Category Archives: Fiction

Honey Chicken Sandwiches

Honey chicken sandwiches and ramen make me think of you. Instant ramen, the ones you told me about as we were in a convenience store, that when you were younger you would get in cups and is usually a dollar but at the Indian market on the corner it’s $1.50, as you hand over crumbled dollar bills you were clenching in your fist on the walk over.

Sometimes in the summer when the weather was lazy and your dad was in a good mood he’d go with you, walking beside you the four blocks to the store where the clerk would recognize you and then smile when your father allowed you a bag of chips or a candy or
a small tin of Altoids (I don’t know, maybe you liked keeping trinkets in the metal tin).

That was on a good day. On bad days he’d walk faster than you on purpose, in a huff, annoyed that he had to keep watch over you because you weren’t old enough to stay home alone and all your older siblings were away at school. When you lingered, passing by the tennis courts in the park he’d flick your ear and tell you those are activities for rich folk, not like you, whose father could only afford the cheapest cup ramen and sometimes a sandwich from the deli in the back. The sandwich was mostly bread but at least there were some meat and veggies. As a child you probably didn’t care for that and I know you also hate chicken, but the taste of the honey in it wasn’t bad. When you shared it with your father he would sometimes leave you just the bread and lettuce, after
he fingered out the meat first.

Your dad didn’t want you to play tennis but instead he told you that wrestling would be more useful. When you were trying to finish your library book before the 3-week due date he’d come up from behind you and try to flip you over on the scratchy carpet in your one-story house that you were renting at a good deal from some 2nd uncle. He’d tell you reading was for girls and you needed to get out and into some scuffles.

You still read anyway, escaping the blue house through the garage door and hopping the fence your dad put up, walking the three blocks to the tennis courts in the park. You would sit on the grass outside the chainlink fence, with your book, watch kids hit balls with their shiny tennis racquets, the “rich” kids. You want to finish your book today. And that’s how you became a fast reader.

You tell me this as we’re at the corner store buying sandwiches for lunch. When the deli man hands you your toasted sandwich you shift the book you’re holding to the other hand. You can buy books now but you still read at the library and finish a book every week. I say you should write a story about this, but you say no it’s too personal. When I come back to the store without you I’ll write it in my mind as I wonder what other books you’re reading and collecting, the same way I’m collecting the stories you tell me.

Written by: Connie Chen

Art title: Breaktime

Artist: Eunbin Lee

 

Sunday Sunday Sunday

Dad is too drunk to drive, so I take his keys and lay him into the back seat with a plastic water bottle. The sun’s beating down on the Sonoma hills and the roar of hot rods exploding down the track is loud. We will have to find out who won from the Sonoma Raceway Radio on our way home, but it does not really matter that much. Not to me.

“Drink Dad,” I tell him. “Finish the bottle.”

He sits up — too quick — and snarls at the back of my head. He seems about to speak. Instead he flips off the plastic cap and chugs the water bottle dry, tossing it out the window into the dirt parking lot. I consider going after it, but it’s best to get the hell out before the race ends. I do not want to sit in the heat and traffic all the way home.

His hand grasps my seat as he tries to catapult himself into the front. I pull the car back, reversing out of the parking space fast, and dislodge his grip, then lurch forward as I pull away, dropping him into the back seat.

“Shit, let me drive,” he grumbles. But we are already on our way and he lets it go.

I drive through the exit gates, passing an empty cop car and some bored looking traffic attendants. I turn the car onto the highway. Back to Sacramento.

 *  *  *

The day had been mostly good. We woke early on Sundays, almost as early as a regular day because most Sundays Dad wanted to get church finished and over with early so he could spend the rest of the day doing what he pleased. Sometimes it was brunch. Sometimes it was the lake. Today it had been the race. It was always drinking. Sunday was the only day he would drink before noon.

“Come on kiddo,” he had said that morning, finishing his cup of sweet, black coffee. “Let’s go see the hot rods.”

Mom stepped quickly into the room wearing a knee-length pastel dress, ready for early service. She looked Dad up and down and asked him why he was not dressed.

“No church today,” Dad said. “Today me and the kid are going to Sears Point. It’s a rite of passage now that he’s got his license.”

We had seen hot rods at Sonoma before, but this would be the first time since I started driving and he kept telling me that until you drive you can’t really understand racing. But I always understood racing. It was all about spending time with my dad.

*  *  *

Dad knew someone at the track who always got us pit passes that gave us access to the drivers before the race. We would hang out at the staging area where hot-rods, funny cars, and motorcycles had to wait their turn to run the track. We could stay with the drivers until they were called up. From here we could watch them fire up their engines and shoot away toward the finish as we were left in a haze of nitro-fueled smoke. For the rest of my life the smell of nitro-fuel, or even just gasoline, will always remind me of Sunday with my dad. The smell was powerful and after a dozen or so races standing downwind, we had to make our way up to the concession stands just to keep from passing out. That’s when Dad would begin the day’s drinking.

“Shot and a beer,” Dad had said to the bartender behind the portable bar in the large red and white tent. “And a coke,” he added, looking at me. I was his buddy, his “wingman.”

“A wingman has your back,” he said.

“I’ve got yours and you’ve got mine,” I answered. We clinked our drinks together in a toast. It always started off so well. The first two or three drinks lifted his spirits and gave him an edgy, sarcastic wit that people found amusing. He would flirt with young girls and say he was just trying to find a bride for his kid. All for laughs.

“That’s what being a wingman is all about,” he told me.

It was usually around the fifth or sixth drink that his slightly sarcastic wit turned very sarcastic, and lost its wit. I could sometimes draw him away from the bar by saying I had to pee, which of course he would too. But if he were on a roll, as he was today, he would just point in the general direction of the restrooms and tell me he’d wait right here. By the time I returned he was drunk and really just an asshole. The girls had left and there were two Latino bikers sitting next to him looking just a bit annoyed as he went on about the smell of nitro-fuel.

“Sometimes I’ll bring trash bags down to the track to capture a big whiff,” He yelled. “Next week I’ll pop that vintage right open and get a snoot-full. Sometimes it still got a real kick that’ll knock me on my ass.”

The Latino bikers were doing their best to ignore him which was getting him even more riled up. I knew we needed to get back to the car, so I pulled him around to face me.

“Come on, Dad,” I said. “Let’s hit it.”

He looked at me blankly. I waited for my request to settle in. The bartender placed two plastic bottles of water on the bar next to us.

“The last race is done,” I said. “Let’s get out before everyone else.”

“Sure,” Dad said slowly. He opened one of the water bottles and drank it down. I took a bottle in one hand and his arm in the other to guide him out the open flap of the tent.

“No point hanging around here anymore,” he said.

*  *  *

Dad is sprawled out in the back with his eyes closed. I keep the radio low so it does not disturb him.

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream…

An old Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio. I can just hear him singing along in the back.

We gotta get out while we’re young. ‘Cause tramps like
us, baby we were born to run…

I look at his face and see him mouthing the words so I turn the volume way up.

Written by: Sean Carlin

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. 

Bible on the dashboard of a '65 Buick
Photograph

Art title: Sixtyfive

Art by: Adrian Ordenana

Another Eye

The cold overhead lights flickered as if to mock the situation’s ambiguity. Even if it hadn’t gone awry, the procedure was unprecedented, and its outcome could not be predicted with certainty even by the most adept surgeons. For that matter,
as it ultimately proved, the outcome would remain unexplainable—or perhaps simply unexplained—by anyone.

At least its objective was clear. Implantation of the Metavidere bionic device, if successful, would enhance cognition such as memory storage and reaction time—and, in Trey’s case, quell his chronic anxiety. There was even talk of developing a sixth sense, but this was a jest more than anything. The procedure was near completion when things went south, and so the surgeons opted to leave the Metavidere implant in place rather than risk further damage by removing it just yet. Not much could be done after wrapping up the operation in its current phase. He resided in the ICU.

Two people stood by Trey’s bed. One was Dr. Andreas Maury, the mastermind behind the experiment whose cold professionalism was met with confidence by some and suspicion by others. He believed more than anyone that Trey’s current affliction was the result of factors unaccounted for, and he regarded it more with fascination than concern.

The other person was Trey’s twin brother, Ray, who had arrived before the surgery for moral support and in whose company Trey tended to find solace. Ray had been supportive of the choice, although he balked immediately at Trey’s proposal that they both undergo the surgery to provide a means of remote twin communication. Their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hyde, were dubious from the start. Trey was already suffering from an anxiety disorder and they feared he would be driven mad if the implant failed; after this latest “impediment” (as Maury optimistically put it), their suspicions would be put to the test.

When Ray made his entrance, those among the hospital staff ignorant of his relation to Trey were taken aback. The twins were indistinguishable but for a faint scar on Ray’s forehead. Each prided himself on being the paragon of a physically healthy male in his 30s. Where they really differed was in temperament. Although not readily apparent without years of acquaintance with both, Ray proved to be the more level-headed of the two while Trey yielded readily to reckless urges—present episode included.

“Only he would be crazy enough to volunteer for something like this,” muttered Ray as he stood vigil by the bed.

“I would thank you not to use such terminology here,” said Dr. Maury. He squinted at his clipboard. “Anyway, I’m afraid that little diagnosis doesn’t begin to describe your brother’s current state. Given the readings and his pattern of response, we fear he might be experiencing full immersion in an altered state of consciousness.”

Ray stared at his feet and gave only a slight nod of acknowledgment. “We’re used to hallucinations manifesting in the visual or auditory senses,” Maury continued, “but an advanced condition can also create illusory perceptions in the tactile, olfactory, or gustatory senses simultaneously.” He then went into the technical side of things—rattling on about a disruption in the left temporoparietal junction and an excess of DMT in the pineal gland—at such a pace that Ray, both uninitiated and under duress, could scarcely keep up.

“Completely out of touch with reality,” reasoned Ray in a somber tone. Verbally addressing the worst case scenario was often how he kept his composure, for he believed embracing pain was the best way to cope with it.

“Now, I wouldn’t say that. If it helps, he could have some awareness of the outside world but is merely unable to communicate accordingly at present.”

It didn’t help.

* * *

What Trey experienced in that moment didn’t involve hospitals or experiments or grave complications. He was once again at his high school graduation party in a flurry of youthful energy. It was after a period of this revelry that he emerged onto a suburban sidewalk. He stood and took in a breath of cold air with a hoppy taste lingering on his tongue. The refreshing scent of low fog graced his nostrils. He looked up at the clouds. Aside from the unusually bright full moon, he could have sworn he caught glimpses of what appeared to be people rushing around and cursed himself for getting so buzzed. Heaven forbid his parents found out. He was only eighteen, after all.

“Isn’t this fun?” said a nearby voice. “Follow me. I’ll take you back.”

The voice was all too familiar, and yet, given the circumstances, Trey took it for a complete stranger at first. Returning his gaze to the street, Trey soon found the source of the voice: a figure standing just beyond the halo of a nearby streetlight whom he recognized as Ray.

* * *

Trey periodically writhed in his bed. Although conscious, he gave no meaningful response to external stimuli, and the only utterance anyone could discern, aside from laughter, was something about another eye—one that sees inside.

“Do you think he’s talking about that Hindu eye thing?” asked Ray.

“Perhaps, but that would be ironic,” explained Dr. Maury with an albeit grim chuckle. “What you’re referring to is associated with enlightenment; whereas Trey is experiencing the opposite.”

“As far as we know,” Ray added.

“As far as we know.”

* * *

Trey was now in an empty field at the age of nine, playing Frisbee with his memory of a nine-year-old Ray and their mutual buddies. The expanse of dried grass and weeds spat up clouds of sun-blasted dirt as they romped about. A breeze through the enclosing foliage created a rustling that sounded vaguely like a distant conversation. The clouds seemed to move around autonomously like great titans in the sky, but Trey kept his attention on the game.

“Look out, Ray!” he announced as he tossed the Frisbee. The recipient of the flying disc caught it with such preternatural ease that it seemed to waft right into his hand. He smiled. “Ray? I’m shocked: you don’t even notice the difference.” Indeed, Trey was surprised he hadn’t noticed before, but, after closer scrutiny, he saw the figure’s appear- ance differed from that of Ray in one aspect: the absence of a scar on the forehead.

“Come,” said the figure who was not Ray. “I’ll take you
back further still.”

* * *

Trey’s body was so agitated that Maury resolved to administer a sedative. Beyond that, attempts at communication yielded no response. Maury stepped out into the hall where he had sent Ray to wait. Ray was hunched over in a collapsible metal chair, looking like someone who had wandered in from the street with his baggy eyes and stubble. He had just started dozing off when the good doctor approached him. “I, uh, read in his psychological profile that he suffers from acute anxieties,” began Maury after deciding how best to broach the topic. “Considering you’ve known him his whole life, do you have any idea what he might be visualizing right now? It could help us treat him.”

“I don’t know. He’s always had an identity crisis in some form or another.”

“What sort of things, if you don’t mind?”

“Well,” began Ray through a sigh, “when we were kids, he used to have nightmares—stuff like sinking or imploding in on himself or his doppelgänger trying to replace him. Once he even attacked me when I woke him up because he couldn’t tell me apart from the doppelgänger in his dreams. This got so bad he would even avoid mirrors for a lot of his childhood. The nightmares went away as he got older, but he still has occasional episodes.”

“The doppelgänger is interesting. Why might that be?”

“We—” Ray hesitated. “We were originally going to be triplets, but Trey absorbed the third embryo in the womb. He’s had trouble coping with the fact. A lot of his fantastic descriptions and theories coincide with it.”

“I don’t blame him. I imagine that would be a disturbing fact to grow up with. Do you think that’s what caused his mania?”

“The thing is—well—this has been going on since before he found out.” At this, their conversation stopped dead in its tracks, allowing the ambiance of the hospital corridor to rush over like an indifferent ocean wave that obliterated the sand castle they had been constructing. Ray collected a futile handful of its remnants which merely oozed between his fingers. I was hoping this procedure would cure his mania.”

Maury nodded and scribbled some notes. “I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, his readings do look a bit better now. I just administered a sedative so maybe he’ll sleep it off and awake more lucid. Pardon the cliché, but all we can really do now is wait and hope for the best.”

* * *

Several hours had passed before Trey finally awoke. He saw his hospital room for the first time since the accident and realized he was alone. After removing the nasal cannula from his face and the intravenous from his arm, he slid his legs off the bed and onto the floor, gingerly shifting his full weight until he was standing. But it didn’t feel quite like standing. He was almost floating across the room like some enlightened being in a state of immaculate peace. Perhaps the Metavidere had proved auspicious after all? Regardless, this oblivious euphoria was one he had not experienced since before he could remember. He thought a splash of water to the face would clear it up so he made his way to the bathroom.

Upon entering, he flicked on the light, and, in doing so, finally registered something: everything was numb. His fingers lacked all but the most rudimentary sensation. He lifted his arm, noticing that it felt surprisingly light, and looked at his hand. He studied the waxy, featureless appendage in front of him, unable to register that it was his own. Now, he thought, I simply must face the bathroom mirror; and as his movement was hindered by something attached to his navel, he pulled and twisted until the mirror was in his line of vision. Then he saw himself. He could do nothing but stare. He stared into the milky, bulbous eyes and at the network of veins and tissue that made up his partially translucent face, illuminated by the overhead light.

He screamed. Those who waited at attention outside heard it echo through the hall—the scream of a physically healthy man in his early 30s—and came running. What Trey heard, however, was the shrill squeal of an underdeveloped throat distorted by amniotic fluid.

* * *

Trey Hyde entered a coma at 3:52 am. The nurses found him on the bathroom floor, curled up in the fetal position with his eyes open and no sound escaping his lips. They carted him back to the bed and hooked him up. By then he could no longer move: he was overcome with a terrible sensation of being smothered, even flattened. The last thing he saw before blacking out—not that he could comprehend it then—was the image of an embryo staring back at him from the overhead mirror. Ray returned the following afternoon upon hearing the news. Needless to say, he remained at his brother’s side well into the evening, silently praying. He looked out the window. A new moon was out. Many somber thoughts pervaded his mind in succession, such as how to break the news to his parents. The misfortune left Ray’s imagination vulnerable to whatever greater misfortune might happen next.

However, something else happened instead. Trey quite suddenly propped himself up on his elbows, held the position for a moment, slowly turned his head in Ray’s direction, and opened his mouth.

“You’re still here,” he declared weakly. Sleep-deprived as he was, Ray first took this vision for the onset of madness. When the shock wore off, though, he embraced his brother, much to the protest of the
staff. Trey returned the gesture.

“They said you were a vegetable,” Ray explained.

“Did they use that exact term?” Trey laughed. “You’d think these highfalutin doctors would know a sentient being from a vegetable. I’m surprised their implant works.”

Dr. Maury showed a rare sign of emotional response. “’Works,’ you say? It’s a miracle you’re even conscious right now. We’re still going to have to run a few tests, you know, to gauge your awareness and other faculties.”

“Oh, it works. I’m sure of it.”

“Please go on!” Maury thought it not at all presumptuous: Metavidere’s success or failure was, after all, the end that had brought them together.

“It’s better than I ever anticipated. Turns out the thing is like another eye—one that lets you see inside—illuminates courses previously hidden—gives flat things new dimension—magnifies the big picture into pictures bigger still—focuses the present by dilating the past—you know, like that. In that sense it works just fine.”

The others stared in disbelief, and yet, at the same time, there was a certain sincerity in Trey’s demeanor they couldn’t deny. Still, beyond his understandably sedate behavior, there was a subtle change in the cadence of his speech that only Ray, his twin, could detect.

“The doc is right,” added Ray. “You’ve been through a lot.”

“Don’t worry, my brother. Just give me some time to adjust, and I promise,” said Trey with a smile, “you won’t even notice the difference.”

Written by: Devin Morse

 Devin Morse is a writer, visual artist, filmmaker, composer, composter, and cultivator of carnivorous plants. He really likes sloths.

 

 

When Tadpoles Become Frogs

“How do they know, do you think?” she asked me.

Water fell in streams from between her cupped hands as she squinted into her palms. We squatted beside the ditch, as we did every day on our way home from school, endlessly fascinated by this gurgling stream funneling down the ditch next to the road. It was spring, the best time of year.

“Know what?” I asked.

She lowered her hands, sinking them into the cold water. Behind us the road was empty except for a family of quail running across it, their plumes bobbing as they scurried into the bushes on the other side of the street. Above us, woodpeckers hammered, the sound echoing down the quiet street and mixing with the scratch of gray squirrels’ claws on the dry bark of the trees. Walnuts and green acorns thudded to the ground on the other side of the ditch, where leaves moldered under newborn clover that seemed to have sprung up overnight. We both trained our eyes on the muddy water, our fingers stirring through the ripples. Tendrils of my hair trailed in the water and dirt ringed my fingernails, lining the creases of my knuckles. Between our fingers darted and wriggled the quick-silver forms of tadpoles.

She said, “How do they know they can walk? How do they know when they’re frogs?”

Eyes on the fat tadpoles, each no bigger than the pad of my finger, I swirled up the mud. As the silt settled back at the bottom, the tadpoles appeared, brownish- gray, freckled, with bulging eyes. They had already sprouted minuscule legs, though their arms had yet
to appear, and they swam mostly with their tails. “I don’t know,” I said.

We watched the tadpoles appear every spring in this ditch, studying their evolution as we chewed on the tart, lemon-yellow petals of wood sorrel. Each year, we came here every day to see the tadpoles, until, one day near summer, they disappeared. But we had never seen that moment a tadpole found its feet and crawled up from the water into the air.

When we continued home, swinging our pink backpacks, mud clung to our fingers and the rubber toes of our sneakers. The ends of my hair dripped. We chattered about other things, but my mind kept worrying on the tadpole question. When did they know?

We were ten years old.

* * *

“We’re going to see it this time,” she said two years later. We squatted side by side in front of a fish tank she’d dragged from her garage to my backyard, a huge rectangle tank with filmy greenish glass. We spent yesterday afternoon scrubbing it with the hose and
an old sponge, filling it with water, rocks, and sand. I discovered an old stained-wood table among the other junk on the lawn that we set up against the wall of the house. It wobbled on the rock patio. On our way home from school today, we stopped at the ditch to fill two mason jars with muddy water and wriggling tadpoles that we dumped in the half-filled tank. Now we knelt in front of it, squinting into the silty, brown water. Her fingers tapped softly against the glass. “We’re going to get to see when they decide to be frogs. They can’t get out without us seeing it.”

I nodded and rubbed my fingers across the sun-warm back of one of our half-feral cats. Her fur felt dusty, her spine a sharp mountain ridge under my fingers. She hunched at my knee, eyes on the tank, gray tail twitching. “How will we know when it’s time?” I
asked, my heart thudding.

“You have to check on them every morning. When you know, call me right away.”

I checked the tadpoles first thing every morning. I studied their fat, freckled bodies and shrinking tails as their arms and legs budded. I noticed just how awkward their bodies were in transition. Their tails whipped faster, producing less movement, and their
limbs paddled, their heads and bodies nodding. Every part of them seemed determined to go in a different direction. I wondered how they could make any progress at all, and where, in this confusion and chaos, it became clear to them that air was just as good as
water, and that fingers and toes worked for walking as well as swimming.

Every morning she met me in my front yard, the long, dew-beaded grass wetting our quarterlength socks and the toes of our low-top Converse knock-offs. Every morning I shook my head. “Not yet.”

One Saturday morning I knocked on her front door. Sheepishly, I said, “They’re gone.”

For months after, I found the frogs in my yard, huddled in the sun on the faded yellow roof of my Little Tikes car. Or clinging to the side of the house, their gray markings shiny and wet, their bodies small enough to sit in my palm. We had assumed a new frog would know nothing but walking. But they knew so much more. I reported this to her, weeks after the empty fish tank was stored in the garage again, while we lounged on the long grass, avoiding the stickery plants that stung our bare legs. “They knew they
could climb. How could they know?”

She shrugged, her eyes closed, the sun heating her skin until I could smell it, a floury smell, like baking bread. Though the question still rustled anxiously in my mind, I picked a fluffy dandelion, blew the tiny white seeds into the air, and watched them float away in silence.

We were twelve years old.

* * *

“Remember when we used to play with the tadpoles?” I asked her.

We leaned on the wall outside of the school gym, the sun burning our faces. She’d flowered into a jock, hair in a tight bun at the top of her head, legs bare and muscular, wearing brand new Adidas. She and I weren’t neighbors anymore. Her family had moved to the neighborhood surrounding the high school, while my mom moved us across town after she and my dad split up, to a house that didn’t even have a backyard. We sometimes gave a smile or a nod when we saw each other. More often we avoided each other’s eyes. But today I skipped PE and ran into her. I’d offered her a cigarette that I expected her to decline. Now I felt strange, unsure what to say, conscious of my black makeup, my Airwalks with holes worn in the heels.

She squinted into the sun. “What?”

“That ditch on our street. We used to, like, play with the tadpoles that lived in it?”

“How do you play with tadpoles?”

“We’d pick them up.” I cupped my hands like Oliver Twist begging for gruel, cigarette between two fingers. “Like this.”

She shuddered in spite of the hot sun, making a face.“Ugh. How could we stand to touch them? We were such weird kids.”

“It’s funny,” I said, watching as she tipped her head back to blow smoke up to the brilliant blue sky. “It used to bother me so much. Like, how did they know?”

“How did who know what?”

“The frogs. How’d they know they were frogs?”

She glanced at me, her eyes squinted still as though I was as bright as the sky and hard to look at. I suddenly got the sense that she pitied me, that she knew something I didn’t, had some insight into something I’d yet to catch onto. It was the same in middle school, back when she first went out for the volleyball team and got asked out by a boy in our Algebra class, when she first started to wear a training bra and lip gloss. I’d always nursed a sense of being slow to catch on, to catch up. I tried to explain. “I mean, like, do scientists study that? Are there frog scientists who, like, know how tadpoles figure it out?”

“Figure what out?” she asked.

“How do tadpoles know they can walk out of the water? If all they ever know is water, how does it suddenly click with them that they can walk and, like, breathe air? When exactly do tadpoles become…frogs?”

We both squinted up into the springtime sky, the smell of tobacco and newly-mowed grass making my nose pinch pleasantly. The field was just around the corner and I could hear my class running and shouting in the otherwise quiet afternoon. She scratched her leg, shrugged. “I don’t know. I never really thought about it that much.”

“I did.”

We were sixteen.

* * *

I’m in my thirties, far away from that street and that girl, when the fires tear across California and burn down where I used to live. I look up the aerial shots online and gasp out loud to see the empty, ashy lots, unrecognizable in gray and white, the brown lines marking out the squares where our homes and yards used to be. I find myself thinking of the ditch. I moved again in my junior year, went to a different high school, never really spoke to her after our sophomore year. I doubt she even remembers that ditch. My throat feels tight, I set my coffee cup aside and sit down on the floor, like I haven’t done since I was a little kid, my feet bare on the cool tiles. I’m blinking hard, swallowing. I’m mourning for a muddy little stream probably no one in the world remembers or cares about but me and the frogs. I stare at my phone and imagine that ditch, that quiet road
lined with black walnut and oak trees, the quail and squirrels and my half-feral cats. And it occurs to me that I’ve missed it. Again, and forever. I’ll never see it now, never learn the secret. I’d let the moment pass me by without remark. I’ve missed it completely, that crucial moment when tadpoles become frogs.

Written by: Shalynn Ehrenpfort

My name is Shalynn Ehrenpfort and I’m 27 years old. I’ve lived in San Francisco for  nine years and I’ve attended CCSF off and on for about three years.

A Wicked on Rickety Road

Rickety Road, Lost County, Dakota Territory, 1888

There was a Gunslinger walking down Rickety Road. His limp swaying arms and unsteady gait gave him the appearance of a drunkard, although he did not stumble. Every now and then his pale, thin fingers twitched toward the scratched and grimy black revolvers at his sides, ready to blast a hole in anyone that came too close. His light grey shirt was torn up and appeared to have old bullet holes all over it, his faded brown pants were completely ripped up halfway down the shin. His feet were bare, revealing pale white skin clinging disgustingly tight to the bones. A cowboy hat with a wide brim and a grey, blood-stained bandana concealed his face. And his eyes, oh those haunting faded eyes, they were not the eyes of a drunk. They were the eyes of a killer, one aiming to kill again.

There was a Mortician on Rickety Road. A strange man, pale and thin like the Angel of Death. The Mortician always wore his black undertaker suit with a long coat and derby hat. He always had a crooked grin on his face, which kept most of the decent townsfolk away. For this reason, or some other unknown one, the Mortician spent all his time in his shop or the run down graveyard a bit up the road. He came to town nearly a year ago, a few days after the previous mortician was done in by a falling coffin. Oh, the grim irony. This strange newcomer was accepted for simplicity’s sake. The people of Rickety Road were used to the sudden arrival of strangers. The Mortician stood there on the side of the road with that devil’s grin on his face and tipped his hat to the Gunslinger as he passed.

“Welcome back, Mr. Harrow,” said the Mortician.

The Gunslinger stopped for a moment, turning his head ever so slightly to the Mortician. Something under his bandana moved, and a muffled sound similar to a pick scraping across granite was heard.

“Oh I would not recommend that you try speaking yet, Mr. Harrow,” continued the Mortician. “That ability tends to return to the body much later. I reckon you should go take care of your business at the church, and then come back and see me. I have work that requires your bullets.”

There was a Sheriff on Rickety Road. A good man, or so the people claimed. He liked to dress in a nice white button up shirt with brown slacks and a heavy duster and large hat, which prominently displayed his badge. He looked a bit ridiculous, honestly, like someone trying to embody every cliche at once, but he was adamant that when one gets the job then one ought to look the part. At high noon eight and a half years ago, the Sheriff, a simple deputy at the time, gunned down a gunslinger in front of the old church. A wanted criminal named Wickett Harrow. Harrow was infamous for being a cruel and cunning member of the Bear River Rioteers, a vicious bandit gang born out of the Bear River City Riot twenty years ago. For his vile ways people took to calling him Wicked Harrow, due to the old cowboy superstition of Wickeds, damned souls brought back to life to reap violent vengeance on the living. But despite the rumors, Harrow wasn’t some infernal spirit. And that day eight and a half years ago proved it. Abandoned by his partners in crime after a robbery gone wrong, Harrow faced the old sheriff and his deputies, which included the current Sheriff, all alone. Thirteen men died that day, twelve of the lawmen and Wicked Harrow. The last surviving lawman was praised by the town and swiftly elected into his current position as town Sheriff. And now he stood there, eight and a half years later, right at the spot where Wicked Wickett Harrow choked on his own blood.

The Sheriff smiled at the fond memory and casually checked his pocket watch, not noticing the familiar Gunslinger ominously striding closer. According to the Sheriff’s watch, it was eight and a half minutes before high noon.

Eight and a half minutes later, there was a Sheriff’s bloody corpse in front of the old church, and a Gunslinger walking back up Rickety Road.

Written by: Jack W. Bonney

Jonathan “Jack” Warren Bonney is a young aspiring writer with the soul of an old washed up writer. Born and raised in two different countries, Jack has been making stories in his head for his whole life, and only recently realized that writing them down would be a good idea.

Skeletor

Skeletor had long wanted a body: to cover him, shield him, make him whole. He was only a skeleton. He was jealous of the other skeletons who had bodies. Sometimes, he would put clothes on and stuff them with pillows or crumpled up newspaper and stare in the mirror. He always put an extra pillow or something in his stomach area because he didn’t know what it was like to be hungry. He dreamed that one day he would have a body with a big belly. He couldn’t wait to be hungry.

His name, tk421, had been given to him by the courts. There was also tk422, tk423, bk102, and so on. All names had two letters followed by three numbers. It was more or less a tracking system the courts had developed. But the skeletons usually hated their names and would come up with their own. His given name, tk421, was funny to Skeletor because of the scene in Star Wars using that name. He liked Star Wars. He liked fantasy movies and stories. Anything that would take his mind off his current world. Skeletor named himself after He-Man & the Masters of the Universe, a cartoon. He always rooted for He-Man but was sympathetic to Skeletor, and being a skeleton, the name made sense. He imagined it would only be a short time before he got a body and then he would get a new name that did not consist of two letters and three numbers.

The rules and regulations to get a body were simple: fill out the forms properly, keep your bones clean, don’t break your bones, and the most important rule — do not go outside during daylight hours. He followed these rules religiously but about a year ago, he was mistaken to have taken part in a protest where many skeletons marched the streets — during the day! Skeletor couldn’t believe so many skeletons would do this. He was so afraid to break the daylight law that he would wait one hour after official daylight time to go outside. But a skeleton, with a body, had said he was in the protest. Skeletons, after all, do look alike, and skeletons, unlike skeletons with a body, are guilty until proven innocent. The skeletons that openly admitted to taking part in the protest were banished to Skeleton Island. Once there, the odds of getting a body were about one in a million. Those who were accused like Skeletor, but denied it, were in limbo with the courts. There was no trial for them; they were given a strike on their record. Two strikes and it’s Skeleton Island. Skeletons with no strikes were first in line for bodies.

Bodies, these days, were produced ever so slowly, because of resources, or so they were told. There were conspiracy theories, mainly held by the skeleton population. One theory, probably the most believed, was that they slowed down body production because they were experimenting with bodies in order to make them stronger, more durable, and last longer. Skeletor paid no mind though. He just wanted a body and didn’t care what quality.

He went to the bd (Body Department) to check, yet again, to see if he had been given a body. He only went once a week. Some skeletons went everyday but Skeletor didn’t want to upset the wrong clerk at the bd. He had heard of a skeleton that was banished to Skeleton Island for checking too much. He didn’t want to risk that. The clerks always called the skeletons “bone.” It was a running joke with the clerks. They also cracked jokes to the skeletons, like “make no bones about it, no body for you,” and other ridiculous comments. But the skeletons were at their mercy. The clerks had bodies.

“Next bone,” the clerk yelled. Skeletor walked up to the window.

The clerk said, “Hi Bone.”

“Hello, I’m tk421,” Skeletor said.

“Teee…Kayyy…nope. Next bone,” the clerk said with a smirk. Skeletor walked away, sad, yet again. What could be the problem, he thought. Normally, skeletons with one strike would get a body after about six months. It had been at least a year since the protest incident. He decided to go see his friend, tk997, also known as Ribeye.

Ribeye was a mentor to the skeletons. He had been around for many years. He shared everything about his life and helped any skeleton he could. He was like an open book, but no one really knew the whole story as to why he never got a body. This, Ribeye, would
not share.

Skeletor knocked. “Come in,” Ribeye said from his sculpting chair. He was adding water to his clay for a new piece.

“Hi Ribeye,” Skeletor said and walked over to the long picnic table which was covered in books and sat down. He felt at ease; he always did at Ribeye’s house. The walls were lined with bookshelves that were filled mostly with books but also with sculptures. Ribeye had become a very talented artist over the years. He mostly created sculptures of planets with different terrains. The rest of his house was similar to other skeleton houses: there was the main room, a
small sleeping quarters, and a shower. There was no kitchen or bathroom because skeletons didn’t eat or drink. Ribeye spent his time sculpting and reading.

He never bothered to check with the BD and from what Skeletor could tell, he was content.

“Let me guess, you’re coming from the BD,” Ribeye said. He noticed Skeletor’s bone posture.

“You guessed right. I don’t know what to do anymore. If I don’t get a body soon, I may take the incinerator option. This is terrible. I just want to be hungry and thirsty. To taste. How can I remain a skeleton? Who wants to be a skeleton!?” Skeletor remembered just then about Ribeye’s decision. “I mean, I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“Relax, Skeletor. I’ve made my decision to remain a skeleton and I’m happy with it. I have my books and my sculpting. Have you developed any hobbies besides dressing up like you have a body?”

“Well, uhhh, not really,” Skeletor said; he was embarrassed. How did Ribeye know he still dressed himself up?

“Look, we’ve all dressed up. Even me. It’s only natural. But you should start thinking about what would make you happy, as you are now, a skeleton.”

“But I want to eat. I want to drink. I want to feel.” Skeletor felt defeated.

“Don’t you feel now? You feel sad, right? Well, you can feel happy too,” Ribeye said.

“I suppose so,” Skeletor said and slumped at the table. “Well, I’m going home before daylight begins.Thank you for your advice.”

“Remember, there’s no guarantee a body will make you happy. You’ve seen them, not all of them are happy. Even the ones with large bellies. Think about that.”

Skeletor walked home, slow and sad. Days and weeks passed. He hadn’t been to the BD since that day he saw Ribeye. He was too depressed to hear another rejection. He even stopped dressing up. But he kept his bones clean, hoping. After about two months he couldn’t take it anymore. He thought, one more check at the BD and if no luck, he would start his life, as he is, a skeleton.

“Next bone,” the clerk said with an abnormally big smile. He remembered this bone.

“Hi, I’m TK421,” Skeletor said, shaking.

“I know,” the clerk said.

Written by: Andrew Park

Andrew Park grew up near Sacramento and earned a Business degree at Chico State before moving to San Francisco. He has always written in his spare time as a hobby. In the Fall of 2019, he took a creative writing class at the City College of San Francisco for fun.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama
Portrait of Yayoi Kusama, Japanese artist

Art title: Yayoi Kusama 

Art  by: Ana Lazaro

Ana Lazaro is a San Francisco based artist. She considers herself a world citizen and has, since childhood, had a passion for capturing moods and emotions through her portraiture. Ana’s current work is inspired by her desire to celebrate empowered women making a difference across the globe.

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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-24 at 7.55.57 PM

“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.”

 

Screen Shot 2020-05-24 at 7.55.44 PM

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!”

Screen Shot 2020-05-24 at 7.55.28 PM

Screen Shot 2020-05-24 at 7.55.15 PM

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.