Scratching the Surface of Friendship by Annalie Hudson

She was a fast learner, an easy learner, therefore, a joy. She could be counted on, never late, sitting front row, her hair twisted twice, pulled and bound by a ribbon. She wore cream-colored sweaters, white blouses on very warm days. She was one of those rare visions: a freshman who’d taken cues from re-runs of Gidget or The Patty Duke Show and set about fashioning the exact college experience she had planned.

When he unbuttoned his sport coat before her or rocked on the balls of his feet and surveyed the rest of the class, his eyes finding hers, he was moved. He’d known other eager students who could toss back answers as if they’d studied the whole night before to please him. These students went on to respectable programs at respectable schools. Yet watching Rose-Lynn Coyle, listening to her read the work of Dryden, Pope, and Gray, how her voice would lilt at a surprising turn of phrase and sometimes laugh, Randall felt lifted, reminded of why he was a scholar, why knowledge and pursuit of knowledge had been and still were so very important to him.

One morning he asked to speak to her after class. His voice wavered, an embarrassing quality he thought had vanished with his youth. “Marvelous insight today,” he said. “The Rape of the Lock is nearly as sad as it is funny. That’s why we read it as a mock epic.”

“I wondered if I was reading it correctly,” Rose-Lynn said.

She was very small. He’d never stood close enough to realize how small, in fact, she was. “Are you thinking of graduate school?”

“Oh, I think about a lot of things.”

“Start planning,” Randall said. “Never too soon. You have something. A fire.”

“To be honest,” said Rose-Lynn, “your class is the only class I’ve been doing well in.”

He looked at her and smiled. She was wanting to say something more, he felt it, too. He watched her search for the words.


There were times when Randall took his good position in the department for granted. He—along with Merritt, Chouinard, and Wester—was branded one of “the senior statesmen,” a term reflecting the years he’d spent with the department, a term he didn’t care for. He was fifty-two, not particularly old. He had a full head of hair. Half the men in the department, years younger, couldn’t boast that. No lung cancer to complain of, as Chouinard did, often so busy he’d forget to eat yet never too busy for a smoke. Merritt, however, ate like a horse; his clothes stretched at the seams. And Wester, the oldest of the four, slowly, year to year, was losing his mind. Students complained of his incoherent lectures.

The English department, often thought of as “liberal,” was not a place of change. While the rest of the college grasped at modernization and physical reconstruction, English Hall remained true, was filled with dust motes and smelled old, like a place of learning. Sometimes, descending the main flight of stairs, Randall’s eyes would tear, considering the knowledge dispersed among the walls. What changes that did occur within the department were small ones, visiting lecturers, a revision of the previous year’s syllabus. There was a push to move more and more to the Internet, an experiment Randall had questioned initially but was nonetheless supportive of. John Goodwin, the new Romantics expert, had argued in favor of it.

Randall wasn’t sure of his feelings for John Goodwin. Goodwin was with the department only three years, the type of fellow one liked in order to forego the guilt of disliking. For an academic, John Goodwin was striking, with his big frame and dramatic voice and the beard he kept trimmed close, his eyes that always seemed caught up in clouds. Goodwin worked out four times a week. His criticism was sound. Randall had read each of his books, trying to find some small thing not to like about John Goodwin, but as he read Goodwin’s books, Randall could hear that booming assured voice, the voice that made everyone around him feel welcomed and wanted and at ease. No one denied the rumors about John Goodwin and his relationships with select students. But these types of things weren’t uncommon. Administrators spent salaries arguing the implications of such trysts, yet no written law—in the College Code or otherwise—prohibited them once a class was over. Those involved in such things did their best to keep hush. Whatever happened within the walls of English Hall didn’t escape those old walls, and what happened beyond the walls was under no one’s jurisdiction.

A relationship with a student had never, really, crossed Randall’s mind. He was married for twenty-four years, with two successful grown children, and in the scope of his own life, he thought himself a success. Everything he wanted, he had: a five-bedroom house with a clay tennis court, one grandchild, a cocker spaniel that retrieved the stick thrown for its amusement. Randall’s job with the college was secure. One night, walking home from a snack at the town restaurant, he’d turned to his wife, taking her hand that was cold from the snow. That night, there were buckets of stars, and as he looked down Main Street, he could see the gray of the Schuylkill, the black blocks of college buildings beyond. “This is all I’ve ever wanted,” he said to Lois, and she agreed. They hurried home. He poured brandy. They sat by the fire listening to Scarlatti until a log shifted in the fireplace. In a trance, they rose together. It was time to sleep.


Rose-Lynn appeared at his office hours, tapping at his door, until he told her that 3:30 every Wednesday afternoon would be the perfect time for them to meet. He’d make no other arrangements, that slot was for her and her only. “How do you like that?” he said.

He didn’t mind looking at the essays she brought from other classes. “I’ve put my whole soul into this one,” she insisted, “but still it doesn’t seem good enough.” He tried to show her where points trailed off, where her interpretation was faulty. “Write down exactly what you just said, it’s so good,” she told him. He recommended books she might turn to, important articles only a scholar would know existed.

One Wednesday afternoon, Rose-Lynn was in a state. “Professor Malvin hates me,” Rose-Lynn said. “She absolutely hates me.”

Malvin was not Randall’s favorite person. Students called her “The Vampire” because she’d written three books on those blood-suckers, one book on blood-letting, and three others on Victorian women and rape fantasies. Malvin always wore black, and her long hair seemed a shade even darker. Some joked that she was a witch, was good friends with Anne Rice. Some said she was Anne Rice. Of all the women in the department, Dorothy Malvin was the only one Randall would call a true feminist.

“She hates me because I’m pretty,” Rose-Lynn said. Randall had heard of cases like this, cases where Malvin favored fat girls, ugly girls, lesbians. “I turned in this paper, on time and everything, and still she gave me a C-.”

“A C-? That seems very low for your work.”

“She hates me. There’s nothing I can do.”

“Let me see the paper.” Malvin had scrawled red pen everywhere, the paper a bloody mess, an effect he was sure she intended. Malvin’s comments seemed reasonable, however; the paper did lack organization, showed no central thesis.

“I can see why you think she hates you,” Randall said. “Let’s you and I hate her back. Together.”

As Rose-Lynn reached for her essay, the tip of her fingernail dragged across Randall’s bare wrist, so slowly he thought it couldn’t be accidental, that slight but deliberate weight awakening his skin.


The last week of April, Randall found an invitation to John Goodwin’s 3rd Annual Bacchanalia stuffed into his department mailbox. Since Goodwin’s first term at the college, he’d been running the event, a party for faculty and the English majors held at his own home. The night was intended to be one of literary revelry. “Come as your favorite Romantic,” the invitation said. Randall had never previously considered attending one of Goodwin’s Bacchanalias, having heard that those department members who attended always left by nine. What happened after that, Randall could only guess. After Bacchanalia weekend, students in his Monday morning class looked exhausted, as if their lives had been spent.

“I received your invitation,” Randall said, passing Goodwin in the hall.

“You’ll be coming, will you?” said Goodwin. Randall knew Rose-Lynn had been a student of Goodwin’s, his class another of her trouble classes and Goodwin another professor who had her all wrong.

“Yes, maybe yes, I’ll come this year. I’ve heard good things.”

“The wine will flow freely for those of age.”

“And what will the children drink?”

“Blood,” Goodwin laughed. “Or Arizona Iced Tea. I hear it’s a hit with the younger set.”

Goodwin tapped down the hall into the department office. Randall was laughing, he didn’t know why or how, but the sound echoed up the stairs to the marble mural of Shakespeare. Then English Hall went silent.


“Aren’t you going to shave?” Lois asked.

“No,” Randall said. “Not tonight. I thought in the morning.”

“You look like an old bear.”

“I’ll be home before you know it.”

“I don’t like it when you leave,” Lois said.

“I won’t be long.”

“Here,” Lois said, searching the dresser drawer. “Even if you hate the idea of wearing a costume, at least try color.” She’d found a pink Hermes scarf with gold paisleys and tucked it into the pocket of his gray blazer. “Perfect.”

Goodwin’s place was two towns over, back from the main road, squared off by woods and cornfields with a windmill turning against the night. The house itself was three stories, a fine old structure with a balcony and a large tractor shed that was empty of tractors. He told Randall once how he’d bargained with the farmer to get this piece of land so private, just a flicker to anyone passing by along the main road.

Low music rumbled from the house, and once inside, Randall stood for a moment by the door. No one seemed to notice him. He went into a large room adjacent to the foyer, a sitting room. Candles, thin and thick, jutted from candelabras placed in the corners of the room, on windowsills, in sconces. Chairs, none matching in style, looked arranged by a madman about the large room. Boys and girls were done up as fairies, small nylon wings pinned to their backs, their faces painted pink and yellow and putrid green. He was sure the students had A Midsummer Night’s Dream in mind and wanted to tell them they were wrong: Shakespeare was Renaissance, not Romantic. There were courtiers and wenches, damsels, rakes, their faces vigorous, blushed with life. Two boys wore togas, Aristotles or Platos perhaps, a handful of Bacchae, someone as Mark Twain. Randall felt sick, lost in time, these literary histories were so crossed.

A few colleagues had arrived: Wester and Chouinard standing by the food table, the two of them done up, looking more like pimps or old nightmares than revelers. Dorothy Malvin was stationed by a window. She looked like herself, and Randall thought he’d ask her later who she’d come as, La Belle Dame sans Merci? Pouring red wine, hearty Goodwin chatted with Wester and Chouinard. Clearly Goodwin invested in his costume; the velvet and red tunic, much like a bathrobe, looked too good on him. He wore white leggings and his shirt was open at his chest. He caught sight of Randall and waved, coming toward him with a limp and carrying two glasses of wine.


Lonaconing Windows by Eric Loken

“Professor Turner, I see you came as a businessman,” Goodwin said.

“My fancy pants are at the cleaners. What happened to your leg?”

Goodwin bowed. “George Gordon, sir. Lord Byron.” Goodwin lifted the hem of his robe and showed a grotesquerie made to look like a club-foot. “It’s a killer with the ladies.”

“I bet it is,” said Randall. He wanted to say, “And the gents, too,” seeing as Byron was more noteworthy for his bisexuality than his poetry.

“Drink this glass of wine and get yourself another.”

“I will, I will,” said Randall.

“The masses await. But we’ll talk later, once things are up and running.” Goodwin crossed the room, patting students on their backs, rustling their hair as if they were infants, his children. Randall nodded to Malvin on the other side of the room, where she feigned interest in something caught under her pinky nail.

Several of Randall’s students chimed, “Hello,” in passing, then giggled. Out of context, students transformed into creatures other than the selves he knew in class. They became chaotic and careless, infantile. He had liked every single one of his students, but he often wondered if he’d met them some other way whether or not he would have cared for many of them at all. A number of them were drinking wine. Maybe they were seniors, which was possible. Seniors would be of legal age. He looked for Wester and Chouinard, but they’d left the room. Diana Regan and Tom Voll, the two glib Americanists, lounged in chairs by the fireplace. They seemed too interested in one another. There was really nowhere else to go, so Randall sucked in his breath.

“And who have you two come as?” Randall asked.

“Percy Shelley,” Voll said.

“Mary Shelley,” said Regan.

“How nice. The Shelleys. Not going to run off together, are you?” They looked at each other, smiled. The affection the two shared for one another, despite each being otherwise married, was far from private.

“We’ll see how the evening goes,” Regan said.

“Yes, we’ll see,” said Voll. “Never can tell.”

There was a trumpet blast, a silly thing pumped through the speakers. Goodwin was standing on a stool. “I’d like to welcome everyone to the 3rd Annual Bacchanalia. Or as you few repeat performers might know it, ‘A Dip in the Drink.’  I thought we’d start our evening with some grand verse and some grand meter. Let’s hear some odes, some ottava rima, two or three bout-rimés.”

A girl in a carnation gown and dark hair raised her hand. “Okay,” Goodwin said. “We’ll begin with our Claire Clairmont.”

This Claire climbed onto the foot-stool, looking pale and ghostly. “I dreamed my life was like a leaf / half-turned, then turned in full, tossed by the Wind / the evil Wind who frets the threads of fragile life / that laughing Wind who….”

Randall had never been turned on to student poetry, by struggling poetry of any sort. The Writing Department, the small and little thought of annex below English Hall stairs, was an assault to the greats: thinking that something like writing poetry could be taught!

Yet no sign of Rose-Lynn. He poured himself more wine. Mark Twain was reading now, a kid with a high forehead, Edward something. “Great minds have fallen and no fall is greater than mine / for it was I, Adam, father of humankind….” Nothing made sense, their mixing of historical and classical allusions, not following through with metaphors. Goodwin was sure to jump up after each one, clapping, rousing everyone to a cheer, no matter how bad the poem or how silent and disinterested the crowd. As he drank more wine, Randall had the sense these Romantic attempts at poetry might become easier to stomach.

It occurred to him that he’d like to see the rest of the house, so he slipped along the wall, back to the foyer and through the rooms on the first floor. Doing all the renovation himself, Goodwin had managed. There were no smudges along the ceilings, no signs of haste. Randall padded up the stairs to the second story, past one room that was being done-over; a belt-sander, sawhorses and paintbrushes littered the floor. He passed another room yet to be touched, then he came to what must’ve been Goodwin’s bedroom, not at all what Randall had imagined. There was no Gothic bedframe with white sheets and red satin pillows, no cherry oak furniture so rich and seductively dark. Heavy drapes didn’t obscure the windows. Instead, thin white curtains were pulled to one side. The bed sheets were gray and light blue and white, a simple country motif, and the furniture that squatted about the room was rustic to be sure, certainly not horrifyingly old, nothing European or imported, only a dresser and bedside table and lumpy green chair that looked as if they’d been garnered at some Sunday swap meet.

Was this the kind of person Goodwin was in his private life, soft and quiet, someone other than his self? Randall moved about the room, touching things, picking up a small bronzed baseball, horse-head bookends, a picture of two old women in a frame. He opened the top drawer of the dresser bureau: boring white underwear, just like he had at home, rolled into balls, stuffed among socks. He felt beneath Goodwin’s clothing. Surely that was where people hid the things they feared others would find. His fingers grasped at the glossy pages of a magazine. Pornography, he thought, but was disappointed when the shiny publication was nothing more than an Alumni magazine from Yale. Randall sat down on the edge of the bed, placed his wineglass on the nightstand and began looking through its drawers: green ear-muffs, a ruler, envelopes, pencils and pens, a Bible, a book on meditation, a novelty back-scratcher. Not even so much as one prophylactic: how very boring.

Then Randall heard voices in the hall, a high-pitched giggle, followed by footsteps. He knocked over his wineglass, red wine onto the beige rug, and ducked into the bedroom closet, leaving the door open slightly with a view of the room. At first, he thought he was about to witness something important. He imagined Goodwin, sweeping away one of the girls, carrying her like property up the hall stairs and tossing her down on the tidy bed. Yet it wasn’t Goodwin, not even someone half as interesting as Goodwin, some kid with longish hair and a soul patch, dressed as Puck, half-goat, half man, with nubbins of horns stuck to his head. The girl, Randall recognized. Kimberly or Kimmy. Or was it Kimbi? Kimi? She at least looked more of the period, not some fairy creature but voluptuous and indulgent, certainly Romantic. He’d noticed her before, once at school, at the vending machine.

The silly boy lay back on the bed. Watching, Randall was certainly aroused. He could tell both were not good kissers, more motion than technique. A sliver of saliva sparkled on the girl’s lips. Then, suddenly, the two burst into laughter and stopped. The girl straightened her gold hair ornament and went flitting into the hall. “Kimberlyn,” the boy called, but she didn’t come back. “Fuck,” the boy said, getting up from the bed.

When they’d gone, Randall slipped from the closet, into the hall, pretended to be casually descending the stair, and found more red wine. Lois didn’t allow him to drink much anymore—had reason to dislike his having too much—but she wasn’t here. The readings had come to an end. Popular music played, and the fairies were dancing. Light flickered on, then off, then on. Randall thought about that girl’s mouth, that geometry of saliva descending from her lips. He could no longer remember what it felt like: kissing young lips. He’d come to love Lois and her mouth, her kiss, yet he couldn’t remember what her lips felt like when they were young. The knowledge he once ardently possessed now escaped him.


Randall’s heart leapt: Rose-Lynn! She was so carefully articulated, her hair pinned and neat, suggestively pure, not sopping with sexuality. Over the years, students like that Randall had admired for their virtues and soon forgotten. Rose-Lynn, however, was art. Forging his way through the shaky undergraduates on the dance floor, he noticed the sprig of purple nightshade Rose-Lynn had secured with a barrette and the dark eyeliner that gave her the quality of the dead. She wore ballet shoes. He noticed too, unfortunately, she was laughing and in conversation with Dorothy Malvin.

“Rose-Lynn,” Randall said. “Rose-Lynn, who . . . who have you come as?”

“Oh, Professor Turner,” she said. “I’ll let you guess.”

“You get three chances,” interjected Malvin.

“Only three?”

“Here,” Rose-Lynn said. “I’ll give you a hint.” She closed her eyes and extended her arms in front of her. “Think somnambulist.”

“Just as I thought. Coleridge’s Christabel.”

“I suggested the costume,” said Malvin.

“Who have you come as, Professor Turner?” asked Rose-Lynn.

“Oh, don’t you recognize him, Rose-Lynn? He’s come as himself.”

“What better way to appear than as one’s self,” Randall laughed. “You can insist on being nasty, Dorothy, but I’ll remind you that you haven’t procured my promotion vote yet.”

“What’s one vote?” said Malvin.

“Lovers’ quarrel?” Rose-Lynn laughed.

“No love lost,” said Malvin.

“I’m sorry, Professor Turner, Professor Malvin, excuse me.”

Randall watched Rose-Lynn go, left standing with Malvin who too was watching Rose-Lynn go, slipping through the crowd like a breeze through a dream. Malvin was silent. Randall took a gulp of red wine.

“I like you, Dottie. You know, I really do.”

“I thrive in negative space,” she declared. “Sticks and stones.”

They didn’t say anything to one another after that. He waited for her to move away from him, and when she had, as he was sure she would, without another insult or an apology, he went to look for Rose-Lynn.


He discovered Rose-Lynn between the legs of a boy Greg on Goodwin’s back porch. The boy, perched on the railing, had crossed his heels behind Rose-Lynn’s knees. Rose-Lynn stiffened, seeing Randall there, and whispered into the boy’s ear.

“Let’s go for a walk, Professor Turner,” Rose-Lynn said.

“Yes,” Randall said. “Let’s.”

The backyard was nearly the color of dark wine now, the perimeters of each shadow red-tinged. Rose-Lynn pointed toward a cluster of trees at the end of the lawn.

“That boy’s just a tadpole!” Randall said.

“I knew you’d be jealous,” said Rose-Lynn. The trees at the end of the yard were arranged in a circle, a faerie ring, and at its center Goodwin had placed a cast-iron bench. Black roses twisted around one another, serving as legs. “Where’s your wife?”

“She hates these things.”

“I imagine her thin, old and pale,” Rose-Lynn said.

“She’s not so old or so pale. How old you do you think I am?”

“Fifty,” she said. “Fifty-two?”

“I was hoping you’d say forty.”

“You asked me how old I thought you were, not how old I thought you looked.”

“Ah. You seem older tonight,” Randall said.

“I’m an old soul.”

He could detect something in her eyes, a self-immolating fire, something that both excited and disturbed him. “Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Rose-Lynn, silly. Who else would I be?”

“Some kind of bewitchment,” Randall said. “A snare.”

“You’re caught up in the night.”

“How can I not be?”

“Do you have any children?”

“Two: one son, one daughter,” Randall said, and then joked, “Do you?”

“No,” said Rose-Lynn. “I was pregnant once, abortion, etcetera. It wasn’t a big deal, just one of those things that gets in the way.”

“In the way of what?”

“In the way of everything. Nights make me think of children, I guess. The running around, the squeals as the sun sets. When I was little we played Haunted House outside in the yard, blankets thrown over lawn chairs. I could make the scariest faces.” Rose-Lynn screwed up her face, her eyes crossed, cheeks stretched. “I wasn’t afraid like other girls.”

“My children did the same.”

“I would’ve liked you as a child,” Rose-Lynn said.

“I would’ve liked you, too, but not in the same way as I do.”

“Let me get us another drink,” said Rose-Lynn. When she walked off, Randall worried she might not come back. He’d been left at parties by attractive women before. Sometimes he wondered if that was why he’d married Lois at such a young age when other choices might have presented themselves. Too quick to get everything right, to have everything in place.

Rose-Lynn returned with a red cup. “Here.”

“What’s this?” Randall said. “It tastes awful?”

“Cheap rum.”

“An odd after-taste.”

“Oh, that’s the roofies,” she laughed. “Drink it. I mixed it myself.”

“Really now?”

“It’s my second major.”

Randall chuckled and paused. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Who has time?”

“And Greg?”

“I love the gray of your hair, Professor Taylor. One of the few good things about getting older. Can I touch it?”


She didn’t run her fingers through it as he wanted her to; instead, she stroked his head as if she were petting a cat. The motion made him feel suddenly woozy, and he found that he was willing to tell her everything: his impressions of the other students, the faculty, the college. “You’ve awakened something in me. Kindred spirits, you and I.”

“I should get to know myself then,” she said, resting her head in her hand and gazing toward the field. “What’s it like, being wise? I feel like I’ve spent my whole life being the opposite.”

“Everything will work out. It always does,” said Randall, yet as soon as he said it, he knew it couldn’t be true. Nothing worked out really, did it? The appearance of structure was a cage. Those Romantic spirits were right. The tall black stalks of the cornfield, so upright and sure of their positions, marching in rows yet journeying nowhere.

“I wish I could see further,” she said. “What lies beyond the beyond. Tell me how you think.”

“About what?” asked Randall.

“How you think when you think.”

He laughed: “Drinking will do this to us, make us philosophical.”

“Tell me.”

“For me, rooms build themselves around ideas. The planks of floors, walls hung with paintings curling in like fingers into an open palm. My thinking’s like that.”

“What am I doing there, in your rooms?”


“I’m there, aren’t I?”

She hadn’t taken her eyes from the line of cornstalks when her hand slid down the front of his pants. Randall bit his lip, then leaned to kiss her. “No,” Rose-Lynn said, her eyes still forward, peering toward some dark distance. It wasn’t at all what he wanted. It was detached, impersonal, and finished quickly, a fulfillment of two bodies inclining themselves toward one another, yet neither willing to live, to give in fully to that moment. When they did look at one another again, he to her, and her to him, it was with a sense of embarrassment of what they’d just made, a longing to return to the before.

“It’s gotten chilly, hasn’t it?” she said.

“It’s late,” Randall admitted, and Rose-Lynn smiled.


Driving, he felt at the tethered end of headlights, the illumined beams pulling him and the car homeward. The idea that’d resembled Rose-Lynn in appearance—which once might have stood gesturing by an open window or elongated on an upholstered chair in one of the rooms of his mind—had vacated, and only the dull hum of the radio found its way in now. It wasn’t a sadness that filled him, arriving home, but something else, a sloppy cousin to joy when Lois greeted him. “Some night?” she asked.

“I didn’t have much. Only a sip,” he laughed. “How was your evening? All quiet here?”

“I was reading,” she said. “Your pajamas are laid out for you.”

“I wish you’d gone with me.”


Rose-Lynn missed class on Tuesday and didn’t stop by his hours that Wednesday.  When she appeared the following week, she didn’t cheerily greet him as she usually did, but she didn’t appear upset or bothered. He called on her several times during discussion, found himself complimenting her responses more than he’d compliment other students’, just to let her know that he was still there, with her, despite what’d happened between them.

“Rose-Lynn, can we talk after class?”

“I have somewhere else to be,” she said. And it was like that for those few times after, even as she sat committing words to a blue book during her final exam: she had somewhere else to be. It was John Goodwin who told him later that Rose-Lynn would be transferring to Yale in the fall.

Born in York and raised in Dover, Pennsylvania, Michael Hyde is the author of What Are You Afraid Of?, a book of stories and winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. His stories have appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, Austin Chronicle, Bloom, Ontario Review, and Witness. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with Honors in English, where he studied with writers Diana Cavallo, Gregory Djanikian, and Romulus Linney.

Like It really Is

Streets of Philadelphia – Summer Fun by Christina Tarkoff

My stepson is reading Romeo and Juliet for his eighth grade English class. I asked him what he thought about it the other day during dinner.

He shrugged and tucked a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.

“I don’t want to ruin it for you,” I warned. “But it doesn’t end well.”

“I know,” he responded.

I told him that when I was in eighth grade, I memorized the entire balcony scene from the play. I didn’t tell him that I had done it because I prayed that someday soon, Jim Hurst of the swim team and I may have a similar exchange. Never mind that I lived in single level house in Florida, and the only impediment to our romance was my Coke-bottle eye glasses and his total lack of interest. I pictured a balcony at the Don Caesar, myself in an eyelet dress with sassafras wound in my feathered hair. Him, standing below, possibly in just swim trunks, would call up to me in a deep voice with only a hint of crack, saying: “I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptis’d; henceforth I never will be Romeo/Jim.” Somehow, it would work out sans the dual suicide and despite the chasmic-sized popularity differences.

It did not. Wherefore art thou, Jim? (Actually, Facebook tells me that he’s a pro golfer living in St. Pete with twin daughters and a wife named Bethany Anne.)

But these early ideas of romance and storytelling stayed with me as a writer throughout my teen years as I struggled to come up with love stories that illustrated that same longing and defiance that captivated me at age thirteen. I’d write heroes with barrel-chests and tousled golden curls, heroines with eyes that were always a weird color—grey like slate, churning sea green (?), lavender. They were loosely based on a mixture of Shakespeare, the movie Blue Lagoon, and romance novels I stole from my aunt JoAnne. Inevitably, the women wore bodices and the men had ripped blouse-like shirts. I cared mostly about the exteriors, the long descriptions of the way waist-length hair rippled in the summer breeze or the man’s white teeth gnashed with desire, much like a stallion’s, the “maiden blush” bepainting a cheek.

I’d come up with these scenes and show them to my mom, an avid reader, who would concentrate on the lined notebook pages and hand them back with vaguely encouraging words to keep at it.

I knew what I was writing was phony, stolen. Until I was a junior in high school, I hadn’t been kissed. I hadn’t even been in danger of being kissed. There had never even been hand-holding. The closest I had come was a note from Steve Crossett, one year older and a red-head, who’d written that he thought I was “a pretty decent person.” Pin that one up on your bulletin board next to a photo of Christopher Reeves as Superman ripped out of Seventeen.

I asked my mom for advice. How did she think I should write love scenes? She paused, considering. I could see that she was weighing her options. “Write it like it really is,” she said finally. What did she mean? She thought for a minute. She knew that I spent an inordinate amount of time in the library, and very little time with the opposite sex. Unless you counted Wednesday night bell choir practice. “I mean, write about leaning into kiss someone and you miss. Or your elbow going numb on the table while you’re waiting for your date to finish his boring story. Write about what it’s really like, not what you think it should be like.”

This is possibly the best writing advice I’ve ever received, along the lines of well-worn maxim to write what you know. I had thought that writing was all about imagining yourself into the world you wanted to inhabit.  It is that. But it’s also about being able to see that situation as it truly is for your character—to picture all of its complexities and discomforts— the alive parts and the numb parts, the perfect moment and the awkward one. My love stories have mostly been awkward ones. Awkward, funny, lovely, horrible, and true. That’s the writing world I inhabit, and though I still love the tumbling poetry of Shakespeare, I stick to what feels most true to my experience.

Don’t Tell Me Your Childhood Was Not A Minefield

Valley Forge Farmhouse, Summer by Jeff Thomsen

A review of Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Guess and Check


An effective technique in poetry is to guide the reader on a journey that feels like you’re discovering together as opposed to resorting to a heavy-handed didactic approach. Guess and Check is not a collection of poetry, however, Rutkowski employs this tactic as we follow his protagonist on life’s obstacle-ridden path; a process of trial and error while navigating a magnified reality—scenarios wild enough you want to believe they couldn’t possibly happen, but not far-fetched enough to be disregarded as absurd. As a result, these stories uncannily hit home. You get that back of your head worry—somewhere in America lives are unfolding in a frighteningly similar fashion.


The family dynamics in Guess and Check illustrate how a person acquires life experience—often in bits and pieces, by hearsay and chance—like the child who touches the stove and learns it is hot, Rutkowski’s protagonist puts his finger in his father’s fly-tying vice. His father initially shows him the vice saying, “You should learn to make something useful.” Playing with the vice later, the child notes, “My fingertip would have burst if I’d kept going.” In Guess and Check, all is consistently on the brink, consistently on the line.


Guess and Check is a thought-provoking book, subtly nudging the reader to reflect how our choices shape our reality and lead us to our present selves. Engaging with the text, here’s something that tumbled onto the page after sitting with G&C for a while: We learn lessons over and over. Mind you, I don’t mean we learn the same lesson over and over, although certainly in some cases that is also a truism. Rather, my sense is we adopt a methodology for lesson learning, and we rely on this strategy to find our footing in any new circumstance. At some point, we all learn that fire burns. How we learn that fire burns is what makes us individuals. The branch splits with each choice creating the unique tree that is a human life.


Reading these stories, I occasionally felt Murphy’s Law—that anything that can go wrong will go wrong—was somehow at play. The following, though it may appear to be a low stakes example, illustrates the point well—if you can’t even manage the energy to secure a decent night’s sleep it feels the universe has aligned against you.


Once awake, I noticed that the air had gone out of my mattress; I was resting on the hard floor. I blew up the mattress, but I was too tired to inflate it completely. When morning came, I was again lying on the floor, with only a sheet of plastic between my body and the wood.


Instead of dwelling on grim fatalism—calling to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s term “The Doomed”—Rutkowski’s characters are resilient—they don’t get down on themselves, they roll with the punches. After a scene of brutality, in the next vignette they generally seem no worse for the unpleasantness experienced before. Or perhaps, these characters are simply that well-trained in compartmentalizing the horrors. You put them in a box, you put that box in the attic, and you do not enter that attic under any circumstances.


What I said about characters managing to appear undamaged is not wholly true. From scene to scene the protagonist may seem to cope, but then you’ll wince watching his exposure to abuse without displaying emotion. Of course, this is a survival mechanism—but from the outside looking in it’s frightening to bear witness to the learned behavior response that results from repeated trauma.


When a teenager shoots one of the family dogs and the protagonist confronts the teenager for an explanation, the teenager says, “He was running across my yard, so I picked up my .22 and plugged him.” The section breaks here.


Violence and gunplay escalates throughout the text. Here too there seems to be a lesson about indoctrination into normalcy. Later, the protagonist is living in New York and decides to reclaim a gun his father had given him as a child. He looks into obtaining a permit, but the paperwork is cumbersome. He opts not to bother with the paperwork; possession of a firearm is simply not a big deal to him. After all, he grew up around guns.


He’s babysitting a child one day and lets the child handle the weapon. When the mother arrives to pick up the child she is less than pleased.


In this next gunplay example, Rutkowski’s dark humor comes through:


“Did you have to take a course to learn how to shoot?” my friend asked.
“Yes,” I said. “The instructor set up a cabbage and told us, ‘This has the consistency of a man’s head.’ Then he pointed a shotgun at it and pulled the trigger.
“My god,” my friend said.
“Just showed what could happen.” I said.


Rutkowski employs humor that offsets the frenetic uncertainly and darkness. And the humor increases when the protagonist is an adult. The reader can bear in mind that there are glimmers of light at the end of the winze while navigating the dangerous waters of childhood that occupy the early sections of G&C.


Here’s a glimpse into Rutkowski’s protagonist as an adult:


Later, I walked my guest out to the street and helped her hail a cab. I must have been nervous, because when I shut the car door for her, the metal frame hit me in the face.


Before I wrap up, here are a few more examples of Rutkowski’s memorable voice:


Even in daylight, the flames were filled with energy.
In the shared kitchen I found lizards living behind the appliances. They were geckos of some sort. They clung to the walls when I made coffee. Maybe they liked the heat radiating from the stove coils, or maybe they just liked clinging to walls.
He said he wanted to go to the bottom of the pit. He said he was already there.


In these vignettes, Rutkowski offers lessons that are not always clear cut. And, at times, you’re left wondering what it all means, what kind of lasting effect would these experiences have on a person. As the protagonist is followed from childhood to adulthood, I kept wondering how someone could undergo all of these damaging experiences and come out on the other side unbroken. Maybe that’s a question Guess and Check requires of its readers. Who among us can say they’ve made it this far unscathed?



Gettysburg Parable

After his speech the people
who’d assembled to imbibe

the mulled wine of his baritone
went home and tried to rebuild

everyone, while the President
click-clacked back to Washington

wreathed in the steam of engines
he’d unleashed then stalked

like a gaunt apostrophe across
the street to telegraph Ulysses

Grant to “please come get this
business over with” before his

hair made wisps of smoke like Little
Round Top and his bristling jowl

grew sunken into Devil’s Den
chewing its hallowed dead.

“Expect worse”
Grant’s reply read.

Ed Granger lives in Lancaster County, where he was raised to love both books and theoutdoors. Since returning to PA in 1993, he has volunteered and worked for healthcarenonprofits. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, TheBroadkill Review, Potomac Review, Roanoke Review, Free State Review, Naugatuck RiverReview, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and other journals.

Dear Pylvia Salth

I am drunk

& listening to 4:49 a.m.

in the shower again

on repeat, thinking that


if steam handles lips

the way hands

handle match tips, then you


handle me the way

“too” handles “close”


(& there may never be enough

hot water).


Now, think of all the things

we can count on

our fingers


like the certainty of



when it fails to leave a

burning thing behind,


we choke.



Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Kayla Coolican is a freelance writer and poet based in Somerville, MA. A student at Lesley University and regular performer at The Cantab Lounge, she adores collaborative work, and spends her free time as the volunteer editor for a local indie lit-mag. In Cambridge, she is best-known for her steamy spoken-word piece, “Seducing Johnny Appleseed,” featuring in numerous Boston slams and solicited for radio performance in 2016.

Kayla also nurtures a quirky art portfolio and enjoys pairing her written work with Apidae-inspired illustrations. She looks forward to completing her first chapbook soon


The island is this:
rimmed with trees
over centuries
the rest gone
for firewood
red clay soil
bleeding into the sea
That’s how I felt
when you left
ninety percent gone
and that tossed to the breeze
the axe-man’s chuckle
I still burn
this finds you as me:
out in mid-Ocean


Steve Burke lives in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia; has been published in various journals, read at many venues about the area; in 2014 had his chapbook After The Harvest published by Moonstone Press; has two book-length MSS-in-waiting — 36 Views Of Here and Nothing Doing.

The Man in Building H

He splits cells and grafts them together,

an art he perfected with his children, a family

crafted from multiple marriages. Microbiology

is not often associated with the domestic,


but he was raised in the years when a station wagon

had bench seats big enough to haul little sisters

to the skating rink, little brothers to the ballpark.

He still wears the same L.L.Bean ushanka


from those chilly college days, when he paid

for State with side gigs and scholarships.

He took a job to pay for his weddings, his church tithes,

and those five kids he put through college, no matter


the picket lines that winked on and off

like Christmas lights outside his windows:

people who think pharmaceutical research is conspiracy

to make the rich richer and the poor sicker.


His eldest daughter is waiting for him now, shivering

at the ——ville platform, back from a world removed

from this germ warfare.  He wants for her what he has:

a family, a pension, Americana unbroken. She laughs.


He doesn’t mind his children’s selfishness.

At night he locks away his stains and slides

and passes through door after locked door,

the virus sleeping cleanly in the lab behind him.


S.R. Graham is a Pennsylvania native currently enrolled as an MFA student at the University of Florida.


Blue Haired Girl by Tilda Mann

Grace and I met six months ago. Mutual friends who had been conspiring to get us together finally succeeded.

We decided to meet at a popular local diner for coffee. I arrived early and sat on a fake leather bench in the cramped lobby with others who were waiting to be seated.  I nervously tapped my feet on the floor.

The anxiety of this first date must have also shown on my face. A middle-aged lady sitting next to me to my left asked, “Blind date?”

I turned toward her, sheepishly grinned, and answered, “Yes.”

“That’s how we met, almost ten years ago,” she said, and motioned with her head to the man sitting to her left. The hostess called their name. As they stood, she looked back at me, smiled, and said, “Good luck.”

I gave a half-hearted smile in return and mouthed the word, “Thanks.”

Although Grace and I had no idea what each other looked like, other than vague descriptions our friends gave us, we instinctively recognized each other when she walked through the door. She had a smile like Annette Bening, and that was all I could see.

It was six p.m., the height of the diner’s dinner trade, but we managed to corral a window booth. Grace and I bonded and trusted each other immediately. We talked over coffee for five hours. I left the waitress a generous tip for allowing us to rent her table. Now in our sixties, Grace and I decided we didn’t want to go through life alone anymore. Two months later, she moved into my apartment.

One night, as we lay in bed, Grace asked, “How would you describe our relationship, Lewis?”

She has a knack for asking these weighty questions at the most inopportune times. It’s always when I’m ready to fall asleep. Somehow, she knows that’s when I’m most vulnerable.

“What?” I asked incredulously as I rolled onto my right side to face her. She had already turned off her lamp. My eyes squinted as I tried to focus on her, aided only by the broken bands of light from the street lamp sifting through the blinds behind her.

“How would you describe our relationship? It’s a simple question.” The muffled sounds of midnight traffic rose from the street two floors below our apartment.

Perhaps for her the answer was simple, but not for me. I was no more prepared to answer that question in my sixties than when I had to answer it forty years ago in my twenties.

“Not at this hour, when I’m exhausted and want to sleep. And why would you ask that particular question now?”

“Because this is the perfect time to talk—when we’re together and have no distractions.”

She’s right, partly. With our schedules, it’s probably one of the few times we get to talk to each other. I still work a full-time, modified, second-shift job. I rarely get home before ten p.m. and, by then, I just want to vegetate. Grace is retired, but teaches both a day and evening English as a Second Language class on a volunteer basis.

“You mean other than attempting to get some sleep before I have to wake up in six-and-a-half hours?” I asked.

“Well, that’s an hour longer than me. I’m up at five-thirty.”

“That’s out of habit and your choice, Grace, not mine. Good night,” I said as I rolled back facing away from the window.

“And where are you going?”

“Hopefully to sleep, please?”

“You’re not answering my question, Lewis.”

“I thought I just did,” I mumbled into my pillow.

“I heard that, and it’s not the answer I was looking for.”

Lord, help me. Exasperated, I turned on my nightstand lamp, rolled over once again to face her—like a dog learning a new trick, propped my pillow up against the headboard, and sat upright. “Christ. You really want to know?”

Grace is a pebble compared to my boulder-like build. She inched closer to me, reclined, placed her left hand under her head as a prop, and said, “Yes. I really want to know. And don’t bring Him into it. I asked you, and He’s not going to help you answer the question.” I’m Jewish. Grace is Catholic, and she doesn’t take kindly to me using her Lord’s name cavalierly.


“Why He’s not going to help you?”

“You know what I mean, Grace. Why do you want to know?”

“Because by knowing what you think and feel, I believe we can make our relationship better, stronger.”

“Okay. That’s a valid point, I guess.” I was doing my best to appease her.

That may have been her goal, but from what I know about Grace’s past, I believe the question stems from insecurities about where she stands in a relationship. I struggle with those same doubts, as perhaps most people do when embarking on a new association, whether it’s personal or business.

She’s had two marriages. Her son and a daughter were from her first—which lasted only six years, and was fraught with her ex-husband’s infidelities. The second was almost four times longer and ended when she became a widow. That was seven years ago.

I had only one marriage that endured longer than both of hers combined before I called it quits. With my ex, what I did was never enough. Never enough money, affection, attention. My worth, to her, was ultimately reduced to what I could give her. Our three children have the same mindset. My relationship with them is strained, at best.

Grace and I have shared morsels about our past relationships, her more than me. I’ve lived my life on a need-to-know basis; the truth comes out in dribs and drabs at my convenience. Perhaps—no, not perhaps—I know that was one of the many reasons my marriage ended in a heap of hot, smoking ash. I reluctantly shared that with Grace. She asked me to promise her that I would do better in our relationship. I said I would, and I always do my best to keep promises.

I’ve managed most of my insecurities: not being a good enough provider or father and husband, which stem from my previous marriage. There are probably also a few that I’m not conscious of, or willing to admit, but I still feel their effects. Those are buried so deep that some shrink attempting to excavate them, like an archaeologist digging for the bones or artifacts of an ancient civilization, would likely first find Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Most of Grace’s questions are innocuous and odd, but somewhat humorous. She can be so endearing, but it’s when she asks questions about us that those entombed skeletons uncover themselves and rise to the surface. I don’t know why I’m unable to keep them interred.

I tried to deflect. “So, let me ask you the same question. How would you describe our relationship?”

“I asked you first, Lewis. I’m calling your hand.”

I took a long pause and slowly shook my head. I don’t see any way out of this. “It’s like when I was in ’Nam, on the river boats.”

“How so?”

“It was hours, sometimes days, of boredom split up by moments of sheer terror. You just never knew when the next attack was coming, or from where. Like now.”

She responded matter-of-factly, “So you’re equating my question to an attack?”

“Kind of. Not a frontal attack, mind you. Just coming out of nowhere.” I wasn’t smiling, and my tone was dark and anxious.

“Interesting,” she said, staring at me.

Every time she says that and gives me that stare, I know she’s thinking of another question, and each succeeding question gets more intense, more focused.

“Then does my question scare you—terrify you?” she asked.

“No. Not exactly.”

“Then what?”

“It’s damn annoying. It frustrates the hell out of me.”

“I believe what frustrates you is that you know the answer and are afraid to face it.” Her tone softened, and she smiled. “You’ve gotten so much better at opening up, Lewis. I truly mean that. Just answer the question, please, and we can both go to sleep.”

Her smile was convincing, and I bought it. I wanted to buy it. It was the same smile that beguiled me the first time we met.

I’ve learned that Grace was a damn good prosecuting attorney in her life before retirement. It showed at times like this. She used her charm before asking those final piercing questions, which felt like the last thrusts of a dagger into some woefully unprepared witness.

“No. That’s not the way it works with you, Grace, and you know it,” I said, even more agitated. “You’ll have twenty more questions. You always treat me like a hostile witness in these bouts, and I know I won’t be excused from the witness chair until you’re finished with me. But truth be told, I mostly feel that you’re prosecuting some ghosts—not me—and it’s not fair.”

She didn’t directly address my anxiety. Instead, she said, “I promise this time I won’t. Answer the question and we can both get some much-needed rest.”


“I promise.”

Once again, I was sold like some buyer on a used car lot being told that the car I was about to purchase was only driven to church by a little old lady.

“Fine.” Here it goes. “Living with you is like residing in a fireworks factory where they allow smoking. It’s not if there will be an explosion, it’s when.” The explosion was coming from within me. This is my previous marriage all over again, I thought, always having to prove myself.

That retort apparently got her attention, because she now sat upright, no longer assuming the pose of a Roman emperor eating grapes and sipping wine. Her dark, brown eyes narrowed and focused directly on me. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we’re combustible, Grace. Your questions are like an open flame around gunpowder.”

“Bullshit, Lewis! We’re not combustible. You’re combustible.” She pointed her finger at me, and said as emphatically as she could, “This isn’t about me. This is about your ex. Isn’t it? Just admit it.”

“I’m not admitting to shit, Grace, because that’s not true,” I groused. “This has absolutely nothing to do with her.” But it did. More so, it had everything to do with me believing I wasn’t good enough for Grace.

“The hell it doesn’t. It’s always about her when it comes to us. Talk about living with ghosts!” She rolled her eyes, smirked, and shook her head.

I was losing ground and Grace knew it. She was about to unsheathe that dagger.

“Well, here’s what I really mean, Grace,” my voice elevating to match her finger pointing. “You ask these off-the-wall questions…”

“Oh. So, questions about our relationship are now off the wall?” she cut in.

“No. You’re twisting my words. I mean I just never know when those questions about us are coming, and that’s what terrifies me!” What really terrified me was that Grace might believe I’m not worthy of her, and I didn’t have the courage to say so. What if I wasn’t?

“There you go, Lewis. It’s only when I ask those questions about us. Thank you for finally admitting it. And it really doesn’t matter when I ask them, does it?” She paused. “DOES IT?”

Grace folded her arms across her chest and looked away. She wasn’t fishing for a response. Like any good prosecutor, Grace never asked a question to which she didn’t already have the answer.

I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and added sullenly, “I’ve fought one war in my life. I’m not going to fight another one. This relationship, like my marriage, is beginning to resemble Vietnam. Except in ’Nam we used bullets, not words. But the effects are the same: the walking wounded.” I sighed deeply, and I said, “There’re only so many conflicts a person can fight, and I want to be done with all of them.”

Grace turned her head toward me, her arms still folded. I couldn’t decide if the look in her eyes was hurt, anger, or confusion. At that moment, I wasn’t sure if I cared. I just wanted the discussion to end.

“What do you mean, Lewis?” Gone was the confidence in her voice.

In hindsight, I did care because I tried my best to limit the damage of that combustible moment. I gently slid my hand to touch her arm. “Grace, I’ve learned over the years which battles to fight, and fighting to keep us together is one endeavor I’m more than willing to undertake. I’m not a conscript in this battle. I’m a volunteer. But please, stop treating me like a combatant. Start treating me more as a medic.” I just wanted to be someone who stopped the bleeding and saved the patient, but I wasn’t sure if the patient was me, her, or us.

I asked Grace to look at the sign that I made which hangs by our bedroom doorway. It reads: “I would rather be crazy with you, than sane without you.”  Then I leaned into Grace and said, “Why can’t you just accept that I love you—that I’m in love with you—and that I want us to work?”

I could see the corners of her mouth turn upward ever so slightly. Then she spoke. “I suppose I like fireworks, Lewis.” She kissed me and then said, “Now go to sleep, sweetheart. I know I will. It’s late.” Grace rolled away from me.

I turned off my light, realizing that our conversation ended the same way it began—with me in the dark.


L.D. served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 67, his life is quieter now. He lives in a small city in southeastern Pennsylvania and is a member of The Bold Writers group.

His short stories have been published in, among others: Red Fez, Indiana Voice Journal, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The Furious Gazelle, Slippery Elm, Cobalt Review (Print), and Evening Street Review (Print). He has had several public readings at Albright College in Reading, PA.

L.D.’s website is:

Like Nothing Happened

Life in a Fishbowl by Joanne Barraclough

It’s an hour drive from our office in Wilmington down to Dover, and my colleagues wanted to carpool, so I’m praying something goes wrong.  Getting pulled over speeding is the most likely possibility—lots of state cops patrol Route 1, snagging cars that are just over the speed limit.  Maybe John could suddenly feel ill and cancel the whole thing.  He’s the owner and founder of the firm, but he’s on his way out.  He’s finally retiring in a few months.  He’s sitting in front of me, in the passenger seat.  Harris, my boss, is driving his leased BMW. The back seat is uncomfortable.  It’s raining outside.  Everyone on Route 1 is driving sensibly, including Harris, except for this little Kia that passed us a little while ago.  And then, there it is, pulled over on the side, with a cop standing in the rain at the passenger’s window.  Harris slows down to fifty-five as we go by.  I’m stuck here.

The good thing is, I’ve taken the afternoon off.  I knew this morning would be exhausting.  I can maintain my friendly, charming, professional face for only so long before I can’t do it any more.  This is an hour down, probably at least an hour meeting, and then an hour back up.  My only saving grace is that Harris has an early afternoon meeting, so we can’t do lunch.

“See that, Thomas?” John says.  “That’s what I was talking about.  As soon as I saw that little heap fly by, I knew he was a goner.”

“He had an appointment in Samarra,” I want to say, but that’s too weird for these two.

“Especially in this rain,” I say instead.

A lot of people in business question the value of the arts.  I learned to act in the theater club in school.  If not for that, how would I be able to act like a normal person?


Delaware’s Public Archives are in a large brick building with a striking, glassy cylindrical façade.  We’re there to deliver a presentation on a potential marketing campaign.  The Division of Archives had put out a request for proposals, and John thinks it’s going to be easy pickings.

We hurry in to get out of the rain.  Harris signs in for us, and the girl at the desk tells him that it’s going to be a few minutes.  I walk around and look at the current displays.

It turns out that the Director of the Archives has a meeting with the Chief Deputy Secretary of State, and it’s going long.  Harris and I should’ve spent more time on the presentation.

At the same time, I like it when John is revealed to be out of touch.  He thinks he can just bank on his past reputation, but he can’t keep up with the present.  We recently lost a client because, at an event, John took credit for some creative that the client had actually designed in-house.  The conversation got back to the client.

Finally a staffer leads us into a conference room, and then the Director and two more of her staff members join us.  All women.  I can already hear John complaining about it.  On the way home, he’s going to say that it used to be that you’d sit down with some government guys at Fraizer’s Restaurant, have some beers, and hash out a contract.

We would’ve been better off bringing John’s wife.  She’s number three for him.  She’d been previously divorced herself, and she went into this marriage with eyes wide open.  She has a fun sort of cynicism about her.  I used to flirt with her at staff parties. She ignores me now.

The Archives staff has all sorts of insightful questions that we’re not remotely ready for.  At some point, I tell a lie about doing research there in college, for no other reason than to make it seem like we aren’t completely clueless.

As we’re walking out of the building, a young woman comes striding in.  She’s a tall, thin redhead in a long black coat and black rain boots.  I hold the door open for her, and she doesn’t acknowledge me.  I recognize her from somewhere, but I can’t put my finger on it.

“Let’s get out of here,” John says.

In the car, Harris tries to put a positive spin on things.  He says that the Division of Arts has just put a request out, and that we’ll have a better idea of what state agencies are looking for in the “present climate.”  I want to tune them out and figure out how I know that redhead.  But I know that if I do that, I’ll end up staring out the window and seeming like a nutty spacecase.  So I force myself to make occasional contributions to the conversation.

I’m going to drop dead if I don’t have some coffee.


Harris and I chat for a few minutes at the office and then he takes off.  I go through my emails while eating lunch at my desk.  Then I’m out.  I stop at Dunkin Donuts for a coffee.  The weather has improved, slightly.  The rain has stopped, leaving us with a miserable, gray December day.  Maybe my therapist will brighten things up.  I have a one-thirty appointment.

I hop onto the highway because it’s the quickest way to North Wilmington.  Right now I’m driving a black Acura.  I prefer the feel of my previous car, a V6 Accord, but the Acura has better looks.  I roll along the Concord Pike and its various strips of retail shopping.  I’m starting to relax.

I sit in the waiting room, reading an issue of Sports Illustrated and drinking my coffee.  Dr. Flynn calls me in, right on time.

I sit down on the couch.  Dr. Flynn makes some notes at her desk and then sits on the leather chair that faces the couch, with her white pad of paper on her thigh.  She is in her 60s, older than I usually go for.  She’s taller than me in her high heels and meaty.

I take stock of today’s outfit.  Blue blouse under black sweater, black pants, no socks or stockings, two-inch black high-heels.  Faint eyeliner, red lipstick, an odd assortment of rings and bracelets.  I believe that over the course of the year or so that I’ve been seeing Dr. Flynn as my therapist, her clothes have gotten tighter and tighter.

“How would you describe your mood today?” she asks.

I can feel a smile pulling my lips along.  I show Dr. Flynn more of myself than I show most people.  “I’m pretty excited,” I say.

“Why is that?”

“I had a meeting for work today, and I saw a woman who I know I recognized from somewhere.  It took me a while, but now I remember who she is.”

Dr. Flynn crosses her legs.  I detect a faint bounce in her aerial foot.  More and more, I feel compelled to ask her to join me on the couch.  I think she would—if I asked her.  What would I call her during sex?  Dr. Flynn?  Lisa?

“And who is she, Thomas?”

“She’s a go-go dancer.  I saw her in small club on South Street in Philadelphia.  She wore a leather vest and denim skirt, and she danced to ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog.’  That’s an old Stooges song.”

Dr. Flynn watches me for a few seconds without speaking.  Then she asks:  “Do you think that’s really the case?  Or were you having a fantasy?”

“John and Harris saw her too.  I held the door for her.”

I realize I sound defensive.  Dr. Flynn waits for me to say more.

This reminds me of our conversations about John’s wife.  I get the sense that Dr. Flynn only believes around half of what I tell her, maybe not even that, which is a big part of why I feel so relaxed around her.  I don’t think she takes me all that seriously.

“I’m not planning on making a big thing about it, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“What would constitute a ‘big thing’ to you?”

I enjoy her repetition of my words.  I lean back and cross one leg over the other.  “As in, I’m not going to go hang around the Archives to try to bump into her again, and ask her if she dances in Philadelphia.”

“I think that’s a prudent decision.”  She looks down and writes something on her pad.

“I’d be more inclined to go back to that club the next time I get to Philly.  I could tell her she’s very memorable.”

“Do you think she would appreciate that?”

“Wouldn’t you?”  In a movie, Dr. Flynn would stride across the room and slap me, and the tension would electrify the air.

Instead, she says, “Did you ever go back to the woods?  Where Jillian disappeared?”


Candy—not her real name, ha ha—is in a bathrobe when I get to her place.  She lives in an apartment over a convenience store in Claymont, a couple exits up I-95.  I found her in the back page section of an alternative Philly newspaper.  She tells me to wash up while she gets ready.  This is the downside to going to her place—the shower is not a pretty sight.  I wonder if she takes baths in there?  I shudder at the thought.

I’m not going to let my visit with Dr. Flynn prevent me from having a good time.  Dr. Flynn brings Jillian up fairly often, often enough that I shouldn’t be surprised when she does.  But when she does, she does so gradually.  She asks my permission:  “Can we talk about Jillian today?”  She’s never come at me out of the blue like this afternoon.  It feels like a new step in our relationship.  It’s in the open:  She wants to dominate me.  Perhaps she believes she can provoke me into saying more.

Later on, when Candy and I are in bed, I ask her if she could bring me a little whiskey.  She takes heavy steps into the kitchen and then practically drops the glass on my chest.  Once she’s been paid and we’ve had our visit, she wants me to get out.  But the lounging is one of my favorite parts.

“Next time, I’m going to ask you to dance a little bit for me,” I say.

“Drink up,” she says.

I can’t stop imagining her submerged in her bathtub, her dead face just below the surface.  Like this is a movie where I can see the future, and my awareness of the possibility of her death allows me to prevent it.

It wasn’t a movie that put that image in my head though.  It was the police, back when Jillian was missing.  They questioned me for hours.  I was twelve.  My mother was fine with it—whatever it took to find Jillian.

I remember the names of every detective who spoke to me.  Franklin was the worst.  “You watched her drown,” he said calmly.  “Her face was under the water, but her eyes were open.  You kept her down there, and then her eyes were closed.”  I give him credit for being so poetic about an awful incident.  In hindsight, he couldn’t have been that bright.  You don’t close your eyes just because you died.

I get dressed while Candy fixes herself something to eat in the kitchen.  The rain has picked up again, tapping at the windows.

“If the police found you dead here, do you think they’d suspect me?” I want to ask, but I know I can’t.  I keep trying to come up with some variation on that that I could get away with, but nothing doing.  The silence is getting weird, so instead I say, “I’m thinking of getting a Breitling watch.  Do you think I could pull it off?”

“I’ve got another appointment sweetie, so we’ll have to chat next time.”  She taps my cheek twice with the palm of her hand, harder than I like, though I’d be laughed at if I called them slaps.  “Oh, by the way, my rent is going up.  So my prices are going up.”

I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned the Breitling.


I have around an hour before my extremely pregnant wife is going to get home from work.  Ideally, I’d like to sit in front of my stereo and drink a beer and let the day melt away.  But on days I visit Candy, I try to step up my husband game so Kate doesn’t feel ignored.  I stop at the grocery store to buy lobster—one of Kate’s favorites—so I can cook dinner for her and surprise her.

I kill the lobsters with compassion on the cutting board in the kitchen, with a knife through the head.  Quickly.

Kate used to have a job working for a nonprofit, but then the money dried up.  There are too many nonprofits in Delaware anyway.  So then she registered for this program in Wilmington, where you get intensive training on programming for several weeks.  Now, she’s programming  for one of the big banks in Wilmington.  You better not criticize the banking industry around her.  She was always a little more conservative than me, but it shows more now.  We had some political debates this past year.  She likes Trump.  I don’t really care anyway.

It’s nice and bright in the kitchen as it gets black and dark outside.  I turn on the lights in the living room, and downstairs in the family room.  I hate it when I’m home alone without Kate and the darkness is all around.  For instance, and there’s no way I can ever tell her this, I think our house is haunted.  I can feel the presence when I look out at our backyard.  Sometimes, when I’m mowing, I have to stop and pretend like the machine seized up, because I can’t bear to be out there.

The presence seems to be female.  Sometimes, when I’m downstairs alone, or if I’m up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I can feel her beside me.


Kate waddles in, eight months pregnant.  She looks exhausted, but not unhappy.

She gives me a quick peck on the cheek, and then she notices the kitchen.

“Lobster!” she says.  “Oh, honey, thank you.  I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

She goes upstairs to put on her pajamas.

We talk about our days while we eat.  She reminds me that the following Thursday, we’re going to her ob-gyn after my weekly appointment with Dr. Flynn.  I’d like to talk about Breitling watches—should I go for a dressy one, or maybe a big chronograph?—but I decide to wait until after the baby is born.

Later on, Kate lies down on the couch, and I rub her feet before applying nail polish.  I think that what I love most about her is that if I told her too much about myself, she would leave.  She gives me a normal, pleasant life.  From what I’ve read, I think I’ll feel normal when I’m in my mid-fifties.  And I’ll have a wife of 20 years and a kid just out of college to help me enjoy being alive.  I’m looking forward to it.


That is, if I can keep this life going for the next 20 years.  It’s ten o’clock and Kate is asleep in bed.  She used to sleep on her stomach.  Now she sleeps on her side, and she snores.  My tableside light is on and I have a book open.  I’m wide awake, as if all the coffee I drank today is hitting me right this second.  I’ve already had a large tumbler of whiskey, so it looks like I should pour another.

Kate knows that a girl went missing when I was in the sixth grade.  But I grew up in Massachusetts, and Kate’s not all that curious about it, so that’s the extent of her knowledge on the subject.

I creep down the stairs into darkness, and even though I don’t want to think about it, I’m thinking about it.  I turn on the light in the dining room, where our bar is, and pour myself some more Jack Daniel’s.


Jillian and I grew up in the same neighborhood, and we used to ride our bikes everywhere.  There was this big stretch of woods behind a local development, and we liked to go exploring there.  The fall was better, since the poison ivy had died down by then.  We would walk instead of riding our bikes, trying  to be less conspicuous.

That day, I was throwing stones at a stream.  It had rained the day before, so the water in the stream was rushing like a river full of dangerous rapids.  I imagined being swept away by the current.  Jillian hopped over the stream and kept walking.

I didn’t really mind—we got separated in the woods all the time.  But then I heard a weird sound.  It was like a car door slamming.  It didn’t make sense, but at the same time, it wasn’t that unusual.  Sound carried in a weird way in those woods, so we’d hear all sorts of things that were actually far away.  It still gave me the heebie-jeebies though, so I hopped over the stream myself to find Jillian.

I followed the path all the way to this clearing, which we usually avoided because older kids hung out there sometimes.  I could hear the highway nearby.

I followed the path back out, thinking Jillian must’ve taken a detour and would be back on it.  Still nothing.  Finally I went home and told my mother.

The police found Jillian’s body that night, around a mile from our path.  She was in this deep part of the woods that’s pretty hard to get to, because there really isn’t a path.  It was almost like she sailed along the stream, because she had drowned.  The police never arrested anyone for it.


I know that experience messed me up.  I try to live like it didn’t happen.  Just a fantasy, as Dr. Flynn says.

I get back into bed.  I drink my whiskey steadily, but it doesn’t relax me.  I’m still wide awake, and I’m thinking of the redhead.  The go-go dancer.  When I don’t know a person, I imagine that we can make a connection.  We can have drinks, and feel that spark, and then go out to the woods, where we can be under the sky together.  So much sky, and it feels like it’s just for the two of you.  And all of the things that you keep hidden can come up.

This part of me, it wants to connect with someone who will understand.  I know that can never happen though.  That’s what keeps me in bed, and waiting for my alarm, and being a solid chap.

Acting normal, like nothing happened.


Dennis Lawson has an MFA from Rutgers-Camden, and he teaches at the University of Delaware and Wilmington University. His stories have appeared in the Fox Chase Review, the Rehoboth Beach Reads anthology series, and the crime anthology Insidious Assassins. He received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as the 2014 Emerging Artist in Fiction. He lives in Delaware with his wife and daughter.


Emblem by Emily Mills

“Lila, you have to hold my hand.” Michael is using his Big Voice, the one to remind me he is five years older and this, in his mind, makes him the boss of me. I don’t like my brother’s Big Voice. My right foot is on the bridge, my left still on the path. I put my hands behind my back and twine my fingers together.

“De. Li. Lah.” Michael holds out his hand. “Gimme your hand.”

I feel like spinning around to run back home. If I do, Michael will have to follow me because it is the last week of summer and Mama said he has to take me with him to the creek while she gets her classroom stuff ready.

“Okay,” I say, “but only across the bridge.”

I hold my hand out but he doesn’t take it.

“And the road,” he says.

I grab his hand, but it’s like grabbing old Play-doh.

“Say it,” he says. “You’ll hold my hand across the bridge and the road.”

“Okay!” I cry. “The bridge and the road!”

He smiles. I don’t want to smile back, but I do anyway.

On the other side of the bridge is the road. Michael stops and looks—left, right, left—and says, “All clear.”

At the woods, I forget to let go of his hand and we walk together, bending where a stand of bamboo hangs over the path, past a clump of rotting trees somebody cut down but never cleared. Bugs crawl all over the logs and some on the path. I raise my foot to stomp on one, but Michael yanks me back.

“Don’t, Lila. The bugs eat the wood so it can decompose and feed the earth. It’s the cycle of nature.”

Now he’s using his Smart Voice, the one that reminds me he gets straight A’s and wins the 6th Grade Science Fair while my first grade teacher tells us about cocoons and butterflies, which I already know because Michael read a book about it to me one night when thunder cracked all around, and I went to his room to make sure he wasn’t scared.

“Bugs are gross,” I say, but I don’t try to stomp any of them.

We leave the path past a tree with a piece of twine wrapped around the trunk. Michael says that won’t hurt the bark the way a nail does when the county puts up signs about trespassing on city property and beware of controlled deer hunts. Michael won’t put a nail in a tree because he says all things, even trees, have feelings.

“If that’s true,” I asked the first time he said it, at dinner when he refused to eat Mama’s meatloaf and only ate mashed potatoes and broccoli, “Why aren’t your potatoes crying?”

Daddy had sputtered out his drink and Mama had bitten down hard on her lip. Michael’s face got stiff and he didn’t talk for all the rest of dinner. At bedtime, I went into his room to make sure he wasn’t worried he had hurt the mashed potatoes’ feelings. He told me to go away, but I didn’t, and after a while, he clicked on his reading light. He read me a book about someone named Boo Duh until Mama came in and said it was time to sleep.

She tucked me back into my bed. I said, “Won’t Michael ever eat meatloaf again?”

She answered in her Smiling Voice. “Oh, I think your brother will get past this when he gets hungry enough.” But Mama was wrong. Michael never ate meatloaf, or chicken, or even fish sticks ever again. At Thanksgiving, though, Daddy said Michael could believe whatever nonsense he wanted about trees and bugs, but Grandma’s human feelings would be hurt if he refused to eat her turkey. Michael said okay, but I swiped the slice of turkey from his plate and ate it for him, and for Boo Duh.

The twine around the tree marks where we go off path. There’s a spot where the trees block out the sun and the ground is covered with moss. We cross over the moss on the rocks. It’s dark, and I was scared the first time, but Michael explained the leaves make a canopy just like the one that hangs over my bed that used to belong to Mama’s grandma. It’s called a sleigh bed, and it is draped with a sheet of what Mama calls eyelet. Sometimes I look up at the white eyelet overhead and pretend I am in a real sleigh, and the canopy is a sky full of snow.

Other times, I imagine the sky is backwards and the dark eyelet holes are the stars and the white fabric is the night sky. Or I think about the King Tut story and I pretend my canopy is all that’s between me and the top of a pyramid. Or maybe it’s a magic carpet.

One time, when I had chicken pox, Michael came into the bed with me and I told him all the things my canopy could be, and it made me forget to scratch. He said my canopy stories were stupendous, a big word I liked. I felt Big when I told him my canopy stories. If not Big, the same size as him, anyway.

Tonight, maybe, I’ll make the canopy over my bed a layer of moss. I daydream about that until we reach the creek.

Michael stops in front of it. The bank is supposed to come right up to the carpet of fallen leaves and grass, but there is drying mud there now. “Why is it so low?” he says, but not to me. He’s using a Faraway Voice.

He crouches and scoops a handful of water. I would tell him, “Don’t drink that!” but I know he already knows. He smells it and dribbles the water out of his palm.

“Beavers?” he says. He stands and walks so fast along the creek, I can hardly keep up, but then he stops and I run right into his back.

I peek around him. Ahead, at the bend, the creek is blocked with sticks, logs, leaves, rocks, mud. A funny looking branch pokes up from one side, near the bank. Whatever he smelled before, I smell now, too.

“Is it beavers?” I ask. Miss Manning read to us about beaver dams and had us draw a picture. Maybe one of the beavers died and that’s the smell.

Michael stands on tiptoe. He lets go of my hand and turns around. “Stay here, Delilah. Right here, understand? Don’t. Move. I mean it.” His voice is a new one. It sounds…mean? Mad? Not mean. Not mad. Something else, worse than mean or mad.

I give him a head start, five or six or seven steps, until he’s on the other side of the dam and I rush to his side.

“I told you not to move,” he says, but his voice is funny. Maybe from the smell, which is so bad on the other side of the dam that my stomach flips over.

He grabs my shoulder and tries to turn me away, but I fight him. I’m not some little kid who can’t see a dead beaver.

I kick his shin. He bends over and I spin away and climb over the rock.

Behind the creek is a deer. The funny branch was not a branch. It was antlers. The deer’s body is fat and flies hover around it, but it eyes are open and its face rests on a rock above the water. Except for a small bloody mark on its neck, its looks normal, like it could get up and eat the honeysuckles growing in a tangle right behind us. Behind the dam, the creek is high and the water moves up and down, slowly. The deer bobs with it.

“It’s out of season,” Michael says. He is beside me now. He kicks at the rock, hard, and says a word he is not supposed to ever say. “It’s not deer hunting season.”

I don’t know what that means, but I don’t notice the smell anymore. I am too sad that the deer is in the water, all alone.

Michael pulls on my arm. “Let’s go. We have to call animal control.”


“Animal control. They’ll come and get him. Like the time at Grandma’s?”

I nod, remembering the dead deer we saw on the side of the road near Grandma’s driveway. Daddy made a phone call and a white truck came and two men lifted the deer into the bed. When I asked where they were going, Daddy said they were going to give the deer a proper burial.

I curl my toes in my shoes, as if that could keep me here. “We shouldn’t leave it here alone.”

Michael says, “Lila, it has to be removed. It’ll rot and poison the water.”

I don’t understand this. If the bugs can eat the logs and return it to nature, why can’t the deer stay in the water and go back to nature too? It is too confusing, but the smell tells me Michael is right. And the deer needs a proper burial.

Diver’s Dream by Joanne Barraclough

I jump off the rock. We go a few steps down the path and I am glad to smell the honeysuckle again. Another step and I turn back.

“Wait,” I say. I reach into the tangle, careful not to touch any poison ivy, and I grab a honeysuckle vine. I pull and pull while Michael asks what I’m doing, but I yank until the vine snaps and I almost fall backward into my brother.

“Lila, we have to go,” but I’m already scrambling back up the path and over the rock.

I hold my breath and lean over to wind the vine of honeysuckle through the deer’s antlers. When I’m finished, I remember the men who tossed the other deer into the bed of the white truck.

I say, “We should say a prayer.”

I don’t know if Boo Duh says prayers, but I put my hands together and Michael does too. I close my eyes and say, “Rest in peace, deer. I hope you go to heaven.”

Michael says, “Amen.”

I hold his hand back through the woods, down the path. At the road, he looks left-right-left, and we cross. When we get to the bridge, halfway across, he lets go and turns, leaning over the edge. He is breathing hard, as if he’s been running. I think maybe he’s going to be sick.

I peek over the railing. The water is so clear, you can see all the way to the rocks in the stream bed and the minnows swimming around. There’s a clean smell here, of water and trees and bright sunlight. Maybe a tiny scent of honeysuckle, too.

My brother makes a strange sound. He’s crying.

I’m not sure what to do, but I take his hand as if I am the one who is bigger and smarter and braver. His body shakes. I hold on until the shaking stops and he sniffles a few times.

Finally, I tell him, in my best Little Sister voice, “Let’s go home, Michael.” I tug on his hand and he follows.


Ramona DeFelice Long writes fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, and personal essays about women, family and culture, and the foibles and quirks of personal dynamics. Her work has appeared in numerous literary publications, and she provided a flash piece inspired by Dorothy P. Miller to PS Books’ EXTRAORDINARY GIFTS: Remarkable Women of the Delaware Valley. She is a transplanted Southerner living in Delaware.