“The Physics of Memory and Death” by Curtis Smith

Physics (Who Am I)
“Who Am I?” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

Sara wakes after midnight. The moon is bright, the room lit in indigo and bone. The lacy curtains billow. On the breeze, the scent of salt, the waves’ ceaseless crash. Sara’s shoulders are sore to the touch. She smells of lotion. She lights a cigarette and, with lips pressed to the window screen, blows a smoky plume. Her parents had fought earlier—too much bourbon and too many cigarettes. Now another sound, a rhythm like the surf. Soft moans. Sara rises from her bed and lays a hand on the thin wall.

A conch shell rests atop the dresser. Sara lifts the shell from its wooden stand. The shell’s shape reminds her of her brother’s old football. She runs a finger along the bony ridges, wipes dust from the opening’s shellac-glistening tongue. Using two hands, she raises the shell to her ear.

Of course Sara does not hear the ocean. The low-frequency hiss is born from the fact that the shell acts as a closed-pipe resonator. Its wave-mimicking song is white noise, the blank slate upon which all recognizable sounds are etched. In a bit of Mobius logic, its gentle purr is also the washed-out resultant of all sounds, a tone which gravitates more than any other toward purity and which also contains almost every audible frequency.


Hot the next day, the air thick with haze and a fishy odor. Sara lies in the umbrella’s shade but soon grows restless. She is annoyed by the stink. Annoyed by the radio station the boys beside them play. She tries to focus on the sounds of waves and gulls, on the call of children’s voices. From behind her sunglasses, she considers her parents. There are all coping with memories, with silences and empty spaces. She goes for a walk. The seagulls hover, the shoreline thick with their calls and the too-close beating of their wings. There are no swimmers in the water, the surf overtaken by wave-nudged jellyfish, dozens, maybe hundreds of them. In the wet sand, a boy pokes one with a stick. The texture and thoughtless cruelty of the scene make Sara ill.

She lies back on her towel. Sand bristles the nook of her upper thigh. She pulls the elastic aside and brushes out the granules. Turning, she catches the boys with the horrible music looking her way. The boys smirk. One leans over and whispers into a friend’s ear. Sara rises and shakes out her towel, ensuring the boys are hit in the fallout. She repositions the towel on the other side of her parents and lets the sun beat upon her face.

Friction is the rub of this world. Friction wears on a body from without and within. The smoothest surfaces are rough at the microscopic level, imperfect despite their machined polish. Mu is the measure of the coefficient of friction. The higher the mu, the greater the frictional force. Mu is equal to the force applied divided by the force perpendicular. Both forces are measured in Newtons, which, upon calculation, cancel, leaving mu as that rare phenomenon of physics, a number unclaimed by a unit’s measure.

Last year, Sara’s science teacher introduced her class to mu in a lab involving sliding blocks. Calculating the frictional coefficient was simple enough, but despite her teacher’s words and diagrams, Sara struggled with the notion of mu. She found its lack of a proper unit vexing, the unshackled numbers threatening to flutter off like a summer butterfly, but today, on the sun-baked beach, she feels a previously unappreciated force all around her—in her mother’s crinkling page turns, in the boys’ music and banter, in the breeze that stinks of rot and death. Here, perhaps, lies the crux of her consciousness, the most telling confirmation she exists registered in the rub between herself and the world.


That night, they go to the boardwalk funhouse. There is always a hitch at times like these, the memory of her brother, dead these eight months. A car accident, a night of bad decisions. Gone. The funhouse would be his kind of thing. Spooky, silly, stupid. Sara is not the type to scream—yet she does, her hands clutching her father’s arm when a knife-wielding woman bursts through a curtain.

They enter a room of mirrors. A dozen reflections surround her, fragmented views, distortions fat and thin. Sara grows disoriented. She reaches for her father, but she is fooled, her hand grasping air. “Daddy?” she calls.

In physics, /images are divided into the real and the virtual. A real image’s rays converge at a focal point, which in turn can be observed on a screen or sheet of paper. A virtual image does not exist in these terms; rather, it is a trick of the eye and the properties of light, the plaything of magicians and the subterfuge-filled origin of the phrase “done with mirrors.”

Upon exiting the funhouse, Sara thinks again of her brother. Recently she’s been distressed by his fading image, another abandonment, leaving her nothing more than memories and photographs, /images both real and not.


Sara sits atop the sloping shoreline. The late-day sun strikes her back, her shadow stabbing far into the foaming surf. Nearby, a little boy dips a bucket into the lapping waves and empties the water over his sister’s feet. A bigger wave rolls in. The boy tumbles but the girl pulls him from the water. The children yell and laugh. Seagulls hover on the breeze. The lifeguards are gone, and most of the day’s crowd has left. The light is warm and yellow and rich.

A complex wave is formed by two frequencies separated by more than 7Hz. The world is awash in dissonance, two waves that mesh in an unpleasing manner. But if the resultant sound is pleasant, consonance is achieved and a chord is formed. Cultural and experiential influences surely affect the judgment of consonance and dissonance. The symphonies of John Cage and other avant-garde composers raise the question of whether our values of consonance can be altered by experience. Traditional music of the Far East, with its pentatonic scales and lack of quantitative rhythms, often registers as odd, even unpleasant, to the Western ear. Thus, unlike most of the hard-set rules of physics, the values of consonance and dissonance appear to be flexible and open to interpretation.

Sara listens to the children. What a deceptively simple magic, their voices able take the surf’s crumble, the caw of gulls, and elevate them into chords. Sara closes her eyes. She hears her brother’s voice and hers, arguing, laughing, teasing. In this echo, her brother lives. She will keep this chord in her heart.



Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. Press 53 published two recent story collections Bad Monkey and The Species Crown. Casperian Books published the novels Sound + Noise and Truth or Something Like It. Sunnyoutside Press recently released his latest book, Witness, an essay collection.

Read our feature of Curt (including the author’s own words about his work) here.

“The Sequined Shawl” by Simone Davy

The Sequined Shawl (Survivor)
“Survivor” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

There were three women. They all had dry skin, good nails, an ability to gossip and husbands who didn’t know what to say. Marge and Angela wore curlers at night and hair lacquer during the day. They both said that Sabrina should dye her hair a chestnut colour and put on a bit more make-up. Marge was the mother of Angela and Angela was the mother of Sabrina.



I was twenty two; it was 1938, just before the war. It was a smashing time for dancing; I wanted to be Ginger Rogers. I didn’t know much about men, only what I’d learnt from Joan, my brother’s wife. She said marriage wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The wedding dress was as good as it got, it was all downhill after that. Especially once the baby arrived. Boiling nappies up in a large saucepan was what you had to be getting on with, oh and making the hubby’s bread and butter pudding. But we had a nice house, better than most, a proper front garden with a row of standard roses that flowered yellow and red in the summer. I’d been married just over a year the first time. I’d missed a couple of months – I guessed one must be on the way. I was upstairs brushing my teeth when I felt it. Sharp as anything it was. I shouted for Harold, Mrs Bell next door must have heard me.

‘I’m bleedin’ to death,’ I said, as he came up the stairs two at a time.

I grabbed his arm and squeezed so tight it left marks on his skin.

‘You better get me an ambulance fast, I’ve not got much time left,’ I was bent over with the toothbrush still in my hand.

‘Get a grip, Marge. You’re gonna be alright.’

He left me on the stairs and ran down the road to phone for an ambulance. There was only one phone in the street. I bet there would be a queue, being it was Sunday morning. I couldn’t get to that hospital fast enough. Once I was there I wished I was back at home.

The doctor was a bit curt. He stood looking down, with the metal bed guard between us. Acted like he’d catch something if he got too close.

‘You’re probably losing your baby Mrs Dearing. Only twelve weeks so it won’t be too bad. A few days in bed should sort it out one way or the other.’

‘Will it hurt Doctor?’ I wondered what he was like with his wife.

My mam always said having a baby was the worst pain ever. She’d put me off sex telling me that. Even when I married Harold I was a bit reluctant. It took a good year before I got up the courage. Harold was quite patient but even he’d had enough. Everyone kept asking if we’d had any luck. If a baby wasn’t on the way within a year they thought you were having troubles.

‘It’ll hurt a bit, Mrs Dearing, but you’ll be right as rain in a week or two.’ He wrote something on his clip board, nodded at Harold and then went off in a hurry. I lay on the bed and looked at the cracks on the ceiling and took deep breaths as the pains came and went. I felt like I was on a rough sea without any travel sickness pills.

The doctor didn’t tell me I’d bleed for a month, not see the curse until January and that I’d be crying into the washing. He missed out the bit about it hurting like hell too. I didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my sister Nelly.

Angela arrived in the end, after another few goes. She was the bonniest lass, golden curls with blue eyes. I felt like I was right back home looking at her. We’d sit together and imagine we were up in the mountains looking over the lochs. Naughty at times mind, but we had a laugh. I just had the one girl. It never worked out again; though I did my best to try. On the mantel piece I’ve got a picture of the three of us on the beach down at Southend. I’ve got my hair all long and curly, nice dress too, stripes always looked good on me. Just the three of us.



My mother made such a fuss about those sorts of things. She spent all my teens lying down. I was listening to The Beatles in my room and she was listening to The Stones in hers.

‘Where’s Mum?’ I’d ask Dad when I got in from school.

‘She’s got one of her heads,’ he’d shout from the kitchen, where he’d be trying to cook kidneys in tomato sauce. Smelt like someone’s intestines.

She didn’t tell me much and definitely not the facts of life. I found most of it out from books, especially Lady Chatterley’s Lover, everyone got that one. I used to work in a boutique along Oxford Street, as a window-dresser. We had all sorts in our shop, so there wasn’t much I didn’t know when I met Don. Still no one told me you could get pregnant and then it could all go wrong. I knew my great-grandmother had died in childbirth but that was a long time ago – before the NHS.

I was in there for about two months, Bushy Maternity Hospital. It was a small hospital, just forty beds. I’d wake up at six to the smell of porridge and the sound of the nurses pushing round their trolleys. A whole row of us not allowed to move. We woke up in the morning and the first thing we’d do was put on our make-up. I liked to look nice for Don when he came in. Foundation, black eyeliner and lipstick, of course. We’d wait for the doctor to come round. The young nurses would sit on the edge of the bed and watch. They said I was just like Twiggy, thick eyeliner sweeping upwards.

‘I don’t want my ward smelling like the perfume counter at Selfridges,’ the staff nurse would moan, pulling her starched collar up around her loose neck.

We’d all had a few misses and they preferred to keep an eye on us for the last bit. Don visited in the evenings, escaped from Mum who seemed to be delivering a constant stream of steak and kidney pies; even though it was summer and too hot to eat anything but a chicken salad.

I spent most of the time crocheting lurex gloves. The feel of the wool on the hook, calmed me. I’d rather count stitches than weeks.

‘I reckon you’re carrying a girl, you’re carrying low,’ said Eileen, in the bed opposite.

‘I’d like three boys – Don doesn’t mind.’

‘Sounds like hard work.’

‘I’d call them Anthony, David and Michael.’

I had a girl and I called her Sabrina after a French woman that used to come in our shop. The last time I tried I was in my forties. I got to about ten weeks. I was out shopping with Don’s mum and Aunt Lil. We’d just been in Debenhams for a coffee and cake. I felt it start. I didn’t tell them. I left them all having their tea and rushed to the ladies. It was everywhere, I almost fainted it was so hot in there. No windows, just bright red lino and white tiles to look at. So that was it, it wasn’t fair on Sabrina to keep trying, she was getting older. She wouldn’t have wanted a baby in the house.



The waiting room was full of women, large and cheerful, stroking bumps of various sizes. You’d think they would separate us out. There were posters on the wall showing breast-feeding mothers and immunisation dates. A video was playing; you could choose a ‘normal’ birth or one in a giant pool with an inflatable ball. On the table in front of me was a pile of magazines all called ‘Mother and Baby’. Nick put his bag on top, to cover them up.

‘Miscarriages are very common, Mrs Wilson. One in three embryos are lost before twelve weeks. Most women even after three miscarriages are very likely to take home a healthy baby.’

‘My Mum and Nan had one girl each and at least sixteen miscarriages between them.’

The consultant paused and wrote it down in my nice new set of notes.

‘We don’t usually run any tests until a woman has had three miscarriages but……’.

“Well, I better get on with it then.”

I fitted three in within the year. Had lots of tests and eventually got to take aspirin every day until 36 weeks. This one was going to stick.

It was two am on the 29th January 2003, they said heavy snow was due. But there was no snow yet and in the room it was so hot that there was a fan on to thin the air. The bed was high enough that I could watch the night bus taking nurses home to their beds.

I hadn’t expected it to be like this. I couldn’t feel my legs. I’d left them behind hours ago. I was so relieved when the epidural delivered a numbness that meant I could actually concentrate on breathing. It seemed impossible that when I looked down something small and new lay there. I had heard a midwife tell Nick that this helps the bonding process. All those magazines I’d been reading talked about those marvelous first few moments with your baby. All I could think of was numbness, stitches and the fact that my face looked like Tyson had done a good job. I didn’t realise that I’d need any help bonding. Her eyes were so tightly shut, so determined not to let in the light. I couldn’t recognise anyone in that face, not yet. I kept seeing ribbons floating above my head. They were beautiful, multicoloured shimmering slips. They were so far up I couldn’t reach them. Nick stroked my bare arm, talking to me about how I needed to feed the baby.

The room was heaving in its usual way. Women queuing with urine sample bottles in front of the tank of fish. Toddlers being sick in the play area, fathers trying not to look at the woman whose bump was so large, she could hardly fit in a chair. They were playing Take That on the radio.

‘I’m back again.’

‘Everyone comes back. They say they won’t but a few years later I get to see them all over again. Early scans, tests, aspirin, heparin injections, women will do it all. Over and over.’

‘Shall we take some blood then?’ I stuck my arm out willingly. That needle was like sucking treacle from a spoon.

‘I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a sister. I can’t imagine what it will be like for my daughter to be one.’

‘What do you think it’ll be like?’

‘I think it will be like having a sequined shawl when your shoulders are cold.’ She laughed at me, I bet she had lots of siblings.

‘You’re in for a shock then, it’s more like wearing a coat with holes in it.’

‘Shall we check for a heart beat at seven weeks?’

There were two sisters one curly and blonde, the other straight and dark. As they grew up they dressed up in scarves, hats and rows of plastic beads. Amber and Grace argued about who should plant the sunflower seeds in the vegetable patch. Their mother told them stories about girls who got locked up in towers and women who fell asleep for a hundred years. She made sure that when they crossed the road they held hands so tightly there would be no chance of them letting go.



Simone Davy has had her work published in What the Dickens? Magazine and her story Cockle Shells is to be published in the anthology ‘You, Me and a Bit of We,’ Chuffed Buff Books. She aims to create imaginative fiction that explores ordinary life events. She is currently working on a novel set in 1930s Epsom, England, where she lives with her family. As well as writing, she also works as a Social Science tutor with the Open University. You can read her blog here.

Read an interview with Simone here.

“The Light Keeper (For Sonya)” by Ashley Young

The Light Keeper (Island Woman)
“Island Woman” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

The children betrayed her.

Giovanni tells me his mother fed the children in every country they lived in. She worked for Doctor’s Across Borders and moved him and his sisters regularly – Guatemala, Peru – hot countries with brown faces and poverty. She would make big pots of rice and beans and feed all the children in their neighborhood. He never told me what she looked like but I imagine her with Donna Summer hair, her face thick with sweat, standing over a pot in a hot kitchen dimly lit with sunlight. She is spooning heaping pills of rice and beans in bowls for the children. I imagine Giovanni close to her, 5-years-old with stiff legs and a half moon smile watching his mother like a saint. He tells me there were always children in his house and his mother filled them full with food. I imagine they forget about hunger for as long as it takes for them to swallow a hot meal.

He says his mother was always his friend and he could always feel her love. She danced with him, placed his tiny body on tabletops and shook his hips to the slow rhythms of Billie Holiday or some other woman aching with the blues. She told him to cheer for himself because it was never guaranteed anyone else would. She built him into a strong, brave boy and gave him confidence in tight, long embraces. She is unconsciously preparing him for blindness.

In his teens, Giovanni told his mother he was gay. She threw parties for his out teenaged friends, those with no place to go but the internet for companionship. She gathered them in her home for PG meet-ups so they would know they weren’t coming out alone. He tells me she would put on disco music and watch them dance. She’d laugh that this was like being back in the 70s. He called the refuge her “underground homo railroad.” I imagine her smiling among the awkward 16-year-old boys who are just learning to sit still in their sex and skin. She is handing them drinks and food and encouraging their laughter. I imagine Giovanni, a slim teenager with dark cooper hair atop a soft developing body, gently touching the forearm of another boy as he laughs, knowing his mother is not far from view.

The children beat him until he lost his sight.

He tells me the attack was like the beating from the Quentin Tarantino movie, Kill Bill. I loved the film – the violence, the gore, the endless references to Japanese culture, Uma Thurman in a tight yellow cat suit. I remember her wielding a Samurai sword—one she had just been taught to fight with—determined to kill Bill. But she was no match for a tribe of fighters with years of experience. I can’t remember the scene where they nearly beat her to death and I could not seem to imagine Giovanni taking her place. Maybe it is hard to think of a human being beat like that – his 24 year-old-body bending at the end of lightning-swift kicks, a head filled with memories of his dancing mother  hitting the pavement, the moment where sight got lost in blood and bone and hate.

He tells me he is still speculating on the motives of the boys who beat him, even after he published a memoir on the incident. They were friends, people he knew, people his mother had loved and fed and laughed with. She probably knew their parents, probably called them after they left her house to check and make sure they got home safely. These attackers were his childhood friends. Giovanni says they must have been angry that he was going off to college, making a future for himself. I’ve seen this happen to groups of brown boys; like crabs in a barrel, they’d rather have company in their sorrows than see one another succeed. He says he can tell when his book reviewers are white because they don’t understand his reasoning.

The children left him in the dark.

After Giovanni became blind, his mother came to live with him. She never gave him false hope. She told him blindness would be hard but he would be okay.

I imagine she is the light keeper guiding him through their house. He is a grown man learning to re-adjust his dead eyes to light. To remember her face, he takes in the smells of her and tastes every country they ever lived in. He learns to trace her age with his fingertips and listens to her breathe in order to calculate the distance between them.

I imagine her tucking him in at night. He is leaning his head against her as she leads him to his bedside.  When she has folded him safely under the covers, she pushes her cheek to his before she turns out the lights to join him in the dark. I imagine Giovanni feeling her face push into a gentle smile. She is reminding him of laughter.



Ashley Young is a black feminist queer dyke; poet, non-fiction writer and teaching artist. She is a non-fiction 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and a 2010 Poetry Fellow for Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation Retreat for Writers of Color.  She is the author of a chapter in Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion edited by Virgie Tovar (Seal Press 2012)  and is currently working on her first novel “Girl With The Unicorn Earrings”.   Ashley is a freelance writer and works as an editorial assistant.  She lives in New York City with her partner and family, including a pride of four cats.

Read an interview with Ashley here.

“Still Shining” by Leslie Nielsen

Still Shining (Housebound)
“Housebound” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon”

Long from now you will remember nighttime too light
for sleeping when springtime came.  You will

remember feathery guitar from downstairs,
the dish, splash, laugh of evening a lullaby

with no hurried rhythm, a drift, a chord,
a slipdown of sounds.  You

will remember birdcall and footsteps, voices and soft
dragonfly fabric over your west window, the green

scarf with tassels and fish on the north
window.  You will remember your sister

calling “Mom” for water out of the waking
silence, the dawning dark—

You will remember our calico cat on the foot
of your bed, her purr a current

pulling you down into the moment
you won’t remember—when sleep becomes

deep green and lavender, when the song
you didn’t know you were humming becomes breath.



Leslie Nielsen has lived and made art in Ohio and Denmark. As a founding member of Living Fountain Dance Company and founding director of The Art of Worship conferences, Leslie has led classes and workshops in many art forms, always with the goal of enriching participants’ inspiration, creativity, and awareness. She holds an MA in Literature and an MFA in Poetry Writing, teaches part-time at Kent State University, and works actively in words, music, and visual art.

Read an interview with Leslie here.

“Crustacean” by Katherine Russell

Crustacean (Four-Red-Birds)
“Four Red Birds” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

Roshani is going to be an oceanographer. Her mother tries to make sense of this career choice by telling relatives her daughter is going to college to be a scientist, and oh, look at the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and how useful scientists are in that situation. It’s impressive enough that she managed to raise a child in war-torn Nepal – but to bring her to America and put her through college? That deserves some sort of Nobel Prize.

For the most part, Roshani lets her mother brag when the mood strikes because it doesn’t happen often. Usually she’s agonizing over how Roshani recently dyed her pitch-black hair with the slightest hue of red, or making wary comments about Roshani becoming “just another cushy, entitled American.” When they came to the US a few years ago, a school counselor recommended Roshani take anti-depressants for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and of course, when her mother saw the prescription in the medicine cabinet, she flared into laughter. “Are you serious? You don’t need drugs. These Americans just like to diagnose things.” Roshani watched as she flushed them down the toilet.

At the same time, her mother seems to have left their past in Nepal. She discourages talking about the day at the market when they saw those dead men, or the long bouts of depression her mother has suddenly shown since Roshani’s father left six months ago. Her black hair has grown unkempt, her body sagging like a frayed tapestry, her oval face—which once resembled Roshani’s—has thinned. The closest she ever came to explaining her overwhelming lethargy was, “Your father, he was usually the one I talked to.” Which leaves Roshani in some position of being the new source of comfort, a job she’s not even sure how to do for herself.

After her mother curls into bed tonight, Roshani slips into her tightest jeans and a shirt that shows just enough cleavage. She pokes her head in her mother’s doorway to wave goodbye and sees her swallowed by the striped comforter, her tulip eyes staring at the ceiling fan. She secretly wants her mother to order her to cover up some of that skin – anything that will indicate she’s seeing the world in front of her.

“I just have a little headache,” she says instead, but Roshani knows it’s something fiercer, more insidious, eating away at her. She’s too afraid to offer her company because she knows she’ll likely take her up on that offer.

“Sleep should help,” she offers. To her, sleep is the act of hushing all thoughts. She and her mother could dangle in nothingness like specks near the deepest ocean shelf. There, sunlight won’t penetrate and life forms numbly float, hoping to crash into an ally or a predator, anything that reminds them that they’re not alone down there.

Outside, Roshani’s date-of-the-week has been patiently waiting to take her to the other side of the Bronx where a small-time street race is happening. She slinks through the heavy summer night humidity to his Dodge Charger, and a burst of air conditioning hits her when she opens the door.

“Hey, Marcus,” she says. He looks slightly different than she remembers from when she gave him her number – more confident, perhaps. His face is strong, with a firm jaw and straight teeth. His eyes are a dark shade of brown, verging on black, and his hair is just long enough for her to let her fingers disappear into it. He’s listening to heavy Caribbean rap, the kind she likes to hear in clubs because the syncopated beat gets everyone moving as one glimmering mass, as if they’re all part of one big flock of birds.

“Damn, about time,” he says. His teasing has a biting undercurrent of impatience. “You ready now?”

“If you’re so tired of waiting, why are you talking instead of moving?” she returns with a smile, slightly taken aback by how unfiltered his tone is. She fingers the side of her seatbelt for a second then opts to leave it off. Speeding without it feels like freedom.

Marcus shrugs away her joke and pulls the car from the curb. Roshani takes a moment to convince herself she doesn’t like guys with a sense of humor anyway, that his impatience indicates a measure of depth and complexity. They met only a week ago at a mutual friend’s party, and they had exchanged looks – then a dance – then a kiss – then phone numbers. Despite their quick connection that night, the excitement of finally being alone together feels stale.

She tries to warm things up. “Are we stopping to grab some drinks?”

“Na, don’t have time,” he says, the irritation blatant this time. He then throws a smile in her direction as if to salvage the mood. “But after?”

“Sure.” She relaxes into the fat leather of the passenger seat. Her arms are folded against the blasting vents, her shirt too small to offer much warmth.

Marcus reaches to the stereo and turns the volume knob down. “So what do you want to talk about?”

The candid question is endearing, in a way. Roshani catches herself stroking the side of her cheek to keep from giggling uncomfortably, her fingers grazing the raised skin of a two-inch scar. She wants to say the right thing. Something interesting but not too personal. Something that will make him remember her when this night is over. Her mind scrambles desperately but comes back with nothing.

“I’ll talk about anything,” she replies, though this isn’t completely true. Thought after thought is discarded: her mother, following the hypnotizing circles of the ceiling fan. Her father, off with another woman, probably someone with soft curves and contagious laughter. Her old friends, still in Nepal, who have fallen completely out of touch.

She could talk about Nepal. About how she used to hide under her covers at night when the rebels spat out bullets or how her mother used to drive her to the market when curfew was lifted for a couple hours each day. One day her mother told Roshani to cover her eyes at the military checkpoint in the road, but she didn’t listen. Roshani opened her eyes too wide and saw men preparing to torch bodies with bloody pinholes punched through, the skin drained to the faded color of shale. It smelled like spoiled lamb and ash, and the hot acid of vomit had burned her throat while she tried to swallow it back down.

“Do you party a lot?” Marcus asks this halfheartedly.

Her mind snaps back to the cold car, Marcus’s indifferent silence. She wonders why his mood is so heavy, if it was something she said. “Once in a while. Do you?”


She fidgets with her hands, tries to find something to keep the silence from becoming too noticeable. Nothing. When she thinks of partying, she’s only brought back to a time before she came to America five years ago. Lately, as she fills out college applications and eats silent dinners with her mother, those are the only memories that matter. She thinks of how when she was twelve in Nepal, she and her neighborhood friends used to line up on a break wall and sip bottles of stolen malt liquor. They’d play balance games: try to walk the narrow strip of crumbling concrete without falling off. She’s not sure why she suddenly recognizes this memory with worry. They were only twelve years old; no one even suspected that alcohol would be on their breaths. Even though those moments already passed without injury, she fears that the children in those memories will unexpectedly stumble and fall off the wall, break the growing bones in their bodies, disfigure themselves.

Marcus and Roshani don’t speak until they get to the barricaded street, where several cars are lined up, their drivers clustering behind them. Marcus pulls up to a starting line of sorts and gets out. The goosebumps on Roshani’s body melt off when she exits the car, and she’s reminded that it’s summer.

Marcus tells her to “hang on” while he steps over to his friends. She leans against his car door as they greet each other, slap bets into firm palms, check out one guy’s new rims. They audibly tease him about being late – to which Marcus clicks his tongue apologetically, jerks his head in Roshani’s direction, and the other guys perceptively go, “Ohh.” It’s only a few minutes before he gets back, but by then, she has thought of something to say.

“How often do you race?”

“Every other week about,” he says.

She smiles. “Then I’m safe with you,” she says lightly.


His look makes her feel like she’s chock-full of naïveté. She’s bothered for only a passing moment, and then she realizes she’d rather him think that than have her explain why she’s not naïve.

“The cops could bust this at any moment, and you call it safe?”

She shrugs casually and looks down at her shirt as she straightens the neckline. Marcus doesn’t watch; he goes to the other side of the Dodge and gets in to start it. His car purrs like a jungle cat, and Roshani gets in timidly.

She finds the courage to ask, “Something wrong?”

He throws her a look that seems to laugh at her. “I’m just focused on the race. You not enjoying yourself?”

“No, I’m good,” she says. “This is cool.”

Their surroundings are shaken by revving engines. Spectators are sprinkling the sidewalks. Some glance around nervously for flashing police lights, while others quietly study the drivers. Roshani feels misplaced in the passenger seat, as if she’s not supposed to be there. But isn’t this feeling familiar? Hasn’t she felt this way since leaving Nepal? No one ever told her where to be – she just ended up somewhere far away, where the only way to avoid danger is to keep moving, keep occupying herself. She doesn’t want to become like her mother, counting ceiling fan rotations. She wants Marcus to like her. She always wants her dates to like her, but something usually seems to be amiss. She’s narrowed the explanation down to this: she either shows too little or too much of herself.

Marcus is focusing on the road and moving his hands along the steering wheel as if rehearsing every turn. Roshani wonders why he brought her here. To impress her? To see how she’d react to this setting?

Someone waves a flag, Marcus punches the gas, and the car lurches forward. The streets have been scouted out and barricaded, and the four cars take full reign of the four open lanes. Their noses line up for a while, then one after another pulls ahead or drops behind.

Roshani can’t take her eyes off the speed limit. 70…75…80…85…90… The borough is blurring along East Fordham Road: away with abandoned apartment complexes, dimly-lit tattoo parlors, auto repair shops with faded signs. The street lights strobe in and out of the windows; the sheer force of velocity presses her back, wills her to be calm. She thinks of nothing but movement.

In a way, she expects the race to take her somewhere – a beautiful destination, perhaps. Something more than a finish line. But they pass another flag several minutes later, and it’s over. They come in third. Marcus slaps the dashboard but doesn’t say anything. He slows the car, and they’re soon like any other driver on the road. They have to clear out of the scene fast, settle their bets in a parking lot ten blocks away. Again, Roshani waits in the car as things are worked out between the racers.

When the lot clears, Marcus’s mood has changed. He turns to Roshani with new interest, a sudden focus. She can smell the ginger in his cologne. Something inside tells her this is the moment he’s ready to pretend he is interested in what she has to say. She is ready to let him.

“You smoke?” Marcus asks.


Marcus immediately produces a small plastic film case containing weed and a square piece of paper. He rolls the joint like an expert. They light up, and her thoughts ping pong between fast and slow.

She finds herself leaning toward the windshield and looking up at the sky. In Nepal, the stars would stick out like a billion pin pricks in large, sweeping clusters. The Bronx is different. Everything is clouded, smogged-up, bloated with light so that she often forgets there are stars at all.

“What are you thinking about?” Marcus asks, studying her thin face, her wide-set eyes. As she avoids his gaze, she catches the sight of a stray cat creeping from house to house.

For a second, she lets herself sink into another memory of Nepal, of being five years old and watching her mom crack the neck of a chicken. She helped her pluck the feathers in fistfuls. She never imagined being here, with chickens already dead and plucked and stacked in grocery store refrigerators.

Marcus realizes she is clamming up, and he urges kindly, though in a somewhat jocular way, “You can tell me.”

Maybe it’s the weed, but she wants to trust him. She wants to tell him about her future in oceanography, about how she’s finally found something she understands. It comforts her about death, about how they are all just floating crustaceans suspended in slate-black depths of the ocean, and dying is like knocking into an anglerfish’s bioluminescent lantern. There is a magnificent wash of relief at finding a lambent orb of light, the type of relief that devastates the heart with too much happiness. Everyone feels this right before the giant jaws clamp over them, back into darkness, and truth is, in the scheme of things, barely anyone will notice they are gone.

Instead of saying this, she surprises herself. “Just this weird memory, something back in Nepal, where I’m from.”

“Tell me,” he says, though she feels he wouldn’t care either way.

Still, it’s been so long since she’s talked about Nepal with anyone. Her mother treats those memories like garage clutter she prefers to neither examine nor throw out. “I’m just remembering slaughtering a chicken,” she says, almost as if she’s confessing it.

Marcus scrunches his nose. “Why?”

Immediately, she’s angry she said this. She tries to shrug it off, but she doesn’t want to leave without an explanation. “Strange, right?” she tries to laugh, but it sounds unnatural. “I guess I’m just trying to find something beautiful in things.”

“There are plenty of beautiful things about you,” he says, not understanding. He smiles as if to charm her. “You have the prettiest smile I’ve seen in a long time.”

My smile? she wonders. The one with the two-inch scar curling up the side, the one she got from a piece of shrapnel in a bomb blast?

Marcus is just twisting words, but still she gives him credit for being there with her. She knows what he actually wants, so she gives it to him. She lets her dimples show and runs her hand up his thigh to his pants’ zipper, and he smiles back. She goes down on him with her eyes open, but she does not see, like sleepwalking. Being noticed in this moment is the farthest from being alone that she can be; it is the closest to healing she can imagine. Every time he sighs, he acknowledges her, that she’s giving him something perfect in this moment. She’s a frigid, floating crustacean, grasping for something warm to hold onto in metallic water.

When he finishes, Marcus offers to take her home. After giving him directions, she turns up the stereo to make the silence less noticeable. The car rips recklessly through the Bronx, hitting the staccato of potholes, speeding up for yellow lights. This night has given them all it has to offer; in that, she senses an undercurrent of urgency to end it.

When they pull up to her house, Marcus says, “See you around.”

“Yea,” she says, knowing the noncommittal insinuation of that statement.

When she gets inside, she goes to the sink and washes out her mouth with cold water. She wonders if her mother is still in bed. She goes to her to see if her headache has gone away or if she needs ibuprofen.

Her mother is curled up but not sleeping, her arms wrapping around her body to keep the world out or her soul in. The room has the deadweight heaviness of fatigue but the restless feeling of insomnia. Roshani forgets what she came to ask her and just stands in the doorway, adjacent to the dimmed lamp and the tissue-littered nightstand.

Her eyes are open, but she is not seeing. Roshani can tell she is still thinking, still churning her marriage over exhaustively like turning over couch cushions to find missing keys. Nothing was missing from you, she wants to say.

“Roshani.” Her voice is achy from crying. “What is this loneliness?”

The feeling she gets is bare-boned, as if something has been slowly scraping her raw for days, months, years. The man who helped raise her is gone, but it is worse for her mother. The man she loves, the man who held her during the hardest times, has left.

Roshani crawls onto the bed and lies down next to her, cradling her back into her chest like a shell. Her mother’s sobs crescendo, and Roshani squeezes her tighter to let her know she is there to take care of her, still love her. And together, they float into sleep.



Katherine Russell is a freelance writer and editor residing in Buffalo, NY. She’s currently working on finding an agent and publisher for her novel, Without Shame, which looks at the interactions between an American English teacher and pre-independent Bangladesh. She recently came out with a poetry chapbook called Shapes of Water, which chronicles “coming of age” with cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease. She maintains a blog for cystic fibrosis patients at www.lifewitheverybreath.com.

Read our interview with Katherine here.

“Horizon” by Cary Waterman

Horizon (Househunting)
“Househunting” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

“Pursuing the horizon without interruption inevitably
prohibits landfall, harbor, home…”

~Angus Fletcher, A New Theory for American Poetry

I go to the apartment roof alone and always look west, inland toward the lime-green hills of the Connecticut valley in spring and summer, and the burnt colors of fall. I could have looked east – over the tenements and factories of Bridgeport to Long Island Sound and Seaside Park with its bathhouse and rocky beaches. I could have looked to the sunrise, but didn’t. I looked west, the horizon unreachable, enclosing and not enclosing. What was beyond those hills? And what was I really seeking, up on the roof of the four-storey apartment building alone, walking boards laid down over black tar?


I am a fat, fingernail-biting girl—bloody nails, flabby arms, thick unruly hair that will not lie flat. I go to the edge, look down, imagine falling, then flying. It is not impossible. I would jump. And I would fly. Or at least somersault and land on my feet. There are pigeons, roosting. Slate-grey birds with feathers the color of an oil slick. One day in third grade, the boy behind me taps my back and when I turn he holds out the severed pigeon head he has made into a finger puppet on his dirty hand.

I wear the apartment key on a string around my neck. Once I lost the key and my mother was sure someone would find their way to our apartment door even though there were hundreds of doors, each one identical to the next. After that, I would go to another apartment after school one floor up where ‘Aunt’ Maude lived and wait there for my mother. Aunt Maude had a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary in her bedroom. The Virgin, hands outspread, stood on the earth, her feet crushing the snake. I wanted a statue like that. Aunt Maude also had a bright red kitchen and Victorian loveseats and chairs. It was all so neat. Once I arrived at her door, legs crossed, needing to pee. I ran to the bathroom, leaving a trail of mud I would have to get on hands and knees later to clean up.


I was not afraid on the roof and to this day I’m not sure why I didn’t jump. I was surrounded by other brick apartment buildings, each one a colossus along Washington Avenue. The Sanford, where one-eyed Peter’s father was the Super. And the Fleetwood, where Joe Black’s mother worked. He was older than most of us kids and had dark eyes and black hair. One day he offered to ride me on his bike all the way to Seaside Park but I was afraid of him and ran away. He was taken away one night after he chased his mother up and down the halls with a butcher knife and was sent to Newtown, the hospital for the insane where my mother threatened she would end up if I didn’t behave.

My mother told people we were Cliff Dwellers, hoping to evoke /images of Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, not the ruins of the Anasazi. She said this to give an air of luxury to the fact that four people (mother, father, brother, and me), one collie, one parakeet, and, for a few months, two rabbits that ate the kitchen linoleum were crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. This was the same apartment my parents had moved to as newlyweds, and the apartment in which my brother and I (and our stillborn sister) were conceived, and the apartment our father returned to after his Marine glory days stationed in Honolulu during WW II, eligible for the GI Bill providing low-cost home mortgages with no down payment. But we did not buy a house. We looked at houses. We spent decades of afternoons and weekends driving around with realtors. But my mother would not choose. Something was always wrong. A hill in the backyard where there could be mud slides. Not enough windows. Too many windows. Way out in the suburbs. Too close to the city. Not a colonial. Not this…not that. No, no, no, no. I begged and pleaded. I cried for my own room. No. No. No. Finally I gave up. The apartment became my mother’s (and my) particular hell where I would live until I was eighteen and left for college. This was also the year my parents would finally buy a house.


Our building was U-shaped, two gargoyle wings jutting from the entryway. It had once been fancy with brass railings and a lighted foyer with a bank of mailboxes, each with its own little key. But the building was beginning to run down. The white subway tiled floors weren’t washed as often. The Super spent most days in the basement by the coal furnace with his cronies sitting around and drinking beer. He had cordoned off a little clubroom with a card table and chairs and hung girlie calendars on the walls. Everything was dirty and when I went to the basement to get my bike, if he was there I’d look away as I passed the pinups. If he wasn’t, I’d stop and stare, titillated by the fleshy women, breasts and buttocks spilling out into coal dust.

In our apartment, the first room off the hall was the bedroom where my brother and I slept opposite each other in twin beds we had to sidle around. My mother slept on the couch and my father on a roll-away in the living room. For a long time there was a crib in the bedroom with a mesh top that could be latched to keep a child in. It was used for clothes storage. There was also a baby carriage jammed up against my bed. It too was filled with outgrown stuff. Every spring my mother would drive a load to the Little Sisters of the Poor but the piles continued to grow and consume the room. The closet was packed and had over-the-door hangers on both sides for more clothes to hang.

The bathroom was the only room with a lock. I spent a lot of time in there, protected by the lock on one side and the bubbled window on the other. I would stand on the edge of the bathtub and look at my breasts in the mirror over the sink. Compare myself to the pin-ups Mr. Haskell had in the basement.

The living room had a couch, two tiered maple end tables, assorted chairs, a dining room table, the old black telephone, a high chair and playpen when my brother was little, a black and white TV, and the folded-up bed where my father slept. My mother would paint this room several times when my father was gone for the weekend skiing, always making it darker and darker from tan to hunter green to finally, maroon.

At Christmas, my father and brother would lay down a big piece of plywood in the middle of the living room for my brother’s American Flyer train. He had boxcars and coal cars and a log dump car and a red caboose and a station that lit up and an engine with a horn and a headlight that could blow smoke. I can’t remember how we navigated the living room at Christmas, the four of us and the dog, the decorated tree, the train going around and around.


Perhaps my mother, a petite redhead, enjoyed the attention of the realtors. This idea that only occurs to me now makes my mother’s inability to buy a house more acceptable. These men were obsequious, if frustrated with her. She was lonely, and, as she often told me, felt unappreciated. There was power in being the potential buyer, even though she never bought. Her favorite was Mr. Ryan. She drove around with him looking at houses for twenty years. I remember one of the hundreds we looked at. It was a brand new split-level and had wall-to-wall carpet, a mudroom, and a balcony in the living room where you could look down when you came out of your bedroom. But there was a hill in the backyard, not too close to the house. What was over that hill? My father, who rarely came with us, liked this house and he and my mother fought about it. She said who would want to come into a house through a mudroom. And what about mudslides from that hill? For some reason I have forgotten, I took my mother’s side in the argument and can still see the disgusted I-give-up look on my father’s face. I remember it because I knew at the time I was wrong, that the argument was not about the house. It was about power and I was playing sides and the side I wanted to be on was my mother’s. But why? Or was I just arguing for the sake of argument? Arguing to see if I could win. My father used to say I would make a good lawyer. But really, it was all about losing.


The U-shaped apartment roof was covered with a boardwalk that led to laundry lines. Cold December afternoons, my mother, her hands angry-red, would ride the elevator carrying her wicker basket of wet laundry, then climb the last flight of stairs to the roof to hang our clothes, sheets, and towels. She would curse coming back later to find the laundry covered with black dots of soot from the big chimneys that heated the building and made the radiators clang. She cursed about a lot of things—my father’s drinking, my ungratefulness, my loud voice, my taking up too much space. Judas Priest was her favored expression and one that, attending Catholic school as I did, confused me. When she was really angry she’d threaten to leave and take my brother but leave me with my father. We were alike, she said. We deserved each other.


I never had friends come home with me. Through high school, I met my dates outside on the street and kissed them goodbye in their cars. I never invited anyone to the roof. There was a shelter up there with a bench facing predictably east, sunrise, new day. I sat there one night with my father after another violent argument with my mother, perhaps the one when I kicked out the glass of a mirror that was propped up against the cramped bedroom wall. I stormed (or fled) the stifling apartment, ran down the dirty hallway to the elevator, pushed the button and rose up before climbing the last flight of stairs to the roof. My father came up later and sat with me. He said my mother was changing. I don’t know if he actually called it the change of life. I wouldn’t have known what that was. But I was changing, too. My mother would dry up as I was beginning to bleed every month into possibility, my poor father in-between us, a fulcrum of sorts, except that he would become more and more absent to Ski Club meetings or bowling at the Algonquin Club before adjourning to the bar.

I could not be patient. I loved my mother. And, I hated her. I was surrounded and adrift. After my father and I looked out to the sea and he tried to reason with me, he left and I turned to look west. What was out there, all those miles and miles of fields and hills, all that landscape? And finally, all that horizon which did not seem a limiting thing, the curve of a bowl, the furthest circumference. It seemed instead possibility, freedom, escape.



Cary Waterman is a poet and creative nonfiction writer. Her published books
include The Salamander Migration (University of Pittsburgh Press), When I Looked
Back You Were Gone (finalist for the Minnesota Book Award), and, most recently,
Book of Fire (finalist for the Midwest Book Award). Her work appears in many
anthologies including A Geography of Poets, Poets Against the War, The Logan House
Anthology of 21st Century American Poetry and 150 Years of Minnesota Poetry. She
has won awards from the Bush Foundation, the McKnight Foundation and the
Minnesota State Arts Board. She has had residencies and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre
in Ireland and the MacDowell Colony. She teaches in the Augsburg College MFA

“Mindlessly” by Randall Brown

“Vortex” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

She checked all 57 windows, the 114 locks. She twirled her way through the house, over and through things. She’d taken over this ritual of her father’s without thinking much about it, as a way to get to school on time.

As she pulled on the top half of the final window to be checked, she saw the black funnel, two, three neighborhoods away. It twisted the world, said to her it didn’t matter what windows got checked, which ones didn’t. She saw herself through that eye, a tiny thing caught in the windowpane, a bug beneath glass.

She stood still, the growl of it rattling the windows and locks. It felt strange to be unmoving, like a memory of a past life when she sat in the car while her father flew from window to window, lock to lock.

Somewhere he cried out, like one of those people under the white tents in the park on Sundays. She imagined the twister picking them up and taking them away. That’s what they wanted, her father had told her. That’s what they dreamed about.

But this she hadn’t dreamed of. Not at all. It wasn’t just to save time, her taking over the windows; it was really to make it hers instead of his, until one day he might forget. The twister said otherwise.

Things flew into its cone. Parts of houses and lawns. Porch swings and picnic tables. It moved as coins did, spinning on their sides.

She found herself, a tiny bit of herself, wanting it. She hadn’t thought of an ending until that storm blew outside. She hadn’t thought of day after day of checking and how he now needed the car windows checked, and she saw him looking at neighbor’s houses, eying their windows, wondering, that need to know flickering over his face.

It came and she closed her eyes. She was snatched up, pushed her against her father’s chest. She shook uncontrollably. In the windows behind him, she saw the funnel swerve toward trees, the roof of a shed bent in half, then broken into two.

He shifted her to his right arm. All the windows bounced in their frames, unnerved. How could he have let her become this—she didn’t know the missing word. Twisted. Sick. Crazy.

“Oh honey,” he said. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

The okays kept coming, one after another, each one wanting to be the answer, until they all swirled together and she watched them spin out of his mouth, dance in front of her, like a top.

She reached out for it. Stopped herself. She could do that. Stop herself.

“I’m scared,” she told him. “Super scared.” She stretched her arms as he had when he’d read that book, about the bunnies, telling each other how much they loved each other. “This much,” she said. “I’m scared this much.”

He didn’t seem to have heard. He set her down. He looked past her, to where the twister had disappeared. The windows finally settled. And he moved to check them.

She grabbed his pant leg.


He smiled at her. “Hey,” he said. “I thought we were on the same team.”

She shook her head.

He kneeled down. “It’s not that easy. You know that.”

“Don’t.” She held firm.

Later, in bed, she heard him downstairs, rattling things. She thought of how tight she held, with all her might, and how easily he kicked her loose. She thought of how nothing she wished for mattered. She thought of that twister, its endless rotations. She was finished with checking windows and locks, finished playing this silly game of pretend. She’d find a ride to school and back. She’d let her father have it, whatever it was.

She was done. She whispered it to herself. Done. Done. Done. She repeated it until everything else disappeared, until she could say it in her sleep, until she was certain.


Randall Brown teaches at Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press, 2008), his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2010). He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.net and has been published widely, both online and in print, including American Short Fiction, Tin House, Mississippi Review, Cream City Review, Lake Effect, and Harpur Palate.

Check out Randall’s feature here.

“The Dead Ritual” by Jonathan Vanzant Stevens

The Dead Ritual (Green Chair)
“The Green Chair” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

This game is not new. It certainly isn’t one we can call ours, either. But it’s one my brother and I have played every time an occasion calls for it: when our mother died, our sister, my brother’s best friend, Mike, and so on. Though I have to admit, it feels less and less like a game the more we play it.

The first time—when Ma died—we were in our basement. I was sixteen and John was eighteen. We sat opposite each other on stools at an old fold-up poker table. A bottle of Crown Royal was the centerpiece. I hadn’t had very much, but John was about six shots deep. I could smell him. I sensed the stupor he’d fallen into, like a kid slipping off the end of a dock into deep, dark water. The whiff of his breath just about caused the boot in my stomach to kick up anything and everything I’d eaten that day.

“You ready?” he stammered. The sound of his shot glass coming down on hard plastic snapped my brain like a slingshot. I considered for a long, hard moment what my answer should be. After all, this was the first time we’d played.

“Yeah,” I said, steeling myself, “I am.”

I saw the quick glint of silver as John slid the gun off the table—our father’s .357 Magnum. Smith and Wesson. Hell of a gun. Dad only let us fire it a handful of times out on the shooting range in Albion.

“Cameron,” my Dad would say to me, “hold that thing tighter. It’s got a kickback. Don’t fuck around.”

I’d look back at him to affirm with a “badass” sneer. “Okay,” I’d say.

When John first proposed that we get shitfaced and play Russian roulette, to “commemorate the dead”, Dad’s voice ricocheted off the walls of my skull. “Don’t fuck around.” The words lingered like wisps of smoke, dissipated, and I told John I was ready. Ready to twist the cylinder, to rest my teeth gently on the barrel, for that rush of adrenaline as the hammer either ends you, or frees you. I was ready to fuck around.

Since there were just two of us, and the gun could hold seven rounds, our rules were this; one bullet, two turns each. The rules haven’t changed.

The first time we played was nine years ago. After John took the bullet out of the gun, I was pretty pleased with myself that I’d beaten the odds. I was happy for John, too, of course, but as we’ve lost people, the odds have increased. And they’ve only increased because the people we’ve lost aren’t as close to us. They aren’t family or friends. Sometimes they’re just people that John has read about in the obits. If I’m in town and John’s in the mood to get really drunk—which he usually is—somehow he’ll convince me to play.

But this evening we’re not in a basement. We’re outside at Colby’s campus, up on one of the hills behind the track field, tucked out of sight. This is a popular spot for immigrant girls with glamorized perceptions of American boys to smoke weed and take risks. A popular spot to gamble.

John is taking swigs off a small flask full of something, probably rum or whiskey.

“Cam?” He offers me the drink.

“No thanks,” I say.

I look up at the clouds rolling by before us. Little tufts, like acid pink cotton balls are sweeping out in rows. I don’t think John notices them.


We sit there for a few hours, not saying much, as the sky turns ink black. No one will see us up here. John is sitting a little ways away from me, fiddling with the gun and probably loading its one solemn bullet.

I hear the snap of the cylinder locking into place. A pause. Then the click of the trigger, the hammer. I hear John exhale.

“You didn’t even say we were starting,” I say, agitated.

He takes another swig off the flask and hands me the gun. “Your turn.”

I spin the cylinder and pull the trigger. Click. My exhalation of relief isn’t as smooth as John’s—it shudders a little as I hand him back the revolver. He immediately starts his turn, but I stop him.

“John, why do we still do this?” I’m not really expecting a solid answer. “We’re not stupid kids anymore. We didn’t even know this woman.”

He sips his drink. “I just like an excuse to play, I guess.”


“For fuck’s sake, John!” I look over at him, his silhouette in the thick night. He doesn’t say anything.


“John, stop, listen to me!”


My heart pounds against my ribcage as I hustle over to him on my knees, ready to wrestle the gun away from his hand. As I’m struggling to get hold of it, click, he manages to pull the trigger two more times. Click. I’m about to yell, when I realize he’s taken seven potential shots. But there are no shots. No blood. Nothing.

I hear him pop the cylinder open; he holds the gun out to me like an offering, catching his breath, and in the faint moonlight through the clouds I see its contents. It’s empty.

I roll off of him, exasperated, like I’ve just scaled a cliff. I breathe and stare up at all the darkness—all the stars, like hundreds of little pinholes that have been poked in black construction paper. They’re vast, glistening, and they’re as plentiful as all of our chances, our opportunities—our odds. I look over at John, and I think I hear him crying, softly.

I wonder if he started counting them all.



Jonathan Vanzant Stevens is a twenty-two-year-old writer and musician living in Maine, though he’d rather be in Australia. This is his first published story. Currently, he does many odd jobs and is also hard at work on a novel about disconnection.

“Cry Like My Wife” by Paul Austin

Cry Like My Wife (Flying Carpet)
“Flying Carpet” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

The surgeon holds out a gloved hand, palm up, and says, “scalpel.” He makes a smooth, long, incision across my wife’s belly, below the umbilicus, and above the pubic hair. Skin spreads. The thin layer of fat glistens yellow. Small red dots appear along the edges of the skin. One spot blossoms larger, and blood trickles into the incision. The surgical assistant touches the spot with the electrocautery pen, and there’s a tiny blue buzz, and a small puff of smoke. The incense of burned blood.

The latex gloves have smears of red, but not enough to make them slippery. The exact and silent movements of the surgeon and assistant become more urgent. They dissect and tug. Grip and cut. Down through the muscles of the abdominal wall, grasping, stretching, and digging quickly, down to the hard purple muscle of the uterus. Then there’s a pause, followed by a low transverse cut, and a gush of clear fluid that sloshes out across table. The room is quiet, save the slurping sound of the surgeon’s hand plunging into the belly, up to the wrist.

The surgeon gropes around, blindly finds the head, and then pulls upwards, wrestling the baby out through the wound.


Sally is in a bed in the recovery room. I’m standing next to her. They’ve taken the baby somewhere. Dr. Gage[1] pulls the curtain open, and the guides in the aluminum track make a clicking, clattering sound. He’s taken off his OR hat, and his forehead has a red arc across it. His green scrubs have dark sweat stains under his arms.

“I checked on the baby,” he says “Congratulations. She’s beautiful. She seems healthy, had great APGAR scores.” He pauses. “She has two small heart murmurs – probably a small VSD and a patent ductus.”

Sally and I are both medical people, so we understand – two small holes in the heart.

I take a deep breath. Maybe it won’t be too bad. The VSD may close on its own. Same with a patent ductus.

Sally turns her head a few degrees to the side, keeping her eyes on Dr. Gage.

“We’ll get an ultrasound of the heart,” he says. “Make sure.” His voice is gentle and clear.

“And?” Sally says.

“She has Down syndrome.”

Sally shrieks. Fists at her side, neck veins bulging, she takes a big gasp of air, and screams again.

Sally’s wailing fills the room. Her face is ugly and red. Cracked lips open wide.

My heart beats fast. I lean down, and place my forehead next to hers, hairline to hairline.

She continues wailing.

I keep my head touching her head. Her screaming is full throttle.

Her gasps for air become more frequent.

I close my eyes.


A nurse brings the baby into the recovery room, to feed.

“Do you want to hold her?” the nurse says.

I shake my head.

Sally reaches out. “Hello, Sarah.” Sally’s voice is musical, and hoarse from the screaming.

Sally grabs the bottom edge of her gown, pulls it up, and tucks it under her chin. Her breasts are swollen and heavy, with faint blue veins visible through the pale skin. “Let’s see how we do,” she says.

The nurse watches as Sally grasps her breast.

“Farther back from the nipple,” the nurse says. “Sarah needs to get a big mouthful.”

Sally holds Sarah close, and brushes the baby’s cheek against her nipple.

Sarah opens her mouth wide, like she’s yawning, and Sally pulls her into her body.

Sally smiles.

“Like a pro,” the nurse says.

I let out a pent-up breath.

Sally looks down at Sarah. In oil paintings of the Madonna and Child, the light is soft, and the shadows softer, and breastfeeding looks peaceful and quiet; it suffuses a radiant calm. But surrounded by the pastel stripes of this too-bright cubicle, this meeting of saliva and skin, milk and tongue, is a slurping, grunting, air-whistling-through-the-nostrils affair. And it’s a cold bright light that shines down on this baby.


It will be twenty-two years before I cry for my daughter like Sally did. It happens while I’m at a writers’ conference working on this book. I’m in a workshop taught by Nick Flynn, a writer I have long admired. He assigns an exercise in which we cut our manuscript into chunks of text – actual paper and scissors – and rearrange them. The empty spaces are supposed to open up our minds. At first, it seems precious – gimmicky. But Nick’s writing is so brave and clear, I decide to give it a try: see if it works.

We’re at The Atlantic Center for the Arts, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. About two miles inland, the Center is a small cluster of buildings, all redwood siding and angled rooflines jutting into the sky. The buildings seem to float in a sea of plant life – the spiky fans of palmetto palms, wild magnolias, scrub oaks and Spanish moss. The illusion is enhanced by the weathered wooden walkways between buildings. Without the waist-high railings one might expect, they look like piers, jutting into the lush green foliage.

Our workshop meets in a small and narrow library, with two walls of books, and two walls of windows. For this exercise Nick has arranged for us to use one of the artists’ studios. It’s a large open room with a concrete floor, natural light, and five long tables splattered with paint, giving the place a Jackson Pollock feel.

I start out calmly enough, laying out two rows of blank paper, stark and white against the reds and blues and yellows of my workspace. I glance around, and my classmates are all busy cutting and taping. I enjoy the summer-camp feel of the activity – the absorption of scissors and tape.

I cut several paragraphs free, and spread them out onto the pages. They look like chunky fortune cookie slips. So much white space and so few words. I glance at my classmates’ work. They have more pieces of text, and they are all busy moving the pieces around, rearranging them. My pages look bare. I turn to Nick, who is pinning pieces of a poem onto a wall. “Can we use pictures?”

He turns. “Sure. Whatever helps.” Turns back to his work.

I go to the computer center, and print off pictures of the things I’ve been writing about. Three portraits of John Langdon Down, the “father of Down syndrome.” He’s wearing a frock coat and a black bowtie. Two photographs of Jerome Lejeune, the scientist who first discovered the extra twenty-first chromosome that causes Down syndrome.

I print out the karyotype that Sarah’s geneticist gave me after she was born. It’s an eight-by-ten photograph of her chromosomes all lined up two-by-two, except for the twenty-first chromosome – it has three. I print a snapshot of Sarah, dressed up as a wicked princess for Halloween. Another photograph of Sarah, 22 years old, living in a group home. She’s sitting between two framed movie posters – one with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor skipping forward in yellow slickers, umbrellas twirling – Singing in the Rain. In the other, Audrey Hepburn poses in a slinky black dress, neck encircled with diamonds and a tabby cat, black gloves all the way up to the elbows – Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I place these pictures on the near-blank pages, and step back from the table. Stare at the pages. Try to let the process work. I lean forward to jot a note to myself in blue ink on the white page. Stare some more.

The picture of Sarah’s chromosomes entirely fills the page. I lean down and write, “This picture looks so big. So real.” I look over at a snapshot of Sarah. It looks so small there, askew in the corner of an empty page. It hits me that from the day she was born, I’ve seen a diagnosis instead of a daughter. This strikes me like a bolt of lightning splitting a tree. I feel as if something in my chest has been riven – my aorta torn away from my heart, or my trachea ripped free from my lungs. I do not know my daughter.

I feel tears coming. I leave, pushing thorough the door of the studio, and out into the sun. I make it partway down the unrailed walkway. But this feeling in my chest is too big to control. I jump down into the bushes, pushing alongside a building, the branches scratching my face, vines catching my feet, crying, and sobbing, till I come to deck, a bare platform without railings. I stop and wail. I am undone. Unhinged. Bereft. I hear my howls swirling out of my body and into the air. The shrieking finally slows to sobs. I become aware again of the sand under my feet, and the thicket I’ve stumbled into. I take a gulp of air. The breeze is soft against my face. The trees sway gently.

“Are you okay?” I hear someone call from the walkway, a disembodied voice coming through the tangle of plants.

“Yes,” I call back. I take a deep breath. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” I say. “Thanks.” I hold my breath. I don’t want anyone to see me.

I hear a few footsteps on the wooden pier, and then a door in the building I’m standing next to open, and then close. Fuck. I’ve been wailing right outside someone’s workshop.

I blow my nose on my fingers, and sling the snot into the bushes. I wipe my fingers on the cuffs of my jeans. Wipe my face and cheeks with my shirtsleeve. I feel empty inside. Clean.

I push through the bushes back to the walkway. No one is there. Good. I climb up onto the walkway. Find a bathroom. Splash my face. Dry it.

The studio is empty: they must’ve gone back to the library. At my table, I stare at the photograph of Sarah, and gently straighten it on its page, glad that it’s not too late. My daughter will forgive me. It’s the way she is.

I walk back to the library. The group is sitting around the table. Nick looks up.

Thought we’d lost you,” he says. “Did you go to make more copies?”

“No,” I say, gesturing outside. “I was needing to cry.”

He looks at me and nods, as to say, “that sometimes happens.”

I feel calm and expectant, like that glittering moment right after a thunderstorm, when the trees and sidewalks and streets have all been scoured clean, and new. I’ve been given a second chance.

At lunch, Nick walks up with his plate and silverware. “Can I join you?”


“Mary Gaitskill’s workshop heard you.”

I wince. “Sorry.”

Nick waves it away. “She thought it was an animal caught in a trap.”

“Not far off,” I say.

“You’re in the middle of it.” He takes my shoulder and gently shakes it. He smiles. I feel as if he is welcoming me into a new place.

“Yup,” I say. It’s Sarah’s shorthand way of summing up a complicated truth. I am eager to get home. Get to know my daughter.



Paul Austin’s first book, a memoir, came out in 2009 “Something For the Pain: One Doctor’s Account of Life and Death in the ER” (W.W. Norton) and received a starred review by Library Journal. The Boston Globe called it “a stunning account of the chaos of the emergency room.” He has attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as a contributor, a waiter, a scholar, and a fellow. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Discover Magazine, The Florida Review, The Gettysburg Review, Creative Nonfiction, Ascent Magazine, The Southeast Review, and turnrow. “Cry Like My Wife” is an excerpt from Paul’s upcoming book, Beautiful Eyes, which will be published in late 2013 or early 2014, by W.W. Norton.


[1] The names of family members are unchanged. All other names are changed to protect their privacy. Dialogue is recreated as accurately as memory will allow.

“If Ever You Decide You Should Go” by Elizabeth Dalton

If Ever You Decide (Spirit Sisters)
“Spirit Sisters” by Marilyn Sears Bourbon

The first question on late spring mornings is this: Can we go barefooted? We look out of the living room window. The porch and front yard are still shady, but spots of sun stipple the grass. An old woman across the street sweeps her sidewalk, but it’s early; there are no kids outside yet. Our mother calls us into the kitchen and tells us to sit and eat. The room fills with the rhythmic whoosh of percolating coffee. Down the hall, we hear our father shut the bathroom door and turn on the shower. While we chew and slurp from our cereal bowls, I try to get glimpses of the backyard as Mom moves between the table and the storm door. The yard is yellow with light. The grapevine curls around its arbor and the bush in the far corner is in full leaf. Can we go barefooted?

We are sent to our room to find clothes, as few as possible, which we pull on in a hurry. We are told to brush our teeth. When we return to the kitchen, the bowls have been cleared from the Formica dinette set to make room for Mom and Dad and their cups of coffee.  In the window framing their heads, the persimmon tree moves in what I hope is a warm morning breeze. Mom looks up and briefly inspects me. With a dishcloth she wipes the last of the toothpaste from the corners of my mouth, and, using a formula that seems to include thermometer readings, newspaper weather forecasts, and perhaps an actual field test, she determines that we can go barefooted today.

I push the metal door handle and burst out of the kitchen. Molly and I run tiptoe down the steps, dropping our rag dolls on the rough concrete, push off the sidewalk and land in the grass. We stand for a moment caught between horror and delight as the late spring soil embraces our feet, sending chills up our shins. Here we pause, feeling the last remnant of the winter’s cold and snow, then we run to the jungle gym and climb the ladder, our toes curling around the warm metal bars as we reach for the trapeze or the white plastic hand rings. We swing through the air, dew drying from our soles and the crevices between our toes.

We tire of the swings and brave the wet grass again. Our feet are light, more like wings than paddles and so we dash around the perimeter of our universe: along the alley in back of our property, along the side of our yard adjacent to the Dennys’ weather-stripped, haunted house, behind our garage, up past the back door again, around the persimmon tree where the roots punish our heels, and then the length of the old grape arbor that is too shaky for us to climb. We relearn our world, where we are likely to stumble or twist ankles, as well as where the dog’s bathroom is.  We find patches of clover and ugly crabgrass, and the occasional thistle. Here and there are bald spots where, later in the summer, we’ll find ants coming and going as purposefully as the fathers in our neighborhood.

We stand on the step for a moment, the soles of our feet making perfect wet prints on the concrete. Molly’s are almost the same size as mine, even though I am older, almost done with first kindergarten while she can’t even write her name yet. We sit down, pulling our dolls into our laps, and I scratch at my ankles, where my skin is crawly with dew and the itchy memory of grass blades. Sunlight the color of lemonade finds its way around the small persimmon leaves, leaving spots on the concrete and grass around us. A couple of birds tussle in a branch overhanging the pastor’s side of the fence. In his kitchen we can hear plates and silverware being placed on a table, and the occasional rush of water from the faucet. Across the alley, some neighbor kids run outside and stand blinking in the sunshine. The back door slams behind them. Down the alley, a dog barks and another answers. The day has begun.

Molly’s rag doll has blond yarn for hair while my doll’s hair is dark brown. Otherwise, they could be twins. Both have felt eyes and velvet dresses over white bloomers we almost never make them wear. They are big girl dolls with rosy cheeks. Mine is older, like me, and likes to fly because she is a superhero, and so does Molly’s. Simply running with them does not work, we’ve discovered, for they hang limp in our hands no matter how fast we can sprint, and we are fast. Instead, I hold mine by her hand and spin just like a tornado. She flies at the end of my outstretched arm, her pink legs kicking in the wind. Molly’s doll flies, too; I catch glimpses of her blonde yarn-hair as I turn. I yell encouragement to my doll, and Molly does, too. The house and tree and yard flash by my eyes over and over again until I give in to the urge to close my eyes and tilt my head to the side, which makes me feel like I’m being tickled from the inside out with a little sick thrown in.

I turn a few more times until my knees give and I tumble into the wet grass. Molly, our dolls, and I lie there, behind the garage, catching our breath and staring into the sky, which is a lot like staring into a lake. Instead of darting fish and rolling puffs of algae there is an occasional jet, as slim and silver as a minnow, and the clouds, big enough to make their own shadows on the yard. From where we lie we could simply push off and dive right in.


My sister gave her notice the day before she died. A dark stocking cap hugged her scalp and a white hospital blanket puddled around her body. Well-worn socks kept her feet warm in the seasonless hospital room. My short-sleeved yellow dress and the evaporating warmth of the sun on my arms were the only indicators of the spring day that had opened like the dandelions in our lawns that morning. I sat in a chair right next to her bed, but reaching her was like talking to someone through a closed door. She wiped at her eyes with a tissue and tugged the blankets up under her armpits with a hand so thin her wedding set slid up and down the length of bone between her palm and the first knuckle of her ring finger. This is no life, she said. If I can’t get better, I’d rather die.

No you don’t, I said. But I knew she was losing ground. Watching her walk through the house during the past month had been like watching an unsteady toddler. She struggled to negotiate the single step between her utility room and kitchen, sometimes clinging to the wall with both hands for support, after she started the laundry. Her long legs were emaciated and skin draped across her collarbones into the hollow of her neck. Worst of all, she had nearly dropped the baby a few weeks earlier as she carried him to his crib, and since that time she had been terrified of holding him while standing. Instead she had to content herself with watching from the depths of her recliner as the rest of us swayed with Jesse in our arms. Her eyes followed us until the morphine overpowered her, and her restless hands fell still in a pile of crochet thread.

She never left her home alone now, this thirty-year-old woman who, five years before, had hopped planes on a whim and pointed her rackety hatchback in any direction that looked interesting.  This girl who was as likely to be in Chicago as Muncie on any given weekend, letting none of us know about her journeys until well after her return. Her travels within Muncie were just as adventurous, at least as far as I was concerned: Drum circles, dim living rooms full of smoke and philosophy, alternative rocker venues with gypsy friends—people with long hair and antique jeans—who moved through a haze of patchouli. People who traveled lightly and often.

Later I learned how she wept when Dad drove her to the hospital earlier that day. Even now, I cannot bear to think about this home-leaving—the last look around the place, the last shallow breath full of the smell of her new family, a last touch of the doorknob marking an entrance to the familiar and safe. The instinct to die privately is one even animals understand. None of us chooses to begin or end a journey from a strange place.

When I returned to the hospital early the next morning, I found my parents in the oncology waiting room wearing the same clothes I had left them in the night before, and I discovered what it means when an official-sounding voice on the phone tells you a loved one has taken a turn for the worse. I sat down on one of the upholstered foam sofa cushions and tried to feel my way around the tinnitus that reverberates in my head when I am confused or distressed.  I watched my parents, helpless with grief and sleep deprivation, and saw the shape of my family shift.

I drifted down the hall to find a phone. It didn’t seem possible that the sun could shine in the windows of the rooms that I passed. It didn’t seem possible that other patients in that ward could still be talking, watching daytime television, or breathing while my sister was cut off. Her door was closed and a white notice was taped to it to keep hospital personnel from bumbling in on mourners such as my brother-in-law, whose heartbroken sobs brought me up short. I ducked my head and kept moving toward a bank of phones at the end of the hall. There was weeping elsewhere, too, and later I learned a counselor was brought in to work with the nurses, who were also horrified by my sister’s death.  I was gratified by this, glad that even the professionals recognized this death as one worth noting in a ward where death is far too commonplace.

I was the last of our family to sit with Molly that day. I pushed through the door and entered, frightened as a child. Sunlight streamed through the bank of windows highlighting the scene of a struggle. Chairs crowded against the scuffed wall and the wastebasket gaped in its corner. The bed was askew.

I took the chair next to my sister and rested my forearms against the bedrail. I looked at her for a long time and I said her name. There was the face I had always associated with her name, and the hands, slim and well cared for. There was her nose, thin as a knife-blade, and the thyroid scar in the hollow of her throat. How many times had I watched her sleeping during our childhood years? How many times had I sighed loudly or elbowed her to wakefulness just to ward off loneliness in the middle of the night?

In three days I would reach my 31st birthday, and after that would come the Fourth of July, and then Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The whole merry-go-round would spin in its place as it always had, largely insensible to her absence.  Yet, in those few moments at my sister’s deathbed I became aware of a silent universe surrounding the spinning calendar of seasons, birthdays, obligations, and family gatherings. Sitting as I was in the center of the rush and noise, I couldn’t make out much but the blackness of this expanse. Still, I knew it was there, just as I had felt the vast Atlantic at my feet the first time our parents had taken us to see the ocean. We had arrived late at night but insisted on going to the beach. Rooted in the sand, the wind teasing my hair, I could see nothing but blackness, nothing to separate the sky from the sea, the sea from the land. Now, as then, I crouched at the edge, peering into that swirling darkness beyond and wondered about the brave and marvelous beings that moved there.

The muffled scrapings and shufflings of the hospital staff seeped beneath wide door. Dust motes drifted through the light streaming onto Molly’s bed. The business of the day was picking up. Everyone, including my parents, who, God help them, had arrangements to make, was waiting on me. I looked around the room one last time for some sign of my sister, but I could see her body was as empty as a pair of overalls she’d unfastened and dropped to the floor before stepping away.


Night trains sometimes drag me up from that deepest, unknowable stratum of dream into the realm of the half remembered. On those occasions, I am as much girl as woman, still sister to a sister. We drive along the flat, sun-parched roads—Molly and I—after a late band practice, roads that have become narrower and darker throughout the summer as the corn walls rise alongside. Now and then the corn drops back to reveal a tired farm spread out before us on both sides of the road: Harvestore, white barn and weathered farmhouse, cows knee-high in muck, two dogs dashing senselessly at our spinning tires. I bear down on these places like a plane, and swoop past them, honking at the windows’ watery reflection of our dust-streaming car. Windows down, we sing along to Top 40 songs written just for us—beautiful teenage girls, fresh and full of everything the rest of the world craves. But we are flying down the road so quickly nothing but the sun can keep up with us. Even the songs themselves are gone before they have time to play themselves out. As soon as we are bored with the lyrics, Molly turns the dial to find something else. Our tiny forearm hairs glisten against our skin. Gravel thunks along the undercarriage but I slow down only for stop signs and the occasional oncoming vehicle.

The grill parts the late summer air in front of us, and the evening sun nestles into the woods in the distance. Molly twists the radio dial, settling on the a cappella voices of the Eagles. “There are stars in the Southern sky,” we sing. “Southward as you go…” The old song, older than we know, streams past us and I think about a road with seven bridges, one in the country just like this, where moonlight pools in the fields and time seems to hang like dew gathering on a leaf. A place a child would run to, a place we might run to, if need be. So we sing, our voices serious and full of meaning we don’t really understand: “There are stars in the Southern sky—“  Molly pushes a strand of hair off of her sweat-spangled forehead and jumps up to the harmony line: “And if ever you decide you should go/ there is a taste of time sweet as honey/ Down the Seven Bridges Road.”

In this way, we make an angular spiral toward home, following the derelict country roads in an ever-narrowing square until we find ourselves bumping down our own sticky blacktopped road. The light is on in the kitchen and our mother’s silhouette moves from stove to table. Sun gilds the tops of the catalpas, but night is already growing beneath them. We taxi up to the garage and step out onto the warm driveway with our shoes in our hands.



Elizabeth Dalton’s work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including PMS: Poem/Memoir/Story, Earth’s Daughters, New Millennium Writings, River City, Sliver of Stone, and Clockhouse Review.

Read our interview with Elizabeth here.