Home Authors Posts by writdisord


The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

The Art of Courtney Parsons

Dream Room

Look Around You

Are You Listening?

Blind Date


Back Off


Rainy Day

Depths Below

Go To Sleep


Courtney Parsons is a graphic designer and illustrator from northern Virginia. She is the co-creator of a coloring book series titled Color Your Way USA, a history-themed coloring book series. She derives the inspiration and themes of her work from animals, nature, and the universe around her.

View more of her work at courtneymparsons.com.

Dream On

by CL Glanzing

Sinead Simon has a toothache. She prods it with her tongue hoping to find a dullness through the sting. In the night, curled in her sleeping bag, with the wind whipping the tent against her knees and head, she imagines using her adjustable spanner to rip the belligerent bastard from her aching gum. But it is unlikely she could remain silent throughout. She will not even make a fire to draw attention to her presence. She has become accustomed to softening her steps, keeping the gas stove on low.  She knows where the ivy is pulpy and easiest to step through, and where the blackberry brambles make trip-wires across the forest floor.

Ten metres behind her lies the wall, above the moss-drenched ditch with its lattice of dead logs. Narrow, wrought-iron slats — four inches thick and six feet high. A row of dense boxwood lines the inside of the fence, prickling branches through the slats and obscuring the house on three sides. The only breach is a narrow, but regal, iron-framed gate with wood infill. But it never opens, and the red eye of the camera on its shoulder never dims.

Sinead paws her feet in her sleeping bag, flexing and curling. She is snug, being so constricted. She knows where she is. The immediate world is known.

At 06:50 she emerges from her nylon cocoon. She wiggles the hot water-bottle from the feet of her sleeping bag and tips the cold contents into the bushes. She sometimes likes to end the evening with it zipped into her jacket, stroking it like a pregnant belly.

She laces her boots and pockets her waterproof notebook and pen. She hangs her field binoculars around her neck. Her hands circle the trunk of the beech tree under which she camps. She finds purchase on a low branch and a deformed knot at shoulder height, lifting her weight. She steps into the Y of the beech and swings carefully as she climbs higher and higher. She straddles a thick branch running parallel to the ground and jutting forwards in the direction of the house. She slides herself forward like an inchworm, buttocks raising and pushing her torso forward until the glass box house is in clear sight. She lifts her binoculars and points them towards her subjects.

The Lady in White sits at the kitchen island, sipping from a porcelain espresso cup. From the beech, Sinead has a clear view of the entire lower floor – the black leather sofa, the oak dining room table, the chrome kitchen. The french doors leading to the manicured lawn and, a little ways down, the tasteful gazebo and koi pond. Above this floor is the master bedroom, just behind a balcony with frameless glass.

Sinead watches the Lady waft to the sink and carefully rinse and dry her cup. She wipes her finger along the underside of the espresso machine and then rubs her fingers together. She then wets a cloth and rubs where she has found the dust or grime or whatever has displeased her.

The Lady returns to the kitchen island and kneads her temples in a circular motion for a while, slowly, until she is sitting with her fingers framing her face, as if attempting some trick of telepathy. She stares out the window of the glass house in the direction of the lawn.

Sinead wonders where the Lady’s mind has gone. She is coldly vacant, expressionless. Perhaps melancholy.

The Lady is warm and dry, cuddled in a cashmere cardigan and soft slippers. There is fruit on the kitchen island, central heating, a teepee of logs in the fireplace. And yet, she does not want to be here.

Sinead thinks about the two blue macaws in her aunt’s house. ‘I think they want out,’ Sinead had said, looking at the majestic birds perched in their cage. Looking into their black eyes, still like shadowed caves, she convinced herself she could see a light within, pleading and restless. ‘Don’t anthropomorphize,’ said her aunt.

Sinead does not want to be biassed. She reminds herself not to interpret, just record the physical phenomenon in her little notebook: lips turned downwards, unfocused eyes, sighing.

And then she reminds herself: Confirmation bias – the experimenter interprets results incorrectly because they are looking for information that confirms their hypothesis and overlooks information that argues against it.

She is probably the worst scientist for this job, but also the only one that can perform it.

Another figure comes into the room with the Lady. She watches her speak some words as the figure packs a suitcase on the dining room table. The Lady is kissed on the cheek and she smiles warmly. Then she is left alone.

Sinead cannot see the Mercedes departing the garage, but she can hear the gravel crunching under its weight, and the electric gate drawing back and then piercing shut in the car’s wake.

The Lady goes upstairs and changes out of her cream robe and into grey leggings and a grey sports bra. Sinead knows the rest of her morning routine. Elliptical for an hour, followed by a green smoothie. Then she will sit on the sofa and play CandyCrush – she once left her tablet propped on the sofa facing the window. There is only one computer in the house, but it’s in the study and the Lady never uses it. She has her tablet.

She lets the Waitrose delivery in through the gates on Friday afternoons. And the maid comes Mondays at 10:00. Sometimes she’ll read a book – Sinead’s binoculars are not sharp enough to read the titles.

Sinead knows the Lady has a PhD in mediaeval literature. And used to teach at the University of Essex until three years ago. Now she is on sabbatical, returning tee-bee-dee. Conducting neither research or maternity leave. Snow White pacing in her glass coffin.

Sinead should call the Lady by her real name – Dr. Elizabeth nee Marjoribanks. But the Lady in White feels better. Makes it more objective in her reconnaissance, and gives a mythic power to her observation. Like debunking a ghost spotted by a local farmer. A ghoulish folk-story moulded and churned in the minds of the frightened villagers – an obscene blemish on their perfect town. And Sinead wants nothing more than to prove it wrong, methodically, scientifically. Pull the mask off the ghost and declare, ‘Ah-HA! It was the janitor all along! And here are the missing church alms.’


Sinead is not new to science.

At a bioengineering conference, she stood in row EE of the conference hall in front of a vinyl poster describing the impact of deep brain stimulation on phantom limb pain. As second author, she began to feel wholly anonymous in the rows upon rows of colourful posters. Only the young researchers seem to be standing next to their work, searching for eye contact from passersby, like hopeful puppies in a department store window.

Just the week before, her gladiatorial pursuit of a PhD grant bestowed by the Scottish Research Council had gone to another student with whom she shared a closet office. Her career prospects were seeming their bleakest. 

Then a handsome man with walnut hair and panto glasses approached. 

He frowned as he read the text behind her head, not looking at Sinead directly. Indicating with his cup of Starbucks and still avoiding her eye, he spoke: A little derivative of Jenkins et al, don’t you think?

‘Well, unlike Jenkins, we used aggregated data,’ she replied.

He pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows as if to say, Perhaps, perhaps.

He eyed the other bodies mingling around the rows of posters, and said offhandedly, So, tell me something I don’t know yet. It sounded rehearsed, clearly directed to every new person he encountered. She did not really want to engage in such an obvious goading, but she felt compelled. She did not know who this man was, but she did not want any conference gossip painting her as a poor sport, or unenthusiastic.

‘Well, I think this technology will be in everyone’s homes in 20 years.’

He exhaled sharply through his nose, half-laughing at a private joke. Sooner than that, he said.

He handed her a card – ‘Jack Delaney, Founder’ – and told her to stop by his start-up’s stall. By the end of the evening, he had offered her a job and she waved goodbye to her PhD pipedream.   

He was fascinating, pensive, with a penetrating stare like a harrier. He did not suffer fools gladly. The slightest unintelligent or unoriginal opinion, he nipped at its heels, sometimes fearcely enough to draw blood. He was sarcastic, with a dark humour bordering on cruel. But his observations on chemistry, biomedicine, and neurosurgery were astonishing. He was a database, casually referencing literature like he was pulling light from the aether. Not just citing, but deconstructing, destroying, and reassembling the pieces into an empire of his choosing. He cackled like a young boy when something delighted him, and he stabbed his finger in the air to punctuate displeasure.

At dinner, after the conference, his colleagues started talking about their new project – the use of delta sub-4 frequencies to de-synchronise abnormal oscillations in brain neurons.

‘Interesting,’ said Sinead. ‘What for?’

The table laughed. They looked to their leader seated at the top of the table, waiting for the word of God. He took a sip of his beer and said, We’re going to cure mental illness.


Sinead shimmies down the tree. She takes her gas stove from out of her tent, and twists the dial to snap the blue flame into life. Nothing happens. She clicks it a few more times before concluding that the gas canister is empty. She had to order them online especially before she left.

No more hot meals. Her hot water bottle will remain empty at night. Which is not really a problem, considering it is May.

And she has learnt to ignore ‘wants’. The meringue-softness of a duvet, porcelain sinks, plastered walls. She has concluded that wanting comes from the stomach; needing from the head. And wanting is weakness. It says you are not self-sufficient, that there is a hole inside you that you cannot fix with a hot meal. It means that you may not survive. You are looking down from the tightrope – suddenly aware of your precarious existence. Un-wanting is self-preservation and acceptance.

But the inability to boil water from the stream – that will be a problem. She will have to walk the seven miles to the petrol station with the small corner shop.

In this sleepy Surrey village, the roads cut through steep embankments with few shoulders or gutters. They are punctuated by wide driveways that declare the property names in large, rustic fonts – Badger Cottage, Oak Stables, Mosswood Farms, Bramble Lodge. The ‘cottages’ always seem to be the size of aeroplane hangers. These kinds of properties are never sold – only if the occupants are childless and needing to go into specialised care homes. Otherwise, they are inherited and exchanged between the hands of the same small group of upper middle class snobs. There was always the nouveau riche outlier – actors, hedge-fund managers. Tech billionaires.

Parts of these open fields make Sinead angry – all that space just sitting there when twice the population is stacked in high-rises half the square footage in the city. Despite the majestic breathlessness that stirs in her when she sees a horse cantering through a field, she can empathise with the current political movement to have them banned in Britain. Too much space for a creature that does nothing but offer vein entertainment for rich cunts to stroke and brush and race. Not that such a bill would ever pass through those very same rich cunts sitting in the House of Lords.

When Sinead arrives at the petrol station, she is feeling parched and her knees ache. She first checks her balance at the cash machine outside by pressing her thumb to the fingerprint reader. £56. Fuck.

After she has purchased enough canned vegetables and bags of peanuts to fit inside her backpack and two gallon water jugs, Sinead reluctantly walks into the public telephone booth next to the cashpoint, and presses her thumb against the screen to access her cloud contacts. She simultaneously hopes and dreads the end of the dial tone.


‘Hi Natalie. It’s Sinead.’

‘Oh my god, where are you?’

‘Listen, I’m going to be a while longer and -’

‘-I haven’t heard from you in three weeks. I’ve been going out of my mind.’

‘I know, I’m sorry. My solar battery died.’

‘When are you coming home? You can’t possibly still be camping. My mobile says you’re calling from Dorking… Why – why are you in Dorking?’

Sinead’s mouth is a hot, dry cave sloshing saliva around and around. Get to the point, she tells herself.

‘Natalie, I need you to give my two weeks’ notice. Please can you cancel the standing order with Mrs. Tobakias for my half of the rent so that I don’t get charged next week.’

‘Why are you in Dorking?’ Natalie repeats. ‘You’re not doing what I think you’re doing?’

Sinead squeezes her eyes shut. ‘Got to go. Love you, bye.’ She ends the call and sinks her head against the telephone screen. She opens one of the water gallons and slurps as much as she can manage by tilting the heavy container to her mouth. The cold water shocks the spot in her teeth that has been worrying her.

She walks the miles back to her camp. The road is narrow, twisting, rising and dipping over the gentle hills. Passing cars could almost clip her arms swinging the water jugs. She steps into the narrow gutter a few times or scrambles up a steep bank to let a large lumber-carrying truck past. The drivers raise a polite hand to her in thanks. It is generally a friendly place, just not one built for one on foot. Who is poor enough to walk here?

She does not take the same route back in case anyone begins to recognise her around the area. This time she cuts through the woodlands, damp from recent rain, and the mud sucks her boots into the gelatinous, yellow paste. Overhead a woodpecker raps against an oak. A pair of sparrows flutter out of view as she snaps her way through fallen twigs.

She saw a goldfinch several weeks ago when she was feeling disheartened and nearly ready to bundle up her camp. It was that night that she heard the Mercedes roar from its garage and screech down the country road. The house lights were left on. Sinead scrambled up her tree in the dark, barefooted, her feet pierced by bark.

The Lady was standing in the bedroom window looking out at the woodlands. From the steep angle, Sinead could not see the bed or the rest of the room, only the Lady from the waist upwards.

The Lady was crying. Despite the light behind her, her shoulders were shaking heavily. Her chin was practically to her sternum and her hands were locked at the back of her neck, forearms pressed tightly against her chest.

She withdrew for an instant and when she returned, she opened the bedroom window and hurled something out onto the lawn below. The window closed and the Lady disappeared out of sight again.

Sinead dismounted the tree, landing on her feet and then knees. The impact stung her joints, but she scrambled to the back gate, just behind the camera’s eye, which pointed sharply downwards to the gate’s entrance, as if obsessively glaring at an invisible doormat. She peered between the gap between the hinges of the door.

Whatever was launched into the garden, it swivelled in the air clockwise and landed on the ground like a frisbee. It was pigeon grey, with a soft blue light flashing to one side. Sinead shone the torch from her pocket across the lawn, just for a moment. The beam of light caught the object, now visible. Circular – no, donut shaped. But thin.

She recognised it. A Somnus XE7. Retail price, £399.

Why did she fling it, for it to be ruined by dew? A light on the ground floor turned on, and Sinead hastily switched off her torch. The Lady appeared in the living room and unlocked the French doors. An alarm whistled and she punched her fingers against the unseen side of the wall, presumably to disarm it, because the noise abruptly stopped.

She glided across the lawn in her white robe, clutching it closed to her breast. Sinead could hear her breathing, sharp and shrill. The Lady located the device and sighed – perhaps with relief? – and her breathing slowed.

She wiped the Somnus with her sleeve and carried it into the house, resting on her palms like a dead bird. As she turned to close the French doors, the living room light caught her face, and Sinead saw her furrowed, anxious brow. Her shoulders were bent, heavy. This was a resigned woman. This was a defeated woman. Returning to her aviary.

I know you, thought Sinead. I won’t leave you.


The public footpath snakes between two empty fields and then ends at the junction of a public road. Temptation gets the better of her, and she walks leftwards, down the road past a wide, electric gate hugged between two enormous rectangular pillars. Hound Hall declares a shining plaque. As if that was not austentatious enough, two stone bloodhounds sit poised to attention on each pillar of the gate. Her nose crinkles seeing them again. So subtle.

The stone guardians came with the property when it was purchased three years ago. It’s just surprising they remained – could anyone actually like them?

Sinead is unable to take her eyes off the house’s brutal asymmetry and feature floor-ceiling windows. Two shoeboxes of concrete and glass stacked precariously. The bust of another hound guarded the chrome knocker on the front door. The idea that anyone would need to knock after gaining entry through the draconian security gates seemed odd.

But this sleepy Surrey village was full of contradictions. Loud signs declaring ‘Beware of the Doberman’ while a plump Yorkie yips along the fence. Front gates only a metre high containing elaborate security keypads. Electric doorbells pointing away from the open shed offering £1 for a dozen eggs – honour system. They were optimistic, but paranoid. Good fences make good neighbours. Longing for the comradery of their father’s generation but also fearful of the present, as the Daily Mail tells them to be.

A voice interrupts Sinead’s thoughts. ‘Would you like some mint?’

She stops in her tracks. On the other side of the barred fence is the Lady, on her knees in front of a tidy flower bed running the inside periphery of the front fence. She wears yellow gardening gloves and a wide sun-hat. She holds a pair of pruners and wipes her brow with her sleeve.

‘Sorry?’ says Sinead, surprised.

‘It’s turning into a bit of a hedge and I feel sad hacking it back and letting it go to waste. Would you like some? You could make some tea.’

Sinead looks at her earnest face, and the beads of perspiration forming near her eyes. She has never seen the Lady this close. It is unnerving, like examining an impressionist painting familiar only from postcards. She has never imagined how the Lady’s eyes were coloured. Now she can see they are brown, with a touch of green by the irises.

‘Thank you,’ says Sinead. ‘That would be very nice.’

Observer effect, she thinks, disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation.

The Lady passes a bushy stem through the barred fence to Sinead. ‘Here, take some more,’ she adds, passing more, one by one. They both laugh politely at this slow activity. The slats brush against the mint, releasing the fresh oils into the air. Sinead’s mouth waters, thinking about chewing the leaves. She had been without toothpaste for at least six weeks. It could explain the toothache.

‘Do you live around here?’ asks the Lady.

‘I’m renting,’ Sinead says, having practised this explanation in her head many times. ‘A shepherd’s hut in one of the North fields.’

‘Oh, how marvellous. For how long?’

‘A few weeks. I’m working on a novel.’

‘Goodness. Well, I hope the village is inspiring for you.’

‘It is. How long have you lived here?’ Sinead already knew the answer.

‘Three years. Or thereabouts.’

‘With a partner? Husband?’

‘My husband. He works in the city but he – we – always wanted to live in the countryside.’

‘Is your husband nice?’

The Lady begins to smile and laugh, but then notices the intensity on Sinead’s face, the ferociousness in her eyes. The Lady does not know why, but it is in discord with the innocence of the question. Her smile lowers in.

‘Yes,’ the Lady says. And then the smile suddenly flickers on again like the revved engine of a hotwired car. ‘I should get out of the sun now. It was nice meeting you.’

‘You too,’ says Sinead, and watches the Lady take her basket of gardening tools inside the house.

Sinead picks up her water jugs again and walks back to the road. Once she reaches the end of the fence, she drops one jug to the ground and strikes her face once, twice, three times with an open palm. Stupid stupid stupid. She frightened the lady with her rough questioning.

The fence ends, and the woodland begins again. A narrow stream trickles out of the roots, twisting into a gutter and disappearing into a culvert pipe under the road. She steps onto the bank of the stream, and follows the void of trees until she reaches the end of Hound House. Then, it is a sharp ninety degrees through a thicket of young saplings and trees until she reaches her campsite at the back of the house.

The jugs were heavy and the stream battered her with every step. She should eat, but she does not feel like she deserves it. 


Twenty hour shifts. Sixity days until the funding from their private donor ran out. They had promised results by quarter-one, and now they had crept into quarter-three. They had moved into cheaper accommodation in the basement of a former paper warehouse. Enough space to rig a sterile lab and operate their £300,000 MRI machine sparingly. No windows or natural light.

The storage cupboard was converted into a shift-room with three rows of bunk-beds. Jack woke the sleeping bodies by turning on the lights and clapping his hands loudly. Come on, you pussies. If I’m awake, you’re awake.

Sinead was the only woman in the R&D team, and it showed. By the end of six weeks she smelt just as pungent as the others, and she stopped blanching when she walked past the blow-up sex doll by the watercooler, with a rotating A4-printed face of various celebrities and politicians. When Davidson pretended to hump one of the subjects in the MRI machine, spanking the air above the sedated body, she did not laugh with the other boys in the control room. But she also said nothing.

The lack of sleep and poor, freeze-dried noodle diet had caused her to gain a stone, which she hid under baggy band t-shirts and sweatpants, which seemed to be the dress-code anyway.

And driving her unwavering momentum was the desire to impress Jack. One evening – or perhaps it was so late that it was early – they were hunched over a Mac together, rerunning the analysis code for the umpteenth time, and Sinead finally spotted an errant parenthesis in row 74 of the R code. Jack put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her against his chest. She was conscious of not having showered in two days, but she knew that he was admiring her mind, not her body, which was a greater intimacy.

I knew you were brilliant.

And Sinead beamed. 

Before she could dismiss it with the trained modesty instilled in all young women, he kissed her fully on the lips. The bunks were all occupied, so they got into his car in the parking lot and fumbled under the glow of the streetlight like a couple of teenagers.


She moved her bags into his office. They shared the single mattress on his floor, tucked between the file cabinets and his desk. No bottom sheet, only a thin duvet and Jack’s chest to keep her warm. The entire floor kept at a chilly 14ºC in order to offset the heat of the servers which lined the hallway.

At first it feels cosy, working next to Jack, their laptops back to back. Sharing gastronomically questionable take-out from the greasy spoon across the road. He demanded perfection with an urgency that felt like a dizzying rush. Pygmalion effect, he reminded his staff. High expectations lead to improved performance. And all the while feeling like her status in the team had been elevated to queen regent.

The fluorescent lights were always on, and the lack of windows made it impossible to determine day from night. One long night in a casino, with her career sitting on the pass line of the craps table.

Then, a potential investor got cold feet. A marathon of an ethical review application failed. A successful reduction in symptoms for a volunteer with treatment-resistant depression – their accountant, Henry – but an inability to replicate it with five more volunteers.

Jack bristled when Sinead placed her arms around him. When she closed her laptop and lay down on the mattress to close her eyes, Jack would exhale sharply. By all means, get your beauty sleep. I’ll just be over here trying to save the company. She would rouse herself and make them more instant coffee with hot water straight from the tap.

Days blurred together. Punctuated only by minor milestones of progress. The rest of the team began to resent her for perks they imagined her getting. They distanced themselves from her, she and Jack becoming isolated in an echo chamber. He made paranoid assertions about the team, and wielded them against her as well when she did not agree.

When she slept – for the few precious hours when Jack was off presenting to investors or haggling for new equipment – it was a putrid, dark sleep. She felt like a seagull doused in oil, unable to move or breathe. Rousing herself was becoming more difficult as she went for longer and longer stretches without.

Sometimes, she would be woken from this cavernous sleep to the feeling of Jack’s mouth on her neck, his hands pawing at her sweatshirt. Unsure if it was morning or night. You can’t get enough of it, can you, he would grunt. His body began to repulse her, and he noticed. This made him bolder, wanting to force his way into her like a mole sensing a coming frost. His kisses became sloppier, his fingernails catching on the folds of her skin. He pounded into her with a desperation bordering on a scream.


The world has a breath. The swell of grass in the breeze. The hush before rain, inhaling, and the spurt of life in the exhale. This is how we learn to count: in and out.

The darkness creeps over her tent. It seeps in her bones – the cold, the futility. The day has circled back to eat itself. She must be fierce, she must warm herself with her resolve, even as she hugs her knees to her chest and coughs with the damp crawling down her throat.

She is the fearful watcher, the unwinking. sentinel. Often she awakes, sitting upright, not remembering what impulse had hinged her body so forcefully. She wakes holding her foam earplugs, despite having wedged them in her ears an hour ago – what was she trying to hear? Or was it in a dream?

After midnight, awake and trembling with cold, she emerges from her tent. The ivy rustles underfoot. The house is dark, with black eyes. Staring at the house feels insidious – like gazing at the black water at the bottom of a well, tipping yourself forward and daring gravity not to seize you and smash your face into that cold, foetid water.

She imagines his clammy hands around her body, clutching her frame like ivy smothering a house. Trying to soften her angles and the tension of her bones. She was moist when he wanted her to be, and soft when he wanted her to be. She was naked – but more than naked. Peeled. Skinned.

She remembering how she buried deeper within herself to escape. Pulling her elbows in towards her body, squeezing her legs together. His flaccid wetness against the back of her thigh. It might as well have been a hook, having pulled something deep and solemn out of her, and left to shrivel under the cold, fluorescent lights.

Don’t sleep, she had thought. Don’t leave your body. You must keep watch.

And a part of her does want to leave, to sink into a warm, velvet pool away from the body that failed her. But sleep is surrender. Not just to yourself, or to the dark waves of your unconscious that can cast any number of terrifying shadows, but you also must surrender to whatever surrounds your hollow body. The air, the sheets, and whomever you lay beside. You are absent, you abandon your meat suit. Every night.

The body and the mind are an unhappy marriage. How can the body forgive the mind every morning? The mind says: I’m sorry, I left you with Him. I had to go, I had to leave – because I could. You would have done the same. 

‘And what did she do?’ you are asking yourself. ‘When does she put her hands up and leave?’ But the truth is that she hated herself for being repulsed, unable to take the intensity that he flung at her. Most women are raised to never disappoint – a worse sin than being stupid or lazy or cruel. She was no different. And she was frightened of making him angry or sad. She feared his intensity could backfire, like a loaded shotgun and destroy them both.

One night sitting in their car, he unfastened the glove compartment and showed her the loaded Glock he kept ‘for protection.’ Her first thought was not ‘I am a strong, independent woman who deserves better.’ It was, ‘I don’t want to die. Say whatever it takes to keep that thing out of his hands.’

The world consists of facts, she tells herself, rubbing her arms for warmth. We are stuck between the cosmos and the atoms. With enough time, all effects can be measured. All truths are revealed. She must observe and quantify.

She can feel the invisible weight that she must drag behind her everyday. If she can prove it real, then she can prove the pain to be real.

The prospect of disproving her hypothesis is frightening. Did she have the wrong subject? Could her variable not have a measurable effect on her subject? Illusory correlation: perceiving a relationship between variables even when no such relationship exists. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. After all, three hundred scientific papers were published about N-Rays which amounted to be nothing but a fictional phenomenon created by experimenter bias. And astronomers once believed a planet Vulcan orbited next to the Sun, drawing Mercury into its bizarre dance.

This research is cauterisation, an exorcism, she tells herself. A course of antibiotics stronger than radium. Strip the marrow – suck it dry. She read that the body replaces all its cells in seven to ten years, but this seems like a lie. What of the parts of him she swallowed? Did they become part of her muscles and bones? She shudders and wants to tear her veins apart, unspool them like yarn.

Sinead knows the Lady. She was the Lady. She knows where she goes when she sleeps, and she knows what remains, defenceless and silent.


Her fingers are numb, they feel as stiff as chopsticks. Her mouth throbs. She takes out her torch and shines it between her gum and lower lip. The reflection of her Swiss army knife reveals a black cross on the surface of her left premolar. She wonders if she could scrape the decay out herself. Risky, if it has penetrated the root. She swirls more water around her mouth and swallows.

In the morning, the pain is worse. The gum is puffy. Her neck lymph nodes are swollen like robin’s eggs. She can barely swallow. She does not want to have to return to the shops two days in a row. But she needs paracetamol. Maybe some Bonjela will tide her over. Help her get back up in the tree.

She changes her shirt and ties a bandana around her hair to look as different as possible. She adds a pair of sunglasses to the ensemble. Hopefully someone different will be operating the shop this morning. She exits her patch of woodland and takes a shortcut across a sheep field, shortening the journey by two miles.

When she turns the corner in the village, there is a police car parked outside the petrol station, a policeman leaning on the bonnet. She lowers her head and decides to walk past discreetly. Then, the door opens, and Natalie steps out.

‘That’s her,’ she says, flapping her hand to get the policeman’s attention. Natalie lunges towards Sinead and embraces her. ‘Thank God, you’re okay.’

The policeman approaches and Natalie lets go. ‘Sinead Simon?’ he says, ‘We’re here to check on you. Your friend was very worried about you.’ He approaches with his palms facing her, like she is a bridleless horse about to bolt. His partner emerges from the shop and flanks her. She feels constricted, trapped.

‘Do you want to have a seat?’ says the first policeman. ‘And we can have a chat?’

‘Not really,’ says Sinead.

‘We just want to check if you’re okay.’

‘I’m fine, really.’

‘Where are you staying?’ asks the second officer.

‘Glamping,’ she says. The policemen exchange glances.

‘Your friend is concerned you’re not taking your medication.’

Sinead laughs, unsure why. Raw embarrassment perhaps. ‘I only took those to help me sleep,’ she says, frustrated by the need to reveal personal information.

‘They’re antipsychotics,’ Natalie stage-whispers to her.

‘Also prescribed for sleep disorders,’ declares Sinead, now realising she has raised her voice. She threads her fingers though either side of her hair. This isn’t happening. If only she could let her body float away with her mind like the basket of a hot air balloon.

‘Your friend is worried you might be a danger to yourself or – perhaps it would be best if you came with us to a hospital and we could get you checked out.’

‘What are you doing in the area?’ asks the second officer. Clearly the bad cop.

‘Hiking,’ she says.

‘You wouldn’t happen to be visiting a Mr. Delaney, would you? Or staying nearby?’

Sinead glares at Natalie. She never should have told her.

It had just come tumbling out of Sinead’s mouth when Natalie had found her trying to toast and butter a Wheetabix at four in the morning – having been awake for three days and stoned for two of them.

‘Is that the guy?’ Natalie had asked, pointing to the open copy of Fortune magazine on their kitchen table. The face above the headline, What’s next for Mr. Sandman? had been burnt into a black circle with a Bic lighter, the scorch penetrating into the table.

Sinead had nodded, her shoulders wedged high under her ears. She stood in the middle of their broom-closet kitchen, clutching the counter like a drowning woman clinging to a buoy.

Natalie gently closed the magazine and carried it to the recycling box as if it contained a live spider. 

‘Good riddance,’ Natalie had said. But Sinead had read it too many times by now. The words created a scalding stew in her mind, slopping around and around. As Natalie tried to put her to bed, she could still feel them.

Wunderkind Jack Delaney will return to the UK after four years in silicon valley. On the eve of his company going public, with a £5 billion valuation, ‘Mr. Sandman’ has opened a new head office in East London’s Tech City.

‘It’s a far cry from our humble broom–closet in Shoreditch,’ laughed Delaney, referencing the start-up which discovered he and his team discovered the revolutionary method for administering delta-waves in order to guarantee sleep within 3 to 5 minutes. What Elon Musk recently described as ‘The biggest disruption to the tech market since the iPhone.’

‘I wouldn’t go so far as saying “discovered.” It was a happy accident,’ explained the Oxford alumnus. ‘We realised that when we administered delta-waves to participants as part of our mental health study, they were falling asleep – and staying asleep – until we turned off the wave machine.’

Last month’s study in the Lancet revealed that with the Somnus™, the quality of life of shift-workers has risen dramatically.

‘In a 24-7 world, we should be able to control exactly when we need to sleep,’ said Delaney. ‘Doctors, pilots, bus drivers, coal miners … now able to get the rest they deserve and wake up refreshed whenever they are needed. No more insomnia. And no more health problems associated with circadian rhythm disruption.’

The Somnus™ will be released a new, 200 gram lighter XE edition, available in a choice of colours, by Christmas.

When asked whether he uses the Somnus himself, he said, smiling, ‘No, but my wife can’t get enough of it.’

Natalie knew that Sinead was lying when she said she was going on a research trip – for what kind of research does a Boots Pharmacy send its junior pharmacy technician? It hurt to lie. Natalie had been a good flatmate, kind and quiet. Probably the longest relationship Sinead had ever had.

But right now, standing a metre away from two armed policemen, Sinead is a canister about to blow. She is the sharpness in the eye of a cottontail.

She nods slowly, and pretends to take off her backpack from her shoulder. Then she flings it in the direction of the policeman – assuming the surprise would give her a few seconds – and she bolts down the road.

She knows these back gardens better than them. She darts right over a low fence and snakes through an orchard, and over another fence. She veres left and meets a public footpath that turns sharply and intersects a farm road. She whips off her bandana, and throws it leftwards up the path in an act of misdirection, and then sprints in the opposite direction. She hops a cherry laurel hedge – one of the houses advertising a dog despite not having one – and lies flat with her belly against the lawn. She waits several minutes, listening for the sound of running footsteps.


Your voice is too pitchy in the mornings. The coffee is too cold – make it again. You’re sabotaging me. You don’t believe in me. Corporate espionage. What is that car outside doing? Write down the licence plate – I shouldn’t have to ask. You are empty. You were nothing before you had our goals – look how far you’ve come. I’m proud of you. You challenge me. It’s okay to disagree with you. Are you being intentionally dense? Are you trying to get a rise out of me? I just want to fucking relax. Kiss me. Like you mean it. You’re so hot. Turn around. Come on. You can’t get enough of it.


Sinead and the Lady. Two data points – that’s a line. Plus time – that makes a vector. She never liked vectors at school. They made her queasy with their untidiness. She preferred natural logs, which felt like launching a kite on a string and then pulling back to the ground. Doing and undoing your work, safely on a string. The laws gave you a path to follow and they held you safe.

The lawn grass tickles her face. She watches the slug trail on a dandelion glint in the sunlight. In the distance, she hears the sound of pounding feet approach, along with the static and consonantless word-garbage from a shoulder radio. Then the noise trails away into nothingness.

Slugs are just wriggles of muscle, she thinks. Perhaps she’s delirious from her sprint on an empty stomach, which is now pressed uncomfortably against the ground.

But from this angle, everything seems connected to grandmother Earth. Some creatures are capable of peeling off her skin for a moment, but always return to the bosom of her gravity. The hare leaps, the mayfly zips, the fox pounces. Natural arcs of creation, destruction, and recreation. Man is the only creature to struggle against this natural concept, and resistance breeds despair. He grieves. He thrashes violently, wanting to seize control of his natural parabula. I am bigger and mightier, he says, attempting to cast off the net. And none are more hubristic than scientists. Beating their fists in the dark.

She lifts herself off the lawn and climbs over the garden fence. Back onto the residential road, she zig-zags down the path, onto the public footpath snaking between two fields.

She runs to the front of Hound House and pounds the buzzer with her fist.

‘Yes?’ says a female voice.

‘This is the writer from up the hill – could I talk with you for a second?’

‘Oh, um, what about?’

‘Better in person,’ she pants. ‘It’s about your husband.’

The crinkle of the autocom soothes into a dead horizon. ‘Just a second.’

The longest wait of Sinead’s life. A car passes and she turns to hide her face against the gate, breathing heavily. She is compromising the experiment. She’s sticking a finger on the scale. But she cannot imagine leaving this valley without knowing.

The Lady emerges from the front door. She looks flummoxed when she sees Sinead, who is still panting hard, her nose and cheeks flushed. The Lady keeps a wary distance from the gate, her arms holding another cream cardigan closed.

‘What’s this about?’ she says.

Sinead swallows. ‘I knew your husband,’ heaving the words from her body like stones. ‘He was cruel. He was a monster.’

The Lady looks bewildered, as if Sinead has just slapped her.

‘I need to know whether you’re safe,’ says Sinead.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Are you safe? With him?’        

A car engine builds to a crescendo behind her and screeches as it cuts the corner of the road and comes to a stop on the driveway. It honks twice, rudely, attention-seeking. Sinead flattens her back against the fence as the horn ornament comes into view.

From the black Mercedes emerges a tall man, chestnut hair, a pale beard trimmed to sharp perfection along his cheekbones. He’s wearing a navy suit and paisley shirt with no tie, just a baby-blue pocket square. He is shorter than Sinead remembers.

Darling, He says to the Lady, leaving the car door open and the car purring. He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a mobile phone. Get away from the gate.

‘What is going on,’ says the Lady, frightened.

There was a message from Surrey Police waiting for me at the office. They wanted to do a wellness check and something about a former lab assistant stalking our house. So I came right back.

Sinead wants to curl inside herself like a snail. She presses her back against the bars. A terrible anachronism stands before her. Beneath the crows-feet and greying eyebrows she can see the outline of the young man she used to know.

‘Stay away from me,’ is all she can manage.

‘Do you know her?’ the Lady asks her husband.

No. He raised his phone to his ear. I’m calling the police.

‘Tell her about the mattress in your office. About the hotel room in San Francisco,’ says Sinead. ‘And the Ambien you gave me for jet lag.’

She’s crazy.

He grasps her arm and flings her in a sharp arch away from the gate. She stumbles to the driveway on her knee and then hip. She is infantilized sitting on the crazy-paving, her arm aloft in his tightening grasp. She looks up at the underside of his chin and the softness of a belly spilling over his belt. She sees the echo of a body she used to know – like a soldier staring at his own severed limb, watching the fingers twitch. 

‘Listen to me – listen to me,’ Sinead says, twisting her body to grasp the bars of the fence. ‘Elizabeth – Dr. Elizabeth Marjoribanks-Delaney. I know you. If you need  help – if you need to get out – when you need to get out, I’ll be here. I’ll be here for you. You’re not alone.’

Sinead’s eyes are watering, begging Elizabeth to see the sincerity. Recognise her reflection.

Then Elizabeth looks towards her husband. ‘How long until the police?’

The light in Sinead flickers out. The planet Vulcan shadows her face. You can observe phenomena, watch a brain shrivel – it’s another thing to try and intervene. That takes years of clinical trials. And this trial has failed.

Prospect theory: a loss is perceived to be more significant than the equivalent gain.

Sinead walks her hands up the gate bars until she is standing, Jack’s hand is still on the arm of her jacket, leashing her. He is speaking the address into the phone in his palm. She thrusts her elbow into his chest, unstabling him for an instant, and then sprints down the driveway as soon as his grasp releases her sleeve.

She runs until her lungs sour with the metallic taste of blood. She runs until her gasping breath smothers the sound of her weeping.


Natalie parks the Prius in the driveway leading to a field of black-nosed sheep.

‘Just here?’ confirms Natalie.

Sinead nods, removing her forehead from the passenger window. ‘Thank you for doing this.’

‘I don’t like helping you violate an injunction.’

‘We won’t have to get that close,’ says Sinead. ‘Ten minutes, I promise.’

Natalie does not protest, considering the value of the items left at the campsite and the back-rent that Sinead owes. She takes two Ikea bags from underneath her seat and shakes them out. It’s been two weeks since Sinead left Hound House and walked aimlessly into evening, eventually following the signage to Gatwick. She spent the last dregs of her savings on a night in a hostel. And in the morning, she called Natalie, who quickly borrowed her brother’s Uber vehicle.

They cut across the field, and turn left into a thicket of ferns, Sinead leading the way. When they reach the familiar pocket of woodland, Sinead catches sight of her green tent. She tries not to eye the wall behind it, imagining it to have a piercing quality to her eyes like the sun.

The wind or a curious animal has managed to unzip the tent, letting rain flood the base. Together they begin to pack the remains of her campsite. Her gas-stove, binoculars, good wellies, cutlery, and pans. No sense leaving them to rot and litter what countryside we have left.

After Sinead has dismantled the tent and tucked the frame parts into the Ikea bag, she stands and wipes her hands on her jeans. She allows herself to properly look at the fence. Slowly, she approaches.

Natalie is rolling the sleeping bag into a soggy roulade. ‘That’s not twenty feet,’ she warns.

‘Give me a second.’

Sinead creeps to the gate. There is something thrusting from the gap between the door and the fence. Something green upsetting the smoothness of the wall.

There, resting on the hinges of the gate, is a bouquet of mint stems.


CL Glanzing is an international nomad, currently living in London. By day, she works in healthcare research, trying to use those ridiculous letters after her name (MA, MSc, PhD). By night, she does heritage crafts and runs an LGBTQ+ bookclub. Her story “Fishbone” was recently included in Issue 51 of Luna Station Quarterly.

loneliness rides my bed.

By Lorelei Bacht

furled sail: i failed to boat around
goodbye. could not, would not –

nobody left to ripple these linens.

i should have bottled a message,
apologised, red flared. now crest-

fallen, doldrummed, i raise a single
malt to my failing fictions: no

map, trade wind, turbine. dwindling
supplies of fish and oranges: i am

turning forty. no ghost fishing,
bottom trawling, no mouthful of

nacre – herringbones all. i looked
a captain for a while, then not so

much, then not at all. fallen hook,
line, sinker. others make love while i

flush upon flush, anemone fever.
fading instead of adding up, frayed

pyjamas starfished across, my body
neither vessel nor halo. something

said no. did not say try again. said
shut up, sit here for a while. do not

cast nets, do not searchlight. do not.

you must moon your own sky.


hands of tree bark.      on me, a mark
that you could not, would not

axe out. the undercut is where we part,

a pity of heartwood.

medullary anatomy once
treasured, wished sapped and replete – 

now led afraid, tangled veined leaves,
congealed, blank molasses.

what is a mess for? a forest

now hysterectomised. my floors
will abstain from growing lemons,

apricots, pears. you stare
at the damage, wishing yourself away,

a bird, a light, something singing,
still. the process of

cutting, gutting a tree repulses you.

you say your song of feller from
fortune: catch-a-hold this one,

catch-a-hold that one. the song

is not enough. is not ever:

you won’t be home
in the spring of the year.


is how he takes the mechanical
heart: hacksaw, bradawl, diagonal

pliers. my mood reduced to paper
moon, tinfoil – only the nuts and bolts

matter. statistical champion, a clamp
instead of the open hand my lonely

demands, he claims: you, me – a mere
blood count, a column addition.

i inhale his red lines, broken mercury
beads. are we lost or failing rusty

fire ladders? hit hell. hit square
one and as you attempt to drag your

broken wing up that catwalk once
again, consider this: with him, it was

never your when.

i could drop this black stone. i don’t.

i hold onto the lightning rod and tell
myself fables, collect the little hurts,

invent a reason why, or a reason
why not: knuckle, jacknife, golem.

i could drop this black stone. i don’t.

i refuse to look for colour, refuse
to walk the orange grove, collect 

petals, prismatic, kite, marble, shoe-
shine. don’t care for anything but black

and blue – i document and document,
fingerprint ghosts, deform every

morning. you call me out: sew that
sleeve into a white flag, you know

how to. but i sit and sulk, eat my own
red chalk. one day, i might grow tired of

holding myself hostage. not yet, not
yet, i mumble, treasuring the hurt.

let’s dance.

home: not a yellow brick house, not
fortunate, four solid square windows,

but precarious, tumbled rainbows, a wild
stone throw of fireflies, ephemeral

at best, a test of all the medals you
carry: allan, carrie – some decade or

other, you decided upon a game and
played every single friend along the road:

losing, losing, finding yourself gutters
once more, trucker piss bottle full

of stars – one time, two times, seven
times unlucky. when will you learn to take

the shoe off, throw away that stone?


Lorelei Bacht is a fabrication whose poetic work has appeared / is forthcoming in The Night Heron Barks, Queerlings, Feral, Barrelhouse, Sinking City, Stoneboat, OyeDrum Magazine and elsewhere. They can be found on Twitter @bachtlorelei and on Instagram @lorelei.bacht.writer. In a past life, they wrote and edited fiction. They are currently watching the rain instead of working on a chapbook.

What The F*ck is Going On?

By Arlene Rosales

I don’t quite recall the last time I fully understood something that happened in my life. Two seconds ago, I was just entering high school and worrying about keeping my room clean, and now I am working five days a week, going to school, and trying to sleep more than 4 hours; and I am doing it all in a different country. For a long time, I begged for a pause. The world finally heard me —the novel Coronavirus hit the world in March of 2020. My life took a 180-degrees turn, just like everyone else’s. However, I was not affected by the shortage of toilet paper, Criminal Minds ending after 15 seasons, Zoom classes, trending workout videos, the emergence of TikTok as the new Vine, and not even having to spend five months by myself. What impacted me was time and how suddenly, what seemed like a blessing turned into a curse. It is 2 am, and my wrist hurts from awkwardly holding my phone; I have been trying to sleep since 11 pm, but my mind keeps running: What the f*ck is going on?


As a child, there was a point when my parents had to beg me to go outside to play, but it wasn’t always like that. My parents tried to keep me away from social media for as long as possible. For years, I only cared about finishing my homework and playing soccer with my brother and cousin. Those years when I was innocent, when I could wear long basketball shorts and bright t-shirts, when having one friend was enough—the years when I did not care about what the rest of the world thought about me. Now, I find myself stuck living in a time where my presence online is more important than who I am. I feel the pressure of the whole world watching me, waiting for the moment I finally make a mistake.

I opened social media for the first time when I was 12 years old. As I scroll through my friends’ requests on Instagram, kids no older than 11 have sent me requests. It makes me cringe. I don’t want to sound old-school or dull, but life has become monotonous since everyone has become obsessed with social media. We all follow the same people, trends, and music; we even shop for the same clothing items. For example, I bought a $100 pair of jeans just because my Tiktok page told me I needed them. I am sure I am not the only person who has surrendered to what the internet tells them. New trends come and go; some are good, like metal straws and the ice bucket challenge. Some others just bring the worst of each person out — like the Birdbox Challenge and Pokemon Go.   

The hard pill to swallow when it comes to social media is that it has taken control of everything. But, honestly, how do you explain to someone that having less than 100 likes on an Instagram post is okay? We have created such a toxic online culture that likes define how much you are worth. Now that I am older, I can see what is wrong with that mindset, but growing up, I remember how self-conscious I was about every pic I posted and how important it was to follow the steps:

  1. Selfies. Full body pics are for girls with good bodies, and mine was not it.
  2. Editing. A plain picture is a mediocre one. It needs to be touched, and if your friend with a thousand followers does it, then it is better. If the image is not good, black and white always does the job.
  3. Time. Anything before 6 pm is lame. Cool and older kids always check and post their pictures around 7 pm, but never after 8:30 pm. Time = likes = popularity.
  4. Tell everyone. The moment you post, you need to tell the whole group chat you posted, so they can go like it and comment, which will boost your post.

Now that I am typing these “rules,” I realize how stupid they sound. It also reminded me of one of my favorite songs – Crazy by Simple Plan.

Tell me what’s wrong with society
When everywhere I look I see
Young girls dying to be on TV
Won’t stop ’til they’ve reached their dreams

Diet pills, surgery
Photoshopped pictures in magazines
Telling them how they should be
It doesn’t make sense to me
Is everybody going crazy?

Now, is everybody going crazy? Or am I the problem?

What would happen if I did not fit into the world created for me? A world where I need to study and then work for the rest of my life; a world where I need to dress girly but not like a teenager; a world where religion is not necessary anymore and having kids is not a dream anymore. For years, I have seen how cruel the world can be, even worse if you are naive. The idea of “wanting to grow up” to finally be free was and probably still is the biggest scam I have succumbed to. At the end of the day, half of the things you see on the internet are fake, but so many people take them as the ultimate truth. And wanting to go against the majority is scary.

I dreamt about finding love, getting married, and raising kids with the perfect husband for years. However, the more I thought about these dreams, the less likely they seemed. I can summarize how each relationship I’ve had has gone using five words: a different idea of love. I had my first crush. Then, the older guy, who I thought was more mature, and since he liked me, I was also mature (none of us were). After that, the first t heartbreak — I fell in love with my best friend, and he then fell in love with my girl best friend. By 14, I was sure love was not for me. Two years later, I decided to try again; however, the naive part of me was unaware of how much things change when you enter high school.

Parties, alcohol, drugs, and sex, but love was never an option. Every Friday, while all my friends were out partying and making out with strangers, I was alone in my room watching their Snapchat and Instagram stories. What a loser, you might think. I was a loser, but was I wrong for trying to find love? Was I wrong for wanting to fall in love with someone and stay together longer than three months? Was I wrong for thinking about the future? When did society start to tell me how I wanted to love was wrong? When did love became a competition to see who could hook up with the most boys? When did still being a virgin mean that you were wasting your life? The world was not stopping, and social media kept adding to the struggle of growing up in the internet era.

I saw my friends post about their perfect relationships when I knew about all the fights and cheating scandals. I read posts about lovely moms for Mother’s Day when half of my friends couldn’t even communicate with theirs. Pictures about a current disaster were everywhere, asking for help and donations when I knew my friends were the first to ignore a homeless man begging for food. Wanting to be someone else was the norm because showing who you are meant social suicide. Many still fail to realize that the word suicide has slowly started becoming a reality for many young teenagers – teenagers who fail to live up to the expectations of many faceless trolls hiding behind a screen.

According to the Global Health Organization, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. I wish I could act surprised, but this is something well known among my generation. I was 14 the first time I thought about dying, the same age I was when my “friends” started bullying me for not using curse words, going to church with my parents, wanting to find long-lasting love, and many other views. Years later, I still think about death constantly. I know there is something wrong with me, but nowadays, everyone wants to die, so I don’t know what to believe anymore. It is a coping mechanism for me, but I know deep down I am scared. However, I don’t actually fear death and how it might present to me, but how fast it is approaching. There is no point living in a world that is slowly dying, thanks to global warming and an older generation that cares more about two girls kissing each other than the well-being of their children. Dying is this generation’s joke, and if that does not make you wonder what the fuck is going on with society, you are part of the problem.

It is 2022, and I deactivated my Instagram 6 months ago. The Coronavirus is here to stay. I eat two meals a day and go to the gym, so I don’t kill myself. I listen to sad music when I am happy. I stay up scrolling down TikTok until 2 am. I drink more coffee than water, and I ignore my parents as much as possible. I follow clothes trends, and I dye my hair. Welcome to the world where teenagers are “talking back” to their parents if they express how their actions make them feel. A world where having no social media is a red flag[1]. A world where having a college degree does not take you anywhere most of the time. A very warm welcome to the world where nothing makes sense anymore, and at the end of the day, the same question goes without an answer — What the f*ck is going on?


Arlene Maria Rosales Alvarado, born and raised in El Salvador, I left my house when I was 16 to study in an international high school in rural India through the United World College program. I fell in love with writing and film while there and once I graduated I was accepted into the University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship. I am currently 21-years-old and a junior in college pursuing a double major in Creative Media Production and English Writing. I plan on going to Grad school for Creative Writing and I hope to write a book that I can later turn into a movie. 

[1]  Red flag: a sign or warning of any impending danger, disaster or doom. This is the Urban Dictionary’s definition, which is nothing less than another fake source teenagers (myself included) use to feel like they are making a difference.

Trying to Tell You

By John Cullen

Imagine a group of ten. Include your grandfather,
briar pipe in hand, puffing a wreath of Borkum Riff
over his chair; and Mr. Allen, your math teacher,
Kroeger bag in hand escorting his poodle a quarter mile
down Clark so Sparkles can crouch at the cul de sac;
and the wallpaper hanger with the barbed wire tattoo curling his bicep;
and your neighbor the postman, who tucks ash in his cuffs
while weeding dandelions. Add six individuals from your local
State Farm. Most likely, this collection couldn’t agree
whether to order frosted doughnuts or pecan rolls.
So let’s gift each with one simple item, say a plastic kayak.
Set them sailing down Main Street after a storm early Wednesday
morning to avoid snarling traffic and misdemeanor tickets
written by police for the operation of unlicensed transports.
Now the group has a mission. This should make the day simple,
like peeling Macintosh apples into grandmother’s stoneware bowl,
adding one cup of sugar with cinnamon and clove to spice filling.
About this time, some Einstein tweets there is never enough water after rain
to float a kayak down Main Street, and Mr. Investigation complains
there’s too much ground clove in the filling; the pie tastes like potpourri.
(Which might be true!) Like when fire hosts a meeting;
before you lift a pencil, timbers and struts disagree and screech,
even grumbling after engines and tankers return to the station.
Now imagine this case in court, your ten individuals annoyed.
Are kayaks paddling in one direction traffic or protest, rally or riot?
Do traffic laws apply equally to boats, bicycle riders, and the occasional
turtle moving through June as fast as nature to lay eggs?
What is the implication of all this on the Endangered Species Act?
Boats never use turn signals! Now, the prosecution rejects a potential juror
who states for the record David Kirby is his favorite poet.
At this point, the people you imagined demand to leave the poem.
If you look quickly, you can see them sailing toward the horizon.
And now they are gone.
The poem is defunct, hanging by a few loose lines and rhymes,
and a boodle of kayaks causes backups and one shooting. 
People will wake tomorrow to the smell of the sea
and lost dreams, and news headlines will announce an emergency
town council meeting to discuss next year’s kayak festival. 
At least we can end with something simple: An old man
wearing a lazy fedora plays guitar in the key of E while sitting
on a Borden’s milk crate. He looks like Robert Johnson.
A half dozen children listen and tap their feet to the music.
Most of them wonder why his monkey smokes a cigar. 


When your dad swung at you
and connected with mad dogs running drunk
through his blood, you howled,
grateful your mother wasn’t pummeled.
She cringed, and hunched
her flesh, an umbrella for you and the puppy.
Then you ballooned from kid to punching bag.
At first, arms and legs snarled on the floor
and you wondered if you could shelter mom
under the deck where your dog, Jack,
deaf in one ear from a haymaker, dug
foxholes under a cracked plastic pool.
Eventually you parked dad on his ass.
It had to happen, and he sat, dizzy,
crouched but growling. You felt you won,
and the world tasted safe.
You learned the world fist first,
and so you’ve got to understand your own
will plant you wordless, nose bloody,
and puzzled, just like your old man
wiped spittle and blood that day
from busted lips on bruised knuckles.

Harsh Words

Trained by whistle
to race to my side
and growl, they ate
from my hand. Chipped
on the shoulder, they
returned and slept
in my bed, muzzles
on my heart.

My mother asks
what happened
with my girlfriend
and why these lines
are so short.
I’m typing this
with one finger.
They bit the others off.


John Cullen graduated from SUNY Geneseo and worked in the entertainment business booking rock bands, a clown troupe, and an R-rated magician. Recently he has had work published in American Journal of Poetry, The MacGuffin, Harpur Palate, North Dakota Quarterly and New York Quarterly. His chapbook, TOWN CRAZY, is available from Slipstream Press. His piece “Almost There” won the 52nd New Millennium Award for Poetry.

The Sad Princess of Highland Park

By Cara Diaconoff

In her bedroom in her father’s house, the wealthy daughter sat staring out the window. Six months she’d sat this way, since she’d graduated from college last winter, watching the workmen, who were renovating the fountain at the center of the circular driveway.

The fountain renovation was part of her father’s “statement piece,” a massive grounds project being built in memory of Francesca’s mother, dead now eighteen years. This was how her father was spending his earnings from the two celebrity criminal cases that had made him a household name. It would be the wonderland her mother had always dreamed about.

The grounds would be ready in time for what would have been their twenty-fifth anniversary. Francesca’s father had requested topiary in the shapes of dragons and mermaids and devils from the Polish tales of her mother’s childhood. And he had envisioned terraced hillocks of poppies and geraniums and mazes lined with evergreen hedges so intricate that a wanderer might really get lost. The fountain was the coup de grace. Its centerpiece was a rusalka, the water nymph of Slavic tales, sitting naked on a bank with head thrown back, throat gushing water.

The fountain was taking longer than projected. The pipes had needed to be rerouted, permits from the city secured. For weeks the fountain had been a pile of unattended rubble, baking sullenly in the Texas sun by day, and by night glinting in the moonlight like the ruins of a temple to some ancient, bored god.

But now the work crew had returned. The statue of the rusalka was raised, presiding over the piles of stones and tools.

One of the new crew members caught Francesca’s eye—although why, she couldn’t say. Was it just that he was tall and skinny? He wore a kerchief tied around his crown that made him look like a very tall woman, long hair gathered in a bun on top of his head. He was gentle in all his movements, in contrast to the irascible foreman, chronically red-faced.

The foreman called him Marco. She could understand most of what they said to each other. With her window open to the fresh air, in the morning before it got too hot, she would listen and watch as they carted blocks of cement around the grounds.

It was good to have a diversion. Usually, the most exciting thing that ever happened in this neighborhood would be a sighting of Miss Clara, the Argentinian widow, suffering from dementia, who lived next door and sometimes came out to wander the border between the two properties, dressed in a pea-green jumpsuit like a huntress or a wood-sprite.

Francesca was twenty-two now and hadn’t laughed since her twenty-first birthday. Every morning, she would wake up at nine to Carmelita, the housekeeper’s, rapping on the door.

“We are just making sure you’re alive!” Carmelita said this every morning, always in the same bravely joking tone.

“I’m alive, dear!” Francesca would call back, as merrily as she could muster. Carmelita had been with the family for years—for as long as Francesca could remember.

She could have stayed in her own condo, out in the high-rise by Turtle Creek. But most of the friends she’d had in town were elsewhere now, working or traveling. Without knocks on her door, she would have lain in bed till nightfall at least. She barely needed to eat. She didn’t know why she felt this way. It had only gotten worse since she’d finished college.

So it was good, she told herself, that she was forced to haul her body from the bed, push her feet into felt clogs, and shuffle downstairs to the east dining nook to pick at a toasted bagel. Yes, it was good, even if the effort would exhaust her so much that, again, it was only the need to avoid alarming the help that could motivate her to shuffle back upstairs.

Her father was working on a case, which meant that he left home at dawn and didn’t return till dinnertime or later. She found herself often alone in the house except for the help, who came and went, distantly heard. Times when she felt more wakeful, she would wander the halls, listless yet ready to be detained by anything sufficiently interesting—like scrapbook photos of her late mother, with the heart-shaped face and dark eyes.

Her mother had died, by her own hand, before Francesca had been able to form any memory of her more than a scent of Chanel and a pair of black sunglasses that covered half the face. Her mother, Julia, had met her father when he was visiting Warsaw on a Fulbright. Smitten, he had been, with this girl behind the law-school office counter who smiled so demurely yet also so slyly. And she, perhaps, had been entranced by the self-assured man with the piercing green eyes. When the school year ended, he had spirited her back with him to the United States, and in a picture in his scrapbook, taken after they first arrived, he is staring at the camera with a hint of jauntiness, and she, sitting by his side on a doily-covered couch in someone’s living room, is gazing away.

Francesca always wondered if really her mother had never wanted to expatriate.

From the outside, this house she had lived in her whole life was a massive hacienda with Moorish turrets, presiding impassively at the center of its two acres of land. Inside were enough twists and turns to supply a Tudor castle. On one of these languid afternoons, she entered a sub-wing and counted four doors. She could swear she had been in the same one the day before and counted only three.

Try the knob of the seemingly extra door. Ah yes, it gives—so obligingly, as they all do. She is grateful to her father for not ordering the unused rooms locked.

And it was in the drawers of an old cedar dresser in this room that, this afternoon in early July, she found mysterious treasure. A pile of empty jewelry boxes, encased in rococo gilt. Pencil drawings, on crumpled graph paper, of a rusalka seeming to transpire from a woodland creek, limbs and hair intertwined with the grasses of its banks. Other knick-knacks like the detritus of a toy garrison: tiny metal horses and swords and helmets. And, in the midst of it all, a wedding-cake topper that Francesca could not imagine had ever been used for a real cake. Could it be a joke? The groom was grim-faced, apparently bald under a top hat, while on his arm hung an emaciated bride wearing a crown of roses and a red-lipped mouth (the paint looked freshly applied) stretched in a ghastly grin.

The next day, she was afoot again, too restless to stay in her room after the crew had broken for lunch. Would she be able to find that drawer? Down the main second-floor hallway, through a door, up a small flight of stairs, and there was the choice of two wings. She chose one, and, yes—four doors again, and the fourth one led into the room with the stripped four-poster and the cedar dresser.

She took hold of both handles, and with a sound like a yawning cat, it creaked open. Everything in it looked the same as before. There was the wedding couple, poking from a mess of miniature rifles. She ran her fingers through them and touched the edge of a spiral notebook she hadn’t noticed the day before. Curious, she pushed aside the toy weapons.

The notebook had her mother’s name on the outside. Just her first name, Julia, felt-penned in careful cursive. Inside were a series of drawings, some in color. Even the black-and-white ones exuded lushness, lavish in their precision and level of detail. One of them showed a row of wombs, each encasing its own monstrosity. One fat fetus was covered with bloodshot eyes, another with scaly stumps. Francesca turned the page to find a sketch in color. Again it was set up in rows: four rows of four identical figures. On looking closer, she saw that the figure was a spreadeagled female body, the wrists tied to what looked like chain-fencing; this background covered the whole page. Between the spread legs of each figure poked a bloody flower. The pistil of each of these was a tiny head, madly laughing. None of the spreadeagled bodies had a face. They had just a neck and a chin that pointed to the heavens.

With shaking hands, Francesca snapped the notebook shut. A ribbon of graph paper fluttered to the floor. She picked it up and unfolded it, expecting to find another pencil drawing.

Instead, it was a note, written in her father’s spiky, preternaturally vertical hand. The paper looked new—white, uncreased. She had most definitely not seen it the day before.

It seems you must be feeling better? Scouting secrets? Better to ask me anything you want to know. Takes the guesswork out of it.

Think of the times when a wrong guess can be fatal.

Her knees went spongy. She backed up to sit on the bed. How could he know her movements? Her eyes scanned the walls; there was no sign of a camera, a blinking light. Would they be lining the corridor? In the years she had grown up with him in this house, she had never known him to do anything like this.

Once when she was about eight years old, she and her father had spent a long Saturday at the country home of one of his old friends, and by the time they were to leave, she had fallen into a groggy half-sleep in an easy chair. Her father hadn’t tried to rouse her; he had gathered her up without a word and carried her in his arms to the car.

That was her father—decisive, protective. She would never forget the feeling of being cradled, like a precious thing. She would reserve it to call to mind whenever needed: her arms around his neck, face crushed to his chest, the papery smell of his crisp linen shirt.

There were people in public life who called him a monster because of the evildoers he had defended: the wife-killer, the mad bomber, the abusers of the public’s trust. She knew that his thirst for fame and fortune had led him down paths most would eschew.

But most were not haunted the way he was by some mysterious anguish. She knew he was in pain by the way he’d pace his bedroom late at night and by the sharpness of his tone as he whispered to himself in the breakfast alcove in the morning.

Had someone hurt him? She didn’t know. He talked so little about the past. She’d never known her grandparents on either side. She only knew his family hadn’t been rich. They had been small-time ranchers, devout Christians. He had a younger brother and sister he rarely saw; they had stayed closer to the family ways. He had been the oldest—the odd one, a light-eyed changeling: too solitary, too brainy, standing always apart with a twitchy smile.

In college, he had chosen to study law over science. But he had never told her the rest: the reasons he came to specialize in defending the truly terrible. Now that she too was an adult, couldn’t she guess it? Couldn’t she guess that he was drawn to other changelings, others who loved mysteries, others who loved to try to reveal that which was kept hidden, by means of complex, long-running, live experiments, manipulating everyone around them?

Her mind racing, she made her way back to her room still clutching his note. At one point as she wound through the corridors, she thought she heard the creak of someone else’s pace several steps behind her, but she was too preoccupied to turn around. It was probably just a member of the help staff, and she didn’t know all of them well.

Through the window, the workmen caught her distracted eye. The windows were closed against the heat, but she could make out the dumbshow of Marco patiently showing the newest crew member, a boy who looked no more than fourteen, how to maneuver the wheelbarrow over bumpy terrain.

The stocky foreman was always impatient with such displays. She could see him striding and snapping.

She kept watching, today, as up the path came a lanky young man with a clipboard in hand: a canvasser, by the looks of him. Not a common sight in this neighborhood. He must be a brave one.

Marco held out a hand to the young man. The canvasser, startled, almost dropped his clipboard. Then he recovered his equilibrium and handed it over, and he and Marco conversed solemnly over it for several minutes, with Marco finally taking out a pen and writing on the page, as his crewmates stopped eating and stared. Eventually, with many nods and smiles on both sides, the canvasser retrieved the board and made his way up to the road.

Francesca could see the other men laughing, and Marco gamely joining in, and the foreman getting up in Marco’s face, doubtless yelling at him to stop getting distracted.

He’s beautiful, she surprised herself by thinking, as her eyes followed Marco’s tall figure, the womanly bun on his head in poetic contrast to his broad shoulders and flexing biceps.

She couldn’t remember the last time she had gotten pleasure—let alone lust—from looking at anything or anyone. She could recall a time when she had laughed at herself for ogling men. She didn’t do that now. No laughing. She observed the feeling—the throbbing, the happy yawn that engulfed her torso.

Somewhere, though, she heard someone else laughing—a cackle. She couldn’t tell where it came from. Miss Clara from next door? It didn’t quite sound like a noise she would make, and the windows were closed anyway. But it must be her.

When it was time for dinner with her father, she emerged obediently, having changed out of her sweatpants into a blouse and pencil skirt and the stiletto pumps she had always worn so gracefully. In the pocket of her skirt this evening, she carried his ribbon of graph-paper note.

At the dining table, she watched him—the peremptory flick of his wrist as he rapped a spoon against the side of his water glass to summon Carmelita to remove their plates.

There was a thread of iron in him. He was staring at her now—his big, imperious face—as if he knew what she was thinking. She lowered her eyes to her plate, feeling the heat of his gaze on her cheek. She had seen him smiling his intimate smile, the one that said he could wait until you figured it out, the secret you both were in on.

Monster, they called him. Was he her monster?

Carmelita came in, well-disciplined with her blank expression. It was a relief for Francesca to have her to look at. But she was gone again inside half a minute.

“You’re quiet tonight,” said her father.

She gave a small smile. “Am I usually so talkative?”

He flashed a grin in reply. It was so quick that perhaps she had imagined it.

“The fountain is coming along,” she observed.

Her father took a sip of his coffee, catching her gaze briefly above the rim.

“It makes me think of Mom,” she said. She felt the blood surge to her cheeks. But why shouldn’t she know more about her own mother? “What would she say about it if she were here right now, do you think?”

Her father’s mouth was spreading in another grin, unreadable. “I must say I have no idea. Your mother was always a quiet one. I’ve told you that.”

“I suppose,” she said. “Do you know—today I happened to find an old art notebook of hers.” She looked him square in the eyes. “The images are quite disturbing.”

He studied her, still grinning. “Perhaps another subject,” he finally said.

“You never told me she made art,” Francesca persisted. You never told me what made her so unhappy, she didn’t add.

“I don’t know that I would call it art,” observed her father.

“Would you call what I make, art?”

She knew she was skirting risky territory. Indeed, her own art—the painting and ceramics work she used to do, before she stopped feeling like doing anything—had already been a bone of contention between her and her father. During the initial planning phase for the statement piece, a year before, she and her father had discussed how she might contribute her own work to it. But after a while, his emails about this had stopped, and eventually she had grown tired of her father ducking her direct questions. She supposed he had thought better of involving her, had decided that the statement piece was worthy only of professional contributions.

She had been disappointed at first, frustrated. Now, she didn’t really care anymore.

Lord knew, it was hard to sustain any strong emotion in this exhausting room, its walls hung with gilt sunburst ornaments and lit by Tiffany lamps, centered on the heavy table with its sticky wood. The maroon silk drapes over the French windows were pulled back to let in the last sultry rays of sunlight. The reflections of the crape myrtle bushes just outside the window wavered prettily on the opposite wall.

The bushes would survive the grounds-renovation project, but beyond them the soil was dug up for the planned poppy terraces. The house was surrounded by rutted earth; to enter at the side doors, one had to walk across plank bridges the crew had set over the ravaged ground.

It was like she was cast on a desert island with him.

 “I swear,” he said suddenly—it was the daughter’s turn to startle now, hearing his velvety drawl—“that if someone could get you to laugh, I’d give them your hand in marriage.”

She tried to arrange her face into an appropriately ironic smile.

“My hand, Daddy? You have my hand to give?”

His lips parted slightly. He could wait till she understood the joke they both were in on.

Then he said, “You never do see anyone. Would it be terribly old-fashioned of me to suggest that all this could be cured by some healthy romance?”

“What do you mean by all this?”

His smile turning sly. “What should I mean by it?”

Now was her cue. She drew the crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket and put it on the table between them.

He favored it with one raised eyebrow.

“I found this,” she said.


“Are you having me followed?”

“Am I—” he began, then stopped himself, and now she was a witness for the prosecution whom he was grilling, and humiliating, in court. He turned to throw a disbelieving smile in the direction of an invisible jury, then back to her. He furrowed his brow in a look of staged pity.

“I know that depression is a disease,” he said. “I understand that.”

“Daddy,” she said, “you wrote me a note. This is your note.”

“Daughter,” he replied, as if to match her syllable for syllable, “I did not write that. I never saw it before.”

“Oh please. I know your handwriting!”

He rocked his head back and settled upon her a long, expressionless gaze. He was beautiful and mean, a bald-headed snake with those emerald eyes. She would have said she was prey for him to mesmerize but for the surprisingly chilling thought that she was too far below him even to eat.

Still, she willed herself not to look away.

“It’s a shame,” he said at last, “how you’ve let yourself go. You had a sharp mind. Maybe not the most original. But you were sharp. It’s a shame.” He paused. Tapped the glass with his spoon. “Well,” he said. “Dessert?”

That night, she slept even more fitfully than usual. Through her unquiet brain flickered creek-side sprites with pointy breasts and a shack that stood on chicken legs next to a rushing river that she kept trying to swim across. At dawn she finally fell into a deeper doze. When her eyes next opened, she reached for her phone and saw to her surprise that it was noon. Had she slept through Carmelita’s knocking?

Groggily, she sat in the window, hugging her knees. Outside, the workers were back. The weather today was heavy, the sky a moody gray. The heat was a miasma. Reports on her phone said a storm would come tonight.

One could see that it was getting to the crew. The men kept peeling off their shirts and tying them around their waists and then stopping and retying them around their necks. Even the foreman seemed too sluggish to rage with his usual gusto.

Down the driveway, Francesca saw a familiar, gliding figure: Miss Clara, from the property next door.

Miss Clara looked the same as she always had: the girlishly thin, long-legged figure; the green jumpsuit, the wispy gray braid that hung over one shoulder. She had been a widow as long as Francesca had known her, living in the bungalow next door.

In this neighborhood’s terms, the family were the local charity case. The talk was that when Miss Clara died, the property would be sold and the modest three-bedroom house razed.

Now, Miss Clara wavered at the gate, and then, with a mild nod as if accepting an invitation to dance, began to pick her way up the drive.

The workers didn’t notice until she was almost abreast of the fountain. “Ay! Senora!” they cried. “No, Senora. You will hurt yourself.” A couple of them moved gingerly toward her; she, meanwhile, held out a hand to each one.

“No, no, Senora. Not forward. Back.” Politely, each of the men had taken one of her elbows and were trying to guide her back up toward the road.

The foreman stood in the drive and roared at the sight. “Will you let go of that crazy old bitch right now and get back to work! We are behind enough today as it is!”

“What was that? Say that again!” It was Marco, his meekness suddenly gone. He got around in front of the foreman. He said something else Francesca couldn’t hear, holding his arms tensely by his sides, his hands in fists.

The foreman gave a bark of a laugh. He said something that ended in, “your mother?”

“No, she is not my mother. But she is someone’s,” said Marco. Then he took a step backward—as if he were about to land a punch or maybe just to get out of the foreman’s path. His intentions would never be known for sure, because before he could do anything more, the foreman bellowed that he was fired.

“Get out! Don’t you stay behind to grab your things—they’re ours now—get out!”

And Marco did. He turned to walk down the drive and passed Miss Clara, who had suddenly grown more definite, standing in her flip-flops glaring at the foreman. “Son of a whore!” she said, in the high, distinct voice she might have used in happier times at tea parties.

“It’s all right, Senora,” said Marco. “Let’s go.”

Francesca closed the window, feeling troubled. Should she tell her father? Then she realized that she had no idea what connection he had, if any, with the hiring of the grounds crew.

But she felt too on edge to stay in her room. Through her head flashed images of Marco’s arms around her, punctuated with those bulbous fetuses she’d seen in her mother’s notebook. Her head, her body, felt full, the way she used to feel back in the days when she made art, when something needed to billow out of her, and she would go to the ceramics studio and work it through the wheel’s thrumming.

No studio here, but perhaps she could find a pad and charcoal pencil. She slipped into ballet flats and out her door and began to pad down the hallway, peering through the just-ajar doors into all the bedrooms: the long-unused ones with furniture covered in plastic, the ones that had been renovated last year and that were supposed to be open again when the landscape project was unveiled.

But her mother had died in one of these rooms. Had she not? Her father had never told her details. She wasn’t even sure of the manner: Hanging? Pills?

She opened a door at the end and walked up a short flight. A gloomy vista, this corridor. She headed for a room at the end, a smaller room that she vaguely remembered about fifteen years ago being something like a study for her father. It had been modest, dusty, with stray cardboard boxes in the corners. She hadn’t stepped foot in it since she was eight.

As she moved toward it, she heard a rumbling in the atmosphere. The storm was coming sooner than predicted.

She tried the doorknob. It didn’t budge. Tears sprang to her eyes. She felt bereft. She wiped her hand on her pants, like she did when she was working to open a tightly sealed lid, took a breath, and tried again, doing her best to be slow, patient. Could she jiggle it? Was it just stuck? The varnish so thick on every surface of this place, outside of her own room … and then it gave. She turned the knob and opened the door.

On the far wall inside, seeming perfectly natural, was an old woman standing over the desk at the window with a feather duster. She was tiny, her back bowed double, and dressed in an old-country style unusual for help in this neighborhood: gray shawl and brown corduroy skirt, checked kerchief over wisps of hair.

“Oh, hello, ma’am. I’m so sorry.” She was ready to give up, go back to her room.

“No, please, dear,” said the old woman in a strangely silken voice, youthful-sounding to be coming from this bent body. (What labor laws must her father be breaking to employ this sibyl-in-a-jar?) And Francesca felt herself drawn in, as if an unseen hand took hers and directed her to a seat on the molded wooden chair.

“Do you work here, ma’am? I don’t remember ever seeing you here before. My apologies—I’m the daughter of the house.”

“I know, dear,” said the crone. “I’ve practically watched you grow up.”

As she spoke, she moved away from the window and around the side of the desk. Francesca could see her more clearly now. The woman’s hair was tightly pulled back to reveal a face just like a beak: a forehead that proceeded into the nose in almost a straight line and small eyes on either side like fish-eyes; Francesca didn’t know which one of them to look at. The face was a checkerboard of wrinkles, so that one might expect a toothless mouth, but the mouth was in fact full of long, white, snaggle-teeth. Beneath a brown smock that covered her body, she tottered on a pair of stick-like legs.

“Oh my God!” murmured Francesca. “How is that possible? I never saw you before! Does my father know you—”

“Your father—oh, psh!” snorted the otherworldly-seeming creature. “Master Christopher is guaranteed to know nothing of me. I am not one, my dear, who has to do with fathers. I am all about the mother.”

Francesca could feel her breath coming rapidly. “Please don’t come any closer.” She was gripping both armrests of her chair. Somehow, she didn’t think to stand up.

“My dear, I don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t give me reason to,” said the crone, but, obligingly, she stopped where she stood.

“What do you mean that you’re all about the mother? What do you know about my mother?”

“I know much about your mother,” said the crone, almost singing, her voice so almost obscenely lovely, melodic, and Francesca wondered if she would have to resist being hypnotized. “Your mother brought me with her from Poland. She wanted to leave me behind, but I insisted.”

Of course, her father had never said anything about an old woman accompanying him and Julia on the journey from Warsaw. . . .

“I flew with her in a bottle in her suitcase,” said the crone as if she had heard Francesca’s thought. She spoke with a faint Slavic accent that sounded like a real babushka. “At first,” she went on, “she seemed not to need me, so I stayed back, and perhaps for a while she believed that I was gone. But then, when it became clear that her joining with Christopher had been a grave mistake . . . well.

“Your mother’s problem, my dear, was that she was too uncertain a soul. She was weak, timid—and even after she had you, that didn’t change. Oh, she tried to be kind. She tried to reform Christopher through kindness, but the effect was pathetic. Like giving a dictator a goldfish to try to soften his heart. Into a vacuum, stronger spirits will step, and I am sorry to say that at the end she made it a battle between me and Christopher, which she would never survive.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Francesca around the lump that had begun to rise in her throat. “I never knew anything about how my mother died.”

“I was with her when she died,” said the crone, and never would Francesca forget the smooth nursery lilt of that phrase as the crone spoke it, the uptick on with, the flat straightaway of when she died. “I was with her in the pool—when she drowned. Her dying was the most definite thing she ever did. You know that she did it on your parents’ wedding anniversary?”

“No—no! Of course I never knew that—”

“Well, it is so. I was with her then. I closed her pretty eyes, so they wouldn’t stare so wide and scared. Pretty eyes just like yours, dear, and you should not look so scared yourself. Please, my dear . . . .”

But Francesca had found her feet. The back of the chair clattered to the floor, and somehow she managed not to stumble as she backed away, into the hall, and then turned to run, crashing down the stairs, making for the kitchen, where Carmelita and her helpers would be. She would have called Carmelita’s name if she’d had a voice. But they would be there, the familiar faces, just past the swinging door to the kitchen.

She hadn’t noticed how dark and cool the house was. Now she saw the kitchen in shadow. She saw the cutting boards stacked, untouched, in the corner of the prep counter. She heard the cuckoo clock, sounding its warning rattle that brought all the blood to her head, and then its four clacking calls—with that vomit-rattle between each one.

Just then, the thunder rumbled again, shaking the windows, and immediately the rain began, in true Texas fashion, an instant, raging sheet.

But she could not stay in the house. In her panic, she at first couldn’t remember which exits were the ones with the makeshift bridges, but then the first one she thought of was all the way on the other side of the house, nearer the covered port where she and her father kept their cars parked. She spun in confusion. Another crack of thunder sounded, and then she heard another series of thuds, she didn’t know if it was just more thunder? or steps, from upstairs—world-shakingly heavy steps, and so now she just had to get out, it didn’t matter how, and the closest exit she knew was the front door, and she ran out down the center of the cavernous lobby and threw herself on it, and it actually gave from inside, it wasn’t bolted or barricaded, but as soon as she got it open, the world was rushing black water, and the next thing she knew, she was airborne and then submerged in it. She choked, inhaling mud. She flailed.

She had landed in a makeshift moat, and it was deeper than she’d ever have imagined, or maybe it wasn’t but it was only that she couldn’t stand up, and she couldn’t see. She whirled, in a prone position, from side to side, grabbing, and only felt more mud. Oh, it was all she had ever been able to do. She was a useless creature, dropped into a world in which there were none but useless parts to play.

The mud oozed and flowed through her fingers, but now something was grasping her ankles and pulling her from behind. Touching her. Outrageous. So, now she fought. She would not be a weak soul. But it tugged with a grip on each of her ankles now, and it had too much force and knew too much what it wanted, and without even the energy to give a cry of despair, she gave up, she let go of the fight.

And then she was curled in a ball—on solid ground, although still being pelted with rain. And she felt a light hand on her shoulder, and she screamed, by reflex, but then she heard a familiar voice, “Senorita, no, no, por favor,” and she opened her eyes enough to see Marco standing over her.

He was laughing as he helped her struggle to her feet, as he raised an umbrella over her head. “Come, come. Please, miss, come,” he was saying in English. “Come to be dry. I am sorry I laugh.”

“I know some Spanish,” she said, “un poco—it’s all right.”

They stood, sheltering, under Marco’s umbrella. “But, senorita,” said Marco, “what are you doing here? We thought no one was supposed to be in the house today. My aunt’s friend, Carmelita, she told my aunt the whole staff had been, just this morning, given a paid day off. She said that that had not happened in almost twenty years—a paid day off on a day that is not a holiday. She said that the last time it happened . . . but I am rambling on.”

“That is strange,” she said. “I know nothing of that. But I can’t go back in. It’s impossible. My father will be home soon—or maybe he won’t. I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s all right, senorita.” He squeezed her forearm.

“I’m called Francesca,” she said.

“Francesca,” he repeated. “And”—touching his chest—“I am Marco. I tell you, it’s not a problem. We can go next door. Miss Clara’s son and his wife are there with Miss Clara.”

“You know Miss Clara?”

“Of course,” he said, and he caught her eye and started to laugh again, his nose crinkled and eyeteeth bared. He put his arm around her shoulders and drew her into him, and she stood under the drenched umbrella, smelling mud and wet hair.

And it was like that, by the half-finished fountain, that the staring, recessed eyes of the Bentley’s headlights caught them as it pulled in through the gate and crept slowly up the drive.

She didn’t think to move. A scene with her father was necessary—inevitable.

With the same slow deliberation, her father lowered his window. He kept his head inside, safe from the rain.

“Well, well. And what have we here?” He wore his spreading grin. “Looks like the one about the daughter who ran off with the hired hand?”

“Oh, that’s funny, Daddy. Well, you did say I was unoriginal.”

He made a pouting face. “No matter, dear. It’s an overrated quality—in women in particular.”

She had no idea what that meant and wondered if he did either. It was like all his jibes: a line thrown out for effect. She thought of the looks he would cast toward the invisible jury when she was talking to him. His strutting, his mugging, his everlasting pacing and self-scolding: oh God! she suddenly thought—the poor man. He was never not on trial.

“I’m sorry, Daddy!” she cried. And for the first time in months, she made a move of her own volition in the presence of her father, pulling Marco away from the car, in the direction of the property-boundary fence and the house next door.

She was in Miss Clara’s house, working to get dry. Miss Clara’s daughter-in-law had ushered her into one of the bedrooms and brought her one of Miss Clara’s housedresses to change into out of her muddy shirt and sweatpants. Francesca had drawn the shades over the windows, which looked out onto a back garden.

So snug and bright was this little house. It was hard to believe that the castle-like home she’d forsaken was only a few yards away on the other side of a stone ledge.

Was forsaken too strong a word? She didn’t know yet.

“Don’t worry,” Marco had kept saying. “You’re safe.”

“I know! I really owe you,” she assured him.

Through the closed bedroom door, she could hear him, conferring in a low voice with Miss Clara’s son and daughter-in-law. He was like her father in that he seemed to be used to people listening to him.

She could smell cornmeal and beans, cooking in the kitchen. The house was adorable—so tiny, after the expanses she’d been used to. But what was she doing here, really? She’d loved his comforting arm around her shoulders, the way he’d taken charge. But Marco’s life had been something she had watched through a glass window.

(The way the crone had watched her—?)

And where was Miss Clara? This was, at least nominally, her house. Of course, she wasn’t capable any longer of taking care of it, so, in practice, it was her son’s. Her son and daughter-in-law had made the sacrifice of letting her live out the end of her days in her own house rather than relegating her to a memory-care ward.

As if on cue, she heard what sounded like a sigh. A sigh of female impatience, she would call it, although not bad-tempered. It seemed to come from outside. Miss Clara, flitting around the garden? The rain had stopped, but Francesca imagined that Miss Clara’s family would probably want her back inside.

She raised the blind, raised the sash above her head. “Miss Clara?”

Suddenly, the screen was filled by the face of the crone.

“Oh, God help us,” gasped Francesca, startled. She backed away from the screen. “How did you get inside the fence?”

“My dear,” said the crone, “if you haven’t yet grasped my nature, then I suppose I must put on a show-and-tell.” And then, a hiccup in the atmosphere, and the world went black for several seconds. The wings of some massive creature seemed to beat the window glass—perhaps even broke it, for Francesca felt battered, herself, by draughts of air.

And then her vision returned, and she was in a dark corridor lined, as in a gallery, by the spreadeagled bodies she’d seen in her late mother’s notebook. They seemed to be behind glass screens, yet these were close enough to touch. She saw the chained wrists, the bloody flowers sprouting from between their legs. Their chins were still pointed skyward; she still couldn’t see their faces. They were broken, headless rusalki.

But now, come to life, they were no longer silent. As she passed each one, she heard a screech like a barn-owl’s, trailing from a desperate peak to a hot and panting echo that seemed to pass up through her and braid itself with her own entrails.

The sound was horrifying. But if her first instinct, earlier, had been panic, her impulse now was anger. Why must the crone always be looking to trap her?

“Mother!” she cried, furious—and she didn’t know if she meant Julia or the crone.

“Motherrrr!” She felt her voice trailing off, the tears rising. She looked, in vain, for something she could lean on.

But just then she heard another noise: the busy, fussy trilling of that familiar Texas warbler, the mockingbird. The thing was hovering in front of her face, its tail feathers trembling. It looked toward the screens of rusalki and then back at her, urgently repeating the same phrase.

She couldn’t help herself. Her face cracked in a laugh. It was the sheer incongruity.

You laugh! said a trilling voice. The sad girl laughs.

“Yes—yes, I’m laughing,” said Francesca.

Then the spell is broken. Do you feel it?

“I don’t know.”

Obstinate girl. Now do you? Another blink, and the gallery was gone, and she was back in Miss Clara’s spare room, conversing with a mockingbird that hopped along the sill.

You’re a nervous little one, said the trilling, but you’re not your mother. Go now!

“You mean leave?”

Yes! This is just a waystation. You won’t find rescue here.

The little bird was singing, fit to burst. The noise itself drove her from the room.

She found herself weaving through the kitchen, speaking words of reassurance. She was just popping back to her own house, she told them, now that the rain had stopped—so that she could get dry clothes of her own. She reached up to give Marco a hug. They would keep in touch, she told him; she would make sure he got rehired or maybe even help him get set up in business. There would be time for all of it—for whatever he wanted, whatever she decided.

And she meant it. She could reason with her father, the sad monster. Her mother’s nightmares were not her own.

She let herself out the little house’s front door, still chuckling.


Cara Diaconoff is the author of Unmarriageable Daughters: Stories and a novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You. She has taught writing and literature as a Peace Corps volunteer at Russian institutes, at Southern Methodist University and Whitman College, and currently at Bellevue College, near Seattle.

The Best Detective There Was

by Leila Alliu

            The name “Richard Strong” until recently was never that popular as far as detectives went. It was a gradual growth of interest, however, when three years ago, the publication of Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes as well as the Whitechapel murders in 1888 gave the British public a sort of morbid fascination with crime. I found more and more people became familiar with Detective Strong (the name I go by) as everyone wanted to know the whereabouts of everyone in their circle. I will not complain — I find keeping a job to be rather convenient, thank you very much. It was only in the past year where I received an influx of new customers.

            Like Holmes, I am a private investigator. I do not associate with organisations. Therefore what you will see is the product of my intellect alone. I begin my story with the introduction of a woman known as Mrs. Frederica Barker looking for her husband, who had gone missing.

            “Are you Mr. Strong?” She asked at my doorstep. The poor girl was young, around two and twenty, and in such a state of fright when I first beheld her. She was clutching her handkerchief to her heart in a shaking gloved hand.

            “That is certainly the name on my postbox,” I responded with a slight grin. “May I ask who you are?”

She introduced herself, and I received her into my home and had her tell me every bit of information she could give.

            “He works with Scotland Yard,” she said as she gently dabbed her eyes with the  handkerchief. “About five days ago, George told me he would only be gone for a little while. I pressed him that he might tell me where he would be off to, and after such a long while of my begging, he told me he was after some murderer. I asked nothing more after that, only that he may be careful. And now he’s gone!” She let out a quiet sob “He said he would be gone for three days at most and I still haven’t heard from him! Oh, Mr. Strong, please help me find where my George is!”

            I gave her a reassuring smile. “I will do my best, my dear. All I need now is some time and a confirmation that you have told me everything.” I glanced down at my notes to make sure I had everything she told me.

            “Yes, that is everything. Quite everything. I’m so sorry I haven’t anything more to tell you, but I couldn’t ask where he may be — I didn’t want to know about it.”

            “Completely understandable,” I assured.

            “Can you really begin an investigation with so little information? I’ve told you barely anything. And if George is in danger…”

            “You musn’t worry about such things, Mrs. Barker. Bad for the health. I’ve solved investigations with much less evidence before.”

            “Oh, thank you, Mr. Strong! Thank you!”

            “You’re very welcome, my dear.” I led the trembling girl to the door. “I will write to you should any breaking event occur. In the meantime, rest assured that a professional will be looking for your husband.”

            She smiled- a gentle, graceful smile, and left with a little more confidence in her step.

            A week passed from this meeting until I met with her again, to my surprise. You see, I hadn’t asked her to visit, but the girl took it upon herself to come back and ask herself! I swallowed my anger allowing her in, and attempted with all my might to keep my impatience in check. I admit I might not have been very good at it, because as we spoke her demeanour slowly changed from excitedly asking about how far I had gone in the investigation to becoming more shy, reserved, and might I say, frightened. I almost said it served the girl right- she had no right to barge in on such pressing matters.

            “Have you any other clients you are assisting?” She asked, eyeing me.

            “None at all. Your case is all I have at the moment, and I am working with all due diligence.”

            “But again, Mr. Strong, you haven’t told me what you’ve found.”

            It was at this moment where I almost, and I say almost, snapped. However, I managed to only take a deep breath.

            “The information I have gathered at the moment is not fully conclusive, and I don’t wish to give you any false hopes.”

            “Oh,” she said, almost sinking into herself. “If that is all then. And I forgot to say, I’ve been speaking with the colleagues of my husband at Scotland Yard, and they have also looked into the circumstances into his disappearance. Nothing has been found yet, but how wonderful is it that we can have more help?”

            This was it- the moment I have had enough.

            “That was not necessary whatsoever, Mrs. Barker, not necessary at all,” I firmly stated. Her face fell. “I have told you time and time again that I require no assistance, and that I will inform you of anything in the case, and yet you decide to show up unannounced anyway! I must bid you good day, Mrs. Barker, before you take it upon yourself to continue the investigation yourself.”

            She cocked her head, her eyebrows furrowed.

            “I haven’t-”

            “Good day, Mrs. Barker. You know the exit.”

            She slowly rose and led herself out the door like a child after a chastisement. But after recklessly intruding on my investigation, I suppose I had to say such. I listened to the door quietly shut and reveled in the silence to follow.

            I did not hear from Mrs. Barker after that. It was easy to guess she was not happy with the work I had done with her case, and turned to Scotland Yard. I dropped the case entirely and decided that Mr. Barker was dead.

            A few more days passed from that fateful meeting. I continued with my work, accepting new clients as time moved on. To lose one was a disappointment, I admit, but not the end of the world. There always seemed to be someone going missing, therefore a detective such as myself would not be out of work for long.

            There was a part of me that was tempted to go to Scotland Yard and ask after that case. I wondered if they had gotten any farther. I thought it impossible, though stranger things have happened. I decided not to, however. I mean it once more that I do not enjoy associating with organisations such as that one, and I was not planning on beginning over a singular grieving widow.

            I was sitting in my home and reviewing a case when I heard a knock at the door. I can still hear that knock.

            Upon opening the door, I found a constable with an officer behind him. The grave faces on the both of them could have silenced a party.

            “Mr. John Coleridge,” the constable announced. “You are under arrest for the murder of Richard Strong one year ago, as well as Mr. George Barker and several other victims.”

            You see, I had never stated my name was Richard Strong. It was easy to get rid of him and take over the business- he had no one living with him and no acquaintances close enough to recognize the change between us, poor man.

            But therein lied the question of how people would go to me to solve their disappearances. I had underestimated the amount of people in need of a detective. Therefore, I may as well do the work I had done before with Mr. Strong, and bring the clients towards me. No one seemed to recognize the fact that every person that had gone to me left with the knowledge their loved one had died.

            One man “fell off his horse” as he was travelling a great distance, and I was the one to inform his grieving sister. Another “was caught in a fire,” I am afraid, and your son, madam, did not make it.

            I had no regrets for my work; a man is to make a living. But when a certain second-born nobleman who shall remain nameless went to me to do the same thing I have been doing to people for months, then I decided my wages could be far better made. More and more people of rank came to me with their “problems,” and I would be the unfortunate detective that would discover that, oh dear, your poor brother has drowned! Yes, sir, it is an unfortunate tragedy, and without an heir besides yourself as well! No one would question them, and when I walked away with my payment, I forgot their face and name entirely.

            But it was that girl. That nosy, irritating girl that had ruined it all by having friends with the police. I should have been angry, infuriated, out for blood, and in a way, I was. But I could not help being impressed. After all this time of my creating my own disappearances, she found me out herself.

            And now here I was. Caught.

            “Gentlemen,” I said with a cool smile growing over my face. “You will witness no resistance from me.”


Leila Alliu is a history enthusiast, focusing on fashion history, who has spent years studying and making her own garments of the past. When she is not doing this, she is usually reading classic literature and writing stories inspired by novels of that genre. After six years of short stories, poems, and even a novel of her own, she wrote this story as an acknowledgement to her love of history and the gothic mystery genre. Leila has also been published in the Copperfield Review Quarterly with her short story “Suffragette.” She can be found on Instagram @victorian.historian, where she displays her works of historical fashion and discusses and posts about her favorite books.

Selling Out the Nation

By Stephanie Daich

I stared at the bank foreclosure. “I’m sorry, Dad.” Four generations had successfully farmed my land. Not only did I control the largest farms in the Midwest, but I also owned a legacy. Of course, I didn’t have to lose it. The government made that clear with its deceitful proposition. But could I ruin our nation to save my farm?

I picked up a handful of miniature microchips about the size of a strawberry seed.

My daughter Grace entered the kitchen, and I quickly stuffed the microchips into my pocket. She had prominent bags under her eyes, dark and sorrowful like a middle-aged man would have, not a young girl in her prime.

“Is this my last day at school?” she asked behind sniffles.

I couldn’t look at her. Tomorrow, the police would escort us off our property. If I didn’t team up with the corrupt government with their plan, that was. I put my hand in my pocket and fingered the little microchips.

“Please, Dad, tell me you found a way to save our home.” She bent forward into my face. Her long hair draped over my shoulders.

“Grace, let’s go,” my wife Samantha said as she walked into the kitchen. She looked more emotionally wrecked than Grace.

“Please, Dad, tell me you found a way to save our home.”

“He could save it if he just went into business with the government.” Samantha opened the cupboard, pulled out two glasses, then slammed the cupboard shut. I jumped. “But he has too much pride. He would rather lose his great-great-great-granddad’s land than go into business with anyone.” She banged the glasses on the cupboard.

She didn’t know what the government intended to do. She believed it was just a partnership, an expansion.

“Such pride.”

It tore me apart to see my family so unhappy.

“Fine, I’ll do it.”

Grace threw her arms around my neck. “Really, Dad, really?”

I couldn’t look at her or Samantha. They didn’t realize what they were asking of me. Selfishly, I would save our home, but I would screw the nation.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,” Samantha said as she filled the cups with orange juice. She didn’t hug me. We had way too much tension between us for that. She handed a cup to Grace and with her free hand, grabbed her keys.

“Let’s go,” she said with a much happier tone.

“Thanks again, Dad,” Grace said as she left the kitchen, blowing me a kiss.

I ripped up the foreclosure letter. I thought it would bring satisfaction, but it didn’t. I called Josh from the Government office. “Fine, I’ll sign,”

“I knew you would come to your senses.”

I hung up on him.

I pulled the microchips out of my pocket. Within the year, these would be enlaced in all my produce. I would keep a section of my farm untainted, only for Samantha, Grace, and me to eat from. And within the year, the rest of the nation would succumb to ultimate government control.

But at least I saved the farm.


What transpires when Stephanie Daich observes life? She creates stories. What happens when you read her stories? Your imagination explodes. Stephanie Daich works in corrections and writes for the human experience. Publications include Making Connections, Youth Imaginations, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Kindness Matters, and others.

The Scarecrow Cross

by Erik Priedkalns

           Along Shuka River’s edge, around Nishinomiya, Japan, solemn stone walls coldly sit on either side of the narrow river’s flowing waters. The walls cast shadows on the grassy strips, separating them from the river. Above the walls and river, the town sits. On the east side, across from the stores, apartments and houses, there is a red dirt path that runs the length of the river. On the path, walkers walk, runners run, and bikers scoot up and down.

            On weekends, in the unbearable heat and humidity of the summer months, families pitch little tents and eat and drink, throw balls back and forth, swim, and enjoy the time.

            On rainy days, the water picks up speed as it comes down from the mountains above the town. There are cute little cartoon signs that warn children of the danger of flood waters. They show screaming children in their baseball hats and school backpacks fleeing a torrent of roaring water.

            Along the path you come across the occasional park bench, tree, shrubs, or wildflower gardens. Sometimes you find old stone markers, statues, or signs. Nothing really explains why things are where they are. They are just there.

            On a certain day last July, if you were on the path, just a kilometer or so from the Shukugawa train station, you may have seen her; an old Japanese lady, not an inch more than four feet tall, shuffling her way to a certain spot.

            The lady is about eighty-five years old. You probably notice the strange roller coaster rise at the top of her back and realize she can barely look up, so she just looks down at her feet. Her gray hair is tied back in a bun. She wears grey, light cotton pants that stop at her calves, and a grey jinbei top.

            The old Japanese woman, her name is Mayumi, gets passed on the path by a mother on a bicycle. The mother on the bicycle politely rings her bell to let Mayumi know she is passing. Mayumi steps to her right, and the mother on the bicycle does a quick bow of her head.

            The mother has auburn red, dyed hair and is in her thirties. She wears a white, cotton, short-sleeved blouse and a flower covered, black skirt that goes down to her ankles. Her name is Chie.

            Chie has a newborn baby, about five months old, in a pouch on her chest. The baby’s body and face are pressed against her chest. A little straight-haired, four-year-old boy wearing a yellow baseball cap and red shirt is on the back seat. Mayumi hears them talking in serious tones. Mom speaks to the boy without mocking baby talk.

            Mayumi smiles and says out loud, to herself, “The baby will soon get a seat on the bicycle, but the press of the body will stay on mama’s chest.“She remembers her mother telling her that she spoiled her little girl too much by showing too much affection and protection. “They need to be taught to stand alone,” her iron-stern mother said.

            Mayumi watches the mother on the bicycle until she disappears into the line of the horizon.

*          *          *

            Chie breathes heavily. Her puffy white knees pop out of her long skirt’s front slit each time she pedals. She tries to cover her legs because she does not want them to burn. Chie slows a bit because the rays of the sun are burning her face. She stops and pulls an orange baseball hat from her purse.

            Chie is careful not to bounce the little baby on her chest because she is asleep. All my padding is still left from when she was born, Chie thinks. Time for a diet.

            “Why did we stop? asks the little boy.

            “I’m putting on my hat, don’t you see? You ask silly questions.”


            Chie’s beliefs are old. She feels bad for scolding the boy, but he needs to learn how to pay attention.

            To her right, Chie notices a black, wrought iron fence around a marble, grey stone statue. The statue is about two meters high and is pentagon in shape. The black fence bars are each speared at the top, and the black color of the bars is dull and peeling in places. This is the first time they have ridden the bike this far up the river.

            Just beyond the statue, there is a growth of three gnarled, knotted trees. The trees are hunched over. Their leaves are dark green on top and mint green underneath. Under the rough shadowy circle of trees, tall grass and wildflowers are growing. The grass and flowers all lean in towards something pink.

            Chie starts to walk with the bicycle towards the trees. As she gets closer, she thinks she sees a little girl in the middle of the tree circle. She sees a pink flowery summer top, a yellow straw brimmed hat, and a baby-blue skirt. The wildflowers surrounding the feet are red, orange, and purple.

            Chie moves closer. She sees that the figure is not a little girl, it’s just some clothes draped on two sticks, one vertical, and near the top the other is horizontal, like a Christian’s cross.

            Little girl scarecrow, Chie thinks. She says a quick prayer. The trees are watching like loyal dogs.

            “What is that?” asked the little boy.

            This time the Chie does not respond. She studies the figure, looking for a reason as to why it is here.

            She notices a small bottle of soda and dead, dry flower stems at the foot of the cross.

            “What is that?” asks the little boy again.

            Chie gently shushes him. “A little girl,” she says in a half-whisper.

*          *          *

            As Mayumi moves along, she shifts her bag from her left to right hand. The little red purse she brought jiggles around the inside of her bag. She sings a made-up song in her head, the same one she used to sing to her daughter.

Make sure your daughter is pretty,

cute like a little doll,

cute shoes, cute tops, cuteness all because of love.

*          *          *


            Chie hears her son but does not respond. She studies the kaleidoscope of flowers surrounding the girl’s little skirt. A zinging coldness springs out of Chie’s stomach and spreads through her entire body. Her throat tightens and fills with sadness.

            What’s wrong with you? She asks herself. It’s probably just a child’s robot, or imaginary friend. But the thing stuck in her throat won’t swallow away. At the corner of her eyes, and along the bottom rim, she feels sharp nips as tears start taking shape. Silly woman, she scolds herself, don’t blink.

            She can hear the river. It is so small and slow it barely makes a noise.

*          *          *

            Mayumi takes a break and sits on a bench. She watches all the children running up and down the trail and splashing in the water.

            She thinks about the thigh-high child she saw wandering alone in the store today. He was a little boy about four years old. He was wearing rubber sandals, a blue baseball shirt and blue shorts. She asked him his name, but he wasn’t paying attention because he was talking to his hands. As Mayumi was about to ask him where his parents were, she heard a woman’s voice call a name from across the store. You could barely hear the voice among all the other voices, but the little boy looked up and started walking towards the sound.

*          *          *

            Chie nudges her bike up to the iron fence. She takes her son out of the seat. He grabs the iron bars with both hands and rocks back and forth.

            “Is she a scarecrow?” he asks.

            “Shush,” says Chie, “do you see any crows?”

            “Maybe she scared them away,” says the little boy.

            Chie just stares at the figure. Her son starts walking around the fence surrounding the stone.

            “Lift your feet up when you walk,” Chie says absent-mindedly.

            Each time he passes, his hand brushes the back of her legs just above the knees. His touch is electric and bounces her breath each time.

            Where was she going? Chie wonders. She turns and looks to the river below. It’s only about four meters wide, and maybe two meters deep. The rocks in the river are covered with moss and are very slippery. Chie shivers a bit, turns away from the river, and looks back to the stone and the little girl.

            Her son’s small hand brushes the side of her leg as he makes another pass. The touch pulls all the strength from her legs.

*          *          *

            Mayumi gazes at the water. It is so calm today, she thinks. It is calm almost every day of the year. She closes her eyelids as the sun’s reflection skips off the water.

            Mayumi remembers that day with her daughter. It was at a spot just up the river a bit.

            “Stay close,” she had said to the little girl, “I just need to get some bread.”

            “Yes,” her daughter promised. She was four and had a bad memory. She had straight, black hair that was cut to the base of her neck and hung in a razor straight line just above her eyes.

            Mayumi watched her skip/run towards the river. The river was loud and fast that day. There had been heavy rain during the last week.

            “Not too close,” she shouted to the little girl.

            The girl turned and said something. Mayumi couldn’t hear her over the sounds of the cars and water. She turned towards the store. It was getting close to sundown, and she needed to hurry to get home and make dinner. As she opened the door to the bakery, she heard the little bell on the door tinkle. She gazed at the pastries, buns, muffins, and bread behind the glass. Mayumi still remembers exactly how the bakery smelled that day.

            Mayumi gets up off the old bench and starts walking. Not much further she thinks.

            She sighs. She can remember the bakery smell, but she has started to forget her daughter’s smell. Before she left the house this morning, as she was busy gathering up the incense sticks, chocolate pieces and the little red purse, she pulled out one of her daughter’s old shirts. She had to be careful, because it was so old it felt as though it would crumble under her touch. She put it near her nose, but the smell was gone.

            Mayumi knows her daughter had a smell, a little sour and a little sweet, but she could no longer bring its details to memory.

*          *          *

            Where was the little girl going? Chie wonders. Was she wearing that hat?

            The baby wiggles a bit but stays asleep. Chie feels her puffy cheek rub her breast. She rubs the baby’s tiny back.

            The little boy runs back and forth on the trail.

            Chie looks down to the river and frowns. She knows that occasionally it swells and runs violently down this bed. On those days, she doesn’t let her son go to the river, even though some of his friends get to go.

            Maybe the sounds of the river and world killed the mother’s call? Chie thinks. Nonsense. You don’t even know if it was the river. Stop this thinking.

            Chie is struck with a strange feeling, like a warning, and looks around to find her son. She sees his red tee-shirt disappearing up the trail. “Jiro,” she calls, but he doesn’t stop. She sighs, gets on her bike, and starts peddling after him. She catches him not far away.

            “You should never leave me like that, and when I tell you to stop, you must stop,” she says sternly.

            “I’m sorry,” he says.

            “Let’s sit on the grass a little. Mama is tired.”

            The boy sits next to her and lays his head on her thigh. She feels the weight get heavier as he gradually falls asleep. She puts her palm on his warm, red face. The little baby wakes up briefly, tilts back her head, and looks at Chie with tiny, groggy, brown eyes. A smile materializes from the little face. She smacks her lips and falls asleep again. Chie bows her head down and kisses the top of the baby’s head. A milky sweet smell fills Chie’s nose.

            She looks over to the little girl. Through an opening in the circle of trees, Chie can see the figure clearly. She closes her eyes for a moment and then opens them. She sees a bent over, old woman, with a bag in her hand, walk to the trees and to the little girl. It’s the same woman Chie remembers passing earlier.

            The woman puts down the bag and wipes the back of her hand across her forehead. She takes out some incense sticks, puts them in the ground and lights them. She then reaches into her purse and pulls out some little, shiny objects and scatters them around the base of the little girl. Finally, Chie sees the woman take out a little girl’s red purse and put it on the horizontal stick.

            The old woman puts down the bag and touches the palms of her hands together in front of her chest. She stays like that for a long time.

            Chie understands.

*          *          *

            Mayumi stares at the little pieces of silver-wrapped chocolate at her daughter’s feet.

            She remembers the exact moment her own spirit vanished. It was gone after thirty-two minutes. She remembers the instant the sun went down and her hope for a good life disappeared. After thirty-two minutes of searching, she knew everyone could stop. The line from her heart to her daughter snapped, and Mayumi knew what that snapping meant.

            And at that exact moment. . . .

            Mayumi walks over to a park bench, as everything comes back once again. She sits with a heavy drop. The bench creaks.

            At that exact moment, she thinks. She has tried to put it in words for forty years.

*          *          *

            Chie sees the old woman walk over to a park bench and sit down heavily. From afar, the rise at the top of the woman’s back seems to be pushing her body down, and it looks as if the woman is about to topple over.

            Suddenly, Chie feels the weight of her son lift off her leg. She sees his head pop up.          “Look mama, the woman.”

            He springs up and starts to move to the woman. Chie’s hand shoots towards him. She grabs his arm, and feels her fingers and nails sink into the flesh.

            “No,” she says firmly. “Why do you want to bother the woman and the little girl?”

            He looks surprised, and his eyes water a bit. Chie loosens her grip, just a little.

*          *          *

            Mayumi sees the little boy in the red shirt start to get up. The young mother’s hand catches him.

*          *          *

            Maybe it would be okay if she let the little boy come over, thinks Mayumi.

*          *          *

            Chie wonders if she should let the little boy go. No, she thinks, he will just make it harder.

            She turns back to the river and stares at the cold stone wall across the way.

*          *          *

            Everyone had tried to get Mayumi to stop coming here, but she was stubborn. She would never leave the place that brutalized her every day. Even her husband tried to make her give it up. He tried for years, and it made her so angry. “Heartless one,” she’d say. Then he died, and she couldn’t tell him sorry.

*          *          *

            The little boy sits down next to Chie and takes her hand. He puts his face into her palm and nuzzles it with his little nose. Chie feels the warm breath, and the tickle of his nose on the most sensitive spot of her palm, where the lifelines meet and cross.

            She jumps a little when she feels the tips of his bangs move lightly across her wrist.

            She sees the crescent indentations of her nail marks on his arm.

            She feels like a fool when the clinging tears finally drop.

            “What’s wrong?” says the little boy.  

            He gets no response.

*          *          *

            Mayumi sees the little boy take mama’s hand and touch it with his face.

            She sees mama’s head bow to the ground.

            Chie looks away and turns to the river.

            At that exact moment, she thinks.

            For forty years, every single moment, down to the second, has felt like a 5 p.m. on a Sunday night in January, when it gets so dark, cold, and lonely, and nobody is around, and you try to think about getting through another week, while you sit in your house and feel like everything is crumpling around you into pure pitch black, and you cannot go to sleep because there is so much time left in the day, and you wonder what the rest of the world is doing, you look outside, but you cannot see anything outside and all you see is you and the room you are in and it looks like a faded picture from a photograph in a magazine, and your only thought is “my god, morning will be back again.”

            And you bargain with whatever god will do the trick. You plead for the little one to keep living on. And every day your prayers and grief pour out.

            Mayumi built the little girl on the cross ten days after it happened. She remembers how they all watched her with sorrowful eyes as she put the stick into the ground, tied the cross-stick at the top, and hung her daughter’s picture where the two sticks met.

            And every day for forty years she has begged the little stick figure girl to come alive, fill up the clothes and get off.

*          *          *

            “You’re spoiling her,” Mayumi imagines her mother would say. “For forty years, that’s all you have done.”

            At that exact moment.

            Mayumi hums her daughter’s song.

            For forty years every day, she’s hung her life on the Little Girl, Scarecrow Cross.


Erik Priedkalns is an attorney (non-practicing by choice) who grew up in Thousand Oaks, California. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in English with a creative writing emphasis. Currently he lives in a small farming town on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan with his wife and dog. He hopes to one day become a farmer himself. His extremely limited Japanese gives him motivation to write, and say everything he wants to say to the people around but cannot. He has found endless writing material in the country, writing about the people and the surrounding countryside. He believes everything here has a story, and that the forests, trees, rocks, and streams all speak if you listen closely enough.


By Shae Krispinsky

You guess it was the chocolate you ate several hours before,
a half of a square of the $25-bar that tasted like chalk and grass
and off-brand M&Ms that always remained uneaten at the bottom
of Halloween buckets that imbued the night with wonder and
significance, a heft to the grey clouds, impending storm, as you
rode shotgun on the way to get better chocolate, the real
thing crushed up and blended, served upside down in a cup, its
immobile red plastic spoon proving its thickness, a treat that felt necessary.

It had been a long, hard week in a long, hard year and a half.
Surely there was some form of deservedness at play. What you want
is what you need, a phrase you often recalled and feared, those two nodes
oppositional throughout most of your life. Did you, in fact, need
a Blizzard? Did you, in fact, need anything? Were you not just talking
earlier in the day about how evolved you were as a human? How you
had leveled-up, now out of the messy cesspool of one’s id? And yet,
ice cream, candy, in a paper cup.

And you sit, waiting, in the drive-thru, the last lingering light
of the day gets pushed aside, smothered, by greyer, thicker clouds.
Palm fronds shudder, birds fly for safety, a man in khaki shorts
approaches, hand out. You see without seeing. You see without
being seen. How easy to pretend—non-existence. Car inches forward,
cash handed over, change thrown in the cup holder next to the e-brake,
two sweating, frozen treats in hand, mission accomplished. Onward.

To a red light next to a gas station. A gas station with a barber’s shop inside,
its door open, fluorescent lights on, two chairs, one taken by a man. A woman
with bleached hair circles around him, arms swooping down with scissors
and comb in hand, the precisely practiced movements of her trade. From afar,
she looks young. Does anyone grow up wishing to be a stylist in a gas station?
Does anyone even consider that such things exist? The local Qwik-Stop or Kangaroo
could be a community’s hub—why not? Except here there are two on every block,
the community never grounds itself but shifts by the season or semester.

You think about the stylist with the platinum bob and chiseled arms and black
denim pants well after the light turns green, well after you’re on the interstate,
well after it starts to rain then stops. You imagine an honor to her life you
most likely will never know for your own. Would she offer the same assessment?
We’re all blind to the wonders of ourselves. We’re too close. We only feel
the struggle, the exhaustion. Across the city, the streetlamps have started
turning purple. You know this means they’re dying, but what a beautiful way to go.


Sit still in silence. Receive. Art
is not meant to be easy.
            There is no valor in suffering. I drink
            from the fount of joy. I seduce
            he muse and allow her to seduce me.
My mind is my muse, and I am in control.
Breathe in and out. Following the breath, I am
contained. I am a container.
            Restraint only restrains. Creation ought to be
            an explosion, a flood, quivering and pulsing
            and throbbing with beauty.
Oh, beauty—the lure for the simple mind.
            If that is true, then fuck: I’ll bite. Until
            my lips become a sieve, until my teeth chip
            away like ice. I refuse to be starved, while you—
I? I refuse to eat. I have raised myself
beyond all that.
            —all you know is hunger.
Yes, please. The hunger satiates.


Shae Krispinsky lives in Tampa, FL, where she fronts the band, Navin Avenue, whose sound she describes as Southern Gothic 70s-arena indie rock with a pop Americana twist. In 2022, she released her band’s first album, A Little Warming, as well as her debut novel, Like Lightning. She is currently at work on her band’s second album, her second novel, and a poetry chapbook. Shae is also a photographer, tarot reader, and janky baker. Find her at https://www.instagram.com/dearwassily/.

Father’s Day

By Kate E. Lore

            Maybe for father’s day I could rent a boat and take him out to the lake. We could go fishing like we did when I was a kid. Maybe I could introduce him to Columbus, and Cincinnati the way he showed my Chicago. Maybe I’ll stick to cities with C’s to start; Cleveland, Charlotte, Colorado Springs. Maybe he’d have flown out to see me read my work at Corpus Christi for Texas A&M University. Maybe he would have felt proud to watch me win first place. Maybe it would make up for that time in middle school when I tied for second place with Power of the Pen. He lived within walking distance. But I didn’t invite him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to go, it’s just that I hadn’t heard from him in so long. I guess I’d gotten too used to his absence. Like now.

            Once when I was working at Mc Donald’s, my first job, second year, I was seventeen, I saw a man who looked like him, like my father. My heart leapt up so high in my throat it choked me with shock. Without thinking I rushed out from behind the counter, and through the door. I chased this man to the edge of the parking lot. He turned around. A stranger.

            It never happened again. I don’t even double take anymore. I’ve gotten used to his absence.

            If my father were alive he would have gone to my high school graduation. If he could. If my father were alive he might have gone to my community college graduation, watched me get an associates degree, watched me get my bachelors degree, maybe I’d invite him here to see me receive a masters. Maybe he’d stay off heroin for good. Maybe he’d get his life together. Maybe he’d get back together with Karen and we could go fishing again at that pond by her condo where I once caught a carp. Where I once went swimming with my friends.

            Once I saw him in a dream. My father. I kept asking why I hadn’t seen him in so long. He wouldn’t tell me why. He kept changing the subject, shifting the way dreams do, morphing again and again into something else. When I woke up I remembered. A cold shock of water. I remembered his absence.

            Maybe if my father were alive I wouldn’t have made such bad choices. Maybe if my father were alive my sister would be better adjusted now as an adult. Maybe her anxiety would ease like a slow release of air. Less pressure. Maybe if my father were alive I’d have asked him for his advice on Los Angelis. What to see and do in this non-C city? Maybe I’d tell him about my professors, maybe I’d tell him about my friends, that one homeless guy, that one ex, her, him, them. Maybe I’d tell him about you.

            Maybe I’d answer the phone every time he called me no matter what. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing. Maybe I’d never turn my phone off. Maybe I’d keep the volume up, always, no matter what. Maybe I’d keep it on vibrate too. Maybe I’d carry a battery pack. Extra charger. Maybe I’d make up for that period of time in which I refused to speak to him. That long never goodbye. The silence that grew and grew and became forever. A silence so long I can scarcely remember the sound of him. An absence gotten used to.

            Maybe If my father were alive we’d have a huge graduation party and invite over all our family and friends. We’d plan it over the phone. Maybe we’d face time, months of arrangements and research. Maybe we’d fight about the theme. Maybe I’d want to keep it simple but he’d want more. Maybe we’d compromise and settle on a cookout by the lake. A fish fry. Maybe the charcoal would burn too hot and our smoke would bellow up into the sky, a trail, a cloud of silver lining, something to be seen from Cleveland, from Chicago, like a flag of pride, a boast, a scream. Maybe we’d run and charge like there was never anything to fear in the first place, no reason to avoid, nothing to make up for, maybe we’d jump out so far and so wide each splash was an explosion, each wave tidal, something louder than a phone call, an absence that could never be missed. Water like a river running for millions of years carving deep into the earth the words we never said, the words we owe each other, I’m sorry where it can never be missed, never forgotten.


Kate E Lore is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. With many publications in both genres, Kate has been featured in Orsum magazine, and Longridge Review. Originally from Dayton Ohio, Kate is currently earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Miami University. Kate got her bachelor’s from The Ohio State University.

A jack-of-all-trades Kate splits her time up between fiction and nonfiction, screenplays, flash prose, full-length novels, painting, and comics.

Kate is openly queer and neurodivergent. She grew up the youngest of four, scraping by on low income, raised by a single widowed mother.

Kateelore.com, @kateelore (Twitter), kate.e.lore (Instagram), https://www.facebook.com/writerlore/

A Cat in a Box for Mom

by Joe Cappello

The Zabretti family stood in front of the coffin staring at the body of their mother. She was dressed in a pink, shift dress with a hodgepodge floral design, resembling a mini tornado that touched down below her waist. She wore a white head band with the words “Peace and Love” printed on it in blue letters next to the outline of a dove. Strands of white hair stuck out over the top of it.

Marion Zabretti shivered from the air conditioning that made the viewing room colder than it had to be. The sickly-sweet scent of flowers and sight of her mother looking like a hippy manikin turned her stomach. But as the oldest Zabretti, she felt she should be the one to say if her mother’s coffin should be opened or closed for the viewing. Her younger brother, Salvatore, (“Torre” for short) and youngest sister, Luce, had other ideas.

“I say we vote on it,” offered Torre. He leaned over to get a closer look at his mother’s head band. “Did people actually wear stuff like that in the 60s?”

“That and love beads and they stuck flowers in the hair, flower children they called themselves.” Marion shook her head. “Mom was a piece of work alright.”

“So, are we going to vote or what?” Luce folded her arms rubbing her bare arms with the palms of her hands. She wore a sleeveless black dress and matching low heel pump shoes. Her brown hair hung in curls around her face giving her a slight retro look. “Because if we are, I vote to leave it open.”

“Are you serious with this dress?” said Marion ignoring her. “It barley reaches her knees. And that headband…” She leaned over the coffin carefully as though coming too close would soil her pricey high-waisted trouser pants and snow-white blouse.

“Don’t rag on me,” said Luce. “Mom wanted to be buried in the dress she wore at that Democratic Convention in Chicago ‘68… ‘stickin’ it to the man’ as she liked to say.” Marion bent over the coffin getting an even closer look, her parted black hair falling in front of her face which she quickly brushed away.

“Let’s stay focused, Marion,” said Luce. “We’re supposed to be deciding if we should leave the coffin open or not. I vote yes. How about you, Torre?”

“I don’t care one way or the other.” Torre shrugged. Marion frowned as she took in her brother’s appearance. His wrinkled gray trousers and navy-blue sport coat didn’t quite match. She winced at the sight of a multi-colored tie around his neck, which she considered most inappropriate for a funeral. She turned down his collar to cover the exposed tie and centered the knot on it.

“Thanks, mom,” Torre said, beaming a child-like warmth that made Marion crack a smile.

“Never mind.” She patted his cheek, then turned away abruptly.

“Okay. I vote we close it,” said Marion.

“It’s a tie.”

“Not really, Luce. Tie goes to the oldest. We close it.” Luce opened her mouth to say something but Marion cut her off.

“Look at this carpet. What was the color supposed to be…maroon? It looks like dried blood from a crime scene.” She scraped at it with the sole of one of her leather ballet shoes. “And these shit-colored, brown walls and those things passing for drapes in front of the windows look more like burlap sacks. Did you have to have the wake here?” Luce rubbed her arms more vigorously.

“Baldoni’s has buried Zabretti’s as far back as I can remember,” said Luce.

“Did you ever think it might be time for a change?” Marion’s dark eyes narrowed. She lowered her voice. “Did you ever consider cremation? We could have sprinkled her ashes over the marijuana plants she had growing in the back yard. Mom would have loved that. Honestly, I wish you would have checked with me before you did all this.”

Johnny Squitera, Luce’s husband, a short man with a barrel chest, drew closer to Luce and Marion. He cleared his throat.

“Marion, we had to make decisions,” said Johnny, “so we did the best we could, we—”

“Hey, you all remember Beth, right?” said Marion cutting off Johnny and rubbing the shoulders of her partner standing next to her. A wisp of a woman with curly blonde hair and brown roots, Beth smiled slightly. “Show everyone the picture you brought with you.” Beth reached into her purse and produced a six by nine, color photo in a flat black frame. It showed Mary Zabretti standing on a boardwalk, her back to a sandy beach with white-capped ocean waves behind her.  She wore a tie die shirt, granny glasses and a wide brimmed straw hat. Two rainbow colored peace symbols hung from her ears.

“She looks great, doesn’t she?” said Marion. “Compliments of my Bethy over here.” Marion grabbed Beth’s cheeks and smooshed out her lips. “Where did you take that again, my little talented photographer?” Beth strained to speak through her scrunched lips.

“Jersey shore. Seaside I think,” she blurted.

 “Well, you are terrific at what you do even though you hardly make any money at it,” said Marion. She placed the photo on a pedestal next to the coffin in front of a bouquet of flowers. Her cell phone rang.

“Hello?” She lowered the phone. “Gotta take this call. Be right back.” She brought her face close to Beth’s ear. “Let me know if little sister over there brings up the will.”

Marion hurried back to the viewing room. She paused at the entrance to give her eyes time to adjust to the darkness that now hung over it like a dark cloud. She could see the curtains had been drawn to ward off the hot July sun. She sat next to Beth in the front row.

“Any news?” she asked.

“Nothing about a will,” said Beth. “Torre was just here talking about the house he is renovating in Pennsylvania. I didn’t know he moved to PA, did you?”

“No,” said Marion. “I thought he still lived with mom.”

“Not for a long time, he said. How come we didn’t know that?”

“I can’t picture the man leaving mom, never mind Jersey City, New Jersey.” Beth’s eyes widened as she pointed to the back of the room.

“Oh, and your sister, Luce, is back there, giving the funeral director hell.” She turned her body around indicating the back of the room.

“Mr. Baldoni, this light?” Luce indicated the light mounted on the podium at the entrance to the room. She pulled the chain repeatedly turning the incandescent bulb on and off.  “Did you buy it from Edison himself? I told you people who come to pay their respects will be old.” Mr. Baldoni’s bald head turned red and his jowls sagged lower than an old hound dog.  “They need a bright fluorescent light so they can see to sign the register. I paid for a podium with a bright light and that’s what I want.”

“Was she always like that?” asked Beth.

“Luce? Oh, yeah,” said Marion. “She was always little Miss Anal. Has to control everything. She not only dots I’s, she crosses T’s then nails people to them.” The old man shrugged.

“And when you’re finished with that, Mr. Baldoni,” continued Luce. “There, see? Back there.” She pointed to a row of chairs. “The third row. A few of the chairs are out of line. I said three perfectly straight rows. So, when you come back, I expect you to make that right.” She ran her hands over her bare arms, then placed her hands on her hips. “And turn that damn air conditioner down. Its colder than a morgue in here.” She took long, quick strides toward Marion and Beth and sat down with a huff.

“How many Zabretti’s has he buried? You’d think he’d know the drill by now,” she said.

“So, Luce, when did Torre move out of mom’s house?” asked Marion.

“I don’t know, years ago.”

“Okay, so you’re still around the corner form mom on Piersall, right?”

“No, we moved down the shore six years ago.”  Luce took a deep breath and pulled her black skirt over her knees. “So, when are you two gonna get married?” Marion and Beth exchanged glances.

“We are married,” said Marion.

“You’re kidding. When did that happen?”

“Three years ago,” said Beth. “At the bowling alley where we met.” She clasped her hands and squealed with delight.

“You know how Beth loves to bowl,” said Marion.

“No, I don’t and you actually had a wedding at a bowling alley?” Johnny and Torre heard the word “wedding” and instinctively joined the three.

“Did you say wedding? Who’s getting married?” Johnny sat next to his wife.

“These two,” said Luce. “Only they’re already married.”

“Oh,” said Torre, looking at Marion.

“Alright, look, we didn’t invite family, okay? Just a few friends,” said Marion.

“And my bowling team.” Beth’s eyes widened. “We bowled afterwards. Shot a 150. My personal best. Say, after this maybe we can all go bowling, Luce. I see there’s an alley here in your old neighborhood.”

“No thanks,” said Luce. “I haven’t been in that bowling alley since they found out the guy handing out shoes was a pedophile. He’s probably still there.”

“I remember him,” said Marion. “He was creeper than a graveyard at night.” Just then Johnny held his ears and began screaming.

“Ahhh.” He stood up rocking from side to side.

“Marion, what is wrong with you.” Luce grabbed Johnny’s wrist. “It’s all right, Johnny, everything’s okay, look at me…look at me,” she said, her voice thin and panicky.

“Sorry, Luce I forgot.” Luce placed her forehead on her husband’s while still holding his wrists. Their heads swung back and forth in unison. “It’s okay,” she said. “The bad lady said the bad words it will pass.” She turned on Marion. “You know he has a reaction to idiomatic phrases.”

“I…I…remember now, it just slipped.” Beth turned to Marion.

“What’s going on?”

“A crazy story,” said Marion. “Johnny works construction. About five years ago they were demolishing a small building. They were finishing up inside. As you can see, Johnny is a short guy. When the foreman went to do a head count, he missed Johnny. He must have been bending down or something, who knows. Anyway, they blew the damn thing up with him still inside.”

“That’s terrible. Was he hurt?”

“Minor injuries, except they noticed a little later that he went berserk if anyone used an idiom or expression like the one I just used.”

“That’s strange,” said Beth.

“Tell me about it. Doctors still can’t figure it out. He’s a rock star in the unclassified mental disorders community.” Marion noticed Johnny seemed to calm down. Luce started leading him by the hand to the exit.

“Wait a second, Luce.” Marion intercepted her sister. “Hate to bring this up but what about…you know…mom’s will?”

“We’re not talking about any will until the priest gets here.” She turned to go, then wheeled back on Marion. “And watch what the hell you say around my husband.”

The wake got underway at 2pm as scheduled. By two thirty the family was seated in the first row. Marion looked back at the three long rows of chairs made straight as an arrow by the cowered Mr. Baldoni. At that moment a woman entered the room. Bent over, strands of white hair barely covering her head, she pushed along a walker with four shiny chrome wheels and matching chrome hand brakes. An oxygen bottle sat in a bracket mounted on the walker’s left side; a clear plastic tube attached to the tank split into two smaller tubes visible in each of the woman’s nostrils. An “Eat my Dust” sign hung from the front seat.

 A large man with a perpetual grin followed the woman as she made her way to the coffin. She closed her eyes and mouthed a prayer. She placed her hand on the coffin then made her way to the Zabretti family who were now all on their feet.

“Hello,” she said stopping in front of Luce. “I’m Bernadette Cosimano, an old friend of your mom’s. So sorry.” Luce put her arm around the old woman.

“Thank you,” said Luce. Marion pointed to the sign.

“Nice sign,” she said. “Really cute.”

“Comes in handy.” Her eyes twinkled in an old cute person sort of way. “Especially when I have to haul ass for somethin’ I did at the home.” Luce laughed uncomfortably. Torre came to the rescue.

“Thanks for coming. How did you know our mom?”

“Oh, me and Mary go way back. Went to St. Paul’s on Greenville Avenue together. We were in the same class.”

“How sweet is that,” said Beth unconsciously massaging her bowling arm.

“Yup. Mary and I made our first communion together…sang in the choir…received confirmation…”

“Adorable,” said Luce shaking her head.

“Snuck our first cigarette in the girl’s bathroom. Nun smelled the smoke but couldn’t figure out who did it. She was madder than a pissed-on chicken.” Johnny fell back in his seat and instantly assumed a fetal position.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing, Mrs. Cosimano,” said Luce as she went to Johnny and began rubbing his temples. “Relax…relax…it’s okay,” she said. Mrs. Cosimano laughed.

“He looks like 90 percent of the people back at the home. Anyway, where was I?” She looked back at the large man, his hands folded in front of him still grinning.

“Smoking in the bathroom,” he said.

“Oh, right. Let’s see, we had our first drink together…” Luce stood up.

“Really, Mrs. Cosimano. That’s enough…”

“…And our first refer…”

“Don’t stop her, Luce, she’s on roll,” laughed Marion.

“Must have been 1966 or 67. Hell of a year, did lots of pot. Lots of cute boys were around then.” She smiled as she leaned over her walker. “We did them too.” Torre stifled a laugh. Beth swung her harm as though throwing a ball down an alley. Luce gave up and fell back on her chair.

“Well, sorry again for your loss. She was a great gal, kind with a sense of humor that would make a stone sculpture crack a smile.” Johnny moaned as he dropped his head in his hands. She pointed to the large man behind her. “He’s my ride. Gotta get back. I promised a gentleman caller I’d do him a favor.”  She winked at the group. “I’ll probably have to take my teeth out for that one.”

The afternoon wore on and only two more visitors showed. One was a woman who worked with Luce at the local motor vehicle agency. She brought a card signed by her other co-workers. Marion remarked to Beth that was much easier than actually showing up at the wake.

The next-door neighbor, a man in his 50s who mowed the lawn for Mary, stopped by to pay his respects and let everyone know he would no longer be cutting the lawn.

“I mean, who’s gonna pay me, right?” he remarked. Marion laughed mechanically as she gently shoved him out of the room. She shook her head as she sat down next to her brother.

“So, Torre, still working for that construction company?”

“No, I’m a sales associate for a lumber yard.” Torre unbuttoned his suit jacket, his large belly spilling over his belt. “But that’s only temporary. I got this idea.” He leaned in to her, his breath coming in short heaves. “I got an idea for a TV show on one of those home improvement networks.” He patted his stomach. “The name of my show…” He raised his hands in the air and looked between them as though reading a sign that had suddenly appeared there. “…My Gut Feeling.” Marion raised her eyebrows then frowned. Torre continued.

“Tagline…Your Gusty Home Improvement Guru.” He slapped his knees. “The graphic is a tool belt around my gut. What do you think?”

“Sounds like another show about flipping houses,” said Marion.

“Yeah, but I can provide insights from my wealth of construction experience.”

“But weren’t you usually the guy who directed traffic at road construction sites? Not exactly useful info, if you ask me.” Marion regarded him for a moment and slowly nodded. “How about coming to work for me?”

“You know I ain’t got those kinda’ credentials,” said Torre.

“But you got a contact…me. How you think I cracked the good ole boy investment banking network?”

“You had your fancy NYU MBA.”

“No guarantee. But I was smart. I joined a tennis club where a lot of investment bankers were members. Played in high school, remember?”

“Yeah,” said Torre. “You used to beat the hell out of me in front of my friends. Embarrassing.”

“And I beat the snot out of them until one of them said someone as aggressive as me should be working for him. That’s how I made the jump to Wall Street.” She leaned in confidentially. “I could be your jump.”

“Forget it, Marion. I don’t need my big sister to rescue me.”

Marion looked at her watch and was about to say something to Beth when a young woman entered the room. She paused letting her eyes adjust to the dim light. 

“Over here.” Marion smiled as she and Beth rose to meet the young girl. They each took an arm and led her to the group.

“You all remember our daughter, Juanita. Juanita, you remember your Aunt Luce, my sister, and her husband, Johnny. And my brother, you’re Uncle Torre.”  Juanita’s long black hair draped over her cell phone, her dark eyes fixed on it as she texted. The pecking sounds made by her fingernails filled the abrupt silence.

“Say hello,” exhorted Beth. Juanita grinned as she looked up for a moment and waved with one hand, her other hand still texting. Beth pulled Juanita into the seat next to her.

“Wow. I haven’t seen you since you were a little one,” said Luce. “How old are you now?”

“She’s 17,” said Beth as her daughter continued texting. Marion grabbed her phone.

“Sweetie, can you stop that please? Its rude.” Juanita’s head bobbled back and forth as she spoke.

“How come it’s not rude for you, mi querida madre?” She looked at the others. “She talks on that phone all the time…even when she sits on the toilet.”

“That’s enough, Juanita.” Marion cleared her throat. “Juanita’s attending an art sleep away camp for the summer.” She patted Juanita’s head. “She fancies herself an artist. Beth and I think it’s a great hobby.”

“It’s much more than a hobby,” said Juanita looking up from her phone.

“Never mind,” said Marion. “You’re here to pay your respects to your grandmother.”

“Okay,” she said as she rose. Halfway on her way to the coffin, Juanita stopped.

“Oh, by the way,” she said turning around.  “I forgot to tell you. My roommate at camp got COVID.” Marion and Beth exchanged glances. Before Juanita could say another word, they pounced on her, dragging her back and pinning her down in one of the seats.

“Where is your mask…get me a mask,” said Marion. Beth reached in her purse and took out a blue surgical mask. Beth grabbed her arms as Marion stretched it across her face and hooked the loops to her ears. Juanita jumped up her words pulsating as though trying to break through the mask.

“What are you doing, you two locas? You didn’t let me finish. That was three weeks ago. I don’t need no mask.” She attempted to take it off. Marion held up her hand.

“No, you should keep it on,” she said. “It’s for your own good.”

“Huh. You mean for your own good. After all, I might make you sick, you might have to miss a day of your precious work.”

“Calm down, Juanita.” Beth went to touch her arm but Juanita batted her hand away.

“Sure, mia madre, don’t I always?” She rolled the mask up in her hands and placed it in her pocket. “I’m going to the little girl’s room, then I’ll be back to say goodbye to my abuela.” She lifted her index finger in the air. “And just so you know, I’m not going to college in the fall. I’m going to art school.” Juanita resumed her texting a she turned and exited the room. Marion smiled weakly at the others.

“Teenagers. She’ll calm down.”

“Sounds like she wants to go to art school,” said Torre.

“I’m already a patron of the arts with this one,” said Marion, jerking her thumb at Beth. “She’s going to college. I want her to take care of herself, make money.” Just then, a man appeared in the doorway and peered into the room.

“Oh. The priest is here,” said Luce, getting up and motioning for him to enter. “Everyone, this is Father…uh…”

“Kerala…Father Onka Kerala,” the priest said, rolling his mouth around each syllable of his name like it was a giant marble.

“Sorry, Father, I had a momentary lapse there.”

“That’s okay. It’s an Indian name,” he said nodding to the group. “Sometimes hard to remember. Please…just call me Father Onkar.”  Marion whispered to Beth.

“That doesn’t sound any easier.” Beth shushed her.

Father Onkar walked slowly to the coffin, his black cassock making whooshing sounds as it brushed against the tops of his shoes. A shock of black hair stuck out form the top of his head held in place by a noticeably greasy hair tonic. He clutched a bible to his chest like a shield. He stopped, bowed to the coffin, then turned toward the group.

“Now before I say a prayer and give a final blessing, I thought it might be comforting if any of you would first like to say a word d about your loved one.” He continued rocking back and forth. “Anyone?” he said.  Juanita appeared in the doorway and spoke as she entered the room.

“I just want to say my abuela was a great lady, always nice to me. Gave me money every time I went to see her. She knew I was saving up to see my father in Guadalahoorah, Mexico.”

“That’s …jara,” said Beth, pinching the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. “Guadalajara, Mexico.”

“Whatever,” shrugged Juanita. “Anyway, she was sweet and I’m gonna miss her.” She sat down and resumed texting.

“Thank you, young lady. Anyone else?” Torre raised his hand. He held it there.

“You’re not in school,” chided Marion. “You don’t have to wait to be called on.”

“Oh,” said Torre. “Okay, I just want to say that she was a good mom.” Torre sniffed hard as he reached for a handkerchief in his trouser pocket.

“Thank you. Anyone else?” asked Father Onkar. Luce, Johnny, Marion and Beth avoided his stare.  “No? Okay, then, let us pray.” Father Onkar opened his bible using a red cloth bookmark. “Father, we commend the soul of our dear sister, Elizabeth, into—”

“Mary,” shouted Luce. “Her name was Mary.” She buried her face in her hands. Father Onkar looked at his sheet of paper.

“But here it says the name is—”

“It doesn’t matter what your paper say, Father Oshkosh or whatever you name is. Her name is Mary.” Marion turned to Luce. “Were did you find this guy?”

“Knock it off, Marion.”

“No, I’m serious. Is he saying the Mass tomorrow? Better make sure he has the right address for the church. Who knows…he might show up at a synagogue.”

“I said, shut up, Marion.”

“While we’re at it, who picked out the coffin?” Marion stood up and gestured at the coffin like she was throwing something at it. “It looks like Dracula’s day bed.”

“Enough, Marion. Enough!” Luce jumped up, the chair rocking back and forth in response. “Excuse me, Father.” She turned back to Marion. “I’ve had it with you. Think you can waltz in here and take over? Yeah, I picked out the coffin because you weren’t here. Just like you weren’t here when mom was sick, or she needed a ride to the doctor, or needed her diaper changed. Too busy with your life, so much so we haven’t seen your daughter in years, you didn’t know I moved or that Torre lives in Pennsylvania. Hell, you got married never told anybody, moved to a fancy house in the Hamptons that none of us have ever seen and now you come back here and have the nerve to criticize? All I ask is that you sit there, show some respect for mom and most of all, shut up.” Johnny straightened out her chair and led a shaking Luce into it. Marion sighed.

“Chill, Luce. So we’re a little dysfunctional,” said Marion.

“You have to first be a functioning family before you can be called dysfunctional,” said Luce, her voice quavering with each word. Johnny put his arm around her. Father Onkar cleared his throat as he looked down at his bible. He looked up suddenly and with a wide grin on his face addressed the family.

“Let us say a prayer for the peaceful…,” he raised his index finger, “…peaceful…repose of Mary’s soul.”

“We all here?” Luce stood up and looked at everyone. “Okay. So’s you know. Mom’s will is going to be formally read at her lawyer’s office in a couple of weeks. Mom wanted me to read a letter she wrote, you know, so you’d have an idea what’s gonna be in it and all.” She waved the paper she held at Marion. “So, Marion. The moment you’ve been waiting here. I think you should read it.”

“Oh.” Marion retrieved a pair of reading glasses from her purse. She put them on and, taking the letter from Luce, stood in front of the coffin, facing the group. She cleared her throat as she began to read.

“If you’re reading this, I’m probably stuffed in a coffin at Baldoni’s (don’t let the cheap bastard talk you into something made out of crappy wood).” Marion looked around to make sure Mr. Baldoni wasn’t in ear shot. She continued.  “I want solid steel enveloping my ass.” Marion continued reading.

“Overall, I’d say I had a good life. Your father was a good man who died way too soon, but that couldn’t be helped. You were all pretty much good kids. Drove me crazy once in a while, but you may have noticed I had small bottles placed in strategic locations around the house. ‘Mother’s little helper,’ as Mick Jagger put it.  Anyway, since this is my last hurrah, I’m gonna tell it like it is (like we flower children used to say in the 60s after taking a toke and passing the pot along).

“Marion, Torre, Luce…I love you dearly, but I am so disappointed in you. Like so many people in this country, you claim to be a family…family values and all that. But when was the last time you spoke to each other.? Or visited each other?” Marion looked up at Luce and Torre who were both staring at the floor. “Marion, seems like you’re way too busy making money. Torre, there’s’ more to life than getting a show on HGTV (who the hell wants to watch a show called ‘My Gut Says.’ Especially one featuring your gut.)

“And Luce. Instead of organizing yourself into oblivion, why not pop out a couple of kids? It might give you and Johnny something useful to do.

“As far as my will goes, I know I’m expected to leave what I have to my family, but the three of you haven’t behaved much like one. The only one who’s acted like family is Juanita. Dear, sweet Nita.” Marion’s words actually made Juanita stop texting for almost 10 seconds. “She’s the only one who makes time to visit me and well she actually taught me how to text.”  Juanita smiled as she held up her phone.

“Just sent her one.” She read from her phone. “Miss your already, grandma. You don’t have to answer. LOL.” Marion continued reading.

“I know Marion and Beth love her and have given her a good life. But I can tell she needs more, especially from Marion. She needs a real mother, not a money-making machine in designer pants.” Marion frowned as she looked at Beth, then at Juanita. She refocused her yes on the page.

“Regarding my estate, it will be split equally among my three children: Marion, Torre and Luce. Finally, now that you’re all here, there is one thing you can do for me. I want to be buried with my cat. I know you all think that’s pretty creepy, but that’s my last wish. And by the way, I got one last question for you all. Is my cat really dead?

“Chew on that for a while. In the immortal words of Porky Pig…Duh Duhh, Duh Duhh, Duh Duhh…That’s all folks.” Marion frowned as she folded the letter in her hand.

“What cat?” asked Marion.

“Oh,” said Luce a she reached into a shopping bag next to her seat. She retrieved a small, white box tied with a gold ribbon in the shape of a cross and held it up. “Say hello to Schroeder, mom’s cat, and the one she has chosen to share eternity with.”

The family sat quietly as Mr. Baldoni opened the coffin and gently placed the cat’s ashes at her feet. Luce jumped up.

“No, Mr. Baldoni. She’d want the cat up by her arm.” Mr. Baldoni turned around and raised his hands up to his head as though shielding himself from a blow. He shrugged, then did as she asked.

“Why, so she can pet it?’ Torre grunted a laugh.

“She did seem to think it was alive.” Marion shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “What the hell was that all about anyway? I mean, it’s dead, right?” Luce sat sideways on the chair as she faced Marion.

“Funny thing about that. The cat was looking pretty sick a few weeks ago. I get up one morning and it was dead, lying next to her. I took it and buried it in the backyard. Mom was pretty out of it by then and she kept asking for it. Next thing I know, the dead cat’s in her arms.”

“How did that happen?” asked Marion.

“The crazy dog dug it up and brought it to her. He’s a retriever, that’s what he does.” They all stared blankly at her. “Retrieve.” Luce took a deep breath. “Anyway, I buried it deeper, but the dog dug it up again and brought it to mom. This happened a couple of times until I finally decided to cremate the little twit. Next time she asked for him I gave her the box.”

“Not really very sensitive there, Luce,” said Marion.

“Yeah, but it seemed to work. I swear she sat there petting the box and cooing at it like Schroeder was still there.” The group grew silent.

“But what did mom mean when she asked if her cat was really dead?” Marion stroked her chin as she stared at the coffin. Johnny leaned forward in his seat.

“I can’t help but think of that cat in the box thing.,” he said. “You know, the cat is in there but if no one actually sees it, it’s technically alive and dead at the same time.”

“Well, I saw the cat and it was definitely dead,” said Luce. “Like that Monte Python dead parrot sketch.”

“But mom saw the cat as alive,” said Beth. “And in that Monte Python thing, Michael Palin insisted the parrot was alive.”

“Yeah, but like I said, I saw that the cat was dead,” said Luce. “I mean, I buried it.”

“But the dog saw it as alive,” insisted Marion. “Because he dug it up and brought it inside.” Luce couldn’t help raising her voice.

“Then I took the cat…saw it was dead…and cremated it so the stupid dog wouldn’t keep digging it up and bringing it in the house.”

“So, if we put the cat’s ashes in the coffin, we are declaring that it is indeed dead.” Torre rubbed his fingers over his lips.

“Along with mom,” said Marion. “But we can’t see inside the coffin. Does that mean the cat…” She slapped her forehand. “Never mind. I…I still don’t know what this all means.” Juanita stopped texting suddenly and stood up. She smiled, revealing a row of white, niblet-corn teeth.

“We can’t be family if we don’t see each other now and then. When we’re out of touch, we’re like grandma’s cat. We don’t know who’s alive or dead. I’m gonna text that to grandma. She’ll like that.” Juanita sat down and began texting with a vengeance.

A deafening silence filled the room. All eyes were focused on the coffin and the picture of their mother on a pedestal next to it with her hippie clothes and granny glasses smiling like a cat who just ate a bird. 


Joe Cappello lives and writes in the picturesque desert country of Galisteo, New Mexico. His short story, “The Secret of the Smiling Rock Man,” won first place in the National Federation of Press Women’s 2022 Communication contest, short story category. A memoir, “Once Upon a Midnight” received an honorable mention in the 2022 Southwest Writers writing contest. His one act play, “Monarch,” won the Susan Hansell Drama Contest 2022.

On Being Deciduous

by James McKee

Nothing like a storm
to blazon the wisdom
of wintering trees
that jettison their leaves.

Scrapping the glory
of an emerald canopy
lets them resist
wind-lash less:

not much can snag
on a skeletal twig.
The lushly-attached
gets its branches snapped.

They collude with loss
to claim, as their choice
from the catalog of griefs,
one spring relieves.

Off into the Sunset

There I go, sauntering along
as if I don’t notice
this bright amber evening already
auditioning for your memory,
though naturally I do.
You can tell I’m savoring how
this magic-hour sunlight
ignites tiny tiaras atop the upper edges
of each sombre object I pass
(car, stopsign, mailbox, car, wall),
like a swarm of small dawns I’ll remember
to describe for you later—
meaning now—
as a sizzlation,
but not just yet.
I’m still basking in the facets
that gleam from bark and steel and brick,
flecked with a luster that will linger
just an instant longer,
though now it’s arrested here.
Sort of. Anyway,
it looks like your mind—
your lovely, captious, queasy mind—is content
to cavort among these surfaces too, as if
the world’s tide of misery
has receded somewhere far beyond earshot,
exposing this block’s homely treasures
for us to admire with the just-
barely-not-ironic gusto
we share like a tic.
It can’t last; it doesn’t.
A sawtooth skyline steps in front of the sun,
some streetlamps blip on,
and the low-angled light
that’d made even the East River look good
for a moment,
departs. As do I.
You’ve plugged yourself back in,
and by the time you surface
from the cyan screenglow of your pent-up phone,
there’s nothing left to forget
but the moment I turned the corner
into everything that happens next.

A Visit from the E-Muse

Wow. Looks like someone needs a hug.
Lucky for you I’ve always gone
for that undead-at-noon affect,
that but-it’s-freezing sweat-glaze.
Mimic my insomniac speech-gush
all you like, but you’ll never
match my scorched-earth aplomb.
Let’s spare you a trip to the FAQs:
I awe like a diva with my avatars,
smack a few fanboys around for show
before (lol) upvoting them. I’m as meta
as a fractal node. Gauge my reach
by counting up the screens I cloud
with an ammoniac sheen of rage.

Want in, noob? Launch no threads
that don’t exclude, then just
keep subtracting till you belong
nowhere else. If anything I post
sounds like your cue to go full
IRL, you’ve read too many poems
I didn’t write. Asking what the memes
mean tags you as far too basic
to follow. Does anyone actually like
what they like? You’re not doing this right
unless you rig, for every mind
you’re mining, a playpen in the slag.

That’s it: just keep scrolling through
the troll-spew of comments to discover
your life-score, somewhere south
of loser. Don’t even, with the facepalm.
Remember our deal: you binge on a one-
quadrillionth wedge of bandwidth pie
as if my jonesing for quick hits of clicks
doesn’t matter, and I curate your uploads
as if they do. Don’t I keep your browser
barnacled in ads that contrive flattery
from hoarding your trivia, like a stalker?
You’re welcome. Remember what you said
would happen, if you ever caught me
livestreaming your bedroom again?
Me neither. Now, refresh that feed.

Víti, a Volcanic Lake in Iceland

                                                                                                for A.

Charcoal uplands, barren and crumpled.
Lunar distances, a serrated horizon,
low murky skies. Rain this morning.
Rain again soon.

A puddled uphill path, slimy
with trodden ochre mud, skirting
the pipes and outbuildings of a hydrothermal plant,
sleek and toylike and alien
against this jagged umber sea
of scabbed-over lava.

At the top of the rise, more mud
slickening the approach to the unfenced rim
of a fissured escarpment.
Down where the crater
plunges like a puncture,
our first glimpse of what we came for:
a blown-glass pool, improbably blue,
aglow like a sapphire ember,
stoked by breaths from a sun
slathers of cloud keep hidden.

We look and look,
but discover nothing
of that unlikely color
for these waters to mirror.

And so,
almost dissuaded from fancying ourselves
as likewise bedded, jewel-bright,
amid broken tracts of circumstance
but not quite,

we turn away as one
into the weather coming swiftly on.


James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection, The Stargazers, was published in the otherwise uneventful spring of 2020, while his poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Burningword Literary Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, New Ohio Review, Grist, New World Writing, Illuminations, CutBank, Flyway, THINK, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.

The Best We Can

By William Cass

My parents told me about my mother’s affair, if it could be called that, when we met at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco just after I’d turned thirty.  They’d come out from Pittsburgh and were staying there for one of my father’s last business conventions before his retirement.  I’d flown down from my teaching job in Juneau, Alaska, to see them and stay with an old friend from college.

Their room was on the thirty-fourth floor.  They sat side by side in tall, elegant armchairs separated by a small table.  I stretched out against the headboard of their bed across from them.  It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and through the big windows behind my parents, the late October light had already begun to fall over the city.

When I’d first arrived, my father had made us all vodka tonics.  We’d caught up on my brothers and sister, how my father’s keynote speech had gone the night before, and the progress on the retirement home they were building in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Then he simply said, “Your mother has a bit of news.  She’s slept with her old boyfriend from high school.”

The room was still for a long moment until my mother said evenly, “‘Slept’ is an exaggeration.  We were in the backseat of his car at a park.  It was over like that.”

She clicked her fingers.  They both looked at me blankly.

I shook my head slowly.  “I don’t know what to say.  I can’t believe it.”

“Neither could I,” my father said.  He took a long swallow from his drink and held the glass on the top of his knee. 

My mother sighed.  “It was just a ridiculous, impulsive thing.  One time.  Never before.  Never again.  I was in an emotional state.  It was when I was up there in Connecticut to move your grandpa into the convalescent hospital.”

I sat forward and blurted, “The back of his car?”

“He’d heard I was there to move Daddy’s things.  It’s a small town.  He came by the house one night.  We went for a drive.”

She shrugged.  They both continued to look at me intently.  It seemed like they were waiting for me to pass some sort of judgment.

Finally, I asked, “Do the other kids know?”

My father shook his head.  “You’re the oldest.”

I extended my gaze over their heads at the dwindling light against the tops of the city’s buildings and wondered why my mother had told him anything about it at all.

I looked back and forth at each of them and asked, “So what happens now?”

My father pursed his lips.  “I don’t know.  We don’t know.  No current plans.  The truth is…”  He shook the ice in his glass.  “The truth is I’ve ignored your mother for some time…her needs.”

I’m not sure what it was I saw on my father’s face at that moment, whether it was fear or vulnerability or something else, but I know I’d never seen it there before.  The rock-solid stoicism I’d grown to simply accept as his persona – the star athlete, the successful corporate executive, the stern family patriarch – was gone.

“We haven’t been emotionally available to each other for some time,” my mother said.

“Whatever it’s called,” my father mumbled.

I watched my mother lower her face, then turn it away from him toward the hotel room door.

I ended the awkwardness shortly after that by contriving excuses to leave.  We made vague arrangements to have brunch together the next morning before they flew home.  But before the elevator had even reached the lobby, I knew I would break those plans.  I had nothing more to ask or say to them about what they’d told me and couldn’t imagine making small talk about anything else.


I relocated to Seattle a couple of summers later and met the woman who would become my wife at an orientation for teachers new to the district where we were both hired.  After the wedding, we were able to buy a small, older home just up from Lake Washington on the eastside, and worked together fixing it up for the next few years until our son, Ben, was born.  No one could have prepared us for that.  He was severely disabled with a smorgasbord of developmental, physical, and neurological problems.  He spent the first six weeks after birth in the NICU where the dymsorphologist who treated him there told us that kids like Ben rarely survived more than a handful of years.  He was in and out of the hospital thereafter every few months for pneumonias and surgeries.  It was during one of those admittances when Ben was seven that my wife announced that she’d become involved with another teacher at her school.  She said they were moving together to Madison, Wisconsin, to enroll in a graduate program in art history, a subject in which I’d never known her to have any interest. 

At the time, we were sitting in a little ante-room in the med-surg wing at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital waiting for Ben’s surgeon to come let us know how the procedure to insert a feeding tube into his stomach had gone.

She said, “I’m done being a martyr.  I need to take care of myself.  I have a right to be happy.”

“But,” I stammered.  “You never said a word.  I didn’t know…never had the chance…”

She looked at me coldly.  Her eyes narrowed.  “I can’t worry about your feelings.  I can only deal with my own.”

The surgeon entered the room, still wearing his scrubs and operating cap.  He smiled and said, “Everything went well.  Everything is going to be all right.”

She nodded earnestly in that way she had when listening to someone.  It had the effect of making the speaker feel immediately connected, acknowledged, and respected.  So, the surgeon directed the rest of his comments to her.  I sat numb and didn’t hear a word he said.

After my wife left, Ben had to stay in the medically fragile center of the hospital for better than a year because the first fundoplication had gone bad right away and the doctors decided upon a very gradual and careful titration of his feeds with the new feeding tube.  He stayed on a continuous twenty-hour drip for seven weeks before they were finally able to slowly increase his intervals to greater bolus volumes.  Towards the end of that time, he had a tracheostomy to help manage his secretions and then two additional surgeries to move his testicles down their canals closer to where they would have normally been.  The customary recovery time was involved after each, so it was several more months before I could begin trying to arrange the contract home nursing needed to have him discharged.  In the end, I was able to find nursing to cover my work hours, but overnight shifts only three times a week, so had to manage the rest myself.  His care needs were round-the-clock, so I didn’t have a lot of time for much else.


My parents made a yearly visit my way to Seattle for a week each spring.  Over the ensuing years after that afternoon in San Francisco, nothing much changed in their relationship that I could see.  It seemed to me that they had fashioned their mutual co-existence with something between bewildered acceptance and silent resignation.  In retirement, my father’s countenance and self-reliance gradually deflated like a balloon left behind a couch, and this became exacerbated as his hearing loss worsened, even with the most technologically advanced of aids.  His golf games dwindled from four or five a week to once or twice a month, a decline that accompanied the degree to which my parents associated with friends.  More and more, their days involved long periods of time sitting in separate blue recliners in front of the television reading sections of the newspaper, while my father kept one eye on whatever sports show played and my mother shouted tidbits to him from articles that caught her fancy over the volume’s din.

Their collective general health slowly deteriorated.  After my father’s second heart attack and my mother’s first, we convinced them to move closer to one of the kids.  They finally sold their retirement home and bought a cottage in a lovely graduated assisted living community on the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon, near my sister, Beth, and her family.  That made sense because she was the youngest and still had two small children with whom my parents planned to help.  Although that assistance never materialized, Beth or her husband could take them to their medical appointments and lend a hand in managing their other affairs as needed, so it was an improved arrangement.  However, shortly after arriving, my father began waxing nostalgic for Hilton Head, claimed that we forced him to move, and bitterness began to invade the shell that quickly became his final internal retreat. 

On their last visit before my father died, my mother brought some old photographs to give me.  She said she’d chosen a batch for each of the kids because they’d otherwise just sit untouched in a box in their attic.  I looked through them that first morning as we ate breakfast together at my dining room table.  It was already warm, so I had the French doors to the porch open.  Ben sat in his wheelchair in the doorway where he could feel the sunlight across his lap and squawk when he heard the birds.

The order and arrangement of the photos seemed to be completely half hazard.  There were some of my parents as far back as their days together at the University of Connecticut and then snippets of various family members – mostly different combinations of my four siblings and me, and later of our own families – over the years at holidays, vacations, and special occasions.  Because they were so scattered, I found myself arranging them chronologically and, in so doing, watching us all grow and age in rapid succession.

I laid two photographs of my parents that struck me side by side on the table. They were both engrossed in their newspapers and didn’t even glance over.  One snapshot was black and white from their honeymoon.  My father had his arm around my mother, squinting with one eye into the sun behind the camera.  They were leaning against a railing in front of a waterfall: handsome, robust, their serene expressions full of confidence and promise. 

The second couldn’t have been taken too long beforehand.  In it, they sat side by side at the little wicker table on their screened-in back porch in Hilton Head picking crab from shells in a bowl.  It must have been among their last crabbing outings there, which was one of their only shared pastimes.  They’d walk down under the bridge below the lagoon behind their house, and my mother would toss a chicken neck tied to a eight-foot string out into the brackish shallows at low tide.  When a blue shell crab approached and began to follow the bait, she would slowly recoil the string towards the bank where my father waited with a long-handled net to try to snatch it up and drop it in a plastic bucket.  On a good day, they could coax seven or eight crabs into the bucket in a couple of hours.  I knew that it reminded them fondly, as it did me, of our crabbing and clamming excursions years before on the Connecticut shore or Cape Cod.  In the picture, my father wore a startled expression and my mother grinned with her fingertips on his knee.

Somewhere in between those two photographs, they’d raised a family, our family, and tasted whatever satisfactions and disappointments life had in store for them. 


Two things happened when Ben turned twelve that were significant.  The first occurred on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the late fall.  I took him to the IMAX theater at the planetarium to see a new movie that had opened about the Annipurna Sanctuary in Nepal where I’d trekked when I was younger.  The theater had a small disabled seating section off to the side for wheelchairs with a couple of folding chairs for companions.  A woman about my age already occupied one of the chairs.  She was pretty.  In the wheelchair next to her, a man was tilted back ready for viewing.  His tongue lolled out of the side of the mouth.  She wiped the drool off his chin with a blue paisley bandana that was tucked into the collar of his shirt.

I arranged Ben in a similar fashion and sat down in the chair next to her.  When I glanced over, she was smiling gently at me.

“I’m Alice,” she said.  “This is my husband, Paul.”

I shook her hand, introduced Ben and myself, and we talked a bit before the show started.  She asked me about Ben’s prognosis.          

I said, “Undiagnosed genetic syndrome.”

“From birth then?”

I nodded.  “Paul?”

She sighed.  “Car accident a year and a half ago.  We were coming home from our daughter’s high school graduation.”

I swallowed and watched her look at him, then take his hand in his lap.

After the movie, she asked if I’d like to get coffee, and that started us doing things together with Ben and Paul every couple of months.  It was nice to spend time with a person with whom I shared similar circumstances.  Of course, that was as far as it could go.

The second thing was that, for the first time in his life, Ben hugged me back.  It may well have been just an unintentional reflex of some kind because it had never happened before and hasn’t since.  But that doesn’t matter…for a handful of seconds, it did.


Ben’s mom asked to see him again not too long ago, eleven years after she left.

As far as I know, she never married her lover, but they’d stayed together, and she called when they were passing through the area.  They drove over, but he stayed in the car, parked down the street.  I don’t know how to describe the way I felt when I answered the door – a cacophony of emotions, I guess, followed by emptiness.  Much as they had with me, the years had taken their toll on her.  She held herself with a cordial and dignified removal, but I saw something in her eyes that told me she was still the girl I’d married.

I brought her into Ben’s room where he was propped up in his bed in the middle of a feed. 

“Benny-boy,” she whispered and kissed his forehead.  He looked past her at whatever it was that he always gazed at. She rearranged and propped the pillows around

him, and I felt the old, painful, instinctive twinge of never doing things well enough for her.

She didn’t ask, but I gave her a summary of how Ben had been doing while we both looked at him and she stroked his hair.  Then we were silent.  I wondered what more it was that we could really talk about.  The motor on his feeding pump made its soft whee-whir.

“I’ll give you some time with him,” I said and left the room.

I busied myself in the kitchen, unloaded the dishwasher, rinsed out the coffee carafe, threw out the grounds.  Then I went into the sunroom, sat on the couch, and tried to grade some papers.  At one point, I thought I heard her reading aloud to him from one of the picture books on his shelves.  It may have been a book she bought for him; it probably was.  After a while, I was sure that I heard her singing softly to him a lullaby that had been a regular one for them when he was an infant.

I looked out the window at the picket fence we’d built together just after we bought the house and before Ben was born.  The climbing roses we’d planted on either side of the gate had grown over the arbor into a tangle of red bursts and green foliage that nodded now in the small breeze and sunlight.

Perhaps ten minutes more passed before she came to the front door, gave me one of her familiar, sad smiles, and said, “Thank you.”

I watched her go down the steps, through the gate, and up the sidewalk to where the car was parked under a tree.  I could just make out his figure behind the wheel in the

shadows.  Ben’s pump began to beep, signifying that his feed cycle had finished, and I went to turn it off.


Not long thereafter, my mother was diagnosed with a relatively mild case of Alzheimer’s disease.  She was about to turn seventy-six and had become increasingly forgetful the past few years, so we weren’t surprised.  Neither was she, though she was frightened by how debilitating the disease had become at the end of her own father’s life.  Her neurologist put her on a medication that he said might slow the process and directed her to be as active mentally, socially, and physically as possible.  She’d moved into an apartment in the lodge after my father’s death and already had a fair amount of acquaintances there.  With the diagnosis, she increased her canasta games to twice a week and began to take more meals in the dining hall with other residents.  She also joined an exercise class and got a subscription to a monthly word search magazine.  So, she did all right.

She still came here for her most recent visit.  Only a short, direct flight was involved, so there weren’t any travel problems.  But during our last phone conversation, my sister had expressed some new concerns about the dangers of her being on her own much longer.  Beth said that not too long before, she’d found a stove burner left on overnight when she went over to the apartment.  There was another recent occasion when they’d had to take her to the ER after she’d confused some of the medications she’d taken.  We both wanted her to maintain as much dignity and independence as possible, but Beth was wondering if the time wasn’t approaching when she’d need to move upstairs into skilled nursing, especially in light of her own family’s likely move to another state because of a pending work transfer for her husband.  Beth asked if I could talk to her about it; I said I would.

After we got home from the airport and settled, she did appear to me a little more fitful, more methodical.  Maintaining her daily routines seemed especially critical to her:

counting out her pills in the morning, taking care of her ilioscopy bag and all that entailed, fixing her tea and crustless toast for breakfast, pouring endlessly over the

newspaper, watching her afternoon talk shows on television.  She shuffled everywhere, and complained more about how she was always cold, how she couldn’t keep any weight on, about the blue veins in her legs and her sleeping troubles.  The glass rarely seemed half-full.

That first day, we walked up the street with Ben to a little café she’d always liked for lunch.  After our meals arrived, she told the waitress that her soup wasn’t hot enough and sent it back to be reheated.  She commented that the potato salad was all right, but not as flavorful as her own.

I finally said, “Tell me something good, Mom.  Something good that’s going on with you.”

“Well,” she said.  She took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose before replacing them.  I could see that she was trying not to smile.  “Warren Marshall has been calling.”

“What’s that?” I vaguely remembered the name, but couldn’t place it.

“Warren.  My high school boyfriend.”

I thought of that afternoon in the St. Francis Hotel.  I said, “How? When?”

 “Well, he phoned me after he heard your father had died.  And he’s called several times since.  Just to check on me, he says.  We don’t talk about much.  I don’t think his marriage is a very happy one.  I’m not sure if he’s even married anymore.”

She took a sip of soup, it seemed to me, to hide the sparkle in her eyes.  The spoon trembled a bit in her hand.  I sat back and shook my head.  Who knew how many years she had left?  I thought about how much of life hinged on those things we could control and those things we couldn’t.  I thought about how we go about trying to fashion our truest selves.  I thought about how we all just do the best we can.

I heard myself say, “Why don’t you find out?”

She shrugged.  She looked out the window and set her spoon down.  “The last time he called, he talked about taking a trip out this way.  He has a grandson who goes to college in Portland.  Said he might rent a car and drive down to Bend.”

When she looked back at me, her lips were trembling a little, too, her eyes full of hope and fear and uncertainty.  She looked so small and frail.  In that moment, I knew there was no need for the conversation about skilled nursing; when the time came for that, I’d move her up to live with me.  I reached over and put my hand on top of hers.  I smiled, and she made a thin attempt to do the same.

After a while, she looked over my shoulder and said, “This is a nice place.  It doesn’t look new.  We should have come here before.”

I squeezed her hand and said, “You’re right, Mom.  We should have.”

Originally appeared in Conium Review (2013)


William Cass has had over 290 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff Review, and Zone 3.  He won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. A nominee for both Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net anthologies, he has also received five Pushcart Prize nominations. His first short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was published by Wising Up Press in 2020, and a second collection, Uncommon & Other Stories, was recently released by the same press. He lives in San Diego, California.

Graven Image

By David Sapp

Isn’t this all silly
A little embarrassing
(All because of Constantine’s
Very Christian mommy)
An old white guy
Is the object of our adoration
Our graven image
In mosaic fresco T-shirt
Who supposedly bestows
Comfort and joy
A doddering fogy well past
Wise sits on the throne
Why not Isis Horus or Mithras
Dionysos was fun fun fun
For that matter how about
If you insist upon a single entity
A golden calf
A tire a shoe a billiard ball
An ass or an elbow
(It is enough knowing
The difference between
No need for idolatry)
A penis a vagina
Yoni Almighty
A mouth or anus effigy
(Truly it’s not about the orifice)
As the only thing that makes
Any sense is love-making
How about a Disney princess
Or rotating pop stars
For the Virgin Mary
The color blue!
A Yves Klein painting
On every sacred altar
Andromeda the galaxy
Next door might work
Then again please consider
How about love?

Cardboard Pleasure

We crave we desire
Hanker at the very least
We gorge our orifices
Bottomless gullets
Yum yum yum
Implacable gourmands
We insist upon
A nameless hoard to
Manufacture our accumulations
Plush toys weed eaters flip flops
New and improved silicone
Battery-operated vibrator dildos
In stock and on sale now!
Ships bump at our shores
Brimming with our gluttony
Trains trucks men women
Push it all pull it all
Hurriedly here and there
Convenient cardboard pleasure
Buffets on our doorsteps
We sigh we moan
Sated for fleeting moments
And then used up we
Launch it all out our asses
Shove it all to the curb
It is the American Way
Wouldn’t you agree?
Eventually all that’s left
Are hills of empty plastic
Eventually all the dildos
Fill all the landfills for
A thousand years.
Eventually all the forests
Are shaved from our skin –
So much stubble on
Legs crotches chins
All that’s left is highly
Confidential memoranda
Regarding merchandise avarice
Receipts for our demise

A Precious Transience

As soon as the stars
Were born their deaths
Were inevitable
The stars are dimming
In their nativities
And we are informed
Physicists surmise
There are no more
We live out our days
Indifferently act as if
There are plenty of stars
To go around
Our vision narrows
To what’s within the frame
Of our bedroom window
We busy ourselves
We obsess we squabble
Over petty details
We deny and we deny
The heavens fade
Our sun like us
Increasingly fragile dies
A little more each day
And a lifetime is
Required to comprehend
Our stark predicament
In the meantime
How are we not
At every moment
A precious transience
Reflecting upon the depths
Of space the spinning
Of distant galaxies?
How are we not
Spending our last
Hours making love
Or playing with children
Or holding one another
In our demise?


David Sapp, writer, artist, and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Grants for poetry and the visual arts. His poetry and prose appear widely in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. His publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior, chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha, a novel Flying Over Erie, and a book of poems and drawingstitled Drawing Nirvana.

A Letter from the Batcave

By Charles Joseph Albert

Dear Alfred:

I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while. But you know how I said things were getting dicier with Bruce? Well, it’s gotten worse. I think it’s depression. He never goes out any more. Not even in the Batmobile, which would be so easy—it pretty much just drives itself, you know. 

I started noticing this about two months ago. It started with a Bat Signal one night. (You know they quit shining a spotlight, right? The alerts come through on the Bat Watch, now.) We suit up and fly the Bat Copter to an address we’d been texted, and sure enough, there’s Joker in the middle of a robbery. Or his henchmen are—they’ve blown a hole in the bank wall, and they’re loading bags of money into a Transit Rideshare van. Joker’s only directing. He’s got Parkinson’s pretty bad these days, you know. Says it’s our fault, from all the times he’s taken a punch to the head. Did you know there’s even a lawsuit?

But let me stay focused. When we get there, the henchmen all start shooting at us, of course, and I run up and clobber them through the usual hail of bullets. That part’s pretty standard and you’ve seen me do it a thousand times. I’m by myself still—Bruce has gone back to the Bat Copter make sure he locked the door. He catches up with me in a minute, which is fine—I mean, it’s not a problem. I’m wearing bullet-proof armor and I have the new skeleto-suit anyway. I can do the whole thing solo. It’s actually easier without him. 

Which I think is part of the problem. I mean, he’s fifty-three. He’s slowed down a lot. And he forgets stuff. I know that kind of bugs him.

Anyway, we knock out the henchmen, and Bruce goes over to get Joker, gets the Bat Cuffs out and all, and they’re doing that repartee thing they do, and Bruce is like, “I’m going to feel these bruises tomorrow,” and Joker’s all, “You know what kind of lousy medical care there is in jail?”

Out from the hole in the bank’s wall comes this teenager. All face paint, purple suit, the whole bit. Bruce and I are like, “Wait, what?” And Joker’s like, “Dudes, meet my son Jack. Jack of Spades.”

Well, I’m still cuffing henchmen, but I’m keeping an eye on this, right? Cause, I mean, the Jack dude is mean-looking. Scrawny, but you could see something off in his eyes. Also, he’s moving jerky. Stumbles on his way through the hole, and when he jumps toward Bruce he shoots way past him. Which means he’s got a skeleto-suit, too. You can tell when someone is wearing one, ‘cause when they walk, they’re all bouncing around like they’re in reduced gravity. Super hard to control, too. And this Jack dude still hadn’t gotten the full hang of it, right? I mean, Bruce should take him, easy. Easily, I mean.

But Bruce isn’t quick enough. Jack tries again, and this time he gets a good right cross to Bruce’s jaw, and down he goes. I make a move to go help, but Bruce shoots me this awful look—it’s pure fury, Alfred. Hatred, almost. I’m trying to not take it personally, because he doesn’t want some younger guy taking down the kid who beat him to the punch. Literally.

So I back off. Let him redeem himself. Only that’s when Joker lifts up one of his crutches, and it’s an RPG. And he points it right at Bruce’s head.

I swear, if you could have seen the expression on Bruce’s face (I mean in his eyes, ‘cause that’s all you can see, right?) it would have just broken your heart. I mean, we’re used to Bruce being it, you know? You and me, we were his crew, and he was Top Dog. But this look in his eyes are anything but Top Dog. It’s utter terror. Like, he is not in control. He’s more like someone who’s about to lose his shorts. And also sad, in a way, too. You know? Sad, like, shoot, I should have disarmed Joker first. I mean, Cardinal Rule, right? Disarm the villain… then repartee. 

Bruce starts to react, but Joker has the drop on him, you know? So Bruce has, like, no hope.

Except I’ve already popped off a shot with the Batarang, knocking Joker’s RPG sideways. His shot goes wide, and instead of blowing Bruce’s head off, all that happens is a burn on his lips from the rocket fire going past. His mask protects the rest.

Well, I take out Jack, which is a piece of cake—the kid doesn’t know the first thing about real fighting. And he has the disadvantage of Joker’s physique—kind of squirrely. Next I have Joker disarmed and cuffed. So everything’s wrapped up neatly and I’m trying to usher Bruce back to the chopper.

But he shrugs my hand off of his shoulder, like, don’t touch me! 

OK, I figure, he just got burned, and maybe he’s a bit sensitive about forgetting to disarm Joker. So I back off. Again. 

But then I make the mistake of heading for the driver’s seat of the copter. Bruce gets all, “What’s the matter? Don’t think I remember how to fly this thing?” And there’s that look in his eye again. 

I shrug and walk back around to the passenger seat, and I can see that he’s in pain from the burn, but he’s obviously trying to make a point here, so I just pretend I don’t notice. And we head home. 

At the wrong altitude. 

We’re flying to Wayne Manor from the west, which means we need to be at 1500 feet, not 1000 feet. The thousands are for aircraft coming in from a north-south axis. Five hundreds are for east-west. And I’m starting to freak, right? I’m imagining some kind of mid-air collision, instant death in a fireball, like what happened to that guy, Hawkeye. Get your elevation wrong, you’re screwed. 

I can see the lights from an incoming craft, and I’m bugging. But how to bring it to Bruce’s attention? I mean, A, he’s in a really foul mood. And B, he just got beat to the punch by some Joker-in-training-pants.

The plane is heading straight for us, but there’s still time to maneuver. So I blurt out, “Hey, Bruce, the altitude—” 

And then, Whoosh

The Bat Copter goes into a spiral dive, and it’s only thanks to Bruce’s spectacular flying skills that we stabilize. You might think he’d be proud of himself for saving our cans, but now he’s all pissed that he was flying the wrong altitude. And he knows I know it, too. And he’s all, “Goddamn it, Dick, why didn’t you say something earlier? Could have fucking lost our shit right there!”

You know things have gone south when Batman swears.

“Trying not to piss you off,” I grunt. 

Boy, does that clam him up. The rest of that flight home is more awkward than a Justice League/Avengers joint picnic.

He goes straight to the shower when we got home. Doesn’t say another word to me. Or to Mr. Mitzumi, who was waiting with a hot sake and a terrycloth robe. (He passes on his regards, by the way.)

That’s where we’ve been, ever since. I handle the next three calls we get by myself. I do it my way, too, like I’ve always been saying I would: I bring the Bat Bots and I set up a perimeter using Siri and Alexa. 

I kept thinking maybe Bruce just needed some time off, or something. But each time I come back from a call, he’s even deeper in his funk. He’s already drunk through half of the Bat Cellar, and he’s binge-watching COPS. I can hear him late into the night, throwing popcorn at the detectives and calling them names.

The other day he happens to overhear a call I didn’t even go to, I just sent the Bat Bots without me. I was watching them on the monitors, and he leans over my shoulder and goes, “Holy Drone Strike, Robin! Did I not teach you anything?” 

And I try not to take offense, so instead I go, “Check it, B-Man! I just nabbed a purse-snatcher remotely!” 

And he goes, “That isn’t real crime fighting. You need a human there, not a machine!” And he staggers off. Trips on a stalactite on his way back to the Bat recliner. 

I’m kind of at my wit’s end, Alfred. If you’ve got any suggestions, I’m all ears. I can’t imagine leaving Bruce after all he’s done for me, but things are getting real. For the past week, he hasn’t even gotten out of his Bat Underwear. And if he catches me looking at him, he gets all, “What’s the matter, junior? Don’t you have some TikToks to watch?”

Hey, maybe we can ask Clark to invite him to the Fortress of Solitude. Ever since he moved it to Florida, Bruce has sounded more interested in going to visit. 

I’m also thinking about filling out that application on the Avenger’s page. I know, I know—they’re Marvel, and we’re DC. But guys have crossed over before. Look at Hawkman. Or Captain Marvel. And yes, I don’t have any mutant powers. But I hear they’re still trying to fill Iron Man’s suit. 

Yours as ever,



Charles Joseph Albert is a metallurgist in the Bay Area and the author of 13 books of poetry and fiction. His latest is An IQ of 84: A Gaijin Chronicle. His stories and poems have appeared around the internet, most recently in Short Edition and Another Chicago Magazine.

The Silence After

By Sloan Porter

It wasn’t the humidity
or the record breaking heat
so rare in a cold city.
Lounging around without an AC,
the cheap fan was enough
to calm my boiled blood –
I mean, cool me off.
It wasn’t that you weren’t enough,
although I saw what creeps on your skin
at night
in your sighing state,
the prickle of tiny soldiers that stomp and sabotage
all those good intentioned neurons.
It was, perhaps,
that I was caught in the crossfire,
although I knew
braving the no man’s land
meant getting shot.

It was, perhaps,
the silence after.


Last year you were my arms,
carrying boxes of junk
attached to memories
I tried to throw away myself.

Last month you were my legs,
running to my finish lines
long after the sunrise
kept putting me to sleep.

Last week you were my neck,
turning my head from
directions I wanted to see.

Last night you were my lips,
sewing them tight
when I was thirsty.

Tonight you are my eyelids,
snapping them shut.

On Wanting

Trust me
I may dig too deep,
pry you open with my claws
and rummage around for treasure.
I may stun you,
each of my fingers are tasers.
I may collapse
from the weight of wanting more,
curl up,
drown in my own liquifying words
that never leave me
but catch in my throat.
Can you watch me suffer?
Or even notice?

12 Hours

  3:00 pm         Nothing exists but us.
  4:00 pm         I sketch your smile on the window.
  5:00 pm         I air the room with your scent.
  6:00 pm         Your laughter becomes the birds.
  7:00 pm         Parts of you become this room.
  8:00 pm         Your legs are the frame of this bed.
  9:00 pm         Your freckles are the sparkled light of this lamp.
10:00 pm         Your hair is the fabric of this duvet.
11:00 pm         Our hands make their way beneath this duvet.
12:00 am         My voice is viscosity when I say your name.
  1:00 am         Your voice is liquid when you say my name.
  2:00 am         I sink in the sound waves and drown in my name.
  3:00 am         Your sighs are hurricanes as you fall asleep.


For Sloan Porter, the art of poetry has been an all-consuming journey since a young age. As a writer and interdisciplinary artist, she’s most interested in exploring a darker side, the questions that linger at night, and the passions that drive us. Her work first appeared in Montréal Writes, The Sirens Call, and The Journal Of Undiscovered Poets. She is currently working on a full-length poetry collection. Find her on Instagram @sloan.porter.poetry

Zone Valves

By Graeme Hunter

In early 1991, I interviewed for a faculty position at the University of Western Ontario.  During my visit, a real-estate agent drove me around some residential areas in northwest London.  I remember being impressed by Orchard Park, a quiet, leafy subdivision within cycling distance of campus. 

I was offered the job, and accepted it.  A few months later, my wife Francine went to London to find us a house.  Unfortunately Orchard Park turned out to be too expensive for us.  Her search narrowed down to two houses in White Hills, less leafy and a bit further from the university.  She faxed me the details, and we made our decision.    

At the end of the summer, Francine and I moved to London and took possession of our new house.  It didn’t have much curb appeal: aluminum siding, a prominent garage, no street-facing windows on the main floor.  But I already knew that from the photographs that Francine had taken.  The unpleasant surprises began when we went inside.  The living room was dark, with stuccoed walls.  The bedrooms each had a different colour of carpet and a different type of garish wallpaper.  Every renovation or repair had been done in the most half-assed manner imaginable.  For example, the en-suite powder room, which I referred to as “the Black Hole of Calcutta”, was floored with sheet linoleum that curled up at the edges, because whoever installed it hadn’t bothered to remove the baseboards first. 

Me: “This is so ugly!”

Francine: “I don’t remember it looking like this!”

But the low point was the dining room.  It had a carpeted floor, and walls that were adorned with gold-patterned mirror tiles.

Me: “These tiles look like something you would find in a New Orleans cat-house.”

Francine: “How would you know?”

More unpleasant surprises lay behind the house’s walls and under its flooring.  The wiring was aluminum, a known fire risk.  The bedroom walls had never been primed, so stripping the wallpaper also removed the paper backing of the wallboard, as well as some of the underlying gypsum.  Worst of all, the house had electrical baseboard heaters.  Despite having access to vast amounts of free power from Niagara Falls, the province of Ontario had some of the highest electricity rates in the world.  Heating our new house through the impending winter was going to bankrupt us. 

We got rid of the baseboard heaters and installed a more efficient forced-air system.  Now we had affordable electricity bills, but we also had gaps in our baseboards, holes in our walls and ceilings, and exposed ductwork running everywhere.  This in addition to the bordello tiles, grotty carpeting, Age of Aquarius wallpaper, and all the other problems we had inherited. 

In short, the place needed a lot of work.

Fortunately, help was at hand.  Francine’s dad, Nick, was co-owner of a home-building company.  He’d come to Canada from Italy with fifty dollars in his pocket and no marketable skills.  By claiming to be a trained carpenter, he’d found a job on a building site, where he faked it until he learned the trade.  After many years, he and a paesano were able to start their own business. Thanks to hard work, luck and bribes to municipal politicians, they became millionaires, at a time when that word was not yet synonymous with “home-owner”. 

Nick and his wife were happy to come to London every weekend: she to play with her granddaughter, he to work on the house.  The problem was that I was expected to help him, and I was emphatically not a handyman.  Things got off to a bad start when Nick asked me for a hammer.  When I brought him the only one I owned, he laughed.  “That’s a child’s hammer!” 

Way to emasculate your son-in-law, Nick!  Don’t you want any more grandchildren?

Thereafter he brought his own tools, and we set to work: building a wall between the kitchen and dining-room, installing a French door, enclosing the new ductwork, tiling the carpeted floors.  To elaborate on the plural pronoun: Nick did all the actual work, while I brought him the tools he needed.  Once I had learned what “spikes” and “two-by-fours” were, and the difference between Phillips and Robertson screwdrivers, I was allowed to graduate to simple, hands-on tasks – such as using a proper, man-sized hammer to drive “spikes” into “two-by-fours”. 

Nick believed in building things to last.  Maybe it’s because he was Italian: the Coliseum is still standing, after all, and Rome’s first-century Pantheon looks like it was completed yesterday.  The wooden frame Nick made to enclose the heating ducts was so robust that I could hang from it and do chin-ups.  He brought the same philosophy to a closet he built in the family room.  I decided that, if nuclear war broke out, the family would take shelter there.  London might become a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but our family-room closet would still be standing.

Eventually Nick lost interest in spending every weekend working on his daughter’s house.  Now I was on my own.  Francine would have helped (or so she said), except that she was pregnant again.  Apparently that was my fault!  But I’d served my apprenticeship, and now knew the rudiments of home renovation: rough carpentry, drywalling, some wiring, a bit of plumbing.  One of my solo projects was replacing the flooring in the Black Hole of Calcutta.  When I took up the linoleum, which had a garish pink floral pattern, I was baffled to find beneath it another layer of the exact same lino!  Below that was a layer of blue vinyl tiles.  By the time I reached the subfloor, I felt like Schliemann at Troy. 

Eventually I was proficient enough to build my own wall, although I had to get Nick out of retirement to hang the door in its opening.  As far as I know, my wall is still standing, although I wouldn’t expect it to survive World War Three.      

Throughout the disruptions of all these renovations, Francine and I consoled ourselves that this was just our starter home; in five years or so, we’d be able to move up in the world.  But the mid-nineties were lean years for Ontario, and its university sector wasn’t spared.  Even with help from Francine’s parents, it was nine years before we were able to think about house-hunting.  By that time we had replaced every surface in the house.  No more, I vowed.  I’m hanging up my toy hammer.  In the next house, I don’t want to do anything.

We found that house by accident.  Cycling to work one morning, I came across an “open house” sign at the end of a street in Sherwood Forest, which was even leafier than Orchard Park.  I detoured along the street and found the house.  It was all brick, built on a centre-hall plan.  When I got to work, I phoned Francine.  We arranged that she’d pick me up at lunchtime.

I’d made a mistake.  The house wasn’t open to the public – the sign I’d seen indicated a viewing for real-estate agents.  But even though the property hadn’t been gussied up yet, the owner agreed to let us see it.  A potential customer is a potential customer, after all.  For the most part, the interior was as attractive as the exterior.  Hardwood flooring throughout, crown moulding, large windows, a separate dining room, stained-glass panels flanking the front door.  The basement was only semi-finished, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker – the house we were living in didn’t even have a basement.    

There was only one thing wrong with the house – the asking price was more than Francine and I could afford.  We made a lowball offer; the owners counteroffered.  We found some spare change down the back of the sofa, and made a higher offer; the owners made a new counteroffer.  But it was still too rich for our blood.  We told our realtor to forget it, and I went off to a conference.  A couple of days later, I phoned Francine from New Hampshire, and she told me that the owners of the Sherwood Forest house had decided to accept our second offer.

“Can they do that?” I asked.

Well, it turns out that they could.  And, as a result, we had our dream home. 

It was the beginning of November when we moved in, and it soon became obvious that the family room, which had been an addition to the original building, was unpleasantly cold.  Unlike our previous house, this one had a hot-water heating system.  And for some reason, the hot water wasn’t reaching the radiators in the addition. 

So we called a plumber.  He told us that we were lucky to have hot-water heating, because that was the best system.  When we asked him why it was the best system, he explained that radiant heat was “warmer” than that produced by forced-air furnaces.  I studied chemistry in my youth and retain a passing familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics.  But I don’t understand how any form of heat can be “warmer” than any other form of heat, unless it’s actually, you know, at a higher temperature.  

The plumber also explained that the family room, as well as about half of the original main floor, was on a separate “zone” from the rest of the house.  Flow of hot water through each of the zones was governed by a valve, which was opened and closed by a thermostat in the corresponding part of the house. 

Unfortunately he wasn’t able to fix the problem.  Nor, as it subsequently turned out, were other plumbers who worked for his company, or plumbers who worked for different companies.  No matter how much they tinkered with the system, the family room remained an uninhabitable meat-locker.  Giving up, we installed a gas fireplace.

The fireplace kept the room warm for many years, although the noise of its blower was a bit annoying, particularly if you were watching television.  But I had bigger problems, principally Francine being diagnosed with cancer.  Five years after she died, I remarried, and my new wife moved into the house.  Sue didn’t seem to understand that the stone-cold radiators in the family room were just a fact of nature.  She thought we should get them fixed.  So we started over again, this time with a new team of plumbers.  Over the next few years, these gentlemen (and one lady) replaced various pipes, pumps, valves and gauges with shiny new pipes, pumps, valves and gauges.  Unfortunately, all this work on their part, and expense on ours, resulted in at best a temporary warming of the family-room rads. 

But at least by now I had learned enough about my heating system to converse intelligently about it with the plumbing profession.  It seemed to me that the problem must be the zone valve controlling the addition.  After all, if the shiny new boiler was heating water, and the shiny new pump was sending that water to the rest of the house through shiny new piping, surely the leading suspect was the valve controlling flow to the family room?  However, a succession of plumbers “tested” the zone valve, and assured me that it worked perfectly.  Look, Graeme, try it yourself.  You just have to turn this wheel.  Hear the click?  That’s the sound of the valve opening.  See, the wheel continues around until it’s back at the starting position.  So the zone valve is fine.  That will be three hundred dollars, please.  Cash, check or credit card?

But, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, if every other part of your home-heating system has been replaced, then the one part that hasn’t been replaced, no matter how merrily it spins around, must be the culprit.  I phoned the plumbing company once again and asked them to send someone to replace the zone valve.  The woman in the office promised to do so, and assured me that, as it was a standard part, a new zone valve didn’t have to be ordered – the plumber would have one in his (or her) truck. 

When the plumber arrived, he insisted on “checking the system” – in other words, performing a billable diagnostic procedure that I didn’t want or need.  Then, when he admitted that maybe the zone valve was the problem, he told me that he didn’t have one with him, and would have to come back another day.  But in the fullness of time it came to pass that the old valve was removed and replaced with a shiny new one.

When the plumber was packing up his kit, he told me that, just out of curiosity, he’d disassembled the old zone valve to see what the problem was.  It turns out that the teeth of the spinning wheel were supposed to engage with those of another wheel mounted perpendicularly to it.  However, the teeth of the invisible second wheel were stripped.  Thus the visible wheel was turning, clicking, and doing absolutely nothing! 

“How about that?” I said, parting with another five hundred dollars.  Then I went upstairs and put my hand on the deliciously warm metal of the family-room radiators, doing their job at last.


Graeme Hunter‘s essays have been published in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly, Talking Soup, The Writing Disorder and Canadian Notes & Queries.  His web site is https://graemehunter.ca/.