“Leaving the Trees” (magazine layout)
Click tabs below to move through the suggested reading order for volume two.
- Editor's Note
- Skolios (poem)
- On Fencing, Gummy Worms, and My Inescapable Fear of Living in the Moment (cnf)
- The Soul Repairman (fiction)
- I Have More Words for Mirror than I Have for Snow (poem)
- Like the Rains That Wouldn’t Quit and the Sounds Left Behind (poem)
- My Grandfather, A Stranger (cnf)
- #stuckinthevoid (poem)
- Saltwater Lullabies (fiction)
- The Rock I Keep (cnf)
- what is holy (poem)
- Shark Attack (cnf)
- What the Dead Keep (poem)
- The Stubbornly Persistent Delusions Of (poem)
- Jitters (fiction)
- Leaving the Trees (cnf)
- A Tending (poem)
- The Ferris Wheel (fiction)
A Note From the Editor:
“With a tree, everything always leaves,” writes creative nonfiction contributor Sarah Scott in her evocative essay “Leaving the Trees” — from the blossoms that fade into fruit, to the wrens that nest in them. At the time the editorial boards read this essay, several editors noted that the title seemed an apt metaphor for undergraduate writers who are about to graduate and enter unfamiliar terrain. But really, all writers leave the trees each time they make themselves vulnerable through the act of making art.
Scientists have studied the fossilized wrist bones of land-dwelling and tree-dwelling humans and figured out that people left the trees between 4.2 and 3.5 million years ago. No one really fully understands why people voluntarily left a place of shelter for the open savannah, where they would be far more vulnerable. Yet that scary move out of the trees — for whatever reason — also helped humans further evolve. It may even be the reason we survived.
I am not going to lie to you. It’s been a rough summer here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. From the room where the Runestone editors discuss manuscripts, we are less than two miles from the spot where Philando Castile was shot by a police officer on July 6. Many of us have children, or know children, who attend the school where “Mr. Phil” worked in the cafeteria, and knew every student by name. All summer, our city has wrestled with confusion, rage, and grief, and all summer, I have been thinking about what writing is for. Our culture has listened to certain voices for a very long time, often at the expense of hearing others. Now is prime time for many of us who have already been heard to be quiet and listen to others’ experiences with inequality and the daily business of being human.
One such set of unheard voices are those of the young, including those who write — often fantastically — but do not have the means to go to college. From the next issue on, Runestone will be accepting the submissions of 18 to 22 year olds who are not attending college, in addition to those of any age who are currently enrolled in a two- or four-year institution.
The writers in this issue revel in language. They struggle with relationships and family, addiction and abuse, and what repair of the soul might look like. They remind us of the rewards that may await when we leave our places of safety and shelter, whatever those may be, in order to change, risk, and create.
Runestone Executive Editor
In the gallery
the same hum of
Here it is empty no
body has been
left staring at Shift
invented such an
At the core, we
are all just
unbent at the
Jack Bachmann needs to stop slouching. His work has appeared in Potluck and ÖMËGÄ. He can be found on twitter @yaboi_sasquatch.
On Fencing, Gummy Worms, and My Inescapable Fear of Living in the Moment
“You’re never happy where you are,” my mother says, and I start crying. We’re in Baja Fresh, and I haven’t cried in public since I didn’t care about crying in public.
It is the same Baja Fresh we used to go to on Thursday nights, after Girl Scouts and before fencing lessons. On the way to fencing I would eat the congealed brick of gummy worms in my mother’s glove compartment, and contemplate running away, hiding in the Eddie’s supermarket down the street, and drinking pomegranate pear juice until it was time for my father to pick me up.
I never did it—I just went down the steps to the basement room, said hi to Ivan and the girl whose name I forget, went to the drafty bathroom, stepped into the white shirt with the strap that went between your legs, then the shiny metallic vest, then a battered glove, and lastly the wire helmet.
My father would pick me up and ask how it went, and I would say that I lost or I won, airily, while looking down over the edge of the highway, at a soccer field below, the sharp white lights burning through the night.
“Why are you crying?” my mother asks, and I shake my head, gulping, trying to regain my voice. I’m crying because one time we went to the Redwood Forest and I worried the whole time that I was not appreciating it enough, because I am ungrounded, because home is not what it used to mean to me—I do not tell her this.
Instead I say, “I hate crying,” and burst into tears again. “No, no,” my mother says, “Crying is good. Crying is real.” She gets me more brown napkins from the counter to blot my eyes.
Outside the dark window I see my nine-year-old reflection: eating a chicken burrito, fearless and shy, uncomplicated in a way that still wished to flee fencing lessons and hide in Eddie’s.
I am crying because I wish it was summer and I was sprawled on Russ and Damien’s lawn, in the patches of exceptionally soft grass under the maple trees. I am crying because nine-year-old me is gone.
The little girl outside the window, in the red Converse and the plaid button-down shirt, wraps her arms around me. “I wear makeup now,” I tell her. “I got my ears pierced. I wear dresses. I get drunk at parties. Sometimes I fight with Dad, sometimes I write poetry like the pretentious asshole you never wanted me to be.”
“What is it like,” she asks, “to be so radiant?” She turns and walks away, her ratty hair caught by the breeze, her strides long, her big hands stuffed in her cargo pockets. And I sit in the Baja Fresh, and I cry as my mother holds me.
Mara Koren is an English major at Ursinus College. She was a past editor and contributing author to The Lantern, Ursinus’s literary magazine, and has forthcoming work in Sigma Tau Delta’s journal The Rectangle. Mara hopes to pursue nonprofit work after she graduates.
The Soul Repairman
“A town like this always needs a soul repairman,” he says, rising to his feet, wrench in hand.
He walks through the dusty streets of this half-ghost town, his body a bit translucent. Through his jacket and chest you can just barely see the window shutters of little houses lining the narrow streets. It is only through the veil of his torso that you can see what really goes on inside. Colors spill through the shutter-cracks when seen through the transparent melancholy of his face.
You could ask what the colors mean, but he would just shake his head and toss his screwdriver in the air, making it spin. The hotels, chock-full and reflecting all the different people inside, scatter rainbow shards on the shrubby grass and worn-out dirt. You ask why, and he says, “This is a town at the end of the world.”
It is not, though. It is a gloomy, sky-dark puzzle piece of the rusted Midwest, not five miles off the interstate. Always people passing through, hence the hotels and their colors.
“This is where people come when they are at the end of their worlds,” he amends when you point all this out.
Hence the soul repairman, you suppose. “But how can a soul repairman put a person back together?”
He explains that the screws hold hearts closed over gaping, ragged holes filled with the spackle of gray bittersweetness. The hammers beat sense or purpose or meaning into a world-weary mind. The screwdrivers and monkey wrenches twist and twist and twist things into a new perspective. A new lease on life is really just a successful renovation of the old one, you know.
“And sometimes it takes all of those and a little elbow grease,” he finishes.
Elbow grease. As if putting a soul back together is the same as messing around with the motor in an old Ford.
You do not know how you became the soul repairman’s apprentice. You do not know how one becomes a soul repairman—or whether the translucent skin and bones are a required uniform or just a perk. You do not know the soul repairman’s name. You do not know if he eats or sleeps, if he is alive or dead, if words like that even apply to him.
This is not the question you ask him, though. As he twists the ghost-pale blue cap around on his head, dust settles around your worn sneakers. You ask him if he’s the only one.
He says, “Yes.”
You think of all the hundreds of thousands of millions of people who could use a soul repairman. A few nails here, the sanding of a rough edge there. A mending of the imperfections.
“You can’t expect all of your clients to come here,” you say to him.
“Who says they do?”
Maybe he is transparent because not all of him is here. Maybe there are other ghost-pale, see-through clones of him, wandering through lonely towns with strange, forgotten names. In Russia. In India. In Australia, Iceland, Madagascar, Brazil, Japan, South Korea. Especially South Korea: 24.7 suicides per 100,000 people. You hope that there is another small, shuffling, insubstantial man walking through the outskirts of Seoul, dripping elbow grease down the necks of people who think they have nothing left.
If you are going to follow in the soul repairman’s footsteps, you need to believe that.
You ask him if there was ever anyone who came before him.
He says, “No.”
You ask him how long he’s been here.
“Since the beginning of the human race,” he answers offhandedly.
You think of all the thousands of years. All of his successes, all of his failures.
You ask him why stop now, and he says, “I am tired.”
“What was the last straw then? What was the final stone on the cairn?” After thousands of years of patching up the human race—all the broken hearts, shattered minds, guilty stomachs, exhausted livers—after all that, what now makes him want to pass the torch?
“There is no straw,” he says. “I saw millions of souls, but none of them could be reduced to something as little as that. There is no piling up. No tipping point. You just turn around one day and realize that you should’ve put in the two weeks a millennium ago.”
You have so many questions. How did you get this job in the first place? What kind of resume did it take? Who interviewed you—God? Is there a God? Are there souls you can’t fix? Are you ever happy doing this?
Instead you ask, “Why me?”
He stops his continuous strolling for the first time that you have ever seen—he is always moving, except for right this instant. He turns around to look at you, at the flecks in your eyes, the awkward shape of your knees, the stubborn cowlick at your neck, the T-shirt faded and stretched enough to look like something your dad might have worn in college. You can feel the soul repairman’s eyes (they are clear and glassy), raking over parts of you that the rest of the world does not see. The irregularities written on the inside of your ribcage. The faint tremor in your fingertips, the constant ache that has made a home in your shoulder blades.
“Why you?” he says. “Honestly? Because you are here. Because you are the only one who has ever followed me like this. The only one who is not fearful, but fascinated. The only one who has ever asked me the questions you have asked me, the ones that aren’t obvious.”
“You haven’t asked me if this is what I want.”
The soul repairman says, “I don’t need to,” and he is right.
So he teaches you how to hold his wrench and all the tools that pass through the hands of normal humans. He teaches you how to read stories in the colors pouring out of windows, how to read them more clearly through the cracks in people who shed the rainbows. He teaches you to see beauty in their pain, in the way a person can stand up again after you plunge a screwdriver into their chest. He teaches you how to step through walls, how to turn your flesh translucent without having a panic attack. How to walk through the world, silent, without a name. How and when to use the elbow grease, a substance both literal and figurative and ridiculous for the fact that such a silly, mundane expression has a place in saving the world.
He teaches you how to move on from the ones you cannot save.
And long after everything else you know is gone, long before you ever expected it, he hands you his red toolbox and fades away.
You put up your hair and get to work.
You lose count of the millennia before another you comes along, before someone who sees the colors starts tracing your footsteps. You pretend to ignore the child long enough for him to begin taking sure steps instead of shaking ones, long enough that he does not fear the way he can see through your chest.
One day, you hear a voice behind you.
“Who are you?” asks the child.
You turn. You smile, weary. You know what your old mentor meant now, about turning around one day and knowing your time is long past due.
“I am the soul repairwoman.”
The child tilts his head, and you smile.
Nicole Kroushl attends the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she studies creative writing, English, and German. She writes fantastical fiction because she’s still secretly hoping to discover a portal to another (more magical, more impossible) world. Find out more about her and her work at nicolecrucial.com.
I Have More Words for Mirror than I Have for Snow
We’re talking to ourselves again of seasons,
Where winter steals a memory of any place
You could go. Your birthplace found in crystal
And night, so your eyes are a grey-blue December
Even now, and you’re driving somewhere
To find a movement with a truth: you always
Liked the leaving more than the arriving,
Knew that to break the frozen earth behind you
You must return to it in darkness. Tonight’s glare
Pushing away shadows under a failing moon,
And pushing is often the only way to move
When the weather makes stiff a smile.
This face never rests, and you only want
To thaw in medical fusion with the frost,
Fading like the last note you wish would stretch
Just a little longer, but one sound always overtakes
Another, and all the snow angels melt
Like their individual stellate flakes diving into
Your headlights, dissolving glass in your eyes.
Ice makes you celestial in space-bound racing
And you know when the air breathes as cold
And still, you’ve arrived on the threshold
Of incorrectness, because the constellations’
Distorted static message is a rare, fragile fiction.
Endings with blizzards that stopped meteors
And fire storms, the dictation misinterpreted,
But you stole this new line, for the record. Disguises
Look more authentic in the dark, but it isn’t always
Better with the lights off and the getaway
Isn’t always clean. The invisible boys and girls
Make their way home from the footprints
We left fossilized for ourselves to get back
To a start. With bags half-packed, rooms half-
Trashed we looked again and blinked past
Reflections we thought untrue, because today
More than ever grey eyes eclipse blue.
Bobby Bolt III is an English student from Springfield, Illinois, who will begin a candidacy for an MFA in Poetry at Texas State University this Fall. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alchemist Review, Route 7 Review, Pretty Owl Poetry, Rappahannock Review, Sink Hollow, and Lincoln Land Review.
Bobby Bolt III is an English student from Springfield, Illinois, who will begin a candidacy for an MFA in Poetry at Texas State University this Fall. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alchemist Review, Route 7 Review, Pretty Owl Poetry, Rappahannock Review, Sink Hollow, and Lincoln Land Review.
My Grandfather, A Stranger
The letter was addressed to me. Miss Sydney Cavanagh, the envelope read, in handwriting I did not recognize. My eyes carefully traced the unfamiliar inky strokes.
Peeling it open, I found a single page inside, neatly folded. The paper was cold but it warmed beneath my fingertips as I smoothed out the creases and laid it flat.
My father’s name is George Jefferson Cavanagh, but he rarely answers to George. For as long as I can remember, he has been Jeff. His real name appeared sporadically in my childhood memories of airports and doctor appointments, the six-letter word popping up strangely on passports and insurance cards.
Before I found out about my father’s biological father, I had only known one man as my paternal grandfather. He had a round pink face with a toothy smile and he called me Sydney Catherine! with such enthusiasm as if my name ended in a permanent exclamation mark. I had never pictured anyone else in his place until I started asking questions.
I discovered slowly who George was after eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations. My grandmother would occasionally mention a time in the past when she was a “single parent,” but as a child I didn’t understand what that meant. After I learned why my father refused to go by “George,” I began to notice my grandfather’s vague existence, small and hushed, within our family life; his phone number scribbled in my mother’s address book; the grumbled mentioning of the child support money decades late in paying.
I’ve seen many pictures of my father as a child. His baby portraits sit in my grandmother’s house, collecting dust as his toothless grins fade behind glass. I’ve seen pictures of my grandmother. Younger, but with the same wispy blonde-white curls and wrinkles that she has today; even then she wore the tired lines of an old woman. My aunt is there too, in a photo album, leaning against her older brother. I have never seen a picture of them with their father.
The envelope in my hands included a photograph of George with his two dogs. He stood facing the camera on a wooden deck in front of a massive cabin. He wore a grey quarter zip-up sweater and black pants. One hand awkwardly sticking out of a pocket at his hip. He was bald, round, and fairly short. He looked nothing like my father, yet his gaze captivated me, squinting up at me from the snapshot as if I was someone he knew he should recognize but didn’t.
The first letter I wrote to him was exciting. I was around fourteen and had learned enough about him for my curiosity to take action. I wanted to tell him everything about my family and myself to make up for the time he had missed. I explained my high school studies, my hobbies of horseback riding and ballet, my sailor boyfriend, the volunteering I did in the community.
I had nothing to lose to this man I’d never known, yet it was crucial to me that I sounded impressive on paper. I wanted to be the perfect granddaughter he could’ve had but didn’t. My father sat quietly while I wrote. I had assumed he simply didn’t care, but I imagine that it was just too hard for him to talk about.
A few weeks later, a response arrived in our mailbox. I expected it to be a heartfelt attempt to connect with me, a rekindled familial bond. Instead, it was a simple handwritten note, kind and complimentary. Just a page in length, it informed me that he and his wife of twenty years, a teacher, were living happily in Safety Harbor, Florida, occasionally retreating to their secluded mountain cabin in Tennessee with their two dogs. He said I sounded very mature. He praised my achievements and talents and wished me luck in my next year of school. He wrote that he hoped my family was doing well. He signed it Grandpa George.
He left my grandmother for one of his students. He was teaching music at the University of Michigan. My father was seven years old when George packed his things and took off, sending my grandmother divorce papers a few weeks later.
When I decided to attend the University of Michigan, I wrote to him. Not long after on an afternoon in May, a package came in the mail.
“Who’s it from?” I asked my mom, who had pulled it from the front porch. I munched on potato chips and avoided my schoolwork, the senioritis in full force.
“Tommy Hilfiger,” she responded, squinting at the label and then eyeing me. “Did you order something?”
Shaking my head, I dropped the chip mid-bite and rounded the kitchen corner where she was standing. Tearing the box open, I pulled out a plastic bag. Inside was a cable-knit cardigan, my size, with a small yellow block “M” on the left chest. There was no note.
I glanced up at my mom. “George?”
The word hung in the air between us, lingering over the ripped packaging. She shrugged. We both knew it was from him.
That night over dinner, I told my father. He listened silently as my mom pushed her potatoes in circles around her plate and my sister cautiously watched.
“That was thoughtful of him,” he responded quietly, as sincerely as he could. His head was down and his eyes were focused on the chicken breast on his plate. I realized, looking at the top of his head, how white his hair had become. Once thick and jet black, it had grown thin and almost entirely white, with the occasional dull black strand dotted throughout. He looked pale and old in a way I’d never seen him before.
Then he looked up. “Write him a thank you letter. Maybe he’ll send a big check to contribute to your college education!” The moment was gone and he was chuckling. We chuckled too, shaking off the chill of the conversation.
As I got older, I often sat at my grandmother’s dining table on Sunday afternoons, having tea and cookies. Recently widowed, she spent most of her days wandering her house. The stereo blaring symphony classics and the cat watching her pace. She was a story-teller. A nostalgic reminiscer, and my family had grown bored and annoyed with her preoccupation with the past. On especially lonely days, I kept her company and listened patiently to her stories.
One afternoon in early October, she must have had my father on her mind. We sat at her table, facing the giant windows that overlooked Lake Macatawa, which sprawled out just a few yards from her sliding door. That day it was brisk but sunny, and the lake was dotted with sailboats; we watched as the little white triangles dipped around each other in circles like a slow motion merry-go-round.
“Your father used to love to sail,” my grandmother said. I smiled and nodded; he had always been a lake lover. She paused to sip from her cup, the steam swirling up and making marks on her glasses, and her next words were loose and slow, the tea still warm in her throat: “I only wish he’d had a father to sail with.”
I stared at the corner of the scone in my hand, unsure if I should drop it on my plate or continue bringing it to my mouth as if she hadn’t spoken. It was rare that she brought George up, especially with me. My mom had mentioned once that after he left, my grandmother, a practicing Catholic, had the marriage annulled through the church. According to her faith, George never happened to her. This also meant, my mother pointed out, that my father and aunt were technically illegitimate.
My grandmother chewed her lip and looked sideways at me. Her glossy gaze escaped the space between her eyes and the frame of her glasses. She got this look sometimes as if she’d done something bad and felt sneaky talking about it.
“Did you know he drove to New York when he was sixteen to visit his father?” she asked, raising her thinning eyebrows. I had heard that story, but since it was probably one I had eavesdropped on, I immediately shook my head.
“After George left us, he moved to Oneonta and taught music at Hartwick College. Your father and Dave —or was it Dan? I think they were brothers — Vandyke took his VW bug to New York to tour the college. That was the last time Jeff saw him. Your father thought he might go there for school—” she paused to dab the crumbs from her upper lip with a paper napkin “—but he didn’t get in. I think Jeff’s dad was disappointed. He was supposed to help pay for the kids’ educations, you know.” She was watching the sailboats again. “I couldn’t help them, so they paid for school on their own.”
My teacup was empty and my scone long gone. I watched the boats too, admiring their ease in the water. Finally my grandmother smiled sadly and reached over to pat my hand. “Gah – why are we talking about this? Come help me feed the kitty.”
George had been married before he wed my grandmother. His history before my family is unclear, except that he had a son and a daughter with his first wife. My father and aunt met them before, and I’ve heard they have the same square lower jaw and slight overbite that my dad has, an unlucky inheritance from their mutual missing father.
When my parents were first married, they visited George’s mother and stepfather, the Hermans in their home in Florida. My mother recalls that the Hermans lined their walls with photographs of their grandchildren, framed like keepsake postcards from places they’d visited once or twice. There were several of my father and aunt as kids, as well as the children from George’s first marriage. My mother says they were kind, hospitable people who sent birthday cards to their grandkids in an attempt to make up for George’s abandonment. In the years that followed, Mrs. Herman made many phone calls to our home to keep in touch, and she and my mother became friends. When she died, my parents received a phone call from George to notify them of her death and an unexpected $20,000 that was written in her will to my parents. It was the only time he’s ever called our home.
In a faraway memory of a summer day spent out on Lake Michigan, I wear my dad’s oversized baseball cap and laugh when it flops down into my line of sight, resting on my sunglasses and making my vision fuzzy. The lake is calm and we’re drifting through the channel, waving at people on the beach. Next to me, in the captain’s seat, my dad sits with one hand on the steering wheel and the other around my shoulders. Fastened securely inside my life jacket like an oversized orange marshmallow, I squint up at him as he softly sings our favorite song, Jimmy Buffett’s “Grapefruit, Juicy-Fruit.”
“I’d strap you in beside me,” he sings to me, tugging lightly on my jacket straps. “Never ever leave you, leave you at home all alone and crying!” I chime in on the last phrase, emphasizing every syllable over the hum of the engine. Out on the lake but close to the shore, he drops the anchor and we stick our toes in the water.
My childhood memories blend together like this. Jimmy Buffett lyrics leak into visions of sand dunes accompanied by the soundtrack of seagulls cawing and lake water sloshing against the boat, rocking me to sleep as my parents dab sunscreen on my reddening cheeks.
Today, my dad’s a successful businessman in the boat industry. His company builds mahogany Grand-Crafts and he always asks for my design input: Cream or red leather for the seat cushions? What do you think of the square windshield? He brings his favorite “Michigan Dad” coffee mug to work and proudly wears my sorority’s “Father Daughter Weekend” t-shirt. He and my mother just celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a trip to Disney World, his surprise to her. He’s in the audience at all my sister’s choir concerts and embraces her vegan lifestyle, even if it means enthusiastically eating her tofu-quinoa-kale dinner creations. “Grapefruit, Juicy-Fruit” still plays sometimes on our boat trips, and when it does, I look at my father and wonder how he managed to become such a good man when nobody sang it to him.
Last Christmas break, I again wrote George my bi-annual letter to update him on our lives. I sat at our dining table where I’d written him letters on past Christmases. With a gold pen, I wrote a short caption on the back of a recent photograph of my father and myself: Me and Dad in Paris last summer – this view of the Seine was spectacular!
“Want some eggnog?” My dad was in the kitchen behind me, standing in front of the fridge.
“With Vernors please,” I responded. I flipped the photograph over and bit the end of my pen. I still wondered, even after years of sending him mail, what he would think when he looked at it. I studied my father’s face looking out at me from the photo and wondered if George would recognize his resemblance.
My father placed a glass at the corner of my in-process letter. “For George?” he asked.
“Yeah. If I keep writing maybe he’ll fork out some money for grad school!” I smiled, attempting to keep him lighthearted. Instead he stared down at my pile of papers and photographs, uneasy, and held his eggnog with both hands, as if it were unusually heavy. Then he moved to the couch and flipped the TV channel.
“Did I tell you I called him a couple months ago?”
I whirled around in my chair, incredulous. “You did? When?”
“When I was in Fort Lauderdale for the boat show.”
“What did you say?” I couldn’t believe it. I had lived with the mystery of this man all my life, and felt the loss that my father surely felt but never let us see. A phone conversation was big news.
“I said, ‘hey, remember me? Your son? I’m in Florida, just visiting. What are you doing and can you meet up?’”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘oh, actually my wife isn’t feeling well, so, uh, now’s not a good time.’”
Now’s not a good time? I stared at my father, mouth open. The hand holding my eggnog was sweaty despite the cool glass. He continued, “I even offered to drive all the way to them, but he still refused. We’re not going to get too many more chances to see each other” — by this I knew he was referring to George’s age — “but that’s the last time I’ll try to contact him.” He shrugged and looked at me a little longer, and his expression was empty. Again I noticed his salt and pepper hair and the wrinkles in his forehead even though he wasn’t frowning. He shrugged quickly again, as if dismissing his thoughts, and turned back towards the television.
In that moment my mother walked through the door with a stack of mail. Shutting the door behind her, she held up an envelope and nervously exclaimed, “we got a letter from George!”
I glanced down at my unfinished letter to him. He never wrote us first. My mom passed me the envelope and I stood up to open it.
Inside was a generic Christmas card with a golden retriever on the front. From inside the card fell a folded piece of notebook paper, and I hurriedly opened it. I noticed the handwriting was different than his letters before, but I began reading. The writer wrote happy holidays and hope you all have a good new year and Sydney and Delaney are just so mature, and I realized I wasn’t reading George’s words, but his wife’s.
She sounded sincere. Her cursive words were kindly written. But they were distant and awkward, and not what I wanted. Frustrated, I slid it across the counter to my mom and opened the Christmas card. The simple black words “Merry Christmas” were typed in the middle, isolated by white space except for a scribbled flurry of letters in the bottom right hand corner: –Grandpa George.
Was it the heavy guilt of his absence that made George still so distant? Or was it a lack of interest in my family, people he’d made the decision to forget long before I wrote him my first letter? I stared down at his signature, remembering all the stories I’d collected in an attempt to understand him. I didn’t know this man who called himself Grandpa at all.
My father, who had been watching quietly from the couch, finally spoke: “What’s it say?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. I silently handed the notebook paper and the golden retriever card to him.
“It’s short and sweet.”
He unfolded the paper and cleared his throat. I turned away and made an excuse to go upstairs, afraid of the look that would appear on his face.
Sydney Cavanagh is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she majored in art and design and minored in creative writing. She finds creative nonfiction to be a liberating way to explore self-identity. Sydney is grateful to her college writing professors for challenging her and for redefining her idea of what makes a good story. She now lives and works in St. Louis, MO.
you’re in the bathroom, gnawing off your thumbs for Facebook.
a button on my wrist shoots stars for Twitter and hearts for Tumblr
between scars from cutting and bracelets for causes I forgot.
on TV, a latte with a feather etched in its foam holds a press conference.
howling from the crowd. you feel malaise. we teleport: Times Square.
we kiss. our faces swell to 400-foot inflatables and parade through the streets.
a hailstorm of thumbs and stars and hearts pummel us: we survive the night.
a burger suctions a Japanese tourist between its patty and its tomato slices.
the weather’s been vaporized but we can still spot pictures in the Cloud:
I see your profile. the Cloud thunders its sum of all information
then drips 1s and 0s and more 0s down our dry throats.
we go to Times Square even though we are already there.
we shriek down the streets pushing over buildings, flimsy cardboard stands.
clawing out our eyebrows, undoing the fleek. we flee
underground: hashtag seeds germinating in black incubators.
a glowing pink cistern where they keep backup Kardashians.
Princess Diana’s atomized Mercedes, slathered in ketchup.
still no drinkable water. you are dying. as in, literally
dying. the horror is strong, but Instagram filters out the worst of it.
shock sets in. our followers are so jealous of our selfie game:
Mayfair tan, Perpetua party frock, blinding smiles, our bravest
faces. we’ve got so many to choose from.
Sheila Dong recently graduated from the University of Arizona with a dual degree in Creative Writing and Psychology. Sheila’s work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, Words Dance, and Scribendi.
Twisting the silver band around my finger once, twice, a third time, I knew stalling would not save me in the end. With a quick tug, I pulled the ring from my finger, or tried. It stuck at the knuckle, and I choked back the ridiculous hysteria that swelled in my throat.
It fit going onto my finger. I could get it off. But the skin bunched around the bony knob once more.
I couldn’t breathe. Matthew would never let me go. I needed to get it off. If my own finger wouldn’t give up his ring, maybe I was meant to keep it. No, no. It had to come off. I couldn’t breathe. I could no longer smell the salty air that swept in with the ocean tide. The only scent in my nose was the other girl’s bitter floral perfume that had mixed sickeningly with Matthew’s sweat when he’d leaned in to kiss me, pinning me to the wall. I couldn’t breathe.
I dropped into a crouch and shoved my hand into the water. Claustrophobic. This was silly. It was just a ring. Just a finger. But if it didn’t come off, I would cut it off. Waves lapped at my bare toes. Twisting it back and forth, I grimaced as bits of sand ground into my skin under the ring. It slipped off so suddenly I dropped it, but I scooped it up before the water could take Matthew away from me. Settling back on my haunches, I stared at the strip of metal in my palm, its small diamond glinting with the last light of the sun, which was about to dip behind the dark waves.
The water soaked the seat of my jean shorts, and I jolted upright. I glanced behind me to see if anyone had noticed, but almost everyone had left. Now only a family of four, a couple, and a solitary man occupied the once crowded beach. The family was busy gathering up their beach toys as they packed up to leave, and the couple was too self-absorbed to notice anyone else. The man had his back to me, facing the sunset with a hand up to shade his eyes. I wished he was looking so we could make meaningful eye contact over the coarse sand, and he’d tell me how beautiful I was. We could be like one of the romance novels I’d shoved in my trunk, the last things I grabbed when I took my things from Matthew’s place and headed to the farthest coast where there would be nothing to remind me of him. Matthew always said the books were cheesy and that those things didn’t happen in real life. And he was right—as he’d always insisted he was. There was no passionate connection with this stranger across the sand. There couldn’t be. He didn’t even see me.
I couldn’t make out much of him in the twilight, but as I watched him bring a cigarette casually up to his lips, a flash of disgust blazed through me. My cheeks heated with embarrassment. Who was I to judge? I didn’t know him. He could smoke if he wanted. It wasn’t my life he was ruining.
I angled my body away from him, shielding my cupped fingers from view, even though I knew no one cared enough to even glance in my direction. Fist clenched tight, I let the ring bite into my flesh the same way the chilled breeze stung my cheeks. I wandered farther down the beach, pretending to escape the gaze of eager eyes. Finally far enough to sustain my fantasy, I came to a halt. Hefting the ring on my palm, I marveled at its weightlessness. It was nothing. Inconsequential.
I threw it out into the waves as hard as I could.
Matthew would have laughed. He always said my throwing form was terrible, but adorable. He used to think it was endearing. I used to think his random late night errands were as well.
I stopped staring at the waves. The ring had long since dropped below the surface, though it was too windy to see where it landed in the white-capped swells. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it was gone.
By the time I got back to my shoes, the family had left and the couple had draped a blanket over themselves, which did little to conceal their movements. The man still stared in the same direction, though the sun had dropped away, leaving only a sudden chill in its wake.
I grabbed my shoes from their heap on the ground with my socks and wandered in the direction of the man. Well, really it was the direction of my car. He just happened to be in the same area.
I toyed with the laces on one shoe, turning the shoe over and over again in my hand pretending to read the quotes I’d written in black Sharpie. At first I had the urge to run to my car. In a strange city, on a nearly deserted beach, with a stranger over a head taller than me, the smart thing to do would be to play it safe. But that was what Matthew would expect me to do. He’d always thought I was childish, despite me being twenty-five to his twenty-four. He would expect me to run like a frightened little girl. I would not be the girl he thought I was. Besides, I couldn’t go back to that silent motel room. I would suffocate there.
“Um, excuse me,” I croaked, sounding as though I smoked like him.
He turned. Tattooed arms bulged under the sleeves of his white t-shirt.
I only realized how close I’d gotten when I tasted his stale cigarette breath on my lips. “I – uh – Is there a gas station nearby?” A gas station? Really?
But he didn’t scoff at my question, just slid his hands into the pockets of his ripped jeans. “There’s one a couple blocks away,” he replied, voice coming out low and soothing from somewhere deep in his chest.
“Great,” I rocked back on my heels but couldn’t get myself to leave.
“You new to the area?” he asked.
“Ever been to Maine before?”
He chuckled. “I figured as much. Shorts and a tank top are for beaches in Cali and Florida, not here. Especially this late in the year.” He nodded to my goose bumped arms.
“Noted,” I mumbled, feeling ridiculous.
“Sooo… What’s a girl like you doing here? Visiting family? Traveling…? With a boyfriend? Fian—”
“No!” I interrupted. “I mean, no, not currently. It’s just me.”
“Cool, cool…” He rubbed a hand over the back of his head. His short, dark hair fell back into place almost as soon as the hand passed over it.
“So where are you—”
“What are you doing tonight—” We said at the same time, though he broke off before I did, and the end of my question remained suspended in the air between us.
“Are you saying—”
“Sorry, I meant—”
I clamped my mouth shut and bit my lips to keep them from saying anything else I’d regret.
After a few moments of silence, the crash of waves counting out every beat, he spoke again. “You a reader?”
“No.” Yes. The question caught me off guard and I lied.
“You look like one.”
I drew my shoes behind my back as if to hide the evidence of my obsession with words.
“Too bad…” he continued with a shrug that was too forced to be casual. “I was going to offer to show you my collection. I’ve got a whole bunch of books back at my place.” He cocked a brow in a challenge, though the cheeky grin on his lips softened the look.
I didn’t respond right away. I couldn’t stop staring at his five o’clock shadow that curved along his jawline. Matthew never had facial hair. He hated the way the stubble caught on his sweaters when he pulled them over his head, so he shaved meticulously every morning. This man hadn’t shaved for a few days, and for some reason I couldn’t pull my eyes away.
“I – uh – I might be interested in… seeing your books,” I choked out around the lump in my throat.
“So you’ll come home with me?” He extended his hand as if offering me a gift.
I hesitated again at the sight of his tattooed forearm. Was this the kind of guy I let take me back to his place? Did I even let guys take me back to their place? I shifted, digging my toes in the sand. I didn’t see any skulls or guns or naked women covering his arms, just patterns of tribal ink. Regular ink on a regular person.
“What makes you think I’m that kind of girl?” I asked, still stalling as I crossed my arms. I quickly dropped them again when his gaze followed the movement.
“Nothing. If I thought you were that kind of girl I wouldn’t have asked. I don’t want that kind of girl. I want you. You seem… Nice.”
Not beautiful. Not breathtaking. Nice.
I raked my hand through my hair, but it got caught in one of the mats where the wind had tangled my stringy blonde curls into a knot.
“And you’re kind of cute when you blush,” he added. An afterthought.
“I’m not blushing, it’s wind burn.”
“Come home with me?”
“How far?” I lifted my chin and squared my shoulders as if I knew what the hell I was doing.
His lips pulled back at the corner as he fought a smile. “Follow me, it’s not too far.” He extended his hand once more for me to take.
I ignored it, hugged my shoes to my chest, and started walking. He swung around and trotted a few steps until he could fall in step beside me. Neither of us said a word. I did my best to ignore his presence as he led me out of the parking lot and down the street, but it proved difficult with his warm, tattooed arm brushing against my own cool, pale skin with every few steps.
* * *
His apartment was remarkably clean. I marveled at the neatly organized shelves and modern furniture while he shut the door and lined our shoes up on the shoe rack.
“Well, this is it,” he said with a shrug, scooting around me in the narrow entryway.
“It’s nice,” I replied, not wanting to say anything else. It would be insulting to tell him that his place was much more appealing than I had assumed it would be.
He led me into the living area and headed straight to a tall bookcase, which was stuffed with new and worn copies of books ranging from marine biology to romance novels. Apparently he was determined to maintain the charade he’d begun at the beach when he promised to show me his book collection. He made a sweeping gesture with his arm toward the books and opened his mouth to direct the conversation into safe waters, but I stepped forward, anxious to cut him off.
My hand jerked upward to grab the collar of his shirt and drag him down into a kiss. Misjudging the distance, I accidentally scraped my ragged, bitten fingernail along the underside of his jaw. He let out a grunt and pulled back a bit, whether out of pain or surprise I would never know because I finally caught hold of his shirt and tugged his mouth down to meet mine. My kiss was overeager. Embarrassment swelled in my chest and burned my cheeks. To prevent him from commenting on my less than graceful move, I threw myself into the kiss. Too much. My teeth clacked against his, and I drew back quickly, pulling out of the kiss I’d intended to be passionate and settling for three quick, final pecks. My heels thumped on the floor as I lowered myself from my tiptoes.
My ears buzzed in the silence that followed. I felt his gaze on the crown of my head but refused to look up, afraid of the expression I’d find there. Mocking. Pity. Disgust.
“Maybe we should move this to the bedroom.”
My head snapped up. Our eyes locked momentarily. I nodded.
He guided me through the apartment, hand at the base of my back. He pushed open the bedroom door, reaching around me to flick on the lights. It was small and slightly more cluttered than the rest of the apartment, but I didn’t waste time taking in the surroundings.
I flipped the light off again, using the golden streetlight that filtered through thin curtains to find my way around the unfamiliar space. I shimmied out of my shorts, tossed my shirt somewhere into the dark, and crawled onto his bed.
He turned the light back on. I pretended not to mind. Removing his own shirt revealed more tattoos on his torso and chest.
He followed me to bed.
* * *
I couldn’t sleep.
It was impossible to know what kept me awake, perhaps the foreign sound of his snoring. Or possibly the crash of the waves, which seeped in through the window he’d cracked to air out the cloying smell of sex lingering in the room.
His head had thudded against his pillow over an hour ago. The muscles in my neck refused to relax and allow my head to sink fully into the pillow on my side of the bed. A faint hint of lavender clung to the threads of the pillowcase and made my stomach nauseous. Did the last girl he’d taken to his bed leave the scent behind? How many girls like me had he brought back to his apartment? Was that why he was at the beach, looking to collect another partner for his bed? Had the last girl smelled like lavender, or was it just her hair? Had he noticed mine, seen how tangled and stringy it was? What would the next girl smell from me? Salt? Sex?
I rolled over, turning my back to his so the salty, fresh air from the window could wash over my face. The streetlight had flickered out again, the third time in an hour. I squinted at the thin white curtain, pretending I could see every delicate thread that wove through the fabric and held it all together.
I was unraveling.
No, I would be fine. I just needed some sleep, and I would make a fresh start in the morning. Alone. No. Independent. If I could travel all the way from Idaho to Maine by myself, then I could do anything—go anywhere. I could leave this place tomorrow and go wherever I wanted. But first I needed to rest. As soon as the streetlight came back on, I would go to sleep. That would be my signal.
It could happen any minute…
* * *
I opened my eyes to the white morning light, not realizing I’d fallen asleep. The man beside me continued to snore. The man? Did I even know his name?
Sometime during the night he’d flung his arm across me, and it rested heavily on my waist. Moving slowly, I shifted toward the edge of the bed and set his arm down on a mound of blankets. If he woke up before I left, I would say I had a great night and I had somewhere I needed to be. Short, sweet, simple. That was what people who did this kind of thing said, right? Was I one of those people now?
I needed my clothes.
I crept over to my shorts and tugged them on, trying to ignore the stiffness where the seawater had dried into the fabric. My shirt wasn’t in plain view, and I remembered tossing it somewhere last night. Staying as silent as I could manage, I tiptoed around the room, ducking down every so often to check under the dresser and around stacks of books.
Feeling ridiculous, I dropped to my knees and crawled closer to the loveseat so I could peek under it. Hopefully I hadn’t thrown it in the gap between the back of the chair and the corner of the wall. A lumpy form to the right caught my eye, and I snatched it up. Drawing back onto my heels, I shook the tank top out.
It was a blouse. Not my blouse. I didn’t even own a pink blouse.
I checked over my shoulder to be sure he was still sleeping before examining the shirt more closely. It was ordinary. Pink, soft. Just a normal blouse. I brought it to my nose without consciously telling my hand to do so.
I recoiled from the lavender scent.
Eyes wide, I looked around the room again. Masculine. Weathered wood for the bedframe and dresser, dark gray sheets tangled around his sleeping form, distressed leather chair beside me, a stack of CDs and a box of condoms on the small table beside the bed. Definitely a man’s room. Well, it was at least gender-neutral. Nothing to suggest a girlfriend. A fiancé. Dear God, please not a wife.
I was desperate to snoop, but I stayed on my knees. It wasn’t right to go through his things. What if he woke up and caught me? What if I was wrong? What if it was just left by some one-night stand like me?
I stood slowly, my knees cracking. My eyes darted to the bed. His breathing remained steady, his eyes closed. I walked to the dresser. I could just pull out one of the drawers, and if it revealed a pile of bras I’d know my answer, but that would mean actively going through his things. I would just start with anything in plain sight. Not snooping, just curious. Interested. Nothing wrong with that.
A pile of men’s socks sat on top of the dresser, but I left them. They told me nothing. The small wooden box on the other hand…
I’d dismissed it at first. Just a plain, chestnut colored box, undecorated. But it could be a jewelry box if he did live with a woman. I could find a pile of necklaces and earrings, and then I would know. I could be certain.
Glancing back at him one more time, I made sure he was still asleep before I reached for the lid. I’d only lifted it far enough to glimpse a pile of small papers when it began to play a tune like a music box. I snapped it closed and whirled around, keeping the blouse hidden in my fist behind my back.
He grunted and rolled to his other side but otherwise showed no signs of waking. After waiting an eternity, I turned back to glare at the box that had almost exposed me.
The corner of one of the papers stuck out from under the lip of the lid. I slid it out.
Don’t miss me, love. I’ll miss you enough for the both of us. Breakfast is on the counter and I’ll see you when I get back. Counting the minutes even though I haven’t even left yet.
J. Jill? Julie? Jenna?
I slipped the note back and made sure the corner made it all the way back inside the box.
I was her. I was the woman. The one I caught in Matthew’s bed.
My lungs collapsed in my chest, and I gasped as my stomach twisted violently.
But it passed. As quickly as it had come, it was gone.
It wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t known.
Had Matthew’s redhead known about me that day I found her straddling him in our bed? Did it matter?
I choked on a hysteric giggle, clamping my lips tightly before it could escape. What had I done? What was I supposed to do now? Was it better for her to catch us and know, or was ignorance as blissful as everyone promised?
I pulled my shorts off again. I threw them in about the same place I’d found them and crept back to the bed. I eased his arm up and slid under it, letting it rest over the dip of my waist once more. I waited a moment or two before snuggling into his warmth, jostling him just enough to wake him up.
He groaned and stretched, tattoos rippling along his body. “G’morning.”
“Mmmm, morning,” I replied, wiping at my eyes and blinking as if just waking up.
“Sooo… last night was…nice.” He propped himself up on one arm.
“Yeah, yeah it was nice, I guess… Look, I’m sorry to run out like this. I don’t know how these things normally work, but I’ve gotta go.”
“Okay, okay. Cool, yeah nice meeting you…?”
“Jessica,” I lied.
His face paled, but he controlled his expression quickly. I’d been close, but not correct.
“Uh, yeah, Jessica. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” I replied absentmindedly. I got up from the bed and went to put on my shorts. He watched me as I pulled them up, buttoned and zipped them, but didn’t say a word. I pretended to search for my shirt before snagging the blouse. When I stood up with it, I could almost hear his muscles tense as the quality of the air in the room changed.
“Bye.” I waved over my shoulder as I walked out the door, buttoning the blouse up as I went.
The sun was blindingly bright when I stepped outside the building, and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. As I crossed the parking lot, a dark-haired woman a few years older than me walked by me to the apartment complex I’d just exited from. I almost leaned in to see if she smelled like lavender. I wanted to ask for her name. But I didn’t. I kept walking because it didn’t matter whether that woman was his J or not, whether she was tall or pretty or smart or funny. Sooner or later she’d end up just like me, and then it wouldn’t matter what kind of a woman she was.
Everything was the same, yet also completely different. This time it wasn’t Matthew, and this time it wouldn’t be me with the broken heart. Someone else. Not me.
The shirt hung a little too long in the arms. I rolled the sleeves as I walked toward the beach to get my car so I could head back to my motel. I wouldn’t miss the tank top, hadn’t really liked it much in the first place. I hoped she would find it before he did, whenever she got back from wherever she was, missing him more than he was missing her. I hoped she’d be the one to glimpse the crumpled pile of another woman’s clothes.
Who would she blame? Me? Him? Herself?
It didn’t matter.
This time it wasn’t me.
As a current junior at Winona State University, Kaitlin McCoy spends much of her time reading, writing, or creating artwork that expresses and explores her interest in different viewpoints and perspectives that influence how we all see the world and how we interact with those around us.
The Rock I Keep
“This looks like an Ellyn-rock,” said my mother as she held it with an outstretched hand. Like the other rocks, which filled the beach in sand’s absence, the rhythms of lake water and sun had tumbled it smooth. Unlike the others, it was formed into an abstract figure eight, which fit perfectly in my hand. Under a stony gray, it was tinted rose, like the fossil of a sunrise.
“Why?” I asked, as I turned it over in my palm.
Mom said something like she wasn’t sure, as she continued down the beach, her bare feet clinking on more wet stones and one of the brothers tugging at her hip. I rested the rock inside my canvas bag, on top of all the other rocks I’d deemed worthy of adoption on our routine family vacation besides Lake Superior.
Family vacations must have been difficult with four small children, as we never went too far from home. Instead of a long journey, we packed half the house into our faithful Suburban, and drove three-hours to Duluth, Minnesota. We spent most of our time in full civilization on these vacations, exploring attractions like the train museum and the zoo. We clambered over the boulders bordering land and lake to the malt shop, and walked back with sticky fingers and huge cups of chocolate, caramel and butterscotch.
That afternoon, we drove to an empty beach hidden behind the crest of a hill and kept busy looking for treasures. Rock collecting was an esteemed hobby in our family. My brothers could spend hours identifying rocks with their guidebooks, organizing them into piles on the carpet, and trading them like forms of currency. They could pick out basalt and quartz, and announce which ones had volcanic heritage. I often followed the shoreline in search of anything remotely pretty. That was when my mom handed me the Ellyn-rock.
If you’ve ever had a rock named after you, you’ll understand the weight of its meaning. If I had ever thought of naming one, I probably would have named it after Audrey Hepburn or Nellie Bly–someone gorgeous and bold. But my mother chose to name her discovery after me. I wondered why. At the gangly age of thirteen, I walked with a slouch to hide my height and constantly tugged at my clothes, feeling always the weight of imaginary eyes. Now holding the rock, I felt my shoulders straighten, with the subconscious hope that one day I could be gorgeous, and bold, an adventurer with a legacy even greater than the single stone in my hands.
I collected many rocks on that trip. Now, in a constant quest for minimalism, I abandon more and more to the backyard each time I clean my closet. I hate the clutter of tangible objects attached to memories, and prefer to keep only the memories, which don’t tie me down so easily. As I dump rocks into the front garden, I consider how, one day, some geologist will be eternally puzzled as to how those type of rocks ended so far from where science states they should form. When I get to the Ellyn-rock, though, I pick it up and feel its weight in my hand. I run my thumb over the dip in its center and wonder again why my mother named it after me.
There’s no reason why I can’t ask Mom the reason, but I never do. I just place the rock back on its appointed shelf and keep cleaning. Maybe I’m afraid that she’s forgotten it, or that the stone never meant anything to her at all. If I ask, she might say, “Oh, I don’t know, it was just a neat rock and you were standing right there, so I thought I’d give it to you.” I’m afraid of a response like that. I desperately want my namesake rock to mean something, to symbolize how a mother can know her child more than that child knows herself.
In my brain, I’ve created a picture of my mother seeing one stone on the beach that caught her eye against the backdrop of a million others. It was unique and beautiful and rosy gray, and knew its exact purpose there on the Superior shore.
Meanwhile, Mom’s then-only daughter was growing into her own skin, trying to fill too much of the world and yet also not enough. As I wildly tried to mine my identity from caverns of fool’s gold, I shed goals overnight like snake skin. But with the constancy of a foundation, my mother always attributed to me the complexity and beauty and value that all humans have, and very few realize.
Ellyn Gibbs is a senior at Minnesota State University, Mankato and is majoring in mass media with a minor in recreation, parks and leisure services. She currently writes for her college paper The Reporter, and has published articles in Bedlam Magazine and Misadventures Magazine. Ellyn is passionate about writing creative nonfiction pieces that weave philosophical ideas into vivid details of everyday life. She also clings to a slow-paced enjoyment of her craft, which gives her balance in her madcap American lifestyle.
what is holy
the tablet on my tongue tastes like a wafer. a priest
is breathing on the other side
of the confessional. can i remember anything
besides your skin, your dead-
star eyes? the wine trickling down my throat,
blood of the father. i am waiting in
the well of your mouth, waiting for
what is holy, our skin to skin, our crossed
chests, your scratched back, your crown
of thorns, angel-light to my black.
Charlotte Covey graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology this semester, and she will pursue an MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry at University of Missouri – St. Louis in Fall 2016. She has poetry published or forthcoming in journals such as The Normal School Online, Salamander Magazine, Slipstream, and The MacGuffin.
In the opening scene of Jaws, Chrissie and her boyfriend are running toward the ocean at dusk. She yells for him to hurry into the water, but he’s drunk and stumbles through the sand. She is swimming by herself when her body gets yanked underwater. She screams for help, but the boyfriend sleeps on the shore.
“It hurts! It hurts,” she screams before being pulled underwater to die.
Jaws was the first ever blockbuster film, making $470 million in box office revenue worldwide. The film petrified people, but they continued to see it, because everyone loves a good shark story.
People have a habit of paying attention to great whites, but it’s the tiger shark that should frighten us. Falling close behind the great white, tiger sharks are the second most threatening species. They appear to be non-violent when they cruise through the open ocean, but are often called the garbage cans of the sea, because their serrated j-shaped teeth equip them to eat anything, and they do. They’re ferocious and focused hunters—they don’t stop until it’s over.
Tiger sharks are dark on the top, light on the bottom with sharp, gray stripes across their backs, mimicking the rays of sunlight shooting down into the water. They’re nearly impossible to spot until it’s too late. When smaller sharks happen to see a tiger shark swimming above them in the open ocean, they dive deep and disappear before any harm comes to them.
Why didn’t I think of that?
In August, we went on a camping trip for your seventeenth birthday. We drove up to the James River in northern Virginia with your parents and your uncle and went tubing. Our tubes came to a giant rock, shooting twenty feet high out of the river that we stopped to climb. Your mom got her camera out to take pictures of us jumping off. As I was climbing, I thought, “What the fuck am I doing? We could die.” But I kept climbing right behind you—one slippery water shoe after the other.
I’d like to think I would’ve leapt with or without you, but I’d also like to think you weren’t the reason I wanted to jump.
That was the weekend we said, “I love you.”
You were dropping me off, and we sat in my driveway for a while before I muttered a barely intelligible “I love you.” I was surprised you even caught it, and I half hoped you didn’t, but you did. So, you kind of muttered it back and then drove away.
Tiger sharks like warm, sub-tropical waters. They’re commonly found in Hawaii near coral reefs and harbors. It’s rare for a tiger shark to bite a human, but when they do, it’s usually fatal. When tiger sharks attack, they don’t hit and run. Instead, they chomp and thrash until they’ve eaten whatever they can of the victim.
We went to the movie theater I worked at to see a movie called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. You didn’t want to see it, but I did because I thought it would be funny. At the concession stand, you bought Sour Patch Kids—four dollars—and a large Coke—six dollars. I told you not to get the large because it was expensive and you get free refills with the medium anyway. You handed the guy behind the counter your card and said to me, “It’s just money. They print more every day.”
In the movie, the world is ending—a meteor is going to crash into Earth. Steve Carell plays a boring insurance agent who goes on an adventure with his lively neighbor, played by Keira Knightley. She needs to find someone who can fly a plane so she can get home to her family. Steve and Keira end up falling in love—who would’ve thought?
At the end of the movie, the two are trying to keep each other calm. They look deeply into each other’s eyes and exchange sweet nothings in hushed tones. Then, after a flash of white light, we are left to assume that the world has ended and they are dead as the credits roll. I wiped my eyes before makeup could run down my face. I turned toward you and you couldn’t even look at me because you were trying not to laugh.
Tiger sharks are a solitary species, typically coming together during mating season only. When they mate, the male will hold the female still by biting down on one of her pectoral fins, leaving lasting abrasions in her cartilage.
We got into a fight, but it wasn’t a fight. It was just an exchange of tiny, electronic words back and forth through cyber space. No voices. No faces. No bodies.
It was our last day of summer and I decided, very consciously, not to spend that day with you, which put you on edge, so you picked a fight. I became a sobbing mess on Rachel’s bedroom floor, so breathless and red-faced that Rachel’s father asked if he needed to call my parents. All because you picked the right words and hit the right weak spots, after months of me being under your careful microscopic observation.
You just need to get some thicker skin.
I don’t know what to tell you.
I can’t change.
The next day—our first day of senior year—we had pre-calculus together. I was scared of you, but I was prepared to forgive you. At that point you were just an exit sign inside a burning room, but it wasn’t quite painful enough to leave.
Head on, great whites look like they’re smiling because their mouths curve upward and remain open so you can see their teeth. Tiger sharks’ mouths, however, are usually closed and curved downward into a smirk. They hide their teeth under a curved layer of cartilage that acts like a lip. Ninety percent of the time you don’t see a tiger shark’s teeth until they’re going in to bite.
It always killed me how you never used punctuation in your text messages. When I suggested that you throw in a comma or a period every now and then, you told me to shut up.
“Don’t be such a bitch about everything,” you said with a smile.
I found a way to go numb, a way to take it. I figured out how to lie to you about where I was and who I was with so you wouldn’t get angry. I figured out how to spend as little time as possible with you and still call it a relationship. It became a science.
“I know I should break up with him,” a few more weeks.
“I don’t know how to do it,” another month.
“I’m still figuring out how to tell him,” one more month.
“He hasn’t been so bad lately.”
You tell me it’s ridiculous that I always ask you for help with the pre-calculus homework. I should be able to do this. It’s easy.
“I think we’ll be okay.”
All finfish have a sensory organ called a lateral line. It’s a long canal filled with small hairs that sit just under the scales of the skin. A tiger shark’s lateral line runs from its eyes, all the way to the end of its caudal fin.
Tiger sharks’ impeccable senses stem from this line along their bodies. Through the lateral line, they can feel every electrical impulse in the water—every vibration and every movement. If a human is diving and comes across a tiger shark, they’re supposed to slow their heart rate and stay as still as possible so the shark won’t detect movement.
We were crossing the intersection of Nimmo and Upton when you got in the left lane thinking you had enough time to speed past five cars and merge into the right lane before the left lane ended. You did it Fast and Furious style—without using your brakes or turn signal.
I watched the oncoming cars get closer and closer and thought, ”I’m going to die in this fucking car with this fucking guy. We’re going to get crushed and our guts are going to spill into the Red Robin parking lot and they’re going to call us reckless teenagers or young lovers on the news and there will be a vigil at school with candles and tears and no one will know what the fuck was really going on.”
You slammed on the gas and swerved into the right lane just before the left lane ended. Then you made a hard left into my neighborhood. You pulled up to my house and I wobbled out of the car, slamming the door behind me. As I stumbled up my driveway, I heard you yell at me, “Hey! Don’t slam my door like that!”
When a whale dies, the carcass sinks and becomes a feast to several marine organisms. When tiger sharks happen upon a whale fall, instead of digging in right away, they swim in circles around it to claim it as their own, graciously granting other fish a window of opportunity to leave unharmed. Then, the tiger sharks feast until there’s nothing left but blood and bone.
“I can’t do this anymore,” my voice shook. “I haven’t been happy in a long time.”
“Sorry you feel that way.”
You must have seen it coming because it felt way too rehearsed. I can see you at the dinner table with your parents as they ask how it’s going between the two of us.
“She’s probably going to break up with me soon,” you might tell them.
“What will you do if she does?” your parents probably ask you, on the edge of their seats because they love me—I’m the daughter they never had and they are blind to how sick you make me and how much I get on your nerves.
“Probably play it cool and say ‘Sorry you feel that way,’ or something like that.”
It hurt you. I know it hurt you, because the next day at school word got around that I was a bitch, that you gave me everything and I tossed you to the side. I threw it all away. I hung you out to dry.
When tiger sharks hunt, they swim low to the sand and circle a reef or a school of fish a few times to survey what prey is available. Once they lock in on their chosen prey, they will slowly approach and do a “test bump” with their snout. They will then start to swim in the opposite direction, giving the prey a chance to let its guard down. This is when the shark comes back and attacks.
Tiger sharks’ upper jaws are not attached to their skull, so they can extend their jaw further in order to get more food into their mouth. Tiger sharks prefer to eat their prey whole in order to minimize their own risk for injury.
The pictures—deleted, the jewelry—trashed, the flowers—dead. Once it was over, there was nothing left to do but let the last of the water circle the drain.
It was March when the next girl found her way over to my desk in class one day to ask me about you.
“I hope this isn’t weird, but can I talk to you?”
You were fully aware that she and I worked together at the movie theater we always went to. When I found out that you two were dating, I decided you must have had a thing for free movie tickets.
If I had been smart, I would’ve told her to drop everything and run as fast as she could. But the version of myself I knew from ten months ago wouldn’t have listened, so I knew she wouldn’t either.
“Be patient with him,” I told her, “don’t get upset when he doesn’t reply right away. He’s a guy, they don’t do that.”
But you never replied to her right away for the same reason you got rid of her when it came time for prom and the same reason you told me you got a concussion at wrestling camp when you didn’t feel like dealing with me.
The myth that sharks constantly have to be swimming to breathe comes from the misconception that sharks sleep—sharks don’t sleep, they rest. Some sharks have to continue swimming, but others don’t. Tiger sharks either pass water over their gills swimming at an average speed of 2.4 miles per hour, or they barely cruise with their mouths open and pump water through their gills from the inside.
This versatility allows tiger sharks to slowly get close to their prey and then attack before the prey gets the chance to feel threatened.
It was May, we were sixteen, and we were at a pool party with my friends. You were hanging out with all of them for the first time. We sat in a circle in Chloe’s backyard and played “Never Have I Ever.”
Each person starts with five fingers up, and you go around and say things to try to get everyone else out. “Never have I ever watched porn,” “Never have I ever been hung over,” “Never have I ever smoked weed.” You have to put a finger down if you’ve done what is said. The first person with all five fingers down loses.
You put a finger down for every one. I didn’t put any fingers down.
It was April, we were seventeen and broken up when you texted me a picture of a note I had left in your room months ago.
I found this when I was cleaning my room and it just reminded me of the good old days.
I thought maybe you were about to grovel. I thought maybe you were about to apologize. Instead, you sent me a long, sappy message about how your prom plans fell through and how you didn’t want to go alone.
I was wondering if maybe you would want to go with me?
At this point, we were civil. We would occasionally joke with each other in pre-calc. We didn’t dodge each other’s glances anymore. We were very adult.
I told you I’d think about it. I told you that if we were to go together, it would have to be just as friends.
The next day, your mother texted me and asked what color my dress was. I told her it was yellow, but that you and I hadn’t decided for sure if we were going together or not. She replied with a smiley face.
On May 17th, it had been exactly a year since we first got together. Broken up, we walked into prom as “just friends.” But you clearly had other ideas when you snatched my hand for almost all of the pictures. I realized “just friends” wasn’t going to work for you when you stayed close enough to collect every word I had to say, and some part of you had to be touching some part of me the entire night.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock before I knew I made a mistake. I invented another lie to get away from you at the end of the night.
I never said yes. I never put any fingers down.
Tiger sharks are named for the coloration on their backs that mimic tiger stripes. These stripes are bleached into their skin by the sun from a young age because they spend most of their youth in shallow nursery waters where sunlight easily penetrates. As the sharks get older and spend more time in deep ocean water, the stripes fade, but never fully disappear.
Chrissie’s body thrashes back and forth in the water. She gets a moment of mercy to grab hold of nearby buoy floating in the water. She tries to catch her breath, but she knows something isn’t right. She knows whatever this is will kill her. The audience can’t see the shark, but they know it’s there under the surface of the water, taking Chrissie’s body for ransom.
I picture myself there in the water with Chrissie, floating in a cloud of my own blood. I picture myself being pulled under the water. I picture bites and blood and torn flesh. And then I see a rescue helicopter or a coast guard vessel. And I hear doctors telling me I’m in shock as they study my wound, telling me that the bites are slightly squared off, much like the head of a tiger shark.
I feel the tight pulls of the stitches they’ve sewn into my skin. I’ve been afraid of the water ever since.
Lizzie Bankowski is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington pursuing a double major in creative nonfiction writing and film studies. Born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, her parents made a game out of picking up trash on the beach when she was a toddler and ever since she has been an avid environmental activist. As such, she aspires to use creative writing and film to bring environmental concerns to light.
What the Dead Keep
Non-honorous, a lack
of academe, intact and most
opposed of floating heads
she huffs a tulle of smoke:
The sonorous, snorous…
she says “call me Dolores”
and something else that is,
to be frank, a bit more
She sorrows and refracts.
Talks mostly to herself
she frets, except when comes
a tum-tum tum-tum—
someone punching the ground
a cool animal skin
An old friend, she thinks,
must be near, and picks up
the stick and the drum.
And the stick in her ear she postures
“If there is anyone here
please, I have something to say
And let me be clear, is that okay
with you? Hello? With you?”
And what Dolores hears suggests
no one coming around.
Such ire she has! and sits stumped
stunned at this failed, this utter…un-
un-transmittable mess. Evocative,
she knocks tum-tum tum-tum—
and charms from the grave
that many-storied man. Grim,
a worm-tongue claps the dead’s lips:
Late is the hour in which
this conjuror chooses to appear.
She pauses. She chooses
to appear. She stops, appears
again. She opens the mouth of the dead
and sticks her head inside.
How strange to be here and
yet to be absent!
From the rigor-mortis jaw
she pries an answer long unrequested:
The way is shut. It was made
by those who are dead.
He casts a line. It sticks in her head.
She begins to feel synonymous. Welladay,
alas!—in a fix, she guesses, for animal flesh—
“The dead keep nothing,” she persists.
“Ill news,” she beefs, “ill guest.”
Sophie Weiner is from Baltimore, Maryland. She is a graduating senior at Towson University, where she studies English. She has worked on university’s literary magazine, Grub Street, as part of the poetry staff, and is currently working on a creative thesis under poet and professor, Leslie Harrison. In the fall of 2016, she will be a first-year poet in the University of Kentucky’s MFA program.
The Stubbornly Persistent Delusions Of
Deplorable, Dolores for days
not understanding the facts
of behavior— she has a certain
disposition for a certain kind of lack.
Compensatory, she erects forests that bear
no leaves. The ground is stretched & dry. It beats
hard in the eardrum— It’s like thunder to walk
on— Nothing will root, will take
to it. Each body she makes looks cut
from brittle sandpaper, worn & un-
ambiguously shaped without candor—
pulpwood spine if a spine at all— It’s true,
she’s never had one, not in the real way, nor
her gossamer / the spider-spun—
Beginning to feel gratuitous, she reaches
a hand behind her, suspecting, mortified,
bending now the way time does, or is said to
in most History Books—
Sophie Weiner is from Baltimore, Maryland. She is a graduating senior at Towson University, where she studies English. She has worked on university’s literary magazine, Grub Street, as part of the poetry staff, and is currently working on a creative thesis under poet and professor, Leslie Harrison. In the fall of 2016, she will be a first-year poet in the University of Kentucky’s MFA program.
I had it two days before my sister’s wedding. A friend scraped up some money from her parents, and the guy pawned his mother’s pearls. I did the regret talk with a counselor, fake crying over missed pills, hearing her tell me I have choices. Are you sure? Fuck you, but I held her hand and said, yes. I couldn’t eat, and water made me thirstier, but soon it would be done. I called a girl to ask about driving me, and she said no. The guy had a “job” and loaned his car to a teammate. More friends were busy. A close cousin in for the wedding was pro-life. My mother and father were drunk in the flower arranging for the summer wedding in our beach town, and my sister thought she was pregnant so no, no, the groom actually gave me his aunt’s number, the gynecologist, no, no. I even asked my counselor. Please, can you pick me up?
This is out of my boundary zone. She gave me tissues for my decision and said the guy who pawned his mother’s pearls should be a shoulder to cry on. No.
I called a cab. The driver knew his way without GPS, but I didn’t ask him how many girls had sat in my seat. The receptionist wanted to make sure I had a significant other for after, and I pointed to an old lady who could be a grandma. I was nervous she would not believe me, that a grandma sat in Planned Parenthood reading a magazine, and then I had the abortion.
Nausea afterwards. My shoes felt heavy on the floor. The cab driver brought me a water when he saw me clunking around outside. He didn’t bring it up, but I told him about my sister’s wedding dress, the cake with candied flowers, the champagne from France, and other fake shit. When we arrived at my house, he told me something out of earshot, so I just nodded. Stumbling outside, I realized how white my house looked in the sun, and then stayed in bed for two days. Staring at the cracks in the ceiling, I only drank water to cleanse myself.
At the wedding, I shivered in my baby pink dress. My sister whined that it was the coldest June day in years, and the groom had a hangover. The music was shitty, so I never got out of my seat. I sat and waited for more champagne and all the fake shit. I felt numb. Tears streamed when I saw shoes tied to the back of the honeymoon car as we all waved our last goodbye to the bride and groom. They tangled and made a racket when the car pulled away. Someone rubbed my shoulders. It was such a beautiful ceremony, they said, worth a cry. I heard the shoes wanting to walk but dragging along for a ride.
Honor Murphy is a rising sophomore at Macalester College. She is currently undecided about her major, but knows writing will always be a part of her life. Her main influences are Jane Austen and Junot Díaz. This is her first publication for creative work.
Leaving the Trees
“We try to see in the dark. We toss up our questions and they catch in the trees.”
– Annie Dillard
Her Lipstick Lingers
A split tree leans at a fork in a path, and I stretch out my hand to touch the joint where the two halves converge and separate; I feel the wind as it carries the scent of the tree back to me; my eyes follow water drizzle down the knife-impaled flesh—its bark cast off into the wind-whipped grass below. I catch runoff raindrops in my palms and see them slide off my fingertips just as they slide off leaves and limbs. Just like she slipped, a breath at a time, from my grasp.
With a tree, everything leaves. The water rolls off and down the trunk, sops the ground, and soaks into roots. Blossoms are consumed by fruit. Leaves leave too, diving off branches and flip-flopping their way to foliage floor. Acorns and pinecones separate and free-fall, kamikaze style. Branches break away; nests dissolve; wrens fly to warmer weather. A perpetual sense of loss in the Spanish moss scaling up the bark. I saw it with her too, watched her fierceness wither to frailty. For five years she guarded me, taught me reading and what hugs felt like and that love was action not idea. Even as moss climbs the tree and overtakes the bark a few centimeters at a time, it is unhinged, scattering seeds like dandelion dust, making new homes wherever the winds or birds drop the festoons. Perhaps, I too am a tree.
It is silent: only my feet create sound. I am alone—Aunt Clara is gone; like the Spanish moss seeds, whipped in the wind, washed away by the rain—unguided, creeping through trees and lurking around pathway corners, playing hide and seek with raindrops dripping from clouds above.
Ahead on the trail an injured leaf dances on a stem, surrounded by green. This green is the color of grass, avocados, depression glass, and shutters that used to hang on either side of the picture window. Green, the color of the fern in front of that expansive window where we sat and gazed at bright summer sunsets, reading Heidie and Down on the Funny Farm with Aunt Clara’s gray-white curls bouncing with every word. The shutters and fern are gone too. Along with her gingham-red-checked tablecloth and the twelve-inch black and white dial TV set; gone like the navy blue davenport that folded down in the sitting room where I used to sleep before I moved into her house that used to be a garage at 4207 Wood Street Saginaw, Michigan; gone like the green onions springing up through compost piles in the center of an old rubber tire behind the house. Gone like the house itself—bulldozed by Saginaw Township a year ago today—because after she left, my daddy tried to patch up the holes in the roof and steady the creaking floors and replace the broken furnace with its copper wiring still in place, but the township called daddy’s repair work shoddy and cut it down anyway.
A red leaf—the red tricycle I used to ride down the black tar street—surrounded on every side by all that green. The red mole on her face that the doctor scraped and sent off to pathology. The red gelatin on her tray the very last time I visited. How she loved strawberry jam, strawberry gelatin, and Brach’s caramels with pink, strawberry centers. That day, the red gelatin sat on the tray, untouched. I knew she’d leave me soon.
Leaving, the way rain rushes off trees as the sky drops buckets of water on my head. Leaving, like Spanish moss that flurries through air and drops onto earth floor in front of my feet. And caught in its grey fibers, a bright red leaf. I pluck it out and press it between pages of my yellow legal pad, rubbing its surface like a flat river rock. Red as the lipstick she wore only once—at her funeral.
This Monster Owns My Mother’s Eyes
A black, shriveled leaf shivers in the wind. My eyes study it: the leaf is frail, overpowered by fresh leaves outshining its ugliness with their beautiful baby green buds. They dance in the sun’s warmth and the dark leaf curls tighter into its shrinking self. Trying to disappear, the same way I tried all those years to make myself invisible because invisibility kept me safe, kept me out of her glaring red-green eyes, beyond the reach of her branches-straining-in-the-black-of-night grasp. The leaf struggles with the breeze stretching its dried out shell, threatening to disintegrate in the whipping wind, fighting for flight because falling would break all the bones in its brittle body. I understand this too, falling the way I did, with her fists chasing after my child-sized frame just inches in front of where each landed on either side of my head, unable to make contact, blurred by the haze of alcohol and whatever drug she managed to drum up. Ones she got on the streets that have no names and no lights and only the faces of ghosts and skeletons in the dark.
In all that blackness light spills over, peering through holes in the little black leaf. I see light. I hear laughter—the same laughter that shakes the black leaf and sends it swishing in the spring breeze. The leaf chuckles as it reaches the forest floor and settles in for a nap. Of what does it dream? Sunlight warms its shoulders just as my daddy kissed my cheeks. It is the laughter of sisters in sun, playing hide-and-seek in weeping willows, climbing sycamores, and rolling down hills until our clothes are green as the grass beneath our feet as we race back to the top to do it all over again. It is my daddy’s laughter—the one who tickles too long and throws us on his shoulders and tells funny made up bed time stories about all his favorite military friends. And it is the laughter of little girls who know too much sadness far too young, who know also that when laughter fades and night comes, the mommy and daddy fade too, and the green leaves will hang their heavy heads and the sky will sigh. Brown bottles tore away my dreams long before love came along.
In a place beyond sight, the faint sound of life in the winds—a whisper—and the flutter of something falling—free—I think of her caved in by addiction. I think of her pain and how she hurt me. She fell a thousand times. She may never learn to fly. A brown leaf twists though the air, its downward spiral graceful and clear. And I think of me. Of what I understand now but couldn’t then. I am too frail to fall like a leaf. The bones in my wings soft enough to shatter. She shattered me with her words and the wounds she left on my wings. Why does freedom feel like falling?
Around a bend up ahead, plodding shoes, a cough and sputter, the cracking of twigs under someone else’s weight. Is she still haunting my memories? Do her eyes stick on a target affixed to my frame? Does she hurl words at my down-slanted face? I look up, almost expecting to see her in the stretching shadows of trees in front of me. I look up, but she isn’t here. It is only the wind. I know I am free most of the time. I know that I am not her replica, not the continuation of her line of trees straining in shaded woods to gulp up the sun. And she could never be the me who birthed rays of joy and life and love.
A girl with her hair in braids, backpack slung over one shoulder, denim shorts, white top, headphones that silence the unanswered calls of birds in the trees. Even though she isn’t here, I am not alone. On the wind I hear voices, none of them my own.
His Soul is a Graveyard
In the thicket, a barn roof sags under thousands of pine needles. A makeshift window is cut in the side. My feet find a path of fallen needles leading to the front door—the door stands open like an invitation: all may enter here. Two trees cut down knee-high, tops lopped-off smooth form a might-be gate along the pine-needle bedding. A rusted out, unidentifiable axle with a missing wheel blocks the path. I step over it carefully. Rust like that is poison. One prick infects the entire system. I peer through the doorway, staring into darkness. A squirrel chides behind me and I jump. My pulse in my thumbs. The throbbing is incessant, like the nagging monologue that keeps telling me to invite my husband home. I can’t. I ignore the lies reverberating in my mind. I try to unsee his eyes, to convince myself he’s gone.
This barn, tattooed with initials of people I will never know, littered with broken-down boxes, empty Marlboro cartons flattened, old papers, cracked and crushed Dixie cups, and an abandoned box of 150 clear Christmas lights. Do they illuminate the dark? He hated hanging Christmas lights and putting up trees. For ten years I decorate alone. My first year without him, I make salt-dough ornaments and popcorn strands with my kids to string on each tree. I have three—one kid for each tree.
Like this barn, the house is in shambles after he leaves, a shadow on the wall of a want-to-be-erased memory. I heap boxes, and memories and bags of his things into a dark corner of the one-window, empty basement where he used to be. In those first days, I wait for him to come calling the way a girl waits for a date. I want to hold on as long as I can. Can’t I keep alive this one fragmented limb? At night, I dream that he might wake up and become who he ought to be. As days slide by, the embers that wish to cling to a shattered marriage smolder and die. I know it’s fantasy, and he will never call me home. When he slipped away, he slithered into darkness.
I race through needles stabbing at my shoes, seeking a familiar, safe clearing. Limbs on the ground vine and snag around my ankles as I go. I fall and my backpack tugs at my shoulders, straining my neck. I struggle it back in place and plod slower, careful to step over roots pushing up through patches of three-leaf clover.
A red and white ribbon, tied round a pine, sun-bleached and waving. The white wedding dress. Me and my daddy walking an aisle of grass. Japanese maples. Friends and family filled the chairs. The sun in my hair. My daddy in a suit. Swans on the marshy water. Him up ahead with his father, all grins. Those black, shiny shoes with brand new laces. The smiling and nodding and all the embraces. And how each joyous moment his reality erases. The venom of his words wilting each leaf, his rage a disease consuming each tree.
A clearing of tar-black-burnt trees, fresh with fire’s flames, still smelling of smoke. Someone was here and their presence still lingers; the trees all bear their wounds and smolder. How long before new growth closes this circle, and life rises through charred limbs? New leaves strain to touch sky as fledgling birds just flung from their nests. I imagine that together we fly, but darker ambitions crowd his eyes.
He singed me too. His words dug deep in the bark of my tree. Each scar I made pockets away words he burned in me. These are the scars that I can’t erase: slippery white lies whispered with fixed eyes, scraping away at my bark, his voice in my ears and the expression of his face as each wound hit its target. A hundred wounds wrapped in three tiny scars on the softest part of my flesh. I try to reach out, to pull him into my space, but with each effort the burns sink deeper. He will never know the places he branded on my memory. The blackened trees captivate me with their battered branches and broken limbs. Each one reassuring me that I am not alone. Because of him, I cannot look away, no matter how much each truth stings. He laughed away my pain. I downed thirty pills while he slept. I counted each one and drowned them with wine, the last of his coveted Merlot box. I slid into the couch and faded with one final thought: my stupidity for drinking the wine and his fury come morning.
The burnt trees tell me their stories; I tried to tell him mine. They remind me of smiles in denial and faces turned away. My head swims in the morning, blinded by the lights of day. Words tumble from my mouth unfiltered. Someone is concerned. The room spins. There are voices amid the blur of siren sounds. He is at work and I am sitting in a paper gown inside three walls with a white sheet for a door. The woman in the corner of this three-walled room asks to see my scars, her face so much kinder than his. She apologizes for the pain that made me make these scars. Something in her eyes shows she is a friend. At home, I greet him with a smile, dinner on the table, and two kids fast asleep.
These trees are passed over by dozens of faces that never see their hurts. These trees make me stop and question and stare. Their scars bring me comfort; in the center of their blackness I find one green shoot. These are the moments that remind me life comes after the wounds.
My Daddy is a Butterfly
A leaf, half-red-half-green begs for my contemplation. I pull it close, study its bifurcation and where red spills over veins of the leaf. Splotches of red carried through green, the way I carry shards of my daddy with me: words he said, things he did, how he guided me. My daddy is a leaf dangling in a tree, stretching down for me to see places where veins show through his skin, weathered hands, scarred face, his voice growing thin. Wars uprooted him from our tree, left me without protection, sent him overseas. He always came back for me.
The leaf, half-green-half-red, is filled with holes from tip to stem. What made the holes? I picture me, but I see them. I hear the shouting and smell the booze. I know the damage they caused, too. Broken bottles and scratched up faces, wounded pride and powdered traces of drugs from the night before. My daddy bled for the U.S. Army; my mother was his most arduous war.
Metallic trails of dragonfly wings linger in air. I follow the flight of their paths. A bee buzzes. The drone in my ears like the hum of their house after a war. For years I watched his spirit recede to a place I couldn’t reach. Each day, his love and laughter grew further from me. I was a flower planted in his palm, he the sunlight that helped me grow. The sun becomes slivers on the path ahead. His soul turned cold. A cloudless sulfur butterfly alights on a frond in a patch of fern. Before I can turn to look it shutters and is gone.
Dismantling Childhood Dreams
On the ground in front of my aqua blue Converse shoes, scattered patches and clumps of three-leaf clover weave and bob with the wind. I used to think I was lucky marrying you. Your eyes were the color of sky and your hair stood tall as blades of grass covering the space beyond the fence. But like the clover, you die in winter and spring doesn’t bring you back.
You buried your heart in dark amber bottles, buried your head in laps and breasts of women who never said I do. I once loved you like I love the trees that tower feet above my head. The tree tops tuft out with yellow blooms that fall at my feet. I pick them up from the floor and cradle them in my hands like three newborn babies. I remember your smile and the clearness in your eyes. I feel the warmth of your arm around my shoulders. Your lip trembles as you stretch out a finger to hold a tiny, wrinkled, red day-old hand.
Your softness never lingers. Unruly as a spring sky, your eyes cloud over with threatening rain, face cold, hand withdrawn. Compelled by an addiction I can’t understand. You skulk away in search of something to satiate your thirst. And each time you do, they question their worth. I should’ve known storm clouds loomed on the horizon, but I was in love and love blinded.
I follow the sun around a bend and pick my way over stacked fallen limbs. My feet are unsteady. The sun scurries across the forest floor, too happy to measure its steps. I nearly stumble over a root pushing up through the dirt. You tripped them up too. For days they wandered with blank faces and unfocused eyes. Then, a month of tears opened to a question-filled sky. Does he love us? Why doesn’t he call? Will he come back? Is it our fault? When you slipped into blackness, you broke them too, but your children love in a way I can never love you.
Petals of yellow flowers fall from my hand. They catch in the wind which carries them to places I can’t see. Do you know your children watch and wait for you just as I watch them? I see resentment in their faces and hurt in their eyes. I answer their questions, hold them as they cry. I hate you for those days, just as I hate the green garbage can in the midst of the trees, how it interrupts the scenery and disturbs the peace. Our children are swept away from you like the flowers that fall and get snatched by the breeze.
Trees Hold Only Questions
A tree stands, insides scooped out; I can see all the way through. Bright green fern shoots dance on the opposite side of the window tree. The sprigs are beautiful in the way they leap and lean on the breath of the wind. A set of papers in a box. I am a hollowed out tree, yearning for newness as a forest longs for spring.
Something chisels away the face of this tree, one bark layer at a time. It stands face to the sun, winds, rain. I chisel away his face and memories of him, locking them—one at a time—in closets, erasing them, replacing them with the patter of feet on the lawn, dances in rain with my children all of our arms spinning out at our sides, swinging at the park on cool fall days, and movies cuddled on couches that stretch the lengths of our family of four. Like erasable traces on the path in front of me, we exchange red throat, bulging blue vein voices and bodies pinned to walls, feet dangling off the floor, for rainbow-shaded pictures in coloring books and little Clara’s fashion shows in the living room. We sing in the car at the top of our lungs. Every “shut up” drowned from our memories until he is just a faceless tree. Like ferns dancing to the rhythms of wind, we sprout up green.
A grey-brown bird scurries across pine-needle covered ground, searching for food; he meets a friend and they rush off as a pair. My feet are mere feet from them, and I tread slow and quiet over the terrain, rounding the bend and stepping over logs, past the limbs of bushes. They seem wild with desire to overrun the path. Another fowl joins the scurrying birds and they continue their bouncy little journey through the preserve. Like a dream I can almost reach out and grasp in my palms, they rush ahead with me following. These birds are my tribe. I chase things I cannot see. I want to reach out and catch a bird in my hand, to stroke its feathers, to whisper all my secrets in the space where its ears should be. Will the bird look away or look me in the eye? I shake my head. The birds lift from the ground, flutter off, their bodies mix with clouds until they become sky.
I follow yellow footprints, flowers flattened by adventures of other feet. I look to the sky, searching for golden trumpets. Just this side of cornflower blue—growing on the fingertips of limbs, swaying in the white of the sun. So close to heaven and so far to fall. But I’m not afraid of flying anymore.
I dance through trails of sunlight scattered around a bend to doorways I’ve never been. The yellow flowers below my feet refuse withering—all resilience and beauty. Unyielding and oblivious to earth pushing up below it, the bark-covered pathway all resistance and apathy. I know I must leave. I toss questions to the breeze and wait as the wind carries them to the trees.
Sarah Scott is a senior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she studies creative writing with an emphasis on creative non-fiction. She plans to pursue an MFA after completing her undergraduate degree.
When the sky swells shut I press to it, tender—vestigial motion of my young mother
hunched in cloister, willing the blood to clot—a palm canopied above the eyes,
another soft against the horizon, iodine wetting my browned skin like mango.
In her absence, my father would double a peppermint leaf about a grain of salt, sing
until my fevered belly ceased heaving. Until she returned with stronger medicines,
we took from the garden and from the lung. We picked amid shade.
He said, Your mother is a holy woman.
She said nothing.
I sheath my jaw in that luminous silence and swallow, much like a body, posture
calcified. Two slippery eyes traveling the glossed edge of a plastic fern, searching for
the particle of light hope resembles. That, or a drowsy nothing.
A fog drifts along the shore. Raised sheet. With two hands I pull it thin over my
sugared skin, lift its hem high, and venture into the lake—as hot as a mouth, as
ready for consumption. At the back of its throat—an intractable sun.
Gabriela Natalia Valencia worries and writes in Chicago, IL. She is a sophomore studying Chemistry and English at Loyola University Chicago with hopes of entering medicine. More of her poems can be found in Bird’s Thumb, The Legendary, Epigraph, and elsewhere.
The Ferris Wheel
It was an overcast day that hinged on gloomy, just enough to induce the slightest undertone of melancholy. I wore my usual uniform—khakis, a white polo shirt, and a black overcoat in case it became chilly. I boarded the first Ferris wheel car that was waiting for me and took a seat. I waited alone as the machine made its first routine loop back to where my car had begun.
The first woman who boarded opposite me was refreshingly average looking—brown hair to her shoulders, jeans, and a navy windbreaker—neither smiling nor frowning. She could’ve been the mother to a few children, perhaps even married; I didn’t get a good look at her left hand. When the car left the ground again, she reached forward assertively and took my head in her hands, pulling my lips to hers. Nothing special. Business-like, just short of mechanical. As our car touched ground, she unlocked her lips from mine and gave a curt nod, of what I wasn’t exactly sure (appreciation?). She gathered her purse from the seat and slid out of the car.
The second woman who boarded was more disheveled looking—tall and slender to the point of being waiflike, braces on her teeth, and a lingering smell of whiskey about her. I later attributed the scent to a black, plastic sports bottle she pulled from her purse as our car reached the top, sipping something that I was certain was far from water. It wasn’t long into our kiss that she began tearing up and telling me I reminded her of her ex-boyfriend, then proceeded to call me Logan for the rest of our rotation.
A man entered next, black haired and smartly dressed. He was more difficult to read than the first two, though his hazel eyes held mine for an uncomfortably long time. He was gentle in his kiss. When we reached the end of the rotation, he asked me what I was doing here. I replied that I could ask him the same thing. A small, fleeting smile crossed his lips as if to say touché.
It wasn’t my job to ask them who they were or where they came from. I was supposed to kiss them—professionally and without complaint.
With the next woman, I experienced a moment of familiarity, something like déjà vu. It crossed my mind that she may have come before, but no, I had a knack for remembering faces. There was nothing intrinsically special about her. It was a simple psychological phenomenon, and within seconds it had passed. She, like the others before her, took her leave when the faded white doors swung open, and I knew that I would never see that oddly familiar face again.
I may have had a knack for remembering faces, but rarely did I ever have to, at least not here. They wouldn’t return. I’d never know them beyond those faces, their simple mannerisms, their clothes, their lips. Like all things, they’d come fleetingly, and then they’d be gone. The only thing I could count on seeing day after day was the machine upon which I sat, dull and unflinching, fixed there regardless of who came and went. And, quite frankly, I preferred it that way.
The day proceeded like clockwork as it always did—the monotonous clicks of the Ferris wheel counting the seconds. The sky turned to dusk as my shift neared its end, the gloom of the day interweaving itself with the trappings of night, a time that I considered both peaceful and a bit forlorn. The Ferris wheel slowed, its rusty metal innards creaking at the sudden change in motion. It was a sound that no longer affected me.
As I walked toward my car, I glimpsed the woman with braces lingering near the gate. When I got closer, she approached me and asked if I would like to grab a drink. I declined as politely as I could and increased my pace without looking back at her. I had an old dog at home, a scruffy German Shepherd, blind in one eye, and he would be expecting me at 6:30 sharp.
Charlie Bartlett is a junior at the University of Minnesota majoring in English with a minor in political science. An aspiring novelist who enjoys exploring human nature, she has previously worked as a reporter for The Minnesota Daily, but her heart lies in creative writing. Her publication in Runestone marks her creative debut, and she is excited to continue sharing stories with the world.