For James

London Nightengate

Content Warning: Cancer, Death, Discrimination (Transgender)

One—two—three. One—two—three. One—two—three. Darcy told himself in his mind, counting to the beat of an imaginary metronome. Breathe in for one beat, hold for two, and release for three. In through his nose and out through his mouth. He slowly turned his eyes from the trees to his hand, slowly and shakily lifting it from his stomach. 

His vision blurred as he struggled to keep his breathing calm, the tight grip of panic beginning to close around his chest once more. Blood covered his hands, soaked through his clothes. Applying pressure once more, he tried to get his bearings. He sat outside of a red car that was smashed to bits, the front end crumpled up against a tree, windshield shattered. 

The bleeding was from a large shard of glass during the accident. Taking his phone out of his pocket he tried to see if he had service…the phone was completely crushed. Tears welled in his eyes. “What am I going to do?” He said out loud. He hadn’t been this scared since his 21st birthday, when he came out to his family and friends.

How had he gotten the courage then? How did he overcome his fear? That’s right…he thought, looking back on the memory.

“Happy birthday!” His mother had said, coming around the corner with a cake, everyone gathered around the table. Back then, he wasn’t Darcy, he was Elizabeth. “Anything my darling girl would like to say?” She asked.

He hadn’t told anyone who he was. “Um…yeah…there is, actually,” he told her.

“Go on baby,” she told him.

“Um…I’m…I’m transgender…I identify as a man, not a woman,” he said, heart hammering in his chest. “And my name isn’t Elizabeth, I’d like to be called Darcy from here on out,” he said.

A look of shock crossed over his mother’s face; it was mirrored in a lot of others too. The energy of the room felt hostile, he heard a few people mutter ugly words under their breath, thinking he hadn’t heard them. The shock in his mother’s eyes quickly turned into anger. Darcy could tell where this was going, rising to his feet he left before his mother could say anything hurtful. When he reached the front door, he heard his mother calling out to him as Elizabeth, shouting obscenities. As he began walking down the driveway towards his car in the cold winter air, breath billowing out in plumes he felt someone grab his arm. “Wait!” A familiar voice said. Turning, Darcy saw it was his best friend, James. “Wait, don’t go yet,” he said.

“You too?” Darcy asked.

“No, no, let me speak, please. Darcy, isn’t it? Nice to meet you, I’m James,” he said, extending a hand.

Darcy blinked in surprise, taking James’s hand. “Yeah, Darcy, why are you introducing yourself like this?” He asked.

“Because mate, I get to finally meet the real you. Probably not much different from Elizabeth, but I figure it’s a start,” he said.

“A start for what?” Darcy asked.

“To helping you figure out who you are, Darcy. You need someone, I saw the way they looked at you. If they truly love you they would accept you, not start looking at you like you’re an alien,” he explained. “What do ya say we go out tomorrow, hit the town? Just you an’ I, none of those other blokes,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, let’s do that,” Darcy said, his face becoming bright, a large smile on his lips, blue eyes lighting up. 

The next day James had taken him to a hair salon. “First things first, let’s get ya a haircut,” James told him. “Any kind you want.”

Darcy looked through a catalogue the stylist gave him, asking James on his opinion when he saw one he liked. “That one, it’s perfect,” he said, pointing to one of the styles. Darcy looked at it, he nodded his head, showing it to the stylist. 

After she was done, she turned Darcy towards the mirror, his dark hair all around him on the floor, when he opened his eyes he felt them begin to water. He hadn’t begun his physical transition yet with hormones, but just this change made him feel overjoyed. “I love it!” He exclaimed, James’s mouth beaming into a magnificent smile. 

Afterwards he took him to the mall. “Now to get you a new outfit, I don’t care how expensive it is, if you like it, I’m gettin’ it for ya mate,” he said. “Afterwards, we’ll do some good ol’ fashioned thrifting as well.” 

That day, James had spent hours with Darcy trying on clothes, mixing, and matching. Eventually they walked out with two whole outfits from the mall and quite a few things from various thrift stores. Because of James, Darcy had the courage to begin his hormones, eventually get his surgeries for a full transition. James had given him the courage to be himself and get through any fear or uncertainty. He had been understanding whenever Darcy became upset about his situation, had taken care of him after surgeries, had been there during them. Darcy still remembers the time he awoke from one of his surgeries to find James sitting beside his bed with a balloon that said it’s a boy! A large plush bear in his arms. A look of worry quickly turning to relief. 

If James were here with Darcy currently, he would be telling him to head towards the road, find help. He had crashed his car after it slid on some ice, tumbling down a steep hill and into the forest where it smashed into a tree. Lifting his hand once more, Darcy saw the bleeding from his wound had stopped. Slowly he pushed himself up, his body protesting, bruised with some broken bones most likely. 

Moving in the direction of the road the cold slowly began to creep up on Darcy as time passed. His injuries were slowing him down, his head pounded, and the world dipped and spun around him, blurred. When he came to the hill he collapsed, he couldn’t keep going.

“I’m sorry…” He whispered, tears springing to his eyes, thinking of James again. “I couldn’t keep my promise…”

It had been a few years after he transitioned. James and he had been at a bar, hanging out. Some guys they went to high school with had entered, spotting James and Darcy they approached the counter. “Hey, didn’t recognize ya, Elizabeth,” one of them said. 

“Sorry, it’s Darcy now,” he said.

“She can’t be serious,” the other guy said.

“Hey, Darcy is a he, if you can’t respect that then leave,” James said, turning towards them.

“You sure about that? Last I knew she didn’t have the right equipment,” the guy said.

“That’s none of your business,” Darcy told him. “Come on James, they won’t leave, so we might as well,” he said.

“Don’t leave, I said last we knew,” the guy, Dan said. 

Darcy made for the exit, only for Dan to grope him, James reacted instantly, shoving him away from Darcy. “Keep your hands off of him!” James shouted. 

Dan punched James, and from there the situation turned into a full-on brawl between them. Dan suddenly pulled out a pocketknife, slicing James’s face who clutched his cheek. As Mark left, Dan made a move to try to stab James, Darcy kicked him between the legs, sending him to his knees, James headbutting him. “I suggest you keep your hands off of Darcy,” James told Dan as the barkeep escorted them out.

They headed back to James’s apartment. “You didn’t have to do that, we could have just left,” Darcy told him, cleaning the cut on his cheek. 

“It’s not right for anyone to grab someone like that, you shouldn’t have to put up with harassment just because you’re different,” James said, wincing as the rubbing alcohol burned the cut. 

“You’re lucky I’m an ER nurse, or I’d be taking you to the hospital, and you’d be stuck with paying the bill,” he told him.

“I wouldn’t want anyone else as my nurse,” he said with a smile. “I couldn’t really afford the bill anyway…I’m already paying a lot of medical bills…” he said, his gaze growing distant.

“What do you mean?” Darcy asked, confused.

“I have cancer, Darcy, I was going to tell you tonight, in a much better way,” he said.

“You can’t be serious, how bad is it?” Darcy asked.

“The doctors say that in optimistic outlooks, I have another three years, but the most likely scenario is a year,” he said, voice breaking.

“No, no, you can’t…James…no…” Darcy said, tears welling, beginning to spill over. James reached up and brushed them away, his own eyes looked watery.

“I’m afraid so Darcy, which is why I have to ask something of you,” he said. His voice shook.

“Ask me,” he said.

“Do all the things we said we were going to do together. See the northern lights, climb a mountain, swim in the turquoise waters around Barbados, go to Spain, all of it. I want you to kick life in the balls as hard as you did Dan tonight, suck the marrow from it’s bones for both of us,” he said, the tears had begun falling from James’s dark eyes as he spoke. 

“We still have time, we can do it together, the sky-diving, see a joust, as much as possible,” Darcy said.

“No, we can’t. I can’t, Darcy,” he whispered, his eyes spoke depths about his sadness. 

After only six months James had been hospitalized. Darcy was there night and day. One day, he sat on James’s bed beside him. “Darcy, thank you for being my best friend,” James said, taking his hand in his. Darcy turned towards him, kissing him on the cheek.

“Thank you for helping me find myself, I couldn’t have done any of what I’ve accomplished without you, James,” he said, his breathing was shaky, a lump in his throat as he leaned his forehead against James’s forehead.

“I know, I want you to know, that I’ll be watching over you, your very own guardian angel. Heavens know you need one,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Remember, live your life to the fullest, for me, never give up on yourself,” he said. Darcy nodded his head, staring into James’s eyes as their tears continued to fall.

Not long after the heart monitor flatlined, Darcy sobbed as he kissed James’s forehead, resting his against it again as a sharp pain pierced his heart. Everything after James died had been a blur as nurses rushed in, he found himself eventually at his funeral, and then in his apartment, remembering all the times they had together.

“I won’t give up, I haven’t lived up to my promise yet,” Darcy told himself as he grabbed onto a tree, using it to pull himself up. He made a promise to James, he intended to keep it. Go to Peru, Egypt, China, Chile, travel the world and do everything he could in James’s memory. 

Eventually Darcy reached the road, collapsing as headlights headed towards him. The world faded to black as someone crouched over him. “He’s alive!” She called to someone. “Call an ambulance! Hey, you, stay with me,” she said, resting a hand on his cheek. “I think he has a concussion…” she said. He found his eyes closing, he made it to the road, he was being helped. He could rest, he didn’t have to worry about letting James down.

When he came to again, red lights flashed as he was loaded into an ambulance. All he could think about was that last moment with James. Even in death, it seemed James still gave Darcy the strength he needed to keep pushing on.

He was going to do everything they talked about doing.

He was going to live for them both. For James.

The Apologists

Jennifer Gauvreau

Winner of the 2021 LSSU Short Story Prize

John couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t believe in Option A. He believed in it like he believed in the oxygen passing through his lungs. The belief was a quiet smouldering fire, not calling attention to itself, but remaining alite even in the darkest of times. It was a comfort, and as he grew older, it became more and more important to him. John wasn’t the type of person who would bring up Option A unprovoked, but when the situation arose naturally (and somehow, it often did seem to arise naturally), he was always eager to discuss it. It was hard for him to empathize with folks who believed in anything other than Option A. How did they not see what he saw, and feel what he felt? It was bizarre to him, and even a little upsetting.

Cindy hadn’t given much serious thought to the Options until she was in university. Her family rarely discussed them at all, putting them far off in their minds. On the scattered occasions when they did discuss the Options, it was from the perspective of an outsider, trying to guess at the inner workings without spending the effort required to understand. This laissez faire attitude would have continued to her dying breath, had she not taken the formidable step of furthering her education of her own volition. After countless hours of independent reading, studying, and discussing the Options with her classmates, Cindy was surprised to find that she did in fact believe in Option B. This was a stunning and indelible revelation to her, and significantly changed the course of her life.

Growing up, John’s world revolved around the Options, specifically Option A. His mother had been a teacher who specialized in Option A, traveling and giving impassioned talks on the subject to avid believers and skeptics alike. He admired his mother above all others and wished to one day follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, John’s academic skills were not nearly as strong as his mother’s and following a brief stint in college, John had no choice but to take up work in a local factory. As he toiled away in his repetitive daily tasks, he spoke to anyone who would listen to him about the unchanging, faithful security of Option A. Eventually this off the cuff teaching turned into a real passion for John, and when the factory closed, he decided it was time to pursue his true ambitions. Being unqualified to teach in any legitimate capacity, John dreamed up a way to teach about Option A on his own terms– he would open a museum. After many months of planning, fund raising, and making important social connections, John was pleasantly surprised to find himself poised to open his museum to Option A within a year of his leaving the factory.

Upon discovering her passion for Option B, Cindy was overcome with an urgent desire to share what she knew with children. She felt that her family and primary schools had done her a great disservice, never pushing her to understand the Options as a younger child, and she wondered how much further along in her studies she would be had she begun that much sooner. Option B was exciting, never remaining exactly the same for long, and beckoning thinkers and mental engineers. Cindy was a captivating entertainer, and loved to make people laugh. It was a natural progression for her to become a travelling performer, delighting audiences of all ages with her knowledge and passion for Option B. Before long, Cindy was a well known woman, and people all around the world connected with her, encouraging her to continue in her work. She was criticized by the followers of Option A, but paid them little mind. To Cindy, they were the spreaders of misinformation. With Option A’ers in charge, the country would surely fall to ruin.

While he expected some pushback from the supporters of Option B, John was fully dedicated to his mission. In his museum he could showcase all of his important research about Option A in such a way that would be compelling to children and also educational for adults. He used his modest knowledge of Option B to set up exhibits and entertaining shows that would cater to the preferences of the believers of Option B, and also to those who had not really taken a stance one way or another. The museum brought John into the public eye, and he was even met with harsh criticism from the very people he had hoped to connect with. This was confusing to John, and he considered what he might do to quell their worries and prove that he was interested in discussion, and not out to attract blind followers. He had proof to support his beliefs, and he simply wanted to be heard.

A few months following the opening of John’s museum, after thoughtfully holding her tongue for a time, Cindy felt it was necessary to offer an opinion about it. She took to social media, penning her concerns in language that would appeal not only to her fans, but also to academics and politicians. In her post, Cindy outlined in no uncertain terms the folly of raising a generation of thinkers in the dogma of Option A. She felt that John’s museum was in fact doing harm to the future leaders of the world, and that the extrapolated fallout would be a society which was weaker as a whole. While this subject was gravely serious to Cindy, her sense of humour and wit gave the broadcast enough levity to resonate with the masses. Much to her delight, Cindy’s brief but pointed commentary quickly went viral.

That same day, John’s phone went berserk with calls, messages, and comments– everyone wanted to know what he thought of the harsh comments Cindy had made. He was determined to respond quickly, passionately, but with a level head. In a vlog posted just days later, John was quick to dispute all of Cindy’s points, and thought he did quite a good job of it. At the close of his video, John extended an invitation to Cindy to participate in a debate about the Options which was to take place at his museum. Not long after his video was posted, the Associated Press picked up the story. He suddenly had the attention of the nation, and vowed to himself that he would not squander it. John did not expect to get a positive response to his invitation, and was surprised when Cindy agreed to debate live on stage at the museum. A date was set, and the apologists had a month to prepare.

Cindy’s preparation for the debate was all-consuming for the entirety of that month. She conferrened with experts from around the globe, who not only bolstered her own belief in Option B, but provided her with additional logical evidence that she could easily explain to any child or layman in the audience. Cindy felt very confident that any thinking man or woman would come away from watching the upcoming debate believing that the only cogent Option was in fact Option B. She did her best to predict the so-called evidence that would be presented by John, and came up with counters for every potential argument she could think of. While she prepared, Cindy was barraged with messages of support from disciples of Option B. Having the support of what was undeniably the vast majority of interested parties was a source of confidence for Cindy. This confidence was of course a mixed blessing, as it mingled with a dangerous pride as well.

John’s preparations were much less involved. He had known that Option A was the only true possibility his entire life, and knew he could rely on his lifetime of study. He felt confident that debating inside his museum would bring legitimacy to his position, and spent much of his preparation time sprucing up the place. He vigorously promoted the upcoming event, and used it as an opportunity to raise awareness of his museum on a national level.  

The night before the debate, Cindy made a guest appearance at the university that was near the museum.  Following her presentation, she asked some students congregated in the library what they thought about the Options, and if they were coming to the debate. Most of the students said that they were not going to attend, and that they were disinterested in the museum. Nearly all of the students she spoke with were believers in Option B, although they did not think about it all that much. They told Cindy that focus on the Options felt like a waste of time when term papers were due, and parties were happening. Cindy fell asleep wondering if she might be wasting her time, but woke up the next morning with fresh purpose. The Options were important, and this debate was going to give her an opportunity to demonstrate that fact. Cindy was increasingly sure that Option A was doing more harm than good, especially to young learners.

John spent the night before the debate practicing feverishly with his wife. She eventually grew irritated and flustered by John’s mental distress and told him that if he wasn’t ready now, he never would be. Left to his own thoughts, John lamented squandering most of his preparation time, and he suddenly felt like he had made a mistake. Why had he invited one of his loudest critics into his home space? His doubt turned to nervous fear as the night grew darker, and as his wife drifted off to sleep he briefly considered calling the whole thing off. It wasn’t that he doubted his position. Option A was clearly, clearly, the true Option. He knew that his arguments were sound, and based on the most credible of sources. Even though he was sure, in his heart of hearts there was in fact a seed of doubt. This doubt was not formed enough to even be put to words, but lingered in the corner of his mind nonetheless. The popular opinion was that he was flat out wrong about the Options, and this constant discouragement was at times difficult to bear. His nerves stayed with him the next morning, but were instantly brushed off the moment he arrived at the museum. As the leader of the institution, he was in the habit of exhibiting confidence at every opportunity, and this habit was a source of strength for him on this important day.

From backstage, Cindy watched the audience slowly filter into the auditorium of the museum. She had taken a guided tour of the place a few hours before, squinting through the flashes of the many cameras following the tour group’s path throughout the establishment. Cindy was quite pleased with the amount of media attention the debate was drawing, but also worried that she was lending her own credibility to John and his misguided Option A associates. As she watched the modestly dressed attendees taking their seats, she realized that while she held the more popular belief worldwide, in this room – John’s room – she was vastly outnumbered. This wasn’t a surprise to Cindy, but the extent to which it rattled her nerves was indeed surprising. She reminded herself that she was armed with the truth, and that this was an opportunity to speak to an audience that had likely never engaged in earnest thought regarding the possibility that Option B might be viable. She hoped to at the very least bring this unusual audience to a place where they might question the origins of their faith in Option A. Cindy reviewed her opening statement as the time to begin drew nearer, but the review wasn’t necessary. She was ready.

John paced backstage as he waited for his cue to walk on stage. His mind was in a thousand places as he worried about the details of hosting, the importance of this discussion, and the points he wanted to make sure he got to in the debate. He felt that the stakes were higher for him than they were for Cindy, and wondered just how many people he could bring into the fold of Option A with this event. This was debate, not dialectic– there would be no winner, and there was little chance that hearts and minds would be changed this night. Was it all for nothing? John’s familiarity with the precepts of Option B brought little comfort, as he knew that his opponent was the better entertainer and speaker. He was going to have to outperform and out-fact her, and this was a daunting task to say the least.

Throughout the debate, Cindy’s assistant was pleased to witness the undeniable success of Cindy’s rhetorical repartee. The talking points they had painstakingly chosen, refined and polished came across clean, professional, and seemed to give a figurative whiff of formalin.  The assistant was not surprised that Cindy kept her cool throughout the debate, never visibly sweating, even under the hot stage lights. This was of course largely attributed to Cindy’s career in show business, and the practice and preparation went a long way. Compared to her opponent, Cindy looked steady as a surgeon– never wavering, faltering, or showing any signs of discomfort in the scrutinous gaze of the audience below. The assistant fleetingly wondered if Cindy was listening to John at all, or if she was simply listening for the key phrases and words they had planned rebuttals for. John was holding his own, but the assistant did not suspect that Cindy was seeing it.

In the audience, a wealthy donor to the museum had a very keen eye on the room at large. The donor had been absolutely nonplussed at the idea that John would hold such a debate in the establishment, and in private conversation had warned him that the event could lead to a decline in attendance in the months to follow. He was pleasantly surprised though, as he sat through the two hour spectacle. The room was quietly, politely, but undeniably energized by the conversation taking place before them. John was decreeing Option A with a brilliant combination of exemplary representation of its tenets and a non-stop entertaining air of persiflage. The balance in John’s performance won over the donor, and he came to believe that the debate had been a good idea after all.


At the close of the debate, Cindy was sure that she had done a better job than John had. She had answered every question, proved every point, and even made the somewhat uneasy crowd laugh a few times– each of these were important to Cindy. Immediately after the debate, a throng of media spokesmen were eagerly awaiting comment from Cindy. They were accompanied by a modest collection of protesters representing Options C and D who felt that they had been thoughtlessly and unjustly left out of the conversation altogether. They carried signs and shouted about their protest, but not loud enough to be picked up by the microphones and cameras aimed straight at Cindy. She gave a very brief statement about how she felt she had done quite well – wholly ignoring the protesters – and quickly sought out privacy to collect her thoughts properly. Later in her hotel, she made a conscious decision to neglect the many messages she had received offering congratulations and condemnations, depending on the affiliation of the corresponder. The debate had been exhausting and truly eye-opening. Believers in Option A were absolutely participating in willful ignorance, and it was profoundly disturbing to Cindy. She worried most for the children who were being raised with the Option A worldview, and marveled at just how much this Option had set humanity back in the past, and continued to do so in the present.

Meanwhile, John was equally sure that he had done the better job. He had leaned into his undoubtable familiarity with the facts of Option A, breathing deeply as one does at the scent of old books. The audience had been very receptive to his message, and had asked truly thoughtful questions that led him to demonstrate the awesome power of Option A. His nerves turned to boldness when his opening statement received a raucous round of applause, and he was momentarily misty-eyed at the onset of such support. As he parried and jabbed through the debate, he believed more and more in his cause and in his proof, and so did the audience. It was a cathartic experience for him, and he came out of the debate certain that it had not been a mistake to engage in this discourse, despite his earlier worries. He felt that there was a decent chance that he had reached a good number of people outside of the auditorium through online viewership, and expected to see attendance at his museum to rise in the coming weeks. As he waited inside for Cindy to finish her comments to the press, John looked on at the protesters and wondered if they would have found truth in Option A had they just listened to him.

Steps of Delusion

Chase Meehan

Winter is a damned thing.  There is no dry state in such a time.  That’s all I can think about while they guided me into this little one candle hut.  Over and over again they repeat the word “Spion!…Spion!” and hit me, all the while I say “no” with the little energy I retain.  What’s the use of fighting such conviction? How will I convince them to eradicate the image of a German in another country’s uniform?  My body shivers as the candle’s warmth grants me some wicked joke of hope. How I wish that this hut was the wick of the candle’s flame.  

 I am ripped from my now beloved interrogation chair and taken outside.  While standing and blindfolded, I am tied to a post that can only bare one outcome.  I would think most would struggle in such a moment as this, but a sense of calm arises that seems to slow my sense of time.  My eyes close as I picture Alstadt. I drift off thinking of a tune that used to play outside a shop just two doors down from my home.  My fingers dance the notes as if they are playing an instrument not quite invented. The voices of the soldiers begin to drone out as I am there again, on the doorstep, watching cars and trams pass before me.  A smile places its presence upon my face bestowing a feeling of happiness unknown until this moment, as if I am going to that treasured stoop soon.

Just then, I notice some looseness in the rope around my right wrist.  The cold begins to dissipate from my body as a new sense of purpose lingers over me.  With a slight shake of the arm, and some interrogation from the fingers from my left hand, my right wrist becomes unrestrained.  A fool would give away such an opportunity like this with frantic movement, so I calm myself as I remember the walk towards the hut, past the post that almost captured my fate.  I recall a slight deviation in the woods to my right… must be something like fifteen meters, before a slight defilade. I must act. “What a cold night” is the last thing I hear the soldiers say as I take action and start running towards my intended escape route.  Blindly at first, I dash to the right of the pole, and the opposite of the voices before unfastening my blindfold. Bullets and screams chase after me as my one newly free eye catches the beginning of the change in elevation, all while my feet already know its presence.  The quick tumble down the small hill provides some much needed cover as my pursuers take aim from afar.  

Running is a simple chore in a time like this.  A chore I must say I have never completed with such efficiency before.  Conceilling my dastardly route is the protective fingers of the Ardennes.  Its stubbornness has shown through many a war, and now it acts as a backdrop that will mask my escape.  After much time, I reach a clearing. On its edge I stop and examine my future movements. The clearing is one of natural creations: some small outlying trees surround the perimeter, while the center is guarded by the poorly timed full moon.  Before deciding my next move, I listen closely for my pursuers.  

After some deliberation, what could have been a full ten seconds of silence, I began my push around the right side of the clearing.  This route contains some heavier shrubbery which would make my progress slow, but would conceal my further withdrawal if my ears had deceived me.  A small hut lie ahead with a small candle burning in the window. My hands began to feel warm as if they were huddled around the little ball of flame.  This warmth quickly leaves my body as the flame is extinguished. A hunger begins to consume me. This hunger is not one of nourishment, but one of desires.  A hunger of holding a rifle. A hunger of getting back to my lines. What is there left in a life such momentarily stricken as mine, but to take action against those who wish to keep it that way?  The sense of vengeance takes aim as I am further motivated to join the ranks of my own.  

At last, a road appears before me some hundred meters away.  I see lights that momentarily blind, as if waking from an unconscious state.  The heels of boots hitting cobblestone begin to ring out from behind it, beating in such unity as to provide an amplification of the rubber on stone collision.  The unity provides another clue. The soldiers of our ranks are of professionalism, yes; but more so are they the embodiments of tired souls. Their marches rarely fit the description of unity in these late days.  We march with scattered intentions, scattered thoughts, unified by one mutual feeling: exhaustion. These soldiers must be from the same origins of those I have just escaped.

The road does pose as a guide through this rough entanglement I now call a friend.  I use this to my advantage and decide to travel behind the convoy of marching soldiers, for one does not march in such orderly fashion away from a fight.  As I near what I believe to be the front lines, I began to hear voices; frantic voices that are muffled in a sense to obscure their travel to any distance beyond the intended recipients.  From here, my approach must be slow. One of great calculations.  

The location of the voices becomes apparent as I near yet another clearing.  This space is riddled with craters and remnants of past altercations in which many must have lost dearly.  The landscape of which is illuminated by the ever persistent moon. Spotting a small communications trench in the center in front of me, I weigh the futility of the opportunity.  The trench is covered by newly uprooted oaks, some of which display the vast power of the artillery from both combatants. It appears as if this route of escape is clear underneath, but the other side is out of sight.  How much open terrain is left before I vanish from the glow of the natural flare? 

The question could not be deliberated anymore as the voices appear closer.  Making a dash for the trench, I keep my body low and my eyes prevalent. The snow amplifies my movements as every step brings about a crunch that is ever more present.  Stealth is no longer an option as my frantic state drives me to run harder and harder to the protection of the devastated landscape. As I near its entrance, shouts from behind me ring out with confusion.  These shouts are different: foreign by origin, but aim at sincerity. This sincerity suggests for my well being, sincerity for questioning the choices that are about to be made.

Hesitating only briefly, I notice that the other side of the trench previously obscured from my vision is protected by some low lying tree shrapnel.  My run must now turn into a knee over elbow crawl as I make this final plunge for security. Keeping my body low to the ground to avoid the jagged edges of my salvation, I hear what seems to be the amplification of my heartbeat against the ground.  Its reverberation makes its way to my ear consuming all that enters it. My heart races as if being stirred by a final frenzy of fuel. A ridge lies before me that will allow me to slither back into the protective hug of the trees. As the shrubbery recedes, my crawl transforms into a hysterical run that aches for protection from the moon’s light.  As my foot enters the shade, a voice from the front issues the command to fire. With a rush of confusion and winter’s cold touch, my vision becomes dark and my wrists feel the irritation of rope. The snow beneath where I stand tied becomes stained with the color of delusion.

The Packhorse Librarian

Jewelynn Gonzalez

The weight of a hundred pounds kept Abby’s eyelids tightly shut. Pain gripped her neck, wrists, and ankles at each movement; she raised her arms to her face, pulling at the raw flesh on her ankles. As if on reflex she threw her arms down, relieving the pain at her feet, only to cause the flesh on her neck to tear. Feeling the warm drip of blood start to trickle, she tediously bunched her body, sitting hunched over. Her body’s protests and fits of aching muscles, impaling themselves with millions of tiny needles, was enough to temporarily keep her from moving. Whoosh, whoosh, head spinning, she curled her body further and further, fighting, struggling. Abby finally managed to bring her hands to her face, and coarsely woven fabric met her fingers. She curled her body further; she lifted the tied fabric over her head.

Abby’s eyes opened but soon shut. She could see the bright yellows and oranges of the setting sun even with her eyes closed as if the colors were burned into the underside of her eyelids. Slowly and ever so cautiously, Abby’s brown eyes fluttered open a second time, taking in the lush greens and browns of the forest around her. Straining her neck in every direction Abby closed her eyes, listening, waiting for any sound indicating someone’s presence. Abby heard the birds chirping their sweet songs of serenity, squirrels and chipmunks chasing and chittering, stomping and shuffling through the fallen leaves littering the forest floor. Taking a deep breath, the smell of moss and earth flooded her senses. On the breeze,  she heard the faint sound of flowing water. Looking around she could make out a moss blanketed hill scattered with rocks through the trees.

Flopping to her side Abby found a stick to chew on, to avoid biting her tongue, as she squirmed and wiggled through the dirt and leaves tediously inching her way forward. Tears started streaming down her face as she rubbed her burned ankles to bleeding; the collar of her blouse started to soak with a mixture of blood and sweat; her neck burned as if the rope around it had caught fire.

A twig snapped from behind, freezing her in her tracks. A rhythmic pounding echoed through her ears, her chest tightened, and her eyebrows rose, widening her eyes. The taste of wood entered her mouth as her jaw clenched, sinking her teeth further into the stick. Originating from behind her, a shuffling of leaves and another stick snapping echoed through the trees. With every inch of her body aching and her left thigh spasming, sparks of pain shot through the sole of her foot; Abby turned around to face the disturbance. She flinched at the noise made from the debris around her, until she was looking into the innocent brown eyes of a deer. In a flurry of terror and excitement, the deer ran, willing its muscles to move far and fast. Within moments the deer was out of sight and relief overwhelmed Abby, giving her the courage to keep moving.

Gritting through the struggle and pain, Abby finally made it to the hill, no longer feeling the sparks of pain in her foot. Fumbling over rocks with her fingers, Abby struggled to try to find a sharp edge of a rock until finally finding one. Edging closer to her chosen rock, Abby got to work; thrashing her body this way and that pulling on the rope as the spun fibers began to strain and weaken against the weather-sharpened edge. The rock broke through and a piercing pain shocked Abby’s shoulder as the rope broke apart, slamming her body into the rock’s cool surface. Instinctively reaching up to massage her shoulder. Abby pulled on the rope still attached to her feet and bashed her knees on the rock. Blood trickled down Abby’s leg tickling the purpling skin as it dripped.

The relief in her neck and back was enough to give Abby the strength and energy to readjust, tugging on her ankles with every move. Dirt forced its way deep into the open flesh; pain flooded her senses as she thrashed and writhed about cutting at the bond between her feet and hands until at last the familiar sound of rope breaking, the fibers ripping as the rope is rubbed against the rock. Abby’s muscles relaxed in relief as her back stretched to its full length. Now having acquired a technique, Abby cut the rest of the rope, freeing her body from all restraints. Looking up at the canopy of greens and oranges Abby lay there, giving her aching muscles rest while she tried to figure out how she got into this mess.


“Abby, you must be careful; there are many bandits out there who will take what they want when they want. This delivery is of the utmost importance.” A short European woman clothed in a brown woolen dress covered by a deep burgundy apron had stood before her. Seeing Abby’s worried face, she added, “Don’t worry, Shakespeare knows the way.”

She raised a hand to caress the soft buckskin colored horse, whose coat shone in the early morning light. The woman stepped forward and encased Abby in an embrace before Abby jumped into the saddle and Shakespeare took off running.

With nothing to do except hang on while Shakespeare led the way, bounding across the open prairies of the Kentucky countryside, Abby was alone with nothing to occupy herself with but her mind. Mind spinning, body jostling this way and that as Shakespeare bound toward the Appalachian Mountains, Abby rode on, thinking about the duties put upon her by the President of the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt thought that providing books to the people during the Great Depression would educate them enough to work and raise America like a mighty phoenix from the ashes. Abby was one of many packhorse librarians, spreading education throughout Kentucky. A heavy feeling crept up to sit upon Abby’s shoulders until she was distracted by the fast-approaching forest, freeing her from her doubts.

Upon entering the forest Abby could feel her defenses breaking at the sight of rich green and the scent of the sweet earth. Shakespeare slowed his pace to a walk and Abby pulled out a book, feeling the pages flip and fumble between her slender, work-worn hands. Taken away by the story unfurling between her fingers, Abby failed to notice the person who followed her until it was too late.


Mustering enough strength, Abby planted her feet on the ground. A deep exhale, she placed her hands on the cool rock face before mentally counting to three, then heaved herself into a standing position. Eagerly looking around, searching for something to help her, Abby’s eyes landed on a fallen tree branch, dried and twig-less. Grabbing the stick, she used it as an oversized cane and hobbled over to where she was stranded. To her surprise the saddlebags were there, filled with the books. Seeing the saddlebags on the ground she realized she had completely forgotten about Shakespeare, a feeling of both dread and relief sunk to the pit of her stomach as she realized it was just a roadside robbery and she had gotten in the way. 

Acknowledging the setting sun, Abby went to retrieve her survival gear, struggling and limping only to find them stolen. Using the knowledge she’d acquired from reading books, Abby got to work, and relied on the oak branch to get around. Once finished gathering everything she would need, Abby then made a lean-to; it was well after dark when the fire finally sparked to life. It didn’t take long before the dancing flames and sizzling sparks lulled Abby to a deep and peaceful slumber.

She awoke the next morning to the chirping and singing of birds, their songs a relaxing alarm. Abby moved and found her muscles no longer in excruciating pain, rather a dull ache. Abby rose and buried the ashes with dirt. Fearful of the wilderness and its secrets, Abby emptied her pack and filled it with mushrooms, berries, and any other edible findings before she walked to the hill that helped set her free. Abby crested the top of the hill and looked down to find a creek scattered with round rocks; the brown, black-streaked, sandy bottom could be seen through the clear water.


Abby sat on a soft-cushioned chair in an elegantly decorated room of the White House.

“My love, is there anything you would like to say to our new packhorse librarian before she endures her first round of drop-offs?” the deep and confident voice of Mr. President Franklin Roosevelt echoed through her head, giving her momentary comfort in her now primitive state, before Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice floated gracefully to her ears.

“A woman is like a tea bag–you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water. Good luck, my dear.”

With a smile Mrs. Roosevelt rose from across the room to give Abby a farewell hug.


As she walked back to the bags, Abby ditched her thoughts of tucking tail and heading home; she started to shove books into her backpack and managed to fit them and her harvests with the opening unlatched. Abby wobbled at the initial weight, swaying as she moved, Abby followed the horse prints; after all, the library horses were very dedicated and would rather die than not fulfill their task. Abby was at least going to get closer to her drop-offs. 

Milk Stains on the Bathroom Ceiling

Rachel Tallon

for Jonas

I hadn’t been sitting down for more than five minutes before the bare skin of my legs became suctioned to the grey leather seat by the gathering sweat.  The cool wind blowing in from the open windows ripped blonde hair from my ponytail and whipped it around my face, doing little to keep my legs cool. I grabbed the AUX cord lying on the center console and plugged it into my bare iPhone.  The white and purple marbled case broke last week when I dropped it getting out of my car after work. After a few failed song choices, I tossed my phone into my lap and clicked the worn-down scan button for the radio.

“Hey, are you ok?”

Jonas quickly scanned over my face before returning his attention to the road construction surrounding us that was winding to a close as the sun began to set.   The car behind us blared its horn. I pursed my lips and stuck my middle finger out the window. The forty-something-year-old man with feathering blonde hair took his hand off the horn long enough to return the favor.  Jonas laughed, causing kinky, light auburn hair to become loose from the bun on top of his head. His rosy cheeks and scattered freckles were much more visible now than when he wore his hair down (which was a rare occurrence).  We were driving around downtown in his scruffy Toyota Camry to kill some time before dinner with his sister and brother-in-law. While I loved his sister like she was my own, sometimes I couldn’t handle her. She knew Jonas hated being a third wheel and always made it clear to him that he was one.  I tagged along so we could gag as the couple played three periods of full-contact tonsil hockey.

I winced as I slowly peeled my legs away from the car seat, leaving a layer or two of skin stuck to the stained leather.  A quiet curse slipped out between my lips, causing Jonas to send another nervous glance in my direction. As the car drove over a section of particularly bumpy road, my stomach stretched and tore like fondant going through a roller.  I put a hand over my belly button to calm the tension and thought of all the damage I’d done to my body lately.


“I know when you’re lying to me.”

My knees curled so my feet could fit onto the seat with the rest of my body, and wrapped my arms around my legs to keep them there.  Jonas was right, and I wasn’t in the mood to put on an act to prove him wrong. The car rolled to a soft stop behind another line of vehicles and Jonas clicked off the radio.  He remained quiet, trying to get me to speak, but I knew what he was doing. If he stayed quiet long enough, I would talk. That’s how it had always been. And, damn it, it was going to work.

“I…Auntie Flow…she’s…I’m late.”

The words stumbled out like amateur clowns falling out of a miniature car for the first time.  My stomach tugged apart harder this time, and I pressed down harder to keep it together. The fingers of my other hand found themselves wrapped around the ‘oh shit’ handle hanging above the door.  Jonas remained quiet long enough for an awkward silence to settle over us. The streetlight turned green, but instead of going straight towards the restaurant, he turned right onto Mackinaw Street.  I gave him a confused look.

“Did you wrap it?”

The saliva in my mouth suddenly disappeared and was replaced by a jumbo-sized cotton ball.  I had just started the pill. This could be some weird side effect – I’ve heard it makes your periods less frequent.  I’ve heard they also make your hair fall out and make you gain fifteen pounds and make your boobs hurt and make you think you’re safe when you’re really not because nothing is one hundred percent effective except abstinence.  I hadn’t finished the pack either. I didn’t have a reason to keep taking them. I was spotting three weeks ago from the pills and ruined three cute pairs of underwear in the process. I threw the pack in the bottom of my purse and forgot about them.  Now, those small pink tablets stared at me like polka dots of silent judgment and I couldn’t see how something so small could stop something so big. I hated everything about those stupid little killers because they were an excuse to not use a condom.

Jonas took my silence as the only answer he needed.  I think he thought I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t use a condom.  That I was embarrassed I didn’t insist on it. That I wanted to try having sex without one.  In reality, I couldn’t remember.

“We’re going to buy a test.”


It wasn’t the first time this had happened.  It wasn’t the last time either. It was just the time that messed with my head the most.  There was nothing special about it, nothing that made it stand out from every other time. But it felt different.  I think it was the moment it struck me that what was happening wasn’t right.

We were in my dorm room.  In my room. On my bed. My safe place.  And he was on top of me. His body between my legs.  The way his hips forced down against mine hurt. His hand on my chest.  The way his hand kneaded my chest like unruly dough hurt more. His lips on mine.  The way his lips pushed – forceful and unforgiving – hurt the most.

He was my first – for so many things.  First real kiss, first real boyfriend, first…time.  And I was ok with all of that. I was ready for all of that.  I was ready to make out with a man and hold his hand in public and show him off to all my friends.  Look at this everyone!  I got a man! A man!  I was ready to think about spending a while with someone.  Not marriage, God no, but a long-term relationship? Hell yeah.  I wanted this. I told myself that.  I want this.

His hand dove into my hair and yanked it back.  I gave a soft whimper as my head was forced back against the pillow.  He pushed harder against my lips – how was that even possible – and pressed down even more against my hips so I couldn’t move them.  I felt my heartbeat pick up. Heard it thundering in my ears. I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe.


His hand in my shorts.  His hands pulling my shorts down.  His fingers shoving my underwear back.  I most certainly did not want this.


I jerked away from his mouth.  I grabbed his hand and ripped it away.  He barely moved. He didn’t move. He was close.  Too close. My heart was thundering still, the sound filling my ears.  My breaths were quick in-and-outs, like I was playing beach volleyball by myself against a team of Olympian stars.  I couldn’t get enough space, couldn’t get enough air, couldn’t get enough to speak. 

“What, babe?”  His voice was solid as he brushed a hand through his blonde hair.  He stared down at me. I opened my mouth to talk, but I couldn’t yet, so I pressed a quick peck to his lips to soften them.  He locked his lips against mine, holding me still for a moment, before I broke away again. His wrist slipped out of my hand and trickled down to my underwear.  He played with the fabric for a moment before I blurted. 

“Can we…not do that?”

He paused.  His rounded features tensing into a firm glare.  A look I think he’d perfected for the exact moment I asked that question.  I squirmed and dropped my gaze to his chest. His bare chest, since he’d taken his shirt off moments in.  Or did I do that? I couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. His shirt was off and so was mine and everything was too bare.

“Why not?”

I knew this question was coming.  He always asked, but never in a way to figure out why I didn’t want it.  No, he was asking why he couldn’t have it. I saw it behind his eyes. The way they stared at me with disappointment.  The way he sighed made it sound like he was annoyed. That he was frustrated he couldn’t have what he wanted. I wasn’t ready to give the answer I wanted to give.  The one I should give. You’re rough.  I don’t like it.  It hurts. I don’t want to.  

“Cause…I don’t want to…right now.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”  I just don’t want to.  Why did something have to be wrong?  Why couldn’t I just not want to in the same way I want to?  I want to cause I want to. I don’t cause I don’t. What’s the difference?  Sometimes I just wanted to kiss or cuddle or kiss and cuddle. Why did something have to be wrong because I didn’t want sex?  I don’t want this.  I don’t want it rough and hard.  It hurts. 

“Then why not?”

The way he looked at me still makes my stomach strain.  Like he didn’t understand I didn’t want sex, that I didn’t want his hands on my body, that I wanted a moment to breathe.  That I signed my body away to him to have any time he wanted when I had sex with him for the first time. He gave another frustrated sigh and moved off the bed.  My heart continued to thunder in my ears – banging away like hockey fans clanging pots together and drumming on metal pans.

I didn’t want to make him mad.  It scared me. Made my stomach churn with nervous energy like the first time you step into a canoe and you wobble as you try to get your balance.  His face would tighten like a towel twisted until it curled into a fabric snake. He would stop talking sweet-nothings and start snapping things about how it was annoying and frustrating to lead him on like that.  He’d snap about how, really, I led him on by kissing him when he walked in the door, and how he just wanted to come home and have some alone time with me, and how I shouldn’t kiss him if I didn’t want to have sex with him (because doing so was leading him on).

It reminded me of how Dad would yell at Mom when they used to get into arguments.  How he would scowl and grumble as he came into the house smelling like someone had opened six cans of beer and let them sit right underneath my nose.  The arguments were about work and school and housework and family and money and everything a child shouldn’t have to worry about, so I was sent to my room.  Sometimes I didn’t listen. Sometimes I watched the arguments happen and saw the milk and the dishes and the insults being thrown. But I always saw the aftermath.  Crooked pictures. Milk stains on the bathroom ceiling. Trails of tears. I didn’t want to clean up spilt milk again, so I tried my best to keep Richard from getting mad.

So, I tried asking him to be gentle instead.  It was weeks ago when I had driven to his house for a weekend visit.  We were making out on his bed at his parent’s house and he’d pushed me so hard into the mattress I felt the springs dig into my back.  I paused, pulling away for a breath of air that wasn’t his, and asked him then to be more gentle. That I liked it that way. I liked it when he touched me softly.  He made a face like he’d just sucked on a lemon for the first time in his life. I felt my cheeks flame as he pulled away. Was that how this worked? It had to be rough?  Was I going to lose him?

People don’t break up for this reason…do they?  Mom drilled it into my head that I deserved a man who would treat me right.  A man who would bring me flowers and take me on dates and tells me I’m beautiful and loves my family and my family loves him.  Or maybe it was all the Hallmark movies we watched together. Sometimes, Richard brings me cheap flowers that wilt quickly or sprout mold after a few days.  We went on dates every once in a while. Once, he called his mom in the middle of dinner to tell her how good his food was. It was a burger with glazed donuts instead of the traditional sesame bun.  He tells me I’m pretty when I’m changing my clothes. He’s taken my brother shooting and has promised to fulfill his lifelong dream of duck hunting. My brother thinks he’s amazingly cool and, by extension, thinks I’m cool now too.  I can’t give up all this happiness for something that only happened a couple times, right?

“I…we can.”

He asked if I was sure as he began to slide down his boxers.  When did his pants come off?  He was asking to make sure I was alright.  To make sure this is what I wanted. And I did, right?  I wanted this. I told myself that. I want this. He came closer to the bed.  He pressed a soft kiss to my cheek and repeated the question. I closed my eyes and pushed down a ball of words.  He wouldn’t hurt me. He was going to listen. He was going to be soft.


He motioned towards my underwear with his hand and raised an eyebrow that said, “Then why aren’t you already naked?”


My hands were trembling with nervous energy after sprinting out of the store.  We’d only been inside for five minutes, but the whole trip felt like a lifetime.  Jonas already had us back on the road again. I couldn’t go back to my apartment to take the test.  It felt sinful, like it would taint the place even more than it already had been. Instead, we were driving towards a park in hopes that one of the restrooms there were open.  Classy.

“Son of a bitch.”

Jonas hit the horn with the heel of his hand.  The light was green, had been for about twenty seconds, and the driver in front of us hadn’t even taken his foot off the brake pedal yet.  The streetlamps were poking their light inside the car just enough for me to see Jonas’ crinkled brow and crow’s feet. He was odd like that.  The crow’s feet didn’t appear until he worried about something. Like an exam or a girl or someone close being hurt. I kept my hands wrapped tightly around a white plastic bag that was so thin you could read the box inside.  DIGITAL Pregnancy Test!  Only Test with Smart Countdown to Result!  Results 5 Days Sooner!  It was like that ornery old cashier was still glaring at me through her chunky eye make-up and badly dyed hair.  I’ve never felt more worthless than the way she looked at me. Like I was worth less than the total cost of the tests ($26.76 for three, because they were on sale).

My stomach was pulling again.  This time it was ripping a part of me away.  This wasn’t me. I wasn’t the type of girl who got into this situation – taking a drug store pregnancy test.  I graduated high school third in my class. I was the goody-two-shoes who wouldn’t dare touch a drop of alcohol.  I was a virgin until four months ago! This wasn’t me!

“Delilah.  Breathe.”

This wasn’t me.

This wasn’t me.  I didn’t do this.  I didn’t get into situations that could hurt me.  That could ruin me. That could take what I’ve made of myself and break it into a thousand little pieces.

“You’re going to be alright.  You’ll be fine.”

I needed to figure out what I was going to do.  I’d stress myself into lunacy if I didn’t create a plan.  My plan was to erase this whole thing from memory as soon as possible.  Pregnant or not pregnant, I was not having a baby at nineteen. I couldn’t do that to my grandmother.  I couldn’t do that to my mother. I couldn’t do that to me. If I wasn’t pregnant, this would be easy. I could toss the extra tests and throw out the used pee stick and forget Jonas and I ever spent an evening driving around town looking for a public park restroom to use.  If I was pregnant, there was only one thing I could do.

“Delilah?  Are you breathing?”

There was only one thing I could do, but getting an abortion wasn’t me.  I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t take a life. I knew the horror stories. Girls walking into clinics with pillowcases over their heads.  Random strangers begging, pleading,screaming at those same girls to stop what they’re doing. To stop thinking about their lives and focus on the bundle of cells multiplying in their bodies.  But at the same time, it was me. This was my life. I had worked so hard to build what little I had. Even though the foundation was crumbling, this was still my life!  I–


He ripped me from my thoughts and pulled me back down to reality.  Back into his car that was littered with trash he swore was from me.  Back into my body that was curled up in the passenger’s seat. Back into the present.


Jonas pulled off the road into an empty gravel parking lot.  The lone streetlamp rested on top of a wooden pole that was roughly weathered.  Chunks of wood were pried out by forceful wind and unforgiving rain. To our left was a public fish cleaning station.  Iron grates replaced the windows around the large, stained basin for fish. The one-person bathroom was large (almost bigger than the freshman dorm rooms) and was in the building as well.  I had been here once before last spring when I went fishing with my older brother during his visit.

“Is this ok?”

I didn’t answer him.  Sprinkles of rain began to fall from the sky as we stepped out of the car.  It was like the weather knew how to set the mood so we didn’t have to worry about emotions ourselves.  I made Jonas come into the bathroom with me even though I knew he’d be uncomfortable. I don’t think I would have done it if I was alone.

“Are you going to tell Richard?” Jonas asked, “even if you aren’t?”


The word blurted out before I had time to think it through.  I’d gotten him out of my life and there was no excuse large enough to bring him back in.  If I was pregnant, I was going to figure it out on my own and I would be telling as few people as possible.  If I wasn’t, this secret was going to live and die with Jonas. It’d be erased from my memory the moment the test was negative because everything would be over then.

Jonas nodded his head, then handed me a pregnancy test from the box and read the directions.  Neither of us had done this before, but I had seen it done several times in TV shows and movies.  After pulling my pants and underwear down and sitting on the toilet, I removed the blue plastic cap off the test.  The now-visible end looked like a stiff piece of paper, like a cross between a piece of cardboard and a tissue. I wondered if it’d flop over like a flimsy tissue when it got wet.  Jonas began rambling about a bitchy text he got from his sister for missing dinner with them while I took the test.

This pregnancy test was digital.  Meaning, the results popped up on a little screen like the ones on cheap techy McDonald’s toys.  There was an empty bar that would fill with four blocks. Once the bar was full, the results would be given as either Pregnant or Not Pregnant across the screen.  As I pulled my clothes back up, the first block was blinking into its place.  At least we knew the tests worked and weren’t garbage. As I washed my hands, the second block began blinking into place.  The first block was filled with solid black. By the time we made it back to the car, the third block was blinking and the second had been completely filled in.

The last block on the timer appeared, but the results didn’t pop up right away.  I closed my eyes and pushed my hand into my stomach.

Asexual Awakening

Elizabeth Garavaglia

Winner of the 2019 LSSU Short Story Award

There’s nothing that makes you feel more trapped than being told you can’t leave. That’s how people get stuck in jobs, schools, marriages. In my case, it was Hope Memorial Psychiatric just outside Cincinnati, OH. A mental hospital. Stuck in the routines that doctors set out for me, eating things they’d tried to call food, and trying to sleep through the night terrors of people worse off than me. I think I’d rather be stuck in a loveless marriage at this point. But at least I wasn’t all doped on medication, babbling about myself in these group sessions. Maybe the meds would be better, who knows? It figures this is what I get for not wanting to do “the do.”

I never had the infamous first sex dream. All that talk of men’s hard-lined bodies, tense jawlines, and enrapturing arms pressed into the softness of my womanly body. It left me feeling alarmed. I remember the girls in my school talking about their favorite male celebrities, hunched together and giggling and I’d join in, thinking we were talking about who did the best in their roles. But then there’d be one girl who would straighten her back, a knowing look on her face, smirk, and coo I know what fun I’d have with him. It would take me back, because what fun could teenage girls have with adults?

Those men had nothing in common with us.

It didn’t take me long to find out I preferred the soft touches of another woman, fresh into adulthood I met her. Isabella. Those laughing eyes drew me in, the hugs that never quite left, and the warmth of her side against mine brought silence to my mind. I felt special, the way her tongue rolled out my name, as if my one syllable deserved more, as if I deserved more. Brrree. She’d finished it with a giggle every time, and I couldn’t help but smile back. She was the star that finished my constellation. Isabella was an engineering major, business minor–that’s how we met–but she taught me more about myself than a degree ever could.

But I still never got those urges. The ones that made her hand wander from my hip to circling my inner thigh. I wanted my heart to race from excitement, but instead it pounded with dread and confusion. I loved Isabella, but I didn’t want to do anything about it. I just wanted to hold her and admire her. But instead I pushed her away. Starting a fight bought me time to try and understand what was happening and why there was a part of me with no interest in taking that last, expected step.

The longer I waited, the more hurt and insecure Isabella became. She took out her insecurity in various ways. Sometimes it was passive aggressive and she’d stop doing anything around the house or even for herself, over the course of weeks or even months. So I would just silently pretend I didn’t notice, doing everything. Even feeding her at times. An ache in my chest would scatter itself and burn down walls, while claws tore out a space in my stomach for anxiety to settle in deeper. When Isabella acted out aggressively, banners of broken pride cascaded down her sunset cheeks and I stood stiffly while she screamed What is wrong with you? or Why don’t you think I’m beautiful? and her favorite was Is there someone else?. In all honesty, I didn’t know what was wrong, the thought of having sex with anyone, even the girl I thought was the most beautiful, most loving person in the world made my skin feel inside out and hard-etched with gravel. But I didn’t know how to tell her that without hurting her and our relationship even further.

Then one day she came into our apartment, and cornered me. I could feel the dread swelling up beside my stomach once again, reaching out for my lungs and swinging between them. Her normally playful eyes were dark now as she stared me down. I can barely remember the exact words now, just their meaning. Maybe the radio had been playing too loud. It was some classical station she loved, but it wasn’t coming through. I couldn’t focus on that and her arm wrapped around my waist in a desperate attempt for me to understand this desire I was denying her, her eyes pleading. Begging. As if I were torturing her with this physical denial. Her words demanded I have sex with her or our relationship, all previous love attached to it, was over.

So I did it.

I forced myself to do what I thought would save our love, and maybe my tears are still stains on her thighs, but I try not to ask myself that. I don’t want to think of her as a nasty thing. It makes it harder to think of the love I felt for her as real and it was, but something about having sex made it something stranger. Something distorted. Sometimes I remember her moans and to many I’m sure it would be sexy and pleasurable, but I also remember hearing her apologizing in my ear, knowing she had done something I didn’t want. All of it is kind of fuzzy, like a radio station that half comes in, about to fade out. It’s there though. Barely.

Isabella left me about a month later. She said my body wasn’t responsive enough whenever she was “loving me.” Her fingers are branded inside, over, and throughout me. I don’t blame her for leaving. We loved each other, but we didn’t love each other right, you know? I won’t force my half love on anyone again. Not like I’ve already tried. With her and with myself.

Of course I didn’t tell the group any of this.

“Bree, did you hear me?” My eyes shifted over to the doc, her eyes wide in that doe-eyed concerned way. They were pretty, conventionally. But I preferred my rounded almond shaped ones personally. Slowly, I nodded, adjusting my sweats and clearing my throat.

“I don’t think of myself as a victim Doc, that’s not really why I’m here.” She smiled her ominous smile, and I noticed her burgundy lipstick had faded over into her off-kilter midnight skin. It was a small detail, but I focused on it instead of the people all around me, their faces eluding me. Intentionally.

“Why are you here Bree?” My mouth twisted around her name, then around the newfound word I’d come to associate with myself. Dread suddenly began to inflate itself inside me, using my stomach as bongos and my heart as timbales; discordant and reverberating throughout my body. Staring straight through her, I replied flatly.

“Because I don’t want to have sex with anyone.” Her eyebrow furrowed slightly and a couple people in the circle shifted, eager to show their distaste at my comment.

“Do you think that’s something that needs to be fixed?” Rolling my head, I smiled half-heartedly.

“I just think it’s a fact Doc. Everyone else thinks it’s something that needs to be fixed.” Nodding, the doc turned her attention to someone else in the circle. I could only half hear his words as I stared out the window behind us, the sun spying through and warming my cheek. This hospital never felt warm, even on sunny days like today and it made me wonder if keeping us cold was supposed to make us more cooperative. It didn’t affect me much, I had known coldness much worse.


The coldness that I had felt sitting in the bathtub of my apartment, resting my forehead against the wall. The hot water had run out a long time ago, but if you asked me how long, I couldn’t say. If I had blinked in that time it would’ve been slow and few between because my eyes were wide open and seemed to be trained on my bar of peach soap, but really something beyond it. The pervasive invasion of the water running down and over all parts of my body, leaving no territory unclaimed or unmarked reminded me of Isabella, of what she had described as passion, but I only remembered as desecration. My rusted shower head screeched to do its job and it reminded me of the piercing sound that rang throughout my ears the entire time I let her explore my body, focusing on the water stain of our ceiling. How odd the things you notice when you’re waiting for something to end. Second by second.

At some point, I had moved into the kitchen, the shower head still screaming in the other room, water all over my floors and I stood over my kitchen sink with a chef knife to my wrists. Thinking about how to keep as much blood as I could in the sink. The firm steel felt as if it were vibrating against my skin, sitting on the surface yet somehow inside my veins. Some other part of me set the chef knife down, shut off the shower, got myself dressed, and I walked down, almost by instinct, to the psychiatric hospital. The one an old college friend used to intern at. Then I told the nurse what happened with no tone, watching her eyes panic. Her face remained calm and asked if I was checking myself in. The same part of me that set down the knife said yes. Since then, that part has stopped running the show.

That guy was glaring at me, even more annoyed that I wasn’t really paying attention to the fact that I was insulting his prudish sensibilities. Which I regularly did.

“I just don’t understand why she always has to be so–”

“Now, let’s not attack each other for how we’re coping or adjusting okay?” The man released a loud scoff and I just smirked. He’s been here longer than I have. His pasty skin practically faded into these pristine, antiseptic walls. His OCD would never let him actually touch the walls of course, just the doors. Exactly 14 times, so it was over 13. The unlucky number. I didn’t particularly mind though, it’s not like I had anywhere to be. I never caught his name. Probably on purpose. There was also the Polynesian girl I shared a room with, Liliana, here for an eating disorder, but didn’t fit the regular profile because she was almost 200 pounds. College put a bit too much stress on her is my personal opinion, but what do I know? Definitely bulimic though, I can hear her trying to throw up sometimes, even hours after meals. The schizophrenic ex-professor, Noel maybe? She went off her meds to try and finish her grant research and often tries to refuse even now. She’s almost done with that research apparently through her coworkers and phone time. And lastly, Dwayne who is our mystery guest. Right now, I’m guessing anxiety disorder, but honestly he’s the wild card around here. All I know is, he always had a little book with him, not sure what it was though, it’s always tucked tightly against his chest as he stares off into the galaxies, relaying some messages. Perhaps the daily weather report. Then there’s me. The lesbian who doesn’t want to have sex, ever. Iconic. I crossed my arms over my chest. I knew that wasn’t the real reason I was here, but it certainly felt like it. There was suddenly a bump against my arm and my head jerked around to see Liliana staring down at me, raising an eyebrow.

Lesgo, come on sista.” She was probably the closest thing I had to a friend here. Moving to my feet, I watched her shake her head with her hands on her hips.

“You acting so lolo, keep doing like you do in here and one of these days, the doc is going to be absolutely done with you, pau!”  I had remembered the feeling of being given up on, I had survived it before, from someone who meant much more to me. I could survive it again. I wrapped my arms around my ribs and pressed through the meat of my body to count each one repeatedly as we walked down the meandering hall, reminding myself where my body was. I replied with a surprising coolness for the dryness of my throat.

“They won’t write about me as a tragedy Liliana, just another horror story about sex.” A baffled look scattered across her face as she lightly hit my shoulder.

“You got as many moods as kai sista, the ocean. Besides how they gonna use you? You don’t even have sex. It’s kine your thing.” I was about to explain when the doc popped up next to us, that professional smile slapped into place. We smiled back as she began in her slow, measured way.

“Bree, would you come with me to my office?” It was formed as a question, but I knew it wasn’t. Glancing back at Liliana, I waved and then nodded. My small act of defiance was refusing to walk beside her and I zeroed in on her clicking heels, not too tall for the workplace, but not too short to be unappealing, in a conventional way. They were a lovely shade of matte black. Again, sensible and conventionally appealing. But they didn’t contrast against the black and white floors. Click, click, click, click. Something about me wanted them to clack. Just once. To go against that pattern. That pattern that seemed to make everyone else feel so safe, and yet made me feel so out of place. My head whipped up as we approached her office, but I didn’t make eye contact as I squeezed past her through the door. The dim lighting was supposed to be relaxing, but it always seemed to remind me of rich man’s bar. Maybe it was all the diplomas on the wall, the deep leather of the furniture, or the neverending messiness of her desk that made it look like all she did was sit at that desk. But hey, women gotta represent. Like always, I sat in the emerald green studded, leather chair that stood stiffly, but directly underneath the brightest lamp in the room. Doc chuckled and half-heartedly attempted to tidy her desk.

“I hope you’ll excuse the mess.” Resting my cheek in my palm, I nodded out of habit and crossed my knees snuggly.

“So what to talk about today Doc? How do you feel about my progress?” She chuckled sardonically, the first unprofessional thing she’d done the whole time I’d been here and it caught my attention enough for my eyes to actually move to where she was. I paid full attention to her now. Her hands were interlaced and she was watching me curiously as she leaned onto the desk. More doctor than fellow human right now. It allowed me to actually take her seriously.

“You’ve been here for 20 days now. We both know you get released tomorrow since you haven’t proven to be a danger to yourself or others in this time. Your depersonalization and derealization don’t seem to be interfering with your daily functioning anymore. However, I think we both know you disrespected the process and I’m not entirely sure why you even came in the first place if you didn’t actually want a doctor’s help. So I’m giving you one last chance for a one-on-one session before group therapy tomorrow afternoon. Open up, it truly helps Bree. Not half-heartedly like you have been doing, I mean get everything out in the open. We can sit here a little while for you to think about it.” I stared back at her unrelenting eyes, practiced smile, repeating her words with that soft, unwavering voice. And it infuriated me inside. All she cared about was results, getting her answers, the bottom line. My fingers dug into the leather on the chair and I wished I could tear it open. I wanted it to be destroyed, like my trust, like my faith in systems, in traditions, in relationships, in connection. Instead I stared back, hoping she’d hear the screaming pounding at my skull, trying to crush it from the inside out and it would melt away her professional facade. As long as I was alive, she would never hear about my struggles, about who I was. I clenched my teeth, furious as a tear ran down my cheek, causing the doc to tilt her head, fake empathy filling her face.

“Would you like to talk about what’s overwhelming you perhaps?” Breaking eye contact, I stared at the door, ready to break through not just that doorway, but the main entrance.

“No.” Her smile weakened and she nodded.

“Very well, if you don’t wish to speak, you can go back to your room.”


I zoned out until the end of group. Ready to get back to my room where my bags were already packed. They had been packed since midnight because I hadn’t slept a wink. Too busy making plans. Liliana walked with me back to my room and I hugged her goodbye. She’d be the only person I would actually miss. Who knows, maybe we would meet again someday. I hoped so.  Right now though I was about to be free, and my talk with the doc yesterday made me realize people were going to continue trying to make me what they thought was right, not who I should be. As I approached the doc, I couldn’t help that my body language got closed off and I stared her down. Her hands were folded at her waist, proper as ever, and I smiled tightly.

“See ya Doc.” There was almost an inkling of sadness in her eyes as she tilted her head and shook my hand as professionalism would indicate.

“We’ll miss your quick wit around here Bree.” The guy with OCD scoffed, twisting the doorknob in quick motions like he always did.

“Speak for yourself.”  Noel was on the phone so she just smiled and waved me off and I had expected Dwayne to just ignore me, but he actually walked up to me, albeit with his head down. Then he grabbed my arm, book tucked against his chest, and whispered in my ear.

“The secrets of this earth are not for all men to see, but only for those who will seek them.” Furrowing my brow, I looked over at him in confusion and he nodded his head, still not looking directly at me.

“Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Page fifty-two.” Then he walked away, still nodding. Blinking a few times, I brushed it off and then grabbed my bags, hugging Liliana once more, assuring her she was a beautiful crier, and then walked out those front doors into the sunshine. And I didn’t know where to go. I had only been in there for twenty days, but it hadn’t fixed my sense of unbelonging. Why was I surprised?

Slowly, I made my way back to my apartment and was greeted by the soft music of my Spotify playlist I had assembled to keep quiet company for my chameleon, Alfredo. Thankfully, I had a neighbor who loved helping out with him, and Alfredo loved to be left to his own devices. I walked by his vivarium and one of his eyes slowly moved to study me. I offered an excited smile, but Alfredo simply blinked and then began walking with his sloth-like movements to hide amongst his leaves. Sighing, I threw in some crickets for him, and then cocooned into my blankets, watching the light show of shadows on my bedroom wall. Something about what Dwayne had said kept coming to mind. Maybe he meant I was “this earth?” In the shadows on the ceiling, I could see my body transforming, becoming a safeguard for what and who I was. Nothing the doc ever did worked because she didn’t deserve to know any deep part of me. Not yet, not until I got my closure. I would be stronger before I told my story and there was only one way to do that. Dwayne had known, he had seen me. My heart began to flicker as tears gushed from my eyes without my control. Who would’ve known that the person I thought was paying the least amount of attention understood me the most? The moonlight settled into my windowsill, its light staying steady on my face, illuminating me. All I remembered was the way the moonlight hit the ceiling that night, the way it made the shadows play over the walls and dance over our blankets, as if these shadows were my own personal demons who instead of being chased away by my blankets felt welcomed into my bed and vibrated with the pleasure of rolling around in the agony I felt when my skin hit the sheets from then on. Dwayne knew I needed to face my pain, teeth bared and vocal cords raw. The nonconsensual wave of emotion continued for only Alfredo knows how long. But when it rolled back, I stared at the moonlight’s parting graces on my ceiling, determined on what I had to do now.


The bus moved my body in time with both my neighbors, our torsos swaying four counts for each street lamp that flashed by. My heart was beating a million beats between them. Even in the dreamlike, slow movements I was watching the world around me in, nothing was clear. People’s faces were simply pools of sinking color, lights were zig zagging strands tying me tighter against my seat. Yet I still managed to keep an accurate count of the number of stops we made. Maybe it was accurate. Two more before I got off. That’s what my mind kept repeating. Three more before I got off. A blast of the night air hit me like the sound of freshly made ice cubes against new glass, and I closed my eyes to focus on that stabilizing sensation. The dizziness I was feeling began to fade as a disk of coolness spread over my scalp from where it was pressed into the glass. My thoughts were jumbled before, but something about the sudden briskness around me coaxed out older memories. Isabella and I on the porch, in the bleeding dusk and laughing, when her hands had been gentle. The nights of homemade dinners, or when we had really drunk takeout. A part of me ached for those long, slow kisses on the carpet, her hair a mess and shuttering her eyes, but the part of me that operated at the forefront now only remembered the laughter leaving her eyes. Watching her mouth tear into screams and moans that sounded like the ones repeated in ghost stories when I recalled it in my memory.

At some point, I realized I was walking now. To where I was still unsure. Then I saw it. The house was exactly the same, except it didn’t belong to “us” now, it belonged to “them.” I didn’t think the same things would be special for them, but I guess a last betrayal would be no surprise. Through the blanket of night I could still clearly imagine Isabella and Replacement Girlfriend sitting out on the porch swing, the heat of her palm against her cheek. Maybe they drank wine and made stupid jokes in moonlight of sliding back door. I could feel their lips coming together as if it were my own touching hers, except it felt wrong, but it would feel wrong if Isabella were kissing me too and I ground my teeth together in frustration. Rubbing my forehead, I looked both ways before crossing the street, moving past the open gate into the small backyard they shared with their neighbors. The billowy leaves of a large maple broke up the moonlight over my face, the scattering of light questioning me on my motives. But still I focused, remembering Isabella never locked the sliding back door unless reminded. I hoped she hadn’t been reminded. When the gasp of the seal pulling apart sounded out, I took it as a sign in some dimension this was the right thing to do. However, a more rational part of me knew if someone else saw me they’d call the cops on me, so I only opened it enough to slid in and then quietly closed it again. My feet fell solidly onto new, tortilla-colored wooden floors and on instinct I slipped off my shoes, remembering how crazy it drove Isabella when I left them on. I didn’t spend much time poking around the house, I knew what I was here to do. My footsteps were light, but felt heavy as the silence created a pounding against my ears. Thwa-dump, tha-dump, twa-dump. A different sound each time, in tune with every connection of foot to floor, my eyes moving aimlessly until they trained on the door at the end of the hall. The bedroom. Where everything in our relationship had begun to go awry. When my palm wrapped around that doorknob, I half expected to be electrocuted, but it simply gave way, allowing me entry. Isabella and Replacement Girlfriend were sleeping like the dead, their hands encasing each other’s bodies, mouths inhaling and exhaling mere inches from each other. The only sign they were alive was the steady rise and fall of their chests. This was all I ever wanted with her. A connection, affection, but I found out her love came with conditions. At some point, I found myself tapping her shoulder, watching her eyes and hoping to see them sparkle when they twisted onto me. I hoped, but it was a stretch. Isabella’s eyes blinked open and her brow furrowed as she adjusted to the miniscule light before she lifted herself up and finally turned to me. Her expression fell.

“Bree?” I offered a half-hearted smile before it faded and I shuffled on my feet.

“Yeah.” Her tone suddenly grew concerned, but not for me. It was almost as if she were afraid.

“What are you doing here? How did you get in? I thought you were in a crazy hospital? Did you escape?” I tuned out her hurtful words as she continued, my eyes glazing over. I stared over at Replacement Girlfriend. She didn’t look so different from me. What made her so much more worth Isabella’s time and affection? It wasn’t my fault I was made the way I was. Everything was suddenly swelling up inside of me and I could feel my stomach twisting inside of me, not with dread, but with pent up rage and the need to scream. Isabella was still talking, but all I heard was radio silence. As I leaned against her bedroom wall, I spoke up softly at first.

“I didn’t want to.” Confused, Isabella sat up and looked at me and laughed sardonically. Speaking softly so as not to wake Replacement Girlfriend.

“What are you talking about?

“Sex. I didn’t want to have sex with you. I don’t want to have sex with anyone ever.” Isabella rolled her eyes and grabbed her robe, standing up and encasing herself within it, as if it were a shield.

“You’re still on that, everyone has sex Bree. Come on, let’s get you back to the hospital.” She moved to grab my arm and I jerked it away, glaring back at her, my eyes defiant and my voice rising to match.

“I don’t. I never want to. Sex is more than just a step in relationships Isabella. For some people it’s hell. As a lesbian, imagine having to have sex with a man the rest of your life Isabella, that’s how I feel about sex period. But you pushed me, you made me feel guilty, as if I was depriving you of some basic human right, and then you left me because I wasn’t torturing myself for you good enough.” Isabella kept glancing back at Replacement Girlfriend, an uncomfortable look on her face.

“Look, I didn’t know it was like that, please can you keep your voice down?” I scoffed, walking towards Isabella so she sat down on the bedside and screamed at her, ignoring the fact that Replacement Girlfriend was now wide awake.

“I have kept my voice down for years! People have told me I should’ve just sucked it up, that sex isn’t that bad, especially with another girl, and at least it wasn’t really rape. Real fucking rape. I am a homoromantic asexual dammit! But if asexuals really want a relationship, we’ve gotta be willing to put out, at the sake of our fucking minds. Because that’s the price of love, your pussy on a platter, am I right?” Replacement Girlfriend put her hand on Isabella’s shoulder and opened her mouth to speak, but I laughed humorlessly and pointed at her, “Don’t you say a fucking word, this isn’t about you, okay?” She gave Isabella a meaningful look and she nodded, but I didn’t care. We used to do that. We used to share something more than pain. I scarcely noticed Replacement Girlfriend leave the room after that, not that I actually cared about her. It was Isabella who needed to hear what I had to say and she was listening with wide-eyes for the first time.

“I just wanted you to love me for me, to want to kiss me and not to think that meant I wanted more. I just wanted to love you the way I love, but it wasn’t enough for you. It never was. It’s stupid to think that it would be.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re only saying that because you can’t ignore me now. You can’t put aside what you did, but it’s okay I’m not going to do anything about it legally because I let you think it was okay. It wasn’t okay by any means, but this is just a part of my therapy.” Isabella blinked in bafflement, and I smirked, leaning back against the wall just as police sirens began to whoop outside the house, the blue and red masking Isabella’s face. Her chest was heaving and her breath was short. Shaking my head, I replied levelly.

“Your new girlfriend is a total narc bitch.”


I figured this is how it would happen. I sat in the back of the police cruiser with the handcuffs on loosely. More of a formality and a comfort for Isabella and Replacement Girl I’m sure. The buildings and street lamps were passing by slower and smoother now. My head was light as if I had gotten several inches of my hair chopped off. Disorienting, but not in a bad way. The police officer who cuffed me told me they were informed I was recently released from a psychiatric hospital on the 9-1-1 call, so that’s where they were going to take me instead of processing me into jail. Isabella told them not to press charges, I could see it in the way she wouldn’t look at me after the police entered. They had surrounded me and pressed me into the wall even though I didn’t put up a fight, but Isabella turned her face away and stared at the carpet as if it would explain how we got here, her arms glued to her knees like she did when she was uncomfortable. Replacement Girlfriend yelled something and moved to Isabella’s side, but I wasn’t listening. I was ready to go and let the officers lead me out. No matter what any of us wanted, I would always know her better. I would remember everything. In the cruiser, I asked the officer if he would call my neighbor and ask him to take care of Alfredo while I was gone. However long that may be. They would probably keep me longer than 21 days this time. I’m sure Alfredo wouldn’t miss me anyways. It wasn’t a long drive to the hospital. It looked very much the same in the night, clean cut and unwelcoming, but there were lit up windows that suggested maybe there was life dwelling within. The officer un-handcuffed me and guided me up the steps and towards the check-in desk, speaking to the receptionist politely. As if they had smelled me upon arrival, Liliana and Dwayne popped out of a room, not yet noticing me. Liliana was talking quickly as she did and Dwayne was staring off towards the ceiling, but I’m sure he was listening as he nodded faithfully and tapped his fingers against the spine of his book.

“Guys!” They turned, Liliana looking directly as me with a welcoming smile and a wave before running at me, and Dwayne, nodded with a crooked smile before turning around. Liliana threw her arms around me and I giggled uncontrollably along with her.

“Sista, what you be doing back here? You too lolo for the outside?” I nodded and was about to explain when the doc began walking towards me, confusion over her face. The sound of her heels echoed through the halls. Click, click, click, clack! The last step was noticeably off as she stepped back and chuckled, picking up a shiny quarter.

“Oh, stepped on a quarter.” Liliana snatched the quarter from the doc’s fingers and made her way to the activity room, the two of us in tow. Doc reassured the officer that I was good to go with Liliana, and then she followed behind us, that soft professional voice of hers breaking the air.

“Bree, you do realize you’re going to be admitted again tonight?” I nodded, the pressure of Liliana’s arm hooked around mine causing warmth to radiate through my skin, we stopped at the rundown jukebox, its colors vibrant for another time. The doc stood with her hands folded as Liliana flipped through the song selections and I stared back, the defiance in my blood tucked in until some other day. But that didn’t stop me from noticing that conventionally pretty smile of hers. Somewhere I’m sure there was a better version of it.

“Yes, Doc. You gonna send for my clothes?” The doc smirked and zeroed her eyes in on me tighter.

“Why did you go to Isabella’s tonight?” I laughed and sat back, kicking my feet up.

“So I could come back and see you Doc.” She smiled knowingly, her eyes drifting to Liliana just as she slipped the quarter into the jukebox.

“This sista and I gots to talk story. She missed choke gossip.” Then the music started, the notes ringing clearly through my ears and I smiled as Liliana pulled me up to dance, her smile the starlight of the night.


Amy Lehigh

Winner of the 2019 LSSU Short Story Award

The day outside is beautiful; sun shining like the beautiful ball of burning life that it is, birds twittering in the sky, the air just the right temperature and humidity that it feels like nothing at all on the skin.

Yet Irena sits in her living room with a silent headset over her ears, reading a book.

She’s a dull one, really, that Irena. Always reading a book, or dozing off for a cat nap. It has never particularly been in her schedule to make time for “fun” like going out with friends, or any of that. She has always been alone, and that seems to be the way she likes it.

The book in her hands at this particular moment is also equally uninteresting—some drivel on the physiology of the human body. Or perhaps an anatomical reference? There are a great many diagrams, though it’s difficult to determine at a glance what they are meant to be for, being so inundated with dry text. Better than whatever gibberish on plants she had this last week, at the least.

Anyhow, Irena is dull not only in her habits, but also in her appearance. A thin, rather pallid face—from her lack of sunshine, clearly; the poor girl is like a flower left in a dark corner—with angular eyebrows, a sharp chin, and dull, gray eyes that either seem as though they peer into everything or are simply glazed over with boredom. It’s difficult to tell.

Despite these things, she really is like a neglected flower; she has a Roman nose that protrudes from her face, and though it only accentuates her thin cheeks at the moment, taken alone, it is quite the regal nose, not overly pointed nor bulbous and unattractive. Her hair is a chestnut brown that shimmers of summer, though she always has it tied back into a painfully rigid braid or ponytail (sporting the latter at the moment). Even her cheekbones, so visible that they are nearly oppressive to the eyes, are quite fine and delicate; if only her cheeks were filled a bit more, so that these cheekbones of hers did not cast quite such severe shadows into her face.

If only she would go outside and get a bit of sun.

To be frank, the most interesting thing about Irena is how uninteresting she is. But even the most uninteresting people can become interesting when something comes along to shake up their dull little world of habit.

For example, the little letter that is currently sliding through the mail slot of Irena’s front door.

The click of the metal slot closing once again seems to stir her, and she looks up from her book to the door. One slender hand reaches up to nudge the headset off of her ears, pushing it down to rest around her neck as her eyes lock onto the envelope, which is now sitting deceptively demure on the linoleum of the entryway. The muscles around her mouth twitch slightly, a frown caught in conception before ever spreading over her face.

Patience now; she has to think about the thing. Is it time for the mail yet today? What could a single letter be for? Her bills were paid (precisely on time, as always), and no one ever sent her anything in the mail, much the same way no one ever sent her anything by text. These very thoughts can be seen flicking through her eyes as she stares at the thing.

Finally, she rises and moves to pick it up. It’s a normal, pale envelope, though when she turns it over to the front there is no address, no stamp; no sign whatsoever of the sender—of course. After all, it isn’t even time for the mail to come yet…considering that it’s a Sunday.

This unusual fact seems not to perturb Irena, as she creates an incision in the envelope with a precise stroke of her finger and pulls out the note inside, which reads:

Irena: I’m afraid that you don’t know me, though I know you quite well. You intrigue me. That’s why I’d like for us to play a little game.

She snorts at this. “A ‘game’?” Her voice is surly, astonishingly so, and brusque, likely from her lack of social interaction. “You must not know me that well.”

While blunt, she has a point. She typically isn’t one for games. However, this one is a bit more tempting…

See, I know all about your boring little life. I think it could use a little bit of spice—

Wait. She lowers the letter, shaking her head slightly. She hasn’t even finished reading it! She puts the thing back into the envelope, saunters over to the kitchen, and drops it into the trashcan as she goes to her cupboards to grab something to eat.

How rude! Some effort went into that letter, handwritten as it was. Well.

Anyhow, the rest of the letter would have read something along the lines of, “so I came prepared to provide. Just start by searching your yard for three clues.”

Now she’ll never even know that. More extreme measures must be taken. A simple scavenger hunt would never get Irena’s attention, of course. …Of course.

Irena continues to go about her business as though the letter never existed. She pulls out a few dishes from her cupboards and things from the fridge—the house soon smells of chicken and vegetables—and makes herself some lunch. How apathetic can one get?

Well, testing that apathy once again as the sun sinks below the horizon, a watchful, omniscient eye closing, the doorbell sounds within the house, the cheerful, chirpy lilt echoing within the walls. Irena closes her eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath, setting the book down on her lap. “Again?” she mutters. Still, she rises, and she goes to the door, peering first out the peephole before swinging it open. Her eyes fall to a package on the porch, once more with a letter: both unaddressed, of course. She blinks—thinks.

She brings them in.

Setting the package on her kitchen table, Irena first opens the letter, with rather less care than before. One of her fine brows quirks up at the writing.

Dear Irena: Really? You didn’t even finish my letter before putting it in the trash? Fine, I see how it is. It wasn’t enough to stir you into action. Well, here is something that will. (Oh, but don’t worry, it isn’t inherently dangerous.)

Setting the letter aside, Irena reaches one hand out to the box. It’s cool, like the inside of a house despite the warm fall day. It hasn’t been outside for long. She fingers the lips of the cardboard flaps—they’re merely folded together, no tape. “Okay,” she says. She nods slightly, and her voice hardens. “Okay.”

With both hands, she tears the box open. Her breath catches. Inside is a blond plush dog, with a light blue note beside it: “Find my owner.” At first glance, the thing is rather mundane. But Irena’s first glance peers into it. She reaches in delicately, handles the thing as though it is made of blown sugar and will crumble with the slightest force.

Of course, she’s noticed the stain.

Her finger traces it, dark and dry but unmistakable. Blood. On the toy’s shoulder. Irena peers once more into the box, and now she scans it. The dry tree needles, the flecks of dark dirt and mud on the bottom and all over the toy, a leaf from an oak tree that had begun the process of turning orange.

She takes in a slow, sharp breath, the air hissing through her nose. There is the slightest twitch in the muscles of her jaw. She nods, almost imperceptible. “Okay,” she says.

And the game is on.


The next morning is overcast, light without sun, and Irena is on a mission. She wakes up, gets dressed, and is still pulling her shirt down over her belly as she walks out of her room. She turns to a storage closet in the hall, sliding open the door and reaching in to grab an old backpack, a sorry-looking thing that has clearly been sitting despondently in that dark closet for some time.

Irena swings the backpack over one shoulder and closes the closet once more. She brings her hair up and yanks it into a ponytail as she glances around her home. Soon, she’s grabbed the dog, the note, and some other basic things that one would need for a hike that may take a long time (thankfully her work schedule gives her Mondays off, lest all Hell breaks loose at the library without her), and settled them into her bag. She grabs the leaves from the box and tucks them into a pocket of her jeans, along with a cell phone. Moving to the window, she stares up at the sky for a moment. The overcast day threatens rain, but more in the bluffing way that nature does when it wants humans to be concerned with the picnic they planned or the state of their hair. Irena is concerned about neither, nor about the threat of rain.

Irena treks out of her house and out of town, venturing over the sidewalk alongside the road. Few cars pass by on the street; no one seems inclined to come out of their houses, either already at work or unwilling to embrace the dreary day. No different from Irena’s typical self in that respect, really. But today, Irena is not her typical, drab self.

Today, she is interesting.

The sweet scents of decaying leaves, of sap and bitter hints of musk permeate the air as Irena stops at a trail outside the town. She has left houses and home behind, standing amongst trees older than her grandmother’s grandfather. Her eyes peer around the trees, taking in the state, shape, appearances, soil preferences, favorite color of each. But goodness, the fresh air feels nice. Smells nice, too, in comparison to the stale air of that wretched house.

Irena sniffs—once, haughty. She removes her backpack from her shoulders for a moment, swinging it in front of her and rummaging through it without setting it on the ground. She pulls out the stuffed dog and glances around. She raises the thing near to her face as she scans, though not close enough to touch. She sniffs once again.

Replacing it, she swings the bag once more onto her back as she raises her eyes to the canopy, green-golden leaves shimmering above her in the breeze. Goodness, she is taking her time, isn’t she? The trail spans only one of two ways at the moment, north to south; pick one, dear.

Taking one last glance to the north, she begins to head south. Her feet march along the trail, kicking up small puffs of dirt. Perhaps the day could use some rain after all—the ground is quite dry. Irena’s sneakers are getting coated in dust. It has been quite some time since the last rain, thinking on it. She pays the state of her shoes no mind, however, and continues marching through the afternoon, the sky above brightening slowly like something ethereal, lighting up without the sight of the sun.

The air slowly thickens with the threat of rain and the scent of pine as Irena makes her way along the trail. She continues to scan the forest around her, occasionally pausing to remove the water from her backpack and keep hydrated (a very important thing, you know, for a person on a hike, even if that person is on a hike because of a mysterious set of notes and equally enigmatic package).

The trees slowly become more dense, oak and maple twining with different pines, some of which are dropping clumps of needles, leaves overhead turning from a sea of gold to reds and oranges. Birds are chirping up ahead, but their voices seem to ricochet into a void. It’s as though the leaves absorb all of the sound to give nothing but their own whispers in return. The light in the sky is beginning to fade, but more than that, the trees are growing darker, more solemn and menacing around the trail. They seem to have a secret they are unwilling to part with.

Yet Irena, fearless Irena, stares the trees down into a state of shadowed normality. Can she even tell when something is wrong? Because something certainly isn’t right. The air is becoming more and more unsettling…does she really not notice?

Irena pauses in the path. Perhaps…? No, she’s merely pulling the needles from her pocket. She glances up to the trees and nods. “Yep,” she says.

“Yep?” What is “yep?” Oh, now she’s discarding the needles. And the oak leaf. Lovely. Great. She’s just throwing everything away then, is she? This is ridiculous. This was a terrible idea. She’s never going to find the owner of that ratty old toy. How can she? She has no clues. She had leaves and mud and a toy and what could all that tell anyone?

Now there’s a branch in the path. She can go east or—oh. All right. She’s going west. No hesitation there. Her twiggy legs are just picking over the trail, paying no heed to the lackluster state of the road; sticks and debris scattered about, the undergrowth overriding the path. Rather, Irena is plowing through the tall grass and ferns that pop up in her way.

It’s getting rather sloppy around these parts now. Irena is marching right into a swampy area, mud sticking to the bottom of her shoes and her tracks leaving sliding trails on the uneven ground. It’s hard to find footing that doesn’t slosh and squish underfoot, and water is seeping into her sneakers, bubbling around her footsteps. Each step sounds like she is stepping on some unfortunate slop-creature, burbling and squelching indignantly.

At this point, it would be more effective to go off-path, where there is foliage to ground the soil, but Irena and her determined obstinance continue, heedless of the ease of travel all around. Soon the path rises a bit of out of the marsh, becoming hard, packed mud that is plenty dry, as if the stretch of slop was no more than a bluff. The path is easy to walk again. Now the problem comes from looking up at the sky, turning an unsettling shade of yellow-gray that makes everything feel sick and otherworldly. Dare I say, quite morbid.

A sound pokes up from behind. Irena doesn’t look, but behind her, something is following. It’s hard to determine at first; the shadows are pressing in, so it could just be a curious deer or perhaps a stray dog.

Irena continues to wander down the path, and the sound continues to follow. The sound of muffled steps, steps trying to keep quiet, steps of a thing on the hunt. Is she not paying attention? She hasn’t so much as glanced back. Well, it’s bound to become interesting soo—

It’s a man.

A man is stalking Irena.

He is cloaked in muted colors, blacks and grays and drab greens. But his face was unmistakable from the foliage, just for a moment. Chiseled features around a square nose and pinprick eyes like a weasel. He isn’t very big, but neither is Irena.

Neither is Irena.

She is still walking, not looking back, not giving any indication in the slightest that she knows she’s being followed. In fact, she stops for a moment to pull out her phone to check it, pale light erasing the contours of her face. The man doesn’t stop, and now I feel sick. Irena puts away her phone and continues to walk.

This was not what I’d had planned for something interesting. This isn’t even remotely close! I never wanted Irena in actual danger, being stalked like a fawn out in an open field by a thing worse than wolves, a human with evil on his mind, a human beginning to lengthen his steps as he comes closer, a human beginning to venture out onto the path, a human with an ice in his glassy gaze that makes me think of sickness and desperation and insatiable appetite. This was my fault, and he’s coming closer, and Irena doesn’t notice one whit, and why doesn’t he make some real noise, this snake, slithering up behind her?

Oh, Irena, run, turn around, do something!

But she isn’t turning around, and the man has quieted his steps, and his grin is splitting his face with a wild verve, drool spilling from his lips, and Irena is scarcely more than an arm’s breadth out of reach—

Irena whips around and smashes an open palm into the man’s face, and I can hear bones crack. The man stumbles back with a yell, holding his face. Irena slams a kick into his side, sending the man sprawling into the dirt. Leaping on top of him, Irena flips him onto his belly and yanks his arms behind his back, holding them there by kneeling on him. She holds the blade of her multitool to the back of his throat.

“Don’t move,” she says.


She…she must have taken Tae Kwon Do? Or a self-defense class? Read a book? Goodness gracious, I know I’ve only followed her for the last half-year, but how much have I missed?

The man is babbling incoherently; I can’t tell if they’re threats or pleads for mercy. Really, I’d be thinking about the latter. Irena’s expression hasn’t changed from her usual stoicism—did she know he was following her?

Sliding her backpack off, Irena grabs the stuffed dog from it and shoves it in front of the man’s face. “Do you recognize this?” she demands, her brusque voice level as if talking to a clerk at a lemonade stand.

“No! Why the hell would I?” the man spits back.

“Just wondering. Why the hell would you stalk me, either?” she returns, with no more vivacity than before.

The man doesn’t seem to have a comeback for that, grunting and turning his face away, blood pouring from his nose. I feel a bit smug on Irena’s behalf.

“I’m calling the police,” she informs him casually. Pulling out her phone, she asks, “How many charges do you think you’ll have?”

The man doesn’t deign to answer that. But it makes me nervous, how Irena only has a knee on the man’s hands. One of her hands has the blade to his throat, and the other is on the phone. It’s a very precarious position for her. And I know it’s a fierce taboo act to interact with humans directly, know it quite well—I’ve been careful to keep myself a “neutral” presence with Irena, merely bending the rules without breaking them—but I can’t seem to help myself…

I sit on one of the man’s arms. It should feel like it’s gone to sleep; he won’t be able to move a muscle until I let him. I feel a spread of satisfaction as he whimpers uncomfortably. Yes, this is what you get, you nasty thing. How dare you try to hurt good Irena?

Well. I mean “good” relatively, I suppose. She has still yet to change her expression, and she’s speaking on the phone with the proper authorities it seems. Soon she sets the phone on the ground, the sound now on speaker.

“How many people have you come after like this?” Irena asks nonchalantly, apparently not expecting an answer.

“Why would I tell you?” he snaps, voice wet with blood.

Irena shrugs, a motion likely lost to him. “Just a question to kill some time. Are you sure you’ve never seen that toy before? Seems like this is your haunt, after all, and it’s from around here. Any ideas?”

“What the hell is it with you and that stupid dog?” he growls. “I told you, I don’t know where it’s from.” (My virgin ears courteously omit the cursing between his words.)

“I know you told me, but I don’t believe you. And it’s a long time until the police arrive. I don’t care if it’s anything to do with you, and I don’t care if you don’t know any names, but if you know something about where it’s from, I want to hear it. Maybe if you say something useful, I’ll even let you sit up.”

The woman on the speaker-phone babbles incredulously at this, echoing my own thoughts of what a terrible idea that is, but the man seems to seriously consider this for a moment. “A little ways from here…” he finally says. “A little ways further on the trail, there’s a spot I found. Like a grave. It was all fresh dug when I found it. I didn’t make it and I didn’t look in it, but I did make a cross for whoever’s it is.”

“How will I know where it is?”

“They’re birch branches. I wanted it to stand out.”

“Kind of you, for being a murderer yourself.”

“I’m not a murderer!” he cries, surprisingly desperate. “I [for a moment, I plug my sweet ears] some girls, but I didn’t kill anyone! I’m a good person, I swear!”

What a dirty mouth on this one.

“So that’s what you planned to do to me,” Irena says. “Then I won’t feel bad later for having broken your nose.”

As Irena proceeds to delay the man’s hope for a chance of escape—I’m surprised that he continues to fall for it—I think of how she could possibly have known that the grave was so close. She isn’t wrong, of course; this is the right place, and the grave the man spoke of it the right one, the one I found the dog near, but I wonder how she got this far.

I feel a pang, and I realize I feel slightly guilty about the situation I put her in. Of course, I didn’t know that there was someone out here that would stalk her, but nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that this whole ordeal is my fault. What’s worse, of course, is the fact that I can’t argue that it isn’t.

All I wanted was something more interesting to entertain me while I was bored; now I’m sitting on a man’s arm, committing a taboo act in so doing, as he’s pinned underneath the woman I never saw doing anything but reading books, or snoozing on her couch, or, at best, cleaning her toilet.

Soon, a couple pairs of headlights come down the trail. It’s dusk now, so the lights seem to appear out of a black void, creating a harsh contrast in light. Tires crunch over dirt and the vehicles come to a stop nearby as the authorities step out.

For good measure, I pat the man’s cheeks before I rise, and he’s left babbling unintelligibly like a man just out of the dentist’s office, much to my satisfaction. As a pair of officers escorts the disgrace away, reciting a rote series of rights to him, a pair comes over to Irena, a man and a woman.

“Irena?” the man gasps.

“You know her?” his partner asks.

Irena knows someone?

“This is my sister…” he says to her, then looks back at Irena. “Irena?” His tone bears a load of questions.

“Jonathan,” she replies simply. Sisterly love, isn’t that?

“What happened? Why didn’t you call me?”

“I called 9-1-1.”

“I know but, you could’ve—”

“You’re here now, aren’t you?”

Jonathan sighed, clearly exasperated. “Jeez! You never change. Are you all right, anyways?”

“I’m fine, but before you go, I could use some help.”

“Help? With what?”

You probably don’t want to know.

“I’m looking for something. It might be important,” Irena says.

“Looking for…? Irena, we don’t have time for this. We have to bring this guy back and—”

“Jonathan.” Her voice stopped him. “It could be important.”

He hesitated, looking at her. Then he said, “I guess they can take him without us. Lead the way.”

“You handle this, John,” his partner says. “I’ll cover you.” Jonathan gives her a nod, and as she leaves, Jonathan spreads a begrudging hand to Irena, and she begins the trek.

It is in this time, as Irena leads a course to an end which she can only possibly speculate, her confused brother accompanying her, flashlights flicking over the ground in near-utter darkness, that I wonder what she expects to find. She certainly expects nothing good, of course—that much was answered with the word grave. Still, her every step echoes with her confidence. She has no fear, this woman, this Irena, who very well could have fallen off the face of the Earth less than an hour ago at the hands of a predator without anyone knowing or giving her so much as a second thought.

Before I’m fully aware of it, they’ve stopped, flashlights shining on a set of birch branches lying on the ground, light bouncing off of the pale skin to make a luminous sphere around us, a ghostly, quivering blue-white reflecting off the faces of the trees, the leaves above, the faces of the people. It’s nearly blinding to look at. I avert my gaze to favor Irena.

Irena sets her backpack on the ground and pulls out her pair of gloves. Jonathan kneels to help as she begins to dig with her hands in the soft, muddy soil, but she says without looking up from her work, “Unless you have gloves, that’s a bad idea. It might get gross in a minute.”

Hesitantly, he stops, fingers slowly closing into his palms. In an attempt to be useful, he uses his flashlight to let Irena see what she’s doing, and his face is a mixture of befuddlement and concern. This only grows, of course, as he begins to see the corpse. He covers his mouth to keep himself from retching.

Irena unearths enough to get the picture. “A boy,” she says, as though it answers a question. “Can’t have been much older than eight. Probably not even.” She looks back at Jonathan, gesturing vaguely to the skull, mangled though it is. “His head was smashed in.”

Um…perhaps she had been one of those people that autopsies dead bodies? Yes, that seems likely, her personality considered…

As Jonathan regains his senses—along with myself—Irena pulls out the toy and inspects it again, picking up her own flashlight to do so. Finally, she shakes her head. “No. I can’t give you a name.” Standing, she hands the toy to the her brother, as well as my note. “That much is up to you. I figured out as much as I could. But I think if you test the blood stain on that toy and compare it to the body, it’ll be the same DNA.”

“How…how did you know this was here?” Jonathan asks, rising slowly from his place on the ground, looking at the corpse like a normal person—with astonishment and a slight sickly look.

My curiosity bites at me as well. How did she?

Irena answers by describing my box and its contents. She said she started with the leaves, stating that the needles were from Tamarack trees (what on Earth those are, I couldn’t tell you, though apparently they have needles) and that she guessed that everything had to come from the same area. Therefore, the needles had to come from an area with gold-going-on-orange oak leaves.  She goes on to say that she knew that there had to be a marsh of some sort because of the mud still being fresh and the fact that there had been no rain in a long time. (I notice that she seems to deliberately leave out her strange sniffing habits. Fair enough, Irena, all people have their quirks.) The best lead of where it all converged was that it to be close to the town because of the short downtime between the apparent collection and the delivery. Beyond that—she was guessing. Guessing!

She explains her guess-timations further to Jonathan and agrees to hand over everything that rightfully titles itself as “evidence.” As they talk, I stare down at the small corpse in the ground, light resting beside it but on it no longer as the focus has shifted elsewhere, getting only the reflection of light off living skin, off wet ground to fill its shape and depth. It isn’t fair. When I was first here, I saw only the overturned dirt, the skull, the maggots. Now I see a boy, a young boy who lost his beloved toy, his name, his everything. I kneel and touch one of the little bones of the finger, poking out pure white against the rest of the ground. It seems almost warm to me.


After we get home, and Irena has given the police everything, she sits on her couch with a mug of cocoa in her hands. The sweet smell wafts into the house, overriding the scents of pine and rotten mud, and Irena sits there staring into nothingness for a while, hands wrapped tight around her mug as if to ward off some internal chill. Rain patters on the roof, reverberating around the house in a constant, quiet thrum. It falls in gray sheets outside the window, creates a static between this house, us two, and the rest of reality.

For all that boredom she caused me in these few months, it seems that I was neglecting my subject. I know that now. I also know that I’ll be reassigned if—or, more likely, when—it’s discovered that I interfered with the goon; I’m only a Narrator, after all. But for now, I don’t care. For all I’m concerned, it was worth it.

Irena closes her eyes. I stand before her, on the other side of the coffee table. I wonder what she’s going to do now. She opens her eyes, peers straight into me, takes a deep breath.

She sips her cocoa.


She never ceases to amaze.

The Light and the Smoke

Ella Knopp

All she could think about was the light and the smoke. The girl had first spotted it about a day ago after cresting a hill, and she’d nearly howled in elation. Her world was boulders and streams, pine and fir, hunger and heat. Soon, it would be over, she told herself as she hiked a leg over another rock ledge, ripping another hole in her once-blue cotton skirt. Her lungs were begging her to stop, and her parched throat demanded water, but she new she had to push on. Each hike, each climb was a step towards safety, towards comfort, and eventually home. The mountain sun beat down on her, and she watched as the sweat dripped down her nose and landed with a splat on the rock beneath her. The girl’s lips curled into a smile. Her brother always teased her for having a big nose. She wondered if she’d ever see him again.

Her gaze drifted upward into the forest, and she was surrounded by a cage of ponderosa trunks turned blood-red by the setting sun. A great, black bird of prey soared over head, screeching it’s lonely cry into the darkening world. Deer bounded soundlessly through the brush on the forest floor, eyes alive with fear as they searched for a safe place to spend the night. She too needed to find somewhere to sleep before the creatures of the night awakened, but that was only an echo, survival instinct pushed under by the shining beacon of hope that was the light and the smoke. The smoke was beginning to fade with the daylight, but the light began to show, an amber glow pulsing against the indigo night. The girl didn’t know what city it was, but she knew it had to be large. Salt Lake City? Denver? Wait, no that was in Colorado. She couldn’t have gotten that far. Could she?

She continued up the hill, each haggard breath tearing at the silence. She gasped when her foot plunged into night sky. The moon and the stars gently rippled with the motion. A pond. Her reflection stared back, a shadowed figure with aspen twigs for limbs, a hollow stomach, and cheekbones that sloped steep as a mountain. Absolutely beautiful, she thought. She was one of the prettiest girls who ever lived. Her mother constantly told her that she needed to be thinner if she was to find a husband, but now the girl was skinnier than her mother would ever be in her entire life. Ha! She giggled, spinning around in the water with delight until her foot slipped over a stone. She yelped, her ankle twisting and popping as she plunged into the icy water. She thrashed and kicked, struggling to stay afloat when she realized the water was less than 6 inches deep.

The girl sighed and lay back, rubbing her thumb against her palm as she stared at the light. Her family would be so happy to see her when she arrived at the city, which ever one it was. And impressed by how mature and gorgeous she had become. Her mother would celebrate her return by baking gooey cinnamon rolls that melted in the mouth and her father would announce her betrothal to a handsome, wealthy man. They wouldn’t live in a cabin anymore, but an enormous mansion filled with the finest of furnishings.

A sharp pain cut through the daydream, and she glanced down at her leg to find that her ankle was a red, swollen mass. She attempted to stand up, but her ankle wouldn’t allow it. She collapsed into the water once more. The stars and the forest around her blurred together as tears streamed down her cheek. She could barely move without some part of her body screaming. But the girl was no stranger to pain. No, she was not going to let a little scrape on her ankle stop her from seeing her family, from rising up to take the life that was coming to her. Her teeth ground together as she hauled herself onto her hands and knees, water dribbling from the shreds of  her skirt. She crawled out of the pond, ignoring the unpleasant tingle of pebbles and pine needles digging into her knees. Her eyes were glued to the soft orange glow in the sky, closer now than ever before. She inhaled deeply and her lungs filled with smoke. The scent had never been so welcome as it had in that moment.

Her muscles burned and her ankle throbbed as she dragged her self up the hill. She would see the city at the top, a beautiful vista of civilization. Just a little bit further. The glow became brighter, providing a clear path through the forest. She reached a large boulder, and her limbs nearly gave out at the sight of it. They would have to send up a rescue team to fetch her. If only she could get on the boulder where someone could see her. A scream tore from her throat as she gripped the boulder, shoving her chest on top of it. Her eyes drifted open, she hadn’t even realized they’d been shut. She found herself on the sharp edge of a steeply dropping outcrop. Up close, the radiance was more crimson than amber, and heat blasted against her face with a crackling fury. Great curtains of color fluttered against the black skeletons of trees while a heavy wind buffeted against the rock face. Tiny points of light drifted to the ground like snow, tearing even more holes in her clothes. She sighed in relief as she pulled the rest of her body on to the boulder. At the bottom of the cliff, her parents were waving and her brother grinned up at her. The girl spread out her arms like an eagle’s wings, heart solaced and free, and flew into the glimmering abyss.

Island Girl

Daraka Hudecek


Family, love, security, peace, and water…these are the earliest memories she has of a once-normal life. She’s a girl who lives on an island with her mama, daddy, big sister, and dog. The All-American type of family. The type that lives in a house with a white picket fence. Little does she know that life as she knows it will unravel.

The younger of two little girls, she is always the one that gets into mischief. She isn’t disobedient, just full of energy. She’s not satisfied to sit still. She explores, pretends, and searches for things to do. She is a carefree child, energetic, and loves people. She is loved.

Her days of early childhood are spent playing in the cool water, digging in the dark sand, and enjoying life. Her mama is always there, being a stay at home mom, while her daddy works to provide a fairytale life for his family: a beautiful home on the water with décor straight out of Home & Garden magazine. The girl loves her older sister and the fun things they do: playing in the wooden tree house that daddy built, puddling in the rippling river, searching for bright green clovers in the yard, and spending time in their cozy playroom.

Life is great in the eyes of the girl. She has no idea that it will all fall apart soon. One day she is living a comfortable, secure life, and the next day she is riding in the family station wagon watching mama cry as they give away the family dog. This is the day everything changes. But why? At five years old it’s hard to make sense of it all.

Memories are few and far between for the girl in the coming days and months. She does remember moving to the mainland, into a trailer park, with her mama and sister and going to kindergarten in a new place.  No dog, no river to puddle in, no tree house to hide out, no big green yard for clover hunting, and no daddy.

Divorce. This is what the girl is told it is called. People assure her it is normal. It sure doesn’t feel normal to the girl. Is she doing something wrong? Is daddy mad at her? Her family, love, security, peace, and home is gone. It is replaced with a trailer to live in, a single mama who has to go to work, and a mostly absent father, except for some weekends and holidays.

Life moves on and her new normal begins to take shape for the girl in her early elementary school days. The girl and her sister are alone a lot. There are a couple of men who come in and out of mama’s life. Her poor mama is insecure and afraid to be alone. There is one man in-particular who begins to stay more and more. Her mama marries this man. Dysfunction is the new normal with drinking and fighting happening nightly.

The nights are scary for the girl and her sister. Mostly left alone they fear the dark, strange noises outside, the uncertainty of when mama and step-father will be home. The biggest fear is wondering how drunk they will be and if there will be fighting, yelling, and furniture thrown. The girl wants to fall asleep fast so she can escape whatever will transpire when they get home. She can’t.

The instability makes life unbearable for the girl. At the tender age of six she feels like she has no control over her life. She doesn’t. She goes to school, gets good grades, does what’s expected so she doesn’t make waves. During the day the girl is normal and happy but secretly wonders what life is like for her friends. Do they have a scary home life? Probably not. Their parents are still married.

The girl and her sister aren’t living but merely surviving. After ten years of the same abuse, neglect, and uncertainty, the girl, who has a mature face from the hard life she lives, leaves home. No more family, no more love, no more home; these things were long gone years prior. Not yet ready for the world, but not ready to succumb to more years of hell at home, she is gone. Scared, insecure, and now hardened the girl looks for her place in the world; something she will do for the rest of her life. The world is a big, cold, unfriendly place. With no job, no money, no love, and no family she will have to do what she can to survive. But, does she want to just survive or does she want to live? She isn’t sure anymore.

Her sister has long moved on, marrying at the age of seventeen to the first man who looks her way, just to escape her home life. The girl hasn’t heard from her since she left over two years ago now. The girl is broken inside that her trusted sibling can just walk away from her. She understands though. Given the chance to get out she will take it too.


40 Minutes

Mikael Ranta


The clock was ticking.  Seconds melting away. Wind restless against the overcast evening.  Raindrops pitter-pattering every so often. Thin trickles of condensation falling from the famed Valley Camp freighter’s sides.  A figure loomed in the distance. A youth approached through the mist, striding past the dark sleek hulls. Pressing forward along the boardwalk, he made his way towards the banter of the rain-soaked fishermen along the river’s edge.  Armed but of rod and reel, he was determined to make the most of his time. His time, his moment. He had to leave. Soon. His secret known only to himself, he began to fish the jaded waters of the St. Mary’s.

Through his polarized lenses he could barely make out the water beneath him.  The drop alone was seven feet from his perch. But alas, the night was coming.  The rainy mist soared about as the youth danced his pink and white lure back to him.  There! The youth, taken aback by surprise, awoke from nature’s trance. As soon as it had come, the tug on his lure had gone.


A rushing sound.  Coming in. Closer and closer.  The last of the boat tours to be taken in for the night.  The youth, in his wisdom, eagerly knew what awaited. Cause and effect were not only for those of science, but were also for those skilled of heart.  He started to jig.

The man on his right now connected.  

The next man as well.

He felt as if a train was coming, and he wasn’t about to miss it.  All who boarded would be delighted with the pursuits of its reward.

His line tightened and with a powerful set, he was on.  The rod groaned at the unprecedented strength of what desperately sought to release from its barbs.  With a mastered flip the battle was won and the first fish of many was done. Alas, he had an appointment.  A destiny. With open arms his fishing brethren received the mighty male.

A few jovial casts later and the youth realized it was his time to leave.  Not yet of course, but in twelve minutes to be. The youth focused now. He had felt the slightest of touches, the faintest of taps.  His countenance unaffected by the sprays descending upon him, he strained to see the fish that was his answer. Quickly jigging now, he dropped his enticement in the fish’s face and angered it just enough to give battle.  A flip of the wrist was all that was needed as the great male vaulted from the river, sailing in view of the Tower of History, and meeting the reality of the downtrodden surface above. The youth had won, as the hooks took loose, as the male was mid-flight to his landing.  A lucky landing indeed. The fishermen cheered as he had cleared the fish of his great objective. But alas his time was but gone. Near darkness now, the clouds began to bury the waning, flitting light.

One more fish.  One more fish, Lord, the youth prayed.  His time was near and all he wanted was to catch another beautiful creature from the river.

He started to play his lure wildly.  Pushing water beneath the waves and giving off the last reflections of the day.  Night had all but enveloped, and darkness was here to stay.

Just as time was to expire, the youth felt what he had aspired.  A hit. A hit at last. With joy he swung with high hopes, a gem of the lake erupted.  With skilled precision, the fish of his desire was his to retire. The biggest and strongest one he had caught all year.  With beauty and grace, he gave his catch away, and said goodbye to the river for yet another day. His time was up, but his memories were not, for the smile was with him to stay.


Tempus Fugit

Brendan Lukomski


Time is the enemy of us all, and I only wish to be freed of it.

I am often left floored by the fickle nature of time. We are constantly reminded that time flies so we may savor every moment. However, to those in the midst of greatest distress, when their lives are a variable in an unsolved equation, time slows, and they would be able to testify that the mind has the remarkable ability of turning mere moments into a lifetime of thought.

So which is it, as both can’t be true?

As an FBI agent, you’d think I’d have a better grasp on time. But if there is anything I have learned in my twelve years as an agent is that as soon as you believe you have something figured out, the world decides to turn everything you thought you knew on its head. Even with something as certain as time; the minute you believe you have it all is the minute you lose everything.

In many ways, time is a trap. It traps us in our memories, many of which are sooner left forgotten, but we have no choice. Memories are what give our life, purpose, whether for better or for worse. And if sheer number of memories equates to purpose, then my life had purpose.  My adventures through the years had become stuff of legend, and the occupants of many cells can thank me for their incarceration. Maybe I think a bit highly of myself but speak the name Nicholas Blackwell in any federal prison and I guarantee you’ll find at least one inmate who owes their current living arrangement to me.

One tends to collect a fair share of memories from such expeditions, and I am no exception. Rather than set each case down at its conclusion, however, I like to thrive in their memory. It is no stretch for me to instantly call upon the minutest of details, reliving the cases which always seemed to leave me with a renewed sense of determination and pride in my work.

Now, I want nothing more than to be freed of them.

But I know I have no choice. Time is a fickle mistress, after all, who repays all debts.

I can feel the memories, flickering just beyond my conscious gaze, vying for my attention, but I won’t let them. I can’t let them.

Too late, I realize there is nothing, no willpower I can possibly muster, which will stay their approach. They burst forth, all hoping to provide an answer to a question I have not yet learned to ask. Suddenly, the target is set. One memory stands out among the rest. I know what it will show me, which is why I struggle against it, but in vain.

In an instant, I am taken back.

Back to the beginning.


“The way I look at it is either you love her or you hate her. There is no middle ground.”

“Now isn’t that a comforting thought?” Nicholas Blackwell replied sarcastically. “So, either I’ll love my partner, or I’ll hate her guts. Thank you for such a motivational pep talk, Hudson.”

Hudson’s face reddened. “I’m not saying she’s a bad person. I love Judy, but she can be a bit of an acquired taste.”

Blackwell rubbed his eyes and sighed as the pair made their way down the hall. All he was looking for was a little inspirational pep talk on his first day at the FBI, but instead, he got Hudson adding one more anxiety to the ever-increasing pile. He hadn’t known Hudson long, but he could already tell he failed to grasp the concept behind “little white lies”.

“Is there anything else you want to tell me about her, Hudson? From everything you’ve told me so far, I feel an involuntary urge to turn and run away.”

“Well…” Hudson began, hesitating slightly. “I process all the recruiting paperwork for the office, and I know for a fact you’re the first newbie who she has ever taken on. It could mean she sees something in you that she didn’t see in the rest.”

“Oh good. No pressure,” Blackwell said with a sigh. Hudson had tried, but even his attempts at instilling confidence in him only dragged him down lower. Receiving his first assignment would be stressful enough. Getting assigned to a legend like Judy Hanchon made it worse and having someone like Hudson around to give him all the wrong details didn’t make it any better.

He was assigned to Judy Hanchon. Even thinking about it now incited butterflies within him. At the academy, you couldn’t go ten minutes without hearing about her. Every professor loved her to this day, and she was at the top of every classroom she entered. Even though she was only a graduate of three years, you would be forgiven for thinking her reputation made her a seasoned veteran, and not a relative newcomer like himself. The very fact she was a newcomer made her even more of an inspiration, and a key role model throughout his time at the academy.

Many expected her to be offered a director’s chair as soon as she crossed the stage at graduation.  However, Judy chose a different life.

Giving up her promised seat of power, she chose the life of a field agent. Many wondered why, but she never offered an explanation, probably because she didn’t feel she owed them one. And from talking to Hudson, it was clear to Blackwell that there was much to learn about Ms. Hanchon that was kept from even those closest to her.

Hudson stopped walking. “Here we are,” he stated simply.

“The firing range?” Blackwell questioned, raising an eyebrow at the door they had stopped in front of. “I thought you were going to introduce me to Judy.”

“I am,” Hudson said. “When Judy’s not in the field, she’s either at her desk or the firing range. I chose the more likely of the two.”

“More likely of the two?” Blackwell repeated skeptically.

“You’ll see,” Hudson said with a smile. He opened the door, holding it as he motioned for Blackwell. The pair entered, emerging in an observation area which flanked the shooting range.

“Come on,” Hudson said, motioning forward. They entered the range, and Hudson immediately took the lead. Walking forward, he tapped a young woman on the shoulder. “Shooting well?”

“What?!” Judy said loudly, turning to face him. Hudson flinched slightly at her outburst, then motioned for her to remove her earplugs. Judy blushed slightly before doing just that.

With everything Blackwell had heard about Judy, he’d expected someone a bit more formidable. Someone physically intimidating, perhaps, or someone who could make people cower with a single flash of their gaze. What Blackwell got was neither of those things.

Judy was not physically strong, nor was she intimidating. She wouldn’t stick out in a crowd because there really wasn’t anything unusual about her. The only thing which really stuck out to Blackwell was her eyes. There was a kindness in them which was quite uncharacteristic of an FBI agent.

“What did you say, Hudson?” Judy asked in a much softer voice.

“I asked if you are shooting well,” Hudson replied.

Judy smiled. “Why don’t you be the judge of that?”

The targets at the far end of the range suddenly flew back across the room, riding on pneumatic hooks attached to the ceiling. When the target, which was a human silhouette, finally came to a stop, Blackwell’s draw dropped. He couldn’t tell how many shots she had taken, mostly because they had all formed a hole about the size of a quarter in the target. A hole located right over the heart.

“Now you’re just showing off,” Hudson said, seeing the target. “How many shots was that?”

“Ten altogether,” Judy replied. “One of them is a bit to the right though.”

Hudson scoffed. “Bit to the right,” he muttered. “Most agents would kill for a pattern like that.”

“I just know I can do better,” she said, examining her target with a longing look in her eye. Though some may see it as a conceited, Blackwell had the impression Judy was completely serious.

Seeming to remember why he was there in the first place, Hudson turned to Blackwell. “Judy, allow me to introduce Nicholas Blackwell. He’s…”

“My new partner,” Judy finished. “Nice to meet you, Nicholas.” She extended a hand, to which Blackwell hurried to shake.

“It’s a pleasure, ma’am,” Blackwell stammered, suddenly flustered. He didn’t know why he was suddenly so nervous but meeting his role model probably had something to do with it.

“Ma’am?” Judy scoffed, feigning offense. “How old do you think I am?”

“Again, with the quips?” Hudson muttered, leaning against the wall. Blackwell could think of nothing to do but chuckle nervously.

Judy rolled her eyes. “Quips give me life Hudson. You of all people should know this by now.” Returning her gaze to Blackwell, she smiled. “I’m just messing with you Blackwell. There’s no need to look so nervous.” She gave him a gentle jap in the shoulder. “Welcome to the FBI.”


Why did I believe this would be easy? Why did I believe time would let me slip quietly into history? But no. Time never forgives, and time never forgets.

My first meeting with Judy Hanchon would go down as the most significant event of my life, and for good reason. That day not only marked the start of our partnership, which would see us grow to become one of the best duos in FBI history, but it also began a lifelong friendship, a friendship which would grow to become more than mere coworkers.

I once looked back on the memory fondly. Now, it only brings pain, sadness, and grief.

The memories continue to swim in my mind, giving me glimpses of the past. I can feel their desire, their manic lust to provide me with answers before it’s too late. I only wish I knew the question.

With sudden vigor, my mind locks onto a memory, bringing it forth to the forefront of my conscious gaze. I struggle against it, but it is no use.

My strength is beginning to wane.




“You’re doing it again, and I won’t let us take my car next time if you keep it up. It’s a lease, you know.”

Still leaning up against the driver side door, he glanced down. A deep gash was visible in the car door, carved by the key laying in Blackwell’s outstretched hand. Any other day, he might have cared. This was not one of those days.

Judy sighed. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Blackwell replied with a forced laugh. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“The car door would tell me otherwise.”

Blackwell, suddenly caught up in a wave of emotion, sat up and slammed his hand against the steering wheel. “Why are we even here Judy?!”

“That is the big question, isn’t it?” Judy replied, leaning back in her seat. “Why are any of us here? What is the meaning of life?”

Blackwell frowned, clearly not amused.

“You mean why are we staking out this warehouse?” she began again. “I was under the impression it was to make the world a better place and to combat the forces of darkness. Isn’t that our mission as FBI agents?”

“Yes, but why are we here, and not back in Washington?” Blackwell replied forcefully. “Any newbie can run a stakeout. There are real cases back in Washington which need us!”

“Real cases? In other words, your sister.”

Blackwell opened his mouth, but no words came out. Silently, he leaned back against the door and continued staring blankly off into nothing.

“Melissa was a good friend to me,” Judy continued, placing a hand on Blackwell’s shoulder. “I want her killer to be caught just as much as you do, but that doesn’t mean we have to be the ones doing the catching.”

“And why not?” Blackwell spat, causing Judy to jump back in surprise. “She was my sister! I don’t just have a right to catch this freak, I have the only right! If the director, Jackson, or anyone else thinks otherwise, they can tell it to my face and not stick me in some mundane task just to get me out of the way!” Blackwell took a deep breath, then said in a slightly calmer voice. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

“Then help me to,” Judy replied, leaning forward. “Jackson only has your best interest in mind. He’s the assistant director, and it’s his job to take you off the case if he thinks your judgement could be impaired. More than that, he’s your friend, and he doesn’t want to see you get hurt.”

“If he was such a good friend, he would leave me on the case,” Blackwell growled. “I don’t need protecting. I need to catch Melissa’s killer!”

“At what cost?”

“At any cost,” Blackwell replied, breathing heavily. His sudden outburst had brought the events of the past few days into sharper focus. For the past few weeks, Blackwell and Judy had been investigating several serial killings in the Washington DC area. As the pair worked the cases behind the scenes, Blackwell’s sister, Melissa, covered the cases in the public eye from her position at a local news station. Unfortunately, her publicizing of the killings seemed to have made her a target and led to her brutal slaying just a few days prior.

“Do you remember the Zerio case?” Judy asked.

“What?” Blackwell questioned, caught off guard by Judy’s sudden inquiry.

“The Zerio case,” she continued. “It was the first major case we ever worked on together. Remember, with the Soviet implants?”

“I remember,” Blackwell stated. Zerio was a former Soviet implant who was left in the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union. The pair eventually managed to track down Zerio, who had put forward former Soviet assets to fund the drug trade and grow his own power, but only after several murders, including a fellow agent. The case had left a black mark on the FBI and the utterance of the simple name still managed to create an air of unease whenever it was mentioned.

“Do you remember what you told me during the case? I’d been avoiding you for days, and you had finally cornered me in church of all places. Do you remember what you said?”

The memory was called up without a moment’s hesitation. “I told you not to be afraid,” he began. “I said you weren’t alone, and that I was there for you.”

“You won my trust that day, which as you know, is not the easiest thing to do. Now, I have the opportunity to return the favor.” Judy reached out, gently placing her hand back on his shoulder. “You don’t have to be afraid, Nick. You aren’t alone in this. We’re not just friends, but family, and family looks out for one another.”

She had said the magic word: Nick. Judy always called him Blackwell, save for exceptional circumstances, that is. If she used his given name, he knew what was to follow would be sincere.

“Judy, I…”

“He’s here.”


“The target’s here!”

A few seconds later, after the statement was clearly processed, Blackwell’s head jerked up, just in time to see a man disappear into the warehouse.

“Wow,” Blackwell said in surprise. “I didn’t think he’d really show up. Of all the things organized crime is known for, punctuality is not one of them.”

“You ready?” Judy asked with a comforting smile.

“Born ready,” Blackwell confirmed.

The pair exited the car, unholstered their weapons, and proceeded across the street towards the warehouse. There was nothing unusual which would differentiate this warehouse from any other on the block, but Blackwell knew the truth. He knew that beyond its bland and unassuming exterior, there was an arms deal going on within. A rather insignificant arms deal in Blackwell’s opinion, and hardly worth their time, but a criminal act nonetheless.

Arriving at the front door, Judy turned to Blackwell. “Standard play. I’ll cover the back. You flush him out. Got it?”

“Got it,” Blackwell replied, needing no further explanation. It truly was their standard play, having been performed successfully dozens of times before. There was no reason to expect that this would be any different. The pair parted ways, and Blackwell watched as Judy disappeared around the building, gun at the ready. He would never get tired of seeing her in action.

Focusing on his own task, he entered the structure. The electricity had been cut to the building long ago, leaving the grime coated windows and Blackwell’s own flashlight the only remaining sources of light. Though moving quietly to avoid detection, he still couldn’t hear anything from the facility’s interior to suggest anyone was inside. This fact alone caused Blackwell to tighten the grip on his firearm. He cleared the ground floor quickly, then with only the slightest hesitation, made his way quietly downstairs. He had barely cleared the bottom step before he heard footsteps echoing on the cold concrete just ahead.

“FBI!” He roared, bringing his gun up, followed quickly behind by the beam of his flashlight. “Get on the ground!”

A deep laugh answered from the shadows, followed quickly by the appearance of a tall man, seeming to materialize from the darkness itself. Though his hand obscured most of his face, put up to block the blinding light, Blackwell recognized him with ease.

“Make a move Ivan,” Blackwell growled, his finger hovering dangerously close to the trigger. “I would love an excuse to put a bullet through your head.”

“Why Agent, is that any way to act?” Ivan drawled, lowering his hand.

“It’s probably appropriate,” Blackwell replied. “After everything you’ve done, I doubt many would be sad to see you go. I might actually throw a party.”

“If someone cannot accept that there are people out there that want them dead, then maybe the business of crime isn’t for them.” Ivan admitted, taking a step closer. “I’ve accepted it, and you clearly have as well Agent. When you think about it, we’re not so different, you and I.”

“Not so different?” Blackwell questioned sarcastically. “If you kill me, it’s murder. If I kill you, I’m lauded a hero. How’s that for different?”

“Each side has its advantages. You have the law at your back, and I don’t have it slowing me down,” Ivan said, taking another step forward. Blackwell’s gun tracked him as he went, but no shot followed. A tense silence fell upon the pair as the stared each other down, daring each to make the next more. A cruel smile began to emerge upon Ivan’s features when Blackwell made none. “I’m glad you’re here: alone. Just the two of us together. No one else to sway you.”

“Keep talking,” Blackwell snorted. “All you’re buying is time.”

“You’ll be the judge of that, Agent Blackwell,” Ivan said with a smile, which only served to enhance Blackwell’s reservations.

“How do you know my name?” he inquired, unable to stay his curiosity.

“Oh, I know all about you Blackwell. Information is control, after all. Money and weapons may give the illusion of power, but true power comes from nothing other than knowledge.” Ivan said. “For example, I knew you were outside this facility since seven o’clock this morning, and I knew you would enter through the front while your partner staked out the back. It is your signature play, is it not?”

Blackwell’s gun wavered slightly, caught off guard by Ivan’s sudden show of knowledge. “You knew we were here?”

“Yes, and don’t worry. My associate is occupying your partner so she won’t interrupt us.”

“If anything happens to her Ivan…” Blackwell began, his voice turning sinister, letting Ivan know his threats were far from empty.

“I said not to worry Blackwell,” Ivan reassured. “I don’t wish to see you or your partner on a metal slab. You’re far too valuable for that.”

“What game are you playing?” Blackwell asked, his focus wavering for only a moment. “Stronger men then you have tried to throw me off, and none have succeeded yet.”

“That was not my intention, Agent. All I wish is to speak to you.” Ivan replied, his voice displaying a calmness that was greatly out of character for such a tense situation. “I’ve been following your career for quite some time, and I must consider myself impressed. However, I didn’t bring you here today to sing your praises. I brought you here to offer you a choice.”

“Brought me here?” Blackwell uttered, clearly caught off guard. “You didn’t bring me here. The FBI sent us here to bust a low-level arms deal that…”

“What you’re describing is a story I created and helped to perpetuate. Try to keep up Agent, as we have little time.” Ivan took a step closer. “It has come to my attention your sister was recently murdered. This saddens me to hear, as I was under the impression you two were fairly close.”

Blackwell visibly flinched. “How do you know about that?” He stammered, his tone suddenly rising. “What do you want?!”

“I told you already Agent. I want to offer you a choice,” Ivan began. “My line of work gives me the privilege of knowing information often kept hidden from the public eye. For instance, I know who killed your sister, and I am willing to tell you.”

“You know who it was?” Blackwell whispered, his voice eerily quiet as the weight of what Ivan was offering sunk in. “Why would you tell me?”

“Serial killers are bad for business. I deal in control, and they can’t be controlled. I would have had my men deal with the killer eventually, but I think it’s in both of our best interests for me to tell the name to you, then you can go apprehend the killer.” Ivan shrugged. “Or don’t. I’m not one to judge.”

Blackwell hesitated. “What do you want in return?”

“You’re quick. I like that,” Ivan replied with a small grin. “I merely want a small favor. I need a file buried deep in the annals of the FBI. No one would bat an eye if it suddenly vanished.”

Blackwell didn’t know what to think. On one hand, this man was a criminal, and represented everything he had come to hate about the world. There was nothing which could justify Blackwell siding with such a monster.

However, would the ends justify the means? Blackwell knew as well as anyone that this killer was good, and that they were no closer to catching him now as they were two weeks prior. And as long as Jackson held the assistant director’s chair, there was no way he would be assigned back to the case. If Ivan truly knew who the killer was, it could be his only chance to get his revenge.

Judy’s voice echoed down from upstairs. “Blackwell! Are you okay down there?”

“Time is key to a murder investigation,” Ivan said. “This information may not be around for long.”

Blackwell had made many mistakes in his life, but it was this very moment that he would spend the rest of his life regretting.

Blackwell lowered his weapon. “All clear,” he called out.


Ivan contacted me a short while later.

How he found me, I don’t know, nor do I care to find out. Despite the deepest desires of my heart, he never stayed away for long.

Ivan has his hooks in me, and nothing save for a miracle would pry them out. True to his word, Ivan provided the name. I didn’t realize it then while I was consumed with vengeance, but Ivan had laid a trap, and I, being the fool I am, fell right into it.

The first time Ivan called, I had the thought of my sister to sustain me. Information was all Ivan required, mainly files and documents, and though I was certainly acting on the wrong side of the law, I did what was instructed of me. The second time Ivan called, I succeeded again, thinking my debt had finally been repaid. By the time of the third call, I knew the relationship was not meant to be temporary.

I am powerless. I suppose I overlooked that small detail while I was consumed with vengeance, but it makes all the difference now. Ivan holds all the strength in our deal, and I can do nothing but comply with his wishes, or risk being revealed for what I truly am.

What am I? Despite every deed Ivan has forced me to commit over the years, it is this one question which has caused me more distress than all of them combined.

The passing years only bore this question deeper, and I suppose it is safe to say I lost myself along the path to an answer.

A federal agent by day. A hero of the country who represents all that society should strive for. The epitome of courage and strength. The moral center of a nation who keeps all from falling into darkness.

But what by night? A criminal. Even worse: a traitor. A mole within the Bureau itself. A passer of information to those who hold no ethics and who bring down society with their actions.

These conflicting halves of my personality seemed to fuel my own abounding insecurities. I’m not sure when Judy found out, but I shouldn’t have been surprised when she did. If there was anyone who could read my every thought, it was her. Personally, I don’t believe I want to know the exact details of when and how she found out. I will not have my memories of her soiled with the thought that she knew, deep down, who I really was.

Who I really was; I finally have an answer. The question has been without one for so many years, it’s almost appropriate that it be answered now.

I can’t be both the hero and the villain. I am no dark angel. I am a dirty cop, and nothing more.

Perhaps that’s the question that time is helping me to answer. How did I get here, about to die at the hands of a friend?

I suppose it could be seen as poetic to some.

I really don’t see it.


“Judy,” Blackwell asked hesitantly. “What are you doing?”

With a telltale click, the door was locked. Blackwell silently cursed himself. He should have known there was more to their little excursion into the backroom than just a discussion on the case.

“I could ask you the same question,” Judy said, her voice growing frighteningly icy. “What are you doing, Nick?”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to say,” Blackwell replied, apprehension clearly evident in his voice.

“Oh really?” Judy scoffed. “I’m smarter than you give me credit for, you know.”

“Judy calm down,” Blackwell said, inching closer. “Are you sure the stress of the case isn’t getting to you…”

“Save the act!” she cried out, her voice rising higher with each passing moment, catching Blackwell off-guard. “You may be able to lie to Jackson, but you can’t lie to me! After everything we’ve been through! After everything we’ve done, you threw it all away!”

“Judy, what are you…”

“You’re the mole, Nick!” she cried out, all composure now lost. “I’ve been trying to ignore it for a long time now, hoping I was wrong, but I can’t any longer. This whole case you’ve been acting like you wanted to track down the mole when it was really you all along! I hate myself for not accepting it sooner!”

“I can explain…” Blackwell began, trying in desperation to save the life which was now crashing down around him.

“Save your words,” Judy spat, tears now beginning to flow down her face. “They won’t make any difference to me.”

“Judy, you don’t understand,” Blackwell cried. “Ivan made me do it. He has a hold on me, and I can’t shake him. I’ve tried everything, and it’s impossible!”

“I understand plenty,” Judy said, wiping the tears from her eyes. Turning away, she made for the door. Stopping when she reached it, she turned around to look at the remains of what was once her friend. “I don’t think you ever loved me at all.”

With that to part them, Judy stormed from the room, leaving Blackwell’s shattered world behind her.


I now know the question.

Our final moments are not spent in solace, regretting our past and dreading the unknown. Our final moments aid in answering the question as old as time itself: what gave my life purpose?

My life had purpose, but it wasn’t due to the sheer number of my memories. My purpose was decided from the moment I became an FBI agent. It was decided from the onset of my first case.

It was decided when I fell in love with Judy Hanchon.

I know now what gave my life purpose. I only wish I could have figured it out sooner.


It was unknown to Blackwell how much time had passed, standing alone in Hudson’s office, until his phone buzzed in his pocket. He extracted it, only to find an unknown number at the receiving end. Hesitantly, he answered.

“Hello?” Blackwell croaked.

“You have failed me Blackwell,” came Ivan’s voice. “I left her alive as a service to you, under the condition she be left in the dark. It seems you could not succeed, even in that.”

Blackwell’s heart froze at his words. “It’s not what you think!” he cried in desperation.

“I’m sure it’s not,” he jeered back. “Did you honestly believe you were my only informant in the FBI? I have informants everywhere Blackwell. Ones who are much more loyal than you.”

If Blackwell didn’t know how to respond to this sudden revelation, there was nothing that could prepare him for what was to come.

“I hope your final words were heartfelt Blackwell.”

The phone hadn’t even touched the ground when Blackwell ran from the room.


In many ways, time is a trap.

It traps us in the memories we would sooner forget, letting us linger on the mistakes which have been made.

But in other ways, the more important ways, time gives us a choice. We can choose to be brought down by our past, or we can choose to let it go, and shape a new future.

I chose poorly. I only wish I could have chosen differently.


“Judy!” Blackwell cried out upon leaving the room. Too late, he saw her down the hall, entering the elevator, unaware of how much danger she was in.

Blackwell tore after her, but it was too late. When he arrived at the elevator, it had been long closed, and had descended all the way to the bottom floor: the parking garage.

Blackwell didn’t have time to wait for its return journey. He chose the stairs, flying down them three at a time. Nothing entered his mind save for Judy, and keeping her safe.


As an FBI agent, you’d think I’d have a better grasp on time.

My profession has surrounded me with death to the point that I forget about its inevitability. I have become desensitized to time, and took it for granted for too long.

We all have a set time. Time is not the enemy, for it is ourselves, and how we choose to treat our allotted amount. We know not when, or how it will come to pass, but it is always there. It creeps closer with every passing second, and nothing will stop its advance.

We often forget this, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I suppose this wisdom is only bestowed in our final moments. If it was known to all, it could change the world.

I know how I chose to use my days. I only wish I could have used them better.


Though his footfalls made it difficult, Blackwell was still able to hear the echoing voices coming from the bottom of the stairwell.

“It’s nothing personal Judy. Blackwell failed, and he has to pay the price. I know you would do the same thing in my position.”

“Say whatever you have to in order to justify yourself,” Judy answered. “But it doesn’t make it true.”

“I really am sorry.”

Blackwell recognized the second voice, but it wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible.

His pace quickened.


I am often left floored by the fickle nature of time.

One minute, it is speeding past, and the next, it hesitates to pass at all.

It is quite amazing, the world with an absence of time. Pity we only learn to see it this way at the end, when we no longer have a choice but to examine and regret our past choices.

But maybe we do have a choice. A choice to accept there is evil in this world, but there is also good. We all have both inside us, but it is what we choose to act on which dictates our lives and our legacy.

I lost sight of this somewhere along the way. I only wish I had the chance to change.


Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Blackwell processed the scene in a moment’s glance.

Hudson had Judy at gunpoint, having caught her before she could draw her weapon. They were staring intently at one another, and Blackwell knew no action of his would incite pause.

His course, and fate, was now clear. He ran towards Judy and jumped.

Time slowed to a halt as Blackwell’s life passed before him in a moment, but only a moment.


Time is a gift to us all. I only wish I had more of it.



Without Emma

Elizabeth Grace


Sarah traces the curves of Emma’s cradle and rests her fingertips on the soft flannel sheet fitted neatly against its hand-turned slats. She pulls the tiny mattress out, presses her face against it, and inhales deeply. She feels David’s hand on her shoulder and looks up at him, hugging the bedding tightly to her chest. Her husband kneels behind her and lays his head on hers, his arms circling her small frame, and rocks her gently as her silent tears fall onto the pale pink fabric and spread into darker pink circles.

They meet every day after work in the little room at the end of the hall, the two of them who loved her most. Sarah usually gets there first and though in the beginning he tried to coax her out into the living room, David has come to find an uneasy comfort in their shared evening ritual.

Emma’s first photograph, the ultrasound printout of her at twenty-two weeks gestation, sits framed on the little table next to the rocking chair that had belonged to Sarah’s grandmother. David picks it up and studies the cloudy image, looking for clues.


Emma had seemed like a dream to him until she was born, red and wailing, head thrown back in protest. But at that very moment, with him draped in a pale yellow paper gown, his wife on the bed, happy and exhausted, and his newborn daughter thrust unwillingly into the world, David Boyle got the first glimpse of how fragile his seemingly safe world really was.

From childhood on, David had always felt confident and in control. His understanding of life was simple: If you do the right things, everything goes as it should. For twenty-eight years, his experiences supported that belief, but early one spring morning, all that David had come to trust slipped away quietly as he and his wife slept, unaware, just two doors down.

In their first days without Emma, David and Sarah were kept occupied by the frenzied rush of well-wishers who tried to ease their pain with casseroles and awkward words. When David drove his parents to the airport, Sarah was alone for the first time in almost a week and the solitude stung like a prickly rash. She opened the door to Emma’s room and stood frozen at its threshold, unable to step onto the cheery rug decorated with white bunnies, seated for a tea party. She slid her back down the doorframe and sat, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, until David returned.

That evening, the couple made their way into their daughter’s room for the first time since they’d left it, days earlier, trailing after the paramedics, numb with disbelief. Sarah noticed the velvety blanket draped over the arm of the rocking chair and reached toward it cautiously as if it were a strange dog she feared might bite. They walked together through the room touching Emma’s things, strangely foreign to them now, until finally they sat, defeated, in the nook of the bay window.

Sarah looked at her husband, her eyes searching for reassurance he couldn’t provide, and began to weep. Her cries came softly at first, but then grew until they were great angry gasps, burning at her throat. David watched his wife and wished he had something to offer. Frightened by his own impotence, he closed his eyes and tried to shut out the new reality of his life.

As the days turned into weeks, both David and Sarah grew to look forward to their time in the room, lit by summer’s early evening light. It was only there they felt no pressure to march bravely through the stages of grief, all neatly outlined in the brochures and pages printed from internet articles given to them by friends and family members in their efforts to help. Outside the nursery’s comfortable confines, an unspoken urgency to reach acceptance surrounded them, but in Emma’s room, no one offered sympathetic smiles or amateur psychological advice. There, unlike anywhere else, David and Sarah were free to sit with each other and their memories of their daughter, free to dwell on thoughts of her tiny smile and dimpled thighs, and free to admit, if only to themselves, that a part of them would forever remain broken.

Emma had lived in their home for three months and sixteen days. Add to that the months of loving anticipation, and the year that was Emma’s was one of enormous transformation. Her abrupt departure did little to halt the dreams her parents held for her. They would never buy birthday cakes or party dresses, would never stand proudly at her graduation or sit together, hand in hand, watching as she spoke her wedding vows, but for David and Sarah, who loved her most, thoughts of those events came in waves that brought both comfort and pain.  


David places Emma’s ultrasound picture back on the table and scoots around to face his wife, who is still clutching tightly to the mattress. He takes it from her gently and places it back into the cradle. “It’s gone,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t smell her anymore.”

“A few days ago,” David says, taking Sarah’s hand, “I couldn’t remember her face. Remember how she looked when she’d finish nursing? That sleepy, satisfied smile?”

David stops and swallows hard, tears welling up in his eyes. Sarah nods and squeezes her husband’s hand, urging him to continue. “I can’t remember that look. I’ve been trying and trying, but I can’t remember that look.”

Sarah leans into her husband and rests her forehead against his. They stay like that for several minutes, neither of them speaking, and then Sarah sits back. “How do we do this?” she asks him. “How do we let her go?”

“I don’t want to let her go,” David answers, his face crumbling. “What kind of father forgets what his daughter looks like?”

Sarah runs her hands down David’s wet cheeks and then rests her palms on her thighs. “I’m scared,” she says.

“Me, too.”


Sarah rubs the sleep from her eyes and draws her robe tightly around her. She heads to the kitchen, where David is turning potatoes and peppers in a skillet. When he sees her, he lays the spatula down, grabs another mug from the cupboard, and slides it toward her. She pours herself a cup of coffee and tops his off, leaning in for a kiss before returning the pot to its spot on the counter.

“What’s this?” Sarah asks, picking up a large envelope and pulling up the open flap. She empties a fistful of brochures onto the table and selects a pale blue one.

“It’s the stuff the social worker gave us at the hospital,” David answers. “I thought maybe it was time.”

Sarah reads the title. When a Child Dies…The Compassionate Friends Can Help. “Oh, David,” she says, setting the paper back down with the others.

“They meet at The Cornerstone Church on Tuesdays,” David offers, keeping his eyes focused on his cooking. “I checked.”

A rush of heat passes through Sarah’s cheeks and she pulls out a chair to sit, her stomach suddenly uneasy. She flips through the pile of brochures, all with similar titles.

“Talking to a bunch of strangers isn’t going to bring Emma back,” she says, and then adds, “and it won’t help you remember her smile.”

David looks up from the potatoes, clearly stung by his wife’s remark. “I’m sorry, David. I shouldn’t have said that.” Sarah gets up and moves to him, raising her arms to circle his neck. “And I didn’t mean it.”

“I know you didn’t.” David puts his arms around Sarah’s waist and pulls her close. He nods toward the table. “Just think about it, okay?”


David opens the heavy wooden door and they go in. A few dozen people mill about the room, some standing in small groups. Folding chairs are arranged in a large circle, and Sarah is relieved to see that no one is crying. In the car a few minutes earlier, Sarah confessed she didn’t think she could stand being in the midst of a mass of suffering people, but as she scans the room, she is comforted and surprised by the normalcy of the group. If it weren’t for the paper sign taped to the door, she might have thought she and David had entered the wrong room.  

Sarah watches as a middle-aged woman opens boxes of donuts and fans napkins on a card table. When she notices Sarah, the woman smiles and walks toward the couple, her hand outstretched. David accepts the woman’s handshake while Sarah stands stiffly beside him, fists wound together in a concrete grasp.

“Welcome,” she says. “I’m Joyce.” Looking at David, she asks, “Are you the man who called last week?”

“Yes,” David answers. “I’m David Boyle and this is my wife, Sarah.”

“I’m glad you decided to join us,” Joyce tells them. “I hope you feel at home here.” She looks at Sarah and touches her arm. “You lost your infant daughter?”

Sarah’s throat tightens and for a moment she fears she won’t be able to speak. “Yes,” she says quietly, looking at the older woman. “Emma.”

Joyce tilts her head, her face soft with understanding. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “How long has it been?”

David puts his arm around Sarah’s shoulder and squeezes her gently. “Almost six months,” he tells Joyce. “And we just…” He stops, unsure of what to say.

Joyce nods. “You just want to find out,” she says, looking first at David and then at Sarah. “You want to find out how you go on without Emma.”

Joyce’s eyes meet Sarah’s, and she smiles gently at the younger woman. “You’ll never be the same,” she says, placing her hand on Sarah’s. “But you can build a happy life again, I promise.”

Sarah looks up at David, her face mirroring his uncertainty, but she allows Joyce to take her hand and guide them deeper into the room, where they are welcomed into the circle.

Timeline of the Not So Distant Future

Dylan Wyatt


For years, governments around the world tried unsuccessfully to find a solution to the rising population rates that threatened to be our demise. As valuable resources ran out at an alarming rate, as the environment burned away into a worldwide wasteland, as the activities of criminals flourished, humanity and its world seemed to have reached its final days. Religious zealots pleaded for a return to God and his forgiveness as the apparent Judgement Day approached. The rich and powerful hid away in their impenetrable bunkers with their loved ones and any they saw fit to survive. With the world on its last legs, the unimaginable happened.

In the year 2030, the more radical countries at the time started a plot, codenamed Reaper, to secretly purge the planet of the people deemed unnecessary with a series of planned massacres that would be blamed on anyone other than those actually responsible. Five years of widespread bloodshed occurred before the public finally started putting the pieces together thanks to the testimony of the Romanian Prime Minister’s wife and children whose conscience could no longer allow such awful actions to be committed; the Romanian government was the first to be rebelled against by its people. The Prime Minister became the first in a long line of government officials put to death for the crimes. Things may not have gotten so out of control after that had the West intervened as it normally would have, but, at the time, it had its own problems.

In the year 2022, Britain decided to take back all of Ireland in an attempt to recreate the once glorious United Kingdom of ages long past. In retaliation, the Queen and royal family were assassinated within the confines of their homes within the first month of bloodshed. While Britain’s superior numbers and weapons would eventually prevail, the newly established government in charge of the entirety of the British Isles was run by a charismatic and power-hungry dictator of now legendary status, Benjamin Kaine. As the riots and civil wars started popping up across continental Europe, Kaine’s government declared the issues in the East a concern for themselves and any fools that wanted to help such Godless heathens.

In the year 2035, as those responsible for so much death in recent years became known to the public, large masses of concerned citizens formed into militias like the Continental Army of the American Revolution or the Bolsheviks’ Red Guards. Most revolts were led by local leaders and public figures with the most battle experience. The vast majority of the militias possessed little to no knowledge of war tactics or strategy and no experience in a real war. The largest collection of soldiers was in Russia, responsible for the most fatalities from the massacres and whose government many felt had been the main contributor to the Reaper plot. The small, unprepared countries of Eastern Europe, like Estonia and Belgravia, were the first to fall. Russia lasted longer than most thought it would, but by the following winter, Berlin and all the major cities lit up the sky in flames. The wars raged for several more years, spreading into Asia and South America where people were already unhappy.

They say that history repeats itself, in which case this seemed to be a carbon copy of the French Revolution but on a much larger scale. Lacking the proper leadership and organization of the revolutions in America and Russia, the militias and armies, once their purpose was complete and achieved, led to a world full of anarchy, crime, and disease. In some ways, it was worse than what Reaper had intended to eradicate.

In the year 2044, with most of the world’s organized governments lost or replaced with something worse, the United States, restored to its status of world power after the fall of China’s communist government resulted in the end of its crippling debt, elected to send peaceful organizations bent on providing aide in the hopes of returning the world to normality. The standing militias and freedom fighters, not looking for a return to normal, sent all of the unarmed volunteers back, minus their heads, with a message to stay away. Upset and concerned, the U.S. refused Britain’s advice to leave them to their own devices and declared war on the anarchistic armies.

In the year 2047, after almost three long years of fighting the untrained but forever resilient militias that refused to concede, the U.S. held a meeting in the safe house bunker of the White House. After eight hours of deliberation, the President gave the command to initiate Thermonuclear warfare. The bombs starting falling from the sky on November 8, 2045. Nuclear fallout rained down with the ashes of bloodied soldiers and innocent families for months. That day is now celebrated throughout the world as Rebirth Day by those that threw the final blows and as Judgement Day for those that watched the sky turn a sickly shade of deathly white.

In the year 2054, seven long years of suffering ended with the announcement that the lands devastated by nuclear radiation were once again inhabitable thanks to advancements in technology that allowed people to live there in specially built buildings, radiation-resistant body suits, and with certain precautions put into place, including extensive background checks, mandatory curfews, and restrictions on food and other imported items.

In the year 2060, worldwide peace finally seemed to be restored as the renamed United States of the World finished its decade long expansion into the lost lands of Latin America, Canada, and the established colonial territories in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Other countries, now large entities operating under the political movement of Future-Imperialism, received lands they believed they deserved, mainly the other members of the Mighty Four: the Holy United Kingdom, the Free Realm of France, and the Castilian-Arabian Empire of Spain. While other countries still exist, still ruled by those that never lost control, they are relegated in power and size to the Old World. And then, there are the places no one is allowed to talk about or ever go to, lands still reigned by the savages, barbarians, and heathens that refuse to accept the new society.

It is now the year 2090, only a decade remains in this century unlike any history ever thought possible, and for the first time in possibly forever, we are all happy and safe. There is no longer war, only mutually beneficial compromise. There is no longer disease, for science has finally found the cure to that once constant plaque to society. There is no longer poverty, as all are given opportunities to strive in a prosperous society. There is no longer an issue on race, on sexuality, on rights, on injustice. They even tell us we are just as free as we once were, that freedom is inherited the day you are born.

If that is so, why do I feel like a caged lion, waiting for the chance to break free?

The Rabbit Hole

Lily Staricha


Don’t jump down the rabbit hole. You don’t want to go there. Alice did, and she never came back. Not the Alice you know with her blonde hair and blue bell dress. The Alice you don’t know. Alice was small, petite, and smart. She always had a creative mind. Soon she disappeared. No one understood how she did, but I knew. She went down the rabbit hole. Though the rabbit hole is not in the woods, it is in your homes. There is always one place you can find the rabbit hole, the basement if you have one. If not the rabbit hole will find you.

Beware though the rabbit hole may not like you. If you fall through, you will hear.

“Tick tock, Tick tock. Time has stopped. Tick tock, Tick tock. Your sanity is about to drop.”

Look around and you may understand why. Hazel tree walls threaded with gold. Chestnut and Pine grandfather clocks. Large and small. Silver and gold. The hands of the clock make no sounds. The chimes don’t chime, they whine. Time never changes. The clocks are frozen, on what time you can never tell. The hole will remain for a minute, and then drop you into a colorful abyss.

Eventually the colors will become a world. A world of wonder. You will be lying a large chessboard. Black and white figures stand tall. They never move. They sing:

“8 Pawns, 2 knights, 2 Bishops, 2 Rooks, 1 King, and 1 Queen. Pawns are to die. Knights, the silver warriors, will also die. Bishops wave the flags. Rooks are the castle towers left to crumble. The King isn’t the ruler, he is the slave. The Queen looks over everything, and remain safe. Or at least until she is checked.”

Their song will make no sense. Try to ignore it. Flip over onto your back, and look up. A sky of blue and white fluffy clouds will stare back at you. Roll to either side and you will see an endless field of bright yellow sunflowers. All of them will be staring back at you. Roll to your left and you will see a small object. It will be sitting near the end of the chessboard.

Go closer and take a look. Bend down and pick it up. Soon you will hold a purple velvet and black thread hat. Around the hat wraps a orange ribbon. On the inside of the ribbon will be yellow flowers.  On the left edge will a multitude of things. A piece of paper with 10/6. Five pins ret in front of the paper. One is blue, one is red and gold, one is gold with a red tip, one is a gold circle, and finally one is purple bead.

Place it on your head. Then turn around. The white squares and pieces will bleed red. The black squares and pieces will thread with white webs. The yellow sunflowers dye black, and glisten purple. The blue sky will paint grey. Instead of a song you will hear a chant.

“Welcome to your new land. Your sanity has gone. Welcome to your new land. Where everything is gone. Welcome to your new land. Where the moon has eaten the dawn. Welcome to your new land. Where you are now insanity’s pawn. Welcome to your new land.”

Indeed. Welcome to your new land… Mad Hatter.

The Tide

Madison Monette


Waves crash down on the wall of rocks guarding Maine’s most eastern shore. The Atlantic’s greedy tongue laps at the remaining parcels of beach that meet its frigid waters. The towns folk avoid the monotonous pleas of the sea. The birds and seals refuse to be a part of its taking. What lurks beneath the pounding waves, like never-ending fists, is waiting. Seldom seen by those fortunate enough to relay the tale, it waits for an unsuspecting bird, or seal, or little girl to fall mesmerized by its symphony. Lore of sailors plunging into the chilling darkness, hypnotized by a siren’s song, flood the local newspaper and marketplace talk. The facade of algae covered boulders protects beach goers from sharks and jellyfish, but the unrelenting waves grow to make their presence known. The sea’s jealous waves erase footprints left in the sand by those able to stroll the endless beach. The children are warned to stay away from the sea, especially on nights where the full moon demands the tide. Romantics often walk along the moonlit beach on clear nights where spray glistens as it rains down the western edge of the jagged rocks. Adventurous sightseers climb the wall to glimpse the moon shining off the cataclysmic waves before they meet their demise.

There is no blood, only a shriek soon diluted by a flood not even the wall can keep out. After every encounter the beach becomes more vacant. Now, as the little girl looks out her bedroom window, only a ghost town lies before her. The feeling of the sand, the cool water contrasted against a hot summer’s day, it begs her to join in the delight.

The tide pulls her in. Her flashlight, offering little use in the full moon’s glow, bounces off the dripping rocks. She walks towards the end of the breakwall, where the calming lullaby reaches sand. The sweet serenade grows louder. There is no turning back.

A sudden realization, her feet are submerged by a chilling blanket, flowing towards her then away, never remaining still.

A webbed hand seizes her ankle. It pulls her to the icy depths before she can utter more than a yelp.

Emerging from the crashing waves is a little girl, dripping saltwater and seaweed. She walks along the weakening rocks, singing with a stranger’s voice, before returning back into the sea. The little girl’s body crashes into the wall with repetitive urgency. A glistening tail dives into the black waves, waiting to walk once more.

The Monster that Rides the Waves

Paige Cavaness


The water glistens on top, reflecting a slate grey sadness that only comes when turmoil is brewing under the surface. It is frigid, yet men sail it. A vast expanse to be discovered off the coast of Scotland where only mist and drunkards dare navigate. The North sea, nearly as terrifying and starved as he who lurks beneath the surf. . . nearly. Boats coughing up smoke and gasoline fumes that only add to his ravaged home. Sailors guffaw and inhale nicotine from their deathly pleasures as they totter along the sea, unsuspicious and unsuspecting. They’ve heard the stories, ignored the rumors, discarded the lore. Twenty deaths in the last two months must not have been a coincidence surely? One speaks. The other, intoxicated on spirits or his own arrogance lets loose a guttural laugh. No coincidence, he chortles. Just sheer stupidity on the water. Waters like these can gobble a person up, if they don’t keep their wits about em’, he states, all knowing. For they are human, how could they not be all knowing? How could they be wrong about what lurks in the depths and dances with the icy current? Deemed top of the food chain by none other than themselves, how could anyone mistake them for trivial? They know they are almighty, for they tell themselves so. They do not put stock in the thought of me.

In far more than twenty deaths, chalked up to the brutality of the salty brine or the razor of a thunderous storm slitting the throats of many.

Light another cigarette and throw down the anchor, another voices. The fishing looks good here, an older fellow chants. If only he knew what so desperately pined for their anchor.

Meanwhile, deep under where even the slimiest of urchins refuse to travel, I sit. I wait. My scales caress the threads of chilled seaweed as I slither forth, following the bubbles protruding from a cast anchor. Knotted and oil-sodden rope suspends in the water and draws taut. I’ve found them. Then again, they announced themselves by delivering the crusted weight to my seafloor. Moronic, foolish, irresponsible– a whole list of vile invectives flood my mind.

I expand my great wings and push forward in the water. It used to be so peaceful here. Quite, unobtrusive. And then the water started to taste rancid, like fish infected with rot. When my forked tongue assaulted the atmosphere, I learned to quickly halt my instincts. The once delicious refreshment of my environment had been soured. Toxified. Molested.

It took me years to discover the source. And it now hovers not three miles above my horned head.

Almost lovingly, I coil myself around the anchor. The putrid odor of oil and pollutants singes my nose. Glancing up, my eyes tearing unnoticably in the murky filth around me, I see myself reflected on the bottom of their vessel.

Great, black talons attached to great black hands. A long, ravishing tail, pointed with a blade-like embellishment, perfect for shredding and stabbing. Massive, orderly alignments of scales down my body. Enormous golden eyes resembling liquefied gold, shocking against the obsidian shadow of the rest of my body. Wings, so long in length that they dwarf the sail-ship above me. I have lived millennia only to watch ramparts from frivolous battles rain down and crush the creatures who have been here since the first dawn of the first day; I have tasted the flesh of Vikings who raped and pillaged as man now does onto my very dwellings. I have been asphyxiated by both the blood of men and the blood of boats for far, far too long.  How inherently preposterous humans are to believe a creature as ancient and wise as I does not exist and loath them.

Slowly, my reflection on the boat’s bottom magnifies my horned head as I speed closer. Above, the chatter continues, piercing my ears. Talk of more boating trips that will not happen, of more pollution dumped upon my home, of more plague sickening the very place that has been mine from the beginning, of cocky insults stating nothing like myself exists. How dare they, how dare they, how dare they…  

I break the surf and capsize the boat.

Sea foam sprays around me as I let myself be seen, watch the horror in the men’s eyes as they realize I am real and I am here. Without hesitation, I bite one man in half. He screams; I smile. The water bloodies.

When it is finished, I submerge myself once again amongst the nebulous bottom of the sea. With a full belly and satisfaction at another poison terminated, I settle down to rest.

In the distance, the buzz of a motor approaches.  

Temptation Meets Opportunity

Elizabeth Grace


Jamaica Wilson listens for the door to close and then rises from her bed. She promised her daughter she’d stay put, but this business of dying obediently is starting to wear on her nerves, so on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when Melly leaves for her shift at the hospital, Jamaica wanders through the house and sometimes, when she’s feeling especially defiant, into the field behind it.

Life indoors, with its safe, smooth flooring, leaves Jamaica heavy with want. She turns toward the windows like a blossom leans to the sun, instinctive in her need for nourishment. The acres of wildflowers beckon, their colorful petals as thousands of fingers crooked to lure her out past the concrete bird bath and sagging clothes line. On days when her energy matches her desire, she answers their call.

The house is sticky-hot, its windows sealed from generations of Wilsons painting over the worn sashes, and Jamaica grabs the edge of the counter to steady herself. She pushes a kitchen chair across the room and uses it to prop open the storm door. The screens were replaced long ago with panes of Plexiglas, the lower one now scratched opaque on both sides by a series of house pets anxious to get out and then equally urgent in their need to return. Jamaica shares the longing to run free and then come back to the comfort of her hearth, but on this day she wonders if her legs could carry her far enough so when she looked back, she would see nothing manmade. She pictures the reedy pond where she’d swam as a child—her clothes heaped on the shore as she waded into the chest-deep water in her underwear—and fights the urge to make her way out to it now.

Jamaica opens the fridge, pours a glass of sweet tea, and carries it to the doorway chair. She lowers herself onto the frayed wicker seat, its bristly edges poking through the thin cotton of her dress, and presses the cool glass against her flushed cheeks, grateful for both the beverage and the summer breeze.

Looking back into the kitchen, Jamaica chides herself for her domestic uselessness. Breakfast dishes sit unwashed in the sink and the ironing board where Melly had pressed her uniform before running out the door this morning, late and fretful, stands open. A basket of freshly laundered clothes sits on the table, awaiting attention.

Determined to carry her weight, although as her daughter reminds her whenever she expresses discontent, she has more than done over the years, Jamaica stands, walks carefully across the kitchen, plugs the iron into the outlet, and shakes the can of starch. She pulls a pair of pants from the basket and holds them by their cuffs, carefully matching the seams before laying them smoothly across the board. She slides the iron up over the length of a pant leg and a crisp crease forms along its front edge.

Jamaica had loved to iron as a young wife; she’d enjoyed most of her household chores, taking great pride in sending her husband and children into the world well-loved and properly tended. Even now, with only Melly left at home, Jamaica finds pleasure in helping where she can, though her daughter prefers she rest, reading and sewing about the only activities still approved.

The heat from the iron, combined with the oppressive August temperature, bring Jamaica’s thoughts back the pond. She lets her mind wander over decades of sweltering summers, when she’d splashed with her children and then returned to the water with her husband once prayers were said and stories read, the two of them glistening in the moonlight before huddling together under a shared towel.  

The tip of the iron strikes something, drawing Jamaica’s attention back to her work. She sets the iron face down on the pad, reaches into the pocket of her daughter’s khakis, and retrieves a keychain with a single key. She holds the key out for examination and then wraps her gnarled fingers around it and brings her fist to her chest, a smile turning at the corners of her mouth.

Jamaica had grudgingly surrendered her license last winter, after running her Saturn over a parking block in the Piggly Wiggly lot. Melly had insisted and while Jamaica argued that it was the ice and not inattentiveness that had caused the mishap, she’d finally given in and handed over her key, agreeing to leave the car in the garage and travel into town only in the passenger seat of Melly’s Subaru.

Her daughter had hoped to find a buyer for the car, but Jamaica convinced her to hold off and now, standing in the steamy kitchen clutching an ignition key, Jamaica feels a quick rush of anticipation. She knows she can’t drive down the public road, but she sees no harm in taking the car across the field and parking it beside the pond.

Jamaica shuffles to the linen closet, takes a neatly folded towel, and tucks it under her arm. She walks out to the garage, pushes the button to raise the door, settles in behind the wheel, and starts the engine. She backs out of the stall easily, as she had done with a long string of cars beginning with her father’s Chrysler wagon almost sixty years before, and pulls around the house to the back yard.

Congratulating herself on her resourcefulness, Jamaica drives through the field and just as she had planned, parks alongside the cool water. As she wades in, holding the hem of her dress above her knees, Jamaica looks back toward the house, pleased that she’s far enough away to see nothing manmade.

Beyond the water’s edge and past the wildflower fields that have been the playgrounds of Jamaica Wilson’s life, stands the home her grandfather built, stout and sturdy. And in the kitchen of that very house, a cottony ironing pad sparks, its hungry flame fed by the gentle summer breeze coming through the still-open storm door, while its mistress stands cool and happy, knee deep in the reedy pond.


Elizabeth Grace


Maria hears the train’s whistle and knows it means her father will be home soon. She yanks her heavy jacket from the hook and shoves her arms in as she goes outside. She pulls her hat over her ears and closes the door quietly so Mama won’t hear and make her come back in.

She misses her father and can’t wait for him to scoop her up and spin her around, like he does every evening after work. She runs to the end of the long driveway to meet him and steps up onto the frozen mound left by the city’s plow to get a better look down the street.

The cold air stings her eyes, so she closes them. She thinks it’s strange that she can smell her father’s cologne, warm and spicy in the crisp January night. He can’t be home yet, she thinks, because the whistle has just blown and she always has time to sing at least three songs to herself before she spots him walking along the edge of the road, his briefcase swinging in perfect pace with his steps.

Maria feels suddenly odd, her hands and feet heavy and numb with cold. She pulls the lapels of her coat and crosses them over her neck, but the wool is scratchy so she folds them back. A frosty rush of air against her skin makes her draw in a sharp breath.

She tries to open her eyes, but can’t. Panic rises in her chest and hot tears well under her eyelids. She wills them to melt her frozen lashes, but they stay locked inside, she’s certain, by a thick ridge of stubborn ice that’s formed an impenetrable seam.

Sirens break through the stillness and Maria fights harder to see. Bitter air stings her lungs with each breath and she wishes she’d waited inside as her mother had instructed. Her coat suddenly feels too small so she tries to unfasten the buttons, but her ungloved fingers are stiff and unwilling. She tugs frantically at the fabric, her lungs unable to expand under its unyielding constraint.

The smell of her father’s cologne grows stronger and she feels the warmth of his hands against her face. He brushes the ice from her eyes and she opens them easily. He smiles down at her and then picks her up in a smooth motion, twirling once before carrying her up the driveway. The house is bathed in a soft amber glow, its windows calling a promise of warmth and comfort. Maria is anxious to go inside, sensing that a great deal of time has passed since she left. Her father whispers against her ear, the heat from his breath moist in the wool of her hat. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m taking you home.”

The tension releases from Maria’s body and her breathing slows to a comfortable rhythm. She feels safe again and the numbness is replaced by a gentle heat, rising from her feet up throughout her body. She wraps her arms around her father’s neck and buries her face into the soft cashmere of his coat, his familiar scent making her suddenly sleepy.

Maria lingers for a moment in the magical place between wakefulness and sleep, but before she can drift off, a light from the newly opened doorway jolts her alert. It’s too bright, she thinks, and she pushes against her father to try to get down.

“It’s alright, darlin’ girl,” he says. “I’ll keep you safe and sound.”

“I don’t want to,” Maria says, twisting her body to get away. “I don’t want to go!”

Maria’s father sets her down and leans to kiss her forehead. “Good girl,” he says, his eyes brimming with tears. “You scoot along now and I’ll come back when you’re ready.”

Maria runs back down the driveway, away from her father and away from her too-bright house. She stops and turns to look back for just a moment and then disappears into the darkness of the night.

She runs toward the sound of the sirens. Runs until the lights, flashing red, hover above her. She looks up at them, streaks of light across the dark sky, and draws in a long, deep breath.

“That’s it,” she hears a man say. “‘Atta girl.”

A firefighter, his brow glistening despite the frigid temperature, kneels next to Maria. He smiles. “We lost you there for a minute, ma’am, but you’re gonna be just fine. Your husband is right over there. Worried sick, but he’ll feel a whole lot better now. We’ll have you at the hospital in no time at all, so you just lie back and relax.”

Maria holds tightly to her husband’s hand as the gurney is lifted into the ambulance. As the doors close, a warm, spicy scent drifts in from outside, and Maria closes her eyes and smiles.