Sam Weller

The Circumference of the Glare on the Patio


Monica has never actually heard real gunfire before. She certainly didn’t grow up with guns in the house. None of her relatives hunted. No one in her family ever served in the military. 

Sure, she’s heard guns in the movies and on TV and even at her friend Jamal’s house, in his messy basement, when friends gathered and smoked weed and many of the kids played shooting games, congregating around the PS4 like it was some mystical talisman.

But these shots, the ones she is hearing right now, right this very second, they are quite real.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

Three shots.   

She is certain it is gunfire. How? It sounds like firecrackers. And, after all, every news report she has ever seen about school shootings, every single one of them, the survivors always said the gunshots sounded like firecrackers.

She is sitting in her Applied Mathematics II course at Rock River Community College, alongside eighteen other drowsy students when it happens. It is hot in the room, the forced heat cranked up way too high for a mild winter day. Outside, through the large windows, the sky is flannel gray and all the winter trees are bare and cold, the branches trembling in the wind. 

Everyone hears the three pops, including Professor Adams who stops in the middle of scrawling a long quadratic equation on the dry erase board. Everyone is bored, but they all immediately sit up at the popping sound from somewhere off in the vast building. When Dr. Adams hears the noise, he turns from the board and looks at the students.

“What was that?” Eduardo Vasquez asks. 

Everyone in the room is on edge. The energy in the class shifts in an instant, like someone has pulled a switch and charged the room with electricity. 

“Sounds like fireworks to me,” declares Dr. Adams, a concerned look upon his bearded face. He rolls the dry erase marker back and forth in his hand.

Monica stands up from her desk. Calm. She has rehearsed this moment many times in her mind. Doesn’t everybody in her generation? 

Get out.

She slings her book-laden backpack over her shoulder, grabs her winter jacket, and marches for the door.

“Ms. Wilson?” Dr. Adams says.

“Ya’ll should leave, like, right now,” she says as she moves between desks toward the door, the other students glancing up at her.

Wraithlike, Monica glides past the other students and straight out the door. She steps into the long and shiny hallway. At the forefront of her mind is exiting the building. Immediately. This was what she always planned to do if it happened.


Why wait around? Why delay and then get stuck putting desks and filing cabinets in front of the classroom door? Why wait for the lockdown when you are, ostensibly, trapped in the building with an active shooter?

Nope. No way. Not going to happen.

The impossibly long hallway is empty. Quiet. Classes are in session. She steps out and looks all the way down where the vanishing lines of the hall converge. This is when she sees him. A lone figure, dark, more shadow than man. He is wearing all black. Bulky, something on his head, too. A helmet? Something over his face, maybe? It is hard to tell.

What is unmistakable is the gun. Long. It looks like it is baring its teeth. Menacing, even at this distance.

Get out. Get out.

Monica stands statue-like and watches as the man moves with purpose across the hall, opens a classroom door and enters. Then she hears an eruption of gunfire. 

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. A mechanized monster. Syncopated. Frightening. 

Monica turns and runs down the hallway in the opposite direction. She knows where the nearest exit is. She has rehearsed this all in her mind.  

The lights in the hall go dark. Emergency flood lamps situated near the ceiling illuminate a halogen path down on the floor. 

More gunshots. Pop. Pop. Then come screams in the distance. Back where the shots occurred. Pleading. Sobbing. It sounds like a chorus of anguish.

An automated voice booms over the college’s public address system: “There is an intruder in the building. Please take appropriate measures to seek safety. Repeat. There is an intruder in the building.”

Get out. Get out. Get out. 

She runs from the gunman, in the opposite direction. But the next sound is unmistakable. Doors up and down the long hallway automatically lock. All of them. 

Including the exits.



She knows now she is trapped inside. Why do they do this? Trap people inside with a fire-breathing dragon? 

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. 

She runs to an exit door and pushes hard on the horizontal silver bar. It doesn’t budge, steel-clad immobility. The door has a vertical, slender rectangular window. Monica can see out to a large snow-covered area where, on warm days, students read, eat lunch, drink their Frappacinos. On better days, days that now seem like some wonderful dream, she sat out there, too. It is brilliantly sunny outside with all the snow, the circumference of the glare on the patio nearly blinding. How she wishes she could be out there now. 

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. This time much closer. Locked in, she is now forced to hide, to seek refuge, to pray he doesn’t come near her. She sprints down the hall to a staircase.

Pop. Pop.

A bullet strikes close by, boring into the drywall. Has he seen her? Is he shooting at her? That was horribly close.

She takes the stairs up three at a time. She is young. She is strong. Swimming. Yoga. At the top of the stairs on the second floor, she reaches the massive college library. An amalgam of new and old. 

The new: open. No doors. Tons of windows and natural light. Computers and technology and space for students to work and to commiserate. This is, in many ways, the college student center. Installations of student art are on display throughout. The library is spacious with many alcoves for students to work and hang out. 

The old: row after row of stacks. Shelves of good old-fashioned books towering to the ceiling. Like the athenaeums of yesteryear. A massive collection. 

And a good place to hide.

She runs into the library. No one is at the front circulation desk. No student worker at the coffee cart. Everyone has hidden. Somewhere. 

She runs deep, deep into the stacks.

Pop. Pop. Pop. 

More distant gunfire. He is still down on the first floor. 

Many rows in, she crouches down, surrounded by books. She grew up with books, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Coraline. Books make her feel safer, they bring her solace, despite this nightmare scenario. A fortress of books all around her. Knowledge and ideas and imagination. She stays still and she waits and she hopes that the authorities will arrive soon and the gunman is apprehended quickly or that he takes his own life as they so often do. 

She thinks about the little children of Sandy Hook and how scared they must have been. Only in first grade. Why does this keep happening in our country? She thinks of the high school kids at Columbine. And the victims in Orlando and Parkland and Pittsburgh and Littleton and. . . .

A metallic sound. In the library. There is no mistaking it. Shit. He is here. In the library. With her. He is changing the magazine on the monster. He clears his throat. Her heart is hurtling in her ribcage like it is falling through time and space, down, down, down.

Breathe, Monica. Breathe. 

She looks at the books in front of her. The books lined up on the lower shelves. She is in the 300s in Dewey Decimal parlance. The self-help section. The irony is not lost upon her. And then she begins to wonder if maybe she has a way around all of this. Maybe, perhaps, maybe she should try it. Utilizing her powers. Self-help and a little luck may be the only way out.

When Monica was still a baby, her parents suspected she had certain abilities. The first time they noticed things, she was barely old enough to lift her head. Monica was on her tummy in her crib. Mama had just fed her. She jangled the sterling silver rattle for her and the toothless little baby was transfixed by the sound, an angelic bell ringing inside the shiny object. When Mama had set the rattle down on a table next to the crib, Monica craned her lolling head up and looked at the silver toy beyond her reach. She stared at it and stared at it. And then the rattle rolled off the small table and it dropped to the floor with a clang.

Mama turned and looked at her in the crib.

“Why, baby, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you just moved that rattle with brute mental force. . . .”

Several months later, when Monica was a year old, she was sitting in her highchair. Daddy was listening to Coltrane on vinyl as he so often did around supper time. Mama had served her carrots and peas that she grew without chemicals in her garden pots on the back porch. There was so much love in that little apartment it was palpable.

Then, as babies so often do, Monica flailed her little hands across the highchair tray, sending tiny peas and baby carrots raining down to the floor.

“Now, baby, why’d you go and do that?” asked Daddy, laughing as he chased runaway peas to the corner, his heart in a constant state of love brimming over for his daughter.

Monica leaned over the side of her highchair and looked at the mélange of vegetables so far down on the scuffed oak floor. She stared at them. And kept staring. And then, as her Mama and Daddy looked on, the peas and carrots started to tremble. Moving ever so slightly at first, then, like a film in reverse, the peas and carrots flew back up from the floor and to the tray, landing where they had been.

Monica laughed with glee.

Mama and Daddy turned to each other.

How did she do that?

They took her to see the pediatrician. Dr. Hansen was a no-nonsense doctor. She was at the end of her career, ready to retire, she had raised her own son as a single mom, she had seen just about everything and every ailment, disorder and anomaly a doctor can see over the course of a long and busy career. 

“We suspect Monica can move things with her mind,” Daddy explained. 

Dr. Hansen took this the same why she would have taken a parent saying they suspect their child had an ear infection. She was expressionless. Cool.

She held a wooden tongue depressor in her thick hand and extended it to the child. When Monica reached for it, Dr. Hansen withdrew her hand like a game of keep away. After a few seconds, she moved the tongue depressor closer.

“Do you want this, Monica?” She asked.

Monica swatted clumsily, trying to grab the object, but Dr. Hansen pulled it away from her again. The child looked perplexed. 

Out of reach from Monica, Dr. Hansen unfurled her fingers, showing the little piece of wood, that old stalwart of physician offices everywhere. Monica stared at the object intensely. And then it began to tremble in Dr. Hansen’s hand and, just like that, flew over to Monica, hit her little chest and quickly dropped to the floor.

Dr. Hansen said softly, “Lord, have mercy. . . .”

They took her to a series of specialists, Western, Eastern, Freudians, Jungians, and New Age. A diagnosis? They were all just guessing. Some dismissed her abilities altogether, calling it “trickery” and “hocus-pocus.” The consensus, however, despite the skepticism, was that Monica possessed some sort of psychokinetic ability. “PK,” they called it.

She could move small objects, lightweight objects with her mind.

When she was twelve, Monica was at an arcade with a friend and found she could guide a wooden Skee-Ball into the smallest rings at the top of the game, just by concentrating, earning one hundred points with each toss of the ball. The machine kicked out so many tickets for prizes that the manager finally came out and told her she had to stop. She was like a Vegas gambler on a winning streak who is asked to leave the table with their earnings. Monica was given a stash of candy and stuffed animals and stickers, one of everything in the arcade’s glass case.

But then, like all pre-teens, puberty arrived and Monica’s body changed and, much to her surprise, her telekinetic abilities started to weaken. 

And, then, they were gone.

No matter how hard she focused on objects, she had lost her ability to move things with her mind. 

And, so, here she is in the library at Rock River Community College in the middle of an active shooter situation. She is hidden many rows back in the stacks. There is a back exit out of the library, part of the reason she decided to go there in the first place. Always good to have an escape plan. But this also means she will have to leave her bibliophilic fortress and move back many, many rows of stacks to reach the door.

As she sits there, crouching down, she hears a text message tone in the library. Not her cell phone. His cell? Someone is texting this shooter, this odious person, now, of all times? The sound was close. Two rows of shelves away? Three at most?

The text tone goes off on his phone again. He is closer. “Apex.” She knows this text tone. Standard and boring. 

Monica peers through the open space above a row of books. She can see him. He is pacing like an agitated zoo animal down a row of books three stacks in front of her. He is holding the matte-black monster. It is an AR-15. She has seen it enough times on the news. They all use it. He is dressed, head to toe in black combat gear. Cargo pants with lots of pockets. He appears to have on a bulletproof vest. A helmet. Goggles. This guy came for war. He intends on lasting awhile and inflicting as much death as he can. 

So, why is he here in the library?

If he wants a high body count, would he really be hunting one lone student in the library? Or did he come here to reload?

Staying crouched low, Monica slowly, quietly spiders toward the end of the row of books toward a break in the shelving, an aisle in the stacks. She peers out and can see the circulation desk. On top of it, a small box holds short pencils and another contains little scraps of paper. Students, even in this digital age, find these pencils and paper—throwbacks to another era—useful, and they appreciate the ease of scribbling a call number in their search for a book.

She stares at the circulation desk. At these little boxes. Totally focused. She wants to create a distraction. With all her might, all her concentration, blocking out everything, including her present pulsing fear, she looks at the little box of sharpened pencils on the circulation desk. She knows she can do it. 

The box moves.

It inches slowly to the edge of the desk. The paper box flips on its side and all the little pencil stubs begin tumbling out like timber logs on a flatbed after the chains have broken. One by one they roll out, clattering to the floor.

She peers between the books on the shelves. He turns. And he points the monster toward the circulation desk. 

She makes a break for it, running down the aisle of books toward the back exit, her back hunched over and her legs pumping faster than she’s ever pumped them. And as she is running, she thinks of the scrap paper on the circulation desk and, not even looking that way, but simply concentrating on the small squares of paper, she envisions them fluttering off the desk, pigeons in flight from their roost.

The papers respond. Like playing cards in a game of 52-card-pick-up, flying off the desk one after the other after the other. 

The additional distraction gives Monica time to dash down the aisle. Eight rows of shelving to the exit.

Seven rows.





The gun breathes fire. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Bullets strike the metal stacks. He is shooting at her. 


Pop. Pop.



She feels a bullet. It passes by her right ear. Barely an inch away. It strikes a book on a shelf, the binding absorbing the bullet as it shreds through the pages. 

She hurtles down the back stairs to a landing. She turns and hurries down another set of stairs. She reaches the first floor. It is empty. 

Then she hears boots clacking behind her, striking the concrete floor in military precision. He is after her. Coming down the stairs. She turns and he is at the other end of the entryway, pointing the monster directly at her. She concentrates on its teeth. She thinks of the bullets slowing down as it sprays. She focuses all her being on this moment. Tries to slow the bullets, shift them away from her. She feels a graze on her arm. Another on her leg. She falls, and as she’s falling, she thinks of Mama and Daddy and their love supreme.

Sam Weller is a Two-time Bram Stoker Award winner and the authorized biographer of the legendary Ray Bradbury. Weller’s debut collection of modern Gothic short stories, DARK BLACK was published in 2020. He is an Associate Professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @Sam__Weller


RS Deeren

The Recessionists: Chapter One


It was a bad way to watch the sunset, idling in the back parking lot of the Mormon Church with a quarter tank of gas and three missed calls from Kate. And it was such a shame, too, because it was just the kind of sunset which Cal loved to watch. A cold sky with curls of pink and orange clouds. The same kind of sky he grew up watching from his deer blind when the evening hunt was truly about to begin. When there was, truly, an exhilaration, a pounding of one’s heart against the immensity of the world. Cal sat in his truck with the radio on. Only a handful of vehicles were in the lot. Mostly rusted Chevys and old Fords with snow tires and bumperstickers reading, “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Roll Student.” None of the cars were parked next to each other. The closest they came was a full spot from one another. This was odd to Cal because soon enough, every one of those trucks’ drivers would be sitting in a circle on hard, plastic folding chairs with “LDS” sharpied across the back and a Styrofoam cup of coffee squeezed between their hands. But that seemed to be the point, Cal thought, that outside the meeting, these drivers, these people, could maintain their identities, their “me-ness,” which assured them they were what most people called normal. Inside, however, they lost their “me-ness” and, though they were still individuals, still one single organism capable of thought and feeling and joy and pain, they became a part of the circle, giving themselves up—becoming anonymous.

Cal didn’t want that, he wanted to go home to bed. To get enough sleep so he could look for a job the next day and not feel as if he were fighting with a hangover. His meeting with Stacey was in the afternoon and if he had to tell her that he’d just been fired, at least he could show her a handful of job applications. Passed the church, the sun sank behind the tree line, gravity pulling the light across the frost on the farmer’s field. That’s what did it, right? Gravity? Pulling anything and everything, including light and drunks, one way or the other. Pushing the earth in a circle. Maybe that was what Cal remembered learning once. The sun was now only the light it left behind, falling over the edge of the earth like neon-dyed hair over the side of a bed, and here he was wasting gas to keep the heat on.

The church was small with a brown-brick façade and a set of glass double doors. There was a cinderblock wedged between the doors to keep them open. The building wasn’t like any of the other churches in town, no stained glass, no bells. Had it not been for the steeple, which didn’t rise higher than the trees that surrounded it, it could pass as a municipal building or maybe a funeral home. But there were probably far fewer Mormons in Michigan’s Thumb than there were Methodists or Lutherans or even Catholics—so, maybe, Cal figured, they only needed a small church. It was better, anyway, not haughty, which meant that it drew less eye traffic. The perfect place for a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

A couple more cars came, the drivers, not hesitating to pop their vehicles in to park and beeline it for the doors. Cal didn’t recognize any of them and felt that maybe miracles were in fact real, but that they were relegated to mundanity. The green numbers on the dashboard clock flashed over to a quarter to seven. Cal had been in the parking lot long enough to have the sharp air cloud his rear windshield and the edges of the windows. The meeting started in fifteen minutes, but Cal didn’t want to get out of his truck. Cal knew what was waiting for him behind those double doors. Folding chairs and burnt coffee. Pity smiles and fake empathy. Fingers peeling at cups and knees pistoning. The circle listening to a Tom or a Jane or a Quentin as they shared the same stories they all shared every week. I promised myself only one drink after work and then woke up next to a toilet.

It would be easy for Cal to leave, to pull his truck out onto the county road and disappear into the snow and dark. If he left now, he would have enough time to call Kate back, see what she wanted. He had to give up his weekend with Jack, but maybe he’d still want to talk to his daddy. Jack was seven, old enough to feel betrayed, but Cal hoped he was still young enough to not know what a grudge was. He couldn’t leave, though. He had to get out of his car and go in because that’s what the judge ordered and what his parole officer enforced. There wasn’t a damn thing he could do about that.

Kate paced through the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, spinning her phone in her hand like a deck of cards. Her ex-husband never answered when she called, but he always called her back within a couple hours. She hated that. He said it was because he was always busy when she called, but no human being was ever that busy, no lines of fate, speeding along time and space, jumping across the numbers of possibilities and the theories of probability finally crossed at the exact moment when Kate called Cal while he was “busy.” Coincidences be damned, Kate thought. She knew he just liked being the one to make the other person answer the phone. It was a power thing. Control for a man without any. This time she had even left him a voicemail, something she never did. The two of them had an understanding, when one called the other, it was important. It was one of the many small things that don’t show up in divorce papers, but, on a level beyond the law, are still binding like sending any kids to the other parent with clean clothes and making sure you’re not late to your ex-in-laws’ funeral. She’d called him three times and if he didn’t know that she meant business, seeing that he now had a voicemail, was sure to feel like a kick to the side of his knee.

There’s a certain kind of fear a body feels at points in their lives. There’s the fear that makes one think that their life is almost up, like what’s felt when the car brakes lock on an iced stretch of I-75 and the only other vehicles around are semis. That’s the exciting fear, a feeling heightened by time running on fast forward and loud noises and too-quick-but-at-the-same-time-too-slow reflexes. That’s the fear that sells movie tickets. Cal didn’t have that fear as he stepped closer to the doors of the Mormon Church. He had the kind of fear that sat inside someone like a pot of coffee and undercooked eggs. The everyday fear of unpaid bills and having lunch with that one coworker who thinks they’re your best friend. Cal felt it gurgling inside him as he pulled himself farther away from his truck. The kind that lingered with someone, the leveling kind that didn’t care what bills a person had to pay or what their credit score was or if the person was still a virgin. Cal knew this fear, he’d felt it only once before when he walked up to the glass window of the maternity ward and looked at his son for the first time. The comparison shamed Cal, but he challenged any man to say, when they saw their child for the first time—no, when they were first told they were going to be a father, that they did feel some kind of weight slosh in their guts, that they didn’t think, Oh, shit. Now what? for even a second. Anyone who said that all they felt was joy was full of it, Cal knew that. Fear knew that. It made everyone equal.

At the church, Cal pulled himself through the crack between the doors and stood on a dirty entryway rug that was soaked with melted snow and mud. He heard someone pulling a chair across tile floor, the little rubber ends squeaking along the wax, and a few voices indistinct from one another. He stomped his boots, trying to knock the snow off them, but only succeeded in splashing himself with the pooled thaw. A hall ran from both ends of the entryway, the lights were off and only a triangle of dusty light came from the end of the left hall. Cal’s pocket buzzed. He reached into it and pulled out his cellphone. Another missed call from Kate. This time she left a voicemail. She only did that when she really needed him for something that only he could provide. The phone said ten past seven and he could hear only one voice now coming from down the hall. He was late.

“Shit,” Cal said, “I don’t have time for this.” He looked down at his phone, then down the hallway. He flipped open his cellphone and went back out in the cold.

Kate owned a home east of Caro on the northern bank of the Cass River, set back from a dirt road a few hundred yards. A small place with two bedrooms and a bath, new vinyl siding and a roof that would last for another fifteen years. She’d bought it off a land auctioneer’s block, and part of her felt guilty for that. But this was her home. She’d put in the time, worked the hours, dealt with the mess and money and headache of being married to a man like Cal and had grown out of it with some idea of what she deserved.

Her phone rang and she answered it before the first ring had finished. It was Cal.

“I saw you called. What’s up?”

“Did you listen to my voicemail?”

“No,” he said, “Figured you could just tell me.”

“That’s the point of a voicemail, Cal.” The man baffled her sometimes.

“Kate, you didn’t call to argue about a voicemail.” Cal had always had a way about arguing—namely, he didn’t do it. Even if she got started with him and even, like now, when she wanted to duct tape his phone to his head with her voicemail playing on repeat, she found that he still knew how to keep to the matter at hand.

“Jack brought a bullet to school.” She didn’t need to waste time hinting at things, or setting the stage for a conversation about their son. Cal hadn’t been the most reliable husband, but anything having to do with Jack made Cal twist his ankles trying to do what he could. So, when Jack’s principal, Kate’s boss, called her down to his office and she found her son sitting with his chin practically glued to his chest and Mr. Berber leaning across his desk with the pointed brass jacket of a 5.56 shell pinched between his forefinger and thumb, she knew that Cal wouldn’t need nor want any sugarcoating. 

The line was silent and she could hear him shifting the phone from one ear to the other. She heard him sigh and then the crackling static of wind. He’d just stepped outside from somewhere. 

“Well?” She said when the wind died down.

“Can this wait?” Cal said. 

“‘Can this wait?’ You’re joking, right?”

“I’m a late for something.” 

“Your son. Just brought. Live ammunition. To school,” Kate said. “What part of that isn’t registering with you?” 

“I hear ya, Kate,” Cal said, “I do.” He sighed again and Kate could tell he was trying to end the call. “Look, I can come over in, like, two hours. I’m in the middle of something I gotta take care of.” The wind picked up on his side of the line and Kate heard him shifting. His knee was probably killing him.

“Like what?”

“Like something important.”

“Something important?”

“Parole important.”

Kate shook her head and walked to the other side of the kitchen. Down the hallway, she saw that Jack’s door was closed and a sliver of light showed from the bottom of it. He’d been in there since she’d brought him home. Photos hung in the hallway like a timeline connecting his room to hers, the picture of him as a newborn lying next to an ink imprint of his baby feet which hung next to his door, and a framed snapshot of the two of them sitting on a blanket watching that year’s Fourth of July fireworks hung next her door. Cal had paid a frame shop to professionally matte Jack’s diploma from graduating kindergarten and it hung at the end of the hall above a small table with a photo of Cal holding Jack’s hand as they walked across the graduation stage. Kate had to take half a sick day because there was no one to watch him. Cal wasn’t available when she’d called the lumberyard to see if he could take Jack home. She thought about the moments captured in those photos and about the mortgage that she never worried about. She thought about the pen she’d used at the auctioneer’s office, how it bled so strongly, as if it too couldn’t wait to put Kate’s name at the bottom of the deed. She deserved those moments and her 3.95% fixed mortgage rate, but she didn’t deserve this.

“Look,” she said, “That line has run its course with me. Make something work and get here.”

Cal walked in at the tail end of a story told by a big guy with enough muscle to negate the fat around his middle. A tribal tattoo snaked past the frayed hems of his sleeves and down his arms. Had it not been for the man’s face, Cal would have thought he’d have been a tough customer. The man had a boy’s face with thin, cornsilk hair curled on his chin and out from underneath a camo baseball cap. His lips were chapped and he was biting them as he spoke.

“But he don’t wanna see me, and I can’t blame him. I told my mom on the phone one night, I said, ‘Ma, how’s Dad?’ And she just told me he’s been busy hauling sugar beets for Pioneer. I,” the man-boy cracked his knuckles one at a time and shifted his feet on the tile floor. He looked troubled by what he was thinking about saying next, like he had seen someone steal a newspaper from a stand and use it for an umbrella. He didn’t know if it was wrong to share what he was re-witnessing in his mind or if it would just be best to keep it below the surface. “I’m done for tonight. That’s all I wanna say.”

The circle of people thanked him. Jared, they called him. Then, in unison, the faces turned to Cal as he stood in the doorway. A man who was all beard and denim, a shaky older lady, the man who was just talking, and two middle-aged men in overalls shifted enough to face him.

“Welcome,” the denim man said. The older lady coughed and smiled at him, and the overalls leaned over to each other and whispered. Cal cleared his throat and took a seat next to Jared who crossed his arms and grunted through his nose. It was seven thirty, the meeting was a third over, but maybe he could still make that count with Stacey. He just needed to find the person in charge, explain what had happened, and get them to sign his hours sheet.

What was Jack thinking, bringing a bullet to school? Cal thought about the first time he’d taught the boy to shoot, all the rules, the first being, Always treat a gun like it was loaded, and another being, Bullets are just as dangerous. He pictured his son walking the halls of Schall Elementary with that small, almost inconsequential piece of brass loaded down into his pocket. He saw it rolling back and forth between his son’s index finger and thumb, the coolness of it making him smile as he approached the first friend he’d show. He knew what Jack had wanted from this, he wanted to be king of the kids for a day. He wanted his friends to say, “Oh, wow, no way.” He wanted his friends to think he was cool. Cal knew he’d have to stay late to talk all of this through with Jack and that Kate would be a mess, sitting just outside of their son’s bedroom door, holding herself back whenever she heard her ex-husband say something that she disagreed with, Cal wanting to put Jack to bed so he could get at least some sleep. But Cal wouldn’t sleep at all that night, he knew this. He’d rethink everything he’d said to his son and find better, or simply different ways of saying what he’d said. That doubt would clang around his apartment like broken dishes. He’d want to drink and not want to drink, and that tearing inside him would keep him up until the auto-drip on the Mr. Coffee kicked on at six.

Someone coughed and Jared nudged Cal’s shoulder with his elbow. Cal looked up from his coffee. The circle focused on him. Ten sets of eyes, ten noses, ten different stories and reasons and excuses waiting for him to offer his. Cal cleared his throat again. This was what he had practiced for, what he knew was coming. He had the words, knew the answer, My name is Calvin, and I’m. . . but something caught up inside of him, something that kept him from acting and told him to swallow it all down, digest it until it was almost nothing. Was his record seventy-two days sober? Why, how would he know that? What made Cal want to keep track of that? When had that been? Jackson State Prison? Cal looked up to the clock, the meeting still had half an hour to go. Say it, Cal said to himself, say something at least. The boy came back with a Dixie cup of water for the gray woman. She coughed into it and water bubbled over the sides into her lap, her hands shook as she lifted the cup to her lips.

“Hey, man,” the denim shirt said, “Look, you don’t have to testify to God, and we’re not offering you any Kool-aid here, but at least tell us your name.” He leaned forward over his knees, holding a half-full Styrofoam cup.

“My name is,” Cal started. The circle seemed to ring around him, tighter, even the man-boy next to him had uncrossed his arms and was looking toward him. What was his name? Jeffrey? Jeremy? Jared! That was it, a man with a boy’s name, right. But now what was his own name, he thought. Anything, really. He was free to be anyone.

“My name is Ben,” Cal said.

“Hi, Ben,” the circle said. The air vent in the ceiling rattled alive and dust fell from the grating. He slid back from the edge of his chair and lined his spine against the molded plastic. The coffee in his hand smelled fresh and was still warm. Feeling it in his palms, he remembered how cold he had just been while talking to Kate and the explosion of ice he felt in his stomach when she told him about Jack. He sipped the coffee. Somebody had made it the way he’d gotten used to, weak but almost mild. Lukewarm. He knew there were going to be things that, having come back to reality, he’d have to let go, but it killed a part of him to learn that something as seemingly inconsequential as a hot cup of black coffee would be one of them. 

“So, Ben,” the man said, “Would you like to share anything else? We’ve got time.” He smiled, and Cal focused on a small scar on the man’s chin. He’d avoided direct eye contact for years, but he knew that the man in denim would be looking right into his if he looked up.

The sound of the double doors clanging came from down the hall, and Cal felt the eyes of the circle fall away. A woman wheeled around the doorjamb and into the room.

“Don’t mind me. Ignore me. I’m late. Yes, I know. I’m so, so sorry to interrupt.” She made straight for the coffee and poured three seconds worth of sugar from its container before pouring the coffee in. Then she turned to the circle, stirring, a large red purse hanging off her shoulder. She grabbed a chair and slid it between Jared and Cal. “Scoot,” she said to them and like a wave at a football game, everyone around the circle inched away from where the woman had chosen to sit. She sat and her purse fell from her shoulder. She caught it in the crook of her elbow, but still sloshed some of her coffee on the floor near Cal’s feet.

“Oh, oh,” she said. She laughed a little. “I’m sorry. So, so sorry.” She tried to mop at the small puddle with her foot. She wore green thong sandals and her toenails had yellow polish.

“No problem,” Cal said.

“Good,” she said. She stopped her attempt to clean the spill and turned to the circle. “What did I miss?” Cal gauged the others. They were used to this woman, this seemed normal for her and to them, but he also saw that they were tired of it.

“Gwen,” the man in denim said, “What are you doing?”

“Attending my meeting, Josh,” she said. She drank her coffee and Cal could smell the sugar cooking in it.

“You interrupted Ben,” Josh said.

“Who’s Ben?” She asked. The circle looked to Cal. “Him? Oh, I’m so, so sorry. He doesn’t look much like the talking type, though.” She winked at Cal from over the rim of the Styrofoam cup. “New guy, then?” She asked. Cal nodded. “See, Josh? What’d I say? Doesn’t look like much of a talker.”

“Gwen, please,” Josh said. He brought his hands up to his lips as if he were praying to the woman to save him from herself. 

“I’m just playing,” she said. “Go ahead, Ben.” 

There were only twenty minutes left for the meeting and Cal didn’t want a second of it. He needed to be home, or at least at Kate’s home to talk to Jack who, by now, was probably getting ready for bed.

“I don’t really have much to say tonight,” Cal said. Josh let his head drop and Cal could see through the thinning brown hair swirled at the top of his head. He had a tattoo right smack on the top of his head, but Cal couldn’t make out what it was.

“Not a problem, Ben,” Josh said. He lifted his head and smiled around the circle. “Does anyone else have—”

“My roommate is a total bitch, and I fucking hate her.” The circle zoomed their gaze over to Gwen. She drank her coffee and crossed then uncrossed her ankles. She leaned forward and tapped her toes.

“Could you please take this seriously,” the old woman said. Her hands shook, but her voice was clear, although a little burnt from years of cigarettes and probably a few other things. She pulled her cup to her mouth, and the cracked yellow of her fingernails shone like tiny headlights against the white of the Styrofoam.

“You all know me,” Gwen said.

“That’s not the point,” Josh said. “It’s about sticking to the routine, going through it step-by-step.” He closed his palms together again. The clock seemed to have stopped.

“Fine,” she said. She leaned back against the chair, her eyes level with Cal’s. She winked at him. “Hi, everyone, my name is Gwen.”

“Hi, Gwen,” the circle said. Cal came in a half second later than the rest and his was the last voice heard. “Got a timid puppy here, don’t we?” She said.

“Gwen,” Josh said, “You were going to tell us about your roommate—again.”

“Right,” Gwen said. “She’s a bitch. I hate her.” She drank her coffee. The circle stared anywhere but at her.

“Is that all?” Josh asked.

“What? Oh, so, so sorry. I got literally no sleep last night and coffee is taking up a lot of my brain power right now. So, no, that’s not all. My roommate is this girl I knew from college. She has her space, I have mine, the rent gets paid on time. Everything should be easy peasy, right?” She handed her coffee to Cal and began waving her hands as if she were directing traffic. “Well, it isn’t easy. My roommate likes to entertain. Likes to invite all the people we used to run with at school. She likes to drink. Hell, I like to drink, too. That’s why I’m here, duh. But this chick, I tell you, she’s a fish. No, you know what? She’s a whole school of fish. She knows my situation and you all told me I should talk to her about how it makes me feel, what kind of spot it puts me in. I did, and you know what happened?” The circle was quiet. They’d heard this story before, Cal saw. Gwen saw it, too, but it was her time to speak and this was on her mind. She wanted them to listen. She grabbed her coffee back, downed it and began peeling the Styrofoam, spinning a white ribbon from it.

“What happened?” Cal asked. She put a hand on his thigh.

“She cracked a beer and told me I could have one if I wanted.”

“That’s it?” Cal asked.

“That’s a lot,” Gwen said. “It’s almost too much.” She removed her hand and went for more coffee.

“Gwen,” Josh said, “What did we say about removing ourselves from any toxicity? Like Jared here, he knows his relationship with his dad, knows how fighting with him makes him feel even after he tried to make amends so he doesn’t see his father. Is it easy? No.”

“Not a bit,” Jared added.

“Right,” said Josh, “But it’s something we have to do. Not just for ourselves—”

“But for who?” Gwen said. “‘For those we owe it to?’ Is that what you were going to say?” She lifted herself to the counter and sat, tapping her heels gently against the cupboard door.

“It’s for everyone’s benefit, Gwen,” Josh said.

“Remove myself from the toxicity, huh? Then what? Where will I live? You got a spare room, Josh? Gloria, willing to share your single-wide with me? Anyone here a banker? Got a mortgage you could, I don’t know, give me?” She jumped down, slamming her feet onto the tiles.

The circle had nothing to say. Gwen grunted at them.

“I didn’t think so,” she said.

The clocked ticked over to eight and the circle rose.

“Well, that does it for tonight,” Josh said. “Let’s bring it in, give each other some love.” He held his hands out to his sides, taking in Jared’s and Gloria’s, the old woman, who was still shaking from the hands up. A coffee stain had spread along the tile below her chair. Cal knew those shakes. Gloria needed a drink.

Gwen laced her fingers through Cal’s and squeezed. Cal wanted to ignore it, everyone else had merely cupped their hands, but it seemed from his twenty-five minutes of watching Gwen fill the room, of her making it loud and quiet in the space of a single breath, that this would be something she’d do. She’d weave her hands into a stranger’s and believe that’s where she always belonged.

“Alight, one more time, with feeling,” Josh said. The circle shook as it inhaled, but in that moment between breath and prayer, Gloria began to cough. She dropped Josh’s hand and tried to cover her mouth and it was that connection to him that proved to be her anchor. She listed forward and fell, her head cracking against the floor. On her other side Cal still held her hand and at first, he and everyone else in the circle for that matter, thought that she had slipped on the coffee she had been spilling all evening. But she kept coughing and before the switch flipped in anyone’s head, the one that told them that they should be doing something, Gloria began to shake.

“Someone call 9-1-1, I think she’s having a heart attack,” Cal said. He knelt next to her still holding her hand. The woman squeezed his hand and stared into him, she looked as if she were drowning. One of the men in overalls had an operator on the phone and was telling them to hurry, that someone was hurt, that someone was dying. Josh crouched on the other side of Gloria. 

“I don’t think it’s a heart attack,” he said. “I think it’s a stroke.”

“What if it’s a seizure?” Jared asked. Josh grabbed Gloria’s coat from the back of her chair and laid it over her. Her face was chalk, her eyes pushed at the corners of their sockets and tears ran down to her lips.

“Get her some water,” an overall said.

“No, prop her feet up,” said the other.

“Keep her head elevated,” Jared said, “And don’t let her hit it on anything else.”

“Get out of the way,” Gwen said. She pushed the men away and rolled Gloria onto her side, peeling her grip from Cal’s hand. He hadn’t realized that Gwen had pulled away from him, his hand was still cold from hers. Gwen pried open Gloria’s mouth and fished into it. 

“She’s choking on vomit and her tongue,” Gwen said. Gloria shook and closed her mouth on Gwen’s finger. “Goddammit, you idiot,” Gwen said. “I’m trying to save you.” She pulled her hand away and a stream of coffee bile spilled out onto the floor around the feet of the men. “Here,” Gwen said. She grabbed Jared’s hand and propped it against the small of Gloria’s back. “Keep her on her side.” She pointed to one of the overalls. “Get your ass outside and flag down the ambulance. Everyone back up and let her breath a bit.”

Gwen lifted herself from the woman and rushed to the sink. She filled a cup with water and came back, dabbing some of the water across Gloria’s forehead with the hem of her sweater. The woman had stopped shaking almost as quickly as it had taken her to fall. Gwen rested the woman’s head in her lap. She was breathing, but almost too softly. 

“It’s alright, Gloria. Shh.” Gwen held onto the woman and brushed her hair away from her face.

The ambulance pulled onto the icy road, its orange and red lights dancing across the trees and the snowdrifts along the shoulders. Two trucks pulled out and headed the opposite direction into the darkness. Cal felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. It was almost nine. Between five missed calls and two voicemails, all from Kate, there was a text. If you think im just forgetting about this, youre mistaken. Kate, Jack, the bullet, the fact that Cal was supposed to be with them trying to figure out why, for God’s sake, his son would do such a thing came back to him. At his truck, he watched wisps of snow ramp off his windshield. He thought of how Gloria looked as she choked on every breath, how she grasped his hand as if he could pull her out of herself and save her, as if he knew what to do in a time of crisis. 

“Can I bum a ride?” Gwen came to the front of the truck and held out her hand. “I got chomped pretty good.” 

“Putting your finger in her mouth was pretty stupid,” Cal said.

“Stupid only because I got bit. But wouldn’t it have also been stupid to, I don’t know, pat her back like a baby or slap the back of her head? Wouldn’t it have been stupider still to let her choke to death?”

“Well, when you put it that way. . . .” 

“That’s the only way to put it,” she said. “She ain’t got rabies. I won’t turn into a zombie. If you can help somebody, do it.” Cal’s phone vibrated again. Josh came out of the double doors, locking them. He waved to the two of them.

“I have some place I need to be,” Cal said. “Can’t he take you?”

“No way in hell I’m getting in a car with that guy again,” she said. “You fuck a man once and they think they own you.” She circled over to Cal’s passenger side. “And what did I just say about helping people?” She opened the door and sidled in. Cal followed and started the truck.

“Persuasive, eh?” He said.

“The bloody finger wrapped in a windbreaker helps, I think,” she said. “I’m filled with those little grains of gold.” She curled her arm into the bend of Cal’s elbow and the two watched as the circle broke apart into individual lives once again. “Of course, you gotta filter through all the grains of salt, to get to it sometimes.”

“Are you telling me you’re a liar?” Cal slid is hands into his pocket and felt Gwen squeeze him at his elbow.

“We’re all liars, Ben. C’mon, the sooner you get me to the hospital, the sooner you can get back to your life.”

RS Deeren is a writer from Caro, Michigan where he’s worked as a line cook, a lumberjack, a landscaper, and a bank teller. His fiction is influenced by these and other odd jobs that sustained him during and after the Recession. An Advanced Opportunity Program Fellow in the English PhD program at UW–Milwaukee and a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction MFA program, Deeren’s work has appeared in Rosebud Magazine, Joyland, Midwestern Gothic, Great Lakes Review, and in the anthology Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation(Penguin Random House, 2017). He can be contacted at


Ellis Scott



L. was a human palimpsest. He sat with his cane in the front room of the pub, near the bay window, at a wooden built-in made for two. He nursed a half-empty pint of amber with his crooked hands. Tiny broken blood vessels framed his mouth. He still had the mien of a larger man but his carriage was wrong. The lapels of his anorak sagged where they should have extended, and where there should have been some sort of trapezius, there was a hollow. The metamorphosis was clear: L. had been rewritten.

“Put your money away,” she said. 

“Nora—I pay as I always paid,” he said.

“Your money’s no good here, it’s just nice to see you out.”

“I’ve enjoyed my night immensely.”

“Don’t pick up any girls on the way out, mind.” 

L. managed a smile. “Night, Nora. Thank you for everything.” 

Once home he climbed, slow as a clock’s hand, to the second floor. Upstairs he removed and carefully folded his clothes, found his hot water bottle and went to the toilet. He had not flushed from the time before and everything had congealed.

L. stayed sitting up in bed to support his withered neck. He recited a poem by Ovid. When finished, he tucked the hot water bottle between the frayed grey blanket and flat sheet and folded his wrinkled hands one over the other. A few flies rapped against the dark bedroom window; the new moon wasn’t visible. He stroked his translucent skin, the islands of spots that merged into one continental mass, the knotty tributaries of veins, the craggy peaks of knuckles. L.’s hands had been replaced. 


He heard her old Astra slow down outside, its door open and close, and the click of footsteps coming up the walkway.

“Morning, Dad. Alright?” she said.

“I’m in the sitting room, Fiadh,” L. said.

Fiadh peeked around the corner. “Why are all the blinds down?”

“I was dancing naked.” He frowned. “You look like Maggie Thatcher.”

“Oh, wonderful. Hopefully when she was alive? I’ve had my hair done. Mrs. Denison says that she saw you yesterday, quite late, on the way back from the pub.”

“I will have to remember to change my route. And you wonder why the blinds are down. It was March 20, so I stayed and had an extra pint for Saint Cuthbert’s Day.”

“Finally, spring. Are we still on for the cathedral procession day after tomorrow?” Fiadh removed her fox-brown overcoat and yellow and white silk scarf, and hung them on the single hook in the dim hallway. “She thought you seemed shakier last night. With a bag—was it from the grocer?”

“I was so tight I don’t remember, maybe you should ask her.”

“I said ‘you should see him, he still does his own washing up’.” 

“Don’t make it sound like I’ve just done the splits. I thought we could sit in here, for a change.” 

“She was only looking out for you. It’s chilly in here. Did you see the eclipse yesterday morning? The path of the shadow went around Greenland and crossed the North Sea. Oh, Maeve’s going to call you.”

“You’ve been talking to Maeve? It’s not her birthday until June.”

Fiadh sighed. It took her only one step to cross the parlour. She bent down to adjust the knob on the small ceramic gas heater bordered in sea-green tile, and sat down beside him on the abraded settee, playing with the threadbare end of a tissue stuffed into the cuff of her blouse. “Yesterday. Everyone’s fine. She’s going to try you today. ‘Not too late in the afternoon,’ I said, so morning her time. So as I said on the phone, I’ve just come round to chat a bit.”

“I assume about Sherburn House, since that’s all anyone speaks to me about anymore. I expect you’ve decided it’s time.”

“Billy says when he came round yesterday you wouldn’t speak to him.”

“Why do you all have keys to my house?”

“Ignoring him or chaining the door isn’t helping.”

“He put his foot down, there’s nothing more to say. I’m not entertaining it. He said he would not come back and plead with an old queer.”

“Well, seeing you’ve just told us about yourself, it’s been a shock for him.”

He swatted the air. “And he finds any excuse to punish me. Seems I raised quite the Calvinist. And now I can’t have an untied shoelace without him scheming to get me into that place.”

“We only want what’s best for you. You can’t manage alone.”

“I manage fine.”

“Dad, you can’t live here by yourself anymore. Look at your hands, they’re seizing up. I’ll go make some tea. We can’t be on-call day and night in case something happens—” 

“In case, in case; nothing has happened,” he said. Fiadh got up and moved down the narrow hall toward the tiny kitchen. The walls were bare save for a small, round clock that had stopped just past 3. L. struggled to get up, but quickened his pace and followed closely behind. “Don’t go back there, I’ve been busy scrubbing and I’m not done—and the back is off-limits, something died in the shed over the winter and it’s rotting now.”

“This teapot is chipped,” she said. “I’ll get you a new one. And you haven’t replaced the sponge in months, it’s black.”

“It’s black from washing out the teapot, which pours fine. I’ve had it for thirty years and it’s been chipped for twenty. Or haven’t you noticed until now.”

Fiadh rummaged through the cupboard and pulled out a pan. “What’s this doing tucked back here? It’s charred. Dad, the handle. What’s burnt on the bottom—it’s rock-hard?”

“Creamed corn. So I forgot to clean it, don’t make it into something.” 

“You left the cooker on. Was it when you went out? Or when you went to bed.” 

“I’m not going to that Victorian dungeon.”

“It’s completely remodeled.” Fiadh tossed the pan on the laminate counter, walked over to L. and patted the back of his shoulder. “We’re seeing it at lunch, after the cathedral. They are happy to have us for the day. Both of us can come with you, I’ll talk to him, or it can be just you and me. It’s time, Dad. I’m sorry.” 

“What do you know about time?” He shook her off. “You were smaller than I had imagined,” he said to her, the corners of his mouth drawn down. “Not quite human.”


“When we met after the war.”

“Oh, yes. I’m sure.”

“And look at you now, giving the orders. You think I go to the cathedral to listen to those zealots? They’re all teched. I saw plenty of graves—and more than enough clergymen—as a young stonemason. Even more in Italy, in the war.” L. searched the floor, bewildered.

“I understand it’s difficult, Dad.”

He turned to her, clutching the apron of the wooden table. “I go to remember Patrick Alington.”

“Was he a special friend?”

“Are you unhinged? He was my commanding officer, captain in the 6th Grenadier Guards.”

“I assume there were some,” she sighed. “You haven’t told us about any of those yet—”

L. slumped down at the table, cleared except for a neatly folded pile of used wrapping paper. “Before you leave, I want to tell you something. Stack and seal slab stone; you think it’s impervious, Fiadh, but the shit’s still underneath.” He glared at the flies knocking against the back door window. “After the landing at Salerno, I saw something I have never forgotten. Working men were used as scouts, cannon fodder. German defensive lines stretched across the Apennines, meant to stop our advance over the mountains. Patrick and I became separated from our division north of Naples at the first line—the Volturno Line—with an entire panzer division holding the hills. He died right beside me, September 24, 1943. The back of his head was blown apart by a mortar, but if you laid him down, you’d never know. You would have been two at the time.”

L. knitted his brow and eyed the burnt pan. “I buried his body on a sweltering day under brush, then fled into the mountains to find cover; as high as I could climb. Forty-six days I was stranded between enemy stations, foraging—forty-six nightfalls in the mountains, starving. My division found me in November, crouched in a crevice outside an abandoned village, well behind the second Barbara Line. We then had to break through the final Gustav Line; we dug in at that line for the winter. It was the most impenetrable.” He rubbed his hands. “But first we went back, removed the debris, exhumed his body. He was there, just as he’d been the day I left him, but his limbs were still flexible. His flesh had not decomposed. He looked asleep. They assumed delirium, combat stress; that I had the date of death wrong.”

“I don’t know, Dad, it was seventy years ago,” she said. “I know how important friends are to you. Especially, I mean, for men like you.”

“I was still a journeyman when I left,” he said. “Then after, when I became a master, I was approached to rebuild the nave of the cathedral, including Saint Cuthbert’s shrine. I offered my services for three years. It was there that I learned about incorruptibility, the translation of relics. Eleven years after Saint Cuthbert’s death, when they first moved the body in 698 through the snows of Northumberland, they discovered it hadn’t decayed. Whenever they moved it over the centuries, they always found the same thing: an intact corpse.” L. shook his head. “I know what I saw under that debris, Fiadh. When I go to the processions I remember him—unscathed—being pulled out from under the mound of dead thicket.”

L. tried to right himself. Fiadh moved closer, but he held his gnarled hand up to stop her. “About the century that has passed, Fiadh, I don’t have much else to say or care. I’m sorry if that hurts you. I remember long ago and I remember this morning. In between, there is absence. Every night waking up in the dark, immured. The fear hovering just above. The shame I built around me, with my own hands.” 

He met her gaze head-on. “You think you know everything, what’s best and worst, what’s bearable and unbearable. There are many lines in life you can’t find a way to cross. Impassable, unnavigable. So here at the end, I wanted to cross one, and tell you who I really was, without shame. And all I get is more from you.”

She lowered her head. L. stroked his temples squeezed his eyes. “If I could do it all again. Rewrite my beginning and middle, but I can’t.” He turned back to an empty window—the flies had gone.

“I can, though, write my end. I had no ‘special friends’ as you call them. Assure your brother. I may as well have been invisible.” He looked down at his legs. “And now, I almost am. I can barely hold a glass. I am drifting into decline, Fiadh—my time’s run out. I won’t see another winter. I walk like a penguin, my hair is almost gone and my legs don’t carry me. I’ve never had much. But I get up. I feed and clean myself even if it takes me all day because that’s what I’ve always done. I can’t hold a book anymore but I can recite all the poems that I studied as a young man.” 

“Dad, I know you’ve always been independent. I know you don’t want to go.”

“So don’t speak to me of that place! Not today. Come back the day after tomorrow. I promise we’ll go on the way back from the cathedral. Just no more now, alright?”

“It’s for the best.” Fiadh put her coat and scarf on, sorted the lapels and checked the back of her hair. She glanced back at the pan on the counter. “You rest. Remember Maeve’s going to call. We’ll go over the details on the way. I’ll pick you up. Is ten alright?” 

“Of course, my little one.”     


When night fell, L. latched the door. The blinds remained down. He fixed himself some instant porridge so his stomach wouldn’t be empty and made his way up the stairs. The thin edge of the moon shone low in the sky. He removed a pen and a piece of worn, almost transparent, paper with some faint handwriting on it from the drawer. With his crooked hand he carefully wrote one sentence in dark ink over the faded script: I will neither change, nor move, nor cross over.

L. took the empty glass from the table and filled it in the washroom sink. He found the bottle, but struggled with the cap. He managed to pry it open, swallowed several pills, and tucked himself into bed.


He dreamt of headland streams that tumbled over burnished stones, streams that transformed into tufa-lined rivers, carving ever deepening fissures into the rock face. Deep pockets of woodland dotted the mountains—their highest peaks still ringed with fir trees—and descended into forests of beech; the smell of chestnut, birch and juniper wafted up to where he squatted alone by the steep pass. Hectares of scorched holm oak had been razed in the southern valley. He dreamt of shale and sandstone; metamorphic, calcareous outcrops of white marble formed from limestone that stretched in a band from the Campanian volcanic arc behind him all the way northwest to Rome. He saw stars in the east glinting over cliff sides; charcoal silhouettes transmuted into pale basalt and silvery splinters of granite. The weak light gained momentum. It seeped up from a hidden point below, broke through the thick mortar smoke and formed a winterline, concealing the horizon yet haloing the camber of the hills in lilac. L.’s breathing was laboured, his cheeks were sunken, but he watched that strip of light between the darkness above and below, and believed that against every odd, by luck or by a miracle, he would not die.


Ellis Scott is a new writer, and an old man. His first story “Levies” was published by Into The Void magazine in 2019 and his second story “House For A Young Man” will be published by Yolk in 2020. His work has also appeared in Blank Spaces, Meat For Tea and High Shelf magazines. He is nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prize. 


Re’Lynn Hansen

Re’Lynn Hansen talks Japan, inspiration, and how to balance writing with commuting and life


Interview by Katie Lynn Johnston

I met Re’Lynn Hansen in her Writers’ Portfolio class at Columbia College Chicago in my junior year of school. But, even before I had met her or was entirely positive as to who she was, I had heard many great things about her, her classes and her written work.
Throughout my first years at Columbia, I had seen her walking around the halls on numerous occasions before I took class with her and I remember thinking how zen and laid-back yet still so tough she seemed. I knew only that she had published a great deal of her writing, in books and lit magazines alike, and that she had received several awards for it as well, but knew not much more beyond what I had heard about her. So, as you might be able to guess, I was ecstatic to take her class, and jumped at the chance to interview her on her process, what inspires her, and why she writes.

Re’Lynn Hansen is the author of a book of poem and essays, To Some Women I Have Known, White Pine Press. Her essays, memoir pieces and stories have been published in Hawai’i Review, Prism, Rhino, New Madrid, Water~Stone, New South, Poem Memoir Story, and online at Contrary. She is the recipient of the New South Prose Prize, and the Prism International Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, was published by Firewheel Editions. She is editor of Punctuate, a nonfiction mOn agazine. She has travelled to Kyoto to explore zen approaches to landscape gardening. She has researched the early discoveries of cancer vaccines at Yale Sterling Memorial Library for a book about her experiences with breast cancer and being among the first to receive an experimental cancer vaccine. Her website is at

How did you get started writing? What made you want to write?
I think I have the regular childhood creds for a writer. I was a daydreamer. I grew up looking out the window. A lot. From my bedroom, I could see cornfields, horse corrals, and creeks. I remember watching the harvest at five years of age, knowing it was a metaphor. There was not a book in the house. But my parents were creative beings, creative thinkers. They would not say we were poor, they would say we were broke. My mother listened to jazz. I think music had an influence upon my writing. My father wanted to go into fish farming or hydroponics for a while. Their ideas were large and outside of how others thought. There was no library nearby. Books were expensive and they were broke. But they bought books for me.
Then for a long time I swam around with the idea of what I would not be. I would not be a person who carted a briefcase to work. I would not work 9 to 5. I would not own anything that could not fit in the trunk of a car. I would not be someone who added numbers for a living. I would not keep a checking account. Eventually, there was a path through it. It came by giving myself permission to be an artist and a writer. My work expressed image. I was and am a photographer. Though eventually I knew I would be a person who expresses image in terms of poetic language.

You mentioned in your Writers’ Portfolio class that you had gone to Japan over the summer. Do you have a favorite place there that you have visited? Are there things in Japan which inspire your writing?
I went to Japan to see the moss and bamboo forests created by mists that rise above the seas—I am a meditator so I wanted to see the gardens and temples. Also, they have a long history of in Image and Word work, going back a thousand years and bringing us right to the manga age. The Japanese have always illustrated their poems with paintings and their ink paintings with poems. They were interdisciplinary. Image and word were created together. For the Japanese, manga is hundreds of years old, and this is tied to their spiritual belief, not in one god, but in one idea of god that exists in everything, in every rock and pebble and flower, and every art form is a path to understanding that rock or flower.

You write many different types of literature; nonfiction, fiction, poetry—as is evident from your books, literary publications and awards, but is there one in particular that you most enjoy writing and teaching?
I enjoy memoir the most. At some point, I realized that I was spending more time looking up the lives of authors, than I was reading them. I realized that at fiction readings, I could recall the Q&A afterwards better than I could recall the fiction that had been read. As a child, I was allowed a seat at the kitchen tables, and lounges and bars and living rooms that were the midnight haunts of my parents and grandparents. My task was to keep quiet, which I accomplished because their voices entranced me. Their words danced and I was thrilled that I could touch the minds. When in college, I knew that I wanted to explode with the stories that were actually in my mind, and not the fiction version of them. I am writing an epistolary memoir now. Very satisfying.

Which authors and books would you say have most influenced your writing and style? Do you have a favorite story, book or poem you always find yourself going back to?
My favorite books are the beginning writings of brilliant authors—novels that become an author’s “first breath,” where the language and risk taking are miraculously fresh. For instance, James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Morrison, The Bluest Eye; McCullers,The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms; Cisneros, House on Mango Street; Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.
Right now, in the nonfiction arena, essays have better form than memoir. This is changing quickly with graphic memoirs—for instance, Fun Home and Persepolis—and with segmented and lyric forms of memoirs.

Besides being a writer, all around artist and professor, you also commute from Michigan to Chicago. Do you find it difficult to balance your hobbies, work, writing, commuting and family? What advice would you give to others who also juggle writing with their work and other responsibilities and wants?
Yes, it is impossible to balance it all. I try. I spend time recalibrating. For instance, if I have a hundred things to do, I might take a gap hour and walk the dog instead of attacking that list, just to breathe and let it all settle. As it happens, I have many medical appointments. My writing time is often taken by doctor appointments. Of course, I have written about the doctors and my metastatic breast cancer. I think everyone knows about death and struggle, but having cancer crystalizes that knowledge, and you exist with it in your own little stream of light. It’s important, for me, to write about that. You have to jump the slipstream between life and death and back again, and report back from the brilliant wilderness of illness. It’s the conversation many writers try to have. It’s living within a paradox. It’s the lightening, then nothing, then lightening again. That paradox twists around a bit. The struggle/illness is sometimes the lightening, and there’s the idea that life is nothing without it.
You asked my advice, and that would be to go inward and check-in with yourself regarding what you want to do that day, that week. Who do you want to be with? What do you want to say?


Melissa Broder

The Pisces


Review by Kala Wahl

Melissa Broder’s debut novel, The Pisces, answers the question of exactly what you should do to fill the void after going ‘on break’ with your partner of eight years. The answer? You date a merman. You date a merman and have really erotic sex with him to fill that void.

 The Pisces follows 38 year-old Lucy as she struggles to deal with her post-kinda-breakup-but-not-really-breakup depression. These struggles include punching her boyfriend’s nose and sending him to the hospital, as well as blacking out on Ambien and crashing her car on the highway—covered in the doughnuts she had just purchased in her stupor, of course. Lucy tries therapy, and then Lucy tries Tinder. Because hey, who knows how long this break is going to last, and Lucy isn’t getting any less depressed. Or younger. But it isn’t until an encounter with a certain scaly hunk on a beach in Venice that she finds the ultimate escape from her worries. That’s right; I said scaly. And he’s like, covered in barnacles too.

 This realistic tale (get it, kinda like fish tail) of a woman trying to cope after finding herself stuck in an unsatisfying relationship takes a surreal turn with the introduction of Theo the merman. His character is absurd because he’s a merman and he’s enticing a broken-hearted Lucy. This is, in fact, a woman who—on the very first page—proclaimed her love for cleaning up dog shit because it’s so intimate: “It felt so intimate scooping his gigantic shits, big hot bags of them.” She’s moved on from the dog shit—as well as the kind-of-boyfriend—and now she’s screwing around with a mythical creature. Theo is a great lay and he says he loves Lucy. Receiving oral sex from a merman on ocean rocks almost sounds straight out of a romance novel. He is all the makings of a pure fantasy, and he is seemingly the antidote for her heartbreak. He is absolutely real, and in Lucy’s eyes, he is more than a fantasy. At least for a little bit.

 What can you do? That’s how men tend to be; I guess mermen are no exception.

 Despite how far-fetched this story may seem, Broder manages to ground us through a very relatable Lucy and her very relatable quest towards both moving on and trying to stay sane in the process. Lucy’s fling with Theo is representative of much more than meets the eye, and it’s not too dissimilar from a fling that you, or perhaps even me, might have gone through following a breakup or “break.” Broder nails the natural desperation for distraction that comes post-relationship, and also the intense desire to feel wanted and loved. It’s just in this case, that source of affection happens to be coming from a merman. And Lucy does technically still have a boyfriend—we all just see where that’s going.

 Nowhere. It’s going nowhere. You don’t even need to read the book to know that.

 Other reviews have labeled Lucy as an insufferable character because of her inability to find satisfaction within her seemingly decent boyfriend (I say seemingly because Lucy is very clearly losing interest in him, and a man probably wrote that review) and her whininess in not being able to find satisfaction in other men, as well. She’s deemed shell-fish. (Get it?) Lazy for approaching middle-age without a solid game plan or relationship. However, it is all these traits that make her human. These traits make her relatable. Perhaps these reviewers got too swept up in the fantasy of Theo and wet hot merman sex, but Lucy is a very real character who struggles with very real issues. Sometimes to be human isn’t to be likeable. But I like Lucy; I actually love Lucy.

 Lucy’s perspective is a vivid one that doesn’t shy away from offending. She’s what old people might call crass. But in this day and age, she’s a female voice that we need. Whether she’s discussing her wishes to have a man covered entirely in dildos, or describing getting period blood on her sister’s couch during merman sex, she offers a unique perspective on things that simply can’t be replicated. I high-key think most people have trouble stomaching Lucy because of her openness to share, and that’s more reflective of society’s issue with upfront women than any actual issue with Lucy. She’s honest. It’s refreshing to hear a woman speak so boldly (because god forbid we hear from anymore bold men) and without filter. Filters are boring. And so are men. The Pisces is definitely not boring.

 Hello, do I need to mention merman sex again?


Review by Kala Wahl


Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication Year: 2018
ISBN-10: 1524761559
Number of Pages: 288


Casey Mancino

Memory Witch


“My brother says your mama’s a witch.”

            I jerked my face out of my backpack. “Why would he say that?”

            Lucy Brown shrugged, a smug grin tucked into her cheeks. “Maybe because she is? My brother says that she sneaks into little girls’ rooms at nights and steals away their brains and their parents.”

            “You shut your mouth, Lucy.”

            “It’s true, ain’t it? That’s how come you don’t have no daddy. Did she eat your brain too, Morgan? Is that how come you’re so stupid?” 

            “If my mama did do all those things then you could bet that she’d be coming for you next, Lucy,” I said softly, bit my lip, and walked away.

* * * 

We lived, Mama and I, in a tiny shack near the ocean, washing into the sea. When a hurricane passed, the waves licked right up to our kitchen window, and when a storm blew, we could see the water come peeking in at us over the dunes. 

            I spent the salty nights on the beach alone. I took a headlamp down the water’s edge, searched through the sand for seashells with a hole in the center, gathering pockets full to make myself a necklace of them. I would watch the dunes dance, reedy greens peeking out of the blowing sand, hear the wind whistling through the porous rocks of the jetty. I would gather lumps of jellyfish, careful to check for stingers, and lay them flat on rocks for the morning sun to come and dry them into discs, flat cellophane peeling off the rocks like sunburned skin. 

* * *

“The kids at school think you’re a witch, Mama,” I said to her door that night, sitting in the hall leaning back against her bedroom door, the knots of my neck flesh on the wood panel.

            Most nights Mama didn’t come out of her room, but I liked to sit by her door and talk to her anyway. No noise came from inside, but I knew she was there, in bed, and I knew she could hear me.

            Mama’s door was always shut to me. Even at night, me still just a child, I knocked quietly after a nightmare or else stayed frozen on my bed. Mama stayed inside most of the time, quiet like she’d disappeared, like the house was empty to everyone but me, and I crept around like a mouse or a ghost.

            In the morning I got ready for school by myself and snuck off to the bus with whatever I could find packed for lunch. I wrote notes to myself on my brown paper lunch bag, Have a wonderful day, Mo! I love you! 

* * *

The night Lucy’s mother came over, the sea was flat like a lake and so placid I thought Poseidon had fallen asleep. 

            The ocean stood still and the wind so feeble that humidity hung in the air. I walked through the cloud with my headlamp, unable to look for shells or jellyfish, no wind to whistle, no dunes to dance. The fog frightened me, and I stayed by the picture window, ducked under the glow in the sand hoping the crest of my head didn’t poke into Mama’s view through our window.

            Mama slid her fingers into Mrs. Brown’s hair and held her head steady in her grip. With a jar tucked into her palm she stroked Mrs. Brown on the small crescent of skin tucked behind her ear. She felt all the crevasses of Mrs. Brown’s skull, skimmed over her skin until she found it, hairline maybe smaller and slowly wedged it open.  

            I could not see inside of Mrs. Brown from where I spied. I couldn’t see what Mama was looking at, where her fingers had disappeared, just Mrs. Brown’s dreamy, stoic face and the thing that Mama took out.

            I only caught a glimpse of it. It was dark as night and wiggling in Mama’s fingers. It looked like a worm, only darker, only airier, and it was stretching for escape. Mama snapped it into the jar, pinched the lid closed with a whack so fast I only caught a glimpse. But a glimpse was enough to know that that thing was evil, that the darkness Mama held was sickening.

            I leaned over and retched into the sand beside the window. My eyes watered, and I wiped at my lips, spilling over and over again until my stomach was empty and I was vomiting chalky, orange phlegm. 

* * *

School was a stucco monstrosity, boxy with a red roof like a giant Pizza Hut, nothing like the secret passageways and stone staircases I’d read about in books. My shoes were too small, my uniform missing a button or two, and the zipper on my skirt jammed, but I could still wiggle into it after a couple hops around my bedroom. 

            I found the word WITCH scratched into my locker during lunch time, my peanut butter sandwich missing, my brown lunch bag in tatters—You mean the world to me, Mo! I didn’t mind. I liked the other girls thinking I was a witch, liked them thinking I was powerful.

* * *

“I know you saw what I did to Mrs. Brown,” Mama said. “I ain’t stupid, Mo.”

            Mama moved silently through our house. She could slink up on me, slide her body into bed beside me, and wrap her arms around me before I’d even noticed that she’d left her room. She tucked her cheeks into my neck, her breath warm fog on my skin, sweating under the rotating blades of my ceiling fan whipping the thick air around the room like a hurricane.

            “I’m sorry, Mama,” I whispered into her hair. 

            The room was silent, just the gentle thrum of my clock, the whistle of the sea breeze on our clotted roof. I had only a few stuffed animals, threadbare and pulled from Goodwill. My sheets were musty and beading with Snoopy dancing all over them. 

            “You’re not sleeping, Mo,” Mama said, her voice muffled by her lips on my shoulder.

            I shrugged and the gesture lifted her head with it.

            “They’re not all so bad, Mo. Watch,” she said, holding up a finger to me then pressing it behind her ear, to the same little moon she’d stroked on Mrs. Brown, then—pop—it was open and she dangled from her fingers a light, a star in her bony hands. It was gorgeous and searing, and it whizzed, pulling, stretching, flowing like water, then—clunk—it was in the jar and Mama was screwing on the lid. 

            “Sometimes they’re beautiful. Just depends on the memory, Mo.”

            The light in the jar lit her face from beneath her chin, made her pale skin glow fiery orange. 

            “Why do you take them out?” I asked.

            “When a snake bites you, Mo,” she said as she turned the glass in her hands, watching the light drip through the jar, “you suck out the poison.” 

* * *

Mama was always tired, half-dreaming even when she came out of her room, and she needed time to be alone—that’s what she always said. “I’m just tired, Mo. I just need some time. I’ll feel better soon, I promise.” And sometimes she would feel better, would come out of her room delirious with joy—giggling and silly; she’d go swimming at midnight and come pull me out of school in the middle of the day. On those days she was magic, and we would laugh until our ribs burned.

             The rest of the time I left her peanut butter sandwiches by her door at night before I went to bed and watched the door’s cracks to see if she’d turn on the lights or not. Sometimes I’d stay up late, listening for her door latch telling me she’d taken the sandwich. Sometimes I dreamed she was watching me sleep, just her face hovering over my dreams like a sun. 

* * *

“They put honey in my library book today. All the pages are stuck together now, Mama,” I told her bedroom door, “and I’ll have to renew it until I find some money to pay the fine, so I won’t be getting any new books any time soon. Miss Patterson said I could make my own books instead, write my own stories. She took paper from the teacher’s lounge and stapled together a notebook for me, but someone stole it out of my desk while we were at recess.

            “I wish I were a witch too, Mama, just like you.”

* * *

“I pawned her ring this morning, Mo,” Mama said appearing in our kitchen. “Mrs. Brown’s payment.”

            “Oh.” I watched her, startled by her sudden presence, with my fork hanging over my breakfast. 

            She handed me a napkin. “I was thinking maybe you and I could go shopping. You’re getting too big for your uniform. I could pick you up after school?” Mama suggested, too bright for the morning light of our kitchen. “And Mo? Get yourself a new library book.” She handed me a wad of money—sticky and crumpled. “This should cover the honey.”

* * *

I locked my fingers between Mama’s. The shopping center was crowded. We wove between the bodies of other shoppers, Mama’s arm slack. She trailed a step behind me, her arm loose like a noodle dangling between us, but I squeezed her fingers, prodded her along.

            Nothing had happened. One moment we were shopping for a new skirt and then she’d dimmed. Her body wound away from me.

            “I’m just tired, Mo,” she said through foggy eyes.

            Mama was a husk, all empty inside—her eyes too far away, her skin like cellophane and peeling.

            “Mama, can you drive?”  I asked as we reached our car.

            Mama was flat against the car’s seat. “No, Mo,” she said. “I’m tired, Mo. Just tired.”

            Mama lifted her hand like she was trying to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, but her fingers fumbled, started scratching at her half-moon of skin. She pulled out a memory, thick and gooey. I was close to her, could see that little hole, the soft black place where the memory was coming out, out, trailing like a slug from its shell. 

            “Get them outta me, Mo.”

            Mama’s memory was lumpy and spoiled, was sour and smelled so rotten it stung my tongue. 

            Mama yanked, tugged the memory out of her then held it out waiting for somewhere to put it, like she was trying to hand it to me. It oozed through her fingers spilled onto the broiling cement and sizzled there like an egg. Before it settled Mama had her fingers behind her ear again, pulling out another—liquid starch in iridescent, then creamy like toothpaste, one chalky and grey, another shimmering water and they all fell through her hands, puddled on the blacktop. “I can’t. I’m so tired. You’re so good, Mo—you’re my best thing—but you look just like him.”

            Mama kept pulling—gray clouds, silver steam, a writhing black snake. There were too many, dripping through her, slipping from her fingers. The asphalt was splattered with Mama’s memories.

            “I can’t get ‘em outta me, Mo. The memories just keep coming back.”

* * *

I kept the memory Mama gave me in the baby food jar on my bedside table—let it glow in my bedroom late at night, frozen on my bed. It became my nightlight and I watched it flow through the jar, dripping or dissolving, the light inside pulsing and dancing for me through the night.

            I looked into that white, bright light until my eyes grew fuzzy and the room became shapeless.

* * *        


            I stole my eyes off the school parking lot, watery from their stare. A shadow slipped over me then settled beside me on the curb, sharp knees jutting at a right angle. Lucy Brown tucked her long limbs beneath her, placed her Lisa Frank lunch box between us on the curb.

            “Hi,” I said, with a shrug.

             Lucy’s hair was sloppy, her uniform a button out of alignment. When she lifted her knees I saw a purple circle on her thigh, dark blue blood just beneath her skin. “Did you miss the bus?”


             “So you just… Why are you sitting out here?”

             “My mama’s supposed to pick me up.”

             “Oh.” Lucy looked down, traced her eyes along the curb, down the yellow line to the empty carpool. “Mine too.”

             I looked at her. She had another bruise on her wrist, a strange line down her forearm. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

             Lucy Brown shrugged, her shoulders lifting up to her chin, dropping slowly. “Is your mama really a witch, Morgan?”

             “No,” I said. 

             “Didn’t think so.”




Casey Mancino is currently traveling the world for free, writing odd stories from the comfort of hotel rooms. She is a recent graduate of California College of the Arts’s MFA Writing program and not quite sure what happens after that. Her work has appeared in Gingerbread HouseNOLAvie.comWhere Y’At Magazine, and Eleven Eleven Literary Journal.


Danny Rutland








Danny Ruhland grew up in an area that there wasn’t much to do, so at a very young age Ruhland picked up a camera and started taking pictures of abandoned places and nature. As time went on, Ruhland’s style changed drastically: from taking pictures with fairy lights to taking pictures of models with cigarettes. Ruhland uses personal pain and trauma to create stories. Many people think the style is weird and unique and Ruhland is totally okay with that. 


A. Poythress

girl next door


Cybil skitters through the long grass, stalking the jumping bugs and waving blades in a reflection to the cat, Boss. Boss’ tail is a sinuous curve above his back, lashing back and forth as he picks out his prey. Cybil watches him crouch, eyes narrowed, ready for the pounce.

            A thud.

            Girl and cat both perk up at once, gazes drawn to the backyard next door hidden behind the fence. All the sounds of the outside world seem to quiet down as the two wait to figure out what made the noise.

Another thud, this time followed by a soft hiss.

Cybil crawls on her hands and knees over to the fence, determined to learn the source of the noise. She knows the place low near the ground where the slats were installed sloppily and gape open enough to see through. She crouches down and presses her face against the rough wood, scans the neighbor’s backyard while ignoring the prickly grass scratching at her face.

The old lady who lives next door is standing in the middle of the yard, dressed the way she always is; pink pantsuit from the 70s, greying hair up in curlers, fuzzy slippers on her feet. She’s got a shovel clutched in both hands. She thrusts it into the ground and it makes the same dull thudas before. 

As Cybil watches, the old lady presses one slipper-clad foot against the lip of the shovel and presses it in further. She lifts a large clump of dirt up which she deposits next to the hole, the loose, rain-parched soil hissing as it slides off metal and onto the growing pile.

Cybil sits back and looks over at Boss. He’s sitting a foot away from her, licking one big orange paw. His ear flicks when another thudof the shovel sounds out, but he doesn’t look perturbed. Cybil takes it as a sign to keep watching so she can report her findings to him later.

The old lady is still digging when Cybil presses her face to the fence to watch again. It’s weird—her mom always makes her dad walk over to offer to mow the lawn or do any household chores she might need. Cybil once had to feed her old mop looking dog when she was away, but it’d died earlier in the year. If the lady needed a hole dug, why do it on her own? Especially in the late afternoon when it was obvious there were people home to help her.

But the old lady doesn’t seem inconvenienced at having to dig her own hole at all. She just keeps pulling up shovelfuls of dirt one after the other. Soon, the soil she pulls up is dark and Cybil can smell it all the way from her hiding place. Damp and like living things, growing things. The darker dirt falls off the shovel in clumps, landing with loud thumps.

Cybil’s knees start to ache from her crouch, so she gets on her belly to watch, neck craning up to keep her eyes in the right place on the fence.

The old woman steps into the hole and it’s so deep that the earth seems to eat her up to the knees. She continues to throw dark clods of dirt over her shoulder as she digs. Maybe she’s gone mad, madder than Cybil has always thought the old lady to be, and she’s digging her way to the other side of the world. Or maybe she’s digging a grave. Cybil has no clue what she thinks she’s doing.

She leans away and rolls over onto her back, looking up at the orange sky. It’s quickly darkening at the edges of the horizon, purple bleeding into the orange like an old bruise. Soon, the lightning bugs will be out, their bodies turning on and off like Christmas lights. That’s what Cybil had been out for in the first place, to watch the lightning bugs with Boss. He never chased them. Just watched them drift by and flick on and off.

Boss buts his head against Cybil’s face, getting his fur all in her nose and mouth. He tastes like pollen and grass but she doesn’t mind.

“Good man,” she says, voice muffled. She runs her fingers over the hard ridge of his back. His rusty purr weaves in and out of the thuds still floating over the fence. “What do youthink she’s digging for?” Cybil asks him.

Boss kneads his feet against the dirt, claws digging into and out of the same places. He looks up at her, then back to his own little holes. The cat doesn’t answer.

Cybil takes that as the answer it is and moves back to the fence. It’s dark enough that her mother is going to start calling for her any time now. She hopes the old lady finishes up whatever she’s doing before then, or she’ll miss it. Boss won’t catch her up, either. He never does when she misses out on interesting things.

It’s also dark enough that the lights attached to the back of the neighbor’s house automatically flicker on, illuminating small pools of the yard. A spotlight circles the hole in the ground and the shovel swinging in an arc above the old lady’s head. She’s humming now, a tuneless thing that makes the hairs at the back of Cybil’s neck stand up. Something about the humming isn’t right.

“Ah, there you are,” the old woman says. It’s quiet out, no summer bugs screaming the way they always do, so her voice carries out of the hole and through the yard. All Cybil can see of her now are the hair curlers moving up and down.

Cybil presses her face harder against the fence, eager to know what the woman found. 

The old woman tosses the shovel out of the hole and then reaches up and grasps onto the sides of it. With surprising strength, she heaves herself up and over the edge. She leans down and holds out a hand.

“Easy there,” she says. “I know it’s been a while.”

Cybil quivers in her spot at the fence, whole body on edge and waiting. She barely notices Boss brushing up against her, pressing in close the way he never does when she wants him to. His fur is standing up on end, too, like he’s just as anxious as she is to know what’s going to come out.

A pale, slim hand reaches out of the hole and takes hold of the old woman’s. The nails are shiny and long, fingers thin and almost spidery. The old woman’s hands are even more wrinkly and spotted compared to this new one.

“There we go, atta girl,” the old woman says happily. She leans back and hauls up the person on the other end of the arm with that surprising strength. 

What comes out of the hole is a young woman, maybe in her late teens. She’s nude, hairless body shining in the artificial light. Cybil’s eyes go wide as she takes the woman in. She’s so tall and lean, beautiful, with flowing locks of blonde hair that fall down her back and over her perky pink-tipped breasts. There’s no dirt clinging to her somehow, like even the earth knows it has no place on her body.

“Everything you need to know is written down in the usual place. There’s a DVD in the player waiting for you—don’t worry, you’ll know what that means after you’ve read the brief,” the old woman says as she starts to disrobe. More of her wrinkled, spotted flesh is put on display with each article of clothing she takes off. “I let you stay down longer than usual, so don’t bother me until you’re desperate, okay?”

Cybil should feel ashamed of looking at their nudity, should look away as the old woman’s sagging breasts are revealed, but she can’t take her eyes off what’s happening. The old woman toes off her slippers as she reaches up to uncurl her hair, throwing the curlers to the ground. It leaves her brittle, grey and white hair to spill across her discolored skin. Even her nails look old as they rake through her hair, trying to untangle the snarls. They’re brittle and cracked.

“I won’t bother you, I promise,” the glowing woman says. Even her voice is beautiful, light and lilting. “Have a good sleep, my love. I’ll see you when the time comes.”

The old woman makes a twisting face at the younger. “Yes, that’s what you always say, and somehow I’m never as refreshed as you when I wake up.”

The young woman hums, the same song the older had sung earlier. It still somehow makes Cybil’s skin crawl, even though it sounds so nice sliding out between her lips.

With one last wave of a gnarled hand, the old woman hops, naked, into the hole. The young woman picks up the fallen shovel and starts to spill dirt back into the gaping opening. Her shovelfuls are smaller, her movements more delicate. Her body flows through the air like she’s dancing. She smiles as she buries the old woman.

The back-door clatters open and both Cybil and Boss jump at the sudden noise. She twists around to see her mom leaning out the door, waving at her. She calls out, “Cybil! Time to come in!” before sliding the door shut again. She flicks on the light as a gentle reminder.

Cybil’s heart pounds hard from the small fright. She knew her mom was going to call for her, but she’d somehow managed to forget. The two women made her forget.

She turns back to look through the fence, just to get one last glimpse.

The young woman is frozen, eyes fixed on the spot where Cybil is hiding.


A. Poythress is a second year MFA fiction student at Columbia College Chicago.  They’ve been published in Thresholds UKBest Flash FictionAsymmetry, and Write City Magazine,among others.  They primarily write horror and surreal stories about women and queer folk.


Susie Griffith

Definitely Not Kansas


Look at all these clothes! There’s stacks of them, of every size, in a rainbow of colors. There are tops, bottoms, shirts, skirts, pants, dresses – all very neatly stacked. How do they keep them so neatly stacked? 


It’s a warehouse of clothes. I’m surrounded by a vista of clothes. I could choose any of them. Don’t I just feel so free? Don’t, I. 


I feel overwhelmed.


My mother is there. I haven’t seen her since, well, since our last one ever, fight happened. She has a very serious look on her face. She tells me she wants to apologize to me and I inwardly groan. Here comes another “very Constance” moment. But, I will listen to her words and her fears and her self-obsession cloaked in concern for others when it’s really about her image of self. And I will accept her apology, bolster her heart-felt opinions, allay her fears, and praise her profound sensitivity. 


My grandma walks by. I haven’t seen her in years – well, obviously. She looks young, still, or youngish, comparatively. She sees us and hesitates, but chooses to simply smile and move on.


“There’s Grama,” I say to my mother.


The spontaneous joy on her face fades almost instantly to a rejected pout. 


“Why didn’t she stop and talk to us?” she asks.


Calm her, support her, solve her problem. “Maybe she wants to give us a private moment to finish our talk.”


My mother is appeased and we begin to walk through the stacks of clothes. I see a dress that rises out of the confusion of options. 


“I love this dress. I think I’ll try it on,” I say. But as I turn to my mother for approval, she shakes her head sadly. Ah, my fashion sense is all wrong again.


Nonetheless, I am determined. It’s perfect for me, I think. It’s sleeveless with a deep v-cut neckline, open shoulders, a form-fitting bodice that releases into a flaring skirt. It broadcasts free and flirty. There is a bold floral pattern on the top that blends downward into subdued hues towards the hem. It will move with me, with the wind, with the mood of whatever event.


I take it to the dressing room and suddenly the saleswoman is in the room with me. Two of them, in fact. 


“We will help you get into the dress. It’s complicated” they tell me.


I don’t resist. I’m strangely unbothered by these two women undressing and re-dressing me. It must be the freedom of the dress, I think. It will be a new beginning. I won’t be afraid or ashamed or burdened anymore.


The dress is around my shoulders now, and I see that they were right about its complications. There is so much to do to get the dress aligned on my torso. They work hard to make one arm fit, then the other, and I wonder to myself why an open V-neck with no sleeves should be so difficult to don. I realize it’s not at all what I expected. It doesn’t look at all like the dress I chose.


“How different things look off the hanger,” I think. 


My mother’s voice is in my head. “I cannot stress enough the importance of trying things on.”


The salesladies are gone now, and I know the dress is not the answer. My mother was right. I want to take it off and leave, but I find I can’t figure out how to untangle my shoulders from its fabric. I try to find the secret of dress, but I am trapped, bound up in fabric that shouldn’t be there. Or is it my body that is trapping the dress? Or am I trapped in a body that is trapped in a dress?


The confidence I felt with the saleswomen is gone. My mother is gone, forever gone. There are only the stacks of clothes. So neatly piled.


Susie Griffith is an actor and writer living in Chicago with her wonderful husband, a timid border collie and a mostly blind cat. In addition to short story and novella creative writing, she continues to perform in the vital Chicago theater scene, and uses her writing passion to create elaborate back-stories for her characters.


Gabriela Everett



Death gave me his jacket today, the all black one with the stylish leather body and cotton hood. “Times are changing,” he says, “and I am anything but outdated.” Death goes by Maurice–Maury if you’re cool–and Maury defines fun as screeching tires marking up curbs. Light speed, Godspeed, he drives like he’s racing both.

The downpour slams against windshield like a tsunami, and Maury kicks at the gas hard enough to make water spur up from the tires, throwing the car into neutral as we dip down a hill. He switches back to drive and swerves us into a vacant parking lot, and I can make out a playground distorted by the night rain. He lets the engine run. He lets the rain punch down on us.

“Bright Eyes or Bob Dylan?” He scrolls through his phone with a slender finger, screen glaring in the dark. He looks naked without his jacket, tee and jeans combo looking incomplete, a bare arm thrown over the console. He’s not tan anymore, he hasn’t been since summer, two months ago.

 “Doesn’t matter. Neither can sing.” I sniff and check my reflection in the rearview.

Maury clicks his tongue. “Eloise, you’re without taste.”

I point the air vent toward him as Bob Dylan’s rattling croon starts up.  “And you’re without a sense of temperature.”

“That’s true, actually.” He shrugs and drops his phone into the coffee stained cup holder, at peace with the dried splotches.

Ever since I’d waited on him last month at the diner, this had become our Saturday cycle: bowling, a drive, coffee, and then we’d part ways. The storm threw us an offbeat, Maury claiming he couldn’t possibly drive in this weather, amping the car to sixty in a thirty-five. I start to slip Maury’s jacket off my shoulders when he shuts off the heat.

“It’ll be freezing soon.” He catches me in the crosshair of his stare, dark hair curling against his peanut butter skin. His lack of a hood unnerves me; seeing his full expressions falls unto uncanny valley—like a store mannequin has just blown me a kiss. He is scraps of emotions learned from people he never sees twice, but you would think he’d know how to smile by now. Maury switches the AC on. The jacket stays on my shoulders.

We stay at the park until the rain stops drowning Maury’s snot-green Chevy, Dylan on shuffle while Maury mouths lyrics. I try comb through my rain-soaked hair before it can make my blouse damp, but the rose fabric clings to my shoulders anyway. We get gas station coffee and donuts before he drops me off at my apartment. The expired icing is still stuck to the roof of my mouth when we arrive, and I almost wish I had Maury’s crappy black coffee to scald it off. We say our goodbyes, and Maury insists I keep his jacket. I tear it off the second his car is out of sight.


Over the weekend, I begin to live in Maury’s jacket, despite the urge to burn it. I wear it to the dinner over my uniform. I wear it when I chat with the busboy during my break, his overgrown buzz cut matted to his forehead from sweat and humidity. I wear it so much it garners comments from my roommate, Jamie, asking if it belongs to a “secret someone.” I tell her yes, except not how she thinks, and she wouldn’t want to know whom in the first place. Her voice drops from girlish to motherly, and she comments on my pallor. I say I’ve been forgetting to eat due to double shifts; I escape her and say that I’m going to the library to study. I don’t go back when I forget my wallet. Jamie has work in an hour; I only have to avoid her until then.


In truth, I worry.

Sunday I wake up to find myself paper white, but brush it off as needing more sun. It’s fall—everyone is losing any semblance of a tan. Monday finds me thinner, and I actually rejoice until my clothes begin to billow in places I once complained gave me muffin top. I consider going to the ER. When Wednesday hits and I see myself without any new changes, I take it at the universe letting me off the hook and forget the mess between work and school. I zip up Maury’s jacket and let the too-big sleeves shield my hands from the stinging cold, library books jabbing my ribs.


I’m flipping through a textbook when it happens. 

The library is a ghost town, the squeak of my sneakers pin balling off the walls and tacky skylight. Beads of black ooze from my finger onto the page, slow at first, then in a steady drip of what looks like murky in water. I rub my thumb against it; I smear black down my palm. Fat little drops splatter onto the page of my anatomy book. A papercut.

My hand shakes, so I jam it into the pocket of Maury’s jacket, snatching up my books, wondering if anyone saw. A balding old lady stares blankly at the pages of a crinkled paperback. The clerk has her nose in some trashy tabloid, and for once I’m relieved by the sight. I force myself to pass both in a collected manner, sprinting the moment my shoes smack the crooked sidewalk. 


            The inky liquid is dry when I get to the apartment. The cut is gone, and I wash my hands questioning whether it happened at all, but the stains in my textbook scream at me that this is all too real. I blink at my reflection. I get an idea.

            The knives in the kitchen are far from dull. I cycle this through my mind as I align the tip of a serrated blade with my mid-thigh, steady, steady, steady.I hold onto the mantra when I push down the edge, eyes cemented shut. When I peek, there’s black on my leg. No pain.

I poke at the ghostly skin around the wound, my heart stuttering at the lack of a sting. Or, I hoped it could still stutter. The knife shakes as I drive it deeper, begging a nerve to make me relent. I cut until bone stops me. 

            The flesh inside my leg is a sickly gray, shades of red bleached from the meat and replaced by the horrible, dirty blackness that’s making a puddle on the floor.  

I shudder and gasp when the flesh starts to move, let the knife clatter to the tile. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a plant grow, sinews threading themselves together and stitching the gash shut without scarring.

            I call Maury and leave him a voicemail, screaming at him to get his ass over here before Jamie comes home. It’s just past ten when I let him in, and I shove him against the wall so hard the picture frames rattle.

“What did you do to me?” I snap at his throat.

His eyes flit around the apartment. “Where’s my jacket?”

“Screw your jacket!”  I pull the collar of his shirt close enough that I sense panic and Chinese food on his breath. “What did you do?” I force him to meet my scowl.

Maury spots his jacket hung on a kitchen chair and wretches loose, retrieving it with far too much grace. He drapes it around my shoulders and tells me sit down. I drop beside the kitchen island while he sits in the black-stained chair.

Maury explains that when he was ‘inducted’, it was World War II, and he hadn’t had a choice either.

“You meet someone and you just know. That’s what the last Death told me.” 

He announces that once I’m done changing—once I stop leaking black and the need to breathe subsides—he’ll crumble to dust and I will be fully fledged as Death. 

“Reapers typically live a century or two, then they pass it on to someone else.”

            I ask, “There’s more of us?”

            “Yes,” he sighs, “but never at the same time. You and I, we’re between chapters. You’re not yet born, and I’m dying.”

 “Bullshit.” I throw his jacket at his face. “ Take it back. Death dying? Take it back!”

He clasps my hand and answers that he can’t, leads me out of the apartment to his Chevy while petting my sand colored hair. We get coffee, and its dishwater taste is the only thing normal about us sitting in his car at the park. Everything is all out of order.

“There are things you should know.” His eyes follow the drizzle down the windshield, “There are simple rules.”

  1. Anyone I kiss will die. This is The Kiss of Death. This is how I will help people cross over. “We don’t guide souls,” he drums his fingers on the dash, “we just give them tickets to get where they’re going.”

  2. I am omnipresent, and time will be strange for a while as I become used to being unrestricted by time. This is how I will be able to ‘ferry’ multiple souls simultaneously.

  3. Anyone I allow to try on his jacket–now mine–will henceforth be ‘inducted’ as I am, and I will cease to exist after four days. I am otherwise deathless.

“Four for the horsemen,” he jokes, “and you can change the jacket at will, too. Forever fashionable. That’s a perk.” Maury lets me finish his coffee. It won’t help my exhaustion, but I pitch it back anyway. We lapse into silence and the steel colored sky hovers over us, lightening cracking the air. Maury hushes me each time I try to talk, saying he wants to be human for his last moments, saying I’ll ‘know’ all answers when the time comes. He hums along to the music, and when the clock glows 11:59pm, he tells me to get out of the car and come round to the driver’s side. Slow. His clothes are in a heap on the leather when I open the door. I toss them in the backseat and put the car in drive, glad no one can hear my sobs over the thunder.


I keep working at the diner.

Like Maury said, when the time comes, I know.

It’s like a bell: a soft ringing in my ears, and I close my eyes and I’m where I need to be with who I need to take, and once it’s done I’m back where I first was without a second skipped.

            I’ve yet to change Maury’s jacket. It’s my last trace of him, sans his ugly green Chevy.

Jamie comes home from Christmas at her parents with a new jacket, one with a leather body and cotton hood, one size too small so it’ll hug her curves—she hates the oversized look, says it swallows her figure. She models the jacket for me, exclaiming, “We’re twinsies!”

She invites me out for drinks so I strip off the diner stench with a shower, and shake the dust off my black dress. The snow’s solid enough to stick to the ground; Jamie passes me Maury’s jacket on the way to the car. I hang it over my arm, Jamie too excited to notice I don’t shiver. She slings on her jacket, then stops halfway down the stairs with a pinched expression. She turns to me.

From three steps above, I look down at her and ask, “What’s wrong?”

Jamie flaps her arms. The jacket sleeves dangle far past her pink nails.


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