send you my home address when I find a place.

Love you,


He tore out the page, folding it neatly and shoving it into his pocket. The sun had finally set, the full moon illuminating the boxcar and surrounding Herby in a gentle silhouette. He could see the city lights now, twinkling like the stars he couldn’t see anymore.

He shoved his journal back into his bag and tied it closed, throwing it on his back. They’d be stopping soon.

Herby watched him in silent confusion, tracing him with his eyes as Peter approached closer to the open door and sat a few feet away from him. The train rocked on the tracks.

“You can’t be doing that, kid. Be kind to yourself,” Herby said, motioning to Peter’s mauled thumb. “Kiss the fist, remember? You’ll go crazy otherwise, or lose a finger.”

Peter just nodded. “I’ll try.” He really didn’t want to lose a finger, not when he’d just arrived.

The train hadn’t even pulled to a full stop when Herby shot to his feet.

“Gotta jump and make a break for it now, kid. You ready?”

Peter stood up, adjusting his pack, and nodded.

“All right, ready? Now!

They both leaped off the train, and Peter hit the ground running, following Herby blindly away from the tracks. The warehouses were still a mile or two off from the actual city, a steel beacon against the night.

When they reached a safe distance, they slowed to a walk. Trekking in silence. Peter couldn’t help but crane his neck, the buildings were tall—taller than any tree he’d ever seen. They were so cramped, too. He glanced up at Herby, and found himself not wanting the older man to leave him alone in this.

He reached into his pocket, pulling out the letter.

“What’s that, Pete?” Herby asked, panting slightly as they walked. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

Peter didn’t mind, surprisingly. “A letter. To my little sister,” he said, then hesitated. Herby might leave, if he told him. He supposed that would be the test. If Herby leaves, he’ll just have to survive on his own. He could do that. He would have to.

“I’m gonna get her, when I get a job and a place. I can’t let her stay back home. There was a priest—,” Peter paused, choking on his spit, angry at the tears in his eyes. He pressed his hand into his side. “A priest. He wasn’t—he isn’t a good person. He was touch—touching kids. Me. Touching me. Can’t let that happen to her. Won’t.”

The silence stretched. He chanced a look at Herby. Herby was wide-eyed, staring straight ahead.

“Fuck. Jesus Christ, kid. I’m fucking sorry.”

Something about that, that acceptance made something bitter and vile flood out of him. Relief. He blinked tears away again, brushed them away with his arm. “Thank you,” he muttered.

Herby nodded, and swallowed. “My Ma’s place is too far to walk to tonight. There’ll be a mailbox on the way for you to drop your letter in. We can find a cheap hotel for the night. You okay with that?”

“Yeah,” Peter grunted. “I got some money.”

“Good. And, hey, Pete. We can go job-hunting together, yeah? Help each other out. Sound good?”

Peter smiled, the first time in a while. “Sounds good.”

Herby grinned. “Sweet,” he said. He kissed his fist and gestured widely to the buildings in front of him. “Sweet, sweet New York City!”

Peter laughed. He brought his right hand to his lips, mottled and swollen. He kissed it, following the gesture to the city ahead of him. “Sweet New York City,” he echoed.

Greta Flanagan is a sophomore English creative writing major at SUNY Geneseo. A writer from Oyster Bay, Long Island, she loves writing, drawing, and is on the cross country team.

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Kiely Caulfield


When my sister and I were young, we were convinced our town was full of vampires. I don’t quite remember when we discovered it. Part of me feels like we just woke up one day and knew, just as sure as you know when the sun rises it’s daytime, and when it sets it’s night. It wasn’t a slow realization, or a fast one. Just one of those things that up and happened, one day.

We were in Mom’s car, I think, on the way to school. All four of us crammed into her off-white Toyota Matrix, because Dad’s pickup was in the shop—apparently with ancient, corroded brake discs and in such desperate need of an oil change the dipstick came out looking bloody—and it wouldn’t be ready for another day or so. October hung thick in the air, as it tended to in most rural towns upstate, and that morning we swooped through the dewy mist like we were ghosts in our own right. Dad’s lead foot was helping that along, though.

We breezed right through the stop sign and through the usual empty intersection off River Road—as Dad liked to say, much to our mother’s chagrin, “No cop, no stop”—and took the teetering bend onto Park Avenue perilously fast. Autumn’s chill couldn’t find us there. We moved too quickly to feel her touch, other than the occasional seeping, frigid caress through the chilled glass of the windows. Outside, the fog swirled like fluttering, gauzy curtains.

“Jesus Christ, Sean,” Mom bit out from the passenger seat, her grip on the grab handle so tight all the blood bleached out of her fingers. From my view behind the driver’s seat, it looked almost too white. Frighteningly skeletal, save for her rings.

“Relax,” he said, a navy ball cap tilted to spare a cursory glance at his mirrors before pointing back at the road. “Nobody saw.”

“That’s not the point.”

“You love it when I drive fast.”

“Not with the girls in the car, I don’t,” she shot back, viper-quick, venom simmering just beneath the surface.

Dad snorted, shaking his head. “Sorry.”

In the seat next to me, Veronica was humming to herself, her cheek squished against the glass. She doodled tiny stars into the condensation from her breath with her fingers. Back then her hair was still a little wispy, her youth clinging to her round cheeks and blonde locks, staticky and baby-fine. The condensation from the window plastered a good portion of it to her forehead, which she shoved out of her face, oblivious to the tangles she was making with every fumbled push.

A simmering mix of useless frustration and borderline horror rose up just beneath my skin, an irritation as fraught as a buzzing bee. I couldn’t tell if I was mad at her for not noticing the knots or if I was mad at the knots themselves. I shifted, uncomfortable with the creeping pressure the sight put at the back of my head. It felt like someone had slid their fingers up into my hair—ghost-thin nails coming to razor sharp points, grazing at my scalp—and was very slowly beginning to pull.

It was Veronica who noticed it first. While I was busy thinking myself into a fit about knots and rings and things that looped and tangled and pulled, pulled, pulled, she was looking out at the world. She was an explorer, of sorts—Mom’s cramped Matrix turned into her own steadfast vessel. She was a brave captain, and we were her good-natured, bickering crew. Her periscope was one of frigid tempered glass, the viewport encircled with drippy, wobbly-lined stars, but it wasn’t the tool that made it special. That magic was all her own.

It was hard to hear over the sound of the defrost blasting on the windshield, but as we drove past the pallid, sagging houses on Cohocton Street—each a photocopy of the one previous, each more warped, bent, and bloated than the last—Veronica’s little voice piped up.

“A house is on fire again.”

Sure enough, coming up on the edge of the four-way intersection, nestled right between Cohocton and Canisto, the massive, blackened body of the most recent victim emerged from the morning gloom. Our car slowed to meet the meandering line of rubbernecked drivers at the stop sign, and I took in the blackened, foreboding body. It sat unmoving, ugly and smoldering. The siding had bubbled from the heat, gray lacquer and wood glue weeping through the charred slats in dirty, black puss and staining scabs. Dark soot covered the face of the house in a thick, choking pall. The windows, blown apart from the heat, splattered glittering, broken glass on the dead lawn like tears.

It was the biggest house on the block, chopped up into three different apartments. Three families lived there, not that it mattered now. They didn’t live there anymore. It reminded me a bit of a turtle shell—whole, just without all the meaty bits inside.

I wrinkled my nose, like Mom does when she checks her hair in the mirror. “Where are the firefighters?”

“They already left, Ker,” Mom said over her shoulder.

Veronica and I shared a frown. There was still gray smoke wisping off the open, slack jaws of the shaded porch. I crossed one finger over the other in my lap. “But it’s still on fire.”

“It’s just smokey, that’s all,” Dad reassured, catching my gaze in the rear view mirror. His crow’s feet crinkled in a patient wink. “They wouldn’t leave if it was still on fire, honey.”

“Do you think anyone was hurt?” Veronica asked, leaning sharply against the seat belt as Dad shuffled the car closer and closer to the stop sign.

“I don’t think anyone was home, Ronnie.”

“There’s no yellow stuff this time,” I offered. The last three houses to go up in flames were tied down with so much yellow rope it was like the police were worried the houses would get up and walk away. “Doesn’t that mean no one was hurt?”

“Or they got sick of doing their jobs,” Dad muttered, and Mom smacked him on the arm for it. Clearing his throat, he added on louder, “You’re right, Ker. I’m sure nobody was hurt.” I saw his fingers adjust on the steering wheel, color bleeding back into the white-knuckled grip. “Probably just ran out of tape.”

The smell hit just as we reached the stop sign. Acrid and pungent—some kind of mix between bleach and rotting fruit. It was so strong it made my nose burn, eyes welling up with tears. Clamping my fingers over my nose, I blurted out a nasally sounding, “Yuck!

Veronica giggled at how my voice sounded. She plugged her nose, chirping, “Yuck! Yuck!”

“Smells gross, huh?” Mom said, twisting to smile at the two of us, her nose all scrunched up.

Yuck!” we both cried in unison, and then both dissolved into fits of laughter.

“Stupid bastards,” Dad cursed heatedly under his breath. Mom smacked him on the arm again, hard.

“Fucking—what, Laurie? What?

“Enough,” she hissed, good humor forgotten in a flash. “Not with the girls in the car.”

Veronica kept laughing with her nose plugged, not seeming to have heard. Seeing how serious Mom’s expression was, I stopped.

“What’ll happen to the house now?” I tried to wonder before it could turn into worry.

“They’ll rebuild it,” Mom replied patiently.

“No they won’t,” I said and missed my parents’ stifled sighs as they pulled away from each other. My fingers twisted into a tight-knuckled knot, one over the other over the other again until the skin pinched, flushed bright red. “They haven’t rebuilt any of the others. What will happen?”

“The vampires will move in,” Veronica said.

Dad laughed, too loud for the small car. Mom didn’t laugh. I didn’t either, because I realized she was right.

“Did you remember your dancing shoes, Kerrigan?” Mom shifted gears as we rolled through the intersection, and the house was swallowed by the morning mist.

“How did you know?”

Ever since she said it, the thought of vampires moving into the dead husk of a house wouldn’t leave me alone. It followed me all throughout the school day and into dance class, hanging around in the corner of my senses like that bad, burn-rot smell. Even now, as I laid in bed, I could taste it in my mouth, just under the grainy layer of mint toothpaste I had scrubbed on my teeth not ten minutes earlier. No matter what I did, the thought just wouldn’t go away.

In her twin bed, the lump of Tinkerbell-themed blankets shifted as Veronica turned to face me. “How did I know what?”

“How did you know about the vampires?” I asked, running my tongue over a molar to try and taste toothpaste rather than smoking, rotting fruit. “This morning, you said that vampires would move in. How’d you know?”

“Oh!” The Tinkerbell lump sprang open as Veronica sat up. The nightlight bathed her excited face in a soft yellow glow. “You mean about the nest?”

I sat up, too, frowning. “What nest?”

“The house that got burned up,” she clarified. “It’s not a house anymore.”

My frown deepened. “Why isn’t it a house anymore?”

Veronica looked at me funny. She shook her head, chiding. “Monsters don’t live in houses, Kerri.”

“Well, what about ghosts?”

“Ghosts don’t own the house they’re haunting. They just work there. What aren’t you getting?”

“Fine. It’s a nest,” I relented, and Veronica nodded sagely. “But how do you know?”

“Well it makes sense, doesn’t it?” she reasoned. “Nobody wants to live in a burned house. It’s too much work. And it’s just gonna sit there anyway, so it makes sense that a vampire would move in to make a nest.”

“Are you sure?” I kept sucking my teeth. The fluoride in my mouth kept me from feeling sick. “I think it’s just an empty house, Ronnie.”

“No it isn’t.” Veronica looked appalled. “Don’t you remember? We smelled it this morning!”

I froze. “That’s what that smell was?”

“Yes!” In the dark, my sister’s eyes glowed. “I bet we could find one. I bet there’s one living in there right now.”

My stomach rolled. All I could think about was that empty turtle shell. Only now, it was covered with bugs. Dozens of little legs crawling, wedging themselves into grains and grooves, wriggling and squirming and hungry. Thousands of little sharp teeth, bloody-pink and needle fine. Thousands of black little eyes, watching, waiting for their turn at the feast of rot. Black wood and timber that sloughs off like meat falls off bone. A celebration of decay. A nest. An infestation.

I shook my head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Oh come on,” Veronica groaned. She scowled, then puffed up her chest. “Don’t be a pussy.”

I squinted at her. “You don’t even know what that word means.”

“Yes I do. Jake Carson says it on the school bus all the time.”

“Don’t listen to anything Jake Carson says,” I said, scrunching up my nose. “He doesn’t know how to read.”

“Will you help me look for one or not?”

“Okay! Wait,” I started, pointing an accusatory finger at her. “If we do go—if, Ronnie, you don’t even know what one looks like. How are you gonna know it’s a vampire if we see one?”

Ronnie’s mouth closed with an audible click, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Buoyed on top of that relief was a smug bit of triumph—if it got her to stop thinking about the house-turned-nest, then I would count it as a win.

Unfortunately, I had no such luck.

“Yellow eyes,” she said, a few minutes later.

I opened my eyes, thoughts cocooned in the halfway space between waking and sleep. “Huh?”

“Yellow eyes,” she repeated, looking grave in the night light. The shadows that traced the round curves of her face made her look more severe than I knew her to be. Like a statue, scorned and righteous, staring down over the top of an ancient grave. “That’s how you tell. Their eyes are yellow.”

Hot, bitter bile rose to the back of my throat. It mixed with the rotting fruit, and on some base, instinctual level, I knew it to be the taste of black, ugly fear.

“Alright,” I relented, swallowing. I resisted the urge to scrub at my arms. “We’ll go tomorrow, after school.”

There was a flutter of movement as Veronica kicked her legs and laid back down, giggles muffled by Tinkerbell’s impish, knowing smile. Eventually the room was quiet once more, save for my sister’s muffled snores.

I lay awake for the rest of the night. Every time I nearly drifted off, a phantom bug crawled up a new part of my body. I kept swatting at them, over and over, until our bedroom was colored pink with the sunrise.

Bike riding was a skill I had picked up long before Veronica even knew how to walk. So it made sense that after school—when our homework was done, and all our laundry was put away because Mom was nice enough to fold it for us—I was the one in charge of transportation for this expedition. Riding my bike down Cohocton Street, Veronica had taken up residence as a koala bear on my back, heels firmly on the foot bars of my wheels with her little grip tight on my shoulders. She peered around the neighborhood above my head, and once again, I had been transformed into a tool for her adventures—this time as both the vehicle and the sidekick.

It was right around dusk by the time we made it to the nest. The October sunset the trees ablaze in shimmering reds and yellows, the leaves scattered like cinders all around us. From above, the hazy sky bathed the neighborhood in a sepia tint.

“Mr. Carroll’s outside,” Veronica observed, and my head swung on a swivel to look.

Across the street from the burnt-out nest was Mr. Carroll’s Wonderland. We called it that because he never took down the big strings of multicolored Christmas lights that decorated the shaded porch. It was the only color on the whole house. The rest was slathered in a cheap, chipping white—from the siding to the shutters to the rickety porch swing Mr. Carroll sat on. Even the chains on the swing were coated in the stuff.

Today, Mr. Carroll looked like a Halloween decoration, slumped on his porch swing. He reminded me of a scarecrow who’d lost his straw. He didn’t move as we started down the block. Dad and Mr. Carroll weren’t very good friends—he said Mr. Carroll was a sleazy mechanic but knew better than to overstep. Mom said that his wife, Mrs. Carroll, was a saint.

“Do you think he sees us?” I asked, eyeing him warily. He hadn’t moved an inch, half leaning over one side of his porch swing.

“Just don’t look at him,” Veronica whispered.

Ducking our heads, we both carefully didn’t look over at Wonderland as we rode down the street. We made it all the way to the intersection, but the stop sign was right in front of his house. I slowly brought the bike to a halt, wincing as my brakes let out an anguished squeeeeeak. Veronica’s grip tightened on my shoulders.

Holding my breath, I chanced a glance at the porch. I couldn’t see over the tall lip of the railing, but I heard the creak of the crusted chains that held up the swing. I craned my neck to get a better view and could just see the top of Mr. Carroll’s askew head when Veronica let out a sharp gasp and shrieked. It was the only warning I got before she launched herself off the back of my bike.

Ronnie!” I yelped, scrambling to catch myself as the bike pitched with her weight, but by then she was already thundering up the paint-chipped steps of the house. I managed to catch myself with a hand on the curb, one of the bike pedals digging into my shin. “What are you—”

“It’s a kitty!” Veronica cried, and when she turned around, I realized there was a small, black kitten squirming in the cradle of her hands. “It was too close to the ledge. Oh, Kerri, it almost fell!”

“Then I’m glad you caught her,” a craggy voice rasped.

Looking up with a jolt, Mr. Carroll loomed over the two of us like an odd, warped shadow. He was a tall man, rail thin, and when he moved it was like a snap bracelet—rigidly still before a startling snap of movement, gangly limbs scrabbling and curling over themselves in a rush to catch up with his own head. His arm jerked out to reach for the kitten, then pulled back just as quickly when Veronica and I flinched. He tried again, slower this time, extending long, shaking fingers. “Give her here.”

The skin on his forearms was loose in places and stretched in others, corded around his bones like taffy. Carefully, Veronica levied the small bundle of black fur into his hand. The second he had a sure grip on it, he pulled it to his chest fast enough for the little thing to mewl in surprise, muffling Veronica’s soft gasp of fear.

“Thank you, thank you,” Mr. Carroll said. His eyes were just a little too wide, and you could see the yellowed whites the whole way around his black irises, like two little beady lights at the front of a train. “I’m glad you caught her. I didn’t see. I don’t know what I’d do if she got hurt.”

“You’re welcome.” Veronica smiled back, but I could see it wavering in the corner. She was being polite, but she clearly didn’t like being so close to Mr. Carroll. I didn’t like her so close either. She took a careful, slow step down the stairs. “What’s her name, Mr. Carroll?”

“Oh, this little one’s Mina.” Mr. Carroll grinned. His smile was nice, teeth talcum white, but even from here, I could tell his breath was bad. He gave the kitten a shake, and the little thing meowed again. Its eyes weren’t even open, I realized. “Hattie just had some kittens yesterday. You ask your dad and Laurie if they want any, will you?”

“We will,” I piped up, and Mr. Carroll’s gaze snapped to me. He looked me all up and down while Veronica was able to reach the bottom of the stairs. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Carroll.”

What…what are you girls doing out so late?” Two sudden thundering steps later, Mr. Carroll was practically teetering over us from the top of the stairs. In his grip, the kitten wailed. “It’s a school night, ain’t it?”

Veronica looked back at me, and I could see it in her eyes that she wanted to ask. She was close enough to grab at this point. I shook my head, reaching for her wrist, but she was already turning back.

“Do you know anything about vampires, Mr. Carroll?”

Above us, Mr. Carroll paused. His head tilted, and the yellow of his gaze fell in line with the blinking Christmas lights—like his eyeballs were nothing more than bulbs on the line, the string running from one ear out the other. With a faraway look, he murmured, “Did you say vampires?”

“Yes.” Veronica pushed on, sounding braver than I ever could be. “We think the house fires that have been happening are so the vampires can make nests.”

Mr. Carroll stared.

I looked between his face and Veronica’s determined stare, breath caught in my throat. I was the one to break first. “Sorry, Mr. Carroll,” I blurted out. “She was just kidding. We’re actually on our way to…”

I trailed off as a whistling sound reached my ears. At first I didn’t realize where it was coming from until I saw Mr. Carroll’s shoulders shake. The movement reminded me of a puppet on strings, a convulsive dance without any life. Then, like a striking snake, he threw his head back and howled with laughter. Veronica jumped back at the sound, bumping into me and gripping my arm. Together, we watched him laugh until it turned into a wretched-sounding wheeze. The breath caught in his throat, and before we knew it, he was doubled over again in a coughing fit. It passed in a wet glob that Mr. Carroll spat on the porch steps.

He was still laughing when he righted himself, waving at the two of us. “Oh-hoh, sorry, honey. But if that ain’t the funniest thing I ever heard.” He broke off in another fit of breathless laughter. When he looked back, his smile seemed almost too big for his face. “Tell you what. You’re right on the money, sweetheart. There is a vampire in that house.”

“There is?” I asked, setting my bike down on the curb to step forward.

“Sure is.” Mr. Carroll looked all too pleased with himself. He leaned down, bug-eyed in his excitement. “And I’ll tell you a secret.”

“What is it?” Veronica asked, still clinging onto my arm. It was now the portion of the adventure where I acted as the human shield, apparently.

Mr. Carroll motioned for us to come closer. Hesitantly, I took a step up to the first stair, leaning in close to hear.

His breath was hot against my face. He whispered, “He’s got a sweet tooth.”

I blinked in surprise, “He does?”

“Oh yes,” he giggled, high and giddy. Up this close, his breath smelled like rotten eggs. “I even know his favorite treat.”

“What is it?” I pushed, but Mr. Carroll tsked tsked tsked, shaking his head back and forth fast enough to make me dizzy.

“Well I can’t just up and tell you that, now can I?” His gaze cut above our heads. “I s’pose you’ll have to go ask him yourself.”

Across the street, the nest was a dark, hulking shape on the otherwise picturesque corner. Looking at it made my legs feel itchy.

“Go on,” Mr. Carroll said, biting his lip to hold back his laughter. “Get to it, little ladies. Ain’t got all night!”

I lingered too long, watching him smile. Something in his lip twitched, and all of a sudden it was more of a snarl than a grin. I couldn’t tell if it was impatience or something else, but all of a sudden a swelling animosity built up in his face. I was no longer looking at the face of a neighbor, but instead the sharp toothed grin of a predator. A shark in man’s clothing.

“I said, get to it!” he barked, slamming his fist against the rusted, white railing of the stairs.

In a shower of paint chips, the two of us scrambled back down the stairs with a startled yelp. Mr. Carroll kept shouting, “Get to it! get to it!” and slamming his fist over and over until all the paint had fallen away to reveal the red rust of the house, falling like clumps of dried blood onto his pants.

In my fright I hopped on my bike and all but yanked Veronica onto my back. She scrambled for a grip, pulling my hair as she did so. Blood was rushing so fast in my ears that I didn’t even notice. We were up and gone before the pain registered, speeding back down Cohocton Street in a mad dash towards Park Avenue. I biked as fast as I could all the way home, but even then I swear I could still feel him watching us. He was there in every window, every shaded patch of trees. The whole ride home, I saw it.

Two yellow train lights flaring in the dark.

Kiely Caulfield is a junior at the University at Buffalo. She is an English major with a special focus in creative writing, and is minoring in psychology and global gender studies. Kiely is interested in fiction that alludes to something just under the surface, and gets more and more interesting upon a closer look.

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Tess Woitaszek

The Astonishing

Batavia, New York, 2010

The light felt heavy, an early morning burden that made Vivian blink hard. She wished she was still in bed, rather than walking up to the doors of the retreat center. Willis Seminary stood before her, a large building with many small windows and a domed roof. Rows of early spring buds peeked out from the mulch lining the path, which diverged briefly to encircle a large stone cross. Flowers had yet to bloom, and most leaves had not grown back, leaving the light to draw itself, unyielding, through the bare trees and grasses. The retreat began at nine o’clock and wouldn’t end until the afternoon, much to Vivian and her classmates’ dismay. But it was mandatory. If they wanted to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, they had to attend the retreat.

Once inside, Vivian found that most of her classmates had yet to arrive, late risers who begrudged the early start to a Saturday. From across the room, she saw Liz, and that was what mattered. As Vivian began to walk over, relieved and feeling more awake, she saw someone sit down next to her friend. It was Matthew, and a smile broke across Liz’s face. They both started laughing about something.

Matthew was one of the older kids. Sunday school classes were small; three classes from different parishes had combined in order to make their Confirmation. At sixteen years old, Matthew seemed to be everything Vivian wanted for herself. He was confident, knowledgeable, and seemed to know an endless number of other cool and worldly kids. He would come into Sunday school with tales of sneaking into abandoned buildings to party, complete with the names of his abundance of friends.

From the little that Vivian knew, Matthew seemed like an adventurer, always having fun, and so sure of himself. In another two years, she imagined that she’d be the same way. Sixteen would mean no uncertainty about herself, and no doubts over faith, identity, and desires. She’d have everything figured out by then.

“Hey, Vivian!” Liz called, waving her over. Her voice sounded higher and sweeter than usual. Its newfound smoothness seemed malleable, somehow accommodating.

Matthew turned in Vivian’s direction and grinned. She paused, wondering what she’d say to him. She had wanted to tell Liz about last night’s dream, of flying over the school and florist shop and church with wings the color of sunsets. She thought Liz would get a kick out of that, as someone who often dreamt of flying, but never with wings.

But now she couldn’t—Matthew was there. He’d probably find the dream silly and dismiss it with a sixteen-year-old’s sense of what was really important. And maybe Liz wouldn’t care, either. She suddenly seemed older than Vivian, sitting there next to Matthew and laughing along with him.

Mimicking Liz’s radiant smile, Vivian walked over and sat beside her friend. In her head, she briefly imagined forcing her voice upwards and wondered what it would feel like from the inside. She thought of laughing, enough to seem fun and engaged, but not too much. It was important to be collected as well.

“Hey, Vivian,” Matthew said. “Sucks we have to be here so early.”

Vivian did what she had imagined in her head: she leaned back a bit as she laughed, short and casual, and then, in a nicer, sweeter voice, said, “I know, right?”

“Have you guys chosen a saint yet?” Matthew continued. “We have to write that paper soon, right? About who we’re taking as a patron, and why.”

“I’m going to choose St. Paul,” said Liz.

Matthew laughed. “Come on, Liz,” he said. “You don’t really want a man’s name, do you?”

For a brief moment, Vivian saw Liz’s face flash in discomfort. It was the same look she had when a soccer ball hit her in gym class, right in the stomach, and the boy who had kicked it said Get out of my way next time. In that moment, Vivian had glared at him as pointedly as she could, but it had gone unnoticed.

Liz’s face beamed right back into a smile as if it had never wavered at all. Vivian could feel her own grin growing tight.

“No, not really,” Liz said, agreeing with Matthew. “But neither do my parents, so a man’s name it is.”

She and Matthew laughed. That wasn’t what Liz had told Vivian before. St. Paul was the patron of writers, and Liz wanted to be an author one day. Vivian knew that Liz’s parents didn’t care which saint she chose, as long as she made her Confirmation. It was the same with her own parents, and Vivian welcomed it. Church and Sunday school were as much a part of her life as a trip to the grocery store or doing homework. The independence to choose a patron for herself was exciting.

“Have you decided yet?” Liz asked Matthew.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m going with St. Augustine. You know he’s the patron saint of brewers? That means he’s basically the patron of beer.”

Vivian joined in the subsequent laughter, but her hands wrung together in uneasiness. If Matthew asked about her saint, she wouldn’t have anything funny to say.

“How about you, Viv?” Matthew said. No one had ever called her Viv before.

“I think I’m going with St. Christina the Astonishing,” Vivian said. She paused, and Matthew stared back at her blankly.

“Who?” he asked.

Vivian began to laugh, but stopped short. It sounded fake and forced. Could Matthew tell?

“She’s the patron of mental health workers,” Vivian explained. “And I want to go into that field one day. People tell me I’m a good listener, so I think I’d do well.”

“That’s cool,” Matthew said. “What was she like? I’ve never heard of her.”

“Well, she was a bit wild. Kind of like if…” Vivian hesitated, searching for the right words. “The only ones who existed in the world were her and God.”

Before Matthew could respond, the retreat director, a colorfully-dressed woman around the age of Vivian’s parents, walked to the center of the room and began to introduce herself.

“Good morning, everyone! I’m happy to see so many faces here,” she said, her cross-shaped earrings dangling with matched enthusiasm. “I’m Kathy. I’ve been leading retreats at Willis Seminary for a few years now, and I’m excited to help you prepare for your Confirmation.”

After standing for an opening prayer, the class sat down at tables while Kathy handed out paper and pens.

“For this first exercise, you’re going to write down three things you want,” she explained. “It can be anything, but make sure they’re things you really want in life. It could be related to school, relationships, work, sports, and so on.”

Vivian picked up the pen and numbered the page. She was already overwhelmed by the prospect of high school, which would start in less than six months. She considered her anxiety over making new friends, and whether she should join the yearbook club or the writing club, which ran at the same time. Then she wrote:

To do well in high school and get into a good college

To make lots of friends and never be lonely

To get a good job in mental health services

Kathy cleared her throat and began to talk in a softer, more serious voice than before. “Now, consider the things you wrote down. I’m sure you want them very much. But what if God called you in a different direction? Would you be willing to sacrifice the things you want in order to follow Him?”

Across the table, Liz was rereading her list. Matthew was whispering to someone else. He looked back at Vivian and smiled. She felt his bright eyes on her and tried to match the curve of his mouth with her own. The feeling that another pair of eyes were watching grew, and Vivian wondered if they were God’s, or perhaps her own gaze looking from the outside.

Brustem, Belgium, 1181

She was ablaze once again.

Her mind had been struck with fire, and her body soon followed. Howling, she tumbled in and out of the high flames, consumed by the blistering fury of the heat and her own skin.

A man new to the area stood nearby, transfixed in horror. He was training for the priesthood, and to him, this public display of penance was so ferocious that it bordered on demonic. He winced as a shrill cry went up with a flurry of sparks and winced again when the penitent’s dress slipped downwards.

An old woman standing nearby reached out and touched his shoulder.

“Any wounds she gets will disappear,” she said in a reassuring tone. “They always do.”

The trainee listened as the old woman began to recite a prayer. It began quiet and slow, but grew louder and stronger to meet the wails hardening in the air.

On Earth as it is in Heaven…

Christina crept around the back of the millhouse, listening intently. She paused, pushing tangles of hair away from her face, bracing against the late autumn wind. Yes, there were the voices of men once more, and they were drawing closer.

Looking to her right, Christina noticed a tree with good branches for climbing. She dashed over and gripped her way up it wildly, the grime on her bare feet aiding in sturdiness and speed. The rough bark scraped her palms and cut through her clothes, but she continued to climb, compelled by a mix of desperation and determination. She finally settled on a perch high above the ground, and from it the church could be seen, as well as the pastures where she had once worked with her sisters.

“Christina? Is that you?” a voice called. Two men were standing at the base of the tree, looking up at her.

“Of course it is,” said the same man, answering his own question. “Why are you up there?”

Christina peered down, focusing on the speaker. She recognized his bright eyes, the ones that never seemed to blink enough, always taking in all that they could. It was the priest. Beside him stood the trainee, who had witnessed her flame-driven penance earlier. Christina didn’t recognize him, and narrowed her eyes, unable to piece together a distinct face. Was she too high up for treading the unfamiliar? On top of roofs and perched in trees, the world and its people blended into one palmful of dust. It was nothing to her, not when the sky was suddenly so much closer, and so pure.

While still looking at the trainee, Christina called down, “I can’t bear the stench of your sin.”

There was a pause, and then the trainee cried out, astounded.

“That’s the woman who threw herself into the fire!” he exclaimed. She was hard to see, up high and shielded by a clump of browning leaves. Whether her burns had disappeared or not, he was unable to tell.

“She came back from the dead some years ago,” the priest said. “I was there, at her funeral, when she stood up from the casket.”

The trainee stared at the priest, waiting for him to elaborate. When no further explanation was given, he sighed and began to walk away.

“Maybe she’s just mad. When did God command such acts of self-harm?” he said, and disappeared around the millhouse.

There was silence for a few moments. The sun seemed to fizzle out; a cold wind goaded forth a mass of dark clouds, spreading across the sky with the threat of rain and the promise of winter. The priest moved closer to the tree and placed his hand on the trunk.

“A tall one,” he said quietly. Christina was on her way down and could hear him better. “This tree must be quite old. Do you need a ladder? It’s harder coming down than it is going up.”

“No,” said Christina, pausing on a low branch. “Coming down is easy. I feel like I have claws, ready to sink in and steady me. Going up is hard. I don’t have wings, no matter what people say.”

It began to rain, and the lingering leaves of the tree provided little shelter. The millhouse wheel grew louder, as the churning river water was joined by the sheets of rain. Christina lowered herself onto the ground, a chill passing through her body.

“It’s getting colder,” the priest said. “Do you intend to stay outside all winter?”

“I’d rather pray for sinners from a distance,” Christina answered, turning toward the woods.

“Well, before you go,” added the priest, “excuse my companion’s remarks. He’s training for the priesthood. He probably felt disheartened to find his efforts pale against your own fiery dedication.”

Christina paused and looked once more at the bright-eyed priest, whose mouth held the hint of a smile. She nodded and then went on, fading into the misty rain and the last of the dark, shuddering leaves.

“I’m struck by a woman called Christina,” said the trainee to a small group of people. He had joined them as they were gathered around a well, discussing the upcoming winter. The water drawn up was growing colder, causing their breath to cloud the air as they talked. “She must live somewhere, right? Or does she stay in a tree, even when it gets cold?”

A dark-haired man shrugged. “I don’t know what she does. I think she’s mad.”

“Maybe possessed,” said an old man, laughing.

“She could be holy,” suggested a woman. “Or all three. A trinity of strangeness.” She smiled at the trainee. He noticed her teeth. Curving. Dull. Sharp.

“I heard she survives on her own breast milk,” mentioned the dark-haired man.

“But she’s never had a child!” a heavily pregnant woman protested.

“That’s just it!”

The smiling woman leaned in close to the trainee. She was young and smelled like wood shavings and sheep. There was a piece of stray fabric caught in her hair.

“Why do you ask?” she said. “Did you see her during a spiritual ecstasy?”

The trainee nodded, looking at her teeth again. They somehow reminded him of a woman he had known, the one with whom he’d sneak out into the field.

He thought of the priesthood and God, and the relief that traveling and putting distance between him and the once-lover had brought. He thought of fire, and if being consumed by flames was worth it.

Batavia, New York, 2010

Halfway through the retreat, Kathy suggested the class take a break outside.

“We’re going to watch a short video, and I have to get the TV ready. Why don’t you take a little walk around the pond in the meantime?”

Right behind the Seminary was a pond, framed with rippling grass and a few small trees. It was man-made and unnaturally round, but still murky and tinted green. Now and then, the subtle movements of fish gliding below the surface could be seen.

“Hey, is that one dead?” someone asked, pointing to the other side of the pond.

The class wandered over to the area. There, a tree stood with spindly, twisting branches, overlooking a dead fish that had washed up against the springy grass.

“I don’t think Kathy can see us from here,” Matthew said, glancing at the Seminary. He grinned and turned to the group. “I dare someone to throw it into that tree.”

The class laughed, and kids pushed and pointed at each other, trying to convince a friend to follow through with Matthew’s dare. Vivian thought of how bold Liz always was. She could talk to anyone, wasn’t afraid to sing with abandon in front of others, and never hesitated when someone dared her to do something. It seemed like Liz was figuring it all out. She’d be ready for high school, no doubt, and Matthew definitely liked her more. Why wouldn’t he?

Thinking of her list from the first exercise—to make lots of friends and never be lonely—Vivian walked up to the edge of the pond, and the class excitedly moved in closer. The fish glistened. It had probably once been silvery and sparkling, but now it was gray and dull, its dead body softening into the mud. Vivian slipped her hands under it, trying not to make a face of disgust at the smell. As she moved towards the tree, her gaze shifted outside of herself. Levitating above her body, watching her feet march and her hands gingerly hold the fish, she couldn’t help but feel astonished. What was she doing?

As Vivian flipped her burden up towards the tree, a scale sliced across her thumb, jolting her back into her body. The dead fish didn’t come back down. It had been caught in the branches, just out of reach from even the tallest kids.

“Yeah, Viv! That was great,” Matthew said, laughing along with the rest of the class. “Way to bring some life into this boring day.”

Vivian smiled, bending her stinging thumb beneath her other fingers.

“Wow,” Liz said, her face a vision of discomfort. “That was so gross.”

“I know,” agreed Vivian, as the filmy sensation on her fingers seemed to spread. “I need to go wash my hands.”

She parted from the group and walked back into the Seminary, heading to the small bathroom down the hall. As Vivian bent over the sink and turned on the faucet, the door clattered open. Kathy walked in, and stopped short when she saw the thin line of blood running down Vivian’s thumb.

“Are you alright? What happened?” Kathy asked, moving closer.

“I’m fine,” Vivian quickly said. There was no way she could tell Kathy about the fish and risk getting herself and the class in trouble. “I got a paper cut earlier and it started bleeding again.”

Kathy looked both concerned and unconvinced. “When you’re done washing, I have band-aids,” she said, and left to go get them.

Vivian stared at her thumb. She had just lied at a Confirmation retreat. A sin. And would Kathy get ahold of her parents to tell them about the cut?

The water rinsed away the dirty feeling on her hands, but Vivian began to feel uneasy inside, a tangle of guilt and discomfort to be waded through.

Brustem, Belgium, 1181

Dawn was breaking, slowly illuminating the wet and shadowy world. Spiderwebs stretched across blades of grass and between tree branches, trembling gently in the cold. The trainee paced back and forth outside the millhouse, plowing his feet through dozens of webs, kicking up glimmering droplets and sending little insects and arachnids scurrying.

The vision of Christina up in the tree, staring down at him with intent eyes, flashed across the trainee’s mind.

“After God brought her back to this world, she levitated up to the rafters,” the priest had told him. “Everyone leapt up and fled, except for her sister and me. She may seem strange, but Christina is doing what she feels God has called her to do. His miracles shine through her dedication.”

If Christina was as miraculous and monstrously committed as she seemed—and the flames attested to that—then she might know of his previous affair through whatever gifts she had. He couldn’t shake the feeling of her knowing gaze tearing into him. Would Christina tell the priest about his past? Was his life going to unfold differently than he had anticipated?

The trainee recalled the conversation from the night before. Maybe possessed, someone had said. If he pushed that idea far enough, it could be taken seriously. Would it work to his advantage and discredit Christina?

It was around a year ago that Christina had plunged into the icy river running through Brustem, letting the current carry her to the millhouse wheel. She still wasn’t sure what hurt more—freezing waters or licking flames. She now stood near the river, watching the gray water flow. A mist of rain settled over it.

Footsteps sounded up the path. Christina turned, and the priest came to stand beside her.

“Perhaps it’s time that you moderated your service to God,” he said quietly.

“Does he really think I’m possessed?” Christina asked. The trainee had been striking up conversations with people, needling in the prospect that Christina was not holy, but just the opposite.

“I don’t think so, but he’ll be resuming his training elsewhere,” the priest said, blinking a few times. “It’s easy though, to pin possession on you.”

Christina turned back to the water. “I try to do what God wants. I try to be good for Him. But being good is bad sometimes, isn’t it? Depending on who’s watching.”

Thunder cleaved the air, and the rain began to fall harder.

Batavia, New York, 2010

With a final prayer, Kathy dismissed the class from the retreat, assuring them that they were now all able to make their Confirmation. The class filed out, tossing their papers from the first activity into the trash as they left.

As Vivian headed for the door, relieved to finally go home, Matthew came up to her.

“Hey, Viv,” he said. “I’m heading out with some friends tonight. We found this vacant building. There’s a lot of cool old stuff in it. Want to come?”

Vivian’s thumb throbbed. The idea of hanging out with people she didn’t know made her nervous. She pictured herself smiling for new sets of eyes and wondered if it would give her a head start for high school. But either way, she knew her mother wouldn’t let her go. She’d rather spend the night with Liz, anyway.

“I don’t think I can,” Vivian said.

“Oh, okay,” answered Matthew. She couldn’t tell if he looked amused or disappointed. “That’s alright. You’re a good Christian. You got all that saint stuff figured out.”

Then he turned towards some other kids, called “wait up,” and was gone.

Good Christian, good Christian, Vivian replayed in her head. He had called her good, and it made her feel bad. Would she have lied if she was so good?

“Come on, Vivian,” Liz said, joining her. Together they emerged outside. The light seemed brighter than it had just two hours ago, clear and terrible, beautiful and blinding. It astonished Vivian, illuminating the sidewalk before her, tangling with the shadows of the large stone cross and the trees wavering in the wind.

Tess Woitaszek is a senior at SUNY Geneseo, with a major in English. Her focus within creative writing is poetry and short fiction. She plans to pursue library and information sciences with the goal of becoming a librarian.

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Martin Dolan


The soup is served late, already cool, as if the kitchen staff and waitress have come together, conspired somehow to send you a message. You eat it anyway. You’re stoned and dehydrated—even room temperature minestrone tastes great. Something between your ears and brain is throbbing. Across the room at the hostess stand, you can see a woman gesturing, not-so-subtly, at your table. You take another spoonful of soup, swallow it, force a big smile for anyone watching.

On either side of you, Emily and Jordan are still fighting.

“I never told you I was going with you guys to Jake’s,” says Emily, “not for sure, anyways.” Her words aren’t slurred, but her voice is shrill, which might just be worse. People from the tables around you are looking over now, frowning.

“What do you mean?” says Jordan, exhausted and angry. “What were you planning on doing between now and going out, then?” He takes a swig of his beer—an Italian import whose taste he doesn’t bother to enjoy—and washes it down with a handful of unbuttered bread.

They’ve been fighting for hours now. Emily showed up at your apartment this morning already pissed off, half-explaining her text exchanges with Jordan in between sips of mimosa that she mixed herself. When Jordan got to your place an hour later, the two of them hardly said a word to each other, just glared, until a few drinks each had loosened them up. That had been at the first bar. At 10:30, maybe? It’s nearly six now. They’re still going at it.

Emily pouts and crosses her arms. She’s wearing a green crop top with the bottom half of her boobs hanging out. Her shirt had been full-sized once, an Irish flag printed across its front, until Emily took a pair of kitchen scissors to the lower third of it. More recently, at the last bar you stopped at, she’d spilled half a White Claw down her front, giving what was left of the shirt its current dark, damp color.

At least the pair of shamrock-shaped sunglasses had gotten lost during the Uber ride to dinner.

Jordan, to his credit, is considerably more put together. He’s already, at only twenty-three, showing the prowess of a functional alcoholic twice his age. You’ve never liked Jordanyou’ve sat through enough of Emily’s 3:00 a.m. sobs to fall for his fake-charming bullshit—but you find yourself taking his side in this fight, even if it’s only because his voice is less irritating. Emily is a pushover with the men she dates, and when these boyfriends are inevitably cruel to her, she takes it out on her own friends (usually you). There have been many before Jordan, and you’re sure there will be more after: a constant stream of assholes and burnouts about whom she refuses to take your advice.

Today alone you can point to several times—getting ready in your apartment, talking to friends from school you bumped into downtown—when Emily told anyone nearby that she would, in fact, be at Jake’s in between dinner and going out. You don’t bring this up, though—you don’t want to stir the pot. Not that either of them would listen to you, anyway.

Emily only ever manages to muster the courage to stand up for herself after enough drinks that the coming argument would anything but articulate. And Jordan, without fail, always takes the bait. In that way, at least, they’re perfect for each other.

If you were a fly on the wall, you might even find this argument interesting: so mindless that it’s funny. As you are, though, seated in the center of a sleepy dining room of seventy-somethings, you’re freaking out. You hate drinking—the way it makes your friends insufferable and the men they date somehow worse—but you’re starting to wish you only took one weed gummy instead of two before the bar crawl.

“Don’t give me that shit!” Jordan says, too loud. His voice is big and male. It carries across the room, bounces off the walls and into the ears of everyone in the restaurant. The people who have just been seated look concerned, instinct telling them to worry about the women sitting with the belligerent man. The ones who have been seated for a while, who have already heard Emily’s side of the argument, just shake their heads. Another woman calls a waitress over, holds her hand in front of her lips and whispers something.

You feel like you should do something, give the room a little wave that says, “Don’t worry, this happens all the time.”

And that’s when you realize you can’t, that you haven’t been moving, that you can’t move at all. You’ve been frozen in your chair for who-knows-how-long. Emily and Jordan are still bickering back and forth, repeating the same arguments louder and louder, and more heads are turning, looking at them, looking at you. Your chest is tightening, squeezing around your lungs. Your breath is heavy. Air flows in and, slowly, flows back out. Your skin is crawling, inside and out, but you can’t worry about that now. Ignore the eyes, ignore the sounds, just focus on your breathing. One breath. One, two. Then another. One, two.

You raise one hand up to the table, grab your spoon. Its texture—cold and metal—grounds you for a second, so you focus on that instead of Emily and Jordan, tune out their words. You take another spoonful of soup, then butter some bread; do it like it’s totally natural, like there’s nothing else you should be doing. Anything mindless, anything to occupy your hands while you focus on your breathing. One, two. One, two. One, two. Focus on the sound of your lungs, your heart, not on them.

You know you should be angry or, at the very least, embarrassed—you’ve gotten far more worked up over less in the past—but you can’t muster the emotion. You’re too high. The wandering eyes of the strangers around you, confused and upset, are physically weighing you down. Your shoulders and neck are crawling, heavy yet tender. You try to slink backwards into your chair, try to disappear. Breathe in, breathe out, eyes straight ahead, focused on nothing. Your vision blurs, pleasantly.

“Is everything okay?”

One of the waitresses is leaning over your table. You’re about to speak up, say that no, actually, you’re not, but she’s not talking to you. Her arms are crossed, eyebrows lowered. She’s angry. She’s looking right at Jordan, reading the largeness of his physical presence as a threat.

“We’re fine!” says Emily, and she tries to flash a smile. She’s had about four too many drinks for that; she just looks crazy. Emily’s answer doesn’t satisfy the waitress, but she does stand down a little, thinking at the very least her interference has calmed the argument. Emily shoots Jordan a nasty look, which he returns.

“You know what we could use?” says Jordan, in the particularly pompous voice he saves for waitstaff while he’s drinking, “some more bread.” He shoves the empty basket of bread across the little table, towards the waitress. It slides halfway across the table then stops, tips over. Jordan locks eyes with the waitress. You watch her, gears turning in her head, calculating where this conversation is about to go, deciding this asshole isn’t worth her time.

“Fine,” she says, “but keep it down.” She takes the basket and turns back to the kitchen.

The rest of the restaurant is quiet. No one is watching your table anymore, you can see that much, but the deliberate way they stare at their menus and cellphones is almost worse. You know what they’re thinking. You’re thinking it, too. One, two. One, two. One, two.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” you say, suddenly, and before Emily or Jordan have the chance to respond you’re already standing, walking away. You keep your eyes straight, bob between the few tables still in your way, avoid the waitresses whose conversation stops when they see you. You move slowly, with what you hope passes for nonchalance, but then someone behind you laughs and you’re speeding up. Tucked away to the side of the bar is a dark, unmarked door. You go to it, open it up and step inside in one fluid motion, realize only after the door closes behind you that you’re looking at a urinal, that this is the men’s room.

One, two. One, two. One, two.

The door doesn’t lock, either, which normally wouldn’t be a problem except for that what you really need right now is to be alone, away from Emily and Jordan and the waitresses and everyone else in the restaurant, their arguments and their judgmental eyes. There’s a chipped sink and a dirty mirror. Then, in a tightly packed row, a toilet and two urinals. No stalls separate them. The room is long and narrow, hooking back behind the bar, so small you can touch both walls at once. You hear footsteps on the other side of the door, voices, and your stomach drops.

Your jeans around your ankles, one-ply toilet paper between your ass and the porcelain, right arm outstretched to keep the door closed, you try, and fail, to pee. The bathroom smells like cat litter and cleaning supplies—you can see both in the far corner—and an uncomfortable warmth is steaming up from the toilet bowl. You close your eyes, try to stop pressuring yourself, let your body do its thing. Focus on your breathing, that much you can handle, but that only makes it worse. One, two. One, two. One, two. Except the twos are irregular, offbeat and heavy. Sweat is pooling on the bottoms of your legs.

A minute passes, maybe more. Nothing has happened and, realizing nothing is going to, you get up from the toilet, pull up your pants and buckle your belt. You wash your hands twice, jutting your butt out to keep the door closed. You make the mistake of checking your reflection in the mirror. Your mascara is running, for what has to have been hours, and in all the commotion of dinner, no one bothered to point out the red sauce dotting both of your cheeks. You splash sink water on your face and it helps; despite how you look, you feel almost normal. You can’t stay in the bathroom forever, but for this moment it’s a sanctuary.

Your high is manageable, if not pleasant, but instead of relief you feel, for the first time all day, anger. Anger at Jordan, sure—for his arrogance, the condescending way he talks to Emily and to you—but really, it’s Emily you’re mad at, not him. You’d warned her about Jordan, about all the boys like him, advice she has refused to take seriously except in hindsight. She’d dragged you out to bar crawl even though she knew you wouldn’t have fun, dragged you to this damn restaurant, too. Dragged you into the insanity of their argument—at once about nothing at all and about everything—carried out among strangers, made you an unwilling actor in this public performance of their dysfunction.

And you know tonight, tomorrow, whenever all this blows over, she won’t thank you for your help. Won’t apologize to you, either. She’ll whine a little over FaceTime about how needy Jordan is, then send over photos from a weekend trip with his parents, asking if you think they’re cute. As if you weren’t right there on the front lines with her, caught in their crossfire.

You open the bathroom door to the sound of glass breaking. From where you’re standing you can’t see into the dining room, but you can see the waitstaff’s faces. The younger girls lean over the bar with mouths open. The older waitress, the one who confronted Jordan earlier, just shakes her head, goes back to cleaning.

Your feet are moving, sliding between tables that aren’t bothering to hide their stares anymore. In the center of the dining room, the chair you’d been sitting in is flipped over, legs jutting diagonally into the air. Jordan is leaning back, arms outstretched. His one hand had knocked over the chair, the other wrapped around what used to be a bottle of Peroni. There are shards of glass on the floor.

Across the table, Emily is hissing. “Are you serious, Jordan. Are you fucking serious?”

Jordan’s smirk is cruel. “I forgot my wallet. What am I supposed to do?”

“You didn’t forget shit! You’ve been buying drinks all day.”

“Maybe,” he says, with slurred satisfaction. “Or maybe I’m just sick of paying for all your shit. Maybe I’m sick of your constant attitude.”

“Fuck you!” She throws a combination of cloth napkin and spat-out food towards Jordan’s face. It falls short, hits the table, and he laughs. The room is silent but also buzzing. You stay where you are, at the edge of the dining room. You can’t look away.

Emily doesn’t seem to know what she’s saying anymore. Her words slow, sound weaker by the syllable, and even at a distance, you can see the day—all the alcohol, all the arguing—catch up to her at once. She starts to talk, fumbles her words, ends up with something between a burp and a hiccup. It’s a few seconds before Emily tries to speak again, except this time, her voice is different. Unguarded, vulnerable.

“You’re a real asshole sometimes, Jordan,” Emily says, and then she’s crying. Big, juicy, drunk tears, loud and snotty, darkened with glittery makeup, right in the middle of everyone.

Jordan doesn’t say anything, just stands up from his chair. He doesn’t go to Emily, try to comfort her or apologize. Instead, he fumbles in his pockets, pulls out his wallet, throws a credit card on the table as if that’s enough. He turns his back on Emily, looks for the door and then starts towards it. His shoulder hits yours as he passes—not aggressive, he’s stumbling drunk. He doesn’t bother to close the door behind him when he steps outside. A cool draft blows in from outside. The only sounds left come from Emily, mumbling something unintelligible between snotty tears.

Emily looks up and sees you, really sees you, for the first time all day.

“He’s…he’s…” she tries to say, but can’t finish her sentence, slips back into tears, sloppy and loud, and you know that whatever is still working in her booze-filled brain is expecting you to come to her, hug her, tell her everything is going to be okay. How pathetic she looks. You’re one of the crowd, now; separated and silent, staring at her spectacle with judgmental eyes. You know that Emily believes this is your job: damage control, showing up to clean up her messes, wiping her the tears away. It’s been you in the past, and it will probably be you in the future, too. But not today. Not today.

You take one step back, then another, then another. You imagine that you’re melting into the crowd, away from the commotion, letting the distance between you and Emily grow and grow and grow until you’re out the door. The dark March night is cold on your skin. Across the street, you can see Jordan shivering against a road sign, scrolling through his phone, probably looking for a ride home. He looks up and catches you staring but you don’t turn your eyes away, not this time. The two of you stand like that for a minute, eyes locked, not saying a word. Then, in silent understanding, you turn away from each other, head in opposite directions down the street.

With the two of them behind you, you can finally breathe. The air outside is fresh, clean, and when you exhale it comes to life before your very eyes—condenses into a silver fog and then, slowly, disappears into the nighttime air, fades to black. You focus on these breaths; appreciate, for once, their beauty, their music.

One, two. One, two. One, two. One, two. One, two. One, two.

Martin Dolan is a writer from Albany, New York. His fiction has appeared in Barzakh and has won the 2022 Andrew Bergman Award. Find him online at

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Jessica Marinaro

Nasty Bird

A rain-streaked window was Helen’s only entertainment as of late. She stared out of it when the cheap thrills of midday television started to slow the turning of her cogs just a little too much. You really can only watch so many fluorescent flashing episodes of Wheel of Fortune before starting to feel your brain leak out of your ears.

Helen despised that feeling. So, she took care of herself—she tried to walk everyday, continued to tend her garden even though she disliked it, and forced herself to engage in boring elderly activities such as online chess and puzzles. She did these things not because she had any real zest for life, but because she never wanted to become one of those old women who slowly melted into their couches day by day until they inevitably slopped onto the floor lifeless as soup. At the end of a long day of fighting the battle of time, Helen allowed herself the simple pleasure of staring out the window.

Some people say they find joy in their old age, but she knows they’re full of shit. There’s nothing good about getting old. Except maybe grandchildren.

“It’s important they know their grandma,” her daughter Grace had said the first time she dropped the kids off on her front porch, hovering awkwardly. “Regardless of where we stand.”

Her grandkids—Jamie and Fiona—came over on the weekends, the best days of her life now. They marveled at her garden, even though it was not much to look at. They made messes in places that hadn’t been touched in years. She loved it most when they stood at her elbow as she made simple meals, chattering and licking their lips.

The two came over routinely once or twice a month for a weekend at a time. Her daughter never called to let her know, but it didn’t really matter. She was always home. It was during one of those special weekends when the bird’s existence was made apparent to her.

“Look! Grandma!”

They were in Helen’s expansive backyard. She took care of this land without any help; the grass was a sharp healthy green, tickling her ankles as it was starting to get a little long. The newly planted hydrangeas in her garden were coming in nicely despite the pesky weeds. She didn’t believe in pesticides, at least not when it came to the delicate flowers. The chemicals were so aggressive. The smell of hyacinth carried through the three acres of yard all the way back to the trees that separated her property from wild forest. She was hunched over her garden wondering why she even bothered anymore, while Jamie waited impatiently for birds under the birdfeeder. Fiona, on the other hand, was lying in the grass with a book.

Helen didn’t turn around. She was engrossed in weeds. “What is it?”

“The birds! They’re so cool!” Jamie was excited. He was the younger grandchild, a quick little thing full of light. His exuberant nature never failed to charm—as well as annoy, in some cases—those around him.

“Oh yeah?” she tugged at a rather aggressive root. “What do they look like?”

“Reeeeed Robin,” he squealed. “Yum!”

She could hear him and his sister cracking up, and then a second later, he gasped.

Helen whipped her head around faster than she should have at her age. Luckily, her grandson was fine, but the birds in question were being pecked at by a large blue jay. The robins, which Helen noticed were actually cardinals, scattered away quickly. Jamie sulked.

Helen hobbled over. “Shoo!” she waved the blue jay off. It only sprung away from her touch, narrowly avoiding the swat. She came closer, and then it made its escape.

“Nasty bird!” Fiona said.

Helen halted. The world around her dulled. Nasty Bird. She took an unsteady step back, her body fuzzy at the edges.

His scurvy war pals used to call him many things—Dirty Bird, Old Eagle Eye, Crazy Bastard—but Nasty Bird was the most common. He wore that nickname like a badge of honor. His friends would laugh and jostle him in the way young men hardened by war do.

When the people who called him that were still around, she was young and beautiful, and he was striking. He had the kind of boyish charm that made other women fidgety around him, and Helen suspected that he liked the way she never succumbed to his power. She knew she was lucky to have married a man who admired her ability to stand on her own two feet. However, a war fought on foreign soil can have casualties at home.

Wives of soldiers often know suffering more intimately than people give them credit for. All you have to do is look into the eyes of a woman who has loved a man a world away, and you know what she carries. Helen knew people tended to feel grateful for men like her husband; men like him took on all the most intense rage and pain of the world for themselves. But where does all that rage and pain go? What happens when the angry man you love is not a world away, but sitting at the kitchen table?

They fought frequently after he came back. Her husband had left a lighthearted, progressive man who appreciated her for who she was; he came back another creature entirely.

“You don’t know what it’s like out there!” he yelled.

She pinned him with her eyes. “You’re absolutely right. I don’t, but I know what it’s like here at home, and I worry—”

“I don’t need a silly housewife worrying after me. I survived a war, a battlefield—”

You,” she stepped closer to him, “do not get to speak to me that way!”

“What is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you?

A spark, like a crack of lightning against her face.

At least now she finally had his attention. He scrambled, clearly upset, and fawned after her in the aftermath.

“I’m so sorry Helen.” He pressed a cool washcloth to her face.

“I don’t know what got into me.”

“It was a mistake.”

“It will never happen again.”

“I promise.”

Helen cared for her husband, but even when she was young, she was not naive. She knew how war had killed her friends’ husbands’ souls, and she knew at that moment that it wouldn’t be the last time.

“Grandma, are you okay?”

She blinked her eyes, clearing it all away. They had come back inside a few hours ago, lured by the promise of cold lemonade. As reality swam back into view, she noticed the blue jay from before was back at the feeder. The annoying little thing hopped around contentedly for a while then fell still. It gazed toward her reflection in the window, unmoving. Like it was challenging her. She turned away from the window, smiling at Fiona.

“I’m okay, baby,” she said.

“Okay.” Fiona smiled back. The girl was absolutely lovely; blonde and freckled like her mother. She had a quiet, observant disposition that her brother lacked. It made Helen worry.

“Why don’t we get dinner started? That way we have time for dessert before it gets too late.”

The children cheered in unison, and Helen felt her insides brighten.

After Helen prepared a dinner of her famous Kraft mac ‘n cheese—and more importantly to her grandkids, homemade chocolate chip cookies—everyone settled into the comfort of night. The children were sated by food and the soft drone of the boxy TV in Helen’s bedroom. She was almost asleep herself when she got a call. She got so few; she hovered for a moment in contemplation before answering.

“Hello,” she said tentatively. Best not to wake the kids.

Grace’s voice surprised her: “I assume they’re asleep?”

“They’re asleep,” Helen said.

Grace sighed and something about hearing her voice over the telephone made Helen imagine her as an old woman—her headstrong, corporate lawyer daughter as a graying, wrinkly lady with nothing to look forward to except her own grandkids. It made her sick.

“I’ll be there first thing tomorrow morning,” Grace said. “You know I hate leaving them overnight, but work’s a disaster and I can’t leave in good faith. Does nine o’clock sound okay?”

“They can stay as long as you want,” Helen said. After a moment she added, “and you should get some rest.” She tried to sound authoritative, but it came out weak.

Grace didn’t seem fazed. “I’m glad I could finally start leaving them with you,” she said. What Helen knew lingered beneath those words: I’m glad he’s gone. It hovered in her mind.

“I love having them here.”

This transparency surprised her, but maybe this night was one for honesty. Maybe with the shield of a cool blue evening they could make things better.

“’Kay, I’ll be there in the morning.” Grace hung up.

Or maybe not. She could feel her daughter closing herself off before she even heard Grace’s words, and it stung. She laid in the bed for one more quiet moment staring at the chain that hung from her ceiling fan. It swung, and it swung, and it swung. She knew that in her kitchen the curtains swung too—the wind would make it so with its hollow moan. Helen imagined that blue jay might even sleep on a swinging branch. She felt nauseous, seasick from the sway of it all. She wondered if the swinging would ever stop.

The next morning, the very same bird woke her up with the sound of his screeching. In her post-dream state, it sounded like a blaring alarm. She sprung from her spot on the loveseat only to find no emergency. The house was not burning to the ground, and there was no burglar; only a devious blue jay who seemed to cackle at her fear. Still, she needed to check on the kids. In her sudden and panicked awareness, the desire to see them was overwhelming.

She made her way to the bedroom. Although she had spent some time watching a movie with the kids there last night, it had recently become more of a spare room since she could no longer sleep on her back. Jamie slept deeply on the bed right where she left him, his mouth open and drool pooling on the pillow. Fiona was curled on the air mattress with her eyes open. She sat up quickly.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

Helen smoothed her graying hair and let loose a breath. She must look haggard. She despised her body for its inferior mechanisms. At least, she pondered, she’d gotten up at all. She’d trade fitful sleep for the ability to be alert any day.

“Everything is fine, Grandma was just startled.”

“What scared you? Was it a nightmare?”

Her granddaughter’s eyes were wide and light, and though Helen searched for them, she could not see any shadows creeping in. It relaxed her to notice the lack of curve in her granddaughter’s back, the lightness of her shoulders. She was pure, clear joy.

“No, no sweetie. It was that bird again,” she said. “The one that bullied the cardinals away.”

“Oh,” Fiona said, standing up. “Can I help you make breakfast?”

Helen smiled. “Of course.”

They walked to the kitchen together, past the window and the lumpy loveseat where Helen slept. She maneuvered carefully over the tiles.

“Your mother called,” she said, pulling out a pan from a low cupboard, “She said she would be here to pick you kiddos up by 9:00 this morning, but…”

The clock read 10:42 a.m.

Helen squeezed Fiona’s shoulder. “I think work is holding her up.”

“It’s okay.” Without a word, Fiona started grabbing milk, eggs, and measuring cups. “I figured that’s what happened.”

They worked in silence as the morning light softened the hard edges of Helen’s home. Maybe she felt her edges soften a little too.

Of course there were good times, enough of them that Helen would often block out the horrors of her past in favor of focusing on the moments of tenderness. Sometimes, when she leaned uncomfortably into her chair-bed at the end of the day, she’d grasp for these good memories pitifully—if only to find some tiny relief.

The day she returned to most frequently was an early date with her husband. He was all bright smiles and gentlemanly gestures in those days—he held the door for her and pulled out her chair. He took her for a nice dinner, and, like any young kids looking for trouble back then, they went dancing afterwards. His hands were gentle. This was before he was a military man, when he was less fit and more fun. When he laughed easily. When she fell in love with him.

By the end of that night they were sweaty and breathless. A slow song drifted between the crowd, which thinned out as single ladies and solo gents left to get drink refills or make a hasty retreat together. The two of them stayed, and while they danced Helen thought about love.

There were also those nights she spent sitting by his bedside towards the end. Those nights were an altogether different kind of good memory; a less wholesome kind. She remembered them well because she finally had the power. He was the one groveling at her feet for the first time. He was the one asking for forgiveness. She had never been religious but in those months—ones in which she had to feed him, and wash him, and help him stand up—she started to see how some of that Jesus-talk her mother used to spout was sort of true: maybe there was something to be said for loving your enemy. Maybe there was something to be said for turning the other cheek.

Still, she wasn’t a saint. She didn’t forgive him, and she’d never know if that was the right choice or not. An animal might be rotten if it bit the hand that fed it, and her husband was by all accounts a rotten animal; a nasty bird. But he was also human—and that was the reminder that always twisted the knife when she thought about how she denied him his peace in the end.

Helen flipped a pancake, admiring the smooth cooked side. Fiona filled cups with orange juice.

“Go wake up your brother,” she said.

Ever her mother’s daughter, the little girl didn’t object. Soon they were all sitting at the table munching happily; the juice was tangy, the pancakes were warm. Helen glanced out the window from time to time, checking on the bird feeder. The pest hadn’t come back yet, but Helen was strangely paranoid he would. She was already planning ways to be rid of him.

A ring at the doorbell interrupted their peaceful eating.

The children sprang up from their seats. Fiona opened the door without looking through the peephole. They knew it was their mother because nobody else ever came here.

“Mom!” Jamie jumped and hugged her.

“Hey you,” Grace said.

Fiona greeted her mother with a calmer embrace. Grace kissed the top of the child’s head, and they grinned at each other. It struck Helen then that her daughter was a really great mother; that she had something inside her that Helen never did and never would. She wondered where she got that from.

“Go grab your stuff.” The kids scurried off at their mother’s gentle command.

Grace took a few steps into the house but didn’t sit down. “Mom.”

Helen didn’t respond, and the tension was like a third person in the room. She only shook her head. The short conversation last night hadn’t done anything; they would always be like this. Desperate to do anything other than sit like a decrepit old lady at her dining room table, she got up and started piling dishes in the sink.

Fiona and Jamie tumbled back out into the room with their overnight backpacks. They gave their grandmother quick hugs and said goodbye.

As soon as they shut the door behind them, the silence echoed. Helen felt it settle back into all the places that collected dust when the kids weren’t around. There was nothing worse than the dawning hush of a dead house. She felt enormously tired, but she started washing the dishes anyway.

The next day, she decided to get rid of that bird once and for all. It was tormenting her, and it had scared her grandson. It had to go. She had read in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine that blue jays dislike the sound of windchimes, and that they don’t care for safflower seeds; these would be her weapons.

She took a quick ride to the hardware store to gather her arsenal. As usual, the teenager who worked the register took forever, and Helen did little to hide her impatience. As soon as she got home, she devised a plan. She would fill the top of her birdfeeder with all the safflower seeds it could hold and see if that deterred the beast. Though she detested the annoying clanging of chimes, she would put them up if the bird insisted on being a nuisance even after her change in seed. If it persisted after that…

She’d load the twelve-gauge collecting dust in the shed and shoot the damn thing.

Okay, maybe she wouldn’t do that. She wasn’t a very good shot, and she’d never actually had to use a shotgun. She tended to avoid the shed when she could. So many of his things were left there.

Shoving away the thoughts of shooting and killing, Helen gathered her materials and marched to the backyard. She stuck her nose up into the air in defiance and poured the safflower seed into the feeder with a heavy hand. She then stood for a moment, hands on her hips, and looked around to see if any blue jays dared to face her.

They didn’t. Or at least not yet. She suspected that stupid bird would be back soon, but she hoped a taste of that seed would send him away. In the meantime, Helen walked back through her garden and into the lonely house. There was nothing to do now but wait.

It had been three weeks of hoping the blue jay would leave, but the bird just kept coming back.

In the mornings when she usually spent reading or sitting on the back porch, he was there. During the midday when she would throw together a cup of tea and sandwich at her kitchen table, he was there—the bird feeder so glaringly visible from every angle. When she took naps she was snapped awake by his call; when she tried to focus on anything else, her attention was pulled back to him.

Helen supposed it could be karma from a past life; it could certainly be premature karma from this life, as she had done enough harm to warrant such a haunting. It was possible all of that bad juju she had succeeded in tallying up in her current body had filled up in her next life and boiled back over into the now, like a pot she left too long on the stove.

It was just as possible that the Better Homes article she read was straight bullshit.

It was morning. Helen was sitting on her back porch with a coffee and a crossword puzzle, trying not to sulk. The world was dreadful and quiet. She pretended to be engrossed in the puzzle for nobody except her and the wind, when in reality she found herself counting down the days until she’d likely be seeing Jamie and Fiona again. She wasn’t fooling herself, and she doubted she could fool nature.

As she sat and sipped and sank deeper into the hazy yellow day, nature made itself known to her the way it had been for several weeks now: with the screech and chirps of cardinals being harassed by the blue jay.

She glanced up to take in the scene. Once again, two little cardinals innocently picked and prodded at the seed only to be interrupted by the torment of the blue jay. Her eyesight hadn’t gone yet, as she could see from her porch the way the black markings on the bird’s head streaked into a menacing hardened brow. His beak was curved just slightly in a grin as he ripped at the cardinals’ feathers—a grin that only seemed to intensify as they let out their pierced cries for mercy.

That was enough. She curled the puzzle book in her hands, turning it into a viscous club. She pulled herself up from her wicker chair with a sudden ferocity and rushed down the porch steps towards the bird feeder.

The cardinals took flight in fear, but the blue jay held his ground. She saw red as she lunged toward him, harder and meaner than she ever would have if the kids were here. He flittered for a moment but annoyingly circled back to the feeder and let out a loud caw.

She swung.

She swung harder.

On her third attempt to nail the bird, she actually made contact. She whacked it pretty good, and the creature squawked in pain before making its hasty retreat. She then lowered herself to the ground, desperately trying to catch her breath in the wake of her attack. Once her breathing started to even out she noticed there was something tingly about her hands, possibly from clenching them harder than she ever had before. There was also a biting feeling in her lower stomach that threatened tears. She couldn’t place it.

After that, the bird never returned. Helen could sense the fear she was so used to carrying around slowly easing. Before, her life and past had swirled around her head daily; thoughts baiting thoughts, like vultures circling a bloody carcass. Now, she simply went about her life. Everyday it became a little easier.

Today was her anniversary. She had tried desperately to erase this day’s importance in her memory through sheer force of will, but no amount of newfound serenity would ever allow her to forget. She knew she would have to get out of this house and away from the ghosts that loomed around every corner. She would run all of her errands today. Even if she couldn’t really forget today’s significance, the least she could do for herself was pretend.

When she got back to the house, Grace’s car was parked in the driveway. She stared at it for one minute—nearly two—before getting out of the driver’s side of her own car. Was this it? Had she actually lost her mind?

No, but maybe something bad had happened to her grandkids. Why else would the daughter who hated her be here today of all days? The thought had her rushing to the front door, her grocery laden hands shaky.

Inside Fiona and Jamie colored on her dining room table, perfectly content. She sagged with relief as their heads snapped up and they ran to her screaming, “Happy birthday Grandma!”

She hugged the children tightly. Probably too tightly, as her grandson squirmed and slipped away after only a moment. She let go and did a double take when she saw Grace there, actually sitting on the couch.

“I let it slip that it was your birthday,” Grace said. She turned her attention back to the “The kids wouldn’t stop begging me to let them come by.”

Helen was at a loss for words for a moment. Her birthday wasn’t for another two months, and her daughter was nothing if not attentive when it came to important dates. Was this some cruel prank?

She didn’t want to upset the kids or worse—have to deal with the disappointment of losing their presence after being promised it, so she went along. After they ate cake and ice cream, and Fiona and Jamie sang the loveliest Happy Birthday tune Helen had ever heard, their mother corralled them into her car. As Helen sipped a coffee, preparing for the quiet of a childless house, Grace stepped back in.

Grace spoke first. “I slipped a $50 in the card Jamie made for you,” she started, sounding almost professional. “Although as you saw it might be a little sticky from the glitter glue, I told him not to use that crap—”

“It’s not my birthday,” Helen cut her off.

Grace looked bewildered. “What do you mean?”

“My birthday is in September.” Helen took a deep breath. “Today is the day your father and I got married.”

“Oh. Oh my god…”

Grace scrolled through her phone; a calendar app, Helen supposed, and raked her hand through her hair in disbelief. Time seemed frozen as Helen gazed at her lap, and Grace stared at her feet. A table, an ocean, a world between them.

After a moment, Grace collected herself. “Why did you let him stay, Mom?” The words seemed blurted, but Helen noticed how she refused to back down. “You were the strongest person in the world to me, but you let him—” She stopped abruptly. Helen imagined there were some things even her strength couldn’t allow her to say.

“He hurt us,” Helen said, letting the truth spill into the air between them.

Helen couldn’t look at her daughter. She didn’t want to have to face the shadows there, the curve of her back, or the heaviness that rested on her shoulders. Heaviness put there by her own mother. What had she done?

“I’m sorry.” Helen said it without thinking. She knew from personal experience how little ‘I’m sorry’s’ meant.

When she finally looked at her daughter, she noticed how strongly she stood. Immovable.

“I don’t forgive you,” Grace sniffed, hastily wiping a runaway tear. “But I do love you.”

Once again, Helen recognized that biting sensation she had felt after she attacked the blue jay. She could place it now—it was the feeling you have after you’ve hurt somebody. The feeling you have after you’ve hurt yourself. She started to cry, and after years of silence it felt cathartic.

“I don’t forgive me either,” Helen said. She desperately wanted to embrace her daughter, but couldn’t. Instead she wiped her own eyes, took a shuddering breath, and pushed all the broken pieces back into place. “I love you too,” she whispered. She watched her daughter walk out her door.

She sat back down on her couch. Her coffee became cold as she stared out the window, searching for anything but mostly looking for the blue jay. She stayed there until morning light and thought about how gentleness is akin to roughness; how we are born not with wings, but with hands—and that maybe those hands are meant to both hurt and heal the very same.

Jessica Marinaro is a junior English (creative writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. Her work has previously been published in Iris Magazine, and she is a writer and editor for Geneseo’s chapter of Her Campus. When not at her desk writing, she can be usually found snuggled up with a book, jogging around campus, or jamming to Taylor Swift.

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Bryce Levac

Our House

I put tulips under all the pillows, and then set fire to the house. As the flames thrash around, crawling their way through each room, I sit on the front lawn, watching my perfect little house morph into ash. Before it’s forever ruined, I try to imagine each room, to preserve it in some way. I start with the bedroom. It was of moderate size, containing few items besides my queen-size bed, an old wooden dresser that my parents had passed on to me, and a closet that contained whatever clothes I couldn’t fit in the dresser. The bedsheets used to be pure white, but once she moved in they became red, against my better wishes. Its floor was carpeted, much like the living room downstairs, providing a comfortable enough space to lay down if I was feeling particularly tired. I’d do that pretty often, especially when she wasn’t home. Gazing up at the ceiling, pure white like the sheets that used to cover the bed. The white always brought me a certain calm, affording me an escape from the harsh red, finally allowing me the mental space to think. I wanted to experience that same therapeutic feeling one last time, but at that point I’d already poured the gasoline onto the carpet, causing it to swell and darken.

The bed was my main focus though, ensuring every inch of it was soaked so those horrid red sheets could never be resurrected. The only other addition I made to the now tainted bed were two pink tulips that stuck out from underneath the pillows. I knew she hated them. She made sure that whenever I got them for her, she’d put me down in the same dirt from which they came, but I didn’t care. It was a small act of defiance that really didn’t matter compared to the theater production I was now orchestrating. Each flame was now following the carefully constructed choreography that I had set within each room. So far the performance was more than I could’ve ever hoped for, each flame improvising and adapting to the scene around them. Despite the more than satisfying show, I felt a drop run down my illuminated face.

The living room is next. It was directly to the right when you walked in the door, with the same carpet as the bedroom upstairs, but it never felt quite as well suited for the therapeutic floor sessions that I’d have in the bedroom. The living room provided its own special comforts, however. A decently sized TV was mounted on the wall, allowing me to watch whatever show or movie I was in the mood for. I’d often rewatch the same stuff, though. It brought me a certain relief despite the obvious, predictable nature. The only thing to disturb this repetitious comfort was her condescending gaze telling me how pathetic and worthless I was. I’d experience both the repetitious viewings and judgmental gazes from the leather couch that I’d found at a yard sale. It wasn’t anything special, but it had that homey brown leather look you think of when you first think of a basic leather couch. When I first brought it into the house, I thought about how perfectly it was placed in the middle of the room, how it was always meant to be there. It had traveled unknown miles and lived in an undetermined number of homes in order to finally arrive here, in my perfect little house, in my perfect little living room. To her though, it was an eyesore.

“Why do we even keep that ugly ass thing?” she’d say, with that same, unforgiving gaze that would deplete my confidence.

“Because I like it?”

“Heh.” She’d brush the comment off her shoulder, trying to sound like she’s joking, hiding the true resentment she’s feeling. “And you think that’s a good enough reason?”

I had stared at the couch for a while. It gazed back at me, questioning the reason for my sudden, malicious decision to destroy it and the home which it had inhabited for years now. I didn’t give it an answer. I simply poured the gasoline, allowing it to seep into the couch like loose change. I had wanted to drag it outside, at least give myself a better viewing experience for what was about to happen, but also to salvage at least one thing of mine that had inhabited the house that wasn’t my own body. For this to mean anything, though, it had to burn with the rest of the house. At least it’s fair that way. Everything that was hers is mine and everything that was mine is hers. Now, we are both left with nothing.

I did have something, though. Not the couch; I could never say that was really mine considering how often she plopped herself on it, taking up most of the space, and leaving me barely enough space to sit. No, it was my mug. It was a large, white mug with a slight chip on its rim from when I dropped it in the sink while doing dishes. I remember being terrified that I’d broken it completely, that I couldn’t utilize the last thing I truly owned within that house ever again. But it had endured my error in physical coordination, and I continued to use it every morning and every night. Every time I held it in my hand, I could feel myself loosening up. The calming weight of it in my hand let me know that I still had one thing left for my own. But then one morning, this morning, I went downstairs to claim it again, as I had done every morning before. She was standing there with it in her hands, sipping her morning coffee from it while watching the television in the other room. Her red lipstick stained the white ceramic. It might as well be shattered into a million pieces.

“What?” She asked, finally noticing my gaze.

“Nothing, just thinking about what I want for breakfast.” I hid my contempt. I hid my rage; it’s the only thing I can claim as my own anymore.

Stop. Stop thinking about what you’ve lost. It’s been lost for years now. The second she entered your life and the house in which that life was cultivated, it was no longer yours. You built it from scratch. You chopped the wood. You built it using the materials mother nature provided. You wanted something to call your own. To truly claim it as your own. The couch, the bed, the dresser, hell, even the carpet. All of them made an image. My image. My home. But with her there, how could it be mine anymore? It became ours. It’s hard to even say that it was ours since she came to reject everything that was mine, and I rejected everything that was hers. That places the house itself and everything within it in a constant state of possessive limbo, with no one able to claim anything as his or her own since the other will end up rejecting it regardless. And since one person rejects it, that means we both reject it, since it’s supposed to be our house. At the end of the day, it ends up belonging to no one.

So burning down this house, a house that was once so beautiful and holistic in its vision, was a mercy. It was sick, infected by a vision that was not my own. I let her in. I shared myself with her. Shared my home. She didn’t want any part of it. She just wanted the ideal. The perfect husband who’d conform to her decorative wills. I wanted my house back.

I hear tires squeak to a halt behind me. I shouldn’t have stayed. I should’ve left as soon as I knew the house was going to thoroughly burn, but I needed to be here to see the look on her face. I turn around to see her stepping out of her car. It’s dark out, so it’s hard to make out her face in the blinding headlights. My mind begins to run through all of the different possibilities: Shock, hatred, anger, devastation. I don’t want to face any of them but I know I have to. When the headlights shut off, everything goes dark for a moment until I finally see her face. She’s looking directly at me, her figure outlined by the flame in front of us. It’s that same look of resigned disappointment she always had whenever I walked through the door. We hold our gaze for a while. There’s nothing left to say. Nothing to do to fix what we’ve done to each other. Eventually, she walks over to me, sits on the grass, and watches the show I’ve orchestrated for us. “What happened?” There’s no inquiry in her voice, only blunt force.

“I burned the house down.” I know that’s not what she meant, but it’s the only answer I care to give at the moment.

“You know that’s not what I meant.” She’s utilizing that same, blunt tone to deliver her response.

“You know what happened, so can we please stop treating each other like children?”

Her face remains still. Not twitching or reacting to what I’ve said in any way. It’s as blank as the ceiling, only instead of bringing me comfort, it brings me the same dread as those red sheets. She seems to be focusing on something in particular. Her eyes seem transfixed on a certain point in the house. She’s unnaturally calm as if she’s finally seeing what we were, what we are. On her face, I project a future. One in which we don’t fight over what we own. One in which we don’t try to control each other.

We’ll have kids–three of them. Two boys and a girl. I try to think of what we’ll name them, probably something common like Claire or Benjamin. Maybe we’d even name one of them after our grandparents or something like that. But their names aren’t really what I’m trying to focus on at the moment. I’m just focusing on the idea of them, of our family. When the sun is covered in dark, looming clouds, we’ll all gather on that homey brown couch to watch a movie together. A new one this time, since everyone’s craving something a little exciting and different. And when the sun returns, shining through onto the grass below our feet, we’ll go into the backyard to play catch or some variation of tag. Hell, maybe we’ll even have a dog to play with, just to add an extra layer to our perfect family. Then after an exhausting day of caring for our kids, our house, we’ll take the kids to their bedrooms, put them to bed. One of us will read them a story, while the other watches in pure adoration. It’s a nice idea, having a family. Most importantly though, it would be our family.

But it was never going to happen. We’re not those parents, those people. We never had the capability for such mutual love and possession. All we had were our own selfish desires. We were only just now accepting that about each other. And all it took was for me to burn the house down.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t make you happy,” she says, eyes glistening.

It’s the first time in a while she’s been sincere with me, providing a small reminder of why I fell for her in the first place. “Yeah, me too,” I say.

Bryce Levac is a creative writing major with a minor in English. He’s currently in his senior year at SUNY Oswego and plans on graduating in the spring of 2023. Along with writing, his interests include comic books, movies and video games.

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