DEAR ALISON by Stephanie Parent

I’ve used you so many times. In college application essays, you were the tragedy I experienced early in life, the loss that made me wise beyond my years and allowed books to speak to me so deeply I was determined to become a writer myself. 

(I wasn’t wise beyond my years, and I never wanted to write as much as I wanted to read.)

I recycled those same essays for graduate school applications, but when I actually made it to a master’s program and depression snuck up on me like a springtime drizzle, then slammed down all at once in a summer thunderstorm, there you were again: you were the explanation for all my psychological deficiencies. Who wouldn’t believe the world was an unsafe place, a gauntlet they weren’t strong enough to handle, after someone so important had died when they were only three years old?

I kept on using you, all throughout my twenties, in and out of therapy and half-formed career goals and dead-end jobs. You were the reason I couldn’t be a responsible adult, couldn’t make something of myself. I had spent the first two decades of my life trying to please my parents, to make up for your death, to keep them from worrying about me. I was always ahead on homework and ready for every test, never chugged a beer or smoked a joint. Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude. I had to run out of steam eventually, right?

Now, in my thirties, I’m still using you. You’re the ghost haunting my every decision, my every regret with your stale, back-of-the-closet smell. I’m wringing you out like an old washcloth, the one I used to mop up the mess of my subconscious. I’m eking out every musty drop in the hopes you’ll yield emotional resonance. Or at the very least, provide some justification for the stupid choices I made. For all the money I spent, the good jobs I stopped looking for, the resumes so half-assed I might as well have ripped them up and let the pieces float off like tumbleweeds.

I really am a shitty sister, aren’t I? For someone who lived less than two months, who never developed a personality, someone who was born when I was too young to remember you, I certainly have put a lot of pressure on you. How much worse would it be if you had lived? 

(Hey, I said I was shitty.)

I’m angry with you for coming to our world so briefly, arriving with the first soft snow flurries of December, and melting away before spring could even arrive. I’m angry you left me with the knowledge of how fragile life is, and how people can go on living with a part of their souls tucked away behind the winter coats. I’m angry at my parents for never talking about you. Maybe if there had been a funeral I could remember, a grave I could visit, a picture on a wall, I wouldn’t have to carry you inside me like a thousand buttercups that never opened, yellow hearts that withered on some March morning when the frost returned.

 

You died because you stopped breathing, when you were six weeks old, a few months after I turned three. 

I’m not sure I ever learned how to breathe.

 

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SITTING ALONE by D.T. ROBBINS

I had a dream about you. I sat in a pew that only had enough room for two people. Its red velvet had faded, its wooden frame splintered. 

Someone played piano, sang a song for you, about you. The congregation sent up a crescendo of angel voices, enveloping the atmosphere, like a child wrapped around her father’s leg. 

And me? I lost it. I bawled, wailed. 

I’d saved that seat next to me for you, but you never came. 

 

The dream-song, a melody I’d never heard before, stayed in my ears after I woke. I considered whether or not to remove the guitar from my wall, excavating the song’s chord structure from my sleep. The tears I wept, hollow-chested and heavy-limbed, cascaded into reality, like watching the ripped remains of matter spewing from the other side of a black hole. Because the truth is, I fucking miss you. 

You were the whole of my youth, my adolescence. I would pray like you said to, you would stir my soul with mystery and revelation, wisdom and understanding. The elders prayed over me at 13. Never look to man, they said, because man would always disappoint me. Keep my eyes on you and you alone. They said the devil would shoot fiery arrows at me my whole life, but you’d protect me. 

And the devil did speak. From pulpits he decried the extent of your grace and compassion. And I, if I truly believed, was to revile and denounce so-called abominations that the world fell victim to. Despite your freedom, I put on chains. He criticized the expectation of your power and presence. Miracles became blasphemous. Mystery was ignorance. You were the light, but I only saw darkness.

He spoke from behind the desks of those who said they knew you better, were closer to you. As if my relationship with you was a thing to be measured and scrutinized like the subject of a clinical trial. Charisma was favored over personal experience. Could I preach a three-point sermon? Was the inflection in my voice enough to evoke an emotional response? How many bodies could I bring into the room? When was the last time I jerked off? Who was I fantasizing about? Did I touch her before she wore a ring? Was I drinking in public or at home? Did I cause someone to stumble with my secret sins? 

My questioning and challenging their teaching, the methodology, blacklisted me. It seems as though you’re a flash in the pan, they told me. This isn’t working out, they said. You’re not a strong enough spiritual leader, she said. Whatever the hell that even meant.

The devil’s voice grew louder, silencing yours. I quit listening to you both. I chose my own voice. Of my anger, my disappointment and disillusionment. You became a distant memory, a nightmare, a gravesite. 

I watched as those who believed they knew you better ended up knowing nothing of you and even less of themselves. Their egos crucified their missions. They vacated their callings, falling from their pedestals. Some by choice, others by force. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t find some restitution in it. One friend, who stood witness to my eventual dismissal of faith, said to me, You were the one they said would go nowhere and do nothing, look where you’re at now, how well you’re doing! And where the fuck are they? Their names are forgotten, reputations buried. Maybe I’m wrong for that. Maybe you reap what you sow. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

 

But now I can’t shake that song, that dream. I keep seeing that seat I saved for you. I keep wondering if you’ll show. If you’ll remember me like I remember you from the days of my innocence. If you’ll remember my innocence at all. If you’ll remember my voice the way I remember yours. Or if it’s too late. If I’ve become like that pew, faded and splintered. 

The seat belongs to you and, whether I like it or not, no one else is capable of occupying that space. 

I’ve been sitting here for so long. 

I hate sitting alone.

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HEAVENLY LAKE by Kristen Loesch

It might be June, or it might be July. I can no longer keep track of the days. It’s that halfway point of a Hong Kong summer, when the heat turns everything soupy. The days and nights run together, and the usual strictures of time and space begin to crumble. How long have I been with my British boyfriend? Long enough for him to have bought a new camera. He’s an avid photographer, one who’s always itching for a worthy subject to capture. One day he finds one: Let’s go off the beaten track, to Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, to a remote lake called Tianchi, he says. He tells me what Tianchi means, but the way he pronounces it, it means something else. I don’t correct him. Maybe he knows my own tongue better than me. Maybe that’s why he often speaks for me.

My boyfriend hopes that Tianchi is so high in the mountains that nobody can breathe up there, that there won’t be any tourists. He dislikes an audience, and he never takes pictures of people with his expensive cameras, though he’s taken plenty of me. I am slightly less of a person than other people. One evening I tell him I’ve heard about a recent flare-up of violence in Xinjiang between members of its two main ethnic groups, Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Riots are breaking out. If things get bad, military will be called in. My boyfriend laughs. Maybe I’m being funny. Nothing to worry about, he says, and he should know. He wears suits to work and keeps Bloomberg blaring as he showers; he’s up-to-date. I like history and old houses. He is firmly in the present, while I am half in the past. Maybe I am his shadow. Maybe I should just stay close.

On our way to Xinjiang we have a layover in Guangdong. My boyfriend corners another couple to ask directions and they struggle to respond in English. I finally step in to help. I’m sorry, sometimes I forget that I have a voice, I say, and they smile. I’m being funny again. They warn us not to travel to Xinjiang, but when I translate this message for my boyfriend, he shakes it off like light rain. My parents ring my mobile as we wait for our connecting flight. Come home, please, don’t go with him, they beg me. I ask if they’ve heard about the unrest, the riots. They have not. The humidity in the airport is high. I lean my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder, feeling sweaty, slippery. Maybe I am melting into him. Maybe I am disappearing.

We land in Xinjiang’s capital city. We take a taxi to the hotel. Large groups of men prowl the streets, armed with bats and clubs and what look like chair legs. At the entrance to our hotel the staff is standing guard. We eat in the restaurant and I overhear guests at the next table whispering that there’s no Internet access, that the phone lines will be cut off. The food is buffet-style. Mostly noodles. The chef is busy guarding one of the doors with a knife. Later my boyfriend takes pictures from our room, panoramas of a suddenly silent city. Outside, it remains quiet for days and days, but inside, it is loud: The television volume on high. The shouting. The cursing. The breaking. And other times, his laughing. Maybe I’m just too funny. Maybe it is all my fault.

At last the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army roll into town. A curfew is imposed. Our lockdown ends. My boyfriend hates the idea of martial law, but I don’t mind. I don’t know what I’d do if I were completely free anyway. In fact, I can’t even remember what life was like before everything went quiet. My boyfriend and I make our way up to Tianchi, but there are plenty of tourists, large groups snapping pictures and hats flying off in the wind and old men hawking bottled water. My boyfriend is so frustrated that he cracks his own camera lens, but I’m glad we came. The lake is clear as a mirror.  There are no waves, not even a ripple. But this is only what people can see; there must be life beneath. I tell myself that maybe later it will show on the surface.

 

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GOD VISITED ME IN BALDWIN, NEW YORK by Ryan Norman

A sad poem picked me up at the train station. I missed my stop and he was annoyed that I wasn’t paying attention. It was my first time traveling alone. The day was long. I traveled two hours into Grand Central Station and had to get to Penn Station to catch the LIRR. This was before Waze and Google Maps. I was lost before I started, but there I was. Eighteen, standing in front of someone I met at college orientation. I melted in his eyes—already a puddle from five hours of train travel—making connections, walking in the summer subway halls, tile lined, the floors covered in hot piss. Finally, with a poem, torqued verse twisting my emotions. He connected his iPod to the car radio and serenaded me with, “Dirty Little Secret” by The All-American Rejects. It was 2005, can we fault him for his opening number? Later I would come to find out he meant it. “Who has to know?” A lyric to deflate my confidence.

***

The truth is, I was my own dirty little secret. I had only come out to friends at this point in my life. My cover story was going to Long Island to stay with a friend I met only a month earlier to visit the beaches. It was seen through, of course. I later came to find out that my behavior was written off as a phase.

***

I remember sitting in a pizza place making small talk. He was kind enough to feed me. My stomach was full of electric butterflies. Eating wasn’t my priority; I wanted to be alone with him as he whispered sonnets directly into my heart. Somewhere we could be ourselves without ears signaling into our conversation. We had known a lot about each other. He went to a Catholic Prep school and played lacrosse. I had made all my sacraments up to that point and was on the rowing team. That’s not a lot, but for Queer folk, someone always feels some kind of way about the Church. I felt guilt. He did what felt right. We left lunch behind and headed to his home.

***

In Sunday School when I was eleven or twelve, the Church curriculum included sexual education. Sex is an act to be performed between men and women. My teacher had said that the Church wanted her to tell us that using condoms is sinful, because sex is meant to produce children. She leaned in and told us that if we are ever going to have sex, that we should use a condom. It was her way of being responsible and spreading the safe message. In my secular high school, years later, I would receive a much more thorough education on sex. But that was the word of the Lord. Amen.

***

We drove back to his house listening to all the best from Warped Tour. We were, after all, just a couple of Punk Rock Princesses. The house was lived in. It was nothing I was used to seeing growing up and visiting friends’ homes in spotless rooms. I met his parents and sister; they were all very nice. His mother offered me a spare bedroom, but this poem that crawls into your soul and sits there lied and said I’d be sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. I guess he wasn’t lying about keeping me his dirty little secret. We went to his room and staged sleeping bags on the floor. I was then complicit in the lie.

***

My church wasn’t openly homophobic. It was not something the priest or deacons talked about while reading from the Bible. Or if they did, it was when I was young, and I have no memory of it. But that sly wording in Sunday School sexual education made it pretty clear. Some of the kids I went to Sunday School with would bully me, mostly outside of church and in school. I know now that they learned it from their families. So, at the parishioner level, homophobia existed. But I persisted quietly along the walls avoiding attention.

***

We touched briefly, exploring new clothed bodies in an embrace. The butterflies were back, and they electrocuted every inch of my skin. It was going to be dark in a few hours, and we had plans to go to Jones Beach. We left the safety of a bedroom locked with a WrestleMania XX folding chair jammed under the doorknob. I changed my clothes. He didn’t look away.

The car ride was more of the same. Music. Touching. Lights lined the highway in a rhythmic pattern of spotlight glow and the dark space between, the car passing through checkpoints like a video game. When we got to the beach, the sun had already set. The ocean rolled in a silver-white shimmer tonguing the shore. We walked, fingers woven, along the crashing waves. The surf licked my heels. Together we climbed a lifeguard’s abandoned post and sat close for warmth, as the sea breeze wet our lips. He gently grabbed my face and kissed me. “I’ve never done this before,” I said. The moon illuminated my first kiss and pulled me closer to a poem that unfurls in your heart.

I sat awed and tingling. No one was around to see us trespassing on a beach at night, as a memory built under the moon. We drove back to his childhood home and kissed some more. Eventually, we fell asleep, but something woke me. Light filled the room and I shook. I pressed my nakedness against his, and he pulled me close. Two crescents waxing full. My tears evaporated on his flushed skin. God visited me in Baldwin, New York, as I lay naked in a bed with some guy I met at college orientation. 

Nothing was said. Just a light floating at the foot of the bed watching me. I don’t know if it was a warning or a blessing. But I laid there against a poem to warm a cold night, silently crying. The guilt got to me, but it felt so right.

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INCANDESCENCE by Evan Senie

We set the fire up in your backyard with only three logs, two on the bottom and one perpendicular across the top. I was quiet around you then, cautious. I’m afraid I still am, forever worried about possible endings. The fire burned for hours once it got started, but initially it was stop-and-go. We fed pages from the phonebook into the empty spaces, watched the flames cause each to curl inward, the ink running down in a purple wave until it burned itself out and was replaced. When the logs caught, it was just their edges, little strands of wood glowing, and I blew on them, softly, tried to protect them from the breeze. The sun wasn’t down yet but the air was cooling. When we were sure the fire would stay lit, that it wouldn’t go out when we turned our backs, we settled into lawn chairs next to each other. I wanted to kiss you but instead I opened the beer I’d taken from your refrigerator. I sipped at it, bitter and metallic and cool.

For a while the logs hummed and clicked in the evening air and the sun sank lower and there was hardly any smoke, only flames licking at the impending dusk. I said that the wood must be dry, cured in this Colorado air, but I was wrong, and soon they started hissing. The smoke came at us in waves and you leaned away but I didn’t, saw no getting around it and so leaned in, taking it into my lungs and my pores until my eyes were dry, until I could smell nothing but the wood burning in my childhood fireplace where I used to sit with my brother and read or watch television, and I thought about how I always wanted to be closer to the fire than he was, afraid he might get burned. 

When the sun was gone but there was still enough light to see each other, you asked about him, or maybe I brought him up. I told you what he told me once, that he could only see one end to his life, that if not for me he’d already be gone. I think that’s true. I didn’t look at you while I spoke, instead staring into the fire and letting the smoke be a curtain around me, and for days afterward, in the steaming shower, I would smell it rising up off my hair. 

In the darkness we left our chairs and settled again on the bricks around the fire, side by side, close enough to touch the burning logs. We stared with envy at the center, at its moving and changing glow that we could never touch for all that heat. I wanted to heal the fire, preserve it, because every change is a type of loss, but we stayed at the periphery, looked in from the outside. You pointed to a field of glowing crystals, and said that orange is a color only beautiful in its element, always transient and natural and I knew that you were right, that it was the destructive power of combustion that gave off such warmth, projected such beauty, that even the sunset is a type of elegy, and I recognized the ugliness and the desperation in asking for permanence.  

I stared at the glowing crystals until finally whatever held this structure together succumbed to the pressures buried inside and the whole thing shifted. I didn’t know yet what was coming, the breakup and the reunion, standing with you in an oasis in the middle of a desert, crying on my bed, watching the sun set over the rocks on a beach in California, waking up next to you and wanting, for the first time, to be exactly where I was. 

Together we remembered the beginning, when sparks ate words off the page, but it was long gone, so we settled for watching tiny fires that bubbled up through the ash, light in places we thought had already burned to nothing. We listened to the crackling and popping and huddled together until we were touching, knees, shoulders, almost hands, and despite our gaze the fire finally became only embers, and it was after that that I kissed you, for the first time, there in your kitchen, and I mourned the loss of everything that exists, the very nature of heat itself, even before it left my lips.

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FOREIGNER by Rachel Laverdiere

When the cockroach and I lock eyes, I’m almost relieved. You’ve half convinced me that I’m neurotic. You say I imagine the scrutiny of the old ajumas at the outdoor markets, the side-eyed stares on the train to Kimje, the personalized attack by the orangutan at the Taegu Zoo. Yet, I’ve caught these glossy black orbs peering at me from above the window overlooking the hall. A hand’s-breadth from the closed classroom door. My only means of escape. I twist the pinching wedding bands your mother had made for me when we came back to Korea to exhibit our newborn son. She’d tried to convince me that her son and grandson belonged in this country, with her. It didn’t seem to matter where I belonged. 

At last, I have proof that I’m being watched, but I hardly feel vindicated. 

Your metred baritone penetrates the wall between our classrooms. The machine-gun clatter of children’s laughter and then a lull. Soon, the hall will fill with the youngest yuchiwon kids. If I don’t make my move now, I’ll have to wait for “Jake-teacher” to settle his next kindergarten class. I ease my chair away from the half-finished reports. I keep my eyes on the giant cockroach while I edge toward the door. 

Once I make it into the hallway, your voice booms. I glance into the window, watch the kids smother you. Black ants on honey. When I rap at the windowpane, the furrow dividing your angular brow crosses concern with annoyance. I raise my eyebrows and mime helplessness. This cannot wait.  

You brush off the children and line them up at the door. Soon, they screech toward the office to meet the piano teacher. 

Rather than explain, which would likely lead you to dismiss the cockroach as another over-dramatization and judgement of Korea, I say, “Just come. Please.” You glance at your watch but follow.

 

Entering my classroom, I point out the intruder, still perched near the ceiling. You glance at your watch again, sigh and remove your polished shoe and climb atop a student desk. Thwack! As your shoe smacks the wall, the cockroach soars across the room and lands on my desk. You topple to the ground, your shoeless hand protecting your face.

I choke back my laughter but cannot conceal my grin as this tragedy becomes comedy. 

“It’s a foreigner!” You spit the bitter words before you crush the cockroach between your shoe and my reports.  

My smirk melts from my lips. Twisting my wedding bands, I ask, “But how can you tell?” 

“Native cockroaches don’t fly.” You force your foot into its shoe and yank the shoelaces so hard I’m surprised they don’t snap. Your gaze hooks into mine, and you add, “Foreigners can’t be trusted to stay put.”

The heat of your words stings my cheeks. The door thuds behind you. 

As I scrub cockroach remains from my reports, I picture the hefty white envelope at the bottom of my teaching bag. It’s stacked with enough won to pay back my student loans. Almost enough to get our son and I settled back in Canada. I set my teeth, determined to leave before I, too, am squashed.

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THE SCHWINN by Rob Kaniuk

Mike showed up yelling and hollering about "the perfect gift" for Murph’s 40th birthday. He insisted everyone eat dinner and he’d give my dad his gift after we all had cake. Brylcreemed white hair, D.B. Cooper glasses, and one of his teeth, rimmed in gold, that twinkled when he smiled. It was a sly smile that was there whether he was handing me a butterscotch or crushing my hand purple in a handshake. He lived in a cabin, kept goats to maintain his lawn, and always had a paper bag filled with quarter sticks of dynamite.

 Mike was nuts, but he was our nut and we loved seeing his white Ranger kicking up dust unannounced. 

Since his crazy had been well established, and he talked about this gift very loudly while we all ate, a crowd followed him to the back of his truck.

He pulled out a brown grocery bag.

“Here you are, Murph,” he said, handing it to my dad with a touch of evil in his grin. “Happy birthday, from one Polack to another.”

My dad never said it, but he was afraid of Mike. He held the bag in front of everyone and couldn’t hide the look of inevitable embarrassment.

“Mike, I have my kids here–is it okay?”

“You’re not getting out of this one.”

“Mike, what the hell is it?”

“Take it out, you nervous bastard–it ain’t gonna bite.”

“I can’t see–what is it?”

Mike snatched the bag from my dad and poured it out on the tailgate. The goat’s head popped out first, then all four hooves. Mike roared laughing which made everyone else kinda laugh in support of his insanity. Murph laughed a what-the-fuck laugh, holding the head by a single horn, while my sister and I hid our faces and convulsed in quiet laughter at his inability to hide his discomfort.   

“That’s Shoeless Joe. Broke his leg in a damn gopher hole yesterday, so I had to shoot ’im. Perfect timing, really. Saved me a few bucks on a case of Coors.”

“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Murph backed away from his "perfect gift."

“Robbie, Colleen, I got you something, too–” he said and slid the head aside and threw a hind leg for my dad to catch. He then grunted as he pulled a Schwinn out the back of his truck. The tire knocked the head of the goat on the ground. Mike grabbed it by the horn, put it back on the bloody tailgate. 

It was a women’s model Schwinn with the low bar that looked like it survived the scrap drives during The War. 

“You two can share this. It’s a damn good machine. Don’t build’m like this anymore.”

We thanked Mike for his gift, and he laughed a Camel-non-filtered laugh and squeezed my hand into submission.

 

The red clay cliffs at the edge of the campground were 30 to 40 feet above the beach at Elkview Shores. Every drop of rain washed a little bit of that clay into the Elk River. This left large canyons in places where the water funneled. One of the little canyons was right in front of my dad’s trailer. To fill the giant void, people threw large metallic trash items into the chasm. Lawnmowers, refrigerators, steel lawn furniture–anything that promoted rust and filled the hole. Once the trash started to wash down to the beach, they abandoned this approach and decided to grab shovels and go ‘Trailerpark Corps of Engineers" on the problem. All of this trial and error happened before I was born, so by the time Coleen and I were beating around the campgrounds, there were tons of rusted metal trash in the various points of erosion and a four foot mole-hill that ran parallel to the river. The mole-hill ran the whole length of the park and acted as a swale to guide the rainwater from the rest of the park to one area where it would drain through a pipe and into the river below.

I couldn’t tell you about that when I was growing up. All I knew was that we had a half-mile-long mound that was built for two things: laying on our backs at night to get lost in the stars, and for jumping our bikes during the day.

I’d ride the rusty Schwinn up and down that campground and ghost ride it into the bushes so the other kids didn’t think I took my post-war relic seriously. But I did. It was, as Mike said, a damn good machine. Everyone made fun of it, and they tried like hell to break it, but they couldn’t. Colleen and I tried, too. Even the older kids couldn’t break it, and they could break just about anything. Buried in sand, ridden half-submerged, sent riderless, flying over the levee countless times. It was the AK-47 of bicycles. 

Crazy Mike’s Schwinn got respect in the end. After everyone else’s Huffys broke and got replaced, the crappy Schwinn was still around. If it was 30 pounds when we got it, it must’ve weighed a hundred when we were done from all the sand that found its way into the frame. 

I got older and abandoned it by the bath house for someone else. It belonged to childhood, not me. It belonged to laughter and Elkview Shores and reckless abandon. It belonged to another kid like me who needed that Schwinn as an escape from an alcoholic parent. I was old enough to escape in other ways. Old enough to fight back if I had to.

I like to think there’s still a kid riding it down the boat ramp into the water and he’s laughing. He and his friends can't stop laughing about the rusty old women's bike they found in the woods where the weirdos hang out. And they’ll never admit how damn cool that bike is. But they know.                                           

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LIGHTNING STRIKES by Emily Livingstone

Once upon a time, something truly devastating lanced out of the sky and struck the protagonist, turning him into a tragic hero. He was dead and born again in an instant, a demigod with a one-line history of having killed his whole family in a madness borne of squabbles between gods. He went on to perform twelve labors beyond human capability. He married a new wife and ascended to Mt. Olympus, a god-immortal. 

Or, once upon a time, there was a woman whom the earth swallowed. In fact, it may have swallowed a whole town, but then she climbed out of the chasm, and was awakened, a goddess all along, just asleep before, needed by the world in her new, better, more powerful form. And what of the town that fell into the chasm? It is only the backstory.

When suffering scraped me raw, did it empty me of something? Did golden, liquid power pour in to displace what was there? Did wings spring from my back, spreading wide from telephone pole to telephone pole, ready to bear me off on a quest? Did I become a weapon? 

On our search for salvation, a psychic told us about Michael the Archangel. I knew about him, but had never really considered him before. We could call him Mike, she said, and talk to him anytime, driving in the car or wherever. I see him now, in a flash of lightning, brandishing his sword aloft, illuminated in the darkness—muscular chest and wings outspread, a face full of confidence and potency. Whenever he appears, an 80s power ballad plays—maybe “Holding Out for a Hero” or “Livin’ on a Prayer”—and other angels roll their eyes, but they secretly like it, and he has the goods to back it up. And maybe, now, I’m beside him, glowing golden with my own set of wings, filled with a power I only half recognize. 

She also told us we’d live near the ocean one day. Maybe we will. 

When the scans were bad—when each one, despite everything, showed a growing tumor, our current house seemed to me like it might be cursed. 

Later, when he could get up from the couch without his legs giving out, when he was feeling better, it seemed to teem with life. Each garlic clove I bought from the supermarket sprouted immediately. The crocuses and paperwhites outside pushed through the stony ground ahead of schedule. I felt possibility running through all of us. I wondered if the green insistence of it would pulse within me and give us a miracle child. The child would be all our love, hope, and persistence—our future made manifest, a middle finger to cancer and all that came with it. What a terrible burden for a baby. But, no, it would not be that. It would be joyous. A whole life placed between us and death. A whole person more to love. The little person we dreamed of before, and have not quite given up. 

I have dreams for us, but he is not back to normal, and life is not normal. The days are long and sometimes they require of me so much that there is nothing left at the end. My body is numb to feeling and touch. In the “Sleeping Beauty” story, when the whole kingdom went to sleep together, waiting for the prince, was it really a curse? Wouldn’t a shared sleep—one finally long enough to make up for the all the sleep that was eaten away by stress, children, and illness—wouldn’t it heal? It seems to me that if I could have a sleep like that—a long one, with all my loved ones asleep too—I might feel better.

Peace and danger are still at war in my life, and only a thin wall separates them. Things are better, but with any ping of my phone, with any change in medication, with a change in the cells of the brain, with a shift in scar tissue, a sudden swelling, with an illness caught by chance, with a tree falling through the night, with a car that slams into us without notice, the chasm could engulf our entire existence, and I don’t know who or what could crawl from the pit after that. 

The apocalypse is happening around us all the time. Someone’s life, as they know it, is ending. With the spread of a virus that has hushed the world, many people are being swallowed by whales, now. The asteroids have fallen indiscriminately, the oceans have risen angrily, and the sun has died. I still feel the fear, and sometimes, it tightens around me like a boa constrictor, but I’ve had practice living with it. Sometimes, this seems like a superpower, and sometimes, it seems like a festering wound. I pray, and my prayers are not just for my family. The prayers are articulate hope, spoken against inarticulate dread. 

To drown the dread, I go to the beach where my grandparents used to have a house overlooking the ocean. The cold wind climbs down my lungs. Now it’s the wall between me and my grandparents that feels paper-thin, and I sense them on the other side, can almost hear them, touch them. The ocean is there, and the sand. Something inside me loosens and warms, even in the cold. I can remember sleeping downstairs in their house, listening to the continuous speech of the waves and feeling comforted and afraid at the same time because of the imagination of childhood, that opens doors without being sure of closing them. 

I take a pebble from the beach: smooth and cold in my palm. I bring it home to add to other talismans I’ve collected. I perform all the discreet magic I can to keep my family alive. We all do. 

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AT THE ANIMAL LEVEL by L Mari Harris

I was not born with this rage.

I don’t remember when it first entered me. (Yes, you do.)

Nor do I remember when I first realized everything I saw was faintly veiled in red: the city streets, the faces of people I passed by every day, my reflection in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. (Are you sure about that?)

Now, I drape this red rage over me like a hooded cape made of velvet and ermine. If I tuck my head just right inside the hood, I cannot see the trim of white that once scampered along a winter’s day. Isn’t that the point—to hide from pain and suffering? Me, I mean. Others, too. How red is tied to beginning, middle, and end: my birth, my shoe in the middle of a street, people gathered at a shocked distance, hands clasped over mouths, those same mouths that the night before tore at a medium rare steak on their plates (a death, but not my own).

***

Here’s more red for you, born of pain (the rage came later): The corner of Washington & 17th, July, year of our Lord 1993. You are silky soft, lapin-eyed, still smelling of country-girl little bluestem, cornstalk buildings cleaving clouds when you tilt your tender little head and sniff these city smells, concrete seizing heat you feel through new city-girl shoes. Even the grackles and Blue Jays are softer here, trounced by the grinding of delivery trucks and SUVs. This city is too new. Too much. Too, too, too many people panting mad in the heat. Noses twitching like alley rats. This city is too hot in its fur. This day’s dawn, a fabrication, rubicund, but this moment still honeyed, still pure as a cottontail. Until a predator—say a coyote or a man—appears from downwind. Run in those new city-girl shoes as fast as you can. Until you trip, and a tempest rolls in, hovering, heavy, smelling of rot, of sweat, of bile. Kick and claw and bite, throw out all you have. You have tried. No one can accuse you of not trying. Later, after you clean yourself up, relief. It could have been so much worse, such a deeper red.

(Reader, did you see distance is still needed in the retelling, all these years later?)

***

I will reframe my rage, tuck it between the pages of a book, bury it under a pillow, wrap it in a blanket, in another round of drinks. If depression is rage turned inward, what, then, do I call the simmering of avoidance? Is this why we’re attracted to fairy tales—because we understand what red signifies? —A forest, a copse of trees, a house with a plume of smoke drifting up from the chimney, an open door where more red is waiting to eat us up?

***

Let’s look at what is red:

Passion. Power. Hunger. Fear. Pain. Shame. Anger. 

Life Force (see: above).

STOP.

I now see I forgot Love, but I’m not sure where it belongs.

***

For this one I will remain in first person. (I must own this one as my own doing.)

A July weekend, year of my Lord 2000 (what is it with July?—I have concluded it’s red heat, red fireworks, a hand on a boiling pot not watched). A pleasant man sits next to me. We introduce ourselves, talk of books and art, knock back a few shots with barbaric yawps that make the bartender laugh. Here’s red again, a warm flush head to toe (see: Passion, Hunger). A red truck I jump into (STOP). The bartender’s name is Leo. I’m sure red-truck guy told me his name, too, but all I see is Red Means GO. We drive deep into the forest, up the mountainside. I know this terrain well. We pull off onto a dirt service road I’ve passed many times but have never wandered down. It descends steeply, stops abruptly at a stream. My first thought is How beautiful. My second thought is Bears live here. The third thought doesn’t come until the next morning, after I’ve popped my sixth ibuprofen and prayed over the toilet. It doesn’t matter that red-truck guy was a lovely man. It doesn’t matter that I enjoyed this small moment of my life. What matters is the heat I feel rising in my veins (see: Shame, Anger). I’m smarter than this, knowing to always keep myself out of a scent trail.

And yet.

Days later, one of the local station’s lead stories—video shot in the dappled afternoon light of a patch of tall grass near a stream. Two deputies stand over a blanketed lump, bones of what appears to have once been a foot peeking out. In the background I see a boulder with a peace sign spray painted in blue on it.

I had leaned on that boulder to slip my boots back on.

 (How do you wrap your head around this?)  If you ever figure it out, let me know. 

***

I hate to use the word “lucky” to describe how incredibly stupid I still feel for cornering myself with a strange man on a deserted mountain road, but lucky I am (putting the onus on my shoulders yet again).

Why do my actions matter? Because we have made it so. And I hate that about this world.

***

Some say rage can only be absolved by forgiveness.  My reply is this—I doubt they’ve ever truly experienced rage, then.

Forgiveness is a shade of yellow I've never allowed to color my walls. 

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BACKFLASH by Rebecca Portela

There it is. That particular tone that wakes me up from a dead sleep. Primal, sometimes guttural. Almost inhuman. Or so very human, more human than people ever dare to be. I feel for my phone in the dark. Corner of the nightstand. Lamp. Glasses. Phone. I get out of bed with less urgency than the last time and even less than the time before that. I flick on the lights and watch her for just a second. Hair in her face. Fists clenched. Body convulsing. I check the foam padding I put on the side of her nightstand from when she hit her head the first time. I look at my phone to hit record. 

We didn’t always capture the flashbacks. It used to be a novel thing where I would jump out of bed, heart pounding, trying to be her hero. I thought about all the ways I’d seen people snap out of it in the movies. You yell at her and remind her who she is and who you are. And your firm grasp on her shoulders, your skin on hers tells her she's safe. Maybe if I just love more, with more intensity. I pinned her down and pried her eyelids open so she could see me. Her trembling eyes stared right through me, as she continued to kick and fight me off like I was him. I finally understood what a flashback truly was. She wasn’t here. She was gone, far away, back to the place, back to the time, back to the moment, back to a little girl’s fearful present.

So here I sit on the edge of the bed, holding my phone while it records the girl biting down on the pillow, bearing the gruesome scene so later she can view it herself even though it will play out just the same as all the other ones, her quivering body always facing down to the right side in the same way with her hands held wide open and shaking out in front of her face like she’s desperately trying to push something away. Her quick shrieks now fully grown sobs and wails, the kind where you swear you can actually hear the heart breaking over and over again, forced to accept the impossible as truth. I can almost see him on top of her, like someone photoshopped him out of the picture and left only her, maneuvering, fighting, pleading, screaming things like “Please, please no!” and “I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!” and eventually her body goes slack and surrenders. Her voice is far away and lost. No words, just little humming sounds. Rhythmic, distressed humming sounds as I see her body jolt forward again and again. Her eyes open wide and empty. Now she is truly gone. 

I continue sitting and recording and waiting until I recognize her face again. Her eyes finally familiar and soft, still searching for a fully formed reality. 

“You back?” I ask, knowing she’s back.

She stares straight ahead, crawling away from memories, the thrown pillows, the thrashed sheets, and nods a small but heavy nod. Her unsteady hand reaches out for water. And more water. 

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