Swinging his skinny legs out of his narrow bed, Olyinyk sat on the edge, momentarily suspended in the dream space between prayer and sleep. Then he rose and turned on his electric kettle, preparing a mug for his tea. As he waited for the water to boil, he thought of the strong black tea of his youth, a taste that still filled his sense memory though he had not tasted it for decades. America was a place that promised to fulfill any desire, yet it had been unable to fulfill his for the simple black tea of his childhood.

If someone had suggested to him when he was a young man that he would be where he was today – brewing weak American tea in his skivvies, an uncertain man of God and regrets – he would surely have thumped him. Back then, he had believed mostly in the Soviet State and the strength of men. Faith was a weakness, blander than the tea he now sipped, and regrets were like the pills of fuzz on his secondhand sweaters, something to be picked off and flicked away. Back there, weakness and regrets were not something one could afford very easily.

With face bent over his steaming cup, the chaplain stood lost in the details of his dream. The dense forest near Chernobyl he had once hunted in. The immense over-the-horizon radar installation called Duga that rose out of the Ukrainian forest’s midst. The wounded dog with the torn ear. The memory of the animal prompted his first prayer of the day. When the dog resisted banishment, Olyinyk continued his prayers, lips moving minutely with a different passage from Matthew 6:14. For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Olyinyk took a sip of his tea. He had come to believe that his dreams of Duga, a spiny super-structure that stretched 700 meters in length and rose 150 meters into the air, were a message from the universe – God, if one were so inclined –telling him that he must pay attention and similarly scan the atmosphere for signs. Olyinyk had more reason to believe this than most.

This thought reminded him. He rummaged through the pocket of the coat hanging over the back of the lone chair at the kitchen table. Olyinyk tugged his mobile phone free, pushing the gum wrappers and grocery receipts which also came out into a pile on the scratched Formica table top. He dialed his daughter.

“Papa,” she answered. Her tone was clipped and by this he knew that she was distracted with the other business of life. It was the curse of these cell phones that one could use them while doing other things. If the contemplative portion of his conversion had taught him anything, it was that this busyness, what the Americans called “multi-tasking,” was just another way to keep one’s mind unquestioning. It annoyed him that his daughter, old enough to remember how her own people used work to do the same, had so easily fallen under the sway of her new culture’s sleight-of-hand trick. He heard her cover the receiver and say something muffled, then her voice was clear again. “Papa, good morning. Is everything alright?”

“Yes, fine, fine.”

“You’re still coming to the school?  I’ve already told them you’re coming.”

He could tell from the way her voice was near, then far away, that she must be moving around. He imagined her phone wedged between her ear and shoulder. He heard a dinging sound that made him realize she was getting into her car, and then the metal thunk as she closed the car door.

“Yes, yes, zayushka. I will be there,” he told her quickly. He felt annoyed again that his daughter’s scurrying about was making him feel rushed. “I called only to say I had not heard from Maksym about picking me up.”

“Max, Papa,” she corrected him. He heard the vague metallic rumble of a garage door going up. “He knows. He will pick you up from work and bring you to the school this afternoon.”

The irony of Nadya asking him to talk to her students about the Soviet Union, the irony of Nadya teaching world history at all, was so rich he sometimes found himself pursing his lips as if it were one of the overly-sweet desserts these American children loved. It had been Nadya who slipped away to Hungary after her conniving mother – here he said a quick prayer for forgiveness again– had facilitated her marriage to a Party apparatchik, even though the girl was just sixteen. For Nadya’s escape from her husband, she had relied only upon her own cleverness and courage while on one of the junkets across the border, not long after the chaos of the revolutions of ‘89. From there, she had escaped to Poland, chaotic with newfound freedom, and it was here that she had found her second husband, an American businessman with some dim attachment to the trade division of the American diplomatic corps there, something to do with coal. Olyinyk didn’t even know if she’d told this one about the first. She certainly had not let the legal technicalities interfere with her plans. He had to hand it to the girl; she had been single-minded. But then she was his daughter and he would have expected nothing less. When Nadya’s letter offering to help him join her in the United States had arrived almost a decade after her departure, he’d had to look up where Pennsylvania was.

He couldn’t find the words to express the multitude of meanings he saw in his daughter’s request that he speak to her class, and so he grumbled about his grandson Max’s lack of protocol instead.

“He should confirm with me,” he said.

“Papa. He knows. He has even planned to stay to listen. Is there anything else? I really have to get going. We can talk more this afternoon, afterwards.”

“Maksym is staying?” he asked. In the silence that followed he heard the curtness of his own question, heard again the fierce man he’d once been who had frightened his wife into going to live at her sister’s, that man of ropey muscles and sunken cheeks. Was his daughter’s silence an apology or fear of offending? Worried, he swept the trash on the table into his palm and crushed it in his fist. Only then did he speak.

“No, no. This is fine, moya malenʹka lapka. Only I did not know.”

“He wants to know more about you, Papa,” Nadya said. “More about our lives before.”

Yes, well, no man deserves punishment for his thoughts, Olyinyk reminded himself.

On the bus ride to the nursing home where he worked, the chaplain gazed at the sturdy apartment buildings slipping past the window. As he so often did, he noted the people on the street with their similarly well-constructed clothes and their confident strides. He once would have walked with such confidence, too. Even four years before his daughter’s letter, he would have ignored it, still proud at being a skilled-enough hunter that the government had assigned him to deal with the animals in the exclusion zone around the failed Chernobyl.

But by the time he got her invitation, his comrade Bondarenko’s hair had fallen out from wearing a rabbit-fur hat he’d bought at a market in the exclusion zone. Hunting was no longer the pleasure it had once been, and the animals, even the turtles and fish in the aquariums in the empty flats, had all become frequent nightly visitors in his dreams. By then, too, he had killed and gutted more than one wild boar from the Zone for some old woman looking to feed a gathering, and he had seen how the animal livers melted in his hands like pudding. So even before receiving her letter, Olyinyk had begun to think that a new country devoid of the killing cynicism of his own might be worth considering.

The chaplain sighed and pulled the string above his seat to indicate he wanted to get off at the next stop. Nadya was well-aware that the story of the botched containment was a sort of shorthand for a larger story of the strong, proud country he had known collapsing with the same terrifying results as Chernobyl had. With the overzealousness of a new immigrant, perhaps she even hoped for him to indict their old country by revealing the part he’d played in hunting down the exposed animals. Still, she had not told him that his grandson was to be present, and Max knew nothing of this part of his grandfather’s life. Perhaps this was why he had dreamed of Duga last night. Was Maksym the sign he was supposed to look for?

To his annoyance, this worry pursued him throughout the day, even in the moments when it was his duty to empty himself of personal thoughts and become instead a receiver of the same kind as the towering radar array he frequently dreamed of. Yet even as he sat with his dying patient that morning, the chaplain found himself unable to concentrate and kept returning to his dream of Duga. He had to shake himself repeatedly from thoughts of the enormous structure with its barbed cylindrical elements like overturned metal birdcages. To him, the array had looked like some spiked gate meant to keep out the giant Balachko his grandmother told stories about when he’d been a child.

Each time he drifted, Olyinyk would remind himself that he must be completely present for his clients. Nonetheless, called upon to listen rather than speak, he would find his mind wandering again a few minutes later, thinking about the fog in his dream which had not existed in real life, or how this change lent the dream an eeriness that, in real life, had been closer to awe as he’d stood in front of the super-structure that stretched more than half a kilometer through the forest that hid it. The discomfort he had felt in his neck as he tipped his head back trying to see the top of the array was replicated in the dream, but the uncanny, high-pitched hum of the wind moving through the spiny electronic elements was a more noticeable presence in his dream than it had been in fact. It had only been upon coming out of the trees and facing the large chain-link fence surrounding the military installation that he had realized that he had been hearing this wraithlike sound all along, a tensile supernatural whistle like the drawing of a fingernail down a thin guitar string.

Realizing that the dying man had stopped talking, the chaplain raised his eyes to see the man gazing thoughtfully out the window at the lagoon in the center of the hospice garden. Olyinyk did not move to fill the silence immediately, knowing that he could at any time ask the sick man whether he wanted to pray and that this would cover his momentary inattentiveness.

People often took Olyinyk’s silence as piousness. As thoughtfulness. His reluctance to speak served him well in his position as a counselor and hearer of last thoughts. But it was borne of the difficulty of acquiring a new language so late in life and nothing else. His English, when he spoke, was deeply accented. He still had to think of how to express shades of meaning in his new language, and so he went carefully and slowly, and thus appeared thoughtful and slow to judge.

Even now, he kept a tiny disguised dictionary in his pocket. Ashamed of having to admit he didn’t know a word when he had first learned English, he had removed the plastic cover that identified the book as a dictionary and inserted the block of pages into the cover of a miniature psalter instead. In this way, he sometimes appeared to be studying a passage of scripture when he was really learning a new word.

He remembered learning the word secret, how he had been struck by both its lesser-known definition as an inaudible prayer traditionally said before mass, and that its root, secretus, was comprised of other words meaning “apart” and “to sift.” Thus, the word secret had roots meaning to separate and distinguish. He thought often of this as he listened to the, until-now, unspoken regrets of the people he ministered to at the end of their lives, considering how their secrets kept them separate from their loved ones, and did, in fact, distinguish one person from another.

In fact, he had been thinking of this the previous day in the midst of an awkward family moment between his client, Mr. Joseph, and his sister as she pleaded with him to allow their brother to come visit. The formidable sister had brought her Bible with her to give the request the force of religiosity. Mr. Joseph had borne her pleading placidly until she began talking about forgiveness. At this, the dying man had snapped at her like a flag in a desert wind, declaring he was done talking about it.

“She thinks I am just stubborn.” Mr. Joseph turned his face to Olyinyk now, his nasal cannula pulling loose with the motion. Olyinyk reached out to readjust the tubing, acutely aware of the man’s intent eyes on him as he did. Mr. Joseph waited for him to sit back again. “Maybe I am,” he continued. “Maybe I should have told her why I won’t.”

The chaplain, hearing this as a query, thought it best to say something noncommittal. In such moments, he had found that many of his grandmother’s folk sayings doubled as wisdom. He searched his memory for one as he rounded one hand into the palm of the other.

“In Russia, we say…,” he paused, silently asking his Ukrainian grandmother to forgive him this geographical sleight-of-hand. It was easier to say “Russia” to Americans whose knowledge of the European continent was defined by the Cold War. “‘To him that you tell your secret, you resign your liberty.’ God doesn’t require us to share our reasons with other humans.”

Olyinyk deliberately left out what he had been taught, that God’s requirement was only to share one’s reasons with Him. The chaplain’s charge was to be a counselor and Godly representative should the dying want it, but it was not to push religion on people. His job at the nursing home was only to accompany the patients on their journeys out of this world.

He had found that there were as many ways to make this exit as there were kinds of people in the world. Some went gracefully, and some went angrily. Some went regretfully, and others went gratefully. Some were surrounded by people who loved them, and others were alone. And there were those who went still holding onto their earthly secrets, while others wished to leave all that behind them when they went. It had always surprised him who made their peace with death, and who held a grudge and fought all the way out. He waited now to see which kind of person the dying man was.

Mr. Joseph searched Olyinyk’s face. He licked his lips as he thought and then began to cough. The sound was painfully dry, a rasp of emery across wood.

“Some water?” Olyinyk offered, taking the cup from the table next to the bed and placing the straw in Mr. Joseph’s mouth. He held it steady as the man took a sip. This act of generosity seemed to make up Mr. Joseph’s mind. He began haltingly to speak.

Olyinyk nodded as he listened, careful to maintain his look of serene anticipation. The chaplain had practiced this expression in the mirror a great deal when he had first started working in hospice care. It was different from blankness. It was not indifference, either. It was an expression of expectation, of waiting. It was, if he could describe it, an expression of absence: absence of judgment, absence of narrowness, absence of surprise. At first, he had tried to create an expression that spoke of compassion, but he found that there were things he heard in his capacity that made this hard, and so he practiced showing gentle expectation instead.

Mr. Joseph’s eyes went dark as he told the chaplain about his troubled relationship with his brother, and, as if the memory was a physical thing exiting his body, his breath caught in his chest at one point and the coughing began again. He brushed away Olyinyk’s alarmed hand and continued until the story was completed. The two men sat in silence for several minutes. The effort to speak had been replaced by exhaustion. Olyinyk observed how the man had seemingly deflated under the sheet, like the vanishing of a magician’s dove from under its master’s handkerchief. There would be no more talking today.

“Would you like me to pray?” Olyinyk asked. The man in the bed blinked, and the chaplain took this as assent. He rose to stand by the bedside. “I would like to say this first,” Olyinyk told him. “I am reminded of a saying, Pravda u vodi ne tone i v ohni ne horyt. It is hard to translate. It means the truth does not drown in water or burn in fire.”

Perplexed, Mr. Joseph’s eyebrows knit.

“It is a way of saying that truth cannot be destroyed,” Olyinyk explained. The chaplain let this sink in, and then he reached to take Mr. Joseph’s hand in his own and began to pray for the dying man.

Later, in Max’s car, Olyinyk sat wondering about the indestructibility of truth as he stared at his grandson’s hands on the steering wheel. There was a faint scar on the back of one that he had never noticed before. There were freckles on Max’s arms, a blond dusting that repeated itself across the boy’s broad cheeks, his mother’s Slavic bone structure made wide with American stock. He was a friendly-looking boy with hair the color of the winter wheat of Olyinyk’s homeland.

Olyinyk tried to ignore the lack of seriousness that seemed to afflict all American teenagers, the air of insouciance and well-being they carried with them in their ignorance of hardship. In Ukraine, Max might already have been in the army by this age. A remembrance of the mildewed smell of socks that never dried completely came to Olyinyk as he thought about the tent he had shared with the other hunters in his team. He could still feel the heft of the rifle he had carried. In his memory – or perhaps from his dreams – he heard the echo of the rifle report ringing through abandoned villages. Sighing, Olyinyk rubbed his stomach as they pulled into the high-school where Nadya taught.

“Alright, Dedulya?” Max asked as he pulled into a parking space. A rush of good feeling went through the chaplain hearing his native language in his grandson’s mouth. At least Nadya had taught him that.

“Yes, moj mal’chik, thank you. I was thinking about my talk.”

Max laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re nervous.” He put the car into park and turned off the engine, turning to his grandfather with a teasing smile. “You, the big hunter, who has faced down wild boar and bear. They’re only tenth-graders.”

Olyinyk reached over and cuffed the boy playfully on the side of the head. Max laughed again, and Olyinyk found himself taking the boy’s nearest hand and holding it between his own just as he had Mr. Joseph’s earlier. The skin on the old man’s palm had been rough and dry like a cat’s tongue but thin as tissue paper on the back of his hand. Olyinyk thought that truth was sometimes the same.

Big hunter. Olyinyk heard these words like a taunt in his head. He and the others had been chosen for the mission because they were hunters, but they had only been hunters of household pets who had lost their fear of man and came willingly to the sound of human voices even as, with rifles, they had put them down one by one. The creatures that retained a semblance of wildness, the rabbits and otters, they let free despite their orders to destroy the animals.  The cats stared, or else darted past and hid under furniture, but dogs understand and you could see how their understanding went from hopefulness to fear and betrayal.

Olyinyk turned his grandson’s hand over in his own to look at the unblemished palm, aware that there would be a price to pay for telling the story he wanted. That was a story of a mutt with the torn ear and how it had struggled to get free from the crush of dead animals in the truck, and how, so successful a day had they had, that not one of the hunters had a bullet left to kill the wounded creature, and how the wounded dog had managed to free itself and run away into the woods, and that Olyinyk, seeing the others were exhausted and demoralized with the work, sent them back to the impromptu army camp nearer Pripyat and volunteered to track the animal and kill it, and that he had followed the cries of the injured dog until he came out of the trees with the eerie radar array Duga there before him stretching to each horizon like some industrial nightmare and the dog lying panting at the fence with blood-matted fur the color of his grandson’s hair, and how he noticed then that it had one torn ear and that it would never rise from the place it had sunken down and saw nothing further was necessary on his part, and how the dog had looked at him with such awareness in its eyes that he had dreamed of it, and Duga, forever after, and how he went to sit by its side while it died, stroking its torn ear back against its head and waiting for the whole thing to be over.

“How did you get this scar?” Olyinyk asked the child of his child, swallowing the memory and taking out his absence mask and putting it over his face.

Max twisted his hand to look at the scar with interest. “Hmm,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t remember, Deda. I think I was very young when it happened. Mom would probably know.”

Olyinyk rubbed a thumb across the scar and then patted the boy’s hand and released it. He understood that these American children, with their brand names and full plates, would draw away from him in horror and disgust if he told his story, that the look in his grandson’s eyes would change like the dogs had when they realized that the humans they thought had come to save them were coming instead to kill them. He knew that he could tell them about the vodka with a spoonful of goose shit in it they drank to protect themselves from the radiation and the child-sized gas masks and the forty-five seconds of terror of the first Liquidators and then the ongoing terror of waiting in the years after for the tap of sickness, when every hair in the sink and unexplained bloody nose was a sign that had to be understood in the larger context of the Exclusion Zone, how all of them had become finely attuned to listen for and read these signals, but that in the end, these human sufferings would not matter the way the suffering of a dog with a torn ear did to them.

His grandson’s scar was a story, too, of some past injury and misfortune, like his own, but also not, since it could be ignored or forgotten and did not ultimately speak to the morality of the bearer in the way Olyinyk’s former job and being a citizen of a country who had let such a thing happen did. He thought that it was perhaps his punishment to see how the look in his grandson’s face would change knowing his grandfather’s story, and also that, perhaps, given his participation in those events at Chernobyl, it was right he be punished. He patted Max’s hand again in a gesture of comfort the boy could not yet understand. Then he pushed open his door and rose from the car, prepared to do his penance.

Elizabeth Rosen is a former children’s television writer, waitress, academic, receptionist, world-traveler, and dog-lover. In the company of her loyal hounds, she writes both mainstream and speculative fiction. Her favorite drink is diet coke, with coffee coming in a tight second. Her favorite music is anything from the early 80’s that depended heavily on synthesizer. Her favorite place is anywhere books congregate. Follow her at Instagram at @thewritelifeliz.


Vick’s Vapor Rub Covered Baby (Editor’s Choice of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

1926 Prospect Place dressed up as the Pentecostal House of Prayer for All People on Sundays. The Lord’s house was a solid brick Brooklyn building adorned with cracked stained glass and a winged foot of Hermes soaring high above domed double doors. In the early 80s, this house for prayer was not for all people, just his chosen few. And no angels, nor gods, no faith, nor reason could save me from the devilment that went on in the building’s basement. Crown Heights. Brooklyn. New York.

At 1926 Prospect Place, everyone was related. We had real parents and play parents and real grandparents and play grandparents and church aunts and church uncles. We worshiped as one body from the “rising of the sun ‘til the going down of the saints.” Our family, extended family, and play family were intoxicated by 1926. We were seduced into stomping to the rhythms of its unrelenting drum. Seduced into slapping tambourine hide against calloused thumbs. High off the breeze from swaying church fans. Captivated by the stench of hot combed hair grease and the organist’s jheri curl activation cologne.

One Sunday, at 1926 Prospect Place, a three-year-old asthmatic me was sitting on my real grandmother, Rebecca’s, size 16 lap. Thirty years prior, Rebecca had come north to the Pentecostal House of Prayer for All People from Sumter, South Carolina to live with her younger sister, Henrietta, who already called this church home. In 1949, just days after arriving in Brooklyn, Rebecca met her future husband, my grandfather Richard who was handsomely dressed, but singing off key in the Pentecostal House of Prayer men’s choir.  Richard was also from Sumter although the two had never met. It is rumored that he’d fled to Brooklyn after he killed a man who proclaimed that my grandfather would be hanged because he owed the lynch man a debt. No one knew much about Richard, not his real age, birthday, or last name. It is also rumored that Richard loved Rebecca’s size 16 lap which led to the two fornicating, maybe in the church’s basement, until they immaculately conceived a son–my father. Some say Richard, who was the most caring, God-fearing man at church, smacked and kicked Rebecca around at home. One evening after service, she defended herself with a high heel shoe. Unbeknownst to either of them, the point may have jabbed him in his liver where alcohol poison had set in. That night Richard would die in a hospital room hallway, leaving behind his only begotten son, my three-year-old asthmatic father Richard Anthony Moses. Rumor has it that at my grandfather’s funeral Rebecca sat in the same pew where she and my grandfather first met.

Thirty years later Rebecca was still sitting in her favorite seat, but instead of kneading Vicks Vapor Rub into my father’s asthmatic neck and chest, now she was massaging it into mine. She was ensuring I could breathe in the New York summer’s suffocating heat, when a group of spirits must have crept into my grandmother’s shoes and then into her stomping feet. The spirits ran up her calves like fire ants until her legs shook and finally, she had to take me off of her lap and place me and my Vicks Vapor Rub down on the wooden pew beside her so the spirits wouldn’t get inside of me.

The ants took over Rebecca’s body in waves, forcing her to stand and then march and then slow dance out into the aisle and up to the hand carved cross covered altar at the front of 1926 Prospect Place–leaving behind a teary-eyed, terrified, menthol smelling me. With the spiritual ants now in her hair and mouth and eyes, my grandmother bellowed to her church family with a guttural childbirth like plea, “I was glad when they said unto me,” her arms outstretched to the heavens, “Oh let us go into the house of the lord.” And at once, as if a summer’s breeze rushed in off the East River, and its mighty wind blew down heaven’s front door, as if ancient spirits had been summoned by my grandmother’s cries, in flew 1926 Prospect Place’s invisible legion inhabiting my real parents and play parents and real grandparents and play grandparents and church aunts and church uncles  in ways that caused them to holler, run, drop, twirl, twist, and shake without control.

This is how I met my play grandmother– Regina. Regina was a hairy tween. A step half cousin with big hands and a light mustache and peazy arm hairs. She was not afraid of my Auntie Jeannine, my father’s play sister on his cousin’s mother’s side who I am named after, passing out with a scream. Auntie Jeannine always passed out with a scream when the spirits came. Regina slid in on the far side of the pew next to a clinging, pleading, tantruming me. I was caught alone in a whirlwind of spiritual milieu and my play grandmother was here to save me. Or so I thought.

“Don’t be a crybaby,” Regina said, pretending to laugh and cry like the cartoon on the side of the Crybaby’s candy box. Her sugar filled siren song lured me closer and closer to the cross at the end of the wooden pew. I gave her a half smile and scooted toward her with my hand out, trusting her enough to wipe my tears and give me more treats.

“Let me show you something,” Regina said, swiping the Vicks and taking me by the arm passed my passed-out Auntie Jeannine, passed the piss smeared bathroom and downstairs into the dimly lit basement where our families congregated for dinner in the evenings and other manners of mischief we, all the while popping handfuls of sour candy into my cheeks.

The basement was like a little city—down here the older kids were our strict play mothers and play grandmothers and all of us toddlers were their human baby dolls.


Everyone was busy. Some play mothers and play grandmothers were doing their human baby doll’s hair, some were reading books to their human baby dolls, some were dressing and undressing their human baby dolls’ from head to toe. Some play mothers and grandmothers played church, jumping and chanting and pretending to have ants in their pants like our parents upstairs.

Regina’s playhouse was a neat area between two cafeteria tables. She put a purse full of Chico Sticks and Crybabys and Now Laters and lollipops on my shoulder and went to kiss me on the cheek.

“You smell like…”

“Vicks,” I wheezed.

“Are you a smart girl?”

I shook my head yes.

“Are you a good girl?”

I shook my head yes.

“Are you a sweet girl?”

I shook my head yes.

“Say yes grandmother,” she petted me like a kitty before sitting me down in a chair.

“Yes, grandmuva,” I replied through a jaw full of Now and Laters. And then Regina told me to stay quiet unless she told me to speak. Twirling on the toes of her patent leather Mary Janes, she was off to boss around her other human baby dolls.

“Clean this room. Do your homework,” she commanded, handing out stinging hand pops to those who disobeyed.

When Regina came back to our playhouse, I was a good listener and hadn’t by moved an inch. She picked me up onto her lap and held me close like my real grandmother would.

“Good girl,” she huffed, flustered from taking care of so many play children. With my head to her chest, I listened to her hurried heartbeat, and sniffed in her musky church sweat, and tried to ignore the thumps from our families dropping like fallen angels to the ground upstairs above our heads..

“Eat this,” she shoved two more Crybabys into my mouth. I sucked the candy with sour sore lips and stroked her peazy arm hairs until I started to fall asleep.

“I think you need more Vicks,” she interrupted my dream, reaching into her pocket for the bottle. “You sound like it hurts to breathe.” It did.

And then, Regina was just like my real grandmother, rubbing clumps of camphor, menthol, spirits of turpentine, oil of eucalyptus, cedarwood, nutmeg, and thymol in circles down my bare bird chest and back. But not like my real grandmother when she started rubbing it generously on my legs, then my knees, like that would help me breathe. It did not.

“You need to pee?” she asked.

I shook my head no.  Which I guess she mistook for permission to put her manly hands up my pretty purple peasant dress.

“You sure?” she said, her nails scratching the walls of my inner thighs. “Lemme check.”

I shook my head no.  Which I guess she mistook for permission to rub the outside of my Sunday best polka dot panties.

“What about now?”

I shook my head no. Which I guess she mistook for permission to insert her fingers of camphor, menthol, spirits of turpentine, oil of eucalyptus, cedarwood, nutmeg, and thymol up inside of me. I winced and cringed and lost my breath from the icy heat, but Regina kept her hands there in my Sunday panties, vapor rubbing me to death. I bit down on my Crybaby, but couldn’t cry. I held it in, stared at the blank white wall and gasped for air–taking short staccato breaths to the rhythm of 1926 Prospect Place’s drum beat. “Don’t be a cry baby. Don’t be a cry baby. Don’t be a cry.” I sang inside my head.

“Little Jeannine is my granddaughter now,” Regina announced to the group of play grandmothers, her hand still up in my dress like a ventriloquist. I musta looked like a real dummy. No one said otherwise. No one objected. The city was busy.

That evening, after the spiritual ants disappeared into their mounds, Regina returned me to my real grandmother who thanked Regina for taking such good care of me. Our church family congregated in the basement for our weekly meal of crispy fried chicken, creamy canned corn, parboiled white rice, and sweet buttery cornbread.

“Eat this,” my real grandmother insisted, “or you won’t get cake.” She held a spoonful of rice and chicken to my mouth.

Cake was my favorite. But I was not hungry.  I was not speaking. I could not breathe.

“Is she ok?” Regina walked up behind me smelling of camphor, menthol, spirits of turpentine, oil of eucalyptus, cedarwood, nutmeg, and thymol.

“She’s good…” my grandmother was about to say to Regina, when my pee started to puddle beneath my seat.

“Bad girl,” my grandmother said, popping my right hand to the tempo of her speech. “You’re supposed to tell someone.”


And with the last stinging pop, finally I could cry, but not scream.

For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. In Nairobi, Kenya, Cook facilitated social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including Broad Street Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. In addition, she has been published by Princeton University Press. Jeannine is the proud owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, Ida’s Bookshop in Collingswood, New Jersey, and Josephine’s Bookshop in Paris, France.

The God of Ugly Things (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

The vacation had been Ada’s idea, of course. The word “vacation” had also been Ada’s, although the term now seemed like a bit of a stretch. She’d buried the lead, speaking of the unspoiled beauty of the shoreline, the unfettered wildness of the vegetation, the local birdlife uncorrupted by centuries––nay, millennia––of mainland evolution. She’d used the phrase “private island” about a hundred times.

Now, in a canvas tent of their own slapdash construction, Emin was beyond un-thrilled. Even at the outset, in the exquisitely appointed breakfast nook she shared with Ada, she had been suspicious.

“It’ll be fun,” Ada had insisted. “You know, surviving together.”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing now?” Emin had said.

Ada had laughed, and Emin had laughed, and even Wilder, whose expressions most often began with a popped-out earbud and a theatrical eye roll, had laughed.

They had all known, even then, that the “vacation” would move forward. Ada took care of all the arrangements, as was her penchant, and Emin both teased and took pleasure in her instincts for fastidious fun. Ada had been this way about their honeymoon in Crete, the surprise Christmas in Bogotá, the business-turned-pleasure trip in Philadelphia shortly after they’d started dating. Beneath a pretense of spontaneity was something better: an unflappably focused assurance that everything would go to plan.

Always, but especially on occasions like these, Emin was both keenly aware of and totally unbothered by her irrelevance. She was happy to float through Ada’s life like an accessory, latched like a filter-feeding barnacle on a whale, beneficial but not strictly necessary. Wilder, Ada’s child, was similar. They’d given their mother access to a certain class of experience, the privilege of talking openly (albeit humbly) about giving life, the credibility of working motherhood, single motherhood, access to private school meetings and mommy message boards, a sheen of personhood as could only be enhanced by someone else’s. But they were, like Emin, a body in orbit, blissfully slung around whatever was at the center of Ada.

There had never been a man in the picture––Ada had built Wilder from scratch, a “one-woman experiment,” as she was fond of saying––and had been both thrilled and a little disappointed when it went so well. Wilder had never asked the whereabouts of Donor #11308D, had never required the therapy for which their mother had budgeted. They understood the role of a man in their existence the same way Ada did: vital, but more of a one-time donation than an ongoing contribution.

The proposed trip was, in part, intended as an occasion for Emin and Wilder to bond. Ada had fretted about the psychological ramifications of introducing a stepmother to the only child of an only parent, especially at the tender age of seventeen. What age isn’t tender? Emin had wanted to know. But the trip was irrelevant; she and Wilder got along fine. They were birds of a proverbial feather: Wilder the created one, Emin the curated one.

Wilder and Emin were so similar that they made similar jokes about the notion of a “survival vacation.” Emin teased that Ada had summited the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy and was now so bored she was starting over again at the bottom. Wilder’s joke was more novice and crass, simply that the pinnacle of the hierarchy was wedged firmly up Ada’s ass. In both instances, Ada was a good sport, amused that the event was already bringing them together.

They went to the REI on Lafayette together, the one that energized Ada and made Emin feel like trash, and picked out rain gear, long johns, headbands in slightly different colors and sizes. Afterward, they walked to Rubirosa, where all of their dietary restrictions were met.

Deep down, Ada harbored concern about Emin and Wilder’s facile, unfussy kinship. She hoped the trip would uncover something more profound, less superficial. She was delighted, obviously, by their camaraderie––Emin was the best, Wilder was the best; why shouldn’t they get along? ––but she didn’t trust it. She’d seen fighting fish in aquaria and knew, from her perspective as whatever metaphorical third-party fish was not a fighting fish, that it was only a matter of time.

“Survival has a way of bringing out the best in people,” she had told Emin in the kitchen.

“I think you’re thinking of the worst,” said Emin.


Before the survival excursion is the survival training, which is intended not only to teach hedge funders how to make fires, but also as a gentle segue between high-rise and toilet-less campsite. They will be alone on the island for ten days, with only their wits, numerous supplies, packaged food, toiletries, a sat phone, sunscreen, and a team of professionals with a speedboat on standby to protect them, so it’s fitting that their not-inexpensive “vacation package” would include training in the art of survival.

As they’re arriving, a gang of five tech bros is headed out.

Emin can’t help herself. She sways near Ada and whispers, “You’re sure you want to do something they want to do?”

But Ada is ready. Ada has been thinking about this for weeks. “I want to do what I want to do. Why must the paradigms of desire and experience be oriented according to the male hegemony? Why should my interests and actions––our interests and actions––be evaluated in relation to the impulses and behaviors of males, let alone males a fraction of our age, cis males for gods’ sakes, males in industries which are gutting our prospects for reconciling the wage gap and thwarting economic mobility for female and non-male-identifying workers?”

“For systemic reasons,” Wilder mumbles behind them.

A tech bro who’s just passed glances over his shoulder and snorts. Ada ignores him. “Alright, alright then, even so––even if everything we want and do is about what they want and do––why should they have all the fun? Why shouldn’t we have what they have?”

“Because they shouldn’t have what they have.”

At this Ada stops. She is delighted and horrified. She’s created a monster.

“The one-woman experiment worked,” Emin whispers. “You must be thrilled.”


The training camp on Kapiti Island is helmed by two guides: Tanemahuta and Ben. Tanemahuta is a Māori conservationist with a master’s in environmental science from Auckland. Ben is a former snowboarder and travel agent who, a few years ago, was “feeling a change.”

“See?” says Ada. “Something for everyone.”

They’re greeted at the entrance to the lodge by Ben, local representative for Aventura Regia. “More like an ambassador,” he says with a wink.

“More like a sycophant,” Wilder says under their breath.

Ben smacks his hands together like they’ve all just won something. “Welcome!” he says, gesturing them inside but not offering to help with the bags. Part of the process of acclimation toward self-reliance.

The interior of the lodge is all lumber and organic muslin, straying from natural aesthetics only when absolutely necessary. Ben is grinning about everything like he came up with it. “Dinner at six,” he says, “you. will. love it. Then a short video presentation, then orientation at eight tomorrow. Although if I were you” ––he punctuates his hype routine with an over-the-shoulder wink––“I’d get up at six thirty for that can’t-miss Kapiti sunrise.”

Wilder has earbuds in but can hear enough to roll their eyes.

Ada sets an alarm for six fifteen on her phone.

Emin is genuinely curious but has had enough with the winking.

Dinner is local and impressive: pūhā-laced toroi mussels and karengo dressed with karaka berries. Ada repeats every unfamiliar word aloud, eager to retain the knowledge. Wilder drinks sauvignon blanc with abandon, with no objection from Ada, who understands the trip to be a rite of passage; nor from Emin, who not only doesn’t believe in minimum drinking ages, but who considers parenting to be beyond the scope of her office; and certainly not from the staff, who, given what their guests pay, would let Wilder do lines of coke at the table if they wanted.

There’s a short presentation after dinner, redundantly designed to get the travelers enthused about something they’re already committed to doing. All along the walls, framed photos of past “survivors” beam down at them with identical rows of white teeth, different timbres of sunburn. A general sense of triumph prevails, though it’s hard to tell from the photos whether this is something the “survivors” acquired during the course of their adventures or arrived with on their own.

Tanemahuta shows up around seven thirty, confers quietly with Ben in the entryway while the dregs of dinner are cleared. Wilder, who’s insisted that a Polaroid mini camera is one of their “desert island items,” snaps a quick image of Tanemahuta, admiring in his mien the suggestion of a sympatico ennui.

Ben bids them all “a fond goodnight” with a light palms-together bow, which only Ada reciprocates, and Tanemahuta takes over the post-dinner orientation/presentation video, with considerably less fervor than Ben.

In the video, a San Francisco yogi in an orange halter-style bikini spears a fish. The fish, a tuna maybe, writhes on the tip of a branch she’s sharpened like a shiv with a knife she’s brought from home. In the YouTube version, there’s a link to buy the knife.

After the yogi, there’s a trio of brothers in near-identical variations of the same pullover sweater. Each looks stoned as hell.

Then there’s a talking heads segment, the CEO of Aventura Regia, mostly haircut, followed by footage of a bearded entrepreneur standing nude on a cliff, facing the water, limbs spread in gratitude to the universe. Ada and Emin, who have always found amusement in the male buttocks, share a private smirk.

The video is lousy with drone shots, all twirling around volcanoes, beaches, rock formations at a wildly fluctuating frame rate. The score is definitely stock music, but the expensive kind. Something with “victory” in the file name.

Wilder, who’s been quietly filching gum from the hospitality cart for the past four hours, applauds drably as the video winds to a conclusion.

“Any questions?” Tanemahuta asks.

Wilder snaps a mouthful of gum. “Has anyone ever died?”

“Not yet,” says Tanemahuta, and the way he winks, you can tell he was encouraged to wink more during a management meeting.


The next two days are a blur of naval-grade bowline knots and passably constructed fires, quizzes on poisonous leaves and K12 flashbacks to dissected dogfish sharks. On the third day, Tanemahuta, who’s mostly been teaching, stands back to let Ben, who’s mostly been announcing, announce that the team is ready for the wild.

As a graduation gift from the mandatory basecamp training, Ada, Emin, and Wilder are each given a guidebook, each in a slightly different color and size. In addition to invaluable footnotes on local flora and fauna, each includes a blank sketchpad section in the back, with an encouragement to “write what you see.”

Beauty, writes Ada.


Tangata Pokanoa, the “private island,” is roughly eighty kilometers north of Kapiti. It is, as promised, private as all get out, not even a fleck on maps of the Tasman Sea. Ada takes care to model excitement over this and other aspects of the trip, as she did when Wilder was a toddler, teaching them to appreciate ice cream and positive election returns.

Tanemahuta steers the speedboat into a designated cove on the western shore. Ben points out various trees from their various guidebooks. He’s right about half the time.

When they land, Wilder leaps from the boat before they’ve fully moored. Ada recognizes in their rashness an element of growing up, of going before one’s ready, of coming of age. Damp to the knees with seafoam, Wilder fishes the guidebook from their back packet and consults it. Feet planted in the unsteady surf, they look up, then down, then over their shoulder, grave with concern.

“That goat should not be here.”

“Right you are!” Ben exclaims, as though they’ve won a bonus round. He lashes the boat to the mooring, talking as he stumbles over the side, less elegantly than one might expect from someone whose job this is. “Goats were introduced to New Zealand in the ’80s––the 1780s––and then, for reasons not totally explicated, were sort of transported around to various islands.”

Behind him, Tanemahuta seethes.

“Turns out feral goats are pretty good for brush-clearing, but bad for other things,” Ben continues.

“Like… the ecosystem?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

Ada and Emin disembark with minimal pomp, each trying, in her own way, to be present.

The world is all blue and green, dripping with majesty. Indifferent ocean, algal profusions. Clots of gorse over icing-white sand.

“What’s gorse?” Wilder asks.

“Ah,” says Ben, grimacing. “They’re sort of––how would you put it, Tawny?”

“They’re the feral goats of the plant kingdom.”

“That’s it.”

They all take a walk around the shoreline adjacent to the cove, and Ben keeps gesturing with the full length of his arm. “The island is yours,” he says. “You can set up camp wherever you like.” Wilder watches as a feral goat bounds back into the dark through a patch of underbrush. “Though Tanemahuta can suggest some good spots if you want.”

“Happy to,” says Tanemahuta, although he doesn’t sound happy at all.


When the speedboat disembarks from the shore, Emin stands at the place where the water kisses the sand for a very long time. She is, despite herself, ecstatic.

The truth is, she has always wanted this life, this woman, this place.

She is, for the first time in a good long while, at ease.


Ada, Emin, and Wilder have agreed on a campsite (the spot suggested by Tanemahuta) by unanimous decision. “Not because he’s a man,” Ada says grandly, “but because he knows the island.” Then, looking pointedly at Wilder: “We don’t discriminate against men because they’re men any more than we’d like them to discriminate against us.”

Wilder cocks their head. “Yeah, I know.”

Ada leads them through the grubby fanfare of tent-building and fire-building with the enthusiasm of a den mother presiding over a gingerbread house contest. There’s a great deal of excitement at first but, despite six collective hours of knot training, they’re concurrently overqualified for and not terrific at it. Nonetheless, the tent––a sand-white flap strung between multiple half-assed knots––and the fire––a glowing slur of salvaged branches over the pre-packaged fire-starting kit––go to plan. In the end they are, one has to admit, magnificent.

“Christ, would you look at that?” says Ada. And she’s right, of course, it’s totally magnificent. It is inarticulably beautiful, this dumb tent and rollicking paint-by-numbers fire against the indigo swell of the Tasman Sea. Birds are everywhere. The gorse, whether it’s technically supposed to be here or not, is a flourishing civilization of flowers in caution-tape yellow and dusk-dark green. All is right with the world, for at least five meters in every direction.


Once the tent and fire are built, and in the absence of news, phone calls, closets, appliances, work, school, and the generic din wafting up from Spring Street, there’s not a whole lot to do.

So they find things to do.

Ada composes several works of hybrid poetry in the back of the journal gifted by Aventura Regia.

Emin reads her guidebook with alacrity. She builds fires, harvests edible flowers for garnishes on their half-planned/half-foraged meals. She learns about the local wildlife, on the whole less spectacular and less hampered by evolution: birds that can’t fly, mammals that can’t run, insects that can’t sting. She keeps reading, fascinated, but the general takeaway (as far as she can tell) is that evolution is a drag and that things should basically be left alone.

Wilder drinks moodily from their canteen and stares into the distance, but not toward the water. Emin asks what they’re up to, and they reply that they’re watching for goats.

Wilder, Emin, and Ada go on hikes and discover innumerable treasures: fluorescent-green flightless parrots, centipedes the size of your thumb, two-hundred-foot waterfalls. A mid-air rainbow because, according to Wilder, “science.” They have a picnic in a cave and Ada and Emin twine their fingers like an obscure braided pastry of which neither can remember the name.

They’re all lodging in the same tent, so Ada and Emin go on a conspicuously vaunted “walk” about which Wilder couldn’t care less. The sex is fast and hot and uncomfortable, with Emin pinned against the trunk of a kohekohe tree. Emin and Ada come at the same time and are profoundly grateful, with the unspoken understanding that every pleasure, no matter how gratifying, has a half-life.


By the end of Day Three, things are getting a little strange. Ada, who’s always loved good coffee and, to Emin’s chagrin, has occasionally touted this as a personality trait, has begun brewing coffee via the “sock method” introduced by Ben during Day Two of training. Emin has never hated Ada, not really, but when she devoutly calls something Emin’s grandmother has done for sixty years––something Emin’s worked very hard not to do, something she’s worked very hard to subvert with the likes of three-hundred-dollar espresso machines and other vestiges of assumed privilege, but nonetheless still knows how to make better than this affront––“cowboy coffee,” as Ben does, as though he came up with it, Emin hates her, just a little. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s not ideal.

When they go to bed, ten inches from Wilder, shielded by the flapping corner of their increasingly precarious tent, Ada rolls over and locks eyes with Emin, gaze glowing with “survival.”

“Don’t worry,” Ada says quietly, “nothing trite is going to happen. This trip isn’t going to dredge up weird shit like how you hang your shirts wrong or whatever.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” says Emin.

Ada leans back, glamorously arched in the waning firelight like she’s about to say something crazy, but then, because they’re both extremely tired, they’re asleep before the conversation goes any further.


By Day Four, Ada has given up on inviting the other two to either sunrise yoga or sunset yoga, although what she did this morning was really just stretching. She’s read about how, prior to the widespread adoption of time zones, villages would set their clocks to noon whenever the sun reached its zenith in the sky, so this is what she’s done. Working from an illustrated fragment of text in her guidebook, she’s constructed a primitive sundial close to the tree line. It’s more aesthetically interesting than useful––she borrows Wilder’s camera to take a photo of her handiwork––but she takes pleasure in saying “Dinner’s at six,” and having it mean something.

By mid-afternoon, they’re all a bit hungry and bored, passive-aggressively reading books across the communal fire. Facing the forest and not the coast, Wilder is perched over a paperback copy of Julie of the Wolves.

Ada watches Wilder keenly over the haze of the fire, dunking a sock into a pot of tepid water.

“Why do you think they’re reading that?”

Emin, inspired by the pro-self language of her guidebook (actually Wilder’s), is lying against an unsteady pile of tōtara leaves at a forty-five-degree angle, trying to reclaim her tan. “Maybe it’s for school.”

“No. That’s a middle school book.” Ada bobs the sock in the water with the rhythm of whetting a weapon. “You think they’re trying to send a message?”

“Send a message?”

“That they’d rather have done the polar vacation.”

“No. No one wants that.”

“Or…” Ada softens. “Or they’re genuinely interested in survival.”

“Christ, who isn’t?” Emin means for it to sound playful, but it doesn’t. “I mean obviously they’re interested in survival. Recreationally.”

“Are you drunk?”

“How the hell would I be drunk?”

“I just feel like they’re reading it at me.”

Yesterday, while on the prowl for feral goats, Wilder offered to trade guidebooks with Emin. Emin agreed. Wilder’s had more pictures, more natural wellness tips, more artists’ renderings of botany and fewer of wildlife. Emin’s had more animals than plants, many of which were endangered or extincted, which she was beginning to find depressing. They didn’t find any goats, but Emin was grateful for the company.

Wilder offered Emin a sip from their canteen. Emin coughed, and Wilder blandly clarified that it wasn’t water, that they’d been stockpiling white wine for the duration of their training on Kapiti. Emin should have, of course, lectured them, but why? Who was to say Wilder didn’t know better?

There was a moment. An understanding.

Wilder laughed and then Emin laughed. It wasn’t even a whole scene. Just a moment, really. Hardly worth mentioning.

Truth is, it had occurred to Emin, just once, just for the splittest of split seconds, how fun it would be.

She used to go for younger girls. Not young young, obviously, but younger than she. Emin liked having something to offer.

“It’s normal to have involuntary sex dreams about people you know,” Emin’s therapist had once told her. “It’s inevitable.”



Emin had looked out onto a partial but legitimate view of the Park off 83rd. “I don’t need to be told I’m normal,” she’d said.

Her therapist had grimaced, then smiled, then said, “Copy that.”

Emin had dozed to the sound of custom pen on custom notepad, vision lapsing between lashes and leaves, sunlight glinting through slats of black tupelo and American elm.

And that had been it. Nothing had been resolved.

That had been the lesson.

“It’s not that you’re drunk. You just seem drunk.”

“Thanks,” says Emin. She turns away, as though she’s tanning each side of her face at intervals, but really because she’s had a lot of Wilder’s squirreled-away wine and is super drunk.


Over dinner on Day Six, Wilder is difficult to engage. They’ve become very concerned with the goats.

“Honey,” says Ada. “Honey, honey.”

Wilder, who has about two hours of battery life left before their contraband iPod becomes a glorified brick of trash, switches it off and turns slowly, for effect. “What if something dreadful happens?” they say.

“What are you talking about?” says Ada.

“If something happens to one of us. Do you think they’d really get here on time?”

“What is wrong with you? Of course they would. It’s in the contract.”

“I read about this woman on one of their South Pole trips. She was a total convict, and no one knew.”

“Well, that’s one of the good things about a trip like this,” says Ada. “It’s just us.”


The photo that winds up on the wall of “survivors” is taken on Day Six. It’s Ada, staring straight into Wilder’s Polaroid camera, pinching a two-inch crab between her thumb and index finger. In the photo, you can still see the dregs of her last manicure, from Lucky Nails on Seventh. The color is Khaki Vert by Chanel. Vogue will reference it briefly in a future article on “strong women.”


Wilder has spent the bulk of the “vacation” tracking down the creatures in their guidebook (really Emin’s), asking questions of no one, because there’s no one to ask and also no internet. On Day Seven, they find an insect the size of a gerbil scampering through a patch of gorse and are over the moon. “Can you believe it?”

“Yes,” Ada says confidently, although she’s doing something else.

“It’s a wētāpunga. The guidebook says it’s endangered. Almost extinct.”


“Here.” Wilder brings the guidebook to Ada, and they look at the entry together. Ada feels a nostalgic pang, a surge of déjà vu. She remembers this, her and Wilder perched just so over elementary school textbook passages on icebergs and rain forests, diagrams on South America’s slow secession from Pangaea. Wilder’s small fingers tracing the words of the informational display at the museum’s butterfly conservatory, eyes darting between the illustration and the real thing, near-panicked with fascination, as though they might have to choose.

“It’s one of the oldest animals on the island,” Wilder expatiates. “These little islands, they broke off from other landmasses like fifteen million years earlier than Australia––or, no, before the dinosaurs were extinct––so then other places got mammals like crazy, but here never did. So, you know how Australia’s like nine-for-ten or something on the world’s scariest insects?”

Ada nods, following along, maybe about to cry. She’s so proud of Wilder.

“But here never got mammals the same way, so without predators, the insects didn’t have to get scary. They didn’t have to survive. So instead of getting smaller and faster they got bigger and slower.”

Ada nods. “Survival makes us all better.”

“No, no,” Wilder says, talking so quickly that they interrupt their own laugh, “they are better. They’re basically mice or rabbits or whatever. On a long enough timeline, they’re essentially you.”

Ada laughs and squeezes Wilder’s hand. “Honey, you’re brilliant.”

The insect is lumbering so slowly that Wilder is able to get their camera from the tent and snap a photo before the creature’s made even a meter of headway. They wave the Polaroid like a fan, watching.

“This is the best part,” Wilder says. “Wētāpunga is named for a myth. It means the god of ugly things.”

The insect is undeniably ugly, Ada supposes, but in a sort of adorable way. Bulbous black eyes and flailing antennae, a plump, scaled body propelled by notched legs that seem to have no awareness of what the other legs are up to. It bumps against a bundle of undergrowth and then finds its way onward, clambering between the hazard-yellow flowers of the gorse.

“Wētāpunga,” she says, eager to retain the knowledge.


Day Eight is by far the worst. The shadow hasn’t even reached the tenth rock in Ada’s sundial before Wilder is stumbling out from the tree line, pinching a new Polaroid.

They head straight for the water, where Emin is standing barefoot, toes flirting with whatever flotsam and jetsam the Tasman Sea has to offer. Emin has in mind to procure some edible seaweed for dinner, which Ada has vociferously approved, but Wilder’s guidebook is more artsy than informative on the subject of sea plants. She turns at the sound of Wilder’s approach.

“Hey, kiddo.”

Wilder thrusts out the Polaroid. A grisly half-insect, definitely wētāpunga, split along the seams of the scales two thirds up its back. It’s crushed from the neck up, innards smeared over the cuplike shell of the carapace. Two legs hang like chopsticks draped over the lip of a cup.

“Christ,” says Emin. “Same one from yesterday?”

Wilder shrugs. They don’t know. “These fucking goats,” they say hoarsely.

“You don’t know it was them.”

Wilder clutches the photo with both hands now, careful not to touch the part with the pigmentation. “I touched it,” they finally say.

“What are you talking about?”

“I thought, when will I be this close again to something like this again, right? So, I touched its back and it stopped for just like a second, and then it kept going but like, what if it’s one of those things like when you touch a bird and then the mother bird won’t take it back? Or those two seconds altered the course of its day? So, you know, now it got stepped on? Because of me?”

Emin sloshes through the surf and pulls Wilder into a hug, careful not to disturb the photo.

From the entrance of the rapidly devolving canvas tent, well out of earshot, Ada sees them bonding and smiles.

“This wasn’t your fault,” Emin says.

“I mean, probably not, no, but in a truer, more historic way, yes.”

Emin isn’t sure what to say to this, so she turns back to the surf, where she’s just in time to see the next bad thing emerge. The Polaroid of the dead insect, along with the ensuing exchange, is why Wilder is also right there, and why there’s a second person to scream when it happens.

A thin ribbon of black swells up from the froth of the surf. The ribbon––a snake, in fact, its underside a vivid gorse-yellow––twitches its head curiously, as though gauging its prospects, then, with a decisive, bantamweight lunge, latches onto Emin just above the ankle.

Wilder, finally traumatized in a way that will require therapy, watches as Emin collapses and, with the snake still attached, stomps on its back with their bare heel. The snake lets go, and Wilder is unsurprised when it limply drifts off. They felt the vertebrae snap underfoot.

For a second, everything is quiet. It isn’t until Wilder places their hands on their knees and screams “WHY DID YOU BRING US HERE” that Ada realizes anything is amiss.


Emin opens her eyes to see Ada and smiles, vision bleary with a rush of affection. Ada is here. Ada will know what to do.

Up the coast, Wilder is photographing the corpse of the snake, which has washed ashore, like a forensic investigator.

Ada, who’s purchased every new edition of the EMS Field Guide since the year Wilder was born, has pulled Emin into her lap by the torso to elevate the heart above the wound. She’s traced the initial bite and marked the progress of the inflammation with a ballpoint pen. She’s pressing two fingers to Emin’s pulse with one hand, clutching the sat phone to her ear with the other. “What about the speedboat?” Ada shouts.

There’s a pause on the other end, slightly longer than the standard lag for a sat phone. “One of the fellows on Kaipahua,” Ben says grimly, “got himself bit by a stingray.”

“That is not a fatal injury!”

Ben clears his throat. “It can be if it takes a testicle.”

Emin laughs deliriously, maniacally, loud enough for Ben to hear. She gets it now, kind of, the sliver of fun women in labor must have. The all-access pass to honest reactions.

“Then get the goddamn helicopter here RIGHT FUCKING NOW,” Ada yells. Emin is still laughing.

Wilder races across the sand and drops to their knees, Polaroid and guidebook in hand. “Mom,” Wilder says. “Mom, mom.”

“Honey, what?”

“It’s a yellow-bellied sea snake. It’s––” Wilder drops their voice “––very. poisonous.”

“I thought you said they don’t have those here.”

Wilder shrugs, helpless, already crying like it’s their fault. “I don’t know,” they say, “I don’t know anything.”

“We thought it was extinct,” Ben says over the sat phone, “but they found one in New Zealand––”


“It’s already on its way.” The way he says it, you can tell Ben is crying.

Emin, for her part, has never been more in love. This is the Ada she knows, survival Ada, whether or not survival is required. Right even when she’s wrong. Ada who works out and knows all the right creams, who looks good from every angle. Ada who’s going to take her to Egypt in the fall.

It seems extremely possible, in this moment, that Emin will die. She wonders what it would be like, to be an occasion. A calendared tragedy. A perfectly good date, annually ruined. She wonders whether Ada would resent it or be into it.

Emin remembers a line from the orientation video that made her laugh:

We are prepared for every reasonable contingency.

She can imagine this word in court, reasonable, the lawyer practicing it in front of the mirror.

If Emin dies, Ada will blame herself, then the travel company, then the tech guy with one testicle, then the island itself. Her stages of grief will be the different entities she blames. The snake, interestingly, will never make the list.

Overhead, a cloud shifts from something that looks like a whale to an eel, one part of the cloud outpacing the others.

Ada monitors her symptoms. They’re all textbook, trite. Numb fingertips and toes, shuddering limbs, heart palpitations. The works.

The emergency helicopter will get here in time, probably. It’ll be a story they tell over cocktails at New Year’s. She imagines the polite gasps of their guests, the play-acting of who should tell it. Emin will tell it, but her version will lack important details. Ada will jump in to help.

Wilder rocks in the surf, knees hugged to their chest, while Ada strokes sweat from Emin’s brow, monitors the wound, glances around the perimeter for nonexistent threats. Her face hovers above Emin’s face, eyes focused but frenetic with concern. The fussy, frustrated attentiveness of nothing-to-be-done.

Dipping in and out of darkness, Emin imagines Ada’s face over the lip of a coupe glass, flushed with remembered worry.

In the end it’ll be her hand on Ada’s arm, reminding her that the danger is past now.

A.J. Bermudez is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and Editor of The Maine Review. Her first book, Stories No One Hopes Are About Them, won the 2022 Iowa Short Fiction Award as was a 2023 Lambda Award Finalist. Her work has appeared in a number of literary publications, including The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Story, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is a former boxer and EMT, and is a recipient of the Diverse Voices Award, the Page Award, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize, and the Steinbeck Fellowship. 

The Doppler Effect (Second Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

The car ride was a quiet one. In the front sat the Realtor, sneaking looks back at Miles and his mother. Miles had seen those looks before; the Realtor was wondering how the pert young woman could be the mother of an 11-year-old boy. When the Realtor had called earlier that day, he insisted he would pick the pair up from their current motel residence, give them a ride—really it was no issue—and he would treat the confidentiality of their case as a personal crusade. They had been through enough. His lips were sealed, “No matter what.”

Miles thought it was funny the Realtor said the part about the lips. He couldn’t find a single lip on the man’s pocked face.

Now, thirty silent minutes later, they drove. Outside, the sky offered nothing but monotonous gray. The earth seemed tired. It had only the mud and slush to show for a month’s snow and rain.

“This house is one of two that are handicapped accessible,” the Realtor spoke up. Just by the way he said it, Miles knew the Realtor had been sitting on that nugget of information for a long time.

Miles could sense what was coming next.

“That’s nice, but we don’t necessarily need a house that’s handicapped accessible.”

“Oh,” the Realtor cleared his throat. “I just figured—”

The Realtor glanced to the crutches leaning between Miles and his mother, adorned with blue medical tape, miscellaneous stickers, and towel-wrapped handles.

“No need to figure anything.” Miles’ mother spoke quickly, each word annunciated with months of practice. She was smiling, but her tone held a bite. Miles closed his eyes and leaned his head against the cold, damp window. He hoped this house would be different than the last ones. His mother had found something inexplicably wrong with each.

They arrived at the next house, a white-shingled ranch, it was long and flat, and had no other homes around it. Miles twisted himself a bit, looking through the car’s salt-crusted rearview window. There really were no houses around it. The emptiness of its surroundings was disheartening at best, but he shook it off. With a little spark he realized something: it was big enough for him to have his own room.

Still peering from the car, Miles noticed the thick rows of trees flanking each side of the home, still, quiet, and unmoving. He couldn’t see the backyard, or, frankly, anything at all behind the house. He figured they must be atop a hill; it was as if the earth disappeared behind the house. He watched his mother’s gaze fall to the small ramp leading to the front door. Still in the back seat, she turned to Miles and tightened his scarf.

“Are you okay?” she whispered.

Miles nodded and reached for his crutches. The Realtor was already out of the car and making his way to the front door—red with two perfectly square windows on both sides. In an instant, his mother appeared at his door, pursed her lips, and helped him get to his feet.

“Don’t worry, Bun.” She nodded her head toward the crutches. “We’ll be done with these soon.”

Miles smiled, though he never understood why his mother said things like that. He couldn’t remember a time without the crutches and didn’t mind them.

Inside the house was nothing to report. It was empty, and Miles overheard the Realtor mention something about “early 2000’s.” It felt like a box and smelled of citrus air freshener and something akin to cigarettes. Miles had faint memories of houses like it, but he didn’t let his mind dwell. He separated himself from his mother and the Realtor.

Without furniture, sounds echoed in the house. Miles examined the rooms, popping each flimsy door open and peeking in. Each room nearly identical to the last. He was on the cusp of boredom. Each light in each room, a yellow-hued dome with dead bugs piled up at the bottom, cast a dim warning: the windows, a single small one in each room he visited, had been plastered over—or somehow sealed over— on the outside.

In the biggest room, which Miles assumed would be his mother’s, was a door to the backyard. It resisted as he wiggled the doorknob.

Suddenly: a rumbling. The house lurched, the sound almost guttural, yet parts of it mimicked a screech. It was big and it was close. Miles’ reaction to the sound was physical, his hands tightened around the handles of his crutches, and his face warmed with a flush of blood. It was so close he could hear the rhythmic clacks, the sound of metal on metal. Then, finally, the abrupt sound of an exhausted horn shifting its tone as the thing hurled by. A train. Just by the sheer weight of the sound, Miles knew it was a freight train, probably a B36-7 locomotive, four axles. This house quickly became the most appealing on the docket of homes they’d visited. He rushed to tell his mother; the clacks of his crutches silenced by the train’s roar.

Miles’ mother and the Realtor were standing in the kitchen, seemingly unbothered by the sounds that shook the house. He was looking at his phone and she was opening and closing the gently worn cabinets.

“Do you hear that?” Miles shouted above the noise, poised in the doorway.

Miles’ mother and the Realtor stopped to look at him. The Realtor’s mouth flicked to an anxious smile, and Miles’ mother went to the Realtor’s side. She touched the Realtor’s shoulder just as he began to say something. Miles’ mother nodded once, locked eyes with the Realtor for an intense, fleeting moment, then returned to her cabinet prodding.

Miles stood in rapture for as long as it took the train to pass. He wished it were longer, but after a few minutes it was gone.

“I…” Miles struggled for the right words. “I haven’t heard a B36-7 in a long time.”

“Crazy,” she paused. “That’s exciting.”

The Realtor said nothing. His eyes slid over to Miles’ mother, now smiling, large and forced.

The house was cheap, Miles was sure. You could hear everything from the outside, there were drafts in places where he thought wind wouldn’t be able to reach, and the fake-out windows in the back still unsettled him. But he could make it work now that he knew about the tracks. It also sure beat moving around and sleeping in hotels that smelled like the breath of a hundred people.

After more examining and poking, the three returned to the Realtor’s car. This time Miles’ mother sat in the front, an uncomfortable change Miles would soon ignore.

“You like this house, Bun?” she peered over her shoulder, and reached behind to give Miles’ knee a quick pat.

Miles didn’t want to lie. “I like how close it is to the train tracks.”

And that was that.


It was only their fifth night at the house and the dreams already descended upon Miles. They weren’t new to him. In an act of quiet, blind hope Miles assumed the change of scenery, “positive thinking” (as his mother would say), or some force of sheer willpower would keep them at bay. The dream was always the same, it came with a paralyzing familiarity.

It started with a small, nondescript house. Perhaps it changed each dream, though Miles wasn’t entirely sure. There was a new man in the house, always the same man, though Miles could never place him. A friend of his mother’s, an uncle, sometimes even a dad. The man brought with him a very young boy. Miles and the Boy politely avoided one another, silently accepted they would be in each other’s lives. Boy was three or four, he had a square face and large, wide-set eyes. Miles’ mother and the Man made a habit of forcing Miles and the Boy outside in the afternoons. This house didn’t have a television, nor did it offer any form of entertainment besides the great outdoors, so Miles and the Boy were content to run outside. (In the dream Miles had no crutches). They would busy themselves with a rock or potato bug until his mother and the Man let them back inside.

The beginnings of these dreams were always peaceful. They took place somewhere warm, nearly tropical; a world so real, almost precious, Miles didn’t dare tell anyone about them. Day in and day out: Miles, the Boy, outside, Mother and the Man with his forgettable and everchanging face, innocent, numbing, fun.

Then, as it always did, the chaos descended quickly. Shouts, sounds—rasping, animalistic, nothing that sounded like his mother or even the Man, emanated from all around. These noises were high-pitched, whining, evolving to shrieks. Either something was in the house with Miles’ mom and the Man, or something was outside and wanted to harm Miles and the Boy. In these dreams Miles was never sure which it was. He would leave the Boy where he sat on the grass, instruct the boy to remain where he was, and run to the door. The door would be locked. Of course. Sometimes Miles realized at this point that it was just a dream, though that rarely changed its outcome despite Miles’ attempts at waking.

The sound, now deafening, would radiate through the closed door, through the air around him, knocking Miles over, pulsing through his body. The poison of the sound strapped to his muscles, oozed out his ears, filled his nose with an acrid sweetness. Miles was plastered to the grass, his back seizing up, his breaths hurried and painful. Paralyzed, a single thought would emerge. The Boy. With a creaking strain, Miles twisted his head, finally able to catch the Boy in his peripheral vision.

It would be too late. It was always too late. There lay the Boy, dead, bleeding, his body gorged and destroyed by something Miles had missed. Maybe the thing in the house, or had it been outside? had escaped. Hopefully it had avoided his mother and the Man, as it had already feasted on the Boy. Then, as if pulled through a small tunnel, Miles saw the scene disappear before him, slowly at first, then intensifying to a jolt which left him breathless.

He sat upright in his bed, panting. Thankfully awake. Hot tears peppering his blotchy cheeks. The room was bare save for a new star-shaped nightlight. It was comforting enough. Miles squeezed his eyes closed, silently pleading for his mother to come in. Perhaps some intrinsic connection she shared with her only child would wake her and draw her into his room. But in an attempt not to stress her further, he didn’t dare call for her. The move had made her jumpy.

There he sat, perfectly still. He glanced at the crutches leaning next to his bed, longer and spindlier than he remembered.

He tried to slow his heart down, not letting the unknown terrors that emerge at night get to him. He was 11 after all. You’re too old for this, he sheepishly assured himself.

A moment of mercy. The rumbling of the 02:45. Miles wasn’t sure what kind of train it was just yet, but he knew it passed nightly on the tracks behind the new house. Though he hadn’t seen the tracks themselves yet, every time he brought them up his mother would turn him down, politely at first, and soon with a brusqueness that told him he only had a limited amount of asks left. He would need her assistance to maneuver out the front door and around the thick line of trees to head toward the backside of the house. Or, even easier, through the apparently permanently locked door in her room.

The train let out a low honk and Miles felt something unfurl in his chest. He took a deep breath. He loved night trains. Whatever was happening now, as he sat in bed immobile tonight, somewhere out there, someone was awake, doing their job, radioing with people, dutifully moving things to where they were meant to be. He could almost count down to the second that the tone shifted with the horn, the locomotive no longer barreling toward the house, but now ushering its freight past. He had learned this was called the Doppler Effect. The sound of an object as one thing when it heads toward you, another as it moves past.

Miles lay back down, he could see it all in his mind’s eye: the machine cutting through the night, the robust, quick intentional rotations of the wheels, and Miles’ eyelids began to close. His guard was down.

For a brief moment something slipped out, a memory maybe, of the Boy yelling Miles’ name.


Miles and his mother sat on the sofa across from the Doctor. The Doctor said to call him by his first name, and it was news to Miles that you were allowed to call adults anything but mister, missus, or by their career (doctor). The Doctor and his mother chortled at Miles’ realization. Then they fell quiet.

The Doctor was the most interesting man Miles had ever seen. He was old, donned a shaved head, well-trimmed gray beard, and a permanent tan on his skin, the kind of tan that shows he had spent ample time in the sun, and it decided to stick around years later.

“Miles, your mom told me you and Dr. Persimmon really hit it off these past few months. I’m here to step in while she’s on maternity leave.” The Doctor spoke as if Miles should know what he was saying. Miles peeked at his mother, who didn’t take her eyes off the Doctor.

“I want to hear from you,” the Doctor continued on. “What are some things you want to talk about? How are things?”

Miles pretended to ponder—what did he want to talk about? He was stuck on Persimmon, though in truth, he couldn’t place the name. Persimmon. All at once every topic of conversation drained from his head.

“He’s only recently become verbal again,” Miles’ mother said calmly. The Doctor raised a weathered hand at her, keeping his attention on Miles.

“I know you and Dr. Persimmon were really making some great progress, and I’m sorry about this change, but I just want to let you know that I have a different way of approaching things. Can I tell you how I approach things?”

Miles nodded. Who is Doctor Persimmon?

            “Great,” the Doctor looked to Miles’ mother. “If you could, usually I like to do my first session with the kids alone.”

A cold pang of fear. Miles’ hand grasped onto his mother’s denim-clad leg.

“I think I ought to stay.” Miles recognized the tone as the one she used on the Realtor.

The Doctor exhaled. “Alright.” He wrote something down on a clipboard Miles hadn’t even noticed.

“Okay Miles,” the Doctor raised his eyebrows in a quick up-down. “Tell me about the past few days. What goes on in an average eleven-year-old boy’s life?”

Miles realized he was still gripping his mother’s leg and released, putting his hands flat on his slender legs as professionally as possible.

“We got a new house.” Miles’ voice was a dry whisper. Unexpected. In his head his voice was louder, crisper.

“That’s super cool,” Miles had never heard an old man say ‘super cool’ before. “What’s your favorite part of it?”

Miles shrugged. The Doctor wrote something on the clipboard.

“How is school”

“He’s homeschooled for now,” Miles’ mother interrupted. The Doctor put down his pen and shot her a glance.


“Going back to the new—”

“Actually,” Miles’ didn’t mean to interrupt. The Doctor smiled and gave him a nod.

“What does ‘maternity’ mean?” The question had been pestering Miles. Next to who Dr. Fruit-lady was.

“Oh, like with Dr. Persimmon.” The Doctor didn’t miss a beat. “It means she’s pregnant. Going to have a baby.”

Miles absorbed this.

“But she should be back with our practice in a few months, so don’t worry, you’ll see her soon enough.

More writing by this new doctor. With a small slap he put his pen down.

“Is it okay if I do some quick-round questions with you, Miles?”


“Favorite subject when you’re at home or in school?”

“Uh, math.”

“Dr. Persimmon wrote here you like trains a lot. Favorite train?”

“C44-9W… it’s called the Dash 9.”

More writing.

“With Dr. Persimmon in mind, do you like babies, Miles?”

Weird question. “I think so” Miles’ voice was quieter than he wanted. Speak up, an attempt at self-encouragement.

“I haven’t spent much time with babies, but I like the ones I see on TV.”

No one said anything for longer than Miles would’ve liked. Was he supposed to not like babies? Now was definitely not the right time to ask who Dr. Persimmon was, and why he should be informed that she’s pregnant.

Miles’ mother shifted to face Miles and lowered her voice. “Miles, it’s okay to just tell the truth in there. I know it can be really hard and scary, it’s hard and scary for me too, but this is the time to just talk about what’s on your mind.” She grinned at him and returned to facing the Doctor.

“We can go back to trains. Is that okay with you?” the Doctor lowered his voice.


“Have you ever been inside a train?”

“I… I haven’t.” Say more, Miles, come on, Miles thought to himself, tensing. “I figured they’d be hard to get in and out of with my crutches.”

The Doctor hummed as he frantically wrote something else down. Is he writing things about me? Miles felt hot.

“And you’ve had those crutches for…” the Doctor trailed off. Miles didn’t know the answer. His mother stepped in.

“About seven months.”

Seven months? Miles glanced at his mother.

“Interesting.” More writing.

“And… you…” the Doctor spoke slowly, writing as he talked. Finally, “You didn’t have these crutches when you were down in Florida? Just seven months ago and consistently ever since then?”

Florida. Miles bit his lip. Florida?

“No, he didn’t have them in Florida. Just toward the end.” Miles’ mother’s voice had a sudden acidity to it. She turned to Miles and then to the Doctor. A small pebble of tension dropped in Miles’ stomach. Something was off with his mother, a vein of rage emerged from her forehead. A new emotion within her had been switched on.

Her voice went up an octave. “You said you wouldn’t bring this up. Not in the consultation.”

She reached over and grabbed Miles’ crutches, leaning on the wall beside her, then shoved them at her son. This was a clear cue to get ready to leave. He prodded the crutches under his armpits as his mother increasingly fumed.

She continued. “And Dr. Persimmon made it very clear throughout our work these past few months that we are not to mention Florida, not to mention—”

“I understand, but I’m just trying to take a different approach.” The Doctor kept his voice calm, but Miles could tell he was not expecting such a rapid turn of events.

“We can discuss something else.” His voice was firm, but Miles’ mother was already up and at the door. Her coat and Miles’ coat both folded over her arm. Miles thumped toward his mother. He felt bad for this doctor, and something in his chest longed to stay, wanted to see him again. The Doctor held Miles’ eyes as long as he could. They did not say goodbye to the secretary on the way out.


Miles’ mom did not turn on the radio on the drive back from the Doctor’s. Never a good sign. An attempt at distraction, Miles looked around him at the worn leather interior. The seats looked like they were dry skin, cracking. He wasn’t sure whose car it was they were in. His mother had a lot of friends, maybe she was borrowing this one from them.

“What the hell,” she kept saying over and over. Miles stayed quiet.

“Miles.” His name was an order.


“Did you like that doctor?”

Miles paused. “Yeah.”

She let out a low hiss of air, like a steam engine. “Really?”

Miles didn’t answer.

“I guess I’m just so used to Dr. Persimmon. God, she was great. She was just so… easy to be around, you know?”

Miles did not know.

“Well. Sorry, Miles. I didn’t know you liked him.”

They turned onto their street. Their new street.

“I bet he’ll agree to see us again,” she was no longer talking with Miles.

The car slowed, and they pulled into their driveway. Miles figured it was time to ask, better now than never. Panicked, he blurted out, “Can we go to the back of the house? Maybe go see the tracks?”

His mother turned off the car and reached for his crutches in the back. “Not right now, Bun. I have to go in and make an apology phone call. I need to mentally prepare to grovel.” She made a pretend gagging sound. Miles didn’t laugh.

She went around and opened Miles’ door, helping him out of the car. He looked over her shoulder to the long line of trees. They seemed thicker than ever. Maybe he could try and venture around there while his mother was on the phone. His mother noticed his staring.

“You really want to go to the yard?”

“I do.”

She paused, her eyes, gray and intense, studied Miles for a moment longer than he would’ve liked.

“Listen, we can go, just don’t go back there without me, okay? The ground is…” she looked for the right word. “Uneven. Tricky to walk on, so I really want to be with you when we go.”

“Can’t I just cut through the door in your bedroom?” Miles felt energized by this newfound persistence. She sucked in one of her cheeks, leaving her face hollow for a moment. For the first time Miles saw his mother as old, tired. Something was different about her. The skin under her eyes suddenly seemed thin and taut like a bat’s wing. She stood up.

“Miles, I’m sorry but no. We can go later, but I have to do some things.” Miles didn’t leave the car.

His mother crouched back down, putting her face close to Miles; and locking eyes with him.

“Look at me,” her voice was quiet. Miles looked.

“Do not go alone.”


“Did you know,” the Man said, chewing with his mouth open. Miles didn’t dare say anything. “That if you lie flat under a train, it’ll just go right over you?”

Miles, surprising himself, let out a laugh. It was the single most absurd thing he had ever heard. the Man grinned, “I knew that’d get a rise out of you.”

Miles’ mother, spoon feeding the Boy at a worn highchair across the table, let out a playful tisk.

Miles went back to quietly eating. The night was hot, summer was quickly upon them, and the windows, old but screened in, let in a damp breeze. He could tell the Man about how, even if you miraculously managed to get past the protective locomotive cab protector, built like a plow in the front, there are so many hoses and wires dangling under a train, it could snag you and drive you for miles and miles. Snag you and drag you. Clever. He smiled.

But the Man was always saying silly things, Miles knew this wasn’t a real conversation.

“Can you feed him? I’m going to head out for a sec,” Miles’ mother said to the Man. She pulled a cigarette out from behind her ear, giving Miles a quick kiss on the top of his head as she passed. The Man picked up where she left off, spooning a pale, sweet-smelling substance into the babbling Boy’s mouth.

“Here comes the train into the station,” he cooed at the boy. Miles could’ve sworn the Man shot him a wink.


The Boy had been following Miles around for a few weeks now. And Miles was sick of it. He wasn’t sure when or how the idea occurred to him.

The house was decaying and old. Its paint, pastel pink and soft, flaked off the side of the house like dead skin. The dullness of the house offered little reprieve to Miles’ and the Boy’s boredom as they spent their afternoons outside. Miles, however, found the one thing that could make the days bearable, borderline enjoyable: the train tracks.

Just less than a quarter of a mile away, past the extension of the house’s grassy yard, then through a brief ankle-deep marsh, and guarded by a chain-link fence with barbed wire atop, lay the tracks. Then, through a small hole in the fence, Miles could easily access the tracks.

The trains that came by were not on any discernable schedule, but they did come. Usually GP40-2s with three locomotives for the incredibly heavy cargoes. On the sides in bright, warning letters, advertised Florida East Coast. Sometimes—very rarely—they would let out a quick toot at Miles as he stood by the fence (even at a very young age he knew the dangers of these machines and would always scurry to the safe side of the fence as a train approached).

Unlike the northeastern trains Miles now was accustomed to, the trains bustled through cityscapes at slow paces. In very small towns, however, the trains rarely slowed. Towns like McIntosh, Florida. Its population was 400, rarely warranting a honk or even a slower pace.

Miles usually went alone, but recently the Boy took interest. Usually, the Boy would just follow him to the marsh and then stop, deterred by the warnings Miles’ mother and the Man spewed about gators or snakes, though neither boy had ever seen one.

Today, however, the Boy followed Miles to the fence. Miles tried to shoo him away, but the Boy was persistent, toddling behind, pleading to stay with Miles.

Miles wriggled through the hole in the fence. The Boy did the same. Wordlessly, they approached the tracks. Miles looked left and right; the Boy looked too. The tracks spanned as far as they could see, perfectly straight.

Miles crouched down and touched the metal beams, one and then the other. They weren’t yet hot. It was only morning.

“Don’t tell them we come out here,” it occurred to Miles to say. His mother and the Man had also told Miles and the Boy to stay in the grassy part of the yard, and never ever go by the fence. Miles doubted they knew about the hole.

The Boy didn’t seem entertained by the tracks. Miles caught him looking through the chain-link fence, past the marsh, through the grass, and to the house.

“We’ll go back soon, I just have to check some things,” Miles put his hands up, implying the boy to stay where he was. Miles headed up the tracks—he had a line of pennies he’d been flattening, left out for a few days now. It was time to collect. On these pennies Miles had managed to sharpie the abbreviated title of the trains as they passed. Miles picked up the small, flattened gems. Miles grimaced, as expected, they were too squished, and the sharpie was illegible. He held the pennies to his nose. Flattened, they smelled brittle, the odor cold somehow; it could be the smell of the steel train wheels. A small win.

He heard a call behind him, the Boy was awkwardly perched on the edge of the railway. Miles shoved the pennies in his jean pockets and scurried to the Boy.

“What happened?” Miles asked, kneeling beside him. The Boy, now crying, yanked at his pudgy leg, his foot wedged beneath the iron of the railway and the gravel that lay beneath the tracks. The more the Boy pulled at his leg, the more space allotted for the gravel to fill in the hold his foot had created. It was unlike anything Miles had ever seen; the gravel seemed to be emerging from the ground, little gray monsters swarming, latching themselves around the flesh of the Boy. The hole filling, filling, filling. The gravel had an unnatural, eager quickness. Miles shivered but forced himself close to the Boy. He knelt down, trying to help the Boy into a new position, but that led to more cries, evolving into shrills. Miles knew better than to actually walk on the tracks. But he forgot to warn the Boy to never walk anywhere near the smooth rails of the tracks, let alone the treacherous center. A stab of guilt—a tangible sickening feeling he could only hope to forget—waved through him. His mother and the Man would be so angry, and they would definitely fix the hole in the fence.

With a single rumble, the guilt turned to fear. Miles and the Boy felt it together and at once. A train. Miles’ attention jerked to the machine approaching in the distance, then to the Boy. The train was not going to slow. Something in Miles knew this.

What had Miles done? The Boy, confused by Miles’ tears, clutched onto the arm iron of the tracks, and attempted to pull himself up. Miles positioned himself behind the Boy and gave him three big tugs. Nothing would move him.

Miles took off. He ran through the marsh, only ankle-deep in this dry weather, but deep enough to suction off his boots. Miles didn’t stop to retrieve them. He didn’t even have it in him to glance around for gators. Finally, he got to the backyard. Grass, hot, scratchy, pulling at him, slowing him down again. The blood pumping through his ears muted the world around him. Should he have stayed with the Boy so the conductor could have a chance at seeing them and slowing? Did the conductor even see the Boy yet? They almost never slowed down here. No real town within three or four hours, just the swamp, the fence, and the lone house.

The door was locked, God, why was the door locked. Miles screamed. He slammed his open palms against the door, his throat tightening on his senseless noises. The rumbling swelled and grew as the train approached.

The Man answered the door first, opening it without urgency. Miles, wordlessly, cried and pointed to the fence. Now Miles’ mother arrived at the door. Her eyes widened. She understood, and said to the Man, “The train!”

This was enough, Miles ran again. Ahead of the adults, through the grass, tugging, through the marsh, sloshing, and finally wriggling through the hole. The adults were close behind, pumping their arms and huffing through the different terrains. The Man would be too big to get through the fence, and the barbs on the top stopped him from scaling it. Though he did try.

But his mother could fit. Miles glanced behind him at the young woman running full speed next to the Man. Through their running they pleaded for Miles to stop.

“Stay away from there! Get away from the tracks!”

But Miles wouldn’t. He ran, and finally he made it to the side of the tracks, a few feet away from the Boy, still stuck, face red from the tears and attempts at pulling himself free. His cries swelled with the presence of adults. Miles’ body stopped him from getting any closer. Miles, stop, a train is coming, his gut pleaded.

His mother was wedging her way through the hole, parts of its rusty spindles tore at her shirt and arms. She pushed through, joining Miles and the Boy. The Man, helpless, shouted from the other side of the fence. The Boy wouldn’t move. Miles yelled. Maybe if he was loud at the Boy, he’d roll away from the track somehow, he’d manage to unlatch himself. Miles knew it took a train that size, with that much freight, at least a mile to come to a complete stop. An EMD SD70MAC, Miles guessed.

Miles opened his mouth again but all that came was the sound of the locomotive, its horn, the dual-tone wheezing for them to get out of the way, the roar of its clacks close, and, despite the imploring screeches of the brakes, not slowing in their beats. The wheels chirped like loud, angry birds at this sudden change of pace. The beast was loud, present, caught off guard. The warning was over now. The train was already there.

Miles lunged forward, through the sound, the shrieks of the wheels felt like they pierced his eyes, his ears, it seemed to even prickle his skin. He didn’t dare look at the front of the train, the face of it marked with its faded, yellow, beady little headlights. It let out final bleats to get them out of the way.  Miles wrapped his fingers around the Boy’s arms, pulling as hard as he could; his own limbs burned.

He closed his eyes, any second now. He could feel the heat of the train.

Once he felt the pain in his legs, he had to release his grip. Excruciating, the needles—no, knives— of the sounds finally penetrated through his jeans, through his flesh. Faster than anything he had experienced, the pain of his legs rushed to the rest of his body, and he felt, in a moment, a sickening crunch beneath him.

There were no other sounds but the horn, still atop him, not yet a new tone. Then the breaks, still pleading to stop, to slow. Quickly, the smell of diesel, new and brief, stifled as Miles urgently started breathing through his mouth. Hot air whirled around him, dusty, if he weren’t able to inhale from the sheer pain in his legs he probably would’ve choked.

Unexpectedly, Miles fell backwards. Something had taken him. Grabbed him under the armpits, though he wasn’t sure. He could only feel his legs. He couldn’t focus enough to open his eyes, the sensation of his legs, the sounds—how could he? Miles allowed his head to fall. It was suddenly incredibly heavy, his skull seemed to be pulled down, closer to his legs, his neck gave way and his head bobbed forward.

He was dragged. He tried to piece together what was happening, he was being hauled now, pulled. He managed to open his eyes. In front of him was nothing but long, crimson streaks from where he was carted. They left two parallel lines, like the tracks of a train.

Once they were far enough away, he was laid flat. The sun blinded him, but he didn’t care. There was no time to make sense of anything, the pain stepped in the way, blocking any coherent thought. His mother, in a whirl, appeared above him.

“Miles! Miles, honey, please!” She blocked the sun.

He could not yet speak and very quickly wanted to go to sleep. She knelt and lifted Miles’ head off the gravel surrounding the tracks. They were close to the fence. Far enough from the train, as it began to finally slow.

“Miles, hey, it’s okay,” she was yelling above the noise. What was she doing? She needs to go help the Boy.

There was a large thump beside Miles and his mother. Miles could not turn his head to look, or even to move his eyes to see. He heard his mother say something—loud, urgent—toward the thump.

“Oh, god,” the Man said. It was closer to a wail, but Miles couldn’t imagine the man, or any adult for that matter, being upset enough to wail or cry. The thump must be the man. Did he climb the fence? Miles couldn’t focus on the thought of the man scaling the metal, going over the barbed wire. His thoughts were on his legs.

Miles was now alone; his mother had left his side. The never-ending sun made his eyelids feel not real, translucent, the sun now shining red.

Back to his legs. He could not take deep breaths. It felt as if he had bumped his tailbone on a slide or rock—the pain creating stones in his throat, his lower stomach tightened. Yes, breathing was out of the question.

Alone for as long as he could remember, he didn’t reminisce enough to think that he was lucky. Lucky to live, lucky to not see.

The engineer finally got out of the train, his voice strained, yet his words loud. Miles didn’t remember—really, he didn’t—what was said among the adults, what happened with the Boy.

That’s as far as his mind let him go. And that others remembered this day well made him queasy. This was the biggest difference between him and those around him, and it got bigger each passing day.



After dinner. That’s when Miles would do it.

It wasn’t adding up. He wanted to go to school. He knew it was a new school, but he was tired of being at home. Tired of seeing the Doctor, of being cooped.

Miles and his mother finished their nightly physical therapy, which, apparently, they had been doing for months now. Each night Miles would position himself on the ground and his mother would stretch his legs. Left then right. She never let him take a good look at his legs, covering them with a blanket every time.

Miles was tired of not remembering either. People were babying him, the dishonesty of it all was wearing him down. But when he turned to himself, a chance to tell himself a truth, there was nothing there to say.

Faster than Miles expected, the chance was upon him. He had barely finished his hot dog (third time this week) when his mother had to take a call. She covered the base of her phone.

“I’m going outside,” she mouthed, heading to the front door. Since the weather had warmed Miles and his mother had put two folding chairs beside the door, next to the row of trees, which, Miles noticed with disdain, were thicker than ever. Miles gave her a thumbs up.

The door clacked behind her. Miles had to make his move. Only needing one crutch now, his left leg apparently worse than his right, he stumbled, quickly, frantically, in the direction of his mother’s room. He had been so patient, staying inside, keeping to the front of the house, backing down when his mother became heated at the topic of going out back. One time she had been so upset with him for bringing up the yard, the tracks, that she broke a cup in the sink. Slammed it down too hard.

He closed the door of his mother’s bedroom behind him. In a few quick strides he was at the back door. Miles’ mother had taken up smoking again, a vice she was failing to hide from him. He could smell the smoke in recent nights, stalking down the hallway from his mother’s room to his. He was upset at first, the smell bringing back memories he couldn’t quite place, scenes that didn’t make sense. But this meant the door to the outside was likely unlocked.

He wrapped his fingers around the sphere of the knob, and with an exhale, twisted his wrist. Smoothly, too effortlessly, it opened. Miles let it go. A shiver rose through his body. Did he really want to do this?

It’s just the backyard. Miles nodded, he let himself indulge in a blasé shrug just to prove to himself how little of a deal it was.

He grabbed the knob again, twisted again, and pushed the door open. The sun had just set, still offering enough light to see perfectly.

He stepped out, his mind scrambling to imagine what the yard could possibly hold. If his daydreams—if he could even call them that—were correct. In his mind the yard had a sweeping hill, and below it, tracks. Or, another possibility, it was flat. The tracks would be half a mile away. Maybe even a full mile.

He took one step out.

The line of trees that flanked the house were surprisingly dense even in the back, spanning for as far as Miles could see. A nature-made fence. A rush of air flurried around him, which Miles could’ve sworn was a breeze, though none of the leaves on the trees made any sign that there was a gust. It became hard to focus.

His jaw slackened and he couldn’t help but hunch a bit as he surveyed the yard.

There, behind the house, was nothing. Grass for a bit, yes, but then a road, a single slope down to more houses a mile or so away. Why hadn’t he heard the road?

There was no space, no indication of any tracks.

He took more steps out, his crutch sinking into the sod. He peered to either side of the house. There, too, was nothing but shrubs.

“No,” he managed to say aloud.

He heard a sound behind him but did not turn. It would be too difficult with the soft earth and crutches. He could see her without turning.

There, in the doorway, his mother leaned. Her arms limp at her side. She bit her lip and offered a deep, aching look at her son. She opened her mouth as if to say something.

Miles let himself lean into the crutch, pinching his armpit a bit. His mind was still.

His mother approached him slowly, reaching him and engulfing him in her arms. Miles let go of the crutch and leaned onto her.

There were no sounds. Miles didn’t even hear his crutch fall to the grass.

“Oh, Miles,” his mother finally cooed.

It hit Miles in two small waves: The tracks were gone. The tracks were never there.


A single fact, bodyless and light, floating in the air, made its way to Miles as he stood with his mother. The Doppler Effect only works if you compare your relative motion to other things that are not moving with you—the sounds of things moving around you. If you stand alone, you hear one thing. If everyone else is in motion, leaving you behind, the tones shift. Even if is only ever so slightly, they will not hear the train the same way you do.

Madeline McGrain Githler is a short story writer and aspiring novelist. She graduated with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Connecticut College and recently received her MLA from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Cambridge, MA, with her dog (and muse) Babs, and supportive partner. She has had work featured in Sad Girls Diary, The Weird Reader Magazine, Come and Go Literary Review, and other publications. 

Mirage (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

The fiery sun is losing its edges, a reddish gold singeing the sky. Fishermen pull in the day’s catch close by, shouting instructions to each other over the clamor of excited seagulls.

I am staring down at the yoga school built on stilts over the Arabian Sea—a sleek villa that offers rich foreigners a coastal break with a side order of spirituality and houses a hive of soul-searching beach bums who keep my aunt’s small cafe afloat. The same aunt who moonlights as the parents who left me behind, and for whom I bring to mind her dead children.

I drum my fingers on my lap to the rhythm of the gentle waves, waiting for a few yoga students to trickle into the cafe for Kerala fish curry. The usuals come in here at least once a day. They like to take the other meals in one of the fancier restaurants in the tourist town nearby.

The weekend has just started, and families are entering the luxury health resort across the street. I watch mothers holding babies in their arms and wonder what that might feel like. I listen to fathers give instructions to their children and imagine how I would respond. Then I lie face down in the sand and feel the fine grains chafe against my skin, afraid I don’t belong in my own life.

When nobody shows up even until nightfall, I lock the cafe and head to the tourist town where the circus troupe has been camped for one week.

Most of the performers are sleeping outside on the hot sand. Some are awake, talking, idling, playing cards. In one corner sits a carousel and next to it fiberglass elephants, Ferris wheels and mini bicycles. Making sure nobody sees me, I circle the structures repeatedly, touching the vintage canvas material of the tents and the circus wagons. I fiddle with the games, the puppets, and window displays lying around. When I turn around, I see the circus master observing me.

“Just a mirage,” he says.

I feel shame, as if caught thieving. I duck under the elastic cord holding up a tent and step away from the installations. How long has he been watching?

“A circus is a film is a book is a world is another life,” he says with a knowing look. “A mirage of a family for those who do not have one.”

Behind him, I see fishermen on handmade log boats vaporize into thick folds of water.


Late at night, when my aunt comes back from the city, her hands loaded with supplies for the beachside cafe, I wonder if I should tell her about my visit to the circus camp. When she sits next to me in the cafe kitchen, I notice how the ancient silver hoops have gouged out her earlobes. She uses the edge of her sari to wipe sweat off her face and a few drops fall on my feet.

I want to ask her if she has another photograph of my parents—I have folded my copy so many times it has started cracking, the image separating from the photo paper like dead skin. I want to ask her to tell me something new about them, anything that might resuscitate my fading memories of them. But I have learned to leave her alone as she retreats further into the black hole of her past.

She washes her face in the stainless-steel sink. “How were things at the cafe today? Anything special?”

“A little slow—” I begin.

“I am so tired,” she says.

I make her a cup of tea and do not ask her what a mirage means, just how I never ask her how my mother vanished during the 2004 tsunami or why my father left the next day, or if there was a link between the two events.

Then I start on the prawns that a surfer ordered earlier. Once they are pink and perfectly crisp, gently fleeced in the butter, with roasted garlic forming an aromatic base at the bottom of the pan, I plate them and carry them out to him. He is young, white, stationed in India to look for inner peace and Ayurveda. He also teaches Vinyasa yoga at the school on stilts and has a late dinner at the cafe every day.

“You never fail me.” He leans back in his chair. “Traveled everywhere in the world, Santiago, Madrid, Tokyo, New Orleans; never eaten seafood like this!”

How do I know he is telling the truth if I have never been to any of these places?

How did the circus master find the dark place in my mind to set up shop in?


We smile for the guests at the cafe, my aunt and me. Despite our tired eyes and hungry stomachs, we always do. We repeat stories we cooked with fragments overheard around the village, texts read in passing, memories, dreams, wishes; stories that would tug at the guests’ hearts and swell their lunch orders and gratuities. Sometimes, when my aunt is in a good mood, she sings for them songs she grew up listening to, songs about fishermen and mermaids and what would happen if the two got married.

I sing or joke with the guests only when my aunt is away; I don’t know why but I feel shy around her, like I am not good enough, like I will make a fool of myself, even though she doesn’t say anything when I attempt joviality, only turns around and leaves.

When she goes to the city, I twirl around the tables and balance multiple dishes on my forearms like I have seen servers do on TV. I show magic tricks to the children and praise the women’s clothes.

“The song is my husband,” I once hear my aunt tell a curious guest. “Always at my beck and call, always melodious, always on my lips.” She laughs. I stare in shock. Even though I know she is trying to please the guest, I suspect a true part of her has seeped through. She has never talked to me about her husband or if there ever was one. In their pictures her children look like nobody I have ever met.

That night, I dream about my aunt attending my parents’ wedding with her husband, blessing her younger sister with a love as glorious as hers. As if I’m directing a movie in my sleep, I control how the action unfolds. My mother asks my aunt to look after her future child. Only until we return for her, my father adds. But I am unable to play out my aunt’s response; no matter how many times I rewind the scene, her face remains elusive, her voice faraway.


Soon, some members of the circus troupe begin recognizing me. I manage the cafe during the day and when my aunt takes over in the evening, I spend my time with them. They say they like the pleasant expression on my face. I find it intriguing that my loneliness masquerades as pleasantness.

Two days before the troupe’s departure, Shirin, a dancer and a trapeze artist, and I sit together on the beach and watch the sun turn into the moon. The waves keep refilling the rock pools. The moon keeps burnishing the sand. I ask Shirin why she isn’t taking photographs of the sunset. Everybody who comes to this town does that. She says she has over five hundred sunset pictures from all over the world and she cannot distinguish one from another anymore.

When Shirin gets up to leave so she can finish packing her bags, I decide to return to the kitchen. It is surfing season and the beach is steadily spouting hungry people into the cafe. Shirin makes me promise I will join the farewell party the next day.


“My children loved the circus,” my aunt says when I mention the party to her that night.

I did not know that. I look at her face: stormy sea, big dark waves crashing on the shore. Her eyes: neat little banks of pain.

“Who sent the tsunami, do you know?” she asks me. “It did not belong here. Those were not its children to take,” she says.

The ground deforms under my feet, like the ocean floor does during a disturbance. This is the only time she has ever talked of the 2004 tsunami—grieving the children it stole from her. I learned of my own parents’ disappearance from a village elder. He said my aunt took me in the evening my father left. I was a year old, too little to remember.

I open my mouth to comfort my aunt, but words fail me, as always. I wish I knew her children, but not as much as I wish I knew my parents.

“I tried to save them. They did not know how to swim.” She is crying now, softly. “I failed my children.” I have never known my aunt to bawl like other mothers. Her life is an unending procession of low moans.

“You tried, Valiyamma. You did the best you could,” I say. “You made sure I learned how to swim.”

“We are good people, and yet the water came for us.” She turns to the window to watch the sea, the eternal object of her accusations. “Why?”

Suddenly I am not thinking about my parents or about the calamity that took them away. All I can think of is that my aunt will be forever unmoored from the present, and from me.

“I miss my children. And now I am so old, so tired,” she says.

We sit like that for a long time. We are two broken people trying to fuse into a whole family. But the fracture runs too deep.

We are shorelines on the move, continuously drifting together, before breaking apart in a never-ending cycle.


“What if she did not disappear?” I say to the thirteen-year-old kitchen boy the next morning. “What if he did not run away?”

For the last two years he has been washing dishes at the cafe in exchange for meals. For the last eighteen months he has been listening to me mourn my life. “You could go look for them,” he says.

“Look where?”


“What about my aunt?”

“What about your aunt?”

“She has already lost her children.” I picture my aunt searching frantically for her little ones while I looked on from the sling crisscrossed around her back.

“Before taking you in or after?” he says conspiratorially. Then he shrugs. “You could be happy here.”

He has said these things before, but they sound different today. The circus is playing tricks with my mind.

I look in the mirror that night, combing my hair with my fingers. One day I plan to cut it short like my mother’s in the picture but for now I like how it reflects the moonlight. Or I could find her, and she could cut it for me while my father gives her instructions on how to. If my father could escape the tsunami, he must be an expert at everything. A warmth floods me but I am unable to decipher it. What does a thought without language sound like?


I step onto the party boat, bewitched by the lights and the laughter. The circus master finds me. He introduces me to his wife who smiles wordlessly, her eyes wrinkled around the corners.

Shirin hugs me from behind. “There she is!” she says, and I feel all grown up. Nobody has ever been thrilled to see me.

Then she takes me to the food counter and offers me dishes I have only ever seen on TV and never tasted. I accept generous helpings of everything and try to pretend I feel at ease. Someone laughs loudly at a half-told joke. Someone imitates a movie actor. Someone breaks into a song. Shirin excuses herself. “I hope you will be there to see us off tomorrow,” she calls out over the babble just before she disappears into the crowd.

I look over at silhouettes dancing on the upper deck. Stars change colors in the sky above as they issue starlight. Red-blue-red-blue.

The circus master’s wife brings me more food. “The boundary between family and friends is blurred here because we all live together,” she says. “We look after each other.”

“Are there vacancies?” I say, surprising myself, feeling like the jellyfish in the water below that float to wherever the current brings them.

“We’re always looking for performers with a strong stage presence,” she says.

I take the long way home, my ears still ringing from the loud music. Back at the cafe, a few pots and pans are waiting to be washed. I mix water in baking soda and apply the paste all over the bottom of a dark skillet. I scrub the burnt copper with an old rag, releasing the scent of stale garlic. Then I sit down on the floor and imagine the beach cradling a lone boat dancing in the frothy tug of the Arabian Sea.


The engine booms. After four weeks in the tourist town, the circus boat is ready to depart. I have to make a decision. It is now and forever, or never and what if.

I look at the flimsy wooden fence, waving gently. Then, at the meandering lanes beyond the fence, leading to hookah bars on one side and indie music lounges on the other, before connecting to the state highway.

Excitement bubbles on the boat. Hysteria of the beginning, panic at the letting go. Shirin hops on, but not before looking questioningly at me one last time.

The cafe door continues to rock on its hinges. The milk needs to be boiled. The table covers with prints of apples, oranges and strawberries need to be set out on surfaces crammed with coarse sand. The radio needs to be tuned to the local beach station. The coconuts need to be grated for Malabar chicken curry that needs to be cooked at noon. The Gods need to be freshened up and appeased for a hopeful day of business.

I close my eyes for a last-minute sign. Nothing. I walk to the boat. Then I stop, dash back to the cafe, lock the door without looking inside, run back to the boat and climb aboard. Navigation lights come on as I begin my new life.


It has been over a month in the circus and yet I have not spotted anyone in the audience who could look like my mother or my father. As a magician’s assistant, I hold props that I shift onto and off the stage, imitating a joyful character wholly unlike myself.

Shirin and I spend a lot of time together. She introduces me to all her friends. When we are alone, she talks a lot, as if in a hurry to tell me everything. Sometimes I try to narrate stories of my own, but I have so few. I embellish the actions of the cafe regulars, of the people who vacationed at the hotel and of those who passed through the yoga school, but I always feel less worldly, my stories less sophisticated.

She is an aerial wizard, moving like she is drawing a delicate pattern in the air, spinning midair with perfect grace. She tells me her family enrolled her in the circus without telling her. At the age of twelve, she lost her balance and fell backward while performing on a wheel suspended thirty feet above the ground.

She says she picked herself up, waved to the crowd and went back to her room to read a book. She tells me she likes historical fiction.

“Don’t you blame them for the accident?” I say to her in Siam Reap.

“I did, not anymore. You have to forgive your family one day, release the past to make place for yourself,” she says.


I have learned that circus mealtimes offer some of the only opportunities to talk to other human beings, so I eat with people from all over the world as they exchange stories. Most stories start with the old joke about running away and joining the circus.

Sometimes I watch mothers playing with their babies or listen to fathers narrate stories to their children. When the images of all the happy faces get too overwhelming, I hide in the bathroom.

“Fear is natural, but possibly irrational. Safety nets remove fear,” my acrobatics trainer says.

I agree. I found things like handstands and backflips scary when I was new. The trainer eliminated the fear by using pirouette bails and foam pits.

“Once you recognize your fears and learn that the risk is minimal, you can unlock your true potential,” she says.

I disagree. The more I see my fears, the more they tighten their fist in my throat, revealing a ghost that trails me everywhere no matter how hard I try to banish it back to my past. It feels as though I am a dedicated observer of events happening in my life, only to realize later that I am never a part of my own memories unless the ghost is also in the frame.


Although I had befriended a few members of the troupe back home, I am subdued around them. When they gather for drinks or games, I observe them quietly, sometimes laughing at inside jokes I do not understand so they do not think of me as foreign.

A few older people enquire suspiciously about my past life—dissatisfied no matter how I respond—but most others try to be familial, the men paternal, the women maternal. It rings false. My parents are impossible to replace, despite the fact that I never knew them. Plus, I prove unsuccessful in performing the part of a child. I do not know how to. Nobody ever taught me.

Some younger ones invite me to join their cliques where I struggle to act like them, never feeling like a good fit for those around me. Even the friendless and the family-less heighten my uneasiness. I want to tell them my innermost thoughts and fears, but I do not know where to begin. I want to feel attached to them, but I miss the intimacy I shared with the sea and the wind. I have learned that I am one of them and yet I am not. I am that leftover fish at the back of the circus refrigerator that the main cook always buys and forgets about.


Eight weeks since I joined the circus and Shirin is always busy now. Her stories have dried out, suddenly and with no warning. Has she tired of me? When she does approach me, I avoid her in resentment. Fever, I say. Or, late for practice. She never tries to make me stay, never adjusts her own day for me. I cannot remember if she was always like this and I never noticed, or if she has changed now. I am reluctant to approach her friends without her. What if they reject me? So, I wander the circus grounds alone, naming all the props and inventing lives for them. My heart races when someone catches me doing that. I try to tell myself I belong here as much as they do, but I am unable to believe it.

I pick a fight with my tent-mate in Cebu City, blaming her loud breathing for my lack of sleep. She apologizes, then defends herself. The next day she calls me crazy, and points at me when around her musician friends in the dining hall. I storm out without eating as if that would make any difference to their lives.

The circus master makes it a point to smile when he sees me, but it happens rarely. Once, when he has a moment to spare, he pulls a chair next to mine and says his life is cluttered with small worries. He says he admires how I look at things as if I’m seeing the world for the first time. I can see he is being kind, but his words make me sad, because they tell me that on the day of our first meeting, he had read his own mind, not mine. If he had read my mind, he would know that I see everything as if for the last time.

The circus has begun intimidating me. I feel like a trespasser here, visiting other people’s lives, uninvited. Like a stranger trapped in an alien body, inhabiting a reality that is not hers, deceiving the whole world.

The kitchen boy said I would find my parents if I looked everywhere; why haven’t they shown up yet? I want to run away.


Just when my thoughts look ready to collapse under their own weight, my trainer introduces me to Samar, the star acrobat who presents death-defying acts to adoring crowds, and I feel my head spin. His grey eyes remind me of warm sunlit sand. His calm voice evokes the village fishermen’s nightly song. Meeting him is like tripping over something and falling into the deepest hole on the Earth. Everything feels right again.

I start watching him all the time, deliriously, keeping a distance so he does not notice. While he is rehearsing his act, I pick up cleaning duties in the practice hall. I start going for early morning jogs and late-night strolls around his tent and lose a lot of weight. In Singapore I am convinced I love him. Is home an end point or where one starts from?

I ask my tent-mate where Samar is from, and she says she is not sure. He has been with the troupe since he was a boy of two, left in a bundle next to the circus master’s tent at night, not crying, just waiting to be picked up and trained to be a circus performer.


I offer to cook a meal for the whole troupe and, as expected, Samar seeks me out to offer compliments. We start talking regularly.

“As a child I learned all kinds of music, singing and acting to hone my craft,” he tells me in Makassar. We are seated among pots and pans in the moving kitchen van, shelling and eating peanuts, with him doing most of the shelling. Every now and then, the van goes over a speed bump, and we fly, our heads hitting the ceiling, the shells sticking to our clothes and hair, the pots clattering and knocking against each other. Each time that happens, we go quiet for a minute as if an announcement might follow, and when nothing happens, we clean our hair and clothes and go back to eating and talking.

That evening he casts a spell on the audience with his perfect acts of balance and flexibility. I feel my face burn.

I walk up to him after the show and before I can say anything he reads my feelings. Afterwards, we lie in an open circus wagon, and he kisses me for the first time. I close my eyes and feel his mouth brush against mine. From the stories told by village elders I know I shouldn’t be doing something like this before marriage, and yet I urgently feel I should be storing this feeling in my mind forever.

That night I dream that the two of us are surfing in the Indian Ocean long before the tsunami altered its temperament. We paddle out for glassy waves breaking over a rock shelf as the moon melts over our heads like a candle.


I have been in the circus for three months. Samar and I talk about life outside, which means I speak, and he pretends to listen. He is a circus person like he is a man or like he is tall or like he hates milk. It is a fact.

“Is this what you want our kids to grow up doing?” I ask him, only because I want to say ‘our kids.’ I pinch my cheeks secretly because I know he likes them flushed.

“Our imaginary future kids might be stronger than we think.” He laughs.

In the end, I cajole him to try life outside the circus, which means I lock eyes with him, and he smiles before looking away.

“Will you come find me?” I say in Hanoi, the wind whipping across my face.

“I will come find you,” Samar tells a star in the distance.

I look up at the star and the vastness overwhelms me. The sky appears ready to unleash a torrent of asteroids.

It suddenly feels as though I have arrived at a secluded house that no one invited me to and now I have to stay. I feel afraid while walking down long deserted corridors. Before I get over the first terrifying shadow, I find another one to fear. A lifetime passes but I never manage to work out why I am endlessly afraid.


The circus camps by the coast again, this time with me as an insider. In Da Nang, I walk out into the stray sun and reach the My Khe beach. As foamy waves rock me like a baby, I drift off to sleep on the smooth sand. Golden light squats on me.

Later, I watch my shadow grow and fade under the setting sun. Though the water is breathing life into my body, I cannot drink a drop. Light is converging on the ancient silver hoops in my mind. The blurred ghost is slowly coming into focus. Holding my waist so I can keep my head above the water, fashioning fictional mermaids with long hair like mine. I want to call my aunt and ask her if she misses me, but I do not. I am afraid the answer might be no.

“There is a path that leads back to her,” the waves say.

I shake my head. “Whatever I run behind, runs away from me,” I say.

“You keep running away because you are convinced you do not belong anywhere.”

“No!” My screams are towering storm waves, crashing into the rugged coast and churning high into the damp air.

I brush my hand against an umbrella-shaped jellyfish washed up on the shore. It is dead, and yet it stings me.


“What is a mirage?” I ask Samar that night.

“You,” he says.


A week later in Bangkok, I gather the nerve to walk faster than the rest of the troupe until I am out of sight. My thoughts are stuck in a junkyard like a rotting old fishing boat. My fear is not that if Shirin and the others see me escaping, they wouldn’t let me go, it is that if they see me escaping, they would let me.

The coastline stretches before me, waves rushing to the seashore like playing children, wearing out and tumbling over. Behind me sprawls the bustling night market, where the day’s catch—fresh lobster, prawns, clams, and whole fish—is displayed on ice. Recent rain lies on my path like beads. Families stroll around, skipping children, smiling parents. Backpackers sit in a circular arrangement of black plastic chairs, exchanging tales and preparing for their next adventure in Seoul and Singapore, or further down the Pacific in Sydney or Adelaide. Disco lights flash from clothing and footwear stalls. Red-blue-red-blue.

I want to call Samar and ask him if he misses me, but I do not. I am afraid the answer might be yes. So, I sit down next to a man selling banana sweets and think about my aunt. If I go back to the cafe, I will become her in fifteen years—sitting on the beach, near the reef, listening to the chants from the yoga school during the day and to the roars of the raucous waves at night. Going to the city every month to escape the listlessness of the beach, to escape the people who couldn’t stop talking about how they were escaping the cities.


It is that time of the day when the sun looks like a jar of honey. I use most of my money to buy a cheap phone and a temporary calling card. Then I take a train to Ayutthaya where I sit among the restored ruins of Wat Maha That and call my aunt. I remember her number by heart.

The phone rings several times. My aunt’s voice comes on the other side just as the last few tourists leave the temple area and the bricks change color from a burnt orange to a deep red.

“You called,” she says. She must be sitting outside the cafe, watching the lonely beach rise from lacy waves.

“How could I not?”

“I sent in the annual donation to the orphanage a week early so they could cook a feast for your birthday this year.”

“The children must have really enjoyed it,” I say.

“The director sent me a card signed by many of them. I wish you could read the messages.” Her voice is even like the sea’s surface on a calm day.

“I am in Thailand.”

“My children always wanted to travel the world.” This time, I am not jealous. This time, the invocation of her children comforts me, as if I am fulfilling their wishes.

“And how about you?” I say.

“I am tied to the water. I can never leave it.”

“You won’t have to, Valiyamma.”

I hear her shift in her chair. She pauses only briefly before she says, “Will you take me to the circus if I come and meet you there?”

Astha Gupta is a semi-finalist for the 2022 Marianne Russo Novel-in-Progress Award presented by Key West Literary Seminar and a fiction finalist both for the 2021 Porter House Review Editor’s Prize (chosen by Yiyun Li) and the 2020 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards competition. Her writing has received support from The Hambidge Center, The Sundress Academy for the Arts and The New York State Summer Writers Institute, and was nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she was an MFA Fellow and won the 2021 Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award in Fiction. She lives  with her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Coming Loose

After running errands all morning, I collapse with a hundred grocery bags in front of the fridge like one of those deflated wind socks at a car dealership. All I’ve eaten today is coffee. My husband texts me, “Just paid the credit card bill. We didn’t save any money this month because of you.” He’s already done five cases today. I’m throwing out spoiled leftovers, juggling cartons of broth, wondering if I have time to return those silky dresses I bought impulsively when I broke my mom-parole last week. I look around at the kitchen. Soggy Cheerios and Pokemon cards with gnawed corners, junk mail, a blizzard of paper cutouts under stools, stained tulip petals arching their backs in a vase, poised to fall.

I shed my coat, unpeel my scarf like a bandage that’s holding my head in place. I radiate with static electricity and eight years of power-mothering. My whole life feels like static cling. My kids, my husband, the house. I just want to douse it. I want to bathe and wake up new. A Bond babe exiting the ocean. Glistening, refreshed. To need nothing. Just a bikini. My life, reduced to triangles.

Am I invisible if I never talk to anyone? If I go days conversing only with my kids and Debbie at the hardware store? Am I the sum total of my past experiences or the heartbeat of my burning desires? Where do I stuff all the longing?

I catch my reflection in the oven hood. I see a dried artichoke. Or one of those clothing storage bags where you vacuum out the air. I should have done hard labor, something with chemical steam or bamboo hacking, plucking of body hair, chicken sexing, the moving of boulders in a quarry. I’m well-suited for that kind of work. I don’t mind gross, heavy, practically impossible. Meanwhile, the years pile up. I survive on toast nubs and apple skins. I French braid my daughter’s hair with a toothbrush in my mouth and a compost bucket dangling from my wrist. I sit with my kids during every piano lesson. My vagina dries up from underuse. I have this determination, this grit, this maniacal worker-bee mentality. I mean, my kids are worth it for sure, but what’s the point? I must love it, right?

I lie down belly-up on the kitchen floor with an oven mitt over my face. When I close my eyes all I see is a jellyfish. One of those Portuguese Man-o-wars. I see its sail— this turquoise bubble, no bigger than a dumpling in the vast blue. It’s completely weighted down with poisonous ribbons and coils. Half of it lives on the surface, looking at the sky and wanting to be free, the other half submerged in water with these zooids and polyps that feed it and help it reproduce and colonize inside it. It can’t escape, it’s tethered, even though it wants to fly away like a teal balloon.

When I was younger, my parents said I could do anything. Anything.

The beep of the dishwasher snaps life back into focus. I stand up, gather my high voltage hair into a bun to get serious about chores, but hang on a minute, there’s something in my hair, something dry and spongy. What is that? A chunk of hair? I grab hold of it, run to the bathroom mirror. It’s a dreadlock, a mat—like the kind our childhood dog Jake the Newfie would get in the summer, and we’d have to pound at him with a metal rake. All that time he spent under the deck in the dark. Poor mutt actually liked the attention, the cool metal through his fur. I go cross-eyed trying to examine the knot, try to pull it apart like taffy. No way in hell. It’s half my head. It has its own weather system. A thick tornado of hair with a hard, unforgiving lanyard texture that has birthed itself at the base of my scalp. How did this happen?

I jump in the shower with a bottle of Pantene Conditioner and a comb. I rip and tease and brush and pull and tear and slather, but the knot’s not coming loose. In fact, I think it’s getting tighter and closer to my scalp. It’s more than hair at this point. It’s a relentless bundle of needs. It’s a flaxen rope that auto-braided and won’t stop. It’s a bundle of jellyfish tentacles coiling and reaching two hundred feet into the depth of the sea. After twenty minutes I get out, dripping and hunched in the cavern of our bathroom. I google “shaved head haircuts for women.” Smother the knot in coconut oil. Google “How to get a matt out.” Attack it with satay skewers. I break all of them. Google “hair extensions, Philadelphia.” I grab a scissor, poised, ready. Its jaws open wide. Stop. Stop. Wait. Think.

I toss the scissors into the sink with a clatter. Google “therapist on the Main Line, Philadelphia.” Soggy and defeated, I suddenly remember this hairdresser Megan told me about. Kyle. Yes. She has his cell number. Maybe he can help? He can help! He wants a picture. I turn around and take a selfie of my back with the nest of hair. “Help! I’m tangled.”

“Yea sure. Come in Sunday morning. Nice back,” he says. Wink emoji.

I review the picture I sent him. Did I just send a half-nude picture to a stranger? It’s my bare back. I’m horrified. But also delighted? A straight hairdresser? Cha-ching! I always secretly liked my posterior deltoid.

Sunday. I beg my husband to watch the kids even though he’s on call and passive-aggressive-work-texting while I spin around the kitchen like a top wiping down counters. “Our kids can’t have their mom walking around bald, right?” I say to him. “Yea ok, go, but keep your phone on at all times,” he says. “Of course,” I reply. The kids whine, Can we watch TV? They’re heavy breathing and squealing as they build a couch fort with seven hundred blankets.

That’s my cue. I’m so excited to ditch today. I feel like I haven’t left the house alone since my kids were born, plus the Covid years, so basically a decade. Sometimes I can sneak off to CVS alone or get a relaxing bikini wax if my husband is between calls. And while the kids are at school, I can take exercise classes or sub at the elementary school, write a poem between 2pm and 3pm, but other than that, I always have between one and three humans with me. I know what you’re thinking. Get a nanny! A million nannies, right? But I’m a masochist, like I told you. Or I fell so far down a well of homemaking I can’t climb my way out. I’m out of practice. I wear the same shirt three days in a row. I’m what they call “too far gone” or as my husband says, I’m “doing great.” I can’t justify my free-time over mom-time or imagine anyone else driving my daughter to violin, positioning her fingers on the bow, cooking them all dinner, even if it’s eggs. I can’t imagine missing the exchange of all the subtleties of kid-talk at the kitchen counter. I want to take care of them. I love them. I just can’t find anything to grab hold of in this churning ocean (except for wine) and my surgeon husband might as well live on another planet. I step on the gas, blast electronic dance music, and try to become someone cool and relaxed. I pop on my shades and change lanes and change lanes again.

I show up at Kyle’s salon and it’s silent, save for a vague rush of wind. Kyle’s svelte assistant Suki takes my coat. I’m on the twelfth floor of a skyscraper in downtown Philadelphia and everything is sleek and minimal, concrete, white. I hear my own footsteps. The most delicious sound. No one else is here. Did he come in specially for me? I sit in front of the vanity mirror and for some reason the marquee light bulbs around the mirror make even me look gorgeous right now, like I’m the guest of honor at the Great Gatsby’s party and not a housewife from Gladwyne smelling of pancakes. I’m already feeling great about coming. Kyle emerges. “Woah, what did you do?” he chuckles, starts tousling the hair that isn’t a nebula. I feel his fingers on my scalp. My hair in his hands. I go limp, immediately get goosebumps.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get this out.”

“You will?”

“Yea babe, you’re gonna be fine. Lauren? Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I say.

I silence my phone, take a deep breath, sink into the leather of the chair.

“Lookin’ good mama,” he says, making eye contact with me in the mirror and fastening the cape around me. Is he really talking to me? Babe? Mama? The jellyfish inside me reels something up with a tentacle, drops it down again to dangle. Kyle. His eyes are black and his body movements, so fluid. He’s covered in tattoos, long hair. Something inside me ungulates with a warm current. He’s holding my hair in his hands. He smells like cigarettes, expensive soap, leather. One of the tattoos visible through his ripped v-neck seems to reach for me like a crown of thorns blooming into roses. I’ve completely forgotten about the knot and possible baldness. I’m seeing lightning bolts. I’m imagining his hands all over my body. I’m imagining how we will have to break the news to our families about how we’ve fallen in love and are running off to Bali together. I’m imagining finishing my novel in a bikini with him kissing my bare neck from behind. I’m imagining beads of ocean water on my bare stomach and my life as a perfume ad. He is the opposite of my husband and the suburbs and everything I hate about getting old, used, flattened, forgotten.

“Bourbon?” He asks. You seem tense.”

“This early?” I laugh.

“Why not mama?”

“Ok,” I say, “Sure.” Suki brings it to me. I take a sip and it coats all of my ravines instantly in honey and smoke.

Two hours later. We’ve talked about everything. New York apartments we had, dive bars we got wasted in, leather jackets we loved, bookstores that got bulldozed, how we ended up where we are in life against our will with lots of hand gesturing. Polish poets and borscht in Greenpoint, 917 area codes we’ll take to the grave. That Moroccan club Le Souk on 3rd and B. We miss Barneys, American Apparel, Schillers. We hate bankers, lawyers, doctors, Mormons, cops, Facebook. Life. We miss the Nokia age. We love food. Bloody steaks and strong cocktails. We love sex. We get really worked up and jaded and it feels amazing. His shoes dance around my body like I’m a trophy. His voice is gravel-y and seductive. His hands are fast and strong, his eyes are intense. The little nicks on the inside of his pointer fingers-the unexpected stab of a scissor point-excite me. He picks and pulls my hair with the patience of a monk. The knot is coming loose. It smells like all the coconut.

It’s love at first sight, right? Has to be. I can’t believe how perfect we are for each other. I don’t know how Kyle’s gonna to break it to his gorgeous Italian wife that he is in love with one of his clients and I can’t wait for the sexting to come. What to do about the kids? We’ll have to alternate weekends or… But it doesn’t matter. I’m so exhilarated I start chewing on the ice cubes to calm me down. His apartment probably has a view of the skyline and is dark and chocolatey and he will undress me on his Italian sofa. We will eat brunch lazily all the next day and walk arm in arm and his tattoos and my hair flip will get us into every restaurant and club. This could be good for me. My husband won’t have to know. He won’t even suspect! I’m somehow certain that leading a double life is the answer to my problems. I nurse the fantasy, sucking it up like the last drops of the Bulleit bourbon. The knot is almost loose.

Thirty minutes later, Kyle is done. The knot is out. My heart is cruising down a slip n slide.

“Wow, thank you so much,” I say, and he rips the cape off me like a matador. I stand up, hike up my pants, stretch and arch my spine.

“I’ll check you out over here,” he says. I follow his ass and his Kurt Cobain mane across the room and away to a smoky bar, an exotic island, between my legs— and I decide I’m going to go buy him a present. To thank him. To keep this going. To sting him with one of my Man-o-war tentacles and reduce him to a scaly husk.

“Hey, I need to run to the Chase to grab a better tip for you. Stay here, will you?” I say. I can’t wait to see him waiting for me in one of the spinny chairs. Lit up only by the lights of skyscrapers. Suki will have gone home by then and I’ll have him all to myself.

“Hey, all good Laur, you don’t have to. Next time,” he says with his sultry actor voice. “Or Venmo.”

“No, but I want to Kyle. I’ll be right back. Wait for me, k?” I text my husband: He still needs another hour at least. Sorry. Be home soon.

Twenty minutes later, I pop out of the elevator with gold-dusted rocks glasses in a gift bag and a bottle of bourbon, a blank note. I’m out of breath. I skip towards the salon door and all the pleasure and excitement. I can hear my heart beating. I lick my lips and turn the corner, reach out to delicious diversion. To something outside my boring life, to someone who thinks I’m hot, cool, interesting, worth untangling a hair-knot for with a single-tooth comb for hours, all that stroking and yanking and laughing. Hang on excitement! Here I come life!

The salon is pitch black. Door locked. Very locked.

All I hear is the hum of a distant light bulb, impossible to locate or silence in the vast hallway. My heart sinks into my boots. I think about all the pillow talk. I see myself in the glass. I get a text that my parking is about to expire. The jellyfish sail deflates briefly to dodge a flotilla of water bottles, then back into the ultraviolet and endlessness.

I think about leaving the gift bag at the door with a note. Hey Kyle!— but I don’t have a pen and I. Just can’t. I get it now.

I touch the place where the knot lived. It aches. As if it’s still there and always will be, this thick rope of hair with children and minivans attached to it— my husband, me at the bottom of the well holding them up as I climb, trying to vacuum the well at the same time. I feel its nucleus pulsating, tender at my skull base now. Is it combed out or is it back? Has it entered into my brain vessels now?

What do you want to give the kids for dinner tonight? My husband texts.

I don’t even know anymore I write, then delete.

I look into the dark salon for hidden shapes…a few more seconds…I smell all the exotic products and silkiness. I could bring the booze home? But I don’t really want my husband asking questions about bourbon and fancy glasses, money wasted. I bolt. Press down on the elevator.

Downstairs is a dazed doorman in front of six TV screens. “Here,” I say. “Want this?” I let go of the gift bag into his hands, keep walking.

The glasses rubbing together in the bag is the most embarrassing noise I’ve ever heard.


I drive home in the icy slap of winter in Gladwyne, PA. For the first time ever, I wish for traffic, but there is none. I’m home.

I try to come in quietly, but there’s no point. The house is loud and bright, the kitchen full of squeals and spoons clanking, pencils being sharpened. A paper airplane hits me in the head. My husband’s made lentil soup and the kids are slurping it up like cats. The smell of parsley gives me some freshly-hacked hope. The kitchen is a familiar disaster. “Hi Mommy!” everyone says, including my husband. I watch him swirl around a storm of lentils hectically fighting against the current, then dropping to the bottom of the pot. A glass of wine appears.

“How’s your hair babe? You look beautiful,” He ladles me soup, surprisingly chipper.

“My hair is good,” I tell everyone, letting my daughter touch its silkiness with broth hands as I take a seat at the counter and try the soup. My husband gives me a napkin and a kiss, a tiny kiss that’s kind of stupid and tight-lipped like a butthole, but I tell myself it’s a step in the right direction. I think about the stupid bourbon glasses I bought and the conversation with Kyle, the butterflies I felt and get a dreamy and agonized look in my eye while I slurp. My husband smiles at me and I tell him the soup is hot and that’s why I’m tearing up. I let him hug me, look at me, coat me with his gaze. His brown eyes plant roots that reach out through my entire body like firing synapses, blood, sweat and the past ten years. It’s true, he’s an idiot— clueless, messy, self-absorbed—all men are— but his eyes have always leveled me with a single gaze. Maybe I do love him? I could try again? After winter comes spring kinda thing? I take a deep breath, blow the soup, and taste it, letting the fantasy of today trickle down my throat and get absorbed into the mom chronicles. I’ll delete Kyle’s number I tell myself. Tomorrow.

Cassie writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Cleaver, New Ohio Review, Cagibi, Sad Girls and The Good Life Review, among others. She studies with the poet Phil Schultz at the Writers Studio, based in New York.

All the Places I’ll Never See

I was a townie. She was a college girl picking up weekend shifts at the diner. She told me I wouldn’t believe what textbooks cost. She told me about her semester abroad, the cathedrals and battlefields. A dig where she unearthed a coin from the days of Augustus. Histories so deep she felt them. “Right here,” she said, a hand laid over her heart. Our first kiss behind the alley dumpster after we lugged out the night’s trash. Her watermelon gum pinched from between her lips and stuck to the dumpster’s metal. She smiled, then—as she drew closer—another expression, one that made me forget the cold. I’d been kissed before, but only by town girls. Kisses that didn’t taste like watermelon. Kisses that—beneath their wetness and curiosity—carried a hint of the earth we shared. Our tangled roots. The graveyards littered with the stones of our kin.

“Show me the things I’ve never seen,” she said. So, we hiked to the cave where another generation’s bootleggers hid their stash. I introduced her to the Grange’s demolition derby, which she loved, and the rod-and-gun club’s tripe, which she didn’t. Along the river’s muddy bank, we dug for arrowheads. We never found any, but she didn’t mind. The thrill, she said, was in the searching. In the forgetting of a hundred thousand disappointments—and in the belief something beautiful might be waiting just beyond her next breath.

The windows in her attic apartment rattled when the winds blew in from the fields. Cocooned beneath every blanket she owned, feeling more weight than warmth, we wove hazy narratives of a life beyond this town. The places she wanted to see. Pompeii. Easter Island. Machu Picchu. The languages she spoke and the others she was learning. The parents who’d always bail her out with a plane ticket home. Sometimes, as she slept, I flipped through her books. History. World religions. The blur of margin notes and highlighted passages. And sometimes I wrapped a blanket over my shoulders and sat by the window. My forehead resting against the cold glass while the snow buried everything I knew.

She left of course. That’s what travelers do. They board planes. They drive into the sunset, and when they look back, their windows become frames, pictures of what once was. I’ve been with other girls since, but in my unclaimed moments, I think of her, a paper doll posed before a thousand imagined lives, each shinier than mine.

Summer brings its heat and storms and the county fair, and come August, as the nights’ thrum ebbs from the cicadas to the crickets, the students return. The highlight of that first weekend is the freshman walk. The cops block off Main Street, and the shops hand out their merch, and the guides stop at their designated spots to share local folklore. The band plays the alma mater and the fight song, and the drumline’s jagged pulse echoes along the brick and glass.

I laze by the diner window, watching the girls, my eyes losing focus the way they do when I sit along the sun-dappled river. The manager tells me to quit my daydreaming and take out the trash. Heat from the alley’s macadam, the rush of flies when I open the dumpster’s lid, but after I toss in my bags, I pause. On the dumpster’s side, her gum, a fossil dulled by sun and rain, and when I touch its ridges, I think about all the places I’ll never see. And I think about a first kiss and a taste I believed was watermelon, but which was really goodbye.

Curtis Smith grew up in Ardmore. He has published over 125 stories and essays and thirteen books. His latest novel, The Magpie’s Return, was named a Kirkus Indie pick of the year in 2020. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, will be released this fall. 


There used to be a hulking, gothic prison in the exact same spot as my neighborhood’s fancy grocery store. It’s not like they advertise about the prison in the store. I found out from some historical signpost at the edge of the parking lot. I’d never bothered reading the sign before. I only read it this time because one of the straps on those crappy paper bags broke and my groceries spilled out on the ground right in front of the sign. I secretly missed the plastic bags, but to admit that would be like saying I wanted to suffocate a sea turtle. I did learn a thing or two from the sign, though. For instance, the demolished prison had been known as Karakung, its name cribbed from a long-gone indigenous tribe. I didn’t like the thought of my organic produce mingling with tortured souls, but it honestly explained a lot.

Once I got home and put away my banged-up groceries, I went upstairs to confront the ghost loitering above my laundry hamper. He’d appeared a week ago after my last shopping trip. He wore eccentric, striped rags and hadn’t said a word since materializing in my bedroom. He didn’t seem to have a face. It was like his orifices had been smudged out by a cheap eraser.

“Hey,” I said. “Does the name Karakung ring a bell?”

At this, the ghost’s eyes popped onto his face and opened about as wide as eyes could get. He was still earless and mouthless, but it was progress at least.

“Um, hello?” I asked. “Do you hear me?”

His ears suddenly appeared and, lo and behold, his mouth.

“An evil place,” the ghost said, his mouth disappearing whenever he stopped talking, as if exemplifying the phrase use it or lose it. “I need you to deliver a message for me.”

Delivering a message for a ghost felt so cliché. “Is it going to be a whole thing?” I asked.

The ghost’s ears vanished again. Apparently, he didn’t want to listen to my excuses.

“I implore you,” he said. “Find my wife. Tell her I miss her dearly.”

“And how am I supposed to find her?”

The ghost scratched his bald head. It seemed he hadn’t thought through logistics. “Her name is Elizabeth Fields,” he said. “She was the love of my life.”

“Okay,” I said. “Anything else? Like, any identifying features?”

“Beauty beyond even God’s imagining,” the ghost said, with a literally crooked smile. “If the sun came down and kissed the dawn.”

“How about an address?”

A single tear fell down the ghost’s cheek, leaving an orange, ectoplasmic stain on the floor that I’d have to clean up later. “If only I knew,” he said.

I thought about telling the ghost that he’d probably died well over a hundred years ago and that his Elizabeth was long dead too. But I didn’t do it. I figured it would only further upset him. So, I lied and said I’d ask around the neighborhood for any intel.


The ghost, despite not paying rent, turned out to be a half-decent roommate. He never interrupted me if I happened to binge-watch the entire season of some reality show. He didn’t mind if I spent the whole evening in bed scrolling on my phone. He never once judged me.

Of course, there was the complication of Elizabeth, but I managed that pretty well in my opinion. Every day, he’d ask about her and, every day, I’d give him some fake leads regarding her whereabouts. He also told me the story of his incarceration. He’d gone to a neighboring county to find work as a farmhand and, without warning, was snatched, tried, and committed to Karakung. He wasn’t even sure what he’d been charged with. When they hung him, he told me it just felt like a snapping at the base of his skull and then he awoke as a specter in my bedroom.

One time, the ghost asked if I had an Elizabeth in my own life.

“Not really,” I said. “Dating’s hard these days. I’ve got a lot on my plate as it is.”

He said he understood. He told me that when I find my Elizabeth I’ll know. He told me he knew the first time he heard her speak, that the winsome lilt of her voice had set his heart afire. If he had a single wish, he said it would be to hear Elizabeth’s voice one more time.       I explained to him how I mostly interacted with potential romantic partners on apps via emoji. I said it was tough to meet people in real life and that everything just felt so awkward. I told him it was easier to talk with people on a screen. But the ghost couldn’t comprehend what I was trying to get across to him. He was stuck in the past, a relic of a bygone age.


One evening, I heard noises coming from the street outside my window. I didn’t feel like getting up from bed, so I asked the ghost if he could see anything. The ghost didn’t react. Lately, he’d been spending hours on end staring at the one piece of art in my bedroom. It was a reprint of a Monet painting, Train in the Snow. The train appeared to be chugging through a frigid countryside, the train tracks lined by skeletal trees. I’d received the picture as a gift from an ex, who’d felt that my barren walls were too much to bear. After we broke up, I’d never taken the initiative to replace it with something less depressing.

“Don’t you hear that ruckus?” I asked.

The ghost turned his body to me, but his head and eyes remained fixed to the painting. “I would like to ride a train someday,” he said.

I sighed, knowing full well he couldn’t leave my room. “Let me give you a piece of advice: Sometimes you just have to accept your limitations.”

“Even so, I would still like to ride a train.”

“Sure, pal. So how about looking out that window?”

The ghost ignored my question again, forcing me to look out the window myself. It wasn’t anything too exciting out there—just some neighbors setting up for a block party on the street. I didn’t know my neighbors, but I figured they wouldn’t mind if I made an appearance. Either way, I was tired of listening to a ghost go on and on about stalled trains and lost love.

The block party consisted of some tents, makeshift tables holding chip bowls and potato salad containers, and a few families scattered around, talking to each other. I watched a young guy in a white t-shirt pick out a hotdog. Then he looked up and saw me gawking.

“Want one?” he asked. “They’re just the right amount of burnt.”

We started chatting. His name was Byron. He lived a couple of houses down from mine.

“Are you new to the neighborhood?” he asked.

“Might as well be,” I said.

“It’s a great area,” he said. “Pretty affordable.” Then he motioned down the street. “Although it’s gotten pricier ever since that supermarket opened up.”

“That place is haunted,” I said.

Byron found this funny, even though it was more of a fact than a joke. I explained to him how it used to be a prison. He’d had no idea our neighborhood was so rich in macabre history.

We ate a few hotdogs, nursed a few beers, and later, participated in a water balloon toss with the neighborhood kids. We didn’t win—our balloon exploded on the asphalt after bouncing off my fingers—but it was still more fun than I’d had in a while. Byron and I kept on talking until the sun sank below our houses and a slivered moon came out. Our neighbors started putting away the foldable chairs and it seemed like our time was up.

“You know, I’m really glad we met,” I said, feeling tipsy and flushed.

“Likewise,” Bryon said. He held a green glass bottle and took a last sip.

We exchanged numbers. It was nice interacting with someone who was alive for once, so nice that I wanted to text him right away. But I didn’t. I thought it might seem desperate.

When I got home, the ghost was in the same spot where I’d left him.

“I would like to ride a train,” he said. “That way, I could search for Elizabeth.”

Before bed, I took down Train in the Snow. I’d grown tired of the ghost’s obsession. But even more than that, I could finally imagine putting up something better in its place.


The removal of the painting did nothing to help the ghost’s mood. In fact, he just started staring at the blank wall where Train in the Snow had been. Worse, he was coughing up bugs—weird millipedes—and making high-pitched shrieks around midnight.

I had an inkling his bad mood was mostly my fault. I’d been giving the ghost false hope that he might reunite with Elizabeth even though it was impossible. Still, I didn’t want to just admit outright that Elizabeth was gone and that he’d never see her again. It would crush the poor guy. So, I resolved to do some sleuthing at the local archival library to find some trace of her. I heard the library had a database where people could look up info on their forebears. I pictured finding Elizabeth in the records, maybe even discovering she had a daughter who, herself, had a daughter. Then I could pass off that granddaughter to the ghost as the true Elizabeth. I wondered whether this fraud might be cathartic enough to send him to the next step of the afterlife. But the prospect of his disappearance from my life left me strangely hollow, so I kept putting it off.

After a few more days of dithering, I finally made a visit to the archival library. It was a dilapidated brick building that looked mostly forgotten. Inside, it smelled old, like ink, empty hallways, and decaying knowledge. At the front desk, there was a librarian sporting spiky hair and tattooed arms. Her youth seemed ironic in such a place.

“So, what brings you in today?” the librarian asked.

“I’m trying to find a lost relation,” I said. “Can I do a search through your database?”

“Oh,” she said. “I think you might be confused.”

“That’s usually the case,” I said.

“The collection hasn’t been digitized,” she explained. “So, you can’t really ‘do a search.’ But we’ve got a very simple cataloging system. You’d get the hang of it pretty quickly. Do you want me to show you how it works?”

I considered the prospect of making several trips to the library, spending hours sifting through fragile documents and squinting at 19th century cursive. I told the librarian thanks, but no thanks. I told her that some things are better left a mystery. She seemed disappointed.

Back home, the ghost hounded me once again about Elizabeth.

Instead of the truth, I told him I had big news: My informants discovered that Elizabeth settled down upstate on a great big farm and started a great big family.

The ghost let out a long sigh that made the lights flicker. “Thank you for finding her,” he said. “It is a great weight lifted off my shoulders to know she thrives. She deserves every happiness on earth.”

“Yup,” I said. “Land’s fertile up there.”

I told myself not to feel guilty. I was just trying to help. Anyway, it was like that old saying: ignorance is a man’s best friend. Or at least I think it’s something like that.


I’d hoped my lie would help the ghost forget about Elizabeth, but it only encouraged him. He kept on asking when I would visit her upstate, so I had to keep making excuses about why I needed to postpone the trip. The ghost never doubted me, no matter how flimsy my explanation. In any case, his disposition improved, and I considered my scheme a success. I felt pretty confident I could keep the charade up indefinitely. And, for a while, things carried on in our odd sort of normal. That is, until one rainy evening, when Byron messaged me.

The gist was: DTF?

It’d been over two weeks since the block party, so I was surprised he even remembered me. But I was also too excited to overthink it. I badly wanted to see his face again. Even though the weather was terrible—rain pouring down, wind singing through the windows—I didn’t care.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m heading out for a bit.”

“To go see Elizabeth?” he asked. His eyes shone bright with hope.

“Soon, pal,” I said. “For sure.”

I grabbed my windbreaker and went out into the drizzling night. Wind and rain pelted me until I reached Byron’s rowhome.

When he opened the door, I could tell something was wrong. He looked frightened and pale. His shoulders were draped with blankets. He guided us over to a couch. I took a seat next to him, close enough that our legs would touch.

“So,” I said, turning to face him. “Is everything okay?”

Byron took a steadying breath. “I may have brought you here under false pretenses,” he said. “The truth is, I need help. I have a ghost.” He looked down at his socks. “I know it sounds crazy, but you’ve got to believe me. She’s up in my bedroom. I don’t know what to do.”

I sat in silence, not knowing what to do either. Up to that point, I hadn’t thought too much about why the ghost had entered my life. I considered his appearance a fluke—a worm in the apple of the universe. But now I had questions. How many tortured souls had been infused into the food at our grocery store? How many others suffered injustice at Karakung? What was our responsibility to atone for the sins of the past?

But then something less complicated occurred to me, something the ghost had once told me about Elizabeth. About her voice. And that’s when I knew.

I took Byron’s clammy hand in my own. Then I closed my eyes and leaned in close to him, hoping it would be the start of something strange and beautiful.

Matt Goldberg’s stories have appeared in The Normal School, SmokeLong Quarterly, Porter House Review, and elsewhere. His work has also been anthologized in Coolest American Stories 2022 and won the 2021 Uncharted Magazine Short Story Award. He earned his MFA from Temple University and lives with his partner in Philadelphia.

Smiling at Needles (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

It’s not so much that it’s easy to tell the truth to each other. It’s more that we can’t lie to each other. When Connor called this morning and told me she was running late, I knew my sister meant we actually might not make our appointment. Usually if she’s late she says, “On my way,” which we both know means that I have time to get up, shower, brush my hair, apply a layer of cocoa butter to my brown skin, and cook my second favorite breakfast: toast, two poached eggs with no salt or pepper, and buttermilk pancakes with Aunt Jemima’s syrup. It’s the same as my favorite breakfast, but Pea, who died six months ago, made that one. She was diabetic and had hypertension, and so she never added salt to her eggs; nevertheless, she made a sweet exception for the Aunt Jemima’s—her favorite syrup and the only kind she’d buy. With her passing, so too went my favorite breakfast.

Because we can’t lie to each other, today, when Connor said, “Hey I’m late,” we both knew it meant later than “on my way” late. We both knew it also meant that we might miss this tattoo appointment she had set up three months ago. We both knew that I could take my time poaching these eggs, heating this syrup, and whipping up these buttery pancakes.

Pea had taught me how to make poached eggs. She said it was a simple way to impress guests. She didn’t know that my apartment was too small to have guests. It wasn’t bad, given that it was Santa Barbara. But after four years of Pomona roommates, some messy and others just disgusting; and after three years living in Venezuela with six different roommates, some messy and others just disgusting, I needed my own space when I moved here to start my Sociology PhD at UC Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, “own space” in Santa Barbara meant three hundred square feet for $1,800 a month in the Isla Vista apartment complex. “Own space” meant enough room for a twin bed, a standing shower, and a cocktail table that doubled as a shelf for my books. It meant a kitchen with granite countertops and just enough elbow room so that I could spin the boiling water and vinegar mixture with one hand and drop the egg into the pot with the other. Even wall space was limited—I barely had enough room to hang a portrait of Pea over the cocktail table. My apartment resembled a hallway with awkward, stubby offshoots. Not much room for guests. Which I actually found pleasant.

I think about making an extra egg for Connor but decide against it. Connor hated Pea’s “nasty ass eggs,” so she’d likely have a similar distaste for mine. I take a saucepan out and put the syrup on low heat, so it won’t scorch. I place a piece of rye toast in the toaster.

After our parents died four years ago, Pea was all we had left, so her death left Connor and I lost, but together. On the way home from Pea’s funeral in our hometown, Camarillo—which was the last time Connor and I were together before I left for Santa Barbara, and she moved to Denver—I asked Connor how she was feeling. Connor, who from learning homophones in the first grade had started addressing our grandma as “Pee” in her birthday and Mother’s Day cards, said, “It’s Pee. I feel fine.” We both knew that’s not what she meant. The same vigor with which she hated Pea’s “bland ass” cooking, she loved Pea’s support for her. For all her disdain for Pea’s straight-laced lifestyle, I think Connor secretly knew that, in part, she could only dye her hair blonde and wear crop tops above her belly button because of Pea. Pea had established herself in Camarillo as a successful entrepreneur in cosmetics; so by the time Connor came along with her too-tight skirts and her too-loose tongue, her teachers, camp counselors, and employers could just laugh it off. Of course, when she started her freshman year at Wellesley, her professors were less amused by her antics. Pea, a Wellesley grad herself, was overjoyed that Connor matriculated there, and said that the school would shape Connor into a strong and proper woman. Pea was less thrilled when Connor came back from her first year with a nipple ring that was “mad temporary” and a tattoo on her ribcage that was not.

I take a fork and test the egg white. It splits, and bleeds into the water. My phone lights up with a text from Connor that says, “I’m on my way.” I go over to the record player that Pea got me for my twentieth birthday and select Bach from my vinyl rack. I smile at Pea’s portrait hanging over my cocktail-table-bookshelf. Bach was her favorite. I gently place the record on top of the turntable and push the start button. The vinyl begins to spin. “Air From Suite No. 3 For Orchestra In D Major” echoes through my tiny apartment. I sway with the strings. The eggs, swirling in the pot, can boil a little longer.

Just as much as Wellesley shaped Pea into the woman she was to become, so too it shaped Connor. Both Pea and Connor graduated with a self-assured sense of who they were—Pea a crowd-pleasing host, who knew all two hundred people who sent her Christmas, Easter, and Juneteenth cards—and Connor, a twenty-two-year-old guest of honor, entertaining no one but herself and those she held dear, which included me.

I use my skimmer to take out the poached egg. The record player changes to “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 In G Major.” The toaster dings with my rye toast. Connor texts me that she’s sorry—she’s not—and that she’s three minutes away—she’s twelve. I smile to myself, shaking my head, and gingerly lay the egg on top of the toast. Realizing I never mixed the pancake batter, which has to sit for fifteen minutes for the bubbles to settle, I turn off the syrup saucepan. Aunt Jemima will have to wait. I’ll make pancakes for Connor later—she loves sprinkling bananas and walnuts over them.

Connor insists she’s in no way like our grandmother, but we all know they’re similar. Our parents had always said that Pea and Connor are similar because they both so earnestly believe in their respective lifestyles and refuse to acknowledge the other’s. But that’s like saying they’re similar in that they’re so different. I’ve always thought that they have the same laugh. They both laugh like they’ve just heard the funniest joke of the evening at a dinner party. But while Connor always laughed at the joke, I think Pea laughed because that’s what people are supposed to do at dinner parties when funny jokes are told.

I finish my breakfast and check the time. We’re ten minutes late, and with early-morning Saturday traffic we’ll be—I sigh and remind myself that spending time with Connor is what matters most. Besides, we have a day planned that is immune to tardiness. Even if we miss this appointment, we are still going to my favorite food cart, El Pendejo, and picking up some arepas for a beach picnic. Fortunately, arepas rellenas and gentle ocean waves don’t have a time frame we have to fit into.

I hear her horn outside of my apartment, so I unplug Bach and throw the dishes in the sink on my way out.

“You’re late,” I say.

“Oooooh, I see they taught you how to read a clock on your first day of class in your lil program,” she says, waving me into her car. “Let’s go; you’re making me late,” she says.

I consider being mad at her for picking me up late, but then again, neither of us can really stay mad at each other for long. Instead I say, “I haven’t started class yet. Also—that’s all you can say after six months?”

“Um, let me think,” she says, allowing her pupils to roll upward to her eyelid, “Yeah, sorry, all I came up with.” I laugh. “Anyway, you ready for this tattoo?” she asks.

I try to still my breath. “Yes,” I say, which we both know isn’t true.

* * *

I turn the music down because the bass’s vibrations are hurting my neck. Connor had the 1997 Nissan outfitted with 700 watt subwoofers two summers ago to “make that shit go bang,” and right now, 50 Cent’s “Lollipop” was doing just that, rattling the floorboards and making the headrest “go bang” against the nape of my neck. I would move the headrest up, but it’s broken and jammed. I twist the music dial a little bit more to the left.



“Why you keep playin’ with my music? You ain’t no DJ.”

“It’s just a little bit loud,” I say, drawing out my “i”s so it sounds like the “ea” in pleading. She scoffs. It’s funny. I’m older, but I often forget it. In fact, a lot of people wouldn’t guess it. I think it’s because she just has an air of confidence that draws people to her. My first week of college, I took her to a Pomona dorm room party. I was a bit nervous about bringing a sixteen-year-old to a college function, but I promised Pea, my parents, and myself that I’d look out for her. When we arrived, the room smelled like cheap vodka, sweat, and a bunch of eighteen-year-olds trying too hard to be the person people would whisper about on Monday. I tapped her on the shoulder and reminded her to stick with me. The music was loud, and the walls were vibrating, but she opened her mouth in a laughing shape, so I can only assume that she was amused by my reminder. Sure enough, I turned to introduce her to my week-one best friend only to find she had already disappeared. She soon resurfaced, rum drink in hand, dancing in the crowd that was clapping to the tempo of her hips. My week-one best friend wacked my shoulder and asked if that was my older sister. “Younger,” I said. “She’s dope,” he said. “Yeah,” I said.

“Bro, how are we bout to get tattoos and not bang this shit?” she says as she rolls down the window. She turns the dial to the right. She throws a glance at me to once again remind me that I’m not a DJ. I wind down my window to prevent the throbbing noise that happens when you only have one window open in a Nissan driving twelve miles over the speed limit on the way to get your sister’s name tattooed on your left butt cheek.

“Hey,” she says, tone a bit graver.

“Yes,” I say.

“How have you been? Like with Pee and all?” She winds up her window and turns the dial all the way to the left.

“I’m alright.”

The wind throbs against my window.

“You don’t have to lie,” she says, and then adds, “dang, bro, wind up your window, I can’t hear shit.” The window squeaks as I wind it up. “Anyway, I know you sensitive, and you were close to her and shit.”

“Yeah,” I say, breathing a pause. “Anyway, what about you?”

“I’m aight. I miss her too, I mean you know me and her didn’t always see stuff the same way, but Pee, you know, that was my nigga.” I laugh. “Well,” she continues, “if you ever wanna talk about it…”

“Yeah, I know,” I say, cutting her off. “Hey,” I say, to which she nonchalantly grunts to let me know she’s listening. “It’s nice seeing you. Thanks for making the trip.”

“Bro,” she says as she twists the music dial to the right, “course I made the trip. You know I’ve been wanting us to get this tattoo for the longest minute. Besides, it’ll be a nice send off before you really start the whole school grind.”

The thought of school, and what it brings, rattles my nerves. I turn and look at Connor whose afro continues to bob to the beat. It’s great being with her again—before I enter the graduate student soirees, the cocktail parties, the colleagues’ open houses where I have to smile, wave, and mingle with professors who hope you will impress them. The floorboards vibrate with each beat of the subwoofer. The headrest might just come unjammed.

“Don’t this shit bang?” Connor shouts over “In Da Club” as we turn off the highway and onto the service road to the tattoo parlor. I laugh and rotate my head in sync with hers.

It does.


When we walk inside the parlor, I feel as if my skin shrinks. Connor had pushed me for about a year to get this tattoo. She wanted a way to commemorate our relationship. So last year I told her on her birthday that she could pick the spot as long as I could pick the design. I said that I’d get her name tattooed on me and she could get mine. I liked the idea of having her name tattooed because, well, it’s Connor. And she chose our butts, because, well, it’s Connor. I was saving for graduate school so I thought the promise would be an easy and cheap present—which, at the time, held true. Now, as I enter the parlor, greeted by a jeering chorus of needles, I realize that it was going to cost me approximately two hundred dollars, some suppressed tears, and some pain in my left butt cheek.

“Hey,” I say, cautious not to seem cautious.

“What?” Connor says, eyes stretching to let me know that she sees me, cautious.

“I’m going to use the restroom.” I turn so that I can just miss Connor’s smirk. When I enter the empty bathroom, I watch myself in the mirror as I approach the sink. I try and steady myself—but I feel like the walls of the bathroom are compressing with each step I take. When I get to the sink it has a crack at the base of the faucet so when I turn on the water it leaks onto the floor. Connor sure knew which establishment to pick.


My alone time is short lived. When the door swings open behind me, a whirring needle beckons my name. I let the lukewarm water run over my shivering fingers and resist the urge to see who walked in through the door. Made of dented tin, when the door shuts, it shakes. Sandals click against the heels of my bathroom friend as he makes his way to the urinal. Gradually, the clicking stops. A steady stream, simple, but rushed, replaces the periodic sandal clicks. Between the rattling tin, and my companion’s pee, I can’t hear the needle calling me back into the parlor. I turn up the water temperature and pressure. Feeling the warm water race the blood in my veins from my wrist to my fingertips, I stretch my fingers outward, pushing the center of my palm toward the drain, admiring my black skin. Peacefully, the hairs on the back of my hand lay down under the water’s flow. I envy them. I wonder if Connor knows I’m hiding right now. She probably does. She knows I’m anxious. I feel anxious not because I don’t want the tattoo; rather, I feel anxious because I do. A marker of Connor and her radiant confidence, forever inscribed on my skin sounds appealing—granted, I could’ve done without the butt placement, but nevertheless, I’m excited for the tattoo. I’m just anxious about the needle.

“You’re nervous, aren’t you?” my companion says to me, approaching the adjacent sink.

I smile politely neither confirming nor denying.

He gives me a pat on the back that hits a little too hard and I stumble forward. He grabs the bathroom door and yanks it open. I catch it with my foot and step into the dimly lit parlor, greeted by darkness and a chorus of needles that seem to never tire of singing their desire to set my skin ablaze. The parlor is set up with one walkway between the front desk, the exit, and the bathroom. Studio cubicles line each side of the hallway. Inside each cubicle is a cushioned chair, a hunched tattoo artist, and a client, ready for permanency. They’re packed today. I join Connor in the third cubicle on the left.

“Y’all related?” the artist asks as I walk in, his white hands twisting the contact screw on the coil machine. He’s a skinny guy.

“Yeah, she’s my sister,” I respond, nodding in her direction. My sister looks up from her phone. Noticing my return from my fifteen-minute bathroom regrouping session, she shakes her head and kisses her teeth.

The artist’s arms are a technicolored masterpiece of dragons, tigers, and Mandarin characters. I ask him what the characters mean. He says one means “love” and the other means “peace,” but he can’t remember which. His hair is blonde, but I can only tell so by his roots, otherwise each strand is as colorful as his arms and the ink sitting on his workman’s table. His blue eyes dart between Connor and me.

“Who’s older?” he asks.

“I am.” I say, accustomed to that question and the usual next response about how we look alike.

“Man, I tell you what. Y’all look like twins. You sure you older?” he asks. He clicks a tube of black ink into the machine’s clamp. His pupil lights up as he holds the needle’s tip to his eye, activating its whir. He smiles at his toy.

“Yeah,” I say.

The man, chuckling and spinning his needle, gestures at me, “So I guess you’re first then?” The needle is steady in his hand. “So,” he says, flicking his head at me, “you’re getting Connor, tattooed in…” he says, trailing off.

“Brush Script MT,” I say, helping him out, but also trying to look like the older sibling.

“Annd on your butt?”

“Right on dat ass,” my sister says, smirking.

He nods.

As I feign a confident step toward the cushioned bench and pull down my pants and lay down on my stomach, I tell myself that this is what I want—for Connor, and for me. I bury my face into the pillow at the head of the bench, and feel the needle, filled with a venomous black ink, begin singeing “Connor” into my left buttocks. Goosebumps race down my spine, leaving a painful chill in their wake. I gasp for air, but I can’t breathe out the pain, and so I wince as veins pulse through my neck. My skin cringes against the needle’s bite.


If my tattoo felt that it lasted longer than an opera, Connor’s lasts about half an intermission. Somehow though, it is long enough for our colorful artist to disgust her. When did she graduate Wellesley? He asks. Last year. Oh really, what has she been up to? She plans weddings and collects paintings. Where does she live? Denver. Is she married? No—Connor grunts at the artist, her voice muffled by the pillow. “Hey, I’m just asking,” he says, defensively holding up his right hand. How old is she? Twenty-four. He blows out his cheeks like a sigh of joy released when a full plate is put before him in a restaurant. He takes a bite. What’s a cute Black girl like her not doing married? Does she know that he loves Black women? She doesn’t know why she’s not married and doesn’t particularly care; she also doesn’t know that he loves Black women and doesn’t particularly care. He squints and smiles, running his tongue between his lips, tasting his imagination. Does she know she can call him anytime she wants?

“Shut the fuck up,” Connor says, turning her face away from the pillow to ensure that her words and their accompanying glare find their mark on the tattoo artist. The artist, shocked by both her words and her movements, pulls his needle into the air—a safe distance from her butt.

“Woah missy, sit still.” He nods in my direction, begging me to admonish her as well. He wipes wisps of colorful hair from his eyes. He clears his throat, gathering himself. The needle shakes in his hand.

“Please,” I say quietly, feeling guilty as I oblige him, “sit still, Connor.” I let the “r” trail off into my shame. I blink. I wait for a response.

Connor doesn’t reply—which hurts more than if she had told me to stop being a pushover like I always am, to stop giving into white people like I always do, or to stop acting like this artist with “love” written on his arms in a language he didn’t speak wasn’t a brute. Her silence stings more than the needle. Eyes darting between me and Connor, the tattoo artist leans forward to resume his work. He clears his throat as if to say something, but falters. The coil machine buzzes against the silence of the room.

“You can get up now,” he says, leaning back in his chair as the needle’s whir slows. He breathes a sigh of relief. He asks if either of us would like a mirror to see if we liked the tattoo. Connor says no. He tells us to treat the tattoo with Bacitracin three times a day for five days, and moisturize for two months. I say okay. I ask him if we pay him directly or if we pay at the front desk. He tells us to pay up front. Connor stands up, zips up her pants, and leaves.


We pick up some arepas from El Pendejo and drive over to Goleta Beach for a picnic. The entire ride to the beach, Connor refuses to speak to me. Even when I turn the radio dial all the way to the left, she doesn’t say anything. I decide that she will probably talk when we arrive at the beach—we usually can’t stay mad at each other for long. But when we get to the beach, Connor remains silent. The seagulls are crying against the scorching sun bearing on their backs. I suggest to Connor that we should probably sit on the wet sand because the dry sand looks hot, and my butt still stings from the tattoo. I take her silence as agreement. Before sitting down, we walk across the street to the local convenience store. We pick up some ice, some ginger beer, some sweet plantain chips, and some SPF 100 sunblock and head to where the wet sand is still a dark brown hue.


Connor is still quiet, and so I entertain myself with the wet sand. It keeps escaping my palm. It’s particularly frustrating because it’s not like dry sand, which you pick up and watch leave, never expecting it to stay. That feels like a massage. This is frustrating because the clumps of seashells and dark brown sand grains are supposed to stick together in my palm. But they won’t. And picking up more clumps doesn’t make them stick any better. They keep slipping.

“Hey,” I say, not expecting a response, but hoping at least to catch Connor’s eye.

“What,” Connor says, her voice flat and barely audible over the smooth waves crashing against the shore.

“I’m—” I begin, looking down at the sand, “I’m sorry.”

Connor has her left hand submerged under the sand. The sand shifts around her wrist as she wiggles her fingers beneath the surface. With her right hand she raises her arepa to her mouth, biting pieces big enough to most certainly take some of its paper wrapping with each chomp. She chews slowly, searching my pupils for sincerity.

“I shouldn’t have said what I said,” I continue, “I just got nervous because he had the needle, and I didn’t want him to mess up or intentionally—”

“Someone’s always going to have a needle,” she says, taking a break from her lunch.


“Nigga, someone will always have something over you. There’s always going to be a reason to, what was it you said?” Connor asks, or rather demands, given that we both know the answer.

“Sit still,” I murmur. Connor and I don’t lock eyes but instead watch the water in front of us inch closer. “I’m sorry,” I cast out in front of us into the tide. The frothy water pulls back, and then gently pushes toward us, touching our toes. Gulls and minutes fly over us. After the sixth gull, I feel Connor’s body release next to mine. I feel her nod in acceptance. Connor resumes taking eager bites of her arepa. I resume playing in the sand.

I know Connor is right, but it’s difficult to break the habit—especially because the habit has carried me to where I am today. When my parents passed, Pea was my sole source of guidance. She taught me it was, “Yes, ma’am,” not “yeah.” She taught me that my handshake would tell its recipient everything they’d need to know about my upbringing. She taught me how to smile and laugh politely. She taught me to keep my hair short. She taught me, most of all, that I could not act the same way in every place. I learned this first as a child, at weekly bingo with her coworkers, when I laughed a little too loud and earned a bop on the lips. I learned it again as a teenager, at her monthly tea party with the church ladies, when she pinched me for not smiling and nodding enough at the women’s remarks about my cleanliness. Pea never had to explicitly say it was because the church ladies and her coworkers were white—I knew. While I was grateful for this lesson—in fact, it was likely the only way I could navigate my way through Pomona and into Santa Barbara’s PhD program—I couldn’t help but feel like a piece of me was slipping away in the process.

“You need to quit playin’ in the sand buildin castles and shih like a lil boy and eat yo lunch before the water takes it.” Connor drops more endings and consonants than usual with her mouth full of arepa, pollo asado, and guacamole. I smile. She has a point though. The tide was edging up closer to our evening picnic and threatening to take my arepa rellena, which so far was just missing one small bite. Connor grunts, snorts, takes another bite—dangerously close to the paper—and swallows.

“You know you really shouldn’t eat…” I begin.

“Bro, I’m grown, you really gon tell me how to eat?” she retorts. I shake my head, laughing to myself.

Throwing a piece of her arepa into the water for the gulls, she asks, “When do you start again?” I tell her at the end of summer. “You hype?” I tell her I’m nervous and just kind of waiting on classes to start. The tide comes up closer now such that I have to hold my arepa in my hand so that the ocean doesn’t whisk it away. The cool saltwater feels soothing on my butt that still burns from the tattoo needle.

“Yeah,” I say, allowing my voice to trail, “I’m just worried that this is it.” Connor’s ferocious chewing slows. “What you mean?” she asks.

I tell her that I’ll be twenty-six on my first day at UC Santa Barbara, and I’d be thirty-three on my last day. I tell her that I’m trying to be married by thirty-two and want kids by thirty-four and that I want to be fully dedicated to the three of them and I’ll be sixty-five before the last one leaves the house, and then I’ll look up and think—I didn’t finish this thought but let my mind ebb and flow with the Pacific. I throw a piece of arepa at the gulls. I watch them flock, chasing the crumb against the tide. I smile but my eyes are heavy, trapped in the years to come. “I feel like I’m on this path I’ve set before me, but somehow I’m not in control.”

“Shit, nigga!”


Connor yanks her left hand out the sand and pulls out a piece of paper from her mouth.

“Damn near swallowed this paper,” she says, throwing the paper into the water. She glares at the paper as the tide takes it away. I chuckle. “Anyway,” she continues, “you need to relax. You’re just now starting school. Everything will be fine.”

I grab another handful of sand. I spread my fingers so that clumps fall between the cracks until all that remains is the muddied sand sitting on my fingers. Then this leaves too.

“You know how, how Pea taught us to act carefully around—”

“White people.” Connor says, not guessing the end of my sentence as much as stating a fact.

“Yeah. I know it’s in part why I am where I am today, but I’m worried that I’m only good at acting.”

“Like that shit you pulled in the tattoo parlor?”

“Yeah. And in class when I’m afraid to challenge certain, you know, classic authors. Or, in casual conversations when I’m afraid to call something racist. Or at—”

“Look,” Connor says, swallowing her last bite of arepa, balling up its wrapping and tossing it in the El Pendejo sack that doubled as a trash bag. “You acting all fatalistic and shit—you are twenty-five. You need to relax.”

“It’s more than that,” I say, unsure of what “more” actually looks like. “It’s just so easy for you. You step into the room. You captivate everyone. You say what you want. I just—I just,” I stammer, grappling with expressing my desires for a wholeness that I cannot even imagine, “I just wish I could do that. Like you.” I guess that’s what more is.

“Fine. Then change,” she says firmly. “You’re about to enter a new chapter of your life in grad school. Look, I know you love Pee. I love Pee, too. But she wasn’t right about everything.”

I nod, reflecting on her words. The sun’s setting rays bounce off the ocean, glistening in my eyes. I shove my hands into the sand. Connor stares at me intensely, blinks, and then shakes her head like a babysitter who’s tired of the baby spilling applesauce on his lap. She smiles. I try and hide it, but it’s Connor, so I smile. I lift my hands out of the sand and watch the elusive clumps slip between my fingers, slide off my fingertips, and plop off my palm into the tide.


That summer went by slowly. I would like to say it was because I was eager for grad school—this new chapter. Or because I turned twenty-six. Or because I started seeing this woman with beach blonde hair whose mediocre jokes made me laugh politely. Or because I stopped seeing this woman with beach blonde hair whose mediocre jokes didn’t warrant my polite laughter. Or because I made poached eggs and buttermilk pancakes with Aunt Jemima’s syrup for breakfast every morning and tired of the repetition. Or because I spent countless days sitting on the beach, spreading SPF 100 sunscreen over my body, mindlessly playing in the sand. But in truth, it was just because the days were long, and the nights were short, so I didn’t sleep much.

After school starts in August, Connor calls me to tell me she is visiting in November.

“How’s school?” she asks.

“It’s fun,” I say, which we both laugh at because we know that’s not the truth. “It’s alright,” I say, which is more accurate.

“What’s your cohort like?”

“They’re cool, there are like fifteen or sixteen kids.”

“Any Black?”

“I’m the only one, but there’s this Korean-American student and this student from Venezuela.”

“You made any friends?” Connor asks. I know what she means—she means actual friends, not friends I placate with my laughter, handshakes, and polite smiles.

“Yeah,” I say, surprised at my voice. It sounds confident, but not in a way that’s forced or performed; it sounded, actually, confident. “I have. Like you said, it’s a new chapter.” It’s true. In late August, I arrived on campus with her cursive name written into my skin, and her firm words written into my mind. I skipped a few haircuts to let my hair grow. I stopped obsessively shaking hands with people. I ensured that there was no limit to my laughter’s decibel or my smile’s width.

“Cool. I’m happy for you,” she says, in a plain voice—though I imagine she smiles on the end of the telephone line. “Anyway, I’m coming in a couple months to visit yo ass,” Connor says, which we know is a lie.

“Why’re you actually coming?” I ask.

“Work trip. The eighteenth. I think it’s a Thursday.”

“Oh, well if you have a moment, that Friday you can come to a little housewarming party I’m having.”

“Nigga, you hate guests,” Connor scoffs. “Besides, you ain’t got a house to warm. You got a hallway. No, you got a closet. No, you got a cabinet. Actually wait, you got a—”

“Connor, I get it. Yeah, my house—”


“My apartment,” I continue, my voice feigning irritation, “isn’t big. And of course, I know I hate guests—you don’t have to remind me what I like. It’s just some professors and some of my cohort who I want to get to know better. And maybe you. It’s not a big party or anything.”

Connor grunts to convey her suspicion. She sighs. “Yeah, I’ll be there. What’s the attire?” I tell her everyone will be in casual—jeans and a nice shirt at most. We chat a bit more about her work, my school, and California. I ask her how her tattoo is. She asks me about mine. Neither of us kept up with our Bacitracin treatment. Mine’s the only one that scabbed, though, so she’s the lucky one.


It’s windy outside of my party. I’m thinking a lot to myself. People are happy. Bach’s playing. I’m serving coconut-almond cake and white wine. But I’m not thinking about the people here. Or what they’re drinking. Or the wind. I’m mostly thinking about where Connor is. She stayed in her hotel last night and said that she’d come by today around 7:00 pm to meet my classmates. She said she couldn’t stay long because one of her Wellesley classmates was having an event over at Wildcats on Ortega. But it was 7:30 and she was late, again.

“I love this music selection you’ve put together!”

It’s Jack. He graduated from Williams last year, and today, is one of the first days I’m seeing him without his usual attire—creased khakis, a blue blazer, and a knit skinny tie. A great-grandchild of German immigrants, he had confessed his love of Bach to me on the third day of class.

“Thanks, it was my grandmother’s favorite.”

He tips his wine glass toward me in her memory. “Well, she had good taste,” he says. I know Pea would’ve smiled at his compliment.

“Good turnout, by the way!” Jack says. More had shown up than I anticipated. Around six of my colleagues and three of my professors mill around my cocktail table and sit in my bedroom. I normally wouldn’t open up my personal bedroom space, but after the eighth person came, I figured I’d have to make everyone comfortable.

“Thanks, Jack,” I say. I smile. “Komm Du Susse Todesstunde” begins playing. I hear an aggressive banging on the door.

“Who’s that?” Jack asks, shriveling his nose at the new guest’s brazen greeting, “They didn’t ring the doorbell or anything.”

I excitedly excuse myself to go and let Connor in.

Connor walks in bringing a gust of cold air with her. The breeze bounces off Connor’s red cocktail dress, and shoots straight through my hallway of an apartment, chilling the room. My professors and colleagues turn their head to see where the breeze came from.

“Aye, what’s up,” Connor says. A neck sticks out to see who it is. Rolling my eyes in playful irritation, I reach for her bag, which she jerks back from me. I flick my head, motioning Connor to follow me to the kitchen.

“Why are you so late?” I ask when we step away from the crowd. “And what’s with the red dress?”

“Okay one, this dress is sexy. Two, you gonna get in your feelings or be grateful I showed up at your wack ass party when I have to be at Wildcats in an hour?” Using her shoulder and some momentum she heaves her bag onto the kitchen counter. It clinks when it lands on top of the granite. Before I can raise my eyebrows, she pulls out a handle of rum. “Also,” she says, reaching into my cabinet and grabbing one of my wine glasses, “there was traffic.” She pours the brown liquor about halfway to the brim. She takes a sip, closes her eyes in faux bliss, and purses her lips.

I laugh at her absurdity. “You’re drinking it like it’s juice, Connor,” I say pulling the handle away from her.

“Nigga, relax. I’m sippin on it. Besides,” she says swooping her right hand around the kitchen gesturing toward the white people crowded in my apartment eating coconut-almond cake and sipping wine, “it’s a bit stuffy in here, isn’t it?” I smile. “Also, bro, what’s going on with your hair?” She winces as she swallows the rum.

“New chapter. Remember?” I say, running my left hand through my mini-fro and grabbing a tumbler with my right. I pour a splash of rum. I clink my glass with hers.

“Hello!” a voice calls from the threshold of the door. “So, who is this new guest?” The end of her sentence hits a crescendo. I curve my neck around Connor and see Janice, or rather, Professor Christianson, as she insisted we call her, walking from the doorway into the kitchen. She wears a purple bowtie around her neck that contrasts her pale skin. Her brown hair curls around her narrow shoulders. She still has on her cropped slate blazer. She enters with her palms open, eyes beaming. I down my dreg of rum quickly, embarrassed. Jack and three of our classmates walk in behind her.

“Hello, Professor Christianson, this is my little sister, Connor.”

She raises her eyebrows. “Younger?” she asks, surprised.

“Younger,” I say, unsurprised at her surprise.

“Pleasure to meet you,” she says.

Mid-sip, Connor tips her tumbler in Professor Christianson’s direction to greet her.

“And Connor, these are some of my colleagues,” I say, gesturing behind Professor Christianson.

“Nice to meet you all,” Connor says, swallowing and grimacing as the rum rolls down her throat.

My professor, captivated by Connor, asks her about her work, how she likes Denver, and how her trip to Santa Barbara has been thus far. Jack, less interested in Connor, chats with me about my studies and how I’m liking our course together, Social Policy and Culture, which we have with Professor Christianson. I tell him I’m enjoying it, but I feel like some narratives are missing. He says, “Like what?” Connor catches Jack’s question and my eye.

“I just, you know, feel like we focus a lot on Marx, without really analyzing how his work can overlook race.”

I feel Connor’s smile.

“What was that?” Professor Christianson interjects, catching the last of bit of my critique.

“Oh, we were just talking about your course Professor,” I say innocently.

“What about it?” Professor Christianson murmurs into the brim of her white wine glass as she lifts it to her lips.

I hesitate for a second. It’s short. But it’s long enough for my doubts to creep in. It’s long enough for my fear of what I’m actually thinking to creep in. It’s long enough to for Jack to say, “We were just talking about—”

“What we have learned so far,” I say, finishing Jack’s sentence. Connor avoids my eye contact.

Our professor smiles clearly pleased that her classroom discourse has made it into the cramped spaces of the Isla Vista apartment complex. “Yes,” she says, taking a long drag of white wine. “Next week we’ll be focused on the intersection of capitalism and political propaganda, ranging from Pear’s Soap to Pop Chips, to Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Syrup, which, I might add, is the only modern-day representation of the docile Black mammy-slave caricature.” She smiles with her eyes to congratulate herself.

“We’re looking forward to it,” chimes the chorus of students standing behind her. I nod.

Professor Christianson chuckles. “I actually hate to admit it, but I was raised on that syrup when I was little. It’s hard for me to let it go. I still douse my buttermilk pancakes in it!” The students chuckle. I hear myself join in their laughter.

“My grandmother, Pea, she loved that syrup too,” I offer, shivering at my guilt.

“Now!” my professor exclaims, “Is that whose picture is over your cocktail table?”

“Yes, Professor, it is.”

“I’ll tell you what, when I first set my cake down on that table, I saw that picture and I was like, ‘Man she looks just like my favorite syrup!’” The chorus of students chuckle behind her.

My skin cringes against the bite of my professor’s words. I feel Connor wince. I cannot exhale. Pea, our grandmother, compared to a helpless mammy. I want to speak up. I want to say that she looks nothing like Jemima, and that even when she would serve the syrup to us, she always warned us about both its sugar and image content. I want to stop handshaking, nodding, “yes ma’aming,” and acting—but Pea’s bop, her pinch, and her scorn echo in my head like Bach. I cannot escape them, even when it’s Pea’s own memory at stake.

I feel my lips curl upwards into a smile. I hear a chuckle escape them. It escapes because that’s what chuckles do at house parties when a funny joke is told, even if the joke isn’t funny.

Connor throws her glass in the sink, chipping its brim. Leaving her bag, she pushes past my colleagues at the kitchen door, and storms outside. She moved so quickly that her absence is only felt when the breeze creeps in after her departure. I politely excuse myself and follow her outside.

“Connor!” I yell against the wind.

“What!” she snaps, “How are you different? First me with the artist, and now Pee with your,” she pauses and mimics the tightening of a bowtie before spitting, “Professor. She called Pee a mammy. A fuckin mammy.”

“I’m, I’m sorry,” I stammer back. “I’ve been doing this my whole life. As much as I try, as much as I want to, I can’t just break…” The wind carries away my voice.

“Let me tell you something,” Connor says, stepping closer to beat the wind and ensure her words hit their mark. “It has nothing to do with how long your hair is. Or how many philosophers you can bring up in class. Or whether you can stomach a tattoo. It has nothing to do with your ability to smile at your colleagues when they say some racist shit or laugh when they tell a wack joke.”

She pauses. I wait while the wind howls.

She continues, “It has to do with how much you care about the needle over you. And let me tell you, someone, someone will always have a needle.”

“Connor!” I say, shouting in protest against her and the wind’s threat to drown out my words. “You don’t know what’s at stake! That’s my professor…” My voice fades into the prospective horror.

Connor, squinting against the wind, stares into my eyes.

“No,” she says, pointing her words, almost spitting them, “You don’t know what’s at stake. But you’ll see. You’ll see when you’re sixty-five-years-old, travelling on a path you set, walking with feet you can’t control.”

I open my mouth. I find out I have nothing to say. I close my mouth and drop my head.

“I’m late for Wildcats,” Connor says, not bothering to look at any time piece.

“There’s still a half hour left of the party. Can’t you stay?” I find some words to cling to.

“There’s traffic. And I have to call a cab.”

I open my mouth, but she cuts me off, “No. I don’t want to wait inside.”

I nod, hoping that she won’t stay mad for long, but knowing that this time she will.

Her red dress turns and walks away. As her afro, unfazed by the wind, descends the stairs, goosebumps race down my spine.


The rest of the party lasts for about thirty uneasy minutes and forty-six seconds. When I come back inside, Jack and Professor Christianson ask me why Connor left so abruptly. I tell them she had a friend’s party to get to. They raise their eyebrows. I’m aware that this explanation is inadequate for them. But I’m too tired to offer another one. I’m tired because for the remaining thirty minutes, I’m thinking to myself. I’m thinking about whether Connor is right. I’m thinking whether my efforts to be more like Connor are insufficient so long as I still care about what my professors and colleagues will think—so long as I still care about the needle hanging over my skin. When I offer Professor Christianson this inadequate response, she asks if Connor is okay. But I think she’s not asking about Connor’s wellbeing as much as telling me something is wrong with her.

“Yeah. She’s okay,” I say. I hope she is okay. I wish I could say I knew, but I don’t know. And I’ve always known how she felt. That’s what makes my skin shrink. It’s what makes me uneasy. It’s what makes me feel as if my hallway of an apartment somehow found room to split down the middle and I’m doing my very best not to slip into the divide.

“Well thank you so much for, you know, opening your house and welcoming us all,” Professor Christianson says, changing the subject. “You’ve been just so, accommodating.”

Connor would balk at this compliment. But I’m not Connor, so I say thank you and smile. Part of me smiles to cover up the fact that goosebumps still line my spine although the wind no longer wails around me. Part of me smiles because I think that Professor Christianson likes me, which will help me in the program. Part of me smiles because I think Connor is wrong.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you in class on Monday,” she says, shaking my hand. I tell her that I, too, am looking forward to it.

After these thirty minutes and forty-six seconds shrink out, my guests too, make their way to the door. On their way out, they shake my hand and tell me how great of a time they had at my party. I thank them for coming and wish them a safe trip home. When the guests are gone, and my house is empty and pleasant, and the wind has rested for the evening, I sit at my cocktail table. Right under Pea’s portrait. I wonder if Connor is having a good time at Wildcats. I hope she is. I pour myself some of the rum Connor left in the kitchen into a wine glass. I sip it slowly and silently as the four voices of Bach’s “Little Fugue in G Minor” echo through my apartment. I wince as the record needle scratches behind me.

Lincoln Mitchell moved to Philadelphia in 2019 to begin his career as an attorney at the Public Defender Association of Philadelphia. He originally is from Oklahoma and is the son of a Jamaican immigrant and a Black American. He has a younger sister/best friend, Logan, who recently gave birth to his cherished niece, Zaria. In 2021, he too became a parent to his adored toy poodle, Lacienega Poodlevardes, whom he fondly calls Lala or Miss Mommas. In his spare time he enjoys developing specialty lattes, exploring cultures through their cuisines, and going to the gym to listen to UK rap while texting his homeboys. He strongly believes that prisons should be abolished, everyone deserves grace and forgiveness, and that proof of God’s presence on earth is in mangoes and a bent-over laughing fit.

Tryst (Editor’s Choice, Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

NYC, Winter 1985

I thrashed against the pillows, fist twisted into the linen, leg braced on a column of my canopy bed when my telephone rang. I kicked the satin coverlet over the phone to muffle it and plunged back into the fantasy of the hunk on a deserted island. On the cruise, I’d rebuffed him as beneath me, but now we were stranded together. I brought him a lobster; he dropped it. Night after night, I stupidly handed him rope with which he tied me to a palm tree. His betrayal flinted my anger. I scratched his neck and licked the blood, then savored the metallic aftertaste. His bronze chest gleamed, clean-shaven despite the fact that we were shipwrecked.

Giancarlo Giannini was about to fuck me when my answering machine clicked on.

“Stop masturbating and pick up,” Max said.

How did he know that? I stayed in bed. Let him talk to the tape.

“Are you still fantasizing about getting hammered by that hunchback blacksmith?”

I wanted to wring Max’s neck. I should have never told him that twisted fantasy; he mocked it, so he’d ruined it.

“Cause I realized he’s the ancient—” Max coughed. “Hold on. I’ll call back.”

“Vulcan,” I finished his sentence. Never thought of that. I buried my head in Mother’s satin pillow and tried to recapture the torrid scene, but the rope on my wrists slackened—did I have to instruct the shipwrecked lunk in proper nautical knots? He’d lost interest—even my imaginary lovers didn’t like me. In a coup de grace, the lobster I wanted more than the man crawled toward the surf, dragging its large claw. My Swept Away daydream swept away.

The phone rang again, and Max spoke to the machine. “EZ, I need you. Please, I have nobody else.”

“Whose fault is that?” I asked the answering machine.

“I only get one call.”

I talked though he couldn’t hear me. “Are you in prison?”

“I’m in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, and the nurses are killing me, which is completely unnecessary. I’m dying as fast as I can.”

I laughed. Max was a complete hypochondriac; he worked himself into hysterics, prognosticating the direst illness whenever he was constipated, calling me at seven in the morning to discuss the problem. But when he really fell ill, he refused to get help. I’d told him to get that cough checked out; it had sounded bad last time we met, the night he dumped me, two months back. It was freezing this February. He needed to stop cruising on the windy piers off Christopher Street at night. Let the doctors treat him. If I visit, he’ll only demand that I spring him.

The answering machine tape ran out. Max rang a third time. I struggled to my elbow and brushed the hair stuck to my lips.

“Dear Elizabeth, please pick up. I don’t have a phone, and if they catch me using this one, I won’t be able to call again.”

I reached down and answered. “You win.”

“Thank you. You are my true friend. I can’t say what I want on the phone; I need to see you. I wheeled my bed into someone’s room to use their line, but there will be hell if the nurses catch me contaminating the receiver.”

“Can I call someone for you?”

“No. It’s like Moscow in the Thirties. People vanish in the night.”

“Let’s not get dramatic.” I looked out my window across the park and the tumbledown conservancy gardens.

“Listen, you have to help me check out. I can’t afford this.”

“You don’t have insurance?”

“Of course not. Who can get insurance? Anyway, it’s no use. Chekhov said doctors are like lawyers, except lawyers just take your money, while doctors take the money and kill you.”

“You have to submit to their regime—”

“I did. They keep adding medicines to counter the side effects of the last dose. Chekhov said if many remedies are suggested, you can be sure there is no cure.”

“Enough Chekhov.”

“He was my pediatrician. Mom gave me his stories when I fell sick.”

“Chekhov died young.”

“Could you come soon?”

The phone rang again as soon as I dropped the receiver. The real estate agent left a message that she wanted to show Mom’s apartment to people who were “dying for it.”

I dressed and counted the money I’d saved from working. Three thousand. Not enough for rent and two months’ deposit, broker’s fee, and utilities, but I could split Max’s rent. This was a good moment to spring the proposal, with him incapacitated. I’d have his flat to myself. I grinned at my conniving as I left Mother’s house, crossed Fifth Avenue, and entered Central Park.

In the late afternoon light, I walked into my own shadow as I crossed to the West Side. Above the tree line, the wilderness of Manhattan raised its prickly head. I rushed through the woods I’d gazed out at from my childhood room, nights, sure that wolves lurked on the great hill and watered at Harlem Meer by moonlight.


Last Valentine’s Day, Max had taken me into this deserted corner of the park and given me a red velvet cloak “to warn the wolves.” Lined in satin and edged in brocade, an extravagance he could ill afford on his Radio Shack salary. As he draped it over my shoulders, he shivered. “Virgins scare the wolf more than anything.” As dusk fell, he built a fire by the lake. He roasted pomegranate-marinated shashlik, which he fed me; I nipped his fingers.

To that evening rendezvous I’d carried my grandmother’s pistol—winter nights, police didn’t patrol the park except in cars, their windows rolled up. Grandma had brought the gold-filigreed Remington by train from Denver; she’d tucked it under the pillow in her Plaza suite, and her new husband had said, “Darling, I don’t think you need this in Manhattan.” Times had changed. A mugger had shot Max’s KGB friend on the meadow; the doctors at Bellevue had sewn him up.

Standing close to the fire for warmth, I held the revolver’s pearl handle engraved with Oma’s maiden initials. I grilled Max on irregular verbs. “Burn, burned burnt.”

“Shoot, shotted, shut,” he tried.


Max baited me. “I slept with a Brazilian.”

“You slut! How many is a Brazilian?” I hefted the empty gun at Max, who stood in the snow in his grey army coat. I drew a bead on his drop-dead face, but the gun could not touch the Siberian distance of his eyes. He had smuggled his beauty out of the Soviet Union into my world. The moment hovered, eerie, romantic as a duel in deep snow—except I alone had the pistol.

He flinched in my gun sight.

“Don’t you trust me?”

“As far as I can throw Lenin’s tomb.”

I squinted down the barrel. Any minute now, he’d slip into the woods of the Ramble to squander his handsome looks on a stranger in the dark while I stomped the coals of our dwindling fire.

His eyes flashed. “I can see the tabloid cover. Little Red Riding Hood Kills Wolf.”

I didn’t want to kill him, I wanted to seduce him, but you can’t tame a wolf with a gun.


This week, a cold snap had hit the city; I crossed the park swiftly. Over me, the branches encased in ice rubbed against each other with a grim sound like an animal chewing a limb caught in a trap.

I vowed to give up my grudge against Max as I crossed the path where, one afternoon, he’d noticed my limp. “Just a splinter,” I’d said. I had kicked my empty bed, and a sliver had lodged in my big toe. I’d offered him a pocketknife. “Could you cut it out?” He had me sit on a park bench while he knelt. He’d worked at it, ignoring the knife I held, and then he’d sucked the wood from my foot. Passing that bench, I turned and walked backward. If only I could go back in time and unwind what went wrong. I tripped and turned forward. One can’t unhurt someone. Can’t unlove them, either.

Ice sheaths from the trees lay shattered on the sidewalk outside the park, glinting like broken bottlenecks in the streetlights. I rushed down the subway steps at Columbus Avenue. On the downtown subway platform, I watched the rats on the tracks. As the rats fled and the rails clattered, I thought of a joke to amuse Max: A casket walked into a bar, and the waiter said, “We don’t serve dead people here.” The casket pulled itself upright and said, “I’m not dead, just coffin.”

The train downtown screeched to a halt. I studied the sign, blackened by graffiti, and guessed it said B. The R didn’t stop here, except on occasions when the N/R line was diverted because of a body under the B or something. The car I boarded was empty except for a man whose swollen feet were bound with stained bandages. I scooped all the change in my pocket and poured it into his hands. The coins slipped between his fingers to the floor while I stared at his black palms. I glanced at my reflection in the subway pane above him: pallid, feral.

He looked up, mouth agape as if asking me to place a coin on his tongue so he could cough it up to pay Charon.

The train doors opened at my stop, and I stepped off. On a station bench, two figures intertwined under dark, heavy coats. Grotesque, insectish. I hurried past.

At a deli on Fourteenth Street, I brought white lilies, wrapped them in a tabloid, and headed for the hospital’s jutting white edifice and jagged black gap, a steel grimace. I went to St. Vincent’s old portico and, as I entered, wondered which room Dylan Thomas had died in.

The receptionist gave me Max’s room number, and I went to the isolation ward, ignoring the signs on the doors. The acrid scent of disinfectant stung my nostrils. Gurneys lined the walls like railroad cars shunted to a sidetrack. On each cot lay a thin figure, asleep beneath blankets.

I asked an orderly as he passed, “Where are the H rooms?”

“Here. H is for hall.”


He gestured toward a torn bit of masking tape with 6 written on it, stuck to the wall over a bed. Yellow tape marked a small rectangle on the floor, a pretend room.

The thin form in the gurney curled toward the wall. A dinner tray lay untouched on his bed. The man rocked to whatever played on his headphones. The man with shorn hair couldn’t be Max, I thought, but he was a master of masks, dyed his paper-white hair red, then black, as if trying to fit in with a deck of playing cards. I opened the Walkman; the cassette was Bowie’s Changes. The head wearing the earphones still rocked, though the cassette had stopped. I lifted it, and the tape unspooled, a crinkled strip of confetti.

He turned, and I flinched at the sight of Max’s face. His skin seemed to have shrunk, a mask torn at the mouth, a botched clown grin. Red sores ringed his neck—had someone ripped his spiked collar inside out? His beard shocked me; he’d always shaved, even his torso.

I tried to smile, and Max’s face contorted in disgust—he had not molded me into the sunshine lady who cheered people up.

I looked askance at Max in a hospital gown, who had technical questions on the fine points of preppy style not covered at Bronx Science. He’d asked me, sunning on Columbia’s steps, “Is there anything Lilly Pulitzer that a man can wear?” I’d lied, “No.”

From the narrow bed, he studied my face.

“You could do more with your looks.”

“Like what?”

“Kill.” He waved his hand to the side. “You’re already famous, but only I realize it.”

Max had been the one sure to earn fame, barreling head-on for it. Fame had become a strange homelessness, gleaming cold.

No table or windowsill, no vase. I held the flowers.

Max tapped the newspaper wrapped around them. “What’s happening out there?”

“Donald Trump offered to negotiate with the Soviets on nuclear arms. Says he knows most everything about them and can learn the rest in an hour and a half.”

“Send him to the Kremlin.” Max placed a splayed hand over the photo of Trump’s face. “Blond Stalin.” He collapsed back into the mattress, and his thin arms flopped beside him, hitting the metal railings. “Ow. No pillows allowed because I might suffocate.”

He’d always had a huge bed. Every few months, when he moved from one fourth-floor walk-up to another, he called me to help him carry his California king. Why didn’t he ask the men who had slept in it with him? I dragged the stained mattress along the street; the fabric ripped, peeling back to expose the plastic. He’d yell at me, “Don’t drag the tip,” and I’d snap back, “I’m circumcising it.”

A nurse came and I asked her for a pillow and a glass for the flowers.

She swabbed the soft crotch of his elbow, then plunged a needle and worked a tube down under his skin.

Max squeezed my wrist. “I might as well have mainlined heroin.” He looked away while she hooked the saline drip.

He coughed, and the nurse jerked away. I held his hand. She grimaced at the glittering spit on my wrist.

When she left, I lowered the lilies to his nose; the pistils’ gold dust slippers trembled as he exhaled.

He breathed in their scent. “Lilies smell like cunts of angels.”

“You’ve never had an angel.”

An orderly dumped Max’s untouched dinner tray into the biohazard bin. I stared at his thick plastic gloves.

Max said, “The lilies and I have something in common.”


“We’ll soon be dead.” Max nodded toward the man in the bed behind his. “Last night he said, ‘Who are all these people with wings?’”

I rested the bouquet on my friend’s chest.

He stroked the back of my hand. “You are my last love.”

“Shut up.” I shuddered. “What happened to your boyfriend?”

“Richard dumped me, so I went to the piers, where a man smacked me and threw me into the river. My head hit the pier post on the way down.”

“Was this a hate crime?”

“Love crime, hate crime, hard to tell.” Max shook his head. “The water glittered in the city light, a sea of stars at two in the morning. The river gripped me—no one held me like that. I let myself drift. Then I rammed against the sanitation dock. The workers heard me yell.”

“Well, that cured your urge to prowl the piers.”

“I went the next weekend to look for him.”

“To have him arrested?”

“To thank him.”

I started to swear and then fell silent when a nun approached, rosary beads on her wrist.

She leaned over Max. “Would you like me to pray with you?”

“God doesn’t care about me.”

The nun looked my way.

I shook my head. “God hates me, too.”

“Here’s a prayer,” Max said. “Dear God, you suck.”

The Sister veiled hurt with humility.

I pointed to the hard mattress under Max’s head. “We could use a pillow.”

When the nun left, I bit my lip, and it bled. I understood her bewilderment at this new illness that had quickly filled her halls with men whose secret rites excluded us.

Max took up his story again. “I felt fine after my swim, but EMS took me to the hospital, and here I got the flu and staph and every other germ on the ward.”

A janitor rolled Max’s gurney to the opposite wall and passed a mop, then rinsed it in a bucket. People were dying, and someone still had to sweep the floor. The wheels creaked as he moved down the hall.

“Alternate side of the street parking day,” Max said. “Move me back before someone else takes my place.

Over the cot hung an old print of Christ, arms open as he walked through a field of lilies. Above their white trumpets, pale butterflies fluttered. The flower fashioned the creature a home of wings, opening; the butterfly closed its wings to enter the lily’s throat, and it seemed to me, standing below, that the creature entered into the reflection of itself. Were heaven and earth that intimate?

Max touched the flowers I’d brought him; their petals darkened under his thumb. He held them up to the picture. “I bet Christ never walked through a garden in his life.”

From one room came a low moan.

Max saw my head turn toward that door. “He lost all his skin. Experimental medicine.”

“Do they give him morphine?

“Nuns? Illegal drugs?”

The man in the room cried out. A nurse went in. She gave me a pillow and a half-full water glass as she passed us.

Max cast a glance back at the religious print. “Don’t say anything treacly about me when I’m dead.”

The nurse left the room, shaking down the mercury in a thermometer, then returned to the station behind the double doors.

Max watched her leave. “Could you do one favor for me? I left shoes at the cobbler. I don’t want him stiffed for the labor. All those old shoes stuffed onto shelves at the shop, tongues crisscrossed with black lines, I wondered who had forgotten them. Now I suspect they’re dead.”

I looked at Max’s bare feet. Undertakers put shoes on corpses—not that they needed them, but to let them go barefoot would disturb those left behind as if the floor of the afterworld were strewn with shattered glass.

Max clutched his shoulders and rocked. “It comes in waves.”

I watched, helpless, as someone falling through air looked down at a man drowning.

“Save me.” He raised a hand toward my face. “The pain.”

I lowered my forehead to the rail.

Max traced the curve of my widow’s peak. “I want your face to be the last thing I see on this earth. You were the most beautiful woman I ever knew.”

I raised my head.

“Except for your mother. She’s more beautiful.”

I pressed the pillow over his face.


I tossed the pillow aside. “I want to hurt you, not kill you. That’s game over.”

“You sucked at Atari.” He stroked my cheek. Max leaned to my ear, and though he whispered, he spoke with force. “I need you to kill me.”

The hair on my arms rose.

“Please. You have to mix pills and alcohol, and they won’t let me have liquor.”

I hid my hands below the bed; one hand clawed the other. I could not kill the man I cared for most. He’d hurt me, but that had tightened the knot that bound us.

From the bedrail hung a plastic bag. He untied it, fumbled inside, and gave me an envelope addressed in shattered script to The Hemlock Society.

“Call them. They’ll tell you which pills to collect.”

I shook my head.

“All right, just choke me to death. I heard one man tied a plastic bag around his head, but I don’t want to go with a sack on my face that says, ‘Have a nice day.’”

“What about me? What if they find I did it?”

“You are the most selfish girl ever.” Max waved his fingers. “Nobody is interested in you or me. Seven men have died in this hallway. Nobody investigates anything. They shove you in a bag so fast your last breath fogs the plastic.”

I reached through the bars of his bed. “I could have loved you.”

“But you never did. I invested a lot to make you the bitch who could do this.”

I shoved the bed, and it swerved away, jerking the IV line in his elbow crease. Blood pooled beneath the skin.

He closed the crook of his arm. “Listen, I have Hepatitis, TB, and cancer. I’m an entire hospital wing sausaged into one skin. To top it all, I have shingles, which are excruciatingly painful.”

What the hell was that—I thought they were things nailed to roofs.

He pointed to the boils on his throat, stained garish red from mercurochrome. “Once, I brushed past a leper; terrified of catching it, I researched leprosy. You think it’s a flesh-eating virus, but it just makes you numb, and when you can’t feel pain in your eyes, you scratch yourself blind. Lepers have no feeling in their fingers, so they carelessly cut them until they’re stubs. I wish I had leprosy. There’s a cyst on the tip of my penis. Do you want to see?”

“No, never!”

“It stings when I piss. When I get too weak to lift myself to the pan, the nurse will insert a Fosse—”

“Bob Fosse? Dream on.”

He threw back his head, but the laugh was silent. I saw black lumps on his white gums.

“I mean Foley. My tonsils are swollen and gag me. The doctors plan to cut my throat open and put in a tube, and then I won’t be able to talk.”

Every shining thing that was ever going to happen to him, the pictures in Time and Life, the wild nights, the whispers and sexual exploits, crumpled in my clenched fist. I crushed the lilies against the wall, then dropped them on the floor.

“I need you to be brave, not just reckless.”

He tapped my wrist. “What time is it?”

I checked my watch. “Seven twenty.”

“Night or morning? Prisoners are always executed at dawn to keep people’s spirits up.”


“Good. Less chance our tryst interrupted.” He arched his neck for me to throttle.

“I can’t do it in the hallway.”

He glanced at the empty corridor, then took my hand and laid it on his chest. “Look, the meter’s running, and this is one expensive ride. I’m sixth in line for a room—that many men have to die. Visiting hour ends in ten minutes.”

I arranged the sheet over him. “Sleep tight.”

He cast the sheet off and took deep breaths before he could speak. “At night, the illnesses scream at each other, and I can’t sleep; the light never dies in this hallway. I dreamed that a surgeon vowed to save me. He took a knife to my chest and sliced down the middle, then stripped my skin to the sides. He lifted my head to show me the thin bones winged out like a fish skeleton and said, ‘See, you had wings.’ I had to learn to fly from the inside, and no one could teach me. I thought maybe if I breathe—why are you crying? There’s no crying in dreams.”

My hands crossed on my chest.

“Don’t make me beg for my own death.”

I bowed my head.

“Do not write on my tombstone what you wished I had been”

I turned away and zipped my coat.

“Do not go.”


Either the girl in my medicine cabinet mirror had to go, or I would. I tried to smile, and the silent girl bared her teeth in a snarl. I raised my hand to my forehead and dug my thumb into the purple bruise stippled with orange, the impossible shade of sad anger. The queasy ache of flesh pressed against skull comforted.

My face in the glass withdrew into darkness as if the man who’d pistol-whipped me had stripped half a mask, but there were masks of loss beneath that. Let us pass over the incident. It happened all the time in New York. So I got out at the wrong subway exit after visiting Max, and I’d surrendered the wad of bills in my pocket. My black eye was nothing compared to what others suffered. Nothing next to Max’s pain.

Max had said he’d be happy if he could switch into my skin. Three days had passed since I’d seen him at St. Vincent’s. The meds would have kicked in, and he’d laugh at the bruise, who said my face was a silver prize I didn’t deserve, who called me doll in French, Poupée, with a Russian accent that made it sound like “Poopy.”

I read the clock over my shoulder in the mirror. The hands stretched straight away from each other, plumb up and down: 6 A.M. The train at this hour would be empty except for the men who slept on the benches; they’d leave me alone. I pulled a down jacket over my sweats, scrounged two tokens, and set off for the hospital.


The guard inside the front door glanced up at me and said, “Emergency entrance down the block.”

I walked past him. The isolation ward smelled of shit masked by ammonia scented with faux pine, each smell trying to suffocate the one below. Gurneys lined the hall, the figures lying in each covered in white sheets. Max had said that six men would have to die for him to get off the hallway, and now he had a private room. These must be new patients, but they seemed the same old men. One called out. No help came. Sunday before dawn, a skeleton crew manned the nurse station behind closed doors.

At the end of the hall was the room the receptionist had written on a slip.

“Is this Max,” I asked on the lintel step.

“Nyet.” The form in the narrow metal bed turned away as it held the IV cord to a thin neck. “If I could knot it in a garrote.”

I recognized his gravelly voice and came to the bed. Max turned, and I tried to stifle my shock. He seemed hollowed, a soul of skin stretched over a skeleton.

He saw me and winced. “Who raped your face?”

My nostrils burned, and I went to the window. Three days alone in this room must have felt several forevers—he who shunned hospitals as the cells where the sick put the ill. Outside, a garbage truck compacted trash, and through the windowpane came the machinery’s muffled hum and the high-pitched crackle of glass.

Max coughed. What had happened to his tongue? I reached toward him, and he pulled away, flattening his back to the wall. He clenched his jaw and shot me a scathing glance that enforced the distance he kept between us. He gazed away, toward the bedside table with an empty vase.


He jerked his head in response.

“What do you want?”

His eyes flashed stark blue in the fluorescent light. “You.” He watched hope open my lips, then ended the sentence, “to kill me.”

He rocked in pain, and his hospital gown fell open. I saw for the first time that cock I wanted to own. It flopped down, scab-black, along his pale thigh. I saw that the clock had run out of blood. Why would time heal me and kill Max? Time was irrational, two-faced—something watches failed to show us.

“Don’t cry.” He lifted his arm and tucked a fallen lock behind my ear. “I know I’ve hurt you, but we need to get over that.”

“So I can hurt you more.” I sucked in a breath that seared the skin inside my lungs. Neither words nor silence would embalm the scars from words we’d hurled at each other.

“Do it.”

I stiffened.


That sharp word in the sunk in, a needle to the chest. I went to close the door and returned to Max. Air narrowed around my right arm, a constricting sleeve; all I’d never said sheathed my hand as it hovered over him.

“Let’s go quickly.” He swept his hand away from his body, reached up as if to brush away the bruise on my brow. His hands slid down to my wrists and clasped my hand, then pressed my palm to his throat. I yanked free. He held my hand again, tighter, and stared with pure adoration that struck a last slap, after all, I’d failed at.

“Now, now.” I echoed his last words, softening them, then leaned with both hands on his neck and chest. His torso writhed. Ten seconds, then twenty. At thirty seconds, his hand released me; a man cannot hold your hand while you kill him. My wrist entangled in the drip line, a crimson bracelet. One minute in, I lost my hold.

His gasp dissected itself into spit.

I hooked a foot on a metal crossbar, hiked my other leg onto the bed to get myself over him, then slid my knee across the mattress to rest in the hollow below his ribs. I bore down with all my weight on his chest, my left hand on his windpipe. His arms flailed, and his nail scratched my lip. I swallowed the iron-bitter reminder and tightened my grip on Max. Ninety seconds. He knocked the empty vase to the floor where it smashed.

One hundred seconds. He looked up at me as I held him in passing between worlds. I forced my face to remain calm, to be the last thing he wanted to see in this world. His eyes widened; the white threads of his irises furled back from the night behind them.

One hundred twenty seconds. My hands ached for release. I willed them to hold on and tightened the tendons like puppet strings. The blood in my head deafened; if anyone knocked on the door, I couldn’t hear. A hard chill fell over me as dark sparks scattered around us. The watch face on my hand blackened. I had to count the seconds to myself. One hundred sixty. The air scraped my lungs as if it were shaved with steel. One hundred eighty seconds.

His head fell to the side, away from me. Max lay still. It took all my strength to let go. My arm hung, adrenaline numb as if my skin had been a glove shucked inside out and cast off.

I unwound my foot from the wheel and stepped back. My boot ground broken glass with its heel as I left.


Down the subway steps, I slipped my token in the slot and stepped through the metal cage into the station. Men lay curled on the soiled cement. The loss kept rushing past me, dragging cigarette butts, papers, and cups onto the tracks. Strands of hair whipped my face. On the wind drifted the front page of an old Post. In the yellowed photo, Reagan waved as he boarded a helicopter for another vacation.

I boarded the train and stood holding a metal strap.

Desperate, illegible scribbles covered the window, written by shadowy figures that slipped out at night to prove they existed to those who would never see them.

Skittish after the attack, I scanned the car for threats. That’s when I caught sight of a pallid face opposite, over the man’s head. The quicksilver girl in her silent world. A black wall passed through my flesh—or I passed through it. Dirt starkened her bloodless skin. On either side rose black lace wings of writing. With them, the gray window face floated overhead. Ragged graffiti writ on the pane crossed her chest like black surgical thread had roughly sewn it up. Something had been taken from her breast and something else sewn in.

The last time I’d ridden the subway with Max, I’d told him how Gorky had followed the elderly Tolstoy on a walk through his estate. Tolstoy saw a lizard bask in the sun on a rock and asked the animal, “Are you happy?”

Max cut in with the line Tolstoy told the lizard: “I’m not.”

Holly Woodward is a Russian poet who became one of the famed women snipers in World War II, and a Moscow actress who become part of the Red Orchestra network of spies fighting the Nazis. 

Oh, snap, those are the heroines of the novel she is writing. Holly leads a less interesting life as a writer and artist.

She served as writer in residence at St. Albans, Washington National Cathedral, and was a fellow for four years at CUNY Graduate Center’s Writers’ Institute. Woodward enjoyed a year as a doctoral fellow at Moscow University. She also studied at Leningrad University and has an MFA from Columbia.

Her poetry and fiction have won prizes from Story Magazine, the 92nd Street Y, and New Letters, among other honors.