“One Thousand Under the Rosebush” By: Joe Baumann

When Cassie sleeps under the rosebush for the first time she dreams she is standing on a concrete bridge crossing a high canyon that is slowly filling with water.  She leans over the side of the bridge, also concrete, and stares down, a hard wind slapping her cheeks with her own long, tangled hair.  From there Cassie can see the water rise, gurgling up and swallowing rocks that jut out of the canyon’s narrow walls; a bird’s nest is floating on the rising tarp of blue, banking off the canyon like a toy boat smacking the side of a filling tub.


The bridge wall turns brittle with no warning and Cassie’s hands push through the concrete like it is putty.  The shock sends her body reeling and Cassie falls toward the rising water, a shimmering, pristine blanket.  She sees herself reflected back in the quiet sheet of blue and is surprised by the calm smile on her face.  Her arms shoot out in front of her and she reaches for the water.  She can hear it gurgle, the sound of soft sloshing as it crests against the canyon.  Cassie stretches out her fingers, ready to feel the clean water as her hands cut across the surface, and she shuts her eyes and waits to meet it in a cold, wet embrace.


Instead, she felt a soggy warmth on her face as Sisyphus sniffs, his nose rolling across her upper lip and flooding her nostrils with the damp smell of a dog who has just come in from the back yard.


Cassie’s eyes snap open and she sits up, head darting left and right as she looks around.  Her hair is limp and greasy with sleep.  Despite falling asleep in the back yard, curled up in the fetal position under her mother’s crimson roses, the stretchy, gossamer fabric of her teal nightgown curved over her bent knees, here she is in her room again, crumpled sheets twisted around her, body pillow bent from the weight of her slumberous head.


She acquiesced and let them name their first and only daughter—due to the emergency postpartum hysterectomy—after his favorite constellation.  She kept telling him how terrible it seemed, naming her after a vain queen who always boasted about her beauty, but he insisted, telling her how the synergy was perfect: Cassiopeia, opposite the Big Dipper, easiest to see during the clear nights of early November, hovering in the sky on their daughter’s birthday.


In return, she got to name the dog, so when they brought home the fuzzy Samoyed puppy, she chose her favorite story of retribution as inspiration.


“Sisyphus?” he’d said, scowling as though he smelled something foul.  “What kind of dog do you want him to be?”


He became a Sisyphus, it seemed.  Every time he was left out in the back yard he started digging.  Hole after hole he scrabbled in the ground, clawing out clumps of dirt one after the next.  When he had shoveled out a six or eight-inch hole the diameter of a basketball, he would sniff for a moment then move on to another patch of grass and begin again.  No matter how much he yelled at Sisyphus, while she rolled her eyes, no matter what he threw at the dog, or how often he dragged Sisyphus to the holes and shoved his face in them, Sisyphus just lolled his tongue and panted, waiting to be freed so he could return to his digging.


The dog caused the first bad fight that sent Cassie running up to her room, feet thumping across the floor as she cried and held her hands to her ears.  It was the first time her father stomped out of the house, slamming the front door and rattling the windows in his wake.  Cassie watched him from her bedroom window, staring through sloppy, tear-soaked eyelashes that blurred her vision.  She watched her father drive off, and he didn’t return until sometime after she’d fallen asleep by the window, curled up in a ball.  She could feel the hard subfloor beneath the shaggy carpet, unforgiving and painful on her bony hips, but she slept right through the sharp, cutting feeling, only hurting the next day when her body was bruised and sore.


Cassie runs out, her eyes red, but her cheeks are dry, the tears nothing but a sticky film on her skin.  Soil flung about the yard from Sisyphus’s endless digging is already clumped on the soles of her feet and dusted across her pale ankles, and when Cassie bends and rolls under the rosebush, dirt streaks across her back.


It asks her what has happened.


The same thing as always.  She doesn’t need to say a word; she needs only to look up toward its spiky thorns.  They remind her of tiny green sharks’ fins, sharp and pointy.


Her father threw a glass against a kitchen cabinet.  She speaks by thinking about it, by picturing the angry way her father’s fingers wrapped tight around the cylindrical glass, knuckles white, by remembering how she thought it would crumple in his hand, cutting through his flesh and weeping streams of blood across the dining room table.  She tells the rosebush how terrified she was of the snowfall of broken, jagged glass that shattered across the linoleum floor.  After she scampered through the kitchen on tip-toe to reach the door she had to check her feet for slivers.


A nighttime breeze wafts through the bush, rattling the stems against one another.  You know what to do, it whispers.  You will always know what to do.


Cassie opens her mouth, but the rosebush ruffles for silence before she can ask what the lifespan of a rose is.


Don’t worry, it tells her.


When did I start coming here, Cassie wonders.

The dirt should not be comfortable, and it is not, not really, but the silence of night is comforting.

The dirt should not be comfortable, and it is not, not really, but the silence of night is comforting.

She starts counting, staring into the bulbous belly of roses, her eyes tracing the twisted, knotted paths of vines.  One, two, three: she keeps going.

She starts counting, staring into the bulbous belly of roses, her eyes tracing the twisted, knotted paths of vines.  One, two, three: she keeps going.


Until you hit one thousand, the bush tells her: that’s how high you should count.


I’ll get there, she thinks.  Her eyes are wide.  She stares up and refuses to blink, tears pooling at the edges of her eyes.  She reaches the thirties, rushes through the forties.


I’ll get there, Cassie thinks, her arms slacking as she drifts into the cold realm of sleep.



He slinks out of bed after she’s tucked herself away in a cocoon of blankets they no longer share.  The third bedroom is down the hall, past the half-bath where Cassie brushes her small, porcelain teeth.  He remembers teaching her how dotting a pea-sized squirt of toothpaste onto his toothbrush then watching and laughing as she pushed out a stream of the mint green gel onto her own pink brush.  By the time she had the hang of it, he’d wiped off dozens of smudges from the ceramic vanity.


His own little constellation, he thinks, stopping to look into the bathroom.  The mirror reflects his slumped shoulders, the sallow look in his sleepless eyes, the belly that has grown soft and round.  The hair on his knuckles is starting to gray.  His whole reflection looks dull, a sorrowful impression of the happy man he’d once been.  He turns from the bathroom with a shake of his head and pads to the bedroom door, shut to keep the dog out.


Instead of containing the bed and bureau meant for the second child they never had, the bedroom is furnished with a dark mahogany roll-top desk and two telescopes, one at each of the windows on the wall opposite the door.  The floor is scattered with stacks of astronomy journals, a star mapping chart spread out on a small table with a reading lamp.  He walks toward the nearest window, stepping on a pencil as he does.  He feels it crack under his heel.  When he hoists open the window, the cool night air flutters the papers on the desk and rolls pens across the wooden surface.  A magazine’s cover flies open.


He repositions the telescope and looks at the stars; the sky is clear and bright, so the lights of Orion’s Belt shine with ease.  His one eye closed, his vision swims through the faraway galaxies and he imagines being up there, floating through the hot masses he has studied for years.  Cassiopeia, he knows, is in hiding, her five points blurry and tough to see even on the clear evenings of springtime.  After he dances around the sky, he sighs and shuts the window.  He is still wide awake, sleep still tucked away from him.


So he wanders down the hall, stopping in front of Cassie’s shut door.  It’s tragic, he thinks, resting his hand on the knob, knowing he won’t turn it; tragic that she’s still so young but already willing to close the door to keep things out.



As Cassie sleeps, it winds its way around her, stems crawling out from the bush, gently wrapping around the curve of her body.  The roses give off a crisp scent, filling the air with their sweet wintery aroma.  The bush calls to the earth and the worms respond, wriggling up from the ground with ease thanks to the endless digging of the dog.  They squirm up through the soil and trudge, bodies stretching and contracting, squirting along the grass and rock, toward the rosebush.


It drives itself into Cassie, feeding her dreams.  She likes the one with the bridge and its sparkling, clear water just waiting for her to fall into its depths and remain there forever.  As it wraps around her, cocooning her in its thorny tendrils, it sighs and grasps her.  The thorns graze her skin, tracing shallow cuts through her flesh.  They bleed out little drops that the earthworms, arriving now, gather up and marshal to the rosebush’s roots like little worker ants.


The dog whines from beyond the patio door.


She remembers he held her hand and the rail of her hospital bed.  The gown with its open back and loosely folded fabric and white color that she was convinced were see-through made her feel uncomfortable and bare.  His grip was too tight, she thought, his squeeze crushing the bones in her fingers.  Now she longs for that painful embrace.  When he gets up in the middle of the night she says nothing.  Just keeps staring at the wall, waiting for the clock to tell her that it’s time to get ready for work.


It was unavoidable, the doctor said of the hysterectomy.  A necessity for your health and your life.  Yes, it means you won’t be able to have children again.


A cold, clinical apology, she remembers.


She wonders if that is where it began, if the derailing of their carefully-laid plans, the dreams they’d built their new home around, was the thing that put the first slab of icy separation between them.  It had grown, like freezing water expanding in a boggy lake, until there was no place left for them.  Now it was only yelling and dagger-filled silence smiles projected to keep their daughter happy and unaware.


He’s back now, the springy mattress bouncing and shifting as he plops back onto his side of the bed.  She listens to his deep sighs and can feel the shudder that rolls through the bed when he shrugs his shoulders and lays down on his back.  Attentive to her breathing, she feigns the regular, softly inhales of someone comfortably bathed in slumber as she keeps her gaze on the powder blue wall.  Life has become a series of feints.  She feels like an actress constantly on camera, pasting a veneer across her whole self as she walks through her days and nights.


A minute ticks by on the digital clock.  He starts pretending to snore.  She knows what his real snore sounds like, the deep sawing noise of his tongue vibrating against his throat.  This noise is higher in pitch, longer-lasting, too perfectly regular.


I should just tell him, she thinks.  I should just tell him I know he’s awake, staring at the wall just as I am.  But no good could come of it.



We learned about anchorites in school today, Cassie says, squeezing under the rosebush.  Its thorns catch on the fabric of the bloated t-shirt that hangs over her body like a trash bag.


Tell me about them.  The voice is soothing, a whisper, a waft of steam lifting off a cup of hot cocoa.


They were like hermits, Cassie says.  Religious hermits.  They would withdraw from other people and live alone.  Pray every day.  Just pray.  She shifts her weight, reaches down and itches a scab on her leg.


My teacher said they used to get bricked up in little rooms.  Cells, she called them.  They couldn’t leave.  They just prayed and prayed.  Can you believe that praying and praying and nothing else?


Cassie sighs, looking up into the maze of thorns above her.  She can see slivers of light filtering down through them; the moon is full, hanging straight above her in the sky, fat and cratered and shimmering.  Cassie knows she ought to be counting, should be shutting her eyes and seeing nothing but bulbous, fuzzy numbers cajoling her to sleep.  But whenever she shuts her eyes, she can only see the picture her teacher showed them, the old man, balding, with long swoops of stringy gray hair, his tan scalp bare like the surface of a baseball glove.  “The Anchorite,” her teacher had said, a painting by someone whose name she can’t remember; it began with an A or a V and had too many consonants on the end for her to spell right, Cassie’s tongue fumbling over the sounds as she tried to repeat the name enough times to cement it into her memory.  She saw the anchorite’s crooked, sinewy body, the taut lines of muscle in his lanky shoulders and back strained as he knelt, his torso bent over a book balanced on a messy bale of hay.


She had raised her hand, asked whether there were female anchorites.


“Yes,” her teacher had said.  “A woman anchorite was called an anchoress.”


She whispers the word as she stares up at the rosebush.  A chill wind is strumming through the bushes, and one of the roses bobs as though nodding toward her.  Cassie lets the last syllable dwell on her lips and stretch out, the noise escaping through the space between her tongue and the roof of her mouth: anchoress.  Like water spraying out of a leak in a hose, she thinks.


Go to sleep, the rosebush says, its voice clambering to suppress the hissing noise.



For the last three nights, Sisyphus has sat by the glass doors, head on his forepaws, a low whine emerging from his gut.  Staring out at the grass, toward the bloated rosebush that no one seems to notice growing like an inflating balloon.  Sisyphus whines and whines and the squeaking noise keeps them both awake even through their heavy door.  The room feels stagnant and oppressive to both of them, their pillows heavy with the lead filling their heads.  They each stare at their wall, glancing at their clocks and listen to the dog’s whinnying from downstairs.  She wants to tell him to go see what’s the matter, but she knows he’ll just tell her that he never wanted to get a god damn dog in the first place, so why should it suddenly be his job to deal with it?  And of course, you don’t care, he’ll say, about what the dog does until it bothers you.


He considers sliding through the sheets and opening the door, welcoming in a rush of fresh air to replace the boggy heat that has settled over the bed, as if they’re in a Louisiana swamp.  He thinks about going downstairs and sliding open the back door so the dog can continue digging its endless trail of holes through the torn-up yard.  But instead he shuts his eyes, lets the fuzzy lights that sparkle across the darkness behind his eyelids overtake him, and he feels his eyes move around under that minuscule layer of skin—thinner than a sheet of paper, he knows this from somewhere—and he imagines those little blurbs of light sharpening into dots, rearranging themselves into the constellations he knows so well, the W of Cassiopeia shining brightly in the middle.


She exhales, her shoulders shrugging and tugging at the sheets, so he lifts an arm and feels the light material slide just so across his side, dragging away from his bare, hairy leg.  He knows he ought to roll over to her, take her up into his wide berth and whisper to her.  But the words would just hang there, empty and wrinkled.



She loved the house the moment she saw it when he ran around the front of their beat up car and helped her maneuver her way out of the seat, body swollen and pregnant.  The brick exterior, not schoolhouse red but a mature, calm beige, the cream shutters, the crisp, shiny windows lining both floors with their white trim.  It all seemed so gorgeous and sleek, so suburban and perfect.  The bricks, when she ran her hand over them as she crossed through the front door, were rough and bumpy, hard and strong.


Her eyes snap open; she was nearly asleep when Sisyphus began moaning again.  The noise was loud and crisp, as though the dog was curled up by her head.  She almost sits up, drunk on the haze of sleep and forgetful of where she is, but when she feels her body rustle against the sheet covering her like a shroud she stops moving and listens.  His breathing is soft, the guttural verve of her husband’s snoring light and prickling.


The room is dense and dark, the only light coming from their out-of-sync alarm clocks; hers will go off thirty minutes before his, and she knows he will feign sleep while she scuttles through the room to gather up underwear and dress pants before shutting herself in the bathroom.  He’ll pretend not to listen to the shelling of hot water against the shower floor.


She slides out of the bed.  Looking back, she waits for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room and for his lumpy figure to come into clear view.  He’s rolled onto his side, right arm stuck out from under him and hanging off the bed like some limp plank on the side of a ship.  His left hand is tucked under his head.


Sisyphus’s howling continues to rise in her ears, and she gathers herself up, dragging through the suffocating air of the bedroom.  She pulls open the door, leaving it ajar behind her.  The long hallway is vague and soothing, and she almost feels a breeze pulsing from the air vents in the ceiling, but they are quiet.  She sees Cassie’s room, the blank canvas of her closed door.  She’d argued with him about letting her shut it without first stripping away the lock; what if something happened, someone broke in, or the house caught fire,  or the carbon monoxide alarm screamed, or, or, or.  She sees all the doorways, all of them pulled closed, even the bathroom.  Silent and oppressive.


The dog is still whining and she can hear the soft scrabbling of his claws against the laminate floor.  A dizziness hits her in the dark, and she can smell roses; they remind her of her own mother’s perfume.



Sixty-eight.  Sixty-nine.  Seventy.  Seventy-one.  Seventy—


She’s inside a small room, a layer of hay covering the dirty clay floor.  Cassie’s hands are folded neatly in her lap as she sits on a thin mattress, lumpy, through which she can feel the hard bottom of the bed.  A small table next to the bed is the only other thing in the room.  Cassie can hear a scraping sound, a trowel cutting across brick.  When she looks up, the room is fuzzy, the light—which comes from somewhere behind her—not reaching the source of the noise.  But darkness is trickling toward her, as though someone is slowly damping the light with a dimmer switch.  Crisp air blows from the darkness, but it, too, is ebbing away.


Who’s there, she cries out.  Her voice cracks as if she has laryngitis, and she clears her throat, trying to repeat herself.  But the sound is like sandpaper, a rough, hoarse crinkle.


As the room grows darker, her senses gumming up as the light drains away, Cassie feels a tumultuous comfort.  The flow of air coasting against her cheeks skitters to nothing and the room is silent.  A calm surrounds her and she shuts her eyes.  She feels a brief flash of discomfort against her spine, a blink of dirt against her lips.  Cassie groans and opens her eyes, the room still dim.  She wants to stay here.  Things are quiet.  The light has funneled away and this, she thinks, is fine.  She does not need a shining sun.  She is willing to spend her life in prayer if it means she can stay in this quiet.


A prickliness against her stomach: it feels like some crawling, wriggly bug.  Her breath stops, her muscles twitch as if she’s been electrified.  The bed slips away from under her, and before she hits the floor before the jarring sense of falling weightlessness can end, she opens her eyes.  Sisyphus stares at her, paws angling at the blankets suffocating her.



Through Cassie’s door, these screams sound final, white hot powder spewing from their mouths.  Everything is melting between them, she knows, a gaping hole expanding into a canyon.  She doesn’t dare open the door.  Sisyphus has curled himself up in a furry circle, tail tapping at his nose, flickering in agitation.  She tells him everything will be okay and clumsily drags a hand down his back, rubbing between his ribs with her outstretched fingers.


Entombed in her room, she listens to their muffled, squawking voices, and can hear when something heavy goes thumping down the stairs, a sharp crash following as the something smashes against the front door, crumbling into debris.  Their shouting grows, gargantuan, and she can hear the cracking stress in her father’s voice.  Her mother releases a wordless screech.  Then they are competing with one another, their voices crashing together, waves of sound that wash over her.


Cassie crawls over to Sisyphus, who lifts his head and stares at her when she curls herself around him, shaping her body into a half-moon, throwing an arm around his.  He smells of wet grass and perspiration.  She squeezes her eyes shut and tries to count, tries to follow the rosebush’s instructions, but the sounds of her parents’ clashing rage keep interrupting her, pulling away from her attention, and she forgets which number she’s on.  She must start again, aggravated Sisyphus shifting his weight and brushing against the scabs on her skin.



Sometimes she remembers the surgery, that frenzy following Cassie’s birth, the weightlessness that filled her sweat-slicked body, the way she clamped his hand in her own, her grip loosening as she grew dizzy and fell into a woozy darkness.  She wonders if she had dreams while in that black watery place her mind went to for what felt like only a moment, a finger-snap of time, after which she woke up in a brightly-lit, sterile room that was filled with the blended scents of two bursting bouquets of flowers that nauseated her after a few minutes.  He was sitting in an uncomfortable-looking chair next to her, holding Cassie—Cassie, not Cassiopeia; she’d drawn the line there—a little pink lump swaddled up in layers of folded white blankets.


She wonders what the hollowed out spot inside her womb is now filled with.  Her stomach grumbles, hungry.



He stands at the patio door in the dark and stares at his shadowy reflection.  The large, waning moon casts a halo around his shoulders and knees.  Its light has stanched the twinkle of stars.  When the sky is sparse and polluted with black it feels more like a lid than an endless expanse of air.  He wants to spring up and out.


The dog is outside, running back and forth in front of the overgrown rosebush.  He wants to cut it back, but it feels like the final ghost, the last little thing left.  They’d planted it together when they moved in; the back yard was a wasteland, dirt and rocks and clay.  They’d done the landscaping after Cassie was born, laying the rosebush into the earth together, each holding one side and lowering it into the ground.


The house feels empty and grim.  She’s sleeping upstairs, where he knows he is no longer welcome.  He knows he should leave, but he cannot picture himself leaving the driveway and really, truly, never coming back.



In her dark room, the walls are getting damp and Cassie can smell water in the air, salty and fragrant.  The hay itches against her feet.  She remains sitting with her hands folded in her lap, a little dome of woven fingers, knuckle bones protruding up like shaved-down spikes.  Water starts leaking in through the little slot where she expects to find food, cascading down in a waterfall that soaks into the clay floor.  It spreads toward her feet, the water cool and radiant on her toes.  Pieces of hay dribble by, carried by the rising liquid.


She takes a deep breath, realizing as the water rises along the brick wall that she has nowhere to go now.  Cassie does not know how she has found herself here, and she does not know how to escape.  There is no escape, she thinks.  The water grips at her, sloughing her down into the murky, muddy room and all she wants is to dream.



Oh anchoress, the rosebush murmurs in pleasure, its tendrils drawing her up and in.  My anchoress.


Sisyphus growls from behind the patio door and the rosebush’s unfurled blooms curl and wave at him, a beckoning, wiggling a finger.  And you, it hisses, my marionette.


Its roots sigh deep, stretching like tight muscles, and it relaxes as it bloats out, its stems growing, thorns sharpening, cutting into the fleshy girl awash in slumber.  Cassie becomes tangled in the mass of green that is pulsing into the yard, pushing against the yielding wooden fence.  It is ready to expand and engulf, driven on by the girl who rests inside it, protected and symbiotic, the child trapped inside a dark, quixotic sleep.

“First Kiss” By: Philicia Montgomery

“No, the index finger is the top lip and the middle finger is the bottom lip. And you gotta, like, put your hand in the shape of a letter C but have your fingers face you. See?” I demonstrate.

“Yea I get it!” Mía says excitedly. She imitates my hand fixture, her light-brown fingers a direct contrast to my dark ones. Her boobs are bigger than mine, they are already turning into perfect oranges while mine poke through my shirt like the hands of little boys simulating pistol shoot outs during a game of Cowboys and Indians.

“Like this?” She asks.

Her nail beds are perfect ovals. The white nail growing naturally in the square shape my mom is always telling the Chinese woman to file sharper.

“Yea,” I reply.

She giggles.

When she holds her fingers in place, she kisses them. Her lips are puckered statues as she places the pink clouds on her fingers, her eyes open and roaming as she follows a mosquito above, below, and beside her. After five calculated seconds, she makes a loud mmmwa, and breaks away from her hand. Her smile is as sudden as pigeons flapping away from a gunshot.

“No Mía, not like that. You have to pick a finger to focus on. Kiss the bottom finger,” I show her the index finger of my left hand, “and start there. Then you move to the top li—um finger.” I purse my lips and let my index slip in between where my lips meet. I kiss my bottom finger slowly and move to the top, like I see in the movies. I let my fingers massage my lips like Tony’s lips will be massaging hers.

“And you gotta close your eyes too,” I add.

“Oh okay okay, I get it,” she says. Her Dominican accent floats into the air above us and hovers. I’ll have to practice the way she sings her vowels. “You think Tony’s ever kissed a girl?” she asks. Her eyes are forest green and copper orange tonight, they’ll be mint by the time the sun awakens and slowly rises into the sky. Suddenly I want gum.

“I don’t know. Probably,” I say with a slightly dismissive tone. She wrings her hands. I try to give her a reassuring smile, “I really don’t think you should worry.”

“Yea that’s easy for you to say, you’ve kissed two guys already! Salizar and Jésus right?”

I bow my head. Salizar had a greedy tongue and I lied about Jésus. She didn’t need him too. Tony was enough for her, though I wanted Tony. He might have invaded my dreams more than she did. I pictured his lips, then looked at hers. I wonder whose would slither into my sleep tonight.

“Yea,” I say.

“You’re not showing me how!”

I am preoccupied with the adjustment of my own fingers. “I am showing you how,” I say without looking up.

She looks down at her fingers, kisses them again. “No, Mía.” I fix them.

The buttery light of my porch bounces off her white skirt, not a stain in sight despite the fact that we’ve been playing volleyball and climbing the yellow tree that grows in front of my house. I look at its trunk, the strong base that used to shield us from mass invaders and aliens, the branches that squiggle out like veins in an arm holding up our feet from the lava or maggots or sharks of our childhood imagination. Now my yellow tree whispers in the soft winds, leaves rustling in the night, swishing against one another, showing us how to kiss. The cushioned swing we sit on creaks as I tuck my right corduroy-cladded leg underneath my left. I let my focus drift back to our hands.

“He’s so cute. You think he’ll like it?” Her voice is an octave higher than mine so as I focus on her smooth fingers, I make a mental note to copy that too.

“Yea,” I say absently. The tree in front of my house shivers and shakes, a leaf slipping off and sashaying smiles to the ground.

She kisses her hand again. Her lips are stiff and hard and I can still see the clock ping at five seconds as she squeezes her eyes closed.

“No Mía. Not like that.” Her face drops. Suddenly my lips are against hers. Or her lips against mine. She tastes of Bubble Jug and jasmine, her lips softer than the summer breeze that lifts her hair and strokes my face. Her mouth is warm and relaxed, nothing like the kisses to her hand. Someone’s body slacks and as quickly as the kiss happens, it is over.

“Er.” I mumble something and stumble into the house. I can feel her eyes burn through my hair and into the back of my neck.


The next day, the eighth period bell rings and I shuffle out of class with everyone else. Mía wasn’t in 6th period math or 7th period science. I begin to walk down the main staircase but there is—as there is every day—a traffic jam. I turn and go to the back stairway no one ever has the patience to use. It is dusty and deserted, spiders and their webs its main inhabitants. I descend the stairs with heavy steps, my arms swinging from the impact. As I turn a flight to the lower level, I stop in my tracks. On the platform between the two flights sits Mía on the window sill. Her hair cascades down her tight black shirt and she wears earrings that are too large for her face. Tony’s hands are hungrily on her hips, caressing up and down her sides. She kisses him with her eyes squeezed shut.

They do not see me and after a few moments, they get up and exit through the back door. I am following them before I remember deciding to. I wait a couple minutes before slowly pushing the door open and slipping my body through the small space. It is sunny and bright and I squint away from the sunshine. Ahead is our football field, the perimeter surrounded by a high springy gate with diamond-shaped gaps. I curl my fingers through the large holes and stand so close my nose touches the cold metal. They are in the middle of the field. She sits facing me with her legs curled to her right and he sits opposite her, obscuring her view. I am far enough where they do not notice me, but I can see them somewhat clearly. They kiss in the same awkward tense motion of the staircase. Something claws at my insides.

After an eternity, he gives her a small kiss, says something that she nods and smiles to, and walks away. She sits there for a while after he leaves staring at the ground, lost in her thoughts. Her face twists but I cannot tell if it’s a smile.

A moment later, she begins gathering her bag and when she looks up, spots me. I cannot read the look on her face. Her eyebrows furrowed, head tilted, lips parted like someone whose words are wedged in their throat. From the distance I can’t tell if it’s a look of anger or hurt, love or hate. But it only lasts a second.

As soon as she notices me, she is suddenly restless, wiping invisible specks off her black skirt. She seems to stand there forever as I watch her, brushing bits and pieces of nothing off her clothes, tucking strands of hair behind an ear that is already full, fidgeting with her bookbag. She rises from the green field, still wiping her skirt and avoiding my eyes. She moves a hand across her waist, brushing off ghostly dirt. I want to give her a look that asks what she’s doing but she doesn’t lift her eyes to mine, only continues patting at her shirt, slapping something off her body where the motion looks almost painful. I watch as she stands there cleaning herself, intent on dusting off shame.

“Surface Tension” By: Chris Bedell

I plowed into the school parking lot while steam almost seeped out of my head. My eyes glanced down at the white envelope that was currently seated on the front passenger seat. The word REJECTED stood out at me as I stared at the hanging crumbled piece of paper that stuck out from the envelope. I guess I wasn’t going to Brown. It didn’t even matter that I applied Early Decision. I still wasn’t going to my first choice school no matter which way I spun the situation.

The clunky sound of the ignition halted. I leaned on the floor of my front seat as I grabbed my backpack. A minute later, I yanked the door open. Opaque blobs trickled down my face. I forced myself to suck in a gulp of air. Being that I was in the school parking lot, I had no choice but to get it together. It was embarrassing enough that I didn’t have any friends. I certainly didn’t need to seem like a pathetic emotional loser.

I craned my head as I scanned the parking lot. Twenty feet in front of me, a thin five-foot ten figure stood out in an endless array of anonymous students.

My jaw dropped a little. “Stefano?”

His eyes met mine. “Did you miss me?”

I didn’t even bother to answer. My jaw just remained locked as I scanned his body. He was covered in one of his usual gray hooded sweatshirts and blue workout pants. I guess that Stefano believed in dressing casual. He had never been one to dress for success.
He hurried over to where I was standing at the moment. “How are you doing Charlie?”

I looked up at the sky for a second. A gust of wind washed through the parking lot as it left a piercing feeling where the cold slapped my face. Small cotton drops fell to the ground.

I folded my arms. “What are you doing here? I haven’t heard from you in almost three years.”

Stefano’s eyes stared me down. I felt that I had nowhere to run. “It’s complicated.”

I almost wanted to rip his heart out right then and there. “It always is with you.”

He arched both of his eyebrows at me. “Is something wrong?”

My arms remained woven together as I didn’t even force a smile at him. “I don’t know. You tell me, why are you back?”

Stefano let out a cough while he cleared his throat. “My dad had no choice but to come back to Riverwood. My grandfather is dying of cancer.”

I stared at his short brown hair as I suppressed a stutter. “So are you going to be here for the rest of senior year?”

He bobbed his head at me. “Yeah, that’s the plan.”

“Well great.” I didn’t even bother to wipe away the murky drops from my face. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”

I started to walk away while Stefano tugged at the sleeve of my Henley shirt.
“Not gonna tell me what’s wrong?”

“I got rejected from Brown. I applied Early Decision thinking I would have a better chance, that’s what’s wrong.”

He released me from his grip. Stefano clapped his right hand over his mouth. “I’m so sorry Charlie. I had no idea. If you want we can talk about it at lunch.”

I continued to remain silent. I knew that whether I admitted it or not, accepting a lunch invitation from Stefano was dangerous. Nothing was ever simple with him.

I didn’t bother to go to my morning classes that day. I just flocked to the first floor bathroom. I went into the handicap stall and locked the door behind me. Crystal drops crashed down my face as the intensity of my sobs almost strangled me.

My mind drifted back to an event with Stefano. It was almost three years earlier. The two of us were seated on his bedroom floor in front of his bed. We were watching a Desperate Housewives marathon. But if you asked my opinion, I think that he just wanted any excuse to spend time with me.

I grabbed the remote that was on the carpet beside me and pushed the power button. With one clink the TV turned off.

Stefano winked at me. “Is something wrong man?”

I whipped my body around so that I was now making eye contact with him. A burning feeling danced around my stomach even though I knew what I had to do. “There’s something that I have to tell you.”


I sobbed for a good ten seconds before I opened my mouth. “I just want to preface this by saying I have no expectations. I’m just telling you this to get it off my chest.”

He sighed. “Of course. I understand. You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”

My chest bobbed up and down a good four or five times. “I have feelings for you…”

He blinked. “Oh. That’s not a big deal.”

I wiped away a bead of sweat from the left side of my face. “I don’t expect you to still stay friends with me…”

His eyebrows danced up his head. “Just because you might be bisexual or gay and I’m straight doesn’t mean I won’t be your friend. You don’t have to think like that. We can still be friends.”

The tears plowed down from my eyes even faster.

“What about all the times you made ambiguous comments or leaned in real close…Did I just imagine that…”

He stared at me with a straight face. He didn’t even so much as grin. “I don’t know what you want me to say Charlie…”

I was brought back to reality by the sound of hushed voices as the bathroom door burst open.

A scratchy tickle formed in my throat that I was unable to swallow.

I couldn’t help but think back to another encounter with Stefano. This was three and half years earlier as we walked into school together one morning…

Stefano smiled. He almost melted me with his gaze. “Hi Charlie.”

“Stefano.” I picked at the fingernail on my right index finger while I waited for him to say something.

Stefano glanced at my head. “I like your sunglasses.”

A burning feeling poked my stomach. “Thanks.”

I just stood there without any motion whatsoever while he stared me down. He almost licked his lips at me. It was definitely weird to say the least.

Sometime later, the screeching sound of the bell pierced the air. It was time for lunch. I ended up just staying locked in the bathroom stall, as it didn’t seem like there was any point in joining civilization.

I bumped into Stefano several days after my emotional episode in the bathroom as I carried a giant white box out of the local bakery on Main Street.

He grinned at me as the sound of his voice fell over my body like the comfort of a breeze on a scorching summer day. “Hey man. Nice sunglasses. Who knew people still wore sunglasses in December.”

“Just because it’s almost winter, doesn’t mean there isn’t a glare.” Sweat dripped down my face and my pulse increased. “Besides, it helps me avoid eye contact with people.”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh…Anyway, we really need to talk.”

“I don’t think we really have anything to talk about. You are clearly uncomfortable with being my friend. You made that crystal clear by not keeping in touch with me when you moved. But you know what? I respect your choice,” I screamed in such a tone that could have shattered all the glass windows on Main Street.

Stefano pouted. “Didn’t you miss me?”

“It doesn’t really matter how I feel Stefano…” My voice trailed off.

He raised his eyes at me. “So who’s the cake for?”

“It’s for my mom. Tiramisu is her favorite. Today’s her birthday.”

Stefano chuckled. “It’s nice that you picked it out for your Mom.”

My heart pounded inside my chest. It almost felt like it would dissolve into nothingness.

“Anyways, no offense or anything, but I really don’t want to talk to you Stefano. I mean you should be pretty disgusted with yourself after what you did.”

I thought back to a week after I confessed my love to Stefano. We were seated on the carpet in front of his bed…

He gazed into my eyes. “I’m glad you decided to come hang out and have another Desperate Housewives marathon with me.”

I forced a smile. “Yeah, of course. It was a great idea.”

Stefano laughed at me. The sound of his voice vibrated around the room, as I was unsure as to whether or not his laughter was like a comforting breeze on a summer day or a paralyzing frosty sting in the middle of winter.

“I just wanted to prove to you that just because you have feelings for me doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends.”

I gazed down at my sneakers. “Absolutely.”

He clicked his lips together. “And I also want you know that I don’t hold any ill-will towards you. I still see you as my good friend.”

It was kind of funny that Stefano was being so honest. He was usually a person that spoke with a limited number of words. The more I thought about my confession, the more it struck me as odd that Stefano emphasized the fact that we could still be friends twice when I told him that I loved him. It wasn’t just about being over-analytical. There was just something there; I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. That didn’t mean that my stomach burned any less though.

“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

Stefano inched a little closer. I could have sworn that our legs brushed up against each other while he repositioned himself on the carpet. Stefano would probably deny it if I ever called him out on it. That was just classic Stefano.

“I know you want to kiss me.” Stefano hadn’t even so much as blinked at me when uttered those words. For once in his life, it appeared that he was genuine.

I didn’t even bother to respond to his flirty comment. Under any other circumstances I would have. But not tonight! I guess I didn’t feel like calling Stefano out.

His eyes were still fixated on me, and before I could do anything he leaned in and pressed his lips against mine. His tongue massaged my mouth. A warm sensation shot back to my brain as all the neurons became electrified.

I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even bother to question him. I was just going with the kiss. I guess I did agree with Stefano on one thing. There were times when his life motto “go with the flow” was appropriate.

We pulled back from each other a minute later.

“Wow!” I put my right hand to my lips. His lips might not have been on my mouth any longer, but that didn’t change the fact that they were still wet from his touch.

He let out a faint grin. “That was fun.”
A lump formed in my throat that I was unable to swallow. There was one question on my mind, but I didn’t know if I was prepared for the answer: “Why did you just kiss me?”

Stefano raised his shoulders. “I don’t know. I was bored. I just wanted to have some fun.”

“Oh. That’s nice.” I could have argued with him, but that seemed futile. I decided to enjoy the moment for what it was: a kiss. Although I’d be surprised if I wasn’t crying over Stefano later, after all, anyone would find his behavior towards me to be confusing. I didn’t even care if it made me seem weak to cry over a guy.

From that point I had no doubt in my mind, Stefano could say that he was “100 percent” straight ‘til his last dying breath, but I wouldn’t believe him. No “100 percent straight” guy would kiss another guy. My chest was ready to explode at the mere thought of our kiss.

“Well, what did I do that was so unforgivable?”

I interconnected my arms. “You know exactly what you did. You should really be ashamed for kissing me. It’s bad enough to lead someone on when it’s a guy and a girl, but a guy leading on another guy when he says that he’s ‘straight’ is disgusting. I mean are you that desperate for an ego boost? You’re like one of those narcissistic guys that plays mind games with bi and gay guys. I mean, don’t you even care that what you did was a little twisted?”

His jaw shook a little. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Of course you didn’t!”

After my Mom had finished her birthday cake and opened her presents I excused myself to my room, telling her that I “needed to study for a big test,” but that couldn’t have been more false. I just needed some time to myself.

As I was lying in bed that night I thought back to when I’d originally met Stefano. It was the first week of eighth grade: I was at my locker; I’d grabbed my textbooks for my morning classes, and slammed my locker shut, letting the sound rattle through the hallway, then I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I whirled around. My eyes scanned the body of the guy standing in front of me. It was a six-foot plus greasy haired jock.

“How’s the school’s lamest loser?”

I refrained from crying. It was bad enough that my shirt was pink, but I didn’t need to seem like an emotional freak too.

The guy screamed and I almost had to cover my ears. “I said how’s the school’s lamest loser?”

My eyes bulged up. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him? After all, I’m staring right at him.”

A wave of red flashed across the guy’s forehead as he smacked me right in the face. My body fell to the ground. He started kicking me in the stomach. I thought that I was going to cough up blood from the pain.

“Hey asshole!”

He turned around. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Stefano that walked up to us.

Stefano smirked at the bully. “Don’t you know to pick on people your own size? I guess that makes you a coward.”

He lunged forward, punching the bully in the face. The bully stepped back, but Stefano wasn’t done. He punched the bully in the face a second time. Stefano burst out into a hysterical fit of laughter as the asshole fell to the floor.

He darted over to me, extending his hand.

“I’m Stefano.” He couldn’t help but continue to smile.

I brushed the dust and dirt off of my khaki shorts. “Thank you.”

Stefano grinned some more. “Don’t mention it. I fucking hate bullies. Anyway, what’s your name?”

I stuttered for a moment before I looked up at him. He was wearing a gray shirt and red basketball shorts.

I sat by myself in the cafeteria the following day at lunch. I looked on, as everyone else was engrossed in conversations with their particular cliques. I had to be the only one sitting alone.

“Hi Charlie!”

I took my eyes off the tray as I looked up at him. “You remember my name?”

He let out a small laugh. “Of course I remembered your name. Anyways, I was just wondering if you wanted to sit at my table. My friends won’t bite. I promise.”

I almost choked on a gulp of my own air. “Yeah. Sure. That sounds like fun.”

I got up from the table and grabbed my lunch tray. I trailed behind Stefano as I followed him all the way back to his lunch table. As I sat down next to him I was pretty sure that I felt his leg brush up against mine. A tingly feeling pricked the hairs on my back.

I didn’t go to sleep the night of my Mom’s birthday. I mean I was happy because my Mom had a nice birthday and all, but no amount of happiness that I felt about my Mom would change the fact that I had some serious issues to deal with. I just continued sulking in bed as my eyes watched the red numbers on my alarm clock. One o’clock turned into two-thirty, and that morphed into three, which turned into four, which changed into five and then six.

I dragged myself out of bed.

I returned to my bedroom half an hour later with a towel rapped around my waist and twenty minutes later I was in my car. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! I started the ignition. I plowed out of the driveway after the car warmed up.

The wind howled in the background as I rolled by the various McMansions. Emaciated brown sticks waved in the wind. My teeth chattered as an opaque substance left my mouth. I guess I should have dressed warmer. I adjusted the heater. Before long, a humid feeling flushed through my body as I sighed in relief.

I know what you must be thinking. I must seem pathetic because I needed a guy to rescue me. That was the reason I became friends with Stefano after all. That wasn’t 100 percent of it though. Stefano might not have been a “bad boy” in a literal sense, but that didn’t detract from the fact that he had an acidic personality at times. There was also kindness that snuck through every now and then. And I guess that was the main reason I was in love on him. Stefano might have been a dick, but he also made me feel special. He was the only classmate that I ever had a real conversation with!

I walked into school a couple of months after I first sat with Stefano and his friends at their lunch table, and a hand patted my back. I turned around to see Stefano standing there before me.

A grin formed on his face. “Hey man.”


His eyes made their way down my body while I felt the intensity of each one of his passing breaths. “What’s going on?”

“Not much. This is kind of embarrassing but I need help picking out a wedding outfit. My cousin is getting married this weekend and I have no idea what to wear,” I said, scratching my face.

Laughter left his mouth. His eyes were still fixed on me. “We could go to the mall in town near Main Street. My Mom could drive us to the train station.”

That was the torture about not being sixteen! We couldn’t drive ourselves places. Luckily, Riverwood had a train station. That meant that we wouldn’t have to go to the mall with Stefano’s Mom. It was already awkward enough that I was beyond in love with him…

I wiped the thick layer of stickiness off the right side of my face. “Sure. Sounds like a plan.”

He winked at me. “Great. I’ll just text my Mom to pick us up right after school.”

I licked my lips. “I look forward to it.”

Stefano’s eyes dilated a little. “Yeah. Me too.”

I stepped out of the dressing room six hours later as Stefano stood there while he waited for me.

A smile twisted across his face. His eyes glanced at me. “You look good.”


Stefano inched closer as he fixed my tie. I guess it had been a little loose. His hands hovered by my neck a second longer than they should have. A scorching sensation jabbed my stomach. My lips became a little moist as my tongue splashed them.

“Oh, one more thing!” His hands made their way down to my crotch. He moved the zipper up as it made a small clink after he finished zipping my pants. The touch of his hands on my body tickled the hairs on my back. A blistering burn exploded in my brain. It was kind of funny that I had been too oblivious to remember to zip up my pants…

He stepped back from me. His eyes glanced over my outfit one more time as he looked at my blazer, pink polo shirt, khaki pants, and black shoes. I guess it wouldn’t have been a Charlie Bell outfit, without a little pink flair to it. And I wasn’t going to apologize for that. It was a part of my style and there was nothing left to say on the matter.

My eyebrows danced above each of my eyes. “A little forward don’t you think?”

“I just like to help my friends out. Tell me, what’s so wrong about that?”

My teeth plunged into my lower lip in order to suppress a laugh. “Nothing.”

I barreled into the school parking lot ten minutes later. There was no time to reminisce about Stefano. I grabbed my backpack from the trunk, after which, I slammed the trunk shut. The vibration echoed throughout the parking lot.

About 100 feet away, Stefano plopped out of his car. His eyes met my eyes for a split second. He waived his hand at me. I didn’t waive back. I just stood by my car as he meandered towards the front entrance of the school.

My chest bobbed up and down as the pace increased with each passing breath.

From the second I stepped foot inside the school building until the dismissal bell Stefano remained burned in my mind. He was just that powerful. He could have people on their hands and knees even when he wasn’t with someone. Whether I liked it or not, I knew that I would have to deal with him. It was a matter of when not if!

The following afternoon, I was seated at my mahogany desk while my head was buried in a textbook. A creaking sound scraped my bedroom door.

“Come in.” My eyes remained focused on my homework as someone walked into my bedroom.

“We really need to talk!”

I turned around to see Stefano standing there in front of me. “What are you doing here?”

He almost gasped on a gulp of air before he spoke. “I owe you an apology Charlie. I knew you had feelings for me way before you told me that you were in love with me and I shouldn’t have messed with you.”

“What are you saying?”

“My weird comments were just that. Weird.” He looked down at the new gray carpeting in my bedroom. “I might not have been overly sexual but you were not wrong in thinking that what I said was ambiguous.”

I shook my head. “Why are you telling me this? I mean no offense or anything but nothing will change the fact that you lost touch with me for no good reason”

He coughed into his hooded sweatshirt while he cleared his throat.

“Fine. I’ll admit it. I lost touch with you because I felt the same way about you as you did about me. I was just too afraid to admit it. I guess I’m pretty insecure. And as for your other question, I guess I was hoping that deep down you still felt something for me.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

Stefano walked over to me. He pulled me in for a kiss. His tongue massaged my mouth while I took in the earthly aroma of his Old Spice cologne. Nothing else mattered. I was tired of playing it safe. Even if I didn’t want to take a risk, I knew it was time to finally allow myself the opportunity of getting everything I ever wanted.

Stefano didn’t leave my bedroom that evening. I could tell you what happened after the kiss, but I won’t. That’s a story for another time.

“Hot Mess” By: Andrea Pena

Sitting in a cloud of ethanol,
gasping for air. I imagine the gases
churning in the belly of the beast
seated next to me.

Could it be a sea of vomit,
seeking an escape? Or acid,
eroding the pit away?

So cleaver is its disguise.
It can’t fool me, I can spot it
from a mile away.

I am trapped, with no way out.
Among my peers I sit,
with my nose in the air.
The stench of overpriced,
domestic beer lingers.

“Laws of Attraction” By: Kirby Wright

SHE LOVED HIM because he worshiped her. Her style of love operated more out of loyalty than attraction, the way an owner is loyal to a dog that fawns and slobbers. Sex with him was tolerable. It did excite her that he’d abandoned his wife and three children to be with her. She used his worship as a platform to support her movie star ambitions, even though she was over forty and had never been on film except uncredited roles as waitresses, hookers, and faces in the mob. She ached to be famous. He knew her passion and gave her foot rubs whenever she felt blue. She left him for an actor half her age she swore was the second coming of Tom Cruise.

“Full of Poison” By: Jeffrey Rindskopf

Andrew’s mom’s Volkswagen ground over the loose gravel as we pulled into an unmarked space in the far corner of the lot. Before Andrew even switched the car off I produced the two 40s of Miller High Life from the plastic grocery bag stashed near my feet. We clapped the bottom ends together in cheers before unscrewing the aluminum caps and tossing them into the hopeless clutter of the backseat. We wouldn’t need them any longer.

Andrew downed his in record time. I tried to keep up at first but had to stop when I felt the fizz coming through my nose. It burned and brought tears to my eyes, so I sat the half-full bottle in my lap for a moment. Andrew didn’t skip a beat. As I watched, the amber beer swirled steadily out of the bottle until it was all empty, save for the white bubbles coating the glass sides. He belched and smiled big when he finished.

“What, you’re still here?” he said and laughed in his usual way—gums showing and eyes obscured by folds that would one day turn to wrinkles. I flipped him off and continued at my own pace while he started fiddling with the radio. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll catch up with me someday.”

“Practice makes perfect, right?”


He crossed himself and laughed again as I got to what remained in my bottle. My stomach felt heavy and the High Life tasted luxurious compared to what we were used to. We were usually forced to settle for the bottom shelf stuff because Andrew’s sister demanded a cut when she bought us beer. We had to sacrifice our dinner money most of the time just to get our hands on some of that vile piss called Keystone Light. Less food, at the very least, meant a quicker buzz.

Tonight, we were blessed with extra spending money because the act at the Chain Reaction was truly unknown, even in the world of local hardcore—a four-piece called Corpse Incorporated. To us, it meant lower ticket prices and higher-end alcohol.

I finished my 40 to the last drop. Andrew flung his door open and jumped out of the car with bottle in hand. He turned to the dry riverbed, a mess of cracked dirt and jagged brown weeds running alongside the parking lot. He drew his arm back.

“Think it’ll shatter?”

“I’d like to see you try,” I said as I fumbled out of the car.

He tossed the glass with all his might. It spiraled through the air, reaching its apex and coming down to earth. It landed among the weeds with a hollow thunk.

“We should’ve put money on it,” I said.

“I’ll bet you can’t do much better.”

“Bet what?”

“Fair point.”

I circled the car to his side, weighing the empty 40 in my open palm. I pulled my arm back and lifted one leg up to give the throw some real power. I chucked it and watched it spin in the air like Andrew’s. A sharp pain shot through my shoulder like a can-opener. The bottle shattered with a crash on impact and I clapped my hands together once in victory.

“I’ll be damned,” Andrew whistled. “You must have bought a breakaway bottle or some shit.”

“Right, because I knew we would do this,” I laughed. We started walking. I could feel my head going light and my gaze turning pleasantly fuzzy. We stomped toward the building, zig-zagging. The venue was a flat-roofed white stucco place wedged between the riverbed and an ugly strip mall with a dry cleaning shop and a family pizza joint. It was unimposing from the outside, but anarchic fury erupted within each Friday and Saturday night. Those nights, it turned from unused office space into the Chain Reaction, an all-ages venue for hardcore punk frequented by mean-looking townies and weirdo adolescent cliques from the surrounding neighborhoods. Andrew had introduced me to the cheap concerts, but I already felt I understood their meaning better than he ever would. For him, they were simply about chaotic fun, but I knew it to be something bigger. Two days a week, it was a place of unrepentant nihilism nestled discreetly in the hopeless domesticity that was our hometown. The Chain Reaction was a place where nothing meant anything and that meant freedom in a place otherwise bereft of such a foreign concept.

We came to the ticket counter and each wordlessly slid a ten dollar bill through the slot in the glass. The piercing-clad attendant slid flimsy ticket stubs back at us. We went to the door and the usual hefty bouncer ripped the stubs in half and waved us through the double doors.

We crossed the threshold and I felt it all leave me. My miserably unrequited love, my crushing issues of self-worth, my parents’ pending divorce—all of it gone like that. In here, I wasn’t a rational, thinking human, but a beast driven by raw emotion without reason.

The inside of the venue started with a narrow hallway opening into a sprawling square room, empty except for a black wooden stage jutting out of the wall, raised three feet off the ground. Save for that, everything was gray concrete, spotted and cracked and mean and hard. A crowd that matched the concrete was gathering in the center of the room, all yelling over each other. Andrew and I didn’t quite blend in—no piercings, tattoos, or jet black hair—but we did our best. He wore a black vest with ragged patches ironed on and his hair gelled up in points, and I wore a band shirt from another concert and a pair of old blue jeans cut into shorts with dull scissors I stole from school.

We joined the crowd at the edges and talked and called each other drunk and laughed about nothing. A few people recognized Andrew and he introduced me briefly. They talked and I stood idly by with nothing to offer, a familiar phenomenon. I didn’t mind being sidelined like I usually did though. I just stared off and enjoyed the beer buzzing pleasantly through my body. The bitter taste of it lingered on the back of my tongue, so I spit on the floor. No one noticed. I liked being drunk—really drunk—so I decided to take advantage of the ace up my sleeve before the show started.

“I need to go grab something from the car,” I said to Andrew, interrupting his conversation.

“Go ahead.”

“Can I get the keys?”

“It’s unlocked,” he said.

“You leave the car unlocked?” I asked.

“You couldn’t pay someone to steal the piece of shit.”

I trudged out of the place, past the bouncer and through the parking lot to the car. I fished my tattered backpack out from amongst the fast food wrappers in the backseat. Unzipping it, I dug past a stack of notebooks and felt for the slick metal that had sunk to the bottom. I smiled at the thin flask I held between my thick fingers. I felt the heat from another car’s headlights on my back, so I got into the car and slammed the door behind me for the sake of discretion.

I popped off the flask’s cap and took my first pull from it. It tasted like gas and went down my throat like fire. I didn’t know what it was. I’d found it digging through my dad’s desk drawers in search of paperclips and felt the liquid sloshing around inside. I recognized what the dull metal canteen was for, so I stashed it until the right day came around. This wasn’t to share with Andrew, though—this was mine. I tilted it back again and coughed as it went down, some of it leaking through my lips and down my peach-fuzz chin. It even felt hot on my skin. I drank more still until it was all gone and slammed it down on the dashboard before stepping out of the car. I was disappointed at first that I didn’t feel much drunker than before. But walking back to the building, I felt my legs struggle to move straight and watched the world swirling into a soft focus. I laughed dumbly, knowing it had done the trick and then some.

The music had started. It came through the outside air, mostly the relentless thump-thump-thump of a harsh snare drum that shook the rocks on the ground. I imagined the sober, steady people sitting in the pizza place yards away, an adult contemporary song drifting through the speakers and sneered.

The bouncer’s scowl deepened as he smelled the rubbing alcohol stench coming off me. I dug through my pockets and produced the ticket stub. He waved me in.

The concert was in full-swing. The band played a song that plodded along with angry abandon. The drummer threw his long hair back and forth as he brought the sticks down hard. The bassist played the same three chords until it looked like his fingers might fall off. The guitarist moved one hands along the neck of his V-shaped guitar and tore his other hand up and down on the strings. The singer had the microphone cord wrapped around his bare chest, doubled over at the edge of the stage so he could scream into the faces of the crowd. The acoustics of the venue were horrible, but it only added to the industrial, raw clatter of it all. It felt good, feeling the music coursing through me and driving my heart rate up. People punched the air, all of them in a circle to allow a mosh pit in the center. It moved like a whirlpool of some two dozen people, all pushing and running and throwing fists. I found Andrew at the rim of the pit. We smiled at each other wordlessly before scowling again so we’d blend in. I joined him in shoving everyone that strayed close enough to us.

I pushed a skinhead with one hand as he stomped by. He turned back with fury in his flashing eyes, but I paid him no mind. He was tall and gangly, with shiny hairless skin, his shirt tucked into his jeans so his pink torso was on full display.

The song died with a final snare kick. I managed to get a word in to Andrew. “Why aren’t you in the pit?”

“I was in the fucking pit,” he yelled, gesturing to his face, red and blotched with sweat that threatened to ruin his meticulously unkempt hair. I punched his arm in good humor, appreciating the sonuvabitch in the rare way you only do when you’re full of poison. The guitarist hit a hard chord and the next song started like a stick of dynamite.

“Your turn!” Andrew shoved me into the mosh pit, and I didn’t bother to resist. I embraced it all and felt the beat of the new song, which sounded exactly like the last. I bent over so I was facing the ground and moved along to the rhythm, kicking my feet and fists into the air, feeling my sneakers slide on the smooth concrete ground. I kept moving with the current of people. My mouth filled with foul tasting spit and the throbbing in my eardrums spread to my whole head.

I stayed and sweated out some of the beer in the pit for a few songs before I suffered a shove from behind that knocked me onto the floor. My stomach hit first, and then my chin. The bone went numb and the air rushed out of me. Lifting my head, I made out the skinhead stomping away at a steady pace. The adrenaline numbed any pain the alcohol didn’t take care of, and I felt a surge of sweet hatred rising in my stomach. But hatred isn’t what came up my throat and out my lips. I felt the foul stuff coming and clapped my hand across my mouth. Some of it overflowed and spilt between my fingers so a splatter of vomit landed inches from my face on the concrete.

I stood and ran to the bathroom in the corner of the venue. I found my way into one of the stalls, tossing the thin door shut behind me and letting it all flow out of me and into the toilet bowl. I felt better afterwards, except for a clogged feeling in my throat like heartburn. I stood up and leaned into the concrete partition to keep my balance. I tried to hold the toilet bowl in focus, but it wouldn’t keep still. I hit the bar to flush it with my sneaker. The brown liquid, tinged red with blood, swirled and went away.

When I went to leave the stall, I noticed a man hunched over the counter beside the only sink in the room. I stayed in the stall, silent and watching him through a crack in the door, half-fascinated and half-disdainful of his getup. He wore a pair of beat-up Nike sneakers beneath a businessman’s outfit, complete with dark creased slacks and a starched shirt, the ends of it untucked and wrinkled. The man moved a little as he brought in a sharp breath through his nose—snorting something off the counter. He stood straight and sighed with a hoo-ah sound, throwing his arms back and forth. When he left, I saw his face in profile.

That was enough though. I recognized him as my father. His face was more hollow than usual and his normally well-kempt hair was falling over his eyes, but it was him.

I stepped up to the sink in a trance and watched myself swaying in the muddy mirror. I tried to focus on my reflection, my ruddy-spotted face and bruised chin, for what seemed like a long time, trying to divine if I’d really seen what I thought I had. The flecks of white dust left on the counter seemed to confirm it. My face screwed up in confusion. The music broke through the bathroom’s relative quiet as a song outside grew in intensity and volume. I remembered where I was and splashed water on my face and bared my teeth.

I went back into the large room with my hands in fists, letting the hate surge through me once more. I cursed my father for daring to invade and tarnish this sacred domain. I felt tight and strong and a little sick. I kept my eyes peeled for him as I went back toward the front of the crowd. I saw him in the mosh pit, stomping and dancing like I had done moments before. He was an odd sight—a forty-something man wearing formal clothes in the midst of a hardcore punk show crowded with kids in their late teens. No one but me seemed to mind. Some even spurred him on with enthusiasm.

Without thinking, I stepped into the current of the pit again and stayed upright, following with a heavy gait. He didn’t see me behind him. As I felt the song fading, I turned around to go against the current. He came around, eyes on the ground. I bent low and drove my fist straight up through the air and into his face. It hit hard, and he fell backwards onto his ass.

“Fuck,” he said. The song ended abruptly. He looked up at me and our eyes met. Deep red blood started seeping out from both his nostrils. It coated his lips and chin. I couldn’t take looking at him, so I turned and sprinted through the crowd and out the door. I didn’t stop until I reached Andrew’s mom’s car. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes and fought to keep them from spilling out onto my cheeks, hating myself like I hated my father. I looked toward the riverbed, black in the moonless night and sucked in deep, labored breaths, feeling too much all at once. Shame, fear, confusion, loneliness, sorrow, anger—all of it rising inside me like ice water until it just turned to numbness. I wretched and I wished I could vomit more, so it would all come out of me, but I was empty.

Gravel crunched behind me, signaling someone’s approach. I knew who it was, so I crossed to the far side of the vehicle. The crunching got closer and finally stopped a few feet behind me. I tried to keep my eyes dry and defiant for the relentless scolding I knew was coming. He could punish me as much as he wanted, but if I stayed resolute and angry, it wouldn’t matter—I would win. I heard him sigh and then I heard his voice, which only inflamed all my emotions again.

“Listen,” he began in a soft tone that surprised me. “Don’t… Please don’t tell your mother about this. If she knew she would use this. She’d call me an unfit parent—and I might not get to see you or your sister anymore. Please, I can forget this—if you just… don’t tell your mother.”

His words were like white noise but the meaning sunk in. His voice sounded humble, ashamed, and almost pleading, even scared. My father—scared. I realized I had actual power over him, but didn’t know how to use it. I sniffed and said with a mean edge to keep my voice from shaking:

“I saw you in the bathroom.”

“Christ,” he hissed, more at himself than me. He kicked at the rocks on the ground and groaned desperately.

“What were you doing?” I asked.

“I was… reverting. Or trying to—revert to a younger age I mean. Like your age,” he dodged. I didn’t press him—I knew what he was doing. I just wondered why in the hell anyone would ever want to be my age after they’d passed it for good. “Just—please. Don’t tell your mother.”

I felt him hovering behind me but still didn’t turn to look at him. My father sniffed behind me.

“You don’t have a napkin, do you? I’ve just got a lot of, uh…”

I went into the car and fished out a crumpled fast food napkin. I handed it to him, looking into his face for the first time since our eyes had met inside. He brought the napkin to his upper lip. The blood looked black in the dark as it soaked through the brown paper until that was all black too. He twisted one end and wedged it into his right nostril.

“You really shouldn’t punch your father,” he said, and looked down with uncertain eyes. He said it with his usual authoritative tone, but it didn’t sound right anymore. “You reek of alcohol,” he said.

“Vomit too,” I muttered. I wanted to be angry at him again, and I tried, but it wouldn’t come. I went to the inside of the car and came back with the flask. I put it in his hand. I noticed the circles under his eyes, wet and shiny in the ambient light, as he accepted the flask and shook it to hear that it was empty.

I went back and leaned on the hood of the car. He gradually sidled up to my side and discreetly leaned on the hood of the car too. It sunk a little closer to the ground beneath our weight.

I wondered, for the first time, why he’d come here if he hadn’t anticipated seeing me, which he plainly hadn’t. I didn’t bother asking because I knew he wouldn’t answer. I would never know that about him. I would never know much about him at all, like I hadn’t known he could be humbled or ashamed or scared before that night. He likely wondered the same about me—all he would never know and never understand about me. He, too, didn’t ask.

We stood in silence. I watched the streetlights in the distance through bleary eyes, and they stood still for a moment. I felt some sort of peace coming through my throbbing head and hot cheeks and dry lips as I looked past the riverbed to the town and listened to the crickets’ chirping blended with the whooshing of the cars going home. After a while, he stood up. The car lifted higher off the ground without his weight so my feet weren’t touching the ground anymore.

“I’ll see you Sunday morning,” he said and pocketed the flask.

“Sunday morning,” I echoed, and he left, tucking in his shirt tails.

“Mississippi Summer” By: Connor McGaha

He’ll pay me mint juleps
for a Mississippi summer
to see Purple Wave petunias
bloom in crushed-velvet heat.
To escape from cement
and the city’s stale air
for some game of croquet
on an Oxford lawn.
White shirts under sunrays
white fences in August
that crawl along sidewalks
by postage stamp lots
Indian gravesites

way north of Jackson.
Porches sag into soil
or slide up from railings
and ivy ties knots
in lattice-cut skirts.
A rocking chair stares
with a sweat-beaded highball

flagged on the corner
with a pioneer straw.
The state’s seen decades
burdened by heat
and bouts of depression
and plain old shit luck.
but Live Oaks grow sturdy
dropping Spanish Moss carpet
enticing soft footfall
from leather-soled loafers.

“Grandpa Joe’s Special Wrapping Paper” By: YC Takahashi

The pastor tells me he’s never seen so many people turn out for a funeral. Cars are parked for at least a mile down the small gravel street, and mourners are still coming down the main road. Joe was not my grandfather by blood but a neighbor who fed me when I was hungry. Every year, he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Miraculously, Santa Claus would bring it along with warm clothing. My gifts were not wrapped in fancy paper and bows, but with aluminum foil.

“It’s special because it twinkles like the North Star,” he always said. That warmed me inside because whatever Grandpa Joe said was true.

“I saw Santa last night,” I screamed as I ran into Grandpa Joe’s house one year.

“You shouldn’t stay up. If you’re up next year, Santa won’t bring you anything but a lump of coal.”

“Okay, sorry Grandpa,” I said tearing up.

“I’ll tell Santa you meant no harm,” he said. He pinched my cheeks and gave me that wonderful smile.

“Look what Grandpa Joe bought for you.” I started to tear open the mound of aluminum foil.

“Let me help you.” Grandpa Joe carefully peeled away the shiny wrapping paper from its contents.

“We can use this again.” He winked at me.

It was the pink snowsuit I was sick about. A girl in my class said I was too poor to afford it and I cried for weeks on Grandpa Joe’s shoulder. I hugged him as I clutched onto my new outfit.

“Go on now. Have your Mommy help you put it on and build the biggest snowman on the block.”

“Don’t peek. I’ll come get you when it’s done.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek and ran back home.

It’s my turn to pay my respects to the man who made me feel important. I look into the casket and see his gray hair, the same scruff that peeked out of Santa’s hat that Christmas Eve I stayed up to sneak a peek at Old Saint Nick. As I say good-bye to Grandpa Joe for the last time, I look around the chapel to make sure no one is watching. I wrap the first toy “Santa” ever gave me with aluminum foil and slip it into the casket. I grin. My face burns when I realize everyone in line is smiling at me. They all wave their aluminum foil wrapped packages at me.

I realize my gifts weren’t the only ones he wrapped between selling hot dogs at the flea market concession stand. He provided for thousands of children on his meager wages.

All these years, I thought I was the special one. I guess we all were.

“Minstroni Soup Prayer” By: David Brennan

No food in the fucking fridge. White cold shards of glass on the floor, I hope it wasn’t me, I hope I didn’t break that window, but it’s not looking good. The cold air penetrates—stabbing me out of my trance as I stare into the cup of water, which I can’t hold. My hands are shaking too much, six days of continuous intoxication. I cough up yellow black streaked phlegm—about as much as an egg. My heart is pounding and I have a deathly pain in my chest. I’m sure I’ll drop dead at any moment of massive heart failure, or brain hemorrhage. Which would be better, I wonder—the heart sounds less painful. I woke up in some house, naked with some girl, fucked if you do, fucked if you don’t, no other way to look at it. I had to wake her up to get a cigarette, and I raided her fridge for beer, but only found one can of Foster’s.

She had big tits; I asked her name and how we’d met. She said she found me talking to the trees, in words she couldn’t understand. Anyway, fair lady of the woods, many thanks, I’ll see you again someday. I’ll check the presses maybe something there? Everybody’s out, I think, gone to lectures. I sleep on the living room floor—for six months or more, I don’t pay rent. I skin up joints on the back of a magazine, which has a picture of Kate Moss on it. I’ve fallen in love with her; she’s my girlfriend, my Ophelia. The ghost of Hamlet is hanging round my neck like an invisible millstone. I want to jump into the sink.

I make good joints, perfect symmetry, pure conical calculus, no chaos, these joints are Newtonian. I think they keep the boys happy, but I can’t be sure because I feel uneasy at times. In their eyes I feel they resent my parasite existence—eating their food, drinking their drinks, and stealing their women. Ah well….. I have fantastic journeys when I drink—I enter different worlds, I’m complete. I’m Alexander—I’m the ghost of Rimbaud—ranting and raving sailing Drunken Ships down the heart of Africa. I see the world as words and find the music of Heaven in the bottom of a burnt out beer can.

I find a pack of minestrone soup in the press. Ah Jesus, thank you, soup is the best in this condition—solid food is difficult to keep down. I’d drink again but I have no money and no options, and my body can’t take much more, I’ll have to stand this misery for a day or two.

Tonight I must have at least a few cans and a smoke to get some sleep and keep the horrors away. Often when it comes I see faces, at first beautiful, then they turn into demented melting satanic witches, muttering in the tongues of ancient Babylon. Delirium Tremens. Impending doom is a coming ‘round the mountain—coming ‘round the mountain and she’s riding sixty-five foot horses. I have to leave the light on and endure it, hanging on to the thin shreds of my sanity.

The soup’s done. I find a bowl and pour it—carrying it to the sitting room is difficult. I spill a lot but eventually mange to get it down on the table. It’s about 11am, the weather is in some way reflecting the inner state of my lacerated mind.

I need a smoke first, not a joint, just a cigarette. I can’t smoke that shit unless I have a few drinks first—it just gives me the fear. I go through the overflowing ashtray, collect some good butts, squeeze out the remaining tobacco and roll a rollie. It tastes terrible but somehow better than the stale cold air of this run down shell. I get something from it, difficult to describe a thing like that. I look down into the minestrone soup bowl and I see the silhouette of my head. My long hair hanging down over both-sides of my face. This is the time of Grunge—Nevermind is rampant among the minds of the young. The old people cannot understand Generation X. I don’t belong to any generation I think. This would be a great album cover. I wish I had a camera, but if I had a camera, I’d sell it and drink it. I wish I had a fucking album. I wish I could play an instrument, or do something. But I can’t do anything and I don’t have anything, not even a C.D., I sell everything I get, even the food my mother gives me.

I look into the soup for a long, long time—floating into a no-mans land realizing that there is something beautiful here for me to capture—a portal of soupy time linking me to a higher dimension, but a camera…… a fucking camera, but then how would I take the picture? A third person would be necessary. Someday I thought, when I write a book or make an album, I’ll put this picture on the front of it. I’ll look all-full of madness—a shadow of a head in minestrone soup. Someday…

I pick up the spoon and try and lift it to my mouth, I spill most of it and with what’s left I burn my tongue. I’m so sick I want to cry. I leave the soup to the laws of thermodynamics. I need a real fucking drink I thought, not soup, but some cold vodka and cider mixed together for a morning riser. But where? But how? There’s always a way. Someday I’ll be famous.

Lord if you make me famous, then I’ll be Happy. Amen.