The Dress Code by Sarah Johnson

The end of middle school had finally arrived and with it, the freedom to ditch our uniform and wear whatever we wanted for the last month of the year. The shedding of the school skirt was our most iconic rite of passage into high school. We chatted for weeks about which outfit we would wear on the first non-uniformed day. We would finally look normal, no longer broadcasting our affiliation with a prestigious all-girls school. Everyone smiled and relaxed, unbounded by the stiff blue skirt that had encircled our waists for the past four years.

The Friday before the change, the head of the middle school, Mrs. Rupert, gathered the entire 8th grade class in one room and announced that she would review the dress code with us. We looked at each other and repeated the words in whispers. There had been no mention of a dress code before. This was supposed to be our moment of freedom when we got the right to wear what we wanted.

She spat out forbidden styles: bra straps and exposed midriffs, low-cut tops and high-cut shorts, towering stilettos and flip-flops. She warned against inappropriate writing or images printed on t-shirts. Although we no longer wore the school skirt, Mrs. Rupert reminded us, we still represented our prestigious school and had to dress accordingly.

The most shocking part of the dress code was that skirts and shorts had a length limit: no shorter than the middle of your thigh. In four years, no one had measured the length of our skirts. In fact, many girls rolled their uniform’s waist band to hike the skirt up and show off their legs. Was Mrs. Rupert now going to walk around with a ruler or was it meant as an empty threat to discourage booty shorts that let our butt cheeks hang out? We all looked around the room, silently guessing who would be the first to test this rule.

Mrs. Rupert reminded us that in order to be treated like adults, we had to act responsibly. The right to ditch the uniform was a privilege and if we didn’t follow the dress code, that privilege could be taken away. She scanned the room with her bulging-eyes, daring each one of us to challenge her authority. Satisfied that no one was going to jump up with a fist in the air and shout a slogan like “power to the people,” she continued her threats. She informed us that she kept a collection of uniform skirts and school sweatshirts in her office. If anyone was caught in violation of the dress code, they would be forced to don the blue yoke of shame that was the school skirt.

Satisfied that she had scared us into compliance, Mrs. Rupert wished us a happy weekend. Her wrinkly cheeks pushed back in a smile but her eyes showed only animosity as she prepared for the battle of dress code enforcement. We no longer excitedly described our outfits for Monday morning but itemized articles of clothing that might not pass inspection. We strategized what spare clothing to keep in our lockers so we would never have to wear the dreaded skirt again. 

***

Sunday night I opened my closet and inspected my new spring clothing. There were khaki capri pants, a long blue and white floral skirt, and a pink striped dress with a matching fabric belt. No spaghetti straps or bare midriffs and no offensive words or images. I also had three pairs of shorts. I needed to know if I should expect Mrs. Rupert to chase me with a ruler so I took the shorts to my mother, a former fashion designer with extensive knowledge of clothing measurements.

I briefed her on Mrs. Rupert’s dress code threats and asked her how to define the “middle of the thigh.” Her answer was simple and mathematical: halfway between the knee and hip. I probed further, trying to cover every pitfall: what is the knee, exactly? the center of the knee cap? the top of it? And does hip mean the hip bone or the widest part of the butt as sizing charts show?

Together we took a tape measure to my hip bone and knee cap with the diligence of the scientific method I was taught at school. I put on each pair of shorts and my mother measured from hip to hem, from knee cap to hem, and from hip to knee cap, on both legs. She recorded the measurements, checking them two and three times to prevent errors. One by one, each pair of shorts measured exactly at the middle of my thigh. I tried sitting down and standing up a few times to make sure the shorts didn’t shift higher. Still, the hem of the shorts measured exactly at the middle of my thigh. I was ready to face Mrs. Rupert and her ruler.

Monday morning I opted for the safe choice and wore the capri pants. Instead of discussing our English essay or the math quiz results, the school day was one big fashion show. Girls twirled in front of each other and felt fabrics between thumbs and fingers. The array of outfits was astounding. Shorts, skirts, dresses, and pants. No one wore the dark blue color of our uniforms. It was a forbidden shade now, a reminder of the years spent wrapped up in the stiff skirt.

By the end of the week, the excitement of our wardrobes faded and our focus returned to school work, although we stayed on alert for Mrs. Rupert. She didn’t carry a ruler but when she was spotted, anyone wearing shorts that only reached their upper thigh scattered, running for cover in classrooms and the bathroom.

Friday that week, the temperature rose and I decided to try my shorts. I had seen so many bare-skinned thighs all week that I felt confident in my meticulously measured middle-of-the-thigh shorts. I wore an orange and white checked button-down shirt with short sleeves and olive green shorts. I felt free and light as I walked through the halls. It wasn’t an outfit that drew attention, just one that made me feel the promise of spring, before summer turns everything sticky with humidity. I forgot about the dress code and went about my day. Until lunch time.

I was at my locker, stashing my books before going to the cafeteria when I heard whispers and saw students scatter. Mrs. Rupert was strolling the hallway. I took my time and calmly closed my locker, assured in the measured validity of my shorts. She veered towards me and smiled in her mechanical way. 

She informed me that my shorts were too short. I informed her that I measured multiple times and they were exactly at the middle of my thigh. She repeated that they were too short. I lost my composure. I measured. What more could I say? Surely in a school that prides itself on academic exploration, measurements and data were indisputable proof that I was following the dress code. Mrs. Rupert calmly said, “Measurements don’t mean anything.” 

I thought I was going to faint. Here, the head of the middle school, a seasoned veteran of the education system, a woman in charge of instilling knowledge into young women was denying the validity of measurements. She was denying the very foundation of the school that she not only represented but was in charge of. I had wasted the last four years of science and math classes, learning to use the scientific method to gather reliable data to understand the world around us, only to be told that measurements are meaningless.  

She led me to her office where she held out a stiff blue skirt. I had no choice but to put it on. I took the skirt and trudged to the bathroom where I changed out of my shorts, still crisp and new, and wrapped the skirt around my waist once again. 

I hung my head the rest of the day and didn’t talk to anyone. My classmates stared at me, their heads tilted with pity, mumbling apologies as they passed. I counted the number of girls wearing shorts that were shorter than mine: 13. Why had I been made an example of? Why didn’t Mrs. Rupert value the measurements?

When I got home, I stuffed all my new shorts in the bottom of a drawer, ashamed of their meaningless measurements. On Saturday, I went shopping again but turned to the men’s section of the store instead. If women’s shorts weren’t respectable enough for Mrs. Rupert’s dress code, then I would wear the longest shorts I could find. All the shorts in the men’s section reached far below the middle of my thigh, some even covered my knees. I bought three pairs of men’s shorts with large pockets hanging off the sides, which drooped, pulling the fabric lower, hiding my thighs completely.

I wore those men’s shorts every day. When Mrs. Rupert stalked the hallways looking for dress code violations, I willed her to notice my shorts. She never did. Since I showed no skin above the knees, I didn’t warrant a second look. I hid in plain sight in baggy male clothing. I felt victorious in the subversive way I followed her dress code rules but Mrs. Rupert had actually won the battle by convincing me to keep my thighs safely shrouded in fabric. Spring was no longer a time to feel light and carefree, shedding layers of winter clothing. Instead, I was burdened by the weight of long shorts, hiding the shame of my thighs in men’s clothing as I sulked into my teenage years.

The Undrowning by Faith Hanna

Take a little life out of it; it’ll make it feel more real.

I was drowning in the criticism. In criticizing them. The others. The ones that wouldn’t lose. The delusional. The ones we meme against. My judgement is a shallowing of breath. Tense chest. Constricted fingers. Clenched gluts. Holding in. 

Outside, the rain makes sidewalk slick with wet leaves. Trails slippery with mud. Streets glisten with a kind of cleaning. The air is limpid but profuse. Condensation moves in its respective layers: sinuous tufts are highest, then diffuse eddies, thick fog hangs lowest. This is after the downpour.

My own tears feel delayed. As if the quacking begins as undetectable, and requires hours and sometimes days to gain momentum. The build is a fizzy unease, below skin squirming. Low-key, it builds, and builds. So I wake up with itchy eyes. I rub the parched orbs. Oiling them.

And then, when I’m lucky, I cry. Tremble long enough for waves to rush chest, swell up throat, seizing it, burning the back of my mouth until they crest into my eyes, crash down on shores of skin. This is how the water erupts, as if from my lungs; as if pumped up by my heart. The beat, beat, beat pushing up the tides. Rushing them out onto the sandy patches of my cheeks. 

Inhales are dry, and exhales floods of moisture.

Afterwards, I run. Out by pop-up tamale and arroz con leche stand. Past the Sheffield home for convalescents. Through the loose line of workers always on the corner of Folsom and 26th. I run up steep sidewalk carpeted with deep-yellow gingko leaves, fallen foliage looking up to where it used to belong: bare branches against a grey-streaked heaven.

The words in Spanish for drown is ahogar; desahogar literally means to undrown, and technically to release. What’s in your heart. What’s in your chest. The word that means to undrown in Spanish, desahogar, is a word about releasing water.

I wish my clouds rained the way I wanted them to. They take their time. Sometimes I am too clear to feel. And then it storms, positively pouring out. It happens when the heart beat beat beats up a rush of healing.

I was drowning in the clarity of criticism. I was flowing in greyness loving them. The others. Who don’t want to be alone. Or shut down. Or threatened. Or sick. Shoulders unbound. Eyes soft. Belly loose. Fists gone . The waters take me to and then from the Other. Where I can see that we are the same. We want to have the courage of our convictions. But to be all right, we can’t all be right. Let’s cry instead.

Above, the sky is undrowned. Below, the chest is undrowned. Around, skin glistens. 

The Fairy Garden by Walliann Wisniewski

It is hard to create something from nothing where something already exists. So, with a bit of sadness, the bright pink rhododendron bush that outgrew its space, the rose bush that had been groomed once too many times and any plant with thorns was pulled. Fairies don’t like thorns. A blank space remained. A canvas on which a fairy garden would bloom. 

~~The relationship between my mother and I was a tenuous one since my father passed nearly 10 years ago. We were buddies, my dad and me, and on that day I lost my biggest fan. 

The first thing I did was to add pounds of dirt to my space. Fresh dirt—with its story yet to be told—was mixed with dirt from 1978, the year the house was built. It was ours to take care of now, and I wanted fairies to help watch over my children.

~~Trying to understand why folks are the way they are is never easy. We are so affected by our pasts that unless we let them go, moving forward is tough. My mom came of age before Title IX, before equity for women in a household with a misogynistic parent. Although she managed to break a cycle of violence, she never realized that, and ultimately has been consumed by what she has tried to escape. Therapy is for the weak. And doctors are often stupid. 

I took great care in choosing my plants and arranging them in my garden. The colors had to be bright and vibrant and had to complement each other. There were just enough plants chosen to fill the space yet not crowd each other. My daughter willingly helped me plant, and I was thrilled for that time to talk, for her to understand that I wasn’t just creating a hippie house. 

~~When I got my PhD, my mother embraced it as if it were hers. I pursued that degree to prove to myself that I could handle the rigors of a PhD program as an advisor once told me I could not. That degree came with perseverance and lots of tears. And Academia has never been good to me. After all, who really cares about applying 21st century views to a work written in the 16th century? So when I took a 5 year break, to build a business from scratch I was deemed a fool. 

I put down the layer of weed repellant and added over thirty bags of 40lbs of stone. The tiredness I felt was well earned as the space was starting to take shape. Hostas lined the back of the garden whose centerpiece was a large blue hydrangea. That blue hydrangea was given as a gift by a neighbor to her friend, the woman who lived here before us.  I wanted to honor that friendship but the plant was accidentally pulled. I replaced it with another blue hydrangea. 

~~Giving my mother a place in my store I opened when I burned out from teaching proved to be as detrimental as travelling with her had been. In our zeal to help her realize life could be beautiful, we included her on trips all over the Southeast. We did so with pleasure. She came back at me years later telling me she was a burden that we were saddled with. Nothing had been further from the truth, but her mind was made up. At this point, she had begun to hate my husband, which made holidays and everything else difficult. In the store it was hard for her to accept that I was boss. And that I knew what I was doing. So, I left the store that I had built from nothing and was my happy place. 

On an idea from my husband, glass pebbles and stepping stones were added to my fairy garden. The colored pebbles glisten in the sunlight, drawing attention to the beauty of the flowers. More pebbles are on their way. The garden is taking shape. I added a colored stake that my daughter bought with her own money at a fair many years ago—an ode to time passed and our new normal. I also added a flower stake constructed from forks and spoons. 

~~My husband was miserable at his job, my kids school was going in a direction I wasn’t happy with and I did not have a job other than the store. The timing seemed right for a move. However, “I was making a mistake. I made a mistake 17 years ago. I deserve better. He isn’t good enough for you. I am an excellent teacher. Go back to the university and beg for a job. What will you do? Oh you got a job? Well, you won’t be happy with it…”

I ordered a zen meditation troll. He is adorable and I really wonder if he should be on my shoulder instead of in the fairy garden. The fairy houses have begun to trickle in. The happy gnome comes later. The houses will sit on the stepping stones that will attach to them somehow. My flaw is a lack of being spatial and fairy objects really are much smaller than they appear. So, in order for them not to blow over in the Bellingham winds, they must be glued somehow. 

–I spoke sparingly with my mother in the first year we left. Her tone was always cold to me, blaming me for taking her grandchildren away.  She did not have to say anything. I knew. I had friends trying to convince her otherwise, but her mind was made up. Though we had hoped she would come with us, she isn’t in that place yet. The quarantine has softened her, and after years of protesting technology, she skyped with me and my son this past Friday. “I am heavy. I do not look good. I am not healthy. He isn’t good for me. I am heavy cause I am stressed. Alex’s hair looks awful…” That last part is sadly true. I mean, I cut it myself. 

Right now the fairies and their houses sit in my living room waiting for their neighborhood to arrive. Within the next week and a half, it will be finished. Technically, anyway. But as yet again I have built something where there once was nothing, it is always going to be a work in progress.

 Walli Ann Wisniewski has a PhD in Latin American Literature from Penn State University. She lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, 2 kids and 2 kittens. She teaches at Whatcom Community College. She enjoys memoir and hopes to publish a collection of her essays someday. 

Pandemic From California by Kiran Bains Sahota

August. The haze in the sky is thick, like a slate smog stretched thin over a blaring sun. It looks as if heat will rain. I can picture it: sizzling bolts of light touching down, the earth jittery from its touch. Some gnats collide into the glass of my window, as if they seek shelter with me. The round bodies stagger elsewhere; some drop into the cracks of the concrete far below the sill. 

I was throwing out the trash some moments before I grabbed my pen to write. The sun, a neon citrus ball in the sky, blazed fiercely as if to remind me that it too is made of the same fire that burns through California. Little patches of grayish-white descended from the slate ceiling. I wanted to stretch my tongue out, as if it were snow––as if, for the first time in almost 6 months, I was somewhere new––but the acidic smell of burnt wood made my nose wrinkle behind my mask. The air is dangerous. I could see it, drifting onto a blanket of ash settling along the lid of the garbage bin. A cloud of gnats shimmered a few yards away and I wondered if they were as unsettled, intermixing with the powdery residue.

I bent back the lid of the bin, the rancid smell of smoke intermixed with the stench of soiled scraps. Some ash fell in and stuck to streaks of grease. The heat pulled at my skin as I watched. The ash drifted until it dressed the cement, the thick, thirsty leaves of the bushes, and the whirring box pumping cold air into the house that has been my only place of rest, work, and socialization since quarantine started. I closed the lid, accepting that I’d thrown away the whole summer in that elastic bag of tattered tickets, invisible smiles, and expired invitations.

But as I watch behind my window now, concealed in my shelter with my cheek free to rest on my palm, I realize this isn’t the first time that ash has fallen in heaps or that plumes of smoke pretended to be clouds. It’s also not the first-time people have been sick, or that politics have been unmasked. But it’s the first time I’ve grown tired of it all happening at once. 

Tink. I focus beyond my reflection. Another gnat. I wonder if they’re tired too, slamming into the glass barricade that I know how to open. I look down from my window. The ash must’ve slipped into the cracks of the pavement too. I hope the gnats that fell will rise again. I can picture them doing so; the tiny, winged creatures dodging what must feel like chunks of their world crumbling around them. But they’ll do it. They’ll fly up, go back to their cloud of family, friends, and potential love. And I can only hope that when the smoke clears, we can do the same.

The Hole by Deanna Anderson

The hole has people in it, in boxes. Glass boxes. They do not see you, but you see them. They are doing things. Moving around; doing different activities. You can watch them as long as you want – they are so close.

You are underground. A woman named Francis leads you around tunnels, wearing scrubs. Everything she says is calm, and her hair is flat like her expression. She smiles, but only at the entrance when she welcomes you – only with her mouth and not her eyes; pressing her lips together and curving the edges upward to what you know to be a smile, but doesn’t really seem like one.

“Hello,” she says. “Can I check you in?”

“Hello – welcome.” She says when you don’t respond. “Welcome – is it okay if I write your name down on my list?”

You somehow know you have to give her your name even if you don’t want to because she won’t let you pass if you don’t give it to her, and if you say something other than your name she frowns and says, “Alright,” and lets you pass though you both know you lied. She has to let you say the lie, and you have to let her give you a look. The look makes you wonder if she’ll do anything for you anymore if you keep behaving like that.

You walk past Francis and as you do she turns and says, “Is it okay if we bring in another light?”

She says it as though you run the place, but you know you certainly couldn’t because you just got there and there’s no workers there that you recognize.

You say “Sure?” but aren’t really sure, so Francis nods and gestures towards a man that was standing in the dark behind you that you didn’t see when you came in because he was so quiet and you weren’t looking for him.

He pulls on a rope beside the ladder leading out of the hole and a dumbwaiter comes down and it’s holding a light on a pole and he makes the pole longer by twisting it and pulling out more pole and unfolding the legs, and he carries it past you down a long corridor in front of you, getting smaller and smaller in the distance as the light lights up spaces further and further away, until finally he turns down a perpendicular hall and disappears completely and Francis says “I’m sorry, that won’t be enough light, can we bring in another light?” and you say “Sure,” because there’s no one else around to answer the question.

From another direction down another hallway you see a slight glow and then another, another, another, and there’s a whole stream of people walking towards you, one after the other, and they’re all carrying lights and they stand perfectly equidistant, saying “Hello,” to you as each of them passes and goes down another corridor in any direction all around you.

“Hello,” you say to the first few, but then when the tenth person passes and says hello in the same courteous tone, you’re not sure how many more “hello’s” you want to reply to because it could go on forever.

Francis watches you from her chair; almost looks sorry for you, and takes off the plastic gloves she’s been wearing all along.

“Would you like me to show you around?” she asks, and stands, knowing you’ll say yes.

“Yes,” you say. “Thank you,” and you really are grateful, because everyone else is saying hello to you but walking right past and you’re not sure if they’re very knowledgeable about the dark hallways since they’re all just following each other around carrying lights.

“Hello,” one of them says as you wait for Francis to approach. You avoid eye contact this time, and some of the “hello’s” stop, or at least become quieter. You wish you could know why any of them talk to you or what they do with the lights or where they are going but Francis is already leading you in another direction, away from the central point of all the hallways. The light people keep walking past, and you accept that you simply cannot say hello to all of them and that the walk with Francis is more important than being polite right now.

Francis carries a clipboard and takes notes every once in a while, glancing at the people in the glass boxes and talking to you as though she’s done this a hundred times.

“Here are the glass boxes,” she says, as you walk. The glass boxes go down the corridor and curve around a corner, like you’re in between two mirrors. The amount of glass boxes is more than you can count.

They are all full of people, sometimes people you know. You see your dad moving around a glass box, opening an imaginary cupboard and grasping empty air, as though he’s holding a cup. Somehow you know it isn’t really your dad down here and that if you leave the hole you’ll walk home and see your dad in the kitchen, fixing himself a cup of decaf coffee before bed, but it doesn’t upset you; you feel calm, as though seeing your dad in the glass is something you do every day.

There are a lot of people there and some of them do unsightly things in there – one man is pleasuring himself and you look the other direction, not wanting to be a part of the private moment, but finding it difficult on account of the clear walls.

“Can they see us?” you ask Francis, because every once in a while, you feel like you’ve made eye contact with someone, but maybe they were really looking somewhere else.

“If you want them to,” says Francis, as though she could touch a button and everyone would know that you were there staring at them. “Want to talk to one?” she asks you.

“Yes,” you say and look around for a familiar face. You see a boy from your class and you approach his box.

“Hey, what’s up?” you say loudly to the boy. Francis keeps watching you, not telling you what to do, so you make it up for yourself. The boy approaches the front of the box and taps on a little square of the window with a keyhole in it. Francis takes out a huge ring of keys and unlocks the window, sliding the little square to the side and folding out a glass sill which the boy leans his elbows on, sticking his head through the square hole.

“Hey! How are you doing? So good to see you.” His voice is warm and the skin on his elbows fog the glass he’s leaning on. He’s wearing a t-shirt and some sweats. You wonder if you could go in his box and hang out for a while. You stare at him blankly as he smiles, waiting for a response. You’re not sure if he’s real. His body seems real but he doesn’t live here so you wonder why he’s here, in a hole, underground.

Francis keeps walking ahead of you. Half of the hallway is like a conveyor belt, moving ahead whether you move or not. You step onto the people mover and keep staring at the boy as you slowly move away. He’s still smiling, leaning out the window, and you take a breath to say something but nothing comes out. Francis lets you catch up with her.

“How was it?” she asks, and you wish you could say you’d talked to the boy, but you didn’t, so you shrug.

“Scoundrel,” says a man carrying a light past you.

“What?” You ask but he’s already passed and Francis tells you not to worry about it; just keep walking. You want to do something. You feel the instinct to say hello to everyone carrying a light again.

“Why does everyone know me down here?” you ask Francis.

“They’re just being polite,” Francis responds.

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

Francis shrugs.

You realize that you want to leave so you turn to go back the way you came, but you are lost. You are not sure how long you’ve been walking and which ladder you came down.

“Here,” says Francis, pointing to one. “Use that one.”

You do, scrambling up it. At the top you hit your head on the grate, hard, and find yourself shoving your body upward, impatiently lifting it however you can to get out of the tunnel. Your flesh feels heavy against the metal as you slide yourself out onto the concrete.

You’re in a different place now than when you went into the hole, probably, but it’s fine because you’re right outside of your house. You don’t like that you don’t know how you got there or that you don’t know what happened to you.

You’re jittery from all the lights and you wish you’d walked instead of standing on the conveyor belt on the side of the tunnel. A man walks past you in a suit and doesn’t say hello, though you don’t blame him because you are lying on the ground and your jacket’s getting wet from the street water.

It must have rained but you don’t know when. You realize it didn’t smell like anything down there because you smell so strongly now – the rain, the dead leaves in the gutter, the exhaust from cars that keep driving by – all of it smells fresh, and sharp, and down there it wasn’t anything.

I don’t like being down there, you think, but when you close your eyes, you see the glass boxes. You’re curious. A car passes and you dodge the splash from a puddle, standing up and brushing yourself off. You wonder if your dog is still there, because you thought you were walking her before this but now you can’t remember. A man sleeps on the bench across the street and you have a strong impulse to wake him up and say “Hello? Have you seen my dog?” but you know he hasn’t. You calm yourself down and know your dog must be home, sitting by the door waiting to go out. You walk towards your house.

As you approach the front door you hear the screech of tires in the street and someone shouting out their driver side window.

“Watch it lady!” they say, and you turn to see Francis lifting herself out of the hole right in front of the car.

“Keep going,” she says to the driver, and he looks confused but then drives away. Francis waves at you from right above the sewer grate, standing still in the middle of the street. “Hello,” she says. You wave back but you still don’t believe she’s talking to you because you thought she wouldn’t know you once you left the hole. You wonder if you should go back and speak to her more closely, but you’re tired now and you want to go to bed.

“Do you need something from me?” you shout across the street, but Francis just shakes her head and stands over the grate, expectantly.

“Come back if you want to,” she says, watching you. She keeps watching you as you unlock the door to your house and put the key in your back pocket. The house’s smell is a pronounced mildew, but it’s warm and it’s away from Francis. When you look out the front window, she’s still standing there in the middle of the street. Cars honk at her and swerve around her.

You hope she doesn’t stay there for long.

In your house you make your way to your room, not turning on any lights. The dark comforts you more than you thought and you rush to get into dry clothes. The whir of a fan reminds you that it had been hot earlier today but that now it isn’t. A soft snore escapes the crack in your parents’ door. It’s not like it was in the hole. No one says hello.

You think about it as you lie down in bed.

One Item Too Many by Sarah Johnson

One day at home, I discovered cash missing, sighed, and thought, “Well, now I have to end this.”

It was one more item than I could tolerate on the list of things you did to hurt me. A list that when tallied, added up to kicking you out of the apartment. Your emotional apologies couldn’t change this result. It was a conclusion reached by simple math. You committed one too many wrongs and so I was done trying to help you.

Now it was my turn to keep secrets from you. I formulated a plan to be carried out in two days. I would sneak home early, like you did all those months you pretended to go to work after you were fired. This time though, I would be waiting at home for you, not to ask how your day was and what you wanted to do for dinner, but to ban you from ever coming home again.

I called your mom and asked her to help me. She arranged for someone to cover her shift at the diner and met me at the apartment on Wednesday afternoon. She hugged me then held both my hands and pouted, expecting me to cry. My face didn’t change. I was performing an operation, going through the motions until the desired result was achieved.

We sat on the tall kitchen stools, our feet on the ground, ready to jump into action. The thud when you opened the deadbolt was as loud as a gunshot. My breath came in short gasps and I watched the door. You smiled but only with your mouth, your eyes darting around the room looking for trouble. You found your mom.

“Hi,” you said. “What are you doing here?”

She looked at me. I took a few shallow breaths and looked you in the eye.

“Kevin, it’s over. I need you to leave.” 

My face tensed, preparing to cry. 

You laughed. “What?”

“You heard what she said, Kev,” your mom said. “It’s time for you to leave. You can stay with me.”

That was why I called your mom. She always had a place for her boys to stay, no matter what they had done. She also had strict rules and zero tolerance for excuses. She had decades more practice than I did saying no to you and meaning it. She could stand up to your apology, accept it but not give in to your knee-jerk appeal for forgiveness.

But you didn’t know what to say. None of us did. We were all making it up as we went. We only knew this was what had to happen after years of relapses. 

A sob spluttered from between your lips. “Ok, ok.” You nodded a few times and put your hands on your hips in your thinking position. You searched the floor as if the script for the end of a relationship were written in its yellow wood grain. You realized the door was still open so you turned to shut it, leaned against it, and your shoulders shook.

“Ok, I’ll just get my things together.”

“I put your clothes in your duffel bag,” I said.

You spun around and your ice blue eyes found me, then the cracked red and black sports bag at my feet. Your shirts were folded and stacked in two piles. Your many pairs of blue jeans were tucked alongside the shirts. Socks and underwear filled the outer compartments. Your clothing was always folded and organized, the only part of your life that remained orderly.

“Wow, you’re really prepared,” you said, laughing again. 

I braced, holding the stool for support, waiting for you to curse, to hit the wall, to fight me on this final decision I made without you. But you had learned at an early age not to talk back to your mom.

“Mom, can you give us a minute?” 

She looked at me for permission. I nodded.

“I’ll be just outside the door,” she said.

She hopped off the stool and walked past you to the door. She put a hand on your shoulder as she passed.

You couldn’t stop looking at me but I couldn’t meet your eyes. They were always kind, always laughing, and I wanted to forget those parts of you now. I held on to the thief who stole cash from my wallet. I thought about all those nights I woke up without you after you had snuck out to get high. I glared at you and wondered how you could give up on yourself again and again when I had given you all the tools to recover.

You stepped towards me, your arms coming up for a hug, then paused. “Can I still hug you?”

I could only shake my head. “No,” I managed to say. “No I need you to just go. I’m so sorry.” Tears streamed in two lines down my face.

Tears fell down your face, too. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Me neither. I’m going to miss you. But I can’t do this anymore.”

“Yeah, I know,” you said.

“I really hope you can stop using one day,” I said. “But I can’t help you anymore.” 

“I understand,” you said. “Hey, thanks.” 

“What?” 

“No really, thanks. I know you tried. I’m just no good. You deserve better.” 

My face contorted and you stepped close, wrapping me in your strong arms. I sobbed against your shoulder, holding on to your back, my fingers finding the spot where they hook on to your shoulder blades. With my eyes closed, I could picture us getting eggplant parm sandwiches and watching a movie before going to bed. I saw us smiling and it felt like everything would be ok. I pictured the single twenty dollar bill that you left in my wallet. I pictured the crack pipe I found in your sneakers months ago. I opened my eyes and pushed you away.

“Ok, time to go,” I said. I stepped around you to open the door and bring your mom back in the room. “It’s time,” I said.

“Ok, Kev. Let’s go. Give her the keys.” 

You sniffed and wiped your face on your shirt sleeve. You took two keys off your key ring and put them on the desk. They were a smooth dull brass color, no longer shiny gold like when I gave them to you years ago. The two keys looked abandoned on the beige desk with a ring to link them together.

You looked around and grabbed the rest of your things⎯CDs, photo albums, a couple of souvenir pint glasses⎯and threw them in the duffel bag. In all these years, you only had enough belongings to fit in a duffel bag, as if you knew that one day you would have to leave me at a moment’s notice.

“I think that’s it. If you find anything else you can just toss it.” 

I nodded.

“Well… bye, I guess,” you said.

“Bye,” I said.

You walked out, not looking up. Your mom waited and hugged me. “You call me if you need anything, ok?” she said in my ear.

Anyone remotely connected to her family was part of it and she took care of family without questions. When your brother got violent with his girlfriend, she brought the kids to your mom’s house. When your cousin fought with his mom over her new boyfriend, he stayed there. She was a mother to anyone, even if that person was evicting her son.

I nodded in her embrace. “Thanks,” I said.

And you were gone. I sat on the stool, looking around the apartment in the mellow afternoon light. There were three rings of dust on the shelf where your Irish pint glasses stood for years. I thought I should get a rag to wipe away the dust but then the rings would vanish and I would forget what once belonged there.

I felt tears rising in my eyes so I looked at the clock above the bookshelf: 4:12. The whole process had taken 42 minutes. I did some more calculations. In five hours and eighteen minutes I would start getting ready for bed. In fourteen hours and eighteen minutes I would get up and one hour forty-five minutes later, go to work again. I didn’t know what you would be doing then. Maybe sitting at your mom’s yellow checked kitchen table with a mug of thick bitter coffee, slowly stirring in the powdered creamer and sugar.

I shook my head to rid it of any images of you. You weren’t a part of my life anymore so I shouldn’t think about you. I did what I always do when I need to stop worrying about where you are: I watched crime dramas.

It didn’t get dark until the fourth episode of CSI. When the opening credits rolled, I looked out the window and saw my reflection. My face flashed green from the television, like an alien watching me curled up and alone on the couch. I muted the TV and listened. A car’s tires whooshed by. A big dog barked twice. The couple across the way laughed. I could see them in their kitchen with the lights on and dinner dishes still on the table as they drank wine together. It had been months since I had a drink in solidarity for your supposed sobriety.

I looked at the empty half of the couch and, although you had left me there by myself many times before when you went out drinking alone, this time my solitude was permanent. I couldn’t wonder what time you would return because you wouldn’t. There was no hope but also no fear that you would walk through the door before I fell asleep. The house was now complete with just one person in it.

In bed, I lay on my side of the mattress and looked at the dent you wore in it. I was scared to close my eyes and wake up, either with or without you there next to me.

Images by Catherine Chang

Green, the color of the train was green, dark green. In a dream, the green is there. A flood of green is in the dream, a flood of dark green, a dark and perplexing and greedy green. The dream is unexpected, but not entirely frightening. The flood of green in the dream is all I see before it is gray, then black. In the blackness is the sound of a train, a screeching sound, a deafening screaming match on which I am involuntarily eavesdropping between track and wheel, a tired, familiar, and horrifying sound that becomes an inescapable and unending ringing in my ears. I see lights on in the train, I see people in the train—I am floating up to them against a blank, black space, and they are horrified. 

◆ 

I remember the color of the train. I remember the brand of liquor he was holding, and the weather. I can’t remember how I first saw him, or the exact date or time it happened, not without having to look. I remember green. Green, the train was green, dark green, the kind of green that is unassuming, that secures itself a sense of confidence from the way it resembles the color of an antique, an artifact. Against the sound of the approaching train, he blew his breath out and stood there on the platform in his worn-out tennis shoes, flat-footed, or so his mother later said anyone could always tell from his soles—holding a bottle of Smirnoff vodka, unconcealed. It was sunny, or the sun was out, because I remember the way the rays blinded me as I looked up to peer at the hanging station clock. It wasn’t warm, and I can’t remember the exact time it was. 

I remember the color of his cheeks. I remember that I stood a couple of feet away from him, but that he seemed so much closer when it actually happened. I can’t remember what the color of his eyes were, or whether he had freckles, or how tall he was—all important markings of a person—I can’t remember. The train, I remember hearing it squealing and screeching against the tracks from a distance, but I can’t quite remember what the platforms signs said. I remember seeing large poster-board ads somewhere about a new city welfare program that was being implemented. Large purple and black letters, orange and white background, people smiling. I remember red Xs, polka dots, my leg shaking because I was wearing a skirt, and it wasn’t warm, even though the sun was out. 

It all happened so quickly. There was a second—one-sixtieth of a minute—and I was exasperated with the train running late, or so I remember. I was looking straight ahead, across to the other side, the other platform dirty and stained with dusty black footprints, food stains, debris, grease. And then there was another second—one-sixtieth of a minute—when a warp of a body tumbled onto the tracks. A blur, he was, except for the clear outline of the old shoelace on his left tennis shoe, which was the last I saw of him before he was crushed by the speeding green train. 

◆ 

His mother gave a live interview a couple of days later, after the incident made the local newspaper. The interview was re-broadcast over and over on local news channels, multiple times a day—in the morning, in early afternoon, in the evening after the sun had set and people were sitting at their dinner tables eating chicken and drinking wine. He was an alcoholic, but he was trying to turn it around, I remember her saying on the television one night. He didn’t deserve it, she said, sitting upright on her floral couch in a cluttered living room. She had a grimace on her face, and there were hairs out of place, sticking to her sweaty neck and heavily-powdered face. He was just going back to school again. He didn’t deserve it, I remember her repeating. 

I sunk further into my chair as she continued. He didn’t deserve it. Maybe what she really meant was that nobody should die stumbling drunk onto the path of a speeding train. Or maybe she was implying that somebody had done this to him, really somebody on the platform that day had pushed him off, out of some sick idea that people who are in pain and turn to alcohol for comfort shouldn’t be given a second chance. Or maybe she was trying to condemn society’s failure to save him from himself. God rest his soul, she said on the flashing television screen. I put down my cup of milk and turned the television off.  

◆ 

I wake up from the dream and can’t separate it from reality. Images, symbols, daydreams, a thought that the brain retrieves after being reminded of the past by a detail only seen by the subconscious part of the body, or a moment that I can remember but never lived. How to separate a blurred mind’s image—like a photo taken with a distorted lens or at too slow a shutter speed—from a memory the body conjures up to live again and again? There is the green, the dark green, the blackness, the train, his tennis shoes. Blackness, green, dark green that is for a split-second unbearable, a low-frequency humming that then becomes screeching, a cold sun, a heart beating, a leg shaking, screeching wheels against old metal tracks, people’s faces, blackness, green dark green blackness of train and tennis shoes slipping down and down and down until the green comes back again.

◆ 

I remember hearing my heart beat as I stood on the platform in shock, like hearing jellied fruit pieces being poured out into a bowl from a can, pulsed into my ears. I remember staring down but not seeing anything on the ground, or even the ground itself. I remember seeing people’s faces, but I can’t remember how many faces. I don’t remember how many seconds went by before the train conductor realized somebody was on the tracks, or how much time passed by before the train finally stopped. Paramedics came, I think, and train staff, as some people on impulse rushed forward to him, while some people watched from the back. When they yelled and pushed me aside, I remember my arms shaking, and that I couldn’t stop them. I remember the coldness of the breeze against my legs. I don’t know why I remember it, but on the platform, I saw coins, one or two, probably dropped out from his coat pocket. And I remember a dollar bill, maybe his, maybe not, stepped on, crinkled, smushed in the ongoing foot traffic. 

Catherine Chang is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate here at the City College of San Francisco. She enjoys fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.

Redneck Daiquiri by Christopher Williams

On summer days you could find Stella Antoinetti panhandling in front of 7-11 for beer and smokes. She wore a dozen or so jangly bracelets on each forearm and sang to herself to pass the time. Sometimes, if the song was coming out just right and she was coming up on her favorite part, she would forget to ask a passerby for change. When that happened, she was no longer a panhandler, but instead just a half drunk lady with a half assed dye job singing in the sun. 

Her two sons would be at the skatepark a mile away trying to make names for themselves. Mostly they were successful. Skyler, her youngest, had a section in the new Think video, and Raphael was winning vert competitions up and down the state and in Nevada. When they traveled for competitions and video shoots they referred to themselves in the singular, as The Machine. The term encompassed their busted ‘94 Camry, their collective skate careers, whatever mission was at hand, and, as Skyler had expressed it once, stoned before a park heat, the shared consciousness that suffused all things and bent the universe towards their inevitable success. Raphael had been double checking the camcorder batteries during this, his brother’s latest hippie-dippie ramble, but he shifted his focus to the words at hand, and eventually found himself nodding. Then, during his vert heat later that morning he imagined that everything around him, Skyler, of course, but also the dry grass, live oaks, vineyards, blackbirds, and even the lazily moving clouds, all of it was urging him towards a perfect score. And with a 9.4, he got as close as he ever had. 

They stopped by 7-11 on their way out of town to celebrate the new high score. They were headed to the city for the premiere of the Think video, where there would be cheap beer in abundance, Pabst most likely, or Tecate if they were lucky, but in honor of the 9.4 they were going to buy something fancy, something hoppy for the road. They parked and immediately spotted a figure sprawled out in the planter box under the left hand window, the one advertising a sale on taquitos. The figure, of course, was their mother. Skyler went to her and then called out to his brother. He showed Raphael the still bubbly puddle of vomit next to the planter box. It had swirls of red in it and, to Skyler’s eye, looked a little like fiery tie dye.

After some back and forth it was agreed they would drop her off at the ER in Santa Rosa. They laid her in the backseat, but she came to two blocks later. She groaned, said she needed a drink, a cigarette, said she just needed a fucking break in this shit sandwich of a life. When her sons told her where they were taking her, she laughed. 

“Abso-fucking-lutely not.”

“You puked blood, Mom,” Skyler said.

“Again?”

“How many times has that happened?” Raphael asked

“How do you feel?” Skyler wanted to know.

“Thirsty,” she said. 

Skyler went to hand her his gatorade, but Raphael grabbed it from him. 

“For booze. She means she’s thirsty for booze.”

“It’s like you know me,” she said.

Though she hadn’t been in their lives much, the boys did know some things about their mother. Her smell, for example. Coconut and mentholated cigarettes. Even now it filled the car and tugged at something in the boys’ chests. They also knew her laugh, a raspy staccato that had the same texture as a worn out motel towel. But they didn’t know her birthday, medical history, or where she’d been born. They didn’t know any of her relatives, what her first job had been, or what she’d wanted to be when she grew up. They didn’t know her favorite type of dog. They had been raised by their father’s mother, a quiet churchgoing woman who collected porcelain figurines, who was forever reopening her door to Stella, who, like a stray cat unaccustomed to domesticity, would wander right back out of that open door and then be gone for months, sometimes years. 

For her part, Stella knew her sons’ birthdays, but not their medical histories. She knew where they’d grown up, because here they all were. She knew her eldest Raphael had a heightened sense of justice that, while always well calibrated, could use some tempering if he was ever going to squeeze some enjoyment out of life. As for Skyler, she knew him to be a sweet boy with a generous heart, and she worried about him being on his own. Because of that, she was glad she had been mostly absent: it had forced the boys closer. She knew they were much better off with each other than they would’ve ever been with her.

“Where are you two swashbucklers off to this lovely evening?” she asked.

“The city.”

“That sounds more like it. Buying up on the way? Whose dick do I have to decapitate to get a road soda?”

Raphael tried to tell her that she wasn’t coming to the city, that they were going to drop her off at the ER and then it’d be see you later until the next time they dug her out of a planter box, a gutter, or a ditch. He merged onto the freeway. The speed of the redwoods whipping by, the hills flattening out, vineyards that now stretched out for miles, it all had a hypnotic effect on Stella, so that she didn’t think to reply to her son, and instead commented, practically in a whisper, that they should go to the beach. Ocean Beach. She’d taken them all there when they were young. 

“No, you didn’t,” Raphael said. 

“How old were we?” Skyler asked. 

“Two and three. Seems like you boys have somewhere important to be tonight, but look. A beach sunset with your old mom. Then you get off to your thing. I have people I can stay with in the city. Then we’ll just see each other in that ditch you mentioned.”

“We’re taking you to the ER,” Raphael said.

“No, you’re not.”

“Mom, you puked blood. That’s a big deal,” Skyler said. 

“I didn’t. I had Hawaiin Punch. Your dear old mother got nostalgic for a redneck daiquiri, that’s all.”

“Fuck me, why didn’t you say that?” Raphael asked.

“Because here we are, and it’s been too long.”

The corniness of her phrasing, the twenty five cent poetry of it, something about it made Raphael, if not agree with her, at least lose interest in arguing. Skyler, of course, needed no convincing. He found his mother’s words sublimely philosophic, without realizing, of course, that he too often spoke in the same airy tones.

They rode the rest of the way to Ocean Beach in silence. The boys continued to take in their mother’s scent. Stella, for her part, wedged her sons’ backpacks against the door, forming them into a cushion that she lay against. They had both packed fairly dirty clothes that stunk mildly through their packs, and she could tell which bag belonged to which son by smell alone. She knew Raphael’s bag for his heavy metallic twang of old pennies, while Skyler’s smell was citrusy and light. She pretended to sleep, but with each inhalation more fuel to the fire of memory was added. She remembered the boys as infants, fat faced and with milk perennially on their chins; as toddlers, sitting on their grandma’s living room floor in the sun, babbling away while their father, who hadn’t disappeared to Alaska yet, drank a fifth of schnapps on the couch and laughed until he fell asleep sitting up; as little boys, always hungry, and the smell of grilled cheese with ketchup, one of the few things she’d ever cooked for them. By the time they got to the beach she was drunk on these memories, so that when Raphael said he was walking to the liquor store to buy up and asked her if she wanted anything, she replied she was good.

She walked down to the sand and set up their spot close enough to the water to watch the surfers, but far enough away that the tide posed no threat. Once the boys were set up with their beers, she walked up to the liquor store and bought chips and peanuts. She unshelled peanuts for herself while her boys flew through the two family size bags of chips before the sun had hardly moved. 

The sun went down and the surfers started filing off the beach in their shining black wetsuits. Some passed near enough for Stella to wave to them. The surfers smiled, waved back. To them it would’ve looked like a normal enough scene: a mother enjoying a sunset with her two grown sons. 

*

Years passed. The boys no longer wondered when they’d see their mother next, or even if they’d ever see her again. They were no longer boys in that way. 

“Nice truck,” Skyler said as he kicked off his shoes in his brother’s entryway. When Raphael had bought this sprawling tract home he considered the proximity to the skatepark a bonus, though neither of them skated very often anymore. The house was also close to the 7-11 where their mother used to panhandle, but if Raphael had any feelings about this he didn’t express them to anyone, not even his wife. 

“Better be. The insurance alone.”

They went to the backyard and sat on patio furniture that still smelled of spray paint. Skyler talked at length about the challenges of managing a team of skaters. 

“These kids are so sensitive. I don’t remember ever being like that.”

Raphael nodded. He talked about his own recent promotion, the one that had afforded him the new truck. He was in charge of all purchasing for the biggest lumber company in town, but he missed being down in the yard and working with the product itself. He especially missed the close up smell of freshly cut timber. Now things were more complicated, more abstract. His brother agreed that they needed to get back to basics. They needed to go for a skate some time. Maybe hit some spots in the city, like back in the day. They could even try to find that warehouse they’d skated and slept in after the Think video premiere, after the sunset they’d spent with Stella.

“Speaking of that,” Skyler said, “Look what I brought.”

He took out a bottle of Hawaiin Punch and a fifth of Captain Morgan’s. 

“God damn,” Raphael said, “Redneck daiquiris, huh?”

“It’s Friday. You have ice?” Skyler asked.

Skyler fixed the redneck daiquiris and they moved to the kitchen. It had been dark for a while, and the frogs were going wild in a nearby drainage ditch. 

“Tastes like hummingbird feeder,” Raphael said.

“Well, those little guys move pretty good.”

“Wait a second.” Raphael got a lime from the fruit bowl and cut it into thick wedges that he then squeezed into their drinks. They drank.

“Wow,” Skyler said, “The lime kind of makes it.”

“It does, doesn’t it?”

“I wonder if she ever made it like that.”

“I wonder.”

*

Stella Antionetti was drinking at the B&B Lounge when she met the retired cabinet maker. He looked natty but endearingly uncomfortable in the gray suit he’d worn to his nephew’s wedding earlier that day. The man was hulking, bearded, had dimples you could drink milk out of, and Stella found herself inching closer and closer to him throughout the night, until he finally put his arm around her. She wasted no time, immediately burying her face into his meat slab of a shoulder. Despite being retired, he still smelled like dry wood and lacquer. She kept her face in his shoulder for quite some time, didn’t ever want to take it out, in fact.

His name was Len, and though he was originally from the area, he had been living by himself down near Joshua Tree for years now. He invited her to come down for a visit anytime, and a week later she showed up with all her things. They stayed up all night drinking and talking that first night. The next morning he proposed marriage. 

Most evenings Stella sat on the little patch of astroturf in front of their mobile home drinking beer and smoking her third cigarette of the day. The flagrant purples and pinks of the sunsets more than made up for the bleakness of the daytime desert. Sometimes while sitting out there she would get so nostalgic that she would make up her mind to get in the car and drive the seven hours up to the boys’ grandma’s house. She could sleep in the guest bedroom and then be fresh enough the next day to go and pay each of them their own visit. The idea excited her so much that she usually ended up drinking too much and passing out right there on the patio furniture. 

Soon, though. Because these days she only drank enough to steady her hands, and it was rare that she got fall-down drunk anymore. She had been to see a doctor at the free clinic after that day with her boys (it hadn’t been Hawaiin Punch that she’d vomited, it had been blood). The doctor she’d seen told her in no uncertain terms that she was drinking herself to death. She remembered looking at his hands, soft looking hands with perfectly trimmed nails, hands where even the dark hair on the knuckles appeared well cared for. These were hands she could trust. She knew that. After the visit she made sure to shake his hand. Sure enough, it was warm and smooth, like one of those hairless cats. Though he hadn’t asked her to, she promised that she would cut back on her drinking.

“This is just what I needed,” she said, and Dr. Kerner couldn’t have known that she was referring to the handshake, couldn’t have known that she was drawing power from it, and that she would for years to come. 

Cutting back meant she could hold a job at the Goodwill. Holding a job at the Goodwill meant she could afford drinks at the B&B, which, of course, was how she’d met Len. Somehow she’d known that doctor was an angel, and after all these years she still remembered his name, Dr. Kerner, the patron saint of not destroying your liver. 

One evening she invited Len to join her on the little patch of astroturf. It was understood that sunsets were her alone time, but for this occasion she had lit candles and gotten out the nice glasses. She even put ice for the drinks in a crystal bowl, complete with little silver tongs that she’d dug up from somewhere. She served the redneck daiquiris and looked at him expectantly as he took his first sip. Like her, his customary drink was beer. 

“It’s good,” he said, “Surprisingly good.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

She told him about her boys. He’d had no idea she had kids, but he wasn’t bothered. In the few months they’d been together she’d learned there was practically nothing she could do to bother him. Sometimes this irritated her, but at other times, like now, it came in handy. 

“Raphael’s the serious one. I bet he’s some type of supervisor by now. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have kids, and if they weren’t little A plus students. Skyler took after me, bit of a free spirit, bit of a rule breaker, but also a people pleaser. I’m not too sure where he got that, maybe just wanting his older brother to accept him. They were always close. Even when they were infants in separate cribs, they would reach out to each other. They’re a little team, the two of them, I doubt they’ll ever live more than a few miles from each other.”

“They have you to thank,” Len said.

He was right, of course, but not in the way he thought he was. 

“Enjoying your drink?”

“I am,” he said, “Pretty sweet though. I don’t think I could have more than one”

“Yeah,” she said, “you’re right. Something’s missing.”

Despite the cloying sweetness, they kept drinking the redneck daiquiris late into the night. They drank until the coyotes started talking to the darkness, and they found that the more they drank, the more they forgot what was missing. 

Christopher Williams lives in Oakland, where he works as a medical interpreter. He writes fiction in his spare time and frequently visits family in Healdsburg California, where he was born and raised, and where “Redneck Daiquiri” is based.

It Happened in Summer by Ron Chapman

“Mel. Mel. Melody. Wake up. Wake up!” Jo tapped Mel’s leg with an insistence that made her want to boot him out of bed and into next week. Then she remembered she loved him. 

“What the fuck, Jo? Damn. I was dreaming.” 

“What were you dreaming about.” 

“I don’t … I can’t remember. Damn.” 

“Sorry.” 

Mel rubbed her eyeball and turned onto her left side. “Mel, I think we’re dead.” 

Mel thought about it for a second. It wasn’t completely out of the question. She imagined the two of them as brains in jars sitting side by side on a shelf in some psychology professor’s office. Some Anna Deavere Smith looking woman who had spent a lifetime exploring the inner cosmos of neurons and biochemical interactions. Gravitas and dignity in all of her gestures. “You see this?” she would ask students who visited during office hours. “This is all that we are. And one day the jar will fall from the shelf, the glass will break, the liquid will seep out and soak into the carpet, and that will be that. So my advice to you is to take a deep breath, enjoy your life as much as you can, and stop wasting your time arguing about a point on a test when you could be spending it so much better by actually reading the textbook in the first place and filling yourself with useful information.” 

“We’re not dead, Jo.” 

“How do you know?” 

“You can’t dream when you’re dead.” 

“What?” 

“You can’t dream when you’re dead. And I was just dreaming.” 

“But you said you can’t remember what you were dreaming. Maybe you just think you were dreaming, but you actually just died and woke up in whatever comes next. Maybe that’s why you can’t remember.”

“Jo, I have work in the morning. For that reason alone I would love nothing more than for your theory to be correct, but just in case it isn’t I’m going back to sleep.” 

Joseph was silent, sitting up in bed staring into the somehow alien darkness of their bedroom. They had lived in this apartment for five years. He had seen this place with the lights off more times than he could count. In every season. Moonlight shining in from any number of angles. Streetlamps silent during the recent rolling blackouts or so bright he had to draw the curtains to sleep. But now it was uncanny. Eerie. Stale. 

He sat there in the stillness with Melody breathing in and out. The covers rising and falling beside him. He listened closely to the electric whine and hum that came from everywhere around him, and he felt certain and cold in his knowledge that there would be no more future. The darkness had eaten it up. The hum was an echo of all his human experience and everything he had ever known. It was even possible that the real Melody was actually still alive somewhere on the other side of all this humming and stillness, and that this woman resting beside him was just a figment of his imagination like a character from a dream. Either way, this moment, this place in time, this bed he shared or had shared with Melody was all that his brain could piece together to give him a semblance of life in the after life. This was all there was now. This was eternity. 

He decided that it wasn’t so bad, and he laid down, and he closed his eyes and he slept. And he slept. 

Melody awoke in darkness. At least an hour before her phone alarm would go off. She had to pee, but she didn’t feel like getting out of bed just yet. She wanted to savor the early morning darkness before dawn in bed with Joseph. These quiet, unworried moments were as precious as rare earth, and she meant to mine them for all they were worth and store them in her memories as a safeguard against the sadness that would come when he was gone.

It would be soon now. The doctors had said so. They had even stopped his treatments saying that the cure would kill him quicker than the disease at this point. There was nothing left to do but keep him comfortable, and say I love you. 

There were bills to pay, and she could not afford to stop going to work, but at the moment all of that was very far away. So before she had to mourn this man that she had spent so much of her life with, while there was still time, she meant to enjoy his presence. 

She smiled to herself, and turned over on her right side. Then she touched him, and she knew. Ice cold and too still, even in all this restless heat. His body was a glacier now. It had carved its path through life and finally come to rest beside her. Even so she tucked herself into him, and her tears wet his collarbone, and through the uneven breaths of her settling grief she said, “Goodbye.”

Ron Chapman is an actor and writer who believes in the power and necessity of storytelling. This is his first time being published anywhere on this planet and he is honored to be included in these pages.

Gravediggers by Anna Nicole Torres

A lantern bobbed in the fog enshrouding St. Joseph’s Cemetery. 

The chilled air was thick with the smell of rain and rot and in the gloom of near-dawn headstones emerged from the mist as jagged, crumbling gray isles overridden with moss. Two men, disparate in height and expression, plodded across the soggy grounds with shovels slung over their shoulders, mud and grass already staining the hems of their trousers. 

Cecil MacIntyre was the taller and thinner of the two. He bore a lantern of flickering flame that cast a pale glow across his narrow face, long nose, and a left cheek pockmarked by scars of childhood pox. He held the lantern low to provide reading light for the man beside him who was scrutinizing a map of the cemetery and stopping every few meters to investigate the names on the headstones they encountered. Burton Lee was a full head shorter than Cecil, with a square, stubbled jaw and a mouth that curled in a perpetual scowl. His dark hair was receding, making his forehead look rather large. The fog dampened all sound save for what was confined to the dim circle of light the lantern provided, making the squelch of their boots seem overloud in the stillness.

“Zebra,” Cecil said. 

“You what?” Burt replied. Neither of them stopped walking, through he looked askance at Cecil rather than the map. 

“X marks the spot,” Cecil said instead. He thrust his shovel into the soft, wet earth before the object of their search. The headstone was so new that moss hadn’t the chance to encroach on the letters yet. It read:

Private Eugene Gibbous Quagmire

Royal Irish Regiment 

24th March 1918 Age 24 

“No, what did you say, Cec?” Burt insisted as Cecil set their lantern atop the headstone. “Zeb—what?”

“Five across. What’s the name for a striped animal?”

Burt roughly folded up their map and stuffed it into one of his coat pockets. “A bleeding ‘zebra,’ I suppose?” he snapped. 

“Impressed are you?” Cecil replied with a grin. “It’s from the crossword. Thea’s got me doing ‘em every morning nowadays. Says they’ll keep my mind sharp. You know what a zebra is?”

“Ta,” Burt grunted, because he did not. When Cecil laughed at him, he barked, “Shove off! Rain’ll start any minute now. Help me dig this hole before the wailers come out. Or worse, Father Misery.”

“Y’know, Burtie, you’ve got to work on improving your vocabulary,” Cecil said cheerfully, yanking his shovel out of the dirt. “How’re you gonna land a bird like my sweet Thea if you don’t know what words go right where?”

“Nutter you are, bangin’ on about your bird,” Burt said, burying his shovel in front of the headstone and turning over a pile of grass and pulpy earth. “Maybe you heard what I said about helping me dig?”

“No need to rush unless he brings out a live one, aye?” Cecil said, joining him on the plot. They stood shoulder to shoulder as they began digging Eugene Gibbous Quagmire’s grave. 

“Keen eye, Cec, you great git,” Burt retorted testily, driving his shovel into the ground with greater force. “As if they haven’t been living all month.” 

After a quarter of an hour, the grave was two meters deep and half a meter wide. They were still standing in it when they heard the sound of a wheelbarrow trundling through the grass from the general direction of the church. The fog was too thick to tell where the steeple was, much less the church itself, and it took another minute before the black of Father Misery’s cassock became visible. Appearing first as a dark smudge that gradually darkened, it nearly came as a shock when the man himself emerged from the fog’s gnarled grasp. Father Ignatius Misery was a stout man sporting a full head of curly grey hair and a wrinkled, cherubic face. Sitting in his wheelbarrow was a dirty, bulging potato sack.

“Hullo, lads,” he said pleasantly.

“G’morning,” Burt grunted.

“Morning, sir!” Cecil said with considerably more enthusiasm. 

“Fancy a spot of tea when you’re done?” Father Misery said, leaning on one of the wheelbarrow’s handles. 

“Every day you offer, every day I says yes, Father,” Cecil replied with a laugh. He wiped the sweat off his brow with a thin handkerchief before climbing out of the grave. He offered Burt a hand up, as he was too short to climb out without embarrassing himself. 

“Does me good to hear, all the same — oh dear me.” Father Misery sighed as he watched the potato sack in his wheelbarrow begin to wriggle. A moan warbled from within as one trembling, rotten and gangrenous arm began to snake out of the opening. “Can you believe Mr. Quagmire refuses to stay dead, and even after I wasted my last good cricket bat on the poor bugger?”

“Best if I take care of it, sir,” Burt said, raising his shovel. 

“Yes, very well,” Father Misery said. He opened the potato sack so Burt could cleave the very undead Eugene Gibbous Quagmire’s head in two. 

Anna Nicole Torres is an MFA student at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her work was previously published in the Sad Girls Club Literary Blog. She loves writing horror, but not watching or reading it.