Tag Archives: Narrative fiction


By Nancy Christie

“Get away from the window. And close those curtains!” Melanie’s words came out harsher than she had intended, and hurriedly she tried to soften her tone. “It’s cold outside, and this house is so drafty. At least the drapes block some of that wind. And I don’t want you to get sick,” she added belatedly.

She felt rather than heard Carolee’s almost inaudible sigh, felt rather than heard her daughter’s rejection of not just the words but of the message behind them: He’s not just late. He’s not coming—just like last week, and the week before that and the week before that. 

“Carolee?” she tried again, but when the nine-year-old didn’t respond, didn’t even turn around, she moved away from the doorway and headed down the stairs to the kitchen. She’d make her daughter’s favourite Sunday afternoon snack: hot cocoa and cinnamon toast. And then maybe they can play a board game or watch a movie or… 

Or just sit and stare at each other, with Carolee blaming her mother for her father’s absence and Melanie wondering if her daughter would ever understand, would ever forgive her, or, for that matter, if she had done the right thing in the first place.

Carolee heard her mother’s footsteps and, for a moment, thought to follow her. But her bedroom window was the only place where she had a good view of the road. From there, she could watch for her father’s pickup truck and have enough time to slip on her winter coat and hat and be ready to run out the door as he pulled in the driveway. Everything was laid out on the bed: her jacket, stocking cap, gloves and scarf, her backpack with her homework… Sometimes when they were sitting at Bill’s Burger Barn, her father would help her with her math. 

That’s why she hadn’t even opened her textbook. All her other assignments were completed, but she had saved math for last. In case they had time to do it. In case he came.

“And he will come,” she murmured, moving away from the window so she could rub her forehead. It was cold where she had leaned it against the glass. 

But she was only half-convinced. The court order defining the terms of the separation—the one she had found months ago when she was looking for a paperclip on her mother’s desk—had been clear: a visit each Sunday from noon to five and one weekend a month from Saturday at nine in the morning until Sunday night at eight. Each week she marked off the dates that she saw her father. If some months had fewer crossed-off blocks than others, she blamed it on the weather or her father’s work schedule or, if her parents had fought the weekend before, her mother.

But it was already half-past three, and she had been waiting since twelve. Her stomach was rumbling, and she was getting hungry, but she wouldn’t go downstairs and eat, even though she could now smell the aroma of the hot chocolate wafting up the stairs. Her mother made it the old-fashioned way with cocoa and milk and sugar, and since last Friday was payday, there might even be a tiny mountain of whipped cream swirled on top. And cinnamon toast, as many slices as she wanted. 

Carolee’s mouth watered, but she fought the urge to abandon her post. If she did, if she went downstairs and drank her cocoa and ate her toast, she would be admitting to a truth that she didn’t want to face: her father wasn’t coming. So she held firm, swallowed hard and kept watching the road, now coated with a thin sheen of ice.

It was the ice that was to blame, Rob said to himself. The ice and the truck’s more-than-slightly bald tires and the fact that he had to jump the battery just to get the vehicle started. Ever since the plant closed down and he lost his job, ever since the landlord finally kicked him out—not that he could blame him, since he was three month’s late with his rent—ever since he had moved into the shelter, he knew it was only a matter of time before the pickup would fail him.

Then he’d have to take a bus for the hour-long trip back to the town where he used to live, back to where the three of them once were a family. And when he got there, find some explanation for why he couldn’t take his daughter out for a three-dollar kid’s meal at the hamburger place, or why Carolee couldn’t come stay the weekend with him or why—this to Melanie—the check was late. Again.

The ice—that was the problem. As for the rest, he would have to tell Melanie the truth. He had run out of excuses, run out of reasons, run out of justifications for everything, even if not all of it was his fault.
But the closer he came to the highway exit, the more afraid he grew of what would happen next. What Melanie would say. What Carolee would think.

And so he had finally surrendered to the fear and pulled off onto the side of the road and sat there, shaking, wondering how everything had gone so wrong when all he had wanted was a job and a house and a wife and child. And love.

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It was quarter to four when Carolee heard, rather than saw, her father’s pickup: the sound of the exhaust escaping through the holes in the muffler, the grinding of the gears as he downshifted. She knew the sound of the truck as well as she knew her own heartbeat. Without waiting to see the vehicle, to hear the cab door creak open and then shut, Carolee pulled on her coat and hat, grabbed her belongings and headed downstairs.

But then she stopped on the last step, the anger emanating from the kitchen, an almost palpable force from her mother.

“You’re late! Again! Damn it, Rob! She’s been waiting for hours, and she wouldn’t even eat! Couldn’t you have called?” 

Carolee heard a low rumble of words and knew her father was trying to calm down her mother. It wouldn’t work. It never did. It didn’t work when they all lived together, and it wouldn’t work now. Best she go in so they would stop, and the visit—what was left of it anyway—could start.

“You’re right, Melanie, but wait. I need to explain. I need to tell you something—” Rob stopped when he saw his daughter in the doorway. He didn’t want to finish the conversation in front of her, didn’t want her to hear that her father was jobless, homeless, a failure as a man, a husband and a parent. 

So he pasted a smile on his face and opened his arms wide, and when she ran into them, he hugged her close and just kept saying, “How’s my girl? How’s my sweetheart? I’ve missed you so much!”

Melanie stood there, and then for a moment, she was suddenly back in her hospital room, watching her husband hold their newborn daughter—the child they had created out of love and hope—with a look on his face that was a mix of awe and fierce protectiveness. The same look he had now, except there was a slash of pain underscoring it, the same pain she felt each time he left, and she saw her daughter’s anguish at his departure.

She turned away, swallowing hard, and put on a pot of coffee. While they were gone for what little time remained, she’d go through the stack of bills, measuring the total due against her pitifully small paycheck, and wonder what she would do if the rumours were true and Wayside Market would shut down the first of the year. Unemployment wouldn’t be all that much, and her weekend work at Sam’s Bar & Grille would hardly make up the difference. As for the child support… 

And with that, her anger returned, and she pushed the start button on the coffeemaker with more force than necessary.

“I’m ready to go, Daddy.” 

Melanie turned at her daughter’s words just in time to see Rob shake his head. 

“Not today, sweetie,” he said and led her to the table where her now cold cocoa and toast were waiting. “The roads are really slippery, and the wind is sharp,” knowing even as he spoke that the excuses he offered weren’t enough. But they’d have to be. All he had in his wallet was a ten-dollar bill, and he needed that for gas.

“Tell you what,” slipping her coat off her shoulders, “let’s sit here and work together on whatever homework you have to finish. Okay?”

Carolee nodded, although it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t what she wanted: the three of them in the kitchen. The room was too small to hold all the emotions: her mother’s anger, her father’s fear that she sensed even if she didn’t understand its cause, and her own disappointment.

But at least he was here, she told herself as she pulled out her math book and paper and pencil. He was here, and that was all that mattered.

And while the two of them struggled through the calculations—Rob patiently explaining how to understand the problem and arrive at a solution—Melanie made a fresh mug of cocoa and more toast for her daughter. And then, almost as an afterthought, poured a cup of coffee for Rob—black with two sugars—and set it next to his elbow.

His shirt was missing a button, and his hair was longer than he usually wore it, she noticed, and there was a slight whiff of sweat from him when he moved his arm to pull Carolee’s book closer. And his face—something about it the way his cheekbones caught the light, the shadow on his chin where he had missed shaving. 

Unkempt. That was the word she was searching for. You would think he would at least make himself presentable, especially since he hadn’t seen his daughter for nearly a month.

She sat down across from them, trying with limited success to calm her anger.

“I’ll never get it!” Carolee said in frustration, as once again her father looked at her answer, shook his head and then slid the paper back to her side of the table. “I hate math!”

“That’s okay, sweetie,” Rob said, trying to console her. “Think how good you are at art! You draw wonderful pictures. Besides, no one is good at everything. I’m a terrible speller, and your mom wasn’t any good at math either.” Then he quickly glanced up at Melanie with a smile, hoping she wouldn’t take offence and, caught off guard, she smiled back.

It was true, Melanie thought. Each month, Rob would be the one to balance their chequebook because, try as she might, the figures never came out the way they should. But he never blamed her, just sat there with his hot cocoa and cinnamon toast—and was that where the Sunday afternoon ritual had started: cinnamon toast and hot cocoa?—and when the numbers finally worked themselves out, he’d close the chequebook with a satisfied sigh. Then two of them would go into the living room, and she’d settle herself on his lap, and they’d watch whatever was on television, content just to be together.

Until being together became a bad thing, a time fraught with tension and anger and disappointment. Until Melanie told him, she’d had enough, and she wanted him to leave. Although sometimes late at night, she wondered what was the final straw and whether that straw had really been enough, after all, to break it all apart. 

Carolee pursed her lips, erased the last two sets of numbers, recalculated the rest of them and then handed the paper back to her father. She wanted it to be correct so they could put the book away, and the two of them could go into the other room and just be alone for the little time remaining. Just half an hour, but even that was better than nothing. And next weekend she could spend two whole days with him. 

“See, you did it!” Rob smiled at his daughter. “It just takes a little time. Sometimes you have to go back a few steps and start over, and then it all works out.”

His words echoed in his mind. “Go back a few steps”—but it would take more than a few steps for him and Melanie. Miles, maybe, before they could get back to the place where it was all good, and they had plans for their future and then when she was pregnant, plans for the three of them.

Miles back and lots of detours that this time they would ignore: side roads they had mistakenly taken like the fight over the truck he had bought with what was left of their savings. Wrong turns like the time Melanie said—well, screamed, really, so loudly that she woke the baby—that she was sick of being poor and having to make do and couldn’t he get a better job. They would both be on verbal roundabouts during the worst of their fights, circling and circling with neither willing to give in or give up or do anything, just get off that endless loop of anger.

“Yay!” and Carolee quickly shoved the paper into her book and her book into her backpack before glancing up at the clock. It was a quarter to five. There were only fifteen minutes before her father left. But that would be enough time to plan what they would do next weekend. 

Maybe Saturday we could go to a movie, she thought. A movie, then back to his apartment where they could eat toasted cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Then, on Sunday…

But before she could speak, before she could take him by the hand and go into the other room and talk about what they would do the next time they were together, her father stood up.

“Sweetie, it’s getting late, and I need to talk to your mother before I leave. So give me a hug and kiss, and then why don’t you go watch television or something.”

Carolee knew what that meant. He wanted to be alone with her mother. He had something bad to say, something that would make her mother angry, and for just a minute, she was angry, too. Couldn’t he just once not make trouble? If he made her mother angry, it would spill over to Carolee. And then, late at night, she’d wake up and hear her mother crying and bury her head under the pillow because she didn’t know what to do and only wanted it all to stop. 

But she couldn’t change anything, couldn’t stop the two of them from talking or fighting. So she gave him a hug and kiss and then went up to her room, pausing on the bottom step in the hope that he would change his mind and call her back. But it didn’t happen, so she continued on her way.

Rob heard her and knew by the way her footsteps sounded on the staircase that she was hurt and sad. But it had to be done, and squaring his shoulders, he turned to face Melanie.

“The plant closed down.” The words came out harsher than he had intended and struck Melanie’s face almost like a blow. “I didn’t want to tell you—that’s why I missed the last few visits. Plus I’ve been looking for another job. But you know how it is. No one is hiring at the end of the year.”

Melanie took a deep breath. Her first thought was the bills. How would she manage without what little money he sent her? And if he was out of work, then Carolee didn’t have health insurance. What if she got sick?

She sat down heavily in the chair and buried her head in her hands, too upset and frightened to cry.

“That’s why I haven’t been around and because,” here he swallowed hard but decided to go ahead and tell her everything, “well, my landlord kicked me out, and I had to move into a shelter. So I can’t take Carolee next weekend. As a matter of fact, I may have to miss the next couple of visits. I need to save gas to go look for work. But it’s not all bad news. One of the guys I work with—worked with,” he corrected himself, “said that a plant in Braden is hiring, but that’s two hours away. I’m going there on Monday. If I get it, I’ll let you know.”

He took a deep breath. “I’ll get something, Melanie. I promise,” and he reached over to put a hand on her shoulder. “And it will all be okay.” 

She heard the note in his voice, the mix of hope and comfort, and for just a moment, let herself believe him. But just for a moment, and then it all came back: the disappointment, fear, anger, pain, regret—but regret for what? For ending their marriage or for marrying him in the first place? For encouraging him all the times when things didn’t work out or for telling him it was all his fault: the lost jobs, the economic downturn, the reality that their life together didn’t at all match the fantasy she had held onto?

She stood up, faced him and took a deep breath, not knowing what she should say. And, with no words to express all that she felt, she reached out, picked up his empty coffee cup and threw it against the kitchen door, where it shattered into pieces, a physical representation of what her marriage and life had become.

“Just go.”

Only two words, but behind them, Rob heard all that she didn’t say and knew that the distance between them was now even greater.

“I’m sorry”—a futile response but all he could manage through a throat constricted by emotion. He pulled on his coat and then opened the kitchen door, letting in a rush of frigid air. “Melanie?” One last word, a question really, but when no answer came, he left, closing the door behind him.

Melanie stood there, heart pounding, tears forming, and swallowed hard. She knew it wasn’t all Rob’s fault. She knew that other families faced the same situation. But it was easier to be angry with him than to admit to the fear that overwhelmed her. She walked over to pick up the shards of china. When she reached the door, she could only lean her head against it, listening for the sound of the truck’s engine, hoping that he might come back and hold her and tell her it would all be okay and that she didn’t have to deal with it all by herself.

But all she heard was silence.

He stepped off the porch and then paused to light a cigarette, one of two he allowed himself each day. He wasn’t angry at Melanie, not really. He saw behind her reaction the fear and loneliness that clutched at her, the same emotions he faced each day, the same emotions that dogged his restless sleep.

He inhaled, held the smoke in his lungs, then released it, watching it drift upward through the falling snow. 

Things will get better, and he wasn’t sure if he was telling himself that or sending the thought to Melanie. 

The sound of the cup crashing against the wall was so loud that Carolee heard it from the top of the staircase where she had been sitting, hoping until the last minute that her father might call her down. They could have just a little more time. Ten minutes, five even—that would have been enough.

But then she heard the crash, followed by a silence that seemed to stretch forever, then finally the sound of the kitchen door shutting, she knew that he had left the house. She left her post and went into her room, pulling back the curtains to watch and hope. Maybe he had forgotten something in his truck and had just gone out to get it and then come back into the house. 

Maybe… But no. She saw his figure, shrouded in the darkness, pause on the walkway and then the brief flare of the match as he lit his cigarette. He wouldn’t be coming back. Not tonight. Maybe not ever again, but she pushed that thought back into the dark corners of her mind. 

Next week, she thought. He’ll be back next week. And the week after that, and maybe someday he won’t ever leave.

Standing there in the frigid air, Rob finished his cigarette and then headed over to his truck. Would the engine start, allowing him to return to the life he had now? Or would the battery finally be so dead that the motor wouldn’t turn over and he couldn’t leave but would have to stay—go back through the door and into the kitchen, go back in time and into the life they once shared?

But when it did start, he gave one final glance at the house, at the kitchen door still shut, then up to the window where he thought he saw his daughter’s outline. 

Maybe someday things will change, he thought as he shifted the truck into gear and backed down the driveway. If I could get the job and make enough money, Melanie wouldn’t have to work so hard… If I can just make it all turn out right…

Melanie heard the truck engine catch, then the sound of the wheels crunching the ice and snow as Rob’s truck made its way down the blacktopped driveway. He was leaving, and she wasn’t sure if she was glad that the fight was over or sorry that it had turned out that way again.

I don’t understand, she thought wearily as she bent down to pick up the fragments of the cup. Where did we go wrong? Why did it have to turn out this way?

Carolee watched the truck slowly back down the driveway. Then the headlights flashed across the front of the house as he turned onto the street, the snowflakes glittering in their beam. She watched until he reached the corner and then turned again, watched until she couldn’t see the truck anymore.

Then she slid open the window, heedless of the cold, listening for the sound of the engine. But all that came in on the wind was silence and the faint smell of burning tobacco, wending its way up to where she waited.

She breathed it in deeply, holding her father in her lungs, in her heart, never wanting to exhale again.

Nancy Christie is the author of two award-winning short story collections: Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (runner-up in the 2016 Best Indie Book by Shelf Unbound) and Peripheral Visions and Other Stories (Bronze award winner in the 2020 Foreword INDIES competition and finalist in the 2021 Eric Hoffer Award competition)—both published by Unsolicited Press, as well as three nonfiction books. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary publications, with several earning contest placements. She’s also the host of the Living the Writing Life podcast and founder of the annual “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day.

Guys Like Him

By Maia Kowalski

My father started going to church again after he got divorced the second time. Whether it was because he felt guilty or suddenly pious, I’ll never know, but I was forced to go with him every Sunday morning. I don’t know why he wanted the company. We didn’t do a lot of stuff together. Maybe he couldn’t face the good Lord alone.

I had been put in Catholic school growing up. Still, at 16, I wasn’t really interested in whether God was real anymore, let alone sending a prayer to him. There was so much singing and sitting and standing. I refused to believe every service was only an hour because it felt so much longer than that. I didn’t think anyone really wanted to be there either. I figured they were just nervously mulling over all the things they had done in their lives, things they knew would eventually catch up to them. 

We never wore our Sunday best. In the beginning, I admit I tried. I wore dresses that I hadn’t worn since eighth grade, stuff that somehow still fit me because I didn’t have anything nice enough for service. Dad wore dress shirts and slacks. But as time went on and the weather got warmer, the both of us gave up. I’d be there, sweating under the church’s impossibly high ceiling fans, in denim cut-offs and a spaghetti-strap tank top. My father wore the same beige cargo shorts and a white polo. I was convinced he never washed them. Every week I swore I smelled last week’s incense, threaded in-between the cotton.

I’m not sure what my father prayed for. He seemed focused, diligently repeating prayers with the rest of the congregation and singing Alleluia with gusto. He kept his head down the longest in prayer once everyone had gotten Communion. I wondered if he was being honest with himself about all the missteps he had taken in his marriages. Sometimes, though, I wondered if he was praying for a third wife.

My father’s marriages were rocky at best. His first one, with my mother, was almost comical, the way they fought in front of and behind me, how they whispered venomous words to each other at bedtime instead of sweet nothings. It became routine for me to listen to their fights before bed. I pretended to be asleep as they tucked me in, and as soon as they left my room, I snuck behind their door frame and listened to the sharp tones and hisses, wondering if I should interfere. The thing I remember most was an argument at dinner, full of the same old yelling crap, me keeping my head down when my father suddenly stood up. His face twisted into something stupid when he was angry, the way the wrinkles in his forehead rolled into his browbone, and the overexaggerated frown lines around his mouth. He looked like a pug throwing a tantrum. But that night, he towered over my mother, who was still in her seat. He spat curses into her face and clutched his dinner fork in his right hand. Then the fork went down, past her, bounced once under the table and settled on the floor with a clatter. My father walked away from us; I heard the front door slam shortly after. My mother got up and cleared both their plates while I sat at the table alone. Then she went up to the bedroom, and I didn’t hear anything from her for the rest of the night. I pushed back my chair and went over to the place where my father had thrown the fork. You couldn’t see anything if you weren’t looking for it, but in a certain light, you saw the evidence: a shallow groove in the dark hardwood. I ran my fingers over it. It looked like it had hurt. 

That was the first time I realized I was scared of him. I didn’t creep out of bed anymore when they were fighting. I went straight up to my room after school and ate my dinners quickly. My parents divorced later that year. 

My father’s second wife, Iva, left my life as quickly as she had entered it. It was a few years after the first divorce and lasted only three years. But within those years, she had moved in, rearranged our apartment furniture, tried to bond with me by watching old episodes of Friends and then she was gone, without so much as an explanation from my father about what had happened. I was disinterested in his life by then, much more than I had been when he divorced my mother, so peppering him with questions about a woman I barely knew would have seemed out of character for me. He only spoke about it once, when we were in the car, waiting for someone to back out of their parking spot. He said it the same way you’d recite a badly-written riddle: “Sometimes, Evelyn, you meet people, and you think you’re on the same page. But then, later on, you find out that you weren’t the whole time.” And that was it. I just nodded and looked out the window. 

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It was sticky and hot the morning we met Daniel. We had left the apartment in a rush, as usual: me, taking my time, hoping I would be so slow that my father would let me stay at home for once, and my father, rushing me along, snapping at me for not getting my shoes on fast enough or getting out of my pyjamas in time. On Sundays, church started at 9am. Neither of us ate breakfast, so the Holy Ghost was our appetizer before we went for our weekly brunch after service. The weather report that morning had said it was going to hit 30 by the afternoon, but at 8:45, it was already humid and felt like 25. When I opened my bedroom window, there wasn’t even a hint of a breeze; when I stuck my hand out, only stagnant, warm air surrounded it. My father and I threw on our usual summer-church outfits: cargo shorts and a polo for him, denim cut-offs and a loose tank for me. We slipped on our sandals and flip-flopped our way down the hall, into the elevator, through the apartment lobby and down the street to the church. Looking back, I’m not sure why we rushed. A lot of people in our area were rich — like, rich-rich — and I had seen more than a few minivans, and Range Rovers with canoes strapped to their roofs pass by on their way to cottage country. In the last few weeks, I noticed the average churchgoer change from couples with young kids that ran up and down the aisles during service, who sometimes had to step outside to soothe their screaming baby, to seniors that smelled like sunscreen and mothballs, wearing sun visors indoors and who only sat in the front pews.  In the winter, pews were packed. It wasn’t uncommon to stand in the aisles during service. Even in the spring, with all the holidays, there were times when the church was at its capacity. But in the summer, people took a break from school and work and, evidently, their faith, to bask in the sun for a while. I didn’t blame them. I’d want to do that too if that was the kind of family we were. 

But since there was a great migration up north to swim and kayak and roast marshmallows over the fire, there was no need for my father and me to rush to service that Sunday. The double doors were open to allow airflow. As we ran up the steps and into the foyer, hastily dipping our fingers into the dish of holy water to bless our arrival, we were greeted with the heavy sounds of the church organ and rows upon rows of almost empty pews. My father and I walked over to the side aisle and halfway up the floor before slipping into an empty row. I saw the usual seniors kneeling in the first three pews, all single patrons, their balding heads or perms a dead giveaway. Dad and I were dishevelled, to say the least. We were both panting, catching our breath from running straight from the apartment, and I wished those ridiculously high ceiling fans spun closer to my body to give me a more satisfying cooldown. The organ was still playing, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the altar boys and priest walking past us down the middle aisle with their holy books and crosses. I slowed my breathing and tried to pull my shorts down a little in an attempt at modesty. Dad smelled like sweat, dark circles growing underneath his armpits. 

When the priest reached the altar, he bowed, walked up to it and kissed it. That was when we heard running footsteps, huffing and puffing, and sharp whispers of “Hurry up!” coming from the side aisle. Nobody turned around but my father and me to see a blond-haired, blustering mess of a man running with a small child. They stopped halfway up the church and shuffled into the pew in front of us. The priest hadn’t sat down yet, so neither had any of us. These two latecomers did, though, and groaned in relief as soon as their butts hit the wood. Then the organ stopped, the priest sat down, and so did the rest of us. The blond-haired man wiped his forehead with the front of his shirt and fumbled in the pew shelf in front of him for the right book. He passed the child a copy of the missal and opened one of the songbooks himself. The child kept his head down and started sifting through the pages.

The blond man turned around in his seat. “What book are we supposed to be using?” he asked me. He had a babyface but wore glasses that made him look considerably older and made his eyes look smaller than they should’ve. They were half-fogged up from all the sweating. Then his eyes shifted, and he saw my father. His face broke into a grin. “Patrick?”

I looked at my father. He was smiling, too. “No way. What are you doing here?”

“Church shit,” the blond man said. “Whoops. Not supposed to swear in front of the kid.”

“I didn’t even recognize you,” my father said. 

“Are you calling me fat?” was the blond man’s reply, and while my father laughed quietly, he still got shushed from the handful of seniors that sat around us. 

The blond man rolled his eyes. “Bunch of sticklers,” he said. “Hey, what are you doing after this? We should catch up.”

“I’m –” my father began, but Lorraine, one of the weekly older ladies sitting in front of the blond man, turned around and glared at him. 

“If you must talk, go outside,” she said, her red lips pursed. 

The blond man sighed loudly and looked back at my father. Later, he mouthed and turned back to his songbook. 

The priest stood up again and recited the opening prayer. All the churchgoers repeated it in a deadpan unison. When the choir began to sing Gloria, my father leaned over to me. 

“I knew him in school,” he whispered. “His name’s Daniel. And I think his kid’s name is Ethan, but I could be wrong. It’s been a while.”

A man with wiry grey hair and circular glasses that made his eyes look like an owl glared at us from across the aisle. We looked over at him briefly before turning back to the choir. 

“Anyway,” my father continued in a quieter whisper, so low I could barely hear him beneath all the singing. “He did gain weight, so that’s why I didn’t recognize him. But don’t tell him that.” He grinned at me then, as if we were sharing an inside joke. I gave a small smile back and then dropped it because it felt weird to do it while we were supposed to be listening.  

Once the hymn ended, the first reader stood up from the front pew and walked to the podium with a book in his hand. He read the first reading of the mass to silence. Daniel, in front of us, was still sweating. I could see small drops of it slowly dripping down his neck and into the collar of his shirt. When we all stood up to sing another hymn, his knees cracked, and he groaned loudly. The seniors across the row glared at him again. 

It was usually by the second reading that I started counting the minutes until church was over. There wasn’t much after that except for more singing, a couple of peace be with you‘s, communion and church news. Some days we slipped out right after getting our daily bread. Other times we stayed behind, just in case the church news contained some gossip. But it usually didn’t.

During the priest’s homily, Daniel hunched over on his phone. His phone volume was low, but I could hear the clicks of a keyboard and the swoosh sound of messages being sent. Ethan swung his legs underneath the pew, sometimes hitting the pew in front of them. Lorraine turned around, a frown on her face, and looked Ethan up and down. Daniel put his hand on Ethan’s leg and hissed, “Stop,” causing Ethan to sit abnormally still. From where I sat behind them, it barely looked like he was breathing. 

They didn’t shuffle out of their pew for communion like we did. When my father made eye contact with Daniel, Daniel just shrugged comically at us. We lined up behind the other patrons to take the bread of Christ from the priest and then looped our way back around. Once we knelt to pray, uncomfortably close to Daniel and his neverending sweat, Ethan looked over at his dad. 

“Why don’t we get that?” he asked, in a stage-whisper.

“Ask your mother when you get home,” Daniel said. He was still hunched over his phone.

“But I’m hungry.”

“We’ll get McDonald’s on the way out. Be quiet.”

Everyone was in their pews. My father and I sat back. The priest walked to the altar to deliver the church news. Nothing interesting to report. 

I spent about half of the mass watching Daniel’s sweat dot his collared golf shirt, and the other half checking in on Ethan, watching the way his shoulders rose and fell, how his breathing quickened whenever his father glanced over at him. This mass passed by quicker for me than others, for which I was grateful, but not by much due to our companions.  Still, I was happy when I heard the concluding hymn and the closing procession. The priest followed the altar boys down the aisle towards the back of the church. Ethan arched his head out around his dad to catch a glimpse of the procession. As they walked by, Ethan’s eyes bounced between the sparkly gold cross held by the altar boy, to the Bible held by the priest, to the priest’s face. It was almost as if the priest knew because as he walked by, he looked over into Ethan’s pew and smiled at him. Ethan smiled back. Daniel noticed and looked down at his son with a scowl. Then he turned to us with a disgusted look on his face. My father raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, holding in a laugh. I looked at Ethan, who was fiddling with his shirt again. Once the full procession had gone, my father and I did a half-hearted genuflect in our pew and filed out to the side aisle. Daniel and Ethan didn’t even bother pretending to do one before following us out. We merged with the handful of seniors coming out of their pews to leave the church. Daniel sidled up to my father and swiped his arm. 

“Since when do you live around here?”

“Since…how long has it been?” My father looked at me, and I shrugged. “Maybe six months?” 

“I had no idea. I thought you were more uptown.”

“I was, but Iva kept the house. So, here I am.”

“You and Iva split up?”

“Just last year.”

Daniel whistled. “Strike two, eh?” 

“It happens.”

“You found God or something too, then?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

I didn’t know where Ethan was until Daniel pulled him out from behind his legs. He stumbled over his own feet, and Daniel held his arm tight in order to prevent him from falling forward. 

“This is Ethan, by the way,” Daniel said. “Rebecca put him in a Catholic school this year, so we have to do this kind of stuff now. They don’t really give us a say once the papers are signed, eh?”

“You’re telling me.”

I wasn’t surprised that my father got along with Daniel so well. He was good at the whole chummy-chummy social thing, especially with people that were similar to him in personality: unabashedly arrogant, know-it-alls with a hint of aggression. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a movie the way he interacted with people like this, the way his facade wouldn’t slip for a moment until we were home. I didn’t know who my father was in these moments. It was fascinating to watch. 

Daniel tapped his son on the head like a dog. “Say hi, Ethan.”

Ethan looked up at us, eyes wide, with an intention to wave but without the courage to follow through. With a drop of the head and eyes to the floor, he hid behind his father again.

“Shy, of course,” Daniel said, a note of distaste in his voice. He tried to coax Ethan back out from behind him. “Must have gotten it from his mother.”

I was very uncomfortable. I hated conversations like this, ones that rebuked the parent who was absent for traits their children couldn’t control. Maybe you made him like this, I wanted to say. Maybe he’s too afraid to be anything else than shy. I knew that feeling all too well. 

“And who’s this?” Daniel asked, looking at me. I didn’t like looking into his tiny eyes, so I focused on his nose: small and unassuming. 

“Evelyn,” my father said. He was smiling as he said it, which I found unusual. 

“Evelyn,” Daniel repeated. He studied my face for a while longer. “You look just like your mom. Thank God, too.” He gave a hacking cough of a laugh that made some of the seniors around us turn around.

My father said, “Hey!” and playfully slapped Daniel’s shoulder. “Speak for yourself.”

“I am!” Daniel said. “My kid didn’t get that” — he pointed at Ethan — “from me.” He laughed again, and so did my father. I pointedly looked outside, past the open double doors. 

“Well, Pat,” Daniel said. “We should grab a drink sometime. Not weekends, though. That’s when I have this guy.” He tapped Ethan’s head again. Ethan winced.

“Sounds good.”

“I’ll bring Mark with me,” Daniel added. “You remember Mark, right? Psych 101?”

“Course I do.”

“He just got divorced, too,” Daniel said. “He’ll probably need a drink.”

Another laugh between the two of them. 

“You have my number?” my father said. He took out his phone, and they swapped numbers, grinning like two kids during frosh week.  

Daniel gave him a salute, and me, a wink. “Cheers,” he said. 

Then he turned towards the exit and put his hand on the back of Ethan’s head, pushing him gently ahead as he began to walk. Ethan dragged his feet until Daniel awkwardly leaned over mid-step to grab Ethan’s hand. They went down the church steps together, Ethan stumbling on the cracks. When they were out of sight, my father put his hands in his pockets.

“Huh,” he said, letting out a sigh. “I never liked that guy.”

I stared at him. He didn’t seem to be joking. “Really?”

“He’s so loud,” my father said. “He was like that in school, too. I thought Lorraine was going to kill him when he arrived late today.” 

“She was pretty close.”

“I almost wanted to warn him, but I figured he deserved it if she said something. He didn’t even go up for communion.”

“I don’t think he knew how.”

My father laughed at that. “I guess not.” He paused. “Did you like him?”

“Not really.”

“Good,” he said. “I wouldn’t want you around guys like him.”

I stared at him again. “Yeah. Me either.”

On our way out, we dipped our fingers into the bowl of holy water again, blessing ourselves. We walked out the doors and into the heat, the humidity building up on our skin. Our sandals slapped the pavement in an irregular rhythm as we walked back home.

Maia Kowalski (she/her) is a writer from Toronto, Canada, and has degrees in journalism and creative writing under her belt. She has been published in Yolk Literary, and Montréal Writes. She is currently putting together her first short story collection. Find more of her work on her website.

Our Kingdom Come

By David Leonard

Thankfully the privacy curtain blocked his daughter’s view of her hospital room’s doorway. Dave knew his wife had called her Priest; she was very active in the church and knew him well. Their daughter was not expected to live through the afternoon. In a fog of excruciating grief, he reluctantly arose from beside his only child’s bedside. He prevented the Priest from entering her hospital room. He knew the Priest was just doing his job offering prayers of salvation in their time of sorrow, but Dave didn’t share their faith, and he’d be damned if the Priest would administer Last Rites while she still breathed. No one was going to rob him of one minute of her life, which still remained. Just as the Priest was about to speak, Dave put his hand, open-palmed, directly in his concerned face. 

“Don’t say a single word, please. If you attempt to enter her room while she still breathes, I will throw you out and lock the door. It matters not to me that you are a Catholic Priest, for I do not believe you possess the only path to Heaven.” 

Both stared at each other for several agonizingly, long seconds before the Priest crossed himself, opened his Bible and softly prayed for them all.

Dave’s head was spinning from lack of sleep; why in the name of God was this happening to his beautiful teenage daughter, whom a mere three days ago was so full of life and energy she radiated happiness, lifting the spirits of everyone she came in contact with? This isn’t God’s will. God has nothing to do with life or death anymore. If he did, God would never allow children to be taken. Colleen called, snapping him back to the sorrow at hand. Heartbroken, he hurried back to his daughter, sliding his chair as close to her hospital bed as space allowed grasping her right hand in both of his. Her skin was cold, very cold, and though he briskly rubbed her hand and arm, it failed to warm in the least bit, as if life had already receded from her outer extremities.

         “Daddy, I’m scared,” his daughter cried, her eyes searching for help and hope in his.

         “Hey Dot,” he replied softly. It was the nickname he’d given her at birth from a big red spot pressed onto her forehead, the result of her trying to enter this world sideways in the birth canal. After 24 hours of labour, their doctor finally delivered her by “C” section. The operating room nurse quickly cleaned, then wrapped a small blanket around their daughter, showed her to Colleen, then handed him their tiny bundle of joy while the doctor finished with her mother. Dave gazed into his newly born daughter’s beautiful blue eyes as the nurse cut and tied her umbilical cord; without a whimper from the newborn child. Her little eyes locked on his for minute upon minute, as if in recognition. To Dave, she looked more like a miniature adult than a baby; her eyes conveyed intelligence and understanding. By then, the red spot on her head had faded, but the nickname stuck. “Dot, do you remember when we got Banjo, or more like when you picked Banjo out?” Banjo was the Golden Retriever puppy they took her to buy for her fifth birthday. “There were three puppies in a small pen. Two were jumping all-around your legs saying, pick me, pick me, and the third cowered in the corner of the pen, obviously scared and tormented by the other two. Of course, you picked him and didn’t let go until we got home. You two were inseparable from day one.”

She smiled at the thought; it was good to see his daughter smile again. “ I remember, Banjo was waiting for me. He needed me, Dad; Banjo was the best dog ever.” Dot said this with moist eyes; just the thought of her golden retriever filled their hearts with love. Her tears were drops of joyful memories.

“You know Dot, I’ll never forget the day your training wheels came off your bike,” Dave continued. “I watched as you rode down the driveway. I was also throwing the tennis ball to Banjo; big mistake. I threw the ball high so it would bounce high. You know how much he loved to jump up to catch the ball in the air. You came wobbling up the drive just as the ball came down right in front of your bike, when here comes Banjo flying through the air going straight for the tennis ball. BAMMM, you hit him as he flew by, throwing you over the handlebars into his side, and you both tumbled across the asphalt together. It was a miracle that neither one of you was seriously injured,” Dave said, smiling and shaking his head. Even though they had told and re-told this same story many times, they never tired of telling it or hearing it again. 

“I sure remember hitting Banjo and falling. I didn’t know it was you that set the collision in motion, Daaaad!” she replied. They both laughed. Only a story and memory of that loveable dog could make a dying child laugh, but it ended quickly.

“Why did Banjo have to die? Why Dad?” A tumour near his heart had killed Banjo last year, after eight wonderful years. 

“Why do I have to die, Dad? Why me? I don’t want to die. I’m scared, Dad,” Dot asked with the fear of fate returning to her eyes.

“Dot,” Dave asked his daughter. “What is ‘dog’ spelled backwards?”

It took her a few seconds, but she answered, “God, dog spelled backwards is God.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Banjo is waiting for us right now. And what’s our favourite thing to do together, you, me, and Banjo?” 

This she answered without hesitation. “Hike through Fatman’s Squeeze on our way up the bluff at Devil’s Lake State Park and eat lunch.”

“Well, we’re going there this afternoon. You just wait and see,” Dave said. “When the time comes, I’ll be there for you. We’re doing this together, Dot.” She laid there with her hair spread across the pillow, appearing angelic, in perfect peace. As they gazed into each other’s eyes, the room and everything in it seemed to disappear, their love radiating from each to the other. The sad thing was his daughter seemed to be growing more distant as if passing at this moment. “Mr. Lennon, can I have a word with you?” the Doctor interrupted as if time meant nothing. 

He hadn’t even heard the useless bastard enter, but at this moment, he never felt like hitting someone more, Dave disliked the Priest, but he hated the Doctor. It was only three days ago that they’d rushed their daughter into the hospital’s emergency room. She’d been running a very high fever that came out of nowhere, suddenly, in less than a day after returning from a free admission day at the Dell’s Best Waterpark. An immigrant from Liberia working in the Wisconsin Dells on a J-1 Visa, who was also an unwitting carrier of Meningitis, just happened to cough in his daughter’s face infecting her. But he blamed the doctor, who did almost nothing for the first, most critical 24 hours.

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“Mr. Lennon, you shouldn’t be filling her head with promises you can’t keep or fulfill,” he spoke softly as Dave walked up to him.

 Colleen came over as well; she had barely said a word to their daughter all day. For a mother, she didn’t handle pressure well. When their daughter needed her most, she couldn’t comfort her; there would be no tomorrow. 

“Listen, Doctor, I’m only going to tell you once, shut up and leave us alone, I mean it. When you have to watch your child die because some incompetent idiot did nothing but give her an IV of saline solution as a treatment for a serious contagious disease, you might have a far different opinion. If you so much as cough while standing here, I’m going to hit you so hard you’ll be opening the door to Heaven for my daughter, got it? After she passes, you and the other useless guy in the hallway can do what you wish; I’ll be puking in the bathroom.”

 Colleen grabbed his upper arm tightly to get his full attention. “Dave, control yourself, please, not here, not now, think of our daughter. They came to help,” she said, trying to diffuse the situation.

 Dave was upset with them all, the Priest, the doctor, and his wife. He felt betrayed by all three. He jabbed his finger at the inept Doctor and said, “He’s no help. When we needed him to be on his toes and play his best game, he failed miserably, doing as little as possible. No review of her symptoms, no testing, or even conferring with his colleagues. And the Priest is here to administer Last Rights. If he was truly here to help, he would be praying for a miracle cure.” Pointing at his wife, he said, “And if you DON’T agree with me, DON’T take sides, especially theirs.”  

With that said, he hurried back to his daughter’s side. What gives them the right to interfere negatively in someone else’s final moment? The useless doctor can replace a person’s heart but isn’t smart enough to know how not to injure one. The useless priest who can pray for and save your soul but can’t pray himself out of his own moral vacuum. The key to Heaven is this: The door’s not locked; it’s within reach of every one of us. You just need to know which way to turn. Of course, the entrance to Hell is also; they both use the same door; for one, you go in, the other out.

Colleen needs more comfort than their daughter Dave thought. She can’t handle their daughter dying so instead of giving her all the love she could, sharing their last minutes together, Colleen turned to the living for comfort, pathetic. 

Dave spoke softly to his daughter. He could see she was fading, her eyes were open wide, but she couldn’t see, her vision was looking in, Dot was moving on, glimpsing the afterlife. “Look for Banjo Dot. He’ll be there, darling, and wait for me.”

 Colleen cried in the doctor’s arms, not her family’s, but what did it matter. The smell of death permeated the room as Dot’s bladder released and tears trickled down both of her cheeks.

 “Daddy, where are you?” Dot cried softly as she slowly expelled her last breath. 

Dave hugged her body one last time, long and hard, as only a father could. He had to be strong now, stronger than he’d ever been before.

 “Hold on, Dot, wait for me and look for Banjo; he’ll be there,” Dave said, standing, his own tears streaked down his face as he looked at his wife for the last time. She stood there crying with her face cupped in her trembling hands. The Doctor closed Dot’s eyelids and shut her mouth; he also straightened her arms and legs so it would be easier to conduct an autopsy without having to break bones. The clueless moron could have at least waited until they were out of the room. The Priest had come into the room and stood on the opposite side of the bed from the doctor to give their daughter Last Rights. “I’m going to be sick,” Dave mumbled as he walked into the bathroom and gently shut the door behind him.

KERRR BAMMM!!!!! The gunshot sounded more like an explosion in the confines of the small, tiled bathroom as it echoed down the hospital’s hallways. Colleen screamed as the Doctor yanked open the bathroom door, and they both rushed in with the Priest close behind. Dave sat on the tiled, ceramic floor of the walk-in shower, his back rested against a plastic seat patients would use to sit on while washing. Behind his head, he had put towels to limit the gore and mess, then leaned his head back, put the gun in his mouth and blew the back of his skull and most of his brains against the shower wall. His blood and life slowly circled the drain between his legs on its final, dark descent.

“Why Dave, why?” Colleen cried, “We still had each other!” She was wracked in heaving, uncontrollable sobs and let the doctor lead her out of the bathroom. 

“Maybe we should move into the hall while I call for some orderlies,” the Doctor said softly, barely audible over the pious prayers of the Priest. Who spoke as if he had to say them quickly before Dave’s soul was dragged down the drain, beyond earshot, on his final descent to Hell.

Woof, woof, woof,” the excited bark of an extremely happy dog along with the click, click, click of nails on prancing paws could be heard coming down the hospital corridor towards Dot’s room.

 “What the Hell?” the Doctor said, looking about. “Dogs aren’t allowed in Intensive Care.”

 “Banjo,” Colleen sobbed in surprise. “That was Banjo, our daughter’s dog that passed away last year.” 

“OH MY GOD!” she cried out as she stared wide-eyed at her daughter, “Doctor, look!”

The doctor stared in disbelief as he slowly approached Dot’s bed, shaking his head back and forth. “This can’t be! I shut her eyes and mouth myself. She was dead; she is dead.” But there Dot lay, eyes wide open, crinkled at the corners with a large, full tooth grin upon her face.

Woof, woof, woof,” the dog barked again from inside their hospital room. The Priest hurried out of the bathroom where he had been giving Dave his Last Rights.

 “You shouldn’t have a dog in here; what’s going on?” he asked as he glanced around the room, not seeing one. His eyes then focussed on Dot laying in bed, and he crossed himself again. “Lord, why do you test my faith? Is not the door to Heaven opened by one’s belief in your only son Jesus Christ, not by the barking of some animal?” he questioned out loud.

 “No,” Colleen replied. “Just look at our daughter. It’s a miracle, oh my God, it’s a miracle!” There was genuine happiness in her voice, “Something wonderful is happening here, Father. “She stepped back into the bathroom to check out her husband’s expression and started to laugh through her tears. Dave’s eyes were wide open, and he was smiling broadly. If the back half of his head wasn’t missing, he could pass as someone who’d just won the lottery. Colleen couldn’t believe what was happening, something extraordinary. No, it really was a miracle if the priest believed it or not. She came back to her daughter’s bed wiping happy tears of love and fond memories from her cheek where the doctor was trying unsuccessfully to close their daughter’s eyes again. Colleen reached up and lightly touched his upper arm. “Please let her be Doctor. My daughter is most definitely in a better place. If you don’t think so, go look at her father in the bathroom, he couldn’t be happier.” 

“Hey,” Colleen cried, “Banjo just licked my hand. I knew he was here; that’s why Dot is smiling so broadly.” 

The Priest just couldn’t let that go. “That’s not possible; dogs don’t go to Heaven or return as Angels. The door to Heaven is opened through belief and faith in Jesus Christ. Your husband wouldn’t even let me pray for your daughter. Colleen looked closely at her Priest and saw a different man than the one she thought she knew. It was he who was having a question of faith.

 “Father,” Colleen said, “My husband DID NOT prevent you from praying for our daughter. He stopped you from giving her Last Rights while she still lived. He felt you should be praying for a miracle cure. You know Jesus can’t be the only key to Heaven’s door. What about the six billion non-Christians? Where do they go? And no animals in Heaven, I don’t believe it. God sent the only Angel a little girl would trust, her beloved dog. I think everybody deserving` go to their own Heaven; there are many doors, and love is the key, the Kingdom of God is within us all,” she scolded.

The Priest was muttering a silent prayer, but he answered Colleen quick enough. “Mrs. Lennon, they’re dead. They can’t go to Heaven on their terms; that’s out of the question,” he said. 

Today was tragic enough, but Colleen was convinced they were witnesses to a miracle. “Father, you can’t possibly mean that. Their smiling faces should tell you they are together with her dog Banjo. Who came today to accompany them to their Heaven. A Heaven they’ll share and be together in to do all their favourite activities. What’s happening here is special, something very special, and it’s happening before your very eyes,” she replied. 

The Priest seemed to think about what Colleen had just said, but he was just shaking his head slowly back and forth when he looked down at his hands. “What in the world?” he questioned, somewhat taken aback. “A dog just licked my palm; it’s actually wet.”

 “What did you just say?” the Doctor asked; his hand had been licked a moment before. 

 “Woof, woof, woof,” the dog barked again from just outside the hospital room door in the hall. The three of them just stared as the elevator button was pushed and its doors opened. 

“Woof, woof, woof,” as they closed, a dog barked one last time from inside the empty elevator.

 The priest mumbled: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, as I am today. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, as they just were.” 

David Leonard is a new, recently published author in Literary Yard with his story: Watchmen Of Perdition. He has written other short stories and a soon-to-be-completed novel.

In the Church Library

By Zaqary Fekete

Bernelle was brushing away a grey hair when the women entered the church library on Tuesday night. There were three, and they always dragged their chairs to the same places no matter how the room was arranged. Ardys sat by the wall of children’s Bible drawings. Rose and Patricia sat on either side of the door, as if they were ready to leave.

No one else ever came. They had been meeting for 3 weeks.

 Before Bernelle could ask, Ardys was already complaining about the poem from last time. “He’s so vulgar,” Ardys clucked, “Look at this. Look at what he writes!” She gestured with the poem book while pointing with a long finger. 

“What don’t you like?” Bernelle asked. 

“It’s the whole thing,” Ardys was tapping the guilty page repeatedly as she spoke. She looked quickly at the other two women before dropping her eyes to the page and reading out loud, “This…’A shape with lion body and the head of a man…’ Filthy. …I could wring his neck!”

The hour dragged by in hitches and puffs. Ardys packed up her purse to leave and turned to Bernelle. “No more Yeats, please.” And she left. 

That evening at home Bernelle took out the poem book. She turned back to the poem. She still felt like she was new to the experience of reading these verses. 

Since last summer, in order to avoid certain thoughts, she had tried various things. First it had been gardening, but everything died. She had also tried stamps but the tired, tiny pictures left her exhausted. 

Father Haverstock had said that there were a fair many other women in the parish who were recently widowed. It might be nice to provide something. Some kind of outlet. He had finished this thought by reciting a Psalm. Something like, “The Lord knows the brokenhearted and sits by the crushed in spirit.” Bernelle couldn’t quite remember how it went. But she got the idea. 

“Wasn’t that poetry?” she had said.

“Yes, perhaps,” he smiled.

And so the idea for the weekly poetry club was hatched. Several women said that they would come, but, in the end, only Ardys, Rose, and Patricia showed up. Ardy’s husband had died last year. Rose and Patricia weren’t married, they were just lonely.

Bernelle put the Yeats book back on her bedside table, and she clicked off the light. It took her awhile to fall asleep. As she stared out at the dark room she remembered snatches and bits of the poems from the last three weeks. She also remembered what the women had said. She made a few mental notes.

Poets tried: Yeats, Pinsky, and Oliver.

Poems tried: “The Second Coming”, “Shirt”, and “The Lamb”. 

Poets rejected: All three.

Reasons given:

“The Second Coming” was vulgar. It sounded dangerous according to Ardys. (It is, thought Bernelle, with a small smile.)

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“Shirt” was confusing. Too many uses of seamstress language like “The presser, the cutter, the wringer, the mangle”…(to be sure, Bernelle didn’t understand all these words either, but she liked the way they sounded.) “The Lamb” was a temptress. Ardys had said, “High school children might get a hold of it and make out.” Bernelle thought this was very funny, but she knew what Ardys meant. It was kind of seductive. The lamb in the poem had chosen wrong. Bernelle recalled the pregnant line, “And not till I lay, swelled and cracked on the grass, did I guess what I had eaten.”

She really didn’t have a tremendously firm grasp on her intentions…she just knew that it might be meaningful to disrupt their schedules a bit. They sat church on Sundays. They had bridge on Thursdays. They hoped for visits from family on Saturdays. But much of the rest of the week was, frankly, empty.  

As Bernelle finally drifted off to sleep she decided to try one more poet with the women next week. If she got the same response maybe she would abandon the poetry club altogether.

The next Tuesday Bernelle was waiting in the church library with four pieces of paper in her hand. Ardys arrived first as usual and situated herself by the Bible verses. The two women made small talk until Rose and Patricia arrived and sat down like door guardians. 

Bernelle took a deep breath. She handed out the copies.

Ardys glanced at the paper and looked up, confused, “Where’s the name?”

Bernelle gave her a small smile, “Let’s just try it. Would anyone be willing to read it out loud for the rest of us?”

There was a pause while the three women glanced over the poem on the page. There was a pleasant silence that settled over the library. Ardys looked up, “I’ll read it.”

The women settled into place while Ardys flicked the paper straight. She adjusted her glasses and began to read.

There is a me that knew and a me that did not know
that in the doorway it was crouching
 a silky venom
in those dark gardens with people sewn into the trees
I was still young and left my family once to teach men
Day after day
I drank…I ate… wild honey from the cleft
broiled fish and forbidden wheat
There were grapes and figs
wine and a tearable flat bread
And finally when 
was on the tree
I knew the cup
Not until the ninth hour
Did I feel the fell weight of the world
I cried out just one time I couldn’t help it
He wasn’t there

Ardys finished reading. Her eyes flicked back over the page a few times. “It’s very simple, isn’t it.”

Rose was sitting thoughtfully. Patricia had taken out her Bible and was fishing through it for something. She seemed to have found it, paused as she read something, and then sat back in silence.

Ardys gave Bernelle a look. “I like it,” she said, “Who wrote it?” 

“I did,” Bernelle said.

Zaqary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Romania, Moldova, China, and Cambodia. They currently live and work in Minneapolis. They have previously been published in 101 Words, Shady Grove Literary, and Warp10Lit.

Wit’s End

“Out of the depths, I have cried.

Psalm 130

By Charlotte M. Porter

On the Inside, Moon pulls without water. Head batteries go dead, and time stalls. Angie strikes the match inside her brain. Shield the flame, she tells herself, capture the gleam. Watch wind stir sea oats by the bay. Let the seagulls wail and the engines of small craft sputter. Seek a secret place to exult.

A soul-search by first-person Angie has tanked in a wide ocean of conflicting currents. Third-person Angie needs to sort muddle from mistake in a new plan of redemption, meaning escape. She images the license-plate outline of the State of Florida. An inlet, a toe of the sea would do her fine, but here she is.

All hail the slammer, the maceration facility, the Women’s so-called Reception Center. No meet-and-greet tea parties or covered-dish mac and cheese in this fishbowl run by men, done up by men, dumbed down by men.

On quest, Angie’s mind wanders, bumps, and bounces off concrete walls like the talk radio piped-in to keep the inmates amused. In the noisy off-on, she hears a song of siren’s warning.

Adrift at sea, beware ease.
Teach your fins to walk, your mouth to please. 
Canvas empires with grander mer—
manatees in senior years. 

She composes a refrain to honor Trichechus manatus, the state marine mammal, once called the sea cow and pictured as a chubby mermaid:

Rash boaters, 
rethink speed and wake. 
Propeller blades lacerate. 
Manatees, awake!
Vacate dredged channels 
and shallow lakes.

She feels like she’s shouting Fire! in a movie theatre, but her clarion call, her angelus, falls on deaf ears. Other sounds drown her out with second-hand words—ad jingles, jive, hymns…soul-search detritus left unswept, unwept.

Boaters who hit manatees gripe about their marred hulls. No one serves time for killing s sea cow. Angie’s cell mates include baby-snatchers, check kiters, and arsonists, but most of the women are murderers, lifers like her with a twenty-five-year turn-over. They come in slick young killers and leave prison as wobbly old ladies, rank as smoked mullet. Few on the Outside remember them or the fishy details of their crimes. Cep maybe the dead man’s people, an extended family of beloved junkies who have moved their tents to the intersection of Meth and Opioids. Who wants to put a nostril to their damn straw?

Talk about bad. Angie knows the official go-low drill: Find a ditch, head down, stay in place. She also knows under is only as safe as over. What goes up must come down. Angie wants to turn back the hands of time and go home to her backwater digs. So that the man she bludgeoned to death might fall in love with her. Bashed, he’s too broken to haunt her, but she wants to haunt him, drive him wild as penal statutes have forced her to become in prison.

Skip the brake fluid, the so-called psychiatric meds. She’s not thinking to catch a ride and get high on a bestie’s dope. Her escape, tricky for the average upright biped, involves force of will, iron-clad attitude with mile markers and rest stops. She reviews the three-part plan: female human to mermaid median to finny fish finale. As needed, she will remix her dots into different energy fields, tinted flesh tone to aquamarine to golden green. 

These changes from human to poetic to feral bypass justice. Mermaids make their own rules. Fish swap out genders in crowded or polluted conditions. But who gives the ass-pass to a female convict, a felon? More than the mercury levels of the water, grammar is at issue. She can linger in first-person mer, but the odds are stacked against her survival as a third-person fish—he, she, or it. Angie has done her pronoun research. A woman isn’t a captive guppy. Or, a flounder with eyeball crossed anon as fountain fill, femme purloined.

Angie flat out rejects a portrait painted by dead white male artist, Pablo Picasso. On the Other Side, the Seated Woman will cut him bad, pay him back for her trashed face. Like she’s turned flounder, crying a river over him. Wrong weep, wrong playbill. At Pablo’s hands, poor lady endured the searing grill. Not the Fountain of Youth. Only look-space on a museum wall. What with private-hire guards and alarm systems, Seated Woman might as well be in prison. Well now, Angie could repay society as a painting, set an example, hang by a wire and, real still in fester-mode, set the gallery on fire.

But she remains soleful, ha, ha. She can shimmy fins, fan the flatness of sand. She can hope a dreamy boy will admire her mottle and, by mistake, graze her scaled skin with his cherry lips as he bends to buss his vain reflection. Perhaps, kiss-boy will toss coins—small change for immortality, bubbler bliss. Hey, money’s money—all contributions welcome.

Love, luck, charity, ah fantasy. Life in the Big House is a dim font—chamfered with no second chance, no second glance. Spring-fed to pan-fried, Angie recognizes the harsh truth of her sentence. As is, her female self is too stubborn, too persistent. To break free, she must shed the feminine and do deep-sea time wending a switchback, reminding light sleepers of lost glory. But whose eye chink can fathom steep couloir? 

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Practice makes perfect. Come evening, Angie will slip into the sea wash and swims for miles. Come dawn, she’ll takes a breather on the return trip and turn flying fish. Picasso can like lead paint. How pretty the tourmaline flash above crested waves! 

For now, nearly merly in broad daylight, Angie tarries on the strand. Fiddler crabs, lefty maestros, rendezvous with careless clams. The sky is clear, and the sand cool under her belly. Rolling over, she tastes the sea on her lips and remembers her younger smelty self, still confident of flounce. 

Behind bars, she has become a tad near-sighted. No big deal. Stranger things have happened than a tadpole in the eye. Think moat, no, mote, motel where she, tired, tired of him and smashed his brains like spermaceti across the pillows.

From habit, she squints as fleet dots become human joggers. She bares her bosom so they’ll run in place, show out, pant. They don’t. They watch man-meet-water, that primordial kingfisher saga about tall waders and cast flies reeling lures in wide zigzags across the surface. 

Angie chides herself, sunbathing on the block, unloading human adages of self-help: 

Pack a spare beach toga 
for upstart gene pool party. 
Tamp down your cunning sea comb. 
Learn to like beach volleyball. 

She knows flirty banter is but merry pastime in the vast playground of the sea. As if mer girls cared about coastal hookers, arched back, famed snatch. Our tribal thing, she reassures herself, is certain dive to test leader, break line. 

She craves revenge, a nonstop ballad of a small-town woman wronged—her. Given adequate food and shelter, she can make a comeback. Merness will fill out her ungainly spaces and starved innards. Full-figure for her return, she can loom in his eye salt, trespass in his everyman’s dream. Nodding off, he will ache for her wavy auburn hair, smooth shoulders, firm breasts. 

On fire, he’ll gladly plunge into benthic trenches forging continents. Let him surface with the bends. Doubled over with lust, he won’t feel bliss. He won’t even feel wet. His lungs will snap like burning branches, again and again, as schools of carnivorous minnows devour his sleep. 

Let him cry to the rock for succor. She’ll dart into the shallows. No need to hold her ground and stay on scene like the last time. With luck, a fish her size can make her way north through inland wetlands to the St Lawrence Seaway. Under the stars, she can follow cod and navigate the Outer Banks to North Sea landings made magical by Hans Christian Anderson.

Angie bursts into song. She has done her dunce time on crappers without seats. On her voyage, she’ll miss springtime on the river and fringe trees abuzz with bees. Such sweet haze, the drifts of pollen. Let cell-rats twitch their whiskers with envy. Bubble-gazers will proclaim that she, the fish bitch with adipose eyelids, schools at Wit’s End, the brink trolled by monsters, sea monks and swirlpools. Wit’s End, wherein ends reasonable doubt

Angie must stay on plan. She’s worked hard to keep river green against ocean blue with silver moonbeam ladder for up and out. She checks her brain feed re: offshore breezes and sea chop. Soon she’ll be swimming past wetlands drained for golf courses downstream to the bay.  

She must wait for the riptide. In a house without change, she needs tidal turmoil at the river’s mouth She imagines discharge of 155,000, 000 gallons per day. What math! What mouth! Fish spew. Phosphenes implode.

Gaol or goal?

Should be a picture postcard of a powerful fountainhead, right? A bold female numen, a potent avatar with red-eyed eels for hair. But doing time messes up the head poem. Sentence turns every variance into crime. 

Or pulp fiction. 

When the inquisitors arrive with stun guns and options for parole, Angie, dripping on the wet cement, proves uncooperative. She tucks in her gills and forgets how to talk. They poke, but she doesn’t wince at mention of the prince of a man she bludgeoned. They prod, she burps. She doesn’t let on that tough girl turned lifer destroyed what she loved. 

She leaves them no choice. They throw her back with the others. 

Charlotte M. Porter lives and writes in an old citrus hamlet in north central Florida. Look for her short story collections on Amazon and her flash fiction and poems in literary journals. Literistic publishes her serial novels. Her recent work, an adult puppet play, is part of a COVID anthology in press with Archway Publishing. 

Pat Tillman’s Ghost

By Laurel Doud

My husband left me for Pat Tillman’s mother. You know Pat Tillman; he of the long blonde hair flowing out from underneath his football helmet before it became de rigueur. The one who famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar NFL career to fight the bad guys after 9/11. The one who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire.

I never met Pat Tillman, but his ghost haunts me. I cannot get away from him. Even after all this time, hardly a month goes by that his name, his apparition, doesn’t bedevil me. My grandson wears a hat bearing Pat’s Run’s logo, an annual fundraiser for the Patrick Tillman Foundation. My sister texts me that on her Facebook page, someone posted it’s the anniversary of Pat’s death. After moving away from the San Francisco Bay Area, I find myself in the same city as one of Pat’s two brothers, the name Tillman periodically conjured up in conjunction with his wife’s law practice and his children’s books. If I only watch one college football game the entire season, it’s a sure bet that some footage will show Pat’s statue at Arizona State. At least once a semester in the college library I work at, I’ll get a rush of students looking for Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, which is required reading in some classes. “That’s with two L’s and one N,” I say as they type his name into the online catalogue. 

My husband had broken it off with Pat’s mother right before Pat died, but his death brought them back together. Why did he have to die just then? As far as I was concerned, my husband could be with any other woman as long as it wasn’t her, she who was a colleague of my husband’s and sat at my kitchen table drinking beer before I knew my husband had already left me emotionally, pretending nothing had changed. A friend of mine who believes in reincarnation says I’ve probably been enemies with Pat’s mother for many turns on the wheel and, no doubt, sometimes, friends as well. I suppose I could be friends with her in another life. 

But not this one.

I wasn’t gleeful when Pat died. No one would wish that on another mother, let alone a young man just starting out in his adult life. But it felt like karma, retribution. After all, I had lost someone I loved, so should Pat’s mother. The scales were in balance. 

This is hard to write, and I’m not proud of how it makes me sound. And maybe you’re wondering why go there at all? What good does it do to dredge it all up? It’s been years, you say, and, of course, you would be right. 

But that’s not how the human heart, this human heart, works.

What I’ve discovered, after all these years, is that grief isn’t linear. You don’t move away from it in a straight line. You orbit around it elliptically. The ellipses get bigger as the years pass, but sometimes the gravity of your life slingshots you back into the heart of your hurt and anger, and it feels almost as intense as it did when it happened. 

I seem to be back at the perigee now. 

I’m not sure what’s pulled me in so close this time. I’ve been pretty good lately about letting the past lie, looking at all the brilliant things in my life now that wouldn’t have come otherwise. I wouldn’t be living in this home that feeds my soul. I wouldn’t have this job that satisfies me. I wouldn’t have this loving (current) husband, wonderful (step)kids, fabulous grandkids, a whole new branch to the family tree. 

Perhaps the coronavirus triggered it. Maybe it’s the fact that my (current) husband and I are snapping at each other, worn down from months of working from home, sharing broadband and printer time. (I still think of my (former) husband as my husband, and both of them are just my husband in my head.)

It might be because my subconscious is playing havoc with my sleep. I’ve been dreaming crazy lately: intense, sometimes violent, occasionally lustful, always anxious and featuring my (former) husband. The dreams are so confusing. Sometimes we’re still together and in love, and sometimes we aren’t. The pendulum swings from profound sadness to vicious hatred and, when I wake up, those feelings are roiling in me still.

I’m having a rough time of it lately, and I’m exhausted.

I’ve written about that time in my life many times before, trying to make sense of it, to find some epiphany, some tidy resolution, a way to corral it into a container and box it up. I’ve fictionalized it. I’ve written essays. I’ve created PowerPoint on it. Seriously. I’ve even written pretty pathetic poetry—with amazingly awful alliteration. But the peace hasn’t happened yet, and I keep trying. And, as I try, I am always reminded of a line from a made-for-tv movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the “Last of the Belles,” I liked when I was a teenager. Zelda says to her husband, “Seems like no matter who you start out writin’ about, it always turns out to be about us. Poor Goofy. I reckon you think that if you write the story often enough, maybe some time, some way, it will have a happy ending.”

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I think I’ve been writing for that happy ending for a long time.

I need to go deeper this time. I’m trying to be as honest to my feelings as they were then as I possibly can. I tell myself I need to get this shit out in the open, turn it over, and maybe it will finally compost into fertilizer, feed something good, and Pat can leave me alone. I will have exorcized him. And everything else. 

Anger, I find, is so much easier to deal with than sadness. With anger, you have the crust to protect you from the core, but with sadness, you’re just split wide open. I think I’m scared to find out how much hurt I still feel because of them. 

Them. There I said it. Not him.

So why is Pat Tillman at the center of my rage? He’s a goddamned national symbol. He didn’t have anything to do with my husband leaving me for his mother, yet somehow his spectre has come to symbolize it. 

Pat was a defensive player, and I think I’ve got him protecting his line, his mother in the backfield. But I can’t go after her. Her son was killed. I spoke of karma before. I’ve got children I would be devastated to lose as well. It’s just too close.  

Of course, the primary target’s deeper down the field than she. My husband. But I can’t go after him either. My children, my grandchildren, love him. I loved him once too. He was my best friend.

He was my best friend, and he left me. 

And there it is, the molten core of my anger and the pith of my sadness. 

I’m getting frustrated because dredging up these feelings isn’t helping. So, yes, I unearthed them, but some things are too tender to expose. 

It doesn’t matter how deep I make myself go; I can’t change how I felt. 

I can only change how I feel.

So, instead of being annoying, maybe these hauntings are my mind’s way of getting my attention about these emotions—not necessarily to do anything about them, but just to acknowledge that they exist. Maybe all the anger and hurt wants is to be seen and heard, and then maybe my subconscious will be appeased; I’ll have executed an effective end-around.

I’ve been sleeping much better as I write this, my dreams benign, so maybe I’m on to something. I’m watching the planet of my pain recede in my rearview mirror as the trajectory of my orbit pulls me away. I’m headin’ out—until I lose the tug-of-war between inertia and gravity, past and present, and get catapulted again around that corner, heading back on in. 

But maybe I can lengthen the duration it takes for that to happen.

Life has no ending, happy or otherwise. It’s life that moves on, moves forward, and you need to go along with it, or it will just go along without you. These reminders that pop up in my feed, the memes of my previous life, I’ll just have to look at them differently. Feel them differently. Embrace them, if you will. 

Yesterday I was texting my daughter, and I mistyped until and my phone’s autocorrect replaced it with I Tillman. There’s no way I could make this stuff up. But it made me laugh, and that made a difference. 

It seems I’m going to be stalked for the rest of my life by Pat Tillman, for good or for ill, right or wrong, literally or figuratively. He’s never going to leave me alone.

But when I hit that next point of apoapsis, and I head back in towards the pain, I hope I’ll know how to deal with it better. When Pat Tillman’s shade appears again, I hope I’ll be able to say, Hi, Pat. Thanks for checking in. I’m doin’ okay.

It may not be peace, perfect peace, but maybe it’s a start.

Note: Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The initial report from the Bush Administration and the Pentagon was that he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the enemy. Five weeks after his death, it came out that Pat was killed by his fellow Rangers, and officials had gone to great lengths to keep the circumstances secret. Six investigations were conducted, but none entirely satisfying all the contradictions. Pat’s mother, Mary Tillman, wrote a memoir, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, that details those proceedings.

My husband and Pat’s mother are still together.

Laurel Doud is an academic librarian at Fresno City College in Fresno, California.

Electric Love

By Fannie H. Gray

Most mornings, I awaken sweat-soaked and coverless. A lumpen heap of pillows and blankets amasses in the vacancy where Patrick, my husband, used to sleep.

I go to the kitchen, followed by a menagerie of animals I began accumulating shortly after the quarantine began, a few days after Patrick’s death. The thought of being alone has always terrified me. Asked the ubiquitous question as a little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up? I always answered, married. Perhaps I was a halved zygote and have yearned a lifetime to feel complete. 

Three once feral cats, a possum recovering from a head wound, and a one-eyed dog follow me into the kitchen. I fill five bowls with Kibble and then sit contentedly amongst the animals, drinking coffee that I boil on the range. When the animals are done, Walt, our dog, follows me into the pantry, and we discuss which pasta we should have today. Penne? Walt barks. Excellent choice, I tell him. Soon, the wine berries on the back fence will be ripe. Fresh fruit pleases everyone. Occasionally, Walt gets wild hair and eats grass, but he always regrets it.

Later, I open the wooden front door, and we six sit behind the glass stormer to watch for any weary souls who might venture out. We wave at the masked citizens who look up while plodding along. There have been fewer coming out. Last week, an angry mask-less young man gave us the middle finger and grabbed his crotch. He took a menacing step onto the front walk, but Walt bared his raggedy teeth. The possum and I laughed as the miscreant ran away.

Sometimes, the power sputters on for a few minutes. Lights and fans, blinking clocks, once the blender I forgot I was using, roar to life. We rejoice, run around the house, turning lamps off or on. Music for the masses, I will yell, and we gather in the study to dance to Lucinda Williams.

Not long ago, perhaps on a Tuesday, there was rain. A menacing sky lowered to the lawn, and Walt refused to go out and relieve himself. The possum and the cats morphed into a fuzzy ball on the sofa. I stood alone at the bay window and watched the rain wash down the abandoned street. A single child–size shoe sailed down the gutter. I suppose that is when I got the idea.

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Before Patrick died, before anyone was sick, when power was a given and socializing was normal, we had electric outlets installed on the façade of the house so we could light it up at Halloween and Christmas. Our house was a beacon for trick-or-treaters and carolers.

So, the day after the rain, I find every power strip we own. I plug outdoor extension cords into the exterior outlets. Then, I gather the lamps and the portable fans, the digital clocks. I pick up the blender and the food processor and set both to On. Walt, the only family member, allowed outdoors, follows me into the yard. The cats and the possum watch dutifully from the storm door. Walt chases his own tail as I plug the appliances in, but I know he keeps his eye wary for any strangers. When I am finished, I sit on the front stoop as Walt rolls on the walkway and survey my handiwork. We have a veritable barricade of electronics ready for our defence. I ask Walt to come inside, and then I let the gang know about my surprise. The animals wait politely at the door as I run down to the basement. He is a little unwieldy, but I manage to get Santa up the stairs. Patrick, who dabbled in welding, made him a few years ago from chicken wire. I painted him and wove the fairy lights into his form. For good measure, I grab a Santa stocking cap Patrick used to wear on Christmas and mash it down over Santa’s chicken wire hat. The animals step aside, and I muscle Santa onto the front porch, where I plug him in. There, I say to my assembled furry family: Walt barks and the possum smiles. The cats never really have much to say, but one weaves in between my legs, so I interpret that as applause.

It is while Walt and I are picking wine berries and gathering dandelion leaves in the backyard that we hear the ruckus. The possum, which we have decided to call Elmo, is scratching at the screen door, smiling at us. Walt and I enter the kitchen, following Elmo, who makes his crooked little way to the front of the house. All three cats are poised on the back of the sofa, fixated on the scene in the front yard.

Every fan, lamp and clock has roared to life. The blender, in a buzz of activity, has fallen onto its side. Santa is divine. Even in the bright, hard light of the midday sun in summer, sheltered as he is between the rhododendrons which flank the front porch, Santa is alive in his electric glory.

Here is the interesting thing, though; if I had thought I was constructing a barricade, I was indeed quite wrong. It turns out our assemblage of appliances has beckoned our dormant neighbours. Little clusters, pods of families and friends who hunkered down together, have gathered in the street. Walt makes happy yelps, and Elmo and I wave as everyone marvels at our display. Most wave back. A few brave children break away from scolding parents and run up to Santa, tap him to make sure he is not an apparition, I suppose.

After 30 minutes, most of the groups have dispersed. It seems the power is back on for good. I turn off all my toys, unplug them and bring them in except for Santa. Walt and Elmo agree; Santa should remain to remind everyone that faith and love are electric.

Fannie H. Gray lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband, two children, Mac the Boston Terrier, and Neo the Tuxedo. Her poem The Trick was included in Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s Langston Hughes Tribute Issue. Her fiction can be found in The Tatterhood Review, Sledgehammer Lit, Sad Girls Club and K’in. She prefers coffee with chicory and a damn fine Rob Roy.

Candy Girl

By Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick

“Your bones are made of sugar because you’re just so sweet!” my mother said the first time I was sent home from school. I was seven years old. My wrist had snapped during recess, the jagged bone jutting out of my skin and into the air. It was amber-coloured and slightly sticky and smelled sweet, like solid honey. My mother had to keep pushing the dog away so she couldn’t lick it.

“Don’t cry, love,” she said, wiping tears from my cheeks. “We’ll fix you up in no time.” She sat me at the kitchen table, still cradling my wrist. Then she pulled out a small saucepan and added sugar and water to it. She put the pan on the burner and turned on the heat, stirring the mixture until it began to bubble. I could smell the sugar cooking, a sweet, burning scent that matched too closely with what wafted up from my wrist. It made me hungry and nauseous. After a few minutes, she pulled the pan off the stove and brought it over to me.

“My candy girl,” my mother said lovingly as she forced the fragment of sugared bone back into the skin of my wrist. She whistled as she poured the molten liquid into the wound. I blacked out and, hours later, awakened to find myself in bed. Clawing at the bandage on my wrist, I ripped it off and saw how the sugar had hardened, attaching bone to bone again. The skin would grow back in a few weeks, and it would look exactly as it always did.

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It’s not so hard, living in a body like this. I like to tell people that I’m sweet to my core. I always laugh. They rarely get the joke.

I had a boyfriend once who was obsessed with the idea of my bones. When I told him they were candy, he said he didn’t believe me. But he couldn’t stop thinking about them. Sometimes he would spend whole weeks barely touching me, as though I would snap if he held my hand too tightly. Other times he got rough out of nowhere, gripping my arm or the back of my neck as though he could crush me into sugar granules with his bare hands. I imagined him fantasizing about turning my bones into crystals and stirring them into his coffee.

Once, when he was drunk, he got on his knees and grabbed my foot and sucked on my big toe like it was a lollipop. He gently, so gently, bit down. He begged me to let him eat one of them, just to see if it were true. To see if my bones would crunch like candy between his teeth. 

I stopped telling dates about my bones after that. There are a lot of weirdos in this world.

“My father once told me that I should donate my body to science to examine the candy girl when I die.”

Do you ever think about what your skeleton looks like? How it sits inside you, gleaming and perfect as a Halloween decoration? I’ve always been a little jealous of people who can walk into museums or rob graves and get a look at their future. It sounds dreamy to know exactly what you’ll look like when you’re dead and gone.

I haven’t seen my bones since I was seven. It’s not that I’m careful. In fact, I’ve been trying to break myself for years just to get another look at what’s inside me. No luck, however. Apparently, candy is quite hard.

I think my skeleton must be beautiful, like some macabre confectioner’s masterpiece. Every Día de Los Muertos, I look at sugar skulls and think, that’s what I look like, underneath all this. I hope I’m decorated just like that, a riot of colours against my caramel bones. I will be the loveliest skeleton at the cemetery one day, even if no one will be able to see me. My father once told me that I should donate my body to science to examine the candy girl when I die. But I think I’ll keep these sweet bones to myself. I’ll be a treat for bugs until the day I melt, leaving only some sticky earth to mark that I was here.

Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick (she/her) lives in Philadelphia with her husband and black cat. Her fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Ellipsis Zine, New Gothic Review, and Coffin Bell Journal, among others. Find her on Instagram at or on Twitter.

Forgetting Ophelia Deane

By Maxine Meixner

Rose Phillips stands in front of the full-length mirror and stares: cheeks stained salmon-pink and skin glowing like it’s been spritzed with dew, her hair artfully curled and worryingly flammable with the amount of hairspray holding it in place. She doesn’t look anything like herself, which is fitting in some way – this is, after all, the day Rose Phillips dies.

She scowls at herself for thinking so macabrely, but the thought won’t leave her head. It’s true, really. A part of her brain insists as it had done for the past year. After today, Rose Phillips won’t exist anymore, and Rose Wilson will take her place. She will become someone else entirely after saying a few words and signing a piece of paper, a simultaneous death and birthday wrapped up in a pretty white dress.

She really needs to stop thinking like this.

It’s funny that today, of all days, everything that made Rose Phillips Rose Phillips seems to be demanding to be acknowledged. It’s as if returning to Cumbria has prompted her to pull back all the layers of her life that she had built up over the years since she left. In the week leading up to now, she had shown George around all the places that held the moments that shaped her, a whistle-stop tour of her life before him. Naturally, there were some places she couldn’t bring herself to take him to, like Penny’s. It would have just been rude, intrusive in some abstract, unexplainable way that she wouldn’t let herself contemplate.

It had been strange, taking these pitstops around her old life with someone who was to be her future. But she was glad for it – relieved, in fact, to be getting married here rather than in London or even somewhere else. It’s like the closing of a chapter, a cyclical release that she didn’t perhaps even know she needed.

It’s good to be here again. She has never grown to love living in the London as much as George does – although Rose supposes that’s to be expected, seeing as though he’s lived there his whole life. Rather, she tolerates the city: the grey streets peppered with spits of chewing gum and pigeon shit, the dirty air, the hard water. The nightmare that was the tube at rush hour. The rats. The rent. The rude people. Sure, there were theatres and quirky bars and their entire bloody professional lives, so they stayed and were mostly happy. Rose had to admit that the rush of it all could be sweetly addictive, and returning to the lumbering lanes of Cumbria only seemed to slow her down; over time, her visits home grew less and less frequent until they finally stopped completely.

So it’s been seven years since she was last here, and she’s happy to be back on what is to be one of the most special and pivotal points of her life. It’s funny how it all works.

Rose has always been told that she has her head screwed on straight. And it holds truth – after all, her life is on track. Here she is, in step three of her life plan (move to London – done; get a career in journalism at someplace that’s not The Sun – done; get married – imminent; have kids – pending; dream of buying a house – eternally pending.) Rose thinks that if little Rosie Phillips could see how her life was turning out, she’d be pretty satisfied, especially in this very moment standing in front of this mirror in her nauseatingly expensive (but totally worth it!) white gown. Growing up, Rose had always dreamed about her wedding day – the floating down the aisle, the fairy lights, the fanfare – but had never really given much thought as to who it was that she would end up marrying. Every time she had pictured her wedding, for all her planning and dreaming, only a faceless smudge of a shadow would be hovering at the end of the aisle.

And then she met George. A good man, kind and patient, who listens to her and all of her eccentricities. Steady as an ox, unflappable. Someone she can build a life with, someone she loves enough to sacrifice her name on the altar of their marriage and create a whole new sense of self. She has her head screwed on straight, and it told her that he’s the right one for her.

Her reflection looks at her, expressionless from behind the mask of makeup.

It’s inexplicable, the human mind. It likes to remind you of things you truly thought you had forgotten or would rather not remember at all. Rose doesn’t know if it’s back her hometown or her impending last minutes as the person she has spent close to three decades being, but in this moment, the past has woken up and is fully wrapping itself around her, hungry to be acknowledged, a serpent waiting to devour her in memories.

And who is she, as sentimental and self-flagellating as she is, to deny that great snake of times gone by?

“It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine.”

She lived down a winding country lane that you would miss completely if you didn’t know to look out for it, in a small cottage laced with honeysuckle that sat squatly in front of a cluster of trees that led out to the woods. They met in the summer before Rose went to university, both working at a local boho-esque café with large, leafy plants in the windowsills, chalkboard menus, and an eclectic mix of tables and chairs.

Rose could tell that she didn’t like her at first. Perhaps, with all her chattiness and naïveté, Rose came off as annoying and too eager to be liked, or maybe she just liked to be judgemental about new starters. Whatever it was, Ophelia Deane did not rate Rose very highly at all in those early weeks at Penny’s. Ophelia barely spoke to her beyond asking her to check on a table or fill up the sugar bowls, no matter how much Rose persisted in trying to draw her into a conversation.

Ophelia was one of those girls who was so comfortable in her own skin that Rose almost wanted to peel it off and wear it herself. Rose was mesmerized by her. She exuded a quiet confidence, watching the world from behind the café counter and giving no indication of the thoughts forming behind her dark, unforgiving eyes. Ophelia dressed in a way that Rose wished she could pull off but knew she never could – the ends of her long black hair were dyed a loud magenta, and she wore Doc Martens with floral skirts that would sometimes hike up a bit and show her thick, hairy legs. She wore statement earrings that she had made herself out of clay, and a fuzz of hair grew underneath each of her arms, which Rose noticed one day when Ophelia was restocking the shelves. Ophelia was content to say as little as possible to her and to anyone, scribbling poems on the back of her notepad instead of talking. Rose spent hours wondering what she was thinking, what she could maybe say to end this coolness that seemed to exist between them despite the heat of the summer sun.

But it wasn’t as if she was entirely unapproachable either. Ophelia was warm and genuine to customers, and sometimes some of this would even extend to Rose herself if she happened to be nearby. It was moments like these that threw Rose’s brain into a scramble, frantically ticking through the right thing to say to make the conversation last longer, to find a way to peer behind the thick curtain that always, inevitably, descended back over Ophelia again as she would go quiet, back into herself. Rose found herself hoping that there would be more and more moments behind that curtain as time went on.

Two weeks after Rose started at the café, Dan from the kitchen had a birthday picnic gathering on the banks of the River Eden, and he invited everyone from Penny’s. Rose was surprised to see Ophelia there, lounging on a tartan blanket with her legs stretched out in front of her and a small, almost knowing smile on her face as she saw Rose arrive. Rose ended up sitting next to her as they all clustered on the blanket, passing fruit punnets and sipping tinnies and soaking in the sunlight. Though she laughed openly and smiled at the others with what she hoped was a carefree look, Rose could feel her heart thrumming in her chest like the bumblebees that drifted by them, the heat of Ophelia’s knee as it pressed casually against her thigh. Her skin was so warm, warmer than the sun.

The next shift they had together, Ophelia greeted her with a crooked smile and an actual hello. Rose blinked, surprised and strangely relieved that she seemed to finally be making progress, although also unable to figure out why it mattered so much.

‘I take a while to warm up to people,’ Ophelia said out of the blue a few days later. Rain pattered softly against the windows; thick clouds blocked out the sun, so they had the lamps on. A classic British summer. It was cozy inside and slow. They both nursed cups of tea in clasped hands.

‘I can tell,’ Rose said to her, flashing her a smile that she hoped wasn’t too much. ‘I know I can be a lot to start off with, so I guess I’m used to it.’

‘You shouldn’t think like that, Rose,’ Ophelia said soberly, her fathomless eyes not leaving Rose’s face. Rose suddenly found a brochure on the counter advertising local produce very engaging and started to leaf through it. Ophelia set her tea down on the counter and went to clear a table, and nothing more was said. Rose chewed over the words she should have spoken for hours after.

It came as a pleasant surprise one afternoon when Ophelia invited her to the cottage where she lived. Rose felt her heart fall into her stomach and leap back up again as she accepted, only managing a wordless nod and another overly-excited smile that she proceeded to agonize over for another length of time. She couldn’t explain these feelings – all she wanted, somehow, was to impress Ophelia, for Ophelia to like her, but she couldn’t help but dissolve into nerves at the thought of being alone – really alone, no customers – with her. She was effervescently anxious but couldn’t dream of saying no.

It was one of the hottest days of the year when Rose went to the honeysuckle-draped cottage for the first time; grateful Ophelia had met her at the café to guide her else she would have never found it. Inside, the cottage was refreshingly cool and light, with low ceilings and exposed wooden beams. Flowers sprouted from ceramic vases on almost every available surface.

‘My parents travel a lot for work, so it’s just me here a lot of the time,’ Ophelia told her, offering Rose a glass of water freshly poured from the Brita filter. ‘I’m staying here until I find my own place.’

‘Are you going to live on your own?’

Ophelia shrugged. ‘Maybe with someone from work, I don’t know. When do you leave for Goldsmiths?’

It suddenly struck Rose that she didn’t know much about Ophelia, but she herself was such an open book. Rose often felt that everything she was sat plainly on the surface, ready for anyone to know with a glance. It was this way, no matter how hard she tried to be elusive and enigmatic, like how Ophelia was.

‘Mid-September,’ she responded.

‘A month away,’ Ophelia said. Rose couldn’t tell if she was stating a fact or expressing disappointment.

‘Didn’t you want to go study somewhere?’ Rose asked, leaning against the kitchen counter with what she hoped was an easy air.

Ophelia shrugged. ‘There’s time for that whenever. Maybe I’ll travel. I don’t know. We’re so young, you know? We don’t have to have everything planned out. There’s no rush.’

‘I’ve always been told that I have a good head on my shoulders because I know what I want to do.’

‘Who says that?’

‘My dad. Everyone.’

Ophelia scratched the tip of her nose. ‘What’s your plan then?’

‘Ah, go to uni. Work hard. Get a good job. Get married. House. Kids.’

‘I’ll be honest, it sounds pretty vague. Basic even.’

‘Fuck off,’

Ophelia laughed, a deep belly laugh that made Rose giggle too, feeling heat rush to her face.

‘Hey, if that’s the best you’ve got. I’m happy you’ve managed to squeeze me into your schedule.’

‘Yeah, don’t make me regret it.’

Ophelia smiled at her, the corners of her eyes crinkling. ‘Let’s go foraging,’ she said suddenly, and she took Rose’s hand in her own and wheeled her in the direction of the back door. She paused a moment, briefly letting go of Rose’s hand to throw a bag over her shoulder, before clasping her hand in hers once more and pulling her out into the garden that spilled out to the woods.

The sun was bright and hot in the sky, beaming down on them as Ophelia and Rose half-ran, half-skipped, exuberant, down a small trail into the trees. Rose had no idea where they were going but couldn’t care less. She could sense their sweat mingling on the palm of her hands and felt nothing but free as the light summer breeze on their backs seemed to propel them forward.

‘What are we looking for?’ Rose asked, her voice breathless in the wind.

‘Whatever we find,’ Ophelia called over her shoulder.

Soon, the trail began to wind its way along the river. Ophelia let go of Rose’s hand, and they slowed down to an ambling walk, the birdsong and gentle bubbling of the stream over the rocks filling the comfortable wordlessness between them. Sometimes, Ophelia would pause to gather dandelion stems or nettles, wrapping the folds of her long skirt around her hands to protect herself, lips tightly pressed together as she concentrated on not getting stung. Once safely stored in her bag, she wiped her hands on her skirt and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

‘You have the strangest look on your face, Rose,’ Ophelia said, turning back to her. ‘And usually, I can tell what you’re thinking.’

‘Am I so easy to read?’

‘You know you are.’ Suddenly Ophelia was taking her shoes off and treading across the grass to the river, her sandals held aloft in her hands. She plonked herself on the riverbed and dropped her feet in the water, leaning back to rest on her palms. Rose followed, sitting down beside her and folding her legs over themselves.

‘Aren’t you going to put your feet in?’

‘Maybe in a sec.’

‘So go on then. Tell me what you’re thinking.’

‘I hardly think that’s fair.’

‘Why not?’

‘I never know what you’re thinking.’

Ophelia laughed, throwing her head back to the sky. ‘Ahh, Rose. You really do make me smile. I should show it more.’

Rose twiddled some blades of grass between her fingertips. ‘I just really enjoy being out in the sun with you, that’s all,’ she said, regretting it almost instantly, looking straight down at the water in front of her.
But Ophelia’s smile widened, and she said, ‘Me too, with you,’ so calmly, kicking her feet gently in the river. The words fell from her mouth as if it really were nothing at all.

It was getting uncomfortably hot. They shifted downriver slightly so they could sit underneath the shade of a river birch tree, but after only a few minutes, Ophelia announced that she was too warm and stood up.

‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m cooling off. You can too if you want. No pressure though,’ and she pulled her vest top over her head, tossed it on the grass and shimmied out of her skirt so that she was standing only her knickers, pubic hair peeking out the edges. Rose watched at the way Ophelia moved, the way she held herself, completely at ease in her own body and almost nakedness in a way that Rose herself had never felt before. Ophelia turned to the river, the skin on the backs of her thighs kissed with dimples, and lowered herself slowly in, breathing deeply, floating, the water gently lapping at her breasts. Rose had never seen anyone quite so content to be themselves, anyone quite so beautiful.

‘Are you coming in?’ Ophelia asked her. ‘It’s really refreshing, I promise. It’s quiet here, too, you don’t have to worry. Come on, be Shakespearean with me.’

‘Oh, God. Please don’t drown.’

‘I guess I should probably read the damn thing. I really have no idea what I’m talking about.’

‘I can tell. Spoiler: Ophelias and rivers don’t mix well.’

‘Well, this time, they do,’ she said, tracing patterns on the water’s surface with her fingers.

‘It’s on at the RSC soon, I think. We could go. Or there’s a Kenneth Branagh movie. It’s four hours long, though.’

‘Is he in it? God, I can’t stand him sometimes,’ she splashed water in Rose’s direction.

‘Hurry up and get in. Live a little. Or is that not in your grand-and-super-important-yet-also-kind-of-vague life plan?’ Ophelia grinned before leaning to float on her back.

Rose took a moment. She saw the dappled patterns of sunlight on the grass, how the water glimmered like it was surfaced with diamonds. The fresh air, hot sun, the scents of summer caught in the breeze. She saw Ophelia floating, her eyes closed, completely at peace in the river like her Shakespearean namesake. Birdsong floated around them, a soundscape of melodies and wings fluttering across leaves. And there, in that moment, it all started to feel a little bit magic.

Rose wriggled out of her shorts and top, pulled off of her shoes, and marched herself to the river.

‘It’s cold!’ she said as she dipped a toe in. 

Ophelia opened her eyes and pulled herself up, so she was resting her feet on the riverbed once more. ‘You know you’ll get used to it, just have to get in.’

Rose put one foot in front of the other and lowered herself down into the water. It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine. Rose submerged herself completely underwater once, the water rushing over her ears, coming up smiling so hard she thought her face muscles might spasm. It was like something had loosened in her belly, something that she hadn’t realized was wound so incredibly tight.

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They listened to the sounds of the wind in the trees. After a while, Rose said, ‘I wish I could be more like you.’


‘You’re just so… you.’

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Ophelia asked, frowning.

‘I’m too much. Annoying. You even found me too
much, to start off with.’

Ophelia’s frown deepened, but she said nothing.

Clouds drifted across the sun, casting shadows over them and hasting their decision to get out. They pulled their clothes back over themselves and sat beneath the tree. They made daisy chains and draped them across each other. Ophelia, resting against the tree trunk, scribbled in a notebook she pulled out of her bag. Rose lay on her back and watched the clouds journey across the crystal-blue sky.

After a while, Ophelia gently closed her book and let it rest on the ground and came over to lie down next to Rose.

‘About what you said earlier,’ Ophelia said. ‘About you being too much.’ Her voice was low, serious, filled with an intensity that Rose hadn’t heard before.


‘I don’t think you’re too much,’

‘You don’t have to say that,’ Rose said.

‘I’m not. I think it’s a beautiful thing for you to be so open. To have your heart dripping on your sleeve like you do. Don’t let my standoffishness be the reason you want to change yourself; I’d hate that.’

‘So you didn’t find me annoying to start off with?’
Ophelia paused.

‘You see? It’s fine, don’t worry.’ Rose sat up, drawing her knees to her chest. Ophelia did the same, lightly moving her wet hair over her shoulder.

She spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. ‘I didn’t find you annoying,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t you. I just – I’m closed off, I guess. Maybe I knew how much I would like you, and I was afraid.’
‘Of what?’

‘You’re not going to be around, and you’re going off to uni. Which will be so great for you, a whole new life, the next step forward in your grand plan. I guess I didn’t see the point in us becoming friends because we wouldn’t have much time to enjoy it.’

‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’

‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’

Ophelia fidgeted on the grass. ‘I know. But sometimes it’s easier for me.’

‘Okay,’ Rose said, not knowing what else to say. Then: ‘Do you regret it then? Getting to know me?’

‘No,’ Ophelia said softly. ‘No, I’m having a great time.’

‘It’s not like I’m going to disappear, you know,’ Rose said. ‘I’ll come and visit. Keep in contact. It’s not too far, in the grand scheme of things.’
Ophelia smiled a small smile that didn’t warm her eyes like it usually did.

‘Sure,’ she said.

‘I think you’re wonderful,’ Rose said. ‘I’m really glad I know you.’
Ophelia stared at her for a lingering, charged moment before shifting a little closer to Rose. Rose could count the freckles across her nose now, see her wet eyelashes clinging to each other.

‘And I’m glad that I wasn’t too much for you,’ Rose said softly.
‘You couldn’t be too much,’ Ophelia murmured. She was so close. Rose’s heart pulsed electricity through her veins, and she was tremoring ever so slightly.

‘And I think that you’re wonderful too, Rose Phillips,’ Ophelia breathed, her eyes wide, spilling open. And then slowly, she leaned in so close that their noses were almost touching, waiting, watching for Rose’s reaction.
Rose kept very still as if waiting for a butterfly to settle on her mouth, her gaze never leaving the dark pools of Ophelia’s eyes.

Slowly, Ophelia brushed her lips against hers. It was a light touch, barely there, and she pulled back after only a few heartbeats.

The corner of Rose’s mouth lifted.

‘What?’ Ophelia asked an eyebrow arching.

‘You look so serious,’ Rose laughed, and she kissed her again.

The world seemed to shrink and hold only them. All Rose could sense was Ophelia: the heat of her body through her damp clothes, her breath hot and falling on her face as their lips parted. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, and they were cast in dappled shadows as they pulled each other close underneath the tree.

And the rest of the summer days passed much in the same way: when they weren’t working, they were foraging, swimming, falling into one another and their sun-kissed skin. Some days, they lay in the grass under the sun in Ophelia’s garden and paint with watercolours. When it grew dark, they would retreat inside and dance to Dolly Parton or ABBA, drink red wine and make nettle soup. Occasionally they would curl together under a blanket and sit beneath the stars, and count as many as they could before they drifted off to sleep.

It was a dream, another life, a pause. Rose had never been so happy or so afraid. While she had no reservations about keeping in touch and visiting when she went off to university, as the day slowly approached for her to leave, she could sense Ophelia pull away from her, as if she was slowly and gently starting to untangle herself. The thought of losing Ophelia because of something as small as university filled Rose with concern, but she didn’t know what to say.

Time moved inexorably onwards, and too soon, it was the last night before Rose was due to leave. They were sat in the garden, on the grass, Rose in Ophelia’s arms as the sun started to go down. She tickled the palm of Ophelia’s hand with her fingertips, the atmosphere between them sombre, heavy as if waiting for a weight to fall.

‘I’m going to miss you,’ Rose murmured.

‘I’m going to miss you too,’ Ophelia said, and she sighed.

‘You’ll come visit?’

‘If you want me too,’

‘Of course, I will,’


‘You don’t think I will? Want you to visit?’

Ophelia sighed again. Rose sat up and held Ophelia’s hands in her own. ‘Talk to me,’ she said. ‘Please.’

‘I don’t – I don’t fit into your plan, Rose,’

‘Are you joking?’

‘You and your screwed-on head. You’ve got it all figured out. Uni. Marriage. House. Kids. I’m not like you. I don’t know if I want all that. I don’t know what I want.’

‘As if we have to know all that now! You said it yourself – it’s all vague. It can all change. You’re worried about nothing, nothing at all. I want you in my life; that’s all I know right now for sure.’

‘You’ve got a whole new chapter starting. You don’t need one month with me to shape so much of it.’

‘But I want it to.’

Ophelia let out a huff of surrender. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I will suspend my disbelief.’

‘Why don’t you believe me?’

‘I don’t not believe you. I just – I know how things go, you know? Sometimes worlds are just too different. All I’m saying. Some things have to get left behind.’

‘As if you’re calling yourself “something,” Ophelia. You will never be that to me.’

Ophelia chewed her bottom lip and looked down. Rose hadn’t seen her look this unsure of herself before.

‘I actually can’t wait for the day, years from now, when I’ll get a chance to say that I told you so,’ Rose said teasingly, trying to draw Ophelia out of herself.

A small smile twisted her lips as Ophelia stared somewhere beyond their conversation. ‘I’m sure you can’t.’



Rose cupped her palm on Ophelia’s cheek, lifting her face, so their eyes meet.

‘I love you,’ Rose said for the first time.

Ophelia kissed her softly on the mouth, an echo of their first embrace, and they didn’t need to say anything more.

“She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if didn’t.”

It won’t take too long, Rose thinks. The ceremony will be over quickly, and then it will be a fun party, and she won’t have to spend long thinking about the fact that she has just killed/replaced Rose Phillips with a brand-spanking-new and completely unknown edition. She’s erasing her whole history, her whole life, in a way. Isn’t she? She imagines what George would say to her if he were in the room right now, and she let her mind spool out to him: he would kiss her forehead sweetly and tell her it was her silly little brain that he loves so much running away with nerves. But she doesn’t feel nervous, not really. If anything, she feels kind of numb.

This is everything she has always planned for. Everything is falling into place. Another life milestone to check off the list. This is where she has always been heading to, the path she’s been walking since she left Cumbria behind.

And George is a good man. A wonderful man. She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if she didn’t.

Someone calls for her outside the door. The car’s here. It’s time for her to go.

Her reflection stares back at her blankly as the seconds tick on, rushing her to the future she has always thought she wanted. Rose holds herself in her beautiful white dress, unmoving, and dreams of the honeysuckle cottage at the end of a country lane.

Maxine Meixner (she/her) is a UK-based writer, poet and floral print enthusiast obsessed with the moon. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and her work has previously appeared in small leaf press, Second Chance Lit, and Analogies and Allegories Literary Magazine. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.


By LJ Kessels

Age 2

My first memory is of a large white woman with bleach-blond curls, pale pink lips, and stained teeth saying: “Is that really your name?” Phil had left me behind at the store, again. By the time my dad came for me, I had had three chocolate milks and was playing with a litter of newborn kittens in the back. I can still picture his blue overcoat and apologetic expression towards the clerk.

As a precaution, all my clothes had our phone number sewn in the back. The line has long since been disconnected, but like a lapsed catholic, I was able to recite that 202-… phone number as if it were the Hail Mary.

Age 7

My grandparents had owned a bar at some point; Grandma Nola would sit at the head of the counter and give out drinks to anyone she fancied. That was until the grandfather comes into the bar and instructed whoever was working that night to cut her off.

She got into debt after the grandfather died. My parents had forced her to sell all the memorabilia from the grandfather’s hay day as a semi-professional boxer and move into our house at 16th St Heights.
On Sundays, I helped her cook breakfast; it was then that I learned that the trick to a good waffle is a little bit of bourbon. According to Nola, the trick to everything was a bit of bourbon.

Age 12

When my dad’s mother died suddenly, my dad dropped everything and travelled back to Pittsburgh in order to sit shiva and make arrangements. We — my sister Bema, Phil (my mom was one of those do-not-call-me-mom-people), Nola and I — were supposed to join him the next day. 

We only made it to a motel right outside of Germantown. Nola slept with the night manager in the room while Phil lay next to them in a catatonic state. Bema took a marker out of my bag and started to draw on Phil’s face. Vertical lines over her eyelids, long whiskers on her cheeks and a line from her nose to her mouth making her look like a cat. 

I called the house till the answering machine was full. In order to eat, I waited in the parking lot of the strip mall across the street until I spotted a catalogue family and followed them into the convenience store. I made sure the person at the cash register saw me getting in with this nice-looking family and followed them while they got groceries. I had to fill my pockets with as much food as I could find without it being too obvious. Then walk out, trying to shield myself from view by hiding in the crowd. The spiel held up a couple of times; I just had to make sure it was a different person at the cash register before walking through the door. 

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Age 17

My sister had her first psychotic episode a few hours before my high school graduation party. Apparently, she had been spiralling at her menial job for some time, but her boss had assumed there was some trouble at home, and no one said a thing. She had gone to bed with a ‘migraine’ and fifteen minutes later appeared in the kitchen naked; my scarf wrapped around her head, chewing on a straw, red lipstick covering half of her chin as if she was a five-year-old playing dress-up. 

“It’s really nice of them to throw a party for me, but I can’t handle it right now.”

No one reacted. Even Nola was dumbfounded. Bema kneeled down beside me, “they are throwing a party for me, isn’t it nice? Really…” under her breath, “nice” “It’s nnniiissséeeh” letting every single letter fill the room, bouncing off of the balloons, “But I can’t …. I can’t handle it right now.” Phil ushered Bema back upstairs. I could still hear her repeating the words to Phil as my Dad pushed two on the speed dial. 

“Doctor, it is Yves Levin,” a beat. “No, my wife is fine, it is my oldest; I think she is having a psychosis” A pause “Yes, I know, doctor, but I’ve been through them all and think I’m a pretty good judge when it comes to these things….”

Nola shoved a glass of Dr. Pepper towards me. She knew that I didn’t like fizzy drinks but presented me with them whenever she thought social convention dictated the offering of a tasty beverage. I took a reluctant sip and noticed the warm aftertaste of bourbon. She had gotten into the liquor cabinet again and had given me her spiked Dr. Pepper can by mistake. 

“I don’t care about protocol; I want her committed!” Dad yelled into the receiver before hanging up. He turned towards me, “we better cancel the party.” 

From all our years of experience with Phil, my Dad and I had gotten the cancellation phone call down to a less-than-two-minute-conversation: 

“Hi [insert name], it’s [insert own name]”

[Wait for response]

“Yes, I’m sorry, but we have to cancel [insert event].”

[Wait for response]

“Phil is not feeling too well, and we have to take care of her.”

[Wait for response]

“Thanks for offering, but we’ll be fine; we got it all under control. We’ll keep you posted if anything changes. Bye-bye.”

[Hang up]

Nola, on the other hand, kept saying how awful the situation was for her. How she had lived through so many horrible things and how much she missed her husband. Did the person on the other line know how much she suffered when her dear husband Phil died? And when she had all those miscarriages? And when her son was stillborn? How much they wanted a son but ended up with a girl, her little Phil. O, her life had been so hard, she said. She ended up taking this poor person on the other end of the line hostage for a good 30 minutes and barely let them get a word in. 

She was still talking when the doctor called my Dad on the other line to say that he could see my sister directly. I threw her stuff in a bag as my Dad got her dressed. We put her in the car, and Dad drove her to the clinic. She didn’t return to the house till three months later. The balloons from my cancelled graduation party were still dangling from the tree in the garden like dried grapes on a vine.

Age 23

Dad made four serious attempts to divorce her; he moved into an apartment across town each time. Inevitably she would go off her medication, disappear into a manic phase followed by a long bout of not leaving the bed, and then my Dad got her back on her medication, after which he stated he would give up.

I asked him, after Phil succeeded in killing herself, why he kept coming back. He said, “it would have been cruel and unusual to leave such a sick woman out in the cold.” I asked, “who would have found it cruel and unusual, you or other people?” But he didn’t answer.

So after I moved out, he spent his days in a shed in the yard, a little stove for warmth in winter and my childhood bed tucked in the corner. He went up to the house three times a day to make sure the women there showered, ate and cleaned themselves.

During Phil’s funeral, Nola kept me prisoner talking loudly about every person there. “M-darling look, look over there, that woman has mosquito bites for tits.” She would laugh and point to Mrs. Johnson from down the street. I looked down in embarrassment.

“Here,” she said and handed me a nondescript bottle. “No thanks,” I said.

“But it will help you with the weight. You really look very plump today.” Tears started to well up, but I didn’t let her see them. I stopped talking to her after that day. She died not long after.

Age 27

“My name is Monday Levin,” I used to mumble my first name under my breath, even tried to only go by ‘Levin’ for a while. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I will have the conversation head-on.

“Monday? Is that really your name?”


“Where you born on a Monday?”

“No, but my mom thought it was.”

“And no one corrected her?”

“She wouldn’t listen. It could have been worse; my sister is named Alabama because Phil decided to drive down to Alabama when her water broke. She never made it, had my sister in the car right off the I-95.”

LJ Kessels (she/her) is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. She has a MA in Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam and has worked for various (film) festivals, events, and whatchamacallits across Europe. Her work has previously been published in Bull & Cross, Stadtsprachen Magazin, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and more.