r i v e r r u n
“Your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won
behind your forehead.” — James Joyce
r i v e r r u n
The Student Literary and Arts Journal
University of Colorado Colorado Springs
We had a discussion at the beginning of the year
about whether or not the theme should be
“pandemic.” There were a lot of people for and a lot
of people against. Some people felt the pandemic was
not the only important event that happened in the
last year, and others believed it to be a subject too sensitive to focus
on. Eventually, we scratched the idea, but there was this nagging feeling
in everyone that kept pulling us back. So, we introduce to you an
image of hope and rebirth. Focusing on where we can go from here is
the direction we wanted to look and we at riverrun empathize that
this last year has been a challenging one. What we realized is that we
felt obligated to acknowledge the last year. It deserves to be acknowledged
and should not be ignored.
Through the year we learned to be sympathetic, to not jump to
conclusions, and to support one another in our struggles. We learned
how to treat one another and how not to and that the world as we
know it can change in an instant if we do not take care of it. Some of
us learned to bake bread. Some learned to paint. Some learned to balance
working from home while also being a teacher to their children.
Some of us learned humility and a love for the slow pace that the
lockdowns brought. For the first time in a long time, you could wake
up when you wanted, make a cup of coffee, sit looking out the window,
and just observe. The world got quiet, whisper quiet, and at the
same time the world got louder than it had been in decades. We made
it, not without our fair share of scrapes, bruises, frustrations, and
anxieties, but the most defined character is built through adversity.
There is still a lot of work to be done. Let this be the year that we all
rise from the ashes.
So, where do we go from here? After all the good, bad, and ugly,
what else is there to do? We are of the
humble opinion that one must create, but that
is probably because we are a literary journal.
But frankly speaking, why not? So, we urge
you to create; write about your experiences;
draw and paint how you see the world, and
then (insert self-promotion here) send it to
us. Let us share and celebrate with you the
wonderful student minds of UCCS and the
marvelous things they created along the way.
We wish you and your loved ones the best.
~ riverrun editorial team 2021
Table of Contents
Note from the Editor-in-Chief
Editorial Team of 2021
Letter from Fiction Selection Committee
The Pen | Ryan Casement
I love you, Jeffery | David Werle
The Lamps Burned with Midnight Oil | Ryan Casement
Neon Lights and Night Terrors | Jon Roeda
Pandemic Vampire | Evan Wedsworth
The Unique Case | Kimberly Sigaty
Letter from Nonfiction Selection Committee
The Aspen| Luci Schwarz
The Little Things You Notice | Tatianna Obert
Yes, I am, any questions? | David Werle
Things I Wish Horoscopes Told Me | Camille Liptak
Letter from Poetry Selection Committee
My Brazen Bull | Jarod Sharkey
Autumn Answer | Ange Ferrantelli
Evelyn’s Monologue | Jarod Sharkey
Broken | Brianna Ledesma
Guzzled | Ryan Casement
Jupiter et Semele | Camille Liptak
Two Lane Road | Jarod Sharkey
Stranger | Anthony T.S. Guerra
Midnight | Kimberly Sigaty
But Then You Did | Brianna Ledesma
Bike in the Garage | Jarod Sharkey
Fall Further From the Tree | Ryan Casement
Icarus | Julia Elbert
Little Bits of Me | Jarod Sharkey
The Bull and the Fish | Julia Elbert
At the top, A Revelation | Olivia Iris Langley-Valdez
Dear Lovely, | Kaylan Hardin
The Birth of Feminine Desire | Abigail Aldinger
Letter from Visual Art Selection Committee
Okay | Bec Hurley
Wanting | Sydney Martinez
Lacking | Sydney Martinez
Pillars of the Bay | Joshua Wilson
Eye of the Beholder | Kaylan Hardin
Feathered Friend | Brent Thompson
Hearts of the Fallen | Joshua Wilson
Pebble Sea | Joshua Wilson
Wisdom | Kevin Lesniewski
Rain Cycle | Kaylan Hardin
Oceanscape | Cayley Heinhold
What is riverrun?
Begun in 1971 by Dr. C. Kenneth Pellow, riverrun has been an
avenue through which UCCS artists and writers have been able to express
their voices. The journal is designed in the riverrun Literary
and Arts Journal course (ENGL3170) and is published at the end of
each spring semester. UCCS students are welcome to enroll in the
course and participate in the editing and publication of the journal.
Any UCCS student may submit original, creative work to the publication.
riverrun is proud to have published works by writers and artists
who have gone on to critical acclaim, including: Yusef Komunyakaa,
who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994; Marc Weber, an award
winning poet; and Sally Mankus, a photographer, sculptor, and
mixed-media artist whose works continue to be exhibited throughout
Dr. Pellow and his first group of students working on the campus
arts journal decided to name the journal riverrun in honor of the
first word in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The book’s innovative
style of reinventing the English language, as in the word riverrun,
represents the paradoxical necessities to merge differences and to
keep changing. But the book is also written cyclically, with the very
last line feeding back into the book’s opening word. This fluid, cyclical
nature implies that both convergence and divergence from the norm
are vital for survival. Thus, the word “riverrun” must never be capitalized,
as it is not capitalized in Finnegans Wake.
How to Get Involved
SUBMIT your original work for publication by February 1st,
2022. We publish works of: Visual Art, Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction,
Short Performance Pieces.
REGISTER for the riverrun Literary and Arts Journal course
(ENGL3170) to participate in the selection of submissions and the design,
editing, and publication of the journal. All majors are welcome
and encouraged to enroll!
Letter from Editor-in-Chief
s mentioned in our letter from the editorial team, this was
a year unlike other years. We faced the challenge of creating
this journal from start to finish remotely as a team. We
were able to overcome the challenge and present the 48th
edition of riverrun.
The creation of this journal wouldn’t be possible without students
submitting their work to us each spring. Much like last year,
this semester looked different from past spring semesters. Despite
students unable to be on campus, some now living all over the country
and attending classes virtually, and the uncertainty of the past
year, we were still able to create riverrun as if nothing had changed
within the year that everything changed. Thank you to the students
Additionally, we’d like to thank the Student Government Association
whose funding makes riverrun possible, the past editorial classes
and the legacy they have provided us, and Danielle Peña at Copy
It! who has been amazing, helpful, and patient with us in producing
the 48th edition of the journal. Thank you to Jon Bogh, the faculty advisor
for SGA, who provides invaluable advice for navigating the
funding process. To every single member of the editorial team, thank
you for perseverance and patience during the trying times of producing
a journal during a pandemic. Finally, thank you to Dr. Ortega,
whose patience, guidance, and kindness were integral to the journal’s
success. Together, we made it through producing our second journal
in a pandemic!
With everything that the past year has been, we hope that you
find a moment of peace within the pages of our journal.
~ Amanda Wich, Editor-in-Chief
riverrun Vol. 48 Editorial Team:
Taylor Von Feldt
“Life is too short to read a bad book.” — James Joyce
Letter from Fiction Selection
place where trees can be made of candy or characters can
achieve glory in a few short pages, fiction is where the limits
are based solely on a writer’s imagination. Great writers
have written stories that fill our minds with fanciful places,
bizarre creatures, and elaborate events. Fiction isn’t just otherworldly
places, it can be grounded in reality as you’ll experience in
this section of riverrun.
riverrun is a journal that showcases writers each year. It is
produced by students, for students, adding to the legacy of this collection
of stories that are created by the same people that walk the halls
of UCCS. Even in this uncertain time, as disease and pain are smeared
across every place, our editors made a choice to acknowledge this
pain and adapt to the radical changes that have taken place. The pieces
in this section express the fear, regret and pain that everyone has
felt. These stories also show us acceptance, hope, and the drive to
keep pushing forward.
With all this in mind, we on the riverrun team offer a look into
the thoughts of the students of UCCS during the year 2021. This is a
doorway we built so that we could walk into the future and look back
on how we endured through it all. This is the fiction section.
ecker sat across from his daughter at his hickory wood table. His
house was normally quiet. No distracting things like fans and radios;
he needed silence for his best work. The whistle of tea was a notable
exception; especially when dear daughter visited. He glanced
across his book wall. Rows and rows of books and novels, manuals and newspaper
folders. Every book back held a different story. The smell of cellulose pulp paper and
disturbed dust could be found throughout the room. The bookshelf was beautiful,
dark Indian rosewood, polished and shining. Books from end to end, kindling for his
creativity. Some had those little metal clasps that you use for books in a series.
Freshly dusted, all of it, for dear daughter’s visit.
The “dear daughter,” Emily, sat across the table from her father on his 70th
birthday. This visit had been six weeks coming. Decker still hadn’t been ready; she
could see it. He hadn’t been sleeping. His eyes were swimming in dark circles. A
quick glance behind him revealed that no, he had, in fact, not cleaned the pile of
books that wouldn’t fit on the shelf, the ones stacked in the corner of the room up to
the ceiling. “Would you like me to buy you a stepladder for the stack in the corner?”
Decker jumped, spilling a splash of tea onto the kitchen counter. “Oh, I’m
sorry about that. I said I would take that down last time you were here, didn’t I?” He
wiped the tea from the counter. He was not used to the noise. No visitors made for a
quiet home. He liked the quiet. He needed it quiet, but he would endure it for dear
daughter. He finished the tea with a pinch of salt in his cup and three sugars in dear
daughter’s. She stood to come retrieve her tea.
“No. No. Please,” Decker waved her back to her seat. “I’ve got one thing I’d
like to do for my daughter.”
He brought the tea to his dear daughter. And she smiled a simple smile.
“You’ve done more than enough dad. More than enough.”
They sat together and drank tea.
“Tea is nice as always, Emily.”
“It’s from the custom shop in Montana.” She smiled, proud of her choice.
“Same one that Mom always used?” Decker stared down into the cup. He
was lost in longing.
Emily stared. She knew her father wouldn’t notice her. She absently confirmed,
but her voice hung still before vanishing into the space, the room smothered
every noise like a pillow.
Decker spoke like the old man he was, “Good,” and he took one long sip
from the cup. All of it pouring down his throat. Then gone. Dear daughter offered to
make him another cup.
“No thank you.”
“It’ll help your voice.”
The two’s eyes met, and dear daughter poured Decker another cup and
offered it from across the table. He took the cup and retreated to his chair. He held it
weakly beneath his lips.
Emily watched her father’s tea grow cold. She left him to tend his drink and
paced about the room. Her gaze lazily raked over the room’s contents, books, neatly
stacked notepaper, torn and scattered like confetti, oddly blank. Her father’s eyes
followed her about the space.
“You should give the tea a taste.” Decker probed. “It tastes like your mother.”
Now addressed, Emily drank as she returned to her seat. She tasted earth
and the trees, something green and warm. The bit of tang from the cast iron pot. She
could still smell the leftover book dust in the aroma, it was better than the room
though. She sat and breathed in the air from the cup.
“Sweet right?” Decker offered.
“Yeah Dad, it was sweet.”
Decker sat back in his chair. He nodded at the floor.
“You always did love sugar. Sugar seems to wake me up better than salt
nowadays Truth be told it’s just about the taste now. I enjoy the bit of nostalgia.”
Emily set down her cup. She glanced at the books, examining for disturbed
“You found a good book in all that?”
Decker considered before offering, “Gatsby has been a good friend for the
last few weeks.”
Emily stood up and crossed the room to the shelf, her eyes questing for the
Decker stood up and crossed the room to his old computer. He ran his fingers
over the worn keys. The screen was immaculate, even for one with 11 years of
faithful service: no screen burn, no viruses, no unscrupulous downloads. He could
not go ruining a gift from his dear daughter. Especially not with her throwing those
occasional inquisitive glances after him.
Emily looked him over, he walked at least 500 circles around the house every
day, the floorboards showed it. He was handy with the tools she had bought him.
The chair had fresh legs and screws. The garbage compactor pump had a new battery.
He had been at work; however, he could not hide the years spent in the house.
His skin was sagging, it clung to his frame like plastic bags on tape. His bones were
still big, but his muscles had shrunk like balloons with the air let out of them slowly.
He would put things in low places where his creaky bones wouldn’t be strained to
She spoke with a forced smile. “How is work?” She’d heard more than a few
new eBooks voiced by the retired author, Decker Galegreen.
He caressed his microphone, addressing it as one does a gravestone.
“Business goes well as always. The editors are offering fewer criticisms, no
such luck with the critiques but that’s the job I suppose.”
Emily smiled for him. “Do you still get around to writing?”
Decker coughed up a laugh. “I find time to scribble during the day. I need
more pen ink.”
Lips puckered, Emily extended her words ever so gingerly.
“I could get it refilled for you.”
Decker tasted blood as he scrapes his tongue along his teeth before turning
his attention back to his dear daughter. “How goes the mystery writing for… Pina
“You changed it again?”
“New name, new genre.”
Decker narrowed his eyes. “Let me guess. Three guesses.”
Emily gave him a side-eyed grin. “Just three. And I get a question after.”
Decker sat back down across the table. His fingertips tugging on the skin of
his knuckles. His jaw tightened. “You don’t ask about the pen.”
Decker let the breath escape his lungs and righted himself as his dear
daughter sat across from him. She composed herself, her poker face was the stuff of
nightmares. Boring, inexpressive nightmares. He did have the advantage of knowing
all the genres she had written in. It was easy to remember. New name, new genre.
Emily didn’t twitch an eyebrow.
“Are you going to keep saying names, Dad? Or are you going to take your
Decker pinched his lips before standing up to pace the room.
“You know they’re going to make a documentary about you one day. What is
the title gonna be? ‘Pen of a Thousand Names’, ‘Alias: The Contemporary Writer With
a Hundred Pseudonyms’?”
“Nothing is ever going to beat out ‘Adam King and The Sparrowman.’ A grin
broke across Emily’s face, her excitement undeniable. “You know that the book’s still
getting top thriller awards. And it’s gonna get a 30th anniversary.”
Decker started a grin of his own creeping onto his face. “Really? How many
years in a row has it been getting those awards again?”
Without hesitation, Emily spoke, “Twenty-sev—”
Emily stopped talking. Her father had stopped pacing. She saw him for a
moment. The smile on his face. She really saw him, her father again. Then the
smiles were gone.
The room was very quiet.
Decker remembered who he was with and lost his smile immediately.
“Still your favorite book isn’t it?”
Emily did not respond.
Emily looked up at him, Decker could see she was hurt, he had hurt her,
“That fucking pen is going to have you until the day you die.”
Tears ran down her face.
“You’re going to be Adam King until the day you die if you don’t give it up,
Dad. You need to let me take it away from you.”
It was enough. Decker’s eyes glanced to the pile of papers as he considered.
Emily was upon the pile, then Decker was on the pile. The hands of each
pushing away the other. The fingers of each ripped at the pages and scattered them
across the room. Emily found the pen; she tore it from the pile with a cry of joy.
Then Decker grasped the pen.
Then the room was gone and everything was quiet.
Emily and Decker saw a scene. Decker, alone, waiting fingers hovering over
the keys of a simple typewriter. They hovered. They hovered. Hovered. Hovered.
One finger gingerly reached for a key before pausing again. A little girl and her sister,
Amy, ran through the scene. A simple flat is small and had no place for two seven-year-old
girls to be free. Their footfalls boomed on the hard wood floors. Decker
“It was a Saturday.”
He remembered this flat. Too loud neighbors upstairs, a toilet that flooded
once a month, the loose board that stubbed his toe more than a few times. The dining
table was too small for guests or big meals. The china cabinet shook when any
loud noise happened, an earthquake struck, a car drove by. Suffocating, filthy, the
best he could manage. Not enough, certainly not enough for his children, for his
Emily remembered differently. The table where she could always hold her
parent’s hands before grace was said. The funny arguments you heard the neighbors
having. Gossip over the landline, candlelight board games during black outs, the one
loose floorboard where she hid her baseball cards. A garden just across the street,
the one with gravel pathways, friendly bees, spare tomatoes, peppers, strawberries,
and sunflowers facing the opened up on the East side of the lot. Shops and stores
and new things up and down the street. She remembered her sister, the artist of the
family who was drawing pretty good pictures after her fifth birthday. Her mom who
helped Emily stop crying when her play only got third place in the school competition.
The scene shifted again. Decker marched up the street. His pen lay still
against the notepad in his hands, save for the occasional aimless drag across the paper.
A spindled man called out to him. The man’s eyes were sunken, skin pale,
trembling hands. A simple offer was made. “A new pen does wonders sir.”
“It gives good luck.”
“It will certainly help.”
“Yes, I’m sure sir.”
“Yes, it’s free.”
The pen was simple, ceramic, intricate paint, a fountain tip, A regal finger
on it’s sharp point. “It is a nice pen,” Decker had thought. “Maybe it will help,” he
Decker couldn’t watch as the man he had once been made the mistake, the
only mistake, the best mistake, the cursed blessing. The day had been simple, quiet,
easy, his last. He remembered reaching for the pen. The brass-colored surface
shone. His skin shivered. His fingers touched the pen. His muscles rippled. His hand
grasped. His bones shook. He took the pen.
Decker hardly remembered the following months. He was in his world,
words poured onto the page again and again. Revision, draft, revision, draft. The
ideas never stopped; the words never stopped. At the end of it all he was Adam King,
author and editor of The Sparrowman.
Then he wasn’t. Like a lightbulb bursting, it was over. The book was out. He
could talk for an hour about it. Give half-satisfying answers about the text already
out of his head. Eventually the talks stopped. Fans converged and fought over interpretations
and meanings, and epiphanies and some such without him. They didn’t
need him; he could sit in his fancy new house with his new car and private garden
that had recently been infested with bees and leave them alone. They had The Sparrowman.
Emily saw her father at his desk. His hands racing over the typewriter. He
stopped to quickly jot something down in a notebook. She remembered that scene.
She was down the hall. She wanted him to come to dinner. She had stopped calling
after her fifth attempt.
She remembered the front curb of her elementary school. She would play
with Amy and the other kids waiting for their parents, until they left, until she and
Amy were alone, until her teacher, Ms. Kimbly, would tell them to come back inside
and do their homework. When they were done with their homework they would
draw. They made dragons and fairies. They watched movies. They played on the
swings. They read books. Until Ms. Kimbly drove them home. She remembered the
parent-teacher conference that Mom had to take off work for. How Dad had been
scribbling in his notebook throughout the meeting. How he had sat down in the passenger
side seat to wait for us to stop talking on the curb.
She remembered how Mom had a screaming fight with Dad when she tried
to take him for a walk. Yet, she remembered Mom pouring over the notes Dad had
taken throughout the night. She remembered Mom staring at Dad from out the window.
She remembered Mom crying and holding her and her sister. Her tears were
salty and light like fabric softener.
Then the book came out. Mom read it, Amy read it, Emily read it, and read
it, and read it, and read it, and read it. Book club was about it, Mom took her and
Amy one time so we could see what it was like. A bunch of not-spring chickens sat
around a nonexistent table and spouted their opinions on this generation’s best
drama/thriller before turning to her Mom and asking what she thought about their
She remembered her Mom offering to take her and her sister to the same
place at the same time next week. She said “no,” three times, and a week later, her
Mom and sister were gone. A police officer came by and told Emily there had been
an accident, Dad was still on the computer at the time; and a month later CPS put
her in foster care; and a month after that her Dad was gone. Decker had reached out
15 years later.
Decker spoke. “I wish I could go back. I had so much fun.” Then he realized
what he said.
Emily watched Decker break. He slumped to the floor and cried. He cried the
tears of a man who had been filled with only tears for most of his life. He cried like
the world was ending. He cried until there was a wet spot in the carpet. He cried
until he ran out of tears, and a little bit after. The pen rolled out of his fingers.
Emily reached for the pen.
Decker saw her reach and spoke.
Emily didn’t stop. It was a nice pen after all.
Decker snatched the pen.
Emily snarled, “Give it to me!”
Decker retreated to the table. The paper scattered as Emily chased.
She clawed at the pen.
It had to be away from him.
She wanted it.
Decker saw her reach,
Emily was going to take the pen.
His daughter was going to take the pen.
Decker broke the pen.
The room was emptied of something. And the two were still.
The pen bled into the floor.
The two sat and watched the pen bleed.
Emily looked at Decker, his eyes were hollow and distant as he spoke.
Emily’s chest felt empty.
Decker tried to think of something to say to his daughter. He thought of her
mother, her sister, the years lost, the scars of a broken family. He spoke again.
Emily got up off the floor and turned from the man who was her father as
he spoke again,
“I did it for you.”
Emily turned to the door. Decker wept again.
Emily walked out the door.
And the room was silent.
I love you, Jeffery
aniel closed the door firmly behind him and braced it with his hip so
he could lock the stubborn deadbolt. A cold wind wandered through
the crack at the door’s base and snuck up the legs of his wet jeans,
chilling him to his kneecaps. He pulled his gloves off with his teeth
and hung his heavy coat on one of a pair of empty hooks on the back of the door.
Outside, the wind rushed through the leafless branches of the large tree that shaded
the apartment’s only entrance during the warmer days of spring and summer. They
sounded like six-sided dice clicking and clacking against each other in a practiced
gambler’s hand. A raven squawked from a naked tree-limb. Daniel looked to his feet.
It had been a long winter and he longed to see the green again.
He kicked his wet shoes off where he stood and left them in a shallow puddle
of muddy snow water as he turned towards the apartment’s small kitchen. The
sink was full of dirty dishes, and the garbage can over-flowed in the corner opposite
the door, spilling empty pizza boxes and crushed Diet Coke bottles onto the spotted,
tile floor. The free-standing refrigerator rattled in its place across the room next to a
small table with two wooden chairs set on adjoining sides. Against the third wall,
three empty cat bowls, each with a different name printed on the side, were lined
evenly next each other.
Daniel sighed. He would normally feed the cats later at night, after a hot
shower and a joint, but he had forgotten the night before and he knew they had to
be hungry. In the bedroom, his female rasped a meow, almost as if she had read his
mind. Sometimes he thought she could.
Before he could stoop to grab the cat bowls, his other cat appeared out of
nowhere to rub against his damp pantleg. Daniel reached down to stroke the animal’s
silky brindle coat. It was soft like the white fluff that leaks out of an old down
pillow. Jeffrey had always told him that good food would give the cats soft coats and
had insisted on giving them nothing but the best. They had argued on more than one
occasion about how expensive it was becoming to feed them, but Jeffrey had been
Daniel dug his nails into the thick fur behind the cat’s ears and gave him a
deep scratching before pushing him away to grab the cat bowls. One for Maya, the
lazy female, and one for Leonidas, the loving male. The third one he left. He would
not need it.
He carried the empty bowls to the counter and grabbed the last can of Fancy
Feast from the cupboard. The cats would have to share. It was only a five-minute
drive to buy more, but once he was home, he preferred to stay there. He did not
leave the house other than to go to work or for a quick trip to the store. He spent
most of his time on the worn green sofa, fingering the new cigarette burns in his
favorite blanket and staring at the muted television or at the pictureless wall behind
it. Other than that, he slept, usually where he sat.
The sound of the electric can opener was a dinner bell for the cats, and Maya
waddled into the kitchen from the bedroom and sat next to her empty bowl. Leonidas
sat next to her, and they both cat-stared at him expectantly.
“Sorry, kids,” Daniel muttered as he split the gooey brown chunks evenly
between the two bowls. It smelled vaguely like roast chicken. “Gonna have to share
tonight.” He took the two steps to where they waited and seated himself on the
floor, legs crossed. Neither cat moved, their eyes locked on the bowls he held over
their heads, and he leaned over to place one in front of each.
Daniel looked at the empty third bowl. It said “Mildew” in thick black letters
on the side. He closed his eyes and smiled. Mildew had been Jeffrey’s cat. When
Jeffrey first brought him home, Daniel had laughed. The cat was rough looking and
rail thin. His black and white tuxedo coat was uneven and unkempt, and his seafoam
green eyes had seemed to be looking in different directions. Daniel had protested
that two cats were more than enough, but Jeffrey was adamant.
“Just wait,” he had insisted. “He’ll grow on you.”
“What, like mildew?” Daniel had snapped. Neither of them said a word for a
moment before they both laughed out loud.
“Good one,” Jeffrey had chuckled, the cat cradled in his arms like a newborn.
“Thank you. I thought so, too.” And just like that, the mood between them
had changed and the argument was over. Jeffrey knew he had won, and he had
draped the scrawny beast over his shoulder and walked into the bedroom.
“Mildew,” he had cooed as he ran his hand down the animal’s bony back.
Daniel opened his eyes and settled his gaze on the empty cat dish against the
wall. His cheeks were moist. Jeffrey had been right about that, too. Daniel’s feelings
towards the new addition had eventually softened, and Mildew had become part of
their unorthodox family. Daniel nudged the bowl affectionately with his hand and in
a sudden fit, grabbed it and threw it against the far wall.
“Damn you!” There was a sharp crack as the bowl disintegrated. Broken
shards scattered across the floor and Daniel took a shuddering breath as he surveyed
the shattered plastic. The pieces were small, but to Daniel they were enormous. Each
bigger than the last, they mocked him. His tears flowed freely and he pressed his
fingers into his eye sockets, covering his face with his palms. It was not the broken
bowl that defeated him. He would not need it again. His throat tightened. Mildew
the cat had died three weeks before, one week to the day after Jeffrey the man had
drawn his last labored breath in the hospital ICU.
Daniel drew a choked breath and fought to stem the torrent of emotion that
threatened to finally break free. His chest felt both empty and full, like he had filled
his lungs to the point of bursting but could still not catch his breath. It hurt. His
heart hurt. Everything hurt. He dug at his eyes, furious, but the tears kept coming.
Pouring. The walls closed in and the air grew thin. The collar of his shirt was tight
around his neck. Too tight. It choked him. His chest heaved, and his shoulders shook
and then, completely overcome, his defenses battered beyond repair, he let out an
anguished moan and collapsed onto his side, broken. He curled into a ball and
pulled his legs close as a baby would, arms tight around his knees. He drew a deep
breath. As deep as he could. Something in his chest exploded. His world went black.
And he wept.
Daniel sat on the edge of the couch cushion and rolled a joint. His redrimmed
eyes felt tired, his sinuses bulged, and his hip and shoulder ached from
where he had fallen asleep on the kitchen floor. The marijuana burned his raw
throat as he inhaled, but it seemed to be the only thing that helped to ease his mind,
to help him temporarily forget. As if he ever could. Leonidas rubbed against his knee
and Maya sat in the kitchen doorway, unblinking. The cats were still hungry, and
that meant that Daniel would have to leave the house.
He stubbed the joint into an ashtray full of half-smoked cigarettes and ran
his hand over his head. His close-cropped hair felt like the stiff bristles of a toothbrush
scrubbing against his open palm. With a heavy sigh, he rose from the couch
and headed for the front door. The clock on the wall read fifteen to eight. He had
slept on the kitchen floor for almost two hours.
The puddle around his shoes had dried into a ring of dark, flaking mud, but
he ignored the mess as he slipped on his shoes and pulled his coat from the back of
the door, refusing to look at the empty hook next to it as he did. He had cried
enough for the night, and he was drained to the point of exhaustion.
When he opened the front door, he was greeted by a blast of frigid air. He
held the neck of his coat together with one hand and lowered his head against the
wind. In the car, he fastened his seatbelt and cranked the heater to full. It blew cold
air. The steam from his breath fogged the windows as he hunched forward against
the chill. Country music played softly from the stereo and a vanilla scented air freshener
in the shape of a pine tree dangled from the rearview mirror. Daniel waited
until the car’s defrost had cleared a small circle on the windshield in front of him
before slipping the vehicle into reverse and backing out of his assigned spot.
He took a left out of the lot and stopped with the light at the next corner. To
his right, a lone figure pulled an overladen shopping cart along the icy sidewalk. The
old woman was a familiar figure to Daniel, but he knew very little about her. She
could frequently be seen walking in the area, hunched with time and unknown burden.
A ragged coat hung to her knees, and a tattered scarf was wrapped tightly
around her thin neck and over most of her face. He could see puffs of rapid breath as
she toiled into the wind, heavy cart in tow. Jeffrey had known more about her than
he did. Daniel had seen him more than once, sitting next to the old woman on the
bus-stop bench, speaking with animated gestures as was his way. Jeffrey never said
what they talked about, and Daniel had written it off as unimportant at the time.
Ahead of him the light turned green and Daniel eased through the intersection.
He watched in his rearview mirror as the old woman reached the bus-stop
bench and seated herself on one end, her eyes on the ground, her hands clenched in
her lap, and her knees pressed tightly against each other. Daniel knew she would
still be there on his way back. She made the same walk, sat in the same place, every
night regardless of the weather, until the last scheduled bus made its final stop. Only
then would she lift her head, and when the last passenger had disembarked, she
would rise slowly from her seat and return the way she came. He did not know
where she went, and he was not sure if Jeff had, either.
At the small corner store, Daniel picked up two cans of Fancy Feast and
headed for the cashier. Next to the register, a sign advertised freshly brewed coffee,
and Daniel paused before heading to the steaming pot and pouring a full cup. He
paid for the coffee and cat food with a stained and wrinkled twenty he pulled from
his front pocket.
The car heater was warmer than it had been, and Daniel sat for a minute
behind the wheel. The streetlamps had come to life while he was inside, and the first
scattered flakes of an approaching storm floated like volcanic ash in the muted yellow
light. It was already cold outside, and the night promised to be colder.
On his way home, he approached the bus-stop and was not surprised to see
the old woman hunched in her seat, eyes down as usual. He parked his car on the
side of the street and grabbed the coffee from the cupholder. There was no traffic, so
he crossed quickly and sat on the unoccupied end of the bench. He set the steaming
coffee between them. The woman did not move, did not acknowledge his presence.
“It’s, uh… it’s gonna be cold tonight,” Daniel said. He had never spoken to
the woman, had never even approached her, and he had no idea what to expect. He
waited for a minute more and when he had still not gotten a response, he stood and
headed for his car. He left the coffee on the bench along with the change from the
twenty. As he drove away, he glanced in his mirror. The woman had still not moved
when he made the turn into the parking lot, and she disappeared from his sight.
At home, he fed the cats a second can of food and left them to eat as he
made his way to the bedroom. His feet were heavy, and his joints ached, so he decided
to call it an early night. The bed was unmade from the last time he had slept in it,
and he stripped to his boxers and climbed between the rumpled sheets. He could
hear the refrigerator rattling in the kitchen, and the lights from the television played
along the bedroom door. Maya leapt onto the bed and flopped down against his side,
a lump of warmth against the chill air. He tickled her ear briefly and drew a bit of
comfort from the soft rumble of her deep, throaty purr.
Daniel closed his eyes. Sleep beckoned him but eluded his grasp, and after
what seemed an eternity, he rolled to his side and shoved his hand under the pillow
next to his. The sheet beneath was cold to touch. He left his hand and squinted
against the tears that threatened to return. He forced himself to think of anything
else until, eventually, sleep claimed him. In his dreams, Jeff was alive, but Daniel
could not reach him. A thick pane of unbreakable glass kept them apart, and no matter
how loudly Daniel shouted, he could tell that Jeff could not hear what he was
trying to say to him. Daniel woke to his alarm the next morning, still on his side, but
with Jeff’s pillow wrapped tightly in his arms.
The morning sky was gray and bleak, and a dusting of new snow covered
trees and buildings under a thin layer of white crystal powder. Daniel readied himself
for work, his movements slow and mechanical. His body felt much older than
his twenty-eight years. When he looked into the bathroom mirror to shave, he saw
dark circles under his bloodshot brown eyes and a glimpse of grey in his short black
facial hair. He sheared it off with his razor before brushing his teeth.
In the walk-in closet, he faced a line of empty hangers, ignoring the overloaded
rack behind him. He sighed heavily and headed for the pile of dirty clothes
that lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. On top was his uniform shirt from the day
before, and he shook it half-heartedly before slipping it over his head. It still smelled
like grilled meat and greasy fried potatoes. He had returned to his job two weeks
after Jeff had died, ten days after his funeral, and Daniel’s co-workers knew he was
not yet himself. He was allowed a little bit of slack.
Daniel pulled on a dirty pair of jeans and plucked a mismatched pair of
socks from the drawer before heading to the living room. On the sofa, he took a hit
off the joint he found in the ashtray and held it as he pulled on Leonidas’ passing
tail. He could feel the cold oozing through the cracks around the front door, and the
light behind the curtains was dim. He hoped for a short workday. He was tired, but
he needed the money. Losing Jeff meant also losing Jeff’s income, and he would be
hard-pressed to afford the one-bedroom apartment by himself. Moving to a smaller
place would mean he would have to downsize, and that meant disposing of many of
the things he and Jeff had accumulated in the ten years they had been together.
Daniel smoked the joint until it burned his fingertips before dropping it in a
small box with a hundred others and rising to head for the door. Dice rattled from
beyond the doorway. Slipping his feet into his work shoes, Daniel donned his coat,
pulled on his gloves and reached for the doorknob. He hunched his shoulders against
the wind as he pulled the door closed behind him.
Daniel got his wish and was sent home from work early in the evening, and
when he got home, he immediately started a hot shower. The water ran over his
head and down his back, and it worked to loosen his stiff muscles. He reached for
his bar of soap and hesitated when he saw Jeff’s shower puff hanging in its spot over
the faucet. He wondered how he had not noticed it before. Daniel left his soap in the
dish, pulled the puff from the hook, and ran it under the steaming water. The faint
scent of Jeff’s body wash teased his nose. He put the puff back where he had gotten
it and turned off the shower. He had had enough.
He sat on the sofa, lit a cigarette and let his mind wander. He thought about
Jeffrey. They had practically grown up together, and Daniel had thought that he had
come to know everything there was to know about his long-time love. Jeffrey’s last
unexpected relapse had proven that notion false, and Daniel wondered how he had
missed the signs. He should have seen it coming, but somehow, he had not, and he
was still plagued by a slew of unanswered questions. They were questions he would
never be able to ask.
A short time later, Daniel glanced at the clock and jerked upright. He knew
the last bus of the day was scheduled to arrive soon, so he readied himself hurriedly
and made his way to his car. The night was considerably warmer than the previous
had been, and the daytime sun had shone long enough to melt most of the light,
white fluff that had covered the ground that morning. Daniel drove to the store and
went straight to the coffee pot. Full cup in hand, he paid at the front and left the
store, change from a twenty in his pocket.
He parked in the same spot he had before and jogged across the street, careful
to avoid spilling the hot coffee onto his bare hands. He wanted to be there, seated
and waiting, when the woman made her appearance. She showed just when he
thought she would, dragging her shopping cart behind her, head down, feet
shuffling. She did not acknowledge Daniel as she made her way to the stop and took
her usual seat. Daniel set the coffee and the money on the bench between them.
“I, uh… I hope last night wasn’t too bad,” he said, eyes forward, hands
clasped together in his lap. The woman said nothing. Daniel waited another minute
before looking in her direction. “I hope the coffee helped.” He did not know what
else to say. “Jeff would have put some Jack Daniels or something in it, but I, uh… I
didn’t have any. So, uh… well, anyway, I hope you have a better night.” Still, she
refused to reply, and Daniel rose from his seat and brushed his hands down the
backs of his legs. He crossed to his car and climbed into the driver’s seat, and as he
pulled away, he looked into his mirror just in time to see the woman grab the cup
and the cash before returning to her seat to wait.
Daniel had the next day off from work, and he slept on the sofa until late in
the morning. When he woke, sunlight poked between the dark curtains on the living
room window, and the leafless limbs on the tree outside the door were quiet. He
rose from the couch and stretched his tightened limbs. The bright light in the window
cheered him a bit, and he went into the kitchen to grab a Diet Coke and a cigarette.
Under the refrigerator, he spotted a piece of the broken cat bowl that he had
missed when he swept the floor, and he almost left it before deciding to pick it up
and throw it away.
Garbage still spilled over the side of the can, so he grabbed a fresh bag from
under the kitchen sink and used it to replace the full one. The task was simple, but
getting it done made him feel better. He looked to the sink and decided that it was
time to do the dishes. That chore complete, he sat on the couch and rewarded himself
with another Marlboro Light. He looked to the bedroom where he could see Maya
balanced on the corner of the bed, staring at him, the mound of soiled laundry on
the floor just beneath her.
“OK, Maya, I get it,” he said.
The small laundromat where he and Jeff had been washing their clothes
during their four years in the apartment was located a half block down from the corner
store. Daniel hauled several pillowcases stuffed with clothes to his car, piled
them in the back seat, and left the lot. His route took him past the bus-stop bench.
The old woman was nowhere to be seen, and not even the coffee cup remained to
show that she had ever been there.
By late afternoon, Daniel had tired of housework. The empty kitchen sink
sparkled white, the tub and toilet were clean, the floors were swept, and stacks of
clean, neatly folded clothes occupied most of the sofa. Only the bedroom remained,
but Daniel knew he was not ready to handle that ominous task. Not yet. He puttered
around the apartment, forcing himself to stay busy despite his fatigue, until the
clock on the wall read fifteen ‘til eight. The last bus would be arriving soon.
He slipped on his shoes, grabbed his coat from the door hook and slung it
over his arm as he left the apartment and walked quickly to his car. The corner store
was busy, and it took him longer than expected to make his purchase. He was nearly
late getting to the bus-stop, and the old woman was already in her seat. He parked
the car and went to sit opposite her on the bench. He set the coffee between them,
but she made no move to grab it.
“Sorry I was late,” Daniel said, grateful to have something to say. “I wanted
to be here when you got here.” When she did not respond, Daniel continued.
“I, uh… I hate being late. Makes me anxious. Jeff never cared, though. He
was late for everything.” The sensation of Jeff’s name on his tongue soothed him. He
did not know what he hoped to gain by speaking to somebody he knew nothing
about, but it was a connection to Jeff that he had previously chosen to ignore. “We
used to argue all the time when it was time to go somewhere.” He looked to his feet
and huffed. “Hell, who am I kidding? We used to argue all the time.” He did not
know if the woman was even listening, but he had spoken very little about Jeff since
his death and talking about him now made Daniel feel lighter, freer.
“OK, well, uh… anyway, thanks. I guess I’ll leave you alone. Have a good
night,” he said as he rose to his feet. He was about to step off the curb when he
caught a whisper behind him.
“Jeffrey,” she said, her sandpaper voice so light he almost missed it. “I hate
coffee.” Daniel’s heart convulsed. It took him a moment to process what she had
said. He was certain he had never used Jeff’s full name. He turned towards her but
could still not see her face.
“Oh, okay,” he chuckled uncertainly, “well, then tomorrow I’ll bring something
“Jack Daniels,” she whispered, and Daniel choked back a surprised laugh.
Maybe she had been listening after all.
“OK, then, Jack Daniels it is,” he said. A moment later, when she still had not
raised her eyes to meet his gaze, Daniel nodded slightly and headed to his car. As he
shifted into drive, he looked over his shoulder just as the bus drove in to block his
view. When it left, he watched the old woman climb to her feet, grab the money he
had left with the coffee and throw the full cup into the garbage. The cash went into
her coat pocket. She grabbed her cart with one bony hand and left the bench behind
Daniel continued to visit the bus-stop whenever he could. The weather began
to warm, and the smell of wet earth greeted him every time he opened his front
door. The woman was always there, in the same spot, dressed in the same shabby
clothes. Some days Daniel talked freely, telling her stories about his life with Jeff. He
told her how they had met and where they had lived. About how they had fought and
how they had loved. She said nothing, but as the days progressed, her back began to
straighten when she could see him approaching, and Daniel could tell that she was
listening to him, absorbing what he was saying. On some days they sat wordlessly,
lost in thought, unmoving, and they often stayed well past the time the last bus had
come and gone.
At home, Daniel’s life got easier. The kitchen sink never filled with dirty
dishes, and the rack of hangers on his side of the walk-in closet was full of clean
clothes. Maya and Leonidas thrived. Daniel no longer dreaded the morning, and he
had finally mustered the strength to change the sheets and remake the bed.
Daniel’s family had come together and put up enough money to buy him
another month in the apartment, but he knew that eventually he was going to have
to relocate. His parents had made it clear that though they supported Daniel in his
grief, they felt it was time for him to move on. Jeff had not been popular with Daniel’s
relatives, who viewed Jeff’s erratic and often problematic behavior as an unnecessary
and sometimes costly burden. And though they had accepted Daniel’s decision
to remain with Jeff, despite the difficulties, they had never truly welcomed him as a
member of the family. Daniel knew that if they had known half as much as he did,
they probably never would have. He had covered for Jeffrey on more than one occasion
without telling anybody else about it.
They had also been steadfast in that Daniel must accept responsibility for
any choices he made regarding Jeff’s unacceptable behavior, and Daniel was convinced
it was because they feared that he would follow Jeff’s lead. He had explained
to them time and again that he recognized Jeff’s failings as they were, but that he
loved him just the same and had no intention of leaving. Daniel knew his family
would support him and allow him time to grieve, but not indefinitely. So, he collected
boxes from work to begin the process of packing his belongings.
His belongings. The thought still seemed foreign to him, and he dreaded the
prospect of having to decide what to do with Jeff’s possessions. He rolled a joint and
smoked it to his fingertips before grabbing the stack of folded boxes and dragging
them to the bedroom. That room promised to be the most difficult, the most heartrending,
and Daniel wanted to get it done first, to get it over with and to put it behind
him. He felt ready to face whatever he came across. His talks with the old
woman had been therapeutic, in a way he would never have expected; especially
given the fact that she rarely spoke. But his overall mood was improved, and he had
started to feel like his old self. He could smile again.
He started with the nightstand on Jeff’s side of the bed. A lamp in the shape
of an elephant sat atop a light brown doily, and a toad the color of dried moss held a
beige votive candle in its lap. Daniel knew the candle smelled like vanilla because
Jeff knew it was Daniel’s favorite. That was Jeff. They could fight like the most bitter
enemies, but they had loved each other. From the day they met in high school until
their last moment together in the intensive care unit, they had loved each other.
Daniel opened the nightstand’s only drawer and began to sort through its
contents. The drawer was packed to the top, mostly with unopened mail and handwritten
shopping lists, and he threw most of it away. Anything he thought he should
save he packed into a shoebox. It saddened him that ten years of memories could be
reduced to a few personal items at the bottom of a cardboard carton made for a size
Daniel closed the lid on the box and started to push the drawer closed when
he spotted a flash of color tucked in one back corner. He pulled the drawer free of
the stand and set it on the floor at his feet. Stuck between the wooden side and flimsy
bottom, face down and back covered with glue-stained brown paper, Daniel found
a picture of Jeff and himself taken at their second anniversary party. It had obviously
been peeled from the stiff back of a picture frame, and one corner was bent back
He remembered the day vividly. Though it had technically been their second
anniversary, they had half-jokingly referred to it as their first. They had had a serious
fight earlier in the year and had spent several weeks apart. They had nearly
called it quits. But they had not. They had missed each other too greatly, had hated
life without the other, and they had eventually agreed to work out their differences.
To work through them. Despite them. In the years since, though they often disagreed,
they had never spent another night away from each other.
Daniel took a seat on the edge of the bed and stared at the picture in his
hands. His throat constricted as it had not in weeks, and he closed his eyes. He had
thought he was ready, that he had come far enough to be able to face the memory of
his lost love without losing control of himself. But this time, he did not fight it. He
did not hold back. He let his tears run like salty rivers down his drawn cheeks and
into the fine stubble that lined his upper lip. He sobbed openly and unashamedly,
pressing the worn photo against his bare forehead as he rocked back and forth, his
mind a tempest of memories both good and bad.
He knew that Jeff was not coming back this time, that he was never coming
back. And as he sat there on the bed they had once shared, the photo pressed to his
brow, Daniel’s grief began to reshape itself. He had loved Jeff; he always would, and
he knew he would never be the same without him. But Daniel began to realize that,
though he may never see Jeff again, may never look into his eyes and share his
breath, may never hold him close as he had the day that picture was taken, he would
never be completely without him.
Daniel’s breathing slowed and he gradually regained his composure. He
studied the picture again. That day had been a good day. The fight that had nearly
ended them had been put aside, and they had celebrated as if the wounds it had
caused had not cut as deeply as they had. As if the sharp words they had shared had
been nothing more than a meaningless exchange that should be treated as if it had
never happened. But it had changed them, and though they never talked about it,
they both knew it.
That evening, Daniel went to the bus-stop early and waited for the old woman
to arrive. When she had taken her seat and had tucked away the pint of Jack Daniels
he handed her, Daniel took a deep breath and pulled the photo he had found that
afternoon out of his back pocket.
“I found this today,” he held it for her to see. “I was cleaning out some of
Jeff’s stuff. It was taken at our second anniversary party. We, uh… we called it our
first because we almost broke up earlier that year. It was pretty bad.”
“He has wisdom in his eyes,” she said. “And love.” Daniel looked away. A
single tear traced from the corner of his eye to where his lips met, and he tasted salt.
His cleared his throat and exhaled slowly as he looked at the sky above him.
“We love each other,” he said. “Well, loved each other.” He looked back at
the photo and then at his feet. “Jeffrey had a drug problem.” Daniel sighed and
rubbed the cuff of his sleeve under his nose. Jeffrey’s struggle with addiction was
well-known amongst their family and their close friends. It was an open secret that
never strayed far from any of their minds. When Jeffrey relapsed, it was usually sudden,
unexpected, and destructive.
“That was what caused the fight that year,” Daniel continued. “Jeffrey relapsed
and, uh…” He sniffed and cleared his throat again. “Well, he got really
messed up and totaled my car. And then he, uh… he left the scene. Nobody got hurt,
luckily, but then, when I, uh… when I asked him what happened, he lied to me about
it. He flat out lied to me about it.” Daniel closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of
his nose. “And I never forgave him for that.” The admission hurt. Daniel was openly
crying, now, but he knew he had to keep going.
“I loved him with all my heart, but always in the back of my mind, I wondered
if he was telling me the truth. All these years, every time he told me he loved
me, for a split second, I doubted him. And now he’s gone, and he, uh… he’s never
coming back, and all I want… all I want is to hear him say ‘I love you’ one more
time.” Daniel’s voice cracked, but he remained upright. Next to him, the woman was
“The night Jeff died, I was so mad at him. He had been using again, and
when I found out, I confronted him about it. And he lied to me. Right to my face.
Said I was wrong. That I was fucking crazy. But the thing was, I had found some of
his stuff, and when I, uh… when I showed it to him, he flipped out. Told me to get
the fuck outta the house. So, I left. I was pissed. And hurt. And I was convinced that I
had been right all these years. So, I stayed away for a couple of hours, and, uh…
when I got home, I… I found him on the floor with a needle stuck in his arm.” Daniel
took several deep breaths before continuing.
“He was still warm, so I, uh… I pulled the needle out and called 911 and they
took him to the hospital. But it was too late. They put him on life support, but, uh…
there was nothing they could do. They told me he was braindead.” Daniel closed his
eyes and leaned his head back until the vertebrae in his neck cracked. “And the
worst part, the part that hurts the most, is that the night I left, I was so mad, so angry,
that I, uh… I didn’t tell him I loved him before I slammed the door in his face.
The last thing he ever heard me say was me telling him to fuck off.” Daniel took a
deep breath and puffed his cheeks.
“He was there for three days, and I stayed with him the whole time. Never
left his side. I had promised him that no matter how mad I was at him, no matter
how pissed off, I would never spend another night away from him. So, I stayed. And
all I could do was tell him how sorry I was and that I loved him, and hope that,
somehow, he could hear me. So, I, uh… I sat there, and I said I’m sorry and I love
you, I love you, I love you, over and over, all the way to the end. I, uh… I wanted it to
be the last thing he heard.”
“There’s love in his eyes,” the woman mumbled. “But he’s never coming
back.” Daniel bristled. He was slightly taken aback by her bluntness, but he knew
she meant no harm, and he quickly shrugged aside his irritation. She was right.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I, uh… I guess I just have to accept it and move on,” he
whispered. “That’s all I can do.” For the next hour, they sat next to each other and
said nothing. When Daniel finally rose to leave, he stuck the picture back into his
pocket and looked directly at the woman on the bench. His cheeks were dry.
“Listen,” he said, his fingers laced behind his back. “I want to thank you. I
know that I, uh… that I haven’t necessarily been a joy to be around all of the time,
but I want you to know how much you’ve helped me. More than you know. Thank
you.” When she said nothing in return, Daniel crossed the street to his car and headed
After work the following day, Daniel went back to his place and packed several
large boxes. A friend of a friend had offered a small studio that accepted pets.
One short phone call later the place was his, and it was move-in ready. At quarter to
eight, he grabbed a jacket and left for the store. He wanted to tell the old woman
about his new apartment, and he wanted to grab a bottle of whiskey to celebrate.
When he got to the bus-stop, he took his spot on the end of the bench and
watched the traffic pass as he waited. His mind wandered and it was not until the
bus arrived that he realized he was alone. Startled, he got hurriedly to his feet and
looked around. The old woman was nowhere to be seen. Daniel had no idea where
she went after their visits at the bus-stop, only the direction she normally headed, so
he jogged a short distance along her usual path, casting his eyes side to side as he
searched for any sign of her. He found nothing.
Back at the bench, he waited for another hour before scratching his head
with concern and returning to his apartment. He went back the next night and the
night after that, returning every evening for the next week, but she never showed.
The night before he was to move into his new place, Daniel made one more
trip to the bus-stop on the corner. He still had the bottle of whiskey he had purchased
as a celebration surprise, but when the last bus had come and gone, and the
old woman still had not made an appearance, Daniel resigned himself to the fact that
she was never coming back. He could not continue to show up hoping that she
would. It saddened him, but he knew there was nothing he could do.
At home that night, as he crawled between the sheets, he thought about the
coming day, and he thought about Jeffrey. He thought about the night of their second
anniversary, after the crowd had left and they were alone in each other’s arms,
drunk with alcohol and dizzy with emotion. He thought about the promise they had
made to each other that night, an oath of love and devotion whispered closely into
each other’s ready ears. No matter how angry they were at each other, no matter
how bad things seemed to be, they would always love each other, and they would
never spend another night apart. A smile on his face, Daniel fell asleep.
The following evening, Daniel loaded Maya and Leonidas into their crates
and carried them to the car. His new apartment was much smaller than the one he
and Jeff had shared, and he had decided to make a new start. Everything he planned
to keep he had loaded into the trunk and the backseat. The shoebox holding Jeff’s
belongings rested on top of the pile.
As he pulled out of the parking lot, he took his usual left and drove past the
bus-stop. The bench was empty but for a disposable coffee cup sitting atop a folded
newspaper. Curious, and a bit hopeful, Daniel made a quick U-turn and parked
across the street. He dodged traffic as he made his way to the bus-stop, searching
the area around him for the old woman as he did. There was still no sign of her. Nor
had he expected one.
He reached for the folded paper, and as he picked it up, he was stricken by
how old it seemed to be. Its edges were worn, the ink was smeared in places, and
the paper was the color of nicotine stains on painted white walls. He checked the
front page and found that it dated back nearly twenty years. Curious, he quickly
scanned both sides, and on the bottom corner, a small headline caught his eye:
“Local Businessman Leaves for Work on City Bus, Never Returns.” A picture of a
smiling couple featured above the article. In the background of the black and white
photo, patches of snow could be seen on the ground, and the couple were dressed
against the apparent cold. The man smiled widely at the camera, his eyes bright, his
wife pulled close beneath his arm. The woman wore a coat that hung to her knees
and a scarf wrapped tightly around her thin neck.
In the weeks he had been visiting the old woman, Daniel had never seen her
entire face, had never asked her name. The thick scarf had covered her from ear to
shoulder, leaving him nothing but her mournful eyes and her creased forehead to
know her by. Daniel scanned the article, and, midway through the first paragraph,
he found her name.
“Early Friday morning, Loretta Jo Thomas’s husband,
46-year-old Jeffrey Wayne Thomas,
boarded a city bus on the corner of…When he did
not return at his usual time that evening…”
Daniel stared at the name for a moment, cementing it in his mind. The
woman he now knew as Loretta had never told him why she waited every day at the
bus-stop. As preoccupied as he had been with his own grief, he had never thought to
A sudden gust of wind tore the paper from Daniel’s hands, and it landed at
the base of the nearby garbage can. He moved to pick it up, and as he did, a flash of
color caught his eye. A single shoot, a splash of vibrant green against a backdrop of
dark, moist earth, sprouted from under the rusted bottom of the metal bin. Daniel
stood upright, never taking his eyes from the emerging growth, and he thought of
the last thing the woman had said to him. “He’s never coming back.” Images of Jeff
played in Daniel’s mind. Jeff as he had been when they were at their happiest. Jeff
the night of their second anniversary party, at the very moment he had looked directly
into Daniel’s eyes and had promised his life to him.
Daniel tucked the worn paper under his arm, turned his back and walked to
his car. As he drove away, he looked into his rearview mirror at the bus-stop behind
him. As he rounded the corner, and the bench disappeared from sight, Daniel
“Thank you, Loretta,” he said, before setting his eyes on the road before
“I love you, Jeffrey.”
The Lamps Burned With Midnight Oil
just meant to have a nap when I fell into the Threshold. I needed an hour of
sleep. Just one simple snooze. One shepherd’s kiss and off to an hour of
It’s not the same down there as it is here in our land of waking
thoughts, and broken people and rigid things. I can truly say this, never have I been
so glad as when I found that lamp-lit path for the first time. Never a more fitting
place has there been for a cloud cluttered mind. The burning lamps did nothing to
stir my mind as I was carried along the path. It isn’t a place where you can consider
others around you.
Now that I think about it, I may have lost my mind down there. An odd fellow
who looked like a cockroach skittered up to me when I got to my feet. I should
have screamed, run, pissed myself, normal things, even normal me things. And
when he offered me an inflatable ham sandwich with honey mustard for only
$12.99. Even with my unrested reality-addled brain, I probably should have said
something more than “No, I don’t like honey mustard,” or thought something more
than “No, I don’t like honey mustard.” The man nodded to me and scattered away.
He was definitely a cockroach; and I was definitely insane, down there at least.
Though I didn’t mind, not the least bit minded.
I should say, the path down there was like a chameleon, it’s got a mood,
tends to shape to it. The houses down the path are a different matter, they do what
they want, look how they want, open for who they want. Course, they liked me.
I remember the beach house, one of my favorites. I’ve opened the door to
Long Island, Cabo Luna, Mykonos, and Honolulu. I had dates with my favorite supermodels.
Lovely dates on sunny days in big places, loud places. I’ve had wines and
roses on the coast of Sicily, I’ve had coffee in the streets of Berlin, Tea-time on the
Great Wall. Did you know the skeletons in the American Museum of Natural History
are made of glass and papier-mâché? That the Fuyuki City bridge is 237 long steps
across? That you can climb down Mount Everest in just under an hour? I know all of
those things, but I never figured out when the dates were going to end, though I do
know what the end looks like. It was always a melodramatic thing where I would
wake and think “Oh, I’m awake now.” I stopped going to that house. I never got to
see my date smile even though I loved them; I did. Even still. Nothing.
Casino house was another favorite. It had the Vegas strip, complete with
gum and hookers’ business cards on the street, screams in the air of all different
kinds and the sound of feet drumming against the pavement to 10,000 different
rhythms. They use the color red to make you gamble more; that and the flashing
lights and speedy music to make you gamble more. I only ever saw the giant “SPEND
MORE” signs. Worked for me.
Party house was a fun one. LA is a great place to get dope and girls. Did you
know you can never leave after having sex under the light of a burning palm tree?
It’s a fuzzy place.
City house was another notable one. New York air is only ever bearable in
May, September too, though SAD has a few unchoice words around that time of year.
Post New Year is the best though. Everywhere else is a mess, and the Yorkers have
already packed up the cheer, they stuff it in tiny vacuum packets that end up in dark
streets and rotting dumpsters, broken lights, used up electric tape, and cannabis
eggnog. I dress up for the memories though. The cheery memories that are stuffed
in the packets too, laughs by a fireplace, vomit in the park with a friend, smashing
lips with your first girl under the mistletoe, or a big glass ball, the promises made
the day before, the knowing looks 45 minutes later, same looks you get from the other
side of the pillow, all for me. I was almost in a mind. And then I remembered that
it's January, and snow can now slip from the gutters and splatter on your $30/hr
shoes that need to be off in 20 minutes, like peeling skin.
College house looks like a dorm house in Illinois, complete with giggling
girls in dope dreams. The giggling girls had blisters on their feet. I got all haughty
and heroic. Managed to follow them after the third day, through bendy halls, loose
wire cords, and the ghost of weepy Lisa who died in her second year, overdose. Good
girl, good dope, damn shame of a waste. Anyway, they found a hidey hole, turned
left, through the 312th green wire and into the third-years place, where things like
“meditations” and “self-discovery” happen under black lights and ketamine dreams,
and too much flesh. I had my dream, maybe two, the girls had theirs and went
home, and I called the cops.
Carnival house opens up like a balloon. Some clown must have put all the
extra space in there; I didn’t. The setup crew needed some extra hands. Mine would
do. So I lent myself out, I’m nice like that. In my freetime I got to follow the circus
master around and say the tent isn’t a tent; It’s not, never was, like how a coin isn’t
a coin once a magician puts a handkerchief over it. It’s a laugh, a gasp, a confused
half-hour, your next coffee conversation and your weekend obsession. All the best
things come from under a handkerchief, like a pigeon, a rabbit, a birthday surprise,
or a wedding ring. So the tent was never the tent. It’s the lion’s roar, the man who
hasn’t noticed he shat himself, too-buttery popcorn to go with your roasted peanuts,
the kiss lost in the crowd. It's not the tent, it’s the loud, terrifying, amazing, horrific,
heavenly place underneath. I wanted to say that, all I got out was, “You don’t understand…”
Elementary school was a big yard, fenced in. I’ll tell you it’s weird to be in
your seven-year-old skin after your 65th birthday. Lizzy was the pretty girl there,
easy to spot through rose-tinted glasses. She didn’t have her lunch, she wanted
something sweet. I wonder why she didn’t eat all the melted hearts she made with
those batted eyelashes, and those pouty lips, those wavy words, and nectar-sweet
cheeks. I think she hated me. Only explanation I can think of for why I remember
her smiling like she was in a candy store when I gave her my Granny Smith. No one
person could ever look that happy. And if I ever saw them, would have definitely
given her cringing lips an extra fuzzy spot in my memories. In there, she’s like paint
and putty. I could make her bones sharp like thorns and her lips red like petals. But
instead, I guess I chose a tulip. Pouty and sweet, with big eyelashes, so I would stop
As I went from house to house I kept getting pushed around by these big
shiny card-like guys. Full flat stomachs and XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX along the sides
of their shirts. “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” “First pet?” “Elementary
school?” “First car?” Pushy cards, stupid cards, annoying like hell cards, like I can
tell you any of that now. Never talk to scammers, there are some things that other
people just don’t need to know about.
The bar house has seen a lot of me. You need the alcohol in there too, so
many faces, names, exs, extras, and extroverts. My head would pop if it were a balloon.
Jeb runs the place. Absolute ear of a fellow, never a word during any of my
silly, solid-world stories. I imagine not having a mouth makes that easy, but still. No
aggressive hand-waving says a lot, figuratively I mean. He heard the story of my
Behind a waterfall, in a cave. It was summer in Yosemite. I always loved
that place, God did well in that place. I met a girl on a hiking trail. We were both
alone, and last I saw she’s got a husband now. March heat had worn away the icebox
on the mountain so the rivers were flowing and the waters were falling. She stood in
the spray, eyes closed, arms out. She was waiting for something to peel off I think,
maybe she was waiting for the water to wash away the starch in her blouse. Nothing
else explains why she would talk to some man with a look like he’s not on his own
side about how the hillsides look like calligraphy. She was right, she’s still right. God
did well in that place. We walked for so long, I could have talked with her and
walked with her until my feet bled, it was like everything else fell away like we had
gone to the Threshold. She looked sad. She looked lonely and confused. She was like
the ink on the mountains like she was scared to wash away the porcelain and paint
on that perfect mask she had because she thought she would be the same person
underneath. We reached the waterfall I’d heard about. I pulled her through the curtain.
I thought that in that place, where the world isn’t, where it’s simple and silent
and the world floats away like duck feathers; maybe I’d be able to find my angel’s
kiss, and maybe she would stop looking like she was waiting for the world to end. I
was right, she stopped waiting. She gave a ginger touch, a simple wail, hollow like
the cave, then she was quiet, she cried and lay there by me. Then she walked back
into the curtain and I never saw her again. I don’t know why I expected to feel warm
in a place that’s soaked in water that never gets sun.
I was quite minded at that point. So I swigged my scotch and tossed my cigarette
in a fresh glass so Jeb would kick me out. He kicked me out, with this sad,
slimy, silent look on his face.
I had a home a long time ago. The Threshold showed it to me again. I had
marbles, a plank of wood that I’d shaved holes in with a quarter. Open holes and
rolling marbles, they would slip into the plank one by one. I was so simple then, so
singular then. I was so easy to fill then. All I needed was my marbles and simple
wooden plank. Dad was never there even in the Threshold. Like some type of empty
space, no light, no warmth, no happy days playing catch and whistling at fancy cars,
or magic shows, or baseball games. His name was Tom. If the tattoo on Momma’s
calf meant anything, “Sussy X Tom” with a big fake heart for a background. I wasn’t
always happy with my plank. Before I said “screw ‘im” and settled for my plank and
a playboy, I wanted all the normal boy things, playing with the stupid ball, being
shown how to take care of the dog, leaden looks when I strike out in baseball.
I got his name and a first-class example of how to be the empty space in the
room that everyone looks at. So of course, like any first-class flake worth his weight
in ash, he wasn’t there when Momma mistook my board for a piece of firewood.
Hours, memories, cheers, burned like a piece of wood. The black stain of carbonation
licked up every inch. Momma said sorry. Never even got my replacement board.
I couldn’t find my next filling. Not a TV show, not ketamine. I needed an angel’s kiss.
The Threshold sent me some angels. Fluffy wings, bountiful bosoms, beautiful
faces with full lips, and angles like thorns and lips like roses... None of them
were mine. None of them were my angel. Into the fluffy memory they went.
The Threshold gave me the sawtooth house. That’s where I lost my fingers.
See here and here, on the pinky and ring finger. They did a great job, putting them
back on. Just two little white lines are all that’s left. No puckering of the wound you
so often imagine, like a bit glued back on. No stitches either like in so many horror
I guess the Threshold heard I was finding familiar houses, it sent me to the
funeral home next. It was filled with leeches, sharply dressed, still smelling of
lounge smoke and hot brandy. They had a lovely selection of coffins for $3,016.02. I
saw Momma there. She wore her cocktail dress, she looked good in a coffin, she
looked good anywhere, anywhen, anyhow but it was always a lie. She was sad in the
way that sinks in your bones and stains your skin. I’d seen her in as if she was dead
for three decades before she went... when she was 27. Nothing about it got in my
head. It’s a memory like paper lost in the wind. Scraping against itself, making a
racket, then gone. I wonder if Tom ever found out. The second coffin had my angel. I
saw her hair, Autumn and silky like she loved, washed with too much conditioner. I
told the leeches, “Thank you for your time,” and I ran outside and puked. I was in
my mind again.
I never knew the Threshold had an underpass, but I found it. Like every miserable
soul, I went where it was damp, hot, and loud. Luckily, I found a man under
there. Normal and simple. He offered some of his day-old sandwich and asked me
about wants. He said he wanted a new sandwich, napkins, a Cadillac and a glass
house he can take his mom too. He said, “I want what I won’t need down in here.
Totally worth it.”
I told him I just wanted my angel’s kiss.
He said I needed it, and I should go get it.
Canyon house was just above the underpass. I was quite minded, but I
needed my kiss, it would be better than any ketamine dream. My angel was there,
with her Autumn hair and petticoat jacket on the summer day. She was slicing up
the scenery with her gaze. She was having so much fun. She dragged me around like
an anchor. I had no clue what I had, what I really had at the time, out of my damn
skull. She bought a eleven a.m. pass to the bottom of the canyon; I did too.
It was a quiet wind that struck us like a whip. The girl's hair, wrapped like a
half-opened Christmas present, lifted up as if to wave to me, and then lost its ribbon.
She wasn’t fast enough to grab it as it slipped out of her hair, her locks falling
around her ears and whipping her lips in the summer breeze. I reached out as it flew
to me, I could feel it even before it touched my skin, silk washed with lavender. And
then Life sighed, and the ribbon was gone, whisked away and into the ravine it’d
carved in the Arizona wilderness. I queued up a fuzzy spot in my memory. But she
smiled, like chocolate and opium that didn’t pack clouds and rain packed up in my
She didn’t thank me, she just said, “That’s a shame. My name is Lila.” I was
simple again, full again. We had a house, no kids, we had a cat though, we liked
DINK. We would come home and make love and talk about how we were happy. I got
my angel's kisses, but I decided to stay a little bit longer in that house. It stopped
being simple. Her brother’s debts, her Momma’s death, ketamine dreams at $400 a
pop. We talked about being happy. Cat got sick, brother got sick, I got sick, $700 a
pop. We talked about divorce.
I should have left
I knew what came next
I was quite out of my mind again.
The clouds set fire to our house.
I woke up with heat on my face. Lila was in the bedroom. Sofa for me.
Screams came from upstairs.
An ember burnt my hand.
The railing burnt my hand.
The doorknob burnt my hand.
A rafter fell. And I was scared.
“I’ll go get help!”
“I’ll be right back!”
I was right back. I promise. I promise I came right back with the neighbors.
The firefighters came too, after 10 minutes.
My angel was gone. Lila was gone.
I’m sorry Lila.
The Threshold took a dip as I ran down the road. I dashed past cemetary
home, where I saw a silhouette and many crying faces. Tom had been there, I think.
I think he saw his wife get buried in a maplewood coffin. He spoke about her, he
talked about her kisses, her hair, her face, her laugh, her work, her tears, not her
cry, not her cry.
He said all those things over a casket with a body inside, covered in caked
on make-up, polyester skin supplements, glue and a wig that felt like plastic. I wish I
didn’t know that, but I was quite in my mind for that bit.
I needed ketamine
$1000 a pop
$1100 a pop
$1300 a pop
I was in a cloud, moist and warm. I was sleepy, I was simple. I was empty. I
couldn’t see where I was going so I fell into a hole, deep into the Threshold. It looked
like a pit, rocky walls that’ll rip your fingers off. It looked like a dragon, fleshy maw
that burned my skin reminded me of home too much. It was something else, lined
with teeth and blood and to many guys who looked like me. I didn’t mind, not at all
minded, not since Lila died.
The old man looked up from his wheelchair. The nurse finished up her work
and picked up her pill tray.
“Did you know there’s a witch in the Threshold?”
“She has a burning palm tree.”
“I know Tom.”
“She took my soul under a burning palm tree.”
“I’m sorry Tom.”
She pushes a pill into his babbling mouth. And he lies still.
Neon Lights and Night Terrors
ach was pissed because the lady in front of him couldn't choose what
kind of frozen peas she wanted from the freezer. He couldn't go around
her because of an elephant sized woman who couldn’t pick which ice
cream she wanted. He waited, catching a glance of himself in the glass:
tall, more muscular than some, combed back, black hair wearing a NASA shirt under
his winter coat. The reflection bounced off of one glass door to another and another
till all of his selves saw each other like a paradox. He was jarred back into reality by
the ice cream lady trying to get past him. He moved aside and slid around the pea
lady who was still creased in the forehead over the decision and made his way to
frozen pizza. He was getting real sick of the same three dinners rotated every night:
pizza, chicken pot pie, orange chicken, repeat. It was all he could do though no one
had taught him to cook. He rolled up to the correct freezer door. He noticed someone
coming from the opposite direction and tried to ignore her. He turned and pulled the
last two pizzas off the frozen shelf tossing them in his cart. She stopped and cleared
her throat making him look at her. She was mid-twenties just like him with a white
turtleneck, straight, auburn hair that came to her waist, eyes like glaciers, and gargantuan
Uggs on her feet. It was winter after all. He knew her. They had been in the
same apartment building for a long time. They talked a few times, but she was a little
too assertive for Zach. He liked to take the initiative and be the one to make the
first move. When he moved in, she brought him cookies as a welcome to the building
and invited herself in to help him move boxes. All this seemed pretty harmless, but
Zach was skeptical of assertive people, especially helpful ones.
“Hey, you gonna share one of those pizzas with me?” she asked.
He squinted at her confused. He looked down at her cart filled with Doritos,
Oreos, frozen dinners, and beer.
“Is that a date offer?” he said.
“What if it is?” she said, raising a sculpted eyebrow.
“No thanks,” he said, but before he could continue:
“You’re the guy who lives in 223 right? Helped you move your boxes in,” she
“Yeah, you did. What was your name again?” he asked, trying to take the
reins of the conversation.
“Hayley,” she said, “Yours?”
“Zach,” he said.
She reached forward putting out a hand. He shook it awkwardly, annoyed
she had beat him to the offer. Then, she grabbed one of the pizzas out of his cart,
slapping it into her own.
“Well if you’re not gonna share I guess I’ll just have to take one for myself,”
she said. “If you want it back, come have coffee with me tomorrow at The Blue Corner.”
Zach was speechless. No one had been so bold around him. It made him angry,
and it made him want to set things straight.
• • •
He couldn’t stop thinking about that encounter even as he washed the skyscraper
windows. Why was she so assuming, so bold, so controlling. He couldn’t
take it. He had to take back the sway he was used to having. He was scrubbing off a
particularly annoying section of bird shit off the office window of a very pretentious
businessman. He kept pointing his meaty finger at it like Zach couldn’t see that it
was right in front of him. Fucking asshole finally left the office to go to a meeting or
something. He kept washing, seeing himself in the reflection. It was like a mysterious
lake he thought he could plunge into. The surface rippled with light and his
shadow gave it shape. He gave the blankness meaning, purpose. It shimmered
around his form as his mind blanked out everything else. The shadow was pulling
him in, calling him until he realized he was leaning too far over the railing.
Then, the headache hit him like a bus. The high-pitched buzz, then the pressure,
and finally he saw himself falling, weightless, and just as the asphalt almost
kissed his face he was jerked back into reality. He backed away from the rail, nauseous,
trying to catch his breath. He hated this, but he was thankful for it. Too much
friction on the crank? He would see the cable snap, and he would release the pressure
before it happened. The feeling after was awful, but he was in control, always.
Except when he wasn’t, but he forgot about those times. They were irrelevant and
not worth thinking about.
He finished the building, went home, changed, and headed to The Blue
Corner. He went inside to see her already sitting, drinking what looked like a house
latte so he hadn’t beat her here. Stepping in line, he looked at the menu, deciding on
a mocha, extra hot, extra chocolate. He liked this shop for this one reason. They followed
his directions exactly every time. He only had to say his order once, and it
was perfect. He waited, and they finally called his name. He picked up the steaming
cup, taking a sip. It was cold, well not cold, but it wasn’t extra hot. Anger scorched
through him, but he just tossed it in the trash. She hadn’t seen him yet, so he snuck
to her table and sat down. She looked up from her book: Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
“You know, I was thinking about your offer yesterday, and I decided we
should go out,” Zach said.
“Oh you think so?” she asked sarcastically. “Looks like we already are considering
this was my offer.”
He flinched, saying, “I want to be the one to take you out.”
“Fine,” she said, “but I’m driving and picking the place.”
“No,” Zach said seriously, “I’ll drive and pick the place. Trust me you’ll love
“Ah so you’re the chivalrous type or maybe you like to be the one behind the
wheel?” she speculated. “Fine,” she said, closing the book. “But I’ll tell you I’m not
some wallflower. I like to keep things edgy.”
“Yeah, right.” Zach said sarcastically.
Then, she proved it by grabbing his shirt and jerking him into a deep kiss
while knocking her latte over spilling the small bit that was left. Every eye in the
room was on them now. She let him go.
“Remember, wild and surprising,” she winked.
He wasn’t sure he could tame this wild and surprising woman. She had him
at every turn, shocked him every encounter. He couldn’t get the upper hand no matter
what he tried.
“I’ll see you tonight,” she said as she grabbed her book and walked out the
coffee shop, leaving him with the mess.
“Damn it,” he said as he wiped up the tan liquid.
• • •
Zach was getting ready to go when he heard the honk. There she was in a
sports car that was pounding out a song with a large subwoofer. That anger came
back as he realized the dinner he planned was now not a plan anymore. He went
outside and hopped in the car.
“Hey,” she said pulling on a cigarette and handing it to him.
“Hey,” he said back. He wasn’t going to let her be the force driving this
night, so he took it and drew in the smoke. It took all his concentration not to cough
or choke. She noticed a sly grin playing across her face. He noticed she wasn’t wearing
much. Crop top, a few sizes too small, cut jean shorts barely covering her ass. It
was definitely too cold for this getup. The strange part was her makeup. It was nonexistent
except the green and yellow lizard color she had painted on her eyes. Who
the fuck knows what is going on in the head of a girl like this. She was two people in
one, and he couldn’t get a hold on how to guide her in the directions he wanted to
go. She was wild and free in a way he didn’t understand.
“We are clubbing tonight!” she yelled over the music.
“I can see that!” Zach yelled back.
“Gotta live a little you know! Life is too short!” She shook out her hair and
went another ten over the speed limit.
• • •
Zach had no idea when they had got to the club, but what he did know was
that they were dancing. Her green and yellow eyelids glowed in the dark like her
white crop top. The floor pulsed with the beat of the song, making everything else
irrelevant in its earthquake magnified by whatever they had taken to make a tornado
of sensations. He would have avoided the drugs, but she ran to them which made
it a competition. This could not be the woman who helped him unpack and made
him cookies, but it was.
The pulse of the floor was increasing, and she was grinding against him
now, her ass rubbing against him as she leaned into him. He felt alive with her giving
him that power, that control. He hadn’t initiated this she had, but he couldn’t let
her win. Then, he felt the buzzing coming, not from the drugs from his head. The
headache started. He saw them later in his bed tossing each other trying to get the
upper hand. He saw himself finally give up as she climbed on him triumphant. She
overpowered him moving her hips, and he was frozen under her spell. Then, in another
vision, he saw them laying there far from now, in a future a year or so from
now. The words I love you playing across her lips as she moved closer to him. The
bile came as he snapped back into the present, but he was smiling. He had her. She
would need him, and that was all he needed.
Just as he matched her motion, she parted from him, running for another
drink at the moment of control. Now was his chance, he could leave, come back a
little later when she started to miss him. No idea where he went; no one to keep her
company. Another night, when he could be the one to kiss her first, he could be the
one she needed. He turned in the direction of the door. The sea of bodies in his way
continuously ebbing and flowing in front of him, behind him. It would be hard to
escape. He was almost to the exit; a hammered frat boy wearing a tank top clearly
not belonging to him due to its size stepped in Zach’s way.
“Where you goin’ man. The night is young.” He drew out the last word like a
“Heading home,” Zach spat dryly. “Get out of the way.” He spared one more
glance back at the girl and then turned to get this stupid fuck out of his face. He
didn't have time for this.
“I said move!” He yelled at the frat boy who had sobered up a little.
“Don't talk to me like that,” he said simply. The music was still beating the
air like a drum, leaving everyone in the constant beat. Then, it happened. Zach’s
head started to tingle, his scalp shivered, then the headache, and he could see her.
The girl was getting a drink. She would finish it in one swig and lay her head on her
arms. Two men would step up behind her, help her up, take her out the back exit,
and then a van.
“No, no, no no,” Zach said, his mouth souring. He couldn't be responsible for
this and couldn’t let them take her away from him. She would need him. “Help me,”
Zach said turning to the mountainous creature blocking his way.
“With what?” asked the big guy.
“Someone is in danger,” Zach said. The big fella grew very serious and
helped Zach wade back through crowd. It took way longer to get back to the bar than
he wanted. Just as he reached it, he saw the door closing. Zach groaned, pushing and
shoving now to get to it. The big guy was right behind him. Why had he gotten himself
into this mess? He knew how this went. Invite people into your life and then
theirs becomes tangled with yours. Then, you know things, too much, about their
immediate future. It was the price of the gift to watch all the misfortune fall on people
you care about or don’t care about but gave them time. Time to need you. He
tried to block out the words from the future. Hell, he couldn’t even remember her
name. Was it Rachel? No, that wasn’t it.
He slammed the security bar into the door, flying it open just in time to see
the van pulling out and a lone figure turning back to head into the club probably to
look for more victims. His eyes snapped up searching to see if the two knew what
happened. They did. He was good at his job. He pulled out his pistol before they
could reach him, shot Zach in the chest twice, silencer hissing, and then shot the big
guy twice in the head. At least, that is what he would have done.
Zach saw this before it happened, and before the man could turn around
pushed the bigger guy back into the club and shut the door. Bile filled Zach’s mouth,
and he retched on the floor making people scatter from the corner.
“Why the fuck you come back inside to do that man,” a particularly stoned
shadow asked him. Zach met the person’s gaze unable to see his eyes, deadness
crawling through his own. He didn’t want this.
“What was that about?” the large guy asked.
“I just saved your life,” Zach said sneering. He grabbed another drink and
headed for the door.
“Hey wait. Wait!” Zach was already gone.
Tonight wasn’t cold enough for how Zach felt; he couldn’t call the cops.
They would have no way of finding an unmarked van like that. He couldn’t remember
the damn license plate. Too many things had been rushing through his body. It
was warm, comforting, and the lights of the city lit the smog to a soft orange. The
streetlights had moths dancing around them like magical dust around a wand. He
passed a couple of homeless men wearing old winter coats, fingerless gloves, and
snow boots. It wasn’t too cold, but they were going to be in that alley all night. They
looked so calm laying back-to-back on the cardboard. A group of kids passed him on
the street, kicking the ground as they cruised on their skateboards. He passed a
woman looking for work; no, he didn’t want to think about that. She tried to stop
him, but he just kept walking without looking at her black coat coming to her thighs
and nothing but bare legs heading into heeled shoes. He didn’t even look at her face,
just kept his eyes on the ground.
He finally came up on the gas station he was looking for. The LED lights
flooded the place with bleached light. He grabbed two packs of beers and headed to
the counter. Still too sober. The cashier, kind of a hippie kid, tossed his tail of dreadlocks
over his shoulder, a strange contrast to the black polo and jeans, and sucked on
his lip ring. His name tag read, “Taylor.”
“That gonna be all man?”
“Nah, give me a pack of Marlboro too.”
“Aight,” he said, grabbing the cigarettes.
The teenager rung up the items, bagged them, and handed them to Zach.
“Have a good night, stay safe out there,” the cashier said.
Zach rolled his eyes, but then he felt a headache coming. The buzz, the pressure,
the knife came screeching into his head.
“Fuck!” Zach yelled. He could see it now. She was in the van tied up. She
was crying, confused. But she knew something was wrong, very, very wrong. She
kicked, tried to scream, nothing. She was alone except the two goblins in the front
seat. They kept on saying she better be quiet or there was going to be serious trouble.
Zach grabbed everything from the cashier and left leaving the kid confused.
He made it to his apartment and drank himself into the darkness, fragments
of her dancing across his mind.
• • •
He did everything he could to forget about that night, but it always haunted
him. Even in his dreams, his nightmares. Soon, all he could do was work and drink
and smoke. The world kept getting hazier and hazier. Her eyelids flashing behind his
eyes like cameras taking pictures of the memories over and over and over. He
dreamed about her for months keeping a bucket to throw up in as each night closed.
The things she was doing, was forced to do, the terror she felt at night. All of it; she
became a part of him. He saw her at the club dancing, then he saw her in his bedroom
getting ready for work, another life. He saw her falling asleep on the couch
next to him which had never happened. He dreamed of her in other places too. Ones
he didn’t know. She was in a studio filming something. She was an actor of a sort. In
another, she was leading someone into a neon red room with a giant bed. Soon, all
he could dream was of her standing naked in a sea of red. She kept beckoning to him
trying to get him to join her. He felt powerless, and the powerlessness made him
drink and the drinking made him dream.
• • •
He was working a night shift. The summer air breathed across the city while
it bustled in its sleeplessness. The lights soaked into the glass creating prisms to be
lost in. He could see his eyes holding the light calling to him beckoning him into the
dream. But all he could feel was the nightmares when he saw her: it had been a year
since that night. He knew it was her. In his mind, she was standing at the top of a
skyscraper he had just worked on looking down at the city below. He ran down the
building and made his way to hers. Cars honked screeching to a stop as he sprinted
across the road and up the flights of stairs.
He made it up the stairs, and busted through the door to the roof. There she
was; naked staring down the sky a crimson from the lights. Her hair was horizontal
now with the force of the screeching air which had violently changed. Her toes were
hanging off of the building bare and red from the cold. She stretched out her hands
like she was about to be crucified or maybe even fly. Zach held a hand in front of his
face blocking the blinding wind. He hadn’t seen what comes next, but he didn’t want
to. He took a few steps forward keeping his weight low, afraid he would be blown
off the roof. Thirty stories made you feel like a leaf in the wind. It was wrong to be
up here now during the day watching this girl ponder her own death. To her, her
“You can’t!” Zach said.
“Why?” she didn’t face him, just kept looking over the city.
“Because I don’t want you to.”
The corner of a smile played at the edge of her profile.
“I don’t care what you want. This is what I want. I didn’t ask for this.”
“We can run away, escape. I’ll take care of you. Keep you safe. I can fix this.”
She laughed openly, mockingly.
“You think this is your fault,” she said. “Like you could have changed anything.
Life is a maze. None of us know what comes next; it’s just what you do with it
when it happens to you. No control, just small choices.”
“Then choose a different path.”
“No,” she said, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes.
“This one chose me.”
Her body tipped like a leaf finally caught in the wind. He didn’t even hear
her hit the ground, just the wind, always the wind, and the banshee’s scream. And
he felt her die.
He couldn’t remember what happened after that and just woke up in his bed
the next morning covered in bile with the touch of a nightmare in his mind.
• • •
The chairs creaked, echoing off the walls as people looked around to make
sure they were alone in the cavernous room. A school gym is an awkward place to
have a meeting like this. Fifteen people sat in a circle. Every cough, sneeze, sniffle,
shift could be heard over and over and over. Lany Lee, the grief counsel group
leader, pushed her glasses up her nose and pushed her short black hair out of her
eyes. Her business suit starkly contrasting with the strange array of people in this
room. There was an old fat man pulling on a cigarette he had been told to put out by
at least six people. The ash sitting on his wife beater in a little pile. He leaned back
so far in his chair that the front legs hovered in the air making everyone nervous as
the chair groaned under the weight. He sat next to a girl way too old for the Hello
Kitty shirt and My Little Pony backpack. She was around twenty-years-old. When
she spoke, her voice cut the air like a cold knife piercing and jaded. Other strange
characters littered the room including Zach.
“Welcome everyone!” Lany said all too enthusiastically. “If this is your first
time,” she looked at Zach, “this is a grief support group. Would anyone like to
share?” Zach didn’t know why he had come. He listened to the pink woman-child
talk for twenty minutes about how her brother had died from a drug overdose. The
fat man started talking about his wife who had died of heart disease a few years
back. He eventually started crying, snot dripping down his wrinkly face with the
tears. Lany talked him through it and people patted his shoulders. Eventually everyone
talked, and Lany crossed Zach’s boundary. “Did you have anything to share tonight
Zach?” The deal was that she didn’t ask anything of him, but here she was
breaking their rules. “Yes,” Zach said standing up. “I watched the girl who would
have loved me die.” And with that he walked across the gym steps echoing over and
over slamming the door behind him.
“Well,” Lany said, “Let us conclude with our grief promise.” Everyone nodded
and began to recite in a disjointed voice:
We are who we are. We cannot change the past, and our control is an illusion.
All we can do is live in the present.
he moon had already been up and shining for a few hours by the time
Magnus roused himself and pushed the coffin lid open. He climbed out
with a grunt and sat for a moment, the tile cold on his bare feet, collecting
himself and looking out the bedroom window at the silver
world. Irregular gusts of wind swept the yard, stirring the elm leaves. He walked to
the bathroom and splashed water on his face and grunted into a towel. There was no
mirror above the bathroom sink, or anywhere. He dressed in midnight black sweats
and hoodie, rumpled from a week's use.
The living room was dominated by an enormous L-couch done up in aging
leather with walnut cupholders. He sat down and swiped his phone open and stayed
looking at it for a while, the screen sending harsh too-white light skittering across
the cushions. The internet was exactly the same as when he had left it last night.
The house was silent; it was plenty big, separated from neighbors on all sides by a
serious yard. He’d owned it for decades as his winter retreat, bought for the extravagant
bath and nice neighborhood and local university and high northern latitude. At
some point he burped quietly.
Eventually he tossed the phone aside and stared at nothing much. Then he
rose and went to the kitchen, navigating down a long hallway adorned with Impressionist
prints and a single powerful, authentic Monet. The kitchen was spacious and
bare, its cold grandeur unrelieved by so much as a spice rack or fruit bowl. No appliances
on the counters, no knife block, nothing in the food cupboards. The granite
island was mostly covered by assorted species of mail and discarded issues of the
The fridge was unusual, a wide sarcophagus in gleaming metal dotted with
exotic dials and screens. He took a reading from a screen, then pulled it open. Rows
of identical, scarlet, heavy-duty plastic bags sat waiting in neat stacks, each about
the size of a hardback and with a small IV port at the bottom. He plucked one and
wandered over to a floor-to-ceiling window while the microwave hummed.
In the last ten months he’d become a pro at looking out windows. Down past
the front lawn with its hedges and tall elms he could make out the sidewalk through
the front gate. By now he was very well acquainted with this section of concrete. No
one walked past, no cars drove by. An unseen magpie squawked.
Like most nights, he played a game, imagining going out, teasing himself
with thoughts of the wider world. There had to be a least a couple of uninfected
young women out for walks even at this late hour. Or maybe, down past the wide
boulevard of the university, past the stately old trees and cracked sidewalks, maybe
there was even now a tender twenty-something sleeping lightly next to a window
cracked open to let in a breath of brisk night air. Maybe her room was cozy and
overheated and she was wrapped in a den of blankets, a few sweaty strands of hair
snagged in her downy lashes, that finger of cold air climbing in past her bony shoulder
to swirl at her ribcage and perk up a nipple, the skin in the hollow of her collarbone
warm to the touch, her neck flushed with heat, and a steady thrum beating
away in the cables and pylons of her being, waiting…
The microwave bleated, and Magnus came back to himself, reverie shattered.
He blew out a long, self-pitying sigh.
Friends of his were out prowling, he knew. Either they were foolish or he
was cowardly; the statistics of the outbreak still weren’t clear. It was certainly a
problem that the virus had invaded their prey population. It wasn’t well-known yet
what effect the virus would have on Magnus and his kind. Gossip flew unhindered in
Facebook groups and certain niche areas of Twitter, saying they were immune, or
overly susceptible; that the virus couldn’t cross species, or that it could and did eagerly.
The danger of the virus was difficult to gauge and his kind was simultaneously
nearly invulnerable (proof against aging and bodily harm) and curiously fragile (that
pesky garlic allergy). Magnus was naturally prudent, the legacy of a near-fatal accident
as a teenager long ago, before he’d been bitten. It was unquestionably safest to
simply stay home and wait it out, and he’d been mostly content to do so until recently.
In the last few weeks he’d been uncharacteristically restless, edgy, irritable.
Somehow he’d put on weight—difficult to do on an all-liquid diet—and the meager
home gym he’d assembled barely helped. The vast majority of his life (such as it
was) had been lived in complete mastery of his environment. The natural world bent
to him—bats, wolves, fog, the weather all leaned to his desires. And the human
world presented few barriers since he had plenty of money and properties around
the globe. But many countries had grounded flights or otherwise restricted travel,
and he was lucky he’d made it up to his winter place for the season while the night
hours were still plentiful. And though he was free to roam, the fundamental pleasure
of his existence was closed to him. Without the hunt he could still access the world,
still feel the wind change or hear the wolves sing out a greeting, but to what end?
Lacking his basic purpose he was divorced from nature in a way he’d never experienced.
Even when he did go out a thin but impermeable barrier stood constantly
between him and the world, as if he carried his big kitchen window wherever he
The bag was sufficiently warm and he took it off the microwave’s glass tray
and cut a corner off and poured the blood into a large, vacuum-insulated travel mug
and took a sip. He always made sure to heat the blood a little extra. Victims, even
hypnotized ones, were usually in a state of agitation, which drove their core temperature
up, and he’d long ago acquired a taste for something hotter than plain old
98.6. But it did little to help the taste, the extra microwave time. The heavy bags
imbued the blood with a sour, plastic-y taste that he’d so far been unable to adjust
to. But beggars and choosing, et cetera.
He waited a few long minutes still at the window, thinking and sipping from
the mug. Another game he played—each night he tried to bear at least one more minute
in this pose, staring out, seeing nothing. Like a prisoner in solitary he had invented
a dozen ways to kill time, murder it, grind it to dust and burn down its home
and salt the earth. He’d always had an easy, pleasant relationship with time, drifting
gently along down the lazy river of years, no hurry, no end in sight. Now time had
turned against him and he was becalmed, sails limp. Nothing but endless, maddening
horizon on all sides.
He shook himself and tried to knock it off with the self-pity already. Another
sip, another slight grimace. He turned away from the window and left the kitchen
and plodded back down the long hallway with its bright, spotted paintings and entered
the living room and set the mug in one of the cupholders and plopped down on
the chaise of the couch. He sank back into its soft cushions and adjusted a pillow
behind his head. With angular, nimble fingers he took the remote from its place on
the coffee table and fired up Netflix. He thought he might take a walk later, around
five, maybe tempt the sun out from its hiding place under the horizon.
The Unique Case
In the front far-left hand corner of my New Hampshire
corner office, twelve bell tolls signals lunch had just begun.
Stretching my legs while sighing in contentment, I lift my slender
figure from my leather chair and make my way to the kitchen. After passing my desk
there are some sliding doors that slide to hide into the framework to reveal the mini
kitchen that the building came with. I didn’t have much in there, just the main essentials
like the coffee maker, a two-burner stove top, a fridge, a sink, and a water
heater. Going into the refrigerator, I pull out my premade BLTA with swiss sandwich
on sourdough toast. Grabbing some chips, I turn around and glance over my office I
recently made my home. The office is just like any other office space on the market.
It has a waiting room with a three-seater grey couch and a black oval coffee table
littered with different magazines. They are there to keep other customers busy when
I am with a client, but that rarely happens so they just stay where they are and gather
dust. My desk isn’t too far from the waiting room. I installed a makeshift wall
with a screen in it to have privacy while also being able to see what’s going on in the
waiting room, since I don’t have enough money to pay anyone. My desk is a dark
mahogany with a phone and a modern laptop to do my research. I have some dark
wooden chairs with maroon fabric on top setup opposed to my black leather rolling
chair. Sitting back down at my desk, I dive into my lunch. Indulging in my sandwich
and the pure bliss of it, I don’t notice the phone ringing.
Clearing my throat, I answer the phone. “Burt’s Private Detective Agency,
have a case that can’t be solved, have to know where someone is sneaking off to, or
have a strange request? I’m your man! How can I help you?”
A small female voice squeaks through the phone, “I want you to deliver
something. Can you do it?”
Practically straining myself to hear, my voice booms out in reply, “That depends.
Can you pay and where am I going?”
“I can pay, but all of it will come when the package is hand delivered. Drop
it off at 2319 Wazowski Lane, but you’ll find the package hidden on Begonia Blvd.
Will that be a problem?”
Thinking it over, I accept the job knowing it will be simple and easy. Plus,
the childlike voice made the hand off more interesting. “When do you need this to be
“It has to arrive at my friend’s by noon tomorrow and I can’t do it myself.”
“How will we do payment?” I ask, cautious of being stiffed by the childlike
“I’ll give you part of it when you pick up the package and you’ll find the rest
when you drop it off. How does $300 sound?”
“You have a deal with me. What time shall I be at the pickup site?” I ask,
scribbling everything down on a piece of paper.
“Everything will be ready by six. Look for the red bow.” With that she hangs
Red. It has to be red.
Lifting the rest of my sandwich to my mouth, a single bell chimes signaling
the end of my lunch break. Finishing my sandwich, I stand up from my desk and lock
the front door. There are five hours before the package is even placed. I know nothing
about this woman or her package so I can’t do any research. No one is going to
come in anyways. Coming to these conclusions, I walk over to the blinds and close
them before stretching out on the grey sofa for an afternoon nap.
*DING* I ran as fast as I could, but it was not enough. *DING* Why can’t it
be enough? *DING* Feeling as though lava is coursing through my veins, I still
pushed forward and ran on. *DING* I could hear her, Becky, in the distance calling
my name. *DING* “Burt, I love you! Remember that I love you.” *DING* I was not
fast enough but I pushed on. *DING* I could see her in the distance as though a veil
had lifted. She was back in that wretched car. That horrible red mustang that took
her from me, but I could see her smiling behind the wheel like she always used to.
That smile that filled her whole face and brightened her blue eyes that warmed you
with just a glance. I was not fast enough but I pushed on. “I love you!”, I tried to
scream but nothing came out no matter how much I tried. I was not fast enough but
I still pushed on. I heard the chugga-chugga sound before the single beam of light
appeared, headed straight for her. She stayed looking at me smiling with that knowing
look, but all I felt was fear. I was not fast enough but I still pushed on. My legs
felt as though they were breaking off, but the shattering of my heart propelled me
further. I stared at her and that wretched car that would stall at random and lock
the doors. All I saw was green and black as the train teared through its path. I was
not fast enough. Soon red was all I saw as pieces of the car showered down around
me. I failed again. With the train coming towards me, I threw myself at it.
Startled, I’m awakened back to reality. Opening my eyes, I am on the floor of
my waiting room and it is pitch black. Coughing a bit to myself, I stand up and
glance over at the clock. It’s eight thirty?!?! I had slept through the evening. I fly out
the door, and quickly lock up the office. I make my way down all the dark alleys with
cracked gravel littered with weeds, only illuminated by one dim light that barely
covers the block. The side streets are covered with old willow trees and are quiet
except for the few stray cats or dogs that walk by closely to see if I offer them food.
When I don’t give them anything, they wander away. I make it to Begonia Blvd, but
it seems as though no one is around. I start walking down the street looking for any
signs of a package with a red bow. The dimly lit sidewalks slightly help, but fail to
light up the surrounding areas. Walking past a bench there is a hint of red. Stopping,
I get on my hands and knees to see a brown briefcase hiding underneath a brown
bench covered in holes. The briefcase has a red bow attached to the handle. There is
also something else sticking out of a side pocket. It is a white envelope with the first
half of payment for the delivery.
Far off in the distance, ten chimes ring through the air from the original old
town bell tower located in the center of town. Looking at my watch, I find it to be
later than I had expected. I soon realize that I wasted too much time sleeping and
that looking for the package had taken longer than anticipated. It is too late to make
a delivery, especially while not knowing what I am carrying. The briefcase seems to
be light and it doesn’t make any sounds as I walk. Not wanting to be too nosey, I
continue back down the path that I came, but the dim lights seem to get worse. The
path seems to get darker and more ominous as I get closer to my office. There is a
tense feeling in the air that starts to make the hair on the back of my neck stand on
end as I turn my keys in the office door. Making my way inside, I quickly turn,
closing the door attempting to shut out the rising anxiety.
Twelve bell tolls fill the room after slamming the office door. I have twelve
hours to reach the deadline. Curling up on the couch I set an alarm to make sure that
I wake up on time.
Drifting off to sleep, the same tragic story plays before my eyes, but this
time it’s at the beginning. I was asleep. Everything was peaceful and the house was a
comfortable warm, but the blue silk sheet bed was cold. I had fallen asleep early
waiting for Becky, the love of my life, to get home. It was the big night! I was going
to pop the question. I had roses on the floor, candles ready to be lit, and a special
dinner waiting to be heated in the oven, except I didn’t plan for her having the night
shift. I took a deep breath as I woke up to the ringing of my phone.
“Babe, I’m sorry I’m so late. The car just stalled on the train tracks by our
house. I’ve been trying to restart it, but it just won’t start and you know how the
locks get when this happens. Would you mind coming to save me, my hero?”
“Of course! Your Superman is on his way! After I rescue you, I have a special
night planned with a special question.” A grin spread over my face as I heard her
giggle with laughter and excitement.
All I could hear was her voice demanding that I tell her what I am going to
ask her as I drove to her. Of course, every time that she asked, I said no. I parked my
car on the side of the road and started walking to her. She was giving me silly faces
through the window and making fun of being trapped. That was until we heard the
train right around the bend. I took off running, only hearing Becky’s words repeating
over and over again, “I love you Burt, remember that I love you.”
Not wanting to accept reality, I kept running, “I love you too. Please marry
“Yes, you’re all I ever dreamed of.” The last words of hers I heard shattered
my heart as I ran to no avail, but I still pushed on. I watched as she smiled at me,
then the wind, metal and force of the train flying by. I failed her, but I will never fail
Nine chimes ring through the room as I begin to stir. Slowly batting my eyes
open, I reach over to the coffee table and turn off my alarm that was blaring with
the chiming of the clock. Stretching, I pull myself from the couch and make my way
to the kitchen. I make some coffee and eggs before looking at the briefcase which I
had placed on my desk the night before.
“I guess we should get you to your destination.” I sigh, grabbing the handle
while mustering up the effort to walk out the door into the freezing, thirty-five degree
cold. Locking the door behind me, I make my way down the street to 2319
Wazowski Lane. Birds chirp saying hello to the new day. Passing down four blocks
covered with green lawns and old willow trees, I know I am getting closer to the
house that I need to be at. I start walking faster and before I know it, I am at the
door. Just as I am about to knock, I realize something. I just arrived at 2913
Wazowski Lane, but I need to be at 2319. Turning around in a panic, I look at my
clock. My feet take off running.
Eleven chimes sound from the bell tower. I am close to the house, I know it.
The numbers were descending as I keep running faster and faster. 2522. I keep running
and push forward. 2456. 2410. 2334. I’m almost there! Glancing at my watch, I
can see the time at 11:47. I’m not fast enough, but I still push on. In the clearing, I
see the house! I can see a yellow car parked outside of the house, as well with people
walking towards it. I can see luggage in their hands as they stroll down the driveway,
unaware of my presence running towards them.
“WAIT!” I scream, getting their attention.
The little girl with them starts running to me, a smile filling her small,
freckled face. We meet in the middle as I hand her the briefcase. Grinning, she sets it
on the ground and opens it to find the rest of my payment along with a medium
sized brown fluffy bear. Handing her father the briefcase, she walks over to me,
arms full of fluff with the envelope almost falling from her fingertips.
“Thank you so much, stranger. I can’t see my best friend before I go on vacation
and this is our friendship bear. I forgot it last time I was at her place.”
With that she runs to the taxi and rides off with her parents to a grand vacation.
Catching her contagious smile, I grin practically skipping the whole walk back
to the office as twelve bells chime in the distance.
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to
awake.” — James Joyce
Letter from Nonfiction Selection
onfiction is not an easy genre to write in. It is a deeply
personal endeavor that pushes one to balance reflecting
on the past with understanding that those memories that
can be filled with heartbreak, confusion, longing, even
love and affection. Nonfiction does not seek to answer all the questions
the universe has ever posed, nor can it. Rather it shows a
glimpse into the minds of those around us.
Nonfiction can be about understanding those who were and
are close to the author, but this volume of riverrun received submissions
from authors describing their own lives, their own experiences,
and the things they have learned about what it means to live. From
connecting with a childhood tree, to dealing with mental health, to
horoscopes and the complexity of relationships, to understanding
one’s sexuality, all these things are explored in the pieces we selected
for publication. Nothing is off-limits, and it never should be. To freely
express oneself is the truest form of freedom and nonfiction is that
platform. We invite you to see what that freedom shares.
y mother always asked us not to climb it, but as was common in
those days her pleas only managed to land upon the unhearing
ears of her children.
It certainly did not help that such antics were actually encouraged
by our father, who quite liked to witness our adventures and assist in any way
possible. For instance, when my twin sister and I decided we wanted to build a clubhouse
in the middle of our backyard with nothing but splintering planks of wood
and bare hands, he supplied the rusty nails and hammers to his seven year old
Or, when recess was an activity that we had not yet outgrown, he would
actively cheer us on as we scaled the roofs of lofty playground equipment, despite
our frazzled teachers shouting for us to get down. We hardly listened, drunk on
adrenaline and the thrill of defying the adults’ rules. Nothing bad ever happened,
My mother was never too pleased about such escapades, but there was only
one thing in particular we swore to our father we would never admit to her; that we
were climbing it.
It. The Aspen tree that towered in the front yard with branches crafted to
enticingly stretch towards the roof of the house and smooth chalk-filled bark that
left our small hands ashy and white.
However, it wasn’t just the tree that brought such excitement but rather the
fact that we could leap, much like Tarzan, from its embrace and up! Up onto the
roof! From there, one could easily prance about the shingles and peer at the world
from up high, like a queen overlooking her kingdom.
As a young child I was always wondering what would happen if I did this,
what it would feel like to do that. This Aspen was no exception to my curiosity and I
swear, most days I could feel its branches watching me even when I tried my best to
turn my back.
And so, like a ghost, the Aspen haunted my day-to-day reality.
‘Mother doesn’t want us to climb that,’ was a mantra that often circulated in
my mind. However, I genuinely could not fathom why she was always spoiling the
It was well into a chilly autumn month when I realized that perhaps there
were consequences for one’s actions.
It was late in the afternoon, my older sisters had left in search of hot chocolate
and I was alone with solely temptation for company. The sun had disappeared
behind looming mountains and the faintest goosebumps had begun speckling my
Ascending the base of the trunk was child’s play as I had done it hundreds of
times before. With ease, I found myself standing on the strongest bough; my skin
felt like it was tingling with anticipation.
About four feet above my head was another branch, this one far less sturdy
but extremely tempting to my unsuspecting eyes. I envisioned myself springing off
of it and landing on the roof, perfectly poised toes and outstretched arms bowing to
an imaginary audience like a gymnast dismantling a high bar.
With little trepidation, I leapt, and my palms soon found purchase along the
thin branch. I felt a thrill rush through my spine and I grinned. So this is what it
The earth suddenly shifted to the right and my white knuckled grasp treacherously
lost its hold as the branch split perfectly in two. Gravity rushed forward,
bearing down on my shoulders and I found myself rapidly plummeting towards dirt.
The bottoms of my shorts billowed upwards as cold wind rushed past the tips of my
ears and through scrabbling fingertips.
When I hit the ground, it was a strange feeling. My entire childhood I had
been high on thrills but never had I ever been subjected to injury or experienced
I simply lay there for a while, staring up at the sky as darkness crept in. I
did not cry. I did not tell anyone what happened.
The only ones who knew were The Aspen and I.
The Little Things You Notice
he woke up the next morning and couldn’t figure out what time it was.
She looked around for a clock but couldn’t find one. Her hair had a nasty
snarl near her temple that her fingers couldn’t tame, and her spit
tasted bitter. She had no toothbrush and her nipples felt chafed from
the scratchy, semi see-through scrubs they give you to wear. She didn’t want to
leave the room but staying there wasn’t very appealing either. There was a knock at
the door, and she invited whoever in. She still had no idea what her roommate even
looked like. A nurse shuffled across the floor wheeling a portable vital reading machine
behind her. “Good morning,” she said quietly, even though it still felt too loud.
You said that you had poor body image of yourself because of me. I am not
willing to accept responsibility for that.
They made her play bingo. She always hated bingo, but this one was exponentially
worse. The fat, sweaty man sat two people down from her at the end of the
table. She could hear his wheezing breath in her ear like a constant reminder of
where she ended up. He walked in here on a cane. His sides bulged so far from the
chair that people had to walk to and around the other side of the table to get anywhere.
“B-6,” he called. She didn’t have that one either. It was in this moment that
she first noticed the nurse in the corner. They must watch you. Waiting for you to do
something that isn’t normal. Playing bingo is normal, but acting like it isn’t fun is
not. She couldn’t bring herself to smile though. She had just enough energy and focus
to force herself to sit there between the elderly lady, who was so enthusiastic
about bingo that she must have been in there for a long time and the boy about her
age, who wouldn’t say a word to anyone and kept his head bent forward. The prizes
were bottles of shampoo and tubes of toothpaste. The nurse wrote something on his
clipboard and scuffle away.
Our home has been lighter with your departure.
Someone told her that the more you participate the more normal they think
you are. As if wanting to participate in yoga at the mental hospital is something
anyone wants to do. Out of pure numbness she unrolled a very sticky yoga mat.
There was a bite mark on the left side. They probably wrote that on their clipboard
for whoever did that. The yoga instructor said savasana three times in her first sentence
and the excitable elderly lady let out a happy sigh. She had to hold back a
groan. The more you participate the more normal you appear. She tried to breathe
at least. She didn’t want to go anywhere inside her mind, but she could at least act
like it. Her skin felt unbearably dry. They don’t give you lotion on the account of
some people using it for inappropriate behavior. The more you participate the more
normal you look.
You are not welcome home for the summer.
She watched as seven people walked out the doors and into the daylight. She
sat by the one big window in the nook between the fold out dinner table and the
blocked off construction site. She slumped in the chair and put her feet on the side
table, effectively hugging herself in the fetal position. She stared out the window at
the dandelion weeds growing through the cracks in the roof of another building. She
used to go for walks in the woods behind campus, but she had no idea when she’d
ever do that again. She learned to tell the time by how long ago the last meal was.
Meals were at 7am, 12pm, and 6pm. If her stomach started growling, then she was
halfway between and when she started to lose her appetite the cart would start
scooting up the hallway. If you didn’t eat at mealtime, then you didn’t eat.
You are destined to be alone.
She didn’t realize that she was allowed to have personal things with her, so
when her friends came to visit and brought some of her things she almost cried. She
thought of that saying “material things don’t buy happiness” or something like that,
but whoever said that obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Just holding
clean underwear sent relief through her shoulders. “They kept some of your stuff
cause we didn’t know what would be allowed, but most of it is here. Your pajama
pants though, I’m sorry. They cut the drawstring cause they said it was a hazard,”
one of them said. She pulled her pajama pants out of the bag and saw a strip of light
blue fabric from the scrubs they give you in place of her star splattered ribbon in the
waistband. Almost instantly she knew why they switched it out. This strip wouldn’t
hold her weight if she were to hang herself. It would break in the process, but the
ribbon might not have.
I am not a bad person. You are delusional and it’s just sad.
There was a lady behind a glass pane in the office that gave out medication
twice a day. There were about three people in line, and she didn’t feel like being
around anyone. It had been days since she took her antidepressants. The hospital
didn’t carry her medication, and it takes days to have them let you take stuff from
your bottle from home. Her bottle must have been sitting back there somewhere,
waiting for someone to make sure it wasn’t meth or coke or whatever else people
had smuggled in here. The taste of the over salted green beans and boxed potatoes
seeped from her gums, but she had no energy to get up for a drink. They had a small
table in the corner where you could make yourself tea or decaf coffee. Besides the
time you take a shower, that was really the only thing you could control.
Learn your place. Under me.
On Friday nights the staff liked to do something special for the patients.
Most of the time it was a movie on one of those old box TVs. She remembered her
charter school and how they never really got good funding, as a nurse rolled in this
box television with a bright orange strap over the top to keep it from tipping over. A
man sitting two couches over kept staring at her crotch even though she had herself
wrapped in a blanket. They weren’t really couches though. They were more like the
overstuffed seats that normally go in hospital waiting rooms with the seat that was
too short and the back that was too far out, so it forced you to sit in a proper position.
Over the days these “couches” annoyed her the most. “How’s Inside Out
sound?” one of the nurses asked in an airline stewardess kind of voice. There was a
middle-aged man in the back who sighed, snapped his book shut, and walked to his
room, reading glasses in hand. He had an oil stain on the back of his sweatpants
near his thigh. It was weird the things you start to notice when your head is in
turmoil and has nothing to distract it.
You should be more like that neighbor girl.
She picked up the phone as the nurse transferred the line to her end.
“Hello?” she said. She heard a large, somewhat trembling sigh. “Hey, it’s dad,” spoke
the voice on the other end. He didn’t really have to tell her who it was, she would’ve
known. The last time they spoke was when she was in the ER being transferred to
the mental ward. The hospital didn’t take her insurance and she didn’t know what to
do. So, she did what anyone would do; she called her dad. “Why are you calling me?”
she asked on extreme guard. “I just wanted to check in on you. Make sure you’re
doing okay. I’m at work, so I can talk if you’re worried about that,” he sounded
scared. He filled her with fury. He didn’t want to be there when she really needed
him, but when he felt guilty because of where he put her, he wanted to be a dad. She
hadn’t decided if she was angry or thankful for him calling campus police on her. It
was humiliating to have to walk into an ER escorted by an officer. He was calling her
from his work phone because her stepmother had access to his phone records and
would give him hell for talking to her without her supervision. The conversation was
tense and didn’t really go anywhere but it was puzzling to hear his voice. It was the
first time in years she could sense the man he used to be. It gave her hope.
You cannot talk to or see your father unless you respect me.
The temptation to willingly become a vegetable and stay here made her
head hurt. She laid down at night completely exhausted and fell asleep instantly. She
hated that. She always had trouble sleeping, but the minute she was in an environment
like this she fell asleep in minutes. The pillowcase felt like the paper a doctor
rolls over the examining bench, but she welcomed it. Her heart squeezed in her
chest screaming for relief from the utter despair, but she had to swallow her pain.
Her stepmother’s voice hissing hurtful words in her head wouldn’t ease. She knew
there was no other choice but to swallow it all and get out of here.
• • •
She had to go back to the hospital after she got out. About a month later, her
friend was admitted. She didn’t know specifically why. As she walked in her palms
started to sweat. She felt embarrassed for some reason, but she couldn’t articulate
it. The construction was finally done. She used to be able to count only 23 steps from
one corner of the room to another. Now, she could probably count over a hundred
(must be nice). There was a café area and a reading nook with all sorts of colors
(must be nice). She felt jealous somehow. Like she got stuck with the crappy version
as a punishment for not keeping herself together.
A man in the lounge area (there was a lounge area now— must be nice) was
playing a guitar and there was a small group of people sitting around him slightly
swaying to the beat. Her friend had a Pepsi in front of her. She said because they
wouldn’t let her have her migraine medication, they provide caffeine to ease the
headaches (must be nice). She heard the voices of her friends talking, joking, and
occasionally laughing, but all she could do was stare at the can of Pepsi. The pink
straw still had bubbles inside it.
A small part of her wished she could have experienced it this way. She didn’t
ever tell anyone though. There were a lot of things she didn’t tell anyone.
Over the years she has grown to accept her stepmother’s claims as false. Her
father finally left her stepmother and began to heal himself. Everyday she sees more
and more of the dad he once was. She sits now on her couch with a dog in her lap, a
cat behind her, and a loving man to her side. As a child she would daydream of the
day she would have a life that was hers in which she was happy. She thought of this
life so often that she almost missed the fact she had it.
Years later, she called her father, crying. “I made it dad. We made it.
Through everything. All the shit and pain I made it.” She heard him start to cry and
she knew he carried a massive amount of guilt from what happened to her during
her youth. The sound of the guilt and shame releasing from him through his tears
brought her joy. “I can’t believe I made it,” she sighed in disbelief, putting a hand to
Yes, I am. Any Questions?
am a man who likes other men. Wait. I am a man who loves other men. Not
only in the sense of brotherly love that I have enjoyed with close male
friends, both gay and straight, throughout my life, but also in the romantic,
emotional sense that transcends acts of intimate physicality. It was not an
easy admission to make at first, and even as I have grown older the feelings of uncertainty
I experience when the topic is broached have not completely disappeared.
There are still times when, for a split-second, I wonder if I will be judged unjustly,
forced to wear an invisible label that, if I am to be true to myself, I cannot deny. It is
a label considered by some to be so unspeakable that heterosexual men often find it
difficult to express their non-sexual affection for other men simply out of fear of
being branded by it. As if a platonic hug carries with it the implication that perhaps
something is not quite right.
That fear, the fear of rejection and persecution, the fear of discrimination
and unwarranted disdain, has led many to ignore what their bodies, minds and
hearts tell them every day. That fear has prevented them from embracing the feelings
of acceptance, love, and most importantly, freedom that come with acknowledging
that the attraction they feel is natural. It is a part of them, one that cannot and
should not be ignored. After all, how could something that feels so right, so natural,
so fulfilling, be so wrong? It was that fear, and the control it exerted, the control it
demanded of me, that plagued me throughout my adolescence and into my early
twenties. My desire to deny my sexuality, for no other reason than to avoid any possible
repercussions that may occur as a result of embracing it, dominated my every
thought and action. But eventually I could no longer contain the part of me that is
the most intimate in many ways, yet potentially as detrimental in just as many others.
Coming out was not an easy choice, but one that I am glad I made. I remember
clearly the night I decided to take the risk, to take the plunge, so to speak, but describing
how it felt is something entirely different.
The lights were dim, and the bar was filled with a choking combination of
thick cigarette smoke and the acrid haze that periodically spouted from the dancefloor
smoke machine like a petulant geyser. The music that played through the enormous
speakers was soft and slow, the lyrics of the song barely audible. Neon beer
signs mounted behind the bar cast a rainbow hue over the rows of bottles that lined
the top shelf, and the patrons seated at the bar, men of all ages, shapes and sizes,
nursed their drinks over hushed conversations. Some simply stared straight ahead,
eyes glazed by deep thought and multiple rounds of 60-proof. The shirtless bartender
was generous with his attention and gifted me a wink and a smile as he handed
me a cold beer and told me that my first drink had been paid for by one of the anonymous
figures who occupied the battered leather barstools.
I was careful to keep my eyes down, to avoid meeting anybody’s gaze as I
made my way from the bar to an unoccupied table near the tiny bathroom. It was all
very new to me. I was only twenty in a state where the legal drinking age was twenty-one,
but I had managed to gain entry into the only gay bar within an hour’s drive.
I was a junior in college at the time, attending a small liberal arts school in Sioux
Falls, South Dakota. I had made the decision to attend a school outside of my home
state of Colorado simply because I thought I could escape a reputation that promised
to define me in a way that I wished to avoid. I had declined an appointment to the
United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs primarily because, deep down,
I knew the truth. And I dreaded it. Military blood runs deep in my family, but the
prospect of military service, at a time when homosexuals were regarded as deviants,
was a challenge I was unprepared to face.
The late 80s and early 90s were also the period during which the AIDS epidemic
leapt to the forefront of global health concerns, and the bulk of the blame for
the virus’ rampant dissemination was laid upon the backs of gay men. The genuine
health risk posed by HIV, and the uncertainty that surrounded it, weighed heavily
upon me as I struggled to accept the realization that I was, indeed, a gay man. While
science has since proven that the virus can be transmitted in a variety of ways regardless
of sex or sexuality, the stigma it assigned provided easy fodder for homophobic
sentiment in all aspects of society. Consequently, the treatment visited upon
gay men as a result of that misplaced culpability served as a powerful deterrent to
my coming out as homosexual. I have been fortunate enough to avoid infection, but
the desire, or more appropriately, the need, to explore and to express what I knew
to be true was what led me to the bar that night. And it was there that a seemingly
unextraordinary act altered the course of my life. It was that night, in that bar, that I
slow-danced with another man for the first time. And everything changed.
I remember the first question I asked myself as we moved slowly from side
to side, swaying to the beat of a Vanessa Williams song that I still look up occasionally
on YouTube, holding each other as if we were still afraid of what would happen
if we got caught. I admit it was a bit awkward, at first. When two men dance with
each other, who leads? His neatly pressed shirt smelled faintly of a cologne I did not
recognize, and he was slightly taller, so my nose ended up near his surprisingly
fresh-smelling armpit. As we held each other close, oblivious to the other couples
that shared the floor, I remember thinking, “Why is he shaking?” It did not occur to
me at the time that he was just as nervous as I was, that the same anxiety that
plagued me every day was not unique to me. I have often struggled to explain what I
experienced that night, to express the feeling of freedom I found in the arms of a
man I barely knew, but I do remember that, for the first time, I was free of the care
and concern that haunted me every day. For the entire length of a Vanessa Williams
love song, nothing mattered but the deeply satisfying and almost indescribable sensation
of being held close in the arms of another man.
Sometime in the summer of 2001, a group of friends and I arranged a trip to
go skydiving in the Arizona desert. It was a much-anticipated affair; one that we
talked about for weeks in crowded bars over shots of Jagermeister mixed with Redbull.
We were all very excited to take our turn at cheating death. It would be a badge
of honor and a bonding experience that would last the rest of our lives. We were a
mixed bunch but a tightly knit group, and the thought of engaging in such a risky
enterprise promised to be both dangerous and exhilarating.
On the day we were to jump, we packed into our cars and caravanned the
hour and a half drive through the flat Arizona scrubland to the small airfield south
of Phoenix. The day was bright and clear, and I took the soft top off my yellow Jeep
Wrangler so we could enjoy the warmth of the Arizona sun. Most of us were nursing
hangovers from our revelry the previous night, but our excitement was palpable, our
enthusiasm unchecked. We were ready. I was ready.
First time skydivers were encouraged to jump tandem, which involved
strapping yourself to an experienced instructor who would comfort you during the
jump, and who would pull the ripcord should you succumb to panic which would
comfort you during the jump, and who would pull the ripcord. There was a brief
instruction period during which we were told how to exit the plane, how to breathe
normally during the initial freefall period, and how to raise our legs in front of us as
we drifted in for a landing. Then, we watched and waited. I remember feeling like a
coiled spring. I was trepidatious but eager, excited but afraid. But I was committed. I
was certain that I would come out of the experience a changed man, somehow more
confident, more self-assured. The ride to our jumping altitude seemed to take hours,
but by far the most frightening part of the experience was standing in the open airplane
doorway at 14,000 feet, knowing that the decision I faced could be the most
consequential one I would ever make.
Once you have jumped, there is an overwhelming sense of freedom. The
choice has been made, and for a moment, all of your cares and concerns disappear.
You have sacrificed control. Just as it was a sacrifice of control that night on the
dance floor. But the control I forfeited in that dark, smoke filled bar was of a different
nature, even more existential than putting myself at the mercy of gravity while
holding out hope that the parachute would save me. It was at that moment, for the
first time in my young life, that I sacrificed the control it took to hide what there is
no need to hide. At that moment, I sacrificed the fear of being in the wrong place at
the wrong time, like a hyena wandering into a lion’s den. I sacrificed the fear that I
would be judged for some unknown offense, or that my kindness would be mistaken
for weakness, or that I might inadvertently add one too many s’s to a sentence. I sacrificed
the fear that I would be ostracized by my friends and family because, “Well,
you know why.”
Most importantly, I sacrificed the control I felt I must maintain, every hour
of every day, everywhere, because the slightest slip, the most brief of captured
glances, could be the one clue that revealed the secret I most wanted to hide. The
secret I felt I must hide. And at that moment, like the moment before the parachute
opened and I knew that everything was going to be alright, I knew it was okay, he
was there with me, everything was going to be just fine. That moment was the first
time I slow-danced with another man.
That first dance, that simple action, was like the moment you jump out of an
open airplane door at 14,000 feet. For just a minute, nothing else around you matters
as you are surrounded by the deafening rush of wind, or by the loud swishing of
blood in your ears as your heart quickens in your chest. You do not know what is
going to happen, you just hope that it works out for the best. If you take the leap,
and you wrap yourself in the warm embrace of one you would normally avoid in
public lest you inadvertently reveal the true nature of your desire, if you make the
choice to take that step, to pull yourself through the open doorway that looms before
you, to launch yourself into the gushing wind of your heartbeat, to let it be known,
without question, that the person they see before them is the one you want to be
with, the one you want to be, regardless of what others may say or think, only then
can you abandon the futile effort to control the one thing you cannot. So, I jumped.
Or rather, I danced. And it was glorious.
But that was just the beginning.
The validation I experienced on the dancefloor did not immediately carry
over into my public life. While most of my friends were aware of my orientation,
and several were facing the same personal struggle I was fighting, I still hesitated to
discuss it outside of my immediate circle. I avoided asking coworkers about their
relationships for fear that they would do the same in return. Denial, avoidance, and
deception were my friends, but the duplicitous nature of my character directly contradicted
my deeply ingrained instinct to be forthright and honest about myself. I
felt as if I was living a lie that had been forced upon me. It was the very lie I had
lived throughout high school, when I dated girls out of genuine affection but secretly
fantasized about devoting my romantic attention to other guys. It was the lie I had
tried to escape by accepting an offer to attend college out of state.
But my concern over the opinions of my acquaintances at work paled in
comparison to the reaction I feared I would receive when I finally opened up to my
family. My appointment to the Air Force Academy was hailed by my relatives for the
accomplishment it was, and my decision to forgo the honor was met with a great
deal of consternation. I did not explain the reasoning behind my decision because I
still felt that my physical desires were something that could be hidden and eventually
overcome. Any emotional attachments could be ignored or dismissed as inconsequential
and were therefore forgettable. As time progressed, however, and as I began
to realize that the attraction I felt for other men was not something I could
simply wish away, I began to realize that the only way to achieve the freedom I
sought was to accept that there was nothing I could do to change who I am. Part of
that process, the most important but also the most daunting, was finding the courage
to open up and to share it with anybody and everybody I truly cared about. That
process started with coming out to my family, and I knew that at some point I was
going to have to find the courage to jump.
I remember my coming out conversation with my mother clearly. The “Oh,
okay,” I had received in return for my admission had lacked her usual buoyancy. I
could almost feel the shock and disappointment through the phone line. My slowdancing
partner had become my romantic companion, and we were planning a trip
to Arizona during my Spring Break. I had spoken often of “my friend,” but I had intentionally
avoided describing the true nature of our association. I am not exactly
sure whose feelings I was trying to spare, but looking back, I think Mom suspected
and was merely waiting for me to take the step, to cast off the constraints with
which I had bound myself. To relinquish the control I had established over others’
perception of me through denial, avoidance, and deception.
Her subsequent actions were not a surprise, nor were they harmful. I knew
she had finally come to grips with the fact that, yes, her son is gay, during a Sunday
telephone conversation several days after I had admitted to her that I preferred the
intimate company of men over that of women. After her initial breakdown over the
likely possibility that I would never have children, she regained her composure and
settled in for a serious adult conversation, much like the conversations we had made
into a weekly Sunday night ritual. “I’m okay with you being gay,” she would eventually
say, “but I have three rules. Don’t be sassy. Don’t dress as a woman. And don’t
march in a parade. That’s all I ask.” It was a half-hearted concession, but I could
read between the lines. The love she felt as mother towards son would not be overcome.
This conversation took place not long after the family round table she had
convened to share the secret I had confided. I am not angry at her for that, for sharing
the secret I had asked her to keep until I was ready to make it known. I never
have been. The self-realization I had experienced, the overall sense of relief that I no
longer had to hide what was me to my core, the control I had seized by exposing the
most inner part of me, the part that I could not explain but so badly wanted to share,
was bolstered by her poorly disguised statement of acceptance and by her willingness
to embrace and to try to understand.
The following year, Mom marched in a Gay Pride Parade. She shared her
adventure with me during one of our regular phone calls. “You know,” she said more
than once, “the gays aren’t that bad.” As if I needed the reassurance. That I had been
lumped into a group known as “the gays” was not lost on me. Even as self-aware as I
had become, I still bore the stigma like a scarlet letter. I will always bear it. The
thought saddens me. There are times when I lament those who seem unwilling or
unable to cast aside the ridiculous notion that being gay is somehow wrong or
unnatural or disgusting, that homosexuals are freaks who should be avoided at all
costs, whether they are family or not.
Those who do not come out can always rely on avoidance or denial or outright
deception, all of which are forms of dishonesty to one degree or another, but
these are the choices that, sadly for many, offer the least amount of personal turmoil.
I am aware that I have been fortunate in that my sexuality eventually became
the non-issue I desired it to be, but coming out to my relatives was one thing. Coming
out beyond the protective boundaries of family love and loyalty proved a challenge.
I have seen four general approaches to this particular conundrum. First,
open admission. “Yes, I am. Any questions?” Second, avoidance. “So, do you have a
girlfriend?” “No. I’m really busy with work and don’t have the time.” Third, flat out
denial. “So, I heard something about you.” “Are you fuckin’ kidding me? I ain’t no
fuckin’ faggot.” Fourth, deception. “Is that your girlfriend?” “We used to date, but
we broke up. Now we’re just friends.” Each of these strategies has its place. Every
environment follows different guidelines and carries different expectations. Where
tolerance reigns in one, sheer contempt rules another, and I am forced to admit that
I have employed each of these tactics at different times in my life. The danger lies in
the uncertainty, in the not knowing how new acquaintances will react to the revelation
that you are “one of those people.” It is a feeling that never completely goes
away and an unnecessary burden that affects every decision no matter the time or
There is a big difference between asking another man to slow-dance with
you in a dimly lit bar with no windows and asking a girl at a high school dance to
join you on the floor just to see if one of them would. Just to prove to others, if not
to yourself, that you were attracted to members of the opposite sex and they were
attracted to you. “See? No problem here. Just need to figure out which one I like
best.” As I grew older, I found that avoidance was, more often than not, the most
effective approach for me. Simply ignoring questions I did not want to answer or
immediately changing the subject to something less personally intrusive proved useful
while also allowing me to comfort myself with the knowledge that I had not been
completely dishonest about a topic that hit so close to home.
Avoidance has served me well throughout the years, but I still felt like I was
being dishonest in a way. Like I was participating in a never-ending game of cat and
mouse to hide a part of me that I need not hide. I think often of that night in the bar,
the night I took a leap of faith and danced unashamedly with another man for the
first time, and I draw courage from it. It has not been a smooth journey, but my path
has been eased by the love and acceptance I have been shown by friends and family
alike. It has been eased in a way that I wish it could be for all others who share the
feelings of doubt and uncertainty that I have experienced throughout my life.
But I have also learned that avoiding the truth is much different than embracing
it, and that only through honesty can I achieve the feeling of total freedom
that shrouded me like a warm embrace as I moved back and forth to the smooth,
steady vocals of a Vanessa Williams song. Only through honesty can I shake the feelings
of fear and unwarranted guilt that have been imposed upon me for no valid reason
whatsoever. Only through honesty can I be the real me, the me I want to share
with those I care about, those whose opinions I cherish the most. Only through honesty
can I finally be free.
And now, I will dance with another man. I will dance without reticence. I
will dance without shame. And I will dance without fear. Now, if I am asked if I am
gay, I do not hesitate to answer, “Yes, I am. Any questions?” I am who I am. I am a
man who loves men, and I am okay with that.
Things I Wish Horoscopes Told Me
On the 1st, Venus-in-Sagittarius sees you, dear Gemini, exploring
new romantic terrain with your partner, but it doesn’t feel like it
should. You’re forced into a sexual situation you’re not comfortable with, but you
don’t know how to say no. So, you suck it up and let him do what he wants. Can you
really put the blame on Mercury retrograde? A more accurate reason for miscommunication
between the two of you goes deeper than a retrograde planet, but you’re
still too unwilling to rub the stardust from your eyes and see this truth. To further
counteract these sneaking suspicions, you pen your bae a poem of praise. He promises
to pen you one in return, but never does (this is one of many promises he’ll fail to
The night before the Taurus Full Moon on the 12th, he’ll make up for his negligence,
whispering sweet nothings to you over-the-phone as you straddle the invisible
threshold between wakefulness and slumber. But the following day, sans the cutesy,
puke-inducingly sentimental texts composed solely of hearts, sparkles, roses, and
flame emojis, you wax and wane about the relationship as a whole. Do you really
love him, or do you love what he gives you? The answer eludes you.
On the 19th, Mars enters Scorpio, and with it comes some serious contemplation. To
yourself you’ll wonder: why am I in this situation? Why do I love this man who says
he’s ready to walk through fire for me, but has yet to take even the smallest step on
ash? You’ve yet to experience all the wonders and woes of romantic relationships, a
secret shame you share with him, adding if his lack of commitment is fair.
He responds by telling you you’re his girl days before the Sagittarius New Moon on
the 26th, when you two collude on a snowy day in the mountains. You’ll kiss and
whisper unconditional “I love you’s” before he tells you the planets are helping the
two of you deepen your love bond. In a lusty delirium, you purr and concur.
But when he fails to text or call the rest of the month, both lust and delirium will
vanish. You’ll decide that your entanglement with this boy-man is based solely on
the mutual (albeit sporadic) pleasure and encouragement you give one another.
“I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today
what I established yesterday or some previous day.” —James Joyce
Letter from Poetry Selection
oetry establishes itself in a reader's mind when it creates a
vivid, beautiful, image through intricate wording, emotion,
and uniqueness. A poem is effective within the crafts used
and the body of a poet's world. Poems should develop
thought, create a voice, and move a reader. Language that draws and
channels energy is the heart of poetry, and the poems published here
represent that idea.
The form of poetry should be distinct to the content of the
writing. Tradition is not necessarily binding within poetry, it is bendable,
flexible, and at its best, broken. Poets are not bound by any one
medium of scheme or meter. A poem should establish itself to a reader
by sticking to their subconscious like glue through any way imaginable.
The poems we selected for publication in this issue of riverrun
reflect poetry’s ambiguous beauty. The following diverse selection of
poems explore concepts of the human life and exploring the unknown.
We hope you enjoy.
My Brazen Bull
Paradise in the sky, I hoped I would die
to see it for myself … but I weep…
This life I lead entangles itself
inside debauchery, conjoined twins formed
in the womb of sin. So feed me
what’s the point? I have been gored
by rusted rebar, mud spilling within.
I am the enclave ruin, sacred rubble and stone,
meticulous care taken to tear it all down.
I smelt consume improve the bloody rocks
into Aaron’s Golden Calf not to please the masses,
But I have made my own Brazen Bull,
overcome by concubine tendons, to
sweat pant and stuff myself inside
my pagan creation. Quick do my teeth gnash and crack
as muscles turn charcoal, secretions ooze and boil
onto the brass. Why must I feed the beast I ask
as my cupped hands flake into ash.
The infant remains lie before Baal as does mine before
Jesus’ tears, no more than the dust beneath His feet…
As autumn falls, as I drive through the town
I know some puzzles have no answer.
Solitary days spent solving, sobbing,
piling up like leaves in the gutter.
Even holding this warm drink, I am cold.
The warmth of friendship fades before long.
Time slips away like leaves falling onto
the rush of slow cars all heading home
in the early dark hour together.
Sipping a cup of still-too-hot-chai,
I fill the silence with foreign music.
This loneliness is too much for me.
Halogen headlights head down the highway
hurting my eyes, streetlights won’t give me
a singular clue. I try not to think,
a paradox, I can’t stop thinking.
I add up all the words and abstractions
multiply my feelings, divide by my
guilt, negative thoughts perform subtraction.
The same result regardless. I know
there’s no solution. Even if there was,
I wouldn’t know how to figure out
the answer. But I still try, try to solve
for x. I want to know the answer
to the unsolvable puzzle
of loneliness inside of me.
“Jan, always by my side, your voice
guides me through the hollow folds of my mind
steep with slopes and abrupt falls, thick with churning
demon feet, grapes between their toes. Their chisels ping
the base of my skull singing ‘Evelyn’s memories
are not where they used to be’. I fear oblivion
will suck me dry, but you have not forsaken me
daughter of mine. I still recall the day
Your father was taken by his liquor and smoke,
curled high like burning plastic on a bed of white.
Wealth is mine now, draped like the blood
of the Son. I am still of my youth
with intentions as pure as a child’s lips
upon her mother’s breast. I am no longer obliged
to carry the ceiling collapsed around me in
the dawn of my family. I no longer need my son,
whose temptress consumes him
her hands pumping his rotten heart that peels.
With cathartic delight he sings of
the boy who longed for the silver
Spoon but instead received the barrel of a
gun, and what a lovely song it is.
Lift me high to places
beyond my Snow Whites and Tinkerbells,
to transcend God Himself who wished to
conceal to ceaseless ends.
You humble yourself Jan, I know it, so come to me!
Share this bread knowing we
died in our pact for luxury!”
And her daughter said, “Good mom,
repeat it again, but with more
conviction. You’re not going to waste my time
like my childhood.” I wish you would just
Everything happens for a reason. Everyone gets in life only that which they can handle.
But have you ever felt broken? Have you ever wondered why? Have you ever screamed at
the top of your lungs in the middle of a crowded room and had not a single head turn in
acknowledgment? Did you ever run up to someone and get in their face and shout “Hey!
I’m right here!” Only for them to stare right through you like you were a pane of dirty
glass? You know, they say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but I can’t help but feel
part of my stained-glass windows were never finished. Were never replaced because I
can’t help but feel like something is missing. Can you see it? Is that why people look
through me as if I were transparent because some… one is missing. Is that it? Can you see
it? Do I exude the weight I carry from not being good enough? Is that it? Can you see it?...
Am I asking too many questions when maybe I should be giving more answers? Well you
see, let me tell you, let you listen, to a little old story about little old me. Please take a seat
or maybe I will. So back to the story, well here it is: what I don’t get from my mother I get
from my brother because my father was never there to show me how to be his daughter.
But that’s okay. If him being there would have taught me to believe that leaving more
than two people and your own children behind for someone else is okay, then I’m glad you
chose her over us. Twice. But with you doing it so often in such a short amount of my lifetime,
then daddy thank you for teaching me to be strong. And for making me able to say
that I do not need your weakness to stay faithful as an excuse to be broken. I can do that
on my own.
I have found the glutton
from a trail of snacks.
Of potato chips,
It wants just hours,
and offers a drip
of sludge, sickly sweet
from its flower of Venus.
Those pathetic pleasures.
What has been done?
A word on a page,
one line on a canvas.
Just a thought that is pitiful.
Yet it wants more.
Shedding its sweetness
with its slim-cut skinsuit.
It slurps time,
to chew in it guts
making slop from seconds.
And ground moment gruel
with great gulping sobs.
Because time was sweet,
but the glutton was hungry.
Jupiter et Semele
Come to my bed, she said,
with your body divine.
Set me ablaze,
let’s ascend to the sky…
uttered by a mistress
to her lover on High
The last she’ll say
to the god of the sky
Stoic and stern,
nectar down his neck,
Jupiter stares straight ahead
his sweet Semele
seeks to die a little death
Had he resisted,
not pledged his love
and sacred devotion,
had he refused
to appear in
she, sweet Semele,
might’ve been spared
But she was destined to die
So Jupiter complied
He revealed to her
love’s true form
his blinding bright light,
her desired firestorm
Aswoon and spiritless,
with harvested sex,
her creamy mortal corpse
lay in post-mortem splendor
atop his lap
So joyful a ruin
Two Lane Road
Pine needles gravel on the road with trees watching
Two lane road asphalt cast in fragmented shadows
the Sun’s lazy light is clouded in sleep
The trees are monoliths
strange they are waiting for something
I bend around the corner onto the two lane road
narrow as diabetic arteries inflamed fat-lined with gravel hug the solid
yellow line the descent down the hill wind slowing down for the corner now
I am sliding across the ground there are sparks silver orange white
I am part of the road as is my bike engine beating sideways
I stand over my bike
trees regard me
with downcast eyes
Anthony T.S. Guerra
I’m starving for a stranger to
Gift me a sweat smirk.
A glare, a stare, a look.
Something to help me quit all
Endless streams of strangers won’t give
A second look.
No matter if a man is strung up
On a hook.
Blood from the back of my throat again
To paint red the porcelain.
A glare, a stare, a look. I was blessed by the stranger.
He’s cracked and in danger,
Self-pity and a hint of anger.
Is he still with rage or
Disciplined like a ranger?
Whatever the case may be
He came and said to me
“Boy, no matter what you lose
You’ll always be a loser.
So many paths to choose
And in every path you lose her.
From my knees I rise
To look him in the eyes,
“Be gone with all your lies,
I need to rationalize.”
“With rationalization you're not familiar,
Your death comes ever nearer
You'll be stuck here where you will
Never again hear her.
Soaking up the sight
Freezing cold, breath puffs shine white
Staring at each other lovingly
A wonder to behold
The stars a world unknown
Feels just like home
Lifting her fingers towards the belt
Her breath tickling his cheek
Softly she whispered to me
“Have you heard the story of him,
The most handsome man you could see?”
Hearing her rave about mythology
What more could he need?
With a sly grin he said
“The story of Orion, surely
Or were you speaking about me?”
But Then You Did
“I’ll never leave your side.”
But you will.
“I’ll never let you go.”
But then you did.
Over and over I go through this torture, this pain, this hell. When will it end? How much
more can I take? How much more will you let me? Friend after friend run and hide, because
they saw my other half. For I am not different in the dark but you are in how you
see me. I don’t stand out the way I should. You let your expectations cloud your vision.
Now here you go, I give you the “gift” of sight. Now what do you see? Yes, what everyone
else once did. You won’t ask for much after this.
“I’ll never leave your side. I’ll never let you go.”
“I’ll never hurt you.”
But you will.
“I will never leave you.”
But then you did.
Bike in the Garage
Juttery jitters juxtaposed to stillness an impending emptiness the wilting leaves brings love
to a close a new season of adventure unrealized She is gone migrated
against the flight of birds to snow drifts on dull brown plains It is for the best I
but I have yet to tell her “Our paths must come to a close”
Dammit she was the one who liked to write corny rhymes I still feel the w i n d
beneath these imaginary wings the high I felt with our legs tangled
her brunette hair sprawled across my chest cheek listening to how much I love
she was better than drugs I wish we stayed lying to ourselves that this would
last much too stubborn for the both of us to handle stubborn like a new born
Fall Farther From the Tree
It sits with stillness: tense
The wind will strike the grapefruit.
The fattened fruit with thin-enough skin does not sway,
it would slosh if it swung a few more inches,
brackish, too sweet, sticky: excitement’s inner juices
Will be broken from the fruit,
Splattering over a reluctant bedspace shared with the upstanding apples
with well-shaped seeds.
Encroaching on fellow fruit,
that cringe away like older brothers.
Can’t get away, into the tree
where they won’t be blamed so...
“We’re sorry that he’s like this.”
No no no nonono.
“If you’re really sorry,”
*to put me at ease. *
the soft crush
of petals falls between
the crimson red
dyes my prints,
leaving me spared.
the holy water has
been covered in dust,
under a trance,
the water saves all souls.
it touches my lips.
dark and warm and thick
slow down my throat.
it travels through
my veins, becoming
one with him.
Ichar flows within.
Little Bits of Me
Flesh dome lens transfixed on off-white carpet,
soft-coarse bristles jut from the eyelid
but one, one is a jagged spire
which circle spins in place. Vibrations travel through, into the body,
a crawling long-leg. I rip the spire from its socket, present it to the Moon
and cast it into the dark.
Relief is a pond still twilight dark
when I cannot feel Coontails between my toes, a carpet
of scene girls, like fox tails, obstruct my vision of the Moon.
Sometimes my fingers pinch my eyelids
and I bleed; it is impossible to stop my body,
to stop these fingernails from curling into the skin. A spire
bends against the rest, threaded through them like a weave, the spire
is torn from its home, with a pop, like an echo in a dark
hallway, my hallway, leading to and ending at my bedroom. There! The doorway! A body
of sooty-stained teeth twists a smile for me, and I jump towards it, only to find its
feet depressed into the carpet.
I can feel it stand in the black, where red dots pierce the slits of its eyelids,
and I shall tear the lashes from them to present to the Moon.
The horizon is full of the Moon
end to end, cool-bluish hue cupping straw spires
in its hands, higher than the rest, on eyelids
too young to remember what unplucked means, tears flood the dark.
in the skin, tickles the muscles with white roots, squirming inside the body
like mosquito larvae, breathing beneath the surface. Their mouths open my body’s
pores and grow, grow into blood-sucking spines, illuminated by the Moon
and I tear them out tear them all out
where they fall to the carpet,
like stiff feathers bathed in mud nights before, and still they stand like spires.
But I love the way they feel against my lips, how their white roots poke and drag across my
pink, supple skin, outlining the dark
in the corners of my mouth. What’s not to love of bald eyelids?
Baldness is temporary; lashes grow thick, even split, like sandpaper from eyelids.
Lashes are coarse bristles like a torn bush, stab through the surface, feel the air on their
as snakes do when they crack from egg-shells, sliding on bellies in the dark,
Their backs pitted, manic,
cracked like craters of the moon.
Daniel from second grade had lashes like a girl’s, I remember, like long spires
crawling out from his eyes, overwhelmed. This was when my hate for lashes started. No, it
was the carpet.
Fine hairs are more difficult to pull than dark ones; I cannot keep my eyelids
open. Too afraid to see myself in the carpet, the body behind the body,
so I will look towards the moon for guidance, showering on me like cave spires.
The Bull and the Fish
you have no right
to my heart. yet here you are,
stumblinG in at 3am
breaking the fine china.
pulling me into yOu
creating a cOsmic feeling, euphoria.
the twin flames ignite,
but you are cutting off the oxygen.
i am on the eDge
of the cliff, earth and water
you know i will fall.
but you won’t be there
to catch me.
a cowardly love story
only includes you. hoping to
see change, But altering
love is more actions
than strings of words.
whY can you not see?
i was drowning.
and you wouldn’t even
touch the watEr
At the top, A Revelation
At the top of the hill, there is a revelation.
The final trek,
Navigated through collective contemplation.
Bountiful in its rage and its exhaustion,
Relevant to the auction.
We have been freed.
Allowed what we need.
But the bondage of oppression
Is revived in succession.
The foundation of earth,
Represent foundations of
And our brothers who they killed.
The final trek,
Bountiful in rage.
The exhaustion of fighting,
For the rights they never gave.
Have we been freed again?
This query is baseless.
The foundation of this country thrives
on keeping us nameless.
Restricted of breath and
Heavy chains abound,
There is another hill to climb.
Another martyr to crown.
At the top of the hill, there is a
Fueled by indignation.
We are united by the bleached tools that grow heavy in our palms,
A history not forgotten,
But explosive as bombs.
We cannot forsake our ancestors,
Bleeding in the heat.
We cannot mistake our chains for fiction,
even if they now lie at our feet.
There is another hill to climb,
If we are to correct the damage of time.
Freedom rings like a bell,
And bird songs begin to swell.
It thumps in our chests,
Drumming angrily and
And a bell carries on.
But it grows ever quiet towards the top,
Silenced, until the coming dawn.
The final trek,
A continuation of cycles.
A perpetual oppression,
That fires like rifles.
It sings like chains,
Songs of exhaustion and sorrow.
And yet, we trek on
In pursuit of tomorrow.
At the top of the hill,
we find a revelation.
But enhanced by determination.
Another plight for autonomy.
Freedom is in our DNA,
Do not fear the chain; we can climb together.
I’ll push you up, while you pull my tether.
Fly like those before.
Dancers of justice,
And good will,
From this hill, and to the next,
We fight with arms.
For freedom lies not at the top or below,
As we plummet,
Towards the blistering unknown.
Yet, another revelation
At the top of the hill
There are many mountains to conquer,
But to prevail?
You are love living in disguise,
unexpected as can be.
You are a miracle dressed like fate,
drenched in wonder,
made your way down from Heaven,
and destined for me;
with you, it was like
the Universe set the stars to align,
and when we locked eyes
all the Earthly collisions
and explosions in the atmosphere combined
couldn’t fulfill the supernova of feelings
That now exists in me.
The Birth of Feminine Desire
A divine flame of golden fire struck the angel in her triumphant attempt to flee, wings
ablaze and glowing—her fragile frame cast carelessly to land in the final hours of heaven’s
holy reign. Among the Earth there awaited a beautiful pearl, young and full of yearning.
She stood alongside the entrance of an ivy-colored doorway, eyes of lakes once clear muddled
by the insipidness of the early morning dull—his desires quenched all the same. Her
naked face stung from the sharp chill of the early morning, his cheeks caved like blades
against her soft, cotton skin. Across the way a fallen angel laid atop a bed of stone, muddrenched
garments tossing in the wind, the smell of smoke and flame wafting through the
air—a reminder of heaven’s loss.
The fallen angel approached the young pearl, her hurried breaths trembling with a longing
for fondness never felt; for lust unknown to every entity, both mortal and everlasting. The
sun, in all her beaming glory, watched as they stripped their trappings off, naked skin exposed
to the crisp morning’s strife with flesh and bone. Their dance beneath the sheets
prevailed until the hustle of day made his way through the ivy-colored doorway, his
scorned look piercing through their close embrace. It was then that the heavens dropped
to Earth like rain, self-willed men taking cover beneath their own undying obstinance.
The night saw man’s envy for the fallen angel and her pearl, the vivid green of his face resembling
that of the soiled land beneath his dirt-encrusted feet (she longed to know the
taste of lighter heels upon her lips). The day saw woman’s want for satisfaction, vast and
unwavering like the ocean, her deep blue complexion reflecting heaven’s decent to Earth—
gradual than all at once. A man, the starts told the moon, could never hope to compare, his
satisfaction met before the warmth of her body could even begin to struggle against the
coldness of hist touch—hostile and unpleasant. A woman, the sun told the sky, could never
fail to make her beloved happy, pleasure seeping through her eager bones, desperation
leading to a moment of pure, undeniable bliss—bliss that seems to last for centuries, an
endless smile stretched across her crimson cheeks.
The day a lonely angel fled from heaven was the day that heaven became a stranger to desire,
sensual and full of fervor, until it too found its way to Earth. And so this marked the
birth of a feeling all too new, but affectionate nonetheless. Man gave his dissent to the valleys,
and the valleys only gave them back—an echo bound to last forever, shattered yet
enduring. The mountains sang their song of love, silver clouds resting atop their pointed
peaks, in remembrance of the fallen angle and her pearl. Intoxicated by one another’s
beauty, the lovers stayed intertwined in a braid of endless ecstasy—a holy grail of yearning.
Their intimacy was nothing short of the birth of feminine desire, and the land beneath
their feet said it was so, tasting lighter helps upon her longing lips.
"To discover the mode of life or of art whereby my spirit could express
itself in unfettered freedom." — James Joyce
Letter from Visual Art Selection
isual art holds the interesting power of instantaneous engagement.
If a piece speaks to you, you’ll know it immediately.
Art is diverse and divisive.
This year, the visual arts category includes photography, a
cardboard and cotton-ball house maquette, acrylic and digital art, paper
art, and comic panels. There is a wide variety of mood and content,
colors and mediums. However, every piece also shares one major
aspect—it connected with us.
This note is not going to tell you how to feel about any of the
following pieces, or to keep anything in consideration as you view
them. We want you to see these pieces that we’ve chosen as they are,
and not bring in any possible biases we may have towards them. Experience
them purely. Give them some of your time; some may last
Pillars of the Bay
Eye of the Beholder
Acrylic on canvas
Hearts of the Fallen
Watercolor and glass on canvas
Cut Paper pieces