Creative Nonfiction

FRAGMENTS by Chelsea Plunkett


My mother tastes like the peanut butter sandwiches she made when I refused a homemade meal, Chai-spiced tea to soothe bronchitis, and a sprinkle of powdered sugar on brownies and banana bread. Her taste is stolen bites of cream cheese mixed with sugar as we make pumpkin cheesecake, steady instructions for achieving the streusel on sweet potato casserole, and chocolate frosting on birthday cakes. 

In the time of new prescription refills, when she sleeps for days on end, sugar and fat dance on my tongue. It’s a momentary high from stolen food to fill an emotional void, whole boxes of Pop Tarts and packages of Oreos stuffed down after school, the wrappings stashed beneath my sheets. When food is scarce, I taste a concoction of saltines and apple jelly. The sweetness comes up in mouthfuls of sour stomach bile from swallowing the anger and shame and a trickle of blood in my mouth from bitten cheeks. 


My mother smells of laundry detergent and an excessive, twenty-fabric-softener-sheet-per-load habit. There is the sting of cinnamon oil on wooden floors, bleach-coated bathroom tiles, and upholstery soaked in Febreze. When she approaches, she carries a sweet mixture of floral shampoo, hairspray, and baby powder. For all appearances, my mother’s home and body smell clean. 

But within the house, she is the choking cloud of Virginia Slims that penetrates deep into the walls and furniture. It is a scent that spirals from her bedroom and mixes with our musty, flooded basement that sprouts mold up wooden paneling. Within her beat-up Buick, which has crashed into a mailbox, a sidewalk, and a ditch outside my elementary school, is the haze of blueberry air freshener and coffee. Outside, within my father’s old grill, is the scent of lighter fluid and burnt plastic from the wedding album she torched. 


My mother’s soundtrack is the rattle and pop of prescription bottles, of Fioricet and Clonazapam, of medication meant for my epileptic dog and a dead neighbor. It is her dragging, sweeping gait down hallways, a crash as she throws herself down the stairs and sprains an ankle, and the leaden stomps upstairs to my bedroom. It is fists slammed against walls, splintering wood, slaps and stumbles and screaming, always screaming, barbed insults hurled against my father, against my sister, against myself.

There is the cycling of Queen’s greatest hits as we bake Christmas cookies, the collected works of the Beatles in the car, and the cadence of our voices as we sing along to SuperTramp’s “The Logical Song.” Later, it is always the same songs—Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” her anthem for broken marriage vows—muffled by the floorboards in my bedroom and the rasp of Janis Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee” in an abandoned Kohl’s parking lot, the orange glow of the radio as she hits repeat over and over, interlaced with accusations of betrayal as I break the news of my father’s remarriage. There is the thud of her body against the ground, her back arched over a humidifier, neck wedged against the nightstand, and a feral cry of “Mommy,” escaping my twelve-year-old lips in the night.  


My mother feels like gentle hugs, a trace of fingertips against my cheek, the warmth of blankets tucked beneath my chin, and the contour of her hip and chest as I lie beside her in the flickering light of the television. In these moments, she feels safe. 

But later, as she cycles to the end of a prescription bottle, her touch grows violent. It is the cool storm door against my palms as she points a steak knife, the vibration of hurled valuables and slammed kitchen cabinets, the weight of a prepacked go-bag shoved beneath my bed and clothing hurriedly stuffed in trash bags. There is the unbearable heaviness as I try to cover her nakedness before the paramedics arrive and my own anxiety-ridden fingernails digging at my scalp and ripping hair. 

Even now, twenty years later and 500 miles away, I feel her touch, reaching through the phone to produce guilt and shame. There is dizziness, shaking, shortness of breath, and the rough carpet fibers against my cheek as I sob on the floor. It is the cramp in my wrist as I write in a journal she can’t hurt you anymore


My mind’s eye is misleading, as the portrait of my mother shifts and blurs with distance and time. The child within sees the possession, the complete and utter takeover that shifts her from parent to animal. It is her shadow self, pin-prick pupils and drooping eyes, clad in a wrinkled, ripped, and bleach-stained T-shirt and panties, towering over me as I crouch on the floor. It is her silhouette behind the wheel of a barreling sedan as my sister runs through the bushes, and a stare void of emotion as we face her in court. 

There is the memory, a decade later, of untangling a bird from fishing line by the ocean, her features soft, cheeks flushed, eyes warm as we watch it stumble into the surf at dusk. It is seeing her eyes alight each time I come to town, and the devastating reminder of her humanity when we meet on video chat from the new lines etched around her mouth and eyes. 

And lately, with her renewed instability at the forefront of my mind, it is seeing the lines form in my own face, deep frowns as I watch myself in the mirror while holding the phone. It is a technique to ward off panic, to render the memories of her shadow self powerless. But as I meet my own gaze, I cannot help but see her likeness. It is present in the line of my jaw, the shape of cheeks and brow bone, my thin, straight hair. She always said we looked like twins. And beneath the skin, peeking from my tired eyes, is the ever-present fear that this cycle could begin again. 

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SATURDAY NIGHT (AT THE ER) by Fran-Claire Kenney

Trigger Warnings: anxiety, mental illness, self-harm, suicide

  1. At best (at first), it feels like mooching off. There are all these kids in the pediatric ward with oxygen masks gripping their faces like leeches, or their scalps shiny against the fluorescents, or their parents sitting watch in a casually tragic state of exhaustion next to big beds containing little, broken people. And there I am, looking twenty-one though I'm actually not, and I've got, wait for it, anxiety. Everybody says they have anxiety. People don’t just say they were in a crash and felt each rib snap under the car door.
  2. The nurse requests I take my bracelets off my left wrist. It’s just two, but still. They keep me from shredding up my forearms because they won’t come off and I don’t want to stain them red. “What about the leather one? That one will snap off.” “No, it’s rusted shut.” “Just let me try?” “Uh. No, thanks.” Maybe I would strangle myself with my leather bracelet if I could wrench it off, but it really is rusted shut, and I have a positive association with it. Also that’s not the way I’d want to go, eyes bugging out and spit flying like sparks. And I just don’t have enough sleep in the bank to put in the effort or even have the idea.
  3. It's a prostate exam for your brain. “Tell me about the waking nightmares you're having. I'll eat them up. I'll go home and tell my boyfriend about them. We’ll make popcorn and he’ll write an award-winning screenplay based on your twisted mind.” It’s complete with small talk, too: “So where are you going this summer? Camp? And you’re a writer? And you have dogs?” Be happy you’re alive, the kind interrogation whispers.
  4. How can a crash of one’s thought process get fixed in a department generally perceived for its work in a literal crash? Relatively speaking, physical relief comes easy. Maybe I’ve just never been in enough pain to know, but it seems like hot versus cold. If you’re too cold, you can put on a jacket and really warm up within a few minutes. If you’re too hot, you can ask people not to touch you and look for somewhere slightly cooler to lie down alone. (Throw in the fact that I haven’t been able to attempt any rest without disturbing imagery barging into my consciousness, and it’s a mental health emergency!)
  5. The hospital personnel are the roommates who push you out of bed on Monday morning even if you’re hungover and caught in a monotony bubble. They’ll be late to work because they stuck around to wake you up and make you an egg, and they may resent you for it, may even sit silently on the subway and stew over how you’re a whiny fuck with a nonexistent maturity level, but hey, at least you made it to Monday. The strange thing is, that won’t happen—or worst case scenario, it’s really not your problem if it does. You’ll be moving out so soon that you won’t even get to say thanks or ask how their day was. These are people who really, really like being altruistic, and sometimes that just takes some suspension of belief.
  6. It makes me a mental patient—and makes me realize that that word doesn’t carry the weight most people expect. It feels light: you’re surrounded by white and gray and muted green and people are kind to you. In your ER pajamas, you don’t feel dangerous—just in limbo. I can now say I've wandered barefoot out of my curtained cell, battered toes squeaking against the sterile plastic floor, in search of mere company. I don’t know how much further I’ll wander for that company. I don’t know who gets to see me like this.
  7. No matter the adventure, the psychological thriller, the action flick that went down and left you emotionally spent, you don't just walk up to your friends on Monday and say, “Hey, hi, you had a cool weekend? Yeah? Well, guess where I was—the ER! Yeah, I really felt like shit, my parents thought I was going to kill myself. So they brought me to the ER, where I had nurses and a social worker named Lillian and everything! You may have had a nice time drinking lattes and having a grip on your life, but just try and top what I got done.” In a perfect world, it’s probably the normal thing to mention to the people you’re close to, but that Monday, despite the life-changing event that hit on Saturday, I just don’t.
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I DIDN’T MEAN TO WRITE THIS. by Susan Rukeyser

I meant to write about young environmental activist Greta Thunberg and her impact, how she was received on her recent visit to the US. I loved how uncomfortable Greta made the “grown-ups,” including me. I was dismayed and unsurprised by the sexism chucked at her like crumpled, plastic water bottles: How dare she not smile? 

But Greta’s visit coincided with the final stages of my divorce, and—perhaps you understand?—in that tender time, everything was metaphor. 


I read about a funeral held for a 700-year-old Icelandic glacier which had melted to the point that it could no longer move. It was considered “dead ice.” 

“I feel ya,” I said to a picture of grey rock, all that was left. 

Greta got me thinking about damage and denial and when is late too late? “The house is on fire,” she said, and it is, but it is also drowning. I watched YouTube videos of glaciers breaking apart, or calving. In one, tourists on the deck of an Alaskan cruise ship startle at the CRACK, then ooh and aah as one chunk after another of thick blue ice pulls free and collapses into roiling seawater. Some people cheer, others cry out, recognizing the tragedy they are witnessing. I wonder if they feel the spray on their faces, even at their safe distance. I wonder if they know there is nowhere on Earth that is safe. I wonder if they would admit to the thrill of watching the destruction of something beautiful. Or if they’d simply say, “How sad.” 


If you never join Twitter, does Donald Trump still make a sound? Oh, yes, I’m afraid so. Every day, in that crowded, sweaty, cacophonous room that is Twitter, your President rages and lies and misspells words, demonstrating that he is neither a great dealmaker nor a good man. We resist and ignore and wish him gone, but we remain frozen in this cruel reality.

But, lately: a promising tremor, as whistle-blows reverberate through ice. Justice moves glacier-slow, but it moves. We are not yet dead ice. 

Once the fissure appears, it’s just a matter of time before the CRACK. 


I didn’t mean to write about divorce. 

Which, in my case, this time, was overdue and bloodless, but still—a casting out, or off; a smack to the bruise of past divisions. The worst: calving from the glacier of my extended family, cousin birthday parties and wedding dances and annual reunions, holiday cards with photos of kids I don’t know. 

(Sunk deep in that old, familial ice: a Polaroid of me, age 14 or worse, at one of those family parties, smiling like I wanted to be more like them and less like me.) 

When I slipped underwater, the cold was a shock, but I got used to it. I stopped pretending to be frozen.

Who knows, now, in this destabilized climate, what weather will come? Maybe a surprising cold snap, to reshape us, again, hard as ice? On an unseasonably warm day, who knows what seeds might take hold.   

Or maybe we will stay fluid forever, curving into experience, slipping through impasse, dancing in eddies that catch, then release us, infused with fresh biology: mineral, animal, botanical. We will bear it all. 


We must be willing to drown for our transformation, I scribbled one moody night. We must be willing to give ourselves to the cold, dark unknown as we descend and decide: Will I bother to resurface, again?  

What has cleaved itself free cannot be reclaimed—thank Nature, if not God. We will grieve for our ruined illusions, of course, even as we wave them goodbye. 

I did not mean to write this.

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A CIRCULAR SCAR by Shannon St. Hilaire

A guy I dated briefly once asked about my mother of pearl ring. Everyone knows a ring has a story. 

“I won’t tell you,” I said before I could stop myself. Then I corrected, saying I bought it off Etsy, but it was too late. I would never tell him the story of my ring, because to know and understand my ring was to know and understand me. If I told someone about my rings, about this ring in particular, it would signal to me that I trusted them, and they trusted me, too. And I had no interest in giving my trust.

The first ring I ever owned was from an Irish dance competition when I was eleven. Its Celtic knot pattern reminded me that I was Irish, that I was a dancer. I wore it every day until one afternoon when I put it in my pocket to play patty cake with a friend and never saw it again. Studying abroad in Spain, I bought an amber ring. It was my first time out of the country and the ring meant I was now a traveler and always would be. When I moved to El Salvador, I was advised that if someone complimented someone else’s jewelry, it was customary to gift it to them. I couldn’t risk that; as a compromise, I put it in my suitcase, to have close to me but not to wear. I never saw it again.

In Ireland I got a Claddagh ring, which I wore on a chain around my neck when I rejected the categorization of the four relationship statuses indicated by how the Claddagh is worn. Rings had never been about relationships for me; rings were about me. I didn’t want to make a statement about my status, to let everyone know right away if I was available, taken, engaged, or married. What if I was none of the above? When I fell for someone in an open relationship, the ring snapped. I rejected the symbolism. 

I waited for the ring to find me, for the feeling of fate and serendipity to make the ring mean something. I broke that rule at the age of twenty-five, when I purchased on the internet a rectangular mother of pearl ring, grooved with flowers, set in engraved silver. It was large and particular; not everyone would like it. It expressed, not me exactly, but a boldness I so needed at the time.

I’d been dating someone for about a year. When I was with him, he made everything a delight, an adventure if only we made it so. He was lively, generous, magnetic, and adored by everyone he met. I strove to be worthy of him. 

A month or two after we started dating, on my birthday camping trip, I realized something about a bump on my index finger. I thought it was a weird pimple or an ingrown hair. But no matter how much I messed with it, it didn’t go away. 

“I think this is a wart,” I said. My boyfriend took my hand in his, examined my finger with a prescriptive eye. 

“It’s definitely a wart,” he said, and dropped my hand. “That’s gross.”

There wasn’t much I could do about it in the moment. I’d heard that duct tape might help, but we were in the woods. So I laughed. He did not.

At home, I researched what I could do. There were many options, but none of them were guaranteed to work. Time was the only definite cure. 

I tried Compound W, but the protrusion, looking like a tiny, fleshy cauliflower, remained. I didn’t get around to going to the doctor and I couldn’t bring myself to call attention to the blemish by covering it with duct tape. I hoped no one would notice.

“You want to know what I don’t like about you?” the boyfriend said, months later. I did want to know; I asked him all the time. He refused to say anything bad about me, or anything good. I couldn’t tell if he liked me; my only hint was that he hadn’t broken up with me yet. And if he refused to tell me these things, he must be hiding some major dislikes. I had dozens of guesses as to what they might be. “Your wart. That’s my least favorite thing about you right now.”

We’d been kissing. He’d pushed me away when my wart accidentally grazed his skin. I knew he meant what he said.

“When you have a wart, you do something about it,” he said.

“But what do I do?”

“You go to the doctor and get it frozen off.”

So I went to a dermatologist. Because the wart went deep, nearly to the bone, he recommended a blister treatment instead of freezing. I did that. A blister blossomed underneath the wart. The blister popped and created a ring wart around the perimeter of the blister. The tiny cauliflower had become a not-so-tiny mountain range. When the doctor saw it, he said, Oh, that’s really bad. He prescribed me a cream that could take care of the new, larger wart. 

I no longer had insurance. The five-minute appointment cost me $287.

The cream looked like peanut butter. It burned through my skin, creating a raw wound that went so deep I was surprised not to see bone. If it hurt, that meant it was working. I was pleased as I watched my flesh sizzling over the course of weeks, because soon I would have one less flaw and all would be well between my boyfriend and me. But when he saw the wound he told me my finger was going to fall off.

So I went to a nurse practitioner. She said the best treatment would be to burn the wart. As she was cauterizing, she said, “What would you like to name the wart? If you name it, you can conceptualize it, and then you can fight it.” She believed in the healing power of the mind, that I could will my wart away.

“Beatrice,” I said. It seemed like an evil stepsister name.

“The goddess of beauty...Interesting choice,” the NP said. “You should buy yourself a ring. It will be a special ring, something you can use to fight Beatrice. Take control of your fingers and use it to overpower her.”

I didn’t know how much stock to put in that, but I was willing to try anything and I did want a new ring. So I broke my serendipity rule and spent hours looking online for my wart-repelling ring. It had to be my inner source of strength. Something just for me, to fight to take back my body, myself. I didn’t even ask my boyfriend what he thought of it. I didn’t care. It was the ring of my will. I wore it on my other hand to distract from the flesh-colored bandage I always wore.

All in all, I spent about $800 trying to get rid of my wart, trying to get my boyfriend to like me, or to dislike me less. In the end, it was time, and possibly garlic, that eradicated it. It disappeared without ceremony, and when it was gone, I didn’t tell my boyfriend. If I didn’t call attention to the wart having existed, maybe he would forget how much he’d disliked that part of me. We broke up shortly after the wart was healed, leaving a bumpy, circular scar in its place.

I continued wearing the mother of pearl anti-wart ring, carrying the secret of its meaning, as I grew to hate my ex and then thought I loved him again and then felt nothing at all for him. I wore it through a graduate course, two drafts of a novel, and more dates with people who never learned about the ring, people I never got close to, so they could never push me away.

I chose to be celibate for six months. I dated myself, became the sexless love guru for my friends. I ran a half-marathon. I felt like a pillar—strong, nearly impossible to topple. 

The ring, with its bulky secrets, held less and less meaning for me. It was no longer a talisman to ward off the judgment of boyfriends, or boyfriends in general. I didn’t want to wear it anymore, but I couldn’t find a replacement that felt right. So I kept wearing it, because it was my rule to always wear a ring, and what if I lost myself without it?

I don’t remember taking the mother of pearl ring off, but one day approximately a year after the wart became a scar, I became aware that I owned my fingers, with or without rings, with or without blemishes. In an unmemorable moment, the ring, its floral engraving worn smooth with countless hand-washings, had been put away with my necklaces and half-pairs of earrings. I hadn’t faded away or turned into someone else. I didn’t feel less myself. I even felt lighter without its weight.

Rings had always been a personal reminder, but the world asked about them and expected an answer. Without a ring, I was myself, but no one knew it, until they knew me.

In that moment I didn’t commit to memory, I was probably leaving the house to go out with friends and slipped the ring off my finger, just to see how it felt. I think I stepped out into the night and rode my bike to meet my friends, no longer feeling the pinching of flesh between the ring and the bike handle that had caused a callus on my palm. When I arrived, my friends recognized me, despite my bare hands. 

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WHOSE HUNGER by Kristen Estabrook

In the hours prior to dinner, she studied her reflection in the mirror, checking and rechecking the flaws in her complexion, adjusting and readjusting the height of her hair, while thinking about sex. On their second date, he had asked about sex. He had asked if she was ready. She was not.

“It’s only the second date,” she had said.

She wondered if he would ask again and expected that he would. She wondered what she would say this time. That it was only the third?

Then she remembered. Her period.

Her period! She was on her period.

That worked out well, she thought.

That would be her reason. 

After dinner and the dishes, the woman and the man leaned into each other’s bodies, against the counter at first, then onto his bed. Clothed at first, then unclothed. 

“Should I get a condom?” he asked.

“I’m on my period,” she whispered.

“I don’t mind,” he said.

Frantically, she thought. She had no other reason. Her mind dug, searching for something, some other explanation, anything. Nothing came. 

“Okay,” she said.

He kissed her harder.

“You might want to take your stuff out,” he said.

Oh, right, yes. She went to the bathroom to take her stuff out. Alone in the bathroom, she thought about changing her mind. She thought about what she might say. 

Listen, she could say, This is all moving a bit fast. Maybe we should wait.

But then he would know. He would know that she lied.

If you didn’t want to have sex, why wouldn’t you just say that? he would ask.

She wanted him to think of her as strong and confident. As a woman who asserted her thoughts, her desires, her opinions. She wanted him to think of her as someone other than herself. 

Staring at her reflection in the mirror, holding her stuff in her hand, she thought about wanting him. She thought about wanting to want him. She did, didn’t she? Want him? He wanted her. And she didn’t feel that strongly either way. Her neutrality paled in comparison to his desire. What was the point in waiting, anyway? 

Besides, she’d already gone through the trouble of taking her stuff out. 

After it was done, he reached for his phone. She laid her head on his chest, hoping this touch would give her something sex hadn’t. He held his phone in his hands. She went to the bathroom to put her stuff back inside. When she returned, she found him reading. He had work to do. She knew not to overstay her welcome. 

She walked home feeling self-conscious. She passed men waiting for the bus. They watched her. She focused her attention on keeping her eyes forward and her chin tilted slightly upwards, avoiding their gaze. She was sure they knew. She had that look and that smell about her, distinctly belonging to sex. 

She called a friend. 

She was afraid it had been too soon, that she had rushed, that she had given him the one thing he wanted, and now that he’d gotten it, she’d never hear from him again. The friend was kind. 

“He’ll call,” the friend said. “What date was this?”

“The fourth,” she lied.

“Oh, the fourth?” the friend said. “You’re fine.”

She re-imagined the dialogue, feeding lines to her searching mind, hours too late:

“Should I get a condom?” he would ask.

“No thanks, I’d rather not have sex,” she would say.

It was so obvious. So obvious and so simple. So simple and so stupid that this most obvious "no thanks" hadn’t come to mind. It just wasn’t what she had prepared. 

She’d read a study years before about humans’ inability to act in a given situation unless they’d previously imagined how they would behave:

There is a chance you will become so overwhelmed by the perilous overflow of ambiguous information that you will do nothing. You will float away and leave a senseless statue in your place. If no one comes to your aid, you will die.1

The author cited a scientist, John Leach, who said that 75 percent of people cannot reason during catastrophic events or impending doom. Survival, he says, depends on preparation. The ones who survive are the ones who have prepared for the worst and have practiced ahead of time.

She had done this. She had planned exactly what she would say. But she had only prepared one means of escape, that was the trouble. That was her downfall. Now she was one of them: a senseless statue, floated away, one of the seventy-five percent. She couldn’t decide if it was comforting or discomforting to be among the majority.

She remembered the days, long since passed, when she made decisions about her body with only her body in mind. Feeling hungry, she fed her body. Feeling thirsty, she hydrated her body. Feeling tight, she stretched her body. This body relied on her. If she did not care for it, who would? 

With him, she made a decision about her body with his body in mind. His hunger, his thirst her primary motivation. She cared for his body over her own. Who cared for hers?

1 David McRaney, You Are Not So Smart: Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself (Oneworld Publications, 2019).

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I remember, there was going to be a birthday party for Michael. He was turning ten. Michael was always interrupting, saying things that weren’t funny or important, because he couldn’t stand not being the center of attention. My mom said it was because he didn’t have a dad.

But Michael’s party meant I could go to the toy store to buy something I wanted, even if I would have to give it away. And the party would be a chance to see Karen. Karen was older and maybe that’s why she didn’t suffer so much from not having a dad. She was tall and skinny and cool. She ate spaghetti with butter instead of tomato sauce, and her laugh sounded to me like water bubbling out of a fountain. 

My mom and I bought Michael a set of plastic cars that sped down a twisting track, and I played with it a few times before she took it away and wrapped it. But in the end, the birthday party got canceled and I got to keep the cars, and Karen and Michael’s bodies were never found. 

* * *

My parents never told me they planned the road trip as an escape. To me it was an adventure, a month-long car ride to the national parks, a month of peanut butter sandwiches and Motel Six. 

We flew from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, my first airplane, and rented a car to drive the rest of the way: in the morning we’d been surrounded by woods and by afternoon we were in a country with no trees at all, just corn all the way to all the horizons. 

We drove and I don’t remember stopping until my dad pulled the car suddenly to the side of the road. He was crying. “I never thought I’d see the Rocky Mountains,” he said. I never thought I’d see him cry.

* * *

I wish I knew how to love people better, how to better be loved.

I’m at a noodle bar across from a waif of a woman who keeps biting her lower lip like she’s trying to tame a smile that’s always getting out of her control. We’ve had a few cocktails. 

This is during one of those breaks that my girlfriend and I keep taking, in between the times that we drive each other crazy with frustration and the times that we drive each other crazy with need, and decide, again, that we can’t live without one another. 

“Tell me,” the waif says, “what’s the craziest thing that happened to you when you were a kid?” 

I don’t tell her about Michael and Karen’s mother, found naked in the trunk of her car, plastic bag over her head, bruised, beaten with chains. I don’t tell her that the entire English department where my mom worked was subpoenaed, that the head of the department was sent away for life, that the principal of the school once bragged to his faculty about being able to dissolve bodies in acid. 

The waif and I go back to her place. We joke about getting married and then we have sex and then we never see each other again. 

* * *

Our month-long family road trip was going, ultimately, to California. Later, as an adult, I would come to believe that everything ultimately goes to California, the end of the continent. The walk of fame, the wax museum, the magic kingdom, the silver screen: nobody wants real things. We want dreams, so it’s the fake things that become most real. 

On the ocean in Malibu, we were as far away from our own lives as it was possible for us to be without flying or dying. 

Then we went home.

* * *

In the end, I got to keep the birthday-present race cars but I never unwrapped them, and when my mother wasn’t looking, I threw them away.

Every day I think of throwing out what I have. I think of getting in my car and racing to the horizon. I think of vanishing.

When you are murdered, you get to live forever. And when your body is never found, the living will never stop looking.

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WHAT IT HAD IN ITS MOUTH by Arielle Burgdorf

What can make viewing it so memorable is the fact that as each day passes, the rock changes colour depending on the light and atmospheric conditions, and never remains the exact same permanent hue.


Red, the only color that stays with you. A massive red rock, rising out of a grassy field. Sun warming the stone, casting shadows in the crevices. The golden, reddish-brown fur of a wild dog peeking out from behind a bush. And the final red, rusty, dark splattered all over the white jumper. A baby, missing from the jumper. The same question, on yours and everyone else’s lips: where is the baby? Remember the days when you used to cover your eyes with your hands and whisper to her: Where’s baby? Then you’d remove your hands: There she is. A stupid game. But Azaria loved it, and you would do it for ages before she tired of seeing your face reappear between your fingers. 

And now they ask again: Where’s baby? The question is always the same. The problem, is that everyone has a different answer. 

This is not a story about dingoes, no matter what anyone tells you. It is not even a story about Australia, or media circuses. It’s a story about mothers, and how we punish them. 


For years, you prayed for a girl. You loved your boys, but you wanted another kind of love. And finally, she came into the world. You named her Azaria, meaning “helped by God.” You smiled and sang to her. Three children and a loving husband. You were, you thought, blessed. 

You know the exact moment and place everything changed. August, 1980. Ayer’s Rock. The Anangu people call it Uluru, which doesn’t mean anything in particular. For them, it is a sacred site. The rock is not passive, but a living, breathing entity. 

A family camping trip. Laughter. Like any old day, and then a night like no other. After that night, you would never sleep fully again. 


You remember fragments. You were walking with your son back to the tent. And then: red fur. A lean body, running off into impossible dark. In court, they will ask you: Did you see the dingo drag the baby out in its mouth? Did you see it’s jaws clasped around the head and neck? You don’t know. Where’s baby? You don’t know that, either. 

What you do know, is that you have seen how dingos eat meat. How they ruthlessly strip back the skin as they go. You know, without a doubt, that it was possible for a ravenous wild animal to take warm flesh out of its protective shell, just the way a human would peel an orange. You know this, and so it’s what you tell the press, when they ask how it could have happened. This is your greatest mistake. 

Cold. Calculating. Hard-faced bitch. 

Nothing in your demeanor suggests maternal. What you want them to understand, is that this is maternal. The outback is harsh, filled with poisonous, deadly animals found nowhere else on earth. Every day is a struggle to survive. A mother has to be extremely tough, willing to kill. This is what the dingo knew. That a morsel of red muscle, bone, and fat would sustain her and her young. Salt in her mouth. A minute’s relief, from a hunger that never subsides. 

No one wants to see your stoic acceptance of nature. They want to see you cry. Tears, confirming your humanity. But you cannot help them. You have just lost your baby daughter. You have no more tears. 


You will not believe the atrocities they decide you are capable of. They accuse you of slitting her throat with nail scissors, decapitating her, stuffing her body into a camera bag, performing infant sacrifice for a religious cult. Too much blood, that’s the problem. When a dingo breaks a baby’s neck, it wouldn’t have produced that much blood. And we found no dingo saliva on the jumper, they tell you. The saliva must be on the matinee jacket, you tell them. She was wearing a white matinee jacket, with pale lemon edging. Really? That’s the first we’re hearing of this jacket. 


The men on the jury take some convincing, but the women? The women vote you guilty immediately. The nation agrees: by 1984, 76% of Australians think you killed her. This is the price of telling a story too strange, too unique to be true. 

Up until now, a dingo has never killed a human. But there were signs. A three year old girl dragged out of a car by a dingo, a few weeks before Azaria went missing. The dingoes were getting hungrier, and bolder. There will be many more children killed, or nearly killed by dingoes in the years to come. You will try and warn them, but they are not ready to hear what you have to say. 

The jury chooses to believe the expertise of a dingo expert from London. 

Exactly how many dingoes are there in London? you laugh bitterly. No one appreciates your anger. The women glare at you from the jury bench with a stare meaning,  She has no right to call herself a mother.

 Somewhere, there’s a dingo with a mouthful of blood, grinning. 


No one ever gives a satisfactory explanation of why you want to kill your baby daughter so much. There doesn’t have to be a reason. A baby is gone, and you are the baby’s mother. That is enough. If you didn’t kill her outright, you killed her through negligence. From every angle, her death remains your fault. This is how we crucify mothers. 


There is one group that believes your story. The Anagu people who know and respect the desert, who are aware of what the dingo is capable of. They are the people to whom this place rightfully belongs. The Anagu tracker was the one who found the jumper, who followed the footprints to the dingo lair. But he is not allowed to testify.  We can’t get the right interpreters is the official police line. Besides, they’re all drunks. 

In the movie version of your life, the police show up to shoot the Anagu’s dogs until Meryl Streep calmly assures them that none of the dogs look anything like a dingo. There is too much said in the silence. You can feel the tension tighten like a noose in those few minutes of celluloid, the entire weight of history playing out in the faces of everyone on screen.


You are sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. It feels like you are punished for being punished. Your husband is also declared guilty of murder, but allowed to remain free in order to raise your two boys. This makes very little sense to you. They are saying: he helped you murder, decapitate, and hide the corpse of your infant daughter, but he is fit to raise these children. The father’s crimes are forgivable. But a mother is beyond redemption. A mother should weep more, a mother should’ve protected her child. 

And on this, you agree with the press. 

A mother should’ve protected her child. But you do not need their help being punished for that. 


There is something you have kept from them. Another baby girl, growing inside you. She will never be Azaria, but she will be enough to save you from madness. You would kill for this one, like all the others. 

Another red: an opening. Kahlia. When she is born, in jail, they will allow you one hour with her. One hour to hold her, to touch her skin, to apologize to her for this brutal world that you’ve brought her into. Then she’s gone, and you are alone once more, in the wilderness. 

When she is gone, you will cry, but no one will see it. 


Because you have no other choice, you continue serving a sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether you did anything or not. You’ve lost all sense of true and real. There never was a baby you want to tell the jury. The dingo didn’t have anything in its mouth. There never was a dingo. Just me, out there in the desert. 


One day, a jogger at Ayer’s Rock will come upon a white matinee jacket with pale lemon edging, lying not far from a dingo lair. 


Where’s baby? Six years later, you don’t have answers. Sometimes, there aren’t any answers. 

Regardless, the matinee jacket buys your freedom. You are told to be grateful. You are “free” from prison, you name is “cleared.” 

But you know these are not accurate terms. You are never free, nothing has become clear. For the rest of your life, you will carry this inside your chest. You don’t know it yet, but your marriage is already over. Strangers, to this day, are convinced of your guilt. Girls call the tabloids, claiming to be your long-lost daughter. I’m Azaria they say. Pulling back their ponytails, trying to show you the twin scars on the sides of their heads. For years, the cause of death on Azaria’s birth certificate will read “unknown,” suspicion lurking. Your life boils down to a national punchline, a quip, a graphic to sell T-shirts. You will go down in history as the woman who cried dingo. 

You are alive, but you have not survived this ordeal. You feel the jaws clamped like a vice around your skull, canines sinking in. You stare down the deep red throat into nothingness. 

Then the light shifts, and you realize you are alone again. A solitary figure in the desert with a giant rock, and a baby with no body. 

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LENA by Divya Iyer

I want this to be honest in a way that makes empires shake. I need to text Lena back, and if I do text Lena back with the right words, the ones that hum and whimper and shake and do not cajole (under any circumstances), I know what I would say. The crux of it is that, no, I wasn’t crucified and, yeah, I can’t tell sparkling water from holy water. I would tell Lena about the way loneliness grew inside me, a big sprawling thing, reaching inside for empty spaces, seeping in like ink on blotting paper, like all the lights of a city going out during a power-cut. I wanted to give Lena the proof of it, the bits that said:  look, I was here and I suffered and I nearly drowned but I made it out and, sure, it’s got to mean something, in the sense that I dug myself out of debris, metaphorically. 

It blows my mind that people in high school thought I was straight. They still treat me like a straight girl sometimes. I’m not flamboyant in an interesting enough way. Nobody from my high school era would say that I queer up a room just by entering it. Their loss; it’s astonishing, what they’re missing. I sometimes want to sing it out loud. Look at me, like a peacock dancing in the rain, I am pretty and proud. But look at thisit’s another part of me, a beautiful one, blown out of glass but tough like calluses and diamonds. What I mean is, I came out, and it didn’t change anything, not really. What a strange thing. Trust isn’t enough to renovate a building, I suppose. Some things are damned to stay the same, no matter what you give them.

People in High School could be a whole novella. It would be almost slapstick in its tragedy. Central to this is the idea that there is a girl called Divya Iyer, and she is nobody’s first choice for anything. Nobody’s second choice either, or third. There isn’t a girl called Divya Iyer anymore; she’s of the past and the past only. We’re in the next chapter here, but there is a weight to it, a sort of damned glory to how I learned to love myself, first out of spite, and second, because being your own support system does call for some love. Sometimes the reason people are nice is not because they care about you; they’re nice because that’s how they are with everyone. And they’ll string you along for rides and not listen when you talk and when you split the bill with them over lunch they won’t tell you that you’ve got broccoli between your teeth because they’ll be too busy thinking of how to come up with an excuse so that they don’t have to meet you next week.

It’s reasonable to wonder where this suspicion is coming from. It’s all in my head, but it’s still electric, like veins and lines and wires it’s a current, coursing through, all charged up. I was a flashing sign, a cry for help through a boombox. I was an open book nobody bothered to read, and, now, I am the punchline for every joke. The worst part is that there’s a girl everyone calls my best friend, and I spend too long not correcting them. There’s a girl everyone calls my best friend, everyone but me, and she’s complicit in this.

Think of buildings covered in poison ivy; the ivy the only thing holding the bricks together, holding them up. Think of me, sawed open. Think of her hands on my shoulder for a brief moment as she shares the funniest story she can think of which isn’t even a story about her; it’s a story about how I spent the day after my eighteenth birthday with a hangover headache pounding like a construction site in my head. I look at her each time she does this and I think I resent you. She tells my stories like they’re hers, so I don’t tell her the important things, not really. I give her slivers of it. Div Lite, you could say. Let her think she knows me. Let her hold shadows in her hands. 

I know she tells everyone my secrets. I know what she told her other best friend, who I can’t ever feel comfortable around, not now that I know what I know. Fun party stories. When your life isn’t marginalized you can always milk the cow of someone who struggles to get out of bed, even. You can say, look – this is adventure. Maybe it is. But it isn’t yours. 

What do you know, I think as I look at her. I loved you once, I think. I was in love with you, once. It feels like such a waste, such loss. I had so much to give, and you didn’t respect even the minimality of who I was as a person. 

High school was a mess; a mess of dissociation and possible broken home related abuse that I would only learn to call by its name years later, in college, thinking clinical and detached and shakily, god, she should never have put her hands on me like that, she should’ve gone to jail for what she did to me, she should be there still. I wish I could show Lena the kaleidoscope lens of it. I am a mess, chaotic and a disaster. People have left me behind all the time, I would say. I stand through it all, and so can you. So will you. 

I think of Lena’s poetry about softness and blueness. Lena’s writing, tender until it’s vicious, tender until the fangs of hurt sneak in from the undersides of it. I think, Lena, if you can do it, so can I. I think, Lena, you are not alone. I have been neglected by people who called themselves my friends, too. Girls have broken my heart, more often than I could ever have guessed. I know what it feels like, to love with a heart big and doglike, beating with the excess of it. We’re syrup sweet and not everyone deserves it. Not everyone is ready for the infinite momentum of love that we wield. Lena. We feel too much. We love too much. We hurt too much. It’s not a bad thing. It will never be a bad thing.

I don’t believe you’re depressed, she’d said to me that day out on the games field. I’d simmered with frustration, with anger. My suicide could be on your hands, I’d thought. I’d shrugged my way through it. I’m still here. And at 4 in the afternoon, the sky is all pastel and blue. I play my softest playlist. I curl in on myself, I look out of the car window. I think of my mental health, of my genderqueer bisexual boy experiences. I think of all the people who lost the privilege of knowing me, and I smile to myself. 

Call it bingo. Call it jackpot. Call it “being in a better place.” I built myself a mansion out of the rubble. There are so many people who aren’t invited to the housewarming party. That’s just how it is, sometimes. 

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THE PENCIL TEST by Grace Loh Prasad

I once dated a Famous Author—someone you might have heard of. He’d written half a dozen nonfiction books by the time I met him at a writers conference, and had recently published a surprise bestseller that was made into a movie. He’d lived and traveled all over the world as a journalist and was on the masthead of a venerable magazine. 

The Famous Author was teaching a class on how to write and sell travel stories, which seemed like a good entry point for my first-person writing about Taiwan. After the conference I emailed him to introduce myself and mentioned that we had lived in Hong Kong at the same time. I asked if I could show him some of my writing, and he said Sure, let’s meet up when I’m in California next month. He asked me to email a photo of myself, so I did. 

He wrote back: You’re not the one I was thinking of. But I still want to meet you. 

A few weeks later, he invited me to meet him in Los Angeles where he was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel. He offered to buy me a plane ticket from San Francisco to LA. 

Oh no, I said. I’m not that kind of girl. I’ll pay my own way.

I know what you’re thinking, but nothing happened at the Four Seasons except that we had a nice dinner on his expense account and caught a glimpse of the actress Elizabeth Hurley. Her eyes were smudgy with black eyeliner and her lips were set in a scarlet pout. All heads turned as she walked through the dining room in her skintight jeans and stiletto heels, hips swinging, looking mightily pissed off. A hush fell over the room as though we had witnessed Aphrodite herself storming out of a lover’s quarrel.

For the next several weeks the Famous Author and I carried on a long-distance flirtation. Not a relationship exactly, but a growing intimacy that hinted at future plans even though I had a boyfriend, and he was still married to his second wife. I suppose I should mention the age gap: I was 30 years old and the Famous Author was 55. So what, I told myself. That’s the same age difference between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. 

What attracted me to him was his worldly sophistication and success as a writer. He represented everything I wanted to achieve: literary success, a globetrotting lifestyle, and the confidence to write about whatever interested him. I was especially intrigued by how he had traveled across China and written extensively about it. He had a command of the country’s history, culture and geography that eluded me as a second-generation Taiwanese American just starting to explore my identity through my writing. It didn’t occur to me to challenge his expertise, to consider what he might have missed or gotten wrong as a gweilo writing about China from a colonizer’s point of view.   

When I met him he was putting the finishing touches on a book about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, using his training as a geologist to make pronouncements about how the geography of the area affected the history and volatile politics of the Balkans.

The Famous Author spent a lot of time talking about his past relationships and sexual conquests. His second wife was a busty redhead and successful entrepreneur that he met somewhere in the South Pacific. He enjoyed her ambition and her flair for adventure, along with her penchant for setting up threesomes with “office girls” she liked to chat up. They split amicably and moved on to other lovers but didn’t divorce because he didn’t want to give her half of his assets. 

His most recent girlfriend was a statuesque African American beauty, but the relationship didn’t last. She was disqualified when he found out she disliked hiking, and was so afraid of heights that she had a panic attack upon reaching a beautiful vista in the Scottish Highlands.  

In one of his books about traveling through China, he reminisced fondly about the “knock on the door in the middle of the night” accompanied by soft giggling, which meant that an enterprising hotel manager had sent him some companions for the night in the hopes of a favorable write-up.

Through these stories I got a distinct sense that I was auditioning for the role of the Ideal Girlfriend: someone smart enough to keep up with him and his literary friends, adventurous enough to accompany him on rugged trips, attractive enough to qualify as arm candy, and young enough to be a trophy.

Our long-distance relationship deepened over the summer and we spent hours talking on the phone during the month I lived in Sonoma, where I was housesitting for friends. He said he was going to dedicate his Balkans book to me, and my heart soared. When I returned home, I broke up with my boyfriend. 

Here’s the thing about long-distance relationships: none of my friends had met the Famous Author, and they were confused as to why I broke up with a boyfriend they and I adored. All they knew were the bits and pieces I would tell them, and all they could do was nod and pretend to understand as my love life unraveled. 

There were so many warning signs. He recommended that I read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, a novel about a young woman in a relationship with a much older man who’s a well-known writer. He said he loved Britney Spears, and preferred her naughty schoolgirl persona to her more recent work. When I visited the Famous Author at his home on the East Coast, he failed to tell me that he had a live-in personal assistant, a 22-year-old recent college grad. The assistant and I circled each other like a pair of cats and I concluded that she wasn’t a threat because she didn’t seem to be his type. She was a tall, sturdy girl with rosy cheeks, the wholesome kind you see in Russian propaganda posters. The Famous Author had told me that he liked petite Asian women because they were more likely to pass “the Pencil Test.”

What’s the Pencil Test? I remember asking him on one of our long-distance calls.

He explained: If you tuck a pencil under your breast and your breast is heavy enough to hold it in place, you fail the Pencil Test. If the pencil falls, you pass the Pencil Test. 

I assured him over the phone—since he hadn’t yet seen me undressed—that I would pass the Pencil Test. I had never heard the term before and assumed it was something he made up, rather than a standard measurement used to determine when a girl is ready to begin wearing a bra.

I know what you’re thinking. Run away now! But of course I didn’t, because I was young and naïve and blinded by my desire to be a writer, which made me think I was in love with him when in truth I was in love with the idea of him, and a version of myself I had yet to become that felt tantalizingly within reach.

This isn’t a story about consent. It’s a story about power and projection and the unspoken internship that a hopeful young woman enters into when she meets a much older man who can advance her career. 

Later that summer I had a business trip to Paris, and the Famous Author invited me to join him in Scotland, his “favorite place in the world.” I understood this was a test to see if I was outdoorsy enough to deal with mud and rain and rough terrain. Scotland was the midterm; the final exam was to be New Year’s Eve of the Millennium, when I would join him on assignment on a cruise to Antarctica that would require sailing through the famously turbulent Drake Passage. The climax of the trip would be a New Year’s Eve countdown in blinding daylight because the sun would not set on the South Pole as 1999 rolled into 2000.

I nearly missed my flight from Paris Orly to Edinburgh and sprinted through the terminal to get on the plane right before the doors closed. From Edinburgh, I took a train to Inverness where he picked me up and drove us to the restored castle where we would be staying for several days.  

That night in the hotel restaurant, he insisted on feeding me oysters, which I had never tried before. I slurped one down and did not enjoy it, then ate a second one just to be sure, and hated it as much as the first. What I remember most, but did not say out loud, was how everyone stared at me, the only nonwhite person in the dining room and quite possibly the entire property.

The next day, the Famous Author wanted to visit a friend nearby who was quite elderly and didn’t get out much. He planned to go on his own, so I would have the afternoon to myself to relax, read a book, and explore the castle. Before he left we decided to have tea in the lounge downstairs.  

I ordered a pot of Earl Grey. He had Darjeeling or English Breakfast, I can’t remember. We sat awkwardly on the opposite ends of a long, low table, drinking tea out of blue and white Wedgewood cups. He broke the news to me that he’d decided to dedicate the Balkans book to a friend who had recently passed away. I was disappointed, but couldn’t argue with that. Then we started talking about Taiwan.

He said: I think Taiwan should reunify with China. There’s a common language and history. It can be like Hong Kong: one country, two systems.

I’m not sure what I said in reply. Perhaps, I don’t believe that at all. Or, Why do you think that? Or maybe I didn’t say anything, because I was speechless that someone who seemed so knowledgeable about world affairs would take a stance that was so clearly against the wishes of the Taiwanese people—including me. 

We sipped our tea and I thought to myself, so this is how it ends. The Famous Author left to go see his elderly friend and said he’d be back by dinnertime. I didn’t tell him how upset I was. Instead, I went up to our room, packed my things, and booked a seat on the next train to London. By the time he came back, I was gone.

I never spoke to him again. It took two strong cups of tea to open my eyes and finally see how mismatched we were. Even though he had read some of my deepest thoughts in my essays, he did not know me at all. 

He was wrong about Taiwan, and wrong about me. 

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HE’S USING A LANDLINE by Cyndie Randall

He tells me he’s touching himself. His breath is so dense, I wipe my ear and shift to obedient, a gargoyle holding fast, sparing the temple's body from storm water. My thoughts answer inside like a limb jerk: Why would I be touching myself? No nothing is happening in my panties. I don’t use that word.

How many people and objects is he betraying by calling me from work? One, his wife. Two, his buddy’s office where he’s hiding at three in the morning wiping semen from the buttons of the keyboard. Three, the keyboard. Four, his parents, who had him baptized. Five, his kids, who may as well be bastards. And six. I am always six. Six and stone. My face, erased.

The rivers are running, mouth muttering yes from the dust-ruffled bed where my teddy bears are stacked. I say it when he asks if my hand is down there and I say it when he asks if I feel good and if I’m a dirty slut or a bad, bad girl.

He has come to taste and see like the parched sinners do. Liquid is pouring from his mouth corners and spattering down his panting chest. This is not the Savior’s body and blood given for him; It is mine, taken. I will myself into stale and acidic. The wall is playing recordings of Jeopardy. I listen for the waiting song as he gulps and digests me. The world says my tight red dress does this to him, and also, to smile. Sugar and Spice for 1000, Alex.

I gait the line as a good mare does. See exits and visions of going rogue, but I know there’s no food out there in the desert. Dreaming is the real living for a co-ed held hostage by a washed-up rock star twice her age. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth? Do you sing to Jesus? It’s what The Magdalene in me would ask if she were risen. But my script supplies no questions.

I hear him grunt and grasp and orgasm. The temple cracks up the middle. Her groans pray at me like a psalm: How much longer ’til you slip this wall? Why are your ears crumbling, gargoyle? Is anyone recording this call for quality assurance purposes?

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