It wouldn’t have happened if I was out watering the garden with my fourteen-year-old brother, Antonio. He got to play in the water with the bambinos. My head would have been clearer if I’d been where there was a breeze instead of being stuck in a muggy kitchen stirring red sauce for the past six hours. Mama thinks that’s where I belong cuz I’m the youngest and a girl. And that’s the way they did things back in the old country. But merda, it was hot.
I was rinsing the homemade fettuccine noodles in the strainer, trying to catch a breeze from the open window when I noticed a dumpling on the gray counter. I set down the strainer in the sink and nudged it with a wooden spoon.
It had to be a gnocchi. Mama called them ‘little ears’ since our family’s tradition was to press and drag two fingers into the potato dumplings. The indentions made them look like ears. Only thing is, she hadn’t made any gnocchis lately. Then again, maybe the noodles had gotten mixed up in the drying racks in the basement. If I’d been thinking right in that terribilmente heat I would have remembered you don’t dry out gnocchi.
I stirred the pot of bubbling red sauce, eying that gnocchi. It was definitely as pale as a potato noodle. But it was far too plump and large. I picked it up and turned it over. I would have sworn it was an ear, only that wouldn’t make sense cuz it wasn’t cut off looking or crusty with blood. It was softer than a potato dumpling noodle. Maybe it was a shriveled apple.
Well, I figured if it was in the kitchen, it had to be something good, right? So I popped it in my mouth. It was chewy like rubber, pretty much flavorless. Maybe a little salty. I couldn’t chew through it, though.
It had to be raw, right? Oh well. I ladled out a spoonful of red sauce onto a saucer. If I dipped it in, that would add a little flavor at least.
Mama came into the kitchen. As usual, she was wore her red fazzoletto, or kerchief. Her gold hoop earrings sparkled in the sunlight. How embarrassing. She looked like an Italian peasant woman holding one of the bambinos on her hip.
My little cousin wore a fresh set of overalls. I knew what that meant.
I asked around my mouthful. “Did someone poop his pants again?”
Mama moved the strainer and picked up the hot pads from the counter. She asked in her thick accent,
“Where’s Giuseppe’s ear?”
“You know, his genetically grown ear?” she threw up her free hand in the air gesturing dramatically. “It fell off. Antonio said he threw it in through the open window so it wouldn’t get lost.”
That’s when I saw the hole on the side of my cousin’s head, his ear missing. No one had ever told me he had a genetically grown ear. Why am I always the last to know important stuff like that?
I spit it out. It flew across the room, hit the fridge and dropped on the floor. Giuseppe clapped his hands, laughing and gurgling. Mama crossed herself and then swore in Italian.
I swear I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never eat anything that looks like an ear on the counter, or nothing else left out either. And hey, it’s not like I swallowed it . . . like I did with that finger at my aunt’s house that I thought was a yellow carrot.
But that’s another story.
Winner of November 2012 Contest
by Angela Belcaster
Somewhere in Eurasia, Tauranga, or New Guinea
They start this carving;
The finely honed bone, or shell, or awl
Made of something sacred.
Perhaps it was horn, not an island then, where it begins,
But in the muddle of jungle where dank
And crepe-skinned things tread or slither,
Perhaps a horn or tooth of boar is found
And whittled sharp, tight and to a point.
A meditative preparation;
The tattooist holds this moment, considering
His rendering, his text, and the gravity of this act
To which he has been entrusted.
Not just carver then, but witness,
Recorder, bearer, scribe
Of passages, of pain, of bearing,
Of succumbing but living still,
And of success—of phoenixes—this he records too,
In the circumscribed marks, the welters, the spirals,
The rolls, the coils, the double point assemblages—
This maelstrom of life.
It’s there, he writes it down—
And he whittles
The edge or the tip of this quill or stone or bone and considers
The next step which is the ink,
Which must be right, too, which must be long lived,
Which must be good, an archival stain, it must last
As long as the vessel into which he inscribes.
This ink should not be the color of blood
Because it will record dead deeds, and not the living,
Because it is not equivocal
As blood sometimes is, but mostly,
Because it is intended to last.
It is history, then, the history of one
And so, the history of us all.
And the tattooist presses the point
Into living flesh past singing nerves and spilling blood
Into yielding cells he cuts, insinuates
And somehow, they accept this transgression—
This iron and insect eggs and bronze and pine bark muck—
They take it in, this thing so foreign and yet not so,
The cells open to it, sup this potion, hold
It tight, this blue or black or green dye hold on
As the skin holds nothing else, they suck it up as if hungry as if—
As if finally the skin has a voice.
And it does.
It has a narration now, delineation
An epistemology of passages, days, of monsters and charms, metaphorical or not,
Of manhood and menarche and vast loves,
Of opalescent losses that glow for lifetimes with the cool flame of stone,
Of transgressions that can split a world,
And forgiveness that conjoins it all again and even of glittering fish—
The elocution of all this—fixed intradermal.
If memories fail, the skin will not.
Winner of October 2012 Contest
THE WONDERLAND HOME FOR THE INFIRM
by Almiria Wilhelm
Any day you care to drop by, you will find the Mad Hatter sitting in the sunny patch of the garden at six o’clock exactly. The table wobbles on broken tiles, so one leg has a used serviette, folded many times, jammed under its Victorian fancy iron work. The old man nicknamed the Mad Hatter rocks back on a green garden chair (because his nurse, Mandy, once told him not to). Sunflowers leaning against the high wall behind him look over his shoulder, inquisitively counting how many lumps of sugar go in his cup. His tea is somewhat crowded by his hat collection, but don’t let that stop you. He’ll be delighted to see you. The sunflowers’ conversation is awfully limited and he won’t talk to Mandy.
“Nice to see a new face! Sit down, sit down, there’s always room for a friend.”
There might not be a tea set for you, on account of the hats, but don’t worry, he’ll be happy to share his.
“Care for a sip of tea? No? Well…Oh no, please don’t move the hats! They are enjoying the sunshine. Don’t get much of it in there, you know?” he will say,jabbing his finger at you. Don’t be offended. He’s not referring to your lack of intelligence. He means the square grey building behind you. You see, Mr Gordon suffers from senile dementia. He gets confused easily. He thinks he’s being held there against his will, but he and his niece Mandy discussed it all before. Everything is quite all right.
Wait politely for him to finish his tea, then he’ll show off his hats. He will rummage through the mountain of headgear, dislodging a teaspoon and half the sugar bowl to get at the one he wants. Using both hands to jam it on his head, he’ll grin his gap-toothed smile at you and say, “Here’s a trick I didn’t show Alice!”
You may stare, expecting him to turn into a stack of cards fanning out in the breeze that rocks the sunflowers, or disappear a bit at a time, but the yellowed grin will remain firmly attached to a face creased like brown paper thrown in the bin and retrieved again.
“I speak the language of hats. They dream of their past on me. Hats must dream, you know? Would you like to hear the memory of the Turban?”
He will slick his finger along the satin of a creation that resembles a deep blue meringue, breathe heavily and find the sonorous voice of the turban deep within him. He will reach up, tap the stone sitting like a third eye in the gathered satin and say, “I circle the head of my prince like a serpent. I reflect the eyes of the treacherous in my gems. I mirrored the deception of Perfumed Lily and sent her to the executioner’s block. I glittered with the plots of the six sons of the prince and drew forth the hidden malice of the priests of Faa. Beware, stranger, lest thy own evil looks back at you.”
Don’t be startled when the old man suddenly pulls the turban off his head and aims the paste gem at you. There is no need to turn away or shield your face, mesmerized into a nightmare world by his mad tale. The stone is opaque and tarnished, reflecting only a dim, milky light, like an eye with a cataract. The turban is just a costume piece, separated from its robe when an acting company disbanded.
At half past six the door behind you will open on arthritic hinges and a plump nurse will approach.
Some days he’ll say, “Good evening, Mandy,” very politely, although his eyes may dart nervously to you, signalling that Mandy is a suspicious, untrustworthy person, to be avoided whenever possible.
“Why, Uncle, it’s nice of you to recognise me today,” the nurse will answer, “let’s pack up your hats and go inside then. It’s time for your pills.”
The old man might roll his bloodshot eyes and tap the side of his head – the side furthest from Mandy, because he is afraid of her.
“I won’t take them,” he’ll whisper, unaware of how loud he is, “she’s trying to make me crazy.”
Mandy will smile, her red cheeks spreading comfortably.
“Come now, Uncle, you heard what the doctor said.”
The hats will disappear into a big cardboard box, Mandy arranging them carefully so that she doesn’t squash the pink ostrich feather on the lady’s hat.
Other days, Mr Gordon will say nothing, seeing his hats whisked into a box and the tea things cleared as if the disembodied Cheshire Cat were attending him. Either way, your visit is now over. It’s time to leave the Wonderland Home for the Infirm.
Please come again. Mr Gordon doesn’t get many visitors, but he has a nice fortune tucked away and he doesn’t like to leave it to Mandy. So, as I said, don’t hesitate to pay him a call, although it’s probably best not to mention that you saw the smile-crinkled eyes of the nurse reflected in the dull stone of the turban as she tucked it away.
Winner of September 2012 contest
The Cat’s Pajamas by Wayne Scheer
I’ve lived in this house since I was a pup, which is a hell of a lot
longer than that cat’s been here. Francine, the woman who lives here
with me, is getting old and strange, smelling like the stuff in her
bathroom that she rubs all over herself. She spends a lot of time
with that feline on her lap and thinks it’s the funniest thing to call
her PJ, “because she’s the cat’s pajamas.”
Freaking cat. Francine treats her like she’s some kind of princess,
but I know PJ’s just running a con. A year ago she was scrounging in
open dumpsters, getting screwed by whatever came her way. But
Francine “saved” her, and now she has full run of this place.
Her food is on the counter by the sink so I can’t get at it, but she
steals my chow. She doesn’t even eat it. She licks it and gets her
cat stench all over it. And when I growl at her, Francine treats me
like I’m the bad guy.
“Curley,” she says. “You mustn’t growl at PJ.”
I hang my head and that damn cat taunts me with that high-pitched whine of hers.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Francine and it’s up to me to take care of
her. It’s not her fault this feral fur-ball, this gray-eyed grifter
has her brainwashed. PJ runs a good con, I’ll admit that, but she
doesn’t have my history with Francine. I go back to when Gus lived
here. He was the only one who called Francine Franny .
I remember how he’d tap her on the rump and say, “That’s my Franny’s
fanny.” I liked Gus. Francine did, too, and when he went cold and
still, I was the one who cheered her up.
Gus would never have fallen for PJ’s tricks, like that rumble in her
stomach she does to get attention. When I try making that sound,
Francine takes me for a walk and brings her pooper scooper.
The fact is I can’t compete with the cat. I’m too big and fat to jump
on Francine’s lap the way PJ does. And since she fell, Francine can
hardly play with me. Besides, I’m too old to chase sticks or catch
Frisbees. It was Gus who did that stuff with me, anyway. I miss the
way he smelled like he’d just eaten bacon.
When he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, I stayed close. I even slept
under his bed. He’d let his hand hang down and I’d lick it. Gus
would tickle me under my chin and tell me I was a good boy.
One morning, he woke me coughing. He took in enough breath to say,
“Take care of Franny, boy.”
Then his hand tasted cold and stopped smelling like bacon. It just
hung there, like it didn’t belong to him. I cried and Francine came
to see what was wrong and she cried, too. I licked her tears to
remind her I was still here for her.
But that was a long time ago, before the feline invasion. I hate to
admit it, but I’m getting too old to take care of Francine. My hips
hurt and I sleep a lot. So maybe it’s good that Francine has her PJ,
her cat’s pajamas.
I just wish that damn cat would stay away from my food.
Winner of August 2012 contest
ELEGY OF A VIOLIN By Melinda Moore
The plane sinks through wispy clouds, breaking apart any chance of moisture flowing to the land below. Stephanie Minagawa fingers the yin-yang pendant hanging from her neck and wonders how the waterway of her existence has flowed here. Last chances are supposed to come later in life.
She turns her eyes to herself, counting the scars that line her arm. They are thin, like the years between adolescence and now. As the plane lands with a bounce, she looks up to see heat waves washing the runway. People stand before the bing tells them they may, but Stephanie sits, listening to the bumps in the compartment above as people jerk out their bags. The last passenger from the back scuffs by her before she stands in the aisle and removes her violin case from the overhead compartment.
She exhales when the case is open. An out of tune strum tells her that the sound post survived the trip too. She needs to buy the green humidifiers, but there’s not even time for dinner before her first rehearsal with the University of Nothing Much begins—the only university to take her as a graduate student. Locking and zipping the case, she disembarks the plane.
Discordant tones and ripples of melodies slip through her ears as her bow saws against the strings, and her hand turns the pegs back and forth, trying to tune. A trumpeter blasts over everyone else, and a cymbal crashes. Her strings balance; her pegs slip. The tuning process begins again.
Even her white blouse and black slacks, standard uniform back east, are unharmonious. The guys in the brass section wear beer t-shirts and sport shorts. They slide their trombones toward women slumped over cellos and wearing long skirts with turquoise belts. Viola players are in shorts and tank tops with tattoos flirting from their shoulders as they dance their bows on their strings. The mix of ages startles her. Several old people sit throughout the orchestra, giving it more of a community program feel rather than a college atmosphere. Stephanie fingers her yin-yang, reaching out to the waterway. She feels a dry riverbed.
Her stand partner murmurs with the players in front of them until a fit of coughing overtakes her. She sounds worse than a smoker, but finally catches her breath and turns to greet Stephanie. Crow’s feet crinkle as she smiles, erasing all discomfort: it is the first enchantment Stephanie sees in New Mexico.
The welcome is fleeting as the concertmaster stands and the oboe player sounds the tuning A for everyone. Stephanie’s strings have unrolled again and people in front of her and next to her stare. She almost walks off the stage to tune, but the conductor steps up to the podium. Her bow whispers across strings as he taps his stand. Everyone stops. Her bow is frozen in midair. The conductor shrinks into himself and gives a tiny upbeat and downbeat for the subtle entrance of the orchestra. Her violin sings in the desert air: snap, sproing, pop. A marionette limp and tangled is the remains of her instrument.
Outside in the after heat of the sun before the stars twinkle, Stephanie hangs her head over her desiccated violin. She sits on a cement platform where garish flamenco dancers hold up their statue arms forever. The arid air has even dried up her tear ducts. She turns the wood and strings around and around in her hands, looking for any hope of saving it.
Pulling a splinter off the back of the violin, she pricks a yin-yang into her wrist. Droplets of blood reflect the moonlight before spattering on the cement. Another trumpet blares as the auditorium doors open and close. A white business card with a Zia symbol and the address for an instrument repair shop falls into her case. Looking up, she sees the smile of her stand partner before the woman walks back to rehearsal, coughing the whole way. Stephanie wraps her polishing rag around her wrist and picks up the card. Her thumb rubs the Zia symbol as her other hand fingers her yin-yang. Maybe the waterway is only in a drought.
Winner of June 2012 Contest
PERSONAL ADS FOR THE UNDEAD by Sarina Dorie
Men Seeking Women
Transylvanian transplant searching for American beauty
Tall, pale and handsome gentleman seeks lady for eternal companionship, long walks in misty cemeteries, and occasional drinks. Turn Ons: naked trysts in coffins full of dirt, blood flavored Bertie Bots Every Flavor Beans, and . . . necking. Turn Offs: turtlenecks, morning people, and references to sparkly vampires.
Putting the romance back into necromancy
I may have the power to raise the dead, but really, I’m just a big teddy bear on the inside. Athletic, vegan, pro-recycling, non-smoker, and Satan-worshipping bachelor looking for that special lady. Friends first, interested in pursuing romance if there’s magic. Living-impaired ladies are welcome to reply to this ad. Smokers are not.
A tramp looking for his lady
Shaggy blond ready to settle down and start a pack of my own. I like a girl with meat on her bones, alpha females, and someone who knows how to play fetch. Must love full moons. Cat lovers and vegetarians need not reply.
Some like it hot
I’m new to these personal ads, but figured I’d give it a try. I have a great career but it leaves little time for meeting women who aren’t my clients. Friends with benefits and hookups fine. I’m willing to trade hot, sizzling sex in exchange for your immortal soul. Call me.
Women seeking Men
Ban-she waiting for Ban-he
Irish-American woman searching for a man who is ready to settle down. I’m tired of this single thing; wailing and moaning in the wee hours of the night on my own. I want to cry out other’s doom with someone by my side. My ideal man loves dark nights, terror, death and puppies.
Blonde, voluptuous lady with a voice that will entrance, searching for a man who is a good listener and likes skinny-dipping. Let me pull you down into my watery embrace or seduce you with my song. Age, height, weight not important. Swimming skills a must.
Why should princesses have all the fun?
I’m tired of setting up young princesses with all the good princes. I’m ready for my own Prince Charming. Bippidy Boppidy Boo, I have herpes too. Hope that won’t be a problem.
Want boy with braaaaaaains
I riiiiiiiiise from graaaaaave for you. Like looooong, staggering waaaaalks on beeeeach. Can’t wait to cuuuuuddle with your juicy braaaaaaains.
Winner of May 2012 Contest
REUNION by Lauren Spinabelli
For the student, fleeing the school at the sound of that final bell,
it is the face of her camp crush
after ten long, summerless months.
For the soldier, flying home for his final time,
it is the soft hands of his wife
after two long, husbandless years.
But the bus to camp gives her a headache
And she realizes, too late, that she forgot deodorant
But the plane home is dead silent
And his uniform is pressed crisp and clean
Reunited with her crush
That face of his scrunches up
Not in disgust, but confusion
He does not recognize her
“Sorry, what’s your name?”
Reunited with his family
Those hands of hers reach for another
Not her husband’s, but her son’s
He will not remember his father
“Mom, what was Dad like?”
Winner of April 2012 Contest
INCRIMINATING PHOTOS by Laura Loomis
I could have avoided all that trouble, if only I had remembered to pay my blackmailer on time.
Normally I write the check with the rest of my monthly bills, so my husband, Worthington Tolliver IV, doesn’t see the photos of me with the 26-year-old tennis instructor. But I got distracted last month as I was writing checks to the Ladies’ Follicle Society (which provides wigs to needy children with bad haircuts), and to my plastic surgeon, Dr. Barnabas, who put this lovely slope on my nose. I got to daydreaming about last week’s tryst in the pool house with my young man, and then Worthy came in looking for his favorite golf clubs, and I stuffed the check into the envelope for the other blackmailer, the one who’s been threatening to expose our illegal stock trades. You’d think that the stock-trade blackmailer could have sent a refund or something; did he think I was tipping him for good service?
Anyway, I’ve been forgetful like that lately. Especially yesterday morning, when Worthy got the express-mailed photos of me getting served by the tennis pro. On a purely aesthetic level, the pictures were marvelous; Dr. Barnabas really took the droop out of my buttocks. You’d never know it was a fifty-three year old woman’s bottom. Worthy didn’t care about that. Do you know, when he gets angry, it’s only the left side of his face that turns purple? Some sort of blood-circulation deficiency, I think.
It wasn’t so much the cheating, he said, but how could I not pay the blackmailer? “I pay my blackmailer every single month,” he fumed, “so he won’t tell you about my affair with the golf caddy!” Naturally we got in a huge fight over that, and I completely forgot that I had a taxi waiting downstairs with the meter running. After our quarrel and makeup sex, I finally flounced downstairs with my hair and makeup retouched, only to find that I owed the cab driver six hundred thousand dollars. I said that was outrageous and I’d be damned if I’d pay it. He said he’d get it out of me one way or another, and I told him I’d already said no to one extortionist recently (which wasn’t technically true, since really I’d just forgotten to pay), and I certainly wasn’t going to pay another.
So when he came back with the police, I tried to explain that it was all the fault of the blackmailer, but I was no longer messing with any of them, except the one who kept threatening to go the police about our illegal stock trades.
That turned out to be the wrong thing to say.
So anyway, Your Honor, that’s how I wound up here. I’m sorry about the taxi bill and the illegal stock trades and trying to claw the nice policeman’s eyes out, and everything. Next time I see a tennis instructor with nice thighs, I’ll go shoe-shopping instead. Or ask Dr. Barnabas for another tightening on my calves.
When my cellmate turned out to be my personal assistant, I thought at least I’d be comfortable in jail. Then I found out she was arrested for disseminating obscene photographs – of me and the tennis instructor! (Did I mention how good my thighs look in the pictures? Not lumpy at all.) Yes, my own assistant was the blackmailer. But only for my affair, not for my husband’s affair. She’d figured out that my husband’s blackmailer was the taxi driver, so she was trying to get some incriminating photos of him, which is how she got caught.
Have they found the taxi driver yet?
Anyway, I think I’ve seen enough of my assistant’s vacation pictures – she fancies herself quite the photographic artiste –and these orange jail uniforms simply won’t do.
Can I go now?
Did I mention that my assistant has some pictures of Your Honor at a beach in Southampton with a very attractive young law clerk?
Time served? How lovely.
Yes, you have a good day too.
Winner of January 2012 Contest
VILLANS by Hannah-Jamie ‘Hannie’ Duncombe
The screams spread across the land in one continuous wave. Individually, they were piercing wails of terror that could not be mimicked by even the best of actors, and could only be born during times of true fear.
Mothers and fathers panicked and searched without method for their children. They shouted their names, and called for their babies to come home, but there were so many places for them to play.
Those too young to understand tried to hide; frightened of whatever this impending horror was. They could only sense that something was to come, and there were none who didn’t cry.
Among the old there was almost a feeling of peace, knowing their time had come. They ignored the abuse shouted at them when they did not run, instead sitting silently in the sun for their last moments. Old couples held onto each other, and thought with sorrow of their grandchildren.
As the initial drops of lethal rain fell, none were safe. The first casualties dropped as stones, and the noxious raindrops continued their descent, burning the bodies beyond recognition. Whether they were someone’s partner, someone’s daughter, or someone’s grandfather, no matter what circumstances they had been facing during life, they all lay together as the rain fell, united by tragedy.
There were still those who hoped that they would be saved, but no miracle came, and it was not long until the ground was paved with bodies. Corpses lay as litter, and no family remained together. Eventually, no limb stirred. They had burnt. The battle was lost.
‘Pesky greenfly,’ said the gardener as he used the pesticide spray, before turning his back on the roses.
Winner of December 2011 Contest
TOOTHLESS by Renee Holland Davidson
Dorrie’s eyes pop open. She’s had that dream again, the one where her teeth fall out one by one, piling up like tiny tombstones in the palm of her hand. She still feels the mounting horror and panic as yet another one drops, the pile becoming so large, she’s forced to use both hands to contain it.
It’s not an uncommon dream–she thinks it has to do with feeling as if you’ve lost control of your life. Or is that the dream about driving? In that one, her hands are firmly on the wheel, but her feet can’t reach the brake pedal. She slides farther and farther down in the seat, straining, extending her toes, but no matter how hard she tries, how far she sinks, it’s not close enough. The effort exhausts her, makes her sleepy, and now not only can’t she brake the car, she’s barely able keep her eyes open, barely able to keep hold of the steering wheel.
Dorrie shakes her head, pushes herself out of bed and stumbles to the bathroom. What happened, she wonders, to those wonderful dreams of flying? How long has it been since she’s soared through postcard-blue skies dotted with cotton-puff clouds? Arms outstretched, flapping lazily, the sun warming her skin. Gentle breezes caressing her face. Laughter bubbling up from her belly as she revels in the sheer joy of it all.
Maybe, she thinks, as soon as she’s done emptying her bladder, she’ll crawl back into bed, concentrate on flying, think of nothing but carefree days and clear blue skies. Is it impossible to wish a dream into existence?
The thought brings a smile to her lips. She looks in the mirror–her image only a blur without her glasses. Leaning closer, she inspects herself.
Her reflection brings the tiny shock it always does. She’ll never get used to the old woman who lives in the mirror. The one with wispy white hair that barely covers her head, the face webbed with wrinkles, the dull blue eyes once vibrant, now faded like denim gone through a hundred wash cycles.
Dorrie sighs. Suddenly feels tired, rundown, washed-up. Decides she will burrow back into her nice warm bed, pull the comforter over her head, drop back into deep sleep–and maybe, if she’s lucky, stay there forever. “Stop it!” she scolds herself. “Just because you’re an old lady doesn’t mean you have to act like one.”
Slowly, almost painfully–as if punishing herself for a life too long lived–she forces her mouth into a wide-toothed grin.
Except, of course, there are no teeth.
The old woman in the mirror laughs.
And Dorrie laughs along.
Winner of November 2011 Contest
THE TROUBLE DOGS GET INTO by Lindsey Walker
It’s the way she said it, stirring her coffee, syrup sprawling over her buttered pancakes. The way she said it got me more than what she said. What she said, in her voice, heavy and certain as iron skillets, what she said was, “I told him it don’t matter y’all didn’t plan it. Her instincts’ll kick in. She’ll take care of her own.” A flapjack crumble bobbled in her cheek dimple as she spoke, leaning forward on sticky elbows.
My empty stomach puckered. My fingertips remembered newborn skin. I hadn’t been trying to eavesdrop; I’d just stopped by to top off their coffees. I excused myself, slumping past the restaurant kitchen to the employee restroom. Here, the scent of chlorine bleach arm-wrestled bacon grease.
Animals have instincts, I wanted to say but didn’t. When I was a kid, I played in the cattails that skirted a brown pond. Marsh grass thickened, and a kid could hide there, really hide all day. Once, I found a dog stumbling through the raspy grass. The dog lay down in the tangled shadows and birthed three pups with wet fur and eyes closed. The dog licked the thin membranes from her pups’ faces, then she left. She whipped through brown foliage and took her life-milk with her.
I was forty-two when I got pregnant. I didn’t even know; I blamed my lack of menstruation on early menopause. The father was a deadbeat, a mechanic who collected workman’s comp and slung weed on the side. No one I gave a damn about. I didn’t even tell him. What good would it do?
I waited for my instincts to kick in.
I had never wanted kids.
But I got this giddy feeling looking through the pink ruffled socks and those pint-sized Caterpillar boots at Kmart. My due date landed at the end of February; that’d make my baby a Pisces, birthstone amethyst, birth flower violet. I thought of names but didn’t settle. I picked up onesies, rubbed the soft fabric then hung them back. I walked down the baby aisle and sniffed all the hypoallergenic shampoos, replacing them on the shelves as I went. I popped open a baby jar of pureed plums and ate it with my hands. I shoved the empty jar behind some formula cans and left without buying.
The fetus kept growing, tightening my skin, pudging over the tops of my jeans. I couldn’t afford maternity clothes, or a car seat, rubber nipples, diapers, pink ruffled socks or Caterpillar boots, for that matter. My feet swelled; my back ached; the baby grew.
When I was a baby, I grew. When I grew older, I asked my mother why a dog would reject her pups.
“They couldn’t even see!” I said. “They couldn’t hold their heads up!”
My mother was fixing dinner, and her brown cigarette wagged in her mouth like a half-eaten dog, when she said, “Sometimes the puppies are sick, and she can smell it. They got instincts. And sometimes if she don’t want to be a mom, she’ll just up and leave.”
I wanted to up and leave in the first months of my pregnancy, but I stayed put. I covered extra shifts at the restaurant and tucked some cash away. The idea of motherhood sat on my chest at night. The fetus kept expanding, kicked my bladder, and kept me up all night having to pee.
My instincts tried to kick in. The thought of having a baby became normal for me, but not the attention I got from strangers. They came up, uninvited, lay their hands on my belly, and divined my child’s sex. “You’re carrying high,” they’d say, or they’d ask if my feet were cold, or if I craved salty or sweet.
My doctor made different predictions. He said I was awfully old, and he ought to run some tests. An NT scan showed an excess of fluid in the baby’s neck: high-risk, he told me. The doctor ordered an amniocentesis; the thin needle breached my uterine wall into the amniotic sac. He said there’s a five percent chance of a false positive, but overall it didn’t look good.
People said it’s different when it’s your own. They said your capacity for love grows. I hoped so. The doctor said it was a girl.
At eight months I was a monster with sore breasts and rubbing thighs. The gals at work threw me a shower. They bought pink ruffled socks, a bassinet, and a diaper bag. They gave me their daughters’ hand-me-downs, little fleecy things with butterflies and flowers.
I slept poorly, and when I did, I dreamed of howling puppies and their mother limping through the wetlands, trailing milk behind. I dreamed that I was elderly and frail with a thirty-year-old child who couldn’t tie her own shoes or drive a car.
My water broke in the last half-hour of a double shift. One of the dishwashers dropped me at the E.R. The receptionist made me fill out a form before a CNA wheeled me up to labor and delivery.
The girl was born at four a.m. She weighed six pounds nine ounces and was fifteen inches long. Her eyes sloped upward, and her tongue protruded. She felt warm, and her floppy joints hyperextended. They let me hold her for a minute before they took her to the NICU over heart trouble. I kissed her hands and her face, and when they took her, my arms turned to ice in her absence.
In her absence, I live now. I left her nameless at the hospital, in the cold room, chemical smell, fluorescent glare. I left her with professional strangers. Someone there would know what’s best. Someone would know what to do. Sometimes my whole body shakes in her absence.
I lied to the girls at work; I said there were complications and that she died. On bad days I lock myself in the bleach-soaked work restroom. Sometimes I think about her; sometimes I think about dogs.
Winner of August 2011 Contest
TEASPOONS, SOCKS, AND MISSING CHILDREN by Louise Beech
Yesterday I bought six teaspoons in Sainsbury’s for one-pound-twenty a pack. They’re those cheap ones, thin, weightless, barely suitable for stirring tea and definitely not sturdy enough for flapjack and custard. It was unusually sunny for March and I had to take off my scarf, which I left in the trolley and realised too late to go back and get it. My mouth ached because I’d watched Russell Howard the night before and couldn’t sleep for laughing; he has a way of looking at the world that makes you love and hate it in equal measure. I hadn’t gone searching supermarkets for spoons, even though ours have been disappearing recently. I wanted an envelope big enough to hold three passports, three copied birth certificates, a cheque and a hand-written explanatory letter. On the sale shelf above the stationary I happened to spy the pack of spoons and said aloud “It’s a sign’ and then checked no one had heard. A woman with nicotine-stained fingers put her sewing magazine back on the shelf and moved to the alcohol aisle, but I don’t think it was because of me. Where do teaspoons go? I can’t figure it out. It’s the stuff of urban myth, like odd socks in the washing machine or children missing since 1981. For a time I used to steal them from cafes, but in the end felt guilty that the proprietor might serve coffee one day, look around for a spoon and see its absence as a sign that he should retire, pack up and leave. Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote would hold me responsible for all the world’s missing spoons if she caught me exiting a café, metal clanking in pocket like keys on a prison warden’s belt. But I am not a kleptomaniac; I have no pressing urge to thieve small items of limited significance or value. I would like my stolen memory found, however. Yesterday I paid for my cutlery in Sainsbury’s. I took it to the till, waited in line two behind the woman with nicotine-stained fingers and bought the spoons with an A4 envelope and wash powder and six stamps. I hadn’t yet lost my gold and pink tasselled scarf; it would have still been in the trolley, and I could still have retrieved it as I handed over six-pounds-ninety. Really, I didn’t lose it as much as leave it. Nicotine Fingers probably took it when I’d gone. My memory will cost more than six-pounds-ninety-total. At home I put the spoons in the drawer. Not sure I like them; they look more metal than silver next to the others. The woman at the council offices said that in order to access our childhood Social Services files we should write to Gareth Hughes, the Senior Research Officer, sending proof of our identities, including all name changes, and £10 per person, as outlined under the Data Protection Act. My daughter came home from school and said the new spoons are perfect for the teeny-tiny fromage frais pots she eats. They fit, she said, like a fat pencil in a sharpener with two different-sized holes. Russell Howard would love her, though I’m not so sure about our spoons. The woman at the council offices warned us that since the care services supporting my siblings and I ceased to exist in 1996, and there was very limited statutory requirement for the retention of such records, there may be none at all. This can only be discovered after paying and after waiting the forty days it will take to ascertain, like admission to a theme park ride that drops you into a black hole. My daughter hugged me and said that now we have new spoons the old ones will turn up, like socks. Socks, I asked. Yes, socks, she said. They turn up when you’ve given up all hope. She said I should buy a few pairs in the same colour so that when one does go astray it still has another mate, like her pink ones. Save myself some money. I should’ve bought socks in Sainsbury’s; I’ll put it on the list. Forty days. I’d like to think that if I’m granted my memory I won’t ever lose it again and I’ll certainly not have to sneak shiny objects into a coat pocket while eating scones with jam at a corner cafe. My mother slapped my hand once for doing so. I think we were at the seaside, maybe. A few sessions of counselling suggested there are patches of nothingness in my childhood recollection, which I picture as flower beds where seeds have already been planted but are waiting the sun, fearing a little what colour or size they might be when they emerge. Forty days. I remember watching Murder She Wrote, but I can’t remember if my mother slapped me at the seaside. I remember wondering why Jessica Fletcher always happened to be in the very place where a murder occurred, every single time it did. Even the seaside. Perhaps she forgot all the other occasions? Perhaps each murder was like a first. Forty days. Is that how long flowers take? The new spoons do not wash very well; tea stains after one stir and cheap washing up liquid has no impact. I will wait and wash and wait and hope that they each go missing.
Winner of July 2011 Contest
LADIES SPECIAL by Annam Manthiram
The one-eyed woman only came when there was a question to be answered. She would answer it, if the person in doubt desired illumination.
She always wore a yellow sari, drooping, ochre-colored sunflowers painted on by an Indian artist who had never before seen sunflowers but presumed to know their shape and tint. A dingy, gray sweatshirt covered her torso, which complimented the American sneakers on her feet. Sindoor, crimson holy dust from Hindu temples, was smeared along the part in her blanched hair. She had no teeth and only one eye: greenish-brown, long lashes reaching for her one eyebrow.
The one-eyed woman boarded trains seeking those in need, for people in motion often had questions. One had to wait patiently for her providence; if not, she would turn away and the question would forever go unanswered.
Kalyana boarded “Ladies Special,” the women-only train from Chennai to Tambaram. She was going to visit her mother. It had been several months since her last visit because her husband had broken her leg, and she had been unable to make the trek without assistance.
In her cabin there were three schoolchildren, hair in pigtails tied with blue ribbon, with matching backpacks and uniforms pressed to neatness. They stared at Kalyana’s face, at the burst veins along her eyes from constant crying, the bald patches on her head where her husband’s merciless hands had torn away swatches of her previously thick, envious hair, and the burn under her lips because she had not swallowed when her husband had asked her to.
Kalyana politely asked the children to stop looking at her, but they did not listen.
She knew how to make herself invisible, and Kalyana did this now, folding into her chest and wrapping her shoulders with the long end of her peacock-blue sari, the edges stiff and starchy from over-ironing. The denim bag she carried with her belongings sat squarely on her lap, her elbows hooking over it like a fleshy clasp. Kalyana’s neck felt heavy from the many gold necklaces which wrapped around her throat, constricting her like an angry man’s hands, and her arms were weighted by the emerald-studded bangles that went to her armpits.
Her mother would ask her about the bruises, but would be placated by this outward show of wealth. Most hardships in life could be weathered if money was involved. That was why Kalyana’s parents had chosen him for her, despite his propensity to anger.
Eventually the girls stopped staring, their attentions diverted by the various men on the tracks squatting and smiling, waving and urinating. Kalyana turned inward, the thoughts in her head like tics in gray matter, telling herself that everything would be alright. That everything happens for a reason, and that her husband was not here. He could not harm her.
Kalyana fell asleep at some point during the train ride, and the girls busied themselves with their work books, realizing that they had failed to complete several math problems.
Without warning, the one-eyed woman came upon their cabin.
Recovering from fear and shock, the girls switched to ridicule. They made fun of her. They laughed. They screamed. They threw books, pencils, and chalkboards at her. The books rappelled off her body, falling down to her feet where they opened, spines to the floor. The one-eyed woman stepped on them and moaned, swaying from side to side, utilizing a tempo only she could hear.
Her moans were sickening: a cross between a cat in heat and a girl baby being drowned in a tub full of jasmine water. The children began to cry. Then the woman turned and faced Kalyana. She stopped moaning. Her one eye twitched. In the space where the other eye should have been was emptiness, the skin perfectly smooth as though God had never intended for her to have another eye.
She pointed at Kalyana with both hands. They were beautiful – fingers like brown twigs, nails like newly-grown leaves. The schoolchildren fled from the cabin, yet the woman remained, pointing and mute.
Kalyana felt a vague kinship with this one-eyed woman, her disfigurement permanent and enduring. There was a solace for Kalyana in understanding that the world was indeed an ugly place, and that sooner or later, all would encounter this revelation whether or not they so desired.
The one-eyed woman moaned. Her lips opened. And then the words came out quickly, in accented Tamil.
Will he ever hurt me again? Her eye blinked. Kalyana waited.
The one-eyed woman moved toward Kalyana, a mournful look transparent on her face. Her slender fingers touched Kalyana’s cheeks in a tender way that was unknown to her.
No, he will not.
Then the one-eyed woman put down her hands, her beautiful hands, closed her eye, and began to walk away. Kalyana saw that she had two whorls at the back of her head, the hair spinning out from both wheels. Two whorls means you are lost within the cycle, that you cannot find your way to Nirvana, her mother said. Kalyana’s husband also had two whorls.
The one-eyed woman turned back one last time, and her eye was still closed. But then it opened, slowly, the iris dilating with pity.
The one-eyed woman exited at the next stop.
Kalyana took a deep breath, the tics finally slowing and the thumps of her heart no longer audible to her ears. She grabbed her bag tightly, rubbing against the thickness of the cloth with her fingers, and soon felt the coarse outline of the knife, still sharp and slightly wet. She placed her palm against her cheek and caressed it in the manner of the one-eyed woman, hopeful that she would feel such tenderness again.
Winner of June 2011 Contest
WISH ON THE RING’S EYE by Dawn Sperber
A RING, swaying on a strand of hair, high in a tree, hits against the trunk and makes a –ting. The blond knot unwinds, and the silver ring slips free. It’s falling …
Yesterday little Isobel, that faithful dreamer, that trying girl, carried the ring up to the tree’s top. On the highest thick branch, she sat dandling the ring on a strand of her hair, just swaying it back and forth like her own hypnotism. At dusk, putting her lips to the eye of the ring, she gave a kiss, and cast a wish that came through her like light through a keyhole. She imagined life passing as potently as it did while in the tree. She saw herself as a sun queen.
Promise shone in the air like gold dust motes, taking notice, watching her powerful belief. She tied a knot, hung the hair around a twig, and left the wish swaying below; then she trotted home.
In time, the moon rose like a levitating coin from behind the magician’s dark velvet horizon, floating past tree branches, past new buds spiraled closed and soft caterpillars creeping. Then the moon saw the delicately hung ring, and felt the true wish spinning ‘round its perimeter. With a silvery tracer, the moon shimmied higher so the ring would frame its lunar brightness.
Once aligned, the circlet wish raced faster: an agent of change, building speed from that luminous Change Master, faster… Till the moon eased on away to look at other things. This slowed the wish to drag ‘round the ring, humming like a Tibetan singing bowl. Asleep in bed, Isobel rolled over and moaned the same tone. The moon winked in appreciation, and kept moving past her window.
— It was the wind that lifted the ring from its twiggy perch, come morning. The jealous wind whose fingers are too thin to wear a ring and is only given love trinkets instead, flower petals and small paper notes, but never such a commitment as the tree’s silver. The wind simply huffed, and the ring lifted.
It glinted, dropping through the morning light, and the moon squinted between high mountain peaks to spy the flash of silver. The spiral buds on branches all started to unfurl, and the girl woke mid-dream, and spoke:
“Magic, marry me,” Isobel incants, forcefully. It’s a powerful, yet vague enough enchantment that all nearby inherent magic rushes to gather tight as a cattail’s pressed pollen. She stands on her bed, and blows. It spreads every which way.
Tall in her room, Isobel wears a radiant halo; the sun waits behind her head, like a beau by her window. Over in the woods, ting; the silver ring hits against a stone. It bounces in a high arc, flipping, falls, and marries the grass that pushes through the ring like a finger.
Winner of May 2011 Contest
TIMOTHY LEARY’S DEAD by Dawn Corrigan
When I was eight I understood pig Latin perfectly well. All children in my family did, as do, perhaps, all children everywhere. Nonetheless, my relatives were in the habit of using pig Latin when they wanted to have “adults only” conversations while children were present. We knew not to let on that we understood. It was our unspoken law, a way of being kind to the grownups.
On January 1, 1976, I broke this law. I didn’t mean to. I was sitting in the backseat of my Aunt Denise’s car, a rusted out ’68 Impala that had once been blue but was sunbleached almost to white and outlined in rust by the time it reached Denise’s possession. It always smelled like gasoline, and the heat never worked, but I loved rattling around on the bench seat in back while Denise drove and her boyfriend, Mike, rode shotgun. There was always great music on the radio, when it worked. Rock or funk. Pink Floyd, the Who, Queen, Brick, Parliament, Stevie Wonder. Often I’d bring a book, but on the New Year’s Day in question I had no book and contented myself with staring out the window reading the signs we passed.
It was the sign reading that got me in trouble. We were on Tilton Road, returning to my parents’ house where Denise lived with us in the 3/1 rancher my parents had purchased the year before. Denise was attending College of the Pines, a new state college that had also opened the year before. It was located on the southeast fringe of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, about twenty minutes from the house. Organized along the principles of the day, it had classes with titles like “War” or “Peace” or “Trees,” professors teaching barefoot or bringing their dogs to class, and a nudist beach at one of the campus’s puny manmade lakes.
Denise and I had driven out to the Pines to pick up Mike from his campus apartment, and Denise and Mike, still a new couple, were regaling each other with New Year’s Eve stories. Hence the pig Latin. We were cruising down Tilton, bouncing along merrily on the Impala’s blown shocks, and I was reading the signs we passed out loud to myself, as was my wont: Bonanza Steak House Mr. Big Car Wash Tilton Theater Radio Shack Acrat Tickets when all of a sudden it slipped out, the English translation of Mike’s last sentence: I dropped acid last night with Steve and Patti.
“What did you say?” Denise shrieked. I looked toward the front seat and was surprised to see her frantic eyes staring at me from the rear view mirror. Then I realized what I’d done.
“Nothing,” I said quickly. Then, “Acrat Tickets.”
“She doesn’t know what it means, Denise,” Mike said, but my aunt was already pulling over into the parking lot of Kohl Brothers, a frozen custard stand. With the engine still chugging, she frantically began promising all sorts of good things, chocolate bars and staying up late and listening to her records, if only I wouldn’t repeat that sentence to my parents.
A few minutes later we pulled back onto Tilton Road and continued our journey. I nibbled the Magic Shell off my soft serve cone with some confusion and not a little guilt. Mike was right. I had no idea what the sentence meant, so felt I hadn’t earned the bribe.
Winner of April 2011 Contest
HOW TO BE A GOOD PRISONER by Jacob A. Boyd
The dungeon cell smelled awful. Helmut tossed hay from his bedding nest onto the shit in the back corner, then returned to his side of the kennel-size space and sat. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, everything but the iron bars was cobbled from black, rounded stones that gleamed with cold sweat. Helmut felt the stones like knuckles that jabbed into his pelvis, poked at his spine. As he repositioned himself, his eyes strayed toward Bowden, a thick-bellied man with a nose covered in red veins like the stitching on a wine sack. For the past two weeks Bowden had been Helmut’s cellmate. He lay face down near the bars.
The floor gently sloped toward the bars, and Helmut watched a trickle leave the back corner wend between the stones, and pool against Bowden’s cheek.
“What smells?” the guard bellowed from the dungeon’s central chamber. The guard’s shadow followed his voice and loomed down the corridor which ended at Helmut’s cell. Once he came into view, Helmut said, “Bowden died.”
The guard looked concerned. “What’ll I do now?”
Ever since Helmut had been arrested for delivering a speech against the King’s man Spratlin, he wondered if the guard knew what his prisoners had done. He wondered if the guard made distinctions between himself, a political prisoner, and Bowden, a thug.
“I suppose the King will be pleased with you,” Helmut said.
The guard frowned. “Don’t think badly of the King. He has a plan for each of his subjects that’s in the kingdom’s best interest.”
A waft of rancid smoke from the boiling oil in the central chamber was sufficient reminder of the King’s plans to silence Helmut. He’d seen the cauldron once, upon entering the dungeon. He’d heard it in use many more times. A hinged joist ending in a pulley threaded with a manacled rope hung above it. Fresh coals heaped near it.
The guard dragged Bowden out like he was pulling a wheelbarrow then resealed the cell. As he left with Bowden, he muttered, “What’ll I tell the King?”
Helmut felt a pang of conscience for thinking that it was better Bowden than himself. Bowden hadn’t been all bad, and Helmut felt sorry to see him dead. Winter festival was nearing, and during the nights he had spooned with Bowden for warmth. What’s more, when Helmut had mouthed off to the guard last night, Bowden had provoked the cudgel onto himself. Helmut supposed it had been pity for his scrawniness that led Bowden to challenge the guard to fight someone his own size, pity that had spared Helmut’s life.
Noisily, someone was dragged into the central chamber. The person sounded gagged, but as the manacles jawed shut, the joist groaned bearing weight, and the rope squeaked into the oil, the gag didn’t matter. The man screamed and splashed, and Helmut thought it would’ve been better to lower him headfirst. It would’ve been over quicker, made less noise.
Once the dungeon quieted, Helmut’s trembling stopped and his dread faded as a realization bloomed. He’d been kept too long, had heard too many boilings. The King had different plans for him. His will was to be broken until he was a stranger to himself. Upon release, his docile return to his family farm would speak to the King’s might and mercy.
Suddenly confident that he’d survive, Helmut vowed to live for his freedom, for the day when he’d start rallying an underground movement against the King with tales of what had been done to him.
During the night, cold woke Helmut. His mouth watered from hunger, and he swallowed spit to douse its burn. He fell back asleep and woke when Spratlin was shoved into the cell, the King’s man, the man who had ordered Helmut sent to the dungeon. He looked fat and dazed.
“You’re still alive,” Spratlin said. “Huh.”
“I thought the King favored you,” Helmut said.
“Winds change,” Spratlin said. His nostrils flared. “What stinks?”
Helmut pointed at the back corner. “The guard doesn’t want to step in it.”
“God, you’re spiritless,” Spratlin said, then pointed at the hay. “That’s our bedding?”
“You want me to sleep with you?”
“We have to live with each other and survive,” Helmut said, then explained what he had thought about his imprisonment.
Spratlin shook his head, and said, “You’ve been in here too long,” then settled into an impregnable, fidgety sulk.
The day passed, and Spratlin took half the hay for himself. Through the night he chattered his teeth and complained so much Helmut hardly rested.
Near morning the guard slid a brazier of hot coals under the bars.
Helmut hunkered near it, and Spratlin called out as the guard left.
“I’m a political prisoner,” Spratlin pleaded.
“I know,” the guard said.
Spratlin joined Helmut at the coals. Helmut felt a little sorry for him. He knew the first days were the hardest. The abrupt shift from satiety to want hurt. Worse, Spratlin had been exhausting himself with useless protests. He had yet to learn he should reserve his strength.
“Food!” Spratlin called out. “It’s winter festival.”
“I heard you,” the guard said.
Helmut watched Spratlin backpedal into the shit as the guard approached the cell with a dagger. The guard turned his gaze from Spratlin to Helmut.
“The King liked my suggestion. When you’re full, you’re free.” He handed Helmut the dagger. “Otherwise, you both starve.”
Helmut looked at the dagger, then the smoking brazier. “So that’s it: the King is making sure I’ll never speak of what happened here while having me get rid of Spratlin for him?”
“Politics is dog eat dog, isn’t it?” the guard said.
Spratlin gave a weak scoff.
“We’re men of thought,” Spratlin said. “We respect each other. Like you said, we have to live with each other to survive.”
Helmut thought of his family on the farm and the long life he could have there in silence.
“No,” Helmut said. “If you’ve taught me anything, we only have to live with ourselves.”
Winner of March 2011 Contest
ORION by Scott Akalis
It was a cool, cloudless night. I was outdoors and far from the city. My back lay against weeds, the kind that looked like flowers. They were brittle from an early frost and crunched as I squirmed.
His penetrating breath reeked of hot wings. I can’t remember the guy’s face, but when I cocked my head to avoid it, there you were — a shameless voyeur watching from a lit room across the way. I had known you my whole life. All you could do was stare.
Now on cool, cloudless nights, when we are outdoors and far from the city, I think of your complicity. On the sight of you again, my shouted question scatters those bats and owls who, in their previous cowardice, were at least decent enough to look the other way. What good is a weapon if you never use it?
Winner of March 2011 Contest
THE GHOST’S GUIDE TO HAUNTING HUMANS by Sarina Dorie
1. Make the first impression a lasting one. Do you really want to be the ghost known for tripping on ectoplasm as you make your big entrance? Take care in planning your first meet with your mortal ‘hauntees’.
2. Avoid clichés. Creaking stairs have been done. Moaning, wailing, shaking chains, leaving stains on carpets and saying, “Waaaaaah!” or “Ooooooh!” isn’t scary, it’s just pathetic. It reeks of amateur.
3. Brown is the new white. Appearing as pale, glowing beings in white gowns is OUT. We don’t need another Casper or Lady in White. Think of creative ways to use mud, root beer or chocolate.
4. Be original. Be unpredictable. No one has ever haunted a sock drawer, possessed a juicer or made a Yorkshire Terrier vomit pea soup.
5. Don’t lose your head. Literally. It’s been done so often humans are starting to notice and wonder just how many ghosts have been decapitated.
6. Be yourself. There are enough ghosts of Abraham Lincoln that these impersonators have to take shifts so they can each get a turn at the Lincoln Memorial. The worst part of portraying yourself as a historical ghost is some historian is sure to see through the guise and say in a calm and certainly not frightened manner, “How curious. Zippers weren’t yet invented in the eighteenth century.”
7. Remember, they are more scared of you than you are of them. Do not let your fear show. You are in control. No one can exorcise you if you don’t want them to.
8. When all else fails, remember, death becomes you. If you are having a bad day, no one can ever take your immortality away.
Winner of January 2011 Contest
GUM! by Susan See
“Mark, what is our rule about gum in the classroom?” Mrs. Wilson pointed to the trash can by her desk.
For a split second Mark thought about the distance between his feet and Mrs. Wilson’s green running shoes, and his feet and the door. On a brown sandal day when Mrs. Wilson took her shoes off and rubbed her feet under her desk when she thought no one was looking, he and the gum might have made it to the hall before she caught them, but not on a green shoe day.
He spit the gum in his hand. He was especially sad to lose this piece. It was Super Huge Juicy Cherry gum, barely started. His crazy Uncle Morgan had given him just the one piece. Chew it with care, he had told Mark very seriously while making his eyes wobble in their sockets and pretending the end of his tongue was his upper lip.
Mrs. Wilson was waiting. Mark walked over to the trashcan and threw in the gum with a plonk loud enough to make the class laugh.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Wilson said. “Kindly read your story over from the beginning.”
Mark’s story was about lobster pirates in space. Reading it wasn’t good enough. He had to act it out. In fact, the paper he was reading from didn’t have any actual words on it. It was too exciting a story to write down. It was better if he made it up fresh each time. So this version wasn’t the same as the last one he’d told before Mrs. Wilson had complained about his gum muffling his voice.
Just when he had thought of a good part, Mrs. Wilson interrupted. “Mark, does this story have an ending? The assignment was to write a story with a clear beginning, middle and end.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Well, what is it?”
His brain froze. This morning when he left the breakfast table he had known exactly what the ending was, but now it didn’t fit. He turned red and the class laughed again. Mrs. Wilson told him to holster his space claws and go to the desk at the back of the room to sit until he had written a real story on real paper.
The back of the room was where the windows leaked and stained the bookcases. But it was a good spot for watching what was going on in the classroom. Mark saw what no one else seemed to see: his gum was climbing out of Mrs. Wilson’s trashcan. It balanced on the rim of the can, and fell with a soft, sugary plop to the floor. It began to crawl toward Mark.
The class was listening to Sedona read her story about bluebirds. It was interesting, but not as interesting to Mark as watching his gum crawl back to him. The gum was leaving a Super Juicy trail behind it. It was now only Large. Mark hoped there would be enough left of the gum to chew by the time it got to him.
The gum made it to the first row of desks. Troy moved his foot just then and nearly flattened the gum. It stopped and looked around. Then it turned right and scooted under the desks, heading for the window wall. For a minute Mark lost sight of it.
“Bluebirds are mostly blue but have some orange-red,” Sedona said.
Mark leaned over in the chair. There was his gum now, working its way across the top of the bookcases lined up under the windows. The gum was picking up dust now instead of leaving a trail.
“Bluebirds eat insects,” Sedona said. “The end.”
Mark clapped with the other children but his eyes were on his gum. It had stopped to look at Rex the Fish. The gum scaled the side of the tank and dropped into the water with a little splash. Rex seemed surprised by the introduction of this new kind of coral to his home. The gum swam around to wash off the dust. Then it climbed back out. Rex’s water was now slightly Super Juicy, but he seemed to like it.
The gum moved steadily toward Mark. It was now merely Moist and Medium.
Only ten more feet of bookcases to go.
The gum climbed over Kyoko’s project of the earth’s core made from steel wool. That project had been sitting there for months with its sixth prize ribbon fading in the sun. The steel wool had rusted from the leaky windows. The gum left most of itself in the earth’s core.
Three more feet.
“Mark!” Mrs. Wilson called. “Have you finished your story yet?”
Mark looked at the gum. The gum looked at him. It was moving as fast as gum could.
The gum had two feet to go.
There wasn’t much left of the gum now, just a few tough, sticky shreds wheezing with effort. The gum scraped itself together and jumped. It flew across the space between the last bookcase and Mark, to land on his blank paper. It flopped over and died.
Mark quickly wrote the story of the adventures of the gum. He got up and read it to the class. He held up the piece of paper to show the tragic ending.
“It was supposed to be a true story!” Sedona said.
Mrs. Wilson looked in her empty trashcan and was mystified. “A-plus,” she announced.
Winner of December 2010 Contest
AVOIDANCE by Timothy Marshal-Nichols
Nancy was still slumped over her steering wheel when the emergency services arrived. Still waiting she watched the blue flashing lights as they reflected in the night air. She did not want to look back. She did not want to see the cars, vans and lorries all crumpled behind her. She did not want to engage with the grieving parents and shocked holidaymakers. Somehow she found herself being escorted into the grassy bank at the side of the duel carriageway. She stood, motionless, not wanting to engage with the carnage.
She watched as the police officer talked in turn to the other survivors. And dreaded her turn. She watched as they pointed in her direction. Pointed to her faithful old blue saloon. Pointed her out. She dreaded those accusing fingers. She trued to edge away from the crowd. She desperately wanted to run, but feared running so much more than waiting.
Inevitably her turn came. The impossibly young officer walked over. She did not want to speak. What could she say?
“Driving along,” she blurted, before the officer could say anything, “then there it was.” Then she was stuck for the right words. What could she say?
“Yes, miss,” the officer prompted, “in your own words.”
Her own words? Whose words was she going to use?
“Braked I did,” her words started tumbling out. “Closed my eyes. Almighty thud. I suppose I must have swerved. Trued not to hit him. Braked hard as I could. Poor thing. Is he alright? Suppose not.”
“Could you describe…”
“Fat thing he was. Never see one so big.”
“Bounces, did he bounce? Right off my windscreen. Right into the oncoming lane. Thought he would cause an accident. In other lane that is. Didn’t. Just drove over him. They just drove over him. Isn’t that terrible.”
The officer glanced at the carnage strewn on this side of the dual carriageway and but his lip.
“Is he alright? Did you rescue him?”
The officer glanced at the rubber necking traffic on the other side of the dual carriageway. There did not appear to be another body.
“So this man,” he said, “where is…”
“Pigeon it was,” Nancy cut in. “Fat thing, like I said. They just drove over him.”
Winner of October 2010 Contest
DIFFERENT STRINGS by Aaron Polson
We found the other basement during a summer rainstorm while visiting Grandma J. Neither of us could pronounce Grandma’s real name, her Polish name. We knew the ‘j’made a ‘y’ sound. We knew she lived in a creepy house. We knew her backyard spanned three acres, an old corner lot on which Grandpa J, dead for ten years then, operated a service station. The station was gone, leaving a concrete slab. Weeds and unruly trees had conquered the three acres, knotting them in a mess of organic chaos.
Usually, we ran through the neighborhood with boys and girls who lived near Grandma, playing football or baseball in the quiet streets. Cloistered by the rain, Mother suggested we go to the attic and look for toys, some of the things she enjoyed as a child. Grandma’s attic wasn’t a pure attic, but an unfinished section of the second floor reached through a small door in the wall of one bedroom. Dust covered everything. Cobwebs threatened, but, in addition to a shared fear of spiders and birthday, Alice and I were curious. Curiosity trumped arachnophobia, especially for ten-year-olds. Grandma’s attic held treasures. The centerpiece was the cedar chest.
We’d never opened the chest—a long, coffin-shaped box of polished cedar, but Alice pried back the lid that afternoon. We found Grandma’s linens inside, yellowed to a dirty ivory over time.
Alice swept a tablecloth around her shoulders, and swooshed through the room. “Look, I’m the attic ghost,” she said.
I pulled out the rest—napkins, more tablecloths, curtains—and found the door with a metal ring set at one end.
“Huh?” Alice peered over my shoulder. “A door. A trapdoor. Maybe it’s a secret passage.”
“There are no secret passages.” I tugged the cold handle, and the door groaned open. A stairwell led down.
Alice and I climbed down, hearts pounding, and found a small room. I expected dust and mold, the stale odor of the rest of the unused corners in Grandma’s house. Instead, it smelled clean, of strawberries and fresh water. A soft glow illuminated the space, but no windows. No lights. Three doors led from the first room, each matching the others in the house. Alice opened one, and found another room with more doors. Clutter littered the floor of the second room: boxes of old magazines, tins of food, a mesh bag with marbles, a carton of shiny black pencils.
We left that day after visiting five rooms, each with at least three doors. We left before getting lost in the maze—that’s how we felt about the other basement: a maze. I moved the trunk and opened it again, but the stairs remained.
“It’s magic,” Alice said. “A secret for you and me.”
“Just the two of us,” I said. We made a solemn, twins-only promise.
Over the next few years, we visited the other basement each time at Grandma’s, forgoing the wilds of her yard or the drowsy warmth of her kitchen and living room. We brought a ball of string, tied it to a post in the attic, and, like Theseus, used it to find our way home through the labyrinth of doors and rooms. We carried flashlights, not content with the dim light, and searched through crates and boxes for treasure. And treasure abounded: a garishly painted ceramic cowboy, stacks of china, small medals and ribbons from foreign militaries, envelopes stuffed with old letters, metal toys with chipped paint.
We never found another way into the other basement—not in the house or the yard or anywhere nearby.
We grew older, Alice and I. Fourteen did something to both of us. On a sunny afternoon, Alice betrayed me. I’d mowed Grandma’s lawn, and after the sweaty work, I ducked through the attic doorway, and found the open chest.
“Alice?” I called. She didn’t answer.
I traced the string down the stairs, through doors, and found them, Alice and Kurtis—a neighbor boy with whom we used to play in the street. Their hands twined together and lips pressed close.
When she saw me, the color bleached from Alice’s cheeks. “Oh…I—”
We didn’t speak that night. I lay awake, brooding, feeling betrayed. Left behind.
The next day, she begged me to go down again, together, just the two of us like old times.
I brought a pair of scissors from Grandma’s sewing basket.
We wound through the maze, our wrists tied to different strings in case we found ourselves separated. Alice stopped in a room with only one box, water damaged and stacked with old records. I fingered the scissors in my pocket, backing toward the nearest door so I could grab the end of her tether and run once it was cut. My grudge ran deep; a promise was a promise.
“It’s for the best,” Alice said. “We can’t always take the same path.”
My sweaty palm slipped against the cold metal handles. “What?”
“This,” and in one quick motion, her hand flashed with a knife blade. Her string fell limp to the floor. She smiled, and slipped through the door behind her.
I was frozen. After a moment which stretched as long as my fourteen years, I moved. Too late—Alice had vanished in the maze. I tried to follow. I twisted knobs and tried, but nothing. Not even a trace of her footprints in the dust.
For me, it was the last trip.
I’ve kept a snip of her string, a reminder of promises, jealousy, and a selfish, childish decision I would have made twenty years ago had she given me the chance. I have it tucked away in a shoebox with other mementos. The fibers have grayed over the years, and both ends are frayed, but it was Alice’s string. My sister’s string.
Winner of September 2010 Contest
THE PERFORMER by Brian Ted Jones
Before any of us could so much as blink he’d swung his body around and grabbed the cigarette out of Joe Parker’s mouth. Joe said later he never touched his lips. Didn’t even graze’m.
Then, while we all just stood there, staring like dummies, he swung his arms down and forward, squatted, and made a move like he was jumping rope. He landed and put the cigarette between his lips and did this little tap dancey thing. He held his arms up, and his hands out.
“Ta da!” he said.
We lost it. I mean it. I’d never laughed so hard before and I aint since. Jake Morgan was laughing so hard he had tears running down both cheeks, and you know how tough to crack old Jake is. I’ll be damned if we didn’t actually clap our hands for him, and he just stood there, grinning, puffing away.
We let him finish the cigarette. Seemed wrong not to. Right before the hood was lowered, the Captain even said it was a great shame to have to execute a man that talented.
Winner of August 2010 Contest
STORMLIGHT by Mercedes M. Yardley
The last time that I saw her
it was noonlight.
It lit her hair
the backs of her knees
under her school uniform.
We’d meet later, she had said.
We’d go to a movie,
maybe a walk.
Her knee socks refracted light
and gave off rainbows.
Her father came for me
He threw me against the side of the house
and demanded to know
where his daughter was.
The stars glittered in his beard,
the Milky Way ran through his hair.
His fingers grabbed my collar.
They started to shake when I said
that I hadn’t seen her,
that she had never shown,
that I had waited by our tree until the light
went afternoon, dusk, evening.
I had felt my way home in the dark.
They found her body in morninglight.
Her hair ran red,
shoes and fingernails were missing.
Her white socks were pulled down,
pink under the dim glow of sun.
He had stolen bits of her and left pieces of him;
isn’t that the way it always goes.
They buried her in stormlight.
Clouds and stillness,
the air heavy until the rain dripped
in weak release.
The light is good to her,
tender in its melancholy.
It grays out
until the world in its infinite kindness
chooses to go blind.
Winner of July 2010 Contest
WAY TO HEAVEN by Anne-Katrin Gnauck
And after months of suffering
From the dark hole dug in his chest
Officially being diagnosed
As a form of severe depression
By the local psychotherapist
Ernest solemnly made the decision
To end his meaningless little life
And after weeks of thinking
About his suicide
To make it as easy as possible
Too lazy to make a final effort
By explicitly preparing his death
Ernest drove to the highest skyscraper
And jumped off the roof
And after seconds of falling
To the grey and lifeless asphalt
Only 200 – 100 – 50 metres left
Until reaching the ground
Ernest hoped to arrive at the comfortable other side
By seeing the light at the end of the tunnel
And after moments of dying
The body dissolving around the soul
Leaving nothing but a shapeless consciousness
And a flow of blurry memories
Ernest realised that he was choking
In an endless mass of earth
And after a wink of being shocked
By the fact he had to form the tunnel
And light the way himself
After having ended the life himself
Ernest began to dig himself into the firm black earth
As he realised after a year of digging
He had forgotten to take along the lamp
Winner of the June 2010 Contest
STALKER by Sandy Green
from somewhere in the night,
stare at her past the bedroom window,
Her heart swells and smothers her lungs
but that’s okay because she can’t remember how to breathe.
What should she do?
grab the phone on the night stand,
and punch 9-1-1?
That won’t work,
She’s sure the telephone lines have been cut.
She could make a flying leap to her purse hanging in the kitchen,
minding its business,
slung on the back of the chair,
But, that wouldn’t work, either,
She’d never get there in time.
Instead, she decides to act all nonchalant,
to pretend she doesn’t see him and make believe
a glass of water
or maybe iced tea, or even a Coke
would taste mighty fine now.
She plans to sort of wander down the hall
and snatch her cell phone from her bag,
and slip it in her pocket,
feeling for the right numbers,
“There’s someone watching me at my house,
Do you have my address?”
While she waits for the police, she could run to the basement,
lock herself in the sewing room,
and prepare to stab the bad guy with needles and pins
or even her chrome sewing shears that she never uses to cut paper,
But, she’s sitting on the bed,
legs dangling from the extra thick mattress,
knees feeling all prickly,
mouth part-ways open,
He’s still staring at her
in that frozen way, one eye bright as a cat’s,
the other eye fading and rippling in the mist,
trying to psych her out and
torture her in her head before he breaks in:
Is the front door locked?
She coughs and licks her lips,
so he’ll think she’s got a big thirst,
then she slides off the bed;
The eyes follow her while she shuffles to the door,
A thought drops into her head
like she’s tuned to some sort of radio station,
SOS on the AM dial:
He can’t see her if the room is dark,
As she rushes to the wall,
my heart shrinks like a deflated punching bag,
Don’t do it! I silently scream,
Her finger hesitates on the switch,
as if she’s heard me,
then she snaps off the light,
only blackness, like the end of a hollow log,
No burning eyes stare back,
But, she’s doomed herself,
Light was the only thing saving her—
I point the remote at the TV
and turn it off,
I already know the ending,
Why did I watch this movie
when it was on so late?
Where is he?
He said he’d be home by eleven.
I draw myself into a cocoon under the blanket,
and leave the lights on.
Winner of the May 2010 Contest
noir by Natalie Kaye
A lit cigarette beckons,
Blood red stilettos hasten
The dim lamppost betrays
and a glint
Winner of the April 2010 Contest
OBSESSION by Janet Newman
The years have taken their toll: the hair is greyer, the face leaner; and shadows around the eyes betray an underlying sadness that used not to be there. I trace a finger over the half-smiling mouth, caress the slackening jaw-line and lightly brush the hallow place beneath the throat. All altered. And yet, somehow, the same. I snap the magazine closed, hold it to my breast for a moment and then put it back where I’d found it. It shines out, slick and gaudy, curiously at odds with the clutter of academic supplements and journals that litter the table. Celebrity fodder is not the usual literary diet of the St Joseph’s faculty, so how come this particular specimen found its way here? Who, I wonder, can it belong to. I try a process of elimination, ticking off the ‘possibles’ and the ‘unlikelies’ in my head: not Beryl or Pam, I decide. Unthinkable that either of those two bluestockings would sully their razor sharp intellects on so trite an item. And surely not any of the men. Marianne perhaps? She is new and French; young; wouldn’t know any better. Yes, Marianne, I conclude.
The staffroom door opens. Unaccountable guilt has me dumping a pile of exercise books on top of the magazine. I wouldn’t want anyone to think it mine. I look up. ‘Morning Dave,’ I murmur.
‘If you say so.’
Dave Cooper doesn’t do conversation. Dave whistles. Through his teeth. A tuneless, monotonous hiss, something akin to electrical interference. Irritating. This morning, as he whistles, he takes a pencil from his jacket pocket and begins to sharpen it with his penknife. It is a habit of his, sharpening pencils. And whistling. Through his teeth. Well, no matter, I am in no mood for small talk. I have things to do. Keeping my head low I set about the task of marking homework. But concentration eludes me. I glimpse a corner of the magazine jutting out beneath the pile of books. I touch it, and smile, cherishing the old familiar warmth that is creeping through my body.
I have a feeling this could be my lucky day.
It had begun as unremarkably as any other: morning assembly, followed by two free periods, giving me chance to catch up before the dreaded 3C’s mid-term mock later. With the dubious pleasure of that particular challenge looming, you, for once, had not been at the forefront of my mind. Inside my head, granted; filling up the spaces with your presence as usual. Hovering. Always quietly hovering. Unless I disturb you. Unless I begin to pick at the threads of memory, unravel the tapestry, take it apart piece by piece, reorder it, and weave the pattern differently, creating pictures that suit me. Those times, you’re not quiet. Those times you become animated. I give you the words, the actions; you smile, laugh, hold me; we talk, make love. I’m in control.
I snatch my hand away and look up.
Dave has stopped whistling. A row of neatly sharpened pencils edge the table. He whittles away at another while waiting for the kettle to boil.
‘No. I’m fine, thanks.’ I try to keep my voice even and bend my head again. When I am sure Dave isn’t watching, I slide the magazine out from under the pile of exercise books and flick through its pages. You gaze out at me from the centrefold. The years begin to fall away. My eyes skim over the accompanying article, scooping up fragments of information, First appearance in Britain for six years, it says. Memories begin to unwind. I’d always been there for you back then. Your number one. I scan the text. Tonight – a local gig. Patterns start to reform. I could be there again. Just like before.
It no longer matters how the magazine came to be here; couldn’t care less who it belongs to. This is something preordained. Our reunion. Oh yes, this really could be my lucky day. I hear myself laugh aloud.
‘Share the joke then.’
‘What?’ Dave is peering at me over his coffee mug. ‘Oh, it’s nothing really.’ But I can’t keep the excitement out of my voice. ‘Only…’ Then, I don’t know what possesses me but, I find myself saying, ‘I was just wondering which part of the curriculum this fits.’ I’m still laughing, and I flap the magazine at him.
‘Oh, that thing.’ His look of disgust confirms he isn’t the owner. ‘It’s Marianne’s,’ he adds, as if to eliminate any doubt.
‘Thought it might be.’ I toss the magazine aside as if it is of no consequence. ‘Marianne’s eh?’ I snigger. ‘No accounting for taste.’
Dave drains his mug.
‘There’s a piece about some bloke she’s screwing.’ Dave smirks and places a finely-honed pencil at the side of the others. ‘Some old has-been trying to make a comeback.’ And then, Dave Cooper, morose, monosyllabic, Dave, suddenly won’t stop talking. I try not to listen, but he just keeps them coming, one revelation after another. ‘… off the scene for years,’ he says, ‘some mad bitch… a stalker… scared the shit out of him; got so bad his wife ended up topping herself.’
I’m not sure what happens next. I keep trying to figure it out. Slide the pieces about; need to get them back together. But I can’t make them fit. All I see is the blood. And the penknife. I hear Dave Cooper’s screams. Then nothing. Just you. Filling up the spaces. Hovering. Quietly. As always.
Winner for February 2010
BAGHDAD NIGHTS by Benjamin Winship
I’m not a soldier. I just live here. Nothing but four walls, tile floor and a flat concrete roof. That is my existence. Hot during the day. Cold at night. TV on. TV off. Can’t leave the house. Kidnappings. We’re on high alert. Everyone’s afraid. Bulletproof vests, bodyguards and armored vehicles. You don’t get around. You stay put. It’s boring as hell. It’s scary as hell.
You don’t find white boys my age in Baghdad. Like you don’t find swamps in the middle of the desert. Parents lead. I follow. Who’d of thought? They closed the airport yesterday. Couldn’t get out if we wanted to. I get the feeling we don’t.
I pass the time in the driveway. There’s my old companion: four wheels and a grip tape piece of wood. Press my soles down. Feel the curves. Press my soul down. Hear the ball bearings roll. Ah. Ollie. Heelflip to tailslide, backside one-eighty watch my wheels glide on the tile. Fly out of control and my butt’s on the floor. The cold tile floor. There’ll be a bruise tomorrow.
The sun goes down. I watch it. Everybody watches it. The prayer caller moans at it. Like a reverse atom bomb it’s dipping… dipping… dipping. We don’t want the night. But it comes. And the gunfire comes with it. No one knows where. Few people know why. It sprinkles like gravel tossed on a sidewalk. The tracers light up the sky like veins pulsing through a lung. A smoker’s Marlboro-red-rip-off-the-filter-five-packs-a-day lung. Then a glow and the sound. A car-bomb BOOM splashes my stomach like cold water. I know I am alive. If you hear the boom, you know you are alive, that is what they say. But it’s far off this time. This time.
I have to get out. Twenty paces down the street. Quickly. Nobody notices. Nobody notices. I slip in the door and I’m safe again. There’s Mahmood. He is puffing on the Nargilah and the sweet smoke fills me up. Apart, we are men with fierce eyes and contemplative thoughts. Together we can be kids again: smiling, laughing and slapping hands. We puff smoke and make jokes like hyenas ripping on a carcass.
Three hours later, drunk on laughter and high on sweet tobacco, we have some fun. Mahmood wraps a scarf around his mouth and head. He takes the decorative knife off the wall. I kneel on the ground with my hands behind my back. It was his idea. We make a mock video: me all scared and breathing hard, shouting for help and him pointing the blade at my jugular, rattling off some on-the-spot mock terror manifesto. Then we roll on the floor watching it over and over. It’s a middle finger to the irony of our friendship.
I sneak home, tiptoeing through the dark like a cat burglar. Ha. There are people stealing souls tonight. Redirecting them with metal shards and—BOOM. An RPG. It’s close to the green zone. Soldiers are running this way and that swinging guns, swiveling like puppets. I imagine.
I’m home. The door clicks shut. Invisible once again inside the white walls. I plop down on the couch. The weight of war hangs on my limbs like lead on a fishing line. I turn on the TV. The line snaps and it’s almost like I’m floating. Stephen King dares to attempt to frighten me tonight. I accept your challenge Mr. King. Perhaps pig’s blood and telepathy will quell the outside gunfire, bombs and bodies. My god the bodies – with their throats wide open like torn rubber balloons. But none of that now. Mr. King, you’ll tingle my spine, won’t you?
I’ve fallen asleep again. It’s something I couldn’t do on my own. It creeps up over me and takes me slowly. Even then there’s no peace. The same old same old same old walls and tile, terror and boredom, laughter and bloodshed; not even my eyelids can shut it out.
The heat takes hold of me and strangles me awake. Moisture cakes the dust to my forehead and chest. I stink. Like a bug crawling through the sand. A big white spider runs along on its skinny legs, skittering the little granules. It’s the best we can hope to do. He bites the camel and blood comes out warm and sticky. The camel doesn’t know. He’s numb from the venom but the red life-sap oozes out and out and the spider waddles along sucking up the camel’s life. The same old fear. The same old boredom.
Angry like I am. We all are. The wheels clap the tile. I grip the tape and slide with the breeze. The gentle breeze. Pop the tail and watch the heelflip twirl through the air. S-l-o-w-m-o-t-i-o-n. Snap my soles to the board and let it roll away like I meant to do it all along. Something—one thing—beautiful.
I can’t help but smile. It’s the first time in a long time, since I can’t remember time. Chopper blades thunder overhead, setting off ten thousand car alarms. Another BOOM in the distance. I imagine the trail of blood from my invisible wound, sucked up by the Baghdad sand. Same old fear. Same old boredom. But for now, I’m still smiling. After all, I’m not a soldier. I just live here.
Winner for January 2010 contest
PEARLS OF SORROW by Renee Holland Davidson
Madelyn sits in the back seat of her mom’s Hyundai, forehead pressed against the window. She’s counting SUVs–black ones like her father used to drive–and trying to ignore her mother and sister arguing in the front.
Even if she hadn’t been able to hear their words, she could have quoted their conversation as if she had scripted it. Their dialog echoes through her head like endless reruns of some feuding daytime drama.
“Darn it, Rosie. You could at least pretend you’re part of the family,” her mother says. “Why must you always sit in the corner with your sourpuss face?”
Rosie spits back, “I told you I didn’t want to go. Cousin Sara’s Sweet Sixteen… please. She’s been whoring around since junior high.”
Madelyn’s ears perk up–this isn’t in the script. Their mother glares at Rosie with an almost imperceptible nod to the back seat, meaning: Your twelve-year-old sister can hear you. Stifle it.
Rosie turns to the side window, lips compressed in a straight line, the silver ring that pierces her eyebrow glinting defiant in the sun.
When I’m eighteen, Madelyn thinks, I’m getting a piercing, too. And maybe I’ll start smoking. She imagines sitting next to Rosie on her bedroom window seat, each with a cigarette dangling between their fingers, watching the smoke escape through the window screen grids, talking and laughing.
Madelyn frowns. When had she last heard Rosie laugh? She used to laugh all the time, used to call her Mad Maddie, grab her hands and twirl her in dizzying circles, tickle her unmercifully. The happy memories come easily, like a picture book in her head, a book written five years ago–before Dad died, before Mom spent so many nights crying behind her closed bedroom door, before Rosie started hanging around with “those hoodlums” as her mother calls them. Smoking, drinking, doing drugs, shoplifting just for kicks.
Rosie used to spend hours with her little sister–reading to her, playing Barbies, baking cookies. Now Rosie’s never home, and rarely at school. She’d even spent a few weeks in juvie after she was caught outside Best Buy with a purse full of stolen CDs and a baggie of pot.
And when Mom isn’t working or cleaning house, she’s either screaming at Rosie, or on the phone crying to her friends about her eldest daughter’s wild behavior, about missing Dad, about feeling so alone.
Madelyn knows all about feeling alone.
She’s stopped counting SUVs; they’ve exited the freeway, and now she’s counting the number of potholes the Hyundai hits before they reach the tiny house they moved to after Dad died.
When they turn onto their narrow street, her mother’s cell phone bleats out a tinny version of “Roxanne.” It’s Aunt Roxie, mother of the not-so-sweet Sara.
“Hey, Rox,” her mother chirps. She listens; her smile droops, then disappears, a frown tugs her eyebrows. “Okay. I know. Yes.” She pushes out the words in exasperated breaths. “I’ll call you back.” She snaps the phone shut, pulls over to the curb and slams on the brake.
She stares hard at Rosie, then turns, eyes focused on the bumper of the van parked in front of them, hands gripping the steering wheel as if she’s negotiating a twisting mountain road instead of sitting stock still in an idling car.
“That was Aunt Roxanne.”
Madelyn hears the tremor in her mother’s voice, realizes she’s struggling to sound calm.
“The pearl necklace Grandma gave to Sara is missing.”
Rosie laughs. Not the ringing, joyful laugh Madelyn remembers from the good days. It’s a bitter, disgusted snort that belongs to a movie screen psycho.
“Yeah, Mom, it’s gotta be me, huh? Sara’s demented thieving cousin. Like I’d even want her pearls!”
Her mom’s voice rises an octave, trembling like a novice actress. “I’m not accusing you. I’m simply making a statement.”
“Some statement.” Rosie sneers. “Here’s my statement.” She snatches her purse from the floor, opens it, and turns it upside down, furiously shaking it over her mother’s lap. A wallet, lipstick, cigarettes, keys, and myriad other items spill onto her mother’s skirt. Then Rosie jerks the door open, jumps out, and runs off in the opposite direction of home.
Madelyn doesn’t need to look to know there’s no necklace. She slumps further down in her seat, one hand stuffed into her pocket, caressing the sleek, polished pearls. She slides the beads between her fingers, as if saying a rosary.
Instead, she counts her sorrows.
- December 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
REFUGIO DE MARIA by James Tipton
It was so dry in recent years that all of the pregnant women in the Sonoran village of Refugio de María worried that their sons would never grow to be as tall as their fathers. It was because of this they watched with concern the village dwarf, Niño de Dios, walk around Refugio de María on little bowed legs.
His mother, Araceli, had named him Niño de Dios because he was hardly a human child at all, and he was not in any visible sense her niño, nor the niño of the proud man she had married, a man who had headed north forever only a few minutes after his son was born.
As Niño de Dios grew he was generally tolerated by the adults, and even loved by some, but he suffered as all suffer who are not normal in the way the world demands.
One afternoon, when Niño de Dios was in his late teens, with the full-sized head of a rather handsome man but with the short arms and legs and body of a dwarf, several of the young men who were strong but undeveloped in their hearts decided to tease him. They began tossing him back and forth like a bale of hay. The young women of the village watched in horror.
Soon Niño de Dios lay in the dust. A few drops of rain began to fall. He struggled onto his feet and announced to his torturers that in doing this they had cursed Refugio de María, and that the rain, so badly needed, would now move on to another village, where a child of God might be better treated. The rain stopped.
Araceli was no longer there to help him. His mother had made the final journey five years earlier. Hopefully, thought Niño de Dios, she was now in that highly desirable section of Heaven reserved for the Mothers of Dwarfs.
That same spring around the time of Lent, Niño de Dios began dressing up as God, wearing a white robe, a rather clean one at that, and a belt of braided leather. When those same young men gathered again to harass him, Niño de Dios bounded up the few steps of the little church and announced to the village that he had been born into Refugio de María to challenge them, to test their love for Him, for God.
Blasphemy for sure, but the older villagers warned those young men not to bother him further. The villagers were worried, though, or disgusted, or irritated, or ashamed, and they began to ignore Niño de Dios. Wives who formerly had made sure he had ample food and who gave him a few pesos to run simple errands, no longer opened their doors to him; and husbands, who had formerly helped him up onto their horses—his favorite delight in the world—no longer looked at him.
But then the most uncomfortable event in Refugio de María that spring occurred. Serafina’s beautiful daughter Esperanza, who was as perfect in body as Niño de Dios was not, fell in love with him. Although to be honest, had his handsome head been placed upon the body of a normal man, the whole village might have been in love with Niño de Dios.
Since he had been a tiny boy, Niño de Dios had often been seen following Esperanza around the village. But now it was Esperanza who followed Niño de Dios. Every evening, they could be seen on the steps of the church, his head resting sweetly in her lap as she sang to him.
Why Esperanza fell in love with this dwarf was anyone’s guess. Some speculated that Niño de Dios possessed secret powers, perhaps dark ones. Others thought that indeed, he might be a Child of God, a gift to the village. Still others, largely young women, whispered that his manly qualities might extend far beyond his beautiful head.
At any rate, as the angels once again brushed the earth with their wings, turning it to autumn, one thing was soon evident: Esperanza was pregnant. The husbands (more than one of whom would like to have had Esperanza at his heels) began to gather in the evenings at the Modelorama to drink Sol and to discuss what might be the most responsible, and manly, thing to do.
Some said “Kill the little monster, or saint, or whatever he is,” while others, more moderate, cautioned, “Remember, he is, after all, the father of her child, and who else would have her now?” Still others said “Because he claims to be God he should be killed,” to which yet others replied, “But haven’t we always been told to be Godlike?”
The night they gathered together at the plaza to make their final decision, one of the old wives informed them that no one had seen Niño de Dios, nor Esperanza, since dawn.
They couldn’t go far on foot. Had they simply vanished? Had they been set upon by some demented or jealous villager? Then one of the elders informed them that the only two fine horses in the village as well as the silver communion cup that had served Refugio de María for more than two centuries had also disappeared.
The angels brushed the earth again and autumn turned to winter. Still there was no rain. And no Esperanza and no Niño de Dios. And now it was the Holy Season, and the Fiesta de Guadalupe, and then the nine days before Christmas. Serafina wept as she remembered when Esperanza, as a little girl, had been chosen to play María and ride around the village on a donkey led by a little boy. That had been so long ago.
On Noche Buena, all of Refugio de María was gathered at the plaza, hoping for their return.
- November 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
PARTY IN MY PANTS by Nina Hoffman
Our pants squirmed below the table, and I felt my control of the collective slipping.
“Why do you want this job?” asked the single being across the table from me. She wore ocular lenses and had short hair. I wondered about the shape I had taken as head. I wore a bare face and no hair, a look I had meshed from studying many pix of humans. She did not seem repelled by nor attracted to my look.
We were in a room with squared edges and no access to outside. The uncomfortable square furniture held both me and the interviewer in upright postures. The table blocked us from touching each other. My upper half was stable. The four who had melded into the upper abdomen maintained contact with the two who had taken arm shapes, and with me.
Why had we let Gleem be the connector between abdomen and legs? Gleem was too young, and had a terrible sense of humor. He was our sole connection to Asha and Marbi, who had never risen above the role of legs.
“We desire an opportunity to prove that Vishi can be a useful, integrated part of Earth society,” I said. Our left hand pinched our left hip, trying to remind Gleem to restore shape, but he had lost cohesion and reverted to multibranch. The pants rippled below the table as Gleem tickled Asha and Marbi. Marbi maintained leg shape, but Asha lost control and went multibranch, too, and then she and Gleem interwove.
We had made our human suit from woven steel, entering that bondage in pursuit of our dream. The pants held Gleem and Asha in, but there was no longer anything human-looking about our groin and left leg.
“Vishi are already integrated in Earth society,” said the interviewer. “Many of you have jobs in manufacturing.”
“We have no face-to-face,” I said. I felt our stomach bulge. Gleem and Asha’s interlace had infected Feesha, whom I had thought better of.
With Feesha involved, the pressure to surrender to the interlace multiplied. The other parts of us flexed and shuddered. Marbi lost it, and then Lixi and Hikhok, the chest and buttocks. The arms, Stirky and Taknot, tried to maintain, but the sounds and scents of interlace, the rustling and small blurbs of joy and that exciting frish of part against part that sends up bursts of electric spray, each contact generating a different taste, all mixing — Stirky and Taknot, too, lost shape. The hands melted into branchy bunches that curved back into the sleeves.
I felt the pull myself, but I was the best head in the Vishi enclave, and I maintained. At least the face.
“What is happening to you?” the interviewer asked, in tones I knew were not pleased.
“My apologies,” I said, my voice two octaves higher, as my whole body tested the strength of our steel suit. By this time we were flopping on the floor, the lure of a multi-interlace too strong to resist. “I am feeling a bit peculiar.”
She covered her mouth with her hands and ran from the room.
This was my third job interview. I hate them. They always end up this way.
- October 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
THE MOURNING STAR by Dawn Allison
We sprawled out on the grass and watched the last of the smoke trails from the fireworks fade while parents herded their children into waiting SUVs. At first they’d clogged the parking lot, all trying to leave at once, but after a few minutes it cleared out and we were alone with the smoke. Then it, too, was gone. I watched Buddy pluck a blade of grass, taste its roots, and then pull a face. He discarded it and plucked another to the same effect. I could never really tell if he was being genuine or just entertaining me.
“Why do you suppose that star burns blue?” I asked. I knew the technical answer, but Buddy’s explanations were always better.
“S’pect it’s love,” he said. Moonlight reflected in his eyes, the same vacant shade as the star. He pointed up, nodded. “That one there’s lost its mate. Been burnt up for a bazillion years or so, and now she’s a black hole out there somewhere.”
I rolled over on my stomach and watched him as he stared up, trying to locate the black hole against black night. “What do you suppose a black hole is made of?”
“Loneliness. All of ’em are.” He reached out for my hand and squeezed it. I meant to ask a question, but I held it. The night was too sweet for such talk.
He stood, brushing the grass trimmings from the back of his jeans, then he offered his hands to help me up. I tugged him back down and he rolled me over, laughing. He pinned me with a knee on either side and an idiot’s grin on his face. Then he grew suddenly serious.
“I’ll burn blue for a long time,” he whispered. Like he knew. I laughed.
“Ditto,” I said. We kicked through picnic leavings strewn over the ground and made our way to my car.
Under the dome light, I noticed his tightened jaw, the dark circles beneath his eyes. He seemed older, somehow, when he’d always seemed youthful, childlike.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. He shook his head, pursed his lips. “Oh, come on, Buddy. You can tell me. Didn’t you have fun?”
He slid across the seat, buried his face in my lap. “You been good to me,” he said, but it came out muffled through my jeans. I pulled him close, brushed his sandy hair behind his ear. His chin quivered, but he didn’t cry. He never did, even when his dad used to beat the shit out of him for being dumb as a week old biscuit.
“You been good to me too, Buddy, real good.” I kissed his forehead. He brushed my cheeks with his fingertips, kissed me sweetly.
The dew settled on the windshield, our curtain from the world. There were a lot of things Buddy didn’t know. Then there were some things he did, like just what to say and how to love.
Afterward, I lit a cigarette with shaking fingers and started the car. We exchanged smiles, and he drew a star in our steamed breath clinging to the window.
“Where to now?” I said.
“Do we have to go?”
“Ah, Buddy, it’s getting late, and there’s things to be done come morning.”
“We could do it now and get it out of the way,” he said with a grin, and this time I knew he was goofing with me. He grew sullen when he saw my determination. “All right,” he whispered. “Go.”
In silence I pulled out of the parking lot and onto the freshly graded road. I put my hand on Buddy’s knee. He took it between his own, his skin warm, his fingers calloused from years of farm work. I looked at him, admiring the smooth freshness of his face. Only for a second, but it was long enough.
By the time I saw the deer it was too late. I swerved but the bumper caught its rump and the car lost traction. Everything slowed and the tree waited, immutable. Blue eyes burning in the darkness. Buddy.
He’d stood on his porch waving the day that we moved in down the street, while his father let fly every known curse for something Buddy had done or neglected to do with the chickens. He’d seemed terribly handsome, rugged almost with his rough-patched jeans. I’d been disappointed when I spoke to him and realized he wasn’t like everybody else. Silly thing I was.
The tree loomed nearer and I thought of independence, how we’d declared it for ourselves when we said to hell with the rest of them and ran away together on the fourth because love was freedom.
There was only the pain of that last look in his eyes and no other. The same eyes that called me to my better self, the eyes that never told a lie and rarely embellished the truth. The eyes that were mine for the love they held.
I am his black hole, waiting to collect him in just as I always have. Dim pinpricks in a sea of darkness. It may sound selfish, but I hope he doesn’t burn blue long. Black holes are made of loneliness.
- September 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
by Ravi Mangla
The first thank-you arrived when his wife got sick. Purple stationary creased in perfect thirds. The envelope was scented with lavender and on the address label a cartoon terrier dressed like Sherlock Holmes was holding a magnifying glass to his eye, examining a mysterious trail of paw prints.
More letters turned up in their mailbox. He sent a short note to the return address, a P.O. Box, politely alerting the Singhs – a family he had never met – of the mistake. He hadn’t in fact let out their dog over the holidays, nor had he resealed their driveway. But as the thank-yous continued, with an even greater frequency, a more emphatic gratitude (dual exclamation points, block letters), he soon gave up.
The fruit basket was delivered to their house hours after his wife was told the disease had spread. An architectural marvel: banana floors, bricks of Fuji and Honeycrisp, pear and apricot shingles, a grand pineapple steeple. They wished to thank him for dropping them off and picking them up from the airport. The trip was lovely, they added.
Chocolate-covered cherries, wheels of cheese, Peruvian lilies, singing telegrams. Letter after letter after letter …
Weeks later, unable to sleep, he brewed a pot of coffee, took out a pad of paper, a pencil. He thanked the Singhs for carrying his wife up the stairs when she was too weak to walk, for talking her through the night when she couldn’t sleep. He thanked them for holding the clippers to her head, and for not letting their hands tremble. He thanked them for mending the loose button on her favorite blouse, her final blouse; it was the same technique she’d used to affix buttons to the child-sized clothes she sewed for no other reason than hobby, just something to pass the time.
Carefully, he folded the letter, sealed the envelope, and surrendered it to the mailbox, flag raised.
- August 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
by Mercedes M. Yardley
He is a dead boy. He sits on the clouds, riding them around like he is on water.
I am afraid. I worry that he is going to tell me that I am to die, that he has come for me.
He kicks around in the air like he is splashing in the creek not far from our house. I almost feel the water droplets hitting my face.
“I don’t want to die,” I tell him. He doesn’t stop splashing, but he looks at me. His dark brown eyes are full of sorrow and memories and at the same time, nothing. He reminds me of a puppy that I had as a child, one that I had promised to love forever and ever before my mother gave him away while I was at school.
I turn and head to my dresser, and the dead boy swims after me. I open my drawer and pull out clothes that are too small. At the bottom is a soft cloth bag, and inside is an egg made from white onyx. It is cold and deliciously solid. It fits firmly in my hand. All of my tension slides from my brain, down my arm and collects in the stone. The boy reaches out for it.
“No,” I say, and pull my hand away. “It’s mine. I need it.”
“Please?” he says. His voice is strangely beautiful. I feel like I have heard him before, singing from the foot of my bed, that I remember him reading me stories in my sleep. I want to give him the egg, to have him feel it and enjoy it the way that I do. I want him to have peace, but I’m still afraid.
He continues to hold out his hand, treading water.
My fingers grasp tightly around the onyx egg. “What is the thing that you miss most?” About life. About living. I think about putting on my white dress if I am going to die. It seems like it’s the right thing to do. The egg grows heavy in my hand, numbing it. I long to put it down.
“I miss ice cream,” he says, and does a little somersault in the air. He breathes out in such a way that I can almost see air bubbles rushing from his nose. His legs are strong and brown.
“I think I’ll miss that, too,” I say, and hand him the egg. He smiles, puts it up to his ear. He stops moving his arms, his legs, and stays perfectly still, listening.
- July 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
by Bob Thurber
“When you write, you confront. You know this. We’ve covered this. Distinct prose engages. It necessitates an encounter. Your reader advancing from one direction, your text from another. Take this narrative,” the writer tells you. “Which I will concede is economically written. But something vital is missing. Do you follow?”
This is the part of the session you’ve come to hate.
“Can you name the crucial missing component?” He is goading you, using your rolled up manuscript as a baton. “This story lacks… It lacks…”
But already your head is turned, pulled by the scent of perfume.
“Heart,” shouts the writer’s wife.
“Precisely,” the writer says, looking up.
“No heart, no blood flow. I know about blood flow. Don’t I, dear?”
She puffs a long cigarette in the archway that separates this tiny space from the rest of the house. Her nails are long sleek curves. You guess her age at forty-something, slightly less than his.
“You don’t look happy to see me, Roger.” Smoke floats from her mouth. “Cat got your tongue?”
The writer, whose work you have read and barely understood, and who sometimes in lecture hall you stare at with the same watery gaze that he is now directing at his wife, that writer turns his eyes quickly to you, loops an arm around your shoulder, and gently steers you toward the exit.
“We’ll talk more,” he says in a near whisper.
There are never any working clocks in the writer’s office, and today your watch needs a battery. Still, you’re certain your time isn’t up. The writer is giving you the bum’s rush, and you don’t blame him. You’re hurting your neck, straining to see the pretty wife.
In the larger, friendlier room beyond the office, the room with the fireplace and the couch that shines like chocolate pudding, the writer’s wife snaps on a light and strikes a pose.
She’s wearing a man’s pin-striped suit with a floppy bow in place of a necktie. The wide lapels make her look sharp, daring, like a gangster. Her fragrance has changed the air, somehow expanded this cramped off-campus cottage that you dread visiting twice a week. According to your mother you are allergic to both smoke and perfume, but today you are in no hurry to leave.
“Next week, then,” says the writer, handing you your raincoat.
But you can tell by his wife’s clothes and hair that it has stopped raining. You feel no need for the coat, have no desire to hold it.
“You’ve read my story?” you say to the wife.
She floats back into the doorway, trailing smoke, new light bouncing off her cheekbones. “Excuse me?”
You decide she is less than forty, much less.
“My story, you…” But that is all you can manage. Your jaw goes slack as you imagine her naked, standing exactly where she is standing now, smoking her long cigarette.
“She’s joking,” the writer says. “She doesn’t read my students. Do you?”
You like her mouth, her eyes, the way she is looking at you. You believe you better understand the writer, that his arrogance is misunderstood.
If you were him you’d never leave the house.
“Roger hasn’t taught me to read. Have you, Roger?”
You delight in her full windup as she tosses her cigarette into the dead fireplace.
The writer is showing you his yellow teeth. You can’t remember ever seeing him smile this long, and for a moment you imagine him something less than a main character in his own life.
“You promised not to patronize me in front of my students, sweetheart.”
“And you promised never to call me sweetheart, sweetheart.”
She retreats toward a mirrored wall with a horseshoe-shaped bar and four padded stools. You admire her skill at balancing on such thin heels. You can barely see the mirror until you move slightly left, away from the writer. Then the mirror finds you, then there are two rooms, two of her.
“Excuse me,” the writer says, and releases your manuscript to uncurl atop your raincoat. You trap it there, following the writer at a safe distance as he shuffles his penny-loafers from floor onto carpet. For the first time today you notice his socks don’t match.
“What are we doing?” the writer says.
His wife is grinning, looking at you more than at the writer.
Then she ducks from view as though the floor behind the bar just collapsed.
“You don’t have to stay for this,” the writer tells you, as his wife comes up swaying a goblet. She waves it at the room, at the writer, then at the you in the mirror. Her other arm moves like a snake.
“Lori, don’t make a game of this,” the writer says. “I have another student coming.”
He leans awkwardly, both hands on the bar. His arms appear too thin to support his weight. You wait for him to collapse, while he waits for some response from his wife who is examining a bottle she brought up to the bar. Black, with a netted bottom, it reminds you of something your father might drink.
The writer is watching you, studying your face as you watch his wife twist the cork out with her teeth.
“Drink?” she says.
You don’t belong here, your time is up.
The writer’s face is saying this, not you.
“This is exactly the problem,” the writer says. “Right here. Lori, listen to me. This young man is a student. He needs to be here. I am not obligated to entertain, but I am required to read and critique the good ones. As it happens, he’s one of the good ones. Lori? Do you think this is fun for me? Do you think I care about some thousand-page memoir a farm boy wrote. This is the job. This is what we signed on for. Lori! For god’s sake at least tell me what you’re doing?”
But any fool could have seen.
- June 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
An Afternoon at Chop-Chop Square
by Tanaz Bhathena
The executioner stifles a yawn and shuffles to the centre of the mosque’s deserted parking lot. His rubber slippers slap the tarmac with each tread and his mouth quivers, as if invaded by a swarm of invisible dancing ticks. He longs for a cup of tea, for the strong, soothing burst of tannin on his tongue, but it will have to wait until after the executions, when the owners of nearby tea-shops roll up their doors to do business after Friday prayers.
A nasal voice blares from the speakers: “Aameen.” The crowd crawls out of the mosque like a giant centipede and circles the lot – pushing, pulling, prodding bodies cementing into a human wall – forming the perimeter of Jeddah’s Chop-Chop square, a makeshift stadium where heads roll instead of footballs.
Moments later: the scrape of tires on gravel. The wall crumbles and makes way for two vehicles: a shuttered police van, followed by a local red-crescent ambulance.
Two prune-faced constables pull the convicts out of the van. The first convict, a curly-haired youth, shakes visibly. His jeans are sodden at the crotch. The second convict is a hollow-cheeked elderly man, who wears a filthy white thob and watches the crowd with the resignation of a zoo animal.
The convicts are followed by an inspector – a tall man with a neatly trimmed moustache and pale brown skin. He steps down from the van with military precision.
“Allah-u-akbar,” the crowd chants. God is great.
One constable pours sand around the chopping block. The other speaks to the inspector and gestures towards the van. The inspector’s gaze slides over the boy, but pauses at the old man. His mouth tightens. He tucks his hands into his pockets and shakes his head.
The executioner pulls out his sword and tests the blade with his thumb.
A constable nudges the boy with a stick. “Move, swine!”
The boy trembles and falls to his knees.
“Repeat after me,” the executioner says gently, “La-illaha il-allah. Muhammadur-rasul-allah.” There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.
The boy whimpers. The crowd’s chanting rises in a crescendo.
Then it happens. The sword’s tip prods the youth’s nape. The blade arcs up. Slices air, flesh. The crowd roars, jubilant.
Paramedics emerge from the ambulance to retrieve the head and body. A constable pours fresh sand over the blood.
The executioner wipes his sword with a rag, and watches the second convict limp toward the chopping block.
The old man stumbles and falls several times on the way, but the constables do not hit him or yell curses. The crowd’s cheers diminish to a curious buzz. The old man lifts himself off the ground more slowly each time. His grey lips tighten against the pain, but he does not utter a sound.
Sweat varnishes the inspector’s face. His uniformed body spasms at each thud. Once, he steps forward to help up the convict, but the old man shakes off his hands. He gives the inspector a haughty glare. Face to face, their profiles reveal the relationship: the same tilt of chin, the same sharp nose. Present and past. Son and father.
Wow! Very interesting short story. It held my interest all the way to the end. And a surprising twist. Congrats
- May 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
by Donna D. Vitucci
Naming the boy Griffin was our first mistake. “Do you even know what a griffin is?” I said to James. We were too smart for our own good. His hair, my husband’s, was dusty in its dryness. He was not a user of product; he eschewed product, or anything that came in a can. His vegetables were frozen until I boiled them, boiled the guts out of them. He ate mush. He was my baby until the baby.
Our Griffin, he was brand new territory. James had been used to the high tune of grass, and me, my giant boyfriends.
Chances were I was here again only because I’d been here before. Fuck that merry go round. Motherhood was all points new and unknown, the danger zone, the war zone, the twilight zone, where I logged my best according to the clock and my breasts and the high pitched wail. I knocked a broom at the smoke alarm until it hung from the hallway ceiling displaying its wire innards.
Griffin sucked under a discreet blanket.
“Ah, show them off, baby” said James, probably thinking he remembered their allure and their resist against gravity. He zipped when he saw the veins, a network of monstrous glee at which the baby sucked lapsarian blue. The walls shuddered with their own caught breath. Everybody took five.
James skipped down to the Wagon Wheel, returned with a pack of True menthols. He handed them to me, my sheepish husband, his hair all at odds with his racing home. “What did I miss?” he said. Clouds of whiskey breath buffeted my cheeks and floated up to the ceiling, balloons perfuming the room.
We watched Griffin grow. James carried a tape measure at all times. He’d been a Boy Scout before the grass grew tall and tickled his nose. Once the baby sprouted wings when he should have been walking, we tethered him with a dog leash to the back porch rail while I chiseled at the ground. We couldn’t remember rain, or what it did.
“We don’t know the first fucking thing,” I whispered at the house, crossing my fingers for pity from somewhere. In the no-wind, the baby lifted now and then on his own. He was trying.
“Well, who wouldn’t want out? “ James said when I reported, like a normal mother, to Daddy the day’s accomplishments.
I said, of my own small deeds: “Rows of carrot and beets and butter head lettuce, five different kinds of heirloom tomatoes.”
“Five?” His Doubtfulness said, tickling the baby’s chin.
Griffin’s wings fluttered and his feet left the ground then lit softly, his baby toes bending with precision.
“He’s fucking levitating,” James shouted.
My husband, dry as a stick, came to me and nuzzled my neck with his hair of straw: “I always knew you were part angel.”
“He doesn’t get buoyancy from me,” I said.
James backed up to stroke the baby’s one wing. “No mythology on my side.”
Both of us abdicating while Griffin lifted in his pretty little orphan-hood and the leash kept him from penetrating the sky.
I said to James, “Our child has wings.”
James patted the boy’s head and the baby’s laugh rang bells.
“Drought’s still on,” James said. He scuffed his boot toe at the ground.
I looked back at the small things I’d planted, already shriveling. “I’ll get the hose,” I said.
The baby had piss leaking down his chubby thighs, onto the porch step, green as anti-freeze, and trickling in the direction of the garden.
- April 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
Kind of Natural
by David Erlewine
My mom’s friend Dennis drove us to the hospital. A nurse glanced at me. “My chart says you’re twelve. You’re tall.” I nodded. They put me inside an MRI machine. Then they gave me shots. I woke up with a bandaged head.
A few days later, when we got home, my mom and Dennis walked me up to my room. He handed me a box. “It’s the part that gives you so much trouble speaking.”
Inside, encased in glass, was something resembling a bloated bloody slug. Dennis patted my knee. “You’re on the cutting edge of science, my man. You’ll be talking like us soon.”
I nodded a little, worried my brain might bounce around. My mom hugged me. “Get some sleep.”
I tried. How could I with that piece of brain looking at me? I shook the glass. Nothing happened. I tapped it against my desk, and then whacked it. It cracked. So this tiny thing was responsible? I whacked the glass against the desk until the crack widened. When I finally got the piece of brain out, I aimed it at the poster of famous people who stutter. I went for Winston Churchill’s mug but nailed Charles Darwin.
- March 2009 Student Choice Award Winner
by Judith Cobb Dailey
On your third date, you sleep together. He gives you a red-lace negligee. Red isn’t your favorite color, but you wear it to please him. You are forty-five, newly divorced, and happy to feel sexy again.
On your first wedding anniversary, he’s furious when you don’t want to parade around in the red nightie—or the blue one—or the black one. He accuses you of not wanting to have fun. You feel embarrassed about your middle-age body. Six months later, he says, “I bought all these negligees. Someone has to wear them.” He puts on the red-lace one. He is fit and slim. The color is perfect. You both become aroused. You make love to him, although the lace scratches your skin. It’s odd to cuddle afterwards and feel lace instead of the cotton undershirt he used to wear to bed.
The following week, he models a red velvet thong he bought to wear under the negligee. Lovingly, he asks you to put on a black nightgown and a push-up bra. You dance together in your bedroom, dressed in your finery. He is aroused, but somehow you don’t get around to making love. You fall asleep while he is still admiring himself in the mirror.
A pair of black, patent-leather, high heels, size sixteen—they scar your wooden floor. He needs to keep the blinds closed when he wears them. Matching shoes in red. Matching shoes in white with feather trim. His feet ache. A new lock on the bedroom door. The door is locked when your children and his daughter come to visit. The key is kept on a hook hidden in the linen closet. Your children don’t visit for very long.
A trip to the Salvation Army thrift shop on the way home from work. You’re tired and want to wait in the car. But he needs a woman with him so he can look at dresses and underwear. He buys a fifties rayon apron—white, translucent—that ties around his waist. At home, he comes into the kitchen wearing the apron, the white feathered heels, and white thigh-high fishnet hose. Nothing else. He wants to cook dinner for you. You are required to sit on a chair in the kitchen and watch him prance from range to sink to refrigerator. You drain a glass of wine while you watch. You pour another glass. Surprisingly, you are bored and tired. Not aroused. Not angry. Not even hungry any more.
His side of the closet is crammed full of nightgowns, dresses, corsets, and padded bras. You move your clothes into the closet in the guest room except for the yoga pants and flannel shirts you wear most of the time.
He bids on prosthetic breasts on eBay. He buys breasts in three different cup sizes: A, C, and DD. He straps the A breasts under his shirts when he goes to work. He pulls a sweater over his shirt, and the breasts are not noticeable until he hugs you. He arranges the C-cup breasts in bras he buys at second-hand stores. He wears the breasts, a house dress, and terry-cloth slippers to scrub floors and make the bed. The DD breasts are for evening wear under corsets and body stockings. The prosthetic breasts feel real. After you put them away in his dresser drawer, you scrub your hands in hot water.
He travels with you to visit your ailing parents. You will stay in your parents’ house, so he agrees to leave his dress-up clothes at home. During the visit, he becomes anxious, difficult to please, erratic. While your parents go to church on Sunday, you take him to the local Goodwill. He buys two second-hand nightgowns and calms down. He wears one of the nightgowns to bed. He wants to make love. You say: not in your parent’s home, not in your childhood bed, not with him in a nightgown. The visit is a disaster.
Your life revolves around his secret. You okay perfume, but forbid make-up. No wigs. You allow necklaces, but not earrings. You ask your children to call before they visit. You buy heavy curtains for the windows. You retire and try to imagine the next twenty-five years.
One night you are driving home from a hike east of the mountains. It is pouring rain. He is asleep and snoring gently. You reach over and unbuckle his seat belt. The belt coils back into place, silent and neat. An alarm beeps but only for a couple of minutes. You tighten your own seat belt. Around the next curve, the highway goes through a short, concrete tunnel. You can’t see any other cars on the road in front of you or behind. You accelerate and steer directly into the side of the tunnel.
When you awake, you are in a hospital bed. Your right leg is enclosed in a cast. Your head throbs. Your stepdaughter sits by the bed clutching your hand. Tears roll down her cheeks. Her eyes are red and swollen as if she has been sobbing for hours. “Daddy’s dead,” she says. “Daddy’s dead.” Like a dam bursting after a sudden flood, you cry too.
The first day you are alone again in your home, you put all the nightgowns and breasts and shoes and corsets into clean, white trash bags. You drag the trash bags to the curb and sit on the porch steps to wait for the garbage truck.
It finally comes.
- February 2009 Student Choice Award
One of Them
by Jeanne Holtzman
It must have been slipped under the side door. Ana came home from work, and found the creamy white envelope lying on the kitchen floor next to a splotch of tomato sauce. She hung up her keys, put down her bag, and bent down with a small groan to pick it up.
She saw the border of pink ribbons, and in curlicue pink letters, the words, “You are Invited!!”
She walked directly to the trash and tried to slam it in, but the envelope stuck to her hand. It wouldn’t fit into the slot with the bills no matter how hard she shoved, but she was able to toss it on the kitchen table where it grew large and dark, with ragged, charred edges.
How did they get her name? Ana had told almost no one, never lost her hair. It was probably a HIPAA privacy violation. Who could she blame?
She looked at the clock. The school bus would arrive soon. Ana needed to provide hugs and kisses, snacks, rides, costumes for Halloween. An ordinary day. An ordinary mother.
That evening, her husband saw the envelope lying beside the salt and pepper.
“Where’d this come from?” he asked, picking it up.
“It was on the kitchen floor when I got home.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
“What if it’s important?”
“How do you know?”
“If you’re so interested, you open it.”
He slid his finger under the flap and it opened with a pop, releasing a stream of aromas: lilacs, mashed potatoes, gunpowder and rotting flesh.
He read the card, and then looked at his wife.
“You sure you don’t want to consider it? It’s next Saturday.”
“No. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Ana tried to live her life like before. She went to work, cooked, cleaned, played with her kids, made love with her husband. Kept the fear, the anger, the grief, locked in a box under her bed. In the morning and at night, when she was alone, she would crack open the box and inspect the contents. Then she’d carefully lock it back up and store it away.
Next Saturday came and went.
Sunday morning, with the kids watching TV and her husband at the gym, Ana sat down to read the paper. Ads for costumes filled the pages, and articles about awareness. Who the hell wasn’t aware by now? What about prostate cancer awareness? One out of six men got prostate cancer, but you didn’t hear them whining. They weren’t waving blue ribbons in your face.
The next day Ana came home to a mailbox stuffed with invitations. She heard voices inside them, calling to her. “Come join us Ana. You’re special now. You belong.”
She imagined there’d be theme music — probably “Live Like you are Dying”. A woman behind the podium would say, “Hi My name is Bonnie I am a Survivor,” and then tell her personal story of woe. How her mammogram was abnormal or she found the lump but the doctors didn’t believe her. She’d recount the stage, the treatments, the recurrences. The members would all nod knowingly, wipe tears from their eyes and secretly compare her plight to their own.
Ana grabbed one of the invitations and slammed the mailbox shut. Ignoring them wasn’t enough.
When the day arrived, she drove herself to the meeting. She straightened her back and lifted her chin and stomped up to the podium. She faced a roomful of women. These weren’t smug women who’d never had to hear the words biopsy or prognosis. Who’d never had to say the phrase, my oncologist, and wonder if they would live to see their children grow up. These women knew Ana. They knew what was inside the box under her bed.
Ana felt her knees grow weak. She gritted her teeth and blinked. She pushed away the comfort.
The room fell silent and all eyes were upon her.
“My name is Ana and I am NOT a survivor,” she said, gripping the podium in both hands.
She paused while wavering voices answered, “Hi, Ana.”
“I won’t know if I will survive my cancer until I die of something else. If I succumb to heart disease, or Alzheimer’s or a car crash, then with my dying breath I will finally be able to say that I am a survivor.
“Don’t expect epiphanies from me. Don’t ask me to walk the survivor’s lap in The Relay for Life. I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a professional who will, like everyone else on earth, die one day of something. I am not special. I am not my disease. Please just leave me alone!”
Ana stepped off the podium to a silent audience and strode out of the room. Her footsteps echoed in the empty hallway, but slowed when she heard the sounds: animated conversation, scraping chairs, rustling clothes. She imagined all the women, the survivors, rushing out the door to catch her. To surround her. To embrace her.
Ana hesitated. Waited. Until she heard a voice announce, “My name is Natalie, and I am a Survivor,” and a soft chorus murmur, “Hi, Natalie.”
- January 2009 Student Choice Award
By Annelyse Gelman
When we lost our dreams, everyone wanted to blame the moon.
“Let’s go over it again.”
“We were… traveling, Officer.” I’m trying not to stutter, trying not to fall asleep.
“I’m gonna need more detail than that.”
“Not in a car, but in something uncontrollable, something smooth and direct, like a ride at a fairground. All I have are these vague impressions. A creaking, disembodied rattling, gears, pulleys.”
“Who was driving?”
“I was with James in the back. If anyone was steering, it wasn’t human. Body without soul. And I remember—it crossed my mind, you know, casually, briefly, he—it—wouldn’t be able to hear me if I screamed.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence. I don’t want to tell him more, and he knows it.
“So what exactly happened, miss?”
“The world was born. A dirt path. The country? A deep hole bored into the trunk of a tree we hadn’t reached yet, its shadows as impenetrable and indiscernible as those in the mailbox next to it. These seemed the only objects in existence. A path. A tree. A mailbox. I couldn’t even see the road ahead, hadn’t imagined it into being. Neither had James, I guess.”
“But it was your dream. James had no influence.”
“I guess, Officer. Either way, the future didn’t seem important. It usually doesn’t, in dreams.
“There was no time. Then the moon drew our eyes. Drew, I say, because I didn’t know I had eyes. Hadn’t drawn them yet, hadn’t sculpted self-awareness and subjectivity. There was only the path, the tree, the mailbox. And now the moon.”
“Then what?” He yawns, scratches his nose.
“Let’s do this later. I’m tired. Just let me rest.
“Finish it. Then you can rest.”
“Fine. A strange feeling overcame me. I averted my eyes. In the seat beside me, James melted into shadow. This hand like the hand of—like the hand of God. It reached toward me. I woke up before it touched me.”
“Thank you for your time. You can go now.”
I have just lied to the law. I have committed a crime. I could go to jail. If you want to know, when I said it was the hand of God, it wasn’t. It was the hand of the moon. I knew he wouldn’t believe me. I was just tired, that’s all. He should have let me rest. I didn’t want him to think I was crazy.
I didn’t tell him what happened after I woke up that first time, either. That there was another dream.
There was an astronaut in the kitchen, sipping water and reading the newspaper in the dark. It seemed natural, almost expected, that he would be there. I flipped on the light.
I didn’t know whether the voice came from the astronaut or myself. The astronaut said nothing. Words eluded me. I sat down at the table across from him. “What are you reading?”
The astronaut lifted his head; the glass in front of his face reflected the kitchen clock. The room looked strange in the reflection. The furniture seemed arranged wrong.
He slides the newspaper across the table, the headline facing me.
“I had a dream about you last week, James.”
The things we know we don’t know; the things we don’t know we know.
“Oh?” I know.
That across the country, every country, this conversation is taking place.
“Don’t you remember? You were there.”
“Sure.” I remember. I was there.
Cue shrug, anxious micro-expression, a barely perceptible tightening of the lips. He was there. I know it. He knows it.
“No, really! Remember? You were in my dream.”
“Right. Your dream. I wasn’t there—how would I remember?” It’s not supposed to happen this way.
“Because you were there.”
“No. I wasn’t there. I was in my bed, sleeping.” Don’t do this, Cathy.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Please.
“Tell me you were there, James.”
“Please. I’m not crazy—please. Please.”
“You just don’t remember! That’s all. You just forgot.”
“You—you’re scaring me—now, don’t—”
“Fine! I was! I am. I remember. Okay? The path, the tree, the mailbox. The astronaut. How you thought—we thought—shadows can’t be that black. That I was a part of you. You were in my dream. The moon. The hands of the moon.”
Cue shuddering shoulders, paralyzed lungs.
“I can’t sleep, Cathy. I can’t dream. No one can, not since then. It’s over.”
Cue adrenal glands, sweat, tear ducts, acetylcholine, dopamine, endorphins. Cue synaptic flood. Cue silence.
It happened gradually. Unable to deem lost dreams a tragedy or catastrophe, the media ignored it. Newscasters’ eyes glazed over, their speech slurred, they shuffled papers with clumsy, heavy fingertips, eyes sliding over teleprompters and fingers over keyboards haphazardly.
It made no difference to the men and women at home in front of their televisions, at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, listening to the radio—their senses were equally dulled. Who’s telling the story? Whose story? Subject and object, past and future. On all sides, slowly, they began to forget. It was as if the whole world had fallen asleep, with no one the wiser.
“Moon sure is bright tonight.”
“I know. I feel like I’m being watched.”
“So low in the sky.”
“Like I’m being warned.”
And it was easier to pretend. It was easier to resume our waking lives as if sleep, uninterrupted by dream, had merely paused the film. And if we awoke to a voiceover, to a forced plot, to unrealistic resolutions, it was that much easier to suspend our disbelief.
Swallow sleeping aids, lock the door, turn up the TV on static.
We are making and unmaking our beds. We are closing our curtains everywhere, now, covering our heads with pillows, falling into dreamless sleep, whispering, the moon, the moon, the moon.
- December 2008 Student Choice Award
By John Burridge
After Billy’s yellow star pillow sings “Twinkle Twinkle,” without anyone touching it, I lie awake on the living room couch for ninety minutes. Then I get up, gently grasp the star pillow by one point, and put it into the garage. The plush doll that sings a high-pitched, squeaky “A, B, C, D” is the next to go. Its freaky sing-song always spooked me anyway, even in the daytime, even before the accident. I walk around the house and get rid of all the toys that speak.
I close and lock the garage door, and think I’ll be able to make it through the night, but another toy — one that spins and lights up and plays child-friendly dance music — goes off around 3 AM. I’d blame Sue’s cat, except she digs her claws into my chest when the damn toy wakes us.
The next morning, I put all the musical toys into garbage bags along with the presents under the tree and stack them in the corner of the garage farthest from the house. I carefully don’t look at the tags. I’ll sort them out later.
We’d arranged a quiet family holiday — just me, Sue and Billy — and now that works against me. Our families are on the wrong coast, and the college town we live in is closed up for Winter Vacation. I’ve got the phone off the hook so nobody can call. That would be great: “Hi. Merry Christmas. No, they’re dead. Car crash.”
In the afternoon I hop a bus and wind up at the local mall – big mistake. Every toddler looks like Billy from behind, and I keep thinking I see Sue.
It’s dark when I get home. The toys I hadn’t packed — the silent toys — are off their shelves and strewn over the living room. Wooden blocks are in the corners. Billy’s miniature soccer ball rests in a pile of board books.
I make my voice deep. “Hello?” I say to any burglar hiding in the house. “I’m home. I’m walking into the kitchen now — you can go out the back if you need to.” The morning’s dirty dishes lie in the sink. “I’m in the kitchen.” I open the silverware drawer — full. I pull out a knife. “The front’s open if you want to leave.” I go to the bedroom, stalk past Billy’s crib and open the closet. All of Sue’s clothes hang neatly. Her jewelry surrounds her dresser mirror. I go through the house, opening doors and closets; only the living room toys have been touched. I find the cat hiding under the couch.
I bag all of Billy’s toys and add them to the pile in the garage. That takes a while. By the last bag I’m shaking and I need a beer.
Ten forty-five at night is the worst. The radio and TV don’t help. Most of the civilized world sleeps and the whole silent night looms before me like a long scab. In the living room the glow of the Christmas lights cycles through red, green, gold and blue. The rest of the house — including room where we slept — is dark.
I catch what sleep I can on the couch. It’s in the middle of the house and I hear everything stirring from the front door to the back. The ‘fridge hums, the space heaters tick, and the cat’s claws click on the hardwood floor. I keep thinking I hear someone in the garage. I tell myself all the garage doors are locked as I stash a baseball bat under the couch. Then I drift off.
Dawn is moments away when the memory of a child babbling from the bedroom wakes me. I wake up for real and lie under the cat trying to figure out if I really heard something, or if I only dreamt it.
“Come on, Dan,” I say. “You’ve got to face this.” I rise, leave the bat under the couch and pad to the bedroom.
“Up,” says Billy.
It’s him! Somehow. I hit the light.
The crib is empty. He used to say ‘Up’ every morning.
I look at the bed — rumpled and unmade from three days ago.
I look up. The closet door is open, and on the top shelf is my old teddy bear. Sue wouldn’t let me give it to Billy until he was four because she said the eyes were a choking hazard. I let him play with it when she wasn’t around.
I take the bear down. Hug it. Its worn fur is cold.
I don’t know why this is happening. I wish to God Sue was haunting me, too. Or instead. Or I don’t know.
Or maybe Billy is her message.
Maybe he can be mine.
I place the bear in the crib. “You are up, Buddy; now go kiss Mommy.”
- November 2008 Student Choice Award
Throughout November, our judge received a number of contest entries, but none ultimately knocked off his festive holiday socks, and we are therefore naming no winner for the month’s contest.
- October 2008 Promising Poet
(In the month of October, our judge and editor elected not to choose a piece as Student Choice Award winner. Instead, we have named a Promising Poet. We would like to direct your attention to a writer we feel has promise, and whose work our readers can expect to see in journals in the future.)
Sandile Rocco Tshemese is from De Aar, a town in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Sandile was born into one of South Africa’s indigenous groups, the Xhosa. He works in the HIV and AIDS Peer Education Programme as a liaison at Stellenbosch University. He believes his poetry is a tool for him change and challenge mindsets through transparency and expression. He intends to continue his studies in English to further his writing skills. His future goals are to start his own counseling practice in the next five years, do motivational speaking, and write a poetry collection.
We wish Mr. Tshemese the best of luck.
- September 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
By Cassidy Petrus
My brother died before he learned to sleep. He took one big breath and cried out, then was rushed out of the room, squinting and clawing at the air. There is a look on our mother’s face, as the child is whisked away, of pain wrapped in pain wrapped in pain. It is forever embedded on a ribbon of videocassette tape, hidden away in the hope that it never gets viewed.
It isn’t too much to ask of life, to at least let you sleep. But it couldn’t even give him that. They laid him up on some table and they cut into him and they tried to help him breathe again, but they couldn’t. And he struggled against the lack of oxygen as his brain cells died by the thousands. Then there was nothing left. And he died with his eyes open, not knowing why it was all so damn hard.
And the doctor had to come back into the room, where my father was holding my mother’s hand, a look on his face of pain wrapped in pain wrapped in pain. Their foreheads pressed together. And he had to tell them that their child was dead and there was nothing he could do. Even though he wanted to so badly. That he did all he could. And there is a look on his face, of pain wrapped in pain, right before the forgotten video camera runs out of tape.
Sleeping on a bench isn’t as difficult as people think. It’s like sleeping in a car or airplane or on a really stiff bed. You can get used to it. You just have to hope it doesn’t rain. The one bad thing is you can never sleep in on a bench. Something always wakes you up. Usually, it’s the sun. Sometimes it’s a car horn or little kids.
I think it’s Thursday as I stumble home. I hang out in the backyard, behind the shed, and wait for my mom to leave. I peek around the corner as she puts her coffee on top of the car and opens the door.
“Jason,” she says without turning around. “Jason, where have you been?”
I pull my head away and wait. I can hear her turn now. Her voice gets louder. Closer.
“Don’t disturb your father. You know how he gets today.”
I sit with my back against the wood until I hear her door shut. The car starts up and slowly pulls out of the driveway, rocks popping beneath the tires.
Inside is a chocolate frosted cake, sealed in a clear case. Nine yellow and white striped candles sloppily bloom from the brown icing. Upstairs, the door to my dad’s room is closed. I take a shower and brush my teeth. I put my ear to his door and can hear the light buzz of the television. Easy words settling an active mind.
I enter my mom’s room and fish around in her sock drawer until I find her Vicadin. I dry swallow three and find my room before they kick in. On the bed I wonder if they celebrate birthdays in heaven. The thought escapes me as I slip into dreamless sleep.
I wake up to the smell of Italian food. My dad’s door is still closed, the TV audible in the hall now. Downstairs, my mom is opening tins of food and setting the table. The stove clock reads 5:47.
“Can you finish setting this up? I’m going to get your father.”
I can hear them arguing at his door, sounding like the television. I’ve lived this moment before. On Jake’s birthdays. We all know he’ll never come down. I start eating without them. Filling my empty stomach with as much food as I can. By the time I finish there is silence upstairs. I know mom is leaning with her forehead against the closed door, whispering to the crack, the way I’ve caught her so many times before.
And even though I’m full, my tastebuds still have a craving. For something I haven’t had in years. The cake is barely gonna get eaten anyway. I’m saving it from going to waste.
She must have heard me cutting it or something, or maybe women’s intuition, because she came down right as I was taking that first bite. And she yells, not the way she used to, but in that worn down way that time facilitates. And I’m already making my way to the door anyway. She doesn’t even have to threaten to kick me out anymore. We both know it’s implied. So I grab my jacket and feel a lump in one of the pockets. And I take out the present that I’d forgotten about. And while she’s still fulfilling her parental duties I place the package on the table.
“Tell Jake happy birthday for me,” I interrupt. Then follow her words out the door.
I’m not sure if my parents still have a VCR, but I hope they do. And I hope they watch the present together. Lay it to rest.
Daylight Saving Time has made life harder for me. So has the revolution of the Earth. When it’s pitch black at six at night it makes life so much more boring. No one’s tired at six, but there isn’t much else to do but sleep. You can’t wander like you can when there’s light out.
Grove Street Park is left mostly alone. There’s a place in back, behind the basketball court, that is pretty out of view from the road. And if tomorrow is Friday no one should be coming by too early. I use my arms as a pillow and lay down on the bench. I wait for the unappreciated gift of sleep. I close my eyes and try to picture what Jake would look like if he were alive. But all I can see is myself.
- August 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
by Mercedes M. Yardley
I had convinced myself that he had walked out of the ocean, that he had mysteriously come into being there. He had been crafted out of sand and bits of shell, helped into a black hoodie and tossed upon the waves until he landed outside of my door. Sometimes the universe is kind.
“I think that I needed you,” I said, and we took each other’s hands. His were made out of broken glass, and they hurt, but I was certain that if I just held on long enough our heat would melt and reform them. Then they would be whole.
We lived the part of life that each had been missing. I ran around with a bright red umbrella and had no scars. He slept in the rounded, hollow windows of an old Chinese restaurant. But we met in an orchard that was full of trees and shining things and stars, and we were children.
The ocean never stills. One day while I slept, his glass hand slipped out of mine and he floated out with the current. I walk the shore wondering if the gulls are attracted to his glitter, wondering if he’ll wash up by my feet as broken bottles and mermaid’s tears.
- July 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
A History of Bloody Point, St. Christopher’s Island (1626)
By Rae Bryant
Three days. Three days now, and still, the river runs red. Pierre dismisses it. ‘A bitter aftertaste,’ he says. I, however, cannot find such remedy to my conscience. In the night, as I lie still, the waves and wind move about me, trade winds, more valuable than all the life upon this island, more valuable than my own. Every soul, expendable in the wake of ships and sails, and now the wood, the canvas, they are soaked in blood, all of them, as red as my hands.
The ships forever carry the dead upon them, fateful and resonant echoes of a once native paradise. I wonder if history will hear them. I wonder if history will hear the recantation of a once noble traveler, now lost in his own damnation. There is none other to take my blame. I led our murderous clan, and there was no escape for the Caribs. No escape, and now their bodies drift in the river, so many of them. I try to tell myself they were savages, just savages, but I no longer can hear my own justifications.
The women and children still scream in my head, irrevocable, impressed shadows of our crime.
Massacre=indiscriminate killing of a large number, barbarous warfare or persecution.
They did not know sin, only life, only nature. We showed them swords and guns. We showed them lies.
The canyon walls held them like quarry. It was too easy. Tegreman was the last to fall. Strong, he was so very strong, and yet he knelt before us, a chief, as if our swords were his guests. His breath steady, eyes closed. Warrior turned priest, accepting his noble end. He was the noble, not I, and as my sword sliced through his neck, I saw a glimpse of what we once were. When we knelt at his table for supper. Friends and explorers, searching and prodding each other for understanding, but that was before, when we first stepped onto the sand and buried our flag into his island. We struck the post so deep into the sand as if it were the hilt of a sword. It was. The flag waved sharp and cutting in the wind. Our flag does not belong here even now. It is our deadliest weapon, a killer of cultures not of our own.
Chief Tegreman is dead. I tell myself that. I repeat over in my head; he is dead. We killed him. Yet, his eyes follow me everywhere, eyes milky white like cataracts, but he is not blind. No, he sees everything. He sees everything that I am. He knows the demons that lurk within, and he laughs with them. He laughs as he calls me from the canyon, from the rocks.
There is no solace for me now. I have no right to ask it. The solace is his; it is for the vengeful, and he is coming for me. God help me, I know it. We have cursed ourselves, and our children, and theirs after will know the effects of our greed. It is certainly so. If there were but some way to set right our trespasses, our evils on this island, I would give my life for it, for everyone, and be wholly certain in its justice.
If only the river would wash itself clean, wash away the burdens of our actions, of my actions, I might feel some peace. But it is not so. The river, just as my conscience, will wear the bloody imprint of our sins. It will forever be told, that we are the savages.
- June 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
Why the Sky Is Blue
Matt Fischer hesitates in the bathroom, repeatedly washing his hands. On the couch waits Sheryl Williams, one of the undergraduates taking his introductory meteorology course, Why the Sky Is Blue. Sheryl wears too much makeup and too few clothes. An empty bottle of chardonnay rests on the coffee table.
Ten weeks ago, a hundred students sat listening to Matt walk through the syllabus when Sheryl arrived fifteen minutes late, clunking down the stairs of the cavernous lecture hall to an open front row seat. He remembered she wore fur-topped boots, a pleated plaid skirt, and a white down vest over a fuzzy pink sweater. She spent the rest of that first lecture staring up at him, hands folded on her desk as if she was in church.
Sheryl never took notes. Matt asked her about that the first time she came to his office, to pick up her mid-term. The class was down to eighty students, and most of them pecked at their laptops or scribbled frantically the entire lecture.
“I’m an extreme auditory learner. I have to hear something to understand it. I get my textbooks on tape from Visually Impaired Student Services. It’s great that you’re an extremely oral professor.” She’d gotten a ninety-one on the mid-term. Sheryl smiled at him, pleased with her performance, widening her face within the frame of her short, asymmetrically-cut, dark hair. She wore turquoise designer jeans and a white satin blouse. Matt tried not to stare at the sharply-defined shape of one nipple breaking the curve of her blouse. He wasn’t sure if she was wearing a bra. It was the end of office hours, and as they walked out of Dwight Building together, she asked if he wanted to stop at Kelleher’s for a bite and something to drink. She was considering changing her major from Political Science to a real science, she said, and wanted advice. Matt didn’t believe her, and said no.
Cheryl quoted Carl Sagan. “’The sky calls to us; if we do not destroy ourselves we will one day venture to the stars.’ Cosmos, Episode Seven. Come on, I’ll pay.”
Over cheese fries and diet colas they talked Cosmos, atmospheric tides, classical mechanics, term papers, and ex-boyfriends. Graduate programs, research grants, bargain wines, publication credits, and ex-wives. Hours later, Matt walked Sheryl the two blocks to her dorm and, after an awkward pause, shook her hand good-night. He started looking forward to his lectures more than his research, and wondered whether he’d already committed a violation of ethics, or was only contemplating such a lapse. He wondered if he still had his copy of the Faculty Handbook.
The next week Sheryl failed to turn in the outline for her term paper. She appeared at his office and asked for an extension, saying she hadn’t been able to get anyone to record the publications she’d found. She showed him the copies she’d made, and Matt offered to read one of the shorter ones to her.
Sheryl sat poised in the office chair, head tilted slightly to one side, as he read “Urban Form and Thermal Efficiency“ out loud, his voice pitched low as if telling a bed-time story. He gave her a one-week extension, and walked her back to the dorm. He shook her hand, and she pulled him close and kissed him on the cheek.
She turned in her outline, a compelling synthesis of ideas about urban heat sinks, global warming, and thunderstorm propagation. He approved it, commenting on the freshness of her hypothesis, and asked her if she wanted to see Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” with him. They’d both already seen it. Sheryl said she was falling behind in her classes and needed the time to study. Matt offered to walk her home, and Sheryl told him she was going to the library. She took his hand and held it against her chest, kissing him on the lips before leaving. Before going to bed he re-read the outline, and thought if the paper met its promise, it wouldn’t take much additional research in order to flesh it out for formal publication in a major journal.
Two weeks later the papers were due. Sheryl didn’t come to class. Matt waited forty-five minutes past his scheduled office hours, but she didn’t come to see him. Concerned, he walked to her dorm and left a message.
Late that evening, Sheryl knocked on his door. She was wearing a short black skirt and a sapphire blue camisole top. No coat. Both her nipples poked at him through the sheer fabric. She wasn’t wearing a bra. She smelled of honeysuckle and alcohol, and carried a nearly-empty bottle of California chardonnay. She wore dark mascara and bright red lipstick, smeared around the edges. Sheryl stood in the doorway, paused somewhere between laughing and crying, and Matt let her in. She kissed him full on the mouth and pressed her body up against his, then offered him the dregs of wine.
Her paper is unfinished, barely started. A beautifully posed skeleton without muscles or skin. He is up for tenure review next year, and needs at least one more publication on his CV. Matt brushes his hair, fixing his part, and opens the bathroom door. He does not immediately tell her that she has failed his course.
- May 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
Here, the Big Dipper
by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau
She loved him the minute she saw his warts. Dark and bumpy, they
graced his pale face like an inversion of stars. She would trace them
with her finger, here the Big Dipper, here Orion, and he would tremble
from the path of her touch. A bloom of crimson would grow from his
nape to his cheeks, and to her, his face then would look like the sky
at sunset, dotted with birds.
At first, he felt awkward, unsure of what exactly pleased her in such
a flaw, but when he sensed neither pity nor derision, he began to
relax. He allowed her little glimpses into other things hidden. The
crooked, brown birthmark around his nipple. A belly button popping out
like a champagne cork. The tip of his penis a shade darker than the
shaft. She examined each oddity with lust and gusto, committing them
to memory with her eyes, her hand, her nose, her tongue. Each
discovery whetted her hunger to know more. Laying her head against his
naked chest, she would listen so closely, even to things he couldn’t
say, and her heart flamed to be the keeper of his secrets.
Those who saw them together couldn’t recognize love. They came up with
reasons—perhaps he was rich, perhaps she was gay, perhaps he was
enduringly selfless in bed. They marked the time until she would come
to her senses, and when that time passed, they couched their surprise
and disappointment by saying wait. That the only thing they had
misjudged was the when and not the what.
She couldn’t care less what anyone thought, and indeed, delighted in
exaggerating her affections to dispel any doubt. But for him, her
unlikely Adonis, what started out as disbelief turned to amazement,
then to sheer joy, then to pride, and finally back again full circle.
He feared, because it was what he had always believed, that everyone
was right. He was too ordinary for someone so luminous, that it was
like forcing the sun into a paper bag.
“How do you know it’s real?” One day, the question. “How could you be
so sure?” But she couldn’t tell him how. It wasn’t in her nature to
He willed—needed—for this to be enough, but what confidence he found
teetered on a high wire. As he inched his way forward, he couldn’t
help but imagine the agony of a fall. He grew cranky, then suspicious,
then sad. He couldn’t trust her enough to be certain, yet couldn’t
bear the weight of his own uncertainty. Finally, in a sudden bold and
unbearable moment, it was he who decided they should part.
Her heart, plump and innocent, suffered its first cut, but being young
soon learned it could heal itself. And, while not forgetting, soon
learned to love someone else’s flaws. And he, who couldn’t find even
the relief he had sought, walked around like a ghost tracing its
earthly steps. He stared at his reflection in windows and paper cups,
and struggled to recapture that one time in his life when the night
sky was etched onto his startled face.
- April 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
Morecambe Bay, Sands Guide
by Chris Hill
Quick-sands. Strangely named for something so sluggish and yielding – a porridge, a saturate. Strange until you realise that quick means life: “The quick and the dead.” And the sands have life, they are active, and they suck the essence from other living things.
Once, just beyond the boundary of living memory, the sands took a whole cart pulled by four grey mares; ten souls lost, men, women, children, crossing from the fair at Cark. History tells us that within the hour the whole mass had vanished beneath the sifting land.
The sands are treacherous, it’s true, and what they win they will not readily give up, yet men have been lost out there in that vast expanse for days, and mourned, before turning up vague-eyed and confused along the pebble strewn shore. Once I lost a pony which bolted across the cold, dun plains until it was swallowed by the silence, nothing out there, not even a speck, only to reappear, thinner and quite insane some three weeks later.
Take a long look across that gulf, imagine that absence of shape or form. The colour of the sands shifts across it’s narrow spectrum, here it is tan, further out taupe, here biscuit or the colour of beech wood; while the water on the sands stands silver or gilt or ash-mirror. Grey sky, featureless or dappled, apprehensive. The pattern of the water changes every day, sure some channels stay the same, but the pools left by the recent tide are as transient as time.
I have been here 40 years as sands guide in my cottage on the shore. My job is to navigate its narrow paths and passageways like the black ants foraging for food on the endless plateau of my front step. My job is to guide others to safety in this unforgiving world balanced between land and sea. I know this unknowable landscape as well as any man can. And I know why men step out into it, the mirage of the far side of the bay, its whispered pleasures seem so close, so tangible. But once you venture a few hundred yards then you are more lost than you will ever be.
What sights I have seen. Grey Friars who navigated the sands close to a thousand years ago, far from their home in the Valley of the Deadly Nightshade, sad eyed dogs lost looking for sticks across the centuries. And I have heard the last sentient song of beached whales echoing through time.
Things harder to comprehend. Shilloths who lead and lure, their faces faceless and their minds a haze. Have I seen them? Couldn’t have, except they stole my shadow, except they stole… Oons at play across the waking sky, a giant snake which leaves its V shaped wake among the standing pools.
And I wander this flat land that is neither earth nor water, mesmerized as it shimmers, lonely as an oyster, watching my step.
If it could give something back , this place which sucks life, apart from the flook I tread, the cockles I gather delving iron hard fingers through gritty ice-cream, then I would take my son.
I remember the final moments, when at last I found him on the plains, up to his neck in sand, the argument he had fled forgotten along with all else but primal terror.
“Hold still,” I begged him as I stretched my body across the phantom ground and dragged with all my strength. Hold still I told him, though it is against nature not to wriggle and squirm when you’re in death’s grip. And I pulled for my life, for his life. But, in the end, I pulled for nothing.
“Goodbye,” he said. He was calm when he slipped beneath the surface of the sands. He was still.
For all it seems compact, for all its unyielding flatness, the sand finds its way into your clothes and clings to your body like your own skin. The warm musty smell of sea and salt and desiccated human faeces, the prickle and abrasion.
And it seems to me that, no matter how hard you scrub, the smell, the aura of it, will not leave you. You become part of it. It becomes part of you.
- March 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
The Crypt’s Woman
by Neal Swain
Every so often, she comes in to tend the bones.
A man of some importance will let her in; he has the key. The contrast of his dress to hers, his vestments snowy white from the fresh efforts of a laundress, his cuffs and collar rich with gold embellishments, is ironic to us: he took the vows of poverty, but she’s the supplicant who, cloaked in tatters, her feet bound in rags, washes the bones. A widow, she wears her hair covered. She always carries a basin with her, pewter half-filled with water, and a scattering of wool cloths. The man is quick to leave; he sees letting her in as a waste of his time, something he would prefer to delegate if he trusted another with the keys. After the oak doors level shut behind him, she works alone with the dead and the church’s riches. Few make it through here save on saints’ days. Undisturbed in her labors, never has she noticed our attentiveness.
No lamps light the room when the woman first comes in. She relies on the sunshine that pierces the thick glaze of candlesmoke and dust that dulls the reds and blues of the mosaic windows standing watch over the thrones and houses of the dead. It warms the place. But the halls are drafty, and as the sun sinks down to hide itself, the chill gets to her; she hunkers lower, though perhaps only from weariness, and she cups and chafes her hands together between each task. Her suffering incites a strangely desirable turmoil in us. At the day’s end, her solitude – broken only by us while she cares for filigreed reliquaries and struggles with the heavy marble castles of kings and bishops – is disrupted by the man of some importance, who, to assure himself that she has not dared to steal treasures from the dead, chastises her for any and all assumed sins.
Sometimes, we hear whispers about her. Those whispers call her the crypt’s woman, its mistress. Cruel jests by the inconsiderate. If her husband lies anywhere, it is in the paupers’ field. For herself, she acts with an egalitarianism not found in the way the dead are put to their rest. She treats each and every bone the same: with a damp cloth she strokes them clean, then buffs them dry and ivory with a dust-streaked cloth. What she gives to the crypt in exchange for meager alms is the care of a nurse. We know this, though we tingle watching every touch. She bears a sacrosanct air and seems beyond all rumor.
No one outside the crypt would find beauty in her. The weight of long years has crippled her body and her flesh seems to slough over her own thin skeleton. The few teeth left to her are black, and the strands of hair that slither past the cover of her veil are tangled like dead roots. We can’t claim sainthood—in an earlier era, we would have judged her like the living do. Now we hunger each time she comes in, each time she progresses from one worthy to the next in the hallowed ranks. Each day brings her closer to us. Once she finishes tending to the kings and princes, the infant heirs, the queens, the solemn bishops and sullen abbots, she will arrive before our little silver case with its glass front panel. She will undo its clasps, studded with jasper and cabochons of green amber, and bring out our knightly bones. We will tremble beneath her hands, so violently that she notices, though she mistakes it for her own palsied tremors, and we cherish the brief thrill as she washes us, and strokes us dry, and guides us back to our bed of pressed old velvet. What life still remains in her! We wish the most sincere things for her, that she will meet with gentler things than we; that she might sneak away with a few jewels pried from their settings on our coffin; that she feels this same soft pleasure of touch. Only when she proceeds to the next naked bones do we, like lovers, seize with jealousy: she’s moved on. She does not anticipate her visits the way we do. We know this, have always known—as do all the rest who lie here. We can do nothing more about it, so we recognize it, though it jars us anew every time. The dead can only accept the living. Still, we hunger for each time she comes to tend our bones.
- February 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
by James Tipton
Borbála Bela was a beautiful little girl growing up in her village in rural Hungary. She rose early and she worked hard, holding to the path of duty to help her poor family. But it was a shock when, at age thirteen, she began to develop not only breasts but also a beard – and a heavy one at that – due to some mischief of nature manifesting itself in her otherwise maidenly body.
One of five hungry daughters, her father sold her for what must have seemed to him to be a small fortune to The Vogel Traveling Extravaganza, one of the hundreds of tiny circuses that wandered over Europe and Russia not much more than a century ago. Billed as Borbála the Hun, she was forced, even in winter, to wear a risqué two-piece bathing suit not only to titillate the men but to demonstrate beyond doubt that indeed she was a woman. Each afternoon she would lean out over the male citizenry while the barker tugged hard at her beard, now some ten inches in length.
Around the time of Borbála’s birth, a young boy whose destiny was to become The Great Gottlieb was born in rural Germany, son of the local barber. Helmut Gottlieb, at only eight, was blessed with strength, carrying with ease a calf across his shoulders, or pulling a wagon heavy with hay, up the hill into town. By the age of fifteen, Helmut, with his father’s blessing, joined The Vogel Traveling Extravaganza.
Helmut always arrived just ahead of the circus to paste up posters and pass out flyers. Then, to the delight of the town, he would put a rope between his teeth and pull a wagon, filled with children, to the circus site. In every town he looked without success for a beautiful woman to call his own.
Borbála was only a sideshow attraction, and in fact she spent most of her time peeling vegetables and washing dishes. But after the trapeze act, after the dancing bear, after the dogs jumping through circles of fire, after the clowns, young Helmut strode forth, the Main Attraction, toward the center of the large ring, towing behind him a cannon. Two assistants followed pulling a wooden cart that carried a two-hundred pound cannon ball. Helmut tamped down the powder in the cannon with a long pole wrapped at the end in colorful cotton batting, and then he casually lifted the heavy ball, carried it to the cannon, held it up above his head to amaze the anxious crowd, and dropped it down the cannon’s mouth.
He then walked backward to the performer’s entrance and took a solemn bow. One of the assistants took a torch, touched it to the cannon, and out flew the ball, which Helmut always managed to catch, gracefully, in his bare hands.
Helmut liked to see the bearded lady Borbála several times a week, although he knew she was embarrassed in her immodest attire. He thought to himself, though, that Borbála had at least the figure of the bareback princess who each afternoon, balanced on one foot, rode a horse around and around the circle.
Borbála, whose dreams were shattered the same year she became a woman, thought no decent man would ever look at her, and certainly not The Great Gottlieb, the handsome Helmut, the hero of the circus.
One summer night while Vogel was overseeing the set-up of the big tent a wooden platform fell against him and a rusty nail punctured his thigh. Infection set in, spread, and two weeks later his leg was amputated. The infection continued to spread and in another week Vogel was dead. His young son became the new owner; and this demanding son desired beyond measure the body of the bearded lady. One evening, with Helmut in hearing range, young Vogel ordered Borbála to later come to his tent. He said he could throw a towel over her face.
Helmut stepped into the light and knocked the young Vogel unconscious. With a sobbing Borbála in hand they fled into the night. Two weeks later they were wed, but before the wedding, Helmut’s father, the barber, arrived with a razor, a magic one made by good witches in the Black Forest. Where this razor was used, hair would never grow again. As his father shaved off her beard, Helmut looked at her face, the face of Borbála Bela, not seen since she was a girl. It was the face of the woman he had always wanted to find. To Helmut it was the face of the most beautiful woman in the world.
- January 2008 Student Choice Award Winner
I once saw Jesus
by Ryan Dilbert
I once saw Jesus on the bus.
He had long hair and a following. His voice was strong and pure. He rode the #720 bus just like the rest of us slobs. He sat beside a fat woman sneaking a roast beef sandwich. He sat beside all of us. We were his sheep, the unbathed and the unemployed, the toothless and the couthless.
The bus spoke to us. It told us that a stop was requested and that Wilshire and Veteran was the next stop.
Jesus spoke to us. He told us that he had finally returned.
The bus driver would take you downtown if you gave your money to him. Jesus would take you to heaven if you gave your heart to him. They could both take you home.
Jesus told two fifteen year old pregnant girls that it was not too late to be saved, that all of us have sinned. He also said that they were very attractive and that their breasts were lovely.
He didn’t perform any miracles. He got on in front of Miracle Dry Cleaning Company. He did not turn water into wine, nor did he turn a homeless man’s urine into something that didn’t stink as it trickled down my pant leg.
Jesus had an air about him. He also had a bag about him. It was a plastic bag that said, “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you” in punchy, red letters. Jesus’ bag had two items in it. One of which was the Word of God and the other was a videocassette of “Son In Law” starring Pauly Shore.
Jesus said his friends wrote the book. He also said a friend of a friend once went to a party with Pauly Shore.
I was so glad that sweet Jesus was back.
He could finally revive the religiosity of holidays like Easter and Christmas and prove the nonbelievers wrong. He could tell the Jews to go ahead and switch teams. It was over, they had to admit it. The messiah was right here, sitting on the seats designated for seniors and the disabled.
He was not wearing a crown of thorns. He was wearing a Simpsons T-shirt. It featured Mr. Burns sitting in an ornate chair saying, “release the hounds.” Burns would definitely release the hounds. But what would Jesus do?
He had finally come…to West L.A. And he would be with us mortals for at least a week. I saw his weekly pass. The son of God offered his body and blood to us. He also offered his number to those pregnant girls.
He had come to judge or to save us. He had come to die again so that we could live. He had come back to Earth to make it a little more like heaven. But first he’d have to eat. He got off a few stops later at Fatburger.
- December 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
by Sally Petersen
Packing up after the holidays, I find a cheetah standing calmly in a crèche among the barnyard animals of legend — a sheep, cow and donkey. This is an old manger scene, bought when Christmases and children were new. Little hands always have moved its pieces.
But a sleek, long-tailed cat, all feral beauty and menace? I know at once which granddaughter spiced up the baby’s mundane menagerie with her spotted streak of motion.
And why not, I think. The three astronomers stand there beside shepherds every year, their presence destroying time and space and logic. So let’s leave the cheetah beside the donkey. After all, won’t lions lie down with lambs in his holy land?
I smile to myself as I wrap, and wonder whether the child who left her favorite animal for the baby will remember it next year when she comes from California. She will be four then.
Eleven months later local grandchildren help me unpack decorations. The youngest, an energizer bunny of activity, and her brother tenderly place my collection of crèches around the living room. I’ll rearrange them later; now they are lined up in straight rows, respectfully, grade school style.
Tired, the brother wanders away, but the little girl doggedly continues to unwrap pieces from the last box. The old manger scene emerges. Its hay has disappeared except for fragments. Ancient lumps of dry glue adhere to the base of the shed — what was there? The figures are worn from handling. Suddenly her voice squeaks in excitement: Look! A cheetah! The brother runs to look. Two sets of wide smiles. They look to me, their questions unspoken. Is this a mistake? Does it belong?
They dart looks of glee and quickly place cheetah beside the donkey. He — she? — almost nudges the manger. Long legs stride, tail lashes.
What energy the cat adds to that static scene. Of course the California girl will notice.
- October 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
by Sherri Hoffman
Those Mackey boys from up the road always teased Howdy. Called him Retard.
Sandra stepped down off the school bus, and before it had even pulled away with a puff of dust, the boys started throwing horse apples at the back of Howdy’s head. Howdy walked alone toward the wooded lane where Sandra knew he lived with his mother, although no one had seen her much since the flu outbreak back before Christmas. Howdy did all the shopping now, brought the brown chicken eggs to the grocery in his mother’s old wicker baskets. Ailing, he said when inquired after her health. His jeans hung low across his narrow hips, and his clean white t-shirt stretched across his broad, straight back, unflinching, even when the Mackey boys switched to small stones.
Stop it, you animals.
Sandra loves the Retard. Sandra loves the Retard.
Sandra called Howdy’s name, but he didn’t turn around. She had to run to catch up.
Howdy! What ya’ doing, Howdy? Can I walk with you?
Howdy slowed, bent forward, held a single finger up to his lips, then spread his hands low and wide. Sandra followed his crouch, holding her skirt down against her bare legs. Sunlight glinted off a filament of fishline stretching into the underbrush.
What is it? Who put this here?
His long, fine fingers lifted the line, held the tension, walked forward as if climbing the invisible thread. A scrabbling in the leaves, thump-thumping in the brush startled Sandra back a step.
Oh! Something’s there. Some animal. Howdy! It’s something!
The fishline looped around the bird’s yellow-stick leg. Its black wings were half-shrugged, half open, its yellow beak open and panting. Howdy called to the bird, soft clicks with his tongue. Sandra crouched closer, close enough to smell the musk of him, his hair, his skin warmed with sun. She leaned in, almost brushing up against the curve of his arm.
It’s beautiful, Howdy. A beautiful bird.
He wound the line around his fingers, cooing soft now. The bird’s yellow eyes were wide and still, its wings drooping. It flapped weakly and hop-hopped one more time. Howdy’s fine, long fingers cradled the bird, folded in the curve of wings, stroked the iridescent black feathers that shimmered like oil.
Howdy turned. His cheekbones were sharp ridges over the equally sharp jaw line, his full, red lips parted just so.
Let me touch it, Howdy. Pet the bird.
Howdy’s eyes were flat, black pools like tar. His right eyelid slanted lower, twitched. His hands held the bird out to her.
Sandra touched the shiny black of the bird’s feathered head. It sagged forward, its neck limp as grass, snapped. She sucked in her breath.
Howdy’s eyes narrowed. He smiled. A casual flick cast the dead black bird away into the bushes.
Sandra backed fast. Howdy’s hand caught her wrist, long bony fingers closing in a vise.
His full lips rounded, clicking soft with his tongue, and his other hand clamped hard over her mouth.
- September 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
The Application of Gasoline and Sawdust
by Grá Linnaea
Make it clean. Cut the wire in one quick snip. Let the sharp spike of noise echo off the basement walls, not loud enough to wake the suicidal wife with unusual interests and skills. She can make a bomb out of wax and Drano, wires and fertilizer.
But you love her, don’t you? You sigh and smile, ruffle her hair. Innumerable searches for gas bombs, pipe bombs, all after working a full day in the middle of forty hour weeks.
The bomb in your hands could be a dummy, it could be a decoy so you’ll let down your guard, go to bed, slip into the sheets with her, spoon her to sleep, lose yourself in her soft breasts, waiting for the bomb, the one you didn’t find.
She doesn’t have time to make two. You repeat that to yourself, use it as a mantra as you cut wires.
This bomb is made from lint infused with condensation from cooking gas; mixed with a little soap.
You are becoming an expert on bombs yourself. You could build this. Use a digital watch as the timer. Make the whole house go away. A flash.
Sometimes she makes the bomb easy to find. You get to bed at a decent time. Maybe so the two of you can make love with flaming passion.
Those are the good nights. Other times she cooks a splendid dinner. Maybe because she likes you, because she is having a good night. Or maybe because she wants to slow you down.
There are rules. The bombs are made to go off at 11:23:04 PM. You can always sleep after midnight. At 11:24 you know you haven’t missed one and can get sleep for the coming workday.
11:23:04. November 2nd, 2004. The date of your wedding. It’s coming soon, you know. She’ll have an extra special bomb planned for your and her anniversary. You still have to figure what to get her. Something red, she likes red this year.
You soak the lint in water and rinse it down the sink. The chunky bits, you bury in the backyard. The timer, another of the endless kitchen timers she acquires somehow, you break it into many pieces and place them in separate garbage cans.
- August 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
by Sean Darnell
So, I was sitting at my computer, banging my head against my desk in repeated efforts to attach a simple word-pad document to an e-mail I was trying to send. It should have been simple enough. Yet, somehow, every effort hit a snag.
Must have been some spyware I’d picked up in my continuing quest for free porn. Such is the price I pay for leisure.
In the background, I could hear a bunch of voices bitching on the radio posing worried conjectures as to what guarantees their banks, their governments, their overlords, could make to them regarding the preservation of their way of life should some sort of unforeseen disaster strike society, decimating all electronic records on which we’ve come to rely:
“What if a solar flare hit us?”
“What are these corporations doing to ensure the sanctity of those things we need to survive as a civilized society?”
“Is there some hard record out there, in a missile silo or something, that will tell future generations how we build roads, how we trade stocks?”
“Are our mortgages safe?”
All this worry over security. It all seemed so much superfluous garbage to me. But, these people were really concerned.
What kind of world have we made for ourselves where these are the things we hold most dear? Nothing more than hot, stinking air. It made me sick to my stomach. I got a knot in my throat. My head felt like it was going to pop.
I didn’t think it actually would.
Abruptly, everything just cut off. My computer screen went black, all the lights in my house died out, and I was consumed in total darkness. I glanced outside and my entire block was the same.
I knew better than to bother scrambling around in the dark, looking for a candle or a flashlight. There weren’t any. Not in my apartment.
There was never really any need. This sort of thing happened all the time, but never for more than a few minutes. Normally, when the power grid had a hiccup, it was taken care of in short order.
So, I sat.
I navel-gazed for a while, unable to actually see the point at which I cast my stare, but confident I was eying the right direction. Had I chosen to focus my attention on the ceiling fan, or the Van Gogh print hanging across the room, I’d have probably been lost.
Once secure in my spatial orientation, my mind began to wander.
I began to wonder… what if this wasn’t a coincidence?
Someone once told me that in every fear there was a hidden wish, that the fear could not exist without it. Sort of like an ourobouros, forever escaping, just to eat its own tail. We built our cities, created nations, raised great empires, all in fear of the dark and of each other.
All that gas had to go somewhere. It had to be passed, eventually. Perhaps, I’d tapped into something much bigger than myself, that moment, inadvertently kicking the cork out of the keg upon which the whole world sat.
Do you believe in the collective subconscious? Lay-lines? That whole Gaia theory?
What if the lights had all gone out, everywhere, at that very moment? It would be interesting, I thought, if anything more complex than a disposable lighter were suddenly rendered inert. How would we survive? To what lengths would I be prepared to go?
It would only be a matter of time before the grocery stores were looted and their stocks consumed. Within a year, we’d run out of supplies to gather, which would leave hunting as the only means for an individual’s survival.
Being a city boy, I’d never hunted in my life. Hell, I rarely ever saw so much as a squirrel or pigeon, anymore. There was always the zoo as an immediate option, I thought, but someone bigger, stronger, and better armed would, undoubtably, have already thought of that before I’d gathered the desperate conviction and wherewithal to feast on an endangered species. I’d be slaughtered on sight.
The thought of cannibalism came to mind, but was quickly dismissed. Not completely, however, as I sort of tucked it under my cap for safekeeping. ‘Only as a last resort,’ you know? I know better to ever say ‘never’ about anything, especially on the subject of self-preservation.
I could gather a rag-tag clan of like minded survivors-types and get by on strength of numbers, alone, I supposed… but I’m no leader. If I had that kind of charisma, I sure as Hell wouldn’t be sitting there, alone, on a Saturday night, pondering the apocalypse. Besides, I’d seen enough zombie movies to know the dangers, very well, of so many exasperated, clashing egos trying to share the same space. That sort of pack mentality is a recipe for trouble.
When the power finally cut back on, the first thing I saw was a cockroach, scuttling across the carpet to my right. Without pause, I leapt to and crushed the little bastard with the heel of my shoe. He never saw it coming. ‘Survive that,’ I said, and went off to bed.
- July 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
Birds at the Bon Odori Festival
August delivers a fresh sun and sky as the four of us prance in cotton, hand-me-down kimonos. Our flat, round fans chop the air in jagged choreography. We can’t feel our clumsiness until after the dance when we sit at the edge of the grass, outside the temple, to watch our older sisters, and then our mothers, perform the dance with small, restrained movements, humble grace. The silk fan spreads like a monarch’s wings, curves coyly in front of the body, eyes cast down. The head turns shyly toward the shoulder, and the fan lifts in time to shield the telltale tracings of a smile. We are as silent as the men. But, being young, our attention flickers back to the summer day, the swollen sun and breathless sky where we see flocks of birds, in turn, rise from a single oak tree to sweep and carve the air before lighting on limbs to view the next flock. For the first time, we become aware of chirping as the birds observe each other practicing maneuvers, preparing for their autumn flight. The shadows of birds flutter over grass. They dance with shadows of our mothers’ fans, and we practice with our own crude fans, we four girls, perched as we are on the edge.
- June 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
The World of Beer
Amstel. He starts with an Amstel then works his way around the world. Becks, Saporo, Pilsner Urquell, Guinness Stout, Negra Modelo. Not in any order, just jumps around the world. Like his Claudine. Traveling her way out there.
“Bugiganga, baby.” That’s what he says when the girl behind the bar brings his fourth beer. Czech Republic.
“Whatever.” The girl wipes the ring his last beer left. Her big hoop earrings skim her bare shoulders.
He lifts that beer and toast its brown light. “Let’s get bugigangaed.” That’s the one word he remembers from Claudine’s Portuguese tapes. It’s the only one he asked her to explain. They were in the car, him driving and her with her head phones on. Claudine saying those Portuguese words, with their big r’s and g’s. She pulled the headphones off and said it slow, like he was stupid. “Boo-gee-gan-ga.” Made each syllable a small country of its own. “Boo-gee-gan-ga. It’s the junk, kn ickknacks, like in the stores of beach towns.”
There was a car ahead of them that day, with one of those yellow ribbons slapped on its rear: Support our Troops. Claudine made a loop with her finger. Like that ribbon. “The pink ribbons like that,” she said. “You know. The ones for breast cancer?” She cocked two fingers into quotes. “My group says they should say ‘support our breasts.’” Claudine touched her chest. “What’s left of them.” He didn’t laugh. But she did.
The bar girl’s breasts drop and curve. The way they move, she’s got no bra on.
“Deckel my ass,” he says. His chin is down, almost in the beer from Ireland.
“Tickle your ass?” The way the girl says it, he doesn’t even have to look in the mirror behind the bar to see what she sees. Hair crept back, belly crept forward, some kind of sweat on his face that he can’t seem to wash off.
“Deckel,” Into the beer. “Deckel.” Another of Claudine’s words. Not foreign, just fancy. Like the journal that had the torn edged pages.
He’d flipped the pages, like a magazine, and stopped where Claudine had her list: Before I Die. “How much you pay for this thing?” That’s when she told him about deckeled edges on handmade paper. When did she get to know that? When did she start to care about such a thing?
Claudine used to be the kind of girl who would go to the store and get cigarettes and a six pack. One pack for her, one for him. When she couldn’t get pregnant, long after the doctors said it wouldn’t happen, long after he’d given up, she’d have him stop at the store on the way home. One time he got tired of waiting in the car and went in. She was in the medicine row. He watched her through the curved glass mirror at the end of the aisle. She spent twenty minutes picking out a pregnancy test. Read each box all the way through. She put the box on the counter and asked the cashier for a lottery ticket. He waited for her by the door, with the things he’d already bought. Six pack and some Marlboros. After Claudine got the lottery ticket, she saw him with his bag. Didn’t even try to hide what she’d bought. “Maybe we’ll get lucky,” she said. “One way or another.” She dropped her stuff in his bag. Took out the Marlboros.
The day the doctor told her the breast had to go, Claudine went into the bedroom and shut the door with a soft click that didn’t ask him to follow. He waited there, by the door, until dark. He left the light off when he went in and laid down next to her. She was on her back. It was with his hands that he found her arms, folded across her chest. Each hand holding a breast. Tears, like quiet waterfalls, down the sides of her face.
It wasn’t the breast or the cancer that took her away. It was more like he got cut out in that surgery. All those women around her after. “It made me see,” she said. “What’s important. Not wasting time.” She didn’t look at him then, just kept packing her things. “To do the things you want to do.” He was nowhere on her deckeled list.
- May 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
Bethany and I had lived in our new house for only a few months when I first noticed a groundhog running around our backyard. This was during autumn, when it was almost always windy. In order to cover our mortgage, Bethany worked a lot then, late evenings and sometimes weekends. I had just been laid off. We were both scared. When Bethany was late coming home from work, I sat quietly on the back porch, seated on the ground because we didn’t have any chairs, my legs tucked underneath me, and I watched the groundhog dart across the lawn for shelter. Back and forth. He was tiny and brown and dirty, his face a lighter shade of brown, and his mouth was always turned down so he looked like he was frowning. Once in a while I threw him carrots. He got fat. I told Bethany about him.
“You feed him carrots?” she said, slamming the door to the porch. “Where is it?” She paced back and forth through our back yard. I followed her, apologizing. She said, “You know, he’s going to stay, now, and dig fucking holes all over our yard. You better hope he doesn’t make the porch foundation collapse. Where is he?” The backyard was empty and silent, the shadows from the tall trees making big black shapes, like space.
“He’s gone,” I said. “You probably scared him away.”
“Unbelievable.” She ran her hand through her hair, which was cropped short, close to her ears, because she didn’t want to take the time to fix it. She started kicking the grass with the toe of her left sneaker, searching for holes.
“What?” I asked.” Who cares? I thought he’d be like a sort of pet for us.”
She found a few small holes, with piles of mud lying next to them in tiny mounds like pieces of dog shit. She muttered, “If it wasn’t illegal, I’d get a gun and shoot it. They’re parasites. They’re going to ruin our home. This is our home, and we have to fight for it.”
The next day, she ordered a slingshot on ebay, and it arrived a week later. Then it was Bethany, this time, who sat on the back porch, waiting quietly. Even when she came home past 8:00, she’d head outside to the porch. Sometimes I brought her a glass of wine, then tried to dissuade her. I never succeeded. She shot stones at the groundhog, whenever she saw him run by, but she never hit him. Her aim wasn’t good enough. She never succeeded, either. Still, she grasped her sling shot, sullen and determined, holding on until winter.
Then winter came, and the sky became dark much earlier. It got too cold to sit out on the porch. The groundhog disappeared.
Two years later, Bethany and I are sitting on the porch, on our bench swing, and her head is on my lap and I’m playing with her hair, which is long now, past her shoulders. Our friends tell us we seem happy together, that with Bethany I’ve become more responsible, more grown-up, and that with me Bethany has become calmer, more open. This morning, I spilled coffee on our newly finished kitchen table, and she didn’t get angry, but rather shrugged, and tossed me the roll of paper towels.
It’s spring time. The sky is clear and black, and it is too early in the evening for stars to appear. We have our shoes off. Bethany taps her feet against the floor and asks, “Jen, do you remember a few years ago-that little groundhog, who I tried to kill with my slingshot? Which I think I even got on ebay?”
“Groundhog?” I ask, quietly pulling my hand away from her hair. “No, I don’t really remember.”
I lie to her because I miss the whole stupid fiasco, though I could never explain why, except to say that I miss her, even though I’m sitting right next to her. I’m attached most to who we were when we were at our worst-when I was stupid and she was mean, when we fought in different ways, but for the same thing-when she and I shared an unspoken uneasy feeling, vague and panicking and determined, much like holding on.
- April 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
A Necklace of Daisies and Faith
We were standing on the roundabout, waiting for a gap in the traffic, when she said, “Let go of me.”
I thought she wanted to cross on her own but she seemed a little doddery so I held on.
“I said, ‘Let go’!” The harshness in her voice startled me. I dropped her arm and crossed the road hoping she’d follow. A stream of traffic flew off Junction 29 trapping me in the middle of the road. I turned back and saw that the old woman was sitting on a packing crate.
Horns blared as I dodged a Volvo to run to her. “You can’t stay here,” I said. A series of lorries thundered past. I raised my voice. “It’s too dangerous!”
“Young lady. I am not deaf.”
She sat upright, immovable, dressed in cashmere and pearls and surrounded by litter thrown from car windows. I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to carry on as usual, as though there wasn’t a lady sitting where only the desperate had sat before. I lay on the grass and counted my money. There was enough for a packet of fags so, timing it right this time, I ran across the road to the garage.
The man wouldn’t let me into his shop anymore but he would serve me through the little hatch at the side.
“Ten silk-cut, please, and – ” I thought about what the old lady might like, “Some Werther’s Originals.” I’d seen an advert for them in town. The man said nothing, as usual, but posted the goods through.
When I got back, the old lady was sipping a cup of tea from a thermos. As I got nearer she drained the cup and put it into a large picnic hamper. She must have carried it from the boot of her car marooned on the other side of the island. I crouched on the grass and offered her the Werther’s Originals but she turned up her nose and said, “Oh, I never eat sweets at bed-time.”
I was alarmed. “You’re not thinking of staying here are you?”
She was silent and did not look at me.
“If it’s the traffic you’re worried about,” I said, “I can get you across no problem.”
She fished in her basket and got out a car rug. She spread it across her knees and looked as though she was day-tripping in the countryside.
“It gets dangerous here at night, you know?” I said.
“Will you be quiet,” she said. “I’m enjoying the view.”
All I could see were cars blurring past and the motorway bridge. It was getting dark. I’d have to ring for help, to get someone to take her home.
I crossed to the petrol station again but when I asked the man to ring the police he waved me away. I could have walked along the motorway to the emergency phone-box but I didn’t want to leave my new friend alone.
That night I slept at her feet and I woke in the morning to the smell of hot coffee. It was nice. I wanted to sit with her all day but I thought, if she was going to stay, I’d better earn some money for us.
When I got back, I thought she’d left. Her car had gone and I didn’t know it had been stolen by Jimmy Mac and his crew. I felt sadness tug at me. But she was there, only further to the centre, where the scrub camouflages any movement. She’d cleared the ground: broken bottles, plastic bags and old needles had been placed in a neat pile. In the centre, she had built a fire ready to be lit, and next to it there were two packing crates with little cushions on them, made from folded-up blankets. By her side, there was a kettle and a frying pan.
“It’s time for tea,” she said.
And that’s how it all started. The best days of my life. Each day I came home to a proper meal and in time we’d made a shelter made from willow branches. In the spring the house sprouted leaves. There was a rag rug to wipe your feet on and candles made from beeswax to keep the midges off. She gave me her pearls to sell for we did not need such things. We were happy as we were. She was a miracle maker, a saint, a mother. When she passed away, I wept for forty days and nights until I had no tears left and I was a desiccated shell of a woman. In my grief, I tore down our house with my bare hands and scattered rubbish across the barren ground. I buried her where we had been happiest, on the roundabout, beneath the scrub.
And now I’m here, where it never rains and there is a bed in each cell. It’s ten-thirty now and soon the lights will cut out and the darkness will come. I hold your letter in my hand and tonight I will sleep with it, and in the morning perhaps I shall know what to say.
You ask me to tell the truth. You want me to say that I dragged your mother out of her car and into the scrub. You want me to say that I slashed at her neck and watched the pearls drop like frozen tears before I scooped them into my pocket. You want me to say I sold her car for a line of speed. You want me to say I kept her prisoner, mutilated her and buried her in a shallow grave. You say that only when I confess these terrible things you will be able to sleep at night.
But which would you prefer? A woman who screamed for her pearls, begging not to die? Or a mother who danced in the moonlight, kept fireflies to light the way, caught the stars in a net, and strung a necklace made from daisies and faith?
- March 2007 Student Choice Award Winner
He slipped into the backseat of her car while she was getting ready upstairs. Dusk covered the house and circular driveway. He wore black down to his sneakers. He lay on the floor, uncomfortable on the hump, hoping she wouldn’t notice him when she got in.
She hurried, aware of nothing but her anticipation. Through the closing darkness she drove across Route 59, to the campus side of town. Behind the college the dead end street was quiet. She passed the tree and the house, u-turning at the street end. She parked between the house and the tree, facing back the way she came.
He counted to ten after the door slam, and raised his head slowly to the bottom of the window. She was mounting the porch steps just as the porch light went on. The door swung open. He backed away in the same instant he recognized Olivia’s face. The door closed. He got out, watching the house, hunching his shoulders to make himself smaller. He moved to the side of the house where the tree stood. He looked up at a darkened window on the second floor just as a light went on.
She followed Olivia up the narrow stairs. In the bedroom she paused at the doorway as Olivia turned on the lamp. Unable to stop herself, she moved forward at the beckoning hand gesture. The kiss took her breath away.
He climbed the tree. Its branches curled in every direction, blocking out the side of the house, reaching up above the roof. He grasped a thick lower branch and swung his feet up to hook it, then hauled himself up. The branch held his weight and he climbed higher, angling toward the house. When he reached window level he saw pale, naked flesh.
She watched as Olivia stepped back and opened her robe and let it fall to the floor. Her legs were rubbery. With the next kiss she felt herself collapse against Olivia’s body. She felt the heat of flesh right through her clothes. She heard the rustling of the tree outside the partly open window.
He straddled the branch, inching forward, shoving smaller branches out of the way. Leaves blocked his view, then parted. It was like watching a flickering film go in and out of focus. He bent forward and down close to the bark, and pulled himself closer to the window. He glued his eyes to her, ignoring Olivia.
She stared into Olivia’s eyes as Olivia unbuttoned her blouse. When it opened she delighted at Olivia’s gasp seeing she wore no bra. She closed her eyes as Olivia trailed kisses downward. The tree rustled louder in time to the beating of her heart. When the crack boomed she jumped back. Olivia, kneeling, fell on her face.
He lay between the house and the tree. Its gnarled roots bulged above ground and dug into his back. Screaming pain in his legs muffled the discomfort. Light from the lamppost was a floating haze in the surrounding darkness. He couldn’t move.
She stood over him, hand to her mouth, eyes wide. Her blouse was out of her skirt, buttons fastened in the wrong buttonholes. “Please. Call an ambulance. Please.”
He saw through waves of pain his sister looking down at him, and behind her Olivia clutching her robe tighter. Olivia turned and hurried back to the house.
She wondered how she would explain this to him.
He hoped she wouldn’t notice his erection.