Homepage Winter 2019

All artwork appears with permission of Anna Rac.

Welcome to our January issue “BY DESIGN,” featuring some wonderful poems, stories, essays, and flash all complimented by images from the wonderful abstract paintings of Anna Rac who generously supplied us with artwork for this issue.

We have quite a few new or emerging writers in this issue–a fact that always makes me proud to do this work.

My hope is that the fine writing and artwork in this issue offers you some light in the darkness, healing laughter, or cathartic tears. And as always, thank you for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers

“Low-/Tide Heart of Mine” by Jennifer Martelli

Painting by Anna Rac.

That summer I put down my last drug, I stood

on my board & paddled around the tide pools

at Short Beach, above the hermit crabs

scuttling over purple rocks looking for new

homes & below planes landing, coming

back, so low I could see their metal bellies.

I cut through the hot solstice air, my balance

steady enough I could look over my shoulder,

back to the beach: kids, some crying, a small dog

chased a gull fat with fried food, & I think now

I was happy, or if not happy, nothing fed this low-

tide heart of mine. I remember it was mid-

year & I had yet to give back even an inch of light.

Jennifer Martelli is the author of My Tarantella (forthcoming, Bordighera Press), as well as the chapbook, After Bird (Grey Book Press, winner of the open reading, 2016). Her work has appeared or will appear in Verse Daily, The Sonora Review, Iron Horse Review (winner, Photo Finish contest), The Sycamore Review, Sugar House, Superstition Review, Thrush, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Her prose and artwork have been published in Five-2-One, The Baltimore Review, and Green Mountains Review. Jennifer Martelli has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes and is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is a poetry editor for The Mom Egg Review.

“The Broken Cherry, the Poplar, the Yew” by Jennifer Martelli

Painting by Anna Rac.

One Halloween when I was a child, my mother taught me how to make ghosts
from tissue & silk thread tied around their necks. We’d hang them

from the old trees: the broken cherry, the poplar, the yew. The Italian woman next door
left tomatoes from her garden on our back porch, some so fat & ripe

they split & spilt their seeds. We forgot to bring them in, left them out back
on the kidney patio, by the dying orange cosmos. During childbirth—my birth–

they gave my mother forgetting drugs & the straps
to hold her down were lambs’ wool so they wouldn’t leave marks

around her wrists & ankles & behind her knees & remind her
of the pain. She didn’t remember this of course. I remember her

forgetting, it started with numbers, then clocks, then faces. I remember
anybody who ever forgot me. My heart opens a space for a whole autumn night.

I remember the picket fence around our yard, the one with the gate & the old man
with the accordion against his flannel chest. He’d play these slow, slow songs

from another country, or songs I’d never heard here. He’d play that thing
through fall until the first frost & the air rushed too cold through the expanding folds.

Jennifer Martelli is the author of My Tarantella (forthcoming, Bordighera Press), as well as the chapbook, After Bird (Grey Book Press, winner of the open reading, 2016). Her work has appeared or will appear in Verse Daily, The Sonora Review, Iron Horse Review (winner, Photo Finish contest), The Sycamore Review, Sugar House, Superstition Review, Thrush, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Her prose and artwork have been published in Five-2-One, The Baltimore Review, and Green Mountains Review. Jennifer Martelli has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes and is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is a poetry editor for The Mom Egg Review.

“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.

“Final Exam\Fall 2018” by Hananah Zaheer

Painting by Anna Rac.

Q:        What is decomposition? Use examples to illustrate your answer.

A:        Decomposition            is simple                                                         

            AB → A + B

It’s a change of direction a reconstruction of atoms         see         heat breaks down bonds or
you break down in a grocery store aisle         to enter rot you attach to pieces          love is no longer a drop of water      Hydrogen and Oxygen separately can’t reason       the two can’t breathe                  not together not alone either         it tastes a little like ache            like closing
the gates no more customers today
on the page it looks like this:

                        H2O→ H2 + O

Break               open an apple for example slice its heart slice again your unpracticed hands destroy it easy like a cake you never learned to bake like the jasmine that fell too soon grief wants to grow branches              parasites attaching to blood no one can see deep in the earth dripping from the ceiling making you dead cold in ways you didn’t even imagine                    it is a reaction         people say compose yourself and by that they mean dig up your bones     
cover that grief with dirt not          six        feet      under   but             two because decay happens so much easier in the shallow or perhaps think of it like this: in the shelves of a grocery store there are many things dying a pack of bagels for example meant for a family of four a smoothie never bought                                        a man holding his wife while the ambulances arrives molecules shift shapes when heated the same                 two look different when holding on differently                          like Hydrogen Peroxide

                2 H2O2 → 2 H2O + O2

two shelves over from the floor where she fell the same bottle they emptied in the aisle take my answer say it was a whole a promise and then something dispersed what I mean to say is
                 everything decomposes
                 even people
                 even words

Hananah Zaheer is a fiction editor for Four Way Review. Her recent work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review where it won the Lawrence Foundation Literary prize for 2017, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gargoyle, Moon City Review, Westview and Willow Review, among others. She received a 2016 Pushcart nomination from Moon City Review and has been awarded fellowships by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

“Stitches” by Hananah Zaheer

Painting by Anna Rac.

The day before I bury
             her                   I
measure her     in negatives
they have removed everything
heart lungs      her
                         liver     her                                           
sinks    my home
hollowed by someone’s hands
she was opened        she
smelled sweet
and sometimes
bitter    her
hands bathed me  
from when I wipe
her chest          she is
              sewn shut       jagged
cuts across       I hold
her hair
It still looks the same

Hananah Zaheer is a fiction editor for Four Way Review. Her recent work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review where it won the Lawrence Foundation Literary prize for 2017, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gargoyle, Moon City Review, Westview and Willow Review, among others. She received a 2016 Pushcart nomination from Moon City Review and has been awarded fellowships by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

“The Esterlink” by Robert Sachs

Painting by Anna Rac.

On a frosty March morning, Leon Esterlink left his Louisville home, running with a slow, steady pace. “It’s made for running,” he said to himself, moving up Eastern Parkway to Cherokee Park. There he found a gentle, dry breeze and made friends with it. “Perfect,” he said. He did the hills with ease, past the golf course, the pond, and then out of the park toward downtown. He knew he was sweating, but the dry air wicked it away. “Symbiosis,” he shouted. A man in a bright yellow parka walking his dog turned around to look. A trumpet voluntary marched through Leon’s head. The music paced him and he was lost in its melody. He barely noticed crossing the Second Street Bridge into Indiana. Leon’s goal was Indianapolis. If he could keep his normal pace, he’d be there before midnight. A film crew accompanied him: three guys in a flatbed truck and two more in a helicopter. He did his best to ignore them.

During his years of isolation after his hair fell out, Leon had survived on daily patterns that kept him from thinking about the injustice of his disease, about relationships never made, loves never found. He was alone. “Like a tree next to a stream,” he said once to the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. “I can see it, I take nourishment from it, but I can’t dip my toe in it. I can’t go swimming.”

She had laughed. “A tree swimming,” she said, wiping clean the electric cook top. “A swimming tree.” The thought tickled her.

Before he took up running, this was his pattern: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday he’d get up at seven, make breakfast, read the paper, listen to the morning news. He’d spend an hour on the treadmill and two hours on records for his insurance business and talking on the phone to the home office. In the afternoon, he’d call clients and prospects. Most of his business was transacted over the phone and through the Internet. E-mail had been a boon to Leon. He used a courier service to get papers signed and to deliver policies. Evenings were spent back on the treadmill and reading. His favorite book was The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940.

He’d sleep later on Wednesday, Friday, and the weekend. He tried not to work on those days. He’d read, play the guitar, cook. And jog on the treadmill, where he had a good view of the street from his living room window. He’d spend weeks, sometime months, this way, seeing only the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. Even for her, he’d wear a cap and draw in eyebrows. She understood that he was doing this for her. If he noticed that she wore lipstick and nylons on the days she cleaned for him, he never let on.

Some years earlier, when Dr. Fannin confirmed it really was alopecia universalis, he told Leon, “It needn’t be a death sentence.”

No, not death. Life in solitary confinement, thought Leon as he left the office. Six months earlier the first clump of hair had come off in his hand. Now he saw himself as a hairless freak.

“There are treatments,” Dr. Fannin said. Leon tried them without success. “There are wigs. Nowadays you can’t tell them from real.” Sure. And finally, “There are support groups.”

Support this, Doc, he wanted to say. Leon, toting his empty follicles, walked home from the doctor’s office three weeks before his thirty-seventh birthday planning for a life alone. His three-bedroom brick bungalow, with its sharp roof lines and wide oak flooring, provided sanctuary.

He was headed now north into the heart of Indiana, red with the glow of oxygenation, shadowed by the flatbed truck and the helicopter. The music was gone, the cadence called by his beating heart. It was mile fifty and his breathing was steady, his gait strong. He smiled thinking about how worried Dr. Fannin had been just a few years earlier. “I know your lifestyle, Leon. You’re a time bomb ready to explode,” he said. He tapped Leon’s belly. “Look at that paunch. Triglycerides above 500. HDL very low. You’ll need to shed some weight. And you’ll need to get more exercise.”

Leon bought the treadmill and like everything else he did, applied himself assiduously to the task of losing the paunch and getting into shape. He incorporated the treadmill into his daily patterns. He watched what he was eating. The woman shopped accordingly. She also changed her diet and began exercising.

He was on his treadmill late on an April day when a congregation of runners passed in front of his living room window. Hundreds. It could have been thousands. Serious athletes, poseurs, men, women, old, young. Running, jogging. Some walked. Some were in costume!

“They’re going somewhere,” he said out loud, “and I’m stuck here treading water.”

“Treading water on the treadmill. Treading water. Getting nowhere.” This mantra of the moment kept the tempo as he beat out the miles. “Treading water, getting nowhere.” The next day, after dark, he put on his blue running pants with the double white stripe down the sides, his Centre College sweatshirt and a baseball cap, and ventured outside for the first time in weeks. His first run. The windless air sat heavy on his Highlands neighborhood as he started out. One block. Two blocks. A mile. Three miles. Enough.

He walked back to his house, sweating heavily and humming show tunes. He passed a well-manicured hedge and ran his hand across the top leaves. It tickled. He leaned into a lamppost stretching his calf muscles, first one, then the other. He slept until ten the following morning.

The cleaning and shopping woman noticed something different. “Chipper today,” she said putting a carton of eggs in the refrigerator.

He couldn’t wait until nightfall.

Leon’s run to Indianapolis was, for the most part, along Route 31. Through Sellersburg, Memphis, Henryville, and Underwood. Past the deep cornfields of Vienna, Austin, Crothersville, and Uniontown. Up past Reddington, Azalia, and on to Columbus. Mile seventy. He had just completed a repetition of The Esterlink and felt confident. It was The Runner that gave it a name and made Leon wealthy. His technique, it was claimed, enabled a runner to get past the wall, to continue running much farther than would otherwise be possible. It looked bizarre even to Leon. “Who’s crazy enough to do this shit in public?” he thought. “You’d look like a fool.”

People lined the road approaching Columbus. First only a few, but the closer he got to the city the larger the crowd became. “Go Leon,” some shouted. “Esther-Link, Esther-Link,” groups of teens chanted. It made him nervous. He was expected to wave and smile.

It had taken a month or so of nighttime running before he got up the nerve to run in daylight around Louisville. There was little in the way of encouraging chants then. “Mexican Hairless,” young toughs would taunt. “Freak,” they’d shout. He took to running on country roads where he would be less likely to be harangued. And it was there, among the rolling hills, the farmhouses and the occasional horse that he discovered the secret of long-distance running. Loping along early one June morning and out of boredom, more than anything else, he started to skip. Feeling playful, he began goose-stepping, like the leader of a marching band. He noticed, quite by accident, that he felt refreshed. He ran farther that morning than ever before. And he could have run farther still were it not for the fact that he was due back home to take a call from the head office.

Leon sensed he was on to something, and he began methodically experimenting with various movements. It took a few months of trial and error, but he was able to eliminate the extraneous and whittle down the possibilities to the basic moves we know now as The Esterlink. With this technique, Leon felt he could run a hundred miles or more.

He was aware that the sight of a tall, thin (for by now he was thin), hairless man running, goose stepping, leaping and waddling would not go unnoticed. In his first marathon, his hairlessness garnered some attention, but he was not yet ready to use his newly discovered technique. He finished, but not without having to stop and walk several times.

He entered the Chicago Marathon, lost in the blur of thirty-seven thousand other runners. At the sixteenth mile, when he felt he could run no farther, he unveiled The Esterlink. Other runners dodged his goose stepping, avoided his leaping and, too oxygen starved to laugh, smiled at his waddling. At the twentieth mile, it was picked up by the television cameras. By the time he reached the finish line, a coven of reporters was waiting for him. He feigned exhaustion and refused to answer questions. “Thanks. Thanks,” was all he said.

He developed a following. In subsequent races, the people lining the streets were cheering for the skinny, hairless man with the strange moves. Newspaper reporters and television crews followed in his wake. A sports physician appeared on 60 Minutes explaining that the Esterlink technique couldn’t possibly work to eliminate fatigue. Another went on Oprah convinced that the Esterlink was the greatest advance in running since pavement. Leon made the cover of The Runner magazine. Weekend runners practiced the Esterlink and entered marathons. The notoriety was torture for Leon. He wanted to be left alone, but he recognized the improbability of that.

Wherever he ran, the press barked at his heels. Fartlek Shoes approached him with a seven million-dollar offer. A three-year deal. He’d be required to run in at least three marathons a year and make two television commercials and a video. The rest of the time he was free to run as he saw fit, as long as he wore the Fartlek insignia on his singlet and the Fartlek Esterlink running shoes. “I can’t do it,” he said to the woman as she sorted through his mail and straightened the papers on his desk. “I don’t think I could stand the spotlight.

“No, she said, “it would be too difficult for you. Such a shame. The money would make you independent, of course. You could retire after the three years and do whatever you pleased.”

“You think I’m crazy,” he said, “turning down that kind of money.”          

“No. Not for a tree,” she smiled. He stopped the treadmill and turned to say something, but she had moved on to the kitchen and was running the disposal. Later that day, he called his attorney and instructed him to accept.

Fartlek’s Esterlink model became a best seller, in the first year rivaling the sales of Nike’s Air Jordan models. The shoe was designed to his specifications and each week, along with a large check, he received a new pair in the mail.

Leon refused in-person interviews with reporters, but he agreed to a telephone interview with a newspaper reporter who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“How do you react when you hear that youngsters are shaving off all the hair on their bodies so they can look more like you?” the reporter began.

“I’m flattered, of course. I’m sure it’s a fad that will fade away soon enough. It’s ironic. Here I’ve spent years hiding my hairlessness, staying indoors, skulking around in long coats and sunglasses, and all of a sudden teenagers, even some adults, are using depilatories and shaving their body hair just to look more like me. The mind boggles.”      

The reporter scribbled “humble” in his notebook. He got Leon to explain the development of the Esterlink movements. “I have to admit, I watched the video and began to laugh when you started with those steps. You have to be aware of how strange you look,” he said.

“I understand in the last Bay to Breakers there was a group of seven runners who did it in unison throughout the entire course. Now that must have looked goofy. Sure, I was scared and felt stupid the first time I did it in a race. But there was no other way I could have gone the distance. It’s easier now.”

“What’s next for Esterlink, Inc?” the reporter asked.

“You make it sound like I’m an industry. I’m just a runner, and not a particularly fast one. I didn’t seek out the notoriety or the money. Maybe it’s just my fifteen minutes of fame.” He was trying to sound the way he thought a sports star should sound. It was painful for him. “Look, I really have to go,” he said by way of ending the interview.

The reporter thanked him. “Clueless schmuck,” he wrote.

Running had become an obstacle course for Leon. Well-wishers, autograph hounds, reporters. Jimmy Fallon wanted him on his show. Louisville renamed a street after him. There was a rumor he had donated a million dollars to endow the yearly Mini-Marathon on the condition that the city change the name of the race to the Esterlink Mini. The more he denied it, the more people assumed it was true. Fancy women called him at night suggesting things that turned his ears red. He yearned for the solitude hairlessness had imposed. He’d learned to tolerate the stares and the ridicule accompanying his early daylight runs. Adulation proved more difficult.

“My life’s no longer my own,” he moaned to the woman who cleaned and shopped. “My agent is suggesting bodyguards now. Goons in cars to shoo away anyone approaching me. How am I supposed to live like that?”

“Less than three years,” she said softly, putting orange juice and soy milk in the refrigerator. She suggested he see someone.

“I don’t need help. I need to be left alone,” he shouted and went upstairs to his bedroom.

The throng of people waiting for him in Indianapolis was clapping and hooting as he entered the downtown area and circled the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. A young woman with long auburn hair broke through the police line and tried to grab his shorts. It was after eleven by the time he hopped in the cab of the flatbed truck and headed home, the helicopter leading the way.

Two months later, on a sunny Monday, Leon awoke at seven. He made breakfast and read the paper. He flipped on the radio and listened to the news. On the treadmill he looked out onto the street. Nothing out of the ordinary. People going about their business, children waiting for the school bus. He thought about the nastiness surrounding his break with Fartlek. “I did the video; I ran in two marathons. They can continue to use my name on their shoes. I want out,” he had told his lawyer.

The contract had two more years to run, but Leon was through. He wanted to keep the two million Fartlek had paid him so far and walk away. Fartlek sued for the return of most of the money. His lawyer convinced him to counter sue for a share of the profits from shoe and video sales. The litigation, his lawyer assured him, would last for years.

In the two months after the filming and his decision to abandon his obligations to Fartlek, Leon hadn’t left his home. Every day he received dozens of letters from people he didn’t know, wishing him well and hoping he’d return to running. Many explained how he had inspired them with his courage. Some contained pictures of hairless children with notes about how he had given them self-esteem. These touched him.

There was a letter from the reporter. He was writing a screenplay about Leon’s life and he’d like Leon to work with him on it. “One of the movie studios had shown some interest,” he wrote. Leon was offered $25,000 to speak at the annual meeting of the National Sporting Goods Association in Las Vegas.

His popularity continued to grow. This, in turn, had a positive impact on his insurance business. He had planned to give it up, but found himself busier than ever and with mounting legal fees to pay, he was thankful for the business. He added Wednesday as a work day. The woman who cleaned and shopped agreed to help him handle the extra business. She moved into his guest bedroom so she’d be available to streamline his work flow.

A year passed. He was sitting in the living room watching Stephen Colbert talk to a man from Madison, Wisconsin, who opened beer bottles with his bellybutton. The cleaning and shopping woman sat down beside him. “Any regrets, Leon?” she whispered.

He thought for a moment about the fame and fortune, the adulation, his contribution to the sport of running, the positive role model he had been to alopecia sufferers. He laid his head on her bosom. “None,” he said.

Robert Sachs’ work has appeared most recently in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Delmarva Review. He earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University in 2009. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. Originally from Chicago, he currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He serves on the board of Louisville Literary Arts. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com.

[Yes, but …] by Devon Balwit

Painting by Anna Rac.

Why don’t you…? people offer,
meaning well, not knowing the hole
its murk and depth, its rootedness, the soul
rot-riddled. To watch another suffer
distresses, brings out the fixer. Dis-ease,
alas, is not so easily fixed, the brain
stubbornly attuned to its frequency of pain.
Sure, one can medicate, finding one’s ease
in the cat-grab of pills at the nape,
but then one’s paws spin above the ground,
the world distant, both sense and sound
muted. —Better the feces-throwing ape
that hoots in the head’s cage. Do you see
the dilemma? Hamlet’s to be or not to be?

Devon Balwit‘s most recent collection is titled A Brief Way to Identify a Body (Ursus Americanus Press). Her individual poems can be found in The Cincinnati Review, Fifth Wednesday (on-line), apt, Grist, and Rattle among others. For more on her book and movie reviews, chapbooks, collections and individual works, see her website at: https://pelapdx.wixsite.com/devonbalwitpoet

“Apology in the Sand” by Kyle Laws

Painting by Anna Rac.

Across the canal, at Higbee’s Beach, paths wind through
a sanctuary of seabirds and water fowl. A ferry I do not board

backs into a November night, backs through the remains
of horseshoe crabs laying eggs on shore. I reach an apology

in the sand, find the stick used to imprint it; sand clogs
the end. It smells of low tide, a single strand of woman’s hair

caught against the rim of bamboo. If I had stayed, I would
not have closed the future of you, but picked up the child’s boot

from the debris of tide, wrapped it up with the entanglements
of seaweed and saltgrass, brought it home on another road. And I

will think of you years hence, of your foot in a rubber boot
trying to catch flounder from the bay, pole stand dug into

the last sandbar, small hand winding the line in, slow click
and turn of the reel, the sand shark you almost wrestle

to your feet, the empty hook, your surprise at how just before
the last hitch of the reel it slips away, how you will never

really learn to fish, to catch anything other than what has to be
thrown back in.

Kyle Laws is based out of the Arts Alliance Studios Community in Pueblo, CO where she directs Line/Circle: Women Poets in Performance. Her collections include Faces of Fishing Creek (Middle Creek Publishing), So Bright to Blind (Five Oaks Press), and Wildwood (Lummox Press). Ride the Pink Horse is forthcoming from Spartan Press. With six nominations for a Pushcart Prize, her poems and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. She is the editor and publisher of Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press.  

“The Nursery Walls” by Brittany Franclemont

Painting by Anna Rac.

Catherine stood frozen, paintbrush held an inch from the canvas and dripping blue paint on the art studio’s wooden floor. She strained to focus, but all she could think of was the last time she painted and the morning that followed.

The memories of that night came to her in brief flashes – Aaron standing behind her as he guided her in finishing up a design on the nursery walls that he had started, pressing warm kisses against her neck in between forming perfect swirls of pale green paint spelling out the gender neutral baby name, Aaron stopping for a brief moment to rest his palm against her stomach to see if the baby was moving despite the doctor telling them a million times that it was too soon for that, Aaron spinning her around and kissing her over and over until she could no longer tell where one kiss ended and the next began, until she forgot where he ended and she began.

The following morning began with them sharing breakfast in bed. He rubbed her stomach, laughing when she complained about swelling up like a balloon, even though she was not that far along. Everything was fine until he mentioned wanting to tell his parents about the baby. She rejected the idea. No hesitation. It had little to do with the fact that she disliked them as people and more to do with the fact that Aaron still had nightmares about failing as a person – failing her – because of the mental abuse he had endured growing up. He had grown angry and pointed out that her parents were not flawless either. Even when he reminded her that his parents had apologized and were trying to do better, she stubbornly refused to let them have anything to do with their baby. He had turned away, grumbling something under his breath about how ridiculous she was being. In a moment of weakness, she’d sworn that the baby would never meet them if she could help it. Saying the morning ended on a sour note was putting it mildly.

She’d spent six months since that morning, wondering what would have happened if she had done something differently. If she had grabbed his arm before he walked out, stopped thinking about herself for once and just accepted they had their differences, could she have stopped it or would she have only been delaying the inevitable? There were no right answers.

She dragged herself out of her daze and stared at the puddle of paint at her feet. Even the good memories made her sad nowadays. She and Aaron would never again hold hands, never share a hug or a kiss, never get to hold their baby and coo over how perfect he or she was together. Everything that happened between them then no longer mattered and she reminded herself of that daily to distract herself from ever thinking about the future. She did not want to think about what she would do with herself now. What could she, a twenty-four-year-old unmarried and now widowed painter who never left the house do?

Catherine tore off a wad of paper towels and knelt, cleaning up the mess haphazardly. The white pine was now tinged a faint blue. What did it matter? She would be moving out in less than a week and the family moving in to fill her place had already gushed to her about redecorating the whole place. The happy couple – expecting parents, no less – even brought along paint samples and chosen which colors would go where. It stung, knowing everything that made the place hers and Aaron’s would be gone, but she tried not to put a damper on their excitement. She even went so far as to walk them out and wave a goodbye from the front porch. Then she went into the nursery and sat there, cheek pressed against the wall and eyes closed as if she could feel Aaron there.

No. She would not think about them again or envy them their happiness. Nothing good ever came out of feeling sorry for yourself just because other people’s lives were going well. She knew that much.

Brushing a tendril of wild hair out of her face and rising to her feet, she set the paintbrush and the paper towel on the easel. She needed something to distract her. Before she could talk herself out of it, she strode into her bedroom. The boxes were mostly empty in here. Although she had already packed up the rest of the house, she was not ready to face going through Aaron’s belongings, deciding what to keep and what to donate or throw away. She bit her lip as she glanced around, trying to decide where to start. It was too much, too soon. There was no way she could do this. Who was she kidding, trying to act like she was fine?

“Quit being a baby.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, Catherine, you can do this.”

She opened Aaron’s closet door. It had been practically forever since she had last been in there. During the move, they agreed that the separate closets were their own personal spaces. She stayed out of his and he stayed out of hers. As such, she knew he had hidden many birthday and anniversary presents for her there in the three years that they had lived there. Although she hated surprises, she had never broken her promise to stay out of there. It felt wrong to now. Even after six months had passed, it still felt like an invasion of privacy.

All his clothes hung there, freshly laundered. His favorite pair of shoes were kicked into the corner. Something caught her eye and she glanced up. Perched on the edge of the shelf, too high for her to reach, was a box. She pulled up a chair to get it down. It fit easily in the palm of her hand. Leaving the closet as it was, she walked over to sit on the bed and opened it. Out spilled a handful of petals and a slip of paper about the size of her thumb.

“Call this phone number,” she read aloud. “Ask for me.”

Catherine stared at the note. It was Aaron’s handwriting, but why would he leave a note like this to himself? She dialed the phone number before she could change her mind.

“Hello, you have reached Helen’s Handfuls of Happiness. This is Helen speaking. How may I help you today?”

“Well…” She hesitated. “I was calling about Aaron Johnson.”

There was a long pause. What if she was completely wrong about this? All she knew about Helen’s Handfuls of Happiness was that it was a florist about fifteen minutes away. How would Aaron react if he were here right now and knew that she dug through something that he obviously wanted to be private? What if this Helen thought she was completely insane for asking about something so vague? Her hands started shaking. Swallowing her pride, Catherine started to apologize and claim she had the wrong phone number.

“Oh!” Helen interrupted her frantic thoughts. “He told me you would be calling.”

“He did?”

“Of course he did!” She sounded horrified that Catherine would ever think otherwise. Before she could ask for more information, Helen beat her to the punch. “It was about nine months ago. He came in and bought a dozen red roses and asked me for a favor.”

“A favor.” She was at a loss for words, only able to repeat what she was being told at this point. “What was the favor?”

“He told me that he and his girlfriend were expecting and that he wanted to surprise her with something special before the baby was born. He asked me to wait until you called, so that I could give you the next clue.”

“What clue?”

“For the treasure hunt.”

“A treasure hunt?”

“Oh, no.” Helen sounded upset. “Did I ruin the surprise?”

“No, no!” Catherine hastened to reassure her. She could hear Helen rustling papers around on the other end, no doubt still wondering if she had spoiled everything. “What is the clue?”

“He said to go read your favorite quote from The Choice of the Solstice.”

“Thank you so much, Helen. You have been a big help.”

“No problem, honey.” There was a pause. “I sure do miss seeing Aaron around here. He came in to buy flowers every Friday. He was always telling me how much you loved surprises. I wish I could have made it to the funeral. My condolences.”

She drew in a shaky breath. “Thank you.”

“You take care of you and that baby now.”

It hit Catherine like a punch in the gut. She wheezed out a quick thank-you and hung up before she did or said something embarrassing she would regret. She dropped the phone on the bed.

Six months was an awfully long time to be without someone you loved. Forever was a hell of a lot longer. As far as she was concerned, she was as adjusted as she was going to get. Aaron had only been a year older than her. It was unfair and that made coping harder. She had been to see one of the grief counselors at the hospital where Aaron had been admitted after the car accident and a therapist that had been highly recommended to her. According to them, her grief had gone from healthy to concerning when she lost the baby a week later and fell into a deep depression. People told her over and over that it was common to have a miscarriage in the first trimester but it almost felt to her like she was losing all she had left of Aaron. A small part of her even thought that she deserved to feel this way – that she should feel guilty because she had wished so much for Aaron not to be gone that she stopped focusing on how grateful she should be that she still had the baby. Now that she was on antidepressants, she had been told her grief would naturally lessen with time. She was still waiting.

Enough of that. She went over to the nightstand on his side of the bed and dug through until she found The Choice of the Solstice. She and Aaron both read it so many times that the spine was broken and the pages were starting to fall out. As she thumbed through, his bookmark fell out and drifted soundlessly to the bedroom floor. A lump rose in her throat. It was something that seemed inconsequential but, in that moment, all she could think about was how he was never going to get to read it ever again.

It was this book that brought them together. She had been reading in a coffee shop one day when a shadow fell across the pages. When she glanced up, he was standing there with a bright smile and a battered copy of the same book clutched in his hands. She had never read it before. He later admitted that he never finished it before because he never wanted it to end. They finished it together.

 She turned the page and there it was. Her favorite quote had been underlined before so many times that she could run her finger along the page and feel the grooves the pen had left. Someone, presumably Aaron, had highlighted one specific part that read, “I chose you. I will never stop choosing you.” She blinked away tears. Scrawled out to the side was the next treasure hunt clue, which simply said, “Look inside my favorite pair of shoes.”

Catherine grabbed them from the closet. The last time she held these shoes was when she had given them to Aaron for his birthday years ago. He put them on once and immediately declared them the most comfortable shoes he had ever worn. Of course, she knew he would love them before he even wore them. Situating herself on the bed, she quickly glanced inside them. As far as she could tell, there was nothing there. She felt around inside them. Nothing. Her heart sank for a moment. As she started to pull her hand away, her fingertips brushed against something that crinkled. Her heart soared. She tilted the shoe towards the light and smiled when she saw the shred of paper taped to the top of the inside. She gently tugged it free and unfolded it. “This is the final clue. Turn on the black light in your art studio.” Again, it was Aaron’s handwriting.

She felt hesitant now, as if finishing the treasure hunt would mean the happiness she was feeling now – for the first time in a long time – would be gone again. Part of her knew she could not stop now when she was so close but the other part of her was screaming for her to stop. Catherine had no idea where this was going. For all she knew, it would only lead to more heartache. The worry that he had never gotten to finish setting up the treasure hunt began to set in. But she had to try.

Holding her breath, Catherine walked into the art studio where the blue paint from earlier was still drying on the floor. The black light hung on the wall in the corner. It had been a present from Aaron for Christmas one year. It was perfect for adding details that could only be seen under black light to already finished paintings. Aaron had joked that it was their little secret. Nervously, she flipped on the black light. The place lit up like the Fourth of July.

Catherine’s hand fluttered up to cover her mouth. The walls had been covered before, in quotes from The Choice of the Solstice, but now certain words had been painted over to stand out under the black light. She began to piece together the puzzle in her mind. The section Aaron had highlighted in the book flashed brightly at her from the wall now. As she spun around to take it all in, she noticed the floor glowing at her feet. She stepped aside to read it. Her heart stopped.

“Will you marry me?” she whispered, reading the words aloud to herself slowly as if they might disappear. Just underneath them was another line of text. “Turn around.”

Her eyes drifted closed. In that moment, she could almost imagine turning around and opening her eyes to see Aaron waiting there. He would be on one knee, smiling that smile that made her fall in love the first time they ever met. It would be everything she ever hoped for. She turned around and opened her eyes, blinking away her tears as she gazed at the empty doorway.

The life she and Aaron had had together was done and over with. She knew that and had known it for months. But, somehow, knowing what he had planned made the load on her shoulders feel a little lighter. She walked over to the canvas she had abandoned earlier. Catherine had stopped painting when Aaron died and she lost the baby. Painting had been the only thing that made her happy anymore and she was punishing herself. What had happened was no one’s fault. Whether or not she fought with Aaron that morning, nothing could have prevented the car accident and nothing could have prevented the miscarriage. She picked up the paintbrush. For a long moment, she stood there, teetering on the edge of something practically unknown to her after six long months. Then, she began to paint, streaking blue across the canvas.

Brittany Franclemont is currently pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at Stephen F. Austin State University and has previously been published in The Piney Dark.