Tag Archives: Prose

Afterlife

By Anna Elin Kristiansen

Is she okay?

This is the first thought that forms in my mind as I come to after my afternoon dozing, surprised, as usual, that I have fallen asleep at all. My naps never last long, but lately, I have succumbed to taking them in my bed rather than having a lie-down on the sofa. There is simply no use pretending I’m not going to give in to sleep. I wake up with a feeling of having seen her face, that mysterious half-grin that I never can make head nor tail of. She wasn’t the only one, though. She was with others, others I didn’t care for. 

Rousing myself from short sleep in my state is no small feat. There is delight at managing to wake up at all, but there is also discomfort and a little of that familiar fear. Where, oh where, is she? I know now that she can manage by herself on the floor while I nod off, but still, I’m not entirely at ease with letting my consciousness float away from her needs. You need to have a lie-down, mum, can’t always be looking after her like you do. You’ll get too tired.

My mind is incapable of quelling echoes these days. Comments of the more hurtful variety are always ringing in my ears. Now, I keep her away from prying eyes. I want her close, though. I need her with an urgency that summons even the oldest of atom bonds, calling on them to unite yet again. As I rise from bed, my body faithfully reminds me of its limitations. It groans and creaks in protest as I grip the bed rails to pull myself up. Then, there is that dizziness spell. A nap can bring it out full force, sometimes flooring me for a day or two. It seems, though, that my brain still has the tenacity to beat it, given enough time. 

I’m trapped in a wasteland between reliving days gone by, unguarded memories threatening to overtake reality at the slightest opportunity, and disbelief at the state of me. Where I am now doesn’t quite qualify as life, but at the same time cannot be non-existence, based on the pure logic that once oblivion descends, there can be no perception of morning or evening. There is the seemingly irreversible routine of waking up at five-thirty or six. There is the post-lunch lull that descends on me like clockwork, slowing my entire organism in anticipation of the mid-day nap. And there is dusk that brings loneliness closer to my door and makes the darkness, ever so present in the vaults of my memories, thicken. There is also sadness. Quite a lot of sadness.

The afterlife is not a place appealing to visitors and those that come I can place in two categories. A pity visit I can smell from that first ring of the doorbell. The momentary pause before their greeting and their chirpy tones confirm my original instinct. We would have been better off alone, I whisper in her ear before tucking her away. Mother! How lovely to see you. Don’t you look dashing today. May I come in?

How I crave honesty. I would give my left, now useless arm, for a few minutes of real conversation that doesn’t shy away from the destination that breathe down my neck every minute of every day. But every time I try to voice what really weighs me down, my visitor will steer the topic to safer ground. We must not dwell on the negative, mother. Let’s enjoy our tea and out chat. Here, have another biscuit. I wish they wouldn’t fob me off with a cookie. Let me have it, for god’s sake. I deserve it. Throw your anger at me. Long ago, my taste buds performed an act of self-preservation and stopped tasting the bland sweets of today.

The second category of visitors is the paid ones. I can’t keep track of when, exactly, they are due. Any inquiries into the matter only produce mumbled responses that tell me nothing of importance. Their offerings are hardly more exciting than the boring biscuits, but they are warm and slightly more nutritious, so I eat from their plates. And they come with pills that keep my pain in check and my dizziness more manageable. It’s what I need if I am to take care of you, sweet-pea. If I’m to cope with all your demands. This second kind of visitor tends to bring a certain air of lost hope. It’s a shame, really, but why should they wash their hair and mind their looks? They pay no attention to what kind of opinion their appearance might evoke in the likes of me. When it comes down to it, I suppose the afterlife boils down to these two words: Not mattering. 

A part of me is fine with that, is perfectly at ease with being a no-body, just like I was once a busy-body in charge of a bustling household of six. Even though I’m now an old croon, a tucked-away particle still remembers the way my body swelled as a result of life multiplying inside. First, I dreaded what was to come, cursed the months of being fat and puking into the toilet. I still wince at the memory of how I panted and cried and groaned – I had welcomed my final hour after twenty-one hours of hellish labour – before finally being broken, so I could become a gateway into this world. Four times a mother taught me this: Life – irrevocable, unapologising – comes with its own agenda, and there is no taking back control again. Life takes what it needs without question; it nurses and latches on, greedily sucks in strength and reaches its chubby little arms out for independence sooner than any mother could possibly imagine. It sets you up to fail, you know. That’s why I need you, I need your dependability, your presence.  

How I had loved them, though. How I still love them, though I have learned long ago to let them go, to set them free so they can make their own mistakes. Despite my shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, there is a thing or two I could teach them about the way they live their lives, always on the go and rarely at home, lost in a screen but not in conversation, consulting psychologists instead of sitting down alone with a cup of tea, letting their own mind unfold. But I have also learned to keep silent, having caught on to the glances that pass between them whenever I broach the sensitive topic of how to live. She’s lost in the past. She doesn’t know the ways of today. Be patient with her, poor thing.

I used to host dinners for my family, twelve people at the table and me scurrying back and forth to the kitchen to put the final touch on each dish. We were happy then. Look at us, squint, concentrate and take a good look at us through the rear mirror. There we are, gobbling up turkeys and potatoes and green beans and puddings. Now, I’m incapable of such tiresome feats. 

Ah, there she is. My little darling. Relief floods my system as I bend over to pick her up, preparing to hoist her up on my hip with that second-nature movement, but instead – and this has never happened before, not with her – I lose my balance and take a tumble. A pitiful sound, somewhere in between a whine and a frightened-animal-groan, pierces the silence of my small living room. In no time, I’m just a heap on the floor, clutching her, panicked at the thought that I might have landed on top of her small body. My good arm is throbbing with pain. She must not be hurt. Please, don’t be hurt. I can’t live with myself if I don’t do right by you.

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Of the physical demands motherhood makes, I had heard a lot. I knew, for example, about the lack of sleep, the endless rocking and walking, the sucking, the ache, the relentless needs babies and children had. I knew about the bond, too, that mildly amusing description that could only be used in mother-to-mother conversation unless you wanted the other person to stifle a yawn. I hadn’t known, however, that mothering would require me to dive to the bottom of my own psyche and emerge with boxed-up emotions that erupted in frustrations, failures and disasters. It had been one series after another, one child after another, and I had yielded to its force. Alone, I had bobbed up and down in a raging ocean, thrown this way and that by nasty waves that made me choke and splutter, and him – him, who had been the source of all this in the first place – offering me no lifeline whatsoever. 

But it won’t be like that with you.

I stroke her, the pain in my arm slowly giving way to a numbness usually induced by the pills I can easily get my hands on these days. Back then, when I needed them more, it had been a struggle. 

With you, I’ll do it all over again. And I’ll do it without regrets.

Her clothing is beginning to fall apart, I need to mend the buttons doing up her dress in the back, but I can’t do anything about it now. Fear grips my heart. What if I die here and we’re found this way? I couldn’t bear it, not with her looking so shoddy.  She hasn’t been with me for a while, not in plain sight. The last time I exposed her to prying eyes, her appearance was much more to my liking.

Perhaps it’s jealousy on their part. Jealousy that I might get it right this time. That they got the short end of the stick, and she is blessed with perfection. They don’t rub my nose in it, not anymore, me being an unspeakably old lady and all, but I know what they think. What they should think. Because I had also hated them. Most days, I couldn’t stand them. With my own hands, I had beaten them, smacked their naked bottoms, pinched their chubby thighs, thrown them into cupboards and slammed the door. I had yanked their soft hair, punished them by letting them go hungry, I had shouted, screamed and raged at their folly. They had driven me mad, and they had known all about it. 

The floor, my immobility, my inability to rise and put an end to my pitiful situation offers me a glimpse into how time can curl up into itself, take a somersault and then settle down peacefully, slowing down to a barely noticeable crawl. She is a bulky pillow, not being made for anything of the sort, and I fight the urge to throw her across the darkening room. My stomach growls. Perhaps one of the second-kind visitors will save me. The thought offers a ray of hope before I realize that they’re done for the week. My dinner has been placed in the fridge under a plastic lid, ready to be heated in an idiot-proofed microwave that switches off automatically after fifteen minutes. They do this sometimes when they’re hit by a wave of staff sickness.

Pity comes first, then shame. I’m ashamed over my obvious ability to live so long but do so badly with all this superfluous time. And then there is fear, fear so strong it makes me whimper. This is the moment I have been neglecting, the moment an arrogant corner of my mind thought didn’t have to be reckoned with, the moment I’m to be strung up and stripped of my affiliations, weighed and measured by my actions and deeds alone. When all is said and done, this is a fitting ending for someone like me. I know it, my old and worn body knows it, my eyes know it as they produce hot tears that wet my face, melting into my deep lines and finding ways to trickle down my sagging face.

I try finding comfort in her, try caressing her back the way I have done so many times before, try stroking her cold and lifeless cheek. At least we’re together. But it’s as if the enchantment surrounding her has bid a hasty goodbye and disappeared through my depressing ceiling. It’s not her cotton-filled body that I need, not her staring blue eyes, nor her once-glistering blonde curls. This bland fake, this impostor, can’t save me from anything. I need real flesh. I want the version of life that I failed, the humans that grew inside of me. It doesn’t matter which one; I love them all the same.

Time on the floor creeps backward, takes me back to moments I thought I had covered in veils or packed up in boxes marked with ‘oblivion.’ With them, I can always claim amnesia, but here on the floor, I relive every rage, every punishment I inflicted on them, every mean remark and insult meant to scar and serve my own purpose. As the surrounding darkness closes in on me, I have to let my dignity go and allow a trickle of warm liquid to seep out and soak my underwear. I weep anew. The night wears on, and I drift in and out of restless sleep, trying unsuccessfully to make my body crawl, so I can snatch one of the woollen blankets covering the sofa. It is cold down here, and the wetness doesn’t help.

After an eternity, early morning rays illuminate the sad scene. I lie still, watching the sun climb higher. Breakfast, I tend to manage on my own, but lunch gets delivered. Someone will come in time.

Not long after, I hear the heavenly sound of the doorbell. 

All dust particles floating around in the air hang suspended for one tiny moment, waiting for me to draw a sharp intake of breath. At once, my senses are on full alert, trying to work out whether the visitor whose index finger produced the vibrations in my dull apartment is of the first or second kind. Of course, it’s one of mine, oh thank the lord – it’s one of mine, I know it!

From my place on the floor, I make a move. I reach with my good hand for the table, pulling myself a few inches closer to the hallway. Sharp pain stabs at my hip. My entire body opposes the movement, shrieks in deep protest. I whimper, I groan, I fart from exhausting my last strength, but I send my arm back out again, grasping at the armchair legs. My other arm wakes up from its temporary slumber, sending jabs of pain towards my epicentre, but I recognize them only by crying out, persisting instead in crawling towards the hallway and towards the end goal: The door.

I need to tell them that I’m sorry. Sorry for hurting them instead of protecting them always, for thinking they were splendid but never telling them anything of the sort, for slapping them when I should have taken them in my arms, for yelling at them when they did nothing but behave like kids. Most of all, though, I’m sorry that I never took a moment to pause and weep and look at myself, to look at them; that I never seized life by the wrists so I could take them along for the ride when I was in the throes of it.

The doorbell rings again. Whoever is downstairs is growing impatient, is perhaps gripped with a that’s-not-right sensation, wondering whether to call one of the neighbours for assistance with the buzzing-in. I manage to creep another inch forward, crying out as I do, whimpering at my pain. How will I ever reach that door? Suddenly nothing else matters. I can die; I can go in peace if I just make it to that door. If I can share just a few moments with the child of mine downstairs who still comes, the child that still spends minutes and hours listening to me whining about life when I should be intently focused on their perspective. My children, who still have their fragile lives in their hands, choose to spend some of it with me. And not just one of them; all of them. They all come. I’m gripped with a gratefulness so huge it sucks me in, makes me gasp.

“Mother?”

Oh, I hear him, my first, the one who broke me when he burst into this world, the one who almost died of pneumonia, the one who kept me up for forty-two hours straight watching his blue lips part and shiver as air left and entered. How I alternated between fretting at his bedside and cursing my unfamiliar vulnerability. If I lose him, there is nothing left in me. He took everything that was good when he was yanked out of me. 

He speaks through the letter-hole, trying the door handle hesitantly.

“Mother, are you there?”

I take in a gulp of air, lift myself up on my elbows, hold my head still, trying to stop it from shaking.

“I’m here!” I repeatedly croak until some of my unintelligible sounds break through the keyhole, the letter-hole, the door separating me from him. 

“I’m here. I’m here, angel. Mummy’s here.” The last two sentences I can only whisper. It’s kind of amazing, the fact that I’m still here. And whether I have a glorious hour, a dazzling day, a whopping whole month, or a full, amazing year, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m here.


Anna Elin Kristiansen is a reader, writer, mother and the universe masquerading as a human being. She makes sense of the world – and creates her own – through her own writing. In the evenings, she writes literary fiction, and when inspiration strikes, she writes poems about the experience of being alive. You can find her words at On Mama’s Mind and her Twitter.

The Sara Chain Letter

By Mariah Eppes

That evening, Kaitlin and I were together for the first time in a while, sitting on her patio. While I tried to think of something to talk about, she alternated between taking small sips from a glass of water and waving invisible pests away from her face. Her kids were with their dad, and the cat was dead, so there wasn’t anything obvious or innocuous for me to land on conversationally. 

I have a bad habit of bringing up inappropriate topics if there’s nothing obvious or innocuous to rely on (kids, pets). I wouldn’t have come to Kaitlin’s at all if I had known my nieces weren’t there. But the point is that I did go to Kaitlin’s, and since there was nothing to inhibit my bad habit, I brought up the Sara Chain Letter.

The Sara Chain Letter was something that happened to us when we were kids, in the summer of 2004. I was a few weeks away from turning twelve, and Kaitlin was thirteen. I remember it was before my birthday because Kaitlin was teasing me about the short few months in which she was “two years older” than me. I’d also had my appendix removed that same week—maybe just a few days before the incident—because I remember being sore and a little woozy.

I couldn’t do much activity, which was why Kaitlin and I were spending so much time on the computer. My dad usually kept a time limit on our internet usage, but he must have felt bad for me after the surgery because the rules had been temporarily lifted. This benefited Kaitlin more than me, since she was healthy. The internet was our main source of entertainment at that time, and she took full advantage of having control over the mouse. I didn’t have the energy to do much else besides sit on a kitchen chair next to her and watch.

In 2004, lots of kids at our school were into weird stuff on the internet. Most parents had no clue what we were doing. Including ours: our dad had only recently gotten a laptop, and it was for work. The kids in my computer lab impressed each other with methods for getting past school-regulated firewalls and shared new sites that hadn’t yet been detected, flagged as inappropriate, and blocked. Despite the school’s best efforts, plenty of explicit stuff was passed around. Mostly sex-related. But scary things were also popular.

One type of school-inappropriate content was called a chain letter. I’m sure you remember. A bunch of text, on a forum post or in an email, telling the reader they had four minutes to send the letter to ten people or else they would drop dead in a week. And other multitudinous variations. Chain letters were the most ridiculed and simultaneously the most feared because back then, it was one of the only things on the internet that threatened to have an impact on your real life. 

It was Kaitlin’s idea to find the Sara Chain Letter.

“Connor dared me to look it up,” she said.

Kaitlin liked Connor. I was supposed to feign ignorance until she properly admitted it.

“So do it,” I said.

“He said it’s scary,” Kaitlin said.

“It’s just a chain letter,” I said.

Kaitlin leaned back in the desk chair and peered through the threshold of the office, presumably to see if our dad was in listening range. When she was satisfied that he was at a safe distance, she said, “So you wanna do it?”

Mostly I wanted her to go to the virtual pet website we liked so I could watch her play. But I was too tired to call her out for trying to impress Connor. So I just said, “fine.”

Kaitlin stared at me, testing my sincerity. I stared blankly at the computer screen. Then she went to a search engine. Or, I assume she did. Searching is so ubiquitous now that it doesn’t sound right to say she “went to” one. In any case, she searched Sara Chain Letter, and we were brought to a sparse white webpage with a block of black text.

I am Sara. I am 13 years old. I was murdered by my neighbour. I went to his house after school. My parents were at work. He murdered me with a knife. He stabbed me over and over. If you’re reading this, then send this message to 13 more people in 13 minutes. If you don’t, I will HURT YOU. I will come to your house tonight at 3 A.M. I will be by your bed and kill you like I got killed by my neighbour.

I started to giggle, but it didn’t have a chance to leave my throat. Kaitlin scrolled down, past the text, and there was the image. The photograph. Kaitlin said, “oh,” and scrolled back up quickly. But we both saw it.

The dead girl in the photograph was lying on her back, naked. The frame contained everything above her belly button. She barely had breasts, I remember. Her neck was turned at an unnatural angle, and her mouth was too wide open. Her eyes were round and staring away from us. Her skin was tinged green. Her hair was stringy and dark, and there wasn’t that much of it.

I’m sure Kaitlin screamed first. But we were both screaming when my dad bolted into the office, yelling, “What? What? What happened?” Kaitlin was hysterical. I remember it oddly as if there were two of me, one hysterical and one watching, seeing all three of us. Kaitlin sank to the floor, on her knees, sobbing; I sobbed in the chair and wondered if I was going to throw up; my dad rubbed Kaitlin’s shoulders because she was closer to him. I remember that everything hurt like hell.

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“It was probably fake,” I said to Kaitlin. 

My dad had set us up in front of the television with plastic cups of water and slightly burnt frozen pizza. Neither of us were watching TV. Kaitlin shrugged and nodded. Her face and eyes were still wet. 

My dad was on the phone arguing with our cable company, demanding that they take down the page. This was a time when people still thought someone out there had control over what went online. The idea of the page being gone didn’t make me feel better. We’d already seen the letter. We’d already seen her face. 

I recovered myself enough to eat the pizza and then sought out Dad. He was sitting at the desk chair, fruitlessly reading the user policies of our internet service. I sat down in the same chair I had so recently, so innocently inhabited; it now had an ominous energy. 

I don’t remember the details of our conversation. But I know I asked him, “Is that picture real?” Because Dad looked at the computer screen, at the bouncing geometric screensaver, and said “Yes.” 

I went back to the living room.

“Kaitlin,” I said

“What?” Kaitlin said sullenly. Her water was still undrunk. 

“I was right. Dad found out the picture was fake.”

Kaitlin said nothing. I took the lie further. 

“It was a movie prop.”

A cartoon character on TV screamed Oh my god!. I remember that because the voice had the cadence of natural speech as if the character had responded to me. 

“Okay,” Kaitlin said. 

I felt it was my responsibility, a new role that I’d acquired, to protect Kaitlin from the disturbing truth. I used this new role to bolster me that night, lying awake as the clock got closer to 3 AM. I was strong, Dad had decided I was strong—and obviously, I was stronger than Kaitlin. I did not need to be afraid that the thing I had seen would appear. And Sara did not appear. 

I didn’t tell Kaitlin the last part when I mentioned the Sara Chain Letter on her patio. But that didn’t stop her from wrinkling her nose, swiping at another invisible fly, and saying, “I do not want to talk about that.” 

It was fair of her to say since I knew this was not something I should have brought up on a perfectly nice summer evening. Bad habit. We had not discussed the Sara Chain Letter since it happened, not once in seventeen years. To be frank, we hadn’t discussed much at all in at least fourteen of those seventeen years. Since our mother died—not long after the chain letter incident, actually—we had grown apart. We were very different people, and grief had made that obvious.

Kaitlin took a sip of water. “Also, you remember it wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“You fell asleep on the couch. Dad told me the photo was real. Not you.”

“That’s literally impossible,” I said.

“You must have overheard us while you were sleeping,” Kaitlin said. “And then dreamed it was you.” 

Something about her matter-of-fact tone made me suddenly, viciously angry. I knew I had to temper my reaction. Flying off the handle would only give her a greater sense of superiority. 

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to upset you,” Kaitlin said. “But I guess you knew all along.”

So much for tempering. “Okay, this is stupid,” I said. “Because that is just not true.”

The moment had stayed with me—Dad confiding in me that the photograph was real—because it was evidence that I had a stronger emotional constitution than Kaitlin, a resilience she lacked. I’d held the suspicion for years as a kid, but this memory represented the first proof. It must have been me, or else how would I have felt secure in the belief all the years after?

“You were on painkillers,” Kaitlin said. 

“I remember.”

“You were coming off anesthesia.”

“I couldn’t tell you because you would have been upset.”

“Well, obviously, I knew, and I’m still here. So.”

“And am I too.”

Kaitlin rolled her eyes. “Don’t be like this.”

“Be like what?”

“We’re trying to have a nice evening, and you’re starting a fight.”

“Just because I think you’re wrong doesn’t mean I’m starting a fight.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Let’s just call Dad and ask.”

“This is ridiculous,” Kaitlin said. 

I was already dialling. Dad answered; we exchanged short evening hellos. 

“It’s nice that you two are together,” Dad said.

“Yeah. Can you settle something for us?” I said. I heard Kaitlin scoff. “Remember the chain letter website? The gory one that me and Kaitlin saw when we were kids?”

“Chain letter?”

“Yeah, the Sara Chain Letter. It was, like, a scary letter, and there was a picture of a girl’s body at the end. We saw it and freaked out.”

 “I don’t know….”

“Dad. The dead girl. On the internet. There’s no way you forgot about that.”

“I never had anything to do with the computers in our house. I hated all that stuff. Still do.”

Kaitlin and I exchanged glances. 

“Dad, you didn’t forget. It was such a big deal,” I said.

“Put him on speaker,” Kaitlin said. 

I did, with some familiar resentment. Kaitlin always thought she could accomplish whatever it was I had failed to do. That had not changed, not since we were children, not since she told me matter-of-factly that I didn’t care enough, and that was why our mother wouldn’t visit me in dreams.

“After the appendectomy, Dad,” Kaitlin said. “That summer. We were in the office, and you let us play on the computer with no time limit.”

“Oh… wait.”

He paused. 

“Yeah. Oh, hun. The picture of the dead body? Oh. Hun, that was your mom.”

“What?” I said.

“That was your mom. She was home with you two. I was on that big work trip. ’05, right? ’04?” He paused as if in reminiscence. “She didn’t give you a time limit? Ha. She never told me that.”

Kaitlin stared at me. 

“She didn’t tell me what happened until I got home. She didn’t want to upset me. There was nothing I could have done,” said my dad. “Plus, she knew I was sensitive to that kind of thing. I could never do blood.” 

“There wasn’t any blood.” 

Said Kaitlin and I, at the same time. 


Mariah Eppes is a writer in New York City. You can find more of her work around the internet and at birdbyrocket.com. She’s on Instagram and Twitter.

The Road Trip

Or Unexpected Side Effects of Religious Experience

By Kym Deyn

Greg believed in God the way most people believed in breathing.
He found that not everyone liked this about him. He was thin, starting to grey, and wore wire-framed glasses that aged him more than necessary. His wife had liked it. For a time. Now it was just him and the baby and God.

Then, God told him that he was dying. This was important, God said because dying opened out your options. It clarified things. Greg took the prescription the doctor had given him, nodded solemnly at his prognosis, and wheeled the baby’s stroller out of the hospital.

He looked at the baby, a tuft of blonde hair curling ’round her head. She wasn’t really a baby anymore; last month, she’d started to toddle around the house. She’d already ripped more tassels off of the tablecloth than he’d been able to sew back on.

God was right, Greg thought. Dying did clarify things. He folded the stroller up into the back of his car and gently strapped the baby (toddler, almost) in. He started to drive.

He met Sam after he’d been driving for most of the day. The sun dripped orange light over everything. Sam’s coat looked like a flicker of flame, lit up by the car’s headlamps as they stuck out a thumb and hitchhiked. They had the collar of their coat pulled up and their hat low on their head, like a detective in an old movie. He let them get in the car.

“Where to?” he asked.

“Wherever you’re going,” Sam said. Their voice was androgynous and made Greg pause. They were waiting for a response.

“I don’t know yet,” Greg said. “Only I think I’m supposed to bring people with me.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Sam said. “That your kid?”

He blinked at the question. “Yeah, she’s mine.”

“She got a name?”

“Yeah. Lucy.”

“Lucy? Cute,” they said. Greg continued driving.

Eventually, Greg got too tired to drive, and the baby was restless, so they pulled into a motel. Sam winced as they got out of the car, sucking in the air through their teeth.

He picked Lucy up and balanced her on his hip. “You okay?”

Sam shook their head. “Not really.”

Greg got a chance to look at Sam now. They were a bit younger than him and altogether too present. Their eyes. Like something burning. “It’s serious, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yeah,” They replied, surprised. “How’d you guess?”

“I’m dying. Six months, maybe a year, if I’m lucky. God told me to get in the car, and I found you. There must be something in it, a method to His madness.”

Sam snorted. “Sorry to hear that. But there’s no such thing as God, Greg.”
He shook his head. “I think there’s others. And we’re all going to go together.”

Sam was looking at him like someone trying to make shapes out of clouds. “If you say so.”

They got a twin room. Sam drank cheap decaf coffee, sat on the floor, and stretched out their legs, reaching forward to touch their toes. They wore a shapeless skirt and striped socks. Every time the baby toddled towards them, they’d gently spin her around, and she’d giggle.

Greg sat in his undershirt (Sam said they didn’t mind) and tried to talk to God. It wasn’t going very well. He’d sit there and think, Oh God, oh King of Kings, oh Almighty, won’t you please tell me where I have to go tomorrow? Won’t you please tell me what I have to do next?

Then, while waiting for God’s response, he’d think about how the car probably needed looking at and how he didn’t know how far he needed to go and how he really ought to tell the baby’s mother, but then the baby would be taken from him, and Greg had never loved anything in this world as much as he’d loved the baby and by that point, his heart was beating too loudly to hear God over.

“Are those tattoos?” Sam asked, gesturing to Greg’s arms with their coffee cup.

On Greg’s arms were colourful markings, red and yellow, blue and green. “They’re feathers,” he said by way of explanation.

Sam made a noise of understanding. “What’s God saying?”

God, ever aware of the need for good timing, piped up.

“Go, and be healed,” Greg said, repeating him. His voice was flatter than God’s and less luminous.

“Lol,” said Sam, for the hell of it.

They met two Swedish tourists in the parking lot the next morning. They were humming “American Pie” and taking pictures of the motel sign. When they saw Sam and Greg with the baby, they dissolved into coos and giggles. Lucy moved her chubby hands towards one of the Swedish tourists, waving at them.

“Excuse me, ladies,” Greg said once they were finished fussing the baby. “Are you looking for God?”

The women looked to Greg and muttered between themselves. Sam frowned. “They won’t fit in the car.”

“Car?” One of them asked, peering at Sam. “Oooh, Car, ya?” They pointed to a shiny corvette over to the side. “No problem.”

Greg smiled. “See? No problem.”

When they stopped for lunch a few hours later, the corvette pulled into the same parking lot. The Swedish tourists continued to take photographs, their hair shining in the sunlight.

Inside the diner, Sam found a girl sitting in one of the booths. She had notebooks piled up on her table, next to a Bible and a milkshake. She watched Sam placidly as they approached. Greg hovered uncertainly beside them.

“Do you live ’round here?” Sam asked.

The girl shook her head. “Passing through.”

“Where to?”

The girl shrugged, running a finger ’round the edge of her glass. “Depends. I’m looking for something.”

“Yeah?” Sam asked. She glanced between them, taking in Greg’s inside-out shirt, Sam’s detective hat, Lucy biting her bright plastic rattle.

“I collect religious experiences,” she said. “A preacher with healing hands in Philly, a boy who sees angels in Vermont. I once had a guy in Maryland who painted on his stigmata every morning and said he used to see Jesus at the Wawa. He liked soft pretzels.” From her bag, she picked out a foil packet of pills, popped two in her mouth, and took a gulp of her milkshake.

“Why?” Sam asked.

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She didn’t say anything but pulled a face that suggested she didn’t want to go into it. She was very small and bird-like, her curly hair pulled away from her face in twin puffs. 

“Fine.” Sam’s eyes flicked briefly towards Greg. “He says he can talk to God.”

The girl considered Greg for a long moment, then smiled. “Ah,” she said. “Perfect.”

That was how they met Reba.

That night, Greg tried to talk to God again. The Swedish tourists talked amongst themselves, and Reba scribbled into her notebook. Sam flung Greg’s prescription at him. 

“Doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Fuck doesn’t matter. Take your fucking pills.”

“Don’t swear in front of the baby.”

Sam stuck out their tongue, and Greg smiled despite himself. They seemed to get bored of this line of conversation and turned to Reba. “Why him, huh?”

Reba looked tired, and the writing in her notebook was shaky. “A lot of what I record is nonsense,” she said. “But sometimes you can just see God on someone, Sam. I don’t know why.”

“God,” they snorted. “God on Mr. Bad-Tattoos-Won’t-Take-His-Pills?”

“You came with me, didn’t you?” Greg asked.

“Nowhere else to be,” Sam said. “Do you know where we’re going yet?”

“Not yet,” Greg said. 

Reba said goodnight. She was staying in the same room as the Swedish tourists. 

Greg looked at Sam and wanted to sigh, but he didn’t as he felt that exasperation wasn’t useful right now. “I don’t know how to explain God to you, Sam,” he said. 

Sam looked very tired in this light, all their burning dimmed. “Yeah, I figured.”

Greg thought about God and about the task he’d been sent on. “It’s all His Will. We’ll finish this journey; we’ll get well.”

Sam suddenly looked close to crying. “Sometimes I see things.”

“What?”

“Sometimes, I just know things are going to happen. There’s no voice in my head; it’s just how things are. But it hurts now. I knew that I had to find you; I knew about Reba too. I think they might be the last things I’ll ever know for sure. I don’t know how—” They held their head in their hands. “—I don’t know how to die with any sense of grace. I think I’m going to go out like a light.”

Greg put the baby down in her travel cot and wrapped his arms around Sam while they cried. 

They met Dillan when they pulled into a gas station, and he was on the cash register, letting the local kids walk out without paying for their gum. He had deep shadows under his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, he was in the corvette with the Swedish tourists and Reba. In the car park, he’d looked at Greg like someone looks at a clear night sky. All the stars. He’d said, “Holy shit. I believe you. I really believe you.” 

He didn’t even call to say that he’d quit. Just left his name badge and keys on the counter and walked straight out. 

One night when they were sitting together outside in the warm air, Reba asked Greg to talk about God. He said there was the God of his childhood, the God his mother had instilled in him, the Gods of the churches who found him uncomfortable, and a voice that swung through his head like a green and glowing pendulum. 

“No one,” Greg said, and he looked unusually sad as he spoke, “Tells you what to do after you’ve seen the burning bush. No one tells you how to keep going while the impossible is working through you. God does not make himself obvious but is visible in the ripples.”

The nights in motels were getting expensive, and none of them were well enough to sleep in the cars. He was getting worried about Lucy, too; the long drives were making her cranky and irritable. She wasn’t happy. Even Sam and the Swedish tourists were struggling to make her smile. 

Dillan rounded on Reba one night while she was filling in her notebook. “Why bother?” he asked her. “Why should there be anything left of any of us?”

“Someone has to take notes,” she said. “Someone has to care.” 

Sam told him to knock it off. Dillan looked pale and shaky.

“How much further is it?” he asked. Greg shook his head slowly, and Dillan deflated. “I don’t have any money or any insulin left. I want to do this, Greg, but how are any of us supposed to keep going?”

“I don’t know. I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry.” He worried he was failing them. Or maybe he was failing God, somehow. He looked over to Sam and thought of them curled up and crying. “I’m going to do my best by all of you. I promise.”

Eventually, it was decided that the Swedish tourists would pay for Dillan, and Sam would have to sneak into Greg’s room and sleep on the couch. “Take the bed,” Greg said. 

Sam smiled, laid out on the sofa, hat placed over their eyes. “I’m good.”

“You’ll hurt in the morning.”

“Oh, and what’s new?”

Greg didn’t respond, and after a few moments of silence, Sam tossed their hat onto the bed.

“What?” Greg asked.

“I’ve been thinking about the Swedish tourists.”

“Yeah?”

Sam sat up. “When they talk amongst themselves, they’re not speaking Swedish.” They caught Greg’s puzzled expression and sighed. “No, seriously. A language… has a sound, right? It makes certain shapes, follows certain patterns. If you listen, it’s just… jibberish. They’re not speaking anything at all except for the stuff they say in English. I think… I don’t know. I think they’re aliens, maybe.”

Greg started to laugh. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I am. What’s—”

“Sam, you don’t even believe in God, but aliens? Are you kidding me? Holy shit.”

Sam smiled in spite of themselves. “Don’t swear in front of the baby.”

They agreed to switch places halfway through the night when Sam got up to pee, but by that point, Greg was too tired to move, so they laid in the same bed and dreamt. 

They took turns with the driving through the long and increasingly uncomfortable days. Technically Greg could have asked Dillan or Reba or one of the Swedish tourists/potential aliens to do it, but they’d fallen into their own kind of rhythm.

They’d sit in the tinny rumble of the car’s engine and chat shit. Sam found out about Greg’s ex-wife (her name was Helen), Greg found out about Sam’s time at college (they’d majored in anthropology). Sam was good at distracting Lucy when she got bored. 

God was coming through louder all the time. Sam had developed a tremble in their hands that everyone pretended wasn’t there.

The road was wooded on both sides, a streak of grey sky above their heads. It reminded Greg of the roads near where he’d grown up. Sam pulled over.

He frowned as they got out of the car and braced themselves on the hood. “Sam? What’s wrong? What are you doing?”

Sam shook their head. “I need the air, I can’t—I can’t concentrate on anything anymore. It’s not safe.”

“We’re so close, now. I’ll get one of the others to drive. Hell, I’ll drive.”

“I don’t want to do this.”

“Sam. Sam. I know you’re tired, but—”

“You’re full of shit. I’m too ill to be here. And what the hell am I doing anyway? Following some crazy guy with a baby and bad tattoos and—”

“They’re not tattoos.”

Sam looked at him and blinked. “What.”

“They’re feathers.” Greg looked around for other cars or people. Even the corvette was a way behind them. He took off his shirt. Running across his arms and down his back, patches of colour, greens and blues and reds. The patches had a feathery quality to them, as far as faded tattoos went, but that was all.

“What are you on about?”

“Put your hand on my back.” When they shot him a look, Greg insisted. “Please.”

Sam reached out and sunk their hand into the thick, downy feathers. They ran a hand down his back. Feathers. In any colour, you cared to name.

Greg turned to face them and realized they were burning again, like the moment he’d first seen them from the car window. “You’re impossible,” they said and kissed him.

He cupped their face. Their lips were very soft, and they were very nervous.

“Greg,” they said. “I spent so long trying to die when I knew. I knew, and I saw it coming, but now I don’t want it.” He held them, and they wrapped their arms around him.

“We’ll be okay,” Greg said, not sure if he really believed it.

Rather than talk about what they were going to do next, Greg suggested they find somewhere that sold coffee. The Swedish aliens pulled up in the Starbucks drive-thru maybe ten minutes later. Sam sat on the hood of Greg’s car with their coat collar pulled over their face and their striped socks on display. They had a decaf coffee in one hand and the baby on their lap.  

“Mm,” Sam said. “I like this part of the country, at least. It’s near where I grew up.”

Greg turned to them. “Really?

“I grew up in Maine, didn’t I say? A podunk town called Cleanliness.”

“What? That’s where I grew up,” Greg said.

What? How did we not know each other? You’re older than me, but, seriously?

Greg wasn’t really listening, though, because running through him was a voice roughly the size of a forest. It was made of light, with an accent particular to heaven. He knew where they needed to go. 

Even the town’s signage joked about being “Next to Godliness.” They’d just never expected it to be true. Greg’s old car idled next to the corvette as they all got out and tentatively looked around. 

“Greg, Sam,” Reba said. “Dillian and I have something to tell you. Before we do this.”

Sam’s smile was like sparks coming off a fire, quick as a flash. “You guys grew up here?”

Reba nodded. 

“And you’ve lived an impossible life?”

“Yes.”

“The one thing I don’t understand,” Greg said, carrying Lucy in his arms. “Is the Swedish Aliens.”

The Swedish aliens looked between each other, and one of them spoke. They were blond and almost identical, with very white teeth. “Oh, no, no. Tour-ists. Tour-ists.”

Sam shrugged. “Method to His Madness? When was the last time anything in your life made a single lick of sense?”

No one could think of the last time anything made a lick of sense, so they went back to staring at the sign. 

“Have you ever thought about flying?” Sam asked suddenly, breaking the silence that had settled.

“All the time, can’t do it, though,” Greg said. “No wings.”

“I bet you could if you tried.”

“I tried. I can’t.”

Sam smiled, the face of someone who couldn’t talk to God but sometimes had profound truths presented to them during moments they least expected. “Yeah,” they said. “You can. And the rest of us are going to walk into that town behind you and realize that we’re already miraculous.”


Kym Deyn is a poet, playwright and fortune teller. They have a Legitimate Snack forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books, as well as work in Carcanet’s Brotherton Poetry Prize Anthology. Otherwise, they have been widely published in a range of anthologies and journals. They are the winner of the 2020 Outspoken Prize for Poetry. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and their website.

Ghosts

Previously Published online at Dumpster Fire Press.

By Kaci Skiles Laws

My mother was crazy. She was crazy in love with my dad long after he started ‘working late hours.’ She loved him even after his broccoli casserole was too cold, and he hit her for the first time, two years into their marriage. 

There were times the biscuits were overdone, the ice cubes had not fully set, and the sweet tea wasn’t chilled when he came home at random hours drunk. He choked on a chicken bone, and she stared into his face, a little void, a few seconds before saving him. She could have let him die. 

I came as an afterthought. 


I stared at the oatmeal hanging onto my mother’s chin. Mom. I started to say, annoyed. A reflex inside my arm swept the oatmeal into a napkin and placed the wad next to a bottle of Zestril, prescribed for her high blood pressure. 

Seeing the bottle, I couldn’t remember if I’d given her one. It was like all the times I’d driven the hectic stretch of road between my work and her house, unsure, after I arrived or once the streetlights disappeared into my rearview if I’d stopped at any red lights, unable to remember any green ones. 

I looked at the antidepressant, Celexa, sitting next to the Zestril, as dazed as my mother, the reason I’d stopped at the pharmacy on the way over.

“Your doctor,” I said it as if my mother was going deaf and paused, searching for recognition in the lines of her forehead, “He prescribed them for your mood.” I had the antidepressant’s cap in my hand and was shaking one out. Her jaw slid open, and her tongue was flat, white. I stuck it on and asked, “Did I already give you your blood pressure medicine?” 

She closed her mouth and made a slight sucking motion. I glanced at the bottle again and watched the napkin full of oatmeal disappear under the table. Her Shih Tzu, Hannah, was there eating the entire thing. Oh, well. I thought. Just this one time. It had happened other times too. 

Mom kept sucking but never replied. Her eyes were lost marbles. She carried on that way every day after my dad died.


On the way home from her house that night, tired and struggling to see through the patches of low fog settling around my Jeep like a sinister cloud, speeding up and slowing down in frustrated intervals, I clipped an animal or what I assumed to be an animal. 

I started to cry as sudden as the impact, a well of black water that had been rising inside of me so hard I had to pull over. Outside I recognized the turn-off point my dad referred to as Goatman Road and the dying dagger-shaped tree illuminated in my headlights. In my mirror, I saw a mass stumbling near the cornfield. A person? “No, I saw fur,” I said out loud. A fur coat? It was late winter, and though the days were warming up, the nights were still cold enough for a coat. 

I got out and yelled, “Hello?” and hoped for no answer. I heard stumbling. Hooves? Yes. Hooves. I wasn’t certain, but I wanted to believe it was an animal. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I ran back to the car and tried to cry more but couldn’t. 


“I hit something by Goatman Road last night,” I told my mother as I spooned a dumpling into her mouth the following evening. The bite was small and her chewing even smaller. She swallowed and opened her mouth again.

A few years ago, she would have spoken in whispers about the legend of Goatman Road, how it was rumoured there was a man who bred with goats that used to live at the end of the road, that there was more than just one Goatman and possibly even a goat-girl or two running loose in the fields.

She would’ve said it’s a bad omen or a curse, the Goatman’s ghost or spawn that I’d hit. She would have gone out and danced around my car with a bundle of burning herbs. I wished she would, but she sat borderline comatose. 

“How is it?” I asked and looked back at the thick soup, scooped up a carrot, had it spit back, a contrived confetti spray across my face to celebrate my incompetence, some in my hair and on the floor. No carrots. Okay. It made me forget about the thing I’d hit and my fantasy of Mom coming back to life. 

Hannah licked at splatters. You’ll be all orange tomorrow—I thought, looking down at her, fishing out the rest of the baby carrots, letting them plop down onto the linoleum like Oompa Loompa fingers. 

In the kitchen, I tore a bag of instant pudding open, happy to steal a moment away from my mother. Trying to push aside the creeping thoughts of last night, I thought of all the times Mom made pudding for me as a kid, as a different mother, one that became a distant memory, a person I must have imagined or dreamed up. 

I stirred the pudding with a wooden spoon, letting some spill out. I started to say something towards the doorway of the living room where my mother sat, a sea cucumber, about throwing the spoon out because of the bacteria breeding in its porous skin but didn’t because it would’ve made me feel more alone.

Once the pudding was thick enough, I used the spoon one last time, licked it and threw it end over end at the trashcan. It didn’t make it. The kettle whined, and as I poured its contents into mugs next to identical bowls, I remembered another thing, something funny, for the first time in six months since my father had died. My mother refused to speak or eat unless I was the one feeding her.

“Nancy,” I said, referring to my dad’s widow, setting the tray down on the coffee table. My mother looked at me for the first time in a week. “You’re going to like this.” I placed a dollop of dessert onto her tongue. “Not the chocolate pudding, Nancy…I was in high school, and it was Dad’s weekend.” I motioned towards the tea, “And Nancy had a cup of Earl Grey steeping on the end table. She went out to have a smoke while it cooled. Her cat, Sammy, came over to see what it was, realized he didn’t want it and turned to jump down, but before he did, I saw a tapeworm fall from his butt into the tea. I got closer and watched it sink. Sammy left the room as Nancy came back in. She must have seen the look on my face because she demanded—What? I was going to tell her, but I could tell she was disgusted.”

The corners of my mother’s lips crawled up higher than they’d sat in a month, and her eyes twisted green and yellow in the light. “Mom,” my eyelids grew like a camera lens on zoom, “She drank the entire thing and never said a word.” I saw my mother’s teeth start to form a smile for a second and heard her almost break the silence.


Driving home, I regretted my decision, worried I should’ve turned back even though the fog from the night before had lifted; the quiet inside my Jeep and warmth of the heater was making me drowsy. I rolled down my window, and the rush of air was unexpected and jarring. I kept it down as I drove along more sombre and sober, grateful for the biting wind keeping me awake. 

I noticed the crooked tree that on this night looked less like a dagger and more like a finger pointing, followed by a sense of dread. I drove on, subconsciously backing off the gas pedal in search of something my morbid curiosity couldn’t stop picking at, afraid I’d not only injured an innocent animal but killed one when I saw something at the edge of the cornfieldI had to know if it was a deer or stray dog or, worse, someone’s pet. The Goatman. 

Getting closer, I could make out sleek brown fur and thought it must be a poor deer. I got closer and was at a crawl on the shoulder of the road when I saw the human hair splayed out, blowing. Surely not. Then I saw a hand sticking out from the edge of the cornfield, its bright red nails glaring back at me. In shock, not sure of anything, but certain I could not have hit a girl the night before, I turned around to go back to Mom. 

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Back in her driveway, I sat staring into the house. It was all dark except for a soft glow, a touch lamp by her chair stuck on its dimmest setting, one with a tarnished silver base and stem, a shade made of frosted glass plates which over time had become so grease-stained no one could see the flowers underneath. 

Years ago, we’d seen it on display downtown, where everything was half-off. The same day I found gold lipstick in the basement of the store. It became my most prized piece of makeup. I took it to a slumber party when I was ten and never saw it again. It reminded me of all the things I loved the most that were stolen from me.

I didn’t know why I was there. I knew I couldn’t go home. I was supposed to be her best baby, most obedient, caring, not killing.

I called first, knowing I wouldn’t get an answer. I wanted the ringing to send a crack up the wall and make the roof cave on one side to survey the damage and fix it. I could hear the telephone from outside, shrill—screaming, screaming—me losing count.

I used my spare key to get in, hoping she might just shoot me dead. I stood at her bedroom door knocking, could hear Hannah’s muffled barking, my mother shuffling, the old knob making a racket in her hand. She looked at me, tired. She had not heard until now.

“I was drifting. I can’t drive. I’m going to sleep in my room.” I lied.

Mom reached, her hand oblong and unexpected from the crack. I drew back. She squeezed, and it was cold, intending to be comfort.


Her spare room, dusty and gray, had not been mine in years. It wasn’t long after I’d laid in my old bed, stiff. My doubts surfaced; the thing on the road ran across the ceiling. Dark vines spread like arthritic hands. I watched the familiar shape of the oak tree outside. After years of summer storms, it was bigger, all-consuming, being spared by lightning and Dad’s bullets and everything that could’ve killed it.

I didn’t make it until morning. If Mom was awake, she heard me saying, “I need to report a hit and run,” over the phone outside her room. I imagined as if stuck in a story, her listening for something beating loose inside one chamber of my heart, an ear pressed into the door that in the story was a floorboard. I saw myself slump as I said it.

I needed someone to blame, but there was no one.

As the police investigated my call, the road where the deer had been a girl, the road where she was running confused before I hit her, she had somehow vanished.


At sunrise, I searched the edges of the cornfield. The police were gone and probably wouldn’t be back; they said they got pranks like this out by Goatman Road all the time. Probably just kids messing around

I got out and walked long stretches inside the cornfield next to where I was sure I saw her body, half-expecting to find blood and fur, some confirmation that it was a deer and not a girl. Afraid I’d find a shoe or earring, purse and ID. There was nothing there, not even a dead deer. It seemed unlikely to hit a girl on a semi-desolate expanse of road. Unless it was a prank gone wrong. Unless it was a goat-girl. 

I looked at the fur still stuck in the grill of my Jeep and grabbed some out; I folded it inside a napkin to send to the forensics lab to prove it was synthetic or mink or cow, whatever they make real fur coats out of these days, so I could say—see, see, I told you, I’m bad. I deserve whatever I get. I’m not crazy. It’s from the girl I hit. I hit her, and I ran. 

I called into work first a few days, then indefinitely. I insisted they keep searching for the girl. Maybe an animal had dragged her body away. 

Restless, I thought about the kids in my homeroom, how I’d disappeared without warning, but I was in no shape to be teaching. I didn’t know if I could go back, feeling as though I was without conscience, disposable. I wouldn’t allow myself to go back. If they found a body, it wouldn’t be a choice. I was relieved at the thought.


After a week passed, exasperated from conducting my own strenuous searches and nobody to show for it, I took my fur sample to the police department. They said they’d—humour me—and ran a test. It came back inconclusive. I think they lied about it and threw my sample away to shut me up and close the case. 

They asked if I’d had my vision tested if I was on any prescription meds. I shook my matted head—no. They told me no new missing person report had been filed. They made me black tea and suggested a psychologist; it was the most mothering I’d gotten my whole life.


“I try not to feel the exhaustion and emptiness, pretend it’s not there or that it’s normal, but I’m not okay. I’m tired, and I’ve been tired, and now I’m certain I killed that girl. No one believes me.” And what about the legend. What about the Goatman? I wouldn’t mention it. My psychologist was a great listener. In our sessions, I realized that psychologists are just people you pay to care about you.


It all rose up over time as I continued on with my appointments. I would do something unacceptable and feel confused by the setbacks. My lack of control scared me. Feelings were a foreign language; they came as nightmares climbing from the well of my esophagus like a cough, spilling into the air. 

I’d lay long under the bent tree limbs floating over the ceiling like a projection and try to listen in my room where it all started, and soon I stopped looking for the phantom girl. She was lost and forgotten in the cornfield because nobody cared to find her, and I had failed. Nothing would be left of her but eventually bones. The Goatman carried his daughter away to rest to bury the legend. Nothing would ever be the same. 

In the daylight, I did normal things; I cooked and cleaned. I fed Mom. I grew resentful and didn’t know what to call it or why, so I asked my psychologist; I witnessed deadly nightshade sprouting up like veins, violet-blue and violent, buds that never should have come at a time so cold, afterthoughts, swallowing the house.

I stared at the wooden spoon on the floor next to the trashcan covered in brown for days, angry that I’d be the one to clean up the mess and it’d be there waiting until I did. It all seemed juvenile and shameful. I didn’t know what to do with myself; I didn’t want to feel anything. I had to practice presence and sitting with myself. I organized the silverware and plates, and cups. I watched shadows to feel less afraid and worthless. I let the sadness twist within me; I identified it coming up. I stopped caring if Mom ever spoke again. I knew it wasn’t my responsibility. 


“When Dad’s liver failed, I was relieved because I didn’t want him to override any more good memories,” I said, setting a plate of eggs and bacon before my mother. “I’m not feeding you today, not your medicine either.”

I looked back for signs of life before I walked towards the door and said, “I killed someone.” There was none, so I started to say—Nancy—to jolt her, but I knew it was mean like I knew the plate would be untouched except for what Hannah could curl her tongue around, and my mother wouldn’t stop her. The certainty of it all was reassuring.

The silence, deafening at times, became bearable. The shadows in the spare room told me what I needed, the same way a cobweb tells you it needs to be wiped. I never knew what I needed before because no one ever asked me. I didn’t know how I thought I was supposed to go on that way forever like people do, like ghosts.


Kaci Skiles Laws is a closet cat-lady and creative writer who reads and writes voraciously in the quiet moments between motherhood and managing Crohn’s Disease. She grew up on a small farm in a Texas town alongside many furry friends, two sisters, and a brother. She has known tragic loss too well, and her writing, which is often dark and honest, is a reflection of the shadows lurking in her psyche. Her work can be viewed here.

In the Gray

By Cory Austin Knudson

Time gets tangled and glutinous in the gray, so I doubt either Sarira or I could say exactly when it overtook us. I would have called it a month ago if words like “month” still had any significance. It was only when we passed on the stairs that I understood, with anything approaching certainty, that it must have been even longer than that. I saw it in Sari’s eyes. In those punctured coins of flecked ultramarine that always seemed to glow no matter how dim the rest of the world got, I saw just how far gone we really were.

Horror must have flooded my face. Not least because in Sari’s, I read a joy that tipped into the inhuman. 

After a moment, she turned and continued down the stairs, fading little by little into ashen half-light. I don’t remember how long it’s been since we last spoke.

“Months”?

I saw what I expected to see through the oval window in the garret at the top of the stairs. Thank god. The pine barrens stretched out in every direction, canopy thick-laden with snow like an over-iced sheet cake. Buckshot snow whirled against a sky that hung in churning snarls of steel wool. I breathed against the glass and watched a little patch of fog struggle to grow, then vanish. 

Below, the drive was unmarred by snowshoe or plow tracks: a brushed aluminum river on which frozen waves mounted higher than fifteen feet here and there. Everything felt close, domed-in. Like a snow globe constantly awhirl.

My lucidity astonished me. I wondered whether I actually imagined it all and, on thinking it, prayed I would never be so far gone as to actually conjure this kind of cut-ice clarity from inside my own head. Sarira had convinced me to go along on her little psychological adventure, sure, but not without protest. Not without my resolving, before we turned off our lantern, to keep ahold of who I was, and where, and when. I was in the gray, but not of it. Thank God.

Goosebumps stippled up my wrists as I slipped off one mitten, then the other. You couldn’t stand it for long, but there was nothing like feeling the cold to make things sharp and present. To make things real. Though that’s another word whose meaning has started to wander places it shouldn’t.

We did know that this winter would be different, of course. But nobody really saw the gray coming.

The NIW had been warning for weeks that a wave of the polar vortex (or the amoebic anomaly of haphazard currents and vortices where the polar vortex used to be) was diving down our way. It likely wouldn’t recede for an extraordinary amount of time. As in, an amount of time they didn’t even want to try to predict. But given that equatorial humidity had been topping its own records every year for the past decade, they were willing to predict that the snow wouldn’t stop all winter and most of what some older people still insisted on calling “spring.” We had to get used to the idea: most of North America was going to be stuck inside for who knows how long, without power or heat, and wrapped in a constant, penumbral dimness such that day and night would grow largely indistinguishable. A few TV shrinks considered the psychological impact of the coming season of omnipresent twilight, especially for those of us who—admittedly against all advice—still lived year-round outside the settlements. But most people were understandably more preoccupied with survival than to worry about what flavours of madness might brew in the gray.

I heard Sarira’s slippers pad onto the linoleum of the kitchen below. The rustle of one of the ration boxes that appeared in the entryway every week or so flooded my chest with sudden warmth: no matter how gone into the gray she may be, I thought, even Sari still has to eat. Something about that reminder of creaturely need soothed me. Like there really was some ballast still anchoring us to a world outside our heads. 

Loss of appetite was generally the first sign, after all.

In the haphazard reports that filtered through in the early months of the storm, it was said that there was an appreciable—and increasing—number of people who simply stopped eating. They’d be discovered by ration crews withered in their beds or curled up out in the snow with cracked, opiated smiles spread over their teeth. The ones caught on the lip of death gibbered of archetypal chimeras and cathedrals of polychromic ice, of communion with loved ones long dead, of flights through cyclopean forests lurid with Pleistocene flora. Few could be wrestled back from the worlds they had built. Few seemed to want to be.

My fingertips went numb on the glass. A little line of fog circled each. 

Against what might once have been a horizon, dull jewels of light flickered. 

There they were, I thought. The holdouts. Clinging to their lanterns out in the settlement skyscrapers that, now, might as well be worlds away.

Those lights were few and growing fewer. Still, I wished I was among them. I wished that Sari had never convinced me to keep the house after Dad died—to live in it, out here in the boonies—and, most of all, I wished she had never discovered those fanatics occupying the interstitial frequencies on our crank radio’s shortwave band. Without them, I’d never have been convinced to stop keeping the lantern lit in twelve-hour cycles, like the NIW climatic psychology task force advised everyone to do in order to keep our circadian rhythms something approaching regular.

Far off, one of the lights flickered and went dark. Maybe someone was just standing in front of their lantern. Or perhaps they, too, were diving into the gray like everyone else had. Like Sarira had.

Like I had? 

Flakes brushing the window spoke quiet immensity.

Of course, it’s real, I thought. It all couldn’t be in my head.

“It’s a gift,” Sari had said. “Maybe the psychonauts have a point about that.”

I hated the name those freaks on the shortwave gave themselves. But I didn’t say anything.

“Maybe they’re right that the gray gives us some kind of chance at a new world. Even if it’s just… What are they calling it now? Collective dementia, or hysteria?” She laughed. “Either way, what’s the difference? The point is that you get to experience the world as immanent to your imagining. And there’s nobody to tell you otherwise because there’s nobody else around! Or because you’ve gone into the gray with whoever happens to be around.” 

I made a sound at the suggestion, but Sari didn’t stop. “Inside and outside lose their distinction,” she said, her eyes crackling with lapis mica, “and time gets all knotted up in pure presence. Difference becomes identity again. Like we’re all crawling back into the womb—back to the ocean, even. Hell, into the primordial, pre-subjective dream time!”

The snow was deep and deepening, then. Starting to bury everything. Erasing the world outside.

“You’re crazy,” I had said to Sarira. “All that is crazy. Anybody who thinks they know what the gray is is—”

“I’m not saying I know what it is. I’m saying what it does. And I want to experience what it does. You should, too—just imagine what it will be like to actually, really experience what’s inside your head!”

I breathed out and counted the floorboards. “Those wackjobs really did get to you. Come on, Sari, it’s not like mushrooms or spice or stuff like that…. Nothing is exciting, much less pioneering about losing the ability to separate the real world and whatever happens when you lose your hold on it. And you can’t make some kind of religious experience out of not knowing what’s real, what world you live in… It’s the definition of—”

“Crazy?” Sari’s laugh had more razors in it this time. “You’re going to figure out that that word doesn’t mean much when the bottom drops out on the definition of sanity.”

As if in proof, ice lanced through my stomach. The garret’s oval window was fogged over. 

I’d been talking into it. 

I was ventriloquizing, not just remembering that conversation with Sari. Yammering in the dark at myself in two voices like one undergoing some kind of psychic mitosis. 

It always made my guts turn when I realized the distinction between my mind and the world was going fuzzy again. At least it was just memories this time. When things like dreams started invading the waking world, it was much worse. Like the first time I noticed it, standing at the balustrade on the landing while the dream image of a baseball diamond shimmered into being before me. My dad was there next to me, and I wasn’t surprised in the least—as if he wasn’t buried in the backyard of the house he left me. He looked just how he looked when we used to go to games in the settlement together, except his eyes were a phosphorescent, Sari-like blue that they weren’t in real life. At least as far as I could remember. 

It was the strangest thing—there was a field, but no game, no players. The whole diamond was filled with fine, white sand, and little hillocks of it shifted and churned over one another in an unaccountable ballet that my father stared at without blinking.

I found myself backing away from the window, but the phantasm only grew more animated. When the barriers break, they break hard.

The glass suddenly rattled in its frame and resolved, like some crystalline megaphone, into waves of Sarira’s reedy tones: “Great is the power of memory… A deep and boundless manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this am I myself—”

I held my temples and stamped a boot on the floorboards. My fingertips were glass-cold. “This is the floor,” I said. “This is my skin. That is—”

What am I then, O my God? What nature am I? A life various and manifold, and exceeding immense!” The voice bounced off the walls of the garret, making Sari’s incantation manifold: a tissue of compounded syllables that rolled and crashed against each other in an ear-rending cacophony.

“—That is a window. Just a window. I smell cold wood. I smell whatever Sari’s eating in the kitchen….”

I continued through my senses until the window became a window again. (It started to quiet down around “the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things…”) 

I rubbed my temples, and my fingertips tingled as they warmed.

Fucking Augustine, I thought. 

Sari’s reading had gotten more and more esoteric as the storm thickened. Before we turned the lantern off and she went silent, there were whole days when the halls rang with Salvador Ferenczi and Otto Rank, evenings that echoed Paracelsus and Eliphas Levi. The Doctors of the Church—especially Augustine, that prophet of interior infinity—often thrummed through the house as well. She’d cast sentences into the dark like sorcerer’s spells. And it wasn’t long until I realized she really was weaving the house’s reality to her own pattern.

…And caves, and caverns, I thought, in a voice that wasn’t quite mine.

When I woke (or when I fell to dreaming—you can never truly tell), what sounded like water was dripping onto the waxed polyester of my jacket. A stalactite, ribbed and shining, hung viciously over my stomach from the peaked ceiling of the garret. I pulled a mitten off and sank the naked hand into where the weight of accumulated drops made a depression in the fabric. 

The puddle was as cold as I expected, but the consistency was—wrong. So wrong that my fingers clenched without my willing it. 

A stream of cut rubies dripped from my fist, clicking like marbles as they tumbled back into the waxed concavity. Each shimmered as it fell, alive and rutilant as if lit by a fevered power of its own. 

Past my fist, the panes of the garret’s oval window formed the core and fanning corona of a brilliant, prismatic sun.

I looked around.

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Catching the pinpricks and edges of decomposed light lancing from the window, the crystal grotto in which I now found myself batted near-tactile spectra around what had once been the bare garret. Towers of cubic topazes emerging slantwise from calcite congeries bubbled ceilingward, meeting, here and there, more jewel-dripping stalactites of polished jasper. In place of the crown moulding, livid needles interlaced or clotted like syphilitic lesions petrified at the moment of eruption. Everywhere gems dripped from gems. My eyes rolled around the freak of fantasy geology. I thought, Innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things.

Rolling over, the rubies cascaded into a scrub of quartzes that had materialized around my sleeping body like otherworldly lichen. I ran my bare hand over them, feeling threads of newborn crystal shatter against my fingers. I pushed into the mineral undergrowth and dislodged a sapphire. It rolled over my skin, feeling—really feeling—like icy silk. 

I bit the mitten off my other hand and plucked a cartouche of emerald. It was textured like a fingernail and heavier than it should have been, as if filled with some viscous liquid. 

I made myself drop it and worked my bare hands beneath the stones, closing my eyes to the brilliance surrounding me. Like I could will it all away.

I reached the floorboards.

“This is the floor,” I said through my teeth. “I feel cold wood. That’s all.”

But how long could a sane person keep their eyes closed to all that magnificence?

“Sane”?

I opened my eyes, and it was all more dazzling than before. Over every jagged surface, waterfalls of jewelled rainbow tumbled. I turned and turned, helpless against the flood, against the impulse to open every sense and drink as much of it as I could. By degrees, my optical tectum started to sputter and short out: turning, and turning, and turning, I heard the colours, tasted the milk of starlight as synapses fired in directions they never fired before—

“It’s not real,” I heard myself say. (Was that me? I sounded a hundred yards off. Or a hundred years.)

I looked down.

“Real”?

The emerald was in my hand again. I didn’t remember reaching for it. How could I doubt that semi-perfect planarity, the heft that seemed possessed of its own gravitational field? Deep in the green, shining causeways crisscrossed one another. They limned an inner space greater than the jewel’s volume, passing into dimensions unbounded by any physical perimeter. Receding past itself, the emerald became an emblem of that excess that makes such stones so expressive of what has no end. A deep and boundless manifoldness, I thought. If that was in my head, then what does “real” matter?

“You know that way lies death,” I heard again. Closer this time.

The window flared, and I heard a gravelly scraping where the garret gave onto the staircase.

Curling on the landing (a moss of amethysts made wine-dark mace heads of the balustrade newels), an opal crocodile turned its crystal-coronated head. Where eyes would be, lapis lazuli flecked with gold incandesced amid an emptiness deeper than black.

My guts turned and, without thinking, I turned with them. With a violence that surprised me, one foot crunched after the other toward the window of the solar diamond. Before me, bare hands stretched forth in a gesture of exorcism. The emerald made a sound like shattering when it fell. But that might have been any number of other lacy rock formations that tumbled about my knees like so much dream-mist. 

Which, of course, they were.

had to see through it.

My vision went photo-negative in the molten pool, and a chorus of rainbows howled into my cerebellum. Supernovas balled up and burst behind my eyes. But I kept them open. 

My hands were twisted mudras, solarized in an oil-slick fire. 

I stepped into the sun.

My fingertips made little circles of fog on the glass. It was clear. And cold, and silent.

“This is a window,” I said. “I smell my sweat and the cold.”

Outside, there was the same smooth river of snow, the gray distance where some few lights twinkled against nothing.

I whirled at a rustle somewhere behind, but it must have been Sari in the kitchen because no jeweled crocodile guarded the way out of the garret. Gradually my breathing slowed.

I looked back out the window. The snow had slackened to a lazy, sidelong drift. There were even fewer lights than before: Lost in the gray or dead, I thought. And that distinction, like so many, doesn’t matter much now. The one gives onto the other at its outer edge.

“What if it’s not death?” I heard Sarira say, however, many months ago. “What if it’s just the doorway to deeper sleep?”

A patch of fog on the glass faded into icy limpidity.

I shook myself. I had to keep hold of the present. The world outside. The real. Had I stayed in that jewelled cavern much longer—

I couldn’t finish the thought. There was movement down below that made my stomach writhe: little hillocks of snow seemed to be rolling here and there with unearthly deliberateness.

couldn’t still be dreaming. After walking through the sun, I felt the world with a sharpness that was almost hateful.

Hands scrabbled at my jacket zipper. It was halfway down before I registered what I was doing.

Cold flooded my chest. A wave of gelid needles followed as I lifted my sweatshirt. White jets banked off glass, roiling. Soon, my skin was on fire. But still, the snow churned and rolled down below.

How was my own mind capable of inflicting this on me? Wouldn’t a sane person wake up?

“Sane”?

As I thought it, one of the roving snowbanks looked up.

The verb repeated in my head. How could a snowbank look at anything? I pressed my forehead against the window, and—yes—I could feel its sting all the way behind my ears.

The snowbank raised a hand in salutation. Only then was I able to recognize that it was a person in a white ration crew suit.

They all were, of course. Had it been so long since the last box arrived? The thought sent me vaulting down the stairs, not realizing until that moment how hungry I was. Hungry for food, yes, but even more so for some kind of interaction—some word or gesture exchanged with a being outside my own imagining. (Though, now that I thought of it, I really couldn’t say when was the last time I ate.)

I passed the kitchen without looking in.

In the entryway, a box lay on its side amid a dusting of snow. Goosebumps washed over my front, and suddenly I realized I hadn’t put my clothes back on. 

There wasn’t time to go get them. 

All I needed was a word. A greeting. Some kind of interaction with another person—

I tore the door open, filling my lungs. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but it didn’t matter, as the frozen air sapped my breath the moment it raced through the door. Before me, the world swam amid freezing tears—really, I thought, how long ago was it that I ate anything?

The neoprene snowmen were already far down the drive. One turned to get a better grip on a sledge. I waved without quite knowing if he could see me.

If I went out after them, I’d go into shock.

I was already teetering on the edge of consciousness. Was it the cold or the hunger? Or just the gray?

I turned back into the entryway and kneeled—collapsed, really—over the ration box. Snow-rimed cardboard came apart like wet bread. 

My breaths were getting shorter.

My hand darted in and closed around something hard. I pulled.

Lantern oil.

With sudden conviction, I thought: Light. Light then food. 

I didn’t care what Sari would say about it. I hefted the box into the crook of my arm. I dragged myself toward the kitchen, compelled by an exigency I only dimly understood.

It was quiet there now. Sarira must have finally finished eating and gone into another room. I dropped the box on its side and reached into the cabinet under the sink. My hand came away gray with dust when I wiped the glass globe.

When the mantle fizzled to life, it glowed unearthly blue. The walls seemed to waver and recede as I stood.

And again, breath left me.

Across the countertop, stacks of unopened ration boxes towered toward the ceiling, each as pristine as if it had only just arrived. The age of the oldest was betrayed only by the faint smell of vegetable rot. In this cold, how long must it have been there to rot?

The lantern crashed to the linoleum.

It sputtered, and I looked down. Light flashed with prismatic rays, and from the depths of the mantle’s glowing core, a punctured disc of incandescent ultramarine swam to the surface, irradiating the air surrounding with the crackling static of lapis mica.

I found myself on the lower landing, clutching the balustrade. A stair creaked, and I looked up to see a figure descending through air whirling with mist, ash, and umber. Eyes glowing ultramarine.

I turned and staggered into the entryway. I didn’t care about the cold anymore—I needed to reach that ration crew, beg them to help me, to take me to the settlement or the hospital or wherever, so long as someone pulled me back out of the gray.

I stopped. Sari stood hunched in the doorway, except now, it led not out onto the stoop but onto another, doubled hallway. I paused as I saw her and straightened. 

She straightened too. 

I stepped forward, and so did she.

…And this thing is the mind, and this am I myself.

Paired, we stretched a hand toward one another. We approached in tentative lockstep.

When we were close enough, Sarira’s features melted into mine. Or mine into hers. A mirror stood where the door once was. It rippled like molten silver.

They were my father’s eyes. They were mine, too. And Sari’s—insofar as, I now understood, Sari was me, a fractured “I” onto whom I could project my own desire to go deeper and deeper into the gray, no matter if death was at the far end of it.

“Or,” she said, I said, we said, “the doorway to deeper sleep.”

A life exceeding and boundless in its manifoldness.

I wasn’t cold anymore. 

I wasn’t much of anything anymore, except tired. 

Scraping past my ankles, a jewelled crocodile bellied its way toward the mirror, crystal claws scrabbling against floorboards strewn with what might have been snow or the shifting sand of my deepest dreams. Its snout disappeared into the mirror, and the surface rippled like a sheen of isinglass. The I that I knew I was turned and walked alongside the gem-studded saurian in pursuit of a world immanent to my imagining.

She must have been shaking me for a long time because when I finally registered the neoprene-shrouded woman gripping my shoulders, the world was spinning, and I instantly bent to heave sour, foamy water over her boots.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” Her shout was muffled by a terrycloth balaclava that framed drawn but not unkind eyes. “Where are your clothes?”

I looked down at myself. Spreading my hands, I saw that the ends of two fingers were black. 

In the woman’s wide, dark eyes, concern orbited confusion. 

“The crocodile…” I said. “The light… Sari…”

She squinted. Then she nodded. Patting my shoulders, the woman turned and shouted something I didn’t follow to someone I couldn’t see.

I looked around and realized we were at the end of the drive. At least I hadn’t wandered too far. Still, something felt off. Something I couldn’t place.

couldn’t still be dreaming.

“Sari…” I repeated.

“Sorry, what?” The woman said. “You flagged me down before. I just thought something might be wrong.”

My teeth chattered. “No, not sorry….”

But then words left me. My chin dropped, and white clouds billowed before me.

“The snow…”

The woman’s eyes betrayed a smile. She nodded and looked up.

Between scudding drifts of gray, great lagoons of brilliant blue pooled. The sun had not found its way through yet, but for the first time in months—and I knew, then, that it had been months, and many more of them than I realized—it was not snowing.


Cory Austin Knudson was born in Vacaville, California, but is a Philadelphian by choice and temperament. His short story, “Una cosa incognoscible,” won Touchstone Magazine’s 2020 debut prize in fiction. His translations have appeared in Viewpoint and Doublespeak. His co-translation of Georges Bataille’s preliminary manuscript to The Accursed Share is forthcoming from MIT Press under the title of The Limit of the Useful. His occasional essays and regular reviews of academic titles and books in translation appear in Full Stop.

midwest america part one 

By Emma Geller

your hand 
on my thigh,
when we’re driving,
doesn’t feel like it used to

 & we don’t talk
at the gas station
when we stop 
for water & cigarettes

we keep driving down
highways, curving 
through states 
we don’t stop 
to take pictures

we keep moving
though there is nowhere to go.


Emma Geller is a poet, singer, and actress from Boston, MA. Her poetry has been featured in various publications, including Quillkeeper’s Press, Honeyfire Literary Magazine and Calliope’s Eyelash. You can find out more about Emma on Instagram at em_me_line.

The Body Forgives

By Elaina Smith

If you, O Lord, kept a record of Sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.

Psalm 130:3
The Record

Life’s meaning lives in a body. It grows with me, shrinks with me, and is buried with me when I return to dirt, my simplest form. Being raised Christian, I learned that my body came from ash. I came into this world dirty and must be purified through confession, and when I’m done, I will be called back to a place that’s supposed to be my home. I will find comfort in the unfamiliar. I will die and come back only to be judged. I will return to ashes.

I will always quantify my wrongdoings. I was taught that God measures sins in quantity, not calibre, that the murderer and the coveter are the same in his eyes. I’m afraid of forgiving myself. My therapist has told me that mistakes are what make us human and that I need to unlearn that being human is wrong, that this body is filled with ill-intent and letting it guide me through life will lead me into temptation. Maybe this body is meant to deliver me from evil.

This body doesn’t keep a record of sins. This body doesn’t need to be forgiven. This body does not need to be feared.

The Crucible

The meaning of life can be reduced to numbers on a page. Life isn’t so much a body but a series of digits. I remember sitting in the science lab with a handful of other college-bound juniors, waiting to take the test our entire high school careers had been leading up to. The girl in front of me turned to her friend and verbalized something I had been worried about for so long:

“Isn’t it crazy how our entire futures are riding on this one test?”

In 2016, the average ACT score was 21. I scored a 17. Translation: not good enough.

That number directly affected my chances of getting into college, which directly affected my chances of leaving my hometown, which directly affected my chances of finding a meaning of life that wasn’t artificial. Living in that town was living in a body that was not my own. Living in that town was living a life that did not belong to me and trying to forge a meaning that didn’t exist.

It took me 2 tries to get above a 20 on the ACT. I took the second test in a lecture hall at Ferris State University that could probably seat 100 people 2 months before college applications were due. The College Board archives your test scores, keeping a record of your sins. They only send your highest score to the colleges you apply to because, with them, there is forgiveness.

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The Sins

The meaning of life is how far this body can take me before sickness claims it. I step on a scale at the doctor’s office, and the nurse diagnoses me as healthy. I am the 38th patient they’ve seen today. I verify that I was born on 09/25/1999. I am 21 years old. I weigh 134 pounds. I am 5 feet, 8.5 inches tall. She takes me into exam room 3.

I’ve been having chest pains recently. How many times a day? Probably 5. How many glasses of water do I drink in a day? Probably not enough. But I have been dealing with panic attacks for 10 years now. How many therapists have I seen since then? 4. How old was I when they first started? 11. Is that too young to have panic attacks? The statistics say yes. I say no.

You can tell a lot about a person’s health from just a blood sample. My results came back in numbers that held a record of my sins, of all the times I’d neglected my body with fast food and minimal sleep. But who could judge me? The numbers required a translation from the doctor, who called and said everything looked fine. My body was finally able to rest.

Who Could Stand?

The meaning of life is to produce. A body at rest is a body that’s unproductive, and a body that’s unproductive is a body that’s worthless to society. I got my first fast-food job at 19. It paid 10 dollars an hour and was a 25-minute drive from my house. The store manager kept a record of my sins, watching over us on the cameras on her days off. We were allowed to take 5-minute breaks every 2 hours, as long as there were no customers in the store. If you stayed in the break area too long, Sue would call. If you leaned on the counters instead of cleaning, Sue would call. If a customer spent more than 30 seconds in the drive-thru, the regional manager would call. He could see the record of our times. Sometimes, the tills would be a few dollars short at the end of the day. Sue made us pay the difference if we were on shift. I think I ended up paying over 5 dollars to her. With her, there was no forgiveness. Therefore, she was feared.

Therefore, You are Feared

The meaning of life is to reproduce. This body of mine isn’t allowed to give up until it gives the world what it wants. A husband by 25. A mother of 2 by 30. I will destroy my body to create a new one. I will make every mistake a mother can make because once you’re in charge of supplying meaning for someone else’s life, it’s not about you anymore. It was never about me, to begin with. I’m 21, but my years are numbered on a clock that sits deep inside me. I was born with all my eggs. At 11, I started to lose them. At 45, there is a 50% chance that I will miscarry. Being a woman is a scale of whether or not I can live up to this body and the expectations you have set for it. The men I’ve invited into my room will keep a record of my sins. They will not meet each other, but there will forever be a number associated with them, attached to this body. You’ll never know what that number is unless I tell you, but I never will. With you, there is no forgiveness.

Therefore, there is Forgiveness

I acknowledge each part of my body. I listen to how the wheels turn inside it, a machine in contract with itself to keep me alive, until one day, it doesn’t. Until one day, it can’t. Until one day, a faceless God calls me home, removing me from my body, separating my physical from my consciousness like yolk and white. This body is equal parts miracle and failure and everything in between. This body cannot be quantified into pass or fail because it only speaks in terms of living and dead, flesh and ash. I won’t apologize for this body anymore.


Elaina Smith is a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University’s undergraduate writing program. You can find her on Instagram or Twitter.

The Hanged Men

By Owen Schalk

“The present conditions of the country are no more than the threshold of a profound…and most important examination of consciousness.

– Pasolini on the eve of the Italian Civil War (1943-1945)

They found a man with bricks in his pockets hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London. His name was Roberto Calvi. He was the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, which was in the midst of a historic collapse following revelations of financial irregularities worth billions of lire. The main shareholder in Banco Ambrosiano was the Vatican Bank, which led many Italians to dub Calvi “God’s Banker.” Some joked upon his death that his main investor had finally lost patience with his management.

Calvi had been missing for seven days, and much like Michele Sindona, it seemed like everyone who mattered wanted him gone: the Holy See, the Sicilian Mafia, the political establishment, and associates of Banco Ambrosiano ranging from Polish anti-Soviet groups to Nicaraguan drug traffickers. There were so many suspects that it took people ages to notice the clue right under their noses. Calvi was hanged from Blackfriars Bridge. “Black friar” in Italian is frate nero.  Frati neri was the internal moniker of members of the Propaganda Due (P2) Masonic lodge, a subcutaneous organism within the Italian body politic that sought an extreme rightist restructuring of the country’s political and economic life based on the model of another hanged man, Benito Mussolini. Its members included prominent businessmen, media moguls, military officials, intelligence officers, representatives from Southern Cone dictatorships – and Roberto Calvi himself.

P2’s Venerable Master was Licio Gelli, a financier and card-carrying fascist since his youth who assisted in the failed Borghese coup of 1970 and subsequently fled to Condor-era Argentina, where he built close relationships with many high-level junta officials. According to the P2 theory, the complete exposure of Calvi’s financial indiscretions would lead to the unmasking of the lodge’s long list of crypto-fascists, some of whom had public profiles to maintain. The organization covertly murdered Calvi and dangled him from Blackfriars Bridge as a not-so-subtle “keep your mouth shut” to other P2 members who might be thinking of abandoning the sinking ship.

Everyone had someone to blame for Calvi’s murder, and every suspect was connected by one or two degrees of separation. Nobody was on trial, but in the minds of the public, the defendant was both multitudinous and singular: it was the arcane, cabalistic, Svengalian knot of deep power that pulsed and steamed and continuously expanded in the core of postwar Italian society.

Susanna Betti was unique. She blamed someone nobody had thought to accuse of Calvi’s murder. She blamed herself. She’d never met Calvi or Gelli or any of the other revenants of fascism burrowed in the country’s power centers – what use would they have for a Friulian professor of Marxist literary theory? – but within her was a latent premonitory gift that had revealed the place and manner of Calvi’s death two weeks before he’d fled Rome. She knew he was marked for death.

The first time she saw tarot cards was at a street market in Testaccio. She was thirteen. She made her parents stop so that the fortune-teller could reveal her future. She later learned that he used a rare pack – the Tarocco Siciliano – in which l’appeso, the hanged man, was depicted as hanging from the neck, not the ankle. Susanna remembered the card so clearly because it was the first one he flipped after she asked, “Do I have the Betti gift?” He gave her a five-card reading. She didn’t remember if the hanged man was upright or reversed, and she couldn’t recall the following cards, but she was pretty sure that the final one was the Fool.

She thought of the hanged man once more, on the morning of May 28th, 1982, after a dream illuminated her hereditary clairvoyance. She was seated under an ebony bridge, watching the black water roll by. The glow of a streetlamp made faces in the ripples, an ever-shifting visage of light that occasionally rhymed with the features of a family member or friend but otherwise remained a stranger. She looked up and realized that the face was not actually a trick of the light but the reflection of the hanged man, who was dangling from the bridge. His face was turned down as though he was expecting Susanna to tell him something. “Well?” he asked, raising his hands inquisitively. There were bricks in his palms. “Am I upright or reversed?”

The upright hanged man represents reflection, growth, and the possibility of uncovering a new understanding of one’s place in the world, which is the ultimate goal of all fortune-telling, not just tarot. The reverse-hanged man embodies stubbornness, the intellectual blockage produced by over-analysis, the opposite of intuition. Susanna didn’t know what to tell him. To make him feel better, she joked, “You look pretty upright to me.” That only made him sadder. He stuffed the bricks into his pockets and closed his eyes. Then she woke up.

She didn’t realize that her dream was a premonition until it was too late. That was the Betti curse.

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Her family had long understood that one member of each generation would receive a preternatural awareness of the death of an epochal figure in Italian life. The recipient could either stop it or allow it to proceed – that is if they were able to figure out who the marked person was, which was a difficult task in and of itself. As far as she knew, no Betti had ever been able to stop the death. Her father, Luigi, claimed to have foreseen the shooting of Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti in 1948. According to him, he had waited at the rear entrance of Palazzo Montecitorio every day for three weeks until, one sweltering July afternoon, he spied Pallante creeping up behind the PCI chief as he walked to his car. He was holding a small, rusty revolver. Luigi dove into action, grasping Pallante’s wrist just as the would-be assassin put one bullet in the back of Togliatti’s skull. He wrestled his hand down, directing the next two shots at Togliatti’s torso and saving him from a fatal trio of headshots. Togliatti was rushed to a hospital and revived. Luigi ended up regretting his actions when Togliatti abandoned the factory workers who went on strike in his honour, urging them to stick to democratic means rather than wildcats and vandalism. “He’s a bureaucrat,” Luigi resolved. “He doesn’t want revolution. He cares more about getting invited to Stalin’s dacha than helping us proletarians.”

There were several problems with Luigi’s story. Firstly, Susanna’s mother Mira claimed that he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the shooting but visiting his parents’ farm outside Tarvisio. By the time he hurried back to the capital, the strikes had already been broken. Secondly, Luigi was in his thirties at the time of the shooting. It was unheard of for Bettis to receive premonitions before their sixtieth birthday. And lastly, it had been accepted familial knowledge since the killing of Cola di Rienzo that only one member of each generation could experience a vision of an epochal death. His story was further undermined in 1978, two years after Luigi’s death from lung cancer, when his younger brother Pieri received a vivid forewarning of the kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Pieri chose not to intervene, of course: he was the family’s fascism nostalgist, and he hated Moro for supposedly compromising Italian democracy by negotiating with the communists.

Growing up, Luigi and Pieri lived in the Friuli countryside on their father Jacum’s poultry farm. Jacum was a pragmatist, an antifascist liberal who had foreseen Mussolini’s hanging a la l’appeso and allowed it to proceed “for the good of the nation.” He didn’t like Togliatti because the Americans didn’t like him, and in 1948 he voted Christian Democrat to secure US reconstruction aid, which Truman vowed to withhold if the PCI won the presidency. Luigi called his father a coward and cast his vote for Togliatti. He’d been a communist ever since stumbling upon an outdated issue of l’Unità, the PCI newspaper, in a Tarvisio alleyway while delivering his father’s chickens to the butcher. He flipped through it, read a disquisition on the plight of rural workers that resonated with the struggles of his youth, and registered with the party that week. He briefly convinced his younger brother that communism was the only equitable path for Italy. Still, when Pieri turned eighteen, he fell in love with a girl from a staunchly Catholic family who lived in the hills around Udine. Her father, one of the city’s largest landowners, liked to talk politics with his daughter’s suitors. He imparted to the impressionable teenager a worldview that valued law, order, and rigid hierarchy above all else and romanticized the era of strongarm fascism over the turbulent electoralism of the immediate postwar.

A few months later, Pieri married and moved his wife onto the farm. Luigi argued with the couple so viciously that eventually, he couldn’t stand it. He packed his bags and marched off to Rome. Jacum died five years later, baffled and heartbroken that politics had the power to tear his family apart.

For a rural migrant, Rome of the late 1940s wasn’t a miracle waiting to happen. It was the home of crime and poverty and the borgate romane, wherein lived those whom Pasolini called the sottoproletariato (for his part, Luigi thought Pasolini was a degenerate and an individualist, and once said that if he’d been lucky enough to foresee the writer’s death, he wouldn’t have changed a thing about it). Susanna’s earliest memories of her father were of a weary, heavy-lidded factory worker coming home late to their ramshackle hut on the urban fringes and smoking at least a half-pack of cigarettes before dinner. He rarely spoke except to lambast Togliatti and Berlinguer as “sellouts.”

Mira was a communist too and a dedicated PCI supporter even after Luigi grew disillusioned with the party. She didn’t work outside the home. Like the PCI leadership, she believed that the Catholic nuclear family was the heart of Italian society. She did her part in this regard, staying home each day to make meals and to keep the shack in pristine condition for her husband’s return.

Unlike her mother, Susanna saw the appeal in earning her own way. She graduated high school and worked a variety of dead-end jobs, earning enough money to pay her way through one year at the University of Rome (her father covered the subsequent costs). Her first year was 1968. Bloody, sweat-soaked ‘68. The sessantotto. It was a pivotal moment for Susanna’s political development. Not only was it her first year at university, her first year of lucent left-leaning history classes, which gave structure to the communist doctrine she’d been weaned on as a girl, but it was also the year that her father told her of the Betti gift.

It was family custom to inform each generation once the youngest sibling turned eighteen. As an only child, Susanna didn’t have to wait for anybody. The gift was on her mind during those months of protest. She saw death everywhere: in the news of peasant revolts across the countryside, in the Molotovs of agents provocateurs, and in the snarling barrels of the policemen whom Pasolini defended. At the time, she misunderstood her father’s explanation. Susanna thought that she and her friends were all epochal defenders of the Left, and every time one of them approached danger. She envisioned the worst; she took credit for their survival. She didn’t realize until years later that “epochal” didn’t mean those with potential, those who might one day achieve something: epochal meant power, and power meant the knot. It meant Calvi, Togliatti, Moro, Mussolini – it didn’t mean Susanna Betti and her boyfriends Silvio and Alessandro, whom she’d met at a student club for tarot enthusiasts. Those boys weren’t powerful, era-defining figures. They made it safely through the summer of ’68 and settled into cozy teaching jobs at the University of Rome, maintaining their friendship, if not their relationship with Susanna. She had long ago accused them of being sellouts of the petit-bourgeois.

Susanna aged into comfort too. She graduated with honours and took a job as a teaching assistant in Naples to avoid the awkwardness of working alongside Silvio and Alessandro. Eventually, she became the head of the literature department. Every year, she taught a seminar called “Pasolini and the Making of Italian Neo-capitalism.” Now that she had aged out of youthful dogmatism, she had a new appreciation for his work – although she still held a grudge against him for “The PCI to the Youth.”

She was thirty-seven when her premonition of Roberto Calvi’s death welcomed her into the upper echelon of chosen Bettis. She felt lucky. She had often thought that it was cruel for her family to receive visions when they were so old and had so little time to comprehend the death in its broader historical context. That was how she felt about Calvi, her hanged man. His death was distinguished, epochal, but without a historical distance, she didn’t know what it had meant or how Italian history would have changed if she’d been able to stop it. She looked forward to understanding the death in its proper context in the coming decades.

While thirty-seven was unusually young for a premonition, the giver of visions must have had a keener eye for the future than she did. On December 23rd, 1984, Susanna was on the 904 express train to the University of Milan, where she was scheduled to deliver a lecture on Pasolini’s final film, when a bomb in the ninth car detonated, killing her and fifteen others and injuring over two hundred passengers. The perpetrator of the 904 bombing, Giuseppe Calò, was arrested the next year for ordering the murder of Roberto Calvi.

At the moment before the bomb tore her to pieces, Susanna understood something. Maybe it was the Betti gift, or maybe a religious epiphany courtesy of the God she’d shunned her entire life, but in the instant before her particulate evisceration, she understood the nature of the knot. She understood that Calvi, Togliatti, Moro and Mussolini, Luigi and Mira, Pieri and Jacum, Silvio and Alessandro and Susanna herself were all the hanged man. Power was the knot on the noose around their necks, tied by the hands of an executioner whose name they all knew. She saw ahead to the arrest of Giuseppe Calò and Licio Gelli, their trial for the murder of Roberto Calvi, and their surprise acquittal due to what the court deemed “insufficient evidence.” She didn’t care. She understood who killed Calvi, and even if it wasn’t the same man who killed her, she knew that their nooses were tied by the same hands.


Owen Schalk is a writer from Winnipeg. He grew up in the countryside surrounded by rural emptiness, abandoned houses, and farm-loving German Canadians who tried and failed to instil their love of farming in him. He found his artistic curiosity while reading the usual canon. He found his voice while reading Pynchon, DeLillo, Bolaño, and other authors who write with a critical eye for dominant social and political doctrines.

DOORS AND WINDOWS

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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(Story continued below)

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.