by A.R. Bender


I’d never paid much attention to Mad magazine, even when I noticed it on the shelves next to the comics in the local variety store, until Ted, a friend who lived across town, showed me an issue earlier in the year. I liked it so much that Ted loaned me a stack of back issues the next time we visited his family.

I was stretched out on my bed reading one of the issues while chomping on the creamy goodness of a Milky Way bar. “Take Good Care of My Baby,” sung by Bobby Vee, played on the top-forty station on my transistor radio. I set the magazine down and gazed out the window, getting restless to go outside, but knowing that I couldn’t because the doctor said I should stay home until the end of the week—another day to go. At the time, I couldn’t understand why he wanted me to rest for a few days because of what happened in Seward Park, but as soon as I got home, I realized why. I didn’t have a fever or anything but felt off and didn’t want to go out at all.

I hoped that this wasn’t going to ruin my summer—what was left of it. It was already the first week of August, meaning I was going to start my first year in junior high school in a month. I didn’t want to think about that and picked up another copy of Mad: the March 1961 issue, with a horizontally split cover. In the middle of the cover, a subtitle read: The First Upside-Down Year since 1881. When you flipped the magazine over, the year 1961 still showed, but with another subtitle below it: The Last Upside-Down Year Until 6009. On both halves, another text block read: No Matter How You Look At It—It’s Gonna Be A MAD Year.

I was reading a ‘Spy vs Spy’ script when I heard a knock on the front door, and the voices of some of my neighborhood friends. When I opened the door, Johnny and Davie, Craig, Scott, Kevin, and Mary Jo greeted me with wide smiles.

“Hey, Bert,” Craig said. “Can we come in?”


“Is your mom home?” Johnny asked.

“Not for an hour or so.”

“Got any cookies?” Scott asked.

“Might be some Oreos left.”

“We were getting worried about you,” Mary Jo said. “Because of what Kevin said happened to you at Seward Park.”

This was one of the first times I’d seen Mary Jo since we went to Ravenna Park together the week before and kissed each other in that giant old hollowed-out tree trunk we discovered. I tried not to stare at her too much

“It was no big deal.”

“No big deal?” Scott said as he plopped the half-full bag of Oreos on the table. “Kevin said you almost drowned!”

“I got a little tired, that’s all.”

“Shoot,” Kevin said, as he munched on the cookie. “I saw you go underwater and not come up. So I yelled for the lifeguard.”

“I woulda made it back okay. I think.”

“Not from what I saw,” Kevin said. “And you were way out there.”

“I’m glad you did, I guess.”

“I felt bad after we left you alone on the raft,” Kevin said. “Kind of a dirty trick. But it was Chuck’s idea. Anyway, I watched you swimming back and could tell something was wrong because you went crooked and away from the shore. And then you stopped and raised your hand. And went under. Whew. I was so glad when you popped up and the lifeguard raced to you.”

“Good thing Kev saw you,” Davie said.

“You’re right,” I said. “Thanks, Kev.”

“We came by to see if you wanted to come out with us,” Johnny said.

“I don’t know. The doctor said I should stay home another day.”

“Oh, come on,” Craig said. “You’ve stayed in long enough.”

“Where you going?”

“To Green Lake,” Scott said. “A nice day for a swim.”

Just then, something hit me. Something cold and numbing. My throat tightened up a little.

“I’d like to,” I said, trying to cover up my apprehension. “But I don’t want my mom to get mad at me. Maybe next weekend.”

“Okay,” Craig said, as he stood up. “See ya later.”

The others followed Craig to the door.

“Glad you’re feeling better, Bert” Mary Jo said, with a half-smile.

After they left, I tried to read the Mad issue, but set it down because I couldn’t help thinking about what happened to me.


We were all in the YMCA day camp bus heading to another recreational area, this time to Seward Park. I liked it there because the park had lots of woods and trails to explore, but the beach was usually crowded on hot days like this. We poured out of the bus and gathered around our counselors. They decided to have us play around the baseball diamonds in the morning and go swimming after lunch.


“Oh no,” Ronnie said, as we hiked down to the beach. “Look at all the kids.”

“It’s not too bad around the rafts,” Chuck said. “Let’s swim out there.”

I waded into the water with Kevin, Chuck, Ronnie, and two other kids, and dove in. In a couple of minutes, we were at the raft. We took turns jumping off the diving board. After a while, more swimmers came on it.

“Hey, let’s go out to the far raft,” Chuck said.

“But the counselors said we aren’t supposed to go there without permission,” I said.

“They won’t know,” Chuck said. “If we don’t stay too long on it.”

“Sounds like fun,” Ronnie said. “We’ve never done that before.”

“Let’s race to it!” Kevin said.

We all lined up on the raft, and on Chuck’s count of three, we dove in. I was pretty tired when we arrived because I’d been swimming so fast.

“That wasn’t so hard,” Chuck said after we clambered on the raft.

I’d never been this far out. The beach seemed so much farther away. At least I could rest on the other raft on the way back, I thought.

I stretched out on the raft, using my hands as a pillow. Amid the chatter of my friends, I closed my eyes and let my mind drift without a care in the world, thinking how perfect everything was now, and wishing that time could stop so I’d always live in summers like this: swimming in lakes and rivers, hiking and fishing in the mountains, and playing pickup baseball games. A couple of times I gazed up and noticed the others huddled in the corner, talking quietly to themselves. I closed my eyes again, half-dreaming about a hike to Pratt Lake in the Cascades I took with the YMCA two weeks before.

Sometime later, everything became darker. I squinted open my eyes: a small cloud covered the sun, the only one in the sky. I looked around and sat up with a jolt. I was alone! Did they leave without me? I shielded my eyes from the sun, gazed out toward the beach, and recognized Chuck and Ronnie next to the YMCA counselors. The whole group seemed as if they were packing up their towels and clothes and heading toward the bus to leave—but without me!

I dove off the raft in a huff, keeping my head tucked into the water and rising up only when needing air, which made me go faster. After a few minutes of rapid swimming, I slowed down, hoping to spot the other raft close by. Instead, both that raft and the beach were still a long distance away. Now I realized that I must have veered off course when keeping my head down when swimming. I started to swim again but my legs felt heavy. I flopped over on my back but after a few strokes took in a mouthful of water, causing my stomach to cramp up. A panic set in, and hard. I wasn’t going to make it. I raised my arm and yelled for help. No one heard me. I yelled and screamed again. And then went under.

I tried pushing up but kept on sinking farther into the cold and murky depths, as if something was holding my legs and pulling me down. I kicked my legs and pushed my arms harder. Kicking. Pushing. Kicking. Vaguely sensing that I was coming back up. But also running out of air.

I broke the surface, took in a huge gulp of air, and screamed for help. I was about to go under again until I saw the lifeguard rowing fast toward me. I used my last reserves of strength thrashing to stay afloat. In what seemed like both an instant and an eternity, the back of the boat was right in front of me.

“Can you hold on?” the lifeguard hollered.

I nodded and grabbed the end of the boat with both hands. I kept a steel grip on it as he rowed away.

A large crowd stood on the beach when we arrived. I barely recognized a few of the kids and counselors, but no one else. The lifeguard helped me out of the water, but after a few steps I doubled up in a spasm, coughing up water. He eased me down to the ground and pushed on my chest. I coughed up more water and began shivering uncontrollably. So many faces staring down, some talking, but I couldn’t make out the words. Someone put a blanket over me, and then another, but I still felt cold and numb.


Cold and numb. Just the way I felt for an instant before my friends left. Now I knew the reason why I got the sudden chill. I draped the couch blanket over my shoulders and turned on the TV to watch American Bandstand. After a few minutes, I noticed a girl on the dance floor that looked like Mary Jo. 

After the song ended, I wished that I had gone with them to the lake.  It was something I had to do, and soon.  For one thing, I didn’t want to be called a chicken and have what happened ruin my summer.  But even worse, I hated that awful feeling I had—like now—whenever I thought about going swimming.  No, I had to force myself and go. It was the only way to get rid of it.  


Black Toms

by Thomas Belton

Two rows of weeping willows lined the river road like sentinels before Pharaoh’s tomb, the hanging branches sweeping back and forth in the morning breeze as we pedaled our bikes into their cool shadowed tunnel and out of the scorching August sun. Mike, as usual, drove his bike through a mud puddle; sending rooster tails of green slime up the back of his cut-off jeans and sleeveless T-shirt. Joe carefully skirted the puddle and, looking up into the dense canopy, said, “Feels like we just passed into another dimension, don’t it? You know, like an episode of the Twilight Zone TV show, where everything gets turned upside down.” 

“Yeah, remember the one where that guy flips a coin and it stands on end, then everybody in the world freezes like statues, except him,” I said as the bike bounced through a pothole.

“Yeah, or what about that bookworm guy who thinks the world’s gonna end in a nuclear war so he builds a bomb shelter and fills it with all these books then when he comes out of the shelter and everybody’s fried to a crisp, he breaks his glasses and can’t read a damn thing,” Mike joined in.

“Yeah, like that,” Joe said. “What if, when we ride outta this tunnel of trees the world’s all topsy-turvy, like the river’s flowing backwards or there’s a pirate ship in the cove.” 

 “Or Mike’s mom don’t know who he is?” I added laughing.  

“Mike’s mom acts like that all the time,” Joe said as I pedaled quickly away and ducked under the missed punch, which sent Mike sprawling in a cloud of dust and twanging spokes. 

“Shit,” he said, pulling himself up from his fallen bike with the front wheel twisted sideways. “Now look what you made me do, Bill.” 

Joe and I straddled our bikes laughing as Mike dusted himself off and pulled his front wheel back into shape.

 “Oh, cut the crap,” I said. “We’re just fooling. Let’s go. I hear there’s blue crabs climbing the pilings down at the old Black Toms depot.” 

“Alright,” Joe said, as we started down the lane again. “My mom could sure use some crabmeat with dad being out on strike at the Ford plant and no money for groceries.”

“Yeah, but you gotta watch it,” Mike said. “Them Blues’ll snap your fingers good if you ain’t careful picking ‘em off the pilings.”

It was sweltering in the city and we were heading down to Black Toms on the Hudson River to swim off the pier. Black Toms was an abandoned World War I Army Depot that was blown up by the Kaiser’s saboteurs in 1916; or at least that’s what my Aunt Mary told me. She was old enough at the time to remember the explosions that broke windows for five miles around.

We rode out of the trees and into the sun. We followed a pair of rusted rails that led through a wall of towering reeds blowing in the morning wind that grew out of the swamp bottom. We finally came to the river and the Depot that was on an island in New York Harbor, maybe a hundred yards offshore, and only accessible by a long railroad bridge. And at the end of the bridge was a series of finger piers sticking out into the Hudson River. Two-story tall warehouses extending almost a football field long on each one, supported on wooden pilings that barely held the rotting piers above the racing tide. Looking out onto the New York harbor and Brooklyn across the water, I could see the towering Verrazano Bridge above the narrows leading to the Atlantic Ocean a half mile to the east. It took us a few bumpy minutes to ride our bikes over the tracks and into the first massive doorway, wide enough to let in two rows of boxcars side-by-side, like a black maw it was and terrifying, but we drove our bikes in anyway and headed down through the center of the abandoned pier. High overhead, twin rows of tinted windows flooded the interior with wavy green antediluvian light. The air was moist and sticky with exhaled putrefaction from the decades old barrels and pallets that were strewn about. The  sour smell of sulfur and spores, of decaying rubber, and of gunpowder and saltpeter overwhelmed us. 

“Look at that,” Joe said, pointing at the pile of debris made up of collapsed pallets that extended up the entire inside wall reaching almost to the roof. It looked like someone had picked up the building and dropped it, busting all the crates open to release their contents in a crazy quilt of indecipherable objects. We carefully rode around an avalanche of spilled C-ration cans and then past a mound of tar that exuded from a broken barrel. The latter had solidified into a grotesque claw whose black fingers reached across the floor. Crumbling burlap sacks filled with gas masks glinted in the half-light, their empty eyepieces glaring at us as we silently pedaled past. We could hear the sounds of the waves beneath our feet slapping against the pilings, sending eerie sunlit squiggles up through the floorboards to dance on the walls. Finally, exiting another huge doorway at the river-end of the building we dropped our bikes and peered back into the cavernous space. 

“Damn, I don’t think I’m going back through there again,” Mike said. “Spookier than hell.”

“Yeah!” I agreed. “Gave me the creeps. I had this funny feeling on the back of my neck like there was someone watching us the whole time we rode through.”

“I think I’ll swim back,” Joe said.

“Hah, what!” Mike cried out laughing, “And leave your bike here, you doofus? Or were you planning on swimming back with it clutched between your teeth like a pirate?” 

“Oh, shut up,” he said looking back inside. “Couldn’t we at least go along the outside wall, Bill?”

“Yeah, OK,” I said. “Let’s go back that way.” 

“Hey, what’s that?” Mike said pointing out at the water. 

There was a half-sunken barge in the slip, its lower hull covered with seaweed that swayed in the current, its exposed planking baked gray by decades of salt and sun. On the sloping deck of the barge was an ancient, rusted Army tank, its back-end half-submerged in the channel and its rounded turret and protruding cannon sticking out of the water like a giant sea monster sunning itself. 

“Man, look at that thing!” Joe shrieked. “I’m going to jump off that cannon.”

“Last one in’s a cruddy bastard,” yelled Mike as he peeled off his shorts then tripped and fell. We ran past him laughing and dove into a long bow wave coming off a red tugboat passing just outside the Black Toms channel in front of the Statue of Liberty. 


We didn’t know an awful lot about the First World War but we sure did about the Second. All our parents had survived it in one way or another and every single day on TV there was at least one combat movie from the forties and fifties that we reenacted in the lots behind our houses. Black Toms had never been salvaged after the explosion in 1916 but was abandoned, and even though all of the major stuff had been hauled away, the land and the water surrounding the Depot were still littered with what my dad called ordnance or unexploded shells. He’d warned me a dozen times to stay away from the piers and not to pick up anything that looked like a shell. One kid in my grammar school lost four fingers when he unwisely pounded a smoke grenade on a rock. Another kid got stuck in the currents beneath the pier and drowned. 

Looking up at the warehouse as I backstroked towards the barge, I could see how dilapidated the building was; covered with peeling green paint and rusted with spots that looked like monstrous bloodstains. At low tide, jagged pilings surrounded it that looked like busted teeth. Carefully swimming through them, we got to the sunken barge and Mike yelled, “Over here!” The barge had gone down by the stern, but the bow stuck out of the water like a jutting wooden chin with the ancient, rusted tank chained to the deck. Only the tank’s turtle-like turret on top and its long cannon could be seen sticking out of the green water. The turret had a ladder built into it, a few rusted rungs running right up out of the water. We went up the side of the rusting hulk then onto the tank and straddled the cannon like a pony; the three of us sitting there in a row, soaking in the sun.

“Man, ain’t this the bomb,” Joe said. “Beats swimming in that slimy YMCA pool with all them assholes trying to cannonball your head.”

“Yeah,” Mike replied, “speaking of which, I betcha we could do some hellacious butt-busters from the end of this cannon,” and without waiting for an answer, he shimmied up the long barrel to the end where he carefully raised himself up, stood swaying for a moment, then yelled ‘Geronimo’ and launched himself into space.

We cheered as Mike turned in the water and shouted, “You go,” as Joe pulled himself up and sailed off the end of the cannon. 

As I stood to take my turn, my eyes were drawn to a movement in the shadows beneath the Depot pier. Something was peeking out from behind the pilings but then disappeared as I saw it, sudden and quick, like the way a frog is surprised at a pond then jumps. All I could see was a widening circle of water; that’s the way the darkness swallowed the thing under the pier. 

 “Hey,” I yelled pointing but lost my balance and fell sideways with a loud smack, inhaling a mouthful of water. I surfaced coughing, struggling to clear my lungs as I looked into the laughing faces of the guys but couldn’t get a word out. 

“Hey Bill, do that again,” Mike yelled. “I don’t believe it. What a belly-flop.” 

Then, finally gulping in enough air, I rasped out, “Hey, there’s somebody under the pier watching us.”

“Where?” Mike shouted spinning in the water and looking around, “I don’t see anyone.”

“He’s hiding,” I cried. “He ducked back into the shadows when I saw him.”

“Go on,” Joe said, “You’re just saying that to scare us. I don’t see nobody,” but then he added, “Hey Bill, come on, say you’re making it up,” as he swam over to the ladder and pulled himself out of the water. “My dad told me about bums hanging out down here looking for kids to pork.”

“Man,” Mike said from the water, “Who’d want to pork you anyway?” but he swam over and clambered up the ladder too.

“I think I saw someone right there,” I said pulling myself up onto the turret and pointing at a black space just beneath some broken windows. But there wasn’t anything to see anymore and, after a minute of waiting, I doubted whether I’d actually seen anything at all; maybe it was just a trick of the sun reflecting under the pier so, we went back to swimming.

Then after a while, Joe found a hatch on the side of the tank, which he pulled open and called us over to take a look. Peering into the black hole, it took us a minute to separate out details from the shadows, but the floor of the tank seemed to be swaying back and forth like a clothesline in the wind. 

“What the hell,” I said. It was filled with crabs – hundreds of blue crabs were lunging back and forth in the flooded turret. 

“I bet you they got trapped on the outgoing tide,” Mike said. 

“Mr. Jackson at the grocery store sells ‘em for a nickel a crab,” Joe said. “If we could catch them, we could make a bundle.” 

“Yeah, but how are we gonna get them home. This hole’ll be filling up in another hour and then they’ll get out,” I said.

“Yeah, and besides,” Mike said, “We don’t have anything to carry them in.”

“Wait,” I said. “Back at the warehouse, I saw a bunch of burlap sacks. You know, the ones with the gas masks falling out? What say we get one bag each, fill them with crabs and then off to Jackson’s grocery.”

Agreeing to this plan, we quickly swam across and then ran inside the warehouse where we emptied the sacks and returned to the tank. However, when huddled around the opening again, we realized that only one of us could fit inside at a time, and then only by standing on top of a metal seat that protruded from the swirling water. 

After a quick finger game of rock-paper-scissors, I was chosen to go in and grab the crabs. Slowly dropping down, legs first, I slid into the cool chamber and carefully placed my bare feet on the narrow back of the tank’s driver’s chair. Balancing with one arm against the side of the tank, I motioned for the first sack to be handed down. Putting it between my teeth and holding on with one hand, I awkwardly started grabbing crabs with the other, swaying back and forth on the seat. I grabbed them the way my dad taught me, blindside and away from the claws, grabbing them fast, flipping them upside down and into the bag which I quickly filled and passed up to Joe.

Looking around while I waited for the next sack to come down, I noticed a dark patch in the far corner of the turret. It wasn’t very big, a small shadowy area, but I soon realized it was a creature. As it moved, I began to make out its rubbery skin and big frog goggle-eyes; it was looking at me intently clinging to the walls above the waterline like a spider. 

I gasped and shouted, “What the …” and lost my balance, falling into the water and smashing my head into the side of the metal chair on the way down. Panicking as I went under, I thrust my arms out trying to grab onto something and pull myself up but the crabs were frenzied, swirling everywhere; pinching my fingers, bumping my face underwater, making a thousand tiny scratches where their hard shells rubbed against me; but then I saw a hole open above, like a yellow circle at the end of a tunnel and I shouted “Help” but swallowed some more water. 


The darkness was wet and clammy. A small memory crept out of the side of my head like a swollen river that got larger and larger till it opened into a flooding sluiceway. I saw dead animals sweeping past on a stream evanescing red from night flares above that rode the sky on swaying little parachutes. I remembered. I was on the Sambre Canal outside Ors, France manning a Bren Gun on ambush. The swaying flares created a halo vision on No Man’s Land, repeatedly shadowing and lighting the twisted trees and blasted craters left from the previous day’s battle.

“Come on you bastards,” I whispered, willing the Krauts into my killing box as I reassuringly squeezed the handle of the Colt pistol attached to my wrist by a lanyard. Beside me, Joe waited in a self-imposed calm, nervously fingering the ammunition belt he’d feed into the machine gun. Mike lay on his belly, his feet angled down the sloping levee, aiming his machine gun into the darkness, listening as voices grew louder on the other side of the canal. 

I had learned long ago to let the fear go through me and out the other side, to give up caring about what was going to happen next. On the inky depths of the swamp surrounding the canal I was still alive. That was the best I could do. The mud shifted imperceptibly beneath my feet, moving in a soothing rhythm, the canal waters beyond the levee signaling me with distant messages of shark tongue and sturgeon heart; a million creatures sweeping upwards from the silence beneath my legs, the faces of all the Doughboys I’d come to France with. Many sewn into body bags for the final trip home or else pieces of them were buried in the trench walls around us like so many mummy parts on a shelf. 

‘And here we go again,’ I thought, aware of the gathering ghosts that hovered above me, once again summoned. “You hear that,” Mike said, as low whispers reached us from across the twenty yards of the canal. In the silence we heard the shush of paddles and guttural German; quiet orders being given, then a splash and the unmistakable clicking of weapons and gear. A squad of men was coming across.

I looked over at Joe and Mike who both nodded in agreement at the thing understood. I quietly ratcheted the action on my pistol as Mike set the first shell in his gun and Joe slid the ammo belt higher for a fast feed. I snatched a grenade from my web belt and pulled the pin but held the bolt in readiness for the throw, sliding down the embankment a little to gain a pitcher’s stance just below the lip of the canal. 

Then out of the night, a strange voice called from across the water, ….

“Bill. Where are you, Bill? Help us out will you? It’s too dark to see down here.” 

I looked over at Joe who was kneeling beside the Bren Gun and saw him slowly fade, become unsubstantial, a quizzical look spending across his face as he disappeared from sight. 

“Who in the hell is that?” I heard Mike hiss as he looked over the rim of the levy. 

Suddenly, a blast of bright light exploded from across the canal and Mike’s head disappeared in a crimson spray. His body crumbled down the embankment as I fell backwards, gaping at his twitching, headless torso and watched the rest of him fade away. Through his disappearing body I saw the grenade I’d dropped, its fuse still lit and glowing yellow at my feet. A terrible explosion lifted me in the air, surrounding me with a mushroom cloud of white smoke as the canal face collapsed, sending a flood of muddy water to sweep beneath my tumbling body. I saw a small boat flash by filled with terrified, screaming Germans wearing gray uniforms, holding on for dear life as they rocketed off the breached berm and out onto the swamp surface behind me and under the guns of the American Brigade behind me. A brief firefight followed with more red flares and then artillery fire, which rode across the sky in arcs of white phosphorous. The exploding artillery ripped the air from my lungs as I fell into the canal, a bubble of blue water effervescing around me as a rumbling pain grew in my head unbearable beyond belief. Opening my eyes I saw the frog creature underwater, bug-eyed, swimming deeper into the gloom yet reaching back for me as if he wanted me to follow. But my head hurt from someone tearing my hair out by the roots as I heard Joe scream, “Got him!” and was pulled from beneath the water and dragged onto the turret of the tank in the blinding morning sun. 

The guys flipped me over and started pounding my back, forcing me to breathe until I coughed out a stream of water. Lying there, looking down along the canted deck of the barge, I noticed that the burlap sack had opened and the blue crabs were escaping, edging out sideways, tentatively creeping to the water’s edge where they dropped with plops into the river. Confused and not sure whether I was dreaming or awake, I struggled to get up but fell back awkwardly because there was something in my hand. Looking down I saw a rusted pistol with a lanyard tied around my wrist.

“Man, is that what you dove into that goop for,” Joe asked. 

“What a piece,” Mike added, pulling it from my fingers.   


The Black Toms warehouse loomed above us as we swam ashore, Joe and Mike pulling me, supporting my aching head like a wet towel on their shoulders, and when we got onto the pier we walked back along the outside, as agreed. I kept starting, staring at the water’s edge, expecting to see the creature again, coming for me from under the pier where I’d first seen it. I still wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it or not, uncertain of anything after I went into the water.

We drove back up the river road, Joe clutching the remaining crabs in his burlap sack as Mike looked at me strangely, and I just rode along one-handed, looking at the rusted gun that had stained my fingers red. I tried to pull the trigger but it wouldn’t budge, the wooden grips were mushy from being underwater for so long. And as the shadows from the willow trees arched over us again, dropping the boiler room heat to a light 90 degrees, I heard Joe sing out:  “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man; it is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity; it is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears, and the summit of his knowledge; this is the dimension of the imagination; it is the area we call the Twilight Zone.” As we drove out of the trees and into the blistering sun, I felt a chill go up my spine and pitched the pistol as far as I could into the tall reeds that lined the roadway. 

Whatever I felt about the glory of war before that moment, I’d lost inside the Tank; or on the Sambre Canal; or whatever it was that I remembered. Who was to say where I’d been? That goggle-eyed monster I saw; maybe it was real, like those old gremlins my dad used to talk about from his war days. Crazy creatures who’d make equipment break down in a battle for no good reason. Maybe the thing was waiting all these years to sabotage that one tank but somehow got trapped, imprisoned like a poisonous gas, only escaping at low tide when the water allowed it to roam free and infect passersby with memories of wartime mayhem. Then afterwards it returned to its armored trap on smothering high water where it slept in secret silence with the crabs, nature’s natural armored tanks, creatures of tough shells and crushing claws, natural companions for the thing outside of time that waited in the dark.


Rays of the Raising Sun

by Mahbubat Kanyinsola Salahudeen


I felt wrenched for my best friend, Haya. She was crying in her mother’s arms, it was her seventeenth birthday, and we should have been celebrating, but her mother had just relayed her father’s news.

My best friend was getting married; she had never met the groom, but she knew he was chosen solely because of his financial influence, and she would be his fourth wife.

Haya started veiling when she saw her first blood four years ago; the veil marked her womanhood. Her marriage announcement made it suddenly appear to me that happiness is realized in the face of unhappiness; we were both happy until Haya’s despair stared in my face.

Haya was much more beautiful than I or any of her sisters; she was tall and slim with almond-shaped eyes. Her long black hair was the envy of her sisters; I knew I would never possess such qualities, so envy for me was a waste of time. Unfortunately, Haya was not only beautiful but also bright; in our land, a woman’s brilliance assures her propounded misery, for her sole duty is to serve her husband. While it is true that most marriages in our religion are in the hands of older females of the family, our fathers were the sole decision-maker on everything. Just three years prior, I was thirteen. Haya had told me that her father had decided that his most beautiful daughter would marry a man of wealth and prominence; she also revealed that she was yet to get married because her father saw her then suitors as not wealthy or prominent enough.

And now, Haya was going to get married; I knew I had no place there; her back was turned to me; I slid outside the room and wept as she cursed her father, our culture, and our religion. I lost many of her words, but I had no words of comfort for Haya.

Three of my elder sisters had suffered a similar fate, they were married to men our father liked. Since I started veiling, they told me stories of their time with their husbands, Anzilah’s fate was much worse, her husband was sadistic, and she had been subjected to horrific sexual brutality that she felt her only escape was death. I dreaded the day I would get married, I shuddered for I felt the pain of my marriage will overweight my happiness.

I can barely recall the weddings of my sisters but I can bring back to my mind every detail of the event that occurred at Haya’s wedding day.

It was 18th, June 1989, because of the weight loss, her dark eyes dominated her face, I could see through those enormous eyes, fear. Few women attended the wedding details, I took her palm in mine, she looked at me with those fearful pupils, I felt there was something she needed to tell, something she was not telling me.

When a Saudi bride is happy, the preparation is filled with laughter, for Haya’s wedding, it was somber, Haya’s groom was an old man but then, many old men married young girls, I am sure they were used to the terror of their brides, after all a virgin bride should be: frightened to the core. I knew the groom was older than her father, he looked like an old circus monkey to me, I felt disgusted at the thought of having his body on my friend’s body. I watched him accept their congratulations of his marriage to such a beautiful woman, he then began to lead Haya away, her eyes locked onto mine, I do not know what it was but it was much greater than fear, I felt certain no one would help her. I found no consolation to the knowledge that Haya would never be happy again, as I walked home, I felt hate  for the customs of my land, the absolute lack of freedom for our sex, laws made by men just to subdue women, all in the name of Islam. 

In my country, I have seen newspapers print articles that honor a man for executing his wife or daughter  for indecent behavior, congratulations are given by the Mutawas for the men’s notable act of upholding the teachings of the prophet. 

The next morning, three of these Mutawas arrived at our gate, I peered through the window as they spoke in low tones with my father. “Alishba!!”, my father was pallid when he came into the house, I went to the living room, the Mutawas had left. I sat disbelieving when he told me Haya  was going to be executed by stoning the following Friday at ten o’clock, my heart raved with fear when my father informed me that the Mutawas would return to question me if I had accompanied Haya on her shameful undertakings. My face turned pale when my father said the unexpected, “Alishba, if by chance I discover that you dishonor our  name, no one not even God will stop me from lowering you in to the earth. Accept your fate as one that listens for you have no choice”. 

My life was spared by the fact that my hymen was intact, no one, not even my father believed my fabrication that the indecent magazine spotted beneath my bed was given to me by a friend whom I met during a trip to Cairo and that I had no idea they were obscene since I had never opened them.

At 10 o’clock on Friday, I sat on my bed, I thought of Haya. Khalid, my brother had been at her execution, I lost most of his words but I knew Haya’s father had condemned his daughter to death, her husband had raised his hands slowly, “Let her be stoned!” The crowd became hysterical and people began to dance, as if caught up by madness, he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Let her be stoned”, he had looked radiant, men slapped him affectionately, children grab hold of his shirt and arms had lifted him off the ground. Sighs, moans and shouts filled the air. “The whore must die … Death….. Death to the woman”

“People said that after the marriage had ended, the man went in with Haya, it was not long when he came out if the room grabbing Haya by the hair, she had nothing on her, he told everyone that he had wedded a woman of no honor, he demanded that the money paid as Mahr be refunded right there, people said there was no blood on the sheets, she was not a virgin”. I was surprised at my brother’s disgust at the plight of my friend. As the law required, the body of the martyred woman would remain exposed, as an example to all.

I closed my eyes, I felt her body lowered into the ground, I would no longer see those almond shaped eyes, Haya would not laugh again. Very early the next morning, I emerged from my house, I slipped  out of the house like a thief. I walked through the paths that led to the beach, the sun was not in sight, I sat on a rock just near the bay, my chest tightened, I would never see Haya again. Only then did I pray. Only then did I cry.


It was dusk, the big yellow circle was sinking, for Muslims, it was time for the fourth prayer of the day. I stood on my bedroom balcony, I saw my husband and two of his sons leave  our home and walk hand in hand to the mosque, I saw many men greeting one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Memories of my childhood raced back to me, I was a girl, shut out from the love of a father, reserved for his son Khalid. Thirty  years of my life had passed and nothing had changed. My life was a circle, father and Khalid, Kareem and his sons, yesterday and today and tomorrow, primitive and immoral practices passed from father to son.

I gently rolled up my prayer mat and strolled to our garden, I stopped to rest in the gazebo specially built for Amal, my only child and closest companion who would soon turn twelve. As I thought of my child, my depression came to me, fierce and strong, tears stung my eyes when I thought of the fact that I would have no more children. Nine years ago, I had felt a surprising sting of grief and guilt, all it took to unleash it was me thinking of the unfinished crib in the tool shed or the suede coat in my closet. The baby came to life then and I could hear it, could hear its hungry grunts. The grief washed over me, it turned me inside out, I  was envious of my sister wives in the harem, some had seven or eight and didn’t understand how fortunate they were ,how blessed that their children had flourished in their wombs, children that they had not bled away with soapy water and anti-septic down some toilet drain.

Nine years since Amal’s third birthday there has been fifteen cycles of hopes raised then crashed and two additional wives, each loss, with each disappointment Kareem had grown more remote and resentful. Nothing I did pleased him, I found myself trying to look good for him, i had worn my best hijab for him, once I even put on makeup but he took one look at me and winced with distaste that I rushed to the bathroom and washed it all off.At night my heart raved with fear of what excuse he might have to pounce on me, there was always something minor that would infuriate him. I couldn’t give him a son. I was a burden, I could see it in the way he looked at me. I was a burden to him.

“Alishba” A voice called out interrupting my thoughts, it was my husband. I watched him walk briskly across the thick grass, I gestured with hand for him to sit beside me, to a familiar disappointment he settled at the farthest corner of the gazebo, he did not return my smile.

“Alishba, I have come to a decision, some months ago. I refuse to discuss this matter with you due to what recently happened”

I nodded, my mind tossed around the possibilities of what he was about to say. He then uttered words that shook and reverberated memories in my head. I was trapped in a dark reality that I did not believe, at first I could not breathe or move, the memories gave my mind quick visits and suddenly the excruciating image of Haya’s fearful pupils creped across my mind, I remembered Anzilah’s tales of her time with her sadistic husband, I saw myself at the back of a van decorated with flowers, a doll in my hand, driven off with a man I did know. No one saw my grief.

Finally, life returned to me and it came with my strength, I clawed his face and kicked his groin. I really was determined to kill the man who was my husband, to restrain me Kareem had to pin me to the ground and sit astride. My scream pierced the air, the names I called my husband left our servants aghast who scurried out of sight as the scuffle continued, the depth of my pain could not be expressed in words.

“No!! Never!! My daughter will never be married off to an old hag. Not now,not ever!” I hated the man in front of me. “May all your camels die Kareem” I uttered the greatest curse in the Arab world, my husband was apparently baffled.

I told him that I would never submit to the humiliation of giving my daughter away to a man she did not know. She was not even twelve and the man was fifty-six. Never. Kareem could utter any deception he chose but the pain and humiliation I had endured would never be replicated in my daughter’s life. Yes, I would accept what God placed before me but this dispensation did not extend to my earthly husband.

“Mother”. A familiar voice called out to me.

“Come Amal, come quickly”. I stretched forth my hands to hold her.

 I felt Amal tremble and her mouth stretched in a howl when her father told her of his decision. Amal began to weep saying she doesn’t wish to live, I stood over my daughter like a mountain and for the first time in my life, I defied Kareem. I told him Amal would never be given away to a man she did not know or approve. I would go to the Council of Religious Men with the story and they would not allow such a matter to happen. I would fight and no one would stop me from protecting my child. Not while I live. In Islam, fathers reserve the right to give their daughters to men of their choice but if the daughter refuses, the marriage is annulled. Kareem threatened me with divorce but I stood fist and told him to do whatever he had to do but I would never allow my daughter to swim in such evil.

Kareem stood unblinking, staring, apparently analyzing my resolve. Askance at my apparent resoluteness and wanting to avoid public interference in a family matter, for once in our married life he gave in.

Every upheaval is a transition and what doesn’t kill definitely strengthens, Haya’s execution and my years of trying to win the acceptance of a man I didn’t love, with the world stretching before me I had yet to conclude.

With every gift comes an equal challenge. I pulled Amal close to my side as we settled on the gazebo, ” Never again”. I said to her. “Never again will I remain silent in the face of cruelty and evil to any woman”. 

Primitive customs had always determined the roles of women in my land, the right to drive, to toss aside the veil or travel without the permission of a male guardian were lost dreams during my early years.

The sky began to colour purple, I looked up to see bright stars stealing through the clouds. It was an unusual sight. Maybe we can start with the smallest of things. Maybe all we need to do is walk those steps. Maybe happiness will follow.


Cyclone Sixteen

by Yuhan Tang


The moon was a white glittering crescent, smiling at me from outside my window, as if mocking my pain.

Marina was getting better at hiding things. I’d emptied all the bottles, checked below every shelf, cushion, the cabinets, even beneath the rugs, yet still, there was no trace of what I was looking for. Worn out by the hunt, I’d resolved to make my last destination the wardrobe.

Finally, I spotted the blue bottle sandwiched between a pair of Marina’s lace G-strings. There was about half a bottle left. I brushed the hair away from my eyes and rose in slow triumph, finding my fate inside the fragile little bottle. My soul expanded and curved into a bright crescent smile.

A knock at the door disrupted my thoughts.

A little agitated, I shoved the bottle into my pocket and made to stand up. Most likely she had taken the wrong bag or noticed some stain on her dress. I hated how long her showers always were, and how she always washed my clothes the wrong way. Most of all, I hated how Marina never took her keys and would rap against my window in the early hours of the morning to be let in.

The knocking came again, this time more incessantly. I tucked the bottle safe under my pillow and launched down the hall.

As I peered through the peephole, two worlds merged into one. Until the outside finally overtook and burst through.

At first, the span of his back dominated the lenses. Then he retreated a few yards, and his face morphed into other liquid shapes. He raised his hand to knock again, and I twisted the knob, opening the door a small, cautious crack.

He pulled back, greeting me with an expression of surprise.

“Sorry I’m a bit late,” He said, his voice low and slightly breathless. “Is this Marina’s place? I’m just here to pick her up.”

He was young, a little older than me, perhaps, sporting dark shades and a navy overcoat. But what caught my eye was the watch on his wrist, glistening even in the dim light of the porch. I could imagine Marina with him. 

“Marina.” I echoed.

“Yes, Marina Butterfield?” His voice was breathless and low. 

He took off his shades, and finally, I recognized his face. I recognized those eyes from the magazine that was now a heap of ashes in the bin. I had scorched off Marina’s face with a lighter in each photograph, and he was in most of them.

“Oh,” He brushed the side of his hair back with a hand. “Maybe next time then.”

I caught a glimmer of disappointment in his eyes, as he shook the umbrella in his hand, ready to take off again.

“Wait!” I called to his retreating figure. He turned back expectantly.

“You’ve come all the way. I’m sure Marina wouldn’t want me to just send you away like this.”

He stood there, waiting for me to go on.

 I offered him a small smile, “How about a coffee? There’s this place I know.”

Our house was located on a thoroughfare, and in the evenings, there was the constant siren of ambulances and police cars, trying desperately to cram through the traffic. I always found the undulating howl heart-rending and sad, like a miserable singer, belting out in her livid, broken voice.

The house next to us looked more like a villa, and had these beautiful, long Japanese lanterns framing their balcony. The evening I first caught sight of them, I thought of how mother would’ve liked those lights. She always complained about how drab our house was, and how much she didn’t like the gray paint job that Dad had done over our porch.

Mom did come home once— a month or so after she left. She was seated on my bed in the dark, clutching a night bag to her chest, my window open from where she had climbed in.

When I entered, she was afraid to look at me, or maybe she refused to. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, with her arms crossed in front of her chest.

“Does dad know you’re here?” I said.

No response. So I sighed and started to dig out my wallet, and only then, did she glance up at me.

“I don’t want your goddamn pity! Am I not allowed to be here anymore?” Her speech was slurred from all the drinking, “Am I not your mother? How dare you, out of all people, treat me like this.”

Her voice started to rise into a shout. Then, she halted, looking past me.

I followed her gaze. Marina stood there in the doorway, looking as if she’d seen a ghost. They stared at each other for a while. Then Marina turned to me, and there was malice in her voice.

“Did you let her in?” 

They say that when you miss someone, they tend to materialize, anytime, anywhere. Right now, my mother’s face sat between the lemon tart on my plate and the foamy dip in the coffee. I willed myself to focus on the man before me and watched her image dissipate into the liquid out of the corner of my eye.

“Is it alright if I smoke?” He was asking the waitress at the bar. She had been eyeing him for a while now and gave him a flustered nod. Wearily, I eyed the sign plastered to the wall: No smoking allowed.

“Would you like one?” He sat down beside me, producing a cigarette.

“Thanks.” I took it from his hand and leaned forward for him to light it.

At first, I felt fine, but when I inhaled more deeply, it began to burn. I fought hard at the cough rising in my throat.

He smiled, as if he knew, and plucked the cigarette from my hands. Then he pushed his coffee towards me. The foamy dip swayed in the cup.

“It takes a while, but your body gets used to the feeling.” He took one last drag before stubbing it out in his drink, “It used to sear my lungs. But now, I don’t feel it at all.”

We didn’t leave the cafe until the rain stopped. Outside, the streets were enveloped in city smoke. I glanced back at the familiar entrance. A lonely mist shrouded the sign to the cafe, making it impossible to make out the words from a distance.

On the sidewalk, two birds were fighting hungrily over a puddle of water, for the meagre remains of a rain-soaked sandwich. There was no mercy in their dark, beady eyes.

I stood at the bus stop, wind blowing through my blouse. I could still hear Mom and Marina even all this way from the house.

I began to lose track of time as I sat there, waiting and listening to music. Finally, I boarded an empty bus. The lonely vehicle emanated a sense of abandon. Without its carriage of people, it almost seemed lost as it zoomed around the city, wild and searching in the cold night.

I got off at the town center. At this hour, people were walking from their late shifts, stuffed into their long coats, heads poking through only at the top like the tip of tall blades of grass. There was something unexpectedly serene about this late hour, the moon lighting up the branches of the wild cherry trees. Those half-shadowed trees were beautiful and foreign, like unapproachable strangers. I found myself dreaming up a vision of some faraway city, glittering and exotic.

“What are you doing out here?” He called over the car’s growl. It didn’t take him long to arrive. He must have been somewhere near when I called.

“I want to go somewhere.” I said to him, “You pick the place.”

We drove with the hood down; warm summer air hiked my skirt up. Soft jazz floated lazily from the speakers, adding to the serenity of the night.

We got out near the water, and I followed him into the quiet darkness. A night mist settled around the cove, drawing a tender blanket of condensation over the bay.

The sky was empty, save for a faint few stars. He kept looking up at it, as if waiting for something to happen. We kissed on the rocks, softly at first. He tasted oddly feminine, like citrus and grape. Then he turned me over and started kissing in a trail down my back. I was overwhelmed, but I thought it was just nerves. Until he called out Marina’s name.

The noises became more distinct. His chest heaved up and down against mine, and I felt his hand starting to reach beneath my clothes.

I screamed, and he flinched on top of me.

“Woah, you scared me.”

“Get off me!” My fingers found their way to his face. I was pushing, shoving him away from my body.

He rolled off to the side just as a tide crashed onto the rock.

“Fuck,” He ran a hand through his hair, then tousled it with an anxious look in his eyes. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

My throat was completely dry. My head hung from the rocks and the entire world was still reversed— ocean and sky, all upside down.

“Just take me home.” I managed to say at last.

Nausea swept over me as he delivered my body from the gaping darkness into the neon lit car. I used to think those sleek luxury cars were just useless hunks of metal. But the truth now lay bare before us— I was the useless one.

Jazz was still playing in the car. But the tranquillity had been vanquished entirely. Every improvised sound was now laced with something horribly insidious. I was foolish to ever wage this war. Marina won everyone’s heart in the end. Silently, I counted the foggy headlights that sped past us. It seemed to me that those lights were getting dimmer and dimmer

“You’re only sixteen.” He was saying, “I mean, I just don’t think it’s right. You’ll find someone better, I’m sure.”

He continued to talk, but I was no longer listening. I was thinking about dying again, or perhaps it was the haunting jazz that was doing all the thinking for me.

The car slowed down before the house. I slipped out and gave the door a hard shove. Hard enough that the entire car rattled.

Dad came outside, tripping in his slippers and bathrobe. He still had his reading glasses on and a mug clutched in his hand. A wave of relief rushed over me, I wanted to run into his arms and just grieve. But then I saw his face.

“Get over here.” His voice was hard and cold. I took two steps back, teetering in the wind.

He reached down for me, pulling me up the stairs by the wrist.

“Who was that?” He demanded, “Who were you out with all night?”

I tried to rescue my arm from his angry grip. I had expected the man that was the first to pick me up from school in the rain, the one that fixed me warm midnight snacks when I woke from nightmares. Not this man with a terrible temper, and complete, cavalier disregard for my pain. When I heard my wrist snap, the hysteria bubbled up my throat.

“Let me go!” I screamed.

Dad’s eyes darkened. He let go and I stumbled back, clutching my sore arm. Then he stalked up the rest of the stairs and slammed the door. When I looked down, bright red marks had been imprinted on my forearm.

I stayed out on the porch for a while. There wasn’t anywhere else left to go. My chest felt like a hollow, excavated land. Briefly, I wondered if Mom was still in my room, or if she had been kicked out too.

On the utility poles, dark bats hung limp over the cold electric wires. What a cruel way to die, I thought. Then I didn’t think much of it anymore.

It was summer even without the sun. Pink and purple clouds printed themselves across the sky. Under the falling water, I sucked in a mouthful of cold relief. When I stepped out, my feet steamed impressions on the bathroom tiles.

Marina threw a burnt scramble of eggs onto my plate, but she must have done more than just burn it. It held the most nauseating smell of cured meat. I set it down and our eyes met. I could almost feel the tension in the air. Her face told me she knew everything.

“Marina.” I began, but she was already grabbing my plate, dumping everything into the sink. It was as though she had rehearsed it for a long time, just waiting for my words. I watched as she wiped her hands and sat down on the kitchen bench, her back turned to me.

“Can we talk?” I tried again. She didn’t respond. Her shoulders began to shake, and I sighed.

I could imagine Dad coming out from the bedroom soon, noticing this mess in the kitchen and her hunched shoulders. He would grab me and holler something like, “How dare you make your mother sad!” or “You’re the most selfish person I’ve ever met.” Like the climax of a song, his shouting would increase in volume. Then, as if holding the most painful note in suspension— the single, empty clap would land like a cymbal, hard, across my face.

But it wouldn’t just end there. Marina’s sobs were bound to ultimately join the chorus. After a bite into her revolting breakfast, he would turn and strike her too.

Before long, she’d crack, just like Mom did.

The days stretched on, with the cicadas shushing when I brushed past them in bushes, as if they wanted to avoid me too. I wasn’t the only one that felt desperate enough to burst into flame. In June, the heat consumed the forests with wildfires. People shut their windows, avoiding the smoke. When I opened them, my brother would close them again and it always ended in arguments.

I felt sad for him. For his atrocious buzzcut and his permanent slouch. He’d set out with dreams, entered a new city to find a new beginning; he had viewed the world with hope in his eyes just like I did, but now, it was all faded and had morphed into bitter resentment.

When I was ten, he’d watch Miyazaki films with me every Sunday. I could recall the way the sunlight streamed through the windows of the living room to embrace us. Now, the house was frozen. We brushed past each other, the clutter in the kitchen sink sitting between us like shadowy boulders.

“Why aren’t you eating?” Marina entered my room, arms crossed over her chest. “You need to eat something.”

“I don’t.” I replied curtly. “I’m on a diet.”

“Suzanne, you have to eat.”

“What makes you care?” I scoffed. “I know you’re fucking bulimic too.”

My brother who was passing by the hall paused by my door frame next to Marina. Both stared at me with their idiotic, blank expressions.

“Don’t speak to her that way,” He said, “She’s only trying to help.”

Everyone was siding with her now. Marina’s charms had moved even my brother, who was now another firm ally of hers. I said nothing, only turned my speaker up. The verses blasted at full volume, louder than the wailing sirens Mom and I used to have shouting matches over. It made my ears bleed.

Marina took the hint and left, and I locked the door after her.

I dropped my school bag by the kitchen bench and gulped down a glass of cold water. I was lethargic and flat from the evening heat. Dad and Marina had left me for someplace cooler. A family skiing trip, they had said, but didn’t invite me. I scooped out some ice from the fridge to place in my third glass. A cube of ice rolled out and dropped by my feet. I crushed it under my foot. Mom would have yelled at me for the mess.

I often had thoughts like this. It was like my mother’s voice was constantly in my mind, telling me what to do and what not to. Sometimes, I wish I could just forget her and the ways she taught me to feel altogether.

I feigned a smile to my reflection in the mirror, the way I’d always practised. Then I pushed my finger down to the base of my mouth, until the chunks of afternoon dessert arrived at my throat. The acid burned my throat, but the pain seemed to be from elsewhere. It felt like someone was treading on my chest over and over.

After I was done throwing up to the soundtrack of my own gurgling, I switched off the faucet and stepped out onto the balcony.

Outside, heavy clouds were settling themselves over the sky, forming a cement-coloured dusk.

I thought of my brother and how we used to watch this piece of sky together, with a sense of the future stretched wide. His clothes were gone from the closet; he didn’t even say goodbye.

My brother picked up on the second ring. He told me he was already on the plane, and that he wouldn’t have a signal soon. I had so much I wanted to say, but it was as if the words got stuck in my throat. It grew so quiet that I could hear his breathing on the other end of the line. I tried to decode it. He seemed to be saying, “Don’t worry. It will be your turn to leave soon.”

The summer just before I turned sixteen, I stole Dad’s cigarettes from his coat pocket, and smoked them on the porch. My brother had caught me on his way home from school. I watched the ashes fall as he plucked it from my hands.

“Stupid girl.” He spat at me, whilst grounding the remains with his foot, “You’re killing yourself.”

I had just stared at him, wondering if he knew that every year, millions of poor, innocent lobsters met their fate in a cooking pot. Placed in boiling water so that the helpless creature wouldn’t even know it was dying. The same was being done to me. Only slower, and more subtle.

I hung up and let my brother go. Everyone was slipping away. I was lying in the aftermath of a cyclone. A site of destruction, where all the glitz and glamour of my teenage years had been stripped away. 

I pictured the rest of my years— or it could days for that matter, on a gas stove, boiling away. Death was not a matter of how. Only a matter of when.

An hour later, I was still on my bed, my eyes open, but unseeing. I saw, instead, an image of my body being pushed along a tightrope, over a dark pit that threatened to swallow me whole. Any second now, I might fall. Desperate, I cried out for help. But no one came to my aid. Everyone on the other side of the pit was out of earshot.

In the middle of the night, my phone rang again. I picked up and tried to listen through the fog.

Who is it? I heard my own faint voice echo.

“Suzy? Baby, it’s me.”

I waited for her to say more. I thought that this might still be part of the dream. My mother’s voice was soft and breathy and she kept repeating the same words over and over like she was lulling me to sleep.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

I couldn’t decide, all of a sudden, if I still resented her or not. When she stopped speaking and began to sob, I hung up.

There was a storm growing in my mind, a cyclone of thoughts and desires. I turned up my music and lay back down in bed. The speakers reverberated with such familiar old tunes that I could almost smell the smoke of the June wildfires again. No matter how old I got, the past always stuck around.

I grasped around for the blue bottle and found it still there, in the tangle of my bedsheets. The solid weight of the glass brought me great solace. In the veiled dark, I felt the pills trickle into my palm.

I stared at it for a while, then brought the fistful up to my face. Maybe I imagined it, but it seemed to be glowing in the dark. For a moment, it held the evanescent scent of carnations, of love and desire. When that was gone, I swallowed them whole.


Good Girl, Good Night

by Corinne Silver


“Would you shut that off?” Morgan asked and reached over to complete the task for the eight-year-old in braids who moved clothing from one machine to the other in the dormitory basement. Morgan felt the knob shut off with a satisfactory click and went on with her chore of gathering sheets to be washed. 

“Hey! I like it—” Nelly flipped around. 

“It’s been playing nonstop since the start of this thing. We’ve memorized it. The madness must end.” 

When the workers at the radio station received wind of the fallout they stayed inside, knowing that if they opened the doors the mysterious chemical would enter their booth and kill them all. They managed to stay alive for three weeks, giving important news about the horrors spreading across the globe, but they knew they couldn’t escape. They tried to clog the air vents with hand towels, but eventually it was too hard to breathe, and they unclogged. The intern lasted the longest. Her last words burned into Morgan’s head. 

“This is the end of our live broadcast. I’ve been searching through all our files, deciding what to place on an infinite loop. I figured a song or even a playlist might be too much, or might not say enough about who we were or what we accomplished as a human race, but I do have an old recording of an old musical, one that says something about our city and our people, and so I’ve decided…” 

The story of the orphan girl had been on since then, five months ago, when the fallout happened. 

At first Morgan found it comforting, clung to it even. She listened every night to the story and the songs, wishing someone would adopt her from this life. 

Morgan Valentine, age twelve, was the second oldest student to survive in the residential magnet school in the heart of Manhattan. Nelly was the second youngest, and sadly the most industrious out of the eight remaining students. She was the only student Morgan could trust to do chores without getting distracted, or simply breaking down crying over a dirty sink of dishes, but even she did that, just less. 

News reports originally said ten percent of people survived. That meant, statistically, out of their school of exactly one hundred students, they should have had ten. Originally, they had nine, but Samuel went looking for his parents and didn’t come back. 

Morgan now knew better than to depend on statistics. 

Once she had finished piling up the bedsheets, she ventured down to the third-floor restroom, which she and the other oldest student, Lee, had converted into a makeshift laboratory. They set up a folding table in the middle and gathered all the test tube sets and chemistry supplies they could find. The two started taking air samples by running outside with an open test tube and plugging it up. It was a futile effort, but an effort at solving the mystery of how their entire world came crashing down around them. 

“Have you found anything new?” she asked as she walked in, watching him stare over his flasks, looking through messy black bangs. 

“Not really. The usual,” Lee replied. 

Morgan walked over to the mirror over the sink and checked her face, half-covered in acne because she couldn’t find enough cleanser after rioters left most stores bare. She supposed she didn’t have to live up to beauty standards any longer. Her stomach ached, but she wasn’t sure if it was from hunger or malnutrition. She adjusted her emerald green cardigan around her pale pink cami and watched Lee work in the mirror. 

Before the fallout, the two had barely spoken to each other. Lee’s crowd absorbed themselves in video games incessantly, so his group hadn’t mixed with Morgan’s dance team clique. Both on the sciences track, Morgan was the resident biology expert. Lee, chemistry. When the last of their friends died, and they realized they were immune, they managed to overcome their avoidant acquaintanceship. Despite not being close, they learned teamwork quickly. Now they could call each other partners in crime. 

A month prior, they had broken into Columbia’s biology labs and taken all the equipment back to the dorm in a stolen shopping cart. Morgan and Lee wished they could have stayed at the lab to work, but with the younger students needing them in the dorm, it didn’t make sense to walk an hour every day to and from the campus.  

They briefly considered breaking into the dorms as well, but there were still some zombie-like college students hanging around. Zombie-like because they drank themselves into half-consciousness instead of helping with rebuilding efforts. No, they left the dorms alone. They were not only full of drunks, but also full of corpses, and some of them stunk through the walls.  

At least she and Lee had the courtesy to drag all their bodies out to burn. 

“I don’t think we’re using any of this right,” she said, turning and examining her previous samples that she left in a centrifuge. 

“We’re fools if we think this will get us anywhere. We need adults, Morgan. I hate to say it – I never would have said it before, but we need adults who know things!” 

“We are the adults now,” Morgan said and looked at her classmate sadly. 

“We’re not adults, okay?” he threw his arms up and let his hands come back down on his thighs as he swiveled around in the leather office chair he stole from the principal’s office, “We barely know the parts of a human cell—” 

“I know all the organelles and their functions—” 

“Good for you…but I don’t think basic knowledge of the mitochondria is going to help us. Humans couldn’t even cure cancer before this happened. How do you think we’re supposed to find a cure for a mysterious illness, when everyone who would have died from it is already dead!” Lee shouted so violently that his glasses slipped off his nose at an angle. 

Morgan shut her mouth and stared quietly at herself in the mirror. Her dark curly hair and eyebrows shone in the fluorescent light. Green eyes gazed back at her. It was a wonder that the electricity was still working at all. She wasn’t sure how, but the people at the plant certainly didn’t turn anything off. 

“Ugh,” she groaned, placing one hand on her stomach. 

“You hungry?” Lee asked. They had been surviving on what the dorm kitchen had left for the first month. They ate all the fresh food first, and now they were down to some granola bars, peanut butter, and canned vegetables. 

“I’ve had a bad stomach ache for the past week,” she replied. “Not the hungry kind, it’s just gross.” 

Lee dropped his frustration and spoke seriously.  

“Don’t you go getting sick on me, Valentine. I can’t raise six kids by myself.” 

Morgan rolled her eyes. The leftover students usually joked of them as “mom” and “dad,” when really, they were holding things together with masking tape. 

“It’s just a stomach ache, probably from the weird diet,” she said, stretched to both sides, and took her place next to him at the lab table. “Where were we?” 

She was able to work intensely for about thirty minutes, labeling samples here, and looking under microscopes there. Then her side ached again and she leaned over the table. 

“You don’t look good,” Lee said, his tone already fading to apathy in case she died. 

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said, but something wasn’t right. She went into the bathroom stall. 

“Hey! I thought we agreed we wouldn’t use the ones in here—” Lee started. 

Morgan closed the stall door, pulled her pants down, and saw the worst possible thing she could have. 


She covered her mouth and looked away, not wanting to face it. She knew it was coming. Her friends had already gotten theirs before they died. After the fallout, she had hoped that something in the atmosphere or the lack of nutrition would stunt her growth and it wouldn’t be happening. 

It was wishful thinking, like everything else from the beginning of the fallout until now. 

“Are you okay?” Lee asked hesitantly. 

She wadded up some toilet paper and stuck it in her underwear as a temporary arrangement. When she was done and had all her clothes back in order, she walked back to the mirror and stared at herself.  

“What’s wrong?” Lee asked. 

“I started my period,” said Morgan, one hand on her lower back. 

“Oh.” Lee blushed and looked away. “Do we need to like, do something about that?” 

Think, Morgan. There has to be a solution. 

But no matter the room she considered in the dorm she could not think of where feminine products might be stored. She had searched the whole place when the ordeal began. She couldn’t remember finding any. The other girls her age had survived for a while – long enough to use their supplies up. The only dorm mom, Cecily, had already hit menopause before it started. 

It was no use. She had to go out. 

“I need to find supplies,” she replied, already analyzing potential routes in her head, whichever streets had the most pharmacies in a square block. 

“Right now? Can’t we wait until our supply run next week?” he asked. They had just been out the day before, in the snow. Of course, it couldn’t have hit then. 

Morgan shot him a narrow-eyed glance. 

“Well, you can’t go by yourself,” he argued. “You may have to search a hundred places to find anything, and who knows who’s hiding out there?” 

Morgan shook her head. 

“Any of the other students would be a liability rather than a help. And you can’t go with me. If something were to happen to us on the way, there would be no one to look after the others,” she pointed out. 

“Trevor could do it.” 

“Trevor is nine.” 

“So…he ought to show some responsibility sometime,” Lee fudged, blushing again. The past few months had skewed their understanding of who was responsible and who wasn’t. The two of them were now the most responsible, and that was scary. 

“I’ll see you in a few hours…hopefully.” 

“Be careful out there, Morgan,” he echoed as she stepped into the hall, “bring the hatchet.” 

“Will do,” she echoed back. 

Morgan went to her closet, and pulled out her heaviest pants and leggings. She put on both, and added three undershirts, a sweater, a coat, hat and earmuffs, a scarf that buttoned around her face. 

Besides looking like a walking marshmallow, she was suitably warm. 

She made sure she had the handle of her hatchet pushed through a belt loop at her right side, and a water bottle, half-full in case she found herself stuck somewhere. She also pushed some band aids into her pocket and the tiniest bottle of hand sanitizer to use as antiseptic. 

She could do this. She could totally do this. 

As she left, she heard a familiar chorus about the city chiming down the hall to the laundry room. 

“You’re still listening to that?” Morgan asked with a glance around the corner. Nelly sang the next line with great enthusiasm, using her hairbrush as a microphone and power sliding onto her knees in front of Morgan. 

“Uh-huh,” she said, grinning. The smile vanished when she saw Morgan’s clothing. “Are you going somewhere?” 

“Yeah, just a quick errand, should be back by dinner,” she said, retying the laces on her snow boots. 

“But what do you need? We just went out yesterday.” Nelly asked. 

“You wouldn’t understand, Nelly. I’ll be back soon.” Morgan walked to the door. 

“Okay,” Nelly said hollowly. Morgan gave her a big smile before setting foot into the icy tundra. 

She needed treads, Morgan decided, after slipping for the fifth time. She ventured her way through the scaffolds lining the brownstone buildings, stretching towards the crystal blue sky. The snow had melted and refrozen overnight, making every step a slippery, hazardous risk. 

But she had to have something. Preferably, more than one thing. 

Morgan checked CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Duane Reade… even a privately owned place. She found empty metal shelves staring back at her in a lost forlornness. No one to stock them, no imports to stock. 

She almost gave up, coming out of the privately owned place on 34th street, but then she saw the Target across the street. 

No one, no one could have left anything in there, could they have?

It was right across from Macy’s. The Macy’s. If people were targeting stores at the beginning, she thought this would be one that would be rampaged. 

Hesitantly, she looked both ways, a habit that never died despite zero traffic, and crossed the street to the store.  

Morgan used the hatchet to wedge the automatic doors open and pried her way inside. The shop stood completely dark. The employees had abandoned it when the riots began. 

She stared around the first floor. Everything of use in Target rested in the basement. When her family first moved from the Vermont suburbs, it amazed her that a store could be stacked up like that. Home goods and clothing on floor one, toiletries in the center of the lower level, surrounded by freezer aisles. 

Morgan listened for thirty seconds before venturing further, a tactic she and Lee had developed to avoid crazed people and giant rats. 

Hearing no one, crept down the frozen escalator, holding the hatchet above her head. She stepped over the body of another woman, who had fallen while looking for her own supplies. 

Morgan scoured each aisle, squinting carefully at the labels in the dark. Most of the items had been taken long ago, and now only the most useless things remained: wart remover, ear cleaner, poison ivy relief. 

It was when she was gazing at a shelf of half-torn open face masks that she heard a crunch. 

The crunch of trash beneath someone’s foot. 

Morgan held her breath and raised her hatchet again, moving slowly as possible, summoning all the knowledge and skill she could remember from her ballet class to tiptoe across the floor, but unsure if it made a difference in her own volume. She hadn’t been quiet when she entered. They knew she was there. 

The daylight shone in from the street above. She could leave. She could make it without a fight if she ran. 

But then she wouldn’t have what she needed, and it had been thirty minutes since she felt the blood soak through and begin to stain the cloth underneath. 

It wasn’t fair, but her parents had told her that was life, and she supposed she was glad to still be alive. 

Morgan rounded the corner and peered at the signs, yes, this was it. Feminine Products. That was the section she needed. No one in sight. 

Again, the aisles looked bare. There was a piece of trash and a discarded price label holder. But months of searching had taught her better. 

Morgan crouched down sideways, knowing she made herself vulnerable, and lowered her face to the ground, looking under the shelf. 

She reached out to grab a lonely box of tampons. 

A hand snatched them away from her. 

“Hey!” Morgan shouted, “hey wait!” She screamed a battle cry, and ran around the corner, hatchet in both hands above her head.

“Those are mine!” she cried. 

But when she met the eyes of her enemy, she froze. 

It was a woman. A young woman, but still a woman, older than most who survived.Mid-20s. Her facial features, sunken and sallow. She’d had a rough time, maybe no-one to take care of her. In her right hand, the box Morgan wanted. Under her right arm, a babe, maybe a few days old at most, wrapped in an old towel. 

“Please, please, leave us!” the woman shouted, holding her hand out to shield herself from the axe. 

Morgan lowered her weapon. 

“I-I um…” she wanted to say she needed the tampons, that she needed them and she’d been looking all day, and that she really needed them for her first period and all the periods thereafter. 

But then Morgan looked down and realized the woman had tied a pillowcase around her pelvis, and that the postpartum blood had leaked through it. She had been in enough biology classes to understand that now. 

“You can have them,” she said, taking a step back. “You can have them,” she said and tried not to cry. “I hope you and your baby survive.” 

The woman nodded. She opened the box and pushed a handful with the instructions into Morgan’s hands, before running away, back up the escalator, back into the light. 

After the woman left, Morgan took a moment to stuff the tampons and the pamphlet into her coat pockets and zip them up tight. She hung around, looking down aisle after aisle. She found some Easter candy from the year before and took that in her free hand. 

Morgan didn’t know if she would ever find the supplies she required again, but at least she had enough to figure out a plan. 

When Morgan arrived back at the dormitory, Nelly crashed into her in a big hug. 

“I missed you!” she chimed. 

“I missed you too.” Morgan said. 

Nelly looked up at the items she carried. 

“You went out that long for some old chocolate?” Nelly asked. Morgan laughed. 

“I’ll tell you about it someday.” 

Someday. If someday ever came. 

That evening, Morgan curled up in the comforter, bright pink and covered in purple flowers, and tried to ignore the pain in her stomach by listening to the crackling of the radio. Her box of chocolate lay open, foil wrappers scattered.  

The musical must have looped twice by the time she arrived home, back to the lullaby, singing about sweet dreams and sweet rest for sweet girls. Unattainable now. 

Pale flakes fell from the red-tinted sky and hit against the windows in flurries. It used to be that the lights of New York shone so bright, that a cloudy night reflected those back and lit up the city as if it were day. That time had faded. Still, there was enough light from leftover beings in the form of bonfires and candles and lanterns to make the sky glow. Morgan stared up into the heavens and wondered if she would ever see her city as it was before. If she could ever find that spirit again, or if it was all caught within them.  


Every Rose has its Thorns

by Avery Timmons


The Spring Ball: one of the most highly anticipated events of the season, especially for the Court that hosted it. And not so much for its rival Court — except for one person.

Bylur looked at himself in the mirror as he shrugged on his jacket. Despite the rivalry between his Court and Spring, he and his parents were still expected to attend, and while they were grumbling about the fact for the last week, Bylur had no complaints because a trip to the Spring Court meant a trip to see his beloved, Ixora.

Bylur wasn’t ashamed to admit that Ixora had him wrapped around her finger. She was charming: Spring personified. They met when they were young, though it seemed only yesterday to Bylur. He remembered how he found himself too close to the Spring Court border while meeting his best friend in Autumn Court.

He remembered laying eyes on the girl across the border and feeling his chest constrain in a way he’d never felt before, feeling his breath catch in his throat.

She was beautiful, even then: long, flowing blonde hair that fell to her waist, the locks appearing so soft and silky — practically glowing in the sun — that Bylur’s fingers ached to reach out and run his fingers through them; something he had done many times since then, but it never got old. The wide eyes were the perfect shade of green to match the leaves on the rose bushes she always loved so much, the roses that she tended to herself, despite her parents having more than enough gardeners and servants. But that was something else that Bylur quickly learned to adore about his Ixora; she was jaw-droppingly beautiful and possessed the kindest heart of anyone he had ever met. She loved to help out in the gardens (and there were many in the Spring Court), in the kitchens, anywhere, even though as the princess of the Spring Court, she hadn’t needed to lift a finger. But she did, and she loved it. And she loved Bylur, though most days, he wasn’t sure why.

He was the tall, gangly, silver-haired prince of the Winter Court, as well as the first-born and only son, making him the rightful heir to the throne one day. And that day appeared to be approaching sooner than he would have liked, because over the months, his father had been growing ill. No matter the amount of tonics and magical treatments, he never seemed to be getting better; only worse. And while he was in good enough health to attend the Ball, Bylur knew that both he and his mother suspected that this might be his last.

Bylur shook off the thought as he picked up the small, square box that was sitting upon his dresser. He carefully opened the blue velvet lid and gazed down at the necklace that was inside.

While he’d wanted to buy her a ring — not to propose, at least, not yet — a promise ring, of sorts, he’d opted for the necklace, thinking that it’d be easier to hide from her parents, to tuck under the neckline of a sweater or a dress. Not that he wanted to have to hide their love or any token of it, for that matter, but he would deal with it until he could finally proclaim it to the world. And for now, until he could, he would buy her little trinkets to show his adoration for her.

He had chosen this necklace the moment he laid eyes on it; it had simply screamed Ixora. It was a crystal rose, light pink, just like her favorite color. He had a whole speech planned, one that he’d been going over and over in his head for days, though he knew he was going to mess it up the moment that he was actually in front of her. It wasn’t uncommon for him to forget or stumble over his words when he was with her. She just had that effect on him.

Bylur decided that the best decision would be not to overthink it too much before the moment arose, so he tucked the small box into his pants pocket as he descended the winding stairs of the palace, which would lead him from his bedroom down to the entrance hall. Sure enough, waiting at the bottom by the front door, were his parents.

His mother was dressed in a dark blue, shimmering, floor-length gown, her silver hair curled and cascading down her shoulders, a crystal-coated crown upon her head. His father was dressed in a suit of the same dark blue, though Bylur couldn’t help but notice that it hung more loosely on him than it had the last time he wore it. But Bylur tore his attention away from that, focusing on the bright smile of his mother, which always seemed to warm every room she stepped into. Bylur had always been his mother’s pride and joy, and he strived to make her proud with everything he did, so it killed him to know that his secret romance with the daughter of their rival court would disappoint her.

Though he knew that good could come out of it — he would just have to prove it to her, and to the rest of the world. Bylur would rule the Winter Court sooner than later, and eventually, Ixora would rule the Spring Court. Together, they could finally join forces and demolish the age-old rivalry. One that he wasn’t exactly sure of the reason why it started in the first place, though he suspected — from years upon years of sneaking through the palace and eavesdropping upon important meetings — it was something to do with territory. He knew that at some point, centuries ago, both Winter and Autumn expanded their territories, pushing Spring back. While it had been settled enough to not throw his land into a never-ending war, he suspected that Spring was still not happy about it. But once he was king, Ixora queen, and with Autumn’s neutrality bridging the gap between the two Courts, he had no doubt that the rivalry would be a thing of the past before long. It was thinking of that kind of change that kept him going, kept him from absolutely dreading the day that he would become king.

But until then, he’d have to wait. As well as hide his adoration for the princess of Spring.

The family of three piled into their carriage, which was pulled by two large caribou. The caribou were kept in a stable just on the edge of the family’s grounds, and Bylur enjoyed visiting them every so often, bringing them treats when the servants weren’t looking. Now, they lumbered through the land, pulling the carriage behind them, passing through the rest of Winter, which slowly faded into the beautiful orange, red, and brown shades of the Autumn Court. Bylur watched out the small window of the carriage, hearing the caribou’s hooves crunch on the fallen leaves that were scattered over nearly every inch of the territory — which always made for plenty of leaf piles to jump in when Bylur was a child. He and the youngest son of the king and queen of the Autumn Court, Radley, would make as many piles as they could, jumping from one to the other, until the sun set in the evening, setting a glow of deep orange across the lands. While he loved his own Court dearly, Bylur had always had a soft spot for the beauties of the neighboring Court, as well.

But then, there was Spring.

He hadn’t seen it enough times to not be amazed every time by the lush greenery and flowers of every color that covered the land. It was a different sort of beauty from the glittering snow and ice-covered lands of his own Court, but beautiful nonetheless.

Bylur’s chest began tightening in both excitement and nervousness as he spotted the looming palace in the distance, just as marvelous as the rest of the Court. He slipped his hand into the left pocket of his pants, feeling for the small box inside, his nervousness spiking when he closed his fingers around the object. He desperately hoped that she would like it.

He lifted his gaze towards the palace, hearing his mother and father talking quietly from beside him, but he wasn’t listening. He was too focused on the white stone towers, the curling vines and fully bloomed flowers that curled around every nook and cranny of the glorious palace, yet none of it was overgrown. Everything was clipped and groomed to perfection, and Bylur knew that when he laid eyes on the king and queen, they would match the appearance of their kingdom: not so much as a hair out of place.

And when he finally laid eyes on them, as he and his parents stepped through the threshold of the palace, they did not disappoint. The Queen was dressed in a long, flowing pink gown with a train that extended well down the hall and a neckline that dipped in a low V. Her golden hair was carefully braided in a low knot at the nape of her neck, exposing the glinting, pink stone earrings that hung from her ears. Bylur had no doubt that those earrings probably cost more than some of the servant’s yearly wages.

The King was dressed in a white suit with hints of pink to match his queen’s attire, his blonde hair gelled back, but Bylur’s attention quickly jumped to his side, where his lovely Ixora stood, her hands clasped behind her back.

She looked perfect. Bylur had expected nothing less, but she still took his breath away.

She wore a dress that matched the shade of her mother’s, like unlike the Queen’s, Ixora’s dress fell to her knees. The flowy skirt was carefully laced with patterns of roses, but the top part of the dress was a solid, light pink with a neckline similar to her mother’s, clinging to her chest and the curve of her waist. Her golden hair was curled in soft waves that were pinned back with shimmering pink pins, leaving her beautiful, round face on display.

Bylur practically melted on the spot as her full, pink lips curved up into a shy, barely-there smile as they made eye contact. He knew that they couldn’t make it too obvious, but he offered her a similar smile back. Her wide, green eyes lit up, her cheeks now matching the color of her dress, though she quickly tore her eyes away from his, as to not raise suspicion.

Bylur’s heart clenched. She was so, so lovely; and all his.

Even though he was dying to get her alone, his fingers itching to caress those soft curls, he tore his own gaze away from her face, tilted his chin up to look important (which he could practically feel her laughing at him for), and followed his parents into the already-crowded ballroom.

It was easy to distinguish between the Courts, considering each usually dressed in regards to a specific color scheme. It was even easier to spot Radley, in his deep red suit and unruly chestnut brown curls, clearly flirting with a blonde girl from the Summer Court, clad in a light blue gown. As much as Bylur wanted to go and spend time with his friend, especially because he knew it’d be a while until he was able to sneak off with Ixora, he decided to not interrupt, allowing Radley to have a chance with this girl. So, instead, he scooped up a cup of the sparkling pink punch, found himself a nice-looking empty spot on the wall, and leaned against it.

As he stood, watching Ixora flit from person to person, greeting everyone like the perfect princess that she was, he reached into his pocket once again, wrapping his hand around the box. He ran his fingers over the edges, simply feeling the soft velvet, as if to make sure that it was really still there. He kept his eyes fixed on Ixora, and occasionally, she’d glance over in his direction, and as they’d make eye contact from across the ballroom, she’d smile brightly, displaying a mouthful of perfectly white, straight teeth. And Bylur would smile back, clutching the box even tighter as he’d watch her turn away towards the next person. He grew restless with jealousy as he watched her hug Radley, her arms snaking around his neck, or as she laughed at something a Summer Court Prince said, resting her hand on his arm.

Bylur ached and ached with jealousy, until finally — after what felt like hours later — Ixora looked in his direction once again, only this time, she tilted her head in a barely noticeable gesture towards the back doors, which Bylur knew would lead out to the garden. The main one, that was. The whole Court was filled with gardens, but this one was the pride and joy of the king and queen — and most importantly, the pride and joy of Ixora.

Bylur allowed a few minutes for Ixora to leave first before doing so himself, trying to make his exit appear as casual as possible, setting his empty glass on a server’s tray on the way out. But the moment the heavy doors closed behind him, he picked up his pace, finding himself practically sprinting towards where Ixora stood, gazing affectionately, and perhaps a little absentmindedly, at one of her beautifully-tended rose bushes.

Bylur picked her up once he reached her, wrapping his arms around her waist and spinning her around, holding her close to him, so that he could feel the quick beating of her heart and smell the flowery scent of her perfume. So that he could feel her warmth and softness and everything he’d been not-so-patiently waiting for all evening.

She giggled, which was music to Bylur’s ears. He lowered her back to the ground, and she stepped back from him, smoothing down the front of her dress, her cheeks flushed and a soft smile on her lips. 

“Those Summer Court boys are insufferable,” she admitted, “I thought Arun would never stop talking. I didn’t think I was capable of fake laughing for that long, either.”

Bylur grinned.

“Well, you had me convinced.”

Ixora shook her head, looking up at Bylur from under her lashes, a near-devilish grin on her soft, pink lips that had Bylur sweating.

“Perhaps I should pick up acting. I’m rather good at it, apparently.”

Bylur huffed a laugh, reaching out and tucking a stray lock of hair behind Ixora’s ear. She leaned into his touch, and he let himself cup her jaw, running his thumb across the soft skin of her cheek. Her eyes fluttered shut, and Bylur could see himself standing there for the rest of eternity, Ixora happy and content under his fingertips.

One day, he would have exactly that, every day of his life.

“I think the only thing worse to your parents than you picking up a commoner job like acting would be you being in a relationship with the prince of your rival Court. Oh, wait.”

Ixora giggled, opening her eyes and lifting her head, away from Bylur’s touch. He dropped his hand, somewhat disappointedly, but at least she was still smiling at him like that. He was on a roll tonight; he’d have to keep the jokes coming.

Until her smile faltered, a troubled look clouding her eyes, and Bylur instinctively went into protective mode.

“What is it?” he asked.

She shook her head, tearing her gaze away from Bylur’s as she ran a finger along the petals of one of her roses. This one was pure white — a rare beauty in a garden full of flowers of every color. A rare beauty, just like the girl standing in front of him.

“My parents,” she replied, her voice even quieter than it had been before, “They’ve been talking more and more about strategies and…”

Bylur knew that whatever her parents had been talking about, she didn’t think Bylur would like to hear it. He suspected what it was about, but he pushed her to continue anyway. She looked at him again, her wide, green eyes regretful.

“And what’s going to happen to your Court when your father dies.”

Bylur pushed his tongue against the inside of his cheek, tearing his eyes away from hers’. He fixed his gaze on the red rose bush a few feet away. While Ixora had figured out how to breed them and grow all sorts of different colors, the classic red ones had always been his personal favorites. And focusing on the simple beauty of those flowers helped to ease some of the pain that arose whenever he thought of his father’s situation. Because not only would his mother be destroyed by his father’s death, it meant that Bylur would take over the throne. And while he dreamed of change, he was certain he wasn’t ready for the grief that would come with the loss of his father, while being expected to step up into his position — especially not so soon.

“They know I’ll be the one to take over, right?”

Ixora nodded, her lips pursed tightly.

“They think that you’ll be like your father, which they don’t like the idea of. They’re wishing that there was going to be a different king — one easier to manipulate, so that they can finally have their way. You know how they are.”

Bylur nodded, still looking off towards the roses, but Ixora’s hand brushing against his brought him back. He turned to look at her, and she smiled softly, though her eyes were still troubled.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

Bylur shook his head, shook himself free of all of his worries and fears regarding the near future, and leaned forward to press a gentle kiss to Ixora’s forehead. He’d worry about all of that later, and enjoy this time with Ixora now. Plus, he still had his gift for her.

“You have no need to apologize. I have something for you,” Bylur said, pulling back, and Ixora watched, starting to smile as he pulled the box out of his pocket. Her green eyes widened as he opened it, revealing the little crystal rose on its delicate golden chain.

“Oh, Bylur,” she breathed, and Bylur’s heart swelled with joy as he watched her pull the necklace out of the box, cupping the chain in one hand as she carefully studied the rose in the other. She smiled up at Bylur, holding it out to him.

“Put it on me?”

Bylur obliged, taking the necklace from Ixora, his fingers brushing hers.

She turned, holding up her golden hair and exposing the soft curve of her neck, allowing Bylur to carefully clasp the necklace. Once he was finished, she turned, letting her hair fall back down over her shoulders as she smiled up at him, toying with the rose between her fingertips.

“It’s beautiful,” she murmured, and Bylur’s smile grew, knowing that his cheeks would ache by the time he went back into the palace, just as they always did when he finished spending time with Ixora.

“I wanted to get you a ring, or something,” he admitted, somewhat shakily, as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants, “Like, not like that, not yet, anyway, but like, just to say that I love you, and that I’m excited for what the future holds for us — if you still want me then, anyway, and-”

Ixora saved him from his rambling with a kiss. A light brush of her lips on his, but it still sent his entire body aflame. She dropped down from her tiptoes, smiling up at him, and Bylur almost completely forgot what he had been saying.

“I have something for you, too,” she said, softly, “But you have to close your eyes.”

Bylur smiled, but obliged. He could have sworn he saw that troubled look on Ixora’s face before he closed his eyes, and that there was an odd, twisted expression on her face, but perhaps he was imagining things. She was probably just upset about her parents, or about the fact that she had troubled Bylur by bringing up his father’s state. She’d always been so empathetic, which was another thing he loved about her.

He heard the soft shifting of fabric, and his eyebrows furrowed slightly, tempted to take a peek as he wondered what she was doing. But then he felt the press of her hand on his wrist, her skin soft and warm against his. She slid her hand up his arm, and every hair on his body seemed to rise at the touch.

“I’m sorry about this,” she whispered then, and Bylur’s momentary excitement vanished.

“Sorry?” he asked, his eyes still closed, as he felt a soft breeze drift over him, sending the flowery scent of Ixora’s perfume in his direction. “I already said, Ixie, it’s-”

“It’s for the good of the Court,” she interrupted, “our Courts.” 

And Bylur’s blood froze in his veins just seconds before he felt something sharp pierce against his chest, through the fabric of his shirt, breaking the skin under it.

The last thing he heard was her sweet, soft voice, as she released his wrist, as he went limp and seemed to be falling somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, as the blood pooled from his chest, as warm as the Spring breeze, as deeply red as his favorite roses:

Long live the king.”


Ms. Baker’s Home

by Matthew John Meagher


I sharpen my blade. I scorch my face with a knife. Old skin and clipped hairs fall to the floor.

I hear my brother, Twitch, happy-humming a tune in his bathroom next to mine. He’s too young to shave. I’m the one that has to. If I didn’t, it would just be another excuse for our drunk father to bring out his belt and beat me. I bear the pain to make sure he doesn’t touch, Twitch. I’m my dead mother’s kid. My name is Reginald Slay; they call me Irish.

I walk out of my bathroom to a stained air mattress. My life is my pillow, my torn blanket, and a doorless closet with a few empty hangers. The only thing that hangs in there is my ragged, worn-out, black hoodie.

I try to find a white shirt on the floor that isn’t stained with my blood or with Dad’s liquor. I find one that only has a few cig-stick holes, so I can hide last night’s blood bruises from the teachers at school. After putting on a pair of jeans and tying up my boots, I have my breakfast cig-stick. It’s the best part of my day. It’s the best part of my life.

The cig-stick burns to its butt and I place it in an old army canteen I found last year while on a seventh-grade field trip.

“Irish! The bus is here. You coming, Bro?” Twitch asks.

I zip up my hood, grab my pencil and journal, and take my canteen.

It hurts to move, but I fight to turn the doorknob. Twitch is waiting at the door with a fresh backpack and a new pair of headphones.

I walk past him, and he tries to pat me on the back, but I grab his wrist before he hits the part of me that’s raw from last night’s lashing.

Twitch is worn from my beatings, he stays strong if I’m strong. I act like nothing happened.

When we head down our stairs, Dad is passed out on the couch with a wasted cig-stick hanging from his two fingers. I grab his stick and place it in my canteen.

We leave the house. It’s cold as hell outside, but I smile.

“Why you smiling?” Twitch asks as he pulls off his headphones.

“I just…I love Ashton.”

This town is my home.

Twitch points to a few burn holes on the bottom of my shirt, “You better tuck in.”

A rusty, yellow school bus pulls up spewing exhaust as it stops. Children chant through the window.

I notice our regular bus driver, Ms. Baker, is missing. She usually warms our day with a nice, “Good Morning,” but this new driver looks old and kind of creepy. The front rows are scattered with baby-graders. They quiet down as I pass each row.

Rumors of my size and grit came about years ago when I rescued Dad and his cronies from a fire. I saved those fools, and a girl my age from a burning house.

I kept growing, my life kept getting harder, and word got around. I don’t like it, but I’ve become a bit of a leader to these kids. I call them Ashies.

As I pass them, I pat a few on the head, and they act like they’re being touched by some superhero.

I hate being the center of attention, but these kids need something, anything, anyone, to believe in and to look up to .

            As we walk down the aisle, we pass Mars and the jocks from Five Points. They’re loud, but they’re funny. Even though sports mean very little to the Valley, when the jocks compete, it feels like we’re getting a taste of the real world.

Sitting alone, with glasses way too big on his face and a hoodie that could eat him, is a kid named Jeremiah. I call him “J”

Girl Ashies sit behind him. My favorite is Christmas Daye. She’s different. Real, natural, and awesome in every way. She’s sitting with Vivian Steele. Viv carries all the power in Ashton because her dad runs the Sugar Sweet Factory, the town’s major employer.

Twitch sits next to our neighborhood friends, Shea and Curly. Hardened by their own lives, they sit in silence. I get my own seat because we can’t fit two kids in a seat when I sit down.

It’s a pain being this big sometimes.

Before my butt touches the seat, Vivian turns around and says, “Hey, Ish. How was your summer, baby?”

“We kissed…once. We’re not dating, Viv. You know I hate when you do that.”

Christmas turns slightly toward me and rolls her eyes when Vivian isn’t looking.

“Yeah, ease off, Easy V,” Mars spouts from a few seats up. The bus echoes with oohs and ahs.

“Sit down!” the bus driver yells.

“Whoa, Irish. Check that out,” Twitch says as we pass Ms. Baker’s house. It looks like her house has been washed out by a landslide. Mountain living can be a risk.

Ms. Baker’s house has been more like a home for all of us than our own houses. When an Ash is cold, or sick, or alone, her door is always open. Now, the door is gone. We see her standing outside, staring at the ruins. Alone.

“Damn, dude,” I say.

Ms. Baker is the town sweetheart. She’s a middle-aged mental health nurse that helps with PTSD. When kids have trouble at home, she opens her doors for relief. Dad is one of her patients. He is Schizo-Affective and has mad PTSD mood swings. She taught me to recognize the signs and has been working with our family for years.

She’s also known for giving out the best homemade cookies on Halloween. Ashies wait the entire year for her Halloween batches. Some want them for the taste, some just love the idea of being baked for, cared for, the sense of feeling at home.

The bus would normally be deafening with drama from school, but as we pass, our hearts crumble like the brick of Ms. Baker’s house. Our home. For the remaining ride to school, the only sound is the rusty brakes of the bus.

The school day is a dead day. We’re all mourning Ms. Baker’s loss. Hours of silence drain the day. I don’t mind because more time at school means less time at home.

The final bell rings and a chill runs through my body because I know what awaits me at home. If we heard the news, so did Dad. And Dad’s answer to anything is a bottle.

I walk down to the Academic Hall and pick up my brother who’s standing with J.

“What’s up, J?” I ask.

“Sick kicks,” he says pointing at my muddy old Timberland boots. “Seriously, dude, wash those puppies up and you got a pair of fresh Tim’s. Those go for a bit online.”

Twitch says, “J is helping me with school. You know art’s my jam, but I can’t do anything else. He may come over a few days.”

“You tell Dad?”

“No, why?”

I love the kid, but Twitch is naïve as hell. Dad hates having people over, ever, let alone when the town’s reeling from a loss.

The three of us sprint to the bus and spend the ride catching our breaths.

We get off the bus and, as we approach our cabin, the stale smell of cig-sticks burrows through the air and bombards my nose. Smoke is one of the signs Ms. Baker taught me to prepare for. It’s Dad.

I hold them both back and say, “Twitch, go to J’s house.”

“But…it’s like two miles away.”

“Shut up and go. I have to talk to Dad,” I say as I give him a stern look.

“Damn. C’mon, J. Let’s go,” Twitch says.

I make sure to watch them turn the corner toward J.’s neighborhood. I crack my back and neck; I take a deep breath. I creep to the door, hoping to God he doesn’t hear me.

I step onto our porch and the rickety wood cracks under my feet.

A burly, hard shout: “Who the hell is that?”

He yanks the door open and his silhouette staggers from the living room light. In his left hand, a bottle. His right hand, a belt.

“You here to remind me of her?”

“No, Dad. No…Sir.”

He takes a few gulps out of the handle of whiskey. His eyes tear up after finishing the pull, and he throws up half the liquor.

“Get over here, boy.”

I know what to expect. I know what to think about to ease the pain. I think of Mom. I think of protecting my brother, Twitch.

I make sure he looks me in the eyes as I walk up to him.

He lashes my shoulder with the belt and says, “You should have let me burn in that house.”

He thrashes again at my back. I feel my old wounds tear from their scabs as my body shakes and trembles.

This is longer and worse than before though. I expect a few lashings, but he continues all over my body. He slurs his speech to a single word after each whip of his belt.






I fight with my last bit of strength to move away from another lash. I’m done with this. He swings, misses, and falls off the porch.

“I’m not leaving Twitch with you. You’re going to have to kill me.”

I jump off after him.

I let him stumble up. I watch and wait. I blitz forward, making sure I blast my shoulders into his stomach. I tackle him. One after another, I throw brick-sized, enraged fists at his face. I feel his bones crunch against my knuckles after each blow. He fights back a little, but after a few more jacks in the face, he’s out.

My palms are soaked in blood. I look around for help and see no one. I yell for help and find no one. My adrenaline slows, and pain surges all over my body. I pass out.

My head is bumping when I wake to a soft voice whispering to me, “Get up, now!”

It’s Ms. Baker.

“The ambulance will be here any minute.”


“You may be big, Kid. But you have a lot to learn. Ambulances lead to questions. Questions we don’t have the right answers to. You don’t see it, but I do. The Ashies follow you.”

“The Ashies? They’re just little kids.”

“You’re the reason why they smile. You’re Ashton’s hope. Now, get up.”

I try to use my hands to press up, but my arms give in. “I can’t.”

“Fight, harder.”

“I can’t.”

She shakes my shoulders, and says one word, “Fight.”

It works. Adrenaline surges through my body and I fight my way to a stance. I hear sirens approach.

She whispers, “C’mon. Follow me.”

It feels like we walk miles. She stops and says, “I’m going to need your help with this one.”

She grabs my wrist and places my palm along the trunk of a dead tree. Water rushes below.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Push it down. We need a bridge.”

“I can’t. I can barely move.”

“Look,” she points to an old, abandoned RV hidden in the woods. “I can help you in there, but first we have to get there.”

I use my lasts bit of strength to push the tree trunk down towards the river, and her plan works. The log rests rigid and acts as a bridge for us to cross.

It’s sketch, but we somehow make it to the RV.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but the inside of the RV is disgusting and uninhabitable. Weeds and greenery grow all over the furniture. Dirt and mud cover the floor, and I hear a few squeaks of scampering field mice.

“This is where you’re going to live?”

“It’s not my choice. You better sit down,” she says.

She clears a spot on an old couch, reaches inside a bag, and pulls out bandages, gauze, and some aspirin. She starts wrapping my right wrist and says, “I can’t believe he did this to you.”

            “I’m so stupid. I can’t be taken away. Twitch needs me. Dad is sick.”

She blots the torn skin on my back with a sanitized wipe. It stings.

“I knew your dad when we were younger,” she says. “He was different. Sober, of course. And he loved your mom.”

“You knew Mom?”

“Your mom wasn’t around until later, but I went to school with your dad.”

“Different, huh? I can’t picture Dad without a belt and bottle.”

“PTSD does that. When your mother died while giving birth to you, he died with her. He’s an evil shell of a once great man.”

“It sounds like you want me be sympathetic.”

“Oh, honey, no. Your dad is a mess, for sure. No matter how bad things are one never puts their hands on a child. But a family always looks past the pain. Tonight, I’m your family.”

“Ms. Baker, I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”

“I see you with the kids when you give them your batch of my cookies. There’s something special about you and I won’t let you give that up.”

“I’m just a kid.”

“Look… my house just got crushed. Everyone deals with their own pain. Yours is extreme, so is your father’s.”

“I’m sorry.”

She wraps the final bandage around my shoulder, “It’s okay, Reginald.”

“How’d you know my name? My real name?”

“I was your mother’s nurse when she gave birth to you. When she named you. When she died with you in her arms. It was one of the worst days of my life.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. You should never have to say anything. You saved your dad, his friends, and especially the little girl from that hellacious fire. Saving lives doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when it’s a kid, by himself, saving people from a burning house.”

“Anyone would have done that.”

“Sure, Kid. Because everyone is big enough to carry out limp bodies.”

“I’m not afraid to die.”

She takes a deep breath, and lets out a sigh, “You’re too young to think like that.”

“Well, most Ashies have to deal with stuff they’re too young for. I’m just…just…”

“Their hero.”

            “Sure, okay, maybe Ashies look up to me from time to time. But that doesn’t mean anything; they’re just kids.”

“There’s something about this Valley. Ashton needs someone like you.”


“I can’t explain it, but when things go bad here, in the darkest of dark, there’s always a light. My world is underneath mud and rock. Right now, you’re my light.”

Dogs bark in the distance.

“You better get going, kid.”

“I have nowhere to go.”

“Follow the creek a few hundred yards down and you’ll find a spot to wash up. Act like you’re walking home. Everyone in this town is used to you hiding your bruises, so suspicion will be low.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine. It’s me. They won’t touch me. Just remember, you’ll always have somewhere to go now.”

After the aspirin kicks in, I speed up to a slow jog. I do exactly as Ms. Baker says, and she’s right, there’s a public bathroom next to a bridge. I wash up and begin my trek home, but I don’t feel like I’m in this fight alone anymore.

I walk up to our cabin and it’s aglow in red and blue lights. Twitch stands with an emergency responder. As I approach them, he turns, and runs to me grasping me like a lost teddy bear. I wince in pain.

“Bro, what happened man? Dad is knocked out. Like, really out.”

            “Did they see you? Did you say anything?”

“Yeah right, Bro. I’m surprised the ambulance even showed up after the daily amount of calls from this neighborhood.”

I tell him: “I went for a walk after he beat the hell out of me. Looks like a cougar mauled him or something. Let’s just get inside,” I say, eyeing the emergency responders nearby.

Dad lies on a stretcher and is being propped into an ambulance. We watch as the lights and Dad drift away into the darkness. It hurts, but I raise my hand to pat Twitch on the shoulder and say, “Well, looks like we get the place for the night.”

Twitch asks, “What are we going to do?”

I look down the path that leads to Ms. Baker’s RV. I say, “I have an idea.”

I explain to Twitch what really went down while we walk to Ms. Baker’s RV. The conversation is so heavy, we don’t even notice our walk over the death-defying log. I approach the door and knock. There’s no answer at first, so Twitch and I start heading back home. Then, I hear the creak of a door swinging open.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hi Ms. Baker, sorry. We thought you were gone, or something, we were just about to leave,” I say.

“We? Who’s we?”

“Me and my brother, Twitch.” I gesture toward my brother.

She looks at him, noticing how he’s physically the complete opposite of me. She says, “Brothers? From the same mother?”

“Hey!” Twitch says.

I smack him in the arm to shut up.

“Ouch! Fine, whatever.”

“No, but seriously,” Ms. Baker asks. “What are you doing back here?”

I say, “Ms. Baker, you saved me tonight. But you save us Ashies every year. The smell of your baking always makes us feel at home and for most of us, that’s a once-in-a-year feeling.”

She tears up, and says, “Jesus, kid.”

Twitch says, “He’s right, Ms. Baker. We count down the days to Halloween like it’s Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, the cookies taste amazing, but your baking to us is more than just taste. It’s something to look forward to. Something to be happy about.” Twitch shakes his head, “And now, with your house gone, the tradition is gone too.”

“Not yet,” I say. “Ms. Baker, this RV is a dump. We can’t let you stay here. You and I both know Dad will be in rehab for a few weeks. You’re staying with us, instead.” By the time we make it back home, we’re so tired from the day’s events that all three of us fall asleep right there, on the living room couch.

I wake to the smell of warm, buttery, cinnamon rolls. Twitch and Ms. Baker sit in peace at the kitchen table.

I sit down, and Ms. Baker asks, “Want one?”

Twitch says with a stuffed mouth, “Bro, you have no idea. I have had like six.”

I take a bite, and it’s amazing. The buttery cream oozes through the warm roll and the cinnamon is perfectly balanced. I’ve never had something this…this good.

Icing slips from my mouth as I say, “Thank you, Ms. Baker.”

“Well, you two better go get ready for school.”

            We only have a few minutes, so I don’t have to have my morning smoke, but that’s okay because my stomach is full, and I don’t remember the last time I had a full stomach.

            Before we head out the door, Ms. Baker hands each of us a paper bag lunch. The gesture overwhelms both me and Twitch.

Twitch swallows her with a hug and asks, “You’re not going to stay with us?”

“My home is your home. Even if it is an RV.” She kisses Twitch on the cheek and scrubs some left over lipstick with her thumb. She finishes with a gleeful smile and says, “You have your brother. You will always have your brother.”

The three of us embrace over our homemade lunch.

We get on the bus and the sight of us carrying lunches brings the chatter to a halt. Nobody ever brings a lunch from home. Envy and jealousy aren’t present in this silence. The Ashies know that there’s only one person in all of Ashton generous enough for something like this.

As we sit down, the bus rumbles. It takes only seconds for Vivian to turn around and ask, “Hey Ish, so where’d you get that lunch?”

            Christmas answers for me, “It’s from Ms. Baker, of course”

“I don’t know what to do with it,” I say honestly.

Christmas pulls out her phone and grabs the bag from my hand. She opens it, and takes a few pictures for me. She hands me her phone and says, “Now it’s more than a memory.” .

            “Sucks what happened to her house, man,” Mars jumps through the aisle from a few seats up. “Five Points loves Ms. Baker.”

Our other two friends, Curly and Shea, don’t say much but chime in with a couple, “for- sures.”

“I know what you’re saying fellas,” I say. “We have to do something.”

Twitch asks, “What the hell are a few Ashies going to do?”

I say, “A few aren’t going to do much. But if we could get everyone involved, maybe come up with something.”

A small voice crawls from J’s seat in front of me. “I’ll help.”

“With what?” I ask.

“If you get the wood, I can map out a reconstruction plan,” J says.

“Dude, that’s sick,” Mars says as he gives him a slick shake of the hand.  “You’re that smart. Dope.”

J says, “I can’t do anything without supplies. So, you need to get the supplies.”

Mars nods, “I can get my people from Five Points.”

Vivian says, “Christmas and I can get some tools and stuff from my dad’s factory.”

I take a heavy breath and say, “I’ll get the wood.”



I drive the blade of my axe into the trunk of the tree.


The blade sticks. But I pry it out.


I use my leg to push the tree over.

The tree, along with all the other trees around my house have been dead for years from beetle-kill. It’s exhausting. I look behind me, and I am proud of myself at the sight of a pile of logs.

I ditch some days from school to finish the wood supply for Ms. Baker’s home. The work is laborious, but she deserves it. Ms. Baker is a beacon in this town. We can’t lose her.

Dad’s recovery is sooner than expected. With rehab, we only have a few weeks. And snow falls soon. Ms. Baker’s RV won’t hold up a month.

The next day, I wake up to the sound of bustling murmurs outside my window. I look outside, and the entire town is here, to help rebuild Ms. Baker’s home.

Twitch opens the door and jumps on my bed. “Bro, let’s get started! Everyone is here.”

Even though Ashton is poor, the people bring anything they can. Even if it’s a few sandwiches and some canned soup to feed those working. The thought makes me so proud of my town.

It takes a week or so, but, with the entire town helping and J’s blueprints, we’re able to get the job done just in time.

Morning birds chirp as I walk along the slow running creek up to Ms. Baker’s RV. I knock and she calls out, “Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Irish.”

“One second.”

She opens the door and she looks like she’s been through weeks of hell. Her hair is unkempt and dreaded in knots. Her face and fingers are covered in dirt. She covers up a moth-eaten nighty and says, “Good morning, Sweetie. Nice beard.”

“Thanks. Haven’t shaved in days.”

“Why do I have the honor of your young, lovely presence so early this morning?”

Even in a midst of her own misery, she finds a way to be warm to me.

“I want to show you something. We want to show you something.”

I move over and behind me is the entire town scattered amongst the trees.

“What’s this?” she asks.

“Come with me, Ms. Baker.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second…let me put my face on.”

She shuts her door, and I can hear her rustling around. When she reappears, her hair’s in a pony-tail, she’s put on her nurse’s uniform, and she’s covering up with a shawl. I guide her up the path to my house and past it a few hundred yards to her new home.

Her hands tremble as she covers her mouth. “How? …When? Did you do this?” she asks.

“You’re a mother to our family, Ms. Baker. We need you, just as much as you need us,” I say.

She approaches the cabin, and Dad stands in front of the door holding his red AA token attached to a ring of gold and green keys. After weeks of rehab, he’s finally sober.

“Here,” he says. “The gold one is for you. The green one is for our place. You’re welcome any time.”

            She walks in and it’s simple, just a few old couches and a fireplace. Ms. Baker is overcome with emotion. “This…is…perfect,” she says.

“We’re going to let you get settled, Ms. Baker,” I say.

“By myself? No, Sweetie, it’s time to celebrate.” She turns around Ashes and Ashies stand in respect. “I’m so honored to be an Ash,” she says. “I wake up every day wondering what I did to get here, but whatever I did, I’m glad it happened. I love all of you. This is the best family I could have ever asked for.” She shakes her new keys and says, “Now, what kind of breakfast should I make today?


Sweet Thang

by Allison Whittenberg


Chapter One

I can travel through time; sometimes it’s voluntary;

sometimes it’s not. Just the other night, I saw a movie with these white people with dark hair -– I think they were Italian.  In this film, there was a funeral scene where the main character jumped in after the coffin was lowered the six feet into the ground, and all of a sudden I was at that day. My reality, though, had black people all dressed in black and only a smattering of whites from the nursing program she was in.  She left behind a son.  She had named him Tracy John Upshaw.

She was Karyn.  I knew her as Auntie; she was Daddy’s little sis.

I recall everything annoyed me that day.  I was watching Auntie Karyn in her coffin, and I knew Auntie Karyn was watching me. At the gravesite, the Reverend Whitaker, who wore his hair in a Caesar, led us away, saying, “There’s nothing we can do now.”

I didn’t want to be ushered to the side, and I hated those words: ”There is nothing we can do now.”  Especially the word “nothing.”  There had to be something — something that would bring her back.

Reverend Whitaker had his arm bracing, then moving, me. My legs felt like they might fold. Off by the limo, other relatives were sobbing in one big huddled mass.

The last look at Auntie made my chest hurt.  I was only nine, but I felt like I was having a heart attack. Auntie had always been fair, but her face was now whiter, glittering, and waxen. Each hope, every dream, every prayer was lost, gone.  Her large penny-colored eyes were closed forever.

Back at the house, my nuclear-and-beyond family gathered, and Otis Redding was playing on the stereo, singing that Fa Fa Fafafafa sad song.  There was a lot of chicken.  Fried, braised, broiled, roasted in a pan, chicken potpie.  So damn much food — nine trays of potato salad.  Distant relations ate heartily, even sloppily, macaroni salad sliding off their spoons onto their chins.

Tracy John was asleep during most of that day.  He was passed from arm to arm.  Everyone wanted to hold the precious one; he was like a hot potato in reverse.  Family and friends didn’t leave till it was night.  Then it really sank in — I’ll never see her again.

“I just want to know why,” I sobbed in my open hands.

Daddy’s usual husky/tender voice offered no explanation.  He just held me while I pulled myself together again.  Though he didn’t sob that day, neither in public nor just with me, I realized that he wasn’t whole.  Like the rest of us who loved her, he would have a hole in the heart that wouldn’t go away.

With the sun now down, sorrow solidified with the moon.  My head felt lighter.  My heart was heavier.

Around midnight, Uncle O’s car broke down by the airport. He said the engine died. Daddy took jumper cables and my older brother, Horace, to Island Avenue to rescue him.

That night my eyes were propped open by an unknown force.  I wished Daddy had taken me instead of Horace.  Maybe working a jack or holding a flashlight could have gotten my mind off my heart and the pain that it felt.

Gammy had Tracy John for the rest of the week, and I thought she was going to keep him.  The following week, he was with us; mid-week, Gammy took him back. Then that Friday, I was over Uncle O’s apartment, and Tracy John was there.

By the end of the month, he was at our house, and I guessed that Tracy John was going to stay with us forever, which back then wasn’t a problem. He was small and playful with Daddy, Ma, and my two brothers, Horace and Leo. And he stayed out of my way.  I think something changed when he was in the first grade, but I’m not sure.  Maybe the change was in me, for it has taken me this long to discover that Tracy John ruled.  For example, within a week of Tracy John moving into our home for good, I lost my room.

After Ma told me, I screamed, “What?!”

Daddy backed her up by repeating what they’d decided.

“No, no,” I pleaded. “Let him move in with Leo.”

“Leo is moving in with you, Charmaine,” Ma said.

“But he’s a boy.  I can’t live with a boy.”

“Boy, girl, don’t make no matter.” Daddy waved me away.  “We’re all family.”

I turned to Ma. “I don’t have any friends who share a room with their brothers.”

“Then you don’t have any friends who share a room with their brothers,” Daddy said. ”That don’t mean nothing.  You and your brother will live together.  That’s how they do it in the country.”

“What country?” I asked.

Daddy shot me a look that told me it was in my best interest not to seek any more answers. I didn’t argue with Daddy; for you see, even at the age of nine, I was pro-life -— my own.

Inside, I was mad.  How could they do a thing like that to me?  How did Tracy John get his own room?  Tracy John could have stayed with Leo, or Horace for that matter.  Tracy John wouldn’t even know the difference.

As worried as I was back then, now, at fourteen, things have reached crisis proportions. I’d calmed down, but each day I learned it was all about His Highness.  The precious one, Tracy John Upshaw.

Just last month, Tracy John almost cost Daddy sixty dollars for a pair of glasses that he didn’t need.  Ma had taken him to get his eyes examined for the start of the school year. Tracy John had been reading ever since he was three-and-a-half, so he knew his letters very well.  The doctor discerned that Tracy John should wear a strong prescription because he’d read all but the two top lines wrong.  Ma escorted him to the eyeglass shop.  Over the next two hours, Tracy John tried on children’s frames.  He didn’t like a one.

When they came home, Tracy John pointed at me and said, “I want glasses like her.”

Her? Her!  It’s only like I lived in the same house with him.  He’d known me his whole life.  I wasn’t a “her” to be pointed at like some stranger on the street.  I was only his blood relative: Charmaine.  He could have called me that, or Maine, like everyone else.

“You tried on glasses like that, Honey,” Ma said to him, with patient and understanding.

“I want her glasses,” Tracy John repeated as if he was going to grab them right from my face.

The next day Ma, pixie-faced Tracy John, and I went all the way downtown to another eyeglass store.  This time Tracy John spent another two hours trying on forty-seven pairs of frames.  I was about to blow my stack hearing Ma alternate between, “Do you like this one, Sugar?” and, “How about this, Pumpkin?”  Even the salesclerk was in on the act, calling him, “Peanut”. They patted him on the head after fitting each frame around his ears. It was outrageous.

The other patrons smiled and cooed at him, and over time they formed a small circle about him.   In the end, Tracy John settled on a pair of glasses that looked nothing like my octagon-shaped frames.  His choice was small, black wire glasses that looked Ben Franklinish.

The shop promised to put in a rush job on account of the doctor’s report saying Tracy John was half-blind. Ma left a ten-dollar deposit, leaving a balance of over fifty. We took the 13 trolley back to our home in Dardon. No sooner were we on the streetcar than Tracy John tugged at Ma’s arm and said, “I don’t want glasses. I see twenty.”

Ma gave him a quizzical look.

He was insistent. “I see twenty.”

We got off at the next stop and caught the other trolley going back to Center City.  Back at the eye doctor, it was conclusive. In fact, Tracy John did see twenty.  Twenty-twenty.

What had Tracy John done the previous day? Just made up letters like some damn fool. Later, Ma told Daddy, and he just chuckled at it.

Further into the evening, Daddy was in the living room, Tracy John cuddled in his lap.  He sneaking sip of his beer. This kid was too much. Daddy encouraged him. Habitually, Daddy would tell him to run into the kitchen and tell Ma a bad word.  Tracy John would run into the kitchen and say, “Unc told me to say bullshit”.  And Daddy would laugh at Ma’s fit. This left me to wonder — would Tracy John get away with all this mayhem if he weren’t walking around with Auntie Karyn’s face?

As I watched this Godfather imitation and reflected on gangsters and spoiled brats, the phone rang.  Ma told me it was for me.

I walked to the phone, wishing I had my own phone in my own room, so that people wouldn’t listen like stowaways to my conversation.  I wanted a king-sized bed with a heavy velvet canopy where I could talk the day away.  Instead I  had the phone stretched into the bathroom.

I closed the door and sat on the lidded toilet seat. I was on the phone only ten minutes — I was talking to my best friend, Millicent, about that new boy at school who was the son of a surgeon, Demetrius McGee.

“Did you see him in that blue sweater, Millicent?  He has to be the best-looking guy ever.  He looks like a Greek god.  An African-Greek god,” I said.

“Oh, Demetrius!” Leo and Tracy John mock-swooned in unison behind the door.

I was endlessly heckled.  They just didn’t understand when I was talking about something important.

“Excuse me, Millicent,” I said into the phone and then put it to the side.  I opened the bathroom door to them.

“Will you two get out of here?!”

They laughed all over themselves, especially Tracy John with his sickeningly-sweet, squinched-up face.

“Shoe y’all,” I told them, and chased them back into the living room.

As soon as I was back to the phone, my mother told me to get off, complaining about message units.

“Millicent, I gotta go.” I hung up.

That was the last straw:  I had to have my own room!  I wanted my own room, so I could play my own music (my Roberta Flacks and Al Greens). I needed privacy.  Our house was worse than Watergate; filled with bugs, and not the kind that you could spray with Raid.  This was a slow night; usually I couldn’t even get the bathroom to myself when I was talking on the phone.  There was no place to get away from everyone.  I’d go in one room and Leo and Tracy John would be in there. In another, Horace would have a girl or his recruiter over; he was about to go to basic training. I’d go downstairs, and Daddy and his pinochle friends would be there.  Ma would be in the kitchen, running the faucet, clattering the pots and pans or silverware, and I would try to slip away before she had a chance to see her and ask me to help her stir butter into the beans or mix the gravy or mashed potatoes.

Dejected, I went to my half of the room. Though Leo wasn’t as bad as a proverbial jailhouse Bubba, this had to be worse than a jail cell. Leo kept his side of the room neat.  He always picked up after himself and had the footlocker organized well.  I thought of that copycat Godfather movie and turned the lights off, drawing the curtains, shutting out the streetlight.  I was cold. It was going to be a hard winter.   Soon I’d have to have to sleep with my socks on.

I couldn’t sleep, so I thought about her.

Usually, it worked the other way: I’d wake in the night thinking of her.  I lifted my head from the pillow, so I could hear.  I waited, waiting in the nothingness of three a.m. — or maybe four.  The quick shuffle.  The hiss of the water pot.  She’d be downstairs with her nurse books.

Auntie Karyn.

It’s a funny thing; just when I thought it was under control, that’s when it would hit me. Maybe it wasn’t about the movie.  Maybe it was because Horace was due to ship out in about a week. A June graduate of Dardon Senior High, Horace signed up for the service after a long summer of Daddy’s badgering him: “No son of mine is living in this house and not working.” It wasn’t like ‘Nam was still going on, but it did mean our family would once again be broken up.


The occasional mail came with an occasional phone call from people who I supposed had been on Mars and had no idea she’d been killed.  They’d want to know details — as if to recall the details weren’t painful for us to recount.  Daddy would handle it by providing curt commentary:

“She died.”

“She was twenty-four.”


“Then he shot himself.”

“Yeah, he should have done that first.”

“Yeah, it’s that kind of world.”

People generally said the same thing when they learned of her passing.  They said she was so nice/so pretty/it was such a shame.

Five years after her death, I am still trying to make sense of it.  And I, at fourteen, don’t think I ever will.


Barrel of Justice

by Jeremy Suh


The class stood up for the national anthem, their hands tight against their bodies, but nobody stood taller or more rigid than Robert Gunner. The flag, a mixture of sky blue and gold rippled lightly from the summer breeze. The sea, barely visible in the distance, ebbed back and forth. The music faded, and the class slowly took their seats; Robert was the last one to sit down. For him, the anthem was a melody of angels. It was the Navy Soldiers’ song. A lullaby of justice.

“This anthem is a daily reminder to us citizens that we are protected by the Navy, and also a reminder to those who defy laws, that the hunt to put them behind bars will never end,” said Ms. Diabure, standing in the front of the classroom.

“The Navy has been a powerful source of security here, and they are the reason we have not been raided by pirates in over a century. Security is strong, and hopefully some of you, when done with school, will continue the legacy of these great peacekeepers.”

A few boys in the classroom yelled, “Yes, ma’am.” Robert’s voice echoed the loudest among them.

“Now, let’s get back to our studies! Class, please open your textbooks. Today’s lesson is about the greatest enemy to the Navy: Pirates.”

Robert scoffed, and turned his attention to the window. He was eligible to join The Naval Academy in half a year, but Robert could not wait that long. He spent every minute of time outside of school either tending to his ailing mother or pouring over books about the Navy and their history. He kept himself fit, and even took weekly shooting lessons.

The clouds drifted through the sky, and in a moment of euphoria, Robert imagined himself donning the white robe and commanding an entire fleet. He would be a merciless commander, serving justice to all rule-breakers, on land and water. An additional benefit was that he would be able to take better care of his mother with the money he made.

“I think it’s quite intriguing and commendable how they sacrifice everything just to get their hands on a little bit of treasure.”

Robert drew his attention back to Ms. Diabure. “You did not just say you like pirates.”

“I didn’t say I like them, Robert. I said they are commendable. Liking something and respecting it are two very different things.”

Robert stood up violently, causing the chair to crash behind him.

“Pirates are not commendable. They’re literal garbage. They spend their time flocking to gold coins and living pointless lives.”

“Robert, please don’t use that kind of language. If you dislike something, there are more mature ways of expressing your feelings.”

“I’ll stop when you stop adoring filthy pirates. Pirates are sewage rats that deserve to drown.”

“Headmaster’s office. Now.” Ms. Diabure grew a little red. “What would your father say about this behavior?”

Father. The word that pierced Robert’s whole being. He could be a man, because that is what it took to become a Navy commander. But a father? That was something he refused to acknowledge, tossing it away from his conscious whenever that word sporadically popped up in his head.

Robert’s father left him when he was a baby. Robert had cried throughout his childhood because of his absence. It was a missing hole in his life that could never be filled, only covered. And now his teacher had taken that word, balled it up with pointed anger, and stabbed him with it. Robert felt his lip quiver but turned to leave the classroom before he could reveal any emotion. To be Navy meant to be calm like an ocean that laps at the sand on a sunny day.

Robert strode past the closing school gates, saluting the two officers standing, as he made his way home after a long detention period. He could hear the sound of horses pulling carriages from the downtown end-of-day rush hour, and the oil fueled lanterns lined along the street started to light up as the moon chased the sun away.

He crossed his neighborhood’s bridge, stopping at the top to admire the view. It was a brilliant vista composed of the sparkling ocean and red sand could be seen beyond the buildings. A seagull cawed in the distance. He took a minute to admire the view. He would have to bring his mother here sometime.

Decorated paintings of a man Robert knew of but did not recognize nor remember hung near the entrance of his home. Normally, they were a blur on the wall as Robert passed through the entrance. But today, because of the freshness of emotion and memory associated Diabure’s mentioning of a father figure, Robert paused to look. Under a sudden impulse, he touched the closest painting. His thumb carved an arc of clarity over the settled dust. His father was a handsome man with striking similarities to him.


It was his mother. She was an ailing woman with streaks of gray hair and creases on her face. Despite this, her smile never failed to act as a warm hearth from the cold world.

“Why did father leave us?” asked Robert impulsively, even though the answer was the same every time. “He didn’t even get the chance to see me grow up.”

“Rob, you know that I don’t know. He just left, and never came back.”

Robert pursed his lips and nodded.

“I’m sorry Rob. . . I’m not much help, am I? I’m not the mother you deserve, especially in this condition,” Robert’s mother pointed at the needle in her arm, supplying her with a constant flow of medicine.

A trickle of tears slowly fell down his mother’s face. It was not long before Robert, too, tasted salt. He walked over and embraced her.

. . . .

Then came the day when Robert’s entire world was burning. A thick wave of heat pressed against Robert as the sound of people screaming finally woke him up. When he walked over to his window, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The second-floor view of the estate offered him a prime view of the town – a front row seat of his neighborhood engulfed in flames.

It took a few long seconds to process the view in its entirety. Fire was licking intensely at the rooftops of houses. People were running around in a crazy frenzy. Many civilians and soldiers lay scattered on the ground as the smell of burnt flesh permeated through the air. Robert forced himself to look away as he stifled the urge to vomit.

A crazy cackle cut through the air as Robert set his attention on the dirty men with soggy, long braids and eye patches ransacking houses and dousing other buildings in oil. An invisible hand snaked across Robert’s stomach and gripped his gut tightly.

Pirates had arrived in his town. This meant danger. He was down the hallway in front of his mother’s room in a heartbeat. His mother was sound asleep – her medicine kept her in a heavily sedated deep sleep. She was the only person who could wake herself up. But she was okay.

Robert ran over to her window to survey the scene once more. He coughed as ash began to drizzle from the burning timbers above. A gunshot blazed, and Robert instinctively ducked under the window ledge. When he snuck a peek, he saw a new wave of pirates surged through the street, pillaging houses and shooting at the Navy with their grimy pistols. The citizens on the street evacuated quickly, jumping over bodies and tossed objects. They preferred flames over bullets.

“Kill ‘em all!” roared the pirates. “Get your hands on everything with sum’ bounty!”

Robert watched in horror as one by one, the Navy soldiers fell like bowling pins. The pirates cackled whenever they spilled enemy blood, revealing their yellow teeth. The white and blue uniforms of the Navy became muddied with dirt and blood.

Bang. One final gunshot. The last Navy soldier collapsed in the dirt next to his comrades. The pirates only grinned and retreated around the corner, away from Robert’s view. All that was left was the incarnations of Robert’s dream, fading from life. Something broke inside of him. His vision became tinged with red. He ran down the stairs, and out the house, to where the fallen bodies lay. He grabbed the pistol of a dying soldier, and looked him in his eyes. When the light of life faded, Robert clenched his jaw, and ran after the pirates.

Robert turned a corner and saw a familiar sight. Mass carnage. But this time, there was a lone pirate wrestling with a sole Navy soldier in the middle. Robert gripped the pistol he had just attained and pointed it at them.

“Stop what you’re doing,” said Robert.

Both men looked at Robert, then the object he was holding, and stopped their movements. They took a step away from each other, palms open towards Robert.

The Navy soldier spoke up. “Give me the gun. I can finish the job.”

It was the pirate’s turn. “Mate, I mean this in the nicest way possible, but if ye hand him the pistol, or throw it to him even, I will grab it and hurt ye both. A lil’ squirt like ye I bet don’t even know how to handle the toy-”

Robert cocked the gun, which shut him up immediately. But something else caught Robert’s attention. The pirate did not speak with an uneducated drawl like the other pirates but had a hint of refined speech that had been unused for a while. Robert searched the pirate’s face carefully before feeling his mouth slacken. Even past the oily dreads and dirty face, Robert could recognize the face of his father anywhere.

“You rat. You ran away from us, and out of all the things you could have done, you became a pirate?” said Robert, looking at his father dead in the eyes. He watched as his father put the pieces together.

“Robert?” said Robert’s father.

“I’m surprised you know my name.”

Robert watched his father take a cautious step forward. “I named ye.”

The Navy soldier raised his voice. “Kid, I’m not sure what is going on, but he’s a pirate. We need to put him where he belongs: in a prison cell.”

Robert’s father did not even flinch; his unwavering attention was focused on Robert. “I know I’ve been gone for a while, but I’ve missed ye.”

“You lie,” said Robert. His outstretched arm began to tremble slightly.

“Kid,” said the Navy soldier. “Pull the trigger, or pass me the gun!”

“Rob. . . Ye wouldn’t kill your father in cold blood, would ye?”

“Robert! Are you listening?” said the Navy officer, his voice more panicked than before. “Pass me the gun!”

“Be quiet!” yelled Robert, pointing the gun at the officer, who yelped in dismay. There were too many voices in his head. The flames on his street were eating up the houses. He had to check on his mother. His neighbors were lying in a pool of their own blood. His father was in front of him.

“What are you doing? Shoot him, not me!” yelled the officer, pointing at Robert’s father.

Robert’s father took another cautious step. He was now twice as close to Robert as the Navy officer. Robert pointed the gun back at him, stopping him in his tracks.

“Stay back.”

“Rob, you’ve been hurting, haven’t ye? All ‘cause of me- my mistakes. I want to apologize. I was young, dumb and stupid. I wasn’t the father you deserved.” Robert watched his father’s face transform from a grimy mask into the picture that hung in his house.

“Rob. Robert! Do your job as a citizen and help us!” cried the Navy officer. “Look at all this damage. It’s their fault! Either pull the trigger or let me!”

“Yer like me. Ye look like me. We share the same blood,” continued Robert’s father. “I have a connection to ye that nobody else has. Give me a chance to make things right. I’ve got money now. We can sit at the local canteen and drink a beer. We can go fishing by the peer. Sound good?”

“Good,” murmured Robert. Tears started forming at the corners of Robert’s eyes. He had to pull the trigger. But who was the bullet meant for? Should the bullet rip through his future and his dreams, or the missing piece of his past? His mind felt fuzzy. He knew his father deserved punishment, but he also just wanted a taste of what it would feel like . . .

“Ye, very good. Now, shoot the officer. Then, I promise, everything will be fine,” whispered Robert’s father. “Shoot him!”

The Navy officer yelped. “No! No! Robert. I’m not the target!”

There was nothing that could be done. Robert felt as though he was in a movie theatre, watching himself turn towards the officer and pull the trigger on the big screen.

“Rob!” It was his mother. Robert was back in his body. His mother was standing, supporting her weight on a fallen piece of timber with a pistol in her other hand. Robert wanted to tell her to stay back, but she hobbled her way over to him. She glanced at the listless officer, before pointing her barrel at Robert’s father. “Kane.”


“Robert, look away.” Esmerelda cocked the pistol.

“This isn’t the family reunion I was hoping for,” said Kane.

“You dare show your face to us after all these years?”

Kane’s face hardened. “Still have those pictures of me on the wall?”

Esmerelda winced.

“I thought so. Ye couldn’t forget about me. But don’t worry. I’ll make sure my face is the last thing ye see before ye die” Kane growled, before lunging at her. Robert felt his arm move instinctively in a smooth arc. His finger twitched, and a boom ensued.

The moment held itself for what felt like an eternity. Time slowed. Senses dulled. Robert was back in the theatre, seeing his father crumple to the ground. Then, the world caught back up and the memory of what just happened flooded into Robert’s mind like a broken dam.

He looked at his father once more. To a bird, he would just be another bloodied, fallen body on the street. Because of his stillness, he may have just been another picture on the entrance of his house. His father was a fantasy he constructed in his mind, and reality uncovered the ugly hide. Robert had killed, but also killed this question mark in his life.

Robert let out a long breath, and the pistol fell from his fingers.

“Mom, I killed a Navy soldier and my dad,” mumbled Robert.

His vision blurred. He had destroyed his insecurity and his dream. What was left?

“Oh, Rob,” Esmerelda started crying as well. She wrapped her arms around Robert. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It should have been me who pulled the trigger.”

Robert clutched at his mother’s cold arms.

“I’m always making mistakes. I’m always too sick to care for you. Too weak to protect you. I failed you, and now your hopes of. . . I’m sorry. I- I don’t know what else to say-”


“I never do anything right.”


“And now I ruined your dreams for the future-”


Robert took a deep breath, watching the sun slowly creep from its hiding spot behind the horizon, and a lone seagull flying too far inland. He picked up a ripped book that had found its way from its owner’s library.

And he read:

“The sea ebbs and flows / Crushing sandcastles and walls / But man always returns / To rebuild what he dreamed of.”

He faced his mother. “It’s alright. After all, I’m with you, right? We’ll be okay.”



by Adrien Kade Sdao


“What’s your favorite animal, Ryan?” My question came out in gasps as I pedaled hard, trying to keep up with my taller, faster friend.

“Giraffes!” His reply almost got lost in the wind as we screeched around the curve at the bottom of his street.

“Giraffes don’t count! They’re extinct. I meant a real animal.” It was only ten in the morning, but heat surrounded me like a cocoon. I was already sweating, and I’d forgotten my deodorant. Gross.

“They’re not extinct.” He skidded to a stop, turning to glare at me. “My dad says they’re going to clone a female any day now, and then Ol’ Willy won’t be alone anymore.” He took off without another word. That was Ryan, having his say then speeding into the distance. It’s how he won all our arguments. My mom didn’t agree with his dad. She had cried for days when the last lady giraffe died, leaving Ol’ Willy as the only remaining male—the only living giraffe.

Mom hadn’t cried like that in months. Now, she took those pills that laid her out all day on the couch. She was too tired to cry.

I took my time following Ryan, and by the time I reached the foot of the hill, he was halfway to the top. I gave up and got off my bike—Ryan’s old bike—and began trudging upwards, leaning on the handlebars. Ryan relented and stopped his bike to let me catch up. When I came within earshot, I said, “Ok, ok. I meant extinct in the wild.” We’d learned all about classifications of endangered animals in our new class at school, Climate Science and Conservation. Least Concern. Near-Threatened. Vulnerable. Endangered. Critically Endangered. Extinct in the Wild. Extinct. I wondered what it was like to be the last of your species. To know that once you were dead, there would be nothing left of you. Gone forever, forgotten in the flesh. I shuddered. Ryan didn’t notice.

We continued upwards, pushing our bikes. I waited for him to ask me my favorite animal, but I knew he wouldn’t. He was an odd guy, my best friend, quiet but popular. I volunteered: “I really like spectacled flying foxes. And they’re not extinct, or near-extinct. Anymore.” I preferred a story of success: after the population-decimating heat waves of 2018 and 2021, conservation efforts had kicked in, and the species had been rehabilitated, now boasting a solid Vulnerable classification. Spectacled flying foxes were cute as heck and having more babies than ever these days. Not like giraffes, the poor old things—thing.

“You’re such a nerd,” Ryan said, his eyes fixed ahead. “You pay too much attention in school.”

I shut up, bowing my head over my borrowed handlebars as we completed the trek to the top of the bluffs. Maybe you don’t pay enough attention, I thought at my friend. I didn’t challenge him out loud, though. I never did. After all, he was the only one who knew about real life. He knew what it was like, living with a mom who was doped up all the time. We were getting old enough to notice it now, to notice the problem. Our moms would take their pills and lay out on the couches in Ryan’s living room, and nothing in the world could wake them. They’d slept through the Irvine Earthquake, though the entertainment center had crashed to the ground. They’d slept through my big sister Mandy’s breakdown, leaving me to handle her delusions until Dad got home that night. They’d slept through who knew how many years now, missing birthdays and holidays and the collapse of the ecological world.

We paused at the top of the bluffs, panting in the sunshine as we looked at the city sprawled out below us. From here, we could see most of Marina Del Rey, including the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve and Conservation Research Center. We’d gone on a field trip there at the beginning of the year, studying the remaining species of birds and insects, learning why they were important for preserving human life. I hated bugs, but it seemed like every little pinching and biting beast on the planet had some vital function that humans couldn’t live without. I tried not to kill them these days, just shooed them outside when they got in the house. Mom used to help me rescue spiders from drains and wave flies out the window, but I’d been doing it on my own for a while now. Especially now that Dad was living with Uncle Dave.

Ryan led the way, turning left and walking his bike up the path parallel to the cliff in front of us. He reached the big rock and glanced around, then dropped his bike and disappeared from sight.

I leaned my bike against his and peered over the edge. A steep but climbable path dropped away below. Cautious, I slid down on my butt, red rocks biting into my bare legs. On the ledge below, I dusted off the seat of my shorts. Ryan knelt against the cliff face, doing something with his pocketknife. His t-shirt fluttered in the wind. I studied his face a little too long, though he didn’t notice. He looked just like his dad: black hair buzzed short, stocky build, narrow deep-set eyes under thick brows. The only thing he got from his mom was her impressive vocabulary of curse words..

Turning away, I watched an ambulance speed down Jefferson Boulevard, followed by a wailing cop car. I crouched down and sifted through the rocks at my feet. I found one shiny with specks of nickel and blew the red dust off of it. It glinted in the sun, leaving spots in my vision. I held it for a moment, then tossed it over the edge of the cliff.

“Got it,” Ryan said. He triumphantly held up his treasure, a dull-looking arrowhead. He’d noticed it yesterday but hadn’t been able to pry it from the surrounding stone.

“Are you sure that’s not just a triangular rock?” I asked, moving closer for a better look.

“It’s a damn arrowhead,” he said, wiping it off on his shirt. “I’ll show Dad. He’s seen hundreds of these.” Without a word of discussion, he slipped past me and headed for the path. I followed, scrambling up on my hands and knees. I was getting a little out of breath because of my asthma and the mounting heat, but I knew we’d have a nice, easy ride back home. I made it over the lip of the bluff just as Ryan hopped on his bike.

“See you there!” He pumped the pedals and sped away down the hill.

“Yeah. See you.” I dusted myself off again and took my time getting on my bike. I hated it when he left me behind like this. He could be such a butthole.

I coasted down the hill, letting the hot wind dry some of the sweat under my arms. I vowed never to forget my deodorant again. I definitely didn’t smell like a little kid anymore.

By the time I got back to the house, Ryan’s bike was discarded in the side yard, and he was nowhere to be seen. I leaned my bike against the house and let myself in the back door, sighing as the cool air touched my skin. There was no one in the kitchen, so I grabbed a couple paper towels and tried to wipe the sweat from my face and armpits. Then I went to find Ryan, who was no doubt in his bedroom examining his find.

To my surprise, he was in the living room, sitting on the couch beside my mom, who leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. Their eyes were fixated on the television, which was tuned to a news channel. The arrowhead lay on the coffee table, forgotten.

“What’s–?” My mom shushed me and pointed to the broadcast.

“… reports of findings from inside the craft,” the newscaster was saying. “Captain Coelho and his officers have personally inspected the alien vessel—”

“Alien vessel?!” I shouted. Ryan’s mom woke with a start where she lay on the loveseat, looking groggy.

“What the heck are you yelling about?” My mom flapped a hand at her and gestured to the television again. I knelt on the floor.

“… that they will be examining everything thoroughly before bringing it back to Earth. I can’t express how momentous—this is perhaps the most important moment in human history.” The woman on the screen paused as her eyes teared up. Then, her face changed as she looked at someone behind the camera. “I’m being told we’ve received some pictures. They’ve been relayed to us from the Mars Space Station. We have a direct link to the MSS, so we’re the first ones to show you this, folks. Let’s take a look at history.”

The screen cut to a still photograph. Against a backdrop of dark, star-scattered space, a blurry oval shape jumped out at us. It looked like it had once been brightly painted in rainbow colors, but now it was faded, singed, and pockmarked.

The picture changed to a close up. I could make out the ridges of the sinuous-looking hull, and the bolts lining the hatch. Was that a porthole at the edge of the shot?

Another picture, this time of the alien vessel resting in the cargo hold of a larger ship. An astronaut stood beside it for scale. It was only a few feet taller than her.

“It’s an escape pod,” I said.

“You watch too much Star Trek,” Ryan replied.

“Hush,” my mom ordered.

The screen cut back to the newscaster. “And that’s all we’ve got for now, but stay with us for continuing coverage,” she said. “For those of you just tuning in, an alien vessel has been discovered in the far reaches of our solar system, confirming that we are not alone in the galaxy…”

My mom stood up abruptly, looking unsettled. “Let’s go home,” she said. “I want to check on Allen.” My brother was old enough to stay home when he didn’t want to come over to Ryan’s place, but Mom was a big worrier even when she was high.

“You’re not staying tonight?” Ryan asked me.

I looked at my mom as she gathered her purse and car keys. She was moving slow. Wobbly. Ryan followed my gaze and noticed it, too. A flash of sadness crossed his face.

“No, not tonight,” I said. He grunted in response and leaned back on the couch, turning up the volume on the television. His mom had already fallen back asleep. I held the door for my mom, making sure not to let any of the cats escape. “Bye.”

I got into the passenger seat of Mom’s tiny car, buckling my seatbelt. Mom wasted no time getting us on the road, squinting at the streetlights through the sun’s glare. I tried to ignore the pangs of nervousness, tiny explosions of anxiety in my chest that warned me I was not safe.

Mom blew past the meter and onto the freeway. She was a speed demon. We lived pretty far away, almost all the way downtown, but I couldn’t relax enough to look at my phone.

“Can you believe they found aliens?” It had been a long time since I’d heard this kind of emotion in Mom’s voice—this kind of lucidity.

“It’s pretty amazing,” I agreed. Something in her tone reminded me of when I was little, before things had gotten bad. A bitter emotion rose in my chest as memory barged in. Piled together in bed, we kids listened with rapt attention as Mom read her favorite childhood books to us: The Neverending Story, Number the Stars, Hatchet. She read patiently, never rushing through the text, as if each word were a piece of delicious fudge, demanding to be savored.

Trying to distract myself from the nostalgic sadness, I opened up my phone and started scrolling through the internet’s reactions to the alien discovery. It worked. Trek fans on Tumblr were losing their shit. New memes were popping up every few minutes. I couldn’t help but get sucked in. Reading on my phone made me carsick, so I reclined my seat all the way, which helped a little.

I was about to reblog a post featuring my favorite character, Captain Sisko, when everything exploded. My body was thrust forward, slipping underneath the seatbelt and into the floorboard. Pain flashed up my left leg. My phone disappeared.

Someone screamed “What happened?” over and over. I wanted to tell them I didn’t know, then I realized it was me screaming.

“We had an accident,” Mom said, voice tight with pain.

I got quiet, pulling myself back into the seat as best I could. I knew better than to put up a fuss when Mom needed to think and figure out what to do. After a moment, though, it was clear that she couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t help.

I got out of the car. Vehicles whizzed past just feet away as I edged forward toward the car we’d hit. Its trunk was completely smashed in, its back windshield shattered. A woman sat behind the wheel with the window down, talking rapidly into her phone.

“Please,” I said. “My mom needs help. Can you call 911?”

The woman ignored me. Hot rage began amassing in my throat. My heart was like a hummingbird, vibrating in my chest.

I turned around and limped back alongside our car, ignoring the crumpled hood. A station wagon had rammed into our rear bumper, its hood sliding partially underneath our car’s back end. The driver of the station wagon was talking urgently on her phone.

“Please, can you call 911?” I shouted over the noise of the traffic.

She ignored me. The rage swelled. Electricity jolted through my brain, disorienting me. An 18-wheeler sped past, horn bellowing, missing me only by a couple of feet. I looked down and realized my entire body was shaking violently.

I got back in the car with Mom and rummaged under my seat for my phone. Mom had managed to get unbuckled, but that was about it. Her eyes were half-closed, and she was struggling to breathe. My face felt hot as I wondered exactly how many pills she had taken. Were her ribs broken? Was she going to be arrested? I started to cry.

I heard the sirens before I saw the ambulance. They roared up beside us, followed by about a dozen fire trucks. Now that they were blocking traffic, I opened my door again and waved at the nearest firefighter.

He walked over to me, tall and broad in his yellow suit, and knelt down on the heat-radiating asphalt.

“Are you hurt anywhere?” His voice was calming, almost as if he were about to start laughing, but not in a mocking way.

“My leg, a little,” I said. “But my mom is…”

“They’re taking care of her,” he said. I turned around. In the few seconds I’d had my back turned, paramedics had opened the driver’s side door. One of them was talking to my mom, reaching into the car to prod her chest and arms.

“This isn’t so bad,” my firefighter said. He had taken my leg in his hand to examine the cut. “Might need a stitch or two, but we’ll let them decide that later. Hey, did you hear they discovered aliens today?” He cleaned the cut and bandaged it in seconds, telling me the whole time about the pictures of the alien vessel he’d seen online. I pretended I hadn’t heard, saying “wow” in the right places as he talked. “That’ll do it. Just sit here until I come get you.” He closed my door and walked away to talk to the ambulance driver. My anxiety was gone now. I felt unnaturally calm.

Two women helped Mom onto a stretcher, clutching her arms so tight I knew they’d leave marks. She bruised like a peach. Fear swept through my body once more, and my eyes stung. I looked around again for my phone, but it must have disappeared into a wormhole. I watched in the sideview mirror as the paramedics lifted Mom’s stretcher into the back of the ambulance.

My firefighter came back and opened my door. “Ok, you’re going to ride with your mom,” he said. I got out, and he put a hand on my shoulder, steering me to the ambulance.

“Thank you,” I said as he turned me over to a paramedic. She motioned toward a seat behind the driver. I slid past Mom on her stretcher, sat down, and buckled my seatbelt as we began to move. The paramedic put a mask over Mom’s face, then turned to me.

“Hey, you alright? This must be pretty scary for you.”

She seemed to think I was several years younger than I actually was. It didn’t matter. I nodded. The fear had abated again. I felt numb, but I knew I should be scared.

“You ever hear that old song? ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…’ It helps when you feel upset or scared to think about the things you love most.”

My eyes were still fixed on my mom’s face. Her eyes were closed, but I could see she was in pain. “Like what?”

She concentrated on her work for a moment, poking Mom with a needle. “Like, I don’t know, what’s your favorite animal?”

“Giraffes,” I said. “They’re gonna clone a lady friend for Ol’ Willy any day now.”