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.


Dan Portincaso

Dan Portincaso Talks about his writing process, and projects he’s working on.


Interview by Sabrina Clarke

I met Dan Portincaso my first year of community college. Throughout the years at Waubonsee, he shaped me into the writer I am today and inspired me to follow my path into publishing, creative writing, and to attend Columbia College Chicago. The experience I gained from working as the president of the Creative Writing Club is invaluable. Through his inspiration and guidance, we put together a small group of people who were interested in writing as a hobby and became a recognized institution of the college. 

Dan Portincaso primarily writes short stories, flash fiction, and “sometimes poetry,” with upcoming novels on the horizon. Among several other publications, his work has been featured in F(r)iction, the Hoot Review, and Pank. His passion in writing and teaching, and his interest in history and social justice inspires students and writers alike. He has worked in museums, as a fiction reader for PostRoad magazine, and Chicago Quarterly Review, as well as serving as managing editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review. He was also a panelist at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Portland, Oregon, in 2019 speaking about his experiences as a professor of creative writing at a community college, and discussing the benefits of giving overlooked people a voice. His website can be found here: 

I met you through the Waubonsee Community College Creative Writing Club. Can you tell me a bit about that organization? 

The Creative Writing Club is a student-run organization at the college. Every year a vibrant and growing number of students work to build a community of writers. They hold open mics, write-ins, writing contests, publish zines, attend AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference), and publish the college’s literary magazine, Horizons. I am the faculty advisor for the club, and I assist them in any way I can to make their events and publications a success. I also travel with them to AWP and ensure that the publication process of Horizons meets professional standards, so the students come out of the experience ready for the publishing world. 

Can you talk about the literary magazine, Horizons

Over the years, I have worked to make Horizons a real training ground for students. The staff usually comes from the membership of the Creative Writing Club. Our masthead usually has anywhere from 15-20 students on staff in positions from editors-in-chief to selection editors. Each year we collaborate with a student graphic designer to build a unique vision, with about 130 pages of student writing and artwork. Students have gone on from the magazine to create and publish their own journals, succeed as professional graphic designers, and have even started careers as printers. We are currently working on building our web presence with a minimal website ( and expect to expand that footprint in the future with a Creative Writing Club website that includes a regular student blog in the near future. 

How did your experience at Columbia College Chicago influence your writing and teaching? 

The moment I first sat in the semi-circle of a fiction workshop changed me forever. The approach to learning and encountering the world that I learned at Columbia, opened my eyes to the possibilities in myself and in others. Through the Story Workshop method, I learned to understand my creativity and writing process so I could harness it to write fiction. At Columbia, I learned to really listen to words and to people. I can think of no greater skill for a writer than that of listening. It also happens to be a necessary skill for teaching. I have directly incorporated some teaching elements from Columbia into my own classroom. But I have also incorporated the spirit of free thought, expression, and creativity into all aspects of my life. 

I know that your degree was focused in creative writing, not teaching. Has this influenced your teaching style? 

It has. I approach every lesson I create like a workshop. My job as a professor is to stimulate students’ thinking and to start conversations and critical thought using words. If I had gone to school for teaching, my head would have been filled with pedagogical approaches which tend to have limited success in the college classroom. Instead, I see students as fellow writers who are simply less experienced. I teach using andragogy, which is about incorporating the student into the teaching process by telling them why they are learning what they are learning, and then provide them with a series of problems that they must creatively solve to receive a grade. 

Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? Do you think it’s a myth? 

I think every writer struggles with this. I don’t think it’s a myth, but I do think it is often mischaracterized. Writer’s block isn’t a tangible thing. It is a mental state. For a writer it can almost function like a disorder. It is a psychological hurdle where the writer has doubts, and their fears about writing consume them. Of course, the solution is to simply write through it. But, it’s not always that simple because that is like telling a person who is depressed to just be happy. So, the trick is to figure out how you can convince yourself to write through it. One strategy is writing as regularly as possible so that it feels as habitual as brushing your teeth or making dinner, so you don’t really think about writing, you simply do it. I find writer’s block hits me the most when I’m writing new work. So, a strategy I have developed is to switch to revision of other stories until I am in the right mental state to push through new work. After a while you will also develop concrete successes in your writing that you can look back on as evidence that all is not hopeless, the work will come, and it will be good. 

What is your writing process? Is there a ritual you follow when you know it’s time to write? 

Before I had a family, I used to write almost exclusively through the night. Now that I have a family and more demands on my time, I write whenever I can. During the summer, this means waking up very early and writing on my back porch. During the regular school year, I will often make time in the evenings. I don’t have any rituals other than I find music by Phillip Glass to be very stimulating, so I will often listen to it to flip on my writing switch. 

Who are some of your favorite writers? Which have been inspirational to you? 

These questions are so hard. I will inevitably forget writers that I should have remembered to list here. I love the inventiveness and brilliant worlds of Octavia Butler. I aspire to the depth of humanity in Toni Morrison’s work. I dream of writing like Kafka, whose voice and abstract characterization seem permanent and inevitable. Tomas Rivera’s directness with emotional, magical reality has inspired me for many years. One day, I hope to write prose that embodies the intensity of Bruno Shulz’s work. George Saunders, Hubert Selby Jr., Michael Cunningham, Sandra Cisneros, Dorothy Allison, and many others are huge influences and inspire me continually. 

Is there anything that you otherwise pull inspiration from? 

People. I love to listen to people talk about their lives. Most of my inspiration comes from listening to others. I don’t usually take the stories of their lives and fictionalize them, but I try to understand what it is like to be them, what it’s like to live their life every day. It’s research for my imagination that sets a scene, and then I start playing with that scene until I get something that resonates with my mind’s eye. 

Do you have any tips for writers trying to get their work published? 

The first is to take your work seriously and really revise it. The second is to volunteer to read the slush pile of a literary magazine so you can get a sense of how that process works, then start to understand what it takes for stories to get noticed and published. The last would be to be present in the local writing scene. Go to readings, talk to people there. And then search the book fair at AWP and talk to as many editors as you can while taking notes. 

Are you working on any new projects that you can share with our readers? 

I had been writing almost exclusively flash fiction, but recently I have gone back to more traditional-length fiction stories. I’ve also been working on heightening the metaphoric possibilities of some of my stories by experimenting with science fiction. I also have a couple of novels that are in the initial drafting stage, which is new for me since I have almost always worked with short story forms. 

Teaching writing and writing yourself are very different things. How do you manage to balance them? 

The great thing about teaching writing is that it forces to you hone your own skills because you have to think deeply about the elements of craft. And then, you must articulate your conclusions to your students in a way that will be understood and helpful to them. This takes time. And, it does take away time from writing your own work. But I often find that while I am crafting lessons and giving feedback to students, I am also stimulated to create new work, and my mind is full of new possibilities because I make fresh connections to how narrative functions. There are times during a semester where the teaching load is so great that it is nearly impossible to write my own work, but then I also try to make up for this by being very protective and disciplined with my time when a semester is in a slow period, and in-between semesters.

Tags: Dan Portincaso, interview, flash-fiction, Waubonsee Community College, writing process, writer’s block


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


CM Burroughs

CM Burroughs, Associate Professor of Poetry in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago speaks of the art of teaching writers how to write. CM explains process as well as the soul of learning to write as a student.


Interview by Kaitlyn Palmer

CM, thank you for the opportunity to engage and learn from you within the framework of this interview. Upon taking and completing your class in spring 2019, I experienced a very rare feeling regarding my work as well as my identification with being, a writer. I continued to hear your words; the poem does not always have to be poetic. Sometimes, the poem is in the telling of the story. I ask, how should we, as writers who are learning, tell the story?

CM is the author of The Vital System. As written by Douglas Kearney, “with gorgeous horror, Burroughs’s debut thrusts the body forward as an intelligence, a syntax, a theater. The narrator of these poems seems to come apart before my eyes; yet she never disintegrates—she teems. Here is vivid grief, livid vulnerability and bristling sensuality. Here is terrible resilience and dangerous vitality.”

I experienced The Vital System summer of 2019 after being taught by CM Burroughs. I was stunned by the emotion I was able to gather from the body being depicted in a way I’d never encountered prior to this collection. I continue to process the images and voice. It is now fall of 2019. CM’s poems caused me to travel to an unfamiliar — intimidating at times — pleasurable space.

At the time, my engagement with poetry was one that relied heavily on surrealism. As a writer and instructor of writing, what exists within the space of teaching writers to write? Let’s begin here.

How would you describe the art of teaching writers to write? Considering the complexities, the stories, and multiple dimensions that arrive in class with the students.

Each student comes to me at a different level in their development as a writer. My goal is to teach the writers toward their potential, toward the poetics that are just out of reach—I teach them through challenging their reading knowledge and their writing innovation. Beyond the platform of teaching toward potential, empathy and compassion are the most important tools I take into the classroom. These tools are part of what allow me to meet each writer at their current level of ability and discover how best to challenge their thinking and writing.

Toni Morrison alluded “if there’s a book that you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” When teaching writing, how much or how little do Morrison’s words resonate within the art of teaching readers and writers how to write?

Morrison’s words are true to me, but I don’t believe in asking students to achieve what they cannot yet imagine. A great amount of study and devotion is needed to know what 1) has not been written, and 2) what one wants to, or, better, needs to read. Any writer would do well to study widely and carefully, and to write to her most true and urgent subjects.

If you could tell your younger writing – self anything, what would it be? You may consider your undergraduate or graduate years as a writer.

I would tell her to practice reading daily, to develop reading as meditation, and to practice writing as she practices all daily to-do’s. I suppose I knew those things as an undergraduate—writing was vital to me years prior to my college career—but these are the mantras that one must repeat to herself, mantras that one must ever bear in mind.

When teaching, is there an idea of literary success that is needed for writers to create a vision for themselves, post formal education.

I am a writer who participates in the business of writing, but I do not interest myself in notions of success and failure—that is better left for Hollywood. When you say “literary success,” I think of New Yorker darlings and Times Best-Seller lists. These are wonderful modes of impressing literature upon larger audiences, readers and would-be readers alike. However, I do not think that any writer should be concerned with the idea of fame. It has nothing to do with the honest work of being a writer—there are no flashbulbs when a writer toils at her desk. For example, a writer may greatly admire Toni Morrison and want to emulate her, but one must work toward her own individual potential. To be plain, one’s duty is to be a writer, which requires study, writing well, publishing widely, publishing books, and trying to articulate something urgent for herself and others. A writer’s vision of herself ought to begin in whatever it is that she is writing, and that writing will help her to form her self.

What is the most challenging component when teaching writing to students who desire their version of success, to be birthed from their art?

I believe I touched upon this in the last answer—couldn’t help myself!

Would you consider writing to be a learned skill or an intrinsic gift? Why?

Both. I believe there is a natural inclination in writers to write! Following that, “talent” is a measure of how well one uses the tools of writing in unison with her subjects. Those tools are learned and refined, of course, but there is intuition that results in the illuminating concert of expression.

Can writing bring forth a sense of order to one’s life? There is a sense of solitude that may accompany writing as an art form.

Do you mean a “sense of order” or “sense order”? The latter phrase is attracting, but I’ll answer the former. Order is a term that resonates for me. I absolutely apply it to my mental and corporeal lives—my home, my mind; I thrive on clarity and order, organization. It is how I function. Writing must be a part of that, because writing is a vast part of me. Order, and writing, does require some solitude–there is beauty to creating my own noise and the perfect conditions *for* free thought.

When teaching writing, what is necessary for you as the professor, and what is unnecessary?

This is a bit vague, so I’ll answer for what I need from students. Professionalism. I am old-school, so I appreciate the common manners of centuries past; the decorum of letter-writing has especially been lost to the culture of emailing and texting. Once, I received an email from a student who I did not know that read, “Hey Prof, can I get added to your class?” Well, no. I’d much prefer,

“Hello Professor Burroughs, my name is ____, and I am a _____ major in need of joining your [course title for class] to fulfill credits for graduation. I understand that this may not be possible, but I appreciate any consideration you can give to my case. I have attached a writing sample to aid in your decision-making. Thank you. Sincerely, Student Who Impresses Professor with Etiquette.”


Myung Mi Kim

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


Reviewed by Kaitlyn L. Palmer  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Melissa Lozada-Oliva

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


Interview by Tracie Taylor

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

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



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

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


 Who/what are some of your creative inspirations? 

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

What is the process of publishing physical books like?

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


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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Do you plan to stick to writing just poems? 

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


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

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

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

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


Table of Contents

Fall Issue, Volume 43


David Friedman Award

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

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


Aurora Hattendorf

Our Little Secret

Zoe Elerby

Rainna Rosa Venniquin

Andie Eiram

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

Nick Warrington

The Icicle

Emma Dailey Mitchell

Uncle Jack

Maria Kowal


Gregory Kucera

Party of One

Danielle Hirschhorn

Wore Me Out

Asher Witkin

A Strange Sort of Company

Deanna Whitlow

The Graceless Haze

Alison Brackett

Pushing Daises

Kendra Y. Mims-Applewhite

What Comes After

Victoria Barney

The Last Shift

Alexis Berry

As Daughters, We Learn


Aurora Hattendorf

Our Little Secret


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about her?” I asked.

Ms. Hobner capped her marker and spun back again.

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

“Rot?” she repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not always.”

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

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

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


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

“What do you believe in?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What the fuck,” I panted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck off,” I spat.

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


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

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

I looked up. She was addressing me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The same person who talks to ghosts.”

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

She held her hand out to me. 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you die?” I asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II forthcoming in the Winter Issue


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



Zoe Elerby

Rainna Rosa Venniquin



Age: 15

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

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

Fuck you. This is the first day. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I did.” 

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

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

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

Me puedes hacer un paro?

“Yeah, anythin’.” 

“I get to punch ’er at least once.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She? Who?”

I didn’t say anythin’.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainna! Qué está pasando aquí?!

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

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

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

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

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

“The fuck is wrong wit’ ’chu?!”

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

“It’s none of my business!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get out.” 

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



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

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

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

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

My fault for makin’ ’em corner me. 

My fault for lettin’ ’em. 

My fault for thinkin’ I deserved it. 

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



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

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

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

Yeah. No problem.

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



Andie Eiram

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


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

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

Too much. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be casual. 

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

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

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

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

Just smile. 

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

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

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

That is love. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wave him over.

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

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


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

Tuck them under your thighs if you must. 

Say it. 

Just say it.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

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

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

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

Say, “I hate you.”

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

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

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

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

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

He’ll be stunned. 

He’ll be in shock.

This is your moment. 


Get in your car.


Don’t look back. 

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

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

Then wipe the tears and snot away. 

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

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

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

Tell yourself you’re going to be okay.

Say it until you mean it.


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