Issues Winter 2020-21

Natalie Benson-Greer

We Can’t Drown Like Them

 It was Daniel Hayes’ first day at Pickens High School. According to his menthol-stained probation officer, he was set for a fresh start. He had just spent four months in juvie for punching his gym coach at Hadley High School. Everyone at Pickens had already heard the news about the incoming senior before he even entered the building. In fact, Chelsea had just finished telling Aly about it as she tightened her hair into a ponytail in the main hallway. Aly stood against the lockers, holding her notebook, quickly clicking her pen and not thinking much of the gossip. Then the big metal doors to the main hallway of Pickens High School swung open to reveal Daniel Hayes in all his glory. 

Conversations dropped off to murmurs as the scattered high schoolers turned to get a good look at Daniel Hayes. Aly looked on with a slight smirk while the clicking of her pen slowed down. He walked with a steadiness that sent shivers through the rest of Aly Hartman’s classmates. But she relaxed back against the lockers and watched his every move. Dark wispy hair fell down his forehead, a black t-shirt hung off his toned muscles and his long legs stepped past onlookers in torn jeans, and black scuff-covered boots. The fluorescent lighting that made her feel green and ghostly bounced off his jaw in a way she’d only seen in movies. He walked down the hallway as if he’d been down it a hundred times. He didn’t flinch at the snickers from the uppity soccer girls or the darting eyes of the freshman. The tension rolled right off him. 

Chelsea had only taken a glance over her shoulder before turning back to her mirror and dragging the wand of strawberry lip gloss over her lips. Aly kept her dream-dazed eyes on Daniel Hayes, her shoulder blades shifted back as she tried to keep her cool. As he passed, he broke his mellow, forward gaze and turned his square chin and blue eyes to meet hers. The glance was long and intense and somehow more important than anything that had happened to Aly in weeks, or maybe even months. Aly nearly lost her mind. She felt herself peeling apart, sweat beading on her forehead, lips hanging open, letting out a breath as he walked farther down the hall. Chelsea interrupted her impending crush. “Someone’s got a staring problem.”

“Who? Him?” Aly asked with her head turned toward Daniel Hayes, who was gliding away. 

Chelsea slapped her shoulder. “No! You.”

“Well, you didn’t tell me he was hot.”

Chelsea glared at Aly for a second and faintly shook her head. 

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Aly knew why. She’d become wildly caught up on Daniel Hayes in just one glance. Chelsea started laughing, tightening her ponytail again and shutting her locker.

“You and your bad boys. Come on, let’s get to class.”

Aly thought about what Chelsea said for the rest of the day. She thought of her fifth-grade boyfriend, Seth Hinke, who was known for throwing rocks at cars from the back of the school bus. She thought about her sixth-grade crush on Ronnie Stinson who got suspended for skateboarding in the halls and smoking weed behind the cafeteria dumpster. She thought of her seventeen-day relationship with Greg Ikleheimer in seventh grade, brought on by him shoplifting a Snickers bar for her from the corner store, and how that all ended when she found out he had also shoplifted a Sprite for Carrie Albrecht, the weird horse girl. 

While leaning on Chelsea’s white Ford Fiesta in the student parking lot waiting on a ride home, Aly thought of her eighth-grade boyfriend, Luke Ringer, who had gotten, not one, but two concussions by wrecking stolen golf carts. She didn’t think of herself as a rebel; she was just very, very bored and would do almost anything to not be bored, including hanging out with boys who didn’t care for rules or authority. But did that really matter? At least she wasn’t the one doing drugs or getting arrested. Then Daniel Hayes appeared in front of her. He walked right up to Aly with that vast confidence and flashed a smile that was warm and blinding, almost dangerous to look at. 

He stuck out his hand, “Hi, I’m Danny.” 

Aly knew she looked dumbfounded and tried to stretch her face into a smile while she shook his hand. His hand was strong, and for a kid who was known to throw punches, it was surprisingly soft.

“I’m Aly.”


 Aly and Danny had a typical small-town first date. They drove thirty minutes in Danny’s blue pickup truck to the nearest thing of beauty: Lake Silva was tucked into a valley deep in the Appalachian Mountains. At night, the dark mountains cut across the glowing mess of stars and blue sky. Decades, or maybe even a century ago, someone bought the little town of Silva and decided that it’d be a nice place for a lake. So they broke the dam and filled the valley in with water. Mailboxes, street signs, a jewelry store, a bank, a courthouse, all drowned right there. If it was windy enough, you could hear the old church bells ring. When Aly and Chelsea were kids, they’d swim out into the center of the lake. On those really windy days, the low ring of the bell seemed to swim through the water and up Aly’s spine. She thought of the chiming as Danny told her how his distant family used to live in the town of Silva.

They stayed in Danny’s truck bed that night and laughed and kissed. Danny sat up, leaning against the cab of the truck with the back windows open so they could hear the rock station playing quietly. Aly sat next to him, his arm around her shoulder so she slumped against his chest. It didn’t feel like the first time they’d been this close. It felt so easy. 

“You’re excited because you’re going on a date with the hot new guy and you’re nervous that he’s not gonna like you, but that’s stupid. Aly, there is a reason we don’t talk to anyone at school. It’s because they’re all the same boring rich kids with no backbones. Accept it, Danny came up to you for a reason. Go get him,” Chelsea had told Aly earlier that day, during their sixth phone call about the date. Aly tried to remember this as she watched him closely, getting lost in his strong movements and the smooth words coming off his lips. For a while, she couldn’t place what was going on under that hard, angled face. He was mysterious but not cold. All she could do was trust the few smirks he gave and that warm buzzing in her gut. 

Danny was stoic, always looked like he had some sort of plan on his mind. He snuck glances at Aly; her blonde hair was down, and she wasn’t wearing much makeup. He liked her and her high cheekbones and pointed nose. She was small but not shy, and something about her just made him a little wild inside. He knew this was gonna be something. Hell, it had to be. She was the only one in town that seemed to be giving him a chance. He was nervous, trying to decide if he was talking enough. He spent so much of his time trying to keep his head down, not because of what people thought of him, but because he had to deal with the consequences when he got angry.

But at that moment, Aly Hartman was sitting with him, asking about his family and music and what his ideal weekend was and where he wanted to travel. She wanted to know him. He had to decide if he was going to let her in, but it didn’t feel like he had any control. She was already in.

As the night went on, any remaining nervousness washed away. Danny answered her questions and asked them in return. He told her about the kids he grew up with in Hadley and how they’d go off-roading on four-wheelers. She told him about her and Chelsea stealing brandy from Chelsea’s mom and driving to Lake Silva to go night swimming. They laughed and fell into each other and went back-and-forth telling stories of giddy stupidity. Aly’s head fell back when she laughed, and once she banged it into the back window, making them laugh harder. She let out a breathless, “Shit,” as Danny cupped his hand over the back of her head.

 “Be careful.” He kissed her forehead. She put her head on his shoulder and they fell quiet for a few minutes. 

“So Aly, do you think we’ll make it out of here?”

“What?” Aly looked at him with knotted eyebrows and a soft smile. 

“Out of Pickens or any of these small, boring towns.”

“I think so. We have to. We can’t get stuck here like the rest of them.” Aly felt more sure about that than almost anything. Danny smiled wide hearing her say it. His mind flashed forward to them making it out together. He felt silly and almost crazy thinking like that on the first date. But finding her in a place like this felt nothing short of fate. 

 Danny drove Aly home, and at every curve in the mountain road he’d place his hand on her knee as if to keep her steady. Aly liked the heat of his hand and would shift her fingers over her mouth to keep from smiling too widely. She didn’t want to lose her cool in front of him. It scared her how much she liked him. As they drove back to Pickens, the two of them were more quiet than they’d been all night. She watched the trees blur past. He tapped the steering wheel to the rhythm of the radio. They weren’t tired, just thinking. Both of them sat fighting that falling feeling in their guts. Both knowing damn well they couldn’t stop themselves. He parked his truck at the top of Aly’s gravel driveway, which led to the clump of trailers down the slope by the creek bed. All of this was hidden by a curtain of old wiry trees covered in kudzu vines. 

Danny thought about how secretive and mystical it looked. He was dropping off this beautiful girl to go back to her own realm, one he was worried he might never get enough of. He interrupted his own thoughts to kiss her. It was a kiss so determined and sweet that Aly knew she may not get a kiss like it ever again. So she hung her lips on his for a long time. She let her hand float up and graze his jaw. She pulled back and felt her heart bouncing in her chest. 

“I should get going.” She unbuckled her seatbelt and hopped out of the truck. As she walked toward her trailer and passed the curtain of trees and vines, Danny yelled out after her.

“Aly, don’t be a stranger.”

“I wouldn’t dare.”

She made her way down to her front door, stopping on the small wooden porch. She let her head fall back and a big smile crash across her face. Her arms hung at her sides as she looked up at the dark sky, which was spotted with stars. All around her the leaves in the trees whistled, the creek bubbled, the crickets buzzed, and the low metallic clinging and murmuring of trailers being lived in all faded out. Aly took a big deep breath, one that cleared out her sinuses. She let herself be relentlessly ecstatic for a minute, letting all the good excited energy swirl around in her. She imagined all the time she’d spend with Danny, having his jawline scooped in her hand or his sculpted arms around her shoulders. Aly heard her ma moving around in the trailer and pulled herself out of the dream and tucked all that wild happiness away. 


The two kept on dating, spending their time driving around town, parking in abandoned cul-de-sacs and the parking lots of closed stores. They kissed in grocery store aisles and behind held-up binders at school. He taught her how to drive with her knees and all about rock music. 

When Danny’s dad was on an overnight shift at the factory, which was almost always, the two would play house. They’d sit out in the kitchen; Danny cooked and talked urgently about the new Nirvana album, and Aly listened, trying not to giggle at how excited he was. Danny Hayes may have been some stone-cold brooder, but he had a big, wild heart. She loved when he let out his silly and excited, boyish charm just as much as she loved the excitement of being with the town delinquent. Aly couldn’t help falling for that sweet thrill of being let in on the secret. 

Sometimes they’d talk about the bad things. How they were both from down on their luck, poor, single-parent homes. Aly never really knew her dad, just knew her ma had chased him off with a rifle after a fight. Danny’s ma had died of cancer when he was two. When they had these talks, they would lie down in Danny’s bed, limbs intertwined, and he would run his fingers through Aly’s hair, scratching her scalp just how she liked. When the bad things came up, the conversation always turned to how they were gonna leave. They were gonna pack up Danny’s truck and drive to a city and get an apartment and figure it out, away from Pickens. 

It was in these quiet moments together that Danny knew he was being given a second chance by Aly. In her eyes, he could be a different and better person. He could be someone his dad was proud of. He could be someone other than the angry loner everyone was scared to be around. When she rested her head on his chest or held his hand or kissed him, he realized she felt safe with him. He couldn’t think of a more important thing to be to someone.


Aly and Chelsea were used to being the loners in town, but with Aly and Danny dating, things changed. They weren’t just the quiet loners hating the popular group from afar, now there was tension from both sides. Danny was a troublemaker, even when he was keeping his head down. People didn’t trust the intense brooding and dark clothes and certainly not the rumors about his time in juvie. One day as school let out, Jackson Hurd, soccer player and heir to the local electric company, walked past the three of them in the school parking lot. Aly and Chelsea were leaning against the Ford Fiesta while Danny smoked a cigarette. 

Jackson, trailed by a few friends, yelled over to them, “Hey, y’all better be careful before he ends up turning y’all to criminals too!” Danny wasn’t mad. He looked down and shook his head with a smile. Aly and Chelsea squinted at Jackson and his friends, who were squealing with laughter. 

Aly shouted back, “Too late Jackson!” Danny and Chelsea cracked up. 

Chelsea yelled, “Yeah, we’re planning an armed robbery at the bank, wanna join?”

Jackson shut up and kept walking. People in town loved making digs at Danny, and Aly and Chelsea loved having a reason to tell them to screw off. The uptight rich kids could get as mean and judgmental as they wanted. But they’d never really do anything, not with Danny around. A day didn’t go by without this sort of interaction, and every time the three of them laughed it off. There was a power to being considered the town punks. It wasn’t so much the attention but the excitement of knowing they really didn’t belong in that sad, rundown place. 


It didn’t take long for the small-town gossip to catch up with Luanne, Aly’s ma. She knew within a week of the two dating that Danny had been in juvie. At first, she was enraged with Aly for being so flippant and dating him. She wanted to tear the rifle off her wall and storm up to that gangly boy and put the fear of God in him. But she didn’t. She had raised Aly as a rule breaker and to go after what she wanted. Unfortunately, teenagers often want stupid things. 

Danny would drive his truck down the gravel path to the trailer and drop off Aly after their dates. Luanne would stand in the living room peering out the window, waiting. When Aly would come inside, she’d pick up on her ma’s sour expression immediately. And every time, Luanne would respond to Aly’s sheepish look with some vague warning like “he’s no good” or “watch yourself.” There would be no use in telling her not to see him or giving her an earlier curfew. Luanne saw too much of her own strong will in Aly to try to stop her. 


The more time they spent together, the more Aly didn’t just set aside Danny’s rough edges, she began to enjoy them. She leaned into the fast driving, cigarettes, and loud grunge music. Danny lasted a few months before getting into a fight in front of her. Some guy at a graduation party for Danny’s senior class tried stealing his beer, and that’s when Danny turned jaded and hit the kid square in the nose. Blood poured out everywhere. Danny got into little altercations like that every few months. Every time, Aly’s heart beat fast and rattled, but she liked the pumping of her blood. She was never scared for Danny. She didn’t like that he was upset, but she admired how he always finished the fights. He never stole some kid’s lunch money or hit someone for no good reason. He had morals; he just dealt with them . . . physically. But at the end of the day, he’d turn to her with a pure sweetness she just couldn’t resist.

After the fights, Danny felt this twinge of shame. He couldn’t control that switch that made him lash out. What really scared him was the thought of losing Aly over it. He knew plenty of people that wouldn’t stick around for a hothead like him. But every time Danny got angry, Aly looked at him with kind eyes, running a light hand over his shoulder. She never looked scared, just worried for him. He was starting to feel real lucky. He’d found this girl who was fearless and kind.         

Chelsea and Aly had been friends since middle school. Chelsea had watched Aly get caught up on delinquents for years, but she knew Danny was different. They’d been together for a little over a year, and she could see them growing into better people. Sure, she missed spending time alone with Aly, but she wasn’t one to sulk. She liked seeing Aly in this new light. Aly had always been honest with Chelsea, but with other people, she sort of sunk away. Now, she was more blunt and biting. Danny brought out some fire in her, and maybe it annoyed Chelsea that it took this bad boy to get her out of her shell¾but at least Aly was sticking up for herself. And hell, with Danny around so much, Chelsea really did like his company too. She liked having another person on their side of Pickens. She even cheered him on when he threw a bottle at a passing truck driver who whistled at Aly. He was a wild card but for the right reasons. 

In April of ’93 when Chelsea had decided she really did trust Danny, Aly stomped up to her car in the student parking lot with mascara running down her face and smacked a positive pregnancy test on the window. Chelsea’s face dropped, her eyes wide and her mouth hung open. Suddenly, a great sense of responsibility overcame her. She reached across the car and rolled down the window. She could hear Aly wheezing incoherently.

“Get your pee stick off my window and get in!”

The two of them drove off to Chelsea’s farm property and parked along the edge. In the distance, a big storm was forming. Aly hadn’t said a single word since she got in the car at school. Chelsea tensed in her seat, she had no idea what to do or say at a time like this. The oncoming thunderstorm seemed to pull all the noise and oxygen out of the air. Chelsea had never liked storms too much, they made her nervous¾but right now there was something much bigger brewing in her best friend. 

Chelsea couldn’t take the quiet anymore. “It’s gonna be all right.”

Aly let out this cry, or maybe a yelp that sounded equally helpless and angry. She wiped away the tears and snot. Then it all erupted out of her. “No, it’s not. Danny’s gonna leave, Ma’s gonna disown me. It’s just gonna be me and this baby in some single-room trailer that might as well be a storage shed on the side of the old highway, living off canned fruit and saltines. I’m screwed!”

Chelsea listened to Aly’s outrageous spiraling for a few more minutes. She waited until Aly took a breath to say anything. “So, you’re keeping it then?”

“Well, of course, Chelsea,” Aly said almost annoyed, wiping her tears and straightening in her seat. Somehow, Chelsea’s question had given her some clarity. For whatever reason, she knew in her gut that she wanted this baby. Chelsea stared ahead at the storm that was now twice as big. Across the acres and acres of flat farmland, she could see the gray, overcast sky deepening into the mass in the center. There were no birds in the sky, just leaves getting plucked from distant lines of trees. Aly had her feet up on the dashboard like usual. She thought about Danny and this baby. A bolt of lightning cut down the center of the sky. Chelsea clutched the edge of her seat. She wasn’t sure why she had never gotten completely past her fear of storms. 

Chelsea drove Aly to Danny’s house. “You sure you don’t want me to wait?”

“No, this might take a while.” Aly took a long, deep breath and gave Chelsea a hug over the car console. It was a long hug, almost like they were saying goodbye in some way. 

Chelsea patted her back and pulled away. “It’s gonna be okay.” 

Aly was already crying again when she knocked. Danny opened the door and his face fell. He wrapped his arms around her. She cried the words “I’m pregnant” into his arm. The words were so muffled that he didn’t hear what she said. She pulled herself away and looked at him for a long time. 

“I’m pregnant.” 

Danny went into shock like any nineteen-year-old boy would. He stood there silently on his front stoop, mouth open, eyes wide and staring blankly. He had been faintly holding onto her hand and without his face relaxing one bit, lifted her finger to his mouth and gave a light kiss before turning slowly and going back inside. 

Aly stood at the front door, confused for a minute, before slowly following him into the house. Aly looked at him with her head cocked to the side, waiting for a response. He began to pace back-and-forth through the living room. His face was serious with forehead wrinkles and that sharp unmoving jaw. One hand rested on top of his head, with his fingers running through his dark hair, making it stick out in all directions. Aly took a seat on the couch to wait on him. She tried not to return to a state of panic, but after what felt like hours, she couldn’t take the quiet. 


When she said his name, he stopped his pacing and looked at her. A wild, goofy smile cracked across his face, so starkly different from the cold panic he’d been in that Aly worried if he had lost his mind. “Oh, baby.” Tears grouped in the corners of his eyes, and he fell around her on the couch. Aly felt his warmth and his jaw poking into her shoulder. He gripped her shoulders. He ran a hand softly over her stomach, pulling up her shirt as if he would already be able to see a bump. They looked at each other for a long time. He couldn’t find the words and neither could she. They kissed one of those kisses that is stuck in time, one that filled that small two-bedroom brick house and the entire town for a moment.

Aly and Danny must’ve looked like ants in the center of the gray couch in Aly’s trailer as Luanne sat in her recliner, a crossword puzzle in her hand. Aly did most of the talking, and anytime she got nervous, which was most of the time, she’d grip Danny’s hand so hard he felt his knuckles meld together. Luanne asked questions like she was interviewing the two for a job. Her face was straight and flat, unreadable: A brick wall with a biting tongue. This wasn’t unusual, but it made Danny and Aly more nervous now than ever before. She railed the two teens with questions. She asked Danny if he could support a family on his factory job, she asked Aly if she was staying in school, she asked where they were going to live. They answered the best they could, Aly with earnest rambling and Danny with an uncomfortable politeness that stuck out in the room. Thirty minutes into the questions, Luanne stood up, grabbed her cigarettes from the kitchen drawer, and walked outside. She stood outside the living room window and continued the questions through the screen.

“Ma, why you standing out there?”

“The smoke is bad for the baby.”

Aly unclenched Danny’s hand and smiled to herself. 


As soon as Aly started showing, things turned sour at school. The tension shifted from her troublemaking boyfriend to her and her stomach. She got grumpy and protective. Luanne’s deal was for her to keep going to school for as long as possible and then get her GED. Chelsea hung around her even more at school, ready to snark off to any of the judgmental sporty girls. The two of them would stand in the halls, Chelsea glaring back at whoever looked like they had something to say. It seemed like everyone was against them, especially that group of damn varsity players. No one was rich or important in Pickens, but the kids on the varsity soccer teams sure thought they were. They all had parents with money flowing in and out of the local government and school district. They walked around like they owned the damn place. They whispered and would dart side glances at anyone too poor to care about varsity sports. 

Without Danny by her side at school, the real mean ones from the popular crowd got fearless. She tried to ignore it, but with her hormones, it was hard not to react. When Aly complained to Danny about her classmates being jackasses, neither of them were laughing anymore. Danny hated not being there for her, and he felt that deep rooted need to protect her and their kid. He had never thought about being a dad before, but he was starting to like the idea. He’d pick her up after work, and they’d talk about the future and proving everyone wrong and moving away and raising a family and being happy. But both of them spent a lot of time being scared of what was coming. They were afraid of being parents, afraid of not getting out, and afraid of driving each other away. 

Aly was five months pregnant when Claire Wilkerson stomped up in her khakis and running shoes and asked, “So what? Are you gonna buy a graduation cap for your baby too?” Aly had a slushie in one hand and dumped the icy red pulp upside down onto Claire Wilkerson’s head. Claire stood mouth open, hands sprawled out in shock, covered in the sticky syrup. Aly walked out before anyone could suspend her. That was her last day of high school. 

Luanne was pissed at Aly for weeks about dropping out, until one day Luanne’s pain-in-the-ass coworker asked if Danny had gotten anyone else knocked up. Luanne came home that day and brought Aly a glass of sweet tea to her room. “People are boneheads, I tell ya.” Luanne handed over the glass to a sweaty, sprawled out Aly. “I know, Ma.”


In mid-November, Aly was lying on Danny’s couch, her legs stretched over his lap with her head propped up on the armrest. She rested her hand on her seven-months-pregnant belly. MTV was playing quietly on the TV. 

“Danny, do you think I’m gonna be a good mom?”

“Absolutely.” Danny rubbed her feet.

“How do you know that?” 

“Because you take care of me. You’re always patient and good to me. At the end of the day all we have to do is love the kid, right?” Danny looked at Aly who was tearing up. 

“How are you so sure?”

“I just am. Baby, there are so many screwed up people on this planet that have kids. I think we’re better than most of them.” He reached his arm over and wiped a tear off her cheek.

“I guess so.” She pouted and then covered her face with her hands.

“Oh, come here.” Danny pulled Aly to a sitting position. He held her chin and guided her into a kiss. She leaned into it until she was in his lap with her arms wrapped around his neck. 

She whispered into his ear, “You know I love you right?”

Danny laughed. “Of course, baby. And I am so, so wildly in love with you.”

Aly smiled, wiping her tears. “Good. I know it’s a silly question, but everything is changing and I just feel scared.” 

“Well, that’s never gonna change. I’ll love you and this baby forever. Come on. Let’s go for a drive.” Aly smiled and nodded. 

Aly hoisted herself into Danny’s pickup truck. He laughed at her struggling. “Don’t laugh at your pregnant girlfriend. It’s rude.” They ended up at Walmart walking through the baby aisle filled with bibs, rattles, and pacifiers. They held hands and talked about Danny’s work and laughed and Aly started to feel good and less stuck in the world. She looked through a kid’s book with thick cardboard pages and singing animals. Danny started putting stuff in a cart, and Aly gave him a worried pout. He took the book and dropped it in the cart. “Come on, we’ve got the money.” Aly gave in and held up a little shirt that said “Born to be Wild” and they both laughed.  Danny looked at Aly in her orange tank top that didn’t reach over her belly and her white flip flops that smacked on the hard floor. He smiled at her slight waddle and pressed his hand onto her back as they rounded the corner. 

Across the aisle, a snickering group of the varsity snobs from Pickens High stood in the video section. Danny whispered into Aly’s ear, “Don’t mind them.” Aly felt sick with nerves. She tried to smile at the crib with the elephant mobile hanging over it, but the happy moment had passed. All she could feel were those judgmental glances from her old classmates. Cameron Edwards, the football player with the loud mouth, says, “Oh look, it’s the parents of the year.” The group snickered and Danny’s hand wrapped around the crib, knuckles turning white, blood rushing through his body. Anger came from everywhere at once. Aly watched him turn like this, the sick twirling in her gut getting worse. 

“All right, let’s go.” She rubbed his shoulder until his hand released the crib. They had almost made it away from them when Aly heard one of the girls say, “Her baby bump can’t even fit in her tank top.” She turned and shouted, “You’re all assholes!” Danny grabbed her hand and pulled her away. They left the shopping cart and walked out. They were both quiet as they got back into the truck.

Aly could tell Danny was still thinking about those kids by the way he rapidly tapped the steering wheel. He pulled into the gas station down the road and looked at her while trying to mask his turmoil. He was mad in a way he couldn’t get past. He was thinking he should’ve hit that Cameron kid or at least been the one to yell at them. He shook as he walked across the parking lot, thinking about how much he hated how people looked at Aly. 

She sat in the passenger side of Danny’s truck parked next to the gas pump. Her mind wandered back to twenty minutes before, when the two of them were giddy in the baby aisle before those jackasses showed up. She leaned the seat back to get the pressure off her lower back as she held onto that happy moment. She didn’t want to be so worried about Danny or the future.

Danny walked out of the gas station, a cherry slushie in one hand for Aly and swinging his keys in the other. His head was tilted forward so his eyes met the oil-stained concrete as he crossed under the fluorescent lights where mosquitos spun furiously in clusters. Aly watched him walk, feeling that his frustration hadn’t left at all. He handed her the cherry slushie through the window and began to pump gas. The night air was humid but not hot or cold, just heavy¾so heavy that the silence between them felt like it lasted forever. He continued swinging his keys, the metal clinked and his jaw clenched tight. Aly couldn’t stand the tension of it. She couldn’t stand the smell of gasoline or how the air wasn’t hot or cold, just heavy. 

“Do you think breathing in gasoline fumes is bad for the baby?” Aly asked, as if the answer was going to change Danny’s mood. 

“No Aly, it’s fine. I wouldn’t go around sticking straws in gas cans but the fumes won’t hurt you or the baby.” Both of them smiled slightly but Danny’s smirk faded quickly back into that blank hard stare. 

He put the nozzle back into the pump and got into the truck. He fumbled around with his keys and finally found the right one. Aly couldn’t tell if her growing headache was from the gasoline or the bright overhead light or the three large gulps of her slushie or the tension. The middle-aged gas station clerk who only talked about race car statistics peered through the glass doors, muttering to the high school janitor as they gestured toward Danny’s truck. Aly traced their gaze across the parking lot to Danny, whose knuckles had turned white wrapped around the steering wheel, like he might rip it off any second. Aly sighed. “Let’s go.”

“I just wish people would mind their own damn business.”

“This is Pickens. Everyone knows everyone’s business, whether they want to or not.”

Danny didn’t say another word. He shifted the truck into drive. They sat silently as he pulled the truck out of the gas station and right up to the four-way stop. Danny’s hand continued clenching the steering wheel. Aly’s slushie lapped inside the Styrofoam cup. Both of them stared out at the clear sky. The sky, dark and vast, melted into the horizon of trees and dark country roads that Danny and Aly had spent countless hours roaming around over the past two years.


Danny pulled through the intersection and a sound so sharp and loud stopped the whole night. There was a loud scream of scraping metal and Aly jolted back into her seat. A roaring of tremors shook through her as her adrenaline peaked.  Her cherry slushie poured out all over her lap, the deep red icy pulp stuck to her thighs and the base of her stomach. It looked like blood. She shook the false violent image out of her mind. The airbag deflated as she wrapped her arms around her stomach. With her fingers webbed out, holding either side of her belly, she took everything in her and breathed deeply. She focused on the warm flicker of the baby turning in her gut. She was okay. The baby was okay. 

The windshield was shattered. Smoke poured out in a tall cloud from the hood, and through it Aly saw the jet-black Honda that had bounced off the truck and jacked across the road so that they faced each other. The two distant streetlights dimly lit the scene in a cold light. Danny was out of the truck and dragging the other driver out of his car. He couldn’t have been older than Aly. In the dim light the kid’s face looked like a baby’s, almost doughy. Danny threw the kid down onto the asphalt and began to swing. Aly watched frozen, still holding her stomach, her feet pressing into the floor as her heart slammed in her chest. 

Danny turned his head so she could see his face, just for a second. He didn’t look like anyone she had ever seen. His face was absent, hollow, empty. In the shadow, his jaw was a blade, his skin cold and grey, almost like the cement. He was no hero. She didn’t feel safe or excited or on the right side of anything. Danny wasn’t stopping. The kid wasn’t fighting back. He lied there on the ground not moving. His face was hardly anything. Aly couldn’t make out one single feature, no nose or eye or cheek¾just blood and pulp. She had thrown open the truck door before she knew what she was doing. She had never intervened with Danny when he was angry. But something, somehow had cracked in him. She knew it deep in her gut. 

“Danny, stop!” He didn’t hear or register her voice. His arm jerked back again for a punch as she stepped towardhim. She tried not to look at the faceless kid, or his high school lanyard and golden cross necklace draped around his neck. She wanted to scream or cry or do something. She wanted everything around her to fall down so she knew it was a dream or an illusion or a bad joke or anything other than real. She put her hand on Danny’s shoulder, and felt his hard muscles racking around. 

Under her touch he stumbled back, violently trembling, as if she’d just woken him up from a bad dream. His eyes were wide as he looked at her: dirty blonde hair pulled back, features mousy and soft, her limbs toned and full under the weight of her pregnancy. Maybe he wanted to be looking at an angel. He stared at her center, where the slushie had fallen and understood his mistake. He looked down at the deep browning crimson on his hands from the driver and back to the icy light red dripping down Aly. He seemed to understand everything in that moment, every misjudged action, weak impulse, and every dark part of him and everyone else’s life. Or at least that’s how changed he looked. He looked like an entirely different person. His face was flat with shock, and his mind blank except for the gut-wrenching regret drowning him over and over. 

Aly stood back, afraid to move or speak or even touch Danny. She looked at the kid lying there and she knew he was gone. There was nothing left of him. The shock was ringing through her. She couldn’t cry or scream. She couldn’t bear to look at Danny so she just kept staring at the faceless kid’s body on the pavement. When the ambulance arrived, Danny and Aly were just standing there under the cold light, among the smoke and broken glass. Danny covered in blood, Aly covered in the cherry slushie. Both silent. The teen driver was announced dead at the scene.


Danny had no chance as a teen with a record against a dead kid with rich parents. On his public defender’s advice, Danny took the plea deal of a twenty-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter. When Danny was taken away from the hearing, Aly went cold during their hug. His heat, strength, and smell wrapped around her, and she shook and sobbed. She inhaled his smoky evergreen cologne, knowing she could never stop loving him, nor could she ever stop being afraid of him. He walked off in cuffs, his hands held tight in fists. After the crash, Aly couldn’t stop seeing blood. She woke up gasping from dreams of Danny’s fist breaking over the faceless kid. She saw Danny’s stiff blood-spattered jaw. She saw blood dripping down his fingers and across his palms. 

Chelsea came over every day and the two sat in this heavy thick feeling of nothing ever being the same again. In the first week Chelsea brought her a cherry slushie, hoping to return some normalcy. Aly smiled and took the cold cup. Her tongue pulled the sweet syrup up and all she could taste was iron. All she could feel was the wet cold across her stomach and the slam and crash of broken glass. Aly wept and Chelsea slowly took the slushie back. Aly’s breathing returned and Chelsea remembered the cherry stains from the tank top she’d been wearing the night of the crash. “Are you okay?”

The muscles started moving again in Aly’s face. She wiped the snot off her nose and laughed. “Bring me a blue raspberry next time.” 

Jessie Hartman was born six pounds and eight ounces with a red flushed face and eyes the same cold color as Danny’s. Being pregnant in Pickens was one thing, having the baby was a whole other problem. Now that the small plague of a town had the satisfaction of the bad boy being locked up, they felt the need to come up to poke and prod at Jessie. In the baking aisle of Piggly Wiggly, Aly’s wiry old high school math teacher, Mrs. Williams, stopped to say, “At least Danny’s not around to hurt the sweet baby.” Aly thought about taking the bottle of Mrs. Butterworth she was holding and smacking the old lady over the head. Aly held herself together until she got in the car and angry cried all the way back home. 

Luanne knew they needed to move the minute Danny was locked up. It was a matter of time before the snakish town sucked them dry. Pickens would just keep taking and taking from them. As soon as Aly was ready, they’d be moving in with Luanne’s sister, Sue, in her Florida condo. Luanne tried bringing it up, only to be met with incoherent sobs from Aly. She packed their things in secret, knowing any day that Aly would want to leave.


The cold morning light of February started to lift out of the trees and through the blinds into Aly’s room, where she held a sobbing Jessie to her chest. He’d broken his calm behaved streak and had kept her up since 2 a.m. She spent hours pacing, rocking, feeding, cooing and off and on crying herself. Luanne stayed out of it for as long as she could before finally poking her head into the bedroom. “Take him on a drive, it lulled you to sleep every time.” Aly got Jessie strapped into the back seat, his shrieks cut through the cluster of trailers and scared off the chirping birds. She was still wearing her pajamas, but added a padded winter coat on top. She’d stopped giving a damn about what she looked like, she knew it wouldn’t change the long judgmental stares. 

Aly pulled out of the driveway, past the church across from the trailer park and down the curvy, kudzu vine-ridden road. Soon enough Jessie stopped his whining and fell asleep. She drove slower than usual, carefully dodging potholes. For two months she’d been avoiding the gas station at the center of town. She’d been taking the crumbling road that looped around the east side of Pickens. The flashes of blood and the crash were frequent enough without passing the site. But Jessie was quiet for the first time in a century. She took shallow, controlled breaths as she drove down Greenville Road, which cut straight through town. Aly’s knuckles tightened around the steering wheel. She passed the post office, the high school, and the Walmart. The gas station hummed at the opposite side of the intersection. She felt cold and sick. The red of the stop light dripped down in front of her, blood splattered on the hood of the car. She heard the crash, glass shattering, the sound of the beating. A truck honked behind her, her foot dropped down on the gas and she slid through the intersection. The crash and blood and beating on a loop in hectic flashes until Jessie’s sudden whining snapped her out of it. She had pulled over on the road right past the gas station. Aly looked in the rearview mirror at Jessie. “We gotta get out of here, baby.”


Two weeks before they were set to move, Aly drove over to the South Carolina State

Prison. She left Jessie with her ma, knowing bringing him to Danny would be no good. She had replayed this day in her mind countless times. She knew at the sight of Jessie, Danny would come undone. She couldn’t bear to watch. Maybe that was selfish, but deep down she knew it would be better for everyone. Sometimes, Aly imagined bringing Jessie to the prison and telling Danny she loved him. She imagined him getting released on bail in a few years. She would wait in Pickens for him. The three would move away and be happy and forget about it. 

But that wasn’t possible. They couldn’t be happy together. Even if he was let out, he had killed a kid right in front of her and she would never know for sure that he wouldn’t do it again. A crime of passion or not, he couldn’t be around Jessie. Aly was scared. She was scared of how Danny would react. She was scared that she still loved him. She was scared that she’d lost so much. And more than anything she was scared for Jessie. She had left him with her ma that day, a part of her worried that even a few minutes with Danny would hurt him somehow. A three- month-old baby probably wouldn’t know the difference, but she couldn’t risk it. She already saw Danny’s features on Jessie’s face, the rugged nose and cold blue eyes. She knew she couldn’t handle it. She wasn’t strong enough to sit there with Danny in prison, holding their baby, knowing they got so damn close to happiness.

Danny didn’t look like himself behind the plexiglass. He looked thin and his skin was sunken. All that wild, eager, sweet, energy was gone. The tan jumpsuit made him look skeletal, barely even there. Aly hadn’t recognized him since the night of the wreck. Because of the violent crime, he didn’t get common area visits. Aly wouldn’t be able to touch him, she wasn’t sure she’d want to if she could. The second she sat down and faced those eyes through the scratched glass, tears started to fall. 

“You look great.” Danny smirked, the same smirk from the day they met. 

Aly had worn his favorite pair of jeans, the ones with studs on the trim and the pocket ripped from the time she got stuck crawling through a fence to an abandoned lot. They were too tight with all the post baby fat, but she’d sucked herself into them for whatever reason.


She hated every second of this. Her mind flooded with memories, not of the wreck, but of being endlessly in love: driving in his blue pickup truck with music blasting, laying in his arms on the faded green couch, sitting on the kitchen counter talking about their future and staring out at Lake Silva, and betting everything they had on a happy life out of Pickens.  

Danny stared at her through the glass with a gentle and faded look. He looked at her carefully, something deep in him knowing he wouldn’t see her for a long, long time. He thought of the first day he saw her standing in the school hallway, relaxed against the lockers, effortlessly beautiful. When they locked eyes that day, he told himself he was gonna go after her. Under the cold lights of the prison he felt himself shaking, trying to hold it together¾he knew he’d lost everything.

Aly shifted in her seat, unable to hold eye contact with Danny. She crossed and uncrossed her legs three times. She tried not to think about the pain. She tried to pretend not to be there. Chelsea’s voice rang out in her mind, Just say it! The light in the room was almost green and three booths down a man was pleading through the plexiglass about seeing his wife. 

“Where’s the baby?”

“I left him with Ma. His name’s Jessie.”

Danny’s leg bounced uncontrollably under the desk as he nodded slowly. “I like that.”

Aly slid a picture of Jessie in the delivery room through the slot. Danny picked it up and sobbed into his hand. His voice muddled and hoarse. She couldn’t remember ever hearing him cry like that. For a minute, Aly wanted to stand up and yell that she loved him and that she’d wait for him, but that wasn’t true. She swallowed, trying to push every emotion down.

“Danny. We’re moving to Florida.” Aly wanted to puke as it left her. Danny looked at her with a look so deep ofhurt and pain she felt like she should be the one behind bars. “It was Ma’s idea.” Aly knew that wasn’t helping. “Pickens is too harsh. No one will leave us alone. I can’t raise him in a town like that.” She couldn’t tell him about the nightmares. She didn’t want to blame him anymore. Danny’s head shook, his fist curled tightly. His face morphed as he tried to hold in tears. 

“What the hell, Aly?”

She stiffened at the anger in his voice. She tensed so hard she thought she could turn to stone right there if she really wanted to. “I don’t know what else to do. I can’t bring him here for the next twenty years. That will just mess him up.”

“So, what the hell are you gonna tell him about me?” His voice grew harsher. 

“I don’t know.” Aly sunk in her seat, nervously looking down. “We just can’t stay here.”

“Dammit, Aly.” He slammed his fist on the table. The guard stepped closer. A baby cried in the waiting room. “You can’t keep him from me.” 

Aly cried, her chest tight and pumping, tears dripped down onto the table and onto her studded jeans. His anger crawled up and down her skin, she couldn’t bear the rage barreling through him. “I have to.” 

“No, you don’t!” He was pleading, more hurt than anything else. 

“Danny, please.” Aly placed her hand to the plexiglass and waited for him to match his fingers to hers. She wanted a moment of softness, even if she knew that might be gone forever, she had to try. Danny’s face was red and his eyes full of anger. He jumped up and knocked over his chair, the metal scraped across the linoleum. The guard yanked Danny away. Aly watched him disappear around the corner.

Aly sat quietly for a moment, her sobs hardly making any noise. Slowly, she felt herself become numb. The pain and hurt and love and regret all fading into a low buzz. She watched from outside her body as she shakily, pushed herself out of the chair and left. 


Natalie Benson-Greer is a Chicago based writer with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her work “Backwoods” is published in the Winter 2019 issue of Hair Trigger, where she previously worked as an acquisition editor. During her time at Columbia College she served as an executive board member of the college’s only writing collective, Speak Your Truth, and worked with the fiction department as a peer tutor. She grew up in Asheville, North Carolina and deeply misses the mountains. 


Issues Winter 2020-21

Danielle Hirschhorn


The baby needs fresh air. That’s what some website or new mother book or random old lady in the supermarket had told her. The type of lady who would come up and rest her hand, with its swollen knuckles and crêpe skin, on the bellyband Angie had to stretch over the place her jeans used to zipper. Who would offer advice like: never let a cat around a newborn, or avoid strawberries to prevent unusual birthmarks. And she’s thinking, possibly, this fresh air thing. That after months of breathing fluid, to only gasp their first inhale of oxygen in the same building where people go to die, that babies need fresh air.

Which is why Angie, this morning, is packing a bag: diapers, wipes, burp cloths, a stuffed giraffe, and three pacifiers, even though the baby has never kept one in his mouth. She always feels like she has to anticipate, like she has to be prepared. That if she leaves the house without a binky, it will be the only thing which could have soothed him.

Right now, he is calm because the sun is up. He will spend all day following her with his eyes, watching her, except for the swiftly fleeting moments where he will finally sleep after she’s fed him. The old ladies had notes, too, about sleeping when the baby sleeps, how you need to be on a schedule together, but Angie can’t seem to accomplish it. She paces the apartment, starts chores she doesn’t finish. Time passes without her realizing it’s happening. And then the baby is awake again and he’s hungry, somehow, already hungry or wet or covered in his own filth, and she’s needed. She remembers saying this thing to girlfriends over drinks on a Thursday happy hour turned dinner, I just want someone to need me. Before she knew what that really meant.

Right now, he’s almost suspiciously quiet, sitting in his vibrating seat under the hanging lion and elephant. Angie can remember picking the jungle theme, not thinking at all about how it was unintentionally bringing the wild into her home. Maybe if she had gone with lambs or a garden, things would be different.

Which reminds her, the baby needs fresh air.

Angie fiddles with the buckles that the old ladies have no stories or advice on, for which her fingers still have no muscle memory for. He whimpers when she picks him up, her own child, but it’s for his own good. That way, his head doesn’t wind up flat, and so she can socialize him, and most importantly, that they can both breathe fresh air.

She’s a good mother, so she puts him in a wrap on her chest instead of in the fancy stroller her mother-in-law had bought for them. The baby’s breath is milky and humid against her collarbone; his mouth is bubbling and wet with the spit that is always on her skin—her neck and her breasts. She is so tired, but she needs to walk. They need to walk.

The hallway smells like someone else’s meatloaf with just a hint of ammonia. Angie tries to juggle the four keys to her front door as quickly as she can while holding the diaper bag and the weight of the baby slung across her chest. He’s meant to be kept warm, but not get overheated, and like everything else, it is this fine line that she doesn’t know if she’s walking appropriately. But they assure her, again, those busybody old ladies, that she’ll know, she’s a mother now, she’ll know exactly what to do.

In the elevator, when the door opens on her floor, is the woman who lives upstairs with the twin girls and the Pomeranian. Angie and her exchange the smiles and nods of people who realize they should be aware of their neighbors’ names but too much time and mailbox interactions have happened now for it to make sense to ask.

“How are the girls?” Angie asks, looking to see if the baby is flushed. If she’s accidentally suffocating him.

Her neighbor nods as though it’s a yes or no question. “They’re good. At a Girl Scouts meeting. How are you hanging in there?”

Angie feels her back tighten, as though this woman has picked up on something she thought she was hiding. “Fine. We’re both fine.”

“I remember those days.” She laughs. “And then those nights, phew.”

“It’s been fine,” Angie repeats again, this strange attempt at manifestation, right before the elevator dings its arrival in the lobby. She presses her arm against the baby, and it makes her wonder what she might do if she could actually put him back inside of herself. If he didn’t have to be a piece of her that, somehow, had become separate like a lost tooth.

“You can always knock on my door,” her neighbor says, but Angie is rushing from the elevator so quickly she barely hears her.

On the front steps, there’s the two old women with their walkers and their Jamaican home health aides, who, when they see the baby, ask if she had heartburn when she was pregnant, he has so much hair.

“It’s good you’re taking him out,” the one with bright coral lipstick the color of shrimp tails caked on her lips says.

“For the fresh air,” Angie says, feeling confident.

“Oh, that’s just an old wives’ tale,” the other with the bluish tint to her hair says, reaching with her liver-spotted hand toward the baby.

Angie steps back. “I’m sorry. We have to go.”

She makes it to the corner where a car is idling at the curb, spewing exhaust, when suddenly she feels her milk let down and both she and the baby start to cry.


Danielle Hirschhorn got her start writing on storybook paper in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently working as an Elementary Media Specialist while completing her thesis work through Columbia College Chicago. Hair Trigger contains her first publications.

Issues Winter 2020-21

Rebecca Khera

Foreign Cigarettes

There are back stairs that lead to a hidden ground floor. I’ve never seen anyone else use these stairs. People avoid them as if there’s an alarm will sound sign painted across the doorframe. But each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:30 a.m. I walked through the door and down the back stairs, pressing my foot against each wobbly vinyl bump. The plastic edges peeled up at the angle of each step. The stairs lead to a quiet hallway in what is called The Basement; the rooms are only ever used for faculty mixers and the occasional staff baby shower. 

Stephen always walked four feet behind me, enough room to look like we didn’t know each other. Perhaps that’s because we didn’t. He never told me his name, but I listened closely to Professor Taylor call attendance. I cross referencedthis with the names on our class website, Stephen with a “ph.”

On the first day of class he walked in five minutes late with his head aimed at the floor. He took a seat in the front row, his cream-colored suit blended into the cream-colored desk, and I wondered why anyone would wear a suit to school. He might be a business major, but most business majors are in fraternities. They wear shorts three inches above the knee and Hawaiian shirts or a Comfort Colors T-shirt with the school mascot and their Greek letters. Though, on business class days, they might wear gray slacks and a school polo. For a presentation, maybe even a button-down and blazer, but their suits are fitted, made specifically for them. Stephen’s was baggy around his hips and ankles, without a belt his pants would have fallen straight down to the floor.

I thought this was just a “first day of school” thing. His dad probably told him to make a good first impression. But every day, he wore a suit. Never black, always light colors. Tan, cream, gray, caramel. All with front pleats of loose fabric bunching around his thighs and sleeves dangling past his wrists. 

Stephen walked hard. I could hear each step pound against the tight carpet of the basement floor. He followed me every day for months. 

There was one final door at the end of the hallway, one that led to a large patch of gray dirt freckled with wood chips and a single tree. The tree wore a belt of bricks around it, in my head I called it the tree circle, the only place I could go to read or watch or wait. 

The tree circle overlooks a faculty and staff parking lot, and on long days I would sit on the bricks and watch professors climb in and out of cars, it was easy to tell who was tenured with a Pulitzer and who was an adjunct. 

I sat down on the uneven bricks, shifting my backpack to the front, fumbling through a small zippered pocket for a lighter. Stephen didn’t own a lighter. Might be scared of what they can do. Might be afraid of flames. 

I picked out a green Bic and watched him pull a large square carton out of his pocket. He lifted the top off, unfolded the gold tissue paper, and pulled out a single cigarette: a long and skinny black stick with a metallic gold filter to bring to your mouth. 

He held the cigarette in the middle and gestured for me to take it. 

I didn’t know which end to grab for, and when I finally decided, our thumbs ended up touching. 

I lit the cigarette, and he stared as I brought it to my lips. The light bounced off his concrete haircut, which was always combed to one side and set down with a clear gel. One Wednesday it was piecey, and you could see small flakes of dried mousse. I wondered if he contemplated changing hairstyles, or if he slept at a girl’s house, woke up with no gel, and ended up with a handful of John Frieda foam instead. I wonder who loves Stephen. I wonder who he talks to. 

I wonder if he told his friends about the girl he followed to the tree, gave cigarettes to, watched.

For the entirety of the semester, Stephen walked four feet behind me, sat two feet away from me, touched his thumb to my forefinger as he handed me foreign cigarettes. He didn’t say much. If he spoke, it was about the cigarette. 

“I got these from Spain.” He would pull out a metal case of vanilla-flavored cigarettes.

“Paris.” A Tiffany-blue box with golden tipped cigarettes.

“Vienna.” And a tall white pack with thin black cigarettes would appear.

The cigarettes always had flavors or scents or gold. They always lasted more than the five-minute cigarettes I was used to.

He never smoked them.

Stephen’s eyes would lock onto my lips, as I sucked in, as I pushed smoke out of my lungs, and he would hold his breath, sit up straight, and stare at me. 

One day a man rode by on a bicycle, hit a rock, flew over the handlebars, landed face first. He left a smear of blood on the pavement, and Stephen never looked away from my lips. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. I gasped and stood and watched the man pick himself back up, he seemed fine. In my peripheral, Stephen’s mouth parted just a bit, but he never looked away. 

I remember the first day he followed me. I remember him standing awkwardly by the tree while I held a cigarette between my lips, arm deep in the largest pocket of my backpack, scraping the bottom looking for that green Bic lighter.  

“Do you smoke?” he asked.

I raised my eyebrows, “Clearly,” flicking my chin up and waving the cigarette now between my teeth. “You have a light?” 

He nodded no, and I kept searching the bottom of my bag, now wiggling my fingers in between notebooks and folders.

When I finally found it, he was still standing there, but he had somehow produced a silver box with embossed swirls and an etching of roman numerals. The box opened to reveal luxury cigarettes. He thrust the box toward me. 


I grabbed one from the box, tucked my Newport back into its partially crumbled pack, and lit the premium cigarette. 

I stuck my arm out toward him, the forest green lighter an invitation between us.

“I don’t smoke. Keep them.” He handed me the whole box. 

I had already taken a long first drag before he rejected his own cigarettes. I could feel my stomach turning, He’spoisoned me, I thought. He’s here to kill me with luxury cigarettes. 

            I went home after class, took all my clothes off, threw a lavender and mint shower disc into the bottom of the bathtub, and began scrubbing my chest and stomach as if shower gel would clean the inside of my lungs. I inhaled the floral vapor as deep as I could, hoping it would cleanse me. But I never felt sick.

“Meg!” I heard my roommate shout as she threw open the bathroom door. “Mind if I pee?”

“Sure, but I’m dying,” I wailed.

“No you’re not,” she sighed, unraveling a wad of toilet paper. “What happened now?”

“A boy tried to kill me,” I said through deep inhales of lavender vapor. “He gave me cigarettes. Fancy ones.”

“So, a boy likes you and is giving you nice things? Does he have a brother?”

I pulled back the shower curtain, soap dripping from the ends of my hair.

“He didn’t smoke. He doesn’t smoke. I don’t know.”

“Meg, relax, you’re acting crazy. He probably just wanted a reason to talk to you. He probably likes you. Congrats.”

She flushed the toilet, and I could feel a sudden surge of hot water. 

“You’ll be fine.”

I rinsed the remaining soap from my body. She’s right. I’m acting crazy. He probably just had cigarettes a friend gave him and didn’t know what to do with them, and so he shared. Or maybe he recently quit and had extra. Or maybe his brother told him that to get a date he should give someone a gift. That sounds totally reasonable.


For weeks, he continued to follow me. For weeks, I enjoyed the cigarettes, sitting in silence, and every night I went home in fear. 

He was plotting my murder. Or he was going to rape me. I was sure of it. There are no quiet men who give gifts for free. This shot through my mind, replaying all the memories of men offering to buy me dinner or to help me move. Of the boy last year who bought me nail polish and pushed his body onto mine in a dimly lit parking lot. Stephen wasn’t innocent, he couldn’t be.

I would lie in bed at night between my star covered sheets, and I would feel his thumb touching my thumb. I would feel his forefinger touching my forefinger. I would dream in smoke signals. 

I could feel him inching closer each day until his thighs touched my thighs. His cream-colored slacks caressing my naked shins. His cold hands covered in hair gel sliding between my legs. But then I would wake up, and each day he would sit two feet away, he wouldn’t get closer.


I started paying more attention to him, wondering what his motives might be. My thoughts toggled between him being shy and him being a serial killer. I knew Ted Bundy had killed girls at my school decades before, maybe he was fishing for victims in each of his classes. 


Stephen always sat in the front row of our Shakespeare class, his posture was unsettlingly straight. He didn’t speak much, only one-word answers to open-ended questions. 

One day, halfway through the semester, we were assigned a project; we had to partner up with someone to perform a scene from Antony and Cleopatra. I wiggled my head trying to make eye contact with him, assuming we were cordial enough to be partners, but he never looked back at me. I ended up paired with a short blonde who swore he’d be a country music star. We got an “A” on our scene, but Stephen never performed; instead he turned in a ten-page paper comparing and contrasting two of the plays we’d read that month. I tried to ask him about it after class, under the shade of the tree.

“Why didn’t you want to do a scene? It was so easy.”

“I don’t know. Just didn’t.” 

His eyes followed the smoke from my mouth to the pavement, and any hope of a conversation stopped there, just as it always had.


“I think he’s putting drugs in the cigarettes. It’s the only thing that makes sense,” I poured out the words one Friday at girls’ night. We were huddled around a square high top at The Heist, a dive bar three blocks from our house. I held a soggy chicken wing between my fingers, tearing the meat off the bone with my slightly stained teeth, buffalo sauce on my lips.

“So, stop smoking the cigarettes,” Hannah said, rolling her eyes and sipping her drink. 

“I can’t, I have to know what’s supposed to happen. It’s been months. Something has to happen.” 

“Maybe he’s just an awkward nice guy. Not everyone is trying to kill you,” she turned her head back toward the other girls. Smiling with tiny black straws between their fingers, sipping on vodka sodas and Moscow Mules. Hannah pulled a ruby gloss from her purse, and added another coat to her lips.

I sucked on chicken bones as one by one each girl left the sticky wooden table for the bathroom, the check, a frat boy. 


The final week of classes I continued out the back door, through the hall, out to the tree. I was determined to find out what would happen. I accepted a final pack of foreign cigarettes, lit the end with a strike-anywhere match and threw the burnt stick to the bricks. 

Stephen sat to my left, silently staring.

“I like that class,” I whispered, just loud enough to hear over the wind.

“Me too,” he replied. His voice felt stickier than usual, like a clump of gel caught in his breath. 

Surely, this was it. His last chance to make a move. I spent the last three days in the mirror practicing ways to politely decline any offers of a date. I practiced saying “yes” to a date but saying “no” to sex. Three packs of cigarettes each week for fifteen weeks each around 15 dollars per pack is over 500 dollars. Surely, I would have to say yes to a date. 

I wondered where our date would be. Maybe the fancy French restaurant on the north side of town, or go-kartsnear campus, or perhaps an opera where I would smoke an extra-long cigarette and wear a dress that required no bra. 

Of course, there was the possibility he wouldn’t ask me on a date. The possibility this cigarette would kill me. The possibility he would shove me into the trunk of his car, fill my lungs with hair gel, and cut off my lips for his pleasure. 

I had hoped for the date.

Sitting at the tree circle, I silently begged for a date. I didn’t want to die.

With every inhale and exhale he made, I waited for the final question. The cigarette was reaching its end, and my heart began beating faster. I could feel my muscles tighten, squeezed my thighs closed. I remembered what they told me in self-defense: shove your palm into his nose in an upward motion, that way his nose pushes into his brain, killing him quickly, or at least stopping him from killing you.

I dropped the remnants of a caramel-colored filter to the ground. I waited for him in his caramel-colored suit to rip my flesh off my bones. But instead he just got up and walked toward the faculty parking lot, just like he always had. 

When the next semester started, he was gone. We had no classes together. He wasn’t by the tree circle. He wasn’t by the building where the business school was housed. He wasn’t at any gas stations where I would buy cigarettes. He wasn’t anywhere. 

I began smoking Newports again. They tasted stale, rough between my teeth and lips. 

I laid in bed, pushing smoke out in rings with my tongue, twelve different packs of cigarettes surrounding me. I couldn’t find them again. The fancy foreign cigarettes were nowhere to be found. Stephen was nowhere to be found. I slathered globs of hair gel across my head, taking puffs of different typical cigarettes.


Rebecca Khera is a Pakistani-American writer. She recently received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in R.KV.R.Y. Quarterly Literary Journal, Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine, and Saw Palm Journal among others. 

Issues Winter 2020-21

Alexis Berry

It’s Not Weed

            “It’s not weed.”

            Officer Williams stared at him, awestruck, the crumpled plastic baggy still precariously suspended in front of his looming face; he had never met a teenager more stubborn. “Kid, I’m not stupid. I know marijuana when I see it.”

            The boy groaned, covering his oily cheeks with dirt-caked hands. “Please don’t call the weed ‘marijuana. Who does that?” 

It was a long time before he peeked out again, his vision miraculously unobscured by the shaggy tendrils of black hair that hung loosely over his brow; the longest piece drove straight down the center of his face, right along the tip of his crooked nose. His eyes gleamed through it; they were the color of over-creamed coffee—the lightest shade of brown that either of the police officers had ever seen. They were in sync with the constant, sporadic movements of his body, flying across the room like darts, and chasing nonexistent butterflies down the darkened corridor. 

            Drugs, Officer McMillan thought, shaking his head. He looked over to where Officer Williams was still emptying the contents of the boy’s massive backpack onto the bland beige tile: a rotten apple core, a plastic toy cow the size of a football, a couple of rocks, a lacy bra, a neat stack of completed homework written in elegant cursive. It was an odd arrangement with the three boxes of rainbow frosted cupcakes sitting beside the mountain of valuables. 

Officer McMillan shook his head, then turned back to his case. “I’m going to have to ask you again for a form of identification, bub. You’re not going anywhere until you do; we won’t have anyone to call to come and get you.”

            At that, the boy’s attention stilled. He laughed, more to himself than the two officers standing before him, with his head thrown back in the maniacal glee of any typical high school sophomore. “There’s no one to call,” he said simply. “Ma’s out with the girls, Dad’s somewhere . . . maybe. He could be dead, but I wouldn’t know.”

            Officer McMillan held back a sigh. He was a thick, burly man—bald, with a head shaped like a hard-boiled egg and a tiny red mustache that held no real value. He was used to cases like this—raggedy young people with no place to go, no place to stay; he tried to have sympathy. 

His partner, Officer Williams, wasn’t so polite. “Fork it over,” he demanded. He had abandoned the backpack by then, along with its mysteries. His sharp gaze was set firmly on the plastic baggy. “Now.”

            The boy sighed. With a reluctant glance toward the mustached cop, he fished through his fanny pack to reveal a tattered leather wallet that read “Spank Me” across its front. “Made it myself,” the boy shrugged, and awarded them with his driver’s license. “Here you are.”

“Dimitrius Wasikowska,” Officer Williams read. His clean-shaven face twitched at the sight of the boy’s photo ID; he looked as though he had just killed somebody—wild-eyed, yet extremely pleased. “What a name.”

“My homies call me Meech,” the boy said, winking. “Homeboy Meech—that’s me.”

“Meech?” Officer McMillan questioned.

“Yeah. Get it? Di-MEECH-trius.”

“Well, Meech, before I run this through, I want you to tell me exactly what happened in the grocery store.”

Meech blinked. “Like . . . everything?”

“Yes. From start to finish.” 

Meech smiled. “Well, it all started with Jaime. You know Jaime, right? Jaime Weeks? Shrimpy kid, kinda smells funny, with hella freckles? Eh, probably not; he’s a square. Probably wouldn’t find him up in here. Maybe over at Penn’s house. You know Penn? I think she’s been in here a couple of times. Well, Jaime met my girl Penn back in our science class; they were biology partners, and at first, Jaime was all like uh-uh, and then he was like uh-huh! But by the time he figured it out—that dopey-ass—Penn was already being smooched by Parker. They were so gross—all kissy-eyed and shit. Me and Cassandra never had that, but we’re made of stronger material. But anyway, Jaime was real pressed about that—about Penn and Parker—and Penn was real pressed about Jaime and Veronica. But that was all Jaime’s fault. That dumb bitch, Veronica, you definitely know her.”

“I don’t,” Officer McMillan said, frozen in place.

Officer Williams sighed. “I do. Remember the girl who was giving beer to the alligator?”

“Oh, right.”

“We don’t need to talk about her,” Meech said hastily. “It happened at that dance—ooh, that dance. . . . That’s when shit really hit the fan. Parker was all like, ‘Yes, baby, let’s head back to the crib so I can give you the schnitzel,’ and Penn was all like, ‘Hell no, I’m the feminist dream queen—my body is mine!’ And then she slapped him. And then Jaime was all like, ‘Fuck Veronica,’ and tried to slide in all hero-like—’cause he’s stupid too—but Penn wasn’t having it and slapped him too. They both still haven’t talked about it; they both went home and cried in the mirror and left me there, moaning and waiting because my two best friends can’t just reconcile like actual adults. So, what the heck do I do? I was already the third wheel, whether they admit it or not. Now, I’m just a wheel sitting in a smelly dumpster garage all alone with blue balls because Cassandra doesn’t FUCKING LOVE ME!”

“Oh dear,” Officer McMillan winced. 

This girl?” Officer Williams asked. He reached into the pile of garbage that sat next to Meech’s empty backpack. He came up with a bent photograph in his hand—a profile of a pretty young woman with thick corkscrew coils and bangs that perfectly shaped the dark-toned complexion of her heart-shaped face. Her lips were pink, which clashed against her white blouse that was all too open around the ample swell of her breasts. She stared sultrily up at them with angled ebony eyes, long-lashed and bright with hidden chaos that could destroy any man who had the audacity to even try. “Forget it, pal. She looks like she should be on the cover of Playboy.”

“Hey!” Meech snared. The ditsy look in his eyes had turned downright murderous; for a moment, Officer McMillan thought the boy was going to reach out and lash at him. “You don’t talk about her like that. That’s my girlfriend! And she’s a goddess—not a subject of your perverted fantasies! Creep,” he scoffed.

Officer McMillan waited a moment for the boy to cool off, then gently tried again. “Dimitrius. . . .”

“Meech,” Meech corrected, taking a deep breath—but not before shooting Officer Williams a venomous glance. “Put that down—back in my bag! I won’t tell you anything until you do, thanks. . . . All right, so, where was I? Oh, yes—Cassandra. I met her in the second grade. Her last name is Winters; she sat right behind me. She walked into class wearing a red plaid skirt with her hair in pigtails—a tiny little bow in each one. She had a smile on her face when she sat down at the desk behind mine, and even though it didn’t last long, that was when I knew that I loved her. Her pencil ran out of lead halfway through the class, and I happened to have that 0.7-inch size that she needed to finish her assignment. That was when sparks really flew—”

“Knock it off, already!” Officer Williams slammed his fist down on the edge of the blue plastic chair. “Enough with the bullshit. Tell us where you got the stuff.”

Meech blinked. “The cupcakes or . . . all of this?” he gestured down at himself shyly. “’Cause that’s all my mom. My dad had no part in this. He left when I was four. He was a Greek man, too afraid of commitment, and my mom wanted—”

Cupcakes, Mr. Wasikowska. Not anything else.”

Meech swallowed hard. His gaze flitted over to the three boxes of glittery cupcakes that sat on the cracked tile—chocolate cake with vanilla icing, each topped with rainbow sprinkles and a unicorn-shaped centerpiece with big plastic blue eyes. He looked away when his stomach growled, then turned and faced Officer McMillan. 

“I’ll keep it short this time,” he promised, taking a deep breath. He looked almost nervous. “It started this morning. I told you about Jaime; he’s really upset about this whole thing with Penn. He hasn’t been eating very much—or doing anything, really. Which is his problem, yeah—but I’m his best friend, so it’s my problem, too. So, this morning, in Chemistry, I asked him if he was doing anything this weekend; that would be tomorrow, now, since I’m here instead of there, but anyway. . . . He said no, as always, and if you saw him, you’d understand why. His hair was a mess—and his hair is never a mess—and the dark circles under his eyes were so big, he looked even more like a raccoon than he usually does.” 

Officer McMillan cocked a brow; he couldn’t help it. “He looks like a raccoon?”

“Well, yeah. He’s tall and all, but still shrew and rodent-like, with little pincher hands,” Meech continued, pinching his fingers like a crab. “I wanted to throw him a little surprise get together, per se. Just with some friends from school, maybe Fiji and Aunchka and Fat Wanda. . . .”

“Fat Wanda?” Officer Williams asked suspiciously. He leaned closer, resting his fist mockingly under his chin. “And who exactly is this ‘Fat Wanda’?”

Meech grimaced. “Well, she’s Fat Wanda.”

“Yes, I got that. But who is she?”

“Fat Wanda is Fat Wanda.”

“Who is Fat Wanda?”

“Your daughter, Wanda. Sometimes we call her Weefi, but most of the time it’s just Fat Wanda,” Meech said hotly, while Officer Williams glowered. “Anyway, anyway—we’re all good friends, and that was the plan. We were going to head together to Jaime’s after we picked up our food—hence, the cupcakes. Earlier, maybe a couple of hours after school ended, I walked down Concord Street toward Elephant Grocers—that little brick building with the yellow overhang painted with a big gray elephant and palm leaves. It’s just a couple of minutes from my house; I go there all the time. The woman at the counter—her name is Lori—said hi to me when I walked in, asked me how my father was—like she always does. I toured through the aisles until I found the cupcakes that I wanted—the bright and cheerful ones I knew that Jaime would hate. I grabbed three boxes, because I’m a fat ass and at least two of them are for me, and went to check out at the counter that I always check out at. Yet . . . here I am! You tell me, Officer, ’cause I’m lost.” 

Officer William’s face purpled. “She accused you of shoplifting. Three boxes of cupcakes.”

“With buttercream frosting,” Officer McMillan added. 

“Well, I didn’t. No one is that stupid,” Meech retorted. “I paid for those cupcakes fair and square—”

“I’m not sure if that’s how that phrase is supposed to be used.”

“But I did! I worked hard for that money! Thirty-five, maybe forty hours a week at Lard Bomb Burgers down the street—that’s a lot for someone of my brain capacity. There’s only one brain cell left, and it’s on vacation at a rooftop bar in Antarctica,” Meech said. “I worked for that money—I even got myself a fancy new card and a bank account so I’ll be able to get an apartment next year.”

“Wait, you didn’t already have a card?”

“No. I usually pay in cash. Or pennies, I should say. I’m a dumpster diver. But I figured, since this was three boxes of cupcakes, I should make it easy on Lori and pay with a card. But, no. When I bagged my items, that crazy bitch had Joe the stocker guy grab me and call the police. Before I could even get a foot out the door! Is that how you treat returning customers? I think not!”

“Dimitrius, you didn’t use a bag. You never bagged anything,” Officer McMillan stressed. “You tried to shove them down the front of your shirt. That screams suspect!”

Meech paused, staring blankly up at him for a moment or so, before shaking his head. “I wasn’t about to pay seventy-five more cents for a plastic bag. That’s my college fund! My backpack was too full of my valuables—”

Valuables,” Officer Williams huffed. 

“—so I figured I could just carry them in my shirt, like a pouch.”

“So, you’re a fucking kangaroo, now?” Officer Williams jeered.

“No, I’m a fucking genius! Though, in retrospect, I probably should have brought one of those tote bags that my mom has. Now that would have been something.”

Officer McMillan shook his head. “Did you tell Ms. Lori that you paid for them? Didn’t she check you out?”

“Yes!” Meech said with a sigh of relief. “She did. She gave me the total and then turned her back to get the cigarette stocks from Joe. I think she expected me to pay in cash and leave it on the counter, like I would any other time, but I just used the keypad and went on my way. Or tried to, anyway.

“Did you keep the receipt?”

“Yes! I’ve been telling you knuckleheads that from the beginning.” Meech fished into his pockets and pulled out a crinkled piece of paper. “See for yourself. I tried to pull it out at the store, but each time I would, you’d think I was pulling a knife or something,” he said, shooting an accusing look at Officer Williams. 

Officer McMillan took a hold of the paper. His eyes scanned it for any sign of deceit or fraud, but saw none; Meech had been telling the truth. “I see. My apologies. I think we’ve kept you long enough.”

Meech punched the air triumphantly. “Yes! Thank you!”

“What?” Officer Williams sputtered, but Meech was already on his feet, gathering his things. He stuffed the trash by the handful back into his backpack, oblivious to the younger officer’s distress. “It’s weed, Ned! We can’t just let him off the hook!”

“That’s not what we called him in here for,” Officer McMillan said sternly. The corner of his mouth twitched. “Though, Dimitrius, I wouldn’t carry it on you like that.”

            “I told you, it’s not weed,” Meech said. He smiled down at the picture of Cassandra before tucking it carefully in the front pocket of his jacket. “That’s a culture . . . of my toenail fungus. We made it grow in Biology. Isn’t that cool?”  

            Officer Williams blanched. “Disgusting!” he huffed, flinging the plastic baggy back toward the boy as if he were playing an intense game of hot potato. “Take it. And get out of here before we make . . . a call.” With a final sniff, he was gone. The doors slammed shut behind him.

            Meech turned to Officer McMillan. “It’s weed,” he admitted, raising his brow. “Meet me in the back of Sunny Liquors—the one across town. Bring the tobacco wrap from the fifth drawer in the filing cabinet on the second floor.”

With that, Dimitrius Wasikowska walked away. He pushed through the heavy glass doors of Middleville Police Station with a cloud of smoke already wrapped thickly around his head, and disappeared into the night. Officer McMillan watched him go, staring after him for a moment as if watching a mystical creature waltz across a sunlit plain. He stood there only for a second longer before turning abruptly on his heel to grab his coat. 


Alexis Berry is an aspiring writer from Northwest Indiana with the ultimate goal to write something worth reading. Her work, “Grandpa’s Chair”, has recently been published in Columbia College Chicago’s Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine. 

Issues Winter 2020-21

Katie Lynn Johnston

The Li’l Fingers

On the morning the little fingers sprouted from the orange blossom tree in the Mayor’s courtyard, Maria Sanclarita discovered that the outlet the toaster oven had been plugged into was burnt-out, black and dry, and that her fourth most beautiful daughter’s, Manila’s, right hand had been reduced to a series of five rather soft, rather smooth little nubs.

Maria ran her fingers over the tiny mounds where the slender bones should have been and wondered if the knuckles and the joints and the skin were with the silverware in the kitchen. Her baby was sleeping, soundly enough, despite her missing flautist’s tools, curled up in her sheets like a mummy on the bottom bunk. She snored and Jabez snored and Leonor snored and Caroleena snored rhythmically, beautifully to Maria Sanclarita’s diamond-pierced ears—O, what majesty! What symphony! What artistry! Even in their sleep! But deep down inside her, not so much a worry nor a panic (if there is but one thing I know of Maria Sanclarita, it is that she is no worrywart: never a person to waste her time upon such trivialities as concern), but an annoyance (that is the word) began to blossom in her chest as a moonflower—and she burst.

In a tizzy amidst the morning glow of the sun shining around the window curtains’ edge, she went from bunk to bunk checking for anymore of her child prodigies’ missing appendages. The sugarplums were still dancing in their heads as they were poked and prodded, tossed and turned, but Maria Sanclarita discovered only Manila and Manila alone with missing her fingers; the more useless ones were all intact¾the writer and the painter and Caroleena—and Maria Sanclarita thanked God, do not misunderstand, but walked out of the room with a testing heart that could hardly weigh against a feather.

She closed the door to her children’s bedroom gently and measured her steps down the hall into the kitchen. She stood on the threshold and said, “If I were a fistful of flautist fingers, where would I fix to be . . . ?” And thought for a long moment.

The sensible answer seemed, at first, the flute case. But when Maria Sanclarita fetched it from the hallway and opened the black velvet box sitting on the tile of the kitchen floor, the only thing glaring back at her was the green of her face mask shining in the polished silver, distorted and knotted and dry. She closed the lid tightly and decided not to investigate any further. I would never hide where I work, she thought to herself, What a foolish thing. And she set the case back on the kitchen counter gingerly.

Maria Sanclarita pulled the curlers out of her thick, black hair as she searched on in the kitchen. She poked through the silver drawer and every cabinet, the sugar jar and the saltshaker and even the blender as if by some rebellious act—or miracle, perhaps—Manila had stuck her precious little fingers in there, and there they remained: wriggling, wiggling (God help us), but there were none. She did not find a single one. They weren’t there. They weren’t here. They weren’t anywhere. They were gone.

Maria slammed the black, plastic top back onto the mixer and swiped the back of her wrist over her forehead. She threw a couple Orange Crush Pop-Tarts into the toaster oven to see if the next outlet over would work (which, so far, it appeared it was not, as the pathetic little white box wouldn’t heat up, and the light wouldn’t turn on), and she sighed. Every bit of herself breathed and crumpled in. She stood on the threshold and leaned her hip against the doorway, placing her hand on her neck. She felt a coarse hair where her throat met her chin, and (pulling it out with the tips of her clean, white nails) shouted down the hallway, “Honey! The baby’s fingahs are gone!”

She twirled the strand between her fingers, examining it and curled her lip, blowing it away with a wish, and adding, “And the toastah won’t work!”

“What?!” her husband replied, grumbling through sheet, comforter, and pillow, down the plain hallway.

Maria Sanclarita ran her hands up and down her chin looking for more hairs. “The baby’s fingahs! They’ve gone!”

“What baby?”

Ahr baby!”

“. . . which baby?”

“‘Which baby?’” She laughed, bitterly. “Manila, you utter buh-ffoon!”

Sweat beaded on Maria’s forehead as she stood there, but there were no more hairs on her chin. And far down the hallway, Honey unearthed himself from his cocoon of blankets and sheets on the mattress and rubbed his fingers over the crevasses of his face.

“Honey!” she yelled again from the kitchen.


“Manila’s fingahs are gone!”

“What am I s’posed to do about it?” he asked, slamming his arms down on to the mattress.

And Maria Sanclarita—who had no time for fear—suddenly burst through the bedroom doorway; Honey thought she would have cracked it down if her feet had not been bare.

“Did you pawn ’em?” she asked through gritted teeth and jaw, coming down upon him in the bed.

Honey thought, again, she would have killed him if her feet had not been bare.

“Answer me!”

Her husband’s eye sockets were weighted down by the black-blue-green bags encircling them, exposing the bleary pink and red around the white and the brown and the black. She shoved his shoulder, and he did not blink.

“Did you pawn ’em you insufferable, chicken-hearted, gollumpus, drunkard, milksop, sorry excuse for a man? Did you lose ’em on the mutts, you worthless philosophe? You wrinkler! You villain, you!”

Crystal spit flew from her mouth, and he did not blink his sleepy eyes. He stared at her blankly, plainly, so unashamedly and rolled on to his side, away from her, facing the window and the morning sun shining. The birds twittered in the bare branches of the tree at his window, clouds rolled off far in the distant sky—mountains on wheels, he thought, shutting those sleepy eyes. His pillow seemed softer this morning than it had the night before, he noted. His breathing softened, and Maria Sanclarita gasped at his act of defiance as he pulled the comforter back up over his shoulder.

He did not even smile at her.

And to Maria Sanclarita, of course, this was a confession of guilt: an admission of his chicken-hearted, milksop, gollumpus villainy. But the flush faded from her cheeks, her fists uncurled, Honey snored, and then, suddenly, the toaster oven dinged.

It was 6 a.m. when Senhor Alfonso Hannover, the Mayor’s gardener and the town’s resident music teacher, discovered the fingers on the orange tree whilst pruning the raspberry bush elephant a few feet away. At first, from afar, he had thought, What ugly oranges. What disfigured fruit. What straaange seeeeds. But as he came closer upon them, glittering nails and mountain-range knuckles presented themselves from slim and chubby fingers alike, hanging from the dark brown branches, and he realized: the children have all been robbed!

He examined the little fingers hanging on the green-and-white blossom tree, as a gardener might with his care¾without touching them, a safe distance away from them¾and they were that of many children, he could tell. But one must ask oneself in such an instance, how had they gotten there? And he did.

“I don’t see how I can go about pruning that,” he said, and if he had still been pals with Maria Sanclarita—that being, if she had still lived in the Valley, he would have told her. First and foremost, he would have knocked on her door and informed her. But, instead, she had seen fit to move to Hilltop, (the rich part of town that “claimed” their independence from the Valley), and had thought to bring her children elsewhere for musical lessons (somewhere up on that high hill). He scurried back to the main square in the Valley to let all the other townsfolk know, the tree had grown babies’ fingers—their baby’s fingers where the Mayor’s prized oranges should have been.

By 7 a.m. that strange Saturday, a crowd had grown, and the Mayor had locked himself away in his manor. The herd of people around the tree had become so large that the entire green lawn was covered, and the Mayor could not see into his garden over the towering wall of human heads, jet black and blonde hair. Everyone began to ponder, how shall we fetch our little fingers? But none of them were even bold enough to reach out their hand.

It was only Hermosa, often mistaking her foolishness for bravery, that stepped forward out of the group of parents and reached out her thin, honey arm toward the tree’s branches as though she were an ambassador greeting a foreign president who had plagued her homeland with war. Her sleek black hair blew gently in the breeze. For a moment, the scent of summer floated through the air. But the parents (oblivious to this scent) all gave a collective gasp as she pulled—hard—on her baby son Miguel’s finger, their eyes followed her every movement, her every breath. She kept her fingers wrapped tightly around his finger and held it. It was not cold, it did not move or wiggle or wriggle (God help us), but had come off with a pop.

A snap.

A crack.

And then, unraveling her fingers haltingly as an evening primrose, there it lay: little Miguel’s little finger in the palm of his mother’s little hand—unripe as the oranges that should have been.

She held it gently—carefully cupped in her palm, and all the parents gathered around to look over her shoulder, staring with large, glossy, soap bubble eyes. They all breathed as one—sighed relief for the little fingers. And then they all watched as Hermosa’s child’s finger slowly and so gently disintegrated into black, gray, dry dust and was blown away by a spring Saturday gust.

It went curling away into the air; the breeze blew through the tree’s branches, through the parents’ jet black and blonde hair: all the little fingers shook.

It was so quiet as that dust went circling away that Senhor Alfonso Hannover could have sworn he heard the seven-year-old cellist, Miguel, screaming six blocks away, tucked in his bed on Sunnyup Lane. The sound stung his ears, and Senhor Hannover pushed his way out of the crowd as Hermosa began to sob, crumbling to the lawn. He suddenly had the most overwhelming and strange craving begin to fill his stomach as he looked back over his shoulder at the crowd: he wanted pomegranate seeds.

The toaster oven cord caught on fire, and Maria Sanclarita took that stupid box and threw it in the sink. She had half a mind to put it in her husband’s bed—maybe that would rouse him from his calm—but she turned the faucet on, ate the burnt Pop-Tart, and left.

Her untamed curls bounced around her head as she marched on toward the plaza. The neighborhood streets were completely empty, deserted: grand houses shut up, expensive cars locked, letters, packages, and newspapers carefully placed on porch steps. Her sheer, pink nightgown and robe billowed around her thin figure, and as she walked—though she knew she still looked as good as she had when she was twenty-two—she thanked God no one was around to see her. No civilized soul, of course, would be up at 6:30 a.m. anyway—at least, not on the hill—so she marched on, with her head held high and proud, thinking that maybe if someone did see her, a peek through their blinds at her, they would think she were only an apparition; a beauty seen in sleep, so dazzling a body one could not believe her to exist out of dreams.

But perhaps now—as I realize I have not yet told you much about Maria Sanclarita—I should elaborate on her particular personage. For, you see, Maria Benedita Rosa Gotobed Sanclarita was a certain kind of person: the type of person who wore Senhora as a badge of honor, draped across her bosom like a beauty pageant contestant. And¾like all women who felt thusly¾as a child, Maria had dreamt every night of rather particular things: sending and receiving her own letters, making her own telephone calls and appointments, worrying about money and her husband’s fidelity, and, most importantly, about having her own children to rear and groom. Maria herself had grown up in the Valley—convinced she was very much the most beautiful girl to ever breathe the Valley’s air—but always felt she belonged on the hill in a big house with a big yard and a rich husband, many children running around their emerald green lawn. Therefore, Maria had felt, her plan of growing up had to be a strict one—a successful one. She had no time for tomfoolery: she did not kiss a boy until she was a senior in college (where she had perfect attendance and was a straight A student as in high school), and married that boy straight out of college, leaving with a sparkling vintage wedding ring and a degree in Portuguese literature and cultural studies. She was lucky to have fallen completely in love with him (which hadn’t originally been part of the plan as somewhat love seemed good enough in the long run), and took him home with the greatest pride. He was half American, or something like that, Scottish or something—“American . . . feh! What is an American even but a mutt?” her father had said, “He’s hardly a well-bred man. Thank God he is not a poet!”—and marrying him, that Honey Sanclarita, was the only act of defiance Maria Benedita Rosa Gotobed Sanclarita ever succeeded in. There had been a moment, a split instance, an utter spell when Maria was seventeen where, in fact, it had seemed her calling was the black-and-white keys of her grandmother’s grand piano instead of a life on the hill. O, how she could move her fingers, how she could make the keys sing! But Maria felt it was far too much of a rebellious act to bear, and the title of mama, the calling of ‘O, Senhora!’ seemed a better match than, say, pianist in the stead of her name.

“Someone has taken mah baby’s fingahs,” she was mumbling, “Jealous bastards. Jealous whores,” and narrowed her eyes at nothing in particular. “Damn you. Damn you. Where are mah fingahs?”

She reached the plaza, and as everywhere else she had walked, it was empty: each shop, each building closed tight and locked. She stood in the middle of the place, a rather rectangular section of town, surrounded by ancient buildings brightly colored and a fountain of little artist angels spitting water in the center of the cobbled path. Maria Sanclarita noticed that every plant, every tree was budding green around her, on the sheer verge of blooming; such keenness, such promptness surrounded her. And though spring’s beauty of rebirth distracted her, she suddenly saw out of the corner of her eye Senhorita Infanta Costa (the Hilltop’s music teacher whom Maria had entrusted with Manila’s training after she outgrew silly Senhor Alfonso and the rest of the Valley) lugging a suitcase out of her rented storefront.

With no time for politeness, Maria Sanclarita screamed across the plaza, “You mongrel!” and charged toward poor Senhorita Infanta Costa. The young teacher was shocked at this green-faced beast running toward her, curly locks bouncing around her head into her eyes, and quickly tried to get to safety, back inside of her building. But with her suitcase in the way, the door would not shut, and Maria came down upon her.

“What have you done with Manila’s fingahs?!”

“I haven’t—I haven’t done anything, Senhora Sanclarita,” the teacher said haltingly, shaking her head, her blonde hair dancing around her ears. Maria narrowed her eyes, and the teacher shrank away. “I swear to you! Nothing! I haven’t seen Senhorita Manila since last Sunday.”

“Then where are you running away to? Why have you got a suitcase?”

The young teacher swallowed, “These are my girlfriend’s belongings,” she said on the verge of tears. “. . . Ex-girlfriend . . . I mean.”

Maria narrowed her eyes further and tore open the suitcase, looking inside; Senhorita Infanta Costa did nothing to stop her. “I haven’t anything to hide,” she sniffled, holding her head high. “I do not have your baby’s fingers.”

Maria looked through all the trinkets and bric-a-brac—her green face mask began to crack, and it is here that the story becomes shrouded in a fog of mist, and no one is certain as to what had happened next.

On the Mayor’s lawn, the crowd slowly began to dissipate as the parents shuffled home with heavy hearts and heavy feet to their fingerless children. The clocktower struck eight and Senhor Alfonso Hannover felt a grumbling in his stomach. He had been looking out the window on the second story of the Mayor’s manor out into the gardens as the Mayor himself paced back and forth across his office, bare feet padding against lime green carpet, arms swinging like an angry child or chimp.

“What are we going to do about this, Alfonso?” he mumbled, staring off wildly into nothing. “Do I fetch a doctor? A botanist? A pediatrician?” He stroked his chin with his fingers, rubbed his hands over his face. But Alfonso only kept staring out the window. In the garden, the little fingers were gently swaying in the breeze. The lawn was now completely empty except for flowers and plants, topiaries and bushes and trees, and Hermosa, realizing she often mistook her foolishness for bravery, crying on her knees into the dust on her fingertips.

“I don’t know,” Alfonso said. He could hear the Mayor fidgeting, moving back and forth across the room, but he did not look back.

“Perhaps we should burn the thing,” the Mayor said, suddenly banging his fist against his desk.

“I don’t think so, Senhor.”

“Perhaps, then we should bring the children—and we can . . . we can give them little ladders to fetch their little fingers?”

“O, I don’t think so, Senhor.”

The Mayor was next to Alfonso now.

“Well, what would you have me do then?” he asked. “What can one do in this impossible situation? I will be down in the polls for sure. Surely—surely my house will be ransacked, my offices destroyed; they will think I have had some doing in this! Some part in the dismemberment of their children! But you know I am no wizard, I am no gardener, that is why I have you after all, Alfonso . . . O, please help me, my gentle man, tell me what to do! Tell me what to do! Should we pick off every one of them and pretend they were blown away? Turned to dust? Should we cut down the tree? Shall we shave off its branches? O! Look at that hysterical woman out there! She’s going to ruin my lawn! She’s going to salt up the earth with her tears! What will we do! What will we do! Will my oranges ever grow again?!”

Here, my friends, you may judge for yourselves where the Mayor’s true concerns did lay, and how he felt waking up one morning to find his prized oranges replaced by little children’s little fingers. But have no doubt, my steady compatriots, that Senhor Alfonso Hannover felt no good will toward his employer in this moment upon hearing this most distasteful and terribly obscene of lamentations and lunatic ramblings.

“The whole thing’s too ridiculous for words—” the Mayor cried, “Truly!”

But Alfonso said nothing, only stared out the window at Hermosa and the orange blossom tree with its stolen little fingers dangling in the wind. He was so transfixed (by her or perhaps by his own reflection: dry and gray and aged like that swirling dust there on the glass) that he hardly even noticed when the Mayor paraded out of his office, waving his arms and stomping with bow-chicken legs, shouting something about a meeting: “An emergency meeting! An emergency meeting! Tonight!” Senhor Hannover hardly even blinked, hardly turned, just kept still at the window where, beyond the white paned glass, the wind blew more violently, and the sun began to sink so slowly, burning blue into inky pinks and purples and blacks, tears salting the earth and the sky: a sea.

He stood and thought for dinner he would need—simply—more than pomegranate seeds. But it is here, again, that the tale begins to fade into a cloud of mist, and not even I know what meal Senhor Alfonso Hannover had for dinner.

It was one sweet spring morning, precisely a month after a quite so very terrible collective Valley and Hilltop Town Hall and a most violent storming of the Mayor’s manor, that the little fingers did finally bloom upon the former Mayor’s former orange blossom tree in his former courtyard, and Maria Sanclarita left her home early in the morning, holding firmly to little Manila’s fingerless little hand, an empty wicker basket in the other.

She was not the first to arrive in the shade of the orange blossom tree that cool Sunday. On the contrary, parents and their fingerless children were already there climbing the branches of the tree and crawling up its great brown trunk, plucking fingers and throwing them down to their wives or husbands on the emerald green grass below. Alfonso, now both the town’s resident music teacher and acting mayor of the Valley and Hilltop, was there popping mandarin orange slices into his mouth, looking smart in a red and blue suit and striped yellow and white tie. He smiled at Maria and she smiled back, Manila waving to him with her fingerless hand. Maria Sanclarita then let her daughter run off to go play with the other disfigured children, and she stared up at the tree, the fingers ripe with beautiful white flowers surrounding each of them. She felt she knew instantly which fingers were Manila’s, and with the gentlest hand, she plucked the first one from the branch: a crack, a snap, a pop, and then there it was, Manila’s finger in the palm of her hand, cupped like a golden treasure. She looked at the finger and glanced at the parents hanging like monkeys from the branches and found herself wondering if oranges would ever grow upon the tree again.


Katie Lynn Johnston is a creative writing undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago. She has been a junior and senior editor for the Columbia Poetry Review, a production editor for Hair Trigger magazine, and her essay “The Barriers Faced by Female Writers” was published on the Fountainhead Press website and won the Excellence Award at the Student Writers’ Showcase. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Hair Trigger magazine and Lavender Review.

Issues Winter 2020-21

Zoe Elerby

The Spring Witch

As the spring flowers sprung, so did she. The snow partially melted, the river still frozen, and not a bird in sight. Yet, she still stepped out and tried. The sun allowed her olive skin to blossom with freckles, tiny burnt patches that she hid under heavy clothing. They were evenly distributed upon her cheeks and face, a sprinkle of sun blanketed over a crooked nose that sloped harshly. A parchment-thin top lip with a pleasantly plump bottom lip, her mouth was scarred with the result of a sudden blow with her father’s rake. It had split the right side of her mouth and served as the only reminder of her family. She considered herself lucky, because her bird-like body would have snapped if her father had decided to use the shovel instead. Part of her thinks it was the paternal instinct that kept him from murdering his first child. Part of her thinks it was blind luck.

Speaking her name was dangerous. Ivanna ironically meant “a gift from God” in Hebrew, despite her being viciously tossed away like scraps the dog didn’t finish. Not that she considered herself one, but she often wondered about the consequences of throwing away a gift from the Lord himself. She was the oldest of four children in the Ehlrich family, leaving behind her sisters and brother who had turned their backs as their father turned on her. 

Ivanna spoke to the birds of the night and the night birds of the day, seeking solace in their tilted heads as if they were interested to hear from her. Some would follow, and some would flee after she had fed them. Either way, her heart would ache with gratitude or loneliness. She was grateful to see the birds alive and well, doing their very best to live this fleeting life, then flying off to whatever awaited them. She always wished them well. 

The new year had come to fruition, the young month of January was upon the lamb white ground, the sun causing it to sparkle like the freckles on her skin. Frost still kissed the glass she looked through, but Mother Nature’s elegant patterns made stepping outside irresistible.

When she did, she did so without shoes or a jacket, exposing herself to January’s cruel winds and loving the warmth of the sun. As she stepped out, her toes cringed at what was definitely not the wooden steps she had built herself in this desolate woodland.

A letter was pressed between her foot and the wood. It was a letter from Mr. Bailey. Her breath froze in her throat as she bent over to pick up the envelope, forcing her eyes to miss the beautiful sunrise before her. The river sparkled kindly. She held her breath as she allowed her thumb to unconsciously slip under the lip of the envelope, and rip off the wax seal as if it were his throat.

Dearest Ivanna,

My son misses you quite a bit these days. He continues to ask me where you have run off to. If you could spare him a visit, that would be so very kind of you. 

Admittedly, I too, feel a pang of distress whenever I think of you. I miss placing my hands on your bare skin and embracing your small breasts. The mere thought of you makes me regret bringing my son to this world at the entertainment of his mother. I need a beautiful, misunderstood girl like you. A spring flower that I must fertilize for her own good.

Return to my manor, even if it is only for a single day. There will be a large sum if you bring joy to my son’s eyes. And mine as well.

We will see you soon.


Archibald Bailey

Ivanna’s jaw clenched, her fingers loosening. She took a delicate inhale, her eyes following the sound of a thrilled crow that landed on the frozen grass below the wood of her porch. She tilted her head, and it did the same. It flapped its wings, shook its head, and began picking at its underside. 

“That’s quite rude.” The palms of her hands engulfed the letter in flames, startling the crow. “But nothing can be as rude as him.” She flipped her hands over, allowing the ash to fall onto her feet before approaching the bird. “Not even you. . . .” 

“Oh well, isn’t that something?” The crow tilted its head. “You seem to have a lot of faith in me, Witch.” 

“And you can’t seem to stay away from me, can you, Trickster?”

The wind picked up, carrying the crow onto Ivanna’s shoulder. It squawked three times at the heavy wind, which steadily hardened into a solid form; an hourglass figure outlined by the air before being filled in with flesh as white as the snow invading the grass. A pointed smile attached to a square jaw and perky nose just below bright glowing purple eyes that locked onto Ivanna. Morgan held her arms out in triumph, covering her exposed body in a wool coat and cloak, the hood covering her glittering pink locks. If Ivanna described Morgan to any sane person, she would surely be taken to a madhouse. Then again, that would be the most ordinary thing to ever happen to her. 

Trickster, why thank you. . . .” Morgan cooed, leaning on her beechwood staff, decorated with crow feathers and the skull of a mockingbird. “I only wish to fill your journey with misfortune and misery.”

“Indeed.” Ivanna approached the fae. “Why are you in my territory?” 

Morgan stepped around Ivanna, examining her up and down, pinching her ear. “There is a bit of an issue in the realm. Simon has called for you.” 

Ivanna slapped her hand away. “Could he not come himself?” 

“You see . . .” Morgan snatched the crow off Ivanna’s shoulder, then held it gently in both hands. “He is part of said issue. . . .” 

Ivanna scowled at her pleased tone. She pressed her hand to her chest, causing Morgan to leap back and release the squawking bird. Mischievous brown eyes followed the startled fae. “Still scared of silver, are we?” 

Scared! Scared! You seek pleasure in mocking me relentlessly, don’t you? No, I’m not scared. I’m merely concerned about the life I’ve lived without injury and I don’t want to start now!” 

Ivanna smiled deviously, continuing the spell that was so rudely interrupted. So much rudeness today she thought. She pulled her hand down to the very bottom of her abdomen, changing her nightgown into a much more weather-appropriate petticoat and skirt. She allowed her hair to flow freely before stepping toward the annoying fae, and used the energy she had left to bring them both to the realm of magic. 


The realm was quiet this morning. There were usually sorcerers and other magic-users fighting tooth and nail to use the cauldrons and crystals first, full duels began just to enter the gardens for peaceful revitalization. The realm would glow and spark with magic from many different beings, beings that Ivanna had only dreamed about. This was the mid-point between Ivanna’s home and Limbo, allowing magic-users from astonishing places to gather at the dome covered building to practice what they knew. The glittering quartz between the cobblestone brought joy to Ivanna’s heart, her body loosening as she gazed upon a deep blue sky freckled with shining stars. It was always night there. A warm, forgiving night.

She followed Morgan into the gardens, under the rippling gate of porcelain and jewels, the fresh scent of spring cascading around her. It was overwhelmingly splendid, her lips unable to hide a smile as her eyes greeted the freshly planted mums and tulips. She had the irresistible urge to remove her shoes so her toes could grip the cool, dew-kissed grass. She approached a budding tulip and brushed it delicately with her fingers, the flower opening up to greet her. She gave it a kind smile, one that she would give to a curious little child. Her fingers traced down its stem, straightening up. 

“We all need a bit of help these days. . . .” Ivanna stood at attention at Simon’s voice. She turned to the aged sage and gave him an assuring nod. 

“No need, my dear friend.” His hands signaled for Morgan to leave them alone, the mischievous fae slinking slowly away. 

Ivanna battled the resisting feeling she had in her chest and held her hand out to the sage. It was respectful to show another magic user, especially one of your senior, that you mean no harm. Witches, wizards, sorcerers, and sorceresses all use their hands to generate magic, regardless if it’s in their blood or not. Just as a knight holds and controls his weapon in a dangerous grip, a magic user is much the same. Holding their palm face down and being limp at the wrist was a mutual agreement that Ivanna would not attack Simon and in turn, Simon would not attack Ivanna. 

Simon held his own hand up and shook his head. “My friend, I hope you understand why I’ve called you here. . . .”

“Morgan told me you’re having . . . ‘issues,’ in the realm?”

He rolled his eyes, clearing his throat. “A very crude way to put it. . . .”

“Mm. . . .” Ivanna’s eyebrows lowered as she scanned the sage up and down, trying to locate any significant difference that would indicate a problem. Whether that be with his magic or his physical health, she would be able to see it. But the man was perfectly the same, long brown hair lightened by streaks of grey and tied to stay out of his face, the hair landing just below his neck. Pink and wrinkled skin with eyes that reflected the mossy forest, a thick shawl covering the whole of him down to brown leather boots. But rather than his usual joyous grin, he was constantly licking his lips, causing Ivanna to be a bit more defensive than she usually was around her friend. 

“Child,” Simon spoke, “Someone has infiltrated the realm. We suspect them solely because ever since they’d entered, there have been numerous reports of young men dying suddenly.”

Ivanna audibly rolled her eyes. “On account of the plague, famine, and bar fights, what do you expect, Simon?”

“No, my dear.” He shook his head, “Mysteriously. There is no identifiable cause for their deaths, as if they’ve been poisoned or their hearts had suddenly stopped beating in their chests.”

“The issue?”

Simon’s eyes widened at her terse tone. “Iva—! These . . . these deaths are not normal occurrences. Young men are dying without any particular reason. Average, everyday young men who are just going about their lives as you do!”

“No one goes about their life as I do,” Ivanna growled. “What makes you assume this is related to our realm at all? The coincidence that another user has arrived around the same time?”


“There could easily be another regular mortal with a twisted mind, running about poisoning young men with potential. Murderers are not our responsibility, especially in the mortal realm—”

“They killed one of our own.” 

Ivanna raised an eyebrow. “Was it in a duel?”

“Yes but—”

“Then it was fair—”

Simon pulled out a crooked stick, the end glowing as it blasted vines towards Ivanna, wrapping her up completely and pulling her closer to him. He held his wand with such a tight grip, Ivanna could see his knuckles turning white. 

“His corpse was the same as the other young men we had seen: veins glowing blue all about his body, his hands completely paralyzed in the last position they had taken, eyes widened until bloodshot and a look of absolute horror on his face,” Simon spoke slowly through his teeth, making sure Ivanna held onto every word. “I would like you to name a mortal poison that can do that. . . .”

Ivanna hid her fear in an angry scowl, her arms warming the vines around her until they disintegrated, along with the sleeves of her shawl. Her hands turned to fists as she gazed at the sage, unsure if she should duel him for humiliating her like that or let the rage subside. He was the only man she had trusted, ever since her father had beaten her and sent her running into the woods to die, ever since Mr. Bailey had his way with her when she was trying to make money, Simon was the only one who had taken her in and treated her lovingly. 

She took a calming inhale, releasing the tension on her arms and fists. She was being stubborn, refusing to listen because she had a quiet vendetta against mortal men. She folded her hands in front of her and held her chin up. 

“What do you need me to do?”

Simon breathed a sigh of relief, anger wasn’t an emotion that he liked to portray, especially in front of his students. “Keep a close eye on them. I can’t trust anyone else to do this, they’d all be too quick to act. But you never attack without reason, Ivanna. I know you. . . .”

She nodded curtly. “Who are they?”

“They are . . . not of your realm. I am assuming some sort of half-fae or . . . demon . . .”

Ivanna raised an eyebrow. “Quite a hasty assumption. . . .”

“You’ll understand when you see them. They appear as a chimera, I can guarantee you have never seen this kind of being before.” 

“Take me to them then.” 

Simon sighed again, holding a limp hand out, then straightening his fingers to create a small, clear bubble. Ivanna stepped forward and looked into it, surprised to see a being with ash-gray skin, glowing red eyes, and hair as black as her familiar’s feathers. Their shoulders were as broad as a young sailor’s, face practically chiseled out of stone but hands delicate and smooth like a beautiful noblewoman’s. The hands seemed a bit out of proportion to the rest, being the only delicate part of this unfamiliar person. 

“I . . . hmm. . . .” She stepped back from Simon’s viewing orb. “This is who we’re assuming is killing mortal men?”


“What sorcerer did they kill?” Ivanna didn’t hesitate with the question, sure that if she didn’t ask she wouldn’t have a proper plan in mind. 

Simon closed his hand, the orb disappearing into delicate smoke. He put said hand to his chest and swallowed hard, his face turning red as he gently closed his eyes to hide obvious tears. 

“The sage of mischief, Christopher.”

“A sage?” Ivanna covered her mouth, doing her best to disguise the volume but her exclamation had scraped her throat. “You—” You didn’t tell me he was a sage! Simon?”

“This is why Morgan says I am part of the problem . . . I may be targeted as well.”

Ivanna bared her teeth, shaking her head in disbelief. “They . . . they killed a sage. . . .”

Simon stepped toward her, hands held out like he was handling a wild animal. “My dear, please remain calm . . . I tried to keep it quiet but I should’ve known better, you’re one of my best students. . . .”

Ivanna snatched his hands. “I don’t care about that—! We can’t let you near them . . . you cannot accept a duel with them—”

“You know the rules, Iva.” He brought her hand to his lips, delicately kissing her fingers. “A sage can never leave the magic realm as well as we can never deny our apprentices a duel. For knowledge comes with experience and mistakes. . . .”

“The realm already knows their power, they don’t need to fight you! If they choose to, it’s clearly a sick play for more power.”

“As true as that is, what magic user is ever satisfied with their power?”

Ivanna clenched her teeth, tensing as many of her muscles as she could to keep from visibly shaking. She allowed hot tears to fall down her cheeks and allowed Simon to wipe them away with his thumb. There was a fury in her heart that was only sparked by unnecessary violence, unjustified chaos and killings. Despite the world she lived in, chaos was a part of life, and was seemingly random but with such randomness came an order that could only be dictated by the universe itself. The laws of nature, the laws of the stars, the laws of morality came from such randomness and order. 

Simon released her hands, giving her a kind nod before disappearing with the wind. She breathed in the cool air before falling to her knees and embracing the kind grasses. The green gently brushed her face, taking the tears from her eyes and absorbing them to sustain life. She fell to her side, lying completely on the grass and smiling when it tickled her ear, her fingers curling around the longer strands. Her heart was hammering in her chest as her thoughts moved at the same pace, the heat of her face retreating as she pressed her cheek closer to the ground. 

It was one thing being a disgrace to a family that didn’t love her, it was another to be a married man’s whore. But she was going to dedicate her life to the very thing that had allowed her to live: magic. The man who had shown her this beautiful world was in danger and had prompted her to help keep this realm and the mortal one safe. 

Ivanna slowly rose to her knees, her fingers still grazing against the grass, and began to hum a tune that had appeared in her head. She was skilled in all kinds of magic, so much so that she wasn’t ashamed to show young children the wonder of creating life from cold cobblestone. She could summon a butterfly, she could grow flowers from nothing just as she could scorch an entire village and open a portal to a foreign hellscape. She closed her eyes slowly as she rose to her feet, feeling the grass grip onto her fingers like a needy newborn. She muttered nothing and brought forth a loving patch of daisies where her hand once was. 

“Shadow.” She closed her eyes tighter, the darkness receding into a blue light behind her eyes. “Familiar with the crow and raven, the winged and unlucky, rest upon me.”

She heard her familiar squawk in the ether before it appeared on her shoulder, pressing its head against her ear. Its feathers were soft and kind, despite the usual symbol it would represent. She offered her finger and Shadow pecked gently, making an effort to show her such minimal affection. 

“The winged and unlucky. . . .” She nodded at her friend and snapped her fingers to send them as close to her target as possible.

Her new location was the center of the realm’s entrance, the glowing stone courtyard where the young apprentices would gather and exchange potions and spells without the sages’ knowledge. She smiled and nodded at a few goblin wizards, orc sorceresses who blushed at the sight of her, and mortal boy wizards who tripped over their brooms to smile at her. She rolled her eyes at them and sat in the center of the courtyard, simply observing her comrades passing by so she could easily locate the traitor. 

Shadow hopped down from her shoulder and onto her crossed ankles, allowing Ivanna to see through its eyes. She ran her finger down the crow’s back, humming the tune her mind had welcomed and smiling kindly at her fellow magic users. The crow flapped his wings and squawked once, asking for Ivanna to let it loose and fly. She placed a single finger on his head and closed her eyes, quietly telling the familiar to be patient. Once again, Shadow squawked. Ivanna began humming louder, symbols appearing behind her eyelids, scripture from ancient sages. She wanted to understand the characters but was still weak in the language. She knew the sounds but couldn’t put them together, at least not as easily as Hebrew and English. One symbol remained in her vision: a wavy line with an angled ‘C’ in the center. It hopped around in her vision, causing her to hum a new, more upbeat rhythm.

She heard some of her comrades exclaim when her mouth had opened, lyrics spilling from her throat. “Courage follows friendship to the bottom of the sea, ask me anything and I’ll help you find your way.” 

When she opened her eyes, some of her comrades lingered and bounced along to the lyrics that seemed to be born at a rapid pace from mind to mouth. She saw the joy on the magic users’ faces, playfully swaying and bouncing along to her song. One of them, a bard, she assumed, handed her his instrument and she began to play this tune that grew in lyrical elegance and now, instrumental magnificence. Her comrades began to clap in rhythm, eight beats that allowed Ivanna to move her feet in tandem. When her lyrics started again, the clapping ceased, and everyone simply bounced. 

I know I come on pretty strong, but I will be your better shadow if you let me tag along…

It’s a strange place to be when you don’t know where you’re bound, but I’ll walk right beside you and I’ll never let you down. . . .” 

The circle of magic users only increased, sages and apprentices alike all joining the spectacle. More of the bards stepped forward to join Ivanna, only making the song more memorable and uniting the different factions of magic through the sorcery that was song. 

Ask me anything! And I’ll help you find your way for adventuring! This could be your lucky day—” The bards caught onto Ivanna’s lyrics rather quickly, pleasantly joining her in the chorus that proclaimed her strength. 

She felt her heart swell with the joy of comradery whilst she allowed her familiar to fly free into the realm’s sky. She spun with the first bard’s plucking instrument, her skirt kicking up quartz dust and remnants of potion herbs from the ground. Shadow flew into the sky, allowing Ivanna to see through its eyes as she managed to distract everyone else. 

If there was one thing that united any group of living beings, it was music. No matter your kin or moral standing, when a song is sung or there’s a beat from a drum, it’s irresistible to the ear as well as the heart. With all her comrades gathered here, she was sure she had created the perfect situation for her target to slyly escape or find their next victim. 

Unaware of their name, their kin, and what their motives were, she allowed Shadow to circle the main buildings and pass through the gardens. The crow couldn’t go into the cellar, guarded by the trickster, Morgan, who seemed to be one of the few who didn’t want to participate in the sudden festivities. Shadow dove toward the rooftop alchemists where neophytes were required to practice potion making before participating in any leisurely activity. 

And there they were, the lonely traitor practicing slowly as their comrades rushed to finish their brew so they could join the others in Ivanna’s song. Shadow kept quiet, simply flying right over them all and greeting the other summoned familiars to not draw any attention. Shadow flew back to Ivanna at the bridge of the song, where she held a note so high it should’ve broken the alchemy sage’s glass eye. 

Shadow landed right on her shoulder when the note ended, and the chorus began again. She remembered the exact location where Shadow had seen the traitor, spinning past her comrades and beginning to walk into the domed building. 

“What is she doing?”

“She’s going to show the neophytes!”

That’s right, she was going to show the neophytes the community that was created here and show the traitor just how strong they were when joined together. Some of the witches stepped forward and opened the doors for her as she led the magic users to the roof. Some had taken the short route, flying up with brooms and transportation spells to give the young magic users a small taste of what was to come. 

When Ivanna reached the stairs, she tossed up the stringed instrument and sat on it like it was her broom, still managing to pluck without her fingers touching the strings. The clapping began again as they went up the stairs and greeted the neophytes with such a feverish welcome that one of the young witches couldn’t help but squeal with joy. They all bottled what they could and were fine with failure, they simply wanted to join in the festivities. 

The traitor looked up, black hair blowing in the wind and red eyes piercing through the crowd and landing on Ivanna. Despite the cold chill of fear, Ivanna kept her voice warm and lively as she sang: “Never mind the ones who tell you you’re too big and bold and bright!” 

Shadow flew above her, watching the traitor step closer. 

Ask me anything and I’ll help you find your way!” 

The traitor wiped their hands on their black robes, blinking slowly but eyes never leaving the singing witch. 

This could be your lucky day!” 

They simply stepped passed the crowd, no one objecting to welcoming them into the circle of unity and joy. 

Never fear my dear, if the answer isn’t plain to see. . . .” 

They made it all the way to the front, licking their teeth under a closed mouth, hands folded in front of them. Ivanna felt a sudden wave of nausea hit her, resembling the feeling she would get when Mr. Bailey called her into his wife’s bedroom. She kept the song alive, nearing the end and keeping the spectacle just enough to hold onto everyone’s attention. 

She tossed the stringed instrument to its original owner and summoned her broom, hopping onto it and circling the crowd as she delivered the final line: “Take three more steps and you’ll find me.” She held a hand up, abruptly stopping the music and gazing directly into the traitor’s eyes. 

The traitor held up their hands along with everyone else and slowly clapped, eyes locked on Ivanna as the thunderous applause roared all around them. She saw a smirk that resembled revolting creatures she had summoned and defeated, men she had hated so deeply, an evil display of joy that set fire to her heart. 

“How marvelous,” their voice scraped against her eardrums. “What a wonderful way to end a day.” 

Ivanna hopped down from her broom, offering a limp hand. “Ivanna.”

“Adorian . . . sorcerer. . . .”

She pursed her lips. “Witch.”

Adorian smiled. “How marvelous. . . .”

Shadow landed on her shoulder, and she smiled the smile that convinced people to hire her for menial labor. “How marvelous indeed. . . .” 


Zoe Elerby is a junior 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 College’s creative writing program. 

Issues Winter 2020-21

Emma Dailey Mitchell

Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third, the Northerner

I ain’t neva met a boy as strange as Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third. “The Third” was somethin’ he insisted was as important to his three names as salt was to fries. Well, he didn’t quite say it like that ’cause that boy didn’t say much of anythin’. He was a Northerner come down, like nearly all my customers from Highway 88, and I swear to ya, I had to hire him. I coulda made do with old Turtle, Nibbler, and Gingerbeer, but the truckers are always hungry and the tourists always askin’ questions. 

Now, I had to hire him. In all my thirty years sweatin’ over the grill, I ain’t neva seen the place so full and for so long. I needed another cow in the barn to help with them Yankees, and gosh darn it if that Barnabe Brenton Bishop—the Third—wasn’t a godsend, at first. ’Course now there’s nothin’ but rumors floatin’ and I’m tellin’ ya this ’cause there ain’t many folks that can say they actually knew Barnabe Brenton Bishop¾the Third. Not the way I knew him and most of the stories goin’. . . well, I wouldn’t be inclined to believe ’em, ’cept that one. . . . 

But where are my manners? If my momma knew I was cluckin’ like a hen on Sunday without tellin’ y’all about me and my humble establishment first, she’d be meaner than a pig on Friday. I’m a simple man with simple goals. I started cookin’ in my backyard. Barbeque and burgers were my bread and butta. But then my momma insisted that grillin’ wasn’t real cookin’. She was right. So, she taught me all the family secrets. And I tell ya, I’m almost as good as Ma with a shop of my own off that dusty little highway. Big Bear Billy’s Dine and Drive. Best food for miles, if I do say so myself. But ever since they added ol’ 88 to the truckin’ route, my place ain’t neva been the same. 

Now, all the help I needed was my three boys: Turtle, Nibbler, and Gingerbeer. Those ain’t the names their mommas gave ’em, ya know, just nicknames come from a bit of joshin’. And yeah, they’re all a little strange, and I reckon’ a lesser man would kick ’em to the curb for all their faults, but I can’t bring myself to let ’em go. They are good enough half of the time and ain’t neva strange at the same time, thank the Lord Almighty for that. ’Sides, I got it all worked out. Well, I did. Ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop them truckers.

So the day Barnabe Brenton Bishop—the Third—walked into my diner was like the messiah had come. Breezed through the door like a breath of fresh air. He was a strange fella from the beginnin’, I ain’t gotta tell ya, but he was an extra hand in the basket, and a steady one at that. He was a willowy thing, that Barnabe Brenton Bishop. Thin and tall like poor Nibbler, and paler than the skin of a farmer’s ass. Somethin’ ghostly in his features. Boy looked haunted by somethin’. He neva spoke ’bout where he came down from. Neva talked ’bout his folks. Was a sheep without a flock, that boy. 

I put him on the grill at first ’cause I couldn’t take Turtle burnin’ another batch, and Nibbler’s shakin’ had gotten worse. His ma started drinkin’ too. . . . Now shoot, I should tell y’all ’bout my shop. There’s the eatin’ room, the space where the booths face the windows to see the highway snakin’ through the dust. It ain’t a grand view, but a view, and then they lined the walls with plush red leather comfier than a tractor’s seat or even an office chair for our fancier guests, the bankers and the like. If I do say so myself, it’s better than any fancy-schmancy car seat, I reckon’. Then there’s the tables spreadin’ and fillin’ up the tiles, a shinin’ white, and the counter with a row of stools curlin’ ’round the edge, and the little service window givin’ a nice view into the kitchen, where I can be chattin’ with folks while I fix ’em up somethin’ hot to eat.

The kitchen’s not much to look at. Really just the flattop grill ‘long the back wall, some friers past that, and a place for choppin’, dicin’ and preppin’. Then ’course the sink full of dishes Gingerbeer’s supposta be washin’ and the ice storage. The only thing not covered in a layer of oil is my signed photo of Willie Nelson. And I reckon I spend some of my yappin’ on the window by the grill that’s lookin’ out on sprawlin’ nothin’ness, ‘cause whenever Barnabe Brenton Bishop wasn’t lookin’ down at sizzlin’ patties or glarin’ over at Willie, he was starin’ at that nothin’ness. But I couldn’t bellyache ‘bout a little daydreamin’ or the kid’s poor taste in music when he got the orders up and out faster than I’d ever seen. 

He was good at makin’ all kinds of foods, but his favorite to make was a burger. There was somethin’ ’bout the look on his face when he’d push a patty to the hot griddle, listenin’ to the little drops of grease sputterin’ up, the hiss the meat makes. I couldn’t tell ya what it was ’bout cookin’ up a burger, that was his bread and butta. And I was just fine lettin’ him make as many burgers as he likes ’cause truckers, tourists, and townies love a good burger. 

It was all goin’ fine and dandy with Barnabe Brenton Bishop at first. Sure, the boy was as quiet as crickets in winter, always starin’ . . . but he was a good kid and a damn good cook. The issues didn’t really start ’til his third day on the job. It was a Sunday afternoon, when the after- church rush mixed with the travelin’ crowd. The griddle was swamped with all sorts of goodies. The smell of pancakes and eggs, chicken and fries filled the kitchen. Barnabe Brenton Bishop was starin’ out that window while I plated a grilled cheese for a screamin’ babe out by the tables. As I was lookin’ at another order, I held the plate out to the boy and called out.

“Barnabe?” Nothin’. “Barnabe Brenton?” I looked up, but his eyes neva left the window. “Barnabe Brenton Bishop?” He blinked but kept on starin’. “Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third?” He looked at me with those ghostly eyes. “Would ya mind takin’ this out to table 13?” I asked, lookin’ back at the griddle to flip up a pancake with my free hand while thrustin’ the plate toward him and to look away from those eyes. . . . Then it was the darndest thing, I swear to ya; I neva had it happen to me before. Neva had it happen since. 

“I’d rather not,” he said, turnin’ to look back at that window. I gaped at him like a fish on a dock, open-mouthed and blubberin’. “Boy, I don’t think ya heard me right. I don’t care what you’d rather. Take this to table 13.” Then he said it again, like I’d been askin’ if he wanted ketchup with his fries, calmer than a white rabbit in snow. “I’d rather not.” I just stared at the side of his face for a few precious seconds, tryin’ to make heads or tails of that boy.

I woulda started demandin’ answers, but the smell of bubblin’ eggs reached me, and my arm was getting tired from holdin’ out the plate that boy wasn’t takin’. I cursed and called out for Gingerbeer. The kid hopped up to me with a smirk on his face, that Johnson red hair on him glintin’ under my yellow lights. “Take this to table 13.” I grabbed his arm, ’fore he could get far. “And don’t do anythin’ to it.” I turned back to the cookin’ food and thought I ought to have a talk with Barnabe Brenton Bishop after this rush was over. But I neva did. Figured it was first-rush nerves, or maybe I wasn’t clear enough with him ’bout how we work, that at Big Bear Billy’s everyone does a little bit of everythin’. 

I figured he’d figure it out soon enough. But a few days later, when Johnson came ‘round with the weekly greens, beans and all the finer things, it happened again. It was early in the mornin’ when the town still wakin’ up, not quite hungry yet. Nibbler and Gingerbeer were unloadin’ the boxes, but it was slow goin’.  Nibbler—poor Nibbler’s thin as a wire and as bright as a bulb—was movin’ stiff and the truck was plenty full. And ’course when the rooster awakes, Nibbler’s a-shakes. I called out in the silence of the kitchen where ol’ Turtle was whippin’ up the odd order from some truckers and early birds, and that boy was probably starin’ at the nothin’ness. 

“Barnabe?” Nothin’. “Barnabe Brenton?” Silence. “Barnabe Brenton Bishop?” I sighed. Nibbler and Gingerbeer exchanged a look but didn’t say nothin’. Nibbler was still shakin’, since it was the mornin’, and Gingerbeer wouldn’t dare try sassin’ with his pa watchin’. “Barnabe Brenton Bishop¾the Third!” There was an echoing “Yes?”

“Come out here and help the boys with the unloadin’.” There was a beat of silence, then that boy called out, rather softly, “I’d rather not.” 

I went stompin’ into the kitchen, madder than a sleepin’ bear after it’s been poked. “Boy, now I know that you did not just tell me what you’d rather not do. Now, I told ya to go help ’em boys with unloadin’ that truck.” He turned to look at me with those haunted eyes of his, and I just—I lost all my fire, stalled like a truck without fuel. “I’d rather not,” Barnabe Brenton Bishop said again with the tone like a still lake as he pushed down on a pancake, makin’ it sizzle, lookin’ away from me to stare out that godforsaken window. Ol’ Turtle just slowly smiled at me with a wide, wrinkled smile, his neck ramrod straight as he stood, lazily pushing bacon on its back. “Turtle, go help the boys unload ’fore the rush starts up.” 

“Whatever ya need, Big Bear Bill.” He shuffled on past me, happy to do just ‘bout anythin’ this early in the mornin’. I jabbed out a finger at Barnabe Brenton Bishop and said, “This ain’t over, boy,” to his blank stare and followed Turtle out to the truck. 

Headin’ back into the mornin’ sun, I could see the soft panic in Nibbler’s shoulders, the way his tall frame shrank at the anger that rolled off me like stink offa hog. “Whatcha gonna do about him talkin’ back like that?” he asked in a sharp, quiet voice. I couldn’t look inta his big, sad Bambi eyes. And I swear to ya, I didn’t know what I was gonna do with Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third, so I just grabbed a box of carrots. “You oughta set him straight. He’s gotta be good or else nobody’s gonna—he’s gotta be good. You oughta put him in his place,” Nibbler kept on sayin’ in a distant, frightened voice, like a parrot ’bout to go to the vet.

He always spends the mornin’ mutterin’ ‘bout not bein’ good and the like in that voice that sounded quite a bit like his folks. I sighed at the carrots. “Nobody’s oughta do anythin’. He’ll figure it out.” I ain’t gonna push that Barnabe Brenton Bishop into doin’ anythin’ he ain’t wanna do. Lookin’ at poor Nibbler shakin’ and shiverin’ in this heat, I ain’t gonna go ‘bout it like that, but lookin’ back toward the kitchen, somethin’ told me violence wouldn’t make that boy learn. And maybe the boy was hurtin’ somewhere like Nibbler, but more serious like. Maybe he can’t bend all the ten feet of his limbs, or his back’s curvier than a mountain road, I don’t know. But I tell ya, there was somethin’ ’bout the way that boy looked at me. I couldn’t’ve knocked some sense into him, like Nibbler suggested that mornin’, even if I wanted too. Somethin’ told me he’d seen enough. 

And now I know I shoulda handled Barnabe Brenton Bishop better than I did, considerin’ all that happened. After that deliverin’ business, I stopped askin’ him to do little things like servin’ customers and choppin’ up veggies, ’cause I didn’t wanna hear what he’d rather. He’d rather keep pressin’ patties, I reckon’. They were so good they could make a cow smile. And honest, for a coupla days I thought that we had worked out the bumps in the bread with old Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third. But I started seein’ that that boy wasn’t eatin’ like he was supposed to. I neva did see him leave the diner and I ain’t neva seen him cookin’ and eatin’ somethin’ for himself.

 I started to fix him up a burger or somethin’ of the like, like I do for poor Nibbler, but I ain’t neva seen him touch it. He’d just say in that still-lake voice that he was “rather full” or “rather not eat now.” Still can’t wrap my noggin ’round how that boy coulda lived eatin’ as little as he did. Even Nibbler nibbles on somethin’ to stay standin’. Especially considerin’ that Barnabe Brenton Bishop was the first in the kitchen in the mornin’s and the last in the evenin’. It was like that boy neva stopped cookin’, and he was mighty fine at it. And now, I ain’t goin’ stop a cook from cookin’.

But soon I forgot that that boy rathered not do a lot of things. One afternoon, toward the end hump of the hungry folks, I asked Barnabe Brenton Bishop, “Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third, clean the grease off that griddle when ya done. Would ya?” 

“I’d rather not,” he muttered softly while slappin’ a circle of red meat on the grill and pushin’ it down with the shinin’ metal in his hands. I looked toward my Willie Nelson photo for strength, heavin’ outta sigh and crossin’ my arms ’fore facin’ the boy where he hunched over heat. Now my anger was buildin’ and not even Willie could soothe it.  

“You gotta clean after cookin’, boy. How long we gonna keep playin’ this game?”

“I’d rather not play any games.” That was it. I stormed out of the kitchen like a bear out a stream. I found Nibbler smilin’ and servin’ up some late-lunchin’ locals and Turtle grumblin’ over some ketchup bottles he was supposed to be fillin’. 

“Barnabe said he’d rather not clean up the mess the meat makes. Ain’t that somethin’, Turtle?” At the mention of his name, Turtle’s shoulders lifted a little more toward his ears as he retreated into his shell. He glared at me through his wrinkles. “That sure is somethin’,” Turtle snapped, jaw flaps a-jigglin’. “Somethin’ that calls for a trip into the kitchen and for a whack upside the head. That’s what I’d rather.” As he said this, he squeezed the red bottle between his hands and red squirted all over him. His eyes glazed over, and he goes to that place old folks go for a few seconds, a look blanker than a baby in baptism. He looked at the ketchup on his fingers in confusion, but his eyes hardened, lookin’ meaner than a Catholic in church. He flicked the red away and brought his shoulders up a little more, ’til ya could barely see he had a neck. 

“Damn that boy. I told ya, Big Bear Bill, you neva shoulda hired a damn carpetbagger. Damn Northernerswouldn’t know a full day’s work if it bit them in the ass. I ain’t gonna clean up after the damn boy. In my day, you were beaten black for talkin’ like that,” Turtle went on sayin’, and I remind y’all that this was after noon now. Nibbler timidly handed a rag to the sauce-stained Turtle, who snatched it away with a flick of his wrist, grumblin’ away as he did.

Nibbler was surpressin’ a flinch and since it was well past noon, he did a good job of it. He looked at me with them big brown eyes, so different than Barnabe Brenton Bishop’s ghostly blues, and I swear to ya, all Nibbler did was look me in the eyes and say, “Big Bear Bill, please.” And I felt that anger falter. I can’t tell ya if it was pleadin’ in his voice or look in his eyes but I ain’t neva gonna be like Nibbler’s old man . . . Anyways, that afternoon Barnabe Brenton Bishop got what he’d rather. 

Rather is such a funny Northerner word, ain’t it? I find myself sayin’ it more, and honest, my shoulders tense every time poor Nibbler, ol’ Turtle, or any other folk for that matter, say it without thinkin’, and it’ll send me grumblin’ ’bout it each time. “Big Bear Bill, would ya rather I ordered up the blue napkins or the white ones?” “Big Bear Bill, I rather liked that burger,” “That was rather amazing, Big Bear Bill.” Gingerbeer got a kick outta it. “Ain’t it rather great, Big Bear Bill, what’s rather likely to happen. Rather you want it or now. Rather annoyin’, ain’t it?”  I neva could understand how that Barnabe Brenton Bishop went on rathin’ his way through life. But I was startin’ to get a better idea.

Now every third Sunday for every month I come in earlier than early to balance my books in peace before church. And I’m tellin’ ya this ’cause the third Sunday of the month that I hired that boy, Barnabe Brenton Bishop, is worth mentionin’. It was a quiet mornin’, goin’ like they all go when the sun’s barely up. It was cool for once, and I was whistlin’ to myself as I was walkin’ to my shop. When I tried pushin’ the door to my diner open, it was the darndest thing. The tune fell from my lips as the door wouldn’t budge. 

Now, I ain’t in the habit of lockin’ my doors. I got no reason to. Sometimes I remember and when Nibbler works late he always locks up, but it ain’t often. So I started diggin’ ’round for my key, prayin’ I actually had one on me and I wouldn’t have to go on home or wait for ol’ Turtle, poor Nibbler, or the landlord, or stiff and straight, egg whites and plain toast, Mr. Folley to come on by with one of theirs. I finally found it, pickin’ up my song once more, stuck the stick of metal into the lock, turned ’til I heard the click, and pushed, only to be pushed back ’gain, by the damn door that wouldn’t move. “What in tarnation,” I muttered to myself. 

It was locked from the inside, makin’ it stubborner than an ass grazin’. ’Course, I thought maybe Nibbler was hidin’ out inside. He’s done that a coupla times when things with his folks got . . . rough and was needin’ a safe place with frozen peas and a deadbolt and chain or two that I put on them doors just for him. So when a tall figure floated up to the door, a deadbolt clicked back, and sad eyes peeked through the crack. I was expectin’ Nibbler’s eyes layered with dark circles, maybe a bruise or two linin’ his cheeks, not that boy’s ghostly blues starin’ at me, unmarked pale skin colored only by the bronze chain he hovered over. His hair was rumpled like Nibbler’s after a rough night, and his clothes were more wrinkled than Turtle’s neck. “Oh,” was all he said at first. And after a few silent moments, when my mind was still catchin’ up to what was happenin’, he said: “I’m not ready yet. Would you mind coming back in a few minutes? I’d rather appreciate it.” In that quiet, calm voice of his.

Now I can’t begin guessin’ what made me to leave the door to my own shop. Maybe it was that voice that was like a sleepin’ cat or those eyes that were dull like a faded knife . . . or the simple, soft way he closed the door on me. I don’t know, but I turned and took a walk ’round town for a block or two ’fore anger hit me like a bull. I stomped back to my shop to find that Barnabe Brenton Bishop was gone. Without someone to yell at, the anger drained out of me as I walked ‘round my empty place. I wandered ’round the kitchen at the flattop, the fryers, the storage, ‘round the counter at the stools, the booths. And honest, in one of the booths was a little pillow and a thin blanket, and in the ice storage I found a tiny box of trinkets, a brush, a pen, a sliver of soap. Between the box and booth, it was pretty clear what was goin’ on, ’cept I didn’t know why. But I tell ya, I tried to figure out.

I tried explainin’ to the boy that he couldn’t go on livin’ in the diner. I tried to get the boy to come home with me and sleep in a bed ‘til we could get him a place in town. I offered him his pay and then some so he could get settled nicely, but in that voice like the call of the wind, with those eyes like shatterin’ glass, all that boy had to say was “I’d rather not” and just kept on starin’ at that window, not even lookin’ at the grill or the green I’d offered him.  

A coupla days after that, Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third stopped cookin’ altogether. And now, I had him stop ’cause he was gettin’ these burns up and down his hands. I reckon it was from pressin’ down those patties. I neva even seen the boy flinch at the sputterin’ grease. If ya ain’t careful of those jumpin’ little drops of hellfire, they’ll burn a hole through your hand. Most folks learn after a drop or two burns the lesson into them, but Barnabe Brenton Bishop ain’t most folks. I tell ya, I probably warned him to watch the grease, and I bet ya he told me he’d “rather not.” I kept him from cookin’ anythin’ ’til the nasty burns on his hands healed up and he could go on properly flippin’ burgers. He just stood by that window, starin’. I tried to get him to talk ’bout anythin’, but he said he’d rather not talk ’bout it. Not ’bout where he’d come from, or who his folks were, how he came to town. Nothin’ ’bout anythin’ came from that boy’s lips. 

That’s how it went on for ’bout a month. The diner would be alive and buzzin’. People eatin’. People talkin’. Food sizzlin’. The kitchen smellin’ like heaven. Turtle’s neck sinkin’. Nibbler shakin’. Gingerbeer smirkin’. And Barnabe Brenton Bishop starin’ out that window, silent and still. Now I barely saw him move from where he’d lean his head ’gainst wall and stare at that nothin’ness. It was the new normal for Big Bear Billy’s, even when his hands healed up nicely—only a little scarrin’—the boy still wouldn’t get cookin’. I let him keep on starin’ ’cause what else was I gonna do. ’Cept it started rubbin’ old Turtle the wrong way, and Gingerbeer had taken to throwin’ things at the boy’s still frame to see if Barnabe would crack, and Nibbler . . . Nibbler started workin’ himself faint. 

Somethin’ had to change. I decided with all the money that highway was earnin’ me, it would be rather nice to set up shop a little closer to town. So, I got this place right on Main Street with windows lookin’ out onto the town, the folks passin’ by and passin’ through, right ’cross the street from the ol’ town hall. I got a fine offer for my old spot from a group of outsiders—Northerners at that—lookin’ to expand a chain of theirs, but I swear to ya those chains will neva beat my burgers. 

I tried to tell Barnabe Brenton Bishop that we’re leavin’. I made him look me in the eyes and tell me he understood. He blinked those ghostly blues at me and said he understood just fine, but that he’d “rather not leave right now.” I tried tellin’ him that he didn’t work for me no more and that the place didn’t belong to me. He said that “that was rather all right” and that he’d “rather not go” all in that calm as a still lake voice.  And honest, I couldn’t get that boy to budge before I handed over the keys and Big Bear Billy’s Dine and Drive moved. And that, I thought, would be the last I heard from Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third. 

Now ol’ Turtle, Nibbler, and Gingerbeer settled nicely to the new place, like baby ducks to water, and most local folks took a likin’ to it and a likin’ to the fact that the ghost of Barnabe Brenton Bishop was no longer hauntin’ ’bout the kitchen. It was bigger than before, filled with shiny and new friers and flattops, the stools and booths were comfier than ever. But it wasn’t complete ’til I got my Willie Nelson hung up. It was a mighty fine shop, if I do say so myself.

It was a few days after we opened up the new and improved Big Bear Billy’s Dine and Drive that, egg whites and plain toast Mr. Folley stopped by my diner for more than a cuppa coffee. He admitted rather quickly that he needed help with those damn outsiders buyin’ my old space. I shook my head at the little man. “I can’t help with them, Folley. It ain’t my fault you decided to go rentin’ to them Yankees.” I smiled at him while handin’ over his egg whites and toast, and pushin’ a cup of butta toward him, which he ignored. I swear, that man likes his food even drier than his personality. He pulled at his stiff, straight suit, coughed, and lowered his voice to whisper in church quiet.

 “Big Bear Bill, it ain’t just those Yankees that’s the problem. It’s that boy you hired a while back. Bartalbe Bention Brishop refuses to leave. Those other Yankees are gearin’ up to call the cops, Bill. I swear to ya. It ain’t gonna end well. Can ya try talkin’ to the boy?” I heaved a sigh deeper than the old Miller’s well. “Barnabe Brenton Bishop,” I corrected, quietly. I’d hope that boy woulda been smart enough to take off before the other folks set up shop, considerin’ they were plannin’ on tearin’ the place down. “I’ll head over there and see what I can do, but ya know that boy will rather not listen to me or anybody.” 

But still, I went on over to see Barnabe Brenton Bishop, and he was leanin’ ’gainst the last wall to my shop, still starin’  at the nothin’ness. And now, I tried talkin’ sense into him ‘gain. “Boy, you gotta leave or they’re gonna make ya leave. I tell ya, if you go now it’ll be better for ya.” And all that came back was that echoin’ voice sayin’ what he’d rather. Honest, there was no convincin’ that boy to leave. I did all I could, considerin’ what happened next . . . I heard a few days later from Miss Nancy—veggie omelet with spiked orange juice—that those outsiders pushed Barnabe Brenton Bishop outside and ’course he was, in Miss Nancy’s words, “shufflin’ ’round like a weepin’ willow, a shabby little puppy. Poor dear. Ya know, it’s a shame . . . these days . . . tut, tut, tut. . . .” 

And few days after that Miss Nancy came in with word that Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third had been arrested for loiterin’ and trespassin’. It was all I was hearin’ in the shop. All sorts of stories kept on comin’ through my shop, all whisperin’ and yammerin’ like hens over seeds, actin’ like I ain’t gonna hear ’em, like their beaks didn’t peck at my spine every time I heard ’em. So, I decided to pay Barnabe Brenton Bishop a visit, see if there wasn’t somethin’ I could do.

I made my way over to the sheriff’s station, a rinky-dink little office with a cell or two for drunks to sleep it off and to scare any rambunctious little runts with spray paint and a carton of eggs. Had to pick Gingerbeer up outta the station a coupla times. Whenever Gingerbeer’d get caught, I’d told his pa to let me bring over a slice of somethin’ sweet for the sheriff, see if it wouldn’t set things straight. Sheriff Tolley—chocolate chip pancakes, sunny side up eggs and a coffee that’s half sugar—was a good man. But this time, with that damned Barnabe Brenton Bishop, pie wasn’t gonna be enough. 

“There’s nothin’ I can do, Big Bear Bill. Boy won’t leave and those out-of-towners that bought up your place won’t stand for him hauntin’ and populatin’ them halls. There ain’t nothin’ I can do for him now. In a coupla days they’ll come pick him up.” I was as deflated as a New Year’s balloon on January 1st. I looked at the boy sittin’ in that little cell, ’hind those thick bars, with his knees drawn up to his chin and his eyes just starin’. “At least let me bring him bring him somethin’ to eat.” Tolley sighed and nodded ’round a mouthful of Nibbler’s sinful cherry ’n raspberry pie. “Please, boy keeps sayin’ he’s ‘not rather hungry.’ I ain’t gonna be responsible when he keels over.” 

I left the sheriff’s station that afternoon to tell the boys what had happened, that in Barnabe Brenton Bishop’s words he was “rather all right.” Gingerbeer was frownin’, Nibbler’s lip  was quiverin’, and Turtle just snapped that he deserved it. Words he would regret come mornin’, when his shoulders didn’t block his ears. And the next mornin’, ’fore I made my way back to Tolley’s, Turtle was missin’ that Santa smile of his. He laid out everythin’ to make up a feast for that boy, even stuff for ol’ Tolley, includin’ a mighty fine burger with all the fixins that I took over to the little cells with a slice of Turtle’s turtle cake and breakfast for the sheriff.

 But when I got there, I swear to ya, it was like Tolley was struck with a sense of madness no amount of coffee with mounds of sugar could solve. “He’s gone,” Tolley gasped out when he laid eyes on me. I felt fear creep into my bones, ’bout havin’ to look in those dead eyes and have them actually be . . . dead. But there are some mercies and one of ’em was findin’ the cell that held Barnabe Brenton Bishop empty. That boy had disappeared like the breeze and set Tolley runnin’ ’round like a bird before a car wheel. But I ran out the station quick like a frog hoppin’ offa log once I’d realized where Barnabe Brenton Bishop was likely to be.

 I rushed to my old shop in my beat-up pickup, to the nothin’ness that boy was always starin’ at, ya know, I was certain I’d find that boy sittin’ up ’gainst a wall, starin’ out. Certain he would turn to me and say in that damn calm voice that he “rather liked the view.” ’Stead I found boot prints in the dust, leadin’ out into the nothin’ness. Sheriff Tolley was on my heels and for a few seconds we both just stared out at the nothin’, the open empty desert. There was nothin’ ’round for miles. It ain’t a place to go wanderin’ out into. Tolley took off his hat and the sun glinted off his star as he bent to looked at the prints. He turned, shakin’ his head, lettin’ out a low whistle. No one could survive out there. Honest. Not in this heat, not on foot. That boy was as good as dead. 

But I tell ya, I still dream ’bout that boy. Think ’bout what woulda happened if Barnabe Brenton Bishop had been dead that day I came with Tolley’s pie. Think ’bout how the boy musta collapsed out in the dust, curlin’ on himself, sleepin’ to neva rise up ’gain. I’ll dream that I’m cookin’ at the old grill, lookin’ out the window to see that boy wanderin’ ’mongst the nothin’ness. I hear his echoin’ voice in every “rather” I hear and I see his ghostly eyes starin’ at me in every pale Northerner that come through my shop. But he’s gone, gotta be . . . dead and gone like the breeze. And . . . well,that’s all I know ’bout Barnabe Brenton Bishop the Third.

’Cept,’course, for that rumor. And now I believe this one ’cause it’s damn near logical with the way that boy was handlin’ a knife, the dead way he held himself. Miss Nancy—veggie omelet with a spiked orange juice—through way of some Northerner visitin’ ol’ farmer Johnson’s place, told the whole yappin’ town that Barnabe Brenton Bishop had worked for a butcher’s shop. A big chain place with lots of cows and such comin’ through and a lot of meat leavin’. She talked ’bout how he was in charge of comin’ in after the day crew and hackin’ and slashin’ anythin’ worth savin’ for ground beef, and haulin’ and cuttin’ away the dead and rottin’ parts ’til his pale skin was stained red. “The Dead Dead Crew” they called it, ’cause it was the dealin’ with the dead in the dead of night. Now, accordin’ to Miss Nancy, Barnabe Brenton Bishop was abruptly let go, ’cause fancy machines could do his job better than him. And ya know, dead cows sure ain’t that far a stretch from dead men. Is that what he stared on thinkin’ ’bout? Why those eyes took sure a keen interest in pressin’ those raw patties down? Why he’d rather a lot of things? Why he was . . . how he was?

I swear to ya. I wish I knew more to tell ya. Would’ve been nice to put at least a birth year on his gravestone, ya know? Rather depressin’, ain’t it? 

Well now, what can I get for ya?


Emma Dailey Mitchell is a recent graduate from Columbia College Chicago. Her writing transcends genre and medium from poetry to various tv scripts even articles in StudyBreaks. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, watching, or listening to all kinds of stories.


V.E. Schwab

Vengeful is the continued story of Victor Vale and his gang of superhuman misfits as they try to avoid trouble but end up failing miserably.


Book Review by Katie Lynn Johnston

Much like her other works, V.E. Schwab’s Vengeful follows the paths of morally ambiguous characters in a dark and dreamy world, full of super-powered antiheroes who want nothing more than to be left alone.

 Vengeful picks up after the perilous and twisted misadventures of superhuman or (as Schwab calls them), ExtraOrdinary (EO) Victor Vale, Sydney Clarke, Mitch Turner, and their resurrected dog, Dol. The book follows the gang as Vale tries to discover what’s wrong with him after dying and being brought back to life for the second time. It turns out; there’s something wrong with his electric ability, the extraordinary power which he gained from a self-inflicted near-death experience in college. Whatever is going wrong is causing his power to backfire and attack himself, killing him over and over and over again, no matter what he does. But things are not as they seem, and as if Schwab could not make things any worse for her characters, while on the search for what ails him, Vale and his gang of misfits find themselves in a far more dangerous position than they had anticipated when they come face to face with old enemies.

 The book, similar to Vicious, the first installment in the Villains series, is full of many twists and turns and familiar faces like Eli Ever (Vale’s archenemy), as well as new faces and new EOs out to start trouble. One such character is Marcella Riggins, a mob-wife who gains supernatural powers when her husband burns their house down and leaves her inside to die. Each character Schwab introduces is as flawed and tortured as the next, whether it’s one of the not-so-good guys or the not-so-bad guys, and you can’t help but empathize with their every word and thought.

 Still very much rooted in Schwab’s characteristic nonlinear storytelling and blunt style, Vengeful begins by throwing you right into the middle of the plot without anything to orient you. In distinct Schwabian fashion, after Marcella Riggins recovers in her hospital room and decides to kill her husband, the action does not stop. Even the still, quiet, and disheartening moments of the sequel are tinged with an acute anxiety that overwhelms you from the page. Schwab artfully pulls the reader from one unstoppable freight train of human angst, pain, and jealousy to the next. She swaps back and forth from the good guys to the bad guys and back again in such a quick and seamless way that you hardly recognize it’s happening.

Like Vicious, Schwab paints a masterful picture of human emotion and the twisted psyches, goals, and feelings of each character she creates, leaving you wanting more while trying to look away. Vengeful is a fantastic head-turning book that makes superheroes for grown-ups again, combining the action and quick-wit of Marvel, the nihilistic cynicism of DC, and the crude informalities of an HBO series all into one brilliant story. The familiarity of the superhero theme, the real emotions and fears of each character, and the constant motion make each scene feel as if they are happening in real time. As the characters fall into much deeper, darker caverns than they have ever experienced before, Schwab takes you right along with them for the ride.


Published by Tor Books, 2018
ISBN: 0-765-335344
368 pages


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

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