Alexis Bowe

Behind Closed Doors


Chelsea and I take our spots behind the long trail of women waiting in line for the bathroom. The girl in front of us is crying, her mascara leaving black streaks down her cheeks, while her friend rubs the small of her back, telling her, “It’s okay. She’s not even as pretty as you anyways.”

I’m watching this when Chelsea reaches out a manicured finger to my head. She twirls a strand of my curly red hair around her finger, and gently pulls until the tension causes it to straighten. Then she lets go, and the corners of her lips turn up in an amused smile, as she watches it spring back into its original curl shape.

“Your hair is fun,” she says.

I give her a tight smile and we move up with the rest of the line. When we finally move up far enough to be inside the bathroom, the loud trap music blaring in the club muffles. I can’t make out what Gucci Mane is rapping about anymore, but I can still feel the bass pounding through my bones.

“I have a surprise for you,” Chelsea says. She reaches a hand down the front of her faux leather miniskirt, and I dart my eyes around to make sure no one is watching.

“What are you doing?” I hiss, taking a step forward to block her from people’s view.

She digs around for another moment before pulling out a tiny plastic bag with two little pink pills inside of it that match the color of her lips. Her face lights up as she holds it in front of her stomach for me to see.

“Where did you just pull that out of?” I ask her.

“My panty pocket,” she replies matter-of-factly. “That’s what they’re there for.”

I know exactly which pocket she’s talking about. I highly doubt that the small extra flap of cotton sewn into the crotch of most panties was designed as a pocket for girls to place drugs in order to sneak into clubs. I have to admit that it’s a pretty great idea to use it as one.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Ecstasy,” she replies.

I don’t want to admit it to her, but I’ve never tried ecstasy before. In fact, I’ve never tried any drug other than weed before, and I’m not sure that I want to tonight. I’m already feeling pretty tipsy. I don’t want to push myself over the edge.

“I can’t,” I tell her.

“Why not?” she asks. We take a few baby steps forward.

“I have work tomorrow.” This isn’t a lie. I do have work. Not until three in the afternoon, but she doesn’t need to know that.

“So?” A toilet flushes, and the girl who’d been crying walks out. She gasps at herself in the mirror, and quickly dabs under her eyes with a piece of paper towel that she rips from the dispenser.

Chelsea goes into the now-empty stall and when another toilet flushes, I go into that one, hoping that Chelsea will just drop this whole ecstasy thing. When I come out, Chelsea is standing at one of the sinks washing her hands, her eyes meeting mine in the reflection of the mirror. I go up to the sink next to her, taking in my own reflection.

My cheeks are a flushed, bright pink, and there are a few tiny flecks of black under my eyes where my mascara has begun to flake, but my mauve lipstick hasn’t smudged, and what little cleavage I have looks great in my dress. I usually don’t wear dresses like this one—sequined, short, deep-V neckline—but when Ian told me that we were going to a club, I knew I had to find something other than the white cotton sundress I’d worn for my high school graduation.

I bought this one on sale at Charlotte Russe earlier tonight. My very first club dress. As I sat on the train going into the city, I noticed a few men checking me out and a few women shooting me angry glares. I pressed my lips together, pretending not to notice, but inside, my heart was pounding.

“It’s only one pill,” Chelsea continues to my dismay. “You’ll be fine to go to work tomorrow.”

I sigh, tossing the idea around in my head. “What about the guys?” I ask. I’d come here with Ian after all, and had just met Chelsea and her boyfriend Marco for the first time tonight. It didn’t feel right doing drugs with one of Ian’s friends behind his back like this.

“What about them?” she chuckles, turning off the sink and shaking water off of her hands. “My weed guy gifted me these for free last weekend, and I figured tonight would be the perfect time to do them.”

“Wouldn’t you rather do them with Marco, though?” I ask her, following her out of the bathroom and back into the club.

“Marco’s always getting fucked up without me,” she shouts over her shoulder at me. “I want you to have it.”

I follow her up to the bar where she orders two double Jameson’s and ginger ales, passing them both back to me. She takes the little baggy out of her clutch, opens it underneath the bar, and drops two pills onto the palm of her hand, letting the baggie fall to the slightly sticky floor when she’s done.

“Here,” she says, holding her hand out to me. I stare at the pink, button-like pills that seem to glow in the dim, shadowy nightclub. “Come on. It’ll be fun. I promise.”

Sighing, I hand her drink back to her and take a pill. She grins widely at me, and we both toss the ecstasy back with a sip of what’s mostly Jameson, before I give myself enough time to think up another excuse not to.

“Okay, now let’s go find the guys,” she says. She grabs my clammy hand and leads me into the sea of sweating, gyrating bodies.


I don’t remember leaving the club, but we’re outside now on a street I don’t recognize. A breeze whips through my hair and I shiver, but I don’t feel cold. I should feel cold, shouldn’t I? Instead, I feel warm and fuzzy like freshly spun cotton candy.

I hear a click and follow the sound to see Marco with a Camel Crush hanging out of his chapped lips, one hand forming a roof over the top of it, the other wrapped around a lighter. He attempts to light it, but the wind keeps blowing it out.

“Fuck,” he murmurs around the cigarette.

“How do you feel?” Chelsea is standing in front of me now, her lips the color of bubblegum, pupils the size of saucers, and pores large and visible under the harsh white streetlight.

“Good,” I say. And I do feel good.

She grins a toothy grin and says, “Give me your arm.”

I hold my arm out to her and she gently runs the tips of her coffin-shaped nails up and down my skin, causing it to prickle with goosebumps. I feel myself smile and realize how badly my jaw aches.

“Hey, give me a cigarette.” Chelsea has moved away from me now, toward Marco. Where’s Ian?

A shudder of panic runs down my spine, and I look left and then right, but only see a cluster of people smoking and a girl in a hot pink dress drunkenly shouting into her cell phone. Did we leave him at the club? My heart rate quickens for a moment, but then I see him emerging from the nearby alley, pulling the zipper of his jeans up as he approaches us. His t-shirt rides up a little bit, revealing a tan strip of stomach. Both he and Marco are wearing t-shirts and dark jeans with jackets (Marco’s leather, Ian’s a bomber). They have a way of making t-shirts and jeans look polished, expensive.

“You ready to go?” I turn my head toward the sound of Chelsea’s throaty voice. “The Uber is two minutes away,” she says.

Chelsea wraps a thin arm around me, passing me her half-smoked cigarette, and Ian walks over to where Marco stands, the cigarette in his mouth finally lit. I don’t normally smoke, but I take a puff, coughing as it burns the back of my throat. I pass it back to her and she takes a long drag before stomping it out with the toe of one of her black strappy pumps.

A shiny black Nissan Altima pulls up and we all pile inside; Marco sits up front and I sit in the back, smushed between Chelsea and Ian. The smell of whatever woody cologne our driver drenched himself in is overpowering inside the tight confinement of the car, and I reach over Chelsea to roll down the window.

“Hey, you can’t smoke that in here,” the Uber driver says to Marco in a thick Indian accent.

I realize that Marco still has a cigarette between his lips, smoked down to just a nub now. Chelsea laughs through her nose next to me. “My bad,” Marco says, rolling down the window and tossing it out.

I watch the Uber driver roll his eyes in the rearview mirror. “You’re going to Justine Street?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Marco replies.

We pull into the street and begin driving, the wind tousling my hair through the open window. Marco starts fiddling with the radio, asks the Uber driver if he has an aux cord (he doesn’t), and turns the volume up to twenty when he finds 107.5 playing a rap song that I vaguely remember hearing earlier in the club. I can tell the Uber driver hates passengers like Marco by how tightly his hands are gripping the steering wheel and how erect his posture is.

“Where are we going?” I whisper to Ian.

“A friend’s house,” Chelsea answers for him. “My weed guy.” She winks at me, as if this is code for something that only her and I know about, and I wonder if Ian and Marco know that she and I are on ecstasy. I can’t remember telling them we were.

I remember finishing that drink she and I got from the bar. I remember finding Ian and Marco deep inside the crowd, where I couldn’t tell whether it was my sweat, someone else’s, or a mixture of the two, dampening my dress so that it stuck to my back. I remember dancing. A lot. So much that the muscles in my thighs ached. I remember Marco and Chelsea whispering to each other. Maybe she told him about the ecstasy then? I remember Ian and Marco leaving to go grab more drinks, Chelsea grinding her body against mine while they were gone. How her body seemed to send mine some kind of electric charge as it rubbed up against me. Then that’s it. It’s as if we time-traveled from the club to the street, and into an Uber.

“Are we picking up weed or something?” I ask.

The Uber driver glares at me through the rearview mirror, and I remember that he’s within earshot of me.

“Something like that,” Chelsea replies. I glance over at Ian, who’s staring out the window, and I wonder why he’s being so quiet today.

He and I met through Tinder, something none of my friends back home in Glen Ellyn know I’m on. People tend to be very judgmental where I’m from. If my friends knew I’d met a guy on Tinder and then hopped on a Metra train out to the city to see him a few days later, they’d think I was insane. I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t exciting though, having this secret life that no one but I knew about. Where I’m from, everyone is content with being content. Their idea of fun is going to a movie or to the mall. It gets pretty old after a while. I wanted to meet new people. I didn’t expect to meet someone so soon.

The first time Ian and I met, he took me out to lunch and we walked around Lincoln Park Zoo. While we were waiting for the Uber that he called to take me back to Ogilvie Station, he leaned over and kissed me. His stubble was prickly against my chin and his lips tasted like nicotine. I’d never kissed a guy who smoked cigarettes before, but I didn’t mind the taste. I kind of liked it, actually. He had been so sweet and funny and talkative that day, but now he won’t even look at me. Did I do something wrong? Had I done something embarrassing in the stretch of time that’s somehow escaped my memory?

I try to shake off this thought, deciding that he’s probably just tired, and stare out the window. As we continue to drive, the tall buildings and overflowing bars turn into three-story apartments and tiny corner stores with metal bars on the windows. An uneasy feeling settles in the pit of my stomach.

“Where does your weed guy live?” I murmur to Chelsea.

“Don’t worry. We’re almost there,” she replies.

When the Uber comes to a stop, it’s in front of a white two-story house with chipped paint and a miniscule concrete porch. It sits on a patch of dead grass, enclosed inside a metal gate. All the curtains are drawn, and the porch light is off.

“Thanks,” Marco says to the driver as he gets out of the car. Ian and Chelsea open their doors to get out too, but I remain frozen in my seat, staring out Ian’s open car door at the house.

Chelsea walks around to Ian’s side and bends down to peek in at me. “Come on,” she says.

I glance back at the Uber driver, who is watching me through the rearview mirror, his thick black eyebrows knitted together. I feel a sudden overwhelming urge to ask him to take me away from here. Away from this house, this neighborhood, this city.

I think about my room back home in Glen Ellyn. About the pink and white bedding I’ve had since I was sixteen and the big window looking out into the front yard. I think about my mom and dad. They’re probably sitting on the couch right now—my mom with her legs tucked underneath her and the quilted blanket she loves draped over her, and my dad in his favorite Blackhawks sweatshirt with his arm resting on the back of the couch. Neither are worried about me because they think I’m spending the night at Kaitlin’s house, only ten minutes away, just right down Roosevelt Road.

“Leah,” Chelsea says, sounding slightly irritated now.

I tentatively slide across the smooth leather seat and step out into the night, which feels much colder now. Chelsea shuts the door behind me, and I watch the taillights of the Nissan get smaller and smaller as it speeds off down the street, eventually making a right, and disappearing around the corner.

Ian and Marco are already waiting on the tiny slab of concrete porch, and as Chelsea and I ascend the three brittle stairs that lead up to it, the front door opens. A tall, wide Hispanic man fills the door frame, yellow light pouring out of the spaces his body does not take up.

His murky brown eyes land on me and the corner of his mouth curls up ever so slightly. He greets Ian and Marco, and they both slide past him into the house. When Chelsea approaches him, he wraps her up in a hug, and I watch his large, tan hand travel down to her ass. My breath quickens.

“And who might you be?” he says to me, his voice deep and gravelly. He looks me up and down, and I suddenly wish that my dress was a few inches longer, the neckline a few inches higher.

“That’s Leah,” Chelsea introduces me. “Leah, this is Damian.”

He holds a meaty hand out to me, the same hand that was just on Chelsea’s ass. I reach out my own trembling hand and shake it, his palm warm and calloused.

“Come on in,” he says to us. I trail behind Chelsea into the front hallway, pressing the door shut behind me. His house smells like weed and disinfectant, skunky and astringent.

We walk past the kitchen where a woman not much older than me sits, rolling joints. She looks up at me as we pass, her cold, empty eyes meeting mine for only a moment before returning to the pile of weed in front of her.

When we walk into the living room, Marco and Ian are already sitting down, Ian on the faded tan couch and Marco on one of the two metal folding chairs adjacent to it. Damian sits down on the other one, and Chelsea and I sink down into the worn couch, with me winding up between her and Ian again.

The only other furniture in the room is the knotted wood coffee table (scattered with two full ash trays, random blunts and nugs of weed, a small scale, even smaller baggies, and a remote) and the TV, which sits on a fold-out table parallel to the couch. I feel very out of place here in my black sequined mini dress and three-inch red heels.

“So,” Damian begins, his voice booming throughout the small rectangular room. “Anybody need a drink?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Chelsea replies. She rises from her spot on the couch and looks down at me. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s go help him grab the drinks.”

I glance at Ian who is sunken back into the couch, too busy picking at his cuticles to notice that I’m looking at him. Tentatively, I rise from my seat and Chelsea takes my hand in hers. She follows Damian into the kitchen, pulling me along behind her, but I don’t think it takes three people to go grab some drinks.

My hand is slick with sweat when Chelsea finally releases it. The woman at the table glances up at us, her face remaining expressionless. Damian places his hand on the back of her chair, leaning down to murmur something into her ear in Spanish. She looks back up at Chelsea and I, then gets up and walks out of the room.

“Come on, ladies,” Damian says to us. We follow him over to the refrigerator. “So how did you like those pills?” he asks as he opens the door to the fridge. White light pours over his tan face. I notice a bright pink scar that snakes around his left eye, beginning above his eyebrow and ending at the top of his cheek.

“They were great as always,” Chelsea purrs. “Leah, what did you think?”

My heart rate quickens at the sound of my name. Damian pulls out a six-pack of A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, and he and Chelsea both look at me, waiting for my answer. “They were great,” I parrot Chelsea, my voice shaky as it leaves my mouth.

“I have more of them upstairs in my room,” he says. “You want another one?”

He and Chelsea look to me again as if they’re counting on me to give them the correct answer. Instead, I stand there, mouth slightly ajar, wondering if Ian and Marco are wondering why it’s taking us so long.

“She wants another one,” Chelsea answers for me, her bubblegum lips coiling up into an impish smile. She takes my hand again and as Damian begins leading us out of the kitchen, beer still in hand, I feel the pad of her thumb gently begin to stroke the top of mine.

Ian and Marco don’t even glance up at us when we pass by the living room. A thick cloud of smoke hangs around Marco’s head, and he reaches through it to pass Ian a bowl, as we continue past them to the stairs.

The stairway leading to the second level of Damian’s house is dim and narrow. Each stair creaks under our weight and the closer we get to the top of them, the more I want to turn around and run out of here. My gut is playing tug-of-war with itself inside my stomach and a cold sweat has broken out on the back of my neck. All of the doors upstairs are closed, but Damian opens up the second one to the right, and we file inside. He closes it behind us.

Inside Damian’s room is a mattress with disheveled blankets and sheets, a nightstand, and a dresser with a TV that sits on top of it. The only source of light in the room comes from a small lamp that sits on top of his nightstand, casting a dim, yellow glow over everything. I notice a rosary with turquoise beads sitting on the nightstand too. The silver cross hanging from it gleams under the light from the lamp. The miniature Jesus hanging on it unnerves me.

Damian plops down on the mattress, placing the six-pack on the carpet at his feet, and opens the drawer to his nightstand. Chelsea sits down beside him. I stand over them, feeling awkward and slightly nauseous.

“Sit down,” Chelsea tells me, tugging on my hand.

I sink into the bed next to her. Damian pulls out a Ziploc baggy full of those pink little pills, which have a slightly orange hue to them under the yellow light of the lamp, and hands one to me and one to Chelsea. Next, he pulls out two beers and opens them each before passing them down to Chelsea and me.

As I pop the pill in my mouth, I notice that Damian doesn’t take one. But he grins at me as I swallow mine down, and I think I can feel that little pink pill land in the pit of my stomach, which groans. I realize that I haven’t eaten anything since lunch. My mom would have a fit if she knew that. She was always so persistent on making sure that everyone had enough to eat.

I wonder what she and my dad had for dinner tonight. It’s Friday so they probably had Lou Malnati’s. Every Friday since I can remember, we would order a deep-dish cheese pizza from Lou Malnati’s for dinner. When I was little, I’d always go with my dad to pick it up, and when we rode home, I’d place the pizza box on my lap, holding it steady so that the cheese wouldn’t slide around when my dad turned a corner. I hope the cheese didn’t slide now that I wasn’t there to hold it.

“God, these heels are killing me,” Chelsea says. She kicks them off, then looks to me. “You should take yours off, too. I’m sure your feet are sore from dancing all night.”

They are sore, but I don’t want to take my shoes off here. If I take them off, that means we’re staying awhile, and I don’t want to stay awhile.

“Shouldn’t we head back downstairs?” I say instead. “Won’t the guys be wondering where we are?”

Chelsea rolls her eyes dramatically and leans back on her elbows, removing the barrier between Damian and I. “Didn’t I tell you earlier not to worry about the guys?” She reaches a bare foot over and kicks the shoe off my right foot for me.

I glance at Damian, who sips a beer, his dark eyes peering over the top of it at me. I feel Chelsea kick my other shoe off, and I think I should make up an excuse to leave soon. Say I have to get some rest before work in the morning or something. Then I can call an Uber and go home. I could be back in my room watching Netflix in less than an hour. I should tell them I have to leave. I should get up and go back downstairs, but my limbs feel heavy, too heavy to move, so I remain frozen on Damian’s bed, my spine stiff and straight.

“What’s wrong with you?” Chelsea asks, moving her hand, cool and damp from holding the beer, so that it rests on top of mine. “You were having fun earlier, weren’t you?”

That was back when we were at the club, I want to say. Before we came here.

“Yeah,” I say instead.

“Well relax, and let’s keep having fun then,” she replies, her lips curling up into a jack-o-lantern-like grin.

“Yeah,” Damian chimes in. “You want some music? I can put on music.”

He rises from the bed and walks over to a closet. I glance to my left as if I may find a way out of this over there, but all I see is a framed photo of a baby with pink pudgy cheeks and a blue knit cap on his round head, sitting on the dresser. I wonder if this is Damian’s child. It must be. Why else would he have his picture out on display in his bedroom? Is that woman from downstairs the mother?

Damian walks over to the dresser and places a portable speaker on top of it.

“I just don’t get why we’re listening to music up here while Ian and Marco are sitting downstairs,” I say.

Chelsea sits back up, her face cast over as she glares at me. “Here.” She picks up my beer, which I’d set down on the carpet, and shoves it at me. “Drink this and we’ll get the music going and we’ll all have fun, okay?”

I stare at the bottle, watching a single drop of condensation roll down the side of it like a tear rolling down a cheek. I let out a deep sigh and take it from her, swallowing down a long sip.

She smiles and says, “Good girl,” as glitchy electronic music begins playing from the speaker. Then she stands up, holding out a hand to me. “Dance with me.”

I stare at her hand for a moment before I hesitantly take it, her thin fingers interlacing with mine, and let her pull me up off of the bed. I take another long swig of my beer before setting it down on Damian’s nightstand.

Chelsea twirls me around like they do on that show my mom loves, Dancing with the Stars, and I feel like this ecstasy pill is hitting me quicker than the last one did.

Electricity runs up through my fingertips, spreading throughout the rest of my body. Damian turns the volume on the speaker up and Chelsea’s blonde hair whips around as she dances, moving her hips and head in sync with the music. I get that feathery feeling just underneath my skin and when Chelsea pulls me toward her. I let her. When her bubblegum lips meet mine, I don’t pull away, even when her cold, wet tongue slips between my lips and into my mouth.

I’ve never kissed a girl before. It’s different than kissing a guy. Softer. Sweeter. Gentler.

I feel her hand tangle up in my hair, her fingers gently beginning to knead the back of my head.

When we fall onto the bed, I notice that the hem of my dress has hiked up to the top of my thigh. I reach a hand down to fix it, but Chelsea reaches a hand down to stop me. Then I feel that same hand begin to travel slowly up my thigh and under my dress, and when it reaches inside my panties, I let my arm fall limp at my side, my back tensing up in pleasure.

I don’t know how much time passes by. An hour? Twenty minutes? Five? It all becomes fuzzy once the ecstasy peaks. But at some point, once both of our clothes have been shed (I hardly remember taking mine off), I catch a glimpse of Damian out of the corner of my eye and my stomach lurches. I forgot he was even in the room, but there he stands, off to the side of the bed, lips sneered and shoulders squared, holding his phone out, recording us.

I immediately jerk upright, my head swimming as I do so.

“What’s the matter?” Chelsea asks me. I stare, wide-eyed at Damian, and he looks back at me, something smug and sinister flickering in his eyes. He doesn’t put the phone down.

I tear my eyes away from him and hold my arm up across my bare chest, feeling trembly and disoriented as I turn my head left and right, searching for my dress. Chelsea glances back at him, but doesn’t seem even vaguely phased.

“Sweetie, relax,” she tells me, placing a cold hand on my shoulder. “Nobody you know is gonna see this.”

I stare into her calm, dilated eyes. “What the fuck are you talking about?” I remark, jerking my shoulder so that her hand falls off of it. The ecstasy is taking a turn now, and I feel as though I might throw up. I squeeze my eyes shut, taking in deep, measured breaths through my nose, and letting them out slowly through my mouth.

Chelsea sighs as if me not being okay with all of this is inconvenient for her. “Damian’s family back in Colombia sells them for us, so no one in this continent will ever see them. You’d be surprised how much people will pay for some real-life amateur American porn.”

Porn. The word is so alien to me. I’ve never even watched porn before. An acidic taste creeps up the back of my throat.

I stare at her, waiting for her to tell me that she’s just kidding, that of course this hadn’t been the plan the entire night. I remember Ian and Marco downstairs. Were they in on this? I wait for her to tell me they weren’t in on this, that at least Ian wasn’t. But she just stares right back at me impatiently with pursed lips.

“I need to leave,” I say, sliding past her and finding my dress crumpled up on the floor next to the bed.

Chelsea sits there, looking irritated. “Why? We were having fun. Just forget he’s even there.”

I step into my dress, knowing in that instant that I will never wear it again, and as I inch it up over my body, I notice that Damian is still recording. Why the fuck is he still recording?

“Leah, come on,” Chelsea says from the bed.

My throat burns with unshed tears, and I reach around my back to zip my dress up, but my hands are shaking and I’m only able to get it up halfway, so I just leave it, grab my shoes, and walk out of the room.

I float down the stairs, the sitcom audience laughter from the living room TV growing louder as I near the bottom. When I stop in the doorway to the living room, Ian and Marco both look at me. I wait for them to gasp, to ask me what happened, but they just sit there smoking their cigarettes, looking stoned and bored.

My legs are like Jell-O as I walk over to the couch to grab my purse, keeping my head cast down, refusing to look at Ian or Marco as tears well behind my eyes and humiliation burns my cheeks. I just want to get out of here, away from these people. I just want to go home.

Where my mom has probably fallen asleep on the couch during whatever movie my parents were watching. Where my dad has probably woken her up ever so gently and followed her upstairs to bed, leaving the light above the sink in the kitchen on for me in case I change my mind about staying at Kaitlyn’s, and so I wouldn’t come inside to a pitch dark house.

Home feels different now. Maybe home isn’t where I want to go after all.

“I wouldn’t go out there alone if I were you,” Ian says as I turn to leave. “Just sit down and relax. I’ll call you an Uber.”

I’m really fucking sick of people telling me to relax, but I sit down anyway, leaving a large space between Ian and I.

I squeeze my eyes shut, flashbacks of Chelsea and Damian playing behind my eyelids. Her lips, bubblegum pink, coming toward mine. Her hands, cold and soft as they traveled expertly up and down my body. And then Damian. Sneering. Foreboding. Recording. People are going to see that. People are going to see me. I repeat it over and over again in my head, trying to make it feel real. I know Chelsea said no one on this continent would ever see it, but how could I trust her after everything she’s done? What if she was lying? What if someone I know sees? What if my dad sees?

When I open my eyes, they’re blurry with tears.

This is all Ian’s fault. He was the one who messaged me, who took me out and made me laugh. Who brought me here. Or maybe it’s my fault for being stupid enough to trust some guy I met on Tinder. Is this my fault?

I think about that day at Lincoln Park Zoo and how I stumbled over what to say because I was so nervous around Ian. I think about the second time we hung out, eating pizza and watching movies in his studio apartment. I let his hand travel up underneath my shirt while we made out on his futon. I decided then and there that the next time we hung out, I wouldn’t stop him if he tried to have sex with me. What an idiot I was. I should have known that Ian didn’t actually like me. Ian, with his cool friends and cool city apartment and cool apathetic demeanor, would never be into me, sweet little Leah from Glen Ellyn. I should’ve known to take his attraction to me with a grain of salt.

Six minutes later, my Uber arrives. Neither Chelsea nor Damian come downstairs in those six minutes. Neither Ian nor Marco say a word. They just sit there, smoking and watching TV, as if all of this is perfectly normal to them. And maybe it is. The thought makes me queasy, and I’m grateful when Ian finally utters the words, “He’s here.”

When I get into the Uber, I realize it’s the same driver who dropped us off here. He looks at me in the rearview mirror, sitting there with my dress half unzipped and my shoes on my lap and tears staining my cheeks.

“Going back to Glen Ellyn?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I croak, and he peels off down the street.

Alexis Bowe graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a double major in creative writing and graphic design in the fall of 2018. Since graduating, she has done some freelance writing, as well as continued to work on her novel-in-progress. She is an emerging writer, and her work can be found in Hair Trigger 2.0 and Hypertext Magazine


Shari Hirsch

Beautiful Savages


Mama used to brush my hair at night before bedtime. We’d sit on the porch together, feeling the cool sensation of silk throw rugs beneath our bare thighs. Mama would be behind me¾so close I could smell the fragrance of her violet perfume. Sometimes, she’d lean forward so her pretty, heart-shaped face would rest on my shoulder. The point of her chin would dug lightly into my skin, but I hadn’t mind.

I loved my special time with Mama.

When we were alone together, she’d really talk to me, the same way she did with one of her friends or my aunties. She made me feel special like I wasn’t a baby. I was a woman.

Tonight, we observed our old ritual.

“Never follow a man,” she whispered into my ear as she brushed the tangles from my hair. “Men are foolish¾much like that boy from down the street that you like to play with. You’re not foolish, Fumi. Don’t behave foolishly.”

“Men are foolish,” I repeated. I wanted her to know I was listening.

“Don’t become like me, my darling.”

She’d often say this, though I wasn’t sure I really understood what she meant, at least not when I was younger. She was the purest form and embodiment of what a woman was, and what a woman should be. Why would I not want to be a goddess like her in my own right when I was older? 

“I will be whatever you want me to be,” I said as I traced my fingertips over the goosebumps forming on my forearm, staring out into the darkness ahead. The black outline of pine trees blanketed our house, the familiarity giving me a sense of comfort.

That night, I had the dream.

I was down by the beach, surrounded by women, the smell of incense strong in the air: wood and green tea¾no hint of sweetness.

The women all had thick, black hair, milk-colored skin, cold, black eyes, and blood red lips. Masks made out of broken skulls adorned half of their faces, from forehead to nose. They didn’t speak. Instead, they waved their hands through the air, slashing at nothing with long, yellow nails. Their smiles were the worst thing I’d ever seen¾hideous. Their teeth were plastic zippers, sealed shut and glowing.

One of them, smaller than the others, became curious of me. Over her naked body, she wore a silky robe of yellow and blue that trailed behind her. She approached me, and when we were face-to-face, she lifted her hand and unzipped the toggle at the end of her mouth with one of her long fingernails.

She licked my cheek, her tongue cold and smooth against my skin. I stepped back to look at her. I had the strangest sense of familiarity and a desperate urge to look away from the gruesome sight. She licked me again, and I shuddered. Her tongue was a bright green with two small, black eyes, and a long, forked, pink tongue of its own. Her tongue was a snake.

I told Mama about the dream in the morning before breakfast.

She sniffed and waved her hand over a cloud of steam that erupted after she lifted the lid off a pot of rice.

She whispered, biting into her lips, “Nure-onna, the snake woman.”

I thought of the old folktale. An amphibious beast with the body of a snake and the face of an angelic woman. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I shook my head.

“No, Mama. The serpent was inside her, not a part of her body.”

I watched as Mama flew through the kitchen in her pale robe. Her waist-length hair flicked so quick it became a blur, smacking against her back.

“It’s bewitchment,” she said as I followed her to the table.

Mama artfully placed down the china bowls along with a steaming plate of rice, a pot of soup, and some fish she’d bought early that morning down at the market.

“I just worry about you, my Fumi. You know your grandma’s mania started with dreams.”

“I know,” I replied, sinking into one of the cushions on the floor as Mama raced back into the kitchen.

I felt my appetite drain away, leaving a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Bad dreams. Mama said the dreams had caused grandma to bolt out of bed before sunrise. She’d glide through the house, looking blood-drained and chalk white as though she’d seen an apparition, whispering to herself, speaking of spirits and a dark presence. Mama said her passing was a blessing; it gave her peace.

I could feel Mama’s eyes on me. She was thinking about her, too. Her lower lip quivered slightly as it sometimes did when she was about to cry.     

“Eat up,” she said. “Let’s not worry our minds about such things right now.” She sat down, brushing out the wrinkles from her robe before she grabbed one of the bowls.

We ate in silence. Morning came and went quickly. I did my chores, sweeping and tidying around the house before I took Tom, our dog, for a walk. We headed east past the forest. Tom nipped at my heels and barked at our neighbor, Kyoshi, when he came down the pathway.

“Good afternoon, Fumi,” he said. “It’s lovely today, isn’t it?”

I fought a grin as I stared at his forever shaggy, black hair. I’d met Kyoshi when I was five and he was six. We’d bonded quickly over a love of digging up earthworms in the garden, building them magical castles made out of newspapers and plastic scraps. Mama didn’t approve.

“Yes, it is,” I replied, watching as pink spots appeared on his cheeks.

“How is your mother?” He asked.

As he knelt down to pet Tom, I noticed that Kyoshi’s shoulders were beginning to broaden out, and the pudgy mound of baby fat around his belly was gone. It was strange¾as a child he’d been much rounder and was often teased for being overweight. Suddenly, it was like staring at a stranger. I hadn’t noticed us changing as the years went by, but now I felt all too aware. I stared down at Tom.

“She’s doing really well, Kyoshi.”

“That’s good. So, the doctor’s treatments are helping then?”

I opened my mouth.

“Kyoshi!” A voice rang out from behind the trees.

“Coming!” He replied, jumping up and brushing the blades of grass from his knees. I felt an urge to ask him to stay but couldn’t get the words to come out.

“I must go,” he said to me, before turning toward the trees. He seemed to disappear so quickly it was as if he’d never been there at all. 

“Bye, Kyoshi,” I whispered to the rustling branches. I wouldn’t tell Mama about our quick run-in. The older Kyoshi got, the more she seemed to disapprove of him hanging around.

Tom barked.

We headed back home for lunch. Mama and I ate rice balls stuffed with umeboshi and eggs on the porch.              

“I have spoken with your Auntie Tearu about your dream.”

I looked up at her, my mouth still full with a bite of pickled plum. It tingled on my lips.

“Why, Mama?”

Her brows raised as she gave me a look. Her fingernails tapped on her collarbone briefly.

“I’m only doing what I must.”

Despite my opposition, I remained quiet.

“This is for the best, Fumi,” she said.

Off in the trees somewhere came a high-pitched shriek. It startled me, but Mama ignored it.

“I fear that something is coming for you, my darling. Something coarse and wicked.”

“Nothing is coming for me, Mama.”

She stared out into the sea of trees, but didn’t respond.


That night I could not sleep.

My mind wandered as I thought of conversations with my mother. Our special time on the porch where we’d share stories. Sometimes, when Mama was feeling up to it, she’d talk about her family, telling stories about growing up with my grandma and grandpa. Sometimes I’d imagine what they were like based off Mama’s stories since they had passed before I was born.


“Your grandpa was a handsome man,” Mama told me one night as she tucked me in for bed, “Many women thought so, but he chose your grandma.” Mama paused briefly to shoo away a bug on the window sill before returning to the bed. “Handsome, but very serious, he didn’t have time for anything he considered frivolous. There were only a handful of times during which we spoke alone together. It was very different with grandma.”

I remembered staring up at her intently as I asked her what she meant.

“We’d have adventures,” Mama said as her eyes twinkled with happy memories. “We’d dress up in our best outfits, our hair done up, and storm through the gardens to dig for buried treasure, drape sheets over low tree branches and pretend we lived in castles far away.” Mama wrapped her arm around me as she pulled me in close to her warm body. “But Papa would yell at her when we tracked in mud, and when he found the sheets torn and dirty with bugs and leaves,” her voice grew softer. “It broke her spirit.”

“Don’t be sad, Mama,” I said as I wrapped my arm around her waist. “We can still have adventures.”

“At least your grandma had someone,” Mama said as if I hadn’t spoken. “At least she wasn’t all alone.”

“You’re not alone Mama,” I said. “You’ll always have me. Forever.”

She stared down at me and smiled.

“Forever,” she echoed, as she ran her fingers through my hair. “Forever and always.”


Hours passed before I fell asleep.

In my dreams, my mind took me back to the world of those beautiful savages. They watched me, their cruel-looking eyes seemed to dance beneath the strange skeleton masks they wore. They howled like Titans when I begged them to take me back through the smoke swirls to the mental sanctuary of my home and the loving arms of Mama.

I tried to wake up, but they held down my slight form, their talon-like nails digging into my shoulders. Their rancid breath was warm on my cheeks. They laughed high-pitched howls as they sniffed my dark hair, breathing in my soap scented, limp locks. Their teeth gnawed at my small, pouty lips, and when they drew my blood, relishing the salty taste with cries of joy, I screamed. I saw the outline of the city in the distance against a starless sky filled with dragons that looked as flimsy as tissue paper. Their wings fluttered in the cool breeze.

I watched silently.

Then, it began to rain. It streamed down, the water black and corrosive as battery acid. The dragon’s wings of red and gold melted into nothing. The women holding me down threw back their heads and wailed. The rain burned away their hair, their skeleton masks. Their skin, which had once seemed so beautifully creamy and soft, was now eaten away, chunk by chunk. Left behind were hideous faces, skulls with small chunks of muscle hanging limply off bone.

In the morning, Mama asked me to go to temple with her to pray.

“It will help, my darling. Tearu recommended it.”

My auntie was just as eccentric as my mother.

I sighed. “Alright, Mama.”

After breakfast, we headed west through the forest toward the temple. It must have rained the night before. The air was crisp and fresh. Dewdrops trailed off oversized ferns and the earth was moist. The hem of my dress became mud-soaked.

I trailed behind Mama, watching my feet as they sank into the ground with each step. When I looked up, she was gone.

“Mama?” I called out, scanning the trees.

The forest was quiet. I could not hear her footsteps, see her tracks, or hear her voice calling me.

“Mama!” I said louder.

The forest was still, save for the chirping of birds and the humming of crickets.

I raced the last mile to the temple.

“Mama!” I cried. My voice bounced off the trees, echoing back to me.

I could see the temple up ahead. Rainwater dripped off the top of the sloped roof, collecting into a large puddle near the base.

I raced up the pathway and through the gate, almost falling on a slippery stone on the path. When I got to the steps, I slowed down.

The door felt slightly sticky in my hands as I slid it open. I moved quickly, but quietly, through the rooms, searching.

“Mama!” I hissed. “Where are you?”

At the end of the main hallway, I slid open another door leading to a small room, perfumed with jasmine incense. Colorfully decorated banners hung from the walls, and a small, wooden table held a bowl of pears and figs.

“Mama?” I whispered to a figure crouched down on a mat.

She lifted her head. “Darling!”

“Mama, why didn’t you wait for me?”

She grinned. “You’re here now, dear. That’s all that matters. Come,” she waved me over, “sit with me.”

I was so confused. My head felt strangely heavy and cloudy. How could she have gotten here so fast?


I began to chew on my nails, a nasty habit, one Mama had always tried to discourage with little success.


My left hand dropped from my mouth and I moved to join her.

After we’d finished praying, Mama and I walked silently down the paths outside. The gardens were beautiful, artfully arranged with sculptures, rockeries, and ornamental decor. Beneath a red maple tree, a small, bronze Buddha smiled at us cheerfully, his large belly exposed from his clothes. As Mama and I walked past the statue, a man in brown robes brushed past.

He nodded to us.

“Good afternoon,” I said.

“Lovely day,” said Mama.

He grinned at me, revealing a few missing teeth.

“Enjoying your visit?” he asked before continuing further down toward the low shrubbery.

“The new additions to the pathway are nice,” I said.

“I noticed you removed the fox statue that used to be by the gate,” Mama said. “I found that very disappointing.”

For some reason, the man ignored Mama, and instead turned to me, his eyes crinkled as the sun poked out from behind the clouds and beamed down on us.

“Best be off,” he said. “Must fish out the maple leaves that have fallen in the pond.”

We stayed a little while longer before heading home.

When we returned, I told Mama that I had a headache. She made me a wrap dipped in essential oils and placed it on my forehead while I rested on some cushions. The soothing smell of lavender and wild mint made me feel relaxed and sleepy.

I must have drifted off. When I woke up, it was nighttime.

“Mama?” I called out to the dark room. “Mama, where are you?” I waited to hear, right here, darling! It never came.

Our house seemed so cold. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized something wrong.

The room was torn to bits. The curtains were shredded, hanging limply from their poles, the tables overturned. The air smelled like rotten eggs, moldy carpet, and feces.

“Mama!” I cried.

There was no response.

I leaped up.

“Where are you?” I screamed.

I ran to the kitchen and fell onto my stomach. The floor was slippery, the wood looked rotten and eaten away.

I burst into tears.

“Help!” I croaked out.


Tom ran up to me and licked my cheek. I stared at him.

“Tom, what’s happened to you?” His fur hung over his eyes, was matted on one side, and he smelled awful. “Oh Tom!” I cried, brushing back the fur from his head. “What’s happening?”

Together, we moved through the house. I found that the windows were smashed, the food was rotting, and the porch¾our beloved porch¾was broken. There was a crack right down the middle like a giant fist had slammed down through the woodwork.

Tom ran up to the hole, looked down, and howled.

I pulled him away and went back inside to the cupboard. The broom in the closet was coated in a layer of dust. I wiped it off on my dress, went down the hall, and began to sweep away a broken vase.

I spent the night cleaning. I sobbed occasionally. Eventually, I fell asleep on the floor. When I woke up, the house remained in the same state of disarray, now with sunlight streaming in through the broken windows.

There was no breakfast.

I spent the morning in the forest, calling out Mama’s name. I didn’t find her, but noticed that the forest also seemed to be in a worse state than I remembered. Trees were split and on their sides, flowerbeds trampled, and the stones that lined the pathways were gone.

Instead of eating lunch, I hiked back out to the temple. Perhaps she was there, I could only hope. That was all I had left now. This time I ran up to the gate and raced up the stairs.

“Mama!” I screamed, running through the rooms, startling several people mid-prayer.

After I’d checked every room, I ran out to the gardens.

I called out for her, smashing the wildflowers with my boots and knocking over small sculptures. I ignored the damage. I had only one goal, one focus.

“Mama!” I screamed.

The man from the other day, the one in the brown robes, looked up at me from his spot underneath a willow tree and smiled.

“Hello! Lovely day isn’t it?”

I ignored him, scanning the grounds.

“Are you alright?” he called out.

I turned to him. “No.”

“May I help?” he asked.

A thought came to me. “Have you seen my mother?”

His brow furrowed. “Your mother?”

“Yes. The woman I was here with the other day. You saw us. Remember?”

His face paled. “I remember you. But not your mother. You were alone.”

I glared at him. “No. She spoke to you. You said it was a lovely afternoon.”

His faced wrinkled as he shook his head. “I spoke to you, and you were alone.”

I clench my teeth. My fingers curled into fists, fingernails biting into my palms. “I wasn’t!” I sank to the ground. “I wasn’t.”

“Why don’t you go back inside?” the man asked, moving in closer. “Perhaps someone inside can help you¾”

“No!” I shrieked, pounding into the dirt with my fists. “No! You’re lying about yesterday, about Mama!” I began to cry. “Stop lying!”

 The man looked alarmed.

“Is everything all right out there?” a man called out from the porch.

“Help me!” I cried. “Please, he’s lying to me!” I said, pointing up to the man in the brown robes.

The man on the porch raced down to us. “Fumi, is that you?” the man asked.

I stared at his face. It was Akio. Mama knew him better than I did. He sold us our furniture.

“Fumi, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t find her!” I cried. I hit the dirt again with my fist. “She’s gone!”

He crouched down. “Who?”

“Mama! She’s gone!”

He frowned, “Fumi, what do you mean?”

“I can’t find her! My house . . . our house is torn apart! And she’s¾

“What’s she talking about?” questioned the man in the brown robes.

Akio turned to look at him. “She’s . . . she thinks . . . her mother’s here.”

“No! She’s gone! She’s gone!”

“Yes, she is, Fumi,” he said gently, putting a hand my shoulder.

Your mother, your family, passed on.” Akio said.

I let out a wail, smacking away his hand, “No!”

“Fumi, I know the accident was very hard on you.”

“No!” I cried. “Kyoshi, he asked the other day about Mama¾”

“Sho’s son?”

I stare at him, pleading.

“Oh child,” he said quietly. “The typhoon got them too.”

“No!” I tore at the ends of my hair.

He stared down at me, expressionless. “Yes, child,” he said. Akio turned toward the man in the brown robes before telling him, “I hadn’t realized how bad it’s gotten. She’s not a child and, even though she’s been alone, I’d thought things were improving.”

I stared up at the clouds.

“But, what about the dreams?”


“They’re coming for me!”

He sighed. “Who?”

“Demons,” I whispered. “The snake woman.”

“No,” he said softly.

I closed my eyes. I couldn’t take seeing the pity etched into his face.


He was wrong, he had to be.

“Please, Fumi,” he said, Akio stood up and offered me his hand. “Stop this madness.”

I stared up at him, “You’re wrong, they’re coming for me.”

He glanced over at the other man and gestured for him to come closer. “I know, child. I know.”


They led me back into the temple as the people gathered around outside staring openly, but I didn’t care. They led me down the halls, all the way back to a small room, and motioned for me to rest on a green couch. The man in brown robes offered me a patchwork quilt that was ragged at one end.

I wrapped myself up and sank back into the cushions.

“Try to rest,” said Akio.

I wanted to reply, but my body wouldn’t stop shaking. I didn’t understand any of it.

When the two men walked away, I closed my eyes. They were wrong. Mama always said men were great deceivers. That was it, they were lying! But¾I started to remember.

It’d been six months. Six months since the storms had struck, destroying the house, and taking away my mama. Instead of staying home to care for her, I’d gone outside to hike through the forest. I’d told Mama I was going to run errands, a pointless excuse to get out of the house¾and Kyoshi! I’d run into him on my way back.

Maybe, if I hadn’t stopped¾but I’d wanted to stop, I’d wanted to see him. Maybe if I hadn’t, Mama would still be with me.

The tears returned.

Mama had struggled so much by the end, just like she said grandma had. It came on sudden. Just like the dreams had taken her, they’d begun to take Mama, too.

I’d spent countless nights waking up in darkness, the sky still pitch-black outside. I’d rub the sleep from my eyes and force myself out of bed. I would hear her whispering, talking about monsters, demon women that were coming for her. When she’d let me, I’d guide her back to bed, but sometimes she’d become hysterical and begin screaming.

I’m so sorry, Mama, it was an accident. Nothing more.

We’d known the storm was coming, I’d tried my best to board up the house, Mama had even seemed lucid that day.

“I’ll see you soon, darling,” she’d called out to me as I walked out of the house without looking back.

The rain was already heavy by the time I’d gotten back, and the winds were too strong. I should have stopped her from running outside. I shouldn’t have argued, or yelled, as she ran further away. I didn’t mean it, Mama¾the things I said.                    

I choked on my breath. The tears wouldn’t stop.

“Mama! Mama!”

“Mama,” I whispered. “I want to see you, I miss you¾so much.”

I grabbed the cushion and buried my face into it.

“I’m right here, darling!”

I looked up, but the room remained empty.

Wiping away tears, I dabbed at the wet spots on the cushion before I rested it behind my head. I was tired now, so tired that I felt as if I could sleep for the next hundred years. I shut my eyes and waited.

I dreamed, and in my dreams came the women, with their snake mouths, masks, and talon-like nails. As I stared at the crowd, the small creature wearing the yellow and blue robe stepped forward and removed her mask.

“Hello, darling,” she said.

I felt tears run down my cheeks. Even with a forked tongue, and bone jutting out from her skull, I still recognized my mama.

The women smiled at me and this time when they smiled, I was not afraid. My mama beckoned me, and without fear, I stepped forward.

The women came, circling me like prey. Their tongues slid out, ready to devour. They hissed, and their nails scraped my cheeks.

I knew what they wanted.

They wrapped themselves around me. Their skin sticking to mine felt ice-cold. They wanted me to let them in. They wanted to be inside of me¾mind, body, and spirit belonging to these dark monstrous creatures. So, I let them take me.

“I love you, Mama,” I whispered to the nothingness before the world around me went black.


Grace Smithwick


Disney World is the happiest place on earth. This is a known fact, verified, proven. Those who disagree have simply never been, have never smelled the piped-in-cinnamon sugar scent of Main Street, USA, or tasted the cool creaminess of a Dole whip; haven’t heard the screams from Splash Mountain as they wait in line, eagerly, for their turn down the slippery slope; and haven’t seen the spires of Cinderella’s castle as they walk through the gates. Epcot is my personal happy place. The second park to be built at the Orlando sight, Epcot was completed after Walt himself had already passed away. The park is very different from his original vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow and, in fact, has the distinct feel of being two different parks smashed together—because it is. Epcot came about when two imagineers with two different ideas and two different models tried pushing the models together.

If Magic Kingdom is one hub surrounded by the spokes of a wheel, and Hollywood Studios is an ambling boulevard, and Animal Kingdom is a rough, sloping mountain pass, then Epcot is all circles and spheres, puzzle pieces stuck together to form a whole. The two halves curve like slices from two different melons. One half is Future World, with rides about conservation and communication and technology. The other half is The World Showcase, part international bizarre, part World’s Fair. Each melon half sits around a man-made lake (large, but not so large that you can’t see the opposite bank at all times). And, of course, it is topped by the iconic “golf ball,” a 180-foot-tall geodesic sphere that contains Spaceship Earth, easily the most fun you’ll ever have while learning about world history. Usually less crowded than the more popular Magic Kingdom, the sight of the huge gray sphere of Epcot rising up above the trees has the uncanny ability to drive away every trouble out of my mind. Except, this time, it is not quite working.

It is Sunday June 10th, 2018, fifteen days before my twenty-sixth birthday, and “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” from Hercules is blaring through the speakers as I navigate my best friend’s car into the spot indicated by the enthusiastically waving parking lot employee in the orange-striped shirt. After I put the car in park and turn off the engine, I take a deep breath, my hands flexing on the steering wheel.

“Are you okay?” Liz asks, her hand on the door handle and one foot already out of the car. I smile at her, and it only feels 40% forced.

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

Our first stop is the trunk of the car for supplies. I have a tiny backpack full of snacks, as well as two bottles of sunscreen, and a plastic canteen full of gin and Sprite (honestly, more gin than Sprite). Liz and I both slather on the sunscreen because it is a beautiful, cloudless June morning and already ninety degrees. It is 9:00 a.m. so I don’t take a swig from the flask, but the thought is tempting, and I can’t help but wonder if that is one of the signs that I am turning into an alcoholic. Both of my parents were alcoholics, and drug addicts. They met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, what a wonder the marriage didn’t last. I cram the flask into my tiny backpack and as I lead to way to the line for the tram to the park entrance, my smile becomes less forced. Liz and I take selfies on the tram, our hair tossed about in the slipstream of the 40 m.p.h. vehicle. I try not to think about the phone call.  

In the morning, before Liz and I got on the road, my father called me; an odd occurrence, since he usually just messaged me on Facebook, if he contacted me at all. It was 6:30 a.m. I had just woken up an hour before, suffocating beneath Liz’s purple polyester bedspread. I hadn’t really been sleeping—who can ever sleep the night before a Disney trip? When my alarm went off I bounded out of Liz’s bed to start getting dressed. Liz simply buried her head further into her mountain of pillows, cursing me and my need to get on the road at the earliest possible moment. I let her sleep until 6:00 a.m., my excitement making me generous, and when she did finally stumble out of bed, it was with a chorus of muttered complaints that bounced off of me as though the sparkly makeup I was meticulously applying in the mirror was actually a magic shield.

By 6:30 a.m., we were both dressed, Liz’s car was packed, and we were about to hit the road. The call, like a lot of things my father has done, threw everything off.

“Hey, kid,” he greeted me when I picked up. “Do you know if grandma is home?”

I wondered how much my father knew about his own mother if he was wondering about her whereabouts at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. My grandma and I are both night owls. Before I moved to Chicago, when I was performing regularly with a Rocky Horror Picture Show cast in Tampa, I would usually get home around three or four in the morning and she would still be awake, playing matching games on her cellphone and watching HGTV.

“She should be,” I replied. “Why, what’s up?”

Liz was hovering in the doorway, watching me with tired eyes that made me feel just a little bit guilty for making her get up so early. On the phone, my father paused, and a spike of anxiety joined the guilt.

“I’m in the hospital,” he said. “I think it was a heart attack.”


Our main goal on this fine Sunday morning is to visit the World Showcase Promenade, a 1.2 mile stretch hosting pavilions from eleven different countries: Mexico, Norway, Germany, Italy, Franc, England, Canada, China, Morocco, Japan, and, of course, America. And I don’t mean shabbily erected tents with tables crammed beneath. This is Disney World, land of details and immersive storytelling. Each country has a slice of the mile-long path, and each slice is dominated by a piece of intricately detailed architecture. Mexico has a step pyramid, Morocco has an open-air market, China has a circular theater. England is laid out like a city road and is teeming with shops, including a Twinning’s tea shop with more tea and biscuits than you could consume in a year.

The World Showcase is my favorite part of Epcot. Each pavilion is unique, with snacks and shopping themed specifically for that country. Walking into each pavilion does not feel like walking into the countries themselves, I imagine. It is a manufactured version of the best parts of the countries represented, but when I’m waiting in line for sushi in Japan and can hear the drum ceremony outside, or when I’m browsing through trinkets in the market at the heart of Morocco and all around me is the smell of incense and roasting meat, I feel more connected to the world at large. It is a manufactured connection, but it still means everything to me. As a kid, it was the closest I ever came to being a glamorous world traveler. It doesn’t open until 11:00 a.m., so we decide to stop for coffee first. I lead the way. I’ve got a reputation for being Disney-wise, my head loaded with tips and tricks for surviving the sunbaked, ornery, Mickey-ear-wearing throngs. I know where the good bathrooms are (the one next to Journey into Imagination is secluded and rarely used). I know how to sneak in booze (in a plastic water or soda bottle, never glass; they confiscate glass), and that you no longer have to sneak in food.

Between us and the coffee shop are the Legacy Gardens, the first true challenge of Epcot navigation. It is a place where you can pay to have a loved one’s face engraved on a little piece of metal and displayed for all eternity on a shining marble slab. It’s an odd feature for a theme park, but Epcot has always been a little odd; a science and world cultures themed family vacation destination? Whacky, but I love it dearly. Sitting flush up against the park entrance, the Legacy Gardens is the spot everyone stops to take a photo, regroup their scattered party, or to ask questions to the overworked employees. It is a great photo spot: a dozen hulking, brown-marble slabs slanting a path toward Spaceship Earth, colorful hedge sculptures of Mickey and Minnie Mouse towering over all. Nothing at Disney is half-assed, not even the landscaping. There is an added challenge, one that I am fully responsible for. Before entering the park, I had stopped at one of the ticket booths and asked for a Happy Birthday button, because I wanted as much festiveness crammed into this day as possible. The woman behind the glass wrote my name on the button in looping script and handed it through with a smile. Walking in, every employee who saw my button wished me a happy birthday, as did several guests, an unspoken Disney tradition. I’ve wished complete strangers Happy Birthday, or Happy Anniversary, or Happy First Trip to Disney World countless times. Despite these challenges, I am able to safely navigate us to the Starbucks without losing Liz in the crowd.

Despite my best efforts, I am thinking about my dad at the Starbucks just past Spaceship Earth. It is fairly new, installed a few years ago, and it is one of the changes to the park that has not upset me. I was not a big coffee drinker until after my dad moved home from Canada. He had been gone for ten years and came back my junior year of high school. He missed a decade’s worth of birthdays, my first broken bone, and my sister’s high school graduation. The day he came back, Casie and I picked him up from the airport. I had swine flu and puked twice on the way there. We sat outside the luggage pickup at Tampa International Airport, so he could smoke. He told us that leaving was a mistake and asked us to make a spot for him in our lives now that he was home, begged us for forgiveness while crying freely. I noticed that we had the same eyes, that his turned green when he cried just like mine did. I told him that he came back, that that was all that mattered, and at the time, that had been true. I didn’t realize then what kind of a man my father was. I saw him cry. After sixteen years of fear and abuse at my mother’s hands—of jumping every time the garage door opened, a coffee mug shattered or a door slammed, or watching my words in case I said the wrong thing—having a parent that cried and asked for forgiveness for their wrongdoings was like a revelation: everything would be okay now that he was back.

We used to get coffee and talk. He always wanted to talk. He fooled me, at first, into thinking he wanted to talk with me—about my life and my goals and my dreams. Then I realized he only wanted to talk at me, about how sorry he was for leaving us, sorry because he knew how violent and unstable my mother was, and he left us there anyway. He talked about all the things he was doing to fix it, how he couldn’t change what he had done, but how he was really going to be there for us now. They were words that sounded pretty, but it did not take me long to figure out that he simply wanted praise for trying, that it was all just empty promises.


We have two hours to kill before the World Showcase opens, so we ride Spaceship Earth twice, waiting in line beneath the giant ball and sighing with relief every time a gust of wind blows over us. As we are waiting, I get a text from my grandma saying that she had arrived at the hospital an hour ago, and that they are running the usual gamut of tests on my father. I text her back, asking her to keep the details coming. Inside the ride, crammed into the little blue cars, we practically melt in the cool darkness as Dame Judy Dench’s voice guides us through the history of communication on this, our Spaceship Earth. The smell of the artificial fire burning in Rome is one of my top five favorite scents of all time. The last time I rode Spaceship Earth with my father, pre-Canada, we were hopped up on sugary sodas and laughing at everything. My sister and I shared a car while my father rode in the one behind us, cracking as many terrible jokes as he could cram into the fifteen-minute ride (something about our family resemblance to the wooly mammoth near the beginning, something else about Suleiman’s onion hat further in that I didn’t get). We were the most obnoxious family on the ride that day, but I didn’t care; I was too busy trying to breathe through my giggles.

Mentally, I have divided my father’s heart attacks into two categories: pre-Canada and post-Canada. It’s an even split. He had four, either before moving to, or while in Canada. Those are the ones I have been told about, but do not know the details of. I do not know exactly when they happened, I do not know their severity. I can guess at the various causes (cocaine before he got clean, horrible diet, too much caffeine, no exercise after he got clean, and a history of heart disease from his father’s side of the family). He has had four since he moved back to Florida in 2008: one major one and three minor ones, and I visited him in the hospital every time, except for this one. Heart attack number eight, and I’m strolling through the crowds of a theme park, sipping iced coffee, while my family scrambles to make sure my father is okay.

His first heart attack since coming home, the major one, was in 2014. I was working two jobs at the time, taking a break from school after nearly flunking out due to a bad battle with depression. My grandma called me while I was at work and explained that he was in the hospital. I left work in tears, got in my car, and cried the entire way there. I knew at the time that it wasn’t the first one, but I didn’t remember the others. For the first time, it had felt as though his heart attack was happening to me.

At the hospital, I found my grandma sitting in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs in the waiting room, a Styrofoam cup of black decaf coffee in one hand, and I was struck by how small she looked, how exhausted. At the time, she was seventy-one. Always spry, always sharp, but in that hospital waiting room she looked every one of those years. When she saw me, she stood to hug me tight. She was not crying even though her son was in the hospital, and it occurred to me then that she had watched her husband die of a heart attack at fifty-four. This was my father’s fifth one, and he had just turned fifty. He had been clean before my sister was born, had quit the cocaine and alcohol, but still ate greasy food, shot-gunned Trenta iced coffees, and smoked like he had stock in Marlboro.

“Don’t be scared by how he looks when we go in,” she had warned me as we stood outside the door to his room. “There will be a lot of tubes and monitors making noise, but he’s okay for now.”

Okay for now is how I’ve thought of my father ever since.


After Spaceship Earth we hit up Journey into Imagination, and by the time we get out, the World Showcase is open, and the real party can begin. I’ve come to Epcot for my last three consecutive birthdays with the intention of Drinking Around the World. It’s difficult to find any facts about when or how the grand tradition of Drinking Around the World began. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say it started when Epcot decided to serve alcohol. Magic Kingdom is a booze-free park, meant to be family friendly in every sense of the word. Epcot has a broader scope. The goal, as dictated in numerous articles and YouTube videos, is to buy and consume one drink from each of the eleven country pavilions. This is difficult because eleven drinks is pure madness, and the cost of each drink is high both emotionally and financially. I already know we won’t succeed, but that isn’t the real point.

Our first step is La Cava de Tequila in Mexico. It is cool and dark inside, so naturally it is crowded as people try to escape the sun for a few minutes. The margaritas are potent, the perfect beginning, but as the salt grinds between my teeth I realize I am still thinking about my father. This frustrates me. I am at Disney World with my best friend, I am wearing a sparkly plastic tiara and a button that says Happy Birthday, but I can’t stop thinking about my father, trussed up in a hospital bed because at fifty-four, he never bothered to learn how to take care of himself. I’m thinking about my grandma, sitting in yet another hospital waiting room, a cup of black decaf coffee in one hand and looking more irritated than worried. I’m thinking of my sister, who loves my father as much as she hates him, and who drove him to the hospital during the heart attack before this one, barely over a year ago.

I find myself wondering how different my life would be if my grandfather hadn’t died when I was too young to remember his face outside of photographs. I always think of my grandfather at Disney. My grandma likes to tell me that he always cried during the fireworks at Magic Kingdom whenever she catches me doing the exact same thing. My grandfather was tough, a hard worker, but infinitely loving. He liked to fix things with his own two hands, even though he was not very good at it. My favorite story about him is one that gets told at nearly every family dinner. One pleasantly sunny afternoon, my grandfather had been making a few minor repairs to the pontoon boat he and my grandma owned. Somehow, he got distracted and managed to screw his hand to the boat with an electric screwdriver. According to my family, this was “classic Wayne” behavior. He was accident-prone, determined, and a big softie.

If my grandfather was still alive, I wonder what he would have taught me: how to fix things without screwing myself to them, how to shoot a gun, how to drive stick, how to stand up for myself, how to respect others, or how to fish. My father doesn’t have his father’s gift for repair. He tried to take me fishing, but grew frustrated when I could not get the hang of it. Same with trying to teach me to drive stick. He was not in my life enough to teach me anything, really. My grandfather died of a heart attack. He had a history of heart disease, southern-born love of greasy foods, and my father is a fine example of history repeating itself, and it’s the ones not stuck in a hospital bed who have to watch it happen. Helpless, furious.


We pass through Norway without buying a drink, but a man in full Viking dress spots my tiara and bows to me. We watch part of a contortionist act outside China, fanning ourselves and shading our eyes with our hands. We make it through half of the canteen of gin while we munch on dumplings at the picnic tables and stumble through the shop behind the dumpling stand, buzzed and giggling, and holding carvings of dragons and tea cups aloft for each other’s giddy perusal.

We are drinking wine in Italy when I realize I am angry. The wine is making my cheeks warm, and whatever Liz was saying is drowned out by a raucous surge of laughter from the table two over from ours. I sink back in my chair and I am angry at my father for having a heart attack. Over winter break, I had to pick him up to bring him to grandma’s house for a family dinner because his car had broken down again. He made me stop at a corner store so he could pick up cigarettes. He had stopped smoking after the heart attack of 2014 but had, apparently, started again a few months previous, despite having had two more minor heart attacks since then. I was furious as he lit up the cigarette in my car, filling the confined interior with acrid smoke. He mocked me for listening to The Smiths, saying that Morrissey was a douchebag. I said Morrissey was a douchebag that made great music, and he came back with some asinine comment about how the art shouldn’t excuse the artist. I bit back a retort about how tearful apologies shouldn’t excuse crappy parenting, and turned the music up instead, not saying another word to him for the rest of the drive as Morrissey belted out something about too much caffeine into the awkward silence.


As I tip my head back and drain my glass, I realize I am not mad at him on my behalf, but on my grandmother’s, who buried her husband after his third heart attack and now watches her son go in and out of the hospital for the same reason, never knowing which will be the time he doesn’t come out, wondering if she will have to bury him, too. I am mad at him on my sister Casie’s behalf, who feels cheated, abandoned, who still craves approval from both of our shitty parents and hates herself for it.

Liz keeps shooting me furtive looks. I feel guilty that I ruined this trip for her as much as for myself. I know she doesn’t care, but I do, so I hand her the canteen, urging her to drink more. Eat, drink, be merry. That was why we were there.

In Japan, I order a Tokyo sunset, my favorite drink in all of Epcot. Coconut rum, peach schnapps, banana liquor, and pineapple juice, garnished with an orange slice, and decorated with a paper umbrella. It is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. I’m sipping it slowly, savoring, as I browse through the gift shop. I used to have a little tradition every time I came to Epcot. I would buy myself a pair of chopsticks. The shop has an entire wall of them. They come in every conceivable color. I already have so many pairs—bamboo ones with purple owls, black ones with ninjas, red ones with a beautiful painting of a geisha—and I hardly use them, but seeing them in my silverware drawer is a small happiness. I haven’t bought a new pair in a while, and I’m contemplating a cherry blossom painted pair when my grandma calls me.

“Hey, sweetie.” It’s how she always greets me. I haven’t spoken to her all day, and the relief I feel at hearing her voice leaves me dizzy. Although maybe that’s the Tokyo Sunset.

“Hey Gram. How’s the patient?”

“He’s doing okay. They put a stent in his heart and he’s resting now.”

I sit down abruptly on the shelf below a display of anime t-shirts.

“Wow, already?” I reply. “So he’s okay?”

“Yes,” she replies. She sounds so tired.

“Are you okay?”

She sighs. “You know, I’m not sure. I’m glad he’s okay, but. . . .”

There is a long pause. My eyes are stinging, and I can see Liz in the periphery, sticking close, but trying to give me and my grandma what little privacy a crowded shop in a theme park can afford.

“I know,” I say, because I do. We’ve done this dance too many times; we’re both sick of it, and I know my sister is, too, and I know that none of that will change my father’s behavior.

“Number eight,” she says. “Jeez.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, like it’s my fault.

“Don’t be, he’s the one who should apologize to you. What a dumbass.”

I laugh out loud at that, startling some of the tourists trying to look at the t-shirts I’m sitting in front of. I refuse to move out of drunken stubbornness.

“How’s Disney?”

“It’s great!” I exclaim. I feel lighter, now, some combination of the alcohol and hearing my grandma’s voice. “I’ve had five drinks.”

She’s laughing with me now. It’s a bright sound.

“Good, keep drinking, try to relax. He’s going to be okay.”

I say goodbye to her and down the rest of my Tokyo Sunset.


I’ve been told that my grandfather loved It’s a Small World, unironically and with great enthusiasm, a fan of the message in the song that plays during the ride, even if he wasn’t a fan of the creepy dolls that crowd every surface of it. I relish hearing this because I have always loved It’s a Small World unironically and with great enthusiasm, a fan of the message if not the dolls. My grandfather is a mythic figure to me, a hero and a gentleman, and a loving husband and a good father, a figure worthy of story time over every family dinner. I still wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t died when I was so young, if he had been around after my father moved to Canada. I wonder if, after learning what my mother was doing to me and my sister, he would have gotten us out much sooner than we got ourselves out. I’ll never know, but he was a better father than my own turned out to be, and I have absolutely no idea what that says about the fairness of the universe, so I order champagne in France.


Raymond Virginia

Fighting the Tide


Of course, Jed Jeffanie didn’t believe the whale was real at first. It felt more like a mirage, a false shape that had slipped into his world to challenge his bearing. Just a moment earlier, he’d been in the Darkness, in himself, in that internal void where crude shadows repeated his past around him. He’d been drinking coffee from an incomplete mug at Mac’s diner, then sitting with Jen Schumann in the rubble of a house in the woods, bricks and trees around him blinking in and out of existence, her fingers and legs forming and fading, only her face remaining constant. Then he was there, all of a sudden, walking along the shore of an empty beach, the weight returned to his legs, lungs expanding, a newspaper in his hand. He was confused, and for some time doubted the transition. It seemed that everything around him–shifting water, gusts of wind, smooth sand, oddly cold morning air–all of it could have followed him out of the Darkness. And it was then that he came upon the whale.

Instinctively he tested whether his present reality was solid. He looked back the way he’d come to find his bare foot prints still in the sand, a fence in the distance. He looked the way he was heading and found another fence a hundred yards off. Toward the city was yet another fence and a slow trickle of cars streaming past on the other side, maybe occupied, maybe not. No people were visible anywhere, and he felt like he was locked in a cage at the end of the world.

He checked his newspaper. It was the local chronicle–one of the expensive paper editions. The date was legible and unwavering: a Sunday morning in June. If it was today’s paper, then the city’s churches were in session, which could explain part of the beach’s emptiness. The fences around him maybe explained the rest. But that didn’t tell him how he’d gotten within those fences or how a creature that had been thought extinct had wound up on the beach before him. It all made him feel ill-prepared.

Jed approached the whale slowly, as he might have approached a stranger in the woods, afraid both that it would disappear and that it might remain. Only when he was next to it, with his hands wet upon its blubber and the smell of brine and death in his nostrils, was he convinced of its existence. He felt the flesh on its back, the surprising resistance of the fat beneath the skin. He saw how it shone in the white morning light like a Mustang after a coat of wax, how it started so wide–wider than he was tall–then tapered down to the width of a utility pole before fanning out again. He wondered if it were afraid, if it felt panic, and thought that it might, but wondered if that was only because he wanted to matter to it.

Then the whale inhaled, a great heave and a sick sputter, and Jed jumped back. He thought of Mac coughing his smoker’s cough. He thought of that wheezing laugh and pig-pink face. And for a moment he believed that everything around him would dissolve, that soon he would slide back onto his stool at the diner to pick up the thread of some old conversation about draining the Great Lakes, fixing up water-transport trucks, saving a bit of money. But the world remained, and when he looked at the newspaper again the text neither shifted nor dissolved. 

Still, there was no one around at all.

He looked for reassurance in the front page, studied it more closely now. The top half held a familiar picture of the Bernhard boy, a headline reading “Two Weeks Missing, Family Turns to God.” The letters beneath told the same story they’d told the last time he’d read them. But when was that? Jed could still remember pieces of it. The family was prosperous, the boy chipped and tracked–but the mother said he’d just disappeared from his room in the night as though ‘the Lord himself had taken him up.’ The article spent some time exploring that possibility before chalking the inexplicability of the situation up to the mystery of God’s creation, supporting this claim with stories of a woman in Kansas who’d pulled a full-grown cow from a sinkhole, two teenage girls in Oregon who’d flipped an overturned grain trailer off their dad. Jed didn’t see how the stories related, but he was glad to read them.

He lifted his eyes to the whale and the beach. The water rolled back and forth, just twenty yards away, the plastic bags offshore rising and falling on the surface, lifting to the white clouds in the white sky, sinking to converge with the other bags. 

When he turned from the water he saw a young woman standing on the sidewalk, on the other side of the fence separating the sand from Seashore Drive, looking at Jed and the whale. She reached for her hand screen.

Jed called out to her, his voice hoarse and wavering. “You–you think we should do something about this?” he said.

The woman looked down to her screen and started typing without acknowledging Jed. 

Maybe she wasn’t even there. 

Jed checked the newspaper, looked back up to the woman still typing, and figured maybe she was getting help. That was what he wanted to believe, at least.

He sighed, tossed the newspaper aside, swung his arms, dug footholds with his heel into sand still firm from the tide, then put his hands to the whale again. For a moment he paused, looked at the liver spots on his skin, the veins below his knuckles, the narrowness of his wrists, and he wondered what he was doing. What had the doctors told him about stress? Wouldn’t it aggravate his condition? 

But he had to try. 

He crouched low and pressed his right shoulder into the blubber behind the blowhole. Then he pushed. Hard. He threw all his weight into the animal, his breath held, his ears ready to pop, and for a moment, with blood drumming in his head and the strain arcing from his arms to his feet, he thought he felt the whale shift ever so slightly, maybe an inch up, maybe an inch forward.

He stopped and stumbled back, panting. The ocean’s edge continued lapping the shore, carrying on its perpetual push and pull, push and pull, farther away now than when he’d found the whale. He was sure of it. And the whale, of course, was right where it had been.

But Jed wondered if that was the only possibility. After all, there was the woman in Kansas and the girls in Oregon. With or without God, such stories seemed to hint at a clause in the contract of reality that allowed for impossible acts in extraordinary circumstances. The problem, he figured, the cause of his continued averageness, was in his motivation. Great things were the result of great inspiration, great emotion, but when was the last time he’d been moved by anything? 

Jen Schumann. That day in the woods thirty years ago. Right before she left. And every day since had been shorter than the last, and each one had left him slightly more disoriented, slightly more apathetic. Even now, with the most incredible thing he’d ever seen lying before him, the only feeling he could summon was dread.

“What were you doing?” he asked the whale. “You think you’d just hop ashore and roll on back when you were ready?” He looked at the empty beach to his left and right again, then rested his forearms on the whale’s back. He hung his head. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

He stood upright again, feeling light-headed still, turned around so that he faced the street, leaned back against the whale, and slid down until he was sitting in the sand. The whale exhaled, and Jed heard in it a familiar disappointment. 

“Hold on, buddy. Just…I just gotta think for a second.” 

He looked at the woman, his sole spectator, smiling into her palm screen. She actually looked a bit like Jen did back then. Brown hair. Short like that. And he wondered where Jen was right at that moment, how old her kids were now. And he hoped that whoever this woman was texting would get there soon.

His attention drifted from her to the flashing exterior screens of the Irish-pub-tapas-joint at the corner of Main Street. Similar screens were flashing all throughout town–they lined the tiers of boutiques and doctor’s offices and sensory-relief studios, the four or five stories of apartments on top of those. Wires connecting them all crisscrossed over the streets and alleys, dividing up concrete and steel, fragmenting a sky bleached white by poison.

Jed knew that Mac had been right to leave. Jen too. The town was coughing up blood. The whole state was. All the shops leap-frogging over each other, all the buildings tottering ever higher–the flood had pressed everything together and made it all sick. 

But still, Jed reminded himself, home was home. 

The woman on the sidewalk had stopped texting. She was staring at Jed now, and when Jed met her gaze he waved. The woman didn’t wave back. She definitely could see him, but she didn’t wave. Jed squinted, shaded his eyes, looked at her more carefully. There was an emptiness in her expression, a hunger. Jed had seen that look all his life. And he was sure then that she wasn’t calling for help. At least not for the whale. 

He wished more than anything that someone was there with him. Someone he trusted. He patted the pockets of his jeans: no wallet, no keys, no screen. And even if he could find a screen nearby, who would he call? It didn’t matter. Jed couldn’t leave. The vultures had caught the scent, and Jed knew he had to watch over the whale, to scare those scavengers away, until help found its way to him.

He sighed, closed his eyes, and imagined again that he were a different sort of man. He pictured himself marching toward the road (his hair thicker, his arms bigger) and flagging down a whole parade of cars. He imagined a crowd emerging, tramping down the beach, and together rolling the giant back into the water, heaving on the count of three, shouting, laughing, patting each other on the back. He saw them fight the swells and win, and while the whale swam back to wherever it belonged they waved. And the whale waved back the only way it could, by slapping the water’s surface with its tail. And Mac was there. And Jen looking just the way she did senior year. And she remembered everything she’d loved about Jed, why she wanted to be with him, why all the years since high school had been a mistake. And at their wedding everyone would be there, even the whale in a giant aquarium. And Mac. And little Lonnie Bernhard, wearing that faded red sweatshirt from the paper. 

The world went quiet then. The laughter of the crowd, the music of the reception, all of it faded as the shapes of Mac and Lonnie and the whale slipped away. When Jed opened his eyes again, he found something familiar yet old: cinderblocks stacked into low, unfinished walls with vines climbing through them, dead leaves carpeting the ground below. Jen–younger, really a girl still–sat beside him on the bricks. She tapped two cigarettes out of her pack, lit both, and handed one to Jed. A tear hung from her chin. Jed wanted his hand to reach out and brush it away, but it wouldn’t move. The trees around him were shifting, the cigarette no longer in his hand. And he understood that he had no control over this scene, that he was a spectator in the Darkness, playing along with the shapes while they practiced forming all the mistakes he’d ever made.

“Don’t cry, Jen” his voice said. “I’ll be right here.”

She shook her head. “That’s the problem, Jed. You’ll be right here. You think this is the center of the universe and everything that leaves will be pulled back to you some day. But it won’t. This place is nowhere and I don’t want to come back.” She looked at him with red eyes, lines of freckles on her cheeks darkened by tears. “Come with me. Please. What can I say?”    

“Stop,” he said. “You know I can’t.”

“You just won’t.”

“You’ll be going to classes and meeting all these interesting people. I’ll just be dead weight.”

“Life is what you make it, Jed.”

“How do I make my life what you want it to be?” 


“I mean, what would I even do?”

“Work. Maybe apply for classes next spring. What are you gonna do here?”

“I’ve got a job. I’ve got friends. This is home.”

“I thought I was your home.” Those were his words coming out of her mouth and again he felt trapped–in the moment, in the conversation, in the decision he was doomed to repeat forever. 

All he could do was shake his head. And as he did, as though the world around him were drawn on an Etch-A-Sketch, Jennifer Schumann dissolved, the cinderblocks of the house they sat upon scattered, and the trees shook and shed until they were darker, colder, dryer. What was left was a different forest, a different time. But Jed still felt trapped. 

A thick fog wove between the brush and rendered what trees remained permanent in shades of blue. Behind one waited something he didn’t want to see again. But no matter how much he willed it, he couldn’t run. Instead, of its own accord, his body crouched and his eyes closed. And yet, as though his eyelids were wet wax paper, he could still see. So when the figure finally emerged, tall, stooped, and shrouded in shadow, Jed Jeffanie couldn’t help but watch. It walked toward him with its neck bent forward and the red hood covering its head, the trees around it fading as it grew larger. And when it was upon him, when it loomed over him, Jed looked up. He found no eyes, no nose, just an infinite bright white where the face should have been.

Jed sat up straight, gasping. The world was white again, the sound of wind and waves in his ears. The whale was moving behind him, shaking, and for a moment he believed that it too was waking, that soon it would lift itself off the sand and crawl back into the waves. Then he heard the sound of the water, felt the coldness biting his feet, saw the white sky above, and remembered where he was. On and on and on it went.

Still the whale was shaking.

He pushed himself to his feet, turned, and found half a dozen people standing at the whale’s stomach: three men, three women. The man standing directly across from him had his head lowered, and a frayed baseball cap covered his face. He was evidently struggling with something.

“Mac?” Jed said, but his voice was barely a whisper. He cleared his throat. “Are you here to help?” he asked.

The man lifted his head and Jed didn’t recognize the face narrowing its eyes back at him. The cheeks were hollow, the eyes dull. Jed glanced at the others and saw that they too were marked by emaciation–it looked like none of them had eaten a solid meal in weeks. 

“When was the last time you seen a drone?” the man demanded.

“What?” Jed asked. The question was so far from what he’d expected that it made him feel as though he’d woken up into the wrong world. All the moments leading up to this began loosening and falling away. He tried to grab them, but caught only pieces: the trash on the water, the diner, the wedding. “I don’t know,” he said, and felt the tears in his eyes.

“Who owns this beach?” the man asked.

Jed shook his head.

A woman closer to the tail said, “I’m telling you he doesn’t know anything.” Jed followed the voice and found the woman who’d been watching him through the fence. “He’s just some bum. Fell asleep on the damn thing.”

Jed shook his head but knew it was true. Then he realized what that meant–what the presence of the woman meant, too: he’d messed it up the way he messed up everything. “No,” he said. “No.”

The waves rolled in and out, in and out. The wind lifted the spray off the break, over the whale, onto Jed’s face. He put a hand on the whale’s skin and began stumbling toward its head, the word “no” escaping from his lips in a whisper with every step.

The people on the other side had their heads down and their shoulders moving, sweat pouring off their chins, and still Jed hoped that they were helping, that they were tying a tow strap to the whale maybe, maybe working some sort of track under it that would roll it to the ocean. But when he rounded the whale’s head he saw irregular squares of flesh missing from its stomach. Each person had a knife deep in the blubber, stacks of fat and meat piled on a tarp at their feet.

Jed lurched forward and grabbed the nearest man by the shoulder and wrenched him away from the whale. The man staggered back a step, then sprang forward and shoved Jed. Jed’s ankle rolled and he fell. When he looked back up, the man had retrieved his knife from the whale and was pointing it at Jed. The man didn’t say a word. For a long moment they stayed like that, then the man turned and plunged his knife back into the whale. 

Jed scrambled to his feet and ran back around to the whale’s blowhole. He watched it a moment, willing the hole to open and sputter out breath. There was nothing. He pressed against the whale again, put his ear to the flesh behind the eye, and listened. The only heartbeat he could find was his own in his ear. Beneath that, beneath the waves laughing cruelly now, only the inner stillness of a stone remained, the silence of an empty house. But maybe he just couldn’t hear–maybe the whale’s body was too dense. Maybe it wasn’t too late.

Hands on the flesh. Lower. He crouched, thinking–believing–that there was still a chance. There had to be. All he had to do was lift. Just lift. 

The blood in his body rushed to the surface until it felt like his skin wouldn’t be able to hold it in any longer. He lifted with his legs, and his arms, and his back, sure that every muscle he had was tearing, every tendon and ligament snapping like a stretched rubber band slit with a knife. His vision faded to white, beautiful and endless, and from somewhere in the distance he heard a scream like a cow being torn apart by wolves. 

And then his body relaxed. 

No. Not relaxed. But it understood something. He understood something: that his pain wasn’t true, that his life didn’t need some extraordinary love for it to be remarkable, that to make his world what he wanted it to be he simply had to reach into the Darkness and pull out the shapes that were right. He just had to look past the averageness of the world, let the life to which he clung drop away. Because he’d held on so tight for so long. But he didn’t need to. He’d never needed to. And when he let go, finally, the weight of his limbs was gone. There was no coldness in his feet. There was no torment in his muscles or mind. Effort was no longer necessary.

In one easy motion he straightened his legs and spine. The whale rose with him–only its tail remained in the sand–and even when its body was over his head, it felt no heavier than a pillow. 

The vultures on the other side of the whale backed away. Some of them fell. Some of them still held their knives, but their grips were looser now, unsteady. The woman who’d been watching Jed from the street fumbled for her screen. Jed considered them all for a moment, then brushed them away from his mind like so many flies and focused on his destination.

His first step was unsure, weakened by the memory of life before. But his second had confidence. There was no reason for it not to be confident. Movement was simple. Success was inevitable. One foot in front of the other. That’s all it took.

He looked to the water: the back and forth was more jarring now, the give and take more exacting. Waves crashed into the shore and dragged back foam. Spitting and roaring, spitting and roaring. The sound called to him the entire way. It filled his head while the water filled his shoes and rose to his knees, while the sun broke through the clouds and lit the sea around him. 

Raymond Virginiais a writer and editor based in the Chicago area. He’s currently working on expanding the world of Fighting the Tide into a novel.


Danielle Carr









Danielle Carr is a photographer and creative director attending Columbia College Chicago, set to graduate in Spring 2019. In this series, she took inspiration from her struggles with isolation and loneliness and channeled those mental states into photographs. Her intent is to show the headspace of the subject through color and movement.


Gabriela Everett

To the Coast


Casey’s skated the tunnels before, but not all the way through. Her brother said they run from Angel Park to Suncoast casino, though neither he nor Casey have tracked how far the tunnels run; phone signal becomes spotty ten minutes inside. The first time Casey went alone, she’d turned back. She told Valencia and Roi about it during algebra the next day, waving her hands and scratching her wide, round nose. She said, “If you want to torture someone, put them on acid, then dump them here.” Naturally, Valencia and Roi exchanged stares, their teacher’s lesson on polynomials long forgotten.

All it took was one week, Casey’s Jeep, and ski masks to heighten the drama. They were in. They had a mission. Casey got lights they could wear on their heads; it was real; it was happening, and Valencia was combing through her wavy, frizzy hair at 4:03 p.m. on Tuesday, waiting for Casey to roll up to her house.


Casey’s ginger ringlets are windblown when she arrives, drawing Valencia from her house with a text proclaiming, we out herefollowed by several emojis. Valencia hops in the passenger seat—her usual spot—and they collect Roi from the neighborhood down the street. He crawls into the backseat, lays skateboard at his feet, and proudly unfurls his ski mask, which had been folded like a beanie.

“Take that off,” Casey insists. “I’m not getting pulled over on the expressway because you look like a wannabe robber.” 

Roi rolls his eyes. “Killjoy,” he mutters, removing the mask and itching his head.

Casey sneers at him in the rearview mirror and turns up the volume on a playlist named “Skate or Die or Maybe Both.”

Angel Park is north—past the Strip—and Roi takes the chance to Snapchat the rows of Vegas hotels as they drive past, pulling down his ski mask and sticking his tongue out at the camera.

After the Strip, it becomes infinite expressways and traffic. It’s 4:51 p.m. when they get off at exit 37—Durango—and get a new view. Past the right side of the street, short grass goes for miles. It’s getting that sickly-yellow color, slowly, because it’s October and this much grass was probably never meant to be in the desert. But Valencia’s heard that it sometimes snows up here—not snow-snows, but desert snows: little snowflakes that disappear upon contact and never stick. 

Casey swerves the Jeep into a parking spot near past the grass and everyone piles out. She locks the car as Valencia and Roi throw down their boards, heading for the red, metal bridge that connects the two halves of the park. The shadows outgrow the skinny trees that cast them. Valencia is still grateful for the snippets of shade they offer but the clock is ticking. 

Like all good hideaways, the tunnel is in plain sight. Roi gets over the bridge first, stopping at a steep, rocky hill. “I’m guessing it’s this one?” He yells, peering down into the arroyo. Valencia joins him. Below, two tunnels stand without a soul in sight. Their mouths stretch roughly ten feet high, a cut of sunlight on one’s tongue as golden hour peaks.

“Yeah,” Casey answers, skating to a stop. “We want the one on the right.” She points and moves Roi aside, beginning to climb down the rocks, legs steady as she tries to dodge around the creosote bushes. Valencia loves the bushes because they have white, pea-size puffballs all over and smell like rain. Roi likes them, too, but not now as he makes his way through a bush and comes out covered in fuzz.

There’s graffiti all over the tunnel walls, though Valencia can hardly read the bubble-font as it tapers into black. She’ll have Casey—who’s donned a white ski mask—decode what it says.

The goal is Suncoast by sundown. Or, maybe, shortly after; the mission’s end-time is flexible. Valencia’s not sure how far it is to the gaudy, glowing casino, but it’s probably under two-and-a-half miles. And honestly, she likes it like that—not knowing—and so do her friends. She doesn’t need to see under their masks to know they’re revved up, high off this new, little thrill they can juice from Vegas. There’s a lot they miss out on in Vegas as minors; this is theirs; no one can stop them.

Minors or not, Casey’s swiped a variety of beers and hard seltzer from her brother’s stash, and Valencia selects a can of lime Bud Light from Casey’s worn-out backpack. She passes a requested can of PBR to Roi. Casey raises another PBR, and they toast to victory, to quiet chaos—to not going stir crazy at home. 

The cans glint in the sun and Valencia scans the houses in the background, letting her beer can fuzz out of focus. The homes perched around the arroyo look nineties-made, copy-and-paste stucco with ruddy shingles. They feel like spectators, and Valencia wonders if she’s the only one who feels watched. But this might as well be suburbia—there are no bars on windows—and everyone is probably watching Netflix or at work. They’ve got the arroyo to themselves. 

“Are you ready?” Casey asks. She crushes the beer, tosses the can into the rocks, and yanks down her ski mask: a pristine, white mask she took from her brother’s dresser. He’d worn it in a music video, once, having filmed it along Fremont Street; Valencia recognizes the little dollar sign embroidered under the left eye—a truly American beauty mark. 

“Are we ready?” Roi repeats, popping up his skateboard with the toe of his dirty, doodled-on sneakers. “If we don’t do it now, it’ll be too cold next month. There’ll probably be homeless people sleeping there or something.” He lets his board down onto all four wheels, steps on it, and nods toward the tunnel. He hooks his middle and index fingers around the rim of his “beanie” and pulls down. The cuff unfolds to a multicolor, camouflage mask that makes his coal eyes pierce. They’re just a shade darker than Valencia’s. Roi’s pupils blend with his irises, a sharp contrast to his honey-glow skin. A strand of black hair peeks out from one of the mask’s eyeholes. He’s got bags under his eyes, but it’s the most awake Valencia has seen him all week.

“Speak for yourself,” Valencia says, a hand fluttering to her chest as if in a pledge. “Iwas born ready.” She takes to her board, feeling the way the pavement—smooth aside from the tiny pebbles littering it—dips toward the tunnels. They call, and answering is only polite.

Casey smiles, rummaging through her backpack while jogging aside Valencia. “Val-gal,” she says, withdrawing a light with various straps attached to it. “Catch.” She tosses the light, and Valencia barely catches it without falling off her skateboard. She gives Casey a quizzical look.

“It’s a headlamp. I’m assuming I don’t gotta tell you where to put it.” Casey explains, tossing another light to Roi before grabbing her own. Roi fumbles for a moment, fixing his headlamp after putting it on upside down.

“Alright, people, let’s go!” Casey claps, then pumps her skateboard up into her hand, jogging again. She slides the board out of her hand, its velocity matching her stride as she hops on. Casey kicks, spraying up a few pebbles as she blows past Valencia. She carves around a large rock, leaning with her heels off the board. Valencia watches her disappear into the cement maw of the tunnel; an angel descending: white mask, white hoodie, copper skin. Casey’s voice drifts, “Catch up, bitches!” She laughs and it resounds.

Roi glances at Valencia. He shrugs, clicking his headlamp on and as he takes off. Cans of spray paint clatter around in his backpack as he chases Casey, moving in a clean line, unlike Casey’s smooth carve.

The sky is hot, hot, orange—golden hour near-death—when Valencia pulls down her mask. Camouflage, like Roi’s, but with what’s considered “girl” colors—whatever that means. According to marketers, it means pink, purple, aqua, and green, topped with knit cat ears, and double the price of Roi’s mask.

Her hair’s fried from the last time she dyed it violet, but it’s long enough that it doesn’t fully fit in the mask, so Val flips to the side. It falls past the alien on her t-shirt and half-covers her black jean-jacket. The late-October wind gives her a goodbye kiss as she kicks off—she will not be left behind.

The tunnel takes her, the slope of water-worn cement guiding her into the void. The sound of skateboard wheels clicking on the ground and Casey’s laugh make Val’s heart giddy. She can see Roi and Casey up ahead, the lights on their foreheads flickering over the walls as they half-heartedly race, eager to get in deep.

Perhaps, Valencia considers, they want to see each other crack. Not out of malice, but out of curiosity. Elementary schoolers are like that on the playground, want to be entertained with the girl who can walk in a handstand, want to see a boy drink the mystery sludge they concocted during lunch. Who dares, who dares?

The Bud Light is warm in her belly, and she can feel it slosh when they all lean into a turn. All around is art. Maybe the art teacher at school would disagree, but there’s care in some graffiti. The lines are too opaque, too clean on the mural of a cartoony robber making off with a bag of money. On the right, some sexy legs in heels are painted with pale pink, sticking out of the letter H. Valencia still can’t read what it says, but she’s going too fast to care, anyway. There’s graffiti with less patience, drippy lines scribing out swear words and dicks. Classic.

“See any blank spots?” Casey calls. She hardly has to raise her voice; there’s no wind aside from their self-made breeze, and the tunnels carry her voice back to Roi and Val. Roi’s light scans from left to right, and he replies, “Negatory, captain. But there’s some random crap we can paint over.”

Valencia can tell Casey’s shaking her head. Her lamp moves back and forth in quick, short strokes, swiping the ground with light. “Nuh-uh, we’re claiming our own spot.” Casey claps, and it smacks around the tunnel. “Forward!”


They go for a while and the graffiti begins to dwindle. There’s the unspoken rule: keep up with Casey. But Valencia likes her spot in the back. She can take it all in, has a few more seconds to react, and knows if the path in front of her is clear. No one’s flown off their board yet—miraculous, given the number of broken bottles and rocks scattered around the tunnel. The ground is uneven at times, and sour water pools in the dips and cracks. Without checking her phone, Valencia guesses ten minutes have passed. They’ve got a rhythm down. Casey steers them straight, Roi looks to the right, Valencia checks the left. There are holes in the wall that connect to the tunnel next door. Sometimes, Valencia catches the glare of something there, but so far only metal rungs leading to pipes.

When they pass an array of neon green scribbles, Casey yells for a halt, proclaiming, “This is it.” 

It’s not blank, but there’s room to breathe. The cement is mostly clean, spare a few random phrases or messy doodles. A neat, crisp image of an eye bores into Valencia as she joins Roi, whose lamp spotlights its pupil.

“What color do you want?” Roi asks, unmoving. “I’ve got blue, black, gold, and pink. Just grab it, the caps should match unless I mixed them up while high or something.” He continues to stare, taking his headlamp in hand as he squints at the eye, leaning in. Valencia watches him as she picks the gold can from his bag. 

Roi removes his mask. “I’m gonna draw a pyramid around this guy,” he pats the eye’s sharp pupil.

Valencia scoffs, and Casey nudges her arm with a grin, taking the blue and black from Roi’s bag, sliding it off his arms partway. “Thank ya, thank ya,” Casey sings in a playful voice. “And for Roi-boy.” She hands the pink can over his shoulder, and Roi lets his empty backpack slip to the ground.

Casey maxes out the volume on her phone, and hits shuffle. Right away, Val knows the song: “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult.

“Ooh, throwback. Okay, okay,” Roi says, shaking the can of spray paint, “I see you, Miss Love.” He shimmies a bit as he rattles the can, treating it as a strange maraca.

Casey cringes, uncapping her spray paint with a pop. She lets the cap clatter to the floor. “Don’t. People call my mom that. Please, Roi.”

He begins, exaggerating his enunciation as he sizes up the eye, “Miss—”

“I’ll spray your eye out,” Casey threatens, and though she sprays the tunnel wall with her can of black, gold comes out. She quirks an eyebrow and shakes her head. Her light flashes over the shimmering streak. “Well, that’s not right.” She tilts her chin up, and for a moment, her headlamp blinds Valencia. “Val. Trade me.”

They swap cans. Roi sprays a streak as soft singing and cowbell fill the tunnel.

Valencia, as she begins to work on her gold U.F.O, hears Roi sigh. She turns, noting the blue, not pink, on his wall. His shoulders slump, then go still: “A trade for your can of ‘blue’, Miss Love. . . .”


Roi doesn’t get sprayed in the eye and Valencia is slightly disappointed about it. Casey only wrecks his pyramid, striking its eye with an X while Roi gives over-dramatic screams, “No, no, my baby! You’re killing him!”

Valencia wishes she had phone signal to Snapchat it. But some things are best left in the moment. Valencia finishes her aliens with pink. Casey’s painted a large storm cloud in black, with the rain in typical blue. She poses under, arms crossed and straight-faced as she has Ro crouch down to snap pictures of her. Valencia kneels below her U.F.O., raising her arms and pretending to scream. Roi declines all photos with his dead “baby.” They wrap up, pack the paint cans into Roi’s bag—caps matched right—and Casey claps, rallying the trio. 

“C’mon,” Casey waves, hand flashing before her headlamp, “I wanna see if Suncoast’s movie theater does $5 Tuesdays.” They shove out. The tunnel is freezing. They’ve been in the black for about thirty-ish minutes, and Valencia is fighting off shivers. She wonders if it’s dark outside yet.

They skate in their usual formation and Valencia watches Casey give a long, smooth turn as the tunnel goes left. Casey’s close to the walls and sticks out a hand like she wants to run it along the concrete. Roi kicks after her, and Valencia hears him swear as he gives a sharp twist.

He huffs, “Fuck rocks.”

Casey laughs, apologizing for not warning him. “Didn’t see it,” she reasons, slowing so she’s beside Roi. “Figured if there’s nothing on the walls, there’s not much on the ground, either.”

Roi mumbles, and Valencia’s sure he’s making a face under his ski mask.

Casey tilts her head down, trying to look Roi dead-on and watch the path. She’s doing that thing where her eyes go dark, a trick of light and shadow. Valencia’s not sure how well it functions with the ski mask and headlamp.

“Race you!” Casey shouts, and then she’s already shooting away, jeans tight around her calf as her leg propels her forward.

Roi swears again and yells out for Casey to wait. Without turning around, he adds, “What about Val?”

Yeah, what about Val?Valencia thinks, hurrying after their ruckus. She can hear Casey teasing, Roi spitting out half-baked comebacks. Their skateboards click over the pavement, steady but quick, like a rollercoaster pulse. Val can manage—she always does—slow or not. She can feel her ski mask sticking to her cheeks, courtesy of sweat as she pursues her friends. She spots Roi up ahead, Casey a flash ahead of him as she gives a sudden lean to the right, vanishing. A sharp curve. Roi puts his weight on the tail of his skateboard, popping it up as he pivots out of sight.

Valencia bends her knees, adjusting her footing so her heels are almost off the board, then—air. She doesn’t shout, doesn’t swear. Her gut drops as her body pitches forward, faster than her arms can react, and for a moment, she flies. She hits the ground face-first—nose-first—with ears ringing. It’s like the nightmares where there’s an alarm sounding in the distance and she can’t wake up. 

She can’t hear. Roi, Casey—they’re gone. Valencia, sits up, deciding her body’s lack of pain is a result of adrenaline high. She should hurt. She should be crying. Perhaps falling on her face kept the wind from getting knocked out of her. She tries to catalog the injuries she’s likely sustained: broken nose, bruised knees, and maybe a twisted ankle. And like that, the pain appears. Brilliant.

It takes a moment to realize the blackness in her vision isn’t from the fall; her headlamp is shattered on the ground. She doesn’t bother to salvage the straps, opting to pick herself up and try to find her board. The ankle she’s certainly twisted gives her a limp, so she crouches down and stretches her arms, searching for her skateboard. Her groping hands find it a yard or so back, propelled by her sudden ejection. She lays it across her lap. Casey will come back for her. Roi had to have heard her fall.

But you didn’t scream, says her brain, so maybe you’re on your own. Can you even walk? As brains do, it offers up the handy thought: what if you die here?

Valencia knows it’s silly, that it’s the reptile-brain response to injury and being left behind by the pack. But it’s a tunnel. She’s halfway there. Dead or not, they’d probably find her on the way back. She waits to hear her name reverberate. She imagines Roi turning around, adjusting the eyeholes of his mask and asking, “Where’s Val?”

She withdraws her phone and checks the battery. Because she’s here, and because Apple is evil and likes to make phone life drain faster and faster as they age, she’s stuck at 2%. It’ll stay at 2% for a good while, she knows, but the camera and flashlight refuse to turn on due to “conserving battery.” Dark it is.

Walking is the only option—limping, if she’s being honest. The direction is up to her. She considers Suncoast, glittering and golden with an American flag flapping over it’s burning, white-light name. She could scare her friends really good, she thinks, if she goes back and waits for them at the Jeep. She could text them to head back. That way she won’t have to make two trips—to the Coast and back—either.

But they got masks and Roi packed a victory joint. Valencia knows there’s only one choice. She grunts as she gets up, tucks her board under her arm, and continues.


Casey’s brother once said, that when you die, you go to Hell with whatever you’ve got on your person. It can be clothes, keys, or a hogee sandwich. If you get stabbed, the bloodstains go, too. Valencia wonders how his theory works. Does she keep her skateboard? Do her injuries heal even if the bloodstains stay?

Focusing on her possible Hell-equipment keeps her busy. The blackness forces her to hone in on the drippy, ploppy, sound of rain drainage, and the strange, muffled groans from what seems like a road overhead. There are cars above and they don’t know she exists. She thinks it’s kinda like being a spy, but then she walks into a puddle and decides that if this is spy-work, being a spy must suck. The puddle is deep enough to soak the canvas of her sneakers, and Valencia groans, waiting for her socks to dampen, wiggling her toes in a futile attempt to avoid the sour water. Her injured ankle feels fine, strangely—shouldn’t there be pain? Of course, as she thinks it, her ankle throbs in response as if waking up. She debates trying to skate despite it, but peroneal tendonitis isn’t worth it.

Despite the creeping cold and wet socks, Valencia feels comfortable. She doesn’t question it further; grateful she can focus on avoiding a potential encounter with one of the meth-heads who are rumored to squat in tunnels during colder months. On the way to Angel Park, Roi’d asked if anyone ever found homeless people in the tunnel. He explained that shanty towns in Chicago were common beneath underpasses.  Casey answered no; however, there had been a news story about someone being set on fire in a tunnel. She gave no further context.

Death by fire or freezing, Valencia’s not sure what she prefers. Living is a better option. She limps her way through the tunnel, the grip tape on her skateboard rubbing her side and upper thigh, sanding her jeans. She’s got her free hand feeling along the wall, making sure she doesn’t bump into anything. Suncoast can’t be much further. She’ll find it. She has to. There’s only one exit. There’ll be the light, and she’ll have made it.

When she was a kid, she locked herself in her bedroom and shut off all the lights as “emergency training.” The world could end and take the power out with it. She wanted to be ready. Everyone always imagines themselves alive during the apocalypse, for some reason, and Valencia thinks it’s because people are narcissists or maybe it’s some ancient survival instinct that saved early humans from doom. Foresight: what if I lived? You have to be prepared.

Survival is sexy. That’s what biology teaches. Those who survive get to go on, and so do their genes, but all Valencia wants right now is to survive the tunnel, change out of her jeans, and curl up in bed. Her dad will give her shit about her ankle. Casey will, too, but she’ll probably buy her ice-cream from Suncoast. Roi will shrug or clap her on the back, and try to doodle on her ankle brace, should she choose to wear one. Maybe he’ll give the eye-pyramid another go.

She is not sure how long it takes, but after a straight stretch of tunnel, there’s light. It’s the kind of light you only get in Vegas, the kind of fake gold that bounces off bodies of casinos plated with shimmer, like dragon scales reflecting fire. Suncoast is there. It’s night, crickets chirping because they have yet to freeze to the ground. They’ll freeze soon enough, perfectly preserved because it’s rarely cold enough for things to ice-over for more than a couple hours. Valencia imagines them frozen to the bumpy, stone wall of the high school quad, their bodies so light a sneeze could send them flying. She smiles; come November, she’ll arrive at school early to meet Casey before homeroom; Valencia makes note to put some of the crickets in her pocket to throw at Casey as a joke––revenge for the mocking she’ll receive for her ankle injury. Foresight. 

When she sees the light, she runs. Her ankle doesn’t hurt, not right now, but she’s not thinking about why or how it should be twisted and making her wince. Her eyes adjust to the white, blinking title of Suncoastthat’s bordered by a burst of red light. It’s small and distant, at the top of the building, but what’s not small are her friends, sitting on their skateboards smoking a joint, gazing up at the casino.

A plan pops into her mind: sneak up, scream, snatch the weed, and say, “Surprise, bitches.” Valencia slinks, her steps intentional and soft as she suppresses a grin. She pushes closer, and she can smell the sweat coming off of Roi—she knows it’s him because it smells like Old Spice—and Casey smells like the five-dollar vanilla perfume from Bath and Body Works. Valencia pauses as Casey passes the joint to Roi, and, inclining her head toward him, she freezes. Valencia knows she’s been caught. 

 “Val’s been gone a while,” Casey says. “I think we should go back.” 

Roi takes the joint, and Valencia deflates, wondering if Casey needs glasses. “Val’s probably just lagging. It’s not like she could get lost.” Roi shrugs. “But we should make sure a meth-head didn’t get her.” He gets up, his skateboard rolling a bit as his weight no longer pins it to the ground of the arroyo. He stretches his arms, leaning side to side as he cracks his neck, and turns around. His ski mask hides whatever concerns are on his face, but his eyes look to Casey with a strange nervousness. He gets on his board and skates past Valencia. “You don’t think a meth-head got her right?”

Casey’s face is bare, but she pulls her mask from the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie, yanking it over her ginger curls. “Val-gal? Not a chance. She’d beat someone’s ass with her board.” Casey gestures for the joint. “Put that out. Leave some for Val. She’ll be mad if we smoke it without her.” 

Roi nods, wetting his fingers with spit as he pinches out the cherry. “Fair. I thought she’d be here by now.”

The light from Suncoast paints their backs as they begin to skate toward the tunnel. Valencia, her body suddenly weightless, walks after them, waving. She insists they’re great actors, haha, very funny. They’d once played a similar joke on a teacher during April Fool’s day, getting the class to pretend the teacher wasn’t there for the first ten minutes of class. 

Roi asks again, “You sure a meth-head didn’t get her? Maybe we should’ve taken your brother’s bat before we left.”

“Nuh-uh,” Casey shakes her head, “I’ve gone through the tunnels alone, I don’t think they hang here.” She and Roi skate beside each other, growing more distant as they return to the tunnel. “And even if they did, Val’d give ‘em hell. She’s a survivor. Maybe she just fucked up a knee. Maybe she hit her head.”

Casey waves Roi off, carving a smooth turn into the mouth of the tunnel, leaving Valencia alone in the light.

Gabriela Everett is a creative writing undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago and presently lives in the South Loop. Everett’s previous publications include prose and poetry in Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s lit mag, Glyph, and Columbia’s Hair Trigger 2.0


Kendra Y. Mims-Applewhite

What Comes After


She tried hard not to watch them. Tried hard not to notice the way they carried on with their constant fondling and caressing, a passionate heat always on full display. She told herself she would ignore them today, as she settled on the sofa to flip through the pages of her favorite cookbook. But her eyes kept drifting toward the louver window, her mind too curious to focus on finding a chicken casserole dish. Logic and curiosity warred within her as she tossed the book on the coffee table and wobbled across the room to catch a glimpse of them through the Venetian blinds before the sun went down.

They hung out in front of their seafoam green Buick convertible again this evening, grinding to the Motown tunes that seeped from the speakers, stealing kisses between swigs from their longneck beer bottles. Sasha propped her voluptuous body on top of the hood and pulled her loose curls into a ponytail, exposing a pink flying dragon tattoo on her cinnamon-kissed shoulder. She wrapped her long legs around Andre’s waist. He grabbed her hips and pulled her into him without missing a beat, his hands roaming over her body as if exploring her for the first time.

Valerie inched closer to the window. Her heartbeat quickened as she watched Andre’s lips graze Sasha’s collarbone until their mouths met with intensity, their tongues dancing in a wild and explosive rhythm. A song and dance she longed to remember. 

“Those two going at it again?”

Valerie jumped at the sound of Harry’s voice behind her. She usually heard the wooden floors creak underneath his flat feet, but the warning sound went unnoticed today. She turned away from the window and redirected her attention to her romantic mystery collection on top of the bookcase, pretending to wipe the wooden shelf with a dry cloth as Harry moved closer to her. 

She shrugged, her mind still fixated on the steamy scene happening right outside their front door. She couldn’t recall the last time Harry kissed her that way. 

“Looks like it. Haven’t really noticed.” She wiped the wood a little harder.

Harry peered through the blinds and frowned. “Do they ever stop to think about other people? They act like people are paying money to see a show. Some of us don’t want to see a grown couple acting like two horny teenagers. They gotta be in their mid-twenties. Old enough to know better.”

Valerie wrinkled her nose and feigned the same disgust. “Exactly. Someone should let them know,” she said, attempting to sneak another glance before Harry closed the blinds.

“He’s always groping her in public like she’s not his wife,” he rambled on. “That Andre guy really thinks he’s somebody, huh? Always walking around without a shirt on. Telling folks to call him ’Dre. Do you know he had the nerve to invite me to run with him the other day?” Harry glanced down at his linen shirt; his frown deepened at the gaping space between his buttons.

“Maybe he’s just being nice.”

“No. I used to go to school with guys like him. She better watch out. Men like that never stay close to home.”

Valerie nodded in silence and returned to dusting, waiting for Harry to get off his soapbox about the couple in 2B. She detected a tinge of jealousy in his voice underneath the aggravation, but she couldn’t blame him. They, too, had oozed with sexiness once. Full of passion. But that was before life happened. Before loss. Before the accident.

The couple’s recent arrival to their three-story apartment building intrigued and unnerved her. Their passion constantly reminded Valerie of what she had with Harry, much worse than uncomplicated or simple, terms Harry threw around with pride. They were boring. Their relationship, lifeless.

“Well, we don’t need all that to prove what we have is the real deal.”  Harry yanked the blinds closed with a forceful tug. Show over. His eyes met hers, and his mouth gave way to a smile as weary and worn as his brown work shoes. “Let’s go to bed. Watch one of those black-and-white movies you like so much.”

Valerie stopped fidgeting with the dry cloth and placed it on the desk, failing to wipe away the image of Andre’s hands fumbling over Sasha’s body. Like he knew how to handle a woman.  Like he could “lay the pipe” as Aunt Mattie would say. 

“That sounds nice,” she told Harry through a tight-lipped smile. “I’ll make us some chamomile tea.”

Harry turned off the television and made his way down the hall to the bathroom. Valerie waited until he closed the door before she gently pulled down the slats, hoping to catch one more glimpse. But the street rested in silence. A light rain had started, the drizzle misting her vision. Her eyes landed on the Buick. The green convertible looked lonely and cold in the night. No sign of Sasha and Andre in sight. Just an abandoned beer bottle collecting drops of rain.

Valerie’s morning always started the same. She woke up ahead of sunrise to brew a fresh pot of coffee before Harry headed out to teach at the community college close to home. She packed extra food and snacks in his blue lunch box on the days he worked his overnight shift at the call center up north, handling complaints about product defects and missing orders for an online toy store. He rarely complained about his long days, but she knew he hated spending his nights taking calls in a cramped cubicle at the one-story warehouse; the smell of grease and smoke lingered on his clothes when he came home.

Harry loved teaching English classes at the college, but they were barely making it on his  salary after the accident, and her disability check only covered small bills. He had recently started paying a portion of his mother’s living expenses and occasionally dropped subtle hints about moving her into their home. Valerie politely and adamantly refused. No way she wanted Irma Jeanne living in her house, invading her personal space, cooking up bland casseroles in her kitchen. She tolerated her mother-in-law in doses. Sure, they occasionally engaged in surface-level chitchat about the weather, television, or furniture during family functions, but things weren’t always amicable between them. Initially, Harry’s mother wasn’t too keen on her only son marrying a mahogany-skinned Black woman born and raised on the West Side of Chicago. Even though Irma had come to accept their relationship over time, the rawness of some wounds still stung and burned. Words were a powerful weapon, and Valerie never cared much for bigots with a sharp tongue. 

Valerie began her daily routine after Harry left. She turned the kitchen clock radio to the jazz station. Wiped down the counters. Loaded the dishwasher. Washed the pots. Prepped for supper. Refilled her coffee mug. Black, no sugar the second time. Scrambled an egg. Fried one slice of bacon. Sliced a melon. After toasting her gluten-free bread, she shuffled over to the farmhouse table in the dining room with her plate and final cup of coffee for the day⎯the third⎯always with heavy cream and sugar. 

She sat down and munched on her food, savoring the taste of her crispy bacon in silence until a loud knock at the front door brought her eating to a halt. Valerie stood slowly, steadying herself with both hands on the table as she peered into the kitchen, scanning the narrow space until she found the blue lunchbox teetering on the edge of the counter next to her cooking magazines. Harry left his lunch at home at least once a week, his forgetfulness occasionally breaking up the monotony of her day. He sped home between classes, threw his car in park with his keys still in the ignition, sprinted up to the third floor, and knocked on the door, his face flushed and red when she answered. Other wives could save their husbands the trouble and bring their lunch to them, but driving was no longer an option for her. She’d never get behind the wheel again.

“Coming,” she called out as she grabbed his lunch box and headed to open the door. The can of sugar-free pop clinked against the Mason jar salad with every step, reminding her to pack bottled water tomorrow. “You really should triple-check in the morning, so you don’t have to. . . .”

Valerie lost her train of thought when she opened the door. Her eyes widened in surprise at the sight of Andre standing in front of her apartment dressed in workout gear. She closed her mouth and managed a nervous grin, trying to regain her composure as he flashed her a wide smile, revealing straight white teeth and a deep dimple etched into his right cheek.

Andre leaned against the hallway wall and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.  A bead of sweat trickled down his biceps in slow motion, residue from his morning run. He folded his long, muscular arms across his chest and peered at her from underneath his fitted hat.

“Good morning. Your name’s Valerie, right?”

She nodded, impressed that he remembered her name as she fidgeted with Harry’s lunch box to avoid making eye contact. She regretted her homely morning attire—green oversized sweatpants and a floral cotton shirt that swallowed her frame; the stitching on her yellow house shoes unraveled at the heel. At least her hair looked decent. She had removed her bonnet after her shower and swept her curls into a cute bun.

“And you’re Andre?”

“Just ’Dre,” he corrected. “I wasn’t sure if you remembered me or not. Haven’t really seen you around.”

His comment jogged her memory about their first encounter. She and Harry had just returned from grocery shopping and spotted a U-Haul double-parked in front of their apartment building along with moving boxes stacked on the curb. Sasha had emerged from the truck in a pair of overalls and a lace bra. No shirt. She gave them a friendly wave from a distance, but she had a lukewarm demeanor up close. A warm smile and cold gaze at the same time. Sasha stuffed her hands into her side pockets and greeted them in her low, sultry voice. 

“Hi. We’re your new neighbors in 2B,” she told them without mentioning her name.

After welcoming her to the neighborhood, Valerie and Harry went inside. Andre nearly toppled over her while carrying an empty box downstairs. After apologizing profusely, he extended his hand and gave them both a handshake, his grip firm.

“I’m Andre,” he said. “But you can call me ’Dre. Just moved in with my wife, Sasha.”

They made small talk about the best restaurants in Bronzeville and then parted ways. Valerie hadn’t bumped into either of them since then. She only watched them from a distance.

Andre cleared his throat and pointed his finger down toward the frayed carpet, interrupting her thoughts. “We live downstairs in 2B.”

“Yes, I remember. How do you like the neighborhood? Have you settled in yet?”

He shook his head and chuckled. “Sasha doesn’t believe in unpacking, so no telling when that will happen. She could live out of boxes for a year. Gotta love her though. Anyway. . . .” He rubbed his hands together and inched closer to her doorway. “I wanted to know if your hot water worked. We haven’t had any since last night.”

Valerie released a quiet sigh of frustration. It looked like their slumlord, Sherman, was back to his old, trifling ways. She thought things had turned around for good when he started making repairs around the building at the beginning of summer—replaced their refrigerator and dishwasher, upgraded the building’s cooling and heating system, and painted the hallway on the first floor. He promised to give all the corridors a fresh coat of paint, but the tattered and outdated wallpaper and falling paint chips throughout the rest of the building reminded tenants of his unfinished work and empty promises.   

“Our hot water works fine, but I’m not surprised. It’s happened before. Sometimes only one side of the building loses hot water. It’s usually your side.” She paused to give him a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry. Sherman usually doesn’t respond quickly, but he’ll get back to you if you stay on top of him. Eventually.”

Andre groaned in irritation. “Yeah, I left dude three messages last night. I’m about ready to hunt him down in person in a second.” He gestured to his workout clothes; his clingy white shirt soaked with perspiration. “I have somewhere to be this morning, and I can’t show up in my running gear. I guess it’s a good thing Sasha left for New York yesterday, so she won’t have to deal with this.” He checked his watch and sighed. “Maybe I can catch Sherman this morning.”

“No, you probably won’t,” Valerie told him. She hated being the bearer of bad news, but it was the truth. Sherman never responded to morning calls. Hell, he barely responded to anything⎯emails, phone calls, letters. Andre would suffer without hot water alone. No one occupied the other two units on his side of the building anymore. Mrs. Jones and her horde of children had moved into their new home last month, and Rosie relocated to Atlanta for work in the spring. Rosie had lived in the apartment directly across from them, so Valerie was fully aware of the hot water issues on that side of the building. She even let Rosie use their bathroom on several occasions.

Andre lingered for a moment before he thanked her and wished her a good day. An eagerness grew in the pit of her stomach as he turned around to head back to his empty, cold-water flat, and before she could think, before she could consider her actions, Valerie stuck her head out the doorway and called his name.

“You’re more than welcome to use our bathroom.” The words tumbled out of her mouth in one quick breath. “If you’d like,” she added.

He stopped mid-step and turned back toward her, his face a mixture of surprise and relief. “Are you sure it’s cool? It won’t be a problem?”

She gave him a reassuring nod. “Not at all.”

He relaxed his shoulders, deflating the tension from his body.  The worry lines on his forehead disappeared as his handsome face broke into a wide grin—less teeth, deeper dimple.

“I owe you one, Valerie. For real. I need to grab some fresh clothes. I’ll be right back.”  

Andre tossed her a wink before he jogged toward the staircase to head downstairs. Valerie left the door slightly ajar as she returned to the kitchen to place Harry’s forgotten lunch in the refrigerator before the tuna spoiled. Her stomach growled as she caught a whiff of the chocolate cake she packed for his dessert. She turned her attention to her unfinished breakfast and contemplated taking a quick bite before Andre returned. His unexpected visit had her on edge, but she managed to scarf down a few forkfuls of cold eggs despite her jittery stomach. 

After washing down her food with a glass of water, she peeked into the guest bathroom and noted the pristine marble countertops, shower, and vinyl floor with satisfaction. Nothing out of place. A fresh lemon scent still hung in the air from the last cleaning. She wiped the streaks off the mirror and set a cream-colored towel and washcloth on the sink countertop. A new towel set just for him. 

Her phone vibrated with an incoming text from Harry, and she breathed a sigh of relief when he asked her to put his forgotten lunch away. He decided to grab lunch with his colleagues. No need for him to come home. 

The knock came sooner than she expected, but she wasn’t surprised to find Andre waiting this time. She pushed the door wide open and let him in.


While Andre showered in the guest bathroom, Valerie examined herself in the entry hallway mirror, frowning at the puffiness underneath her eyelids. The dark circles highlighted her fatigue. Harry had woken her up in the middle of the night for another three-pumps-done tryst.

Her favorite barista injected more pumps into her caramel macchiato. And the drink left her more satisfied. Valerie thought about Sasha with a twinge of jealousy and guilt as she patted down flyaway strands that escaped from her bun. She bet Andre could go all night. She bet he left Sasha satisfied and craving more every time.

Valerie shook her head to erase the image of Andre’s bronzed brown body. She had to stop wondering about him. It just wasn’t right to think about another man in that way, to imagine how he worked his large manly hands, a combination of gentle and strong.

Andre stepped into the living room dressed in business casual attire⎯slim pants, fitted shirt, coiled hair still wet from the shower. He held a damp cream-colored linen towel in the air, waiting for instructions. Her stomach tightened when she noticed the gold embroidered letters above the dobby border—H. J. T. She had purchased the monogrammed bath set for Harry’s upcoming thirty-eighth birthday. Apparently, she had grabbed the wrong towel set and accidentally placed Harry’s gift in the guest bathroom for Andre. She tossed it in the laundry basket located in the hallway closet, making a mental note to wash a small load to get rid of Andre’s scent⎯musk with notes of cedar and lavender.

Andre surveyed the room with a curious gaze. His eyes landed on the black-and-white wedding portrait mounted above the living room sofa. Valerie was seated on a park bench in her mermaid off-the-shoulder wedding gown with Harry positioned next to her. Their intertwined hands captured the tangible symbol of their commitment as husband and wife. The photographer had instructed them to gaze into each other’s eyes. To feel the fullness of the moment.

He studied the photo in admiration. “That’s a dope shot. Beautiful pic of you two.” He glanced in her direction. “How long you been married?”

“Thank you,” she whispered, somewhat embarrassed of their dramatic pose. The photo took her breath away back then, but the fairytale effect had lost its edge. They looked too unnatural. Too staged. Too poised.  “We just made twelve years.”

Andre clapped his hands and whistled. “That’s what’s up. We’re coming up on our second year. Marriage ain’t easy, so twelve years is a big deal. Congrats.” He turned away from the portrait and set his sight on her. His intense gaze made her nervous.

“Thanks,” she repeated.

“Any kids?”

She grimaced at his question, her buried pain resurrecting without her consent. Her awkward silence wasn’t unnoticed. Andre gave her an apologetic smile.

“My bad. I shouldn’t pry.”

“No, that’s okay. We don’t have any kids.” She shifted her weight to her left foot and winced. The pain in her right leg intensified whenever she broached the subject, inciting a visceral reaction within, one she couldn’t conceal. Her therapist had told her it was psychological⎯the question about children triggered distress, which manifested into physical pain⎯but Valerie questioned his logic. The pain felt real to her.

Andre’s eyes traveled down to her ankle. “You okay? Can I get you anything?”

She shook her head as she wobbled over to the couch. “It’s nothing really. I just need to sit for a moment.”

He remained silent as he watched her with concern. She appreciated that he didn’t pry. The stillness surrounding them felt refreshing. Andre was her first visitor in a while. She once entertained guests regularly. But that was before the sound of meaningless chatter suffocated her, and people filled the silence with empty words. Before they peered at her through narrowed eyes and questioned if she missed her former executive director position in fundraising. The travel, the perks, the high-paying salary. Her visitor’s list dwindled over the year, and with her family miles away in Atlanta, Valerie retreated into solitude. She canceled her visits with the Ladies of Calvary, no longer moved by their baked apple pies and generic prayers. She opted for the grocery delivery service instead of her mid-week trips to the farmer’s market with her friend, Janice. Their gossip sessions now drained her soul.

Andre pulled out a set of keys from his pocket and glanced at the wall clock above the computer desk. She wished he could stay for a little while longer and sit with her for just a few more minutes. Valerie felt an ache as she watched him gather his belongings. Something about his quietness or her loneliness, or a combination of both, provoked her to talk as he reached for his duffel bag.

“We almost had a baby once,” she blurted out, the words bursting from her mouth like a dam breaking under pressure. “A couple years ago.”

He raised his thick eyebrows, the anticipation on his face urging her to continue as he sat down in the recliner chair.

She averted her gaze and stared at the red wine stain on the carpet to collect her thoughts, to gather her words. “I was almost five-months pregnant when we took a road trip to Atlanta to visit Harry’s family for a wedding. We were both so tired on the way home. I wanted to stop at the halfway point and get back on the road in the morning, but Harry had his first big speaking engagement here for a writer’s conference. He didn’t want to risk it, so we pushed to get home. A driver in an 18-wheeler dozed off and ran into us on the way here. Totaled the car. Broke my leg. I spent months in physical therapy, but I still have this limp. It may not ever go away.”

Valerie paused and steadied her voice before she uttered the next sentence. “Lost our baby girl, too. Isabella Louise Thomas. We were going to name her after both of our grandmothers.”

Andre leaned forward, his hand resting on his chin, his eyes never leaving her face. She took a deep breath to silence the quiet sobbing in her chest as she recalled the accident. Her leg bloodied, mangled, trapped in shards of glass. Her broken bones. Her excruciating pain. Still, the physical ache paled in comparison to losing Isabella. Harry still blamed himself for blowing off her suggestion to get a hotel room instead of driving through the night. She still blamed him too, sometimes, but she faulted herself even more for ignoring her intuition. An unexplainable feeling in her gut had prompted her to suggest they find a hotel three different times throughout the night, but she eventually stopped asking to keep the peace and show her support for his upcoming opportunity. But his big moment never came. No inspirational talk onstage. No speech to stir up the crowd. Just conversations about leg fractures, permanent damage, and a baby with an absent heartbeat. 

Valerie stared down at her hands, unable to make eye contact with Andre. Even without looking at him, she felt his eyes on her. She didn’t want to look up and find pity or sadness in his reflection. She couldn’t handle that right now.   

Andre cleared his throat to get her attention. “Valerie,” he said, uttering her name with tenderness and admiration. “I’m really sorry to hear that. I don’t know you that well, but I can tell you’re a strong woman. My grandma always told us that loss hurts, but it also makes us stronger, and ultimately better, if we take the time to heal from it all. So, I appreciate you sharing.”

She raised her head and looked in his direction, her mind wondering about the losses he had endured as his eyes glazed over with a familiar sadness. One that exudes from the soul. 

“Your grandmother sounds wise.” 

The corners of his mouth lifted into a bittersweet smile. “She was the wisest person I’ve ever known.” 

The quiet returned, both of them absorbed in their own thoughts. Andre fiddled with his keychain; Valerie’s eyes settled on the stained carpet again. She had accidentally knocked her wine glass off the table the day Harry brought home the newborn satin dresses she spotted in a boutique window on the way home from her ultrasound appointment. She had jumped up and hugged him, unconcerned about the Merlot dripping onto the carpet as she buried her face in the crook of his neck and squealed with joy. 

Andre stood up and stretched, his keys dangling from his thumb. “I’d love to chop it up with you longer, but I have a meeting to get to. Thanks for looking out for me today. I appreciate it. You helped me more than you know.”

You helped me too, she thought. She hadn’t told that story to anyone in over a year. Telling it to Andre freed her in some way. Made room for some light to come in.

He saw himself out after they said their goodbyes. The door closed behind him with a soft thud. Maybe his emails to Sherman would go unanswered, and he would wake up to cold water again tomorrow. She’d cook extra food for breakfast in the morning, just in case he returned. She’d slice more melon, brew a full pot of coffee, offer him something to eat. Maybe he would say yes. Maybe he would sit with her for a little while again. 

Valerie leaned her head back on the armrest and replayed her morning with ’Dre. A tiny smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she closed her eyes; a renewed hope washed over her, gently wiping away the dust that settled long ago.  


Kendra Y. Mims-Applewhite is a writer and editor in the Chicagoland area. She graduated with a BA in Journalism from Columbia College Chicago; and she is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at her alma mater. Her work has appeared in Avalon Literary ReviewEbonyPermission to WriteSheKnows Media and healthcare publications. Kendra is currently working on her debut novel and short story collection. 




Anthony Koranda

Banana Split

We didn’t have to ask permission to sleep over at Mike’s place on Saturday nights. His dad never came home on the weekends, and his grandma had been bedridden since anyone could remember. Every weekend we watched the horror shows on cable, The Crypt Keeper cackled through the static of old speakers and Elvira’s cleavage bounced between tight black lace late into the night. 

Every so often, no matter what hour, his grandmother would call from her room and Mike would have to run to the liquor store to pick up a fresh bottle of vodka or a can of dog food for the two Maltese that rarely left her bedroom. He’d layer up with a couple sweaters and a light jacket in the winter, and we’d walk a few blocks together to Maria’s on 31ststreet.

“It’s too cold,” I told him one night as he began to put on layers. “Why do I have to come?” 

“My dad doesn’t want me leaving anyone here if I’m not around,” he said, sliding a pair of mittens over his stubby fingers. 

“It’s like a ten-minute walk,” I told him. “I won’t leave this spot,” I gripped my small fists into the floral couch cushions.

Mike thought it over as he laced up his boots, “Fine,” he said. “But don’t go snooping around. If my dad finds out I left you here alone he’ll kill me. And if my grandma calls just ignore her. I’ll deal with her when I get home.”

I crossed my heart, promising to follow the rules, and he walked out the door, down the steps into the snow and wind. I flipped through a few channels before getting up to go to the bathroom, sliding my toes over cigarette burns in the shag carpet.

“Mikey,” a faint voice called from a bedroom down the hall. Following orders, I ignored Mike’s grandmother, walking straight into the bathroom, making sure to piss directly into the bowl and wiping anything that splashed onto the floor. 

I walked back into the hallway, and she began calling again, “Mikey. Mikey.” 

“He’s not here,” I finally said. “He’ll be back in a few minutes.” 

“What?” she said, “Come here, Mikey,” and the dogs began to yip as if they were calling for help.

I walked down the hallway toward a dim light pouring from a crack in the door, the dogs and Mike’s grandmother sounding more urgent with each step. The smell of stale cigarettes and a tinge of something sour wafted down the narrow hallway. I pushed through the bedroom door, the old woman’s frame lying under thin sheets, two white dogs barking and growling, spinning in circles on the queen-size mattress. 

Her hair was thin and white, sitting in a mess on top of a frail scalp that looked like it could have been wiped away with a sponge. When I entered the room, she sighed, moved forward, and the sheet fell exposing sagging breasts and wrinkled skin. Her nipples were large and streaked blue with veins.

“Jesus,” I said and covered my eyes. It was the first pair of real-life tits I’d ever seen.

“Hand me the glass,” she said just loud enough so I could hear her over the protests of the Maltese. I took my hands from my face, walking to a table next to the bed, handing her a warm glass of orange juice that reeked of cheap vodka. 

She shushed the dogs, bringing a frail finger to her lips. They persisted, now jumping off the bed and pawing at my feet and up to my chest, long nails leaving scratches against my hips. She drank from the glass with her eyes closed, and I noticed brown liver spots trailing from her waist, up her breasts, and to her shoulders. 

She pulled hard from the cup and handed it back to me, noticing my wide eyes studying her body. I don’t know if it was because I was looking at her or if she had just noticed I wasn’t Mike, but she began to cackle, thin lips curling, exposing rotten gums lining her jaw. She tilted her head back and let out a howl.

I clasped my hands over my ears. She sounded just like The Crypt Keeper.


Even after we went to different high schools, Mike at the prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High and me at Tilden High on 47th Street, we kept in touch.     

I used to come and see him at Scoops, an ice cream shop covered in floor-to-ceiling sparkling white tile where he worked on weeknights. We’d get high in the back alley behind the store and then stumble in to giggle and eat ice cream in the air-conditioning. Mike would stack scoops three high on a waffle cone, and I’d bite the top scoop in one mouthful, crying in pain as the brain freeze pushed through my skull.

“Spit it out, Alex” he’d say with laughter, and I’d upchuck the mouthful into the garbage in the back of the store. 

One night, the weed was particularly potent. After we came back into the store, Mike could barely walk. He fell into a red bench at a booth.

“I want my triple cone,” I told him.

“Make whatever you want,” he said through bloodshot eyes.

I searched behind the counter, looking for the scooper.

“What’s this?” I asked him, pointing to a large metal device with three wands sticking downward from the top. 

“It’s for milkshakes.”

“You never made me a milkshake before.” 

“You never asked,” he said and plopped his head down on the table, his cheek smacking the particleboard surface.

It was about an hour before the store closed. I grabbed a metal mixing cup and started rummaging through the ice cream case. I filled the cup about three-quarters of the way with cherry, cookie dough, rocky road, and the rest with whole milk and chocolate syrup. Before I mixed it, I peeled a banana and shoved it into the cup, bits of chocolate and milk spilling over the side.

“Banana split,” I said over my shoulder with a grin, and turned the machine on full blast.

 Mike didn’t tell me the wand needed to be submerged in the cup before it was turned on, and when it entered, the concoction flew, the cup shaking in my hand, metal rattling the sides against the wand. It splattered every inch of the white tile behind the counter, the ice cream case, the remainder spilling across the floor as it fell from my hands. 

Mike bolted to the counter, “What the fuck?” he said, his eyes still bloodshot but large and frightened. He looked at me, at the mess. 

“I’ve never used one of these before,” I told him, wiping ice cream from my eyes. I was covered in the sticky, sweet-smelling liquid.

“A whole fucking banana?” Mike said, looking at bits of the mushed fruit covering the counter.

I ran my finger across my shirt, sucking the mixture from my nails.

“It’s delicious,” I told him.

He ran one of his long fingers across the counter, licking the shake from his fingertips.

“That’s really fucking good,” he said through laughter.

“Should we clean it?” 

“Fuck that,” he said, taking off his red apron and tossing it to the ground among the mess. “I’m not even on the payroll here. The owner just lets me work these night shifts because he can’t find enough help to work for minimum wage. He already paid me in cash before the shift started.” 

We just locked the door and went to a park a few blocks away to finish the weed and take turns pushing each other on the swings.

The owner must have really had a hard-on for Mike, or at least a soft spot for his grandma, because when he called Mike’s house the next day, Mike just started giving him some sob story about how his grandma had gone to the ER the night before. The next weekend we were back rolling White Owl wraps at a booth.

“I can’t believe the owner didn’t fire you,” I said, and Mike sliced a straight line down the blunt with a knife used to cut fruit toppings. He emptied the tobacco in a pile on the table.

“He grew up in the neighborhood, knows what my grandma is like. I think he went to school with my dad, too,” Mike patted the brown paper against his tongue. “I also need the job.”

“What for? It’s not like it pays well.” 

“Yeah, but I’m starting to fill out college applications and this counts as ‘life experience,’” he said, rolling the buds between his fingers and spreading it evenly inside the wrap.

“Right,” I said, blushing a bit. I’d failed all my classes the year before, and I decided not to go back to Tilden High because I’d have to repeat the eleventh grade. I hadn’t told Mike yet. 

“Are you thinking City College?” Mike asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “But I might just get a job and start making some money instead. You know, take a year off.” 

The White Owl wrap slipped from Mike’s fingers and fell to the table. 

“You suck at this,” I said, picking up the blunt and rerolling it. “All those brains and no practical skills.”

After it was rolled, I ran the outside paper across my tongue, flicked a lighter, and moved the flame across the blunt so the heat would tighten the wrap, my saliva sizzling above the flame.   


Not long after Mike left for college, my mother threw me out of the house when she got a new boyfriend. Daniel was Polish and lived in a bungalow in Avondale that he inherited after his parents died, before “all the fucking yuppies moved in.”

He sat at our kitchen table all day drinking and listening to Polski on a small AM radio, laughing a deep croak from thick lips when he heard bad news from Warsaw. His face was bulbous and the red flush from drinking ran from his neck to the top of his horseshoe bald spot.

“Why don’t you ever bring the girls home from your school?” he asked me one day. 

“I don’t go to school anymore,” I told him, and he shrugged and scoffed before pouring another glass.

 When the schools let out in the afternoon, before my mother came home from work, he watched out the living room windows, calling me over when groups of elementary school students passed by.

“You know that one?” he asked, pointing to a seventh-grade girl.

“She’s like twelve,” I said to him, and he scoffed and shrugged again before walking back to the table.   

When my mother came home from work, scrubs from the nursing home draped over her sagging shoulders. She made Daniel tea and sat her thin frame on his lap as he brushed his large fingers through her knotted, graying hair. They walked back to the bedroom. He smirked and raised his eyebrows as my mother led him to the bed, old wooden floorboards creaking under his girth.

Daniel was into the rough stuff.

I’d hear my mother moaning and screaming from the bedroom late into the night. With nowhere to go in the evenings since Mike left and having  dropped out of Tilden, I would turn up the television’s volume to full, drowning out the noise. I did this a few times, until Daniel started coming out in his boxers.

“Turn that shit down,” he’d say, a belt wrapped in his right hand, and I’d lower the volume. “You want your mother to enjoy herself, right?” and he walked back into the bedroom, murmuring in Polish. 

One day he said he had business in the suburbs, and he left the house early in the morning. My mother made the two of us breakfast before she went to work. 

“What’s that? Did a patient grab you, or did you fall?” I asked, pointing to bruises on her wrists and neck as she set a plate of eggs in front of me.

“It’s nothing. I fell,” and she turned back to the stove.

“Did Daniel do this?”

“Really, Alex?” she sighed. “I think it’s time for us to talk. Since you’re not in school, you really need to get a job and your own place,” she didn’t turn around from the stove. “I’ll give you until the first of the month. Then you’re on your own.” 

“That’s three days,” I said. “How am I supposed to get enough money to get my own place in three days?” 

“Alex. I don’t want to hear another word about it. We need privacy here now.” 

“Oh, I get it. Did he put you up to this?” 

“This isn’t a discussion. Three days. That’s it.” she sighed, reaching into her purse and handing me a hundred-dollar bill before walking out to catch her bus to work. 

I spent the rest of the morning stewing on it in front of the TV, thinking about how I could get rid of him and stay in the house. 

Daniel came back in the early afternoon. 

“So,” he said, hanging his jacket in the closet, “what will you be doing after the first of the month?” he chuckled, his breath smelling of lager. “You know, if you go farther south to Englewood, Chatham¾they have cheap rooms for rent. A nice white boy like you will make many friends.” he curled his lips and let out a howl. I could see gold molars lining the back of his jaw.

 Before I knew it, before I could think, I was at his throat, squeezing his fat neck with every ounce of strength I could muster.  His face turned from flush to beet red as we toppled to the floor. I straddled him, his arms flailing, not quite reaching my face, and I leaned my weight into his neck. I was going to kill him. I was going to watch the life fade from his eyes as he gasped. Within seconds, he threw a heavy fist into my stomach, knocking me back to the floor. He was strong, and surprisingly nimble for such a big man. He was to his feet in no time, raining heels and kicks to my head and body.

Once he grew tired, he walked to the kitchen table and poured a glass of vodka. I lay bloodied on the hardwood. 

“Maybe three days is too long. Maybe I tell your mother you found a place to live today,” he drank deeply from the glass. “I think that would be best for you.”

I cleaned myself up in the bathroom, washed the blood from my face and changed my clothes. I had an old backpack from school, and I filled it to the zipper and walked toward the door. It was late in the afternoon when I left, school was getting out, and Daniel was at the window, watching the girls walk by.


The day was warm with a cool breeze, cicadas singing in damp summer air that smelled of summer rain. A cigarette dangled between my lips. The middle bent from breaking in half in my jacket pocket, and I had fixed it together with scotch tape. I was grateful for the weather. 

I’d spent the first couple days at Corner Stone, a shelter in Uptown. The mattresses were plastic, and I woke up with large bug bites covering my inner thighs. We weren’t allowed to spend much time in the shelter. We had to be out from nine to five every day, spending our time looking for jobs or meeting with social workers.

There were two beds in every room. My roommate couldn’t have been taller than five-two. He wore a baseball hat perched on his head. He didn’t even look at me when he came in, and when he took the hat off, fluorescent light reflected from his bald spot. 

“I’m Alex,” I said, walking over to shake his hand.

“Rodney,” he said, and his fingernails scratched my palm as he gave me a limp shake. “When you get in?” 

“It’s my first night.”

“Out with the old, in with the new,” Rodney said with a smile. “That bed’s probably still warm, huh? They just hauled Kent off this morning.”

“What do you mean?” 

“Old Kent had been cheeking his methadone for a week. Took a handful last night. When I woke up this morning, he was so blue he looked like he’d been sleeping in the snow.”

“Fuck,” I said, looking at the bed.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rodney said, slapping my shoulder. “I’m sure they changed the sheets.” He walked out as quickly as he came.   

I didn’t want to carry my bag around all day, so I tucked it under the bed and walked out into the neighborhood. The North Side was busy, more congested than Bridgeport. There were young white kids everywhere. I spent the entire day walking, from the lake to Loyola, through Devon and Little India, down to the rich folks in North Center and over to Lincoln Park. By the time five came around and I made it back to Corner Stone, I was exhausted. I ate dinner and went back to my room to go to bed. I pushed through the door and flopped on the mattress. I reached under the frame for my bag. My flat palm met carpet. 

When I poked my head underneath, the bag was gone. I looked in the dresser, under Rodney’s bed, all over the room. Nothing. I went to the entrance to see if the woman at reception had seen it.

“You should know better than to leave your belongings unattended,” the woman said, a gold crucifix slung around her neck. “We can call the police and make a report, but. . . .” she shrugged.

“What about Rodney? I haven’t seen him since this morning.”

 “He checked out this afternoon. Went to work in Indiana.”

I sighed, turning to walk toward the exit, fishing through my pockets. I had about fifty dollars from the hundred my mother gave me and just enough change to make a phone call. 

There were people all over the corner of Lawrence and Broadway, in and out of huge concert halls and old speakeasies turned into jazz lounges. I dialed the last number I knew for Mike at a pay phone on the corner. My heart jumped when he answered.

“Fuck, man,” he said after I told him about the last couple of days. “That’s some bad luck.”

“Yeah, I know. Any chance you have room at your place?” and he was silent for a moment. 

“I have to check with Noah, my boyfriend, you two will like each other, but I should really run it by him first. Call me back tomorrow.”

“This call is the last of my money,” I lied.

He sighed through the static of the receiver, “All right. Get a bus ticket to Iowa as soon as you can. I’ll talk to him before you get here. I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”

I bought a one-way Greyhound ticket for thirty dollars that left Chicago at 11:30 p.m. I wouldn’t get to Iowa until five in the morning. I watched out of the window as the lights and buildings and cars became more and more sparse, until all I could see was the dark bulk of corn in the fields and a thousand stars twinkling down on top of the stalks.

 I thought about my father singing Hank Williams when I was a kid, before he left us for a new life in California, a fresh beer between his legs as joints cracked and his girth sunk into the leather of his chair. I thought I finally understood what the song was about, the southern drawl twanging through the speakers, Dad’s gravelly throat rumbling alongside the lyrics. I was excited and nervous, terrified and joyous, a smile etching across my face as tears streamed down my cheeks. I’m so lonesome I could cry.

When we pulled into the Iowa bus station the sun poked orange and purple from behind a shelf of gray clouds. Birds chirped on tree branches above sidewalks. There were bearded men who carried books instead of lunch pails, draped in sweaters and cardigans, no cop or firefighter uniforms. 

Mike lived just north of downtown, a brick-laid street shrouded in a thick canopy of elm and oak trees. I knocked on the door for five minutes before the deadbolt clunked, and a guy in his mid-thirties opened the door. 

“Who the fuck are you?” his voice was tight, gray hairs mixed with black in his beard. He wore black-framed glasses that were a few years out of style. 

“I’m Alex, Mike’s friend from Chicago. My bus just got in.”

“Jesus. What time is it?”

“About 5:30 a.m. Can I come in?” I said in my most empathetic tone. I presumed this was Noah, who was doing me a favor, and I wanted to stay on his good side.

He turned and thumped his bare feet across the floor to a small wooden table in the kitchen, pouring a glass of vodka and drinking it before heading back to bed.

I grabbed a pack of cigarettes and the bottle off the table, moved an ashtray and some Proust and Petrarch books, which I knew had to be Mike’s class reading. I sat on the stained beige carpet in the living room, leaning against the cement wall, dust particles floating through sunlight pushing between venetian blinds. Birds chirped in the tree outside. It was familiar: the apartment, Noah, even though it was a couple hundred miles away from Chicago and we had just met. And I knew, for a little while at least, I was home.

I woke up to something scratching across my cheek. When I opened my eyes, Mike was dangling a shoelace above me, grinning gap teeth under bright blue eyes and curly hair. We both laughed and he crouched down and hugged me. 

“Looks like you made yourself at home,” he said, walking toward the kitchen. 

At first, I thought he meant finishing the bottle of vodka and smoking the half pack of cigarettes I’d taken from the table the night before, but when I looked down I noticed the crotch of my jeans was soaked and the couch cushion was damp. 

“Shit,” I said, “I’m so sorry, man.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not the first piss that couch has seen,” he called from the kitchen.

“What time is it?” I called back.

“Almost one. Time to get out and seize the day!” he said, coming back into the living room holding two mugs of coffee. “I have to go to class soon, if you want to walk with me and see the town a little. You’re a long way from Bridgeport.”

I sipped the coffee and got up to head to the bathroom. I let the water wash over me in the shower, helping myself to some shampoo and soap, scrubbing the irritated skin of my inner thighs.  I didn’t have another pair of pants, or any other clothes, so I rummaged through the closet in the bathroom, found a bottle of Febreze and sunk five shots into the denim. 

Mike was right, we were a long way from Bridgeport. The town was full of kids in their early twenties. Tall, short, fat, skinny, backpacks hugging their shoulders and books clenched to their sides. 

“Jesus,” I muttered, turning my head to a group of blond girls strolling by, their perfectly manicured teeth shining in the sun. 

“Don’t get too excited,” Mike said with a chuckle. “You’re going to have to get at least one new change of clothes before even thinking about it. And maybe some actual cologne. You went pretty heavy on the Febreze.”

“Better than piss, I guess.” 

We walked to a building on campus where Mike said he had class.

“What time do you get out? I’ll come back and meet you.”

“I’m out at five, but why don’t you head to the Wood, have a couple drinks and I’ll meet you there.”

“I’m broke, man. I’ll just walk around or something.”

“Noah’s the bartender. He’s off at three and I’ll just meet both of you there. I think he’ll be okay giving you a couple on the house.”

The Wood wasn’t so much forest themed as decorated with taxidermy animals. The centerpiece was a stuffed brown bear standing on its hind legs, greeting the patrons as they pushed through the metal door. At two o’clock on a Monday afternoon, the clientele was nothing but career drinkers. I sat at the bar next to a guy with his arm in a sling. 

Noah set a whiskey in front of me, “I’ll put it on your tab,” he said with a smile. “You already owe me a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes.” 

After a couple hours and four whiskeys, Noah finally came out from behind the bar.

“Coffee,” was all he said, and we walked back into the sun. 

We walked a couple blocks to a ’50s themed diner, where all the waitresses wore short skirts with poodles embroidered in the fabric and sweat poured from pointy, paper hats atop greasy short order cooks.

Noah ordered two coffees, and we sat at a counter in front of a large window. After a couple of drinks from the mug, Noah pulled a pint of whiskey from his pocket and filled both cups.

“That’s a famous bookstore,” he said, slipping the whiskey back into his jacket and motioning toward a blank faced storefront across the street. “It’s Mike’s favorite place. We’ll watch for him. He comes every day after class.” 

 We sat in silence, sun shining through green leaves and thick branches, the young and normal and privileged strolling by without a care in their beautiful heads.


It was a beautiful few months. Mike majored in English, but he couldn’t afford to buy all the books for class, and if they were particularly esoteric, the library didn’t carry them either. Mike got into a habit of requesting class material from the blank-faced bookstore near campus, and when they came in, he would ask to browse the pages before his purchase. We sat in the café upstairs, sipping tea and black coffee, and he skimmed weeks of his class readings in advance while I flipped through National Geographic. When he was finished, he returned the book to the cashier, telling them it wasn’t what he asked for, and he’d request the assigned reading due in a few weeks. 

After dark, when Noah was tending the bar at the Wood, we’d drink cheap vodka and cans of beer. Mike would turn up the radio to full blast, and we’d dance in the living room late into the night, until the downstairs neighbors banged on the ceiling.

On Sundays, the Wood was closed. I’d cook frozen pizzas or pour a jar of cheap tomato sauce on top of overcooked noodles, or brown fatty ground beef in a pan for chili. The three of us would stuff ourselves and watch old sci-fi or horror movies. After dinner, Noah would drive us out into the country in the middle of the night, and we perched on the hood of his old Dodge Neon, smoking cigarettes and staring up at the sky.  

“I never knew how many stars there were,” I’d say, a Camel hanging from my lips.

“There’s another one,” Noah said, pointing to the endless map of satellites and comets. And Mike would drape his arms around both of our shoulders.

We’d stop by the liquor store on the way home from stargazing. Noah always wanted to drink light beer and Jägermeister; and we’d take shots that tasted like black licorice and molasses, washing it down with the watery, low carb lager. Sometimes, after the two staggered back to the bedroom, Mike would come out and lay with me on the couch, letting me place my head on his chest while we slept.

Mike came home from class one night without any beer or liquor.

“Did you stop by the Wood?” I asked, flipping through channels, assuming he had a few drinks before coming home. 

“I got a call from my dad today.” 

I shut off the TV. Neither of us had spoken about our families since I came into town.

“He got a job in New York; some construction work at a university in Rochester or Albany or some other place upstate. He wants me back home to take care of my grandma while he’s away.” 

“How long?” I asked.

“Six months, at least,” he sat down on the couch, long legs spread out in front of him. “What am I supposed to do? Leave Noah, drop out of school, or let her die?”

“Maybe if you told him you won’t come, he’ll stay in Chicago.”

“He already has the ticket to New York,” Mike leaned forward, placing his head in his hands. “He’s leaving in a few days.”

“Let’s sleep on it,” I said. “Maybe we can think of something in the morning.”

By the time Mike woke up the next morning, I already had coffee made. I was wearing a T-shirt from the Wood and an old pair of Mike’s jeans.

“I’d say my bags are packed, but I don’t have any,” I said. 

“What?” Mike sat down at the kitchen table, and I set a steaming mug in front of him.  

“I’ll go,” I said, taking a seat. “I’ll go back to Chicago and take care of your grandma while your dad’s away.”

Mike squinted, “I don’t know.”

“She’s so old she’s just going to think I’m you anyway.” 

Mike sighed, “Even if you do. You know my dad isn’t the most reliable person. If he doesn’t need to come back to Chicago, he won’t.” 

I shrugged, “What am I doing here I can’t do back in the city?”

We walked around campus, had a few farewell drinks at the Wood. Mike borrowed Noah’s car for the trip. We hit Interstate 80 in the early evening, windows down, warm air blowing across our faces, sun setting on the horizon, trees so tall I thought they’d tear a hole in the sky. 


Anthony is a MFA Candidate in Fiction. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Arkansan Review, The Magnolia Review and elsewhere.  


Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage


By Karina Corona

Haruki Murakami is a man of incredible talent. With 19 titles and translated into 50 languages, this Japanese writer is considered by some to be one of the leaders in postmodern literature. 

As a twenty-something college student living in a major U.S. city, I already know what you’re thinking dear reader. You’re thinking, “Murakami? Is this another review on Norwegian Wood?” To this, I have the following to say: um, Norwegian Wood is a wonderful book that deals with the many dimensions of personal trauma and recovery and no, this review is actually on Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  

Right from the first line, Murakami captures the reader and pulls them into the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36-year-old railroad engineer living in Tokyo. Following a traumatic event that took place during his sophomore year in college, Tsukuru is left emotionally crippled and exiled from the only friends he’s ever known. With nothing but the thought of dying keeping him company, Tsukuru almost reaches the point of no return before deciding to revisit his past and get an answer to the question which left him restless for nearly 16 years: Why? 

The wonder of Murakami’s writing is in the detail of his characters. For example, Tsukuru translates to “to make or build” and his surname, Tazaki, contains no color or symbol which sets him apart from the group of friends he is later exiled from as all of their sur names contain sort of relation to a specific color—a detail that is unrelated to his exile, yet meaningful nonetheless. In addition to the classic Murakami style, there is a mysterious character involved and a plot twist even sharper than his character development. 

While some may argue that each Murakami novel is alike, I will argue that that very thing is the beauty behind his writing. To take a story and mold it in a way that is consistent and universal but still keep true to the individuality of the story and its characters is what keeps me and the millions of other Murakami readers coming back for more.   

November 28, 2016


Samantha Irby

Blogger, Essayist, Realist!


Interview by Jennifer Bostrom

Almost four years ago, Samantha Irby came to my class and we talked about vibrators. No, it wasn’t a sex ed class, Irby was visiting to enlighten prospective writers, myself included, on the pros and cons of publishing her first book, Meaty (2013), with an indie-publisher. Those familiar with the essayist and blogger’s work might think: “Yeah, totally. Why wouldn’t you talk about vibrators?” but those unfamiliar might wonder: “WTF? What do vibrators and publishing books have to do with one another?” The answer is quite simply: very little (unless maybe you’re trying to lesson the sting of editorial rejection with some Irby-approved “me time”).

Bitches Gotta Eat (henceforth reffered to as BGE) is part recipe blog (not really, but with a name like “Bitches Gotta Eat” Irby does throw in the occasional recipe post), part “Dear Diary,” and part self-deprecatingly candid posts about Irby’s battle with Crohn’s disease—including the “hotsex doctor” she sees for it. BGE’s popularity, as well as Irby’s candor and personality, lead her to pen Meaty. Every bit as funny, real, and grounded as the author, Meaty is a collection of essays that bring BGE‘s flavor for 251 pages. Currently, Irby works full time and is writing a second book, but gave me the opportunity to distract her for a bit.

Jennifer Bostrom: How did BGE get its start?

Samantha Irby: I first started a blog on Myspace (omg does anyone even still know what that is) to impress this kid I wanted to be my boyfriend. The relationship went to shit and so did that blog, but a bunch of people reached out to me asking me to continue writing. Eventually, at the urging of my friend Laura, over cheeseburgers and beers, I decided to start BGE.

JB: Your first BGE post was June 2, 2009 and it reads “welcome to the raddest spot on the interwebs.” What is the raddest thing about BGE?

SI: Every answer that comes to mind makes me feel like an asshole, so I will just say “it’s funny.”

JB: You’re approaching the seventh anniversary of BGE (congratulations); it’s not uncommon that once bloggers have been published—or if they have a full time job—for blogs to lose momentum. How do you consistently bring a fresh perspective to posts, even when you revisit topics like writing or dating?

SI: I can’t believe it’s been seven years already, omg. Wellllllllllllllllll, I’m not sure that “consistently” is a word I can confidently use, since over the last handful of months I’ve only posted a handful of times. I am forever evolving, and s–t is always happening to me in new ways. And the zeitgeist is forever changing, too. So I feel like as long as my cultural references stay au courant, then I’m all good.

JB: BGE has always been written in lowercase font, boldface, and neon colors interspersed for emphasis. How did this style develop? If you could, would you publish your books the same way? 

SI: I’ve always written in lowercase, just as a personal style thing. The multicolored text serves two purposes. 1) Since I tend to write long-form prose, it helps to break it all up a little bit, and 2) it serves my massive ego to highlight lines I am particularly proud of. I have been discouraged from using lowercase in my books, and I’m cool with it. It distinguishes the books from the blog to have them formatted differently but—and this is the more important thing to me—the text won’t be a distraction to people who are unfamiliar with my writing. Since it really is my personal preference, and not some stylistic or political statement, I don’t want every review to focus on why I don’t capitalize my Is. I don’t want anything to get in the way of the work.

JB: When you write things like “Compliments are the currency of womanhood,” it makes me want to quote you (and if I had a better memory I would). How would you describe your voice?

SI: Salty and with a strong undercurrent of wit, multiple hatreds, and crushing anxiety.

JB: On BGE you’ve written about outlining your new book. What is your typical process for writing? How, if at all, has your process changed since writing Meaty? Does anything differ when you write for your books vs. blog posts? 

SI: Writing my blog is a lot easier for me. Usually something dumb happens and then I’m like OH MY FUCKING GOD I GOTTA WRITE ABOUT THIS RN (RN= right now, for those not versed in social media shorthand) and then I huddle over my desk and bang it out and get the instant gratification of seeing it go live and getting reactions to it. The book is hard because I sit alone writing in a vacuum and have to wait months and months before anyone lays eyes on it, which means I have months and months to pick it apart and doubt whether or not it’s good. Having a lot of time is almost tougher than trying to write it in a few months, because I’m a master procrastinator who is terrific at making excuses. If this damn thing ever gets done, it’ll be a miracle.

I try to write an outline for every piece, and I never start writing a thing until I know how I’m going to end it. Even if I know exactly what an essay is going to be about, I don’t feel comfortable unless I know how it’s going to wrap up. Sometimes I’ll write the last couple paragraphs before I start the first. It’s that serious.

JB: Where do you write—home, coffee shops? What music is in your Spotify “writing playlist” right now? 

SI: I try to write at home because I hate people and noise and sunshine and looking at things—plus I don’t have to put on shoes or a bra—but writing at home is hard because there’s a TV and a bed. It’s an actual nightmare. I wrote most of the new book at other people’s houses, which is the best of both worlds: I don’t have to worry about leaving my laptop if I have to pee, but also there’s the public shame of someone catching me doing internet crossword puzzles while pretending to be writing.

I make a killer fucking playlist, and I keep adding songs to the one I made to help me get through working on this book. It’s got 100+ songs on it, and I would never bore you with all of them so here is a sampling:

“Your Love is Killing Me” – Sharon Van Etten

“Weekend” – Mac Miller feat. Miguel

“Refuse” – Kevin Garrett

“Caretaker” – D.R.A.M. feat. SZA

“2000 Seasons” Talib Kweli

“No Role Modelz” – J. Cole

“Coming Down” – Dum Dum Girls

“You Took Your Time” – Mount Kimbie

“Mad Lucas” – The Breeders

“Etc” – Francis and the Lights

“Forgive Me for Giving Up” – Hundred Waters

I’m also really into Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album and looped recordings of thunderstorms.

JB: I know when it came to writing Meaty, you’ve said that it was an opportunity that presented itself. What opportunity lead to the decision to write another book?

SI: This is going to sound like bullshit for real, but it really was another opportunity that presented itself. I didn’t have an agent for Meaty—the publishers were friends of mine. After it came out, I got an email from my current agent asking if I had one. I told him no, we talked on the phone, then BOOM he became my rep. He told me to put a few new pieces together and I did, he sent them out, and a few months later, I signed a deal. Even though it happened to me, writing it out feels like a fever dream. Crazy.

JB: Had that initial opportunity not presented itself, do you think you would’ve still written a book? 

SI: NEVER EVER FUCKING EVER. Finding an agent and pitching a book are difficult things to do even if you’re incredibly motivatedand I’m just not. I have a job, being active on Twitter stresses me out. I have no desire to do more than randomly post shit to make people laugh whenever the mood strikes me. I was perfectly happy just toiling away in my little corner of the internet, and my plan was to do that until life got boring or people stopped reading blogs—which is probably now, but I’m too old to have caught onto that yet.

JB: What has been the hardest thing about writing your latest book? 

SI: Figuring out what is interesting enough to go in it.

JB: Meaty was marketed almost entirely through social media. Are you going to use the same approach with your new book?

SI: Meaty came out on a small local press [Curbside Splendor] and big budget ad campaigns were totally out of the question. This new one is coming out on Vintage, a subsidiary of Knopf, and there are editors and marketing people and digital strategists and all sorts of other big time shit. I will be in charge of nothing, and that’s totally cool. 

JB: I read in your interview with Chicago Now that Meaty took four months to write, all while watching twerking videos on Youtube and Grey’s Anatomy. What are your vices with this new book?

SI: Makeup tutorials, holy shit. I could sit for hours watching Jaclyn Hill and Jeffree Star apply eyeshadows and highlighter. IT’S MESMERIZING.

JB: What are the top 3 ways you procrastinate? What are the top 3 ways you push through procrastination?

SI: 1) HBO

2) Napping

3) Carbohydrates

1) Threats

2) Disappointed emails from my agent

3) Daydreaming about all the dumb shit I can waste money on when the book starts selling

JB: Like you, I attended Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School, take my pets to Bramer Animal Hospital (where Irby maintains a full-time job), and eat at Lady Gregory’s and the Cozy Noodle on Davis—basically, I think I may be geographically stalking you (sorry!)—but you and I have very different writing style. What would you attribute your style to?

SI: Omg, I am now wracked with anxiety that I might have been inexplicably rude to you at my job. (Just FYI, reader, Sam has never been rude to me at her job.) People always tell me that my voice is very distinctive, but I don’t know what to attribute it to. It’s just the voice I hear in my head, stream of consciousness rambling run-on sentences, sprayed on paper. I really do just write things to make myself laugh, and when it makes other people laugh, too, that’s butter on the toast.

JB: I remember when you came to my class you championed LELOs (ahem, vibrators). You’re candid with every topic you write and talk about. As a writer, I often stray from uncomfortable topics, whether it’s from a place of my own self-censorship or an external factor. Do you struggle with any censorship? How do you think you grew to be so comfortable with candor? 

SI: I suppose it’s been easy because I’ve had very few negative consequences? Lately, I have been trying not to swear so bleeping much, but other than that I don’t really censor myself. There are topics I avoid—politics, religion, etcetra—because 1) they aren’t that funny and 2) I don’t feel learned enough to write about them and sound like I know what I’m talking about, and others I shy away from because no one should ever be totallytransparent. (Also: Go get a LELO if you haven’t yet—they’re magical.)

JB: In Meaty, we learn that your parents died when you were very young. My condolences. Did that loss contribute to introspection and lead to becoming a writer?

SI: I’m not sure that I ever wanted to become a writer. In high school, I wrote a lot of fiction based on fantasies of the lives I would’ve created for myself if life was something I could be in charge of rather than a game of cosmic roulette. Those stories were an escape from the horrors of my real life. I don’t know that writing is something I would’ve pursued if I had people around telling me how disappointed they were in my decision to put my life out in public. I never got to know my parents well enough to know how they’d respond to my work. I hope this doesn’t sound callous, it’s definitely an advantage to not have them around.

JB: How much of your free time is dedicated to writing?

SI: I usually write my blog on my lunch breaks at work. I have never wanted it to feel like a chore, so I don’t write it on the weekends or my days off. When I have book stuff to work on, I try to write whenever I’m not working, but that usually ends up being 70% Hulu and 30% staring at my Macbook waiting for the words to present themselves to my fingers. But I don’t really like writing in a vacuum, so even on the days I dedicate to writing, I try to break it up a little bit: stretch my legs, watch some trashy TV, whatever I can do to give my brain a little breather.

JB: The first paragraph of Meaty has the line “I have a ‘job’ and not a ‘career.’” Has a job working in an animal hospital hindered or helped you as a writer? Would you consider writing your career? 

SI: I’m not sure if anything other than the flexibility and lack of any sort of punitive moral code of conduct has helped my writing, but I guess those are pretty important things. It’s pretty amazing not to have to worry about being fired for something I’ve written on the internet. I’m not really sure I want writing to be my career, because what if the ideas stop? What if I stop being as interesting, or as funny? I’m not sure I would enjoy writing as much if my livelihood depended on it.

JB: Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring essayists?

SI: Get a job. It doesn’t have to be a career, but you definitely need a regular paycheck for things like food and cocktails and lightning fast internet or whatever. Not having the pressure of hustling for money, or writing shit I don’t care about just to collect a check for it, has been incredibly freeing. I’m free to write about my butthole and falling asleep in nightclubs because, even if no one wants to pay to read about it, because walking dogs or selling doughnuts has already covered my rent.

To read more of Irby’s words, go to Bitches Gotta Eat or find Meaty online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Jennifer Bostrom is a BA Honors Fiction Graduate from Columbia College Chicago, Academic Excellence scholarship recipient (2013-2016), Production Editor of CCC’s award-winning Hair Trigger anthology, and intern for HYPERtext Magazine. Jennifer’s fiction can be found at The Copperfield Review and Habitat Magazine or on her website 

October 10, 2016

Tags: InterviewMeatyJennifer BostromSamantha IrbyWritingBlogEssays