Category Archives: Fiction

Simplify

Circa 1956. Sometime in the predawn hours of the Cultural Revolution[1]. A black, red-flagged limo pulls up in front of the Chairman’s dacha in idyllic West Lake. A weary looking Minister of Culture, Hung, steps out of the car, and is ushered inside by the guards. He hands off his gloves and coat to the staff and, with a briefcase in hand, heads straight to the Chairman’s den. 

A wooden door embellished with a red sickle and hammer clangs open. The Chairman is seen wielding a brush behind the desk in the midst of composing another one of his rousing speeches in traditional language[2]. The den is lined with bookshelves, which are stacked with dusty tomes and handscrolls, apparently penned in the traditional language.

The minister bows from the hip, head over toe, his legs slightly wobbly. The Chairman looks up from under his spectacles. “What do you have for me, Comrade Hung?” he says, frowning slightly.

“Begging your pardon, sir. Reporting on—uh, that is—about the Han Dse[3]Reformation. Sir, I ca-can’t—” The Chairman cuts in. “May I remind you that can’t is not in my book?” He picks up a pocket-sized red book[4] from the desktop and waves it in the minister’s face. Embossed in gold on the red cover is Wisdom of Chairman Mao, apparently written in simplified language.

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“No-no, Comrade Chairman. That’s not what I meant. Forgive me…” He finds words in short supply, as he gasps for oxygen. He manages to regain his composure and begins to blurt out the opposing opinions from the academia. He reports that renowned linguists, scholars, Confucius elders, and the entire controlled media were gathered to work on the reformation of the outmoded traditional language. The methodology is simple. Chinese characters are made up of anywhere from one to thirty to forty strokes, perhaps more. To simplify you just take all the lengthy words—say eight or nine strokes or more, and chop off the excess, like taking a cleaver to a piece of pork belly. No use for the extra fat (words). 

Had this been English, Washington could lose its ton, the minister muses. Not sure what that would do to Whitehouse. But it’s a good rule—when in doubt, simplify. You can use it on any language, in any culture; even on people, if necessary. One can easily imagine chopping people down to size—say anyone taller than five-eight (that would be five-ten for westerners. Let’s give the Asians an inch or two)—chop-chop. That way there will be no ridiculous seven-footers to deal with in the paint. There could be a thousand uses indeed—a Swiss army knife of sorts, if you will. The more Hung thinks about it the more he is proud of himself for being so clever. He has outdone himself. He couldn’t help but smile a bit. 

“Wipe that smirk off your face. Show me some real stuff,” says the Chairman.

Hung flips open the briefcase and hands over a stack of papers. Pointing at a bunch of characters on the pages, he sizes them up as follows: 

Take these four characters: Love, factory, dear, andbirth. All everyday words in life. In the simplified form, the character love becomes, without the heart 心 in the middle; factory is now 广, making it an empty shell, devoid of workers or machineries that were there a moment before; dear is now , missing the other half 見, which by itself means see—so now we have dear but no see; as to , the life 生that was inside has just gone AWOL. 

The Chairman pauses his brush and fixes his gaze on the minister. 

“You know, words got out and people begin to sing their own renditions in the streets,” says the minister.

“Really? What do you mean?” 

“Well, goes like this—

Love—no heart,

Factories—kung kung[5],

Dear—half gone,

Birth—sans life.”

 

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An estimate of 2,200 commonly used words will be on the chopping block, the minister goes on, and it’s not without problems. The biggest stumbling block being time. The chairman wants it done in four years. But changing the face of 2,200 characters in four years is tantamount to fast-tracking evolution overnight. “You know what one old scholar said to me?” the minister says. “‘Our words are not made of alphabets. Each character is unique, and it can’t be cut to suit or reshaped overnight like some kind of jewelry piece. Words are people; they evolve, as do humans. Change the face of a language is tantamount to changing the face of the people…’ blah, blah, blah,” says Hung. “The nerve, comparing words to people.” 

The Chairman motions Hung to approach. The minister winces as he turns to face the Chairman’s cold stare. He does not know how else to explain it but to tell it straight. It’s his responsibility to mine the words. Changing the appearance of a word changes all of its associations on which other related words depend for meaning. Each character in the Chinese language is unique and they build on each other to form new, compound characters, which then evolve into even more complex words. Most of the 30,000 words in the dictionary descended from merely 250 basic characters through thousands of years of history and evolution. Imagine these words getting a face change virtually overnight, their roots gone forever. Besides—

“What? Out with it,” says the Chairman. 

In a wavering voice, the minister relays the concerns from the scholarly experts on the imminent catastrophic impact on the cultural reference systems. Ancient scrolls, cultural sites, fossils and cave carvings, not to mention tomes upon tomes of history, all recorded in traditional language, are now doomed to become objects of amnesia overnight. Reforming history necessarily means destroying it. People will become strangers to their own culture…

“Let me understand, you’re saying that my four-year plan is—” Mao drops his brush and takes off his spectacles, “unrealistic?” 

“Ye-yessir. No-no-sir. Sorry sir. That’s what all my experts tell me. Not me, sir, you understand—I’m all in,” again with a bow.

The Chairman gets up from his desk and starts to pace around the room. “I’ve been thinking about this myself lately. And I concur. The Four-Year-Plan may be a bit ambitious, but no one else needs to know. It’s just a random number I threw in for our big brother in the Kremlin.” He looks up at a large map on the wall. China lays bare like a shriveling maple leaf. A big chunk of the northern lands is missing, as though some worm has taken a big bite out of it. The Chairman points his finger at the missing part, namely the Outer Mongolia, now a newly minted buffer zone that was gifted to Stalin in Yalta.[6]

“The Russians are taking over the territory, pushing our people out,” Mao said. “Those who stayed behind were forbidden to speak their native language. They were forced to speak Russian. That’s how they do it. Stalin told me himself—to tame the people, you fix their language first,’” he said. “But I can’t deal with that right now. Outer Mongolia is done. Nothing we can do about it. Now we must bring down the old bourgeoisie. It must go, and it must go now.” He fixes his eyes on Hung and cleaves his fat palm through the air. “Chop-chop.”

“Chop-chop?” The minister’s face turns white. 

“Not you, moron,” says the Chairman. “I mean the old language. Just do it. Chop it up—slice or dice, whatever. The traditional language is too difficult for the masses to learn, that’s the reality. The rest of it is pure nonsense. Who cares about the street noises! It doesn’t matter. Revolution has consequences. We’ll deal with whatever side effects after we take care of our enemies. Is that clear? Now off you go.” 

The minister steps back and takes his leave. The Chairman picks up the red book and thumbs through the pages. Before the minister reaches the door, the Chairman calls him back and tosses the red book to him half-way across the room. “Give me the traditional version,” he says. “Can’t read this crap!”

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Written by: John Tsao

I had been an engineer–now retired, trying to write, and is currently enrolled in the Short Fiction class at CCSF. Formerly I’ve attended the MFA program in nonfiction at USF and graduated in 2014. I’ve been writing ever since.

Excerpt from The Storytaker

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Click, tap, tap, click. 

Pencils on paper. Fingers tapped table-tops with no particular rhythm. The days were too short and too valuable to make music while deep in thought. 

People scrunched up their faces, which were red and frustrated. Tongues bled under the pressure of teeth. No one spoke, no one looked at anything but the swirls of marble on the ceiling and the notebook in front of them. Everyone was in their own world, even while so close together, and they had to keep it that way. 

Little dictionaries lay on the desks, people’s hands ripping through them like wind. Their gazes darted up and down the pages, becoming desperate. Some spent hours on a single sentence, a comma, a conjunction, an adjective. It was common knowledge that a good use of adjectives was a way to get through the day alive, or at least with a less fatal punishment. 

Shelves and shelves of dull-colored books lined the Sanctuary of Word. Some of them didn’t have pages yet, just covers waiting to be linked to a story. Others were half full. Then there were some gaps in between the books. I shivered at the sight of these lost stories. 

Someone vomited all over their notebook, bits of half digested food bleeding through their carefully selected words. They didn’t look much older than me. The person, whose gender I couldn’t tell from rows and rows away, muttered something under their breath, something like a number. Then they just stared into their ruined notebook, eyes full of fear and irritation. The Writer glanced up at the clock overhead, anticipating their coming doom. 

It was a solid hour until midnight, but here, the minutes rushed by as quickly as fire catches. 

I wanted to comfort them, but I felt as though there was a wall between us, like the screen of a mirror. That mirror being what held the reflection of my future self. 

1,000 words per day. Starting from age thirteen, this was life. Tomorrow, I was set to become one of the thousands of Writers who struggled to write marvelous tales every day. I would pick up a pen and start to write. One of those many seats would be mine. 

“It’s just two pages!” Ms. Penn, the head of the house I lived in for my earlier childhood, had taken to assuring me ever since my twelfth birthday. I would never forget that morning, when I’d woken up screaming from a dream where my hands became spiders and I couldn’t write, and then a Guard beat my head with a book until I woke up. 

Ms. Penn never helped with her attempts to comfort me. They just made me think about how much she was wrong. She hadn’t mentioned the additional 130 words I had to write to live in a decent place without rats crawling around, which was practically everywhere except the Sanctuary’s boarding houses on the edge of town. Ms. Penn also failed to bring up the fines you’re given for spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors. Then, and most terrible, the Block, where a Writer went when they had nothing left to write, or couldn’t come up with anything good or sensical. Those people were known as Blocked. Their books were removed from their shelf, the words inside of them concealed from the world forever. 

I swallowed hard, balling up my writing hand, my right, into a fist. I dreaded the moment it would hold a pencil, the words it would be forced to etch onto the page. After years and years of tossing and turning in bed, dreaming up stories I’d write in this hall, nothing seemed like the one I really wanted to write. I knew I’d have to write something. The only way to escape this was to finish one’s story, usually hundreds of pages long, have it released to the public, and have people know who I am. There was no other way. 

The clock tolled eleven, time for me to go through the door all the way down the hall. At least that was what the letter I received that morning had told me to do. I didn’t know what was to happen, but I had a feeling I was going to be meeting a Storytaker. 

The Storytakers ruled the Empire of Word, and controlled the Guards. They decided the fates of all Writers, and the values of their stories. Rumors told that the burning of bodies in the Block below the Sanctuary, and the paper from the stories burned by the Storytakers in their tower above was why this place usually smelled strongly like smoke and ashes. 

I walked slowly down the aisle separating the rows and rows of desks. People muttered abstract words and metaphors madly to themselves as they watched me pass, no doubt planning to use my image for one of their stories. In this place, so dull and fear-filled, there was no way to get inspiration other than from your own writing or people coming in from outside. 

I finally reached the end of the hall, and the door, which was not just a door, but a gigantic book. It had a shimmering gold cover and I could see coarsely cut pages sticking out from the top along with a pale red bookmark with the words “Take the Pen” written in puffy gold letters. 

I looked around at the rows of Writers closest to me. No one glanced up from their work, now used to my presence. Shouldn’t I ask one of them if I could borrow a pen? What if I surprised them so much with my question that they forgot an important idea they had? I didn’t want to be the reason someone got sent to the Block that day. 

I glanced back at the sign. Take the pen, take the pen… I began to search. Under the shelves, near the door. Beneath the desks, making sure my shoes didn’t squeak against the floor and cause a disruption. I began to get frustrated. Was this a test of intelligence, or just a simple thing I had to find to get in? Would I be fined with words if I couldn’t figure this out? Yes, that was probably it. An attempt to mess me up on my first day. 

I pictured it in my hand, ball-point, gold as the book. Don’t ask me why, but somehow imagining things gets my thoughts straight. What did I want? A pen. Where could I find it? I didn’t—

Click. Shuffle. Shuffle. 

The bookmark slipped into the book and disappeared. The bookshelves beside the book slid sideways. In response to having more room, the enormous glowing cover of the book opened to two blank, slightly yellowed pages. 

I pressed my hands against the smooth parchment. I twisted my head around to find the people were still not looking at me. Did they have to deal with the same mysterious entrance the day before their ceremonies? I returned my focus back to the open book, tracing my hand to the place where the pages were bound together. There was no opening, no way to worm my way through. I started turning pages, which were heavy and easy to crease due to their intense largeness. And then, after what felt like hours of turning, I reached the back cover where, sure enough, was a little gold door. I pushed on it and it gave way, creaking on hinges of gold coil. 

I laughed as I stepped through. I was coming through a book! Could I possibly be inside a story? 

Creak. Whoosh. Creak. 

The pages of the book all fell into each other as the book closed with a loud thump and the bookcases slid back into their places. The back cover of the book gleamed. But from what light?

I whirled back around, seeing a fog of eery white light hanging in the air a few feet away. 

I walked towards it. With each step a slight whirring in the distance got louder and more intense, while the light or fog or whatever you call it denser and overshadowing the looming darkness. 

I turned my head every which way, expecting to see a Storytaker’s eyes staring back at me mysteriously.

I’d never seen one before, and no one had ever described them to me. There had been stories about people who’d died out of terror in a Storytaker’s presence. Even though there was no saying whether or not these stories were true, there was no denying that they were creatures most people in the Empire did not want to meet.  

The white haze continued on. I walked faster and more impatiently now, the humming growing louder, almost like the very projected purr of a cat. Suddenly I realized I was passing through a ball of the pearly white fog, in the center of which was the most peculiar fountain I’d ever laid eyes upon. 

The water was the same cloud-white as the light that had led me there. The liquid moved around in waves, hence the sound of an animal in content. The waves were bodiless dancers. They crashed, circled around each other, dived deeper into the water and produced bubbles which rolled around on the surface like marbles until they hit the walls of the fountain. I squinted at the walls, which seemed to be made up of books with heavy stone covers so tightly connected that no water leaked through. Without realizing I was doing it at first, I reached out and touched some of the water riding a wave. It was warm and soothing. I took only a drop or two out on my finger, and realized that even though I’d brought it out of the light, it was still the same white it was in the pool. The substance was almost like milk, although it smelled of ink and parchment dunked in a contaminated lake. 

I wiped the substance off on my dress, a white stain soaking into the fabric of my skirt. Maybe the liquid was contaminated. 

“It is the Wordpool,” said a voice behind me. I had no time to murmur a greeting before I was face-to-face with a stout man in a pale navy suit and thin wisps of white hair peeking out from behind two small, triangular ears. His eyes were worlds of white, thin of a mouth and pale cheeks rid of any redness or emotion. In his hands was a single pen dripping with jet black ink. I watched as he leaned over the pool and touched the tip of the pen to the water, writing upon the surface. 

Venus 

He stopped suddenly, watching as a white wave carried my name away. The ink fought against it, weaving for a moment around bubbles and small ripples and waves in an attempt to escape. But it could not fight against the oncoming larger wave, which pulled it down into the water without mercy. 

For a few seconds afterward, the water was slightly grayer than before, but even that took its turn to fade. 

“A reminder that all stories will be gone someday, as they all follow the tides of fate and, of course, time.”

But that wasn’t a story! I wanted to protest. 

He continued, “The Wordpool also tells us that we have more stories to write. There will always be a blank page for humans to fill. We can’t ignore emptiness, no, blank pages create voids in our hearts and cracks in our character. Our job is to turn the emptiness into somethingness, although we become part of the emptiness in doing so.”

He knows, I thought, the reality settling in like a storm cloud in the horizon of my mind. He knows it’s only a matter of time before I go to the Block. 

I followed his thoughtful gaze to the blank body of water and I suddenly realized that yes, it would be so satisfying to cover it up with words. It became so frustrating to just stand there and watch the blankness that I forced myself to look away. The man noticed my averted gaze and nodded. 

“Although, what really and truly is empty is up to the Writer. And of course, the Storytakers.” 

I ran through his speech again, fast forward to the very last word. I was pulled out of the philosophical tangles of madness I’ve just been bombarded with. “Wait— aren’t you one?”

“A Storytaker? No, I am your Counter. During inspections I will ensure you have written all that is required. The Storytakers are much too busy to explain to a child the importance of the Fountain.” 

“So why am I here then?” I asked, ignoring his insult. As much as I enjoyed coming here through a book and listening to this mysterious man’s narrative, more appealing was the idea of going back to the apartment complex and getting settled in my new home. 

He narrowed his eyes at me. 

“You are here,” he replied, in a reprimanding tone, “to complete a task. It is a way to set you on your journey to Writerhood.” 

I looked at him skeptically. Could it be more confusing than the one I had to do to get in there? And I still didn’t know what had triggered the book to let me in. I’d never heard of a book taking pity on someone before. Ugh! I didn’t think I could take any more puzzles today. They criss-crossed in my mind, overlapping like the lattices of a pie. 

But the man did nothing but simply give me the pen, the actual pen he’d used to write my name. 

I held it in my hand. It was smooth and silver, heavy. I felt a strange energy rushing up my arm, my throat, into my brain and back down again. I had no idea what its purpose was. 

I looked to the man for further instructions. 

“Write something.” He said it so simply, hurling the unexplained phrase at me like I knew he would. 

 

“Where?” I asked. “And what?” My politeness had somewhat gone out the window since I’d learned he wasn’t one of the most powerful and revered beings in all the land. 

“One word,” he replied, “Right there.” He pointed to the fountain, which at the moment contained only a few soft ripples, as if waiting for me to approach. I looked at the liquid parchment, and back at him. 

“But it’ll just go away after I… The word will be gone and won’t matter?” 

He didn’t say anything, but when I kept looking at him he finally decided to elaborate.

“It will matter to you.”

The pen suddenly felt much heavier. 

“After you write, you may leave the way you came. The door will be open,” he instructed as I stepped towards the fountain, the pen shaking in my hand, little droplets of ink shimmied up my arm. 

“And remember this: While creating something out of nothing, be sure not to lose yourself if you wish to have your way.” 

He disappeared behind the now thick curtain of white and then became one with the darkness. 

I was alone. I stared at the water. 

I reached over the lipped rim of the fountain and positioned the pen above the center of the mountain of white liquid. My hand had stopped shaking. The energy running through me all rushed into it, steadying it, empowering it. 

I took a deep breath. 

And I lowered the pen to the water. 

Written by: Emily Maremont

Art title: Eyes on Sunset

Artist:  Brooke

The Body of Stone

The island had been declared “surplus federal property” for five years, the legal way of saying it had been hollowed out and deserted of soul. The government had spent years trying to keep its “worst of the worst” inside. But when we returned as the island’s rightful owners, the same government wanted to keep us out. The soullessness was now something to be protected.  Throughout it all, the only beings that came and went as they pleased were the birds (including the namesakes of the island, the pelicans).

Fifty years later, you can only tell we were ever there from the graffiti on the watertower. Some might have heard a few headlines through their headphones on the audio tour; maybe that Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda visited us to draw attention to the cause. But fewer people know that we children were there too, and no one at all but me knows what really happened to Yvonne.

She and I met in the morning by the schoolhouse, under the bright gray January blanket of clouds. Yvonne wore her mother’s blue sweatshirt that sagged below her waist. The sleeves flopped beyond her hands as she bounced down the road. On the days when she wore a denim jacket and an orange bandana headband like the adults, she looked older, maybe even sixteen. Someone old enough to actually understand what exactly our parents meant by “fascist,” or why Nixon was one. But today, Yvonne simply wore a bright orange hair clip instead of the bandana.

I called her name above the roar of the bay winds whipping across the island, and she turned my way with stray hairs flowing across her freckled, smiling face. We had just learned that we had today off from school, so the possibilities were endless.

On school days, one of the adults might teach us how to make beaded jewelry (the traditional Ohlone way with clam and snail shell beads, not with European glass beads). Or we’d get a history lesson, like when Yvonne’s father, the leader of the whole occupation, told us about California’s history. My heart shriveled in fear when he introduced our class to the state-supported death squads who killed thousands of our people so that white men could search the Bay for gold. My trembling hand grabbed Yvonne’s during his story, and I worried that the squads might return someday. But she sat up straight and narrowed her eyes like the squads had never left. Like she was staring them in the face.

My favorites of the school days were when we learned the legends of our ancestors. Back home, I was partial to stories of the future: for weeks, I’d pretended myself as the Indian priestess who married Captain Kirk on a recent episode of Star Trek. My parents didn’t like that episode (my mom said something about “perpetuating noble savage narratives”), but I was just happy to see an Indian in space. I wondered: maybe if retaking this island within sight of San Francisco was too controversial for the white world of the U.S., there might instead be a new planet out there that we could call our own? If we could wait that long, maybe everyone could all get along? Still, as much as I preferred to imagine the future, I enjoyed the wonder of the old legends more than the horror of history lessons.

First, there was the Miwok legend of the creation of the world. According to the legend, water covered the entire world, except for Mount Diablo as the first spot of land. Then, our class learned the Chochenyo legend of Kaknu and the Body of Stone. Kaknu was part human, part bird, and a great hero. Despite being a powerful fighter, he knew no fight on the surface of the earth would free his people. So he folded his bird wings inward and dove down, through the sky and deep into the earth to the underground lair of an evil king. The lair was littered with the bones of Kaknu’s people, who the evil king was holding captive and feeding to his minions. Kaknu confronted the king, who had a body made of stone, and Kaknu defeated him in battle by striking the weak spot on his neck. Only then was the world above safe for Kaknu’s people to live freely.

On that cold January morning, Yvonne skipped over to me and playfully twisted her body back and forth, arms wrapping around herself one way and then the other. “Mount Diablo?” she asked me right away, shorthand for our secret game. While the other kids usually threw footballs on days off, we’d developed our own game based on the Miwok legend. We pretended that history was quickly reversing, like spinning a record around in the wrong direction and listening to the music backwards. The world was reverting back to being covered in water as it had been at creation, and we had to climb higher and higher to avoid the bay waters creeping up the island. Had this been back at school in the city, we’d have been too old for playing pretend. But the roaring wind, the lifeless prison buildings at the hilltop, and the oblivious city in the distance stirred something mythical into the air that allowed us to be however old we felt like being.

“Let’s do it,” I replied. We raced down to the docks, where our game began.

The docks were always busy, with boats delivering donations of food and supplies throughout the day. Our security force, which called itself “The Bureau of Caucasian Affairs,” staffed the docks to make sure no threats made it ashore. The Coast Guard had initially tried to blockade us, but eventually its boats just sat back and watched us from afar. I didn’t like the idea of them overseeing us all the time, but my mother said that I’d get used to the surveillance. “They are trying to scare us away with their eyes,” she said.

A particularly high wave rocked a boat carrying boxes of canned food. Yvonne and I stared as the wave grew and grew, ever taller until it was a tidal wave, splashing up on the dock toward us as it sought to cover the whole world. We scrambled up the hill, skidding on asphalt, hoping to outrun the next wave from the grasping bay. “Careful!” an adult yelled after us. “We’re avoiding the water!” Yvonne yelled back, and we ran on.

The next building up the hill was the officer’s club. The abandoned remains of a bar, a dance floor, and a bowling alley haunted the inside of the building.

“What is it?” Yvonne asked as I stared through its windows. “What do you see?”

The lingering traces of life and joy from the empty social club swirled together, and materialized into a group of ghosts. No whispers of isolation or genocide hid in their shared laughs, quick kisses, or intertwined hands; instead, the betrayal and pain of their world was fermented into a delicacy and splashed into their clinking glasses. They drank to the blaring, blissful promise of liberty and justice, for all– all at their party.

“Ghosts,” I said, turning to Yvonne with my eyes wide. “They want to trick us into their ghost world and trap us there. It looks fun from the outside, but you get caught and never want to leave.”

Yvonne grabbed my arm and tugged. “No! I won’t let them get you!” The gusting wind pushed us toward the door of the club, but we held on to each other and managed to escape farther up the hill.

At each bend in the path, we stopped to catch our breath and spoke through the same script: “It’s so beautiful up here.” “I can see Oakland.” “Wait– did you hear that?” “It’s the ocean. It’s still rising!” “Run!”

A few breaks later, our uphill dash ended at the cellhouse. The only way to keep going up was to go inside and climb up its three stories.

“We have to be quiet in here,” I whispered, sensing the spirit of isolation inherent in the walls.

Yvonne nodded back. “The evil on the island is at its strongest here,” she agreed.

We ducked inside the cellhouse entrance, but froze at the echoing footsteps of a prison guard ghost. If he caught us, we might be whisked away into his past, locked away from our families in the present. We pressed tight against the wall. Our breathing quieted and we squeezed each other’s hands, palms sweating.

When the footsteps receded, we took off for a spiral staircase down the row of cells. It was too far for a single dash, however, so we turned a corner and hid again to catch our breath and listen if the source of the footsteps had heard us.

Heart pounding, I looked to my side. I peered inside a tiny nine-by-five foot cell, trying not to awaken the dormant bones of the skeleton still trapped inside. “Corrections,” they were starting to call prisons recently. I swallowed. Could there be something inside me that was wrong, and needed correction? I thought of the Coast Guard drifting in the bay, and feared that the white world could find something, if it wanted to hard enough. My stomach sank.

They called this place The Rock, I suddenly remembered, and a chill went down my spine. “Yvonne,” I said. “The Rock. The Body of Stone.”

Her face froze and she grabbed my shoulders. She locked eyes with me. “We have to go. Now.”

I desperately wanted to go too, and for this all to be over. I envisioned our walk back down the hill to the schoolhouse and to the world of our parents, then back to the world of our old schools in the city. Maybe it would be less scary to learn real history after all. I’d had enough of the legends coming to life.

Yvonne had a different destination in mind, however. She looked around the corner for anyone approaching, then raced up the nearby stairwell.

“Yvonne!” I called. “Where are you going? I thought we were going down now!”

“No, we need to go up!” she yelled. “Otherwise the Bay will swallow us or the ghosts will trap us or the Body of Stone will–”

“That’s all over!” I said. “At least it’s over for me.”

“It’s not over!” she said. She slipped on a stair in her excitement, then recovered and raced further upward.

“Yvonne, come back!” I said, climbing a few stairs after her.

She reached the top level of cells and ran along the row. At this point, she was as high as any of us was ever going to get.

No one has ever believed me when I tell them what I saw next. Yvonne lost her footing a second time, this time sliding dangerously beneath the railing. I screamed her name, and she tried to hold on to something, but she slid completely out. Out, into empty space.

The only ones that could come and go freely from the island were the birds, I remembered, as Yvonne suddenly began to transform. Her tangled brown hair twirled into elegant white feathers, and the loose clothes hanging from her arms unfurled into graceful wings. For a moment, I thought she would spread her wings to descend safely. Instead, I saw her eyes narrow as she held her wings in tightly, and dove ever faster toward the hard concrete of the prison floor.

My scream tore out of my face. “Yvonne!”

Somehow:

Yvonne flew past the floor, slicing through the solid ground and burrowing deep into the Earth.

As an adult found us and yelled in the echoing cellhouse for a first aid team, Yvonne’s fall finally came to a stop in a vast cavern. The cavern was filled with human bones, thrown there by the white death squads a hundred years before. “Help! Is anyone here?” she yelled. But her voice echoed in the cave, without a response. I heard her voice and those of the first aid team echoing, but I could only shudder in a corner.

As her father held her motionless human body on his lap in a small boat and the outboard motor roared back to the hospital in the city, the Body of Stone emerged from behind a pile of bones with a stomp that shook the whole cavern. He roared at her, and she shivered. The roars filled my head for countless nights.

As her grieving parents decided to stay in the city, leaving the occupation without its leader, Yvonne fled from the Body of Stone and hid in a side cavern. Left without her, I had no games left to play anymore, on the island or otherwise.

As the rest of the occupation gradually withdrew from the island, leaving it deserted and lifeless once again, tears of despair seeped from Yvonne’s eyes. The stomping of the Body of Stone grew closer and quaked the rock against her back. On a boat back to the city, I wondered if it would be the rising water, the ghosts, or the prison that would catch me first.

Then:

As the occupation of the island inspired the growing Red Power movement across the country, Yvonne wiped her tears away, noticing that her arms were still wings. She then realized who she was: Kaknu, the bird-human hero. She helped me realize who I was as well: someone who didn’t have to wait for a new planet to fight for fairness. I created a new major for myself once I got to college, gathering and preserving my people’s stories.

As activists occupied more of our historical lands and won legal victories for Indian education, healthcare, and religious freedom, Yvonne fought the Body of Stone, evading its blows with her wings. She found a bow and arrow left in the cavern, and shot the Body of Stone in the weak spot on its neck. It fell with a monstrous thud. I had not been able to join her in the fight underground, but I was able to join it in the university halls. Maybe the fights were one and the same, after all.

All the while, Yvonne kept the ghosts of the academia parties from luring me into their insulated world, and helped me outrun the waves and cells that had chased us.

But what I wished for more than anything was to feel Yvonne tug at my arm again. To see her bounce down the steps calling my name. To hear her asking me, “What do you see?”

To be however old we wanted to be.

Written by: Matt Luedke

Matt Luedke is a former editor of Forum who continues to be inspired by the writing community he’s found through CCSF. He has also been published in Prairie Light Review and Ripples in Space. Links to his published works are at mattluedke.com.

Art title: Mountain on Ashes

Artist: Xiao Xiao

Xiao Xiao is from Xiamen Island, China and has called California home for the past decade. She studied Computer Science and just started to take classes in photography. She loves to think about co-op living, mental health, and living between two cultures. Find her at @xiao.xiao.o_o

 

Escape Artist

The moon was an escape and a trap. My life is this way; frying pans to fires to frying pans.

I shook a frying pan full of eggs over the burner. Rick, who lit his cigarettes from the stove, pushed me aside, leaned down, blond hair hanging over the flame. He singed a few hairs up front but didn’t catch fire. It was hard to tell what was lighting what, the flame or the man.

Rick and I lived together. He was a heat-seeking missile, and I tried to stay out of his aim. The house sweltered when he was in it. He rarely wore a shirt. I used to love the scar that ran over his pectoral muscle, passing close to the nipple. “A shiv made from a toothbrush,” he’d said proudly. The bullet he wore around his neck on a chain swung near the blue-yellow flame. It was a live bullet. “It’s for a certain someone,” he often said. “I’m saving it.” Longingly, I watched it swing. Swing-swing. But it didn’t go off.

I went to the moon to escape Rick. It wasn’t a prison yet. 

The moon was just a couch in the mudroom that had nothing else in it but a dart board. No darts, bullseye worn almost to invisibility, but still there. Still there. Flame and cotton and needle were involved by this time. After injecting myself I curled into my own mind on the couch. And swing-swing went the bullet of my mind over the flame that was Rick. Someday it would go off, straight into him and out the other side.

He stood talking. You burn the toothbrush bristles so they melt into one, rub the sides against a rock until you get a blade that cuts. He touched his scar. When he spoke he spat out great raspberries of flame, or so it seemed to me. They curved, those flame-words, beautiful, solar flares through the skylight’s night sky, not so much meaning anything as embodying meaning itself. 

“Look at the state of you,” he said into my face. “This is some disgraceful shit.” Smoke billowed, dragonlike, from his nose. I smiled. He’d been cremating me, a little each day, and soon I would be nothing but ash. But on the moon-couch, ice crystals formed on my body, and for the duration I was protected from the heat.

 

I got a taste for the cool at work. I worked at a construction site, often just a grinning hole in the earth, where I sometimes showed prospective buyers the shapes made by construction tape and explained their potential. The foreman thought I had the right blend of street smarts and refinement because I came from education but I’d been living rough for years. I could talk to the crew in clipped, slangy patois out of one side of my mouth and I could talk serious of the building’s integrity and practicality out the other. 

Things started to slip long before I was fired. At the market I thumbed the embossed numbers on my credit card before handing it over. My father sometimes paid it off, sometimes not, and I wouldn’t know until I tried. I began to forget the names of people I was talking to, and to break off mid-sentence and stare, and to sidle in with dirty, wrinkled shirts. I styled my hair in cornrows, but I had white teeth that were straight like tombstones and that counted for something out at the site, where I existed between two things. I was an ambassador between creation and consumption, and the politics of each.

Before things started slipping I sat on some sandbags. Right and left foot swinging in the August heat. Swing-swing. Star came by. Star handled heavy machinery like the rest of the men. She said “What the fuck” about my bruised eye and mouth. I shrugged, too lazy and sad to make up a story. No mistaking the provenance of that kind of injury.

“Ever been to the moon?” she said. She tossed me something, a bag with a little trapezoidal pill that was strangely cold to the touch. In an alley behind the site I crushed it and inhaled it. There was a gift shop across the way full of figurines. A terrible pain shot down my throat and into my brain, but then, all at once, I traded places with myself, and where my feelings had been I now had the power of freeze. The figurines in the gift shop began to move. There was a sea lion, and a bear, and a stag. They turned toward me as one, then changed places while I stared. They were either glass or wax or maybe ice, like my hands and feet. When I opened my mouth, I swear icicles fell to the ground with the angel sound of breaking glass.

“What is this stuff?” I asked Star back at the site.

“Ice-nine,” she said. “You like it?”

“Like in the book?” I said.

“What book?” Star eyed me in a way that could have been wry or angry or covetous. I traversed the rest of the workday in delirium.

I was out of the frying pan. I didn’t need Rick, der freischütz, his bullet staring at me like a third eye from his chest like it had special plans for me. 

After work Star took me to a building with other people in it. Star said, “What’s up,” and it wasn’t a question, and the black man with the one blue milky eye said “What isn’t,” and it wasn’t a question either. We sat in a little Bermuda triangle and watched our thoughts eddy around the drain and disappear. Star had huge arms with big muscles and each had a tree tattoo that was really a woman. Across the street was a travel agency with a sign in neon that read, What is Jesus doing today? Just a question, no answer.

The walls and windows rimed over with ice while we sat like chessmen.

I could fuck Rick when I was on the moon. Fate is chiastic and has its own bilateral symmetry, is what I was thinking while Rick’s cheeks pinked. I made an X behind his back with my arms. Fate is the good curve on the axis that has an equal and opposite bad. The thought was the kind I had while we were fucking; abstract to the point of meaningless, but I could kill time looking for meaning in my sentence-mazes. Rick couldn’t follow me here, so I was alone. I was empty on a cosmic scale, but dark matter hunkered, humming, in the crevasses, watching, intelligent and dangerous, seething with potential energy.

Why stay with him wasn’t even a question. He was the parasite I lived with. His inane violence—his general inanity—was a chronic condition. He was a sad and fragile man who was made strong by fear, and I found this impulse useful. Sometimes my anger was the engine that kept my life moving, and kept catastrophe idling.

“I’d die without you,” he whispered into my neck. Head on his chest, I imagined my hair burned into a toothbrush shiv, honed and entering his flesh, cutting deep and permanent.

 

“Welcome to the moon,” said Star every time I met her in that apartment, which I realized was where she lived. She moved the beaded curtain aside for me. The beads in her hand were music. I felt the beads shuddering through my skull.

“The moon and Mister,” said Milk-Eye Man, and his eye was a moon that looked everywhere and nowhere. One eye vicious, the other eye frozen in benign surprise.

“That’s his name?” I said.

Mister and Star and I mainlining ice-nine in the dull hours of the day. Blankets and beads strung between doorways. Each shot was a brick in my palace of ice and quartz. My mind was the Fortress of Solitude. The center of the palace had a dead lake. It was liquid mercury, trapezoidal in shape, and disappearing into it meant complete invisibility. An ordinary tree grew on the roof garden above the travel agency, but while on the moon it became a great portentous flame tree. The flowers fell orange around its base, and strange, pendulous fruit like testicles dangled, swinging. Swing-swing. Little acrobats did a ladder act down my spine in rhythm with the swinging testicles and the thoughts in my head were the bubbles in a glass of champagne; sometimes they dislodged and I watched them rise and surface and pop, and then I no longer remembered them. 

“Why don’t you move out?” Star indicated the finger bruises like a necklace stretching ear to ear and behind the ears.

“Moth, flame?” I guessed.

“Naw,” she said.

I thought. The thought slid around the ice in my brain. “He’s my punishment,” I said finally. She didn’t ask for what. We all have that unforgivable thing. She reached across and caressed me. “Let me be your punishment,” she said. She pulled me next to her. She had hard and soft parts on her body. I liked the difference. Being with her was a terrible thing, and darkly pleasing.

Mister coughed once, a sound that seemed to come from far away.

“He’s going to kill you.” She whispered. She sounded more excited than sad. 

“Or I’ll kill him,” I said.

“I’ll back that,” she said.  “Tell me how to help.”

Out of the fire.

 

In the cool I could stow my rotten-lemon memories or look at them head-on and it made almost no difference. My mother’s first suicide attempt became the size of a suitcase that fit neatly into the overhead bin. Or I could pull it out, examine the contents, rummage and rearrange, check items off the list. I found her. I was seven. The bathroom, all white, with a Jackson Pollock of blood sprayed on the wall. It was beautiful. Sick, I looked at the bloody artwork. Mom held her arms to quell or hasten the bleeding and looked, imploring, into my eyes. I dropped my Powerpuff backpack and we looked at each other for an ice age before I started screaming. The event split my life in two. To this day I toggle between the halves.

The second time I was called out of school. Before my father sent a car, a nurse talked to me. Your family needs you right now, and I nodded and swung my legs beneath the office seat, swing-swing. I  couldn’t stop wondering what my mother’s eyes had been imploring, that first time. Please help me or please let me die—which one? Your mother needs you to be a big girl, said the nurse. How? SWING-SWING until a loose leg of the seat broke and I fell to the ground. The nurse wiped my cut, placed a Band-Aid over it.

The third time I had almost finished my dissertation, entitled By Tooth and Talon: Unimodal Narrativity in the Spatial Replacement of Colonized Bodies. 

My father’s text message: It’s happened. Come home.

I still don’t know what he meant. I never went home. She’s still a Schrödinger’s mother, alive and dead simultaneously. Mom… mom, says my sobbing heart. Forgive me, mom. But I feel nothing, I just know “mom” is the shape my feelings would take if I had them.

Pack the suitcase. Put it away. Light the lighter, boil the pill. Another brick in the palace of ice.

 

Star and I were fired at the same time. The only surprise was how long it took management. In the office, a melancholy man missing almost all of his hair wanted to teach us a lesson.

“How many days has it been since you’ve been to work?”

He waited. Star made a show of counting off on her fingers. 

When it became clear he expected an answer, I said, “Thirteen?”

“That’s right. Is that acceptable employee behavior?”

This time we remained silent.

Mr. Melancholy cleared his throat. “OK. I’m letting you go of course. I’d offer back pay but you frankly haven’t earned it.”

Star and I left the site in a strange glee. We got immediately cool in her apartment.

“You ever ‘jump the moon?’” she said. Her tree trunk arms loose behind her head in our makeshift hammock—blanket tied to girders.

“What’s that?”

“That’s when you mix ice-nine with firefly. It’s hardcore. It’s off the hook.”

Mister said, “Don’t do it, girl,” and his non-milky eye had real concern in it.

I sighed a long sigh. I was happy with the current arrangement. But I wasn’t.

We jumped the moon. Star mixed it up and I felt it flow through my queered veins, and I said, “Today’s the day.”

“What day?” she said.

“Chekhov’s bullet,” I said.

“You mean—”

“It goes off today,” I said.

While I watched the flame tree became something else. A gale force shook its fruit and leaves. The air turned violent in my throat. A strong wind could topple all of this, all of us, the whole fucking city, the grinning construction site that never became a building, this House of Fecklessness, exploding all the figurines in the gift shop, until all that was left was myself and Rick, his screaming jack-o-lantern face and endless consuming need and the freshness of his fire. The dead lake within me became a churning ocean, sweeping me up on my feet.

The tree out the window swung its pendulous fruit until the wind stripped the leaves and fruit and sent them hurtling through space. My heart was the wind, a wind that screamed, destroying and purifying as it went.

“Let’s go then,” said Star, her face going malevolent with love.

We went to my house.

Rick was watching Complete Blackout on TV.

“That’s him?” Star said, incredulous.

“Who’s this,” said Rick.

Star feinted at him and he recoiled.

I pushed her aside, got up into his face. I breathed on him, and he stepped back. 

“Come on,” I said. “Put your hands here.” I indicated my throat. “See what happens.”

Rick whimpered. He shook his head.

“Do it,” I ordered, and he stepped forward, pressing his thumbs into my Adam’s apple, rest of the fingers behind my neck. Squeezed. Before my eyes went dark I saw him start to cry.

My head tipped up. I was close to unconsciousness. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to kill me or Star to kill him before she killed me. I let my hands fall to my sides. Clouds began to fill my ocular cavities. Sounds pulsed. I felt confusion. I felt relief. I felt, strongly, that a change was cresting very nearby. 

“Mom,” I tried to time when my body gave up.

And then Star was beside us. I fell to the ground with a slap. My breath was ragged. The ice-nine and firefly zinged in confusion around my body, into my hands and toes and brain, through my spleen. My body was a city. The arteries were clogged with traffic. The city of my body was about to explode. Sewage, building pressure, was about to erupt through all the city manholes over the buildings and cars and foliage and people. I don’t know what she meant, I thought crazily, I don’t know what she was trying to say.

Star punched and punched. She was wearing brass knuckles. I didn’t know when that happened. She punched Rick into a rag doll. Stop, I said, but didn’t because no noise came out. 

“Motherfucker,” said Star. She was kicking now with steel toes. It wasn’t Rick she was kicking. It was someone else.

I grabbed the not-kicking ankle and she stopped, breathing hard. I shook my head. I think I shook my head.

She got the message. She sat. She started to cry. I didn’t know if Rick would survive but he wasn’t dead yet. His ribs heaved. His lifeless bullet had broken from his neck and lay inert between us. All three of us were sad and small. Rick with his bullet, Star with her brass knuckles, me with my smug masochism. We all enact our revenge on a weaker one. We were a rock-paper-scissors of deferred misery.

“She’s dead,” I wheezed. “I know she’s dead.”

“She’s dead,” Star said through her sobs. “He killed her.”

“She killed herself,” I said.

Star nodded. “Maybe,” she said.

We weren’t talking about the same person. It didn’t matter.

“Don’t leave,” Rick said in the tiniest voice. “Please don’t leave me.”

He wasn’t talking to me.

Above us all, the real moon swept through the frame of the skylight. It pinned us to our lives like insects pinned to felt.

Written by: Saramanda Swigart

Saramanda Swigart has an MFA from Columbia University, with a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short work has appeared in Oxford Magazine, Superstition Review, The Alembic, Border Crossing, Ghost Town, The Saranac Review, and Euphony. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at City College of San Francisco.

Art Title: Splitting Headache 

Artist: Suzanne Notario

My photographic journey started seven years ago when I took my first photography class at CCSF. This course ignited my passion for making pictures. It has become a way of expressing myself while capturing moments in time with my camera. 

 

Unscheduled Stops

Click. Click. Gear shift. Gear shift. 

Entering Seattle City Limits.

It was 2:59AM.

 

Inside a 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse, a passenger was staring out at the steel and asphalt of I-5 glimmering with the remainder of what had been torrential rain. Often, this section was snarled with traffic, but the streets were empty, and the night was growing no younger—they were not so young themselves, certainly not young enough to drive with such fearlessness, he nearly 30 and she 25, the best of friends, with few responsibilities and plenty of time, it would seem.

Gunmetal melts to red in the near distance—the shimmer of rain caught the lights of brakes, and if one could listen to each car perhaps there would be a collective “Ugh, why?? It’s 3AM!” She said it too, for they had been unlucky enough to find themselves parked on the University Bridge, which at least has a stunning view of the city from pole position in this more-boring imitation of a race track starting lineup.

 

Click. Click. Sparks, and a brief glow.

The incense of a clove cigarette drifts sweetly out the window into the night. 

It is 3:07AM.

 

“I can see the apartment from here,” said she, pointing.

“Too bad. We live on the bridge now. We’re never going to get out of traffic.” He ran a hand through his hair.

“They died the way they lived. Stuck on the bridge for no reason.” She exhaled the smoke through the window, watching the wispy grey embrace the greater charcoal of the sky.

 

Klaxon. Static. BZZZZZZT.  “MOVE IT ALONG!” 

 

A sleepy, rain-dotted police cruiser’s light bar flashed as its associated cop blared its siren to life and waved them through. She had leaned out the window to take a photograph of the night sky, but been cut short by the end of their unexpected sojourn upon the high bridge that carried I-5 south into the city center. They had begun to reopen the bridge, one car at a time, with no explanation given as to why traffic had been stopped. It did not matter, The Mitsubishi Eclipse, urged forward by its impatient driver and passenger, left the others behind, and the lurid light of brake lamps gave way to sodium streetlight and sudden darkness under the Roanoke underpass, where suddenly time stopped.

 

It was 4:01AM.

Click. Click. The track ended and eternity began.

Ink-dark rainwater, unshimmering and unlovely, lay in wait there, and by its leave were the tires sundered from the grip of asphalt. Gone was the hum of the road, and after a split second eternity, angular momentum took care of the rest—thrice it spun the surprising lightness the Eclipse across all the lanes—of traffic, had there been anyof the still-empty fore-dawn freeway. The crush of metal and concrete never broke the silence, for though the nose of the car comes into contact with the concrete retaining wall, it is with an almost comical, gentle “bonk.” No more force than a high-five or a fist bump. Astonished, they stared at each other. The track changed. Traffic approached.

 

Click. Click. He restarted the engine, and shifted.

It was 4:03AM.

And all was well.

Written by:  Kristin Wenzel

Writer, artist, Tolkien scholar, world traveler, updog enthusiast, amateur karaoke idol—your local art-weirdo and brunch-loving, fun-having extrovert.

 Art title: BART Train of Sardines

Art by: Bianca Joy Catolos

Bianca Joy Catolos is a graphic designer based in the Bay Area  with a passion for drawing and illustration. She illustrates to document memories, stories, and assets of life in a quirky, abstract and colorful way to share and commentate how she sees people and world. Bianca is a digital artist with a traditional background in painting and often mixes the two to create endless worlds and scenes to fuel the imagination.

The Prophet

When I met him, I thought Larry was my dream guy. He was intense and intellectual, and he wasn’t very tall, but I could get past that. I could get past a lot of things about Larry, from his attitude toward wait staff—impatient—to his taste in clothes—lacking—and even to his penis size—underwhelming. What I liked best about Larry was the way he talked about Heaven, like we were both going to get there, like this crappy college town we were still chained to as restless thirty-somethings wasn’t all there was out there. I hadn’t much thought about it before, but what Larry said made sense to me—I’m not a homosexual, I only drink a beer or two on weekends (and on weeknights when I really need to, which really isn’t as often as it used to be), and I even have my own Bible. See, the thing about Larry was that he believed in me, got me to think about what I could be and where I’m going instead of what I am and where I’m staying. That kind of thinking is important to a person like me. Keeps me moving through the world so I can focus on getting to the next one.

I remember Larry used to talk a lot about deserving. What he deserved, what I deserved, what humanity deserved. Larry said he deserved a lot; I don’t think I deserved much, but Larry said I deserved him, and that was good enough for me. He’d leave small tips at restaurants and say that was what poor people deserved. I didn’t really understand that, but Larry told me I’d get it someday when I got to Heaven. He also said I’d understand why he shouted at women in short skirts out the window of his van, and why ancient civilizations like the Aztecs and the Egyptians fell. It’s all about deserving, he told me, deserving and sin. The less you sin, the more you deserve. Simple as that.

Larry used to talk to Jesus a lot. I’ve talked to Jesus too, but he never talked back, not like he did to Larry. Larry told me that Jesus explained things to him in a way that opened his eyes to the whys of this world.

When I asked Larry why he told me these things, he said it was ‘cause he needed me, that I had a part in all this. I was the clay to his pottery wheel, and he needed to open my eyes before he could be sure he could open anyone else’s. He needed to be sure he could do it and do it right before he went out in the world and spread the Word as Paul reincarnated (I tried real hard to find my Bible after he said that ‘cause I couldn’t remember which one Paul was, but I realized it didn’t matter; all that mattered what that I believed Larry was Paul, and since I knew Larry, I supposed I knew Paul too).

I asked Larry how long it would take before I was “finished,” before he could go out and tell more people what Jesus was whispering in his ear.

“Soon,” he told me.

“How will you know?” I asked.

“I’ll know,” he said, “and you’ll know. It could be tomorrow, or it could be months from now, but we’ll know when we know.”

And that was good enough for me.

And for several weeks, things went on like that—meaning, nothing much changed. Larry and I were still having the same conversations about Jesus and Heaven and deserving, and he was even starting to talk about moving in together—Jesus told him that would be alright, so long as we continued to keep the premarital sex to a minimum, only when he absolutely needed it. Larry gave me one of his Bibles to borrow until I found mine, and I finally figured out who Paul was. Things were like they were supposed to be.

One evening, I had been digging around really diligently in my apartment, and I finally uncovered my dusty Bible at the bottom of a box of old books and photographs in my closet. I decided to go over to Larry’s apartment and return his Bible right away, since he would probably be needing it to study up for the next time Jesus gave him one of those pop-quizzes he likes to give on the verses. So I drove over, went up the stairs, and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but I knew that the lock on Larry’s door was broken and he hadn’t had time to call the locksmith to fix it, what with all the talking to Jesus he’d been doing lately, so I just let myself in. I heard noises coming from Larry’s kitchen that sounded like he was watching pornography on his laptop while making dinner again. Jesus told him that was alright too, so long as he absolutely needed it. So I followed the sounds and walked straight into the kitchen, but when I saw Larry in there—Heaven forgive me—I dropped the Bible.

There was Larry with another woman bent over the countertop. When they heard the heavy Book hit the floor, they both stopped their noise-making and looked over their shoulders at me in shock.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

“I’m doing Paul’s work,” he answered. “This is the only way to teach the truth.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, not expecting to understand his answer.

“It worked with you,” he replied simply, and I did understand.

“Did I deserve this, Larry?” I asked in a small voice.

He didn’t answer this time. He just looked at the woman and continued to thrust, right in front of me.

And that, friend, is why I stabbed Larry twenty-six times with a meat fork. If you ask me, he deserved it.

Written by: Kayla Wilton

 I received my English degree with a Spanish minor from CSU Stanislaus in spring, 2019, and I will complete my creative writing certificate at CCSF in spring, 2020. Writing is my passion, but I also dabble in drawing, painting, photography, and performance. My work has appeared in Penumbra Literary Magazine

Art title: Bird of Pride

Artist: Travis Yallup

Travis Yallup is a contemporary realist who lives and works in San Francisco. He has studied art at various colleges and universities over the past eleven years and has developed a preference for drawing and painting in a variety of mediums. His  focus usually comes from life, photos, and collages and he often draws an inspiration from influences such as Andrew Wyeth and Vija Celmins.

The Rules Are Simple

 “Tag,” Susie yelled. “You’re it.” And she ran off as fast as she could. Joel was surprised. One moment he had been drinking a small carton of chocolate milk at the lunch-benches with his friend Jason, the next he was “it.” To make it stick, all the kids sitting with him jumped up and ran away, laughing. Even Jason.

“Wait,” Joel yelled after her. “I wasn’t even playing. I’m not it.” 

But they were all running away and did not care, too busy screaming their lungs out – “Jo-el’s it! Jo-el’s it!”

When recess was over, no one sat near him in class. If he stood up everyone would stand and move away as he moved near. The teacher demanded that everyone stop acting foolish, but the kids just giggled and still no one came near him.

“I wasn’t even playing,” Joel kept repeating.

By the end of the day the whole school had joined the game. His friends, Chris and Pat, were not waiting for him at Mar Vista gate as they usually did, so Joel walked home alone. An older couple, seeing Joel walking, seemed to run to their car. They pulled out of the driveway so fast the screeching sound of rubber tires slipping on pavement caught the attention of a stray dog, who, noticing Joel, also ran away. 

At home, his little sister Kara was keeping the dining table between them at all times. She kept this up until Joel grabbed his baseball glove and left the house. 

Greg Po lived four houses down. His parents had come from Korea and placed their only son in a private Korean language school. Joel and Greg would often play together after school. But this day Greg refused to come out. His mother seemed confused by this too but did not invite Joel in and kept the screen door shut against him.

“Wait here,” she told Joel, as she went inside to check on her son.

From the front porch, Joel could hear Greg telling his mother not to let Joel in the house.

“I wasn’t even playing,” Joel told his friend Jason on the phone that evening. 

“The rules are simple,” Jason told him. “You’re ‘it.”

That night Joel could not sleep. He had never been very popular at school – not like Jason, who seemed to slip easily into every social group. 

Joel was a good guy, he thought, staring at the ceiling. He never fought in the yard. He didn’t pick on the little kids. He was always polite to the teachers. But now it seemed the only way to relieve his condition was to inflict it on someone else. He was going to have to hurt someone. This scared him.

Breakfast was again a game of “stay away from Joel” as Kara quietly taunted him. Mom and Dad hardly noticed as they went about preparing food and getting ready for work. 

“Will you stop,” Joel whispered, but Kara just giggled.

Joel pushed himself back from the table and in a flash was around so fast that Kara could not escape. He grabbed her. 

“Now you’re it,” He stated.

“That’s not fair,” Kara said. “Anyway, no one saw. It’s not even legal.”

She was right. Something was going on. Something big.

“Kara,” He pleaded with her. “You’re my sister. Tell me what it is.”

Whether it was love or pity he’d never really know, but she finally cracked. It had all been set up by his friend, Jason. It was he who had spread the game to everyone on the playground. He told everyone that this would be the biggest prank ever, and Joel was the perfect mark. As for Susie, the girl who had tagged him… she never really liked Joel much anyhow.  

Joel became very quiet. He left for school without another word.  

At 7:32, Joel walked through the Mar Vista gate. Somewhere on the playground his old friend Jason was about to get tagged.

Written by: Sean Karlin

Born in California, raised in Israel, served in the military, educated in film and television, documented environmental and social justice work, produced and directed commercials, Sean Karlin is a filmmaker and creative director who lives in San Francisco with his wife Orli. 

Photo title: The Young Pilot

Photo by: Josh Carter

Joshua Carter is a veteran, writer and activist. He lives in the Richmond district with his obese cat and tries really hard to be punk.

Fiction Piece: “What the Night Brings”

What the Night Brings

 

     She had fit herself into the corner, back against the wall. Blanket stuffed into her mouth to stop any sounds that might escape her. Anything could set them off. The tiniest whimper would bring on the snarling and the snapping of their big jaws. She was so, so tired.

     It always started the same, the noises weren’t loud. There was hissing and the  swishing sounds of large bodies trying to move around in a small space. Then the noises got angrier and angrier – growling and snorting, the click-clack of clawed feet digging into the wooden floor. They only wanted one thing, and that was her.

She stared into the blackness at the space where she knew the window must be, praying for a bit of light that would let her know she had made it through, she had survived.

     Finally, when the black turned to gray, and then a lighter gray, she leaned her head against the wall and slept.

     She woke to her mother calling from downstairs and she zombie-walked into the bathroom, into her clothes and downstairs to breakfast, where her mother said, “Juliet, not again! You were up all night, weren’t you? I… I just don’t know what to do with you anymore. For the last time, there are no crocodiles under your bed.”

     But then she was always saying that. And she wouldn’t let Juliet sleep with the light on in her room.

     Daddy had talked on and on about how they lived in California and there are no crocodiles in California and shown her maps and books and just kept on talking and talking. Finally, he had given her a small teddy bear and showed her the secret pocket where he had put a flashlight, and said, “Don’t tell your mother.” 

     But that was stupid because you had to get out of the bed to shine the flashlight under the bed and the minute you stepped off the bed the crocodiles would eat you.

    So the crocodiles were still there. Not every single night. And she thought maybe they were thinking about moving to somebody else’s house. But then they started again, quietly at first, the hissing, then the snarling and growling, and they were the loudest they’d ever been, and she covered her head with the blanket.

     The next morning when she woke up the sun was shining brightly through the window.  There was a different feeling in the house. It was so quiet. She listened, and then she heard a strange noise. 

     She went downstairs and found Daddy with his head on the kitchen table, crying, huge sobs shaking his body. And she said, “Daddy?” And he said, “She’s gone. She’s gone.” He took a big swallow from the bottle on the table. 

     She went upstairs to see if it was true and found the drawers where her mother’s clothes were kept hanging open and empty. 

     She went back downstairs and her father hadn’t moved. She went into the living room and turned on the TV. She ate a banana and potato chips for dinner and at 8 o’clock she went upstairs and went to bed. She didn’t have any trouble falling asleep.  She knew the crocodiles were gone forever. They had gotten what they came for.

 

Written By: Barbara Hodder Toohey

About the Author: Barbara Hodder Toohey hates coffee. This puzzles people, and they worry…is it a subversive thing? You can find out by sharing a pot of tea. Find her scribbling away in cafes, workshops, classes. That woman in the corner with a mug of tea, a notebook and pen, that’s her.

Fiction Piece: “Dear Hearts and Gentle People”

Dear Hearts and Gentle People

     He watched his girlfriend from across the room as she laughed with her friends and nearly spilt her ridiculously expensive cocktail on the table. Her clumsiness made them laugh even louder, and the hair she had tucked behind her ear moments before found its way back to the frame of her face. They locked eyes briefly and she smiled wildly at him before turning her attention back to her friends. He watched her for a few more moments taking in the slip of her face, the fullness of her mouth, and how her hands danced along to her voice. He wrapped this image around the back of his brain, trusting that this moment would live on in his memory. It had been a while since they had gone out together like this. He was alive seeing this side to her. She was always effortlessly the life of the party and everyone was swept into her warming atmosphere. His heart swelled with all those feelings he had for her and their old meanings. He scanned the rest of the bar from his corner. It was filled with twenty-somethings starting the beginnings of their lives and a few scattered thirty-somethings chasing after that lost irresponsibility. They were a part of that group now too. She came to him and begged him to dance with her. She fell into his arms and swayed to the song that played during their first date. He clung to the lie that she was in this moment.

***

     They had gone back to their apartment before it got too late. He watched her get ready for bed from the bathroom doorway, the light bursting into the bitterness of their frigid bedroom behind him. She draped herself over the sink and slowly picked at her hair. As she removed her makeup the creases on her face were now more apparent under the bright florescent lighting. She sharply hummed along to a dated song about meanness and love, kicking off her heels to the chorus and exposing her dry cracked feet. She bent down to remove her Spanx which forced an awkwardly bent posture and made the protruding pouch even more noticeable. And as she dropped the little black dress from her shoulders the now freed folds of her stomach enveloped each other. In this brief moment of nakedness her stretch marks shone in the light, long scars shimmering across the entirety of her mounding body which had become so distorted from the flawless figure she had all those years ago. He recognized the bleak reality he had been sharing his life with and longed for the embrace of that stranger who had deceived him. He hardly wondered how he had changed in her eyes, but knew that her thoughts weren’t any more kind.

     She turned to him with her now pale, deflated lips and rapidly mouthed, “You know my cousin Sarah recently got engaged. She was showing off her ring at the party earlier. Honestly I thought the thing was hideous. At least she’s happy with it though.”

     He didn’t say anything but laughed off her remark about the ugly ring. He knew what she was hinting at and loved her as much as he could love another person, but the permanency of marriage horrified him. His stomach still flipped endlessly when he turned away to undress in the darkness of their bedroom. In his absence she froze at the sight of her reflection in the mirror, humming the song about meanness and love. The remainder of their nightly routine was painfully mechanical and constant. Over the narrow sink they flossed before brushing their teeth together. She stayed in the bathroom to remove tonsil stones with a cotton swab as he got into bed. He briefly watched shows she had no interest in while gouging at his toe to remove an ingrown nail. She brushed again to wash the rot out of her mouth but he’d still taste that metal whenever they kiss. When she brushed too far over her tongue she would loudly retch and he would recoil at her awful human failings. He rubbed his eyes to the sound of wasted running water and hoped her melatonin would take quickly for once. Otherwise she’d spend the rest of the night asking about all the reasons why he loved her. After her nightly purging ritual she came to bed with a full glass of water, which she’d loudly gulp throughout the night. He turned his show off before she came in and started skimming random articles across the internet. She read her Kindle beside him and periodically cleared out the post nasal drip from burning the back of her throat. Persistent little hm hmms inched him further into resentment and he begged to someone in the night to help him out of this nightmare. Sometimes she showed him lines that interested her from the books she read and then he would tell her every time that it sure was something because he never cared. He could never focus long enough to finish reading a page.

     As the prolonged silence filled the boundaries of their bedroom she turned to him again and asked, “Remember when we used to talk about all the traveling we would do? I miss when we used to talk about stuff like that.” She paused. “That’s what people talk about when they’re in love and have no responsibilities.”

     He knew she wanted to be who they were before this distance had come between them. At one point he wanted this too and remembered, “I said I would just go somewhere because I was tired of being stuck in life. I would ask you to come with me if you wanted and you always said okay.”

     She closed her eyes and murmured, “It would be nice to go somewhere with you.”

     He laughed at those not-so-old memories. “But what kind of answer is okay to something like that?”

     “Because I felt that things would always be okay with you. Good or bad, it would be alright. We would be okay.” She snuggled further under the covers, blindly placing her Kindle on the nightstand. She turned over and went to sleep.

     Synthetic hormones had taken her into another dreamless night, despite the coldness of the room. His knees snapped has he moved and every joint within him groaned. He wondered when they had grown so far apart while staring at the ceiling, the shadows splashing between the corners from the quiet street traffic rolling by. The heat of their bodies slowly filling the room and drowning them together. The world outside was moving past them and they lay there dying. He felt that his very being was unraveling from the tips of his throbbing toes and when he turned over he could see that same turmoil in the back of her head. This familiar dread kept him company as the hour rolled into another. He only left the bed when he could hear her eating her own teeth between deep choking snores.

***

     He couldn’t talk on the phone in his office anymore because she had woken up one night and found him. They both knew what was happening but for some reason nothing happened because of it. He admired her commitment to failure. The empty expression she had in that moment clung to him as he walked through their apartment and out to the small balcony hanging off their living room. When he stepped outside he felt the oddly cold spring air whip his face as he checked the missed messages from the girl. He called her immediately, his heart beating to a new rhythm.

     “Hey you…,” she quietly rasped with the electrical song of her voice slipping in and out of his ears, “I didn’t think I was going to hear from you today. You’re always so busy working!”

     He apologized and she began to talk about her day, which was the highlight of his. Her wrist was wrapped again and it was difficult to take notes. The slenderness of her frame resulted in its structural defect and made her joints prone to frequent sprains. He imagined her going to her classes in the flimsy flowing clothes she wore, revealing the secrets of her unblemished body. Her distinctive smile greeting the world as her silken hair would catch warmth of the sun. She enthusiastically talked about her new academic path and joked about how she’d definitely stick with it because she was running out of fields to change her major for the fifth time. For a brief moment he was hit by that same feeling of anticipation he had felt over a decade before and he fell in love with her again.

     “Well now that I have your full attention, I lost my shirt and I have no idea where it went.” She sweetly sang. “Oh no, now I’m losing my pants too! Can you come and help me find them?”

     He gripped his phone. “I’m not going to be able to come over tonight, but you know we should go somewhere together.” His heart skipped a beat. “Just you and me.”

     Her voice caught itself in her throat.“Why would you say something like that?” She couldn’t contain her shock at his perceived insult.

     “Because that’s what people talk about when they’re in love.” And something within him broke.

     In his head he could see her rotating her jaw to click it out of relief. “I brought up wanting to be serious months ago. You told me that casual is all that you wanted, nothing more, and I accepted that. I was okay with us.”

     His heart tumbled and he remembered. “I’m sorry.”

     “All that matters is that we have fun together, right? …Why did you have to bring this up now?” The prolonged silence had found its way back again into his life, broken by the frustration in her sigh. “I should go. It’s late and I have a paper that I need to finish in the morning. We’ll talk again when it’s not so busy.”

     He wasn’t bothered by this lie. “I just want things to be okay.” He hung up the phone, the shame burning inside him for the hurt he was responsible for. He hadn’t understood what he was doing or why for a while now.

     He stood there as the air bit at his face, the breeze carrying the benign sounds of people going somewhere while he stagnated. The staining dread filling inside him as he heavily made his way through the apartment, fearful of the life he had built for himself, and into the bed he shared with his girlfriend. A newfound emptiness expanded into the center of his consciousness, slowly humming along with the eating of teeth and deep choking snores. His heart beat to the rhythm of his throbbing ingrown nail and reverberated along with the symphony of his continual discomfort. And at the chorus of it he thought to himself, dear god this can’t be it.

 

Written By: Adriana Hernandez

About the Author: Adriana Hernandez grew up in San Francisco and currently volunteers as a TA at CCSF. She had recently transferred to SF State to study creative writing.

Fiction Piece: “The Back Bedroom”

The Back Bedroom

Alyssa lay back on that crummy couch as if it were the lushest lounge in town. She lit the joint, and inhaled, as if it were some divine dope-of-the gods from a warmer, kinder climate. I loved watching her smoke, particularly when she was dressed for bed, her luscious mouth sucking in the thrill, breasts pushing, midriff tightening, eyes half-closing. It was something like a contact high for me, I myself didn’t have to smoke anything, didn’t have to say anything. 

But after that lovely moment or two, she did.  And it was unexpected.

“I think Meadow stole some of my pot,” she said. Meadow was our latest roommate, renting the rear bedroom. Arguably the cutest of the girls who’d occupied that space. But she was pretty quiet, paid her rent on time, and hadn’t had any guys overnighting, yet. 

“We know Meadow smokes,” I said, “but what makes you think it’s yours?”

“Because it smells like mine.”

“A lot of dope smells like yours,” I said. “And why shouldn’t it, if it’s good shit?” 

“Why are you trying to defend her?” Uh-oh. This was some other kind of shit, the kind  I never smelled in time and often found myself stepping into. 

“I’m not trying to defend Meadow,” I said.  “I like Meadow —“ 

”I know you like Meadow —“ 

”— but I’m trying to defend you against your own paranoia.” I looked at her intent, and said, “Let me have a hit of that stuff.” If I was gonna get kicked, I wanted to deaden the impact. 

I took a hit. Alyssa took another. But this time she was quicker to the commentary:

“I noticed that my bureau drawer was open, when I got home from work..” I wasn’t about to point out that Alyssa never shut her drawers properly. She was basically a slob. The slob who loved me. And said so. I always felt guilty that I couldn’t say it. Even when I was doing it. 

“Look,” I exhaled, “I’ll just go take a look in her room, she won’t be back for another hour.” Alyssa stayed on the couch, puffing, with a sour look on her beautiful face. 

Meadow’s room looked like what you’d think a room of a girl named Meadow would look like. Little hippie nicknacks, little bitty books about Zen, some kind of shrine, everything neater and brighter than in Alyssa’s room. I did a quick examination of what was immediately visible. But my mission allowed me to peek into Meadow’s chest of drawers, where I found not what Alyssa might be looking for, but what I might have been looking for:  the mysteries of unknown female underwear, a stack of twin-cupped bras, a pile of brief pastel panties. Did she choose a different color for each day of the week? 

I ambled back to the living room. “No sign of crime,” I announced, with some kind of smile. 

“Why do you look that way?,” Alyssa interrogated. I didn’t know what I looked like, or why. Was it the pot? The panties? “And how did you know where to look in her room? You’ve been in there before, haven’t you?” 

“Well, sure, maybe, she is our roommate.” I didn’t tell Alyssa that Meadow and I had exchanged massages one weekend, when Alyssa had been showing her visiting parents around the city. But nothing else happened. Meadow was cool that way. 

“I think we should think about getting our own place,” Alyssa said. She was still toking on the joint, but It sounded like a pretty sober proclamation. “It’ll cost us more money, but we need to think about making more money, and about the future.” A future with steady jobs, no roommates, no other girlfriends, and an approaching end to Alyssa’s wedding bell blues.

I’d heard this song before. 

 

Written By: Jeff Kaliss

About the Author: Jeff Kaliss has been studying creative writing and music at City College following the completion of an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. At City, he’s appeared in Forum in various genres, read at Lit Night, and hosted the Poetry for the People Podcast.