If you thought it was going to be easy, it’s not. It never was.
When musicians are complimented on their compositions, it’s not their talent alone you’re applauding. You’re cheering for their story, you’re cheering for all those moments they split their hand open on the strings of their instrument, bathing its wooden body in their blood. This ritual is what makes up their music.
How a pint of blood loses life, turns into a mess which must be doused in industrial solvent to be removed, becomes a stain which looks like spilling wine on ebony, while the instrument slowly takes a life of its own, screeches and screams and tugs at our hearts like a newborn come into this watching world, that’s how music is born.
Art always had its story.
Every photograph, Polaroid or digital, plastic or gigabytes of memories and moments, it all came from a story. The story of a woman standing in front of a bulldozing crowd, with beating heart that trembles but never runs.
The belief that what she stands for is worth standing for, even in the face of a stampede or reckless bullets striving to find target. The story of a toddler smiling, eyes wide, cheeks wrinkled, the first moment one realises our bodies aren’t bodies but a circus of human emotions, that they can flex their muscles and make someone laugh along, stretch their throat into producing cries which brings people running to attend to their needs.
Years later when the toddler would grow up, they’ll learn how easy it had been all along to stand on trembling legs in front of a lover walking through the ruins of their spirit, how it feels to become a roaming tongue stroking sparks into fire.
Every poem tells a story.
Every brush stroke on naked canvas talks to you. You’ve only got to listen.
If you thought it was going to be easy, it wasn’t.
Our love is an apartment on fire and we run around in circles trying to find an exit hatch, or a room in the basement where we’ll be safe when the flames run out. Our lives are struggles, to bear witness, to speak out, to stand for something which we believe is worth standing for. If you thought it is easy, it isn’t. But easy, isn’t always beautiful.
The artists will tell you that.
NILESH MONDAL, 23, is an engineer by choice, and poet by chance. His works have been published in various magazines and e-journals like Bombay Literary Review, Café Dissensus, Muse India, Inklette, Kitaab, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, etc. He was one of the winners of Juggernaut’s Short Story Contest in 2016. He currently works as a writer for Terribly Tiny Tales and Thought Catalog, as prose editor for Moledro Magazine, and is an intern at Inklette Magazine. His first book of poetry, Degrees of Separation, (Writers Workshop), was released in June 2017 and debuted at #2 of the Amazon Bestseller list of Poetry.
A set of keys, a typewriter with a letter in it and a photo collage; a forced elongation of happiness. Symbols that commemorate a state of consciousness that could never be accurately reproduced. We didn’t buy gifts to each other that year, the shared experience of jumping off a bridge into the Corinth canal was enough. We would unburden ourselves of everything, including reason, and take the leap. What would take a few more weeks to acknowledge is that we plunged into nothingness alone. Before the ropes broke our fall we felt free, alone. When they signaled me I wasn’t ready to be pulled up for I’d lose that which made me dive, head first, into the unknown. The keys adorn the coffee table, the ring has been removed. The letter has been folded and stored inside a book whose words have swallowed it whole. But as I write these words on the old typewriter, my eyes drawn to the empty frame on the wall, I know we did ourselves proud; we let ourselves jump, despite the fall.
ELENI CHELIOTI was awarded her PhD in English Literature hours before she received her stethoscope, as a doctor should. She is currently living and working in Athens, Greece. She’s only ever written about the things she cannot utter. Her short stories ‘Stealing Time’ and ‘Only Lust’ were recently published in The Rusty Nail and Heart & Mind Zine respectively. She also has a blog: http://darkcaffeinematter.blogspot.com
PRIYANKA PAUL is a humanities student at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She’s a self taught artist and loves to experiment with different mediums. She also writes and most of her written work is accompanied by her illustrations. Her art is highly influenced by social issues, gender studies and a basic liberal outlook of the world.
The wooden slats of the timeworn, dilapidated porch groaned underneath my feet as I stepped to the edge and looked up into the vastness. The Georgia night sky was as dark as I’d ever seen it. With heavy eyes I contemplated the black, hypnotized by the millions of miniscule specks that danced and flickered against the velvet backdrop. “I don’t remember there ever being so many,” I whispered into the cool air, knowing there was no one there to hear me. Grief ripping through my heart, I closed my eyes against the pain and began to sway, allowing the breeze to swirl around and wrap me in its tranquil embrace. Instinctively, I reached up and rubbed my palms against my bare shoulders to fend off the chill causing the soft hairs on my arms to rise. The gust continued its twirling path down and around my body, ruffling the bottom of my loose, black dress. Filling with a sense of contentment, I sighed and thanked the night for its attempt at consoling.
I opened my eyes and breathed in, pulling the air through my nose and allowing it to expand into my lungs until they were tight with pressure. The sweet smell of magnolias embedded in the breeze triggered my senses to come alive, sending my mind reeling back to a time of pure innocence. Wrapping my arms around myself, I stared into the shadows and allowed the memories come flooding into my consciousness.
“Watch Momma!” I shouted from the middle of an overgrown field with my arms outstretched to the sky above me, my tiny hand clutching tight a glass Mason jar. My five-year-old self was running and jumping into the air causing my long dark curls to trail in my wake. Dusk was setting in and the sky layered on its bedtime ensemble. Deep blue folds pressed down from above causing the brilliance of the sun to succumb to its power. As the yellow melted into the earth, it hissed its flames into the dark only to be extinguished by the inevitably swelling black.
“I see you baby! You be careful now.” Momma stood watching from our old but sturdy farmhouse. The once white, two-story structure sat in the middle of a forty-acre farm worked by my father from dawn to dark. The expansive wrap around porch provided the house a look of refinement though many of the railing spindles were loose or altogether missing. The wood slats of the floor were always swept and clean and a two person swing hung at the far end, just past the front door.
Hearing my mother’s voice, I turned to see her leaning on the support post, hip resting against the railing. In the fading light of day, I could just make out the expression on her face. A soft smile rested on her lips as she looked at me with adoration. Her dress, though simple and plain, fell flatteringly over her slim figure and accentuated the curves of her waist. Her Italian heritage had gifted her with smooth, olive-colored skin that radiated vibrancy and youth. We shared the same dark, flowing curls though hers were kept shorter with the coils lightly dusting her shoulders. I thought her to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Momma!” I cried out again. “I got four of ‘em. See!” I held up the jar with my hand now pressed over the opening. Inside, four insects flitted about, lighting up in unsynchronized choreography. I ran towards the porch as graceful as my little legs could carry me, grinning with absolute pride and satisfaction. I dashed up the steps and rounded the corner to show off my prize. “Look Momma,” I said in between gasps of breath. “Look how pretty they are.” I stood on tiptoes, pushing the thick glass up as close to her face as I could so she might gaze upon my treasure.
“Yes, they certainly are beautiful.”
“I want to keep ‘em inside by my bed so I can look at ‘em every night,” I whispered to her as we both watched the glowing lights with fascination.
“If you do that honey, they’re gonna die. You don’t want that now do you?” She smiled down at me and ran a loving hand over my head, smoothing my tousled curls.
“I don’t wanna let ‘em go.” Large drops filled my eyes and my voice caught as I started to cry. “But I don’t want ‘em to die neither.” I looked up at my mother, searching for an answer in her face. She knelt down bringing our eyes level and reached out a hand to wipe away the tears streaming down my cheeks.
“Sweetheart,” she began in her gentle Georgian lilt that always managed to calm even my most heart wrenching moments. “You should let ‘em go. I know you wanna keep ‘em but you should set ‘em free so they can fly off and light up the sky for everyone, not just us. You want other people to see how pretty they are, don’t you?”
“Ye…eh Mom…ma,” I choked out, my sobs hampering my ability to speak clearly.
“Shhhh baby. Don’t cry,” she soothed, pulling me into her warm embrace. Craving the comfort of her love, I pulled my hand from atop the jar and threw my arms around her neck to bury my face in her hair. The light smells of jasmine and lavender swirled around my nose, filling me with the solace I was seeking. She pulled back to place a gentle kiss on the tip of my nose, making me laugh.
“I think they’re gonna fly back to their families now, Momma,” I said focusing back on the jar in my hand. The bugs had climbed their way to the top but sat just inside the rim, not making any attempt to escape. “See Momma. They don’t wanna leave. They wanna stay with us.”
“No, baby. They’re just waitin’ for you to say good-bye.”
Sniffling, I ran my forearm across my nose and took a deep breath. Taking hold of the jar with both hands, I pulled it in close to my body so I could peer down into it. The anxious insects paced along the ridges of the glass lip but still did not take flight. “Okay,” I whispered quietly to the bugs. “It’s time for you to go on home now.” The bugs halted their movement as if they were listening. “Go on now,” I said again, giving the jar a gentle shake. In unity, they flew out and circled my head. Their tiny bodies illuminated the darkness and danced in the air between my mother and me. I squealed with delight as I watched them rise higher into the sky until they were out of sight. That night I dreamed of fireflies and ballerinas.
That had been my first lesson in saying good-bye. The childhood memory didn’t diminish this new, still raw pain, but it did ease the ache. As I dragged my consciousness back to where I remained rooted, standing on that very same porch, I looked out onto the open field to see hundreds of fireflies dancing in the darkness. My heart yearned for things to be as easy as they had been back then, when it was all so simple and everyone was full of love and happiness.
Another sigh escaped my lips as the breeze took a sudden, bitter turn and snapped an icy switch across my bare legs. The sharp gusts whipped my long curls with violent thrashes and my body released an involuntary shiver causing me to wrap my arms tighter around my shoulders. I hadn’t felt this cold since…since the day I revealed the truth and watched as my mother’s heart froze over right before my very eyes. Though a reaction had been expected, one so severe had been like a slicing slap across an already tender cheek. Her adamant refusal to speak with me, to discuss further what had taken me so long to divulge, caused a piece of me to wither and die the instant I had seen the rejection in her eyes. As the flashes jabbed at my tender soul, once again my mind went plunging back.
“Momma, please,” I had begged. I remembered that fateful afternoon from so long ago as though it was only yesterday. “Please let me explain.”
“No,” she spat. “I won’t hear of this. You will not come into this house and say these things to me and expect me to understand.” Her dark eyes hardened and her lips drew pencil thin. My heart screamed out to beg her forgiveness, but I knew she would grant no such relief. “Be glad your daddy isn’t here to watch you throw your life away!” She had always known how to drive the knife straight into the heart, though never before had I been on the receiving end. With my father’s passing just a few years prior, I still hadn’t quite adjusted to his absence. She had known this and used the barb to wound me as she knew of no other way to redirect the anguish she was feeling.
I walked away from her that day with the hope that time would soften her resolve, open her heart to me, and forgive what she believed to be my indiscretions. That time never came. For ten years I waited. For ten years I fought back the tears and the anger, yearning and hoping she could again see me as that five-year-old catching lightning bugs in the summer night air.
Now, a decade later, I had received the phone call deep in the night. It was one I had known would come sooner or later. My brother was on the line, pleading for me to come, assuring me I needed to be there. So I conceded, and drove the distance to a house I no longer called home. Upon my arrival, I had climbed the wooden steps, sadness stinging me as I noticed how they were now covered with layers of dirt and dehydrated leaves. I passed through the doorway and into the kitchen, lit by only the dim yellow bulb over the stove. The air was tranquil and stale yet still held the faint smell of Momma’s secret recipe pasta sauce. Was I supposed to be sad? Relieved? Angry? Was it possible for me to feel them all at once? Finally, it was sorrow that won out as I passed through the hall and into my parents’ bedroom.
Not taking my eyes from the far corner of the room, I inched my way towards the quiet hum of medical equipment. I reached my destination of the old, sunken rocker sitting next to the queen size bed. I eased into it with a quiet whoosh, doing all I could not to pierce the awkward stillness. The figure that lay in the center, under the blankets, was barely recognizable to me. Gone were the wisps of shiny dark curls and unblemished, tanned skin. They had been replaced with dry, grey stands of worn out yarn and thin, pallor skin that made my fingertips tingle at the thought of touching it. A haggard, raspy sound escaped from her lips, then rattled away. I shot a look across the bed to where my brother stood, his arm curled tightly around his wife. “I didn’t know she was this bad. Why didn’t you tell me?” I said with an edge.
“She made me promise not to,” he said, his eyes shifting to the ground in shame. Tears ran across his face and dripped from the tip of his nose. “I thought we’d have more time,” came in a whisper from his hoarse throat.
I shook my head in disappointment and returned my gaze to the woman dying before me. “Does she know we’re here?” I asked, not looking back at my brother.
“Doctor says no. The morphine is keeping her under, but he says she’d probably be unconscious anyway by now.”
“God, Momma,” I whispered. I took hold of her frail hand and wrapped my fingers carefully around hers. It was the first time I had touched her in years. For an instant, I felt light from the connection. I leaned over and pressed my lips to the bony knuckles and held them there as the grief swelled inside my chest, threatening to burst through and shatter my ribs. The breaths that seeped from her dry, cracked lips were garbled and it became obvious she didn’t have many more left.
A vice began tightening against my lungs and my heart echoed in my ears with a thud so resounding I could no longer piece together a coherent thought. I knew I couldn’t stay, couldn’t remain until the end. I hadn’t the strength. I eased my way to standing, keeping the gnarled fingers still intertwined with mine. Using my free hand I smoothed the top of her unruly hair and bent to place a kiss on her temple. I rested my forehead against her clammy brow and searched for the last words I would ever say to her. A thickness formed in the back of my throat as I struggled to keep the tears at bay. A strangled sound emerged from my lips when I tried to speak. I paused, and then began again, driving down the building anger and regret. “I can forgive,” fell from my lips in a hush so low I barely heard it myself. Large drops now streamed freely down my cheeks. I made no attempt to wipe them away as I bent closer to whisper in her ear. “Go dance with the fireflies, Momma.” I gave her hand one final squeeze and let the gnarled fingers float back towards the sheet. Stifling the cry forcing its way through my lips, I covered my trembling mouth and rushed from the room.
Three days had passed since that night and today we lowered the casket into the ground to remain there for eternity. Still standing in the night air, I blinked away the tears and inhaled with a quiet gasp as I realized time had slipped away from me while I had tumbled through painful memories all the while remaining fixed to the old porch of my childhood home. The winds had all but ceased and my dress now hung limply, occasionally brushing back and forth across the tops of my knees. The sounds of the crickets had disappeared as the cool of the night swept in and silenced the remnants of evening. The quiet enveloped me as I continued to sway ever so slightly. Everything seemed surreal and I could feel the loneliness start to edge its way into me. It nibbled at my fingertips and crawled its way up my arms, seeping into my chest in an attempt to smother my heart.
I was about to relent and let it consume me when the creak, smack of the wooden screen door sounded behind me. Light footsteps sauntered up and a slight smile flickered across my lips. Long, warm arms wrapped around me from behind, pulling me close to the body to which they belonged.
“How are you?” a quiet voice whispered into my right ear.
“I’m not sure. Still trying to believe she’s really gone.” Though the loneliness had fled at the sound of the door, the dull ache still radiated through me.
“Is there anything I can do?” Warm, sweet breath danced across my cheek.
“No, love. You being here is enough.” I smiled and ran my hands along the arms encircling my waist. My fingertips skimmed across tender flesh to the long slender fingers interlocked in front of me. I pulled the hands apart so I could turn. My heart flooded with emotion when I stared back into eyes of bright blue reflecting the love I had known for ten years. I reached up to float my touch along the soft curves of a face filled with devotion, across full lips that smirked back at me, and up into long, silky hair that shimmered between my fingers. The smirk melted into a smile as she tilted her head down to kiss me.
CHRIS EVANS currently resides in Lebanon, Ohio with her wife and three children. She works full time as a supply chain planner for a large plastics company. Chris holds a Bachelors of Arts degree in English from Southern New Hampshire University and is currently pursing her graduate degree in English-Creative Writing with an emphasis in fiction.
A doctor explains to you in very large words the effect of trauma, of traumatization. You want to tell him you don’t know what he means by that, what he means by “Those who have experienced trauma.” Doesn’t that mean everyone? You want to ask. Isn’t the world just one big scar? But you don’t ask him that, it might only be more evidence of your traumatized mind.
“We define trauma,” he says, “as an experience that impairs the person’s proper functioning of their stress-response system, making it more reactive or sensitive.” He also says, “An infant who is neglected or abused develops a different neural framework. They might begin to dissociate and withdraw from everyday life. Because they are outwardly quiet and compliant they are often seen as okay and ignored…” You wonder why he says “they” when what he really means is “you.”
This whole thing happened because of one “triggering event.” You’d been quietly managing through everyday life. Wake up. Bed check. Try to get the last of the Fruit Loops. Walk to school. Sit in school. Walk around. Back to the group house. Eat. Bed check. Sleep. Sure, sometimes you lost whole days, sometimes it turned out to be Friday when it was supposed to be Wednesday, but didn’t that happen to everyone? Teachers ignored you, students (mostly) ignored you, you never caused problems. While the other kids at the group home smashed things and got in fights and stole alcohol or pills, you just sat there. So why are you here?
They say they found you in the middle of the street, they say you were trying to kill yourself, but it didn’t happen that way. You just happened to stop walking, to stop, to stay still, like they were always telling you to do, be a good little girl, don’t make noise. You didn’t make noise, you were silent, still. So what’s the problem? You closed your eyes, and felt the wind of the cars fly by you. And then there was the screeching of tires, and horns and yelling. You covered your ears with your hands, because it was too much noise. You heard the sirens, but there were often sirens. Later you felt the air of someone speaking to you, close to your face, but you didn’t open your eyes. He started to shake you but you kept your hands up against your ears, kept your eyes closed. They must have pulled you away, must have put you in handcuffs (for your safety), must have covered your head as they pushed you, gently, into the back of the car.
In a room at the station it was quiet, so you opened your eyes. There was a woman sitting there. “Why’d you try to kill yourself?” she asked. You didn’t answer because she wasn’t talking to you. She got frustrated, you saw it in her face, and closed your eyes again.
Eventually, they brought you back to the group home but they didn’t make you go to school the next day. And then finally someone brought you here, to this man with the gray beard and glasses, and corduroy pants. He is sitting on the ground, which seems very strange for a grown-up to do, but you try not to think about it because you don’t like strange.
He’s still talking. “People who have experienced trauma, especially children, need to be able to control how and when they tell their stories. Only the child knows what the proper time and method of revisiting trauma is.” You think he’s talking about you again but he’s using all the wrong words. He calls you a child, but you figure you probably haven’t been a child for fifteen years. Although you also know they’ll call you that for the next three, when you turn from “child” to “no one.” He also tells you, “You can control when and how to tell your story,” but what he really means is “tell me now.” And he waits.
You know what he wants you to say. You know he’s read your chart, he knows your story, and he is almost whispering the words, willing you to say them because that will prove that he is right and you are “traumatized” but he can and will fix you. Triumph. He wants you to say it so bad and you don’t want to disappoint him so you begin to speak.
“Dawn Almarez died during childbirth. She was only 14 and didn’t go to the hospital. Her mother lived with a boyfriend, he bred pitbulls to fight. The grandmother was 30 years old. She was addicted to methamphetamines. The grandmother’s boyfriend was arrested for abusing his dogs in public. They found drugs on him. They raided the house and found a two year old infant in a dog kennel in an empty room. They took the infant to CPS and it was placed in a foster home.”
You stop speaking because the man is looking at you in a strange way.
He speaks. “You were the infant.” You feel guilty, like he’s caught you in some way, like you told the story all wrong, and he’s disappointed anyway.
Obediently you say, “Yes, I was the infant.” You feel your heart begin to race you don’t want to be in this room anymore.
“You weren’t even crying,” he says. “But that’s not unusual. You had evidence of abuse. Infants can not fight or flee from a perceived threat. Their impulse is to cry for an adult. However, most likely whenever you cried for an adult, you were abused. So you stopped crying.”
He is proud of this understanding, and you nod because you don’t want to take that from him.
That was the story he wants you to tell, so you tell it, you have it memorized, but none of it is from your memory. It is only words on a page, a history that may or may not have existed. Everyone has sad stories.
“What about growing up?” he asks you.
You don’t answer him, even though you want to, because you don’t know what he means. Growing up. You did grow, up- once you were small, now you are five feet two inches. You wonder if that’s what he means, if he wants you to tell your height but you doubt that he does. And the doctors tell you you’re too small anyway, only 95 pounds they say, always disappointed, so you don’t want to bring that up, he’s already disappointed in you.
“Foster care? The group homes?” He is trying to prompt you, like you’ve forgotten your lines and he wants you to remember.
You remember being five years old and climbing onto the kitchen counter in the middle of the night. You remember finding a can of tuna and stabbing it with scissors until it opened enough to eat it. They had forgotten to feed you again. When the teacher asked about the cuts on your hands, you just shrugged, you’d never noticed them before.
You wondered if that’s the kind of story he’d like to hear, but you don’t have the energy to tell it.
You stay silent and he continues to watch you, waiting. Your heart beats faster and you begin to sweat. It’s hard to breathe.
He looks away. He sighs. “A traumatized child can recover. But it takes time. And patience. The most important thing is to get the child connected to something- family, community, friends, school….” You want to ask him how you can connect to something you don’t have.
He smiles and puts a hand on your shoulder that feels like it’s a million pounds and burns like fire. You close your eyes and tell yourself not to flinch, you tell your lungs not to close.
As he says goodbye to you in the doorway, he gives a smile like he is full of hope for you. You want to cry, because you know he’s wrong, and there is no hope for you. But you don’t cry, because good little girls don’t cry.
So you turn from the door although turning feels like it takes all of the energy you have. You tell your feet to move.
You walk into the street.
KRISTEN POITRAS is a graduate of San Francisco State University with a BA in Creative Writing. She has had a lifelong love of writing and working with/helping others. She currently lives in the Napa Valley in Northern California enjoying the grapes and working as an education coordinator at an alternative middle and high school. She previously worked for two years as a high school English teacher at a traditional school combining her love of literature and working with youth. She plans to attend graduate school for a Masters in School Psychology Counseling and Education. In the future, she will continue writing while also devoting her time and effort to youth in need.
ALLEN FORREST has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books, is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements, creating emotion on canvas.
“Daddy’s home!” my brothers and I screamed every night at the sound of his car door slamming shut. We never let him walk more than two steps into the house before we nearly tackled him to the ground. We hugged him, of course, but we had ulterior motives. My dad used to smuggle our favorite candies in his pockets and it was our top priority to find them as soon as he came home.
Every night he played the same trick: “Oh, sorry guys, I forgot your candy,” he said with a smack to his forehead, and then we shouted in unison, “No you didn’t!” We then searched all of his pockets to find our candy and squealed when we felt the plastic slip between our fingers.
We developed tactics for the most efficient pat-downs to find our treasures that put any cop to shame, and these were perhaps the only moments we worked best as a team. Each of us was responsible for one pocket: Ryan and I handled the pants since we were the shortest, and Billy and Markie ransacked the jacket because they were taller. My parents laughed as we attacked him and threw our candy into the air after the excitement of a successful hunt. My brothers got Kit-Kats, Snickers, and Reese’s, while I had a love affair with M&M’s. It didn’t matter if Dad tried to spice the game up by placing our candies where the other siblings would find it. We always swapped so everyone had their favorite. These battles dated all the way back to when I wasthree years old, and they are the earliest and fondest memories I can recall from my childhood.
My mom constantly complained, “You’ll spoil their dinner,” but he never did. My stomach wasbottomless whenever I ate M&M’s. To me, my dad wasjust a really tall, strong kid who liked watching Spongebob and singing “Video Killed the Radio Star” in the car with me. On weekends when we didn’t have the anticipation of him returning with our goodies after work, he sometimes took me out to run errands then rewarded me with a little pack of M&M’s. One of my least favorite errands wasgoing to the Sear’s Auto Center with its noxious rubbery fumes when my dad went to get his car serviced. That didn’t stop me, though, from memorizing where the vending machine was located. All he had to do when he noticed my patience diminishing was slip a dollar bill into my tiny claw when we held hands and I’d immediately take off. Whenever we went grocery shopping, my eyes becamelasers that I trained to sort through the vast stacks of candies in the checkout line and target the M&M’s with inhuman speed and accuracy. I’d stealthily throw a pack onto our pile of food, thinking my dad never noticed, despite the big smile on his face.
Sometimes I ate my M&M’s by color, starting with the reds and moving until only the brown ones were left since they were the most boring. Other times I ate them slowly, one at a time, giddily savoring the cracking between my teeth as I tasted the sugary contents inside. At my most charming, I’d eat a huge handful and let my mouth crunch louder than my shoes when I walked on gravel. To this day, my favorite way to eat M&M’s is by putting them in my mouth one at a time and sucking until their shell melts, leaving me to relish the chocolatey goodness.
One fateful day when I wasthree, I came up with a brilliant idea for a new way to enjoy M&M’s. It was a Saturday, which meant I spent the whole day running errands with Dad in exchange for some M&M’s. After a long day of driving across town, he parked at a gas pump to fill up the car. I thought that if my mouth liked M&M’s so much, then why wouldn’t other parts of my body enjoy their company, too? Once I heard the gas sloshing into the car, I shoved several mini M&M’s up my nose. I sat for a minute, waiting for them to melt and reveal their chocolatey contents so my body could enjoy it, but nothing happened. Life as I had come to know it ceased to exist after I realized the M&M’s were stuck in my nose. In those few minutes of perhaps the biggest betrayal of my life, I went from being carefree to realizing I was probably going to die. The feeling of having one of my airways cut off made me forget completely that I had a mouth to breathe from. I felt the foreign objects poison my body. Picking my nose in an attempt to dig them out only pushed them further up. With each inhalation, my lungs ballooned in preparation for the strain as I tried to launch them from my nostrils. With each exhalation, I realized how much trouble I was in when the M&M’s refused to budge. I listened to my dad talking to someone outside and I had no clue what I should tell him when he came back in the car. I could wait and see if he noticed, but that came with the risk of him getting mad at me, or I could avoid his glance and keep this secret stowed inside me forever. The dilemma wastoo tricky for a toddler to handle, so I sat with my companions lodged up my nose and banged my head against the seat in frustration as I waited for him to come back. I wanted to gauge his mood to determine if I should confess or not. The door opened, and I looked up at him, helplessly strapped in my car seat.
“Nicole?” He erupted with laughter. Suddenly I moved to the defensive.
“What, Dad!” I barked.
He angled the rear view mirror to where I could see my reflection and I gasped. Hues of brown, red, yellow, orange, green, and blue leaked out of my nostrils from a self-inflicted rainbow faucet. I joined him in his laughter for a moment and then remembered the gravity of the situation.
“I’m dying, Daddy.”
“Oh, Coley, no you’re not,” he said between laughs. He grabbed a tissue and started rubbing my face. He pinched one of my nostrils and told me to blow. I was half free. He pinched my other nostril and told me to blow again. At last my nose unplugged. I sat in awe of his ability to save my life on his first try. I viewed my dad as the most powerful superhero, and he probably thought of me as his damsel always in distress. “Well, now mom is definitely going to know I gave you candy when she told me not to,” he said as we admired the artistry of my newly stained skin.
Two years after this incident, I broke my leg in the middle of playing a hardcore game of stuck in the mud. I jumped off a ten-foot-tall jungle gym platform in order to escape being tagged “it.” I was the last person standing, and no way was I about to let some boy get in the way of that. After tragically learning that I could not fly, and, worse, that I was not indestructible, I had to change a lot of my priorities in life, like refraining from leaping off of tall things when boys approach me, something that has proven quite difficult as an adult. On the bright side, after I got my purple cast molded to my leg and was informed that I would be the most popular girl in school since everyone would want to sign my leg, instead of receiving the standard lollipop, the doctor gave me M&M’s that my dad most likely slipped into his white lab coat when I wasn’t looking.
Instead of feeling crippled during my weeks of hobbling, Dad let me feel like the superhero. Every day he scooped me up and walked around while I dangled from his shoulders so I could soar six feet in the air. My food upgrade made my flights much better than the time I flew to Disney World. Instead of receiving withered peanuts, my flight attendant knew better and handed me my favorite chocolate snack. As part of our game, Dad pretended he lost me, even though my aggressively purple cast hung right in his face and my stubby fingers yanked his wavy brown hair.
“Coley, where are you?” hehollered. I answered with shrieks of laughter as he spun wildly searching for the source of the cries, but still being careful not to drop me.
“Oh no, I think she’s gone!” he said to make me erupt into more laughter at his feigned cluelessness. After a few minutes of hysterics, I decided to show him mercy and reveal myself by shoving an M&M into his mouth.
“What! Did this fall from the sky?” he shouted, still oblivious to my presence. “Oh, Coley! I’m so glad I found you!” he said after he finally looked up.
“Daddy, I was on your shoulders the whole time!”
“You’re right,” he said. “Do you want to stay up there?”
“Just don’t let me forget that you’re up there again.”
“Okay,” I said, crossing my fingers behind my back.
NICOLE MELCHIONDA is a recent graduate of Stetson University where she majored in English with a minor in creative writing. There, she worked closely with award-winning poet, Terri Witek, and journalist, Andy Dehnart. In February, she is moving to China to teach English.
In those days when the town was still young, a river cut between gray-green mountains and lazied along a postal road, murmuring fool’s-gold secrets. At the water’s edge on a cul-de-sac, a sturdy ranch house materialized, built by the pub’s new manager, who was married to an aspiring preschool teacher. The newlyweds carpeted the rooms in a medium beige and papered the walls in sunflowers.
That summer Layna arrived amid screams. Her mother was glad to have another presence in the house, a bright focal point, a baby-cheeked distraction. She breathed easier and carried her daughter like a breastplate or an amulet. Layna’s father doted on his only child. As she grew older, he often had her sit with him on the sofa and watch the television on his days off and at night when he couldn’t sleep. On those nights, Layna watched the fan blades blur, blinking round baby eyes.
She liked to laugh. Bugs made her laugh, the watching part—the teasing part. She would push them with the edge of her finger in tiny fits, especially the biting ones, too quickly for them to hurt her. Her mother told her it was wrong to squish bugs, but Layna would giggle away at even the sound of the word. “Squish, squish!” she would shriek out, and dissolve into giggles. Her mother tried to teach her other words for when a bug went splat, but Layna would shake her head. “Not crush. No kill!” Her mother made fists with her hands and turned away, easier to turn than to press the issue.
Layna did not like to kill bugs, only to squish them. For her, this was an important distinction. It made her angry when her mother insisted there was no distinction at all.
Layna laughed when she and her father played in the autumn leaves. Mountains of red and gold, and when you jumped in one pile the rest went up like feathers or like impossible raindrops floating back into the sky. When her father joined her, rolled with her, he squashed all the leaves. Squish, squish. Once, when she was feeling rebellious, she told him not to roll with her. He took her into his lap, nuzzled her, asked her why. She wiggled to free herself, but he held on tight.
“You squish them,” she said. “Leaves don’t like to be squished.”
He held her tighter and promised to be more careful.
Layna laughed at tickles. Her mother tickled her feet to get her out of bed on school mornings. If she giggled too long, her mother would tickle harder or swat her feet and toes. Then Layna would laugh even when it hurt because she knew if she cried it would hurt more. Her father tickled her belly with his mustache. Layna found his mustache immensely funny. She would pull on it when he bent over her belly, his arms coming down like tree trunks on either side of her head. He’d throw a leg over hers to prevent her moving. He’d bite if she pulled, so she made a game of pulling only when she felt his leg go soft enough; then she’d pull and wiggle out from beneath him and let loose a series of high-pitched squeals as she fled behind the sofa, peaking to make sure he was not angry.
Sometimes he was. And though she tried, she could never laugh when he was angry.
Today Layna’s father was angry. She knew it because of the way he closed the front door. Not the usual thump when he kicked it shut with his foot on the way in, and not the slam after a long day at work. Today was the slow slip of a creak at the joints and the mush between rubber and pith and wooden frame. The sound Layna had learned meant running.
She was in her room putting her dolls safely away when she heard that small, deliberate sound. Her muscles bunched tight like a caterpillar encountering a fingernail. She heard his footsteps and the sound of her mother turning. A glass broke. Their voices together were the voices of two things that weren’t meant to sound at the same time.
She knew why they were fighting. Her mother had been out last night long past teaching hours. Layna had barely been able to keep her eyes open by the time her mother came home. She dared not fall asleep while she and her father sat on the sofa watching the late-night shows: she’d been startled awake once by his mustache, and had learned to count fan blades as others counted sheep.
When they fought, Layna had learned to slip out and dart for the woods. Today, though, her bedroom window wouldn’t give. She pulled and pulled as their voices rose. It was unlocked, wasn’t it? Yes. But still, it wouldn’t come. She considered breaking it but knew that would only make it worse for her by the time she returned.
Finally, she decided to sneak out through the bathroom window. It would require getting out of her room without being seen. Without being heard. She must be only a tremble down the hallway where beyond there was yelling and hurling and bodies blooming with bruises in places only the walls ever witnessed. She tightened the laces on her shoes. She opened her bedroom door. Its spine groaned.
Their shadows crawled on the back wall of the living room, monsters with claw hands and snarling mouths. Creep down the hall, now into the bathroom. The door was ajar. She went through, soundless. The bathroom window opened too swiftly, thumped at the top. She bit her lip, heart in throat, pushed out the screen, dropped to ground, heels hitting, and ran.
Who knew if it was rain or dusk? The sky was overcast, and weeds were sandpaper on her bare calves. Her stomach growled, but she hushed it. No supper to miss. Mama would be in her bedroom with a liquor glass, smoky stuff yellow as piss in the toilet bowl. And him. He would be sitting on the sofa calling, calling for Layna.
These were the parts she had to run from: her mother’s chalky hands after the glass was emptied two or three times, and her father’s hands when he called for her. His gentle hands all over her. He would tell her to laugh; and since the anger had simmered out of him, she could laugh easily, loudly even. She didn’t understand why gentle hands made her more afraid than rough ones, why they made her laughter louder.
Layna found the path without trouble. In winter, she knew, it would be harder to follow, but now, in summer, she traced the smooth river stones and chunks of sparkling fools’ gold with ease, uphill through the forest, zigzagging above the town, hiking, hiking, as the sun sank and the stars muttered in the low sky.
She found the place. Near a short cliff face, she’d posted three sturdy sticks as thick around as her thighs and balanced a large sheet of corrugated metal on top for a roof. Last time, she’d put a blanket in a banker’s box and put a rock on top of the box to keep it from blowing out from under the metal.
Good, there was the rock surrounded by leaves; and underneath, the box; and inside, the blanket.
She climbed into her shelter, huddled, chilled, and squished the first bug that came by. A fat black beetle. She couldn’t figure out why squishing, when she was up here, never made her laugh.
She woke and uncurled. Woke stiff and cold all the way down to her toes, stuffed sockless in ragged shoes. She could hear the town below. A vague almost-quiet. It had not rained. That was a blessing. She knew from other times that her hideout roof would keep out the downpour but not the slush and seep of rainwater. The understated gray sky was nearing sunrise. Her back and shoulders ached.
She rolled up the blanket and returned it to its box, which she sealed with a rock and covered with leaves. Standing slowly, she let the pain from sleeping outdoors settle into her spine and thighs and hips. That was good, too, that settling. That pain of being alive, being here, now; not floating somewhere just outside the curled shell of her sleeping self, heaped in blankets on a too-large bed beside a too-large body. It was good, instead, to be here.
The trip back was slow. She didn’t run. She crossed the river and skipped a stone over it. Watched it sink, blink back at her from the mudbelly bottom of the riverbed. By the time the sun broke over the eastern mountains, she was just descending her trail to the point where she could no longer hear the river. The town was a machine, humming.
When she finally approached her house, lights glowed in her parents’ bedroom. The television flashed through the sliding patio door. Among the sweet, musty morning smells was that of her mother’s cooking leaked through thin walls. Bacon on the air, and coffee.
She wound back to the bathroom window, reached up to crawl through.
But the screen was back in its place. Beyond the screen, the glass was closed and locked from the inside.
For a moment, she stood looking dumbly at the window. Then, she went round to her bedroom window—
—and found the obstruction that had prevented her from opening it last night: a wedge of wood stuck firmly between the top fixed half and the bottom sliding half. Only a pair of gentle hands could have secured it there. Her throat and chest tightened. No. Do not be afraid.
She tested each window, walking slowly around the house, sweat sticking her short red-orange hair to her neck. They were all locked. All the windows and doors.
Finally, she walked up the steps to the front. Locked. She stood frozen. Her core contracted, closed in on her. She was a block of wood wedged between unmovable forces, not a little girl.
She knocked. No one could hear her. Thump, thump this time, to the rhythm of her heart. She waited, glanced right, left, back at the door. She thought suddenly with a gasp so deep it pounded in her head: the car! The new red car that sat sleek and animal-like in the driveway. She could have curled up in the back, small as a beetle, and waited until her mother drove into town to work. Unseen, Layna could have waited a few more minutes until her mother had gone inside the building. Then, she might have popped out of the trunk and slinked to her classroom and sat at her desk with its fire-engine nametag, stomach don’t you growl, armpits don’t you stink, face, oh, please don’t be dirty.
But the front door opened, toweringly full of Layna’s mother, whose clothes were freshly laundered and whose face was powdered and pretty; you almost couldn’t see the sleepless circles or the cut at the edge of her smile. She bent down and hugged Layna hard and said she was sorry about the windows but Daddy wouldn’t let her leave them open. And now, Angelface, there was breakfast on the table. Then off to the bath before school. And better be lickety-split, or they’d be late.
So, Layna went inside.
Post-MFA in Tucson, LORA RIVERA worked as a literary agent, children’s biographer, and crepe maker. Today, she develops online trainings for child welfare professionals. In her spare time, she serves as Vice President of a climbing advocacy nonprofit where she is the senior editor of Stories from the Drylands: A Southern Arizona Climbing Anthology. She’s Asian-Indian, queer, and happily partnered. Her creative work is forthcoming from Reckoning and Ink in Thirds, and has recently appeared in Gravel, The Voices Project, Speculative 66, FLAPPERHOUSE, The Chattahoochee Review, and Eastern Iowa Review. Learn more at www.lorarivera.com
SALLY DESKINS is an artist, writer and curator. All of her work focuses on women, feminism and curating issues in art. Her artwork has been exhibited nationwide and published in Masque and Spectacle and Extract(s) among others. Her 2014 illustrated book, Intimates and Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, won the Nebraska Book Award for illustration and Design. She also created art for Leaves of Absence (2016). She is founding curator of Les Femmes Folles, an organization for women in art.
The old man held my left hand, briefly, then set it palm-down on a worn piece of plastic the size and shape of a fist and a shade of blue-green associated with futurism forty years ago. Underneath the plastic fist was a metal tray.
In the man’s hand appeared a small tool with a plastic handle the same blue-green and a circular blade with tiny teeth. Holding the tool with his right hand and resting his left hand on my wrist, the man pressed the blade on the ring, hard enough to make the ring dig into my finger, and began to run the blade carefully back and forth on the narrow surface.
He worked for a minute or two. He said, The blade is dull. I am sorry.
He had a strong Polish accent and a wonderfully full head of white hair, like the actor John Marley.
An older woman—the man’s wife, I assumed—attended to a customer nearby.
He worked steadily. I thought I saw a tiny groove forming, but I may have been imagining that. He pressed harder, making my finger hurt.
I am sorry, he said. The blade is dull. I must sharpen it.
Time passed in the way that time passes when responsibility has shifted from your hands to the hands of a professional. There is a sense of loss, but also a peace and lightness that come from being temporarily relieved of options, of the need to make decisions. A tiny amount of gold dust began to form on the ring. It slid onto the tray without touching my finger. The man removed his hand from my wrist, and I missed it immediately.
I said, I saw on the internet about using dental floss, slipping it under the ring and twisting it around your finger. Your finger turns purple, but then you pull on the dental floss and the ring comes off. I saw a video. I tried it, and my finger turned purple, but the ring stayed on.
The man paused and looked up. Oh, no, he said. Your finger should not be purple.
His correctness was instantly apparent. What had seemed so logical on the internet now seemed ludicrous when confronted with the firmness of his reason.
He returned to sawing. He asked if it hurt. Although it did hurt, I told him no, recognizing that no matter what I replied, I had no options.
The blade looked very old.
The amount of dust grew, but only slightly. I could not see a groove, but it might have been obscured by the dust. The ring was very narrow.
I felt I had to speak, but did not know what to say. I heard myself say this: Thirty-five years.
He stopped working and looked up at me suspiciously. His left hand returned to my wrist. He asked, How old are you?
I told him.
No, he said. He called to his wife. How old do you think he is?
She looked away from her customer and studied me grimly. After a moment, she stated my age accurately.
No, he said, not in disagreement, but in surprise.
She said, I look at the skin, the neck.
She returned to her customer.
He continued to saw, digging the ring harder into my finger. His wife spoke to the customer, a young man in a black suit.
In one motion, the man stopped sawing, released his pressure, and removed the ring. I was not aware of the actual removal; the ring was on and then it was off.
He set the ring on a scale that I had not noticed previously. My lack of awareness of my surroundings has been a subject of good-natured kidding in my workplaces over the years. Once I inherited an office with a huge, tacky, and rather ominous poster of a lion on the wall behind me. Why do you keep that poster? a co-worker asked. I said that I didn’t like it, but didn’t notice it and didn’t want to go to the trouble of figuring out what to do with it. My co-worker pulled the poster from the wall, pulling off some paint, and carried it out of the room. At my next job, a coworker hung on my bare office walls a picture of Uncle Sam, finger extended, with the caption, I want YOU to decorate your office. But two years later, the walls were still bare, except for her sign.
The man removed the ring from the scale, wrote on a small piece of paper, punched the keys of a well-worn calculator, and said, Fifty.
I nodded, and he dropped the ring through a slot into a square metal box that I also had not noticed previously.
With my thumb, I rubbed the underside of my finger on the spot where the ring had been. On the top of my finger, I could feel the ache of where he had pressed down on the ring. I did not rub this spot, not wanting the man to know he had hurt me.
The man stood, pulled a roll of bills from his pocket, counted off two from the outer portion and one from within, and handed them to me.
I thanked him, turned, and thanked his wife.
I wanted to shake the man’s hand, but somehow we weren’t positioned correctly.
Light pushed in from the windows that surrounded us. As I turned to leave, I could feel the business of the store resuming, no longer involving me.
ROBERT FROMBERG‘s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Bellingham Review, Tennessee Quarterly, and other magazines, and a short book, Blue Skies, was issued by Floating Island Publications. He taught writing at Northwestern University. This story is the second written after a 20-year break. He edits a website called Imperfect Fiction.
CHRISTOPHER DAVIS is a visual artist who grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. As a Sophomore in high school, he began to paint and draw every day. His math teacher referred to him as “Crayon Boy.” The painting “Trees and Fingers” was produced in high school. He was admitted into the Maryland Institute College of Art with the highest awards offered, including MICA’s Presidential Scholarship. While in college, he majored in painting, minored in general fine arts, and experimented with many different art disciplines. He now lives in Chicago. He states: “I have a fascination with functional art. With painting, I tend to focus on color, composition, perspective, iconic imagery, and emotion like ecstasy and joy, and fear and greed. I am obsessed with the freedom of abstract expressionism. While I was in high school, my art was very psychedelic, and throughout college I was interested in the unconscious, or what the darkness beneath the surface might be portrayed as–possibly looking like intuitive biomorphic images, faces and patterns and subliminal imagery. In 2015, I made a series of paintings that seemed blocky, like a juxtaposition of rectangular colors. This year I made a series of paintings focusing on exterior images of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.”