Tony Trigilio

Tony Trigilio discusses poetry, talk radio, and the professional pursuit of art.


Interview by Margaret Smith

I first came into contact with Tony Trigilio as one of my professors in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. It was in one of his classes that he helped my fellow classmates and I discover “hybrid writing,” a concept that, at the time, was a foreign one to me. We read Jennifer Bartlett, Julie Carr, and Gregory Orr, all of whom shaped this fawn-like concept in my head.

Cut to 2019 and I am interviewing Tony about his own poetry and prose hybrid writing, namely the latest and third installment in his series, Ghosts of the Upper Floor: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 3. Tony takes to the task of writing and, frankly, all of his other pursuits with the mind of both a realist and creative. And with that duality he has immersed himself in his passions.

Tony has also recently published: Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2, BlazeVOX [books], 2016 and Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney, Essay Press, 2016, which is a collection of interviews from Radio Free Albion. Another leg to Tony’s creative endeavours is Radio Free Albion, a platform on which he interviews fellow poets on their forthcoming work as well as what it means to be a poet.



How did you first get invested in your creative fields? 

I’ve been immersed in writing and music ever since I can remember. But my investment deepened enormously when I realized that artists and audiences are always in a relationship with each other. I realized artists aren’t just making something that readers and listeners can “consume”; instead, we’re actually trying to forge an intimate connection with our audiences. Whether I’m writing a poem, making music, or producing a podcast episode, I want my audience to feel the same thing I feel as an audience member—that the artist has guided me toward a new angle of vision, a new way of seeing the world, that I hadn’t imagined before connecting with that work of art.


How did talk radio and your writing influence each other?

 My poems are talky. I imagine each poem as a situation in which the speaker sidles up to the audience and just starts chatting away. Kind of like what Frank O’Hara says in his “Personism” manifesto, where he favors the kind of poem that exists “between two persons instead of two pages.” With my interest in the poem as a talking artifact, it’s probably not surprising that I listened to radio talk shows a lot as a child. (By “talk radio,” I don’t mean the right-wing propaganda we’re surrounded by these days. Instead, I mean community talk shows, arts interview shows, sports talk shows, and advice shows, among others.) Listening to talk radio made me feel like I was eavesdropping on adult conversations—like I was learning secrets about the adult world that no one really wanted me to know. Radio talk shows also made me feel less alone. They taught me a lot about the dynamics of tone and pitch in speech, and about narrative pacing. Most important of all, as someone who eventually would become a writer, radio talk shows dramatized the intimacy of spontaneous dialogue—how the intimacy of social intercourse develops organically, taking its conversational cues from whatever is being said in the present moment. My own poems meander conversationally. They often work within a narrative structure, but narrative is rarely linear: I have to be attentive to tangential leaps, free associations, and how these improvised moments of interjection and redirection help us make knowledge and emotional sense out of our discourse with others.


What pushed you to start Radio Free Albion?

 The Radio Free Albion podcast emerged from the frustration I was feeling several years ago that so few venues actually reviewed new books of poetry. Originally, I’d planned to start my own reviews blog to fill this gap. But as I started planning the blog, it became clearer that I could actually give more attention to a greater number of books if I hosted a podcast instead. What I first envisioned as a digital collection of book reviews became a series of real-time radio conversations—spontaneous, collaborative performances—between two poets. 

Essay Press published three of the interviews as an e-chapbook in 2016: Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney. Columbia faculty member CM Burroughs wrote the Afterword. The podcast is on hiatus now, but I’ve kept the shows archived at I hope to resurrect it sometime in the near future.

MS-Ghosts of the Upper Floor.pngMS-Ghosts of the Upper Floor.png


Did you know Ghosts of the Upper Floor: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) was going to be a series, or did it reveal itself as you kept writing?

 I should probably first give a little background on this book and the larger project. Ghosts of the Upper Floor is a hybrid mix of poetry and prose. It was published this year by BlazeVOX Books, a press that specializes in experimental poetry and fiction. I’m watching all 1,225 episodes of the old daytime gothic soap opera Dark Shadowsfor the project. I compose one sentence in response to each episode and shape each sentence into autobiographical poetry and prose. Ghosts of the Upper Floorcovers 122 episodes.

 I began Ghosts of the Upper Floor as the third installment in The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), but I didn’t know what direction this book was going to take. The shape of the book revealed itself during the writing process. As I drafted and revised the book, I realized that it needed to be in two sections, and that each section should function as a mirror image of the other. The book itself is obsessed with doubling—characters and situations come relentlessly in mirrored twos throughout. The architecture of the book is perhaps the most intricate manifestation of doubling: every prose and verse shape in Section One is repeated (with different content, of course) in Section Two. I had no idea the book would develop this way, with the text shapes in Section One essentially rhyming with those in Section Two. Like a conversation, I started talking, and then I let the discourse tell me where to go.


What was the process like bridging this series across three installations? 

The process is as exciting as it is anxious. Because the soap opera itself triggers the project’s autobiographical material, I never quite know what I’m going to write about from one sentence to the next. Everything begins with this kind of spontaneity, though I revise meticulously. I like to create new formal, challenges for myself, too, so that I don’t become complacent as I write what will become the full 1,225 sentences for the project. Books 1 and 2 were composed in verse couplets, a series of two-line stanzas, but Book 3, Ghosts of the Upper Floor, mixes varied prose and verse shapes, and, at times, forces these shapes into collisions with each other. I’m currently working on Book 4, and it’s also a hybrid mix of poetry and prose.


What endeavors do you find allow your artistic growth?

 I can’t say enough about how important it is for me to pay attention to the work of others: reading great writing inspires me to write, and listening to amazing music inspires me to make music. Long walks help, too, along with daily meditation. Like reading and listening to music, walking and meditating slow me down and teach me to pay attention, to hone my vision.


What do you think young creatives need to be mindful of when trying to find their niches, and potentially turning those into profitable areas?

 Most of all, I think we need to consider the word “profit” as having multiple definitions. On one hand, profit is about making money, and if we have a project that is particularly valuable in the marketplace, then we should go for it, and generate as much revenue as we can. But “profit” can also refer to one’s connection with an audience. When someone tells you how important your writing has been to them, this is the kind of profit that cannot be measured by spreadsheets and bank balances. It’s a kind of love—maybe the most valuable profit of all. 

We need to care about marketplace profit—the purity of one’s art form cancoexist nicely with commerce, I think—but I also think we should not get so invested in the marketplace that our art becomes commodified. If our work is a commodity, it risks becoming just another object to be consumed and digested without the potential to show us new and more thoughtful ways of seeing. We are saturated in marketing language, and this creates a culture that simply wants to identify our needs and then satisfy them. That’s a process of pacification—and that’s what commodities are for, as pacifiers. But my favorite art is that which is profitable enough to be part of the marketplace, but that also surprises me and rattles me. Commodities just satisfy artificial needs. Art, though, teaches me to see.


 Do you think there are pitfalls to investing yourself professionally in the art that you love?   

 Whatever the pitfalls might be—the sting of rejection foremost among them—I think it’s vital that we invest ourselves professionally in what we love. The more we bring heartfelt passion to our professionalized lives, the more we humanize everything that is professional.


 If you weren’t wearing all of these different hats, what would you be doing?

 Great question! I’d probably be sitting in a dark room wearing just one old, worn-out hat. I’d really like that hat, but I also know that I’d be feeling my way along the wall looking for the light switch. My plan would be: turn on the light, find the door, and then get out into the world and look for more hats to wear!


Ghosts of the Upper Floor The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 3, BlazeVOX [books]
ISBN #: 978-1609643379
144 pages

Author photo by Kevin Nance


Table of Contents

Summer, 2020


Kaitlyn Lucille Palmer

  • I Heard a Black Man Say

  • Burning Sage and Cooking Grits

  • The Girls in the South Wear Booty Shorts

  • Jazz is a Black Man in the Library

  • The Most Beautiful Postmodern Sunday

Gabriela Everett

  • Portrait of a Borough Boy, New York

Tina L. Jens

  • Just a Song and Dance Man

Katie Lynn Johnston

  • Mother Saint

Ben Peachey

  • Poor Little

Alison Brackett

  • Portrait of a Half-Empty Girl

Sabrina Clarke

  • The Pills

Margaret Smith

  • Transitions of the Day

Re’Lynn Hansen

  • All the words in your head you could not say

Sam Weller

  • The Circumference of the Glare on the Patio

RS Dereen

  • The Recessionists: Chapter One

LS Beveridge

  • Winterlines

K. Uwe Dunn

  • No Code

Gabriela Everett

  • To the Coast

Katie Lynn Johnston

  • Heaven

David Trinidad

  • Freewrite after Breathing, Last Class, 12/11/18

  • Anita

  • Memoir

  • Ray Donovan

  • Winona Ryder


Kaitlyn Lucille Palmer

I Heard a Black Man Say


she’s essence
her mardi gras is my celebration
I dip in her chocolate
under the magnolia tree, we chill
I kiss her arms and
wait for girl giggles
her mouth poundcake
her lips jolly rancher

she’s bible
she’s fried chicken
biscuits, gravy
her voice is my mixtape
I drink her juice
she is dance
to John Coltrane
in a sentimental mood

dancing in the morning
the color yellow
sun on a good day
she is jumping double dutch, no hands
her is gold hoop earrings
a Salt-N-Peppa asymmetrical she is 90’s rhythm
Justice and Lucky in the mail truck

her is my coffee shop
she helps me find my keys
cornrows, snap peas, Brooklyn, theater
golden arches, rib, pink matter
beads, a sunflower field, blueberry muffin
she tastes bubblegum

merry go round me milk me have mercy, on me.


The Girls in the South Wear Booty Shorts


so short they make all the boys say
what you doing girl with all that
it pokes from the back-causing a
distraction at the workplace, in the
church, and on the way to run
Saturday errands that booty be like
gumbo, a wonder bread kind of thick
decorated in dimples and a roadmap
if you smack it, it’ll talk to you
that big ole booty follows
the country girls around and around
causing frenzies
mama be like, she ain’t here
come back later
a country girl booty makes ‘em
stay in the street looking for that bouncy
let me pounce on it thang
juicy fruit booty working overtime
walking Naomi in those cut off shorts
he say he will sin – gin if only a chance
to see it wiggle jiggle do aerobics
how it looks, that way, in the air, stretched
pulled every night before bed the country
girls say their prayers

they pray for cooler summers 
their brothers to come home
and a love, to come down


Jazz is a Black Man in the Library


His beard turning the pages scratching vinyl echoing jazz
we wake up to get our cake up afro sheen in lemon green
as we rim shot with our bass guitars in our laps we pop
art in our pop style he teaches me how to pop that thang
we watch money fall from apple trees as we spaceship to Venus
dancing Zulu nation down the aisle our spaceship gold

the ocean’s behind us if we have time we can dip our feet making
a splash  I 100 – yard dash to you country ace boon gimme gimme that
shot gun touch drunk, funk city sticky waking up to get our cake up
dripping plums shooting blue gangsta souls in two piece suits our
bullets bee sting off the Riesling there is nothing better than red wine
movie nights in this postmodern black bone

I remember meeting him in the library rhythm got off the pages
oh na na na we bowl with coconuts he’s so speakeasy
Simon says kiss on the lips we gold chain and Reebok classic

driving in Memphis our Memphis in May
Riverside drive we park near the ocean in a Chevy sitting on 44’s,
I met in the library his jazz, so June.


Burning Sage and Cooking Grits


Juke parties in the basement, a summer gala
in the kitchen where we press our hair
snap the peas, cut the peaches, fry the hog

a sweet potato breakfast
I want some fat in this life
a butter biscuit a creole blend

a fish that’s fried
okra, cornbread
some gravy on the side

a mango
salmon croquette, rice, and syrup
that only my daddy can make

he cuts the onions so fine
I rub the leftover butter on my body
beginning at the heels of my feet

in grits we put pepper, salt, and butter
the men in my life kiss me cayenne
they teach me how to get my hands dirty

we burn sage after sex opening the windows
our orange peels fall tattooing themselves
on the corner

caught juking, mama burns sage
she slaps our hips
we are the fast girls

we grind the muscles of
gizzards between our teeth
we want the milk and the money

mouths sweet with sin.

I crave grits, sun, and


The Most Beautiful Postmodern Sunday


I post up in my post
modern cotton mouth candy

I once loved and 
kissed a man like they do in the movies
he was slick a black man with a 
beard and big feet

we merry go ‘round at the
midsouth fair our cotton candy 
hands tangled the sun sitting on
our shoulders it’s a good idea to 
stay in the house until the sun goes 
down, the mosquitos feel like bees 

and still we sit under the peach tree 
I cut the flowers from his nose 
another autumn in the south 
where trees put you in a post sentimental mood 
men smile at the Ms. Fat Booties 
their gumbo biscuit asses

the way they stick their feet in the Mississippi 
river then girl giggle before running 
to sit on the hood of the Chevy the back of our 
thighs hot my titties are Jamaican mangos 
it all started out at the football game, his love and mine
I sat near the field drinking soda pop 

smiling at his touchdowns pointing my 
rifle at anyone who tackled him 
us, the girls and I sat legs crossed 
college sweaters and sweet potato pie 
they urged me to pull the trigger 
so much that we begin to climb electric arches 

flames making our ankles hot 
I sing the blues in my post contemporary 
kitchen that is all white
he walks up behind me and kisses me on my neck
I’ve always wanted a functional kitchen 
a home that looks like a cottage 

my red Chevy parked outside 
the rims big and shiny 
shiny gold teeth and chains 
are high art, post modern
cornbread and cabbage 
rolling dice seven eleven

I sunbathe my skin 
shine my gold teeth sparkle 
wearing white in winter 
kissing his beard in autumn 
I post up, in my post modern 

cinnamon Chevy my lips are maple 
syrup tasting new moons, moon rocks 

I once loved and kissed like they do in the movies.

Kaitlyn Lucille Palmer is a Memphis, TN native and second-year graduate student with a focus in poetry. Through her writing, Kaitlyn aims to tell the stories she imagined throughout girlhood, growing up in the colorful south. Kaitlyn’s work intertwines intellect and visceral experiences. Kaitlyn’s poetry is a celebration of black femininity that is unapologetic, vulnerable, and conscious of space and time. Kaitlyn’s art challenges, encouraging her audience to dream in color. 


Gabriela Everett

Portrait of a Borough Boy,
New York


The year is 1970-something. Somewhere before Sid Vicious ODs, but somewhere after The Exorcist has been released. Street address: scram, kid. The projects are full, and the overflow is at high tide. His full name is a twelve-syllable nightmare so he goes by “Mike” instead of “Michele” and divorces his confirmation name for the sake of saving time. He is the youngest child of the Trimboli family—an Italian family living smack in the middle of Brooklyn. 

Mike’s brother, Sal, teaches him to walk. Not walk-walk, but walk, the New York way, with his shoulders squared, taking on seas of people like a WWII torpedo. Sal tells him to carry a stiletto knife; they’re a fraction quicker than switchblades, and when rival gangs chase Mike down the block, seconds can be his savior. Mike takes his advice, and Sal takes a boy’s arm and snaps the bone for calling him “Sally” during a pick-up game, grinding the boy’s sternum into the ruddy ground. Mike watches from the pitcher’s mound in silence. Crying never gets out bloodstains, anyway. Mike’s sister, Gina, gives him a fine-tooth comb, and it sits in the front pocket of his chinos, always greasy. This is the style—a leather jacket and ducktail with pomade. Mike likes jock-rock, weed, and women. He likes Bob Dylan and the local stray dogs a whole lot more. Frank Sinatra is infused into his bloodline; the lulls of Ol’ Blue Eyes and his father’s cigarettes, hatted with ash, are burned into his brain. Even twenty concussions into his latest hobby of boxing can’t take this from him—not yet. First, Mike wants to ask out Norma, the pretty Puerto Rican girl from school, and listen to Gina hum flirty pop songs. He will not mention his sister’s music taste to their devout mother whose back was broken by Sal when he fell from the second-story fire escape. He had been in hot pursuit of Mike and slipped. Their mother saw them as she was returning from errands, then reacted with warp speed the way good mothers do. Sal tumbled onto her below, her open arms useless against his gravity.

In the projects, everyone has that uncle they don’t talk about. It’s always the uncle that shows up to parties with the latest European wristwatch, the one who puffs on foreign cigars and is outfitted with sharp charm and manners—the one who probably packs a gun in the glovebox. Mike and his friend Tony talk about this over beers, holed up in Mike’s shoebox of a room, paint peeling, records spinning. Mike sends away to England for his records and plays them until their flimsy, paper covers deteriorate or rip, leaving the vinyl exposed to the world. He tears the covers fairly often, and Gina says it’s because he’s a klutz. Once, Sal had even pushed Mike out a window in a fit of rage for calling him “psycho,” and their parents believed Sal’s “Mikey tripped.”

Tony says his dad has a tattoo of an elephant’s head above his crotch. “The trunk is his dick,” he laughs and splashes beer on Mike’s sunken-in mattress. Tony is a giant; his brain isn’t as good as Mike’s, but that’s alright because his brawn is gold. Mike’s seen Tony throw guys down whole alleys. A friend of theirs even started carrying a tape measure to check how far the guys go; Mike and Tony call him “Professor,” even though Mike’s the one with the highest IQ, the one who tears through Kerouac and eats Vonnegut for breakfast. It’s okay. If Professor is the Superego, Mike is the Ego, Tony is the Id, and they’ve made survival into a sport. Every gang needs a strategist, and Mike delivers. Who else is going to think of hiding emergency weapons in cinder blocks and pipes?

If they’re ever caught alone, the Italian kids have their call for help: “Volare” by Dean Martin. They bellow, “Volare!” at the top of their lungs and nearby respondents follow up with a “Woah, Woah,” to let the caller know backup is on the way. They’ve all used it at some point, and all come flying down the block to save a neighbor or take some blows. 

Tony suggests they drink on the fire escape. He opens the window above Mike’s mattress and barely manages to squeeze out. Mike could suggest Tony go out sideways, one broad shoulder at a time, but this is funnier; Mike wants all the comedy he can get. The boys at school don’t hang out with them as much now, mostly because they’re at that ripe age where everyone keeps getting shot, arrested, or bludgeoned to death. 

Under the quiet moonlight—above the skinny dogs digging through garbage—Mike questions what allowed him to get this far. His entire, sixteen-year-old life is Bleecker Street beneath his sneakers, soaring over rooftops, leaping like his heart and bleeding as red. Their little neighborhood is surrounded by black and Puerto Rican gangs, and there’s always war between factions, boys with oiled hair versus sons with shining, dark skin. Everyone’s got rage.

From their spot on the fire escape, Mike can hear his father listening to the radio, some update about Vietnam slipping out the cracked, living room window. Mike considers the sensation of jumping from a plane, weighted with military gear. He’s not scared of falling. Nobody makes it past twenty here—guns have never made the reaper’s job easier. How much worse can the military be? He’s already fighting for free; he might as well get paid.

Tony twists the cap off another green-glassed beer, then flicks it from between his fingers. It sails down, down, down, and Mike drinks to ignore that he’s still aging after it bangs against the dumpster.

He’s not supposed to belong to someone, but he does. Norma, beautiful and brown, speaking rapid Spanish to match Mike’s Italian makes him glow. They meet in the middle of their mother tongues, have enough similar words to understand when they want to ignore English. He wants her to want him so he asks her out to a baseball game, ignoring that their skin color doesn’t quite match, hoping she’ll do the same. When she says yes, Mike walks home with a jig in his step.

They’re waiting on 161st street for the subway home when Mike notices some guys sizing them up. Norma stays lax, but her chatter about the game dwindles to silence. She squeezes Mike’s hand and asks if they should go back, wait a while at Yankee Stadium. When the tallest of the group turns toward them, Mike can see he’s covered in tattoos—he’s even got one on his forehead—and his skin is the same dark, tea-color as Norma’s.

Norma asks if they should leave. Then she says it as a statement, pulling at the sleeve of Mike’s leather jacket. He tells her, go. Now. Get help. Call his family. Norma doesn’t ask why—she already knows. “Volare” cannot save him; underground, there’s nowhere to fly, no backup waiting down the block. Maybe he should’ve run, too, but what’s new? He’s got a plan. He’s the strategist. Norma bolts out of the subway and Mike hears her start yelling for help as the guys rush him. He holds onto the sound of her voice as he puts all his weight behind a punch. He doesn’t feel his fist crunch one guy’s nose—his adrenaline is singing too loud, lighting up his pulse—and he doesn’t see when one of the guys withdraws a pipe from God knows where. But he does see the guy go to swing, opening up the front of his abdomen for Mike to kick. His foot never lands. At least, not on the guy’s body. The leader, whose forehead tattoos spells “ANGEL” in script lettering, throws something at Mike’s face. When the pain hits, Mike’s ready. Everything blurs, a hissing burn overtaking his sense as he falls to the ground, unsure if Norma’s still shouting.

Mike wakes up in the hospital with bandages around his face, unable to speak. A gang member threw acid in his face, Mike’s uncle with the nice wristwatch explains. “They saw you there with your dame. The dark-skinned one. Didn’t like that she was with a dago.”

Mike doesn’t cry. He’s not even sure he can with all the gauze. When his uncle asks what cracked his skull, Mike doesn’t remember—he was too busy thinking his eyes were melting—maybe it was the pipe, maybe it was the subway platform. All he knows is that after the acid, the leader and his jackals sent him to the ninth ring of Hell. As a Catholic, Mike’s got an idea of what that should feel like.

Dad never swears, and still doesn’t when he sees Mike mummified in the hospital bed. From beneath the cocoon of gauze, Mike hears his dad and uncle whisper. With her bad back, his mother stays when she can, brings him gifts he can’t see, flowers he can hardly smell. The world is pure white noise. The doctors say he’ll need glasses when the bandages come off. His eyesight won’t be the same.

He can talk again before he can see. His dad asks who did this to him, who exactly, and Mike recounts the huddle of boys with tattoos. The leader, a guy Mike recognizes as a Puerto Rican gang member, had that stupid tattoo, “ANGEL;” it was one of the last things Mike saw before he fell.

His father grunts. The scent of smoke lingers on his breath, “Angel, huh?” His dad mutters in disapproval. God-given bodies should not be vandalized—that’s how Dad thinks. “Don’t worry, Mikey,” Dad uses a rough hand to pat Mike’s leg, “He’ll get his, angel or not.” Then, Dad’s hand is gone, voice gruff and low as he drifts toward the door, “God rewards all.” Mike can almost hear the air part when Dad makes the sign of the cross, knows Dad’s doing it quick and sure because he always does. The footfall of Dad’s worn shoes echo as he leaves.

“Open it.”

The box is slight in Mike’s freshly unwrapped hands. It’s been a couple minutes since the bandages came off and seconds since his uncle has come into the foreground of his vision. Everything else is out of focus; Mike squints and makes out his parents standing behind his uncle. His uncle’s wristwatch reflects the harsh, hospital light, so Mike looks to the present on the lap of his gown. It’s small, wrapped with glossy, white paper. There’s a thin, red, satin bow tied around the package—the work of his mother, no doubt. Mike takes the present between his sweaty fingers, which are soft and white from being bandaged so long.

“Ah! How many times we gotta tell you, Michele?” His uncle fumes and shakes his head. Despite his impatience and blurry face, Mike knows his uncle’s grinning—he can hear it. His uncle prods again, “C’mon. Open it.”

Mike tears the paper despite trying to rip it neatly. The ribbon unravels and coils itself on his thigh. The lid slides from place with ease. There’s something flat inside, curling at the edge like warped newsprint. Mike’s fingers shake. He goes to pick it up and nearly drops the box. 

His uncle laughs, “Do you like it?” The light caught by his watch shoots a tiny halo on the ceiling. Mike nods, eyes adjusting, and lifts the piece of tan, serrated skin from the box and reads, “Angel.”

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


Tina L. Jens

Just a Song and Dance Man


There was a bluegrass band playing his favorite kind of music at a house party in honor of Auntie Jane. He’d wheeled himself as close as he could get to the music room festivities, but a step kept him from going farther. He was stuck in the “talking” room, but from his vantage point he could still hear the band and watch the dancing. 

I was buck-dancing with the Southern women in the family; the Yankee branch of the family calls it clogging. It’s a robust dance, none of this suavely swaying to the music without raising a sweat or mussing your hair. In buck-dancing, you raise your knees high and slam first toe then heel to the wooden floor, adding the percussion line to the music. Dad didn’t buck-dance even before he got his wheels, but he always tapped his feet and clapped his hands at the hoe-downs when we’d visit down South.

I saw Dad tapping his toe and clapping one hand against his armrest, saw a bittersweet smile. The left side of his face still droops some, turning his smiles into wry grins. And, somehow, I knew what he was thinking – the same images flaring so brightly in my mind, of father-daughter dances. Dad didn’t dance much, but he started dancing with me early, letting me step up on his toes, wrapping one short arm around his waist, the other hand grasped firmly in his, he’d waltz us around the room. My school didn’t have a father-daughter dance back then; they do, now. I envied my niece when I saw the photos of her in her lacy dress of white, my brother in his suit, headed off to their dance.

Dad didn’t dance much. My mom had always liked to dance, and I think sometimes she envied me.

Dad danced with me at my wedding with tears in his eyes. He whispered in my ear, “You’ll always be my little girl.” 

We’d dance one dance at cousins’ weddings, and at Mom and Dad’s 40thanniversary party.

Dad never did dance much, but wheeled up to that step, leaning forward in his chair so he might see Unka Jim cuttin’ it up and making a ruckus with the Southern ladies in the family, I knew he wanted to dance, now. I held out my hand to him, and he reached out with his right to grasp it. We swung arms. This time, it was me doing all the leg work, his feet were stepped up on the footrests of his wheelchair. He’d have preferred I was still riding along on his toes. 

He was swinging his arms and gently pulling me forward then easing me back. When I ducked under his outstretched arm the first time, his grin lit up his face.  From then on, it was forward-back, forward-back, forward-back, twirl! He was leading the dance, lifting my arm higher each time. The ladies in the talking room smiled indulgently. When the song ended, we all applauded.

The very next song was “I’ll Fly Away.” Dad never did sing much, but he liked to listen to country music and bluegrass. And he was familiar with this song. It’s one of the songs I sing to him each night before he goes to sleep. I’m not always there in the make-shift bedroom set up where our music room used to be. His bedroom is upstairs. He says he’ll be back up there one day.  For now, his bed is pushed up against the wall where our red upright piano sat. Crowding into the space where our thirdhand, got-it-cheap, Hammond B-3 organ used to sit. I never got very good on the organ, though got good enough to play at church services some. But I could tear that piano up. That room is filled with memories of music, the ghosts of songs still whispering in the air.

I sing to him every night, though I’m not always there in the make-shift bedroom. I made him a tape a year or two ago, me singing his favorite hymns and spirituals, with a few good-old country songs tossed in. It’s mostly me singing, but on a track or two my husband’s playing guitar. I don’t sing every day, like I used to, and a cappella is tough without lots of practice. So sometimes my voice changes key in the middle of a song, but he’d asked for some tough ones: “Amazing Grace,” “One Day at a Time,” “How Great Thou Art.”

“Amazing Grace” isn’t that hard, except when I stand at his bedside, singing harmonies to the tape I made, standing there singing as he cries at the words. “One Day at a Time” is a tear-jerker for him, too, as it talks about how life is hard, but somehow God will help you through, if you take it just one day at a time. It’s got some high notes, and it’s hard to hit high notes when your throat is clogged with unshed tears.

“How Great Thou Art?” That’s a challenge even for pros. It’s a big, dramatic, Pavarotti, diva kind of song, if you sing it as it wants to be sung, rather than rushing through it with a slight lilt that ignores the power of the music and the power of the words. I gave it my best diva, dramatic rendition in a cappella, and I cry just about every time I sing along with that song on the tape, because Dad has whispered to me on several of those nights, as I stood there leaning against the safety rail of his hospital-style bed, stood there in the near dark with just the low glow of the night-light setting off his bedside lamp, stood there as he whispered to me he wants me to sing “How Great Thou Art” at his funeral.

Mom says he cries and sings to the tape each night, and it helps him release the frustration of being trapped all day in a body that betrayed him. He tries not to cry when I’m there singing in person, and I try not to cry, too.

He whispers sweet thoughts between the songs: “I’m so proud of you.” And whispers To-Do lists: “Will you trim back the lilac tree, because your mom can’t see around it when she goes to pull the van out?” And because, “You’ll always be my little girl,” he also whispers protective-daddy thoughts: “Don’t walk alone after dark in Chicago. Make sure you’re inside before the sun goes down, and always lock your doors.”

Slowly the tape moves past those tough, tearful hymns, to the country songs, like “I’ll Fly Away,” which is about how God will rescue all His children from their mortal bodies, and take them home to Heaven, but this has a bluegrass swing, so it can’t be sung somber. Dad and I sing that one every night, even when I’m in Chicago rather than at his bedside. 

And there that bluegrass band was, at the house party in honor of Auntie Jane, playing oursong. And though I was breathless, Dad and I danced. And though I was breathless, Dad and I sang. Dad sang every word. Not in a quiet whisper, where I’d have to lean my ear close to his mouth to hear. No! He sang every word, belted it out, as loud as I’ve ever heard him speak since that awful August afternoon when he had his massive stroke as he was getting all dressed up in a suit to take Mom out for their wedding anniversary; when a romantic dinner at the Hotel Nauvoo restaurant was traded in for a helicopter ride to the University Hospitals.

He belted that song out, every single word, and I so wanted to go grab a microphone from the band and string it across the dancing room, out to the enclosed porch, and let my daddy shine.  I wanted the whole world to hear him sing.

My dad; he’s just a song and dance man.

The next day, after I’d arrived home in Chicago, I called my mom, ’cause Dad had whispered to me, “Be sure to call us when you get home, so we’ll know you got home safe.” Dad was napping in his chair, and Mom said to me, “Your dad wrote you a letter last night after we got home. I meant to give it to you this morning, but I can read it to you now, if you’ve got time.”

I had time.

It said a few different things. It’s hard for Dad to write letters, but he works hard at it, and so crams a variety of thoughts into them. It said a few different things. But mostly what it said was: “Dear Tina. Thank you for the dance.”


Katie Lynn Johnston

Mother Saint


She was dreaming, and the whisper of heartstrings and gentle lullabies filled the blackened hallway like a mist slowly falling with each rise of her chest, a glow coming upon her face as the softened creak of footsteps sounded from down the hallway and her door opened slowly, inch by inch, until she could feel the warmth of heat on her cheeks and the presence of a stranger standing before the bed. Esme rolled over, away from the light and the shadow, and felt the heat now spread across her bare back, over the pale, smooth skin and then into the muscles and deep into the marrow of her shoulder blades. She was dreaming of school, when she was only a girl, but all her classmates’ faces were that of many animals combined, morphed into one another. Her closest friend that of a fish and its gills, a tiger and its mouth, an elephant and its skin (like one she had seen dying at the zoo when she was only a child, with greening cracks in its dry, scaly flesh). The fur of a zebra was smeared across her friend’s once-navy class uniform, dripping on to the floor with hairs as heavy as drops of paint. He was reaching out his hand to her now, and it was only human, but Esme was afraid—so afraid, staring at the young pink flesh wrinkled with fat and softness, fingers unfolding from the palm limp as squid’s legs, that she sat bolt upright in her bed. The stranger looked at Esme curiously and reached their fingers toward her head, but Esme got up off of the mattress and moved through the darkness, an orangey light now flickering out in the hallway, bouncing against the walls of her little room. She rifled through a basket on her carpeted floor and then through a drawer in her dresser against the wall, throwing stockings and garters over her shoulder. The light grew brighter and brighter and brighter. One of the nuns ran past Esme’s open door. Then one of the young orphan girls, too. And, soon, the hall was full of shouting and rattling and thumping against walls and door frames, shadows stumbling through the red-yellow light as it blazed blindly down the hallway.

“There’s a fire in the nursery!” someone yelled. “There’s a fire in the nursery!”

Esme calmly slipped on a pair of bloomers and tightened the red lacing around her waist and thighs. She pulled her chemise on over her head and walked into the clamor of the hall, her bare feet padding against the floorboards. The quiet crackling of fire murmured beneath the shouts of the nuns and unwed mothers and orphan girls as they careened down the white hallway past Esme and the charcoal doors that lined the walls. Their shadows danced black in the orange light, their faces tinged the color of apricot, their eyes glistening with panic. Esme walked slowly toward the nursery as they shoved past her. The door to the room was opened wide. She could see the ebony floor glowing with wavering orange lines as the fire burned in the white cradles. It crawled up the drapes drawn over the windows, smoke swirling in the air, tattered pieces of cloth swinging to the floor. She could hear nothing but for the snapping of the fire and the distant shouts of the women as they scurried out of the convent—and Esme thought they all must be dead: the children in their pinfolds, charred, gone. She approached the closest cradle, the fire within growling, reaching toward the ceiling. She could see nothing beyond the blazing flame, heat enshrouding her body again, but she could hear a soft whimpering begin to croon beneath the deafening roar of the fire, throbbing in her ears. She looked around herself and saw no one— a piece of the wooden ceiling collapsing to the floor in a puff of dust and ash, one of the cradles crumbling to the floorboards, engulfed in flame, everything shaded orange as a sunset trapped indoors. But then, suddenly, a great ball of flame floated up from one of the still-standing cradles, casting a dazzling red light upon Esme’s face, brown embers flying in air. And through the orange blaze she saw a small, blackened body begin to rise; its arms were spread out as wings, its head lifted to the ceiling. She saw its eyes slowly open, shining clear and white.

“The fire came from her fingertips in sparks, that’s how she did it.”

Esme tossed and turned in the mattress, the bed warbling with the squeak and creak of metal. 

“Stay still.” Hands pushed into her shoulders. “Don’t move, dear. Stay still.”

“I can’t see,” Esme whispered, her voice rough and raspy, hardly sounding like her own.

“Just stay still, dear. You—Dorothy, hand me a sedative. Yes, there on the shelf. Thank you. And hold her, please.” A pair of soft hands pressed into Esme’s skin. “Yes, just like that. Now- now, Ms. Anderson, you must calm down. Stay still . . . . You’re going to feel a pinch, and I want you not to move, all-right? Hold very still.” Esme felt the tip of the needle against her skin and thrashed in the bed, kicking her legs and throwing her arms in the air. The soft hands pressed into her shoulders harder and more fingers came to curl around her wrists and her ankles and her hips, nails digging into her skin, holding her down. She shouted and cried and screamed—whispers and gasps drifting through the air, hissing in her ears.

“She’s mad.” 

“She did it.”

“Hold her still.

“I didn’t see her that evening. After supper we washed and we dressed, and those of us charged with the bastards went to the nursery and fed them, then put them to sleep—as we always did. By the time I was finished, no one else was awake and all the doors were closed so I went to bed. I never saw Esme leave her room . . . but hers was the closest to the nursery and . . . I heard footsteps in the hallway.”


Sister Mildred was stroking Esme’s hair; it was blackened and singed, and the golden brown it had once been had dulled to a char gray. The strands were thick and uneven, looking as though they had been caked with dirt—and Sister Mildred said it would have to be cut. There was no way about it now. It wouldn’t grow this way and, if it did, it would be uneven and how would she plait it then? No, better to cut it off and start anew, she said. It would grow back before Esme even reached a hand toward her head. And, in any right, the nun said, she should thank God there was nothing wrong with her pretty face. She had no reason to lament.

But there was pain. It was crawling up Esme’s right leg, sharp and unwavering and her neck was flaring with searing pricks all over her skin, sinking into the muscles of her throat, shocking her bones. She couldn’t speak. Her words came out in harsh groans and whines like an animal was trapped inside her stomach, and she couldn’t move, she could hardly bring herself to turn her head. She lay so flat and so still on the mattress Sister Mildred thought she looked almost dead: callous with ash smeared over her pale skin. But Esme could see. Her vision was fogged and blurred around the edges, but she saw her little room: the white-stone walls, the little ornate lamp hanging over her bed, the black-tiled floors stretching toward the black door. There was a vanity of wood painted vaguely of teal, a small white-barred window with white drapes blowing gently in a breeze Esme could not feel, a white bedside table with a little drawer and a light-colored wicker chair beside it that was pillowed with blankets tinted yellow as teeth. She could see Sister Mildred kneeling before Esme’s head, her coral-beaded rosary clutched in one of her slim hands, the cross swinging over her knuckles as she spoke. It was the color of silver, but the carving had been rubbed raw with age and the passing of it from old to young hands: Jesus slowly beginning to disappear into the cross, deforming into a plain, smooth mound melded onto the crucifix. 

Esme watched Sister Mildred’s knuckles shift from yellowish beige to pink and then white as she tightened her grip on the rosary. She was speaking, but none of her words reached Esme’s ears, humming a quiet monotone purr under the gentle whir of the ceiling fan overhead, her mouth opening and closing like a puppet’s, her tongue moving between rotting teeth. Sister Mildred’s face was fogged, in Esme’s bleared eyes, into a past youth that had once not seemed so distant. Her skin appeared smooth again, but Esme could still spy hints of wrinkles she had once recalled not being there and new purple crescents resting under Sister Mildred’s blue eyes, her thick blonde hair peeking out of her dark habit, making her appear more disheveled and aged than she had ever looked before. The nun smiled at Esme then, her lips stretched across her face—but misery waited behind her eyes, and Esme could not find it within herself to smile back.

The door to the little hospital room suddenly opened and in stepped two young nurses, clad in brilliant white. Behind them a man in a brown tweed suit was drying his hands on an off-white rag. He stepped in front of them, his clean-shaven face gleaming in the sunlight, tinted yellow like cream. He said something quietly to Sister Mildred and she patted Esme’s hand, standing from the floor, one of the nurses escorting her from the room with a wave of her porcelain fingers. Sister Mildred crossed herself as she passed the threshold, her black habit-skirt billowing out behind her, and the door closed with a gentle hand, only the second nurse remaining with Esme and the man, her rosy cheeks deepening in color.

The man said something to Esme, but his words were lost in the space between them, and he began poking and prodding her body, his cold fingers stretching her open eyes wider and squishing her cheeks to look in at her mouth and teeth. He examined her arms, lifting them from the bed and letting them flop to the mattress, heavy as a wet rag. He pulled back the sheet which had covered Esme’s body and examined her leg. Esme was still only in her bloomers and chemise, but the pristine white they had once been was now mucked with soot and ash and she felt no embarrassment come to her. Her leg was pink and red and angry and looked melted like wax dripping down a candle. The man pressed his hand upon it and it hurt, but Esme didn’t so much as flinch. She lay transfixed on the bed as a board, her arms at her sides, her legs stretched flat, all the while staring at the nurse by the doorway. Esme could see auburn curls peeking out from under the nurse’s white cap, little golden ringlets hovering before her ears. Her eyes were black as pitch and seemed to go on and on into the back of her skull, and her skin made Esme think of the ocean, the color of sea-foam as a storm rages somewhere out in the tropics. Her uniform was fading, the white tinged yellow and brown with stains, her skirt trailing to the floor, her blouse tight around her throat, her waist cinched, her sleeves rolled to her elbows. Her hands were folded before her, knuckles white as Sister Mildred’s had been. She stared back at Esme, her eyes unwavering.


She stepped to the man’s side. “Yes, Doctor?”

“Would you fetch me Nurse Haddington? And bring antiseptic. And”—the nurse nodded along as the man spoke, her dark eyes locked to Esme’s, not leaving them for a moment.


“She set the drapes on fire first and then she went and burned the children one by one, starting at their toes and then their blankets and then the wood of their cribs, and then she crawled up the walls and burned holes in the ceiling.”

The burn wound on her leg was cleaned and then wrapped tightly with pure white bandages. Her neck was plastered with creams and oils and cloths that smelled of citrus, tinny as metal, stinging her nose. They fed her little white tablets in the shape of ovals, smooth as a pebble found at a creek, with a swig of warm water to wash them down. But her injuries ached with hot pain still as if she were yet in the nursery, watching the fires blaze. Though, Esme could tell, from the light seeping through the drapes, that the sun was beginning to set and she was far from the gray walls of the convent.

The fading rays danced against the white of her little room, pink and orange and purple, shifting like the ripple of water in a pond, and Esme thought of the stained glass windows in the chapel—the blue and red and yellow that floated across the gray stone floors, rising as the sun sank, drifting toward the towering crucifix standing at the altar. Esme had never prayed there, she remembered. Truthfully, she could recall no memories of prayer to her mind, and she lay there quietly as her vision stirred, trying to summon one Hail Mary from the depths of her memory.

But when the black door to the room abruptly opened, Esme watched the light fall on the nurse’s face—the one from before, with eyes dark as midnight—and she was torn from remembrance. In her arms the nurse cradled a silver wash basin, a rag hanging over the edge with threads hanging loose, dripping water on to her skirt. She approached Esme lying flat in the bed, her heels clicking against the tile floor.

“I cannot believe they have not washed the ash from your face,” She said, her voice low and gravelly.

Esme only looked at the woman, her eyes straining to see all of her.

The nurse sat beside the bed in the wicker chair, steam floating toward her face in clouds of ivory. Esme wanted to say something to her, but her tongue would not move and she felt as if pebbles filled her throat.

The nurse reached a pearl-skinned hand toward Esme’s head, her thumb resting against Esme’s cheek, brushing the hair of her skin, wiping ash away. Esme stared at her, the nurse stared back. “I’m Dorothy,” she said suddenly, her voice quiet. “You can call me Dottie.” The nurse smiled, dimples peeking out from her pink cheeks. She soaked the rag in the water, white steam wafting around her head, and wrung it, warm drops splashing over the basin rim. Slowly, she brought the rag to Esme’s cheek, her fingers glistening wet like the reflection of a flame.


“She enkindled the fire. I saw it. I saw her do it. She had a fagot and a match, and I saw her light each crib aflame. Even the curtains—yes, she set the curtains on fire, and she wore no clothes, and then she went back to her room and fell asleep until we all were screaming. I saw her do it. And then she crept from her room when we woke her, and we had escaped. But she went back to the nursery and just stood there. She stood there. I could see her from window through the smoke. I think she wanted to die.”

The next morning Esme realized she had not stood since the night of the fire. Her limbs felt as though they had melted into the hospital bed and she thought of Sister Mildred’s rosary: Jesus bound to his cross, clutched in Sister Mildred’s warm hands, slowly fading. She thought of the imprint of her own body in the mattress, the outlines of her arms and her waist and her legs in the stiff, white fabric. She thought of Dottie’s hands pressing into her chest—wondered if they had left lingering pink marks there, blooming over her skin with lip-stick petals.

“I told them it was nonsense,” Sister Mildred was saying, her voice wavering, her hands shaking. “You were asleep—like us all. You were asleep.” Her cold hands gripped Esme’s still arm. “You could not have done. . . .” She looked at Esme, seeking, “You couldn’t have done . . . that. You couldn’t have.” Sister Mildred stared at her in the bed, the nun’s heart pounding in her chest. Esme’s eyes were rolled back toward her forehead, pupils glued to the ceiling, tracing the cracks in the stone. Sister Mildred thought the whites of her eyes glimmered something sinister.

“Esme, are you even listening to me?” Sister Mildred asked desperately, shaking the girl’s arm. “Hear me, O Lord . . . You didn’t do it, did you? Tell me you didn’t—you couldn’t have. . . .” Esme’s eyes flicked down to look at Sister Mildred. She stared at her for a long moment: the purple crescents on the nun’s face had grown longer and her hair had become more unruly, deep- set wrinkles Esme could trace with her fingers traveling across Sister Mildred’s skin in places they had never been before, waving and moving with her expressions. Her flesh was pale like snow and her lips looked almost blue; her face contorted as though she were honeycombed with agony in Esme’s stead.

“Vow to the Lord,” the nun said, “That you did not kill those children. Swear to Him.”

Esme opened her mouth and closed it. She looked deep into Sister Mildred’s blue eyes, “I did not kill the children,” She said, her voice ringing out clearer and sharper than it ever had before. This was the first she had spoken in days. “I didn’t kill them.”

Sister Mildred fell on to the bed, wrapping Esme in her arms, weeping into her chest, her tears warm and wet on Esme’s skin. “I knew you couldn’t have,” the nun said, “I knew you couldn’t have.”


“Esme has been with us for many years now. She’s a very good girl, always listens, never speaks out of turn—very pious; she attends every service we have. She’s very good with children. She would never harm any of them. She came to us with her own . . . burden. She found salvation in the Lord. After the delivery, it was adopted by a well-to-do family from New York. It is our policy that the mothers never meet the children, but Esme did get a moment to see it once before the babe was taken away. She handled it better than most of our mothers, and afterward she was devoted to God. She would never harm a child—no, not ever. She’s a Christian woman now.”


Dorothy came to Esme’s room with a pair of large, silver shears that twinkled in her hands like ice. Esme was still lying flat in the white hospital bed, unmoved since last the nurse had seen her. She felt as if she could feel Sister Mildred’s tears burned into her skin and she was peeking down at her chest, her eyes straining to see if there were any burn marks left there. When Dorothy closed the door behind herself as she came in, Esme’s eyes broke away from her skin in an instant. The afternoon light shone on the nurse’s face, warm and lemony, tinted through the drapes with a soft glow that made Dottie seem almost an angel, like one Esme had seen of stained glass at the convent, rosy and blue and sapphire, her white wings spreading out, her head tilted back toward the sky, her eyes black.

Dorothy set the shears upon the bedside table with a clink and began rolling up her sleeves, fingers curling the fabric underneath itself over and over. Esme watched her move, her eyes straining to the side to look at her.

“I’m going to help you sit up,” Dorothy said, placing her hands under Esme’s arms. “All right?”

Esme nodded, and the nurse lifted her up and set her against the pillows as if she weighed nothing, pulling the white blanket back up over her arms and chest when she was done. Dottie sat on the bed beside Esme, the mattress creaking under her weight, and ran a hand over Esme’s singed hair: blackened, uneven, each strand absorbing the afternoon sunlight. She took the scissors from the bedside table, one warm hand still resting gently on Esme’s head, feeling the bones in her skull and the delicate flesh of her scalp, and then began taking clumps of hair between her fingers, snipping them, the strands floating to the mattress and the floor in golden- black piles. Esme watched the hair fall before her eyes, Dottie solely focused on the shearing, the reflection of light in the silver scissors shining white on her face. Her hands moved slow and smooth over Esme’s skin, growing warmer and warmer the more hair that fell.

When she was done, Dorothy ran her fingers over Esme’s short-cropped hair. It was soft and glowed auburn like embers and Dorothy could feel the heat of her living, but Esme looked ill. Her skin was pale, and her cheeks looked thin and concave, deep-set, gray sickles sitting heavy under her eyelids. Her eyes seemed fogged as they darted over Dottie’s face, and she reached a hand toward Dorothy’s cheek as though she thought she was not really there—the white walls and the white bed and the white table and the pale chair and the faded vanity and the white-barred window with its white fluttering drapes glowing orange around them with a blinding brilliance that made Esme think of flames.


“There has always been something not right about that girl. She went mad when they took her son—did they tell you? Half-rats she was. She threw fits and barricaded herself in her room and attacked some of the other mothers. Once, Sister Laverne found her in the nursery just standing over an empty crib—weeping! She was bereft . . . . I didn’t see her leave her room the evening of the fire, but that does not mean she didn’t do it.”

That night, the moon shone silver through the little room’s window, casting a frosted light across the black tiles. Esme was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, her fingers and neck and leg prickling with feeling. She could hear nothing, and everything looked still, silence echoing out around her with a resounding ring. But she felt the need to move deep within her muscles, as soon as Dorothy had left her, almost as if she were already floating up off the bed, her skin not even touching the sheets or mattress, though her only movement had been to breathe.

Beneath the door Esme noticed a soft, flickering orange light grow, spreading out over the silver moonlight, driving it back to the window, burning yellow. She was starting to feel a gentle warmth enfold her body, the incandescence growing as the light spilled across the tiles, beaming upon the vanity and the wicker chair and the bedside table, spreading to the feet of her bed and crawling up the mattress toward her legs. She felt a shifting of air suddenly as though someone were reaching toward her head, a soft finger brushed against her cheek, and Esme sat bolt upright in the bed, standing to her feet. She floated to the door as though she were hardly moving at all, and twisted the ornate, golden knob carefully, feeling nothing. Esme crept out into the hallway, floating down the white-tiled floor, the gray doors lining the walls all shut, all locked. The hall was completely empty and silent, but it glowed and flickered titian; the two white double-doors at the end of it flashing a blinding light around the edges, reflecting orange sparks and a lemony glow in the little barred-glass windows imbedded in the wood. Esme moved to them and stood before them, looking between the black bars of one of the windows. She could hardly see anything beyond the light, but she pushed the door open and stepped into the blazing room, her skin burning white-hot. Through the tinted orange glow, she could see beds lined around the walls of the room alighted, burning, fires growing toward the ceiling, and she could see several small figures standing in a circle in the middle of the room, looking down at a black mass that was aflame on the white tiled floor, yellow sparks flying toward their faces. The figures stood still, silhouetted, blurred. And Esme inched toward them, their forms becoming clearer, her skin growing hotter, her body beginning to ache. She began to hear a quiet murmuring beneath the crackling roar of the fires in the beds, humming out around her, incoherent words whispered through the air like the rising of fog with each falling exhale of her chest. As she got closer and closer to the figures, Esme saw that they were children, their faces that of many animals conjoined, merged into one another. One of them the face of an otter, the fur of a tiger, the mouth of a cat. Another the trunk of an anteater waving before the fire, the face of a dog, the scales of a gecko. The other two the face of a duck and a grizzly bear, the fur of a hyena and the feathers of a peacock, the mouth of a mole and the smile of a sloth. The four of them stood there, their skin and fur melting off their arms on to the floor, dripping heavy as drops of paint, leaving glistening puddles that shifted on the white tiles, reflecting the fires’ light. They all glanced up to Esme as she joined their circle, their faces blank, eyes hollow, tinted coral.

Esme looked at the burning shape they surrounded and saw that it was Dorothy consumed in the flames, her white blouse and white skirt and golden hair now blackened to the color of cinder, her skin still white as rough opal, shining almost like morning dew in the summer. Esme bent to the floor, reaching a hand toward her and Dottie began to rise, her arms and legs hanging heavy, her head slung back, looking to the ceiling. The wings of a raven sprouted from her back and the children all gazed up at her; her eyes slowly opening, bursting black.

Katie Johnston is a creative writing undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago. She has been an editor for the Columbia Poetry Review, a production editor for Hair Trigger Magazine, and her essay “The Barriers Faced by Female Writers” was published on the Fountainhead Presswebsite and won the Excellence Award at the Student Writers’ Showcase.


Ben Peachey

Poor Little


A stifled sniffle comes from the middle of the classroom. The room is filled with more than twenty boys all wearing bleach-white polos and black slacks. Every single boy turns their heads toward the sound expectantly. The sniffle is the beginning of the end for a particular boy, and that boy is named Poor Little Jimmy.

“Why are you crying?” Mr. Reagan hollers at Poor Little Jimmy from his podium in the front of the classroom. Poor Little Jimmy continues to smother his sniffling as Mr. Reagan marches toward the small child. Poor Little Jimmy cowers behind his desk, which is easy because of his small stature. The child wraps his arms around his shaking knees and tucks them close to his chest. Mr. Reagan stomps down the row of desks and stops directly in front of the sad child.

“Why are you crying?” He asks calmly this time.

“I’m n-not cr-crying,” Poor Little Jimmy stammers between gasps.

“You’re disrupting my class, Poor Little Jimmy.” Mr. Reagan kneels down to lock eyes with the scared and small child. “I don’t like disruptions or the troublemakers that cause them.”

Poor Little Jimmy’s eyes dart away from the instructor. He looks toward his classmates who all share the same smirk and stare at the scene before them with delight.

As you might have gathered, this child is not popular amongst his fellow classmates. He’s not liked. He is, in fact, hated by everyone in the classroom. The classroom is their collective world and it is all they know. The collective world hates Poor Little Jimmy. You might even hate him, too, and no one would blame you.

Poor Little Jimmy sees the excitement and hatred in his classmates’ eyes. He has been holding back his tears admirably, but he can’t any longer. The crying is piercing. Some of the boys cover their ears, but some breathe in the distraught noises. A small few become aroused at the mere sight of Poor Little Jimmy’s comically large tears as they roll down his red cheeks one after an- other. The aroused boys grip their wooden desks tight and press their pelvises against the bottom of the desk to suppress their erections. They slam their feet into the ground to stop themselves from leaping out of their plastic chairs and licking the tears and sadness off of him. They thirst for this and for what is to come.

“Can you tell me why you are crying?” Mr. Reagan asks Poor Little Jimmy. The boys be- come rowdier. The ones who reside on the far sides of the classroom begin to climb to the tops of their desks so they have a better view of the show.

“I-I’m s-s-sa-sad,” Poor Little Jimmy finally gets the words out. The classroom erupts into joyous laughter. The boys begin to pound on their desks. Poor Little Jimmy covers his face to the delight of the rest of the boys.

“You’re sad, Poor Little Jimmy, but your classmates seem so happy. Why can’t you just laugh along with them?” Mr. Reagan places his hand on the top of the small boy’s head gripping his dirty blonde hair.

Why is Poor Little Jimmy crying? His name was given to him by his world, so in a way it was always his name and will always be his name. But why is he crying? Poor Little Jimmy is crying because this is all he knows, and he will never know anything else. This is his life. This is his world. There is nothing outside of this classroom for these boys.

Poor Little Jimmy swings his head around trying to release the grip of his teacher. He’s been ridiculed before, laughed at, called names, but this is the first time anyone has put their hands on him. Poor Little Jimmy starts to cry more desperately as he begins to panic.

“Just give me a laugh and we’ll get back to the lesson,” Mr. Reagan tells the boy. He tightens his grip on his hair.

Poor Little Jimmy lets out a few gasps as he tries to collect himself. The boys begin to quiet down and they all sit back down in their seats. The room becomes silent around Poor Little Jimmy. The small boy sits up slowly in his desk.

“Just a little laugh, a little chuckle,” Mr. Reagan encourages him.

Poor Little Jimmy looks at his teacher and lets out three pathetic chuckles. The child retreats back into his desk and keeps his eyes glued to the floor. The silence is so heavy they can hear the clock on the doorway click through the seconds. Everyone waits for Mr. Reagan.

Mr. Reagan has a decision to make at this moment. Does he leave the poor, little child alone and go back to teaching? Does he continue to make fun of the child? Does his decision even matter? These are blood-thirsty, aroused, angry, hateful boys that want nothing more than for Poor Little Jimmy’s humiliation to continue. These boys could take it upon themselves to hurt the small boy. However, if Mr. Reagan gives the child mercy then maybe the boys might also. All these are possibilities, but I feel like you know it’s only going to get worse.

“That was a poor, little laugh,” Mr. Reagan says with a mocking chuckle. The class responds with a bout of laughter of their own.

The calm is gone.

Mr. Reagan laughs hysterically. He slams his hand down on the desk three times as he attempts to catch his breath. Each slam of his hand makes Poor Little Jimmy jump back in fear. He grabs the back of Poor Little Jimmy’s head once more and laughs directly into his face. The spittle and hot air of his breath engulf Poor Little Jimmy.

The boys are animals now. They pound on the desks with their fists as they hop up and down in their seats. Their fists begin to bleed and bruise. Either they are on top of the desks look- ing down on the poor child or squatting next to his desk on the ground looking up to him. They spit on the child. Some begin to play-wrestle amongst the madness. They inch closer as each moment passes.

Poor Little Jimmy resembles a rag doll as he is ripped back and forth by Mr. Reagan. His hair stretches out from his skull and his neck looks like its made of rubber. Mr. Reagan pulls his head back so the child’s face is pointed at the ceiling. Mr. Reagan grips the hair again and pulls it with all his strength back down toward the desk. Poor Little Jimmy’s face slams into the wooden desk and Mr. Reagan falls to the ground. Mr. Reagan looks at his hand to find he is still holding the poor boy’s hair along with a chunk of his scalp.

A look of horror appears on the teacher’s face. He throws the scalp to his side where one of the boys catches it with his mouth. Mr. Reagan collects himself and rises. He turns his back on the bloodied child as the pack of wild boys are moving in closer. Mr. Reagan walks back to the front of the classroom, takes a seat at his desk, and picks up a book. There is nothing more for him to do.

The boy who has the scalp in his mouth is tackled by another boy. They each bite down on the scalp and pull against the other like dogs fighting over a chew-toy. The original scalp biter tugs it away from the other boy and takes it to the corner to play with.

The boys surround Poor Little Jimmy completely. The child is still dazed from the hit to the face and can barely lift his head to look at the pack. He cries softly, a cry of a wounded puppy, as the largest boy of the group moves to stand directly in front of the desk. He puts both hands around the small head of the child and lifts it off the desk. Poor Little Jimmy’s head looks like a red dodgeball in the large boy’s hands.

The large boy keeps the head raised and examines his peers. They all bark and screech. The large boy smiles as the pack becomes restless. The scalp biter has spit out his toy and left it under one of the back corner desks for later. The large boy decides he’s waited long enough. He takes Poor Little Jimmy’s head and slams it down onto the desk. He grunts loudly as he does it. He picks it up again and slams it again. He slams Poor Little Jimmy’s head over and over again. Each time the sound of his head hitting the desk becomes duller as his small head deflates.

The large boy is done. He backs up from the body and allows the rest of the boys to poke at the corpse. They soon become bored. The large boy grunts at a few of the boys to his side.

They rip the small boy from his desk. Behind the desks are a row of lockers. A boy in the back of the classroom opens up one of them and the boys that carry Poor Little Jimmy stuff him into the locker.

The boys are quiet once more as they return to their respective desks. Some of the boys begin to wipe the blood from their hands onto their black slacks, but ignore the blood stains on their white shirts. The scalp biter kicks the piece of scalp he had been playing with into the corner. They all direct their attention to their teacher except for one boy who can’t remove his eyes from the desk where Poor Little Jimmy sat.

“Now, where were we?” Mr. Reagan asks rhetorically while putting his book down on his desk. He stands up to his podium.

The staring boy still keeps his eyes on the bloody desk. He quietly begins to weep at the scene. He doesn’t understand why he is crying when no one else is, but he can’t control it. He looks at his shirt where the trickles of blood of his classmate seem to be growing. He cries louder and rips his shirt off.

“Oh, now, who is making all that fuss back there?” Mr. Reagan asks from his podium. The staring boy throws his shirt onto the ground and cries into his blood-stained hands.

Mr. Reagan walks back down the aisle to the boy. He stops in front of the staring boy and waits for him to look up.

“Tommy, why are you crying?” Mr. Reagan asks the child.

Tommy looks up slowly at the teacher. Tears stream down his face that is now red from the blood on his hands. Snot begins to spill from his nose. He wipes at the snot and looks at his palms after. The sight of his red palms makes him cry harder.

“Oh, you poor, little boy,” Mr. Reagan puts his hand on the boy’s dark black hair. He looks around the classroom at the bloodied boys with a smirk on his face. “What are we going to do with you, Poor Little Tommy?”

Benjamin Peachey is a graduate from Columbia College Chicago with a double major in Creative Writing and Contemporary, Urban, and Pop Music. Currently, Benjamin is pursing his Masters of Education at DePaul University while serving as a Resident Teacher in the Chicago Public School system. As he continues his career in education, he hopes to bring his passion for the arts to his own classroom. 


Alison Brackett

Portrait of a Half-Empty Girl


The interrogation room was starting to feel like home. The metal chairs and matching table had become almost comforting and I had begun to find colors and shapes within the crevices of the muted concreted walls and concrete floors. I thought I was numb, but the somberness of the room left a wave of melancholy that wrapped around my frame like a blanket. 

Tucked away into one of the corners of the ceiling sat a security camera, red-light flashing angrily at me. The detective was sitting across from me, one leg crossed over the other and her blonde hair pulled back tight into a sleek ponytail. Her pen moved effortlessly, almost mechanically, against the yellow legal pad placed in front of her. She said her name was Detective Karlsson when I was first brought into the police station.

Next to her sat a man, one whose name was something along the lines of Baxter or maybe Dexter —I had stopped paying attention the moment he followed us into the room. He sat slouched next to Detective Karlsson, his face red and wet with beads of sweat. He kept tugging at his collar, which looked to be too tight for his fat neck, running his hands over his thinning hair. His beady, suspecting eyes were trained on me; was he supposed to be the “bad” cop?

“Are you cold?” Detective Karlsson asked, pulling me out of my thoughts.

I realized I was shaking. I looked down at my trembling hands and bouncing knees and then back up to the detective before shaking my head back and forth. I wasn’t cold. Rather, my skin crawled as if millions of tiny spiders and creatures marked my skin as their home. I could feel their tiny legs dance across my flesh, marching up my forearm and over the sharp slope of my elbow onto my biceps. It felt so real that I had to keep looking down to remind myself that it was only my mind playing tricks on me. My dirty, caked nails raked across my skin, hoping to drive away the parade of bugs. It was clear that the LSD we had taken in the early morning, before our arrest, had yet to wear off; the severity of the situation was manifesting into a bad trip, one that was beginning to feel suffocating. 

“Okay, Zoey. Before we get started, I’m going to read you your Miranda rights.” Detective Karlsson shuffled through her pages before her eyes found mine once more.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have them present with you while you are being questioned. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish. You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.” Her eyes focused in on me as she continued, “Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you? Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us now?”

I nodded once. “Yes.”

“Why do you think you’re here today, Zoey?” the unnamed detective asked.

“Because we killed Riley,” I told him, my features void of emotions, my movements focused on raking my fingers back and forth across the skin of my arms. 

“Riley’s alive, Zoey,” Detective Karlsson said. 

That caught my attention, halting all my movements completely. My eyes slowly lifted from arms, brows furrowed in a mix of surprise and doubt. Were they messing with me?

When we had left her body, we were all under the assumption that she was dead. Even once they had found us, cornered in the booth of a truck stop diner in Virginia, the thought of her being alive had never crossed my mind. Maybe it should have. If we had planned on the possibility of getting caught, maybe I would have been better prepared for how to handle this situation.

“Two hunters stumbled across her in the woods buried under sticks and leaves. But I think you already knew that.”

She was right. That was exactly where we had left Riley, shoved in a shallow grave covered with leaves, sticks, and topped with dirt. Skylar and I each grabbed ahold of an arm and pulled her limp body across the rough surface, leaves and sticks catching against her clothing and skin until we had reached the grave that Berith had dug. I remember telling him that I thought the grave was too shallow, that maybe we should dig deeper; but he told me that it didn’t matter, that no one came to this part of the woods anyway. 

Apparently, he was wrong. 

I looked back down at my bug-infested skin. I imagined them parading across my flesh, weaving through the hairs on my arms with tiny hats and instruments as they played a tune, one that was much too soft to reach my ears.

“How long have you guys been planning this?” The voice of Detective Baxter (or was it Dexter? I’ll just call him Detective B) was as breathless and sweaty as he looked and caused the bugs to scatter in different directions.

“Since June.”

It had been in the works for four whole months. Late nights were spent in Berith’s basement, riding off our LSD high while we talked details over empty pizza boxes and 2-liters as we passed around a bong. His basement was littered with the remnants of these nights, and the air was filled with a dread you couldn’t mask with your strongest air freshener.

It had started as a joke. In fits of giggles, in between bites of pizza, Skylar and I threw out suggestions of Berith’s next sacrifice. A hitchhiker? A homeless person? The girl that worked the counter at our favorite smoke shop? None of these suggestions had seemed to please him. At each of our ideas, his fists would clench until his knuckles turned white and the vein above his eyebrow began to protrude. He wasn’t pleased with us; he was desperate, on edge, in search for the perfect sacrifice, something that would surely get His attention, but Berith couldn’t seem to find the right fit.

Until, with short laughs still escaping our breathless lips, I suggested Riley.

It was as if a lightbulb had switched inside his head, excitement filling his usual darkened eyes. Berith grabbed my face between his cracked palms and planted a kiss on my lips before saying, “You’re a genius, Z.”

“You know, she’s been my best friend since the sixth grade.” It’s as if my mouth had a mind of its own. My words were slipping up my throat and past my tongue before I had the chance to bite them back.

“Who has?” Detective Karlsson asked, pen halting as an eyebrow quirked in my direction.


I could see the judgement lurking behind the fat man’s eyes.Some friend you are, he’d say if he could.

“If Riley’s your friend, why pick her?” he asked.

“I didn’t,” I replied matter-of-factly. “I mean, I wasn’t serious.” I felt the need to defend myself against their prying eyes. “It was Berith who decided.”

“Berith?” Detective B asked. “Do you mean Samuel?”

“I mean Berith,” I told him. “He doesn’t go by Samuel anymore.”
“Why Berith?” There was a hint of curiosity to Detective Karlsson’s tone as she inched forward

in her seat. 

According to Berith, he had been practicing Satanism since he was my own age, before he had become Berith. A few scary movies and his own burning curiosity sent him deep into the depths of the web where he stumbled across a web page. That night, by the swift click of his finger on the mouse, he found his calling on that page. He spent weeks performing rituals and calling out to Berith until one night, Samuel’s pleas were heard, and He had finally come. Ever since then, the vessel has been split between both Samuel and Berith. 

If I was being honest, I didn’t believe Berith at first. I thought that maybe, he wasn’t all I thought him to be, that quite possibly, he was off his rocker. I had plans of phasing him out of my life until I saw Him myself. He came to me late one night and appeared in the shadows of my moonlit bedroom. He towered high above my twin-sized bed, sharpened claws reaching to graze the legs of my sheet covered-body. He told me things that only Berith would know and revealed to me his plans.

When I woke the next morning, I had thought I was dreaming until I clambered out of bed and discovered holes in my sheets, left by the tips of his pointed fingers. I kept that part to myself, though. By the skeptical glances I was receiving from both Detective B and Detective Karlsson, I knew that they were no believers. 

“Tell me more about your relationship with Berith. How do you know him?” Detective Karlsson asked.

The night that Skylar and I met Berith is engraved in my mind, branded into my memory with hot coals. It was Sophomore year of high school, one year ago, and I had just turned fifteen. At that point in our lives, all three of us girls spent more time obsessing over boys than anything else. Our group-chat was littered with pictures of our celebrity crushes and heart-eye emojis; our sleepovers were filled with long talks of who we had crushes on and who we thought were cute.

Until Riley got her first boyfriend, that was when everything changed. She was the first of us to ever get a boyfriend, and she became so consumed with the honeymoon stage of her relationship that we rarely saw her

While Riley busied herself with her new boyfriend, Skylar and I found comfort in music and the boys who played that music. One night, when the leaves had begun to fall and the wind had picked up, Riley bailed on our girl’s night to hang out with her boyfriend instead. To make up for the loss of our precious girls’ night, Skylar and I thought that to cheer ourselves up we’d sneak out and go to a local metal show our favorite band was playing at.

As if it was fate, as if everything that followed was meant to be, Berith just so happened to be filling in for the bass player that night. I remember finding it difficult to pay attention to the music, my gaze kept gravitating toward him as if my eyes were magnets. I was fifteen, still a virgin, and knew little to nothing about sex. Yet, my hormones and curiosity were at an all-time high; all I seemed to think about in those days were sex, boys, and a little more sex. I spent sleepless nights with my hand creeping under the band of my pajama pants imagining what it would be like — what it would feel like if it were someone else’s hand instead of my own. Who would it be with? When would it be?

Berith was my awakening; he stirred something within me that left me feeling as if maybe he was the one, I had been dreaming of all those late nights. It felt almost too good to be true, as if this was one big joke. I was left in a trance, hanging on to each and every movement he made; I watched in awe as his tattooed fingers strummed against the strings of the bass and his dyed hair flopped over into his vision. I wondered what it would feel like to have those tattooed fingers strum against my prickled flesh or his hair tickle my face. He caught me staring — more than once — but I couldn’t look away, afraid that if I did, he’d disappear into the cloud of cigarette smoke that enveloped the stage.

Berith approached us after the show and invited us to smoke a blunt with him out back. Ever since that night, the moment our fingers brushed as we passed the blunt between us, he’s been our puppet-master, yanking and pulling our strings in whichever direction he pleases. 

But instead, all I say is, “He’s our boyfriend. We met him at a concert.”

“And by we, I assume you mean you and Skylar?” Detective B asked. 

I nodded in response as Detective Karlsson jotted something down on her notepad, and I couldn’t help but think of Skylar. Where was she? Was she in a room similar to mine? Next to mine? Were the bugs crawling across her skin too much for her to handle? Had she caved under the watchful eyes of her own detective?

She’d always been the weak one.

Detective Karlsson trained her eyes in on me once more. “Why Riley? Why her, Zoey?”

“She never liked Berith.” As if that gave reason for murder. “She said there was something about him that gave her the creeps.” I guess I couldn’t blame Riley for that. Berith was kind of creepy, but in a charming way that Riley wasn’t mature enough to understand. 

“We could have all been friends,” I continued. “Berith wanted to like her —he did—but she wouldn’t give him the chance. She’d never say it, but I knew she was always plotting to tear us apart; she’d rat us out to her parents and give us lectures as if she knew what she was talking about. I mean, she was still a virgin! Did she really expect us to take her advice?”

“Anyways, Berith said she was a non-believer. Non-believers aren’t to be trusted. They’re against us. And because of that, Berith said she’d be the perfect sacrifice.”
 “Sacrifice?” Detective B asked, a hint to his already wavering voice that I couldn’t quite pick up on. Was he scared? Was he surprised? “What do you mean a sacrifice?” 

I had become so numb to the story that was my reality that it fell from my lips with ease, as if I had practiced it like a speech. Maybe it was the drugs, or maybe it was the effect that Berith had on me, but I could no longer find it in myself to care — even when I tried. That side of me was long gone.

I was worried at first. I had spent nights lying awake in bed, tossing and turning beneath my sheets, wondering if I could really go through with murdering my best friend. Sure, she didn’t like my boyfriend. But wasn’t that normal? It’s not like I was her boyfriend’s biggest fan. So was that grounds enough to kill her? She was there for me through all the trials and tribulations of my youth — my parent’s divorce, my first heartbreak, having to put my childhood pet to sleep.

I was desperate to find the piece of me that knew right over wrong, the piece that had begun to slip away. I knew that she would know what to do so I tried to reach out and pull her from the darkness. But it was no use. She was tangled among vines of evil far from my reach, unable to guide me. It was when I realized that she was gone that I knew I had to follow Berith. If I didn’t have her then, at least, I’d have him—and if murdering Riley was what he wanted to do, then it was going to happen.

“Berith wanted to make a good impression. He wanted praise. He wanted eternity. He wanted power. But no ritual or animal sacrifice, no matter how many we completed, seemed to satisfy Him. Berith said that we needed to step it up. That this time, we needed a virgin.” I paused, finding my attention drawn to the loose thread dangling from the seam of my oversized sweatshirt. “He could’ve chosen any virgin, really. He didn’t have to choose Riley. But I think he chose her because he didn’t like her. She was starting to cause problems between the three of us, and He knew that the best way to solve our situation was to simply eliminate the cause of the problem.”

Detective Karlsson nodded. This time, Detective B was scribbling something down onto the notepad. “Take me through that night, Zoey. What happened?”

“We took her out to the woods. Berith didn’t think that Skylar and I could get her out there, but we did; we promised her booze and said there would be boys.” I chuckled. Detective B looked up at me, beady eyes narrowed. He was judging me. “Booze and boys were all it took to get her on board. Kinda sad, isn’t it?” I continued. “When we finally got out there, only Berith was waiting for us. I think Riley knew that something was up and tried to get out. She tried making up some stupid excuse about forgetting something in the car, and that was when Skylar and I grabbed her and Berith started the ritual. He wanted us to be the one to stab her, to prove ourselves to him, but we couldn’t do it.” Memories of the night put a stop to my words, flashing across my mind like a motion picture.

I failed Berith. I had held the large kitchen knife in my hand, my knuckles turning a sickly shade of white as my grip tightened around it. I urged myself to move forward, to plunge the sharp end of the blade into her unsuspecting flesh, but I froze. I so badly wanted to be the one to prove myself to Him, to be the one to deliver the final blow; I craved nothing more than the look of pride in his eyes, flecks of green shimmering above me as he watched the red ooze from her wounds.

But I couldn’t do it. I wanted to be solely and unconditionally committed to Berith and His plan, but She wasn’t as far gone as I thought. She still lingered, writhing beneath the vines, reminding me of who Riley had been to me. I couldn’t look the girl I had once called my best friend in the eyes while I killed her. She had stopped me, and in turn, disappointed Him.

The presence of the bugs became more apparent now as I spoke; they jumped from my arm to my neck and slid down my other arm as if it were a water slide. Their tiny legs tapped against my skin as they made it their home, burrowing their heads deep under my flesh. 

My fingernails raked back and forth against my skin, desperate to drive them away. This was not their home. It couldn’t be. As I retracted my hands from my burning skin, a trail of blood was left caked under my nails. I stared at my trembling, blood-stained fingers. It was as red as the blood that had pooled beneath Riley’s body. It was the red that had stained my white converse, even after I had bleached them. It was the red that I saw every time I closed my eyes.

“Zoey?” Detective Karlsson’s voice faded in and out around me. “Zoey?” she repeated, her emphasis breaking past my barrier. “Are you alright?”

I ignored her. “He had no problem with it, though,” I continued. “He just went absolutely crazy.” The words slipped past my lips lazily, a certain numbness to the motions as I trained my gaze on the cup of water in front of me. The water sat untouched, lying still in its plastic home. It was unbothered. It was free. It was peaceful. I envied that. “He wouldn’t stop.” My brows furrowed as the images played back in my head. I shuddered. “He was mumbling things under his breath that sounded like another language. I had never heardanythinglike it before. And he kept stabbing her, over and over and . . . .”

The images that raced across my mind evoked a sense of fear in me I couldn’t quite understand; it was a feeling I was not used to. Seeing Berith in such a state had frightened me,or rather, it frightened Her. It triggered the reality of what we had planned and executed to finally set in and for the first time in all those months, a feeling of doubt filled my gut.

“And then?” Detective Karlsson pressed, inching forward in her seat. Detective B mimicked her actions. Their movements drew my eyes back to them. “What happened next?”

I shrugged. “Well, we finished the ritual, buried her under some leaves and then we went to get burgers.”


Sabrina Clarke

The Pills


I always loved salty snacks, especially as a kid. Tostitos were the best for this: plain, without salsa, since I hated the squish of it with its frigid temperature compared to the chip. I wanted to taste the bits of salt sting on my dry lips, stuffing as many as I could into my mouth, feeling the crumbs fall onto my soft cotton pants.

I wasn’t allowed on top of the fridge. Rather, I wasn’t supposed to be up there because a six-year-old shouldn’t be able to even reach such heights.

But I could. That’s where everything was hidden from me.

I craved salt so badly. Even if my parents tried to get safety locks on everything, I still found a way through the baby-gates and lock mechanisms. I was a monster with willpower and stamina that they couldn’t keep up with.

The key was to use the entire cabinet and shelving units to your benefit to make up for your height. I had longer limbs than most six-year-olds and used this to my advantage. I opened both cabinets above and below me because I needed the inner shelves. I used the bottom cabinet to boost myself up onto the counter with the toaster, bread-box, and butter dish next to the fridge. I swung my leg up onto the counter. It was still sticky from my grandma making toast that morning, with flecks of breadcrumbs encrusted onto my palms as I lifted myself onto the counter space. My grandma was blind and always left a mess in her wake, making my mom clean up after me and her. I could smell the burnt coffee, eggs, and sausage from my grandpa’s breakfast, always overcooking everything to get rid of any chance of getting sick, even though it always made me feel nauseated from the smell. My dad always had to remember to make sure the coffeemaker was off because grandpa would make the coffee pot explode from leaving it on for days at a time.

I stood on the counter for a bit, looking down at the expansive kitchen. I wanted to be this tall when I grew up, tall like my dad, taller than my bullies, tall enough to reach whatever height. My toes curled on the edge of the counter in anticipation for the future. I didn’t have a fear of heights or death yet—I was unstoppable.

Keeping myself steady using the cabinet shelves and the top of the fridge, I turned myself around and lifted myself using the bottom of the top cabinet, careful not to step on any of the contents; mostly all baking supplies at the time. I used this leverage to reach out and pull the cabinets above the fridge open and, between all the colorful packages of Chips Ahoy, Oreos, Lays, Ruffles—anything to keep me and my brother sedated for two seconds—the bright blue of the full Tostitos bag waited for me.

I grabbed it with my filthy palms and swung it toward me, knocking the shallow wicker basket off the top of the fridge, small, orange, plastic pill bottles clattering onto the floor, rattling against the tile. Panic set in and I braced against the echo of the harsh sound, waiting for one of the dogs to bark or my grandpa to come out of his room to check on me. I looked around for signs of the house hearing my crimes, but it stayed silent, and I sighed with relief.

I jumped back onto the floor and picked up the contents. Thankfully, the bottles didn’t open. I still had to start my climb once again to shut all the cabinets, replace the wicker basket exactly how it was arranged. I slowly turned the labels to face precisely as they were and put the pill cutter in its place. Details like this were easy, unnoticed by amateurs. I stared at the bottles for a while, standing on the cliff of the counter again.

Blurring. It always happened like this. It still does. A wave crashes against my skull and the room spins as my focus slips away, leaving me in a fog. Static, silence, and gone.

Little half-moons always tasting like chalk, dust bunnies, and the color pink, sometimes the color orange, never the fruit. Sometimes I had to take the full moon. I stared at the disc up in the sky. Fingernail sliver, half pill, full pill, half pill, fingernail sliver. Ritalin was my only friend for most of my childhood. Probably should have told the doctor I was an anxious aggressive psychotic piece of shit before they stuck me on it for ten years at the age of three. Stimulants to counteract my brain so I could focus correctly. On what, I wondered.

Sometime later they’d give me the capsules with small orange balls in them instead, later finding out this was Adderall XR, trying to extend the release of the medicine, just making me miserable longer. I thought they looked like something from science fiction or a cartoon. They never seemed real. For a while I thought every child took medicine like this, like every child took their Flinstone vitamins. Everything was normalized. How many kids were taking pills to just be normal? How many kids had their video games and books taken away to make sure their pills were working?

The pills were only for me—my name written in bold capitalized letters with instructions I didn’t understand. They were for my problem. I was more than a rambunctious, adventurous child; it was always more than that. I was broken, sick, had something that would never leave me, something people would never fully understand even if it felt so simple to me.

“Take one pill every morning with your cereal and a cup of milk and you won’t be a problem in school. You’ll do your homework instead of read and play video games until the pill takes away any actual joy that those things once brought you.”

“Take one pill every morning and hopefully your rapid weight gain and loss will stop—the shaking, the cravings, the stomach aches, the headaches, the dizziness, the blurred vision, the insomnia, all of it will just stop. Hopefully.”

“Take one pill and your parents won’t ask you how you’re doing because you won’t know how you’re doing.”

“Take one pill and the doctors will stop asking you how you’re doing, too.”

“Your grades are slipping so take more doses, take more and more milligrams until you stop being such a problem to your mother—she’s working so hard. Maybe you’ll stop beating your brother up from your outbursts and anger, stop taking out all the bullying you’ve endured onto him. Maybe while the pill is wearing off, come home and you won’t slap him because he’s the only thing near you that doesn’t make you feel weak. Side effects may include absolute static.”

Hate yourself, hate your body, hate your brain. Stare at the walls of your room and not have the language to explain that all you want to do is scream, but the sound stays in your head. Hate your parents, hate your doctor and that fucking assistant, hate your brother, hate your family because no one thought to treat you with respect and just keeps expecting a guinea pig for ADHD medication who will be quiet and happy because she hasn’t said anything otherwise.

Adderall, Ritalin, all of them “didn’t work,” and I didn’t either, Mom.

Only sick people take medication, right, Mom?

Good girls don’t need medication.

Sabrina Clarke is a fiction writing student at Columbia College Chicago. Previously, she has won first place in the fiction category of the Skyway Writing Festival in 2016 and second place in nonfiction in 2017. She has been published three times in the literary magazine Horizons, and once before in Hair Trigger 2.0


Margaret Smith

Transitions of the Day


This existed in cocoons like igneous, like the before. I’ve never recorded in the now, only in

after thoughts, jeered by cursing myself for letting moments pass unaccounted.

Listen back, inward—follow the trachea’s trail. You won’t have to listen long to get the gist.

Don’t say “. . .but;” don’t say “. . .what if;” never say you’re “. . .scared.”

The sensitivity to light—the sensitivity I was born into—strengthens in the early hours

post-sleep, when I rub medicated lotion on my face and examine curvatures in the handheld


I call them precautions and cross my fingers.

I know how to deteriorate a body, but I only know how to hold it off for so long.

Let me focus on the big picture here, let me zoom out a little bit.

But instead I lock in on my torso, the skin no longer taut.

Not from babies birthed, or nourishment had.

But from sodium intake and sagging.

I allow the mirror to capture the two freckles at the tip of my lowest rib.

Milky light from the East windows emphasize areas of the physique that were once of concern, and now are rarely even mentioned to the one inside. Milky, I say—but not milky like white—milky like unpasteurized, like murky, like edgeless. And bountiful is the light, when I pinpoint it here and there, quickly, trying not to envision the whole.

I glance down at my balled toes as they slide in and out of the slotted window’s rays. The

ribbed light weaves flesh and the inherent glare of a morning, like pockets of oil on battered


Light can only show itself, forgoing the consumption of what it falls upon. But not me, no, I am consuming. Not me, no, I am consumption itself, and I am paying attention. I’m tracking the rays’ progression across the dining room. It comes in stages and disputes itself as it traverses a room.

Beginning: Morning light pierces, illuminating the white-lace window


Next: Sun casts from a cracked window, chaotic projections bounce

off of Mother’s faux-Renoir. It’s far from a straight entrance, too many

angles to consider. It moves rapidly here; contemplation over.

Next: In the passing hours it will shift across the table, which exists for

temporary guests; there it will command attention. A shame no one but I

will witness it.

Final: Now I’ve moved down here, under the table I’ve gone. And it’s searching

for me, its only witness to a long-standing, daily tradition. Here, despite

the table’s lofty shadow, a prism’s disbursement inches. I’m perched on

my tucked knees, sucked into my chest—a vacuum.

“I’m here,” I promise.

I extend an arm, then an index finger. I press it into the stray ray—into the deep-jade, illuminated

carpet—I slide the digit outward, beyond the table’s border. The sun, a yellow cast—will you

still stay with me when the healing is done?

This is a game. There are many. “Daughter fetches medicine on the hour.” “Mail the insurance

payment before the final notice.” “How quickly can you perform a sponge bath?” But there are


In my mother’s house I play child, I play servant, and she plays dying mother.

I want to ask to play another game.

She’s been eaten alive by illness and medications that cannot fix, only prolong. How could she let it happen? How can any one person stomach their own descent into frailty, then decrepitness, then death. I spend time accepting the transitions of the day, displacing my attention on the things that have to matter. I make them matter. I haven’t given time to grieve her partial death, I’m far too busy with everything else. That’s the thing really, it is partial death. But what makes up the remains—the living forty percent to the deceased sixty? It’s not life, it’s far too hollow to be. But she’s not all dead—but gone, yes.

In her chambers, curtains remain shut, windows remain blacked, and light remains absent.

She’s redacted the outside, shut out a necessity, tucked away illumination. She hides in those

chambers, too, just another game. But not me, no, it’s in the contrast of her dark room to my

illuminated everything that we each survive in this house differently.

Margaret Smith will complete her B.A. in Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago in Spring 2020. Her writing often revolves around nature and personal experiences, brought to the page in short, hybrid-like works. She is grateful for the opportunity to be published by Hair Trigger.