“The Worm Hunters” by Mark Putzi

“Entangled Essence” a Diptych by Lisa Boardwine.

Towards evening we ran about in our hooded sweatshirts and held our hands over our heads complaining. We had crushed a dozen or so just-opened buds with the bees still in them. Then it came time to celebrate because the sun was low and our spirits were struggling to burst out of our bodies. As the mist of evening descended upon us, we watched the last glorious red rays color the edges of the clouds. We made fog trails with our hands. We listened as the older kids walked up and down the street when all we could see of them were the lit ends of their cigarettes. 

At night, we threw nuts at the nest the squirrels had made in the old tree. Hardly looking at one another, we fidgeted in front of the T.V., while the sprinkler produced an artificial thunderstorm in our back yard. I often wondered why they didn’t simply move to another yard where they’d be safe. For I knew they were aware of me. They felt my voice, even in whispers.  The methodical pound of my footsteps echoed in their hearts like a drum. Sightless, I was sure they could yet envision me: processional, head bowed like a hooded monk, directing my beam of flashlight along the ground. Some darted for cover instantly when detected, but others — the martyrs — stretched themselves out, basking, fully glistening in the light.

I would inspect the cans of dirt for moisture. We would divide into two teams. My brother Chuck and I, on our hands and knees, would comb every inch of grass in the back yard. We could hear our younger sister and Tommy in the front yard, laughing, conversing.

There were hot and cold regions, lush greenlands where the nightcrawlers congregated with a disproportionate thickness, and arid deserts which contained only the odd sociopathic worm.  We worked silently: many times we pushed down the impulse to cry out when our efforts were rewarded with a capture. Afterwards, we compared lengths and thicknesses. We tried to sex them, always settling on females being the fattest because of the likelihood they were pregnant. We discussed fat or wiggly or both to determine which of these attributes would produce the best lure.  We did not ask God to deliver a big fish: He punished selfishness with foul weather and knotted lines inside our reels. So we asked God for lucky worms, for worms the fish could not resist eating.  Then it was up to us to land with our skill from among the many fish, the biggest. 

            We took a knife and cut holes into the plastic lid of our coffee can—we remembered always the time we had not done so by mistake—and set the can in the basement beside the pumpkin, which had ripened to a spectacular yellow-orange, awaiting Halloween dissection. From inside their metal confines, they emitted prayers to my father, imploring him to stay away, until at three in the morning he overcame their will, crashed up the stairs and into the bedroom, awakening me from a nightmare, and fending off my mother en route to the bed. I was on fire again, the Lightning Bolt Man from General Electric summarily cornering me in the attic where the yellowed Polish newspaper in my hands lit with a flash as I awoke. The next day they rejoiced and dug back under between rows of green beans and radishes while my father slept it off, his socks half dangling from his feet. “No you didn’t!” shouted Chuck, “Eat this dirt you lousy worm!” as he tripped and pummeled me when he saw the empty can with its lid beside, full of triangular breathing holes. They were the culprits, these holes allowed the worms to beseech my father’s tardiness. I laughed because I knew we’d fish another time. It never hurt when someone hit you, only afterwards. That afternoon, I went between the houses where the snapdragons grew, took it out on the bees. I watched them curiously, buzzing erratically back and forth, finally lighting on their deathbeds.

   

Mark Putzi received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee in 1990. He has published stories in Jazz Street, The Cream City Review and Wilderness House Literary Review and poetry in many small press magazines. Since 2012, he has worked as a retail pharmacist in Milwaukee. In 2015 he married for the first time. His wife, Sharon Nagel has published two mysteries in collaboration with her co-writer Jocelyn Koehler under the pen name Juneau Black. The family pet, Willow, is an internet star and a highly accomplished tortoise shell cat.

“Common Blackberry” by Kirsty MacKay

“Gilded” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

A woman floats on her back in the Sandy River under a rare Oregon sunshine. The layers of gray have given way to blue skies. The sun says to all the people below, “I’m still here!” She stays afloat with an occasional fluttering of her fingertips and, perhaps, some kind of buoyant dreaming. Growing along the opposite bank are thick and wild stream-fed blackberry bushes. The fruit dangles over the river. The underbrush rustles from waxwings and robins and meadowlarks that feed on the berries. The woman rises slowly from the water in her green bathing suit, noticing. As she carries no basket, she just takes a plump fruit and pops it into her mouth. She tastes fully, raising her shoulders with pleasure, and then reaches for another. With the sun warming her face and the water cooling her ankles, there is no craving for whipped cream for the berries, just the sweet taste of instant gratification. She is like a large water bird surrounded by the things that she needs. As she turns back to the water, you can see blackberry stains on her fingers, her lips, and her chin. The water reopens to her and washes her hands and face gently. She resonates joy like a laughing Buddha and goes to lie down on the sand; anyone watching has learned something without even having had a talk with the bather about her philosophy of life. The past is a phantom and the future never comes, or, perhaps—the fruit is ready; are you ready for the fruit?

   

Kirsty MacKay is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of the South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable. She also enjoys leading poetry strolls through parks, discussing the works of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, and Alice Walker.

“The Panamint Range” by Kirsty MacKay

“Rome rhythm” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

I awoke at about 4 a.m. with salt-water-swollen eyelids. My comforter was ruffled up around my neck; its ridges looked like low-lying mountains. I imagined Death Valley’s ranges as black with blue streaks in their fissures.  Maybe I was in a windswept valley, surrounded by clay hills. I was frozen in my bed, only breathing. To stir meant relenting to a new day without Marie. Frozen was safer. I was not yet able to say infidelity or dissolution. For now, there was only kick-in-the-gut mornings and crying on people’s wicker furniture until they edged me out. 

I had really wanted to go to Death Valley in the spring of  ’05 for “the Bloom of the Century.” The New York Times had promised a “Technicolor Season,” due to massive rains in Southern California. However, sometime after planning the trip but before departing for the desert, Marie told me she was falling for someone else. I screamed at her over the phone to cancel because if we went on this trip, “We would be like divorced people on holiday!” 

She said, “I stand to lose around $600.” 

“Cancel! I don’t care anymore!” 

So the morning I woke up in my illusion of darkened hills embracing me, I was still debating on going it alone. I even researched whether a bus goes from Las Vegas into the national park. I had done things alone before. Five years prior, I moved up from California to Oregon to be with Marie in Portland. I had a sick moment of picturing myself heart-broken in Las Vegas trying to find a bus out of there.

I stared wide-eyed at some realities of my life as the contours and colors of my bedcovers defined themselves in the morning light. I needed my family, my friends, my acquaintances and familiar street corners. I needed my mother to make me a cup of tea and my father to put the tearing grief into exact words and help me to detach. 

Marie arranged for her ticket miles to be claimed later. She re-routed my own ticket to my parents’ house, at a penalty. I spared my heart the telescopic mirage of having while not having—traversing a valley of poppies and primrose with a woman steadily disappearing in plain sight. I missed the Hundred Year Bloom and surfed the net instead for wildflowers of the Mojave Desert. I yearn to go to Death Valley National Monument in person and see a Mojavea breviflora in the flesh. 

   

Kirsty MacKay is a live storyteller who shares ancient stories from the Ohlone people of the South Bay. She has been writing poetry for roughly three decades while dealing with chronic issues of depression and anxiety. She considers herself to be a fairly recovered woman who remains, nonetheless, vulnerable.

“Between the Living and the Dead: A Chernobyl Monologue” by Stacey Johnson

Painting by Anna Rac.

The name means black event: think 350 Hiroshimas. You’d drive out of town, see a cow wrapped in cellophane. Beside her, an old woman, also in cellophane.

            Dogs and cats did not know to be afraid. Soldiers came to shoot them for their radioactive fur, loading the bodies in trucks. We wondered, What about the birds?

            The bees knew first. They did not return for six years. It became a crime to eat the tomatoes from our gardens. They made us pour out the milk. I had a cat, Vaska, who saved me from being eaten by rats in my bed, but in the winter he was gone. Starving cats ate their kittens.

            Warnings came: breast milk was radioactive.

            Who’s to blame? was a question we only asked in the beginning. Later it was simply, What now?

            An infant, mouth to his ears and no ears. Another born like a sac: no eyes, no mouth, four operations before her fourth day. It took four years to get them to admit that the reactor was the cause. The mother needed to know that it was not the fault of their love.

            Soldiers removed the top layer of soil. Everything alive was contaminated. They drank vodka with goose shit, for protection.

            It’s an old story: Prometheus steals fire, Adam bites the apple, Frankenstein defies death. They called the atom the peaceful worker. They laughed in the face of God and then the reactor blew up. Then they told us: here is punishment for our sins. I ripped my dress on a fence; my brother broke a milk bottle. We hid these transgressions from our mother.

            In school, children drew upside-down trees, red rivers, and cried. In the abandoned areas, time moved anyway, without people around. Like childhood, said the old man before he died.

            Did you hear about the priest called to Auschwitz? When the Nazis announced plans to starve men to death, he said, “Take me instead.” He sang aloud for three weeks until he got lethal injection. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone. He knew. There are better shields than flesh, but you work with what you are given.

            See the woman: In her yard are the bodies of her parents, brother, husband, daughter. I love my graves, she says, as she tends to them, singing.

            Her husband was a liquidator. The doctors said, stay away, that is no longer a man. In the final days, bits of his skin would come off in her hand where she held him. It took fourteen days for his liver to come spewing out of his mouth.

            Here is no mystery: flesh tears, bacteria invade.

            Nails hold a body at its weakest point, against the wood of the tree of knowledge, fastened on a crossbeam of cypress.

            If no one looks for the body in the tomb, then no resurrection. The women went. They hid in the ancient forests and crawled back under the barbed wire. Now they tend chickens.

            Most walked away, to escape contamination. But this should tell you something. Outside the Zone, they labeled the milk: “for children” and “for adults.”

            With Hiroshima at least you could see the cloud. This melts you from the inside out. One day we were sitting in the garden and the apple trees were right there, blooming, but we couldn’t smell anything.

            Uranium decomposition: 238 half-lives. A billion years.

            Thorium: 14 billion. How do you hold that?

            What can you hold?  A cat, a potato, a hand.

            Don’t you worry about looters? the soldiers ask.

            To steal what, my soul?

            The dead are here, in the yard. You can talk to them just like the living.

            The baby looked healthy, but I buried her at my husband’s feet. Cirrhosis of the liver, congenital heart disease: she absorbed the shock and I lived.

            We were prepared for bombs. But the atom is everywhere. We learned to fear rain, snow, and love. How do you protect yourself from the things you cannot see?

            Stories are always dog eat dog, man vs. nature, David and Goliath. But the monster beneath our beds we learn not to talk about; it lives in the spaces we abandon. Adults tell children, if you can’t see it, it must not exist.

            I saw cesium pieces in my yard: bright colors the size of my handkerchief. Then I was not afraid, and I sat watching the birds and the elk and the planes that flew back and forth from the reactor, looking for answers.

            If you remember the famine, it’s hunger, not radiation, that scares you. So cook the mushrooms and the wolves howl around your house and you sing.

            Outside, we are lepers. Here, we wait together. Tell me, Who is the victim and who is the priest?  Here we are both.

            There is a man who stalks the reactor now, keeping watch. He explores the rubble, the rooms no one else will go into. There are thousands of workers tasked with erecting a sarcophagus around the site. He is keeping watch for them. He returns daily to the thing that kills him. He calls it his main enemy, his main friend.

            What else can we hold it with, but our bodies? We need to place our fingers in the wounds.

            If I stay alive, he says, I will leave the factory, become a shepherd.

            Come inside now. I have jam from the garden. Oh my legs, I don’t want to stand anymore. Sit with me, drink.  Look!



Stacey Johnson writes and teaches in San Diego County, where she is a current MFA candidate at San Diego State University. Her work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, A Year In Ink, and various small online publications. She lives with her daughter, Grace, who inspires everything.

“To Dorothy” by Sidney Thompson

Painting by Anna Rac

I remember you, the brunette from California, with the sheet music of “Over the Rainbow” framed on your apartment wall. It was autographed by the composer of the music or the lyrics, one of them. I remember, too, clearly, how on that night we met, on the eve of the fall semester, when we first had sex, you said the Tin Man had always been your favorite, ever since you were a little girl, because he didn’t have a penis.

Sometimes I think of you, how you preferred to be eaten than penetrated. You who bragged that same night that you’d slept with over a hundred guys.

Whenever I find myself in a cemetery, I remember what you said once so many years ago—of course, in Oxford, Mississippi, when we were grad students. We’d watched Ghost at the mall theater, then visited Faulkner’s grave, admiring the stonework, and you said in the shade after some wandering, “There’s nothing sadder than seeing new flowers on old graves.”

Not many weeks later you called me to your apartment because you’d promised paramedics that you wouldn’t spend the night alone. You confessed that it wasn’t the first time you’d asphyxiated yourself but it had been your first time to call 911. You showed me the knitted rope, the bedroom doorknob. Are you beginning to remember me yet?

Then, before long, you lost your teaching post after word got out you had sex with students and your student’s friends at a frat party. We weren’t speaking by then. Different circles.

If you read this, find me on Facebook. You’ll see I’m married to a brunette from Kansas. How about that for irony—me with my Dorothy at last. But do you have your Tin Man? Are you somewhere, or anywhere, by now? If I remembered your name, my approach would’ve been entirely different.




Sidney Thompson holds an MFA in creative writing and a Ph.D. in American literature, with a secondary specialization in African-American narratives. He is the author of the short story collection Sideshow, winner of Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for Short Story Collection of the Year (2006). His fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and in such literary journals as 2 Bridges Review, Atticus Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Cleaver Magazine, The Cortland Review, Danse Macabre, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Grey Sparrow Journal, NANO, Prick of the Spindle, Ragazine, and The Southern Review. He also has a chapbook of poetry, titled You/Wee, forthcoming in December from Prolific Press. He lives in Fort Worth, where he teaches creative writing at Texas Christian University.

“I Might Never Learn” by Randall Brown

Painting by Anna Rac.

Reflux runs in my family, burning even as babies, a sharp cringe in every snapshot. This esophageal squall tastes like shredded Firestones, a tired ache that settled in my father’s Adam’s apple. Extended into sinuses, eroded cracks, soft fissures, until he could no longer stomach margaritas with my mother. The outlawed repertoire might leave lesser men impoverished: no lemon tang, no hot press of garlic, no avocado butter. Chocolate turned volatile: no beer, wine, briny cocktail. But my father relaxed into restrictions: a kiosk of pots with broth and worms. Eating without, craving pittance. But not me, no, I continue to burn.

   

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in numerous anthologies. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and now teaches in Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. “I Might Never Learn” first appeared in Corium Magazine.

“As Designed” by Randall Brown

Painting by Anna Rac.

More and more, he finds himself in the psychedelia of Farmville, the land of Teletubbies without the creatures: crops, a cottage, a line of cherry trees, all of it his. Blueberries to arise in four hours, tomatoes to plant, watermelons to fertilize. He’s saving up for a tractor or seeder. He pets the Clydesdales, gathers the wool, collects truffles from the pigs. He walks along the white-washed fence, passing the red, purple, yellow hay bales. Someone has painted GROOVY onto the day-glo barn. No neighbors’ dogs bark; no face peers over the fence or through the evergreens. A duck sits on an anvil. Any second the pink roses will bloom. Later, the daffodils, the red tulips. A bug in the system has made crops unable to shrivel. There’s no need to harvest, but he keeps to the schedule. Except for the daisies, like miniature suns or cracked-open eggs, alive for weeks, undead, desperate to…. In the corner, by the tombstones, fallow land waits to be plowed. Somewhere a phone rings, like an alarm. Somewhere, a pile of papers. Somewhere, a text. Pick me up. Take me here. Remember to get the milk. Somewhere, outside of Farmville, someone works madly to fix that glitch so flowers will wither, as they should.

     

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in numerous anthologies. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and now teaches in Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.

“Kick Me in the Nuts for $20?” by Marcus Meade

Painting by Anna Rac.

We walked out of Balley’s, a roving bachelor party looking for the right bar or Blackjack table. I’d lost my ass playing three-card poker, and the rest of my group lagged behind.

A steady stream of Vegas bodies moved both directions of a crosswalk staircase. I tried to step slowly so my friends might keep up, but the current waits for no one except the migrant workers handing out small cards for hookers—rocks in the stream.

The wide crosswalk provided some relief from the rush of people so I stopped and watched a man with an electric guitar and small amp playing “American Woman.” Another man with a briar-patch beard sat next to an upturned ball cap and a sign reading “too ugly to hook.”

In the quiet that followed guitar man’s song, a voice projected over the buzz of moving people. “Kick me in the nuts for twenty bucks,” a man shouted. He stood near the end of the crosswalk holding a cardboard sign that read, “kick me in the nuts?”. He was young, early twenties, and his clothes dangled from thin arms and legs. He smiled with repeated shouts, “Twenty bucks, kick me in the nuts!” Unlike the man too ugly to hook, who simply sat on the ground and stared, this young man’s face reflected the liveliness of the street.

Under the neon lights, his skin looked a dull shade of peach, like he was covered in layers of plastic wrap. His face had patches of hair that might look impressive on someone ten years younger but on him looked ragged and dirty.

In hearing the man, I visualized the toe of a boot smashing my own nuts and remembered the pain of contact from years past. The uncontrollable burn, the body-snatching sickness deep in my gut that recedes slowly.

After a moment, the friends I’d been waiting for came walking my way. I jumped back into the stream beside them, and we continued across the street when a familiar voice commanded us to hold up. Chuck, a member of our group, was talking to the man with the “kick me in the nuts?” sign. The rest of us clustered at the top of the staircase trying not to interrupt the flow of people.

After only a minute, Chuck and the man came walking up to our group. Chuck pointed to Sam, the soon-to-be groom, and presented the man as a gift to him. Sam looked hesitant and waved his hands in protest, but the others pushed him closer to the man while laughing and clapping in praise at Chuck’s gift.

I stood silent with my hands interlocked at my belt. This won’t happen, I thought. And yet, I saw the group turn to Sam. I saw him blush and hold up his hands asking them to stop but only in the most lighthearted way.

A part of me forced my hands up in a signal asking my friends to stop before letting them fall back to their clenched position at my belt. I turned and fixed my gaze on a large sign for Paris, unable to look at my friends, and thankful I couldn’t look at myself.

The man encouraged Sam as well, his excitement matching the building frenzy around him. With nearly fifteen dedicated onlookers, Sam gave in, and I stared more intently at the neon sign for Harrah’s.

The crowd surrounding Sam had reached at least twenty-five people, and everyone stood surprisingly quiet as the money changed hands.

I held my breath, waiting for the laughter and collective exhale of the audience to signal an end to the show. I waited to hear the man scream or fall or cry and turned my head toward anything other than what was happening five feet away from me.

My eyes squinted as a reflex, and the neon lights became blurry and dull. Waiting for the street to make sounds again, a violent force struck me on the side. I lost my balance and fell face-first to the ground.

The silence remained, no laughs or screams, just anticipation that wouldn’t release. My scraped hands pressed equal parts pavement and discarded hooker cards. Looking up, I saw the kick-me-in-the-nuts man running past Harrah’s. His loose shirt and baggy jeans billowed out like the parachute of a drag racer, but he wasn’t slowing down. He navigated the stream of people with precision, and was gone before Chuck got beyond, “Hey, asshole! Hey!”

The crowd slowly broke away, carrying a new, anxious laughter up and down stream.

My friends picked me up, and we continued our walk down the strip. We found the next casino, and I lost two hundred dollars shooting craps. I watched servers in short skirts and body glitter walk from table to table. I watched the night turn back into morning and the numbers on the jackpots climb higher and higher. As we headed back towards the hotel, Chuck and the others grumbled about the man who, it turned out, wanted twenty dollars to run down the street. Eventually, they turned it into a joke, another story to tell back home huddled around a table at the bar.

   

Marcus Meade is an Assistant Professor – General Faculty at the University of Virginia in the Academic and Professional Writing Program. He focuses primarily on scholarship in Rhetoric and Composition, but occasionally finds time to write short fiction, music, and baseball commentary. His interests are eclectic, but his intent is always the same, to write something that helps people.

“The Twenty-Two” by Clayton Bradshaw


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

Suicide, n.1, 1. one who dies by his own hand: I shaped the rope into a tight S in my hand before wrapping the end around it and tightening the noose with a knot;   2. one who commits self-murder: I attached one end to the base of the satellite dish on my roof, sturdy enough to not bend and change my mind;    3. one who attempts or has a tendency to commit suicide: The loop slipped over my head, a medallion of the shame of peaking in life too soon as a pawn, as soldier fighting for someone else’s war, as a soldier losing my own war, as a father losing my own son;     n.2 the act of taking one’s own life: I see how we react every time one of us takes their own life. I see how all past conflict pushes to the side in favor of honoring the good parts of memory. In death, each of us becomes the hero we could never be on the battlefield. In Memoriam, we transcend in Ovidian metamorphosis to become birds or hyacinth;     self-murder: I remember _______, spleen shattered like a fragile mason jar unable to contain the remorse constructed by survival, putting the barrel of a .38 into the soft spot of his temple, rendering his funeral closed casket;     attrib., esp. as suicide letter, suicide note, suicide pact. _______ likely laughed as the shotgun he kept next to his stack of rented schoolbooks found its way into his jawline. He always found humor in darkness, in death, and especially in his own death;     Comb. Suicide blonde, n. slang a woman with hair dyed blonde (esp. rather amateurishly), a peroxide blonde: _______ never dyed his hair, but it looked almost as white as the all 30 of the Vicodin in his system when we found him, a sharp contrast to the blonde hairs that blended into the sand on his patrol cap;     n. a clause in a life insurance policy which releases the insurer from liability if the insured commits suicide within a specified period: _______, rifleman always on my left, number two in every room we cleared, hung from the rafters in his bedroom three months after he got out, a testament to institutionalized concussions;     suicide gene n. Genetics a gene which causes the death of the cell carrying it: Maybe some defective gene drives them to it, maybe some gene implanted by military service;     suicide squeeze   n. Baseball the action of a runner on third base in running for home as the ball is pitched. Pinched between the plate and third, we never find peace at home, so we run back and forth, no escape allowed, forever implanted with the realization that the memory will never leave, but the people around us will.     v.1 to commit suicide. We are committed to a dying cause, condemned to survival unless we fix it ourselves.     v.2 trans. (euphemistically) So, I take the rope off my neck and use a pen to pierce my veins and spill our blood on the page.

 

 

Clayton Bradshaw served in the US Army for eight years as an infantryman. He deployed with 3/2 SCR to Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. He graduated from Sam Houston State University with a BA in English and currently participates in the MFA-Creative Writing program at Texas State University. His work can be found in The Deadly Writers Patrol, Second Hand Stories, War, Literature and the Arts, and O-Dark-Thirty.

 

“Psych-Ward Cheesecake” by Elyse Brouhard


Photo Credit: Cady Guyton

I was used to the uniform forest of green scrubs. Short and tall trees of people in the sterile hallways. When they took my clothes away and replaced them with baggy hospital attire, they made me look as crazy as I felt.

This was my second time at St. Vincent’s inpatient psychiatric unit. I knew to strip naked and twirl in front of the vigilant nurse, displaying my scars and my lack of smuggled pills or strings or razor blades. I wasn’t surprised when they locked my bathroom door because I was on suicide watch. I wasn’t shy to ask the bouncy nurses to unlock it every time I needed to pee. I was a veteran.

This time though, I was pissed. Enraged they kept asking the same three inane questions every single shift. Annoyed to be babysat by nurses years younger than me. Furious that my life was out of control. I was angry in a way that I had not let myself be for a long time. It made me bold rather than contentious. I had very little to hide, no dignity to uphold. I was stripped down to my core, and it was liberating.

After two weeks on a closed unit, I began to see life differently. I enjoyed simple things like convincing a pizza man to deliver to the double-locked, double doored, fifth-floor ward. I became uninhibited. I took back tiny pieces of myself that I had lost or buried.

Psych ward introductions are straightforward. You start conversations by saying, “What are you here for?” “How long have you been here?” “How scared are you right now?” You make friends because you sit at the same table for breakfast. Because you both take the same meds. Because you attend art group together.

One evening, five of us squished together around a small, gray and white speckled table on the “quiet” side of the psych-ward. This side was smaller and gave us the illusion of separation. We started playing cards—blackjack? Or it could have been Scrabble. I can’t remember clearly. We huddled around the table, in our matching scrubs and assorted colors of non-slip socks; it felt like a pajama party. Laughing at our sarcastic and silly jokes, comfortable in this unspoken hug of solidarity and understanding. It’s amazing the familiarity you feel with people when you are thrown together in the most vulnerable moments of your lives.

Chuck disappeared to sweet-talk his way into a snack. I imagine he asked for something outside the usual offerings, perhaps cake or a candy bar, because the nurse sent him back with cream cheese and graham crackers, instructing him that, if you put the cream cheese on the crackers, it kind of tastes like cheesecake. We were dubious but curious.

Chuck stirred the tiny, foil-covered packet of cream cheese, and spread it messily across a cracker. He confirmed that this concoction did taste somewhat like cheesecake. Now we were all on it. Kellie mixed in a few sugar packets. Someone had the genius idea to mix peanut-butter into this creation. Pale, brown crumbs and sparkles of granulated sugar littered the table.

Napkin-less, we licked our fingers and grinned. We floated with the joy of mashing together sugar and cream cheese and spreading it on crackers with a spoon—because we weren’t allowed to have knives. We were laughing at ourselves as you only can when your world has crashed down and you find you are still standing. When nothing matters except the exact moment you are in.

We were unaware of the circling of nurses doing rounds: down the hallway, back around us to the nurses’ station. We stopped noticing the periodic loudspeaker announcements of “Code Gray” or “Rapid Response.” We were in a bubble of safety. You couldn’t go any lower, and you couldn’t find more understanding people to be on the bottom with you.

We complained about the same nurses, avoided the same therapists. We talked openly about our wish to die or to drink. Allen said the first thing he planned on doing when he got out was “smoke a joint.” We told each other how we wanted to kill ourselves, which methods we had tried, or what we did instead of jumping off the building. We didn’t think twice about marks on arms, on wrists, on ankles. We understood not coming out of your room for hours, not eating a meal for two days, making bed sheets into nooses and hiding them under towels.

We grinned over the victory of our makeshift cheesecake.

We offered the best and simplest of healing: our presence and unspoken acceptance. If you could make magic like that happen in a place like this, you could find magic in other places too.

 

 

Elyse Brouhard lives in Forest Grove, Oregon. She started writing at the age of two, while pretending to take people’s orders for food. She works as a social worker, primarily with homeless adults with mental illnesses. She loves her work and has found a home in the people she assists. Writing is one of her favorite skills to employ for surviving life.