Myung Mi Kim

Civil Bound by Mi Kim is a collection of poetry that navigates the constraints of living in a colonized space from the perspective of a voice that deeply cares while closely experiencing the traumas that accompany historic oppression.


Reviewed by Kaitlyn L. Palmer  

Author of eight published works, Myung Mi Kim accelerates an exploration of civil agreements that are upheld through oppressive practices. Through a series of both visceral and concrete images, Kim recounts a history that spans from Korea and extends beyond the borders. Civil Bound is saturated in experiences that provoke sound, taste, smell, and touch. A journey that is painful, yet courageous in outcome. Kim allows space for a penetrating vulnerability to take place as she has presented a collection that teaches and grounds the reader.  

The opening of Myung Mi Kim’s collection, Civil Bound is action packed and entangled in violence and sound, the ocean holding up a snarling dog, is an example of a sound that magnifies the audience’s experience. Kim’s work focuses significantly on movement and place. Tackling the reality of servitude and slavery, there are multiple dimensions to each line.  

“Platform of moveable objects / for live spectacle / a link of people sorted – size, strength, age / hemisphere lust.” Reminiscent of the conditions leading or following a civil war, speaking intentional to colonization and the audacity of others to claim another’s land for theirs. Kim concludes with charmed forgery.  

Kim’s language is poetic, fitting of the form illustrated. There is a personal experience the reader encounters as Kim tells the story of colonization, migration, labor, and social contracts. “Glowing cults / scoured foundation / pledge to asunder.” There is a motion that depicts an uninvited invader, the entering of a people whose home this land is not.  

Kim consciously uses diverse perspectives. “1 pair of gloves / 3yds calico / whiskey / crackers / watch guard / 1 deck of cards.” Kim’s lines are bare, heightening the vulnerability experienced by the reader. Skillfully, the speaker does not beg for the attention deserved, rather, it announces itself with the poignancy of the content, as well as the manner in which it is articulated to the reader.  

Kim is unafraid to provide the reader with heavy, yet precise doses of the reality that the characters in Civil Bond endure. “If a species cannot find a sonic niche of its own, it will not survive.” Traveling to, “rifles at the ready, aimed / next to / distribution of ground corn.” There is a commonality that is striking about the characters within each piece. A thread that appears to bond them together.  

The idea of grief plays both conventionally as well as unconventionally in addition to an indirect and direct idea relating to the price of citizenship, specifically, American citizenship. The reader is left with a feeling of having traveled, discovered, and earned a right to civility.  


Publisher Info: 
Published by Omnidawn Publishing in October 2019
ISBN: 978-63242-071-7
93 pages


Melissa Lozada-Oliva

Lozada-Oliva Discusses her Projects and Survival Methods of Being a Young, Productive, Artist in our World’s Current Society.


Interview by Tracie Taylor

I came across the wonderfully funny, online presence of Melissa about two years ago on Instagram. I, an aspiring poet, was on the hunt for voices that were out in the poet community creating a life for themselves in any and all creative ways possible. Throughout these years of following her, I discovered she was in a band, created a podcast with a fellow poet, and still travelled to perform spoken word, all while pursuing her MFA.

 Melissa Lozada-Oliva is the author of Peluda (Button Poetry 2017) & the co-host of podcast Say More with Olivia Gatwood. Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Adroit JournalREMEZCLA, Kenyon Review, BBC Mundo, PAPER, Redivider, Huffington Post & more. You can follow her everywhere except in real life at @ellomelissa. 



My first question for you is: how do you keep up with it all? The constant (in my experience) pressure to create and make money for yourself. And if you find yourself not keeping up, how do you put yourself back on track?

 It’s hard! It’s very hard and I am historically horrible with money. I think I just developed a very ridiculous and objectively stupid life stance that “Everything Would Be Fine.” So far, it has been. But before it becomes fine, I have to work hard. In dire moments, I print out chapbooks and sell them via Instagram. Those help me buy groceries and make it until the next freelance check from a college comes in.  It can be awful but it has always been better than having a boss and pretending to have goals for “the good of the company” and being apart of a “family” & other ways that guilt you into ignoring your art & laboring for the Man. I’m a bad employee because I don’t believe in rules. They seem like a suggestion to me. When I am not keeping up, I usually break down, honestly. But those are also good moments because they help me reassess what I need to do. 


 Who/what are some of your creative inspirations? 

 I love ghost stories. I love horror. I hate how they make me feel but I respect them for doing that.

What is the process of publishing physical books like?

 It differs from publisher to publisher! In terms of chapbooks like Rude Girl is Lonely Girl or Plastic Pajaros that I did with Pizza Pi Press, I came to Jess Rizkallah and Cassandra de Alba with an idea and they were like, let’s do it! I am teaching myself indesign currently to release some spooky stories that I worked on with Jess. I’m having a lot of tantrums because I’m twelve and this shit is hard, but if you’re a poet or an artist of some type my advice is LEARN INDESIGN and then you will always have merchandise. I wouldn’t have been able to put those books together without Pizza Pi and their graphic design expertise and diligence. Also, with the chapbooks I’ve often collaborated with my friend Tiffany Mallery who is a prolific artist. I trust her with everything. Publishing hardback books the traditional way is a bit different. With Peluda, Button approached me after I had been on their channel for a while and they wanted to become a publishing house. That’s pretty rare & not how it usually is! I’ve been working on a new book (that I am going to keep top secret just for the case of appeal) for about two years and decided to try to find a different press. But in order to find a different press I had to go about finding an agent. It’s been difficult, honestly! I pitched to so many agents and got politely rejected a ton. One agent was like “these are love poems and I thought it would be more political and aggressive like Morgan Parker.” I was like . . . what? It’s been hard negotiating my “brand” with the sort of art I want to make. Love poems are political! Any way I ended up meeting my amazing agent at a party where we bonded over a cat, and now we’ve been working together and I am so so excited about what’s coming next. I guess my advice is always pet cats. 


Regarding your poetry, I know your book Peluda, published in 2017, was one of your first full publications, correct? How has that set forth your career as a spoken-word poet? Do you still feel a connection to your first publication or do you feel chained to it at all?

I still feel so proud of my book. I was working forty hours a week at a book store and writing that book on my days off. It has so much heart in it and so much need for perfection to not let a reader down. It’s also two years old and sometimes I look at that and I’m like “Okay . . . that’s corny.” I don’t feel chained to it, but I am definitely ready to show the world my new stuff. I also don’t think publishing Peluda was very traditional. Button Poetry approached me when they first became a publishing house after I had a bunch of videos on their Youtube channel. That’s not usually how it works, which is what I’m realizing now, trying to shop my new stuff around.



Your recently released chapbook, I’m Scared But I’ve Been Here Before, are poems about your dreams. Dreams are a piece of art within themselves, what inspired you to make them into concrete poems? 

All the dreams you see in the chapbook are basically as they were recorded in my iPhone notes. I think just writing them down changes their initial form. Like, once I write them down they’re poems. They looked so specifically bare and vulnerable on the iPhone lay out that I felt like . . . moved? So moved that I posted it to my Instagram page. I also had this weird constraint where I had to fit it into the Instagram box, so that involved a lot of cutting and rearranging of the dreams. Maybe I’m fucking with the cosmos by sharing my brain clouds, but it’s very fun for me.


I notice you incorporate humor into a lot of your projects, how has your niche for humor shaped you as an artist?

I think humor is always in conversation with any other mood. It can provide a sense of relief but it can also open a reader up to hearing something more intense/serious later on. My friend Hieu Minh Nguyen wrote a thesis called “Trust Me, I’m Funny” where he talks about how using humor in poetry is away of establishing intimacy with the reader. So, like, later on when you’re getting in the feels the reader is like, “Oh my god . . . My friend . . .  the buddy who just made me laugh . . . .”


I moved to Chicago for the exposure in poetry and opportunities in general, it’s been an overwhelming transition. As a young creative in NYC, how has living in a big city shaped you as a writer?

It’s shaped me a bunch! I feel forever grateful toward the community I came up in, in Boston, and also knew that at some point it wasn’t helping me grow anymore. When I moved to New York, I knew a lot would change in the way I did everything and that scared me. Not to be that bitch who is like, “The thing about New York is” but the thing about New York is that everybody is hungry to show you what they’ve got. I started doing more shows here in general. I’m on comedy or variety shows a lot more now and it pushes me to do new stuff. I’ve just had so many more opportunities here and a lot of that involves being exposed to outta control art that I wouldn’t have before. The other thing about New York is I’m taking up space here while following my artistic heart. I’m responsible for changing the neighborhood even if I’m a person of color. So I guess I’m still figuring out what it means for me to love it here, you know ? I also feel lucky that I can pay the rent with this job I have that makes no sense, and also feel lucky that I’m stupid enough to pretend my student loans aren’t real.

TT-Im scared but.pngTT-Im scared but.png


Do you plan to stick to writing just poems? 

 Hell no! I’m working on a YA novel and a pilot and some other stuff. What I’ve learned, however, is poetry has absolutely destroyed any sense I’ve ever had on using punctuation. Like how do you write a sentence like ??


You too are an MFA student, and I feel like in this day and age, there’s a lot of skepticism in pursuing an MFA. What are you studying and how do you feel it benefits you or hinders you (if it does) as a writer?

 So, yeah! I’m getting my MFA in poetry at NYU. I definitely wouldn’t have written this current book I’m working on without my MFA, but maybe, also, without New York. But maybe, also, without growing older and reading more and more life experience? MFA is cool when you’re fully funded (I’m not) and MFA is cool when your famous teachers have time to actually, like, give you an assignment. I guess it’s taught me discipline, but I also read and write all the time by myself because I am mortally taxed. Anyway, I went part time so that I wouldn’t have to take out any more loans (I literally exceeded my limit, O.K.) and so I could have health insurance. What I’ve loved the most out of it are the people I’ve met. They’re incredible and sensitive and funny and laugh easily. When I wasn’t in a workshop last semester, some fellow students (specifically of color) and I got together once a week and read poems to each other while drinking wine and eating dinner. It was perfect. It was like, oh, right, we are all friends who love words this much. It was like, oh, actually, maybe it’s all about trying your best to impress your friends in one room for as long as you’ve got.

Paperback: 60 pages
Publisher: Button Poetry (September 26, 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9781943735242
ISBN-13: 978-1943735242

Tags: Melissa Lozada-Oliva, interview, poet, podcast, artist, lifestyle, NYC, peluda, writer, humor

Book Reviews

Anne Valente

The Desert Sky Before Us


Review by Gabriela V. Everett

Award-winning author Anne Valente is not afraid to confront the aches of life; her novels explore tragedy on both personal and social scales. The Desert Sky Before Us follows two sisters, Rhiannon and Billie — a former race car driver and arsonist —who take to the highways in a journey to scatter their mother’s ashes in Utah. Their mother, having passed away three months before Billie’s release, leaves them instructions and geographic coordinates to visit as they travel, leaving clues as to her motivation for sending them on their trip.

The book opens with Rhiannon in her Mustang, waiting for Billie to be released from Decatur Correctional Facility. It is both the aftermath of loss and the start of reconnection, as Rhiannon has not seen Billie in six years. Valente creates a pensive mood as former correctional inmates wait for rides that may never come to homes they no longer know — all while Rhiannon drifts in and out of how her sister has been changed by her incarceration.

 Various documents bookend chapters: notes on nature preserves, an interview with Rhiannon after a NASCAR race, and articles questioning a string of mysterious plane crashes. These snippets highlight the emotional nuance Valente uses in her work, and it reads akin to poetry.

 Forgiveness comes to the forefront of the work, and the distance between Rhiannon and Billie is summed up: “Rhiannon knows the word sorry will never find its way from Billie’s throat. . . .” In pursuit of closure regarding their mother’s death, they equally face the same concerning themselves and their truths.

 Valente writes with a prose-like structure, crafting lines that bite: “He could turn away. Go home. Call her ugly. Call her worse.”

 Her style generates an atmosphere of disconnect for the characters — fitting, given they have all been separated for long periods. Dialogue exists without quotations, similar to a description or recollection. It emphasizes their slow-to-heal journey, and by the end of the book, the sisters find a quiet unity.

 These characters are lovingly flawed; they are human, motivated by their desires and occasionally hurting each other with their drive. They are sketches of people you could encounter in a coffee shop — real, trying their best to reconstruct their lives and stay afloat in a world that offers more questions than answers.

The Desert Sky Before Us is a hybrid. Its form allows room for large metaphors and reader interpretation and makes you hunt for answers, much like Rhiannon and Billie as they scavenge for their mother’s clues on the road. The book is not a handbook or simple slice of life but a peek into the endurance it takes to find peace after you have been aching alone.

Published by Harper Collins
ISBN: 9781432865658
545 pages


Table of Contents

Fall Issue, Volume 43


David Friedman Award

The David Friedman Award offers a cash prize to the best story or essay published in Hair Trigger each year. Our thanks go to David Friedman’s family, who established this fund in fall 2002 as a memorial to their son, a talented writer and painter, as well as an alumnus of Columbia College Chicago and a great friend to the English & Creative Writing Department—Fiction Program’s students and faculty.

Congratulations to Nia Tipton for her story, “Bones of Before,” the 2021 winner of the David Friedman Award.


Aurora Hattendorf

Our Little Secret

Zoe Elerby

Rainna Rosa Venniquin

Andie Eiram

How to Walk Away from Someone You Think You’d Die Without

Nick Warrington

The Icicle

Emma Dailey Mitchell

Uncle Jack

Maria Kowal


Gregory Kucera

Party of One

Danielle Hirschhorn

Wore Me Out

Asher Witkin

A Strange Sort of Company

Deanna Whitlow

The Graceless Haze

Alison Brackett

Pushing Daises

Kendra Y. Mims-Applewhite

What Comes After

Victoria Barney

The Last Shift

Alexis Berry

As Daughters, We Learn


Aurora Hattendorf

Our Little Secret


I didn’t know she was dead the first time I saw her.

It was my first day at Credence High School. I had gone the whole morning trying to shake out all my nerves by folding origami animals from my notes. I was folding a butterfly while our teacher lectured on about physics. She angled herself toward the whiteboard, writing formulas with a squeaky red marker.

When I was in third grade, a boy in my class died from a bee sting. They brought in a pastel-clothed counselor with earrings I wanted to pull on. She taught us songs and art projects and how to fold origami butterflies. I didn’t know that the butterflies were born only because a peer of mine had died. I never forgot how to make them. I continued learning different ways to fold. 

I was creasing the wing when I heard her singing. It was the kind of singing you do when you think none of your family can hear, but not loud enough to gather an audience. The song itself bordered on the edge of familiarity. I couldn’t place a name to it, but I recognized the melody as something my mother used to play on her odd days. I couldn’t pull my attention away. I waited for the teacher to turn around and yell at the distraction, but she didn’t. She kept writing and everyone continued to scribble after her.

I paused my origami and turned around in my desk.  She had perched herself on one of the lab tables, swinging her legs like a kid. Her short, dark hair framed her face gently, and a baby blue dress fell to her knees. Her skin was pale, but her cheeks bloomed, as did the tip of her sloped nose. I couldn’t help but stare—she seemed out of place. I felt a kinship instantly.

“Puck,” the teacher said. “Face forward, please.”

The teacher, a large woman who went by Ms. Hobner, turned back to the board.

“What about her?” I asked.

Ms. Hobner capped her marker and spun back again.

I stabbed my thumb over my shoulder. “Why’s she get to sit on the table and sing and we’ve all got to sit in these desks and rot?”

“Rot?” she repeated.

Everyone around me had turned to look at the girl. They started to whisper.

“All right,” Ms. Hobner said, striding to her desk and ripping a pink slip from her organized mess. “If you want to pick up the role of class clown on your first day with me, then you’ve got to explain that to the dean.”

I scrunched my eyebrows and scoffed as Ms. Hobner wobbled down the aisle of desks toward me.

“You see someone?” a boy asked, leaning across the aisle that separated us. 

“She’s sitting—” I swiveled around and stared at the spot where she had been. It was unoccupied. I wondered how she could have crossed the room to slip out the door without anyone noticing. I also wondered if I had seen something I hadn’t been meant to, but then Ms. Hobner slapped the slip on my desk. By the end of the period, I had folded it into a butterfly.

Every night, when I’d lie down to sleep, I’d expect to become an animal in my dreams.

I always hoped that when I shut my eyes and let my consciousness float off, that I’d be something else. I watched a lot of nature documentaries. When I was in middle school I subscribed to the National Geographic magazine. I would sneak to the mailbox and grab my copy before my mom found out. I canceled my subscription after she died.

The previous night I had a dream that I was a fox and had slipped into water. I was floating, dragged along by the undercurrents of the ocean. When I looked around me, all I saw was a foggy blue. There was no above and no below. I felt terror, and yet peace. 

“I don’t think you saw the ghost,” Chris told me. 

He insisted on sitting outside on the grass during our lunch hour because he felt cramped being inside for too long. I wouldn’t have minded if it hadn’t been the dead of winter in Montana. According to Chris, students loved coming out to sit in the grass. I found this funny, because the two of us were the only maniacs on the frosted ground. I wore my ochre-yellow parka with my scarf wrapped around my throat, but I still curled into myself for warmth.

Chris was my boyfriend. I met him months before my mom and I took a trip to Montana to visit my uncle. This was her old hometown where she grew up. Before my dad remarried and moved to the East Coast, he told me that Mom left Montana because of an incident with her then boyfriend. When I tried to ask about it she would get hostile and reclusive. On the two times we had visited Montana in my upbringing, she always seemed tortured. 

Chris and I had kept in contact through messaging all summer. We had a lot more to talk about through text. Being with him in person was already different and disappointing. It was like he had emerged from a cocoon I hadn’t known he was building, and he hadn’t told me he was becoming a moth. Not being around someone in person can aid in sculpting them into whoever you want them to be. 

I pressed the side of my pencil against the drawing on my lap. I tried to draw animals as exact as I could get them—fur texture and everything. Trying to learn something with my eyes and feeding it to my hands was proving difficult. 

I caught my reflection in the long windows along the side of the building. My long, red hair frizzed from my parka’s static. My straight bangs were a bit frazzled, but I lifted a gloved hand to smooth them. This only made them worse. My face, as well, was too young and too freckled.

“Did I tell you about how this place’s supposed to be haunted? Or did somebody else?” Chris asked.

I looked up, smacking the eraser end of my pencil against the pad of paper. “No. Nobody said anything to me. And what’s it matter?”

“I don’t believe in life after death,” he said, catching me off guard. “When you die, you fall into nothing. Like falling asleep.”

“You dream when you’re asleep,” I said.

“Not always.”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek and looked back down to my miserable hedgehog. I needed a reference photo. I pulled my phone from my back pocket.

“What do you believe in, anyway?” he asked. 

I plugged “hedgehog paws” into the search bar. I stared at the spinning blue circle. One by one, hedgehogs popped onto my screen.


I looked up and tilted my screen away from him. “Hm?”

“What do you believe in?”

And then, from across the stretch of grass, I saw her. I could feel my pupils expand. It felt strange, but what was even stranger was that she was standing right there. Blue dress waving at her knees, white socks peeking at her ankles. The petals of her Peter Pan collar bloomed outward like the moon had been cracked in half and set at her throat. 

I flipped my sketchbook shut, determined. I zipped my backpack and shrugged it over my shoulder, feeling my books jam into my back. I marched across the crunching grass toward her, leaving Chris with no hesitation. 

“Oh, okay. See you later,” he mumbled.

She stumbled backward, faltering around the corner of the brick building. I looped around and stopped in front of her, halting in shadow. I thought that she seemed gentle and pure—like a dove. Maybe a mourning dove. Her doe eyes blinked at me, startled and unsure, and then I threw my backpack at her.

She didn’t duck. The backpack went sailing straight through her. It was like her image had been projected onto the molecules in the air. My backpack slouched over in the hard dirt, defeated. 

“What the fuck,” I panted.

“You¾you can see me,” she breathed. Her voice was high and smooth. I didn’t expect that to come out of her, but I guess she didn’t expect my backpack to come hurtling at her either.

She squeezed her eyes shut, and her mouth tugged delicately into a smile. She drew in a breath and then leapt in the air, throwing her arms up. She squealed, spinning on the spot. 

“You can see me!” she cried. “Oh my God! You can see me!”

“Why did my backpack—how did—why is everyone saying you’re a ghost?”

“Well,” she huffed, jumping to a spot. She extended her hand to me, pale and small. “For starters . . . I’m Bonnie. Bonnie Rutherford. It was 1980 in the south fire escape.” She gazed upward. It seemed that what she was looking for was in the clouds. “. . . And you can see me! Nobody’s been able to see me before. Sometimes they can feel my presence or catch a shiver but . . . well, anyhow!” She laughed, chime-like, and faltered forward a bit with the force of it, the skin around her eyes crinkling. “Now, I’m still here because of all the unfinished business stuff. Sorry—this is just so exciting!” 

I looked over her shoulder and saw two people come bursting out a side door, clamoring up against the brick wall. Bonnie gasped, stumbling forward to grasp my wrist. I snapped my eyes back to her.

“Maybe you can help me with my unfinished business!” she cried. This has got to mean something, right?”

The guy pinned the girl’s hands above her head, kissing her neck against the brick wall. I wrinkled my nose and looked back at Bonnie who had clasped her hands together under her chin in a gleeful squeeze.

“Do you want to be friends?” she asked.

“Fuck off,” I spat.

I scooped my backpack off the frosted ground and made my way back to the front of the building. I steered clear of Chris, sitting in the cold like a penguin, and pushed into the cafeteria. I found an empty table and sat alone, slowly shredding a paper napkin and trying to slow my throbbing heart until the bell rang.


After school, I went straight to my part-time job. I managed to snag a cashiering position at White Fox, the closest grocery. I got the job when I first moved so that I’d have an excuse to spend more time away from my uncle’s house. He was a quiet man, and kind too, but his being my mom’s brother, kept trying to flesh out all these things I’d spent so much time pushing back. He offered to let me borrow his truck so I could drive to and from my job, but I hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car since my mom decided it seemed a comfortable place to die.

I rang people through my checkout line with the right amount of exhaustingly polite small talk. Most customers would have the tendency to stand in silence and pretend to be fascinated with promotional posters or the sale flyer. Toward the end of my shift, a female duo threw a frozen bag of fries and a jar of salsa on the belt. As I scanned it through, one of the girls said, “It’s salsa-fry night. You ever tried fries with salsa?”

I looked up. She was addressing me.

“Oh,” I faltered. “Uh, no. I haven’t.”

“It’s, like, our thing,” she continued, dissolving into giggles when her friend elbowed her in embarrassment. “Fries and salsa. Salty and spicy, right? Kind of weird, but it’s our thing.”

I didn’t say anything, but stand there and gaze over toward the frozen aisle. As she poked at the card reader, she said aloud, “But all best friends have something weird about them, right? Like their own quirk.”

After they grabbed their bags and left through the automatic door, their interaction lingered. Not quite parasitic, but more of a persistent nibbling. I rang up a few other customers, but I couldn’t stop tapping my foot. Something bled through my gut, although I tried not to allow it. Accompanying this were blips of Bonnie—bright-eyed when she realized I could see her, her hand shooting out like a striking snake to grasp my wrist, her blue-eyed blink when we had both come to halt beside the building.

I ripped off a generous amount of receipt paper and began to fold it into a bird. My anxious heartbeat throbbed through my ears, thwacking against my eardrums, as I folded the tail and wing over themselves a couple times to give an accordion effect. 

It looked like a dove. It reminded me of the ghost—of Bonnie.

I drummed my fingers against the scale of the register. I flipped the light off and collected my bus fare and coat. After I punched out and ignored the dumbfounded shouts from my manager, I shrugged my coat on and slipped out White Fox’s automatic door.

I boarded the bus that was meant to take me back to my uncle’s, but I couldn’t stop bouncing my leg or chewing on the dry bits of my bottom lip.

I leaned against the window and watched as streetlights blew past. I was tired of following rules. Everything brought me dissatisfaction. 

I got off a few stops earlier than I should’ve, walking for a block before I found myself in front of Credence High School. All the windows were black with abandon. 

I ran across the grass, feeling watched in the darkness. The building towered over me and I imagined it coming alive and crushing me like a real-life whack-a-mole. I pushed against the front doors, the bar compressing but not opening. Locked. 

I leapt down the concrete steps and hurried along the side of the building. I tried pushing the windows up until, finally, one around the back gave under my push. With a startling, loud scrape, the window slid up and stayed. Counting to three, I jumped up, pitching forward through the window much faster than I expected. I tumbled inside, knocking into a desk and causing sound to explode throughout the room. 

I rolled onto my back, splayed like a defeated starfish, and heaved for air. I slapped my hand against my forehead and closed my eyes. What are you doing, Puck?


I looked up and saw Bonnie, perched on the edge of a desk. I groaned in pain and pushed myself up.

“I was watching you race around and squeak your hands against the windows. Took me a minute to realize what you were trying to do.”

“Then why,” I panted, “didn’t you let me in?”

She stuck her button nose up. “Why would I?”

I remembered my parting words to her in the yard. I never considered myself the type of person to sincerely tell someone to fuck off. But I never considered myself to be the person to trespass in their high school at night by diving through a window, and yet there I was.

“Look, I’m sorry about earlier,” I sighed. I leaned against the wall next to the open window, cupping my throbbing elbow. “I shouldn’t have told you to fuck off. I’m Puck by the way.”

Bonnie eyed me before the corner of her mouth tugged up. “Puck,” she echoed, my name popping on her lips. “You’re an oddball. Who breaks into their school to issue an apology?”

“The same person who talks to ghosts.”

Then, she smiled. It made her eyes crinkle and cheeks bunch up. Her dark, pixie cut hair flounced as she swiveled and leapt from the desk, landing before me. “Well, then. It’s nice to meet you, friend.”

She held her hand out to me. 

“What was it you said earlier—about helping you?”

“Oh, my unfinished business!” she breathed. “Yeah, come on! Let’s go.”

I grasped her hand, not expecting her to be solid. I drew in a quick breath, looking down at our clasped hands. She tugged me along, solid in our connection, but lucent in form. 

And that was how the strangest night of my life began. With holding the hand of a ghost.


“Welcome to ‘Ask Bonnie,’” Bonnie said, lying flat on her back along the diving board. She folded her pale hands behind her head and crossed her ankles. “Don’t be shy.”

We had taken to the pool. With a flip of a switch, the dark water had lit up like it was filled with the liquid from glow sticks. The ripples that broke the surface when no one had touched it enticed me so much that I couldn’t resist.

“Well, how about this,” I panted, standing at the edge in bra and boy short underpants. “Why are you here, Bonnie? Why Credence? Why not the mall or . . . Africa?” I padded up in my bare feet to the edge of the deep end. The underwater lights acted like lamps, turning the bare bits of my skin a wavy blue and yellow. “Why stay in a stupid high school?”

Bonnie, relaxing atop the highest board, turned onto her side. She supported her head with her palm, her elbow like a camera tripod. “Why do people stay anywhere? It’s familiar territory. The illusion of home.”

I looked up at her, clutching my arms around myself. “Are you actually dead?”

Bonnie laughed aloud, a high but throaty sound. I hadn’t heard anyone laugh like that in so long I had forgotten what it was like, to hear someone laugh; I mean, really laugh. She flopped over onto her stomach, gripping the edge of the board. It bobbed with her movement. 

“You threw a backpack through me,” she said. “Unless I have superpowers, I’d say you’re probably right.”

I gazed toward the ceiling beams. The movement of the water continued to wave glowing globs around at everything. But the diving board blocked Bonnie from the light.

“How did you die?” I asked her.

After a few bobs of the board, she popped herself into a sitting position. Her thin legs hung off the edge, dangling. She continued to grip the sides like she was afraid of falling. 

“I was running up the fire escape stairs to get to the second floor,” she explained. “I have this twin brother, Thomas. But I called him Thom-ato. He hated it.” I smiled, and she paused. “He wrote in a notebook about how this teacher was a bitch. I think he drew a really crude picture as well—I can’t remember. Being his sister obligated me to be annoying and show the lady his drawing of her, you know? Well, he ran up a different way and got there before me. The door at the top flew open just as I reached for it. All I remember from this moment was this huge sound—like a gunshot. Ya know, like, just this bang! And then I fell back, down the stairs, and all I know is that I was weightless. And then . . . I was nothing.”

I was watching the waves of the water. On the bottom, there were stripes painted. Maybe this was to show swimmers where the bottom was—to prevent them from going too far. The water lapped against the grates on the sides of the pool to prevent overflowing. I stood on a grate, feeling it gush over my feet.

“It was an accident,” she continued. “How was he supposed to know what would happen? My parents ended up disowning him. He and his girlfriend split. They were together for awhile. But after that . . .” she drummed her fingers along the side of the board. “I forgive him, but I don’t know if he ever forgave himself.”

“And that’s your unfinished business?” I asked. “To give him closure?”

“I can’t bring myself to go and see him alone,” she said. “I don’t know how to communicate with him. He’s not open to me. It’s like he’s blocked off from me. He must blame himself.”

“If my actions resulted in the death of someone I loved, I’d blame myself too.”

“Yeah, well,” Bonnie scoffed. “I’ve never loved.”

I pulled a hair tie from my wrist and used it to twist my red mane up into a bun.

“Come on,” I said. “First you tell me you’re a ghost, and now you’re telling me you’ve never loved?”

Bonnie laughed defensively. “I distanced myself from people. If you keep your distance, you keep your heart. Of course I regret it now, but how was I supposed to know when I’d go? I thought I had my whole life ahead of me.

“But now I need help with my unfinished business. I’ve got to give my brother closure.” She smiled. “Once completed, I’ll be free.”

“I think you should suffer a little longer,” I teased. “Thirty years might not be long enough for someone who never let themselves love others.”

She laughed again, the sound echoing. She pushed herself into a standing position, the board rocking. “All right, you know what? You’ve got to keep that part our little secret.”

I made a zipping motion with my lips and flicked the zipper into the water. Bonnie stepped off the board and plummeted down into the glowing water. When she pierced the water, it didn’t react. When she bobbed to the surface, her pixie cut was maintained and dry. 

I leapt in, sound muffling and tumbling as I submerged. The water lapsed around me, pressing into my skin and blurring my vision. Tiny bubbles rose from my nostrils, I blinked, and then she was right in front of me. Dry, not affected by the wetness. She laughed, but the sound became muffled with the density of the water. 

Excited by this bit of reality, feeling like it was unreality, something lightened in my stomach. Sensing this, Bonnie pushed her hand out toward me. Her palm knocked gingerly into the center of my chest, and I felt her skin as it connected.

When we both broke the surface, I asked her, “Have you ever seen someone fold origami animals out of napkins?” 

Part II forthcoming in the Winter Issue


Aurora Hattendorf grew up in the small town of Elgin, Illinois before attending Columbia College Chicago. They’ve never been previously published.



Zoe Elerby

Rainna Rosa Venniquin



Age: 15

            Race: Mixed
     Ethnicity: Mixed Latinx
            Diagnosis: Generalized anxiety, Oppositional Defiant Disorder
            Therapist: Tiana Kendra

Disclaimer: This journal is part of a therapeutic method conducted by Dr. Kendra to analyze internalized patterns within the patient. The goal is for the patient to be able to discuss these patterns in what they should eventually identify as a safe space, addressing triggering circumstances outside of said setting with the assigned therapist. 

Fuck you. This is the first day. 

I guess I gotta use you to vent right? Let out my feelins’ instead of breaking someone’s nose or cuttin’ up my skin. Some shit like that . . . right?

This whole thing’s dumb to me. I don’t keep memory stuff, that’s Skittles’ jam. He’s got all the baby photos and videos, he even fuckin’ scans ’em. I guess that’s cute. He’s gotta keep track of all our legal documents anyway, our birth certificates and prescriptions and shit, ‘cause Mama’s ghost possessed his heart or somethin’. Makes him work until he knocks out. 

Orale! Y tu desde cuando trabajas tanto?  Tha’s what Ms. LuLu says to him when he’s packin’ us into the van. He just gives her that big, cheesy grin with Mama’s dimples, runs a hand through his thick dyed locks and says, “No hay bronca, Señora, like always. “Just keepin’ these foo’s away from the riff raff.” 

No me diga! Those four are the riff raff. . . .” Pinche vieja. She don’t know shit. She visited a handful a’ times. Literally, all five times Daddy gave Mama a ‘special’ Christmas or birthday present and made another one of us.  

Rocky and I were a package deal though. Pistolas Gemelas, watch out for the Venniquin Twin Pistols. Nobody fucks with us. . . .

I’m losin’ it. Diaries are dumb. With four older brothers, one of ’em bein’ a goddamn snitch-shit, all of ’em bein’ goddamn snitches—you can guess how well that goes, Doc. I tried to keep one, pinche ratero Rocky would find it and tell Skittles. Then Skittles’d make me sit down on the fuckin’ couch and be all like, “Oh, Rain Drop, you can talk to me. Want a veggie straw?” NO, I don’t want a goddamn veggie straw.

Sorry. That was mean. Skittles, if you’re readin’ this, I’m sorry. Love you.

Aight, let’s see, why am I writing in you now? Skittles told me to start ’cause I started yellin’ at . . . um . . . I don’t know. I guess I just felt like yellin’. He doesn’t get it, he’s different like that. When he gets upset, he keeps it in, which is exactly what Doc said not to do. But he tries to keep up that goofy-ass smile, so we don’t feel like freaks. Too late, I guess.

I wanna hit bitches. I wanna hit walls too, but god, do I wanna rip out some hair and fill my nails with blood and makeup. Stupid bitches. Stanky bitches. Rude-ass, no respect-havin’, dick-ridin’, man-stealing bitches. I hate bitches. Rocky says not to hit ’em, just bust up their rides, but I’m like, what good is that? Their daddies are just gonna buy ’em new ones. New fuckin’ shiny cars they don’t even drive, they just ride dick in ’em. ’Specially that stupid bitch Maria. 

He likes breakin’ cars. He used to be in little league or some shit. Softball, I think, and Dad got him a shiny metal bat, but he got kicked off tha team ’cause he went ahead and tried to rip the umpire’s eyes out. She had it comin’, that kid aimed right for Rocky’s goddamn head. I woulda torn her to shreds too. Bust ’er head open and dirty up the sand. 

I just wanna hit something, I wanna hit something real bad, no, I wanna hit somebody, hit somebody real bad. Imma sneak out the window with Rocky’s bat. Maria’s fuckin’ with my head again. Stupid bitch. . . . 


11/13/2015, 6:30 p.m.

I broke Maria’s nose. All up on her trash bag dress. Pinche fresa. 

This week at lunch, she was tryna tell me that I wasn’t really Mexican ’cause I look like Wonder bread. I know I look like Wonder bread, bitch, who the fuck you think I see in the mirror every day? She seen my brothers, she’s heard me talkin’, just Mama’s printer ran outta ink, ya got it? She keeps ’er mouth shut when she see me on the beach though, probably doesn’t even know it’s me. Or she’s too fuckin’ scared. 

Last time she tried to say somethin’ ’bout my skin, Rocky tipped over the Porta-Potty at the Latino Pride festival with her in it. Fresa came out covered in all the shit that comes out her mouth. Orion (“Orio”) wanted to run before we got our asses beat, but we just stood there laughin’. She wasn’t gonna do nothin’, ’specially with us there. Her lil’ cholo boyfriend fucked with Orio all the time until X messed him up before graduation. Right before they walked.  He didn’t walk ’cause of that but no one fucked with Orio for a while after that. That wasn’t about to change with us, La Pistolas Gemelas. Soon as X left school, we were walkin’ in. No one was about to touch our lil’ big brother any time soon. 

I’m tired of Maria. I’m tired of her little manipulatin’ games, and tryna make me feel like shit. She preys on the weak like a vulture and stays as naked as one. She ain’t the hotshot she wanna be. She’s a fuckin’ clown. 


11/13/2015, 7:00 p.m.

Rocky put me in a headlock until I gave him his bat. He wasn’t mad, he was actually laughin’.

No mames! You can’t be goin’ around doin’ shit like that, Rain Drop.” He slung an arm around my shoulders, poking me in the chest. “Ya gotta hit ’er where it hurts—”

“I did.” 

“No, nah, nah, nah. . . .” He chuckled, that little squeak squeezin’ out his throat. He jostled me around a lil’ bit, pointing at our fancy-ass standin’ mirror, shiny gems punctured on the sides by my stud gun. He’s just as pale as me, ’cept he goes out a lot more, fucks around in the sun when Poughkeepsie gives it to us. Our eyes are gray durin’ overcast, we’re the same height minus my boots and his torn-up sneakers. We smile like Daddy did, we got his eyes too, that light brown that makes coffee jealous. Damn, we’re pretty as hell. 

 “You gotta hit ’er right in the wallet.” He slid his arms up to wrap around my neck again. “Wounds heal, but you gotta buy a whole new wallet. . . . ” 

I stared at the both of us in the mirror, the sides of my mouth curling in sync with his. I shoved him in the chest to get out of his headlock and picked up his bat from beside my dresser. 

Me puedes hacer un paro?

“Yeah, anythin’.” 

“I get to punch ’er at least once.” 

Rocky shoved me so I’d lose balance, almost colliding with our mirror, but I grabbed him by the hood and threw him into the window. He tried to kick me from behind, but I grabbed him by the ankle, letting him fall on the ground. We both snorted and started laughin’ like it was the funniest shit in the world. 

After X yelled at us to be quiet, me n’ Rock went out to go bust up Maria’s car and spray paint the Puerto Rican flag on it. He had the idea to write: “I love the U.S.A!” under it. X was on the couch with frozen peas on his head and mumbled that she’s gonna skin us alive, but he was smilin’. He knows she’s gonna send her lil’ gringas after me. She’s gonna send fuckin’ Adriana after me. Adriana. Just ’cause she big doesn’t mean she can whoop my ass. She was standing there when I was beatin’ in Sofia Lucia’s big fuckin’ nine-head and didn’t do shit. Just stood there. No seas gacho, pendeja. Have a lil’ fun. But she won’t hit me. Pinche Adriana. . . .

When we got back, Skittles was upset. I know because he opened the door and gave me that sad smile. 

Qué onda, carnal? Cómo estás? Rocky was tryna get soft with him, but it wasn’t workin’. Skittles’ eyes were set on me, big baby cow eyes that would make any whiny bitch burst into tears.

Es neta?” His voice was low and quiet. “You gotta be doin’ this to piss me off on purpose, yeh?”

I scratched the back of my head and looked down at the floor. “She was askin’ for it . . .”

She? Who?”

I didn’t say anythin’.

He sat me down on the couch and told me to write some more, instead of sneaking out the window and messin’ with stuff. I told him again, she was askin’ for it, he said she wasn’t even in eyeshot, I just went lookin’ for a problem. I mean, yeah, but she’s been askin’ for it.

He didn’t wanna go back and forth with me, so he just sighed, put his hand on my head and said, “No hay bronca, Rain Drop.”  

He’s got this way of making me feel guilty. It’s not really the same as the way Mama or Dad would, it was a cocktail of both with . . . a sprinkle of Skittles, I guess. 



I hate this fucking school. I hate the fuckin’ teachers, the dumbass students, and the shitty dances. How’d X n’ Skittles deal with four years of this? 

Adrianna didn’t learn a damn thing when I fucked with her queen bee, I guess. Rocky n’ me were going to the cafe to meet Nathalie, his felpa princessa, so we could share a chemistry cheat sheet when we heard a slam against the lockers and laughin’. My gut feelin’ told me it wasn’t just any stupid fight, so I sped up my stride a lil’ bit. 

Adrianna was up against Nathalie like some sorta pitbull cornerin’ a squirrel. My heart sank when I saw Nat cryin’, poor thing’s makeup runnin’ down her cheeks. I usually help her put it on, ‘cause she don’t know how, she’s real shy about lookin’ pretty like that at school because of . . . this. 

Before I could do anything, Rocky was already on her. He yanked her weave back and slammed her into the ground like she weighed nothin’, then stood in front of his girl with his teeth bared and chest heaving. 

Oye, cabrona! I screamed when I snapped out of my trance. Watchin’ Rocky do that is like seeing a shooting star, and my wish was to get into whatever trouble he was about to get into. I kicked her in the head and her gringas tried grabbin’ me by the arms, but I slung ’em off. When Adrianna got up, she started spittin’ words like the devil possessed her. She did everything she could to insult Nathalie, callin’ her the n-word, callin’ her a fag, callin’ her slur after slur after slur until I felt my nails get wet with her blood. 

Nathalie is like the sister I never had. She loves Rocky in a way that can only be compared to Mom and Dad. They’ve been together since sixth-grade, which is cute as hell I think, and they were best friends even before then. Nat is family, she’s even picked up some Spanish so she can yell at Rocky when he’s bein’ stupid. 

I didn’t mean to puncture skin, I guess it was kinda instinct. Keep my family out’cha mouth. I didn’t do crazy damage because Mrs. Rodriguez, my school counselor, yanked me off.

Rainna! Qué está pasando aquí?!

“She called Nathalie the n-word!” I sounded like a little kid bein’ a tattle-tale. “Then she said she was a man, she said she was a fuckin’ man! Aquí, look at this dumb bitch!”

“You tryna tell me that skirt-wearing fag ain’t a man?!”

Chinga tu madre!” I spit on the ground in front of her and got my teeth knocked in while in Mrs. Rodriguez’s arms. She immediately let go of me, letting me fall on my knees and cover my mouth. I felt the heat of her hover over me, tryna tell me it was okay, they were just words, but when I looked up, all I saw was Adrianna’s wicked fuckin’ face. 

The hit stung, but the pain couldn’t be nearly as close to my leather boot in Adrianna’s crotch. When she stumbled, I kneed her in the mouth and started hitting her again. I didn’t care if I ripped hair out, I didn’t care if she broke my nose, I didn’t care what she did to me. She’s part of a little band of terrorists that fuck with the gay kids and shy, pretty Latinas, and I’ve had enough. This school is my territory now, her lease has expired.

X went off on me when I got back home with Skittles. The two of ’em bein’ the oldest are our legal guardians. Skittles sweet talkin’ child services like they was old friends. But X is another story. If Skittles is the sweetness, X is the poison. 

“The fuck is wrong wit’ ’chu?!”

“You woulda done the same damn thing if you saw it! She was cryin’ and everything!”

“It’s none of my business!” 

“Yeah, right, so you beatin’ up Manuel and Chris wasn’t you tryna get revenge for your gay little brother, eh? You’re so full of shit!” 

“It ain’t your job to protect anyone, that’s mine.” 

“I wasn’t about to wait for you to drive up there so you could kick her ass, nah, nah, wey. My sister, my fight.” 

X gritted his teeth so hard I thought they were gonna shatter. He ran a hand through his hair and exhaled. “Is therapy even working for you? Do we need to put you on fuckin’ sedatives or somethin’?”

“Why don’t I just grab some pills from your junky whore and take a load off then?” 

He grabbed me by the shirt. “Watch it . . .”

I spit in his face, and he threw me against the wall. “I’ll fuckin’ kill you!”

Oye!” Skittles got in between us and dragged me upstairs. His eyes were bloodshot, bags sinkin’ in his pretty eyes like he just got punched by exhaustion. “Both a’ you stop! X, if anyone needs a sedative, it’s you, go smoke some weed. Rain—” He didn’t even turn to look at me. “Jus’ go to your room. . . .” 

I swallowed hard and dug my nails into my palms, the same nails that scratched up Adrianna. But I listened. I went up to my room. 

Orio’s door was open, just a little, and I saw him lying on the floor, clutching his stomach like somethin’ was wrong. 

Great. Everything I do leaks into everyone’s heads and they worry about me. Skittles was probably tryna get him to eat, but I interrupted that, now he’s bunched up in pain. I slowly opened the door, takin’ one step in when I heard Orio hiss at me. 

Get out.” 

I’m sorry, Orio. I’m sorry, Skittles. 



I wish I could say sorry to everyone right now. But it’s stupid, they won’t even take it. We don’t take shit, and my words are full of it. Fuck it, I guess. Whatever. Fucking . . . fuck it. 

Imma scream into my pillow until I can’t breathe. Maybe then I’ll feel better.

They saw what I did to Maria’s car and Adrianna’s face. The little Chicano football players. They cornered me when the last bell rang and tried feelin’ me up, slipping their scaly-ass hands up my shirt and shit. One of ’em held me by the thighs so I couldn’t kick any of ’em. I had to say fuck it to my nails when the quarterback unbuckled my belt. I clawed his fucking eyes out. So, I’m in trouble again. But this time, it doesn’t really matter. If those fuckers raped me, they wouldn’t’ve done anythin’. Just like they wouldn’t do anything to help Nathalie. No matter how many skirts she wears, how many people call her ‘Nathalie’ or refer to her as ‘she’, the administration doesn’t give a shit. Not until legal documents are finalized. 

They’d ask me why I’m wearing my shirt so damn high and wearing makeup like that. They’d tell me I have to serve lunch detention for making three of their best players bleed and puke on the hallway linoleum. Not my fault they didn’t think the Venniquin girl would fight back. 

My fault for makin’ ’em corner me. 

My fault for lettin’ ’em. 

My fault for thinkin’ I deserved it. 

I want to protect everybody: my brothers, Nathalie, our name, but I can’t. This just shows you that I can’t do shit. I’m just a pissed off little Latina who paints her nails black and punches people to stop herself from crying in public. So she won’t be embarrassed. 



Dr. Kendra put me on somethin’. I don’t remember what it’s called, it’s just supposed to make me not so pissed all the time. S’posed to calm me down. They make my brain feel like applesauce. 

Skittles has been homeschooling me because I got suspended. He keeps askin’ me what I wanna be, and that he’ll do anything to make it happen. I told him I wanna be happy. Well, I want a bass guitar so I can do somethin’ with my hands and then be happy. 

He smiles that smile and says, “No hay bronca.” 

Yeah. No problem.

Zoe Elerby is an undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago. She is a passionate creative writing major who has a piece that has been published by Nervous Ghost Press. She has big dreams as a writer which she is currently turning into a reality thanks to her diligence in Columbia’s creative writing program. 



Andie Eiram

How to Walk Away from Someone You Think You’d Die Without


You’re doing this because you are quick to say things you don’t mean. But I love you was never one of them. It was always the one thing you meant with every ounce of your soul when you said it. He knows that. 

He has you trapped because he knows when you say, I’m leaving, I hate you, I can’t do this anymore, all he needs to do is get you to admit you love him. That truth erases all the screaming that left your throat raw, it unpacks your bags, it wipes away your tears and promises you that this time, this time, things will change. Because you do love him. 

Too much. 

By now, you’ve attempted step one a few dozen times.

You falter, hesitate just long enough to stop yourself from getting to step two.

Accepting that you deserve better isn’t easy. So, this time, don’t look in mirrors and try to find what you love about yourself. That just makes you sad. That’s when the hesitation rises. It reminds you of being young and empty. It makes you feel more pathetic than you already do.

This time, go to the attic and dig through boxes until you find the photo albums that contain memories you forgot you even had. Look at the pictures of you as a child. Carefree, always covered in dirt, grinning even when you had so many missing teeth your smile was all gums. Then ask yourself why you don’t smile like that anymore. 

After you get yourself hooked on that bittersweet tang of nostalgia, call your mom. It’s been too long since you last spoke. Hearing how excited she is to hear from you will make your eyes well up with tears. 

Let them fall. Bottling up emotions is bad for the soul. It also makes you wrinkle faster; something about stress kills your health. 

Be casual. 

Talk about the weather, ask about your father, your siblings. 

Don’t let her think anything is wrong. She’s a worrier. She’s the sweetest woman you’ve ever met, and you love that about her. If she knew why you needed to run, she’d leave behind her pacifist ways. She’d teach him that even the most moral people can surprise you, that they can scare you. And you can’t let that happen. You just can’t. Your pain cannot be the reason her loving, gentle hands grow calloused. Your agony cannot be the reason she loses some of that honey sweetness that made you worship her as a child.

Ask like it’s an afterthought. Say, “It’s been so long since I’ve last seen you guys. Maybe I could stop over tonight, have dinner, maybe stay a day or two?” 

Don’t let her hear your sigh of relief when she says yes. 

Just smile. 

You missed them. You’ve wanted to visit for a while now. He doesn’t like your family though, so you’ve rarely seen them on holidays. Listen to your mother as she rambles on and on about how happy she is. She’ll tell you she’ll make up the guest room, she’ll make your favorite dinner, “It’s still spaghetti, right?”, and she’ll make sure all your siblings show up on time. Let yourself cling to those bits of joy that her words provoke. You haven’t felt so happy in a long time. 

Let yourself feel good. It won’t kill you.

Before you hang up, say “I love you.” Feel the way it sits on your tongue. Notice how it doesn’t make your stomach ache. She’ll say it back. Hear the way her voice changes, how honeyed it becomes as she tells you, “I love you more.” 

That is love. 

It’s going to make you want to say, “Wait, I forgot something.”

You haven’t. You just want the conversation to last another ten minutes so you can hear her say it again. 


It’ll push you over that thin line you’ve been teetering on. Don’t let yourself fall into despair. You need to feel strong, now more than ever.

Take a bath after the call. You’re going to feel strange. Like your skin is tightening, like you’re cold but burning at the same time. 

Lukewarm water, add bubbles and rose oil. Your mom always brought home roses on good days. They change your mood. Improve it. Roses bring your mind to sunny fall days, to kisses on Band-Aids and bedtime stories.

Make sure you don’t think of the time he bought you roses on your birthday. It’ll hurt in the way only he can fix. 

Do everything in your power to not let that memory rise. I know it’ll be tough, so if you do let it in, make sure you follow that sweetness with the Christmas he got drunk and slammed you against a wall. 

Remember the smell of alcohol on his breath as he screamed in your face, remember that he didn’t even remember it had happened, so you never got an apology. You never got the chance to tell him how much he scared you, how your stomach gets cold when you see him drinking now. 

Remember how that isn’t even a bad memory now. That was a good year. 

Make a point of staying in the water until it grows cold. It’ll make the towel you wrap yourself in feel like heaven. 

Don’t brush your hair, braid it quickly and messily like your mother used to do when you slept in too long before school. It’s best to do it while the hair is still wet. Grandma always said so, and her word is law. Hairdressers will tell you otherwise, and your instincts might not trust it, but just do it. 

Get dressed as soon as you can. Don’t let yourself air-dry, don’t lay in bed and get comfortable. He’ll be home before you know it.

Pack a bag. A backpack, specifically. Focus. Take a few days’ worth of clothes, extra money, the necessities. Make sure to pack the family picture you have on the bedside table. You can’t sleep unless you have that nearby. Go around the house. Find your favorite picture of the two of you, snatch it. It wasn’t all bad. Take his favorite green t-shirt, maybe the red hoodie too. Little reminders aren’t going to kill you. You can always burn them later, when you’ve begun to heal and can finally let go.

Don’t take anything he bought you, that is a different reminder. You can miss the way he smelled, but you can’t miss the presents he bought you after he broke your wrist, after he threw a bottle at you and the glass shattered on the wall only inches away. Leave those behind. Every bracelet, necklace, every token of his apologies. It’s not worth it.

Go outside, and put the bag in the trunk of your car. Leave your phone with it. Don’t bother putting on shoes. You need to move fast, he’ll be home any minute now. 

While you wait, put something on the television. Preferably a horror movie. Maybe action. You need something loud so that the neighbors don’t call the police because of the screaming. You know it’ll be loud when he realizes things are missing. Check the house one last time. Touch everything. It was the first home you ever had that you bought yourself. You’re going to miss it. You painted the walls, picked out the furniture. It’s you, in a way. Take in the smell, let your senses bask in the familiarity of it all.

When you hear his car pull into the driveway, don’t panic. Sit on the couch. Pretend you are watching whatever show you ended up putting on. Take the final moments of peace to thank God that you never had kids, it would have made it harder to leave, and you’ve struggled enough when you’ve had only yourself to save. Make a mental note that you need to work on that. Maybe read a self-help book. Start going to therapy. 

If you can’t afford that, your mom always says boxed wine is the cheapest therapist until you can afford the real thing. Take that to heart. 

When he comes through the front door, don’t smile. You always smile. You always greet him with that rehearsed grin you practice in the mirror when you’re alone. This time, do yourself a favor—don’t.  Don’t smile. Drop the mask. The act is over and it’s time to take a bow and close the curtains.  When his smile drops, don’t feel guilty. His happiness is no longer your responsibility. When he asks what’s wrong, give him time to take off his shoes and put down his briefcase. Say nothing, you might cry if you start too soon. 

Wave him over.

As he comes closer and closer, let yourself think of how much you love him. Remember your first kiss, the first date you couldn’t stop talking about. Remember the first time he said he loved you. Remember how embarrassed you were when your sisters found out and wouldn’t leave you alone around him. Take time to feel what you feel. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be ashamed that you love someone who you know has hurt you, who likes to hurt you. You fell in love before you knew.

When he sits down, it’s okay to let yourself love the way he smells. You bought the cologne he’s wearing. But do not let yourself touch him. When he reaches for you, move away. You’re going to want to hold his hand, you’re going to want to kiss him one last time. 


He knows something is wrong, and if you kiss him, you’ll be putty in his hands. And he knows he needs to fix something, so he’ll give himself time to figure out what it is. He’ll hold you, touch you, then he’ll lift you in his arms and carry you to your bed where he’ll fuck you. You’ll let him. You’ll let him touch you any way he wants to. You’ll lie to yourself and say you’ll wait until he falls asleep tonight, then you’ll leave. You won’t. Keep your hands to yourself. 

Tuck them under your thighs if you must. 

Say it. 

Just say it.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

He’ll roll his eyes. He’s heard it before.

Say it again. This time say it while you think of your sister’s wedding that you missed because he “didn’t want to waste a weekend on that bitch.”

He’s going to start talking at this point. He’ll be annoyed. He’ll probably start yelling in the next few minutes.

Say, “I hate you.”

Say it while you think of the fact that you never had a bruise before you fell in love with him. Think of how you never had a broken bone before you fell in love with him.

He’ll be screaming at you. He’s furious that you “brought this shit up again.” You’re ruining his night. He hasn’t even been home five minutes.

When you say it again, he’s going to grab at you. His hands won’t be reaching with love. Slap him. 

Slap him for all the times he’s hit you. Slap him for all the life you’ve lost because of him. Hit him so hard your hand stings. 

Then say it like you mean it, “I’m done.”

He’ll be stunned. 

He’ll be in shock.

This is your moment. 


Get in your car.


Don’t look back. 

Pull over after about fifteen minutes. Let yourself break down. Sob. Ugly cry. No one is watching. 

Let yourself cry with relief that you finally did it. Let yourself cry for losing him, let yourself cry because you know he isn’t going to come running after you hoping to fix things. Fall apart. 

Then wipe the tears and snot away. 

Turn on the air so your cheeks lose that red hue. Deep breaths. Check yourself in the mirror, make sure you’re presentable.

Drive the rest of the way to your mother’s. Listen to your favorite songs on the radio so loud you know everyone outside your car could sing along if they so choose. 

When you get to your childhood home, park behind your brother’s car. Give yourself a minute to perfect the fake smile you’re going to wear all night. 

Tell yourself you’re going to be okay.

Say it until you mean it.


Andie Eiram is a creative writing student at Columbia College Chicago. This is her first publication.



Nick Warrington

The Icicle


I’m walking down Michigan Ave, backpack on, face freezing and being rearranged by the wind. I notice a WATCH OUT FOR FALLING ICE sign on my right just as soon as I slip on a patch of it. It knocks me flat on my back, folders and notebooks doing nothing to ease the pain. In a daze, I lay for a second to regain my senses before standing. In that moment, an icicle falls, tip pointed, and drills perfectly into my right forearm.

It doesn’t bleed. I don’t scream. A young businessman on the street calls 911 as soon as I’m struck; paramedics arrive a few minutes later. The ambulance takes me to the hospital, wherein the doctors tell me they’ll just have to wait for it to melt. I’m expecting them to bring out a blow-dryer, a heating pad, something to melt this ice in my arm. Instead, they send me on my way, tell me to come back once it’s melted and not a moment sooner.

Days pass with the ice in my arm, and it just won’t melt. Not even a drip. The weather warms slightly, the snow and ice on the ground slink away into sewer grates, but the chunk in me won’t follow suit. It’s begun to weigh me down, shoulders tilting, spine curving, as I try to keep balanced.

One morning, I startle awake. The ice is different, a darker shade. I reach for my glasses, arm pulsing with every movement. Holding it up, inches from my face, I see veins forming inside the icicle. Blood is coursing through it, twisting and twining just as easily as in my own body. It’s become a part of me.


“What seems to be the problem?” Dr. Nygard asks as he steps into his office, the same one I’ve already been waiting in for twenty minutes. I grip my wrist, careful not to touch the icicle, and lift my arm as much as I can, bugging my eyes at him until he says, “Oh, I see.”

“What am I supposed to do?” He’s looking over my chart in his hands as if there could be anything of use now. The last time I was here, I was nine and had a hernia, not exactly the most pertinent information.

He says nothing for a moment, slips the glasses hanging from his chain onto the bridge of his nose, and wheels his chair closer. Uncomfortably close. His right knee slides between my legs, and he leans down until the tip of his nose breathes rings onto the ice. He smells faintly of bleach and mint, as if he was cleaning his lab coat while he blew bubbles of Winterfresh; it makes my stomach twist.

“Do you mind?” I ask. He tilts his head up until our eyes meet. A single eyebrow raises before he’s back down examining the ice.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like it’s adapted to your body. How curious. . . .” He trails off as he runs a finger along its length, from where it intersects with my arm up to its rounded end; the touch sends a shiver down my spine. The blood responds to his finger, rushing toward that side of the icicle, hungry for affection and attention. He removes his hand and the flow returns to normal.

He raises his pointer finger and taps the top of the ice, angering it. The blood rattles inside. The entire icicle twitches and shakes my arm. My vision blurs, head grows hot, a migraine sets in immediately. My other arm involuntarily swings and concaves his cheek, knocks him clean off his chair.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t—” I’m up and extending my left hand, knuckles throbbing, but so dazed it doesn’t matter. I feel like I’ve just been punched.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” He scrambles back on his elbows, head knocking into his desk as I tower over him.

“I don’t know what hap—”

“Get out. Please.” He’s pawing at his nose, blood tie-dying the front of his fresh whites and running into the crevices of his hands. “Get help. Other help.”

“I’m sorry.” I repeat as I leave, closing the door behind me. There’s shouting from inside, cursing and anger and pain. I rush out of the professional wing, down long narrow hallways of harsh light, and into the bustle of the hospital. I maneuver toward the exit, weaving through packs of doctors and nurses, pushing past patients on gurneys. I trip over a woman in a wheelchair, crash to the ground, icicle arm first, and slide to a stop next to the door. The pain vibrates through my body, spirals up and down every part of me. My vision goes spotted and sparkling.

When the pain eases and I can see again, I realize no one’s noticed me. No one even seems to care that I tripped and fell, let alone that there’s an icicle the size of a Pringles can stuck in my arm. I brush myself off, careful not to touch it, and limp out without so much as an “Are you okay?”.


When I get home, there’s a wet patch on the top of my pant leg. The icicle drips but is the same size as it had been, melting but not melting. Now, I can feel it there, icing my blood the slightest bit, pushing itself out to my veins just as swift as it drew my blood in.

It tugs my arm across my body, over toward my left, ice tip pointed at my bruised knuckles. It freezes them until they’re numb, unable to feel the pain. My blood inside of it pushes up against the outer edge, rushing to feel the warmth of touch. I can see it snaking through the tiny tunnels of veins, rerouting as if lost in a maze and choosing a new path. The cooling feels nice, calm. Like all those times my mom brought me an ice pack as a kid. It’s involuntary on my part, the icicle controls my arm and makes the healing so, but it’s just as personal and sincere. There’s a moment where I’m almost happy to have it there. Almost.


Two weeks now that I’ve been stuck with this icicle. It’s made my daily life a hassle in every way possible. The boiling hot showers I normally take have turned icy, cold enough to keep the icicle happy and turn every part of my body as frigid as it is. I’ve stretched out all the right sleeves of my jackets; each looks like a bell bottom pant leg now while the left sleeves are still fitted. It makes me look ridiculous. I’ve shattered my phone screen, not enough feeling in my right hand to hold it without dropping. I’ve had to essentially become left-handed; writing pen to paper has been avoided at all costs.

Yesterday, I spent hours testing out ways to get rid of it, but I felt so lightheaded every few minutes, I had to lie down. It was like all the blood had left my body, been taken in by that leech on my arm. The more I try to get rid of it, the more it steals from me, holds for safekeeping in its veins.

A list of methods I employed to melt and/or destroy the icicle: held my arm in the oven (didn’t work, burned my fingertips on the back of it), touched a hot pan to the ice (felt like what I imagine getting struck by lightning feels like, immediately dropped said pan, burned and bruised my foot pretty badly), smashed the ice into the edge of the counter (ended up smashing my fingers that were gripping it instead, quite painful, wouldn’t recommend), and finally, poured boiling water over it (which, you guessed it, burned my entire forearm instead).

Every time things went south, however, it would pull my arm toward whatever was hurting and ice it over. Cool the burning flesh and draw the pain away. It somehow even numbed my fingers and arm even without touching them directly. It was like it knew how irritating it was being, couldn’t help but fuck with me until it felt my horrible gut-wrenching pain, then wanted nothing but to make me better. I went to bed after that last attempt ended in boiling my arm; the icicle was full of blood as it had been and it pulled itself in tight to my chest as I drifted off. A hot, heavy weight that comforted and disgusted me at the same time.

This morning, however, I wake up late. Rush into another cold shower and make my way to class. Stay busy typing my notes during the lecture and discussing Freud’s psychosexual theories after. No one notices the icicle, covered by my stretched-out jacket sleeve. After class, I head home. Walk through my door, drop my backpack on my bed, and go to make lunch, after which I notice a little trail of water leading through my apartment. I look at the icicle for the first time today, and it’s considerably smaller than before, more ice than flesh. There are points where it’s completely see-through, little pockets of crystal clear between the red and the fogged frost.

“What the hell?” I absentmindedly say, and as soon as the words have left my mouth, it starts to fill again. I watch as it sucks my blood like a big straw, drawing it in ounce by ounce. My fingers get colder as I flex them, trying to maintain blood flow to them, but it’s impossible. It stops after a minute or so, feels like how it had before.

The most curious thing: the trail of water has disappeared. After checking the floor, down on all fours with my cheek resting on the cool hardwood, I check the icicle and its regained its size, shape, all of it. It’s like this never happened, save for a tiny crack running down the bottom end, stemming from the base of my arm where it sticks out.

The next day, I try to ignore the icicle as much as possible, but it seems like everyone else has suddenly taken notice and won’t shut up about “that thing in my arm.” I can’t figure out what’s different, why everyone is suddenly so concerned. The barista at Starbucks wants to take a picture with me, The Ice Man, like I’m some fucking superhero.

“You can’t touch it.”

“C’mon, man. Just let me hold it.”

“No. One picture if you stay on my left side.” 

“Oh my god, lemme try and pull it out. Some The Sword in the Stone shit. Please?” He mimics the motion and laughs at his own joke, pulling the straw out of his drink as if I don’t get the reference. I don’t respond, just dead-eye him until he gets the message and goes back to work.

Walking down Wabash on my way to class, I see a dotted trail of water behind me. Drips from the melting icicle that makes me happy, but cautious enough to avoid looking directly at it.

Then comes a homeless man. He grabs my shoulder and spins me around to face him so fast I don’t even have a chance to yell.

“You good? What’s that thing? Is that ice? Son, it’s so hot. How is that ice?” His questions tumble out one after another, breathless and confused. He leans over to look closer and his eyes grow wide, before he starts mumbling ice and hot over and over again. He hurries off to follow the stream I just left behind like it’s the yellow brick road to Oz.

Class is largely uneventful, until I’m supposed to give a presentation. I’ve been too busy trying to get rid of the icicle the last few days, I’ve completely forgotten about it; I have nothing. I stand up in the back of the lecture hall, trying to apologize, all the heads start to turn.

“Sorry, JD. I totally—”

“Isaac? What is that?” My professor’s head juts as far from his shoulders as it can. There are gasps and groans and whispers from my classmates. It’s like they never noticed it the last two weeks.  A girl just in front of me looks horrified, mouth ajar; she turns around toward me and leans as far back as she can. Another I had a group project with last semester searches for his phone, presumably for a picture, but can’t get it out fast enough.

“Are you okay?” Is the question on everyone’s lips, but I can’t take all the attention. Sensation comes back in my fingers, full feeling in my arm. Big drops splash onto my shoes as it melts more rapidly.

So I bolt. Run as far and as fast as I can, all the way off campus and back toward my apartment. I make it to my building, panting with lungs burning, and sit down on the concrete front steps. Watch the puddle form around me; it soaks into my jeans, but I don’t mind. I sneak a glance at the icicle as the last solid piece slips through the hole it leaves and falls to the pavement with a tiny crack. The veins hang down from my arm like vines, iridescent in the sunlight, before slinking back up and under my skin.


The gaping hole in my arm won’t heal. I can run my finger around the rim of it without so much as a tingle; the inside of it is smooth, perfectly round.

It’s been a week. The hole doesn’t hurt, although it’s a bit numb, like it was when the ice was there, but in a different way. It feels emptier, less comforting, less familiar. It feels almost like I’m missing a part of myself, though that doesn’t make sense. How can things move that quick? How can something you’ve only had so briefly become such a part of you? I lose sleep over it, twist and writhe under my blankets, clutching that arm to my chest as tight as I can. I have a reoccurring dream of it growing back but wake to nothing.

The weeks become months, spring storms turn to summer breezes. I think about it less and less, and the hole has become my new normal. I patch it with cotton balls and Band-Aids, try to fill my time with all the friends I’d neglected in the past few weeks, too preoccupied with the icicle to make time for them.

August gives way to September without my noticing, and suddenly it’s been six months since the icicle left me, melted away. I start to question why I ever wanted it to leave in the first place. Why I longed so badly for it to be gone, but I just have to keep reminding myself it’s for the best.


Nick Warrington is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago. He now resides in Arizona. This is his first publication and is looking forward to more soon.




Emma Dailey Mitchell

Uncle Jack

“If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,” they say over and over like a parrot on a perch. They don’t know what it means. They don’t even know all of it. Sammy sure didn’t. But he would learn. 

Back then the children’s chant was contained to Sammy’s school, Sammy’s street. His cousins didn’t know it. Not until he told them. Then the twins couldn’t stop. “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,” they said over and over, whispering it even under their breath in their sleep. Sammy made sure to keep his light up shoes off of any cracks. He always did. But it wasn’t easy. It made pins play up his spine. 

The next day he was determined to figure out where it came from, because if he could find the source, maybe he could stop it, just like his dad did with the termite infestation. His big brother Billy, who knew everything, said that it came from the house at the end of the street. Sammy felt a rush of ice course through his hot veins. Everyone knew the house at the end of the street. At least everyone knew to avoid it. All the moms turned their noses up at the overgrown lawn and lowered their voices when they judged the dark exterior. But then their hands would go to their hearts and talk about the “shame of it all” and the “poor things” that live there. “Things,” they said. The dads would grunt in agreement behind newspapers, shaking them as their hands shook. Sammy didn’t like the sound of “things.”  “Things” that go bump in the night made goosebumps appear on his arms.

Needless to say, Sammy didn’t want to go anywhere near the house at the end of the street. He just—he couldn’t take the pressure anymore. Cracks in the pavement were everywhere he looked, taunting him, daring him. They were like bare tree branches. Some so fine he could barely make them out and so numerous he had to go the long way home. Part of him said it was stupid to listen to a dumb rhyme, but he couldn’t risk it. Not his mother’s back. His mother made him hot chocolate, sang to him when there were “things” under his bed, and gave the best hugs. She couldn’t hug him if he messed up. 

Sammy and his family walked into church that Sunday, but not before his close call; his foot nearly touched the curving crack on the papal blacktop. After service he decided he would get his bike and go to the house at the end of the street. Sammy rode his bike, asking everyone he came across to join him; he wanted to try and end his constant torment.  Some laughed at him. Some went pale and pedaled away. Many told him he was doomed. Even Becky Stephensons, who’d eat any bug for a quarter, told him it was too dangerous. He stared over at a fractured sidewalk from his perch on his bike. He knew he had to go. Did they not understand the pressure he was under? The cracks were everywhere. 

He pedaled on alone until he reached the end of the street. The houses stopped and the forest began. The house on his left was empty. An abandoned ‘For Sale’ sign was stuck in the ground with a faded woman still smiling, watching him. The house on the right had a number of items scattered across the lawn, like the Benston’s frisbee. Even old Man Jensons’s rocking chair creaked against the wind. Sacrificed baseballs and red rubber kickballs were better left in the weeds of the house at the end of the street. It wasn’t worth the sacrificed lives, he thought. Molly Hanson, who lived next door, was never the same after her dog, Snuffles, disappeared past the broken fence. 

Sammy shivered. He whittled away the hours searching for allies, so long that the sun made long shadows of the house at the end of the street. He laid his bike on the sidewalk near the ‘For Sale’ sign, keeping his eyes on the house. Sammy was certain it would come alive and eat him¾that the dark panels of a splintered wooden porch and the white door speckled with dirt and dust would suddenly crack open like a wicked maw with wooden teeth and a worming tasting tongue—all to swallow him whole. At least he would die in his Sunday best. Mother would like that. If they found him, a voice like Billy’s echoed in his head. His small frame shivered in the windless autumn dusk. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t approach a stranger’s house. Not without someone by his side. He’d never gone to a stranger’s house on his own before. He worried his top lip. He was alone and this wasn’t just any other house on the block. This demon house full of “things” was going to kill him and then he’d never see his mother again. 

He thought of his mother reading in her nook. Her gentle voice as she helped him with math homework. He hated math. He steeled his shoulders. Letting out a breath, he slowly began to cross the street, careful of the cracks. The wind rustled the leaves like the hushed whispers of a crowd. Only they watched his daring approach. He could do this, could protect his mother’s back like she protected him. As he reached the gate and took in a breath of pine and ash, a deep hoo sounded and fear shot through him. In his young imagination a demon had cried, but the owl in the trees blinked curiously after him as he ran back to his bike and sped away.

At school that Monday, everyone was surprised to see him alive. He was telling them of his close call, of the deep demon’s voice that had bellowed out demanding “Who goes there?” When he caught sight of the Stenson sisters playing hopscotch and chanting “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back. . . .” and the words and the moment left him. With each thunk of stone on the pavement, they sang it as they hopped. Sammy’s ears rushed with blood and his breathing stopped. Time seemed to slow as Sally Stenson’s foot nearly landed on the arcing crevice in the black. He liked Ms. Stenson. She coached his soccer team. If her back cracked, who would coach them? What would the Stenson sisters do? It wasn’t until her pink butterfly speckled shoes landed firmly on the unscarred yellow chalk-dusted ground that the world and the insistent questions of his classmates came back to him.

“Are you going back, Sammy?” 

“Of course, he’s not going back, Mikey!”

And Sammy found himself saying, “I’m going back,” as he watched the stone soar through the air and the girls chanted “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back. . . .” and giggled to themselves. He would go back. He would enter the demon’s house at the end of the street. For his mother’s back. For all mothers’ backs, he thought as the recess bell rang. 

That’s how Sammy found himself in front of the house at the end of the street. Again. With his bike safely resting against the fence and a shaking hand, he reached for the hook on the gate. No voices or owls cried out as his fingers touched the cool rusted steel. With a screech, it came loose. The gate swung open in front of him and he shivered. 

The house was still. It was light enough now he could see the ghostly white curtains that wavered behind aged glass. One black shutter hung loose as if it wished to jump to its’ death to the weeds below. It wasn’t like the other houses in the neighborhood. Maybe that’s why the moms didn’t like it. Sammy had to agree that it looked like a blackened wound. A scar. Sammy had never seen a house so old and dying. Sammy had never seen a house so still and quiet. Every other house he passed on his bike he saw children playing, dads mowing lawns, moms with backs bent over flower gardens. But not this house. Not even the rocking chair creaked. Not even the forest wanted to reach out and touch it. The tree roots curled, snarled out, and rounded the house twisted and wrong, as if the shadows burned it. Sammy inched closer. The faded woman on the ‘For Sale’ sign across the street was his only witness. 

He bit his lip as he studied the house, like it was a trapped snake or a patient spider. Any moment the shadows could spring to life and lash out at him. His palms sweat and little needles played up and down his spine. This was the furthest any neighborhood kid had ever ventured. On near tiptoes, he crept down the tan walkway. He kept his movements slow and measured as if he were approaching a lion. The sky was darkening by the time Sammy reached the middle and that’s when he saw it. Just three stone slabs from the front steps there was a spiderweb of cracks, making Sammy freeze in his tracks. His breathing came in short gasps. He couldn’t avoid those. He couldn’t risk his mother’s back. If he slipped just once . . . . he could see her doubled over in pain, back snapped in two like thin spaghetti. He’d come home to find her lying on the couch, or worse, the floor, unable to move or hug him ever again.  A wave of icy horror washed away the feeling of bugs crawling on his skin. I can’t do this, he thought. He turned on his heels and ran. The gate slammed behind him as he grabbed his bike. He didn’t look back. His heart didn’t settle until his mother made him her famous hot chocolate, her back intact.

Sammy vowed that he would never go back to the house at the end of the street that night as he told Billy this story. Billy, who knew everything, laughed and ruffled his hair as he passed a sulking Sammy. This didn’t comfort Sammy. He wasn’t one to question Billy, because he knew everything, but Sammy hoped beyond anything that Billy was wrong. That the house full of “things” at the end of the street had nothing to do with this cursed rhyme. 

The next day at school he was hiding from his classmates’ questions in the basement bathroom when he heard it again. “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.” The words were slowly spoken, like how time passes in math class. But the words were strong and sure like when his dad would scold him. It was a warning. It sounded again. Sammy followed it as it echoed off the linoleum hallway. But he could never find the source. His classmates, when questioned said it was probably Mason O’Malley, the little boy who hid in the shadows of the playground. He was part vampire, some said. Mikey argued that he was part werewolf. Becky swore he was part demon and Molly confessed that she’d seen him in the house at the end of the street. In a hushed tone, she admitted it happened so quick that she didn’t believe it. He must be part ghost, she swore. 

There was something strange about Mason O’Malley. Sammy knew that. Everyone knew that. He rarely spoke. Sammy didn’t know of any other O’Malley, which was weird on its own. Everyone had another someone with their same name. It’s how it worked: everyone in town knew everyone, despite how his mom often complained about this. When he got home from school, he wanted to ask Billy, but he was at hockey practice. His mother hummed to herself as she stitched. The sharp needle flashed through the white as he sat with her. He wanted to ask her, because she knew so much. But as he watched the red thread tighten into a solid line, he couldn’t bring himself to worry her. Dad was always saying things like that, that he mustn’t worry his mother now. She glanced up at him and smiled like sunshine and ran a warm hand through his hair. She asked him with a little crease between her brows if he was alright. Sammy nodded at her too solemnly for a child and marched upstairs. 

The needles and pins that danced their burning icy tips up and down his spine every time his light up shoes came close to a crack told him he couldn’t not go back.

So for a third time, Sammy dropped his bike in front of the house at the end of the street. With Billy’s extra hockey stick in one hand, he pushed the gate open. No voice sounded and no owls cried. The house stood still and ready to snap at him. He wanted to glare at it, dare it. But that icy fear still clung to him. He wasn’t dressed to die. His mother wouldn’t be happy to find he died in Billy’s old hoodie she hated, but made him feel warm. Probably because it was too big for him. He shivered despite it. He had to go forward. He had to. 

He began to work his way over the stone slabs and their seams until he came to the spiderweb. He paused and took a deep breath, tightening his sweaty, shaky grip on the stick. He stuck his foot out the side and let it hover over the overgrown weeds. Flashes of the long blades of grass springing and rushing to tangle themselves around his ankle screamed through his mind. Then the vines would pull him, pull him down into a deep dark abyss or toward the house full of “things” that would swallow him up. He scrunched up his face and hunched his shoulders as his light up shoe made contact with a slight crunch. Nothing happened. The air was still. All around him was silence and his own wild beating heart. He placed his other foot on the grass and the same thing happened. Nothing. He breathed out a sigh of relief. 

The sky had grown darker when he reached the front steps. The wood was weak beneath his feet. Soft, like flesh. He shivered, and then he was standing in front of the door without a knob. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have a plan. He’d never been to a house without an adult before, but despite himself, he reached for the cracked doorbell on his tiptoes. The white door speckled with dust and dirt swung open silently. Sammy crept in, his heart thumping away in his chest, hockey stick raised. He stepped across the threshold and the door slammed behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut. This was the moment where he became one of the neighborhood stories. Boy seen entering the house at the end of the street! Was never seen again. Lord help him! He was going to be Molly Hanson’s dog. His knees went weak.

“If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.” It echoed and warned the same as before. He forced his lungs to take in short gulps of stale air. It smelled like the gate outside and the times he’d taken out the trash for his mother. 

The ghost’s voice floated through the sound of his thumping heart again. 

“‘If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,’ sang Uncle Jack.” 

Sammy’s eyes shot open. That was new. 

He stood alone just beyond the threshold for a moment more. In front of him, a little to his right, were broken stairs and a narrow hallway about half the width of his hockey stick. Two rooms opened up on either side, like stuffy deflated lungs, and in each, thick sheets hung over the different sized furniture like the dust in the air. They had to be white once upon a time. Now they looked like mummies wrapped in pages of an old book. Were these the “things” the moms talked about in hushed whispers? 

The only difference was that the left had one mossy green couch that stood uncovered. It was poxed with burn holes and had a moat of shiny brown bottles like the ones dads would sometimes drink at summer BBQ’s. They reminded Sammy of the dead cicadas the end of summer would bring. Each bottle stuffed with bits of white, and Sammy prayed they weren’t bones. Bones weren’t that small, right? God, he was going to die. 

“Uncle Jack is back and he brought his rack.” Curiosity spurred him onward, toward the voice on the left side of the broken stairs. Curiosity was going to get me killed, he thought. 

Sammy’s heart stuttered in his chest as his foot stepped out and the floor beneath it creaked like a dying cat. But the voice didn’t stop. It floated still through the dust in the air. 

“‘If you step on a crack, I’ll break your mother’s back,’ cried Uncle Jack.” It clung to Sammy like a spiderweb: thin, itchy, and everywhere. He could see so many woven webs in the corners of the rooms. He figured a kitchen lay beyond the hall, and beyond, the backyard that surely held a mass grave of kids stupid enough to enter a demon’s house full of untold “things” and Molly Hanson’s dog—if they didn’t eat his bones too. Along the broken splintering stairs hung faded portraits that watched him through the cracked and dirtied glass. He kept his head down, but he could feel their eyes on him. Were they going to warn the demons? Or the witch that lived here? Or Uncle Jack? Or—Sammy didn’t make it to the kitchen. 

He followed the voice like it was a siren’s song until he found Mason O’Malley in an empty hall closet under the stairs that smelled of copper and mold. The other boy was rocking himself back and forth, bony elbows sticking out where he’d wrapped his arms around bony knees. His black eyes didn’t look up at Sammy from under his black mess of hair, but he didn’t stop speaking. 

“Uncle Jack is back and he brought his sack. ‘If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,’ warned Uncle Jack.”

Sammy knelt down in front of Mason, who was so white Sammy thought he was dead. His arms were spotted like the couch. The closet held only a thin blanket and the faded backpack Mason brought to school on the days he came. It was really just a pile of loose threads, just like the clothes on Mason’s back.

“Uncle Jack is back and he brought you to his shack. ‘If you step on a crack, I’ll break your mother’s back,’ laughed Uncle Jack.” Mason’s voice didn’t waver. His eyes didn’t move. He just rocked back and forth like a windup toy Billy had given him for Christmas. 

“Uncle Jack is back and he brought the black.” Sammy placed a shaking hand on his Skeletor shoulder. “Uncle Jack is back and he brought the black. He brought the black.” Mason’s eyes snapped up to meet Sammy’s. Mason’s ice-cold hand gripped his wrist, siphoning the warmth from his bones and Sammy’s heart climbed higher in his throat. 

“He brought the black. He brought the black. In his sack. In his shack. He brought the black.” Sammy snatched his hand back as Mason’s voice shook as he begged, ragged from his rhyme. “The black with his sack in his shack. Uncle Jack. Uncle JACK!” His cry was deafening and Sammy didn’t think little boys could wail like that. Only ghosts. 

Sammy stumbled to his feet on legs that felt like bees trying to fly through lead and took a step back as Mason’s eyes didn’t leave him for a moment more. 

Then Mason settled again in his corner and after a sliver of silence spoke again, like one of his father’s records back on track.

“Uncle Jack is back and he brought his rack.” Mason was looking through him now and Sammy warred with himself. Were his friends right? Was Mason the demon of this place? Or a trick? Or a trap? 

“‘If  you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,’ whispered Uncle Jack.” Mason’s voice was hushed and rough like a river after rain, and Sammy found himself repeating it like he would repeat the answers in math class. 

The slam of a screen door echoed down the hall over Mason’s whisper. Sammy’s whole body jolted as the house shook. 

“Uncle Jack is back!” 

Sammy dropped the hockey stick and bolted as a lumbering shadow filled the unexplored kitchen, cracking the tiles under him. Thumping, lumbering footsteps jolted toward him. It was him. It was Uncle Jack with his sack, coming from the rack and the shack. 

“If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.” The words screamed at him, followed him as he ran from the hulking beast behind him. Sammy knew it had been a warning. This was Uncle Jack come to take him and break his mother’s back. 

Sammy heard it, “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,”  again and again as he flew down the front steps, across the walkway and to the gate and his bike. It echoed with each beat of his pounding heart. “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.” He risked one glance back to the doorway, where an outline of a giant man stood. Tomorrow at school it would be a demon twice the size of his father with horns and frizzy hair and eyes the color of blood and fire. His friends devoured his story and basked in awe of him. Only for a few seconds, then no one believed him.

No one understood how Sammy had managed to scramble away from Uncle Jack and the demon house full of “things” at the end of the street and toward his mother and her hot chocolate. Sammy didn’t even understand what Mason had been trying to tell him. Some days in his story, Mason’s human, a boy not much younger than him. Sammy wondered about Mrs. O’Malley on those days. On others, he was a ghost who wasted away so many years ago forced to live with the demon Uncle Jack and his rack.  He searched for Mason O’Malley, but no one had seen him. 

He asked Billy, who knew everything, if the house at the end of the street had been the O’Malley’s and if Mason had had an Uncle Jack, but before Billy could confess he didn’t know, their mother hushed them and told them not to speak of such awful things as she handed them both their hot chocolates. It was hot against his palms. 

He never should have gone looking. He would tell himself that often. He never should have gone looking. He made it worse by looking. He’d picked at the scab and now it was infected. 

Eventually Sammy stopped telling the story. It worried his mother, or so his father said. 

But the warning never left his head. Step on a crack; Uncle Jack would be back. That looming shadow kept following his every step. His parents soon lost patience in his slow walk down sidewalks. Each annoyed sigh or cross, “Come on”, felt like a hot lash, but he couldn’t help it. They didn’t get it. If he stepped on a crack, he’d break his mother’s back. Every step he took, he could see it, see what a misstep would bring. His mother’s face laced with pain. Her spine shattered in two. Sammy had to watch his feet, even more than before. Because if he didn’t, the shadow of Uncle Jack over his shoulder, waiting with his rack, would ruin everything for that one mistake. 

Years later he still heard it with every shattered, fractured piece of earth–blacktop or concrete–he saw at the rifts below his path, and always found himself whispering “If you step on a crack, you’ll bring Uncle Jack back.” 

Then he’d sigh to himself as the pins and needles danced their burning icy tips along his spine and say:

“I never should have gone looking.” 


Emma Dailey Mitchell is a recent graduate from Columbia College Chicago. She has been published in StudyBreaks. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, or listening to many stories.



Maria Kowal



There was a time when I was laid low, and I can feel it happening again. Wasn’t sure I’d make it out back then, yet things seem darker now, more than ever. 

Autumn knows I’m fucked, but she thinks she’s got me grounded, and I’d prefer to keep it that way. She’s got enough to worry about. Her father has been around more often, which is worse than it sounds. The bastard drank through the liquor cabinet twice over in a week. He says he wants to look after her, but he’s got her locked up. Won’t let her leave the house, and Autumn’s just letting him do it, as if she weren’t a grown-ass woman. It’s like she feels sorry for him, maybe even a little responsible, which is downright fuckin’ stupid if you ask me. And she’s reverted back to this helpless child state, so that her lowlife father has something to live for. It’s like she’s afraid that if she were to stop trying, she’d turn into him one day, and that makes her weepy. If I think too hard ’bout it, it’ll make me weepy too. But the Devils and I have been lookin’ after Autumn for years. He doesn’t just get to show up now. Fuck that.

Back when we were in school and her mom was still around, things were different. Mrs. Oswald was like Oscoda’s own Stevie Nicks, that is, if Stevie Nicks played euchre competitively and had an oddly charming gap between her front teeth. Autumn is a lot like her mom was, except Autumn’s eyes are this unreal bright green. Before she left, Mrs. Oswald would pick us up from school in the winter and let me stay over for dinner a couple times a week. She knew things weren’t good at home. Nothing stays secret in town for long. She left for a drive one day, and never came back. Autumn was sixteen. 

It was around that same time when the drugs got bad. Mio High School was the easiest place to sell in town, and we bought ’em up like they was hotcakes, or whatever the saying is. Cecil, the lunchroom cook, was my personal dealer. He was a pudgy motherfucker with oiled hair and a blue net over his beard. On Thursdays, I would slip out of fourth period, and down to the kitchen. Cecil would meet me by the bathrooms and slip a wad of napkins into my hand before the lunch bell rang. 

At first, it was just an eighth of weed wedged between the napkins. Some real weak-ass weed. I’d sit with Holton and Autumn out by the river, and we’d smoke ourselves silly on the rocks. We’d burn through the eighth after a couple days. All of us built up a tolerance to the stuff real quick, I mean the shit was truly weak as all hell. And so, every Thursday, I’d beg Cecil for something stronger, but the weak shit kept coming. Holton preferred liquor anyhow, but there was a hunger inside me for something more. 

The day Cecil started selling me crack was the first time I lied to Holton. 

Cecil seemed extra paranoid as he stuffed my cash in his back pocket. I flipped through the stack of napkins and unearthed a crumbled white rock in a dime bag.

“What’s this?”

“Hey! Hey. Don’t open that here.” Cecil looked left and right, more cautious than usual. He leaned in close, and I could smell, on his apron, the chili we would have for lunch. “That there is some solid rock.”

“What, you mean like¾”

“It’s crack, dumbass, Jesus. You smoke it.”

“Smoke it? But it’s—it’s a rock . . . how—”

“Christ, Kosak, you’re the worst.” He rolled his eyes and whispered hot breath on my ear. “Pick up a tire gauge from Gary’s Auto Shop. You can smoke using it if you can get your hands on a copper sponge, like the ones we scrub the pots with.”

“And, what? I just take a lighter to the rock?”

“Just take a lighter to the rock.”

A class of sophomores walked past the kitchen and into the library. Cecil held his breath. He dropped his voice even deeper.

“You’ll figure it out.”

The tire gauge and sponge were easy enough to find. It took me a couple tries, but after a few weeks, I fell into a rhythm, and was taking hits like a fucking pro. 

I still brought weed to the river to drown everyone’s suspicions, but after a while, it became nearly impossible to hide. When Brody and I were scheduled for the night shift at Julie’s Diner, I’d have him cover me while I lit up my pipe behind the dumpsters through snowstorms. Brody didn’t know what was up, but he had my back, no questions asked. Like a true motherfuckin’ Devil. 

I started getting nervous and developed these mad headaches after a couple months. Autumn never asked, but she could tell something was up. I was picking up shifts at Julie’s Diner left and right in order to fund and fuel my impulses. I saw Autumn less and less that winter. Holton was no idiot, and I could tell he was starting to worry. When the snow began to melt, we went up to the river late one night, just the two of us. Holton had a handle of Jack in his fist as we sat down in the river valley. 

“So, dude. How are things?” He took a swig from the bottle and offered it to me. Holton wasn’t a small talk kind of guy. It was all cheap bullshit. If he was speaking with you, he had a reason. I could already feel the pressure of his words like something else was on the other end of them.

“Well man, shit like always, I guess.” I took the Jack from him and held it for a moment before tipping it back. Watching him roll his eyes, I took a second gulp for good measure.

“You know what the fuck I’m talking about, Kosak. Don’t you pull this shit, or I’ll beat your fuckin’ ass, man.” The subtle warmth of early spring was settling in, and under his thick jean jacket, Holton’s long, blonde hair was stuck to his neck with sweat. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. I balled my hands into fists and grasped at a straw.

“How long until your mom is out?”

“Two months,” he laughed. “I mean, the bitch got caught drunk driving. I hope she knows how stupid she is.” Holton took a long swig from the bottle. “What’s the story on your dad?” 

It was my turn to drink.

“He beat the shit out of my mom, dude.” I took a long gulp.

“Well, I fuckin’ know that. I mean, is he finally doing time?”

I shook my head, “I can’t get her to press charges. I tried to talk some sense into her, but she’s afraid he’ll kill her or some shit.”

“Aw, that’s real fucked up.” The bottle was getting lighter.

“You’re telling me, dumbass.” I laughed at him and he slapped me on the back.

“You . . . you know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna go to your house, and when he comes home, we’re gonna beat the shit out of him.”

I nearly choked on the booze. Now my old man was a scrawny piece of shit, he had a temper like a struck match: quick and unforgiving. He beat my mom when he came home late, or when he had too much to drink. He beat on Mom when she’d talk back to him, or when he’d lost a job, or when the redwings lost a game. He’d been beating on Mom ever since I was young, but never once did I think of taking my knuckles to his teeth. 

“Oh, fo’ real? I . . . I don’t know.” I was starting to feel really dizzy from the liquor and could barely make out the front of Holton’s Metallica t-shirt.

“Kosak, you gotta stand up to that son-of-a-bitch. And . . . and I’m gonna help you.”

I imagined, for a moment, what it would feel like to pound Dad’s face in. His blood on my bruised hands, his body crumbling beneath my blows. Him looking into my eyes as I drove him into the dirt. Would he scream, or just sit and take it? Never did I think he’d actually get what was coming to him. It made me feel nauseous, and yet, sort of powerful. I popped my knuckles, fighting the urge to pull my pipe from beneath my coat and take a hit. Despite his escalating drunkenness, Holton was watching me closely. 

“Wait, are we really doing this?”

Holton finished off the handle and smashed it on the rocks. “Fuck yeah,” he stood up, and wobbled a bit. Then he reached down and yanked me off the grass. He looked at me for a long while, then wrinkled his eyebrows. “You sure nothin’s up, Kosak?”

I took a deep breath, burying the thoughts of my pipe. “Nope.” 

He shrugged, and we went off to find Holton’s baseball bat.


On our way back to the trailer park, we placed carryout orders at Julie’s: cheese fries and bacon burgers, because Holton said you can’t beat ass on an empty stomach. Brody was on the clock, and he slipped us a couple of strawberry milkshakes from the back. Once we arrived home, I cut the milkshakes with booze, and Holton scarfed the fries down in seconds. I wasn’t too hungry. 

We made camp in the living room and drank through another bottle. Holton sprawled out, his legs draped over the arm of the couch. Sometime after the sun went down, Mom stepped out from the hall with wet hair and red eyes, clenching a full mug of coffee. The ceramic twitched in her fist, and clattered against the table for a moment before she set it down. She looked at me with deep, tired eyes, and I watched as she realized Holton and I had been marinating in booze. She flinched, then looked down at the cup of coffee that she had, no doubt, left out for Dad on the table, and I watched as the last of its steam rose and mingled with lingering cigarette smoke. 

Holton flicked ash on the table and looked over his shoulder.

“Good night, Mrs. Kosak.”

She nodded quickly, as if by accident, “Night, boys,” and hurried off to the back of the trailer.

We listened as a freight train passed through town, its whistle long and droning, echoing through the wheat fields. I looked to Holton, who was at this point, very drunk, and puffing on another cigarette while cautiously thumbing through a literary commentary on Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. He might never have passed high school, but there was no questioning Holton Casey’s literacy. He always carried a book in his bag, and it was like waiting for a joke to unfold seeing him there, drunk on the couch, reading some philosophical bullshit. 

I was dying to get my pipe out.

The shitty porch light on the front of the trailer flickered in the window. I shut the curtains and slipped outside. 

I pulled out my lighter behind the bushes on the other side of the trailer. There were no windows on that side, and all the other lots behind us had fallen dark. I took a big sigh and slipped the pipe from my coat pocket. The moon was huge in the open sky, and it reflected an orange glow in the chrome of my tire gauge pipe. It was peaceful and a bit chilly. I tugged my coat closed and flicked open my old green Zippo. Carefully, I grazed the flame against the white rock at the end of my pipe, and listened to it crackle like strawberry Pop Rocks.  The thought of smoking Pop Rocks made me laugh. I slowly rotated the tube back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, before quickly latching my lips onto the opposite end and inhaling deeply. Finally. I flipped the lighter closed and leaned hard against the side of the trailer. 

A crack high was nothing like a marijuana high. Not even close. A crack high was deeper, more lingering. Like the flightiness you feel in your chest as you jump off a cliff into the river, or down that first coaster hill at the fair. It was quick and euphoric, filling my lungs and the blood in my veins, but never entirely satisfying. Never could get enough. Always on the edge of fulfilling. I thought of Autumn¾her creamy waist and wavy blond locks, how she’d sit right on my lap and kiss me long and good¾and I knew I loved her. She was like a drug, a rush, euphoric. The sting in my chest told me I was really beginning to miss her.


I wrapped up my pipe before I could take another hit, and shoved it deep in my coat.

“What the fuck are you doing back here?” 

I looked up to see Holton rounding the corner. 

“What the fuck is that?”

“It’s nothing, man¾”

“The fuck it is! Do you think I’m fucking stupid? Is that. . . . You smell like my mom. Is there meth here? Are you doing goddamn meth back here?”

“No! You know I’d never¾”

“You must think I’m a fucking idiot. Hand it over.”

“What? No, I¾”

“Kosak, I swear to fucking Satan, I will beat your goddamn ass. Hand it the fuck over.”

“I just¾”

“I’m not playing!” He shoved me hard against the trailer and I didn’t fight back. “Now.”

I could feel a ripe bruise beginning to bloom where he shoved me, and I winced when I reached into my coat. I clutched the pipe, and Holton yanked it from my hand. 

“A crack pipe? Are you fucking serious?”

I looked down at my shoes and swallowed my brimming tears.

“How long have you been doing this shit?”

“Couple months.”

“Christ.” He put his head in his hands and cringed like it was his fault. “Did Autumn know? Of course she didn’t¾and you lied to me? Man. . . .”

“It fucking killed me, Holton. Honest. You’ve seen what drugs can do. I’m hurting, man.” 

I looked him in the eye and wanted to cry. I wanted to sit with Holton, and I wanted him to let me cry. And I knew he wouldn’t give me shit for having tears, but I was on the verge of bursting, and I was afraid I might not be able to stop. My skin felt foreign and it filled me with disgust. What would Autumn think of me? The tears streaked my cheeks. She would be so upset. How could I tell her? She would hate me. Christ, she should fucking hate me.

Holton looked down at me, a crumpled heap against the side of the trailer, and his face softened. If anyone understood what I was going through, it was him. He put the pipe in his back pocket and pulled me into a big hug. “I know, man. I know . . . What the fuck. I’m sorry.” 

It was hard to tell if it was the booze talking, or if he was taking on my pain, but he gave my shoulder a squeeze, and I swear I saw him cry too. We stood there for a long while in that hug, partially because I wasn’t strong enough to pull away, but mostly because I didn’t want to. Holton holding me together in the middle of the night, letting me know it was okay that I had fucked up, that everything would turn out, and that he was there for me, meant the whole fucking world. After a while, he leaned back against the side of the trailer and lit a cigarette. “Love you, man,” he said with the square dangling from his lips. “Oh, and we’re ditching this in the river,” he patted his pocket, “after we take care of your old man, of course.” 

I tried to hide the obvious panic in my eyes, as I had completely forgotten what we had set out to do that night. But it had to be done. No looking back now. I felt a pit in my stomach as I came down from my high, and in the cool spring breeze, I started sweat.


From the side of the house, we watched a rusted, black pickup pull into the trailer park. We turned and looked at each other, then Holton lumbered into the house with his cigarette still lit. He leaned in the doorway with his bat wedged under his arm, and he took a long drag before squishing the cigarette into the porch with the heel of his boot. I could see the anger in his body grow, his eyes grew darker, his shoulders hunched up like a vulture, and I was startin’ to think I might throw up. 


My dad pulled the pickup ’round the back and left it parked in the grass. His hair was greasy, his eye sockets were dark and tired, and when he slammed the rusted door of his truck, I just wished he would have dropped dead right there.

“Well, well, degenerates! What’s the occasion?” He walked to the front of the trailer with a grubby smile and his arms spread wide.

“Shut the fuck up, Perry.” Holton gritted his teeth and spat in my dad’s direction. I slowly walked around the front and stood on the porch beside Holton. He was so big that his body ate up the doorway. Holton swung his bat down from under his arm and tapped the end of it on the edge of the steps.

“Is that any way to greet your father, boys?” Dad gave me a look like you better move your ass or you’ll regret it later. He rubbed his tired eyes like he was ready for bed, but I just knew if we let him through that door, he’d guzzle some beers with the fridge wide-the-fuck-open, then give Mom a good slug to the face before passing out in the hallway. Her cheek would be purple and swollen by morning. The thought of it made my blood boil. I didn’t realize how much he left a bad taste in my mouth, like Holton’s words that night had made me aware of the buds on my tongue, and the newfound disgust was overwhelming and unbearable. I didn’t budge from Holton’s side.

“I don’t have a goddamn father.” Holton tapped the bat on the steps again. “And you sure as hell ain’t nobody’s father.”

I glanced at the side window. Mom’s curtains were drawn shut. She was either knocked out on way too much melatonin or pretending to sleep. Either way, she wouldn’t be leaving her room, I knew that much. I could imagine her in her powder blue nightgown, curled up under a weighted quilt. Her dull, graying hair would be braided down the center of her back, like it always was. She would be tired. She was always tired. You could see it in her cloudy blue eyes, that she had run out of tears years ago. Like she had given up and she was hollow now. I wondered if she expected to get hit, if she was anticipating the pain and bracing for it each night as she got into bed.  How could she live like that? I thought of Autumn¾her soft green eyes and tiny fingers that I would hold in the palm of my hands like flower petals¾and I wanted to cry. I thought of her father, how possessive and aggressive that piece of shit was, and I knew in an instant what I would be capable of if that man, or any other man, ever laid hands on Autumn.

Dad walked closer, and I watched Holton’s muscles tense. I wondered if my muscles tensed like that too. I couldn’t feel anything but the breeze that tossed my hair. My body was numb.

“I’m sure you boys don’t want any trouble.” He eyed the bat in Holton’s grip and took another step. 

“Too late for that.”

I held my breath as Dad came closer. I could now see the lines etched in his forehead and the yellowing of his canines.  I wanted to yell at him, to make him hurt on the inside, but I was frozen stiff like a corpse. Holton looked over at me, I had turned white as a sheet. He nodded at me and patted my shoulder. As Dad placed one foot on the porch, Holton took that first swing, right at Dad’s knee. 

My father didn’t make a sound as he collapsed on the grass. There was only an intense, sharp inhale, and a guttural gurgling from the back of his throat. All the air had been knocked out of him as if his lungs had come loose from his body. He crumpled instantly, and I thought for a moment that he might pass out. Then, he let out a pitiful yelp and gritted his teeth hard. Holton’s eyes were still filled with rage. He didn’t even smile. Just stood there, looming over my father like he was a meal.

“Argh! What the fuck! WHAT THE FUCK!” My father suddenly found his voice. 

“Oh look, it speaks.” Holton looked at me and I could tell he was still drunk. “Here.” He reached over and handed me a beer from the cooler in the living room. I gripped the bottle tightly. “This’ll help.”

“AH! OH, DAMN IT!” My father cradled his twisted leg, grunting with each breath like  a hunted hog. I chugged the beer and smashed the bottle on the steps.

“What the fuck! I’m gonna kill you. Ah! Piece of shit, urgh!” he mumbled into the dirt. All I could do was stand there thinking of Mom while I watched him squirm. I thought of Mom and her meek voice and her frail body and all the times she woke up with blackened eyes, and I quickly realized how gratifying my father’s shrieks of pain were.

“Oh, do shut the hell up, Perry, before I bring this bat down on your ribcage.” Holton rolled his eyes and my father groaned.

“Urgh. You . . . you’re just gonna let him do this to me? Ahh, I’ll kill you both! I fucking swear!”

I felt my feet begin to move my numb body, and Holton nodded in approval as I walked down the front steps and onto the grass. He offered me his bat.

“Not my style.” Then I turned to the ground, “You did this to yourself.” 

I stopped, looking over his crumpled body. At this moment, he was not the man that had painted my mother’s flushed cheekbones with purple bruises. This was a frail sparrow, a frightened animal, and in seeing him so reduced, I realized how fucking insignificant he was. 

He groaned weakly, and I gave him a good, long look before bringing my foot down on his head.

There was a crunch, and then a shriek that shook the dirt beneath my boots. I stumbled back, and my father looked up at me, his face broken and bloody, his eyes brimming with horror. I smiled at him for a moment, and before I could think, brought the toe of my boot into his gut, first once, then again, then again. Over and over, until everything went fuzzy. I didn’t stop until I faintly heard Holton shout from over my shoulder.

I looked up and the moon looked back, large and radiant blue in the black of night. Its glow rivaled the golden flicker of the porch light. It was all very calm, and the air carried a silence I hadn’t known I was longing for. Holton cast a shadow that stretched across the soggy grass and fell over my father’s motionless body. I looked back at Holton, the lantern left dark chasms over his eye sockets. Like he was hollowed. 


Only when I took a step closer did I realize the worry smeared across his face. 

“Kosak, we need to go.” He raised his eyebrows and shifted a bit from side to side, which made me uneasy. 

I took my first real breath of the night, and my whole body shuddered, my hands raw and shaking in the cold. I turned back to the lawn and immediately fixated on my father’s brown leather jacket. The stitching was loose, and the elbows were worn and faded. There was a slight twitch in the fabric. He was breathing, barely. The son of a bitch was nothing if not persistent. I brought my wrist to my forehead, sweaty and throbbing with a brewing migraine. I felt my lip quiver, so I sucked it in, and bit down hard, until the taste of iron grew overwhelming. I didn’t know whether I was pissed or relieved, maybe a little of both. But I felt my mouth move, and when the words “How fucking dare you” left my lips, it surprised me, and I knew Holton was right. I turned to Holton, eyes burning, head pounding, and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Okay,” he said, and we ran.


We arrived at the river valley two hours before sunrise, and the water was calm for once. Holton unzipped his jacket as I sat on the rocks, and he stood there chuckin’ pebbles into the waves for a while. Neither of us spoke as we slowly sobered in the darkness. My temples were still fuzzy with a pain that I could almost ignore by continually biting the skin off my dry lips. I don’t remember thinking, like my mind had been wiped clean. It was as if we had never left the rocks that night. Like we had been sittin’ by the river for hours, just sippin’ on a handle of Jack ’till the world froze around us. I’m not sure how long we sat there in silence, but after some time, the sky began to brighten, and Holton stopped throwing rocks.

“We don’t have to talk about it.” He looked down at me, searching my face for answers. His hair had grown greasy with sweat and was plastered on his pink cheeks.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“It’s done then.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll just lay low.” A deep orange bled into the horizon and shot out across the sky like a sunburst. “Morning already?” Holton jumped, silly, and shook his head like a dog. “You ready, man?”


Holton pulled my pipe from his coat, and my tongue became stale. 

“You wanna do the honors?” He held out the tire gauge. I hesitated. A heavy breeze off the water whipped a strand of hair into Holton’s mouth, which he quickly spat out. “You got this.”

He put the pipe in my hand. 

I felt the weight of the chrome in my clammy palm. The sun rose higher, finding pockets in the clouds to slip through, and I became hyper aware of my lungs. Felt each rise and fall of my chest with great intensity.

The pipe grew heavier.

I looked at Holton and he raised his eyebrows.

“You need a push?” He slapped my back. “Tell you what, I’m gonna count, and you’re gonna chuck that piece of shit out over the rocks, and if you don’t throw it by the count of three, I’ll punch you in the fuckin’ face.” He cocked his arm back and gave a toothy grin.

I looked out at the river valley: at the cranes in the bank snapping at trout under the water’s surface, how the morning sun reflected off the waves, washing everything in a reflective, dewy, gold. 

The pipe went out over the rocks, and the moment it left my fingers, I let a couple tears slip. Holton never told. He never told a soul about one damn thing that happened that night. Not one, not even the fuckin’ Devils. I’ll never get over that as long as I live.

Before we left the river, Holton said to me, “Go see Autumn.”

“Yeah, I’d better.”

“Go see her now. She needs you, Kosak.”

I nodded. Holton was right. Now, more than ever.


Maria Kowal is a fiction graduate from Columbia College Chicago living on the Northwest Side of the city. She is currently working on a novel-in-stories, Mourning River, that explores death and how it morphs relationships. You can find her stories, poetry, and contact information at her website