Having Witnessed The Illusion by Nicole Greaves

Review by Amy Small McKinney

In Nicole Greaves’ book, Having Witnesses The Illusion, the first poem, “Prelude” from Section I. Another Country invites us into her world of deep imagery and lyricism joined with storytelling. Though you know nothing about this world and the person she is addressing yet, you learn quickly that the search for others, connection in the midst of disconnection, and the desire to be both part of and out of this world is a central theme. In this introductory poem, Greaves begins with a girl’s love of horses:

There was a year when you thought of nothing

but horses, from wild mustangs to thoroughbreds,


And then, the first mention of language, how it is both “arrow” and forgiveness:

For a year you felt too massive to stay,

too wounded to move forward. You listened for bells,


for the precision in a sentence that held the shape of an arrow,

one that knew how to find the heart


Until finally, the possibility of connection:


It was then you began to realize that there might be others

who thought they could become horses too, and you called to them (1).

Throughout this book, Greaves also alludes to dark and light, hidden and revealed. In “Conventicle,” there is “Moonlight, the crack of stone / inside a hidden doorway” and “no men // for miles, only us, here / in this country between countries, // in this light of refuge” (2).


In “Sacks of Scarabs, Greaves continues this theme of dark and light, foreign and hopeful belonging as she and her mother held hands through the museum:


The museum’s glass box was hidden from light

            in between the hopeful columns, the scarabs swarming in a pool

            of fabric. Somehow they made the presence of my mother’s body

            more familiar, in the way her shadow made it more foreign (3).


This sense of foreignness linked arm and arm with togetherness continues throughout the book

in many disguises, including and especially, the power of language. For example, in the poem, “Mine,” Greaves writes, “Through the keyhole of my ear / where I was locked in / to what my mother and tía / were saying, the disagreement / of their silhouettes / in their first language, / language of sails and conquest, / where azul is closer / to the blue in fire, / hija closer / to the thread in daughter, / and mía closer to mine” (4).


Greaves often weaves Spanish into English, including when her beloved mother tries out idioms in English, saying: “Don’t look a dark horse in the mouth”(5). As a child, a teacher scolded Greaves for rolling her r’s too much, an allusion to her mother tongue. Greaves uses language to highlight lack of language, words like “stutter” and “the anticipation of sound.” And she returns to the horse frequently, whether in lines from “Caning”: “When he tightened the strands he leaned // back as if pulling on reins, the horse / the night before him when silence / magnifies the anticipation of sound” (13). And to the sense of being different—an outsider listening in, an outsider wondering: Will I always be the sum / of my poverty? (11)


Section II. The Waiting Room, confronts other ruptures, the loss of the beloved dying mother as well as the author’s own miscarriage where, after watching a child and father at a playground, she says during her own winter, “this is the sugar the body craves.”  (41)


In this section focused on grief, the title poem, “Having Witnessed The Illusion” is written in tercets, emblematic of mother, daughter, and death waiting in the wings, and returns us to the same sense of struggling to see inside, through a peephole or listening from outside a door: “to reveal just enough to say there was more // in the way a knitted sweater is a series of portholes, / and the body, the ocean, the thing contained / in its projection, a ship in a bottle, a cancer in its cell, // or the waiting room itself. (29)


In “Moments In The Trees,” Greaves continues:


when the mind is years ago


            in the village that no longer is

            a village, thinking of that boy who no longer is


            a boy. Her brow furls like someone

            blowing into a reed


            to push music through, tightening

            the pitch into its eye, sharpening


            until the voice is gone. (45)


Greaves finds her way back to her mother,  through her mother’s words that become her own in Section III Reclaimed. In “Awakening To My Mother’s Voice From Beyond:” Maybe, hija, you should go to the / planetarium today and watch the universe / expanding (55).


Greaves moves her readers away from the peephole, away from the porthole, away from the small openings between herself and the world, including the mother’s world before America, and into something larger. Now there are doors and windows into the world, a house painted “cerulean blue / like the house in my mother’s story, // the one in her village, made of water,” and then: “In this house, my mother said, // there are no masculine or feminine words, / the spoons were always joyous // and women always safe.”  (“Mi Casa” 57)


And in “Sorting Through My Inheritance,” Greaves admits: “Sometimes there’s no translation. / A word so much a word that you can’t speak it. More taste. Filament.” and how “All through adolescence, I was always both awake and asleep. / You would ask me:¿Entiendes?/ Then quickly remembered English: Do you understand?/ “Entiendo, Mamá.” And finally, “After you are dead, I’m happiest becoming you.” (73)


And as a mother to her own children, Greaves, in “Epilogue,” while painting wooden boxes, tells her readers, “Then we went to the fields / to be with the horses, but we could only hear them. // The smallest muñeca said to me, / You can’t tell if they’re coming or going.” She answers: “No, my lovely little nut, I said, / they are one and the same.” (75)


By the end of the book, Greaves has brought us full circle, moving us from the experience of being different, to loss, and to finally finding what she has gained and who she has become. In struggling to understand her single mother’s immigrant experience, and her own shuttling between languages and profound sense of feeling like, and being viewed by others, as an outsider, we journey with Greaves as she, daughter, teacher, mother, and writer, moves closer to belonging. “In the last bench in Meeting I am / all the other women” (“Faith And Practice” 63).

Nicole Greaves’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary reviews––including SWWIM, Cleaver Magazine, Matter Poetry, American Poetry Review; Philly Edition, Radar Poetry––and was awarded prizes by The Academy of American Poets and the Leeway Foundation of Philadelphia. She was a finalist for the 2020 Frontier Digital Chapbook Contest and a 2015 finalist for the Coniston Prize of Radar Poetry, who also nominated her for The Best of the Net. She was selected by Gregory Orr as the 2003 Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. 

Reviewer: Amy Small McKinney: Amy Small-McKinney is a Montgomery County PA Poet Laureate Emeritus (2011). Her second full-length book of poems, Walking Toward Cranes, won the Kithara Book Prize 2016 (Glass Lyre Press). Her chapbook, One Day I Am A Field, was written during COVID 2020 and her husband’s death (Glass Lyre Press, 2022). Her poems have been published in numerous journals, for example, American Poetry Review, The Indianapolis Review, The Inflectionist Review, Baltimore Review, Pedestal Magazine, SWWIM, Persimmon Tree, ONE ART, and The Banyan Review, and she has contributed to several anthologies, including Rumors, Secrets, & Lies: Poems about Pregnancy, Abortion, & Choice (Anhinga Press, 2022) and Stained: An anthology of writing about menstruation (Querencia Press, 2023), among others. Her poems have also been translated into Romanian and Korean. Her book reviews have appeared in journals, such as Prairie Schooner and Matter. She has an MFA in Poetry from Drew University and currently resides in Philadelphia.

Esprit de Corpse by EF Deal

Review by Anna Huber

Esprit de Corpse is a unique tale of adventure and mystery set in a french steampunk setting, largely separating the book from novels that traditionally place the steampunk universe in England or America. The novel makes use of different religion, socioeconomics, and even languages to both fill the book with depth and richness.

Esprit de Corpse begins with introducing the reader to the two protagonists of the book, Jacqueline and her sister Angélique. One may want to continue reading the book purely for fascinating characters. These two draw the reader into the story vivaciously, captivating readers with their quirks, flaws, and overall passionate personalities. Their story begins with a train ride and an automaton that literally falls into their path- a scene which both brings to light how skilled Jacqueline is with machinery, but also begs the first question, is this a story about ghosts in the machine?

From there, the mystery and intrigue continues to build as an unknown man breaks into Jacqueline’s workshop and attempts to steal back a component from the automaton. Though his plan is stopped by a quick thinking Angélique, there is more to this man’s plans and his motives than meets his eye, and before too long he becomes another intriguing character and suggestive love interest.

Then, in an attack, Angélique is kidnapped- or as luck would have it- secretly rescued. Jacqueline is then tasked with two difficult tasks- rescue her sister while trying to discover the mysteries of the automaton who brought the struggle and bad fortune to her and her sister. Joined by a lively and heroic Torque warrior, Jacqueline races to beat a mysterious Count whose ties to her family go further than even she realizes.

One of the masterful things accomplished by Esprit de Corpse is the commentary provided on traditional ideas about female autonomy and women’s possession of their own body. Trigger warning, the book does deal largely with themes of sexual assault and rape, offering a unique view and imagery of how it can effect both the body, the survivor, and family members of survivors. Note, the way this material is handled in the novel may be disturbing to some readers, but the ultimate message of how it can change a person is not to be overlooked. However uncomfortable the topic may be in the novel, it is worth noting that some may agree with the unorthodox and even uncomfortable opinions held by characters- opinions that some survivors may side with. The book also works to provide views of how many women working in predominantly male-led fields may feel in trying to forge paths of their own.

Ultimately though, the book does work to find coalition and common ground between good people- women and men alike- all fighting to stop a common evil and bring peace back to their home. By the end, families both unite and grow. Through pain, hardship, and bravery, the book does end with a fulfilling resolution- completed with even a few good and unpredictable twists. Unity is a word that captures the message of the book, as well as best conveys the real spirit behind Esprit de Corpse.

EF Deal lives in Haddonfield, NJ with her husband and two chow chows. Her work has been published in a variety of ezines and anthologies as well as in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She is assistant fiction editor at Abyss&Apex and video editor for Strong Women ~ Strange Worlds.

Reviewer: Anna Huber: Anna Huber is a Graduate Student in the MA in English Literature Program at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Her love for literature began at a young age as her mother was (and still is) an English teacher who read to her often and imparted to her a love of stories. She plans to pursue a career in higher education and impart an understanding and greater respect for literature to future students.

Gala by Lynne Shapiro

Review by Susan Williams

The poetry collection Gala by Lynne Shapiro is a transcendent collection exploring in detail the intricacies and themes of art by using a few specific works pictured in the book to guide the reader through her experience. Akin to taking a slow walk through a gallery, the reader is pulled along by a thread as the collection circles around and back again, creating an image all its own using themes of discovery, recollection, and identity. Throughout each reading of this collection, readers will find themselves discovering something new and exciting, perhaps an image they had glazed over or a connection from one piece to another. This collection is beautifully unfolding onto itself into a larger and more complex work of art. Over the course of the collection, works tie and weave into one another creating a delicate and sophisticated braided structure that keeps the audience anticipating the next strand and wondering how its themes will further expand and saturate the collective themes of musing and art.

Shapiro uses physical pieces of art as framing devices for her poetry throughout the collection, often showing them in photographs to give the reader an image to ground themself in while they read, but it often is presented after the text, which seemingly gives the reader an option to read it in their own way, they can choose to look at the presented image and factor that into their reading experience or choose to form their own image based on the text alone. It is also important to note how Shapiro uses the page space, allowing for the text to have whatever space it needs in order to breathe and hold its full effect. It frames each of the paragraphs like a piece of artwork hanging on the white walls of gallery, much mirroring the subject matter of the collection itself and yields to just a slight disruption of the eye that keeps the audience guess and looking for more. Throughout the work, you can take note of how Shapiro sees art and the reverence with which the admires different pieces, and yet also see glimpses into her wit as she includes asides throughout the collection as cheeky jokes between her and the audience themselves.

Throughout the book I found several lines to be irreverent and particularly hard-hitting. In “The Gala Apple” the audience is given two simple lines, “Is the original sin the desire for originality? – Is it the immortality that we’re after?” It is this two lines I find will resonate in the hearts of all people who desire to create or consume art in any medium, as all art stems in at least some capacity from originality. There is this ongoing idea of the apple and sin throughout the collection, which ties back not only into christian mythology but is connected to so many other mythological beings in the collection as it clings tightly to the themes of temptation.

I would greatly recommend “Gala” by Lynne Shapiro to everyone I know who has appreciated art in their life time. For both poetry aficionados and to those who are rather unfamiliar with the genre, this collection is an excellent read to get you thinking about the nature of art and how it is created, not to mention what it all means on both a worldly and personal scale. “Gala” highlights the importance of the consumption of art in our everyday lives and how doing such can build connections and widen our view to a perspective beyond our own sometimes narrowed views of the world.

Lynne Shapiro is a poet and essayist living in Hoboken New Jersey.  Originally from Ozone Park, Queens, Lynne moved to Culver City, California when she was a pre-teen. She studied Comparative Literature at San Diego State and Brandeis University, where she earned an MA.  After graduate school, she moved to New York City to work at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishing company.  For over a decade she worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art and was a member of the faculty at Parsons/The New School in New York and at Hudson County Community College in New Jersey.  Culture and nature intertwine in her work to reveal a desire for wildness, magic, rootedness and authenticity.

Reviewer: Susan Williams is a graduate of Susquehanna University and writes fiction.


Chapters, timers on stoves, toothpaste—
these things warn about their ends. Timing
belts. Miscarriages. A skinny little trans-
planted tree giving up on itself. These
don’t. Like an open-armed daughter who
tears across a playground. Like a tired one,
almost grown, pleading carry me carry me!
Ghost moments. Like you and I talk.

That daughter kisses me goodbye and
gets on the Metro de Madrid. Three stops
to her apartment. I turn into the day.
An old metal-cased phone booth rises
up and out of the concrete crossroad.
Sky-blue side panels, grass-green tented
top, matte metal face, buttons to nowhere.
Nothing to hold onto. Slathered in symbols:

resta’irador / Hello My Name is / De meulbles y

antigüdades / numtas / 91 478 30 42 /

Nana Karamel Tatoo / IBIZIA59 / JUAN GALGO /


Palimpsests and echoes, messages crawling out of
bottles, regrowing tentacles: acetylcholinesterase
in action. We have this protein, too. Los Madrileños
reaching out and receiving. Even though their ghost
lines ache. Even though those lines have been

Chapin Cimino is a creative writer living, writing, and teaching near Philadelphia. Besides connection, she loves daughters, risotto, properly made sidecars, cities without skyscrapers, and raising her heart rate. Chapin’s creative work has appeared in Hippocampus, The Write Launch, The Dewdrop, and The Curator.


The headline says, “Rosebuds on remote
island die from water shortage,”
and for the next three weeks, the networks broadcast
the bees that are lacking honey, shaming
the greedy Americans for their plastic water bottles.

“If only they could wait a day for another cup of coffee,”
the article begins, “the rosebuds would receive
their fair share of water and could feed
the bees that are shriveling into jellybeans.”

Overcome by guilt, the Americans try to save
the dehydrated blooms. They shut off their water and
live like gatherers. Anyone seen within arms distance
of a faucet is fined three hundred dollars.

After three months of conservation, they’re told
the rosebuds still haven’t recovered, so the Americans
storm the island carrying truckloads of water,
heartache, and honey. Upon arrival, flocks of bees
buzz overhead, and the Americans are greeted by a field
full of vibrant red. The Americans clink their keys
in their pockets and shuffle around. The next minute,
everyone gets a headline alert that says,
“Rosebuds on remote island have risen.”

Chris Faunce is a writer from Pennsylvania. He graduated from Drexel University in 2023 with a degree in Civil Engineering. He won Drexel University’s Creative Writing Award for Poetry in 2019.

Scenario in Surreal

Spy into her casement’s window
At her apartment she putters
Front door fastened, two closets shut, cabinets
She has a nest at the office where she clicks away
She has a nest at the movie house

Stadium 5 seating re-running Gone With The Wind
A daunting grand buck
At a doorsill swears at her, “I don’t give a damn”

The woman is not trying any more, last week she tried
She walked herself into a Chagall painting at the museum
To realize its encompassment
To query how lovers decalcified float in the air
To observe in the gallery next how winged cherubs inviolably hover

The lady’s purse holds a book and a pencil
The point’s been blunted from lists
The yellowed paperback has tea stains
She repeats to herself, “Give me Peace”

The sun radiates
A fact comes upon her
She cannot grasp what it is, it was there and gone
The woman cannot move, she is pinioned
The moment void of weight
A neither before nor after the moment

She drifts to the gardens
It is the vacant end of the mall by the lake
Debit and credit cards have not discovered it
A bluebird and a cardinal flit on a branch
A great blue heron wings low over water
An updraft exits toward blue
A fluttering, soft, as in askance

The woman flies up

Aside from his writings and professional career, including 20 years of university teaching, Harvey Steinberg of Lawrenceville, New Jersey has devoted time to voluntary leadership in arts and civic organizations. His poetry and prose have been published extensively and his artworks have appeared in dozens of juried shows. Many of his poems can be read in Agitations and Allelujas (2022, Ragged Sky Press, Princeton, NJ) and in numerous literary print journals.

The City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia, a city of blue glass that shines bright against the clear sky like a fish’s scales in a river, sits perched between two metropolitan behemoths: New York and Washington D. C. Known more for its attitude and aggressive sports fans than its kindness, it can be difficult to see the attraction of the “underdog” city; however, for those who have spent time here and have grown to appreciate its gruff nature, there’s a uniqueness to Philadelphia that separates it from other cities. “We are what we are, don’t care what others think, and can rightfully stand on our own just fine without needing to convince others of some sort of magic that exists here,” my friend Nate said after returning to Philadelphia, having spent two years in Mexico. It may not sound glamorous, but it’s real. It’s more than just a symbol of prosperity and potential the way all cities are. Philadelphia just has this vibe. Even before I lived here, I knew it was different. Even before I lived here, it felt like home. My friend, Claire, said it perfectly, “It truly is a thriving city with so much personality and character with the charm of community I sense I would not feel in a larger city like New York. Philadelphia is known for being the City of Brotherly Love, the more time you spend living here the more you truly understand that motto.”


On my third day in Philadelphia, I laced up my running shoes early. It was July and without the cover of the lush trees of the Schuylkill River Bike Trail that I had grown accustomed to, it was likely to be a sweaty run. The air outside was dense. I could feel the particles of moisture move around my body as I walked down the front steps of my new brownstone building, but I didn’t care. The city—my city—was just starting to wake up. Cars choked the stretch of Broad Street on their way to work. People walked the streets with their newspapers and podcasts. As I started my music and began the run that I had mapped out, I thought about how good it felt to be a part of something larger than myself again. How, after a year in isolation with only my father and grandfather, I was one of the masses. A Philadelphian.

Running in the city is like trail running in nightmare mode. Not only do you have to make sure you don’t run into any potholes or rusting bulkheads, but you also have to weave in between people, bikes, and the dreaded cars. I had been running for a few months at that point, clocking fifteen miles a week on a good week, but I had to readjust my expectations for that morning. Head on a swivel, I darted between slower pedestrians and looked both ways before crossing streets. It was a higher risk, but fun. It made the time go by fast and, of course, further fed into the idea that I belonged to this new place that I had decided to make my home.


“In Mexico,” Nate continued, “Everything felt like a dream or adventure. And most people there are happily participating in that dream and adventure. But that makes taking life seriously difficult. As I started to focus more on my work and professional development, that environment became counterproductive, and I didn’t quite fit in anymore. So, I began to miss the normalcy of Philadelphia and the ‘corporate America’ environment. Normal people with normal jobs, careers, goals.” That’s what Philadelphia is, a working-class city full of people just living their lives. Dreams do not come true here. We do not make promises we cannot keep, and it’s this authenticity that attracts people, or, sometimes, repels them.


Three miles. That was my goal. A nice, easy run to get myself into the mindset of running in the city. It was a good run for the most part, albeit hot and the cement was tough under my feet. I felt confident and capable as I charged down Passayunk, vibing to my music and thinking of how good the shower would feel when I reached my apartment a mere half mile away. Crossing the slanted intersection at Dickinson, I saw a beat-up red pickup truck out of the corner of my eye. They’ll stop, I thought, continuing through the intersection. He’ll stop, I thought again as the truck approached. By the time I realized the driver wasn’t going to stop, it was too late. The truck hit my right shoulder, sending me hurtling towards the ground. The intersection froze. My AirPods skittered across the road. It wasn’t even eight o’clock in the morning.


“We are nice but not necessarily friendly,” Claire said. “We help each other out but will also quickly curse each other out should the occasion arise.” Picking myself up and dusting myself off after an elderly man with crazy white hair bonked me with his car, I could commiserate.

“Are you okay?” he asked, somewhat perplexed. I murmured a weak “no” as I hobbled to the curb, scared that I would cry if I said anything else. The man, Joe, pulled his truck over and sat with me until the police arrived and we could file a report. As we sat, we talked through what happened. How the stop signs were askew and where I thought he had yet to stop, he already had and had begun driving again. We also talked about life and health. He gave me his insurance information as well as his phone number. He would check in on me three times in the following weeks just to see how I was doing.

Waiting at the urgent care for my shoulder to be x-rayed, I thought about the events of the day. Embarrassment burned the back of my neck. It was only my third day in the city, and it was rejecting me. The one dream I had been working toward for years, the thing that kept me sane during the pandemic shutdown, had been smashed before my eyes like my left AirPod which had been run over after the accident. What was I to do now?

When I told the nurse what had happened, he nodded his head. “You’d be surprised how often people get hit by a car running or biking.” “Really?” I asked, rolling up my sleeve to show him my budding bruise. “Oh yeah, it’s super common,” he continued before welcoming me to the city.


It’s our experiences that make us. This was the first of many experiences that would shape me over the next three years including heartbreaks, publications, diagnoses, and friendships. Even though it was a little painful, I feel strong now, aware. When I charge up the same stretch of Broad Street that I ran just three years before, I know I’ve earned my confidence. What felt like a rejection at first has shown itself to be a baptism into the city. I think about this as I walk to my local coffee shop on Saturday mornings or sit in Columbus Park and watch my neighbors come and go. As my friend Nate once said, “I cut my teeth in Philly figuring out who I was.”

Jillian S. Benedict is a creative writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In her free time, she enjoys yoga, reading, and listening to music while people watching from her stoop. Her work can be found in Feels Blind Literary, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Roi Fainéant, and on Instagram @writerwithoutacause.

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.