International Literary Exchange: The Driver’s Seat by Liam Copeland

Fiction, international literary exchange

The boy’s on his way to work when he hears the man call out. It’s a warm and sticky morning, sunlight gleaming off passing cars. The man doesn’t say the boy’s name, just ‘Excuse me!’ as loud as he can over the sound of traffic.

The boy stands at a busy intersection. He can see a fountain, the library, the shopping centre where he works. He can see a police station where uniformed men and women pass through sensor doors. And he can see this man, waiting at the red light, head poking from the window of his car. There’s confusion as other pedestrians assume ownership of the ‘Excuse me!’ But it’s the boy he wants. The man in the car makes that clear enough.

He’s not sure why he doesn’t just ignore the man, pretend not to notice. He thinks it’s probably got something to do with the way he’s been singled out. There’s something honourable in being handpicked from the street by a stranger. The boy puts a finger to his chest, mouthing, ‘Me?’ and the man nods his head furiously, waving the boy over. The light is still red as he worms between stationary cars.

‘You,’ says the man, sweat running down his face. ‘I need a favour. I’m not crazy. My name’s Robert Night. Now you know my name.’ The man never lets go of the wheel, and the boy notices a woman in the passenger seat and two children in the back, one of them a baby. He tries to focus on Robert.

‘Listen, I need a favour,’ he says.

‘A favour?’ says the boy.

‘Tell me your name. Let’s get some trust happening here.’

‘What’s the favour?’

‘Your name?’

‘Toby … Hutchings. Is that important?’ He can feel the myriad eyes of people in purring cars.

‘It’d be easier for you to screw me over if we were nameless. You could drive this thing anywhere you want,’ says Robert, glancing up at the traffic light, which is still red. ‘Names are important,’ he adds. The woman leans forward to speak, but he says something to her that Toby doesn’t catch, and she sits back in her seat, pouting. The baby is crying.

‘I need you to park this car. I’m not crazy. You know my name. I need you to park it because I’m late for a job interview and she can’t drive a stick,’ he says, becoming more urgent. The woman leans forward for a second then slumps back in her seat again.

‘I’ve been looking for a place to park the past thirty minutes. I’m already late. Will you do it for me, Toby Hutchings?’ says Robert, hunched over the wheel, a desperate man. A job interview. A woman who can’t drive a stick.

There’s something honourable in being handpicked from the street by a stranger, and Toby can’t look past this. He’s already forgotten about his own job at the shopping centre and how he’s supposed to start in ten minutes. It’s elating to be trusted solely on the way you wait to cross a road. What does he have that the others don’t?

The light goes green as Toby slides into Robert’s seat and watches him disappear between cars in the rear-view mirror.

The woman is wearing sunglasses and doesn’t say a word until they’ve passed through the intersection and are waiting in traffic on the other side. The baby has stopped crying.

‘I’m Bunny,’ she says. ‘My husband told me to tell you my name. You won’t kill me that way.’

‘Is that a real concern?’ he says, tapping the footbrake and forcing a laugh. His foot is the only movement in the car. The others can sense this—the woman, Bunny, and her two children. They’re crowded around the foot, trusting it with their lives. They listen to the plunging sound of the brake. He hopes she hasn’t noticed the way his legs tremble. ‘I was just on my way to work,’ he says. ‘The brake’s a bit clammy.’

‘I can drive a stick, you know’ she says, watching Toby change gears. ‘He just doesn’t want me driving his car.’

‘But he lets me? He doesn’t know me.’

‘I think that’s why. He knows what you look like, your name. He knows more than that about me. He won’t let me drive it. Trust is weird like that, don’t you think?’

‘Why me, though? He was clearly singling me out. Should you drive?’

‘You look harmless, maybe. You’re in work clothes. They are work clothes? A uniform operates like a name. It’s honest or something.’

‘They’re work clothes. I’m a cleaner. At the shopping centre down the road. The big one. Wait, should you drive?’

‘What do you think? What if Robert found out?’ she says, implicitly. ‘How old are you, Toby Hutchings?’

‘Is this like the name thing?’

I’m thirty-four, If that helps.’

He says, ‘Twenty-one,’ even though he’s eighteen, and is not sure why he lies. Maybe it’s because he’s just noticed her legs, the way she looks at him. He wonders if this is breaching the trust that Robert Night has invested in him.

The clock in the dashboard says 8:53. He’s bumper to bumper when he readjusts the seat, settles into his role. Would the radio be too much? Too comfortable?

‘Do you mind if I put the air-con on?’ he says when the baby starts to cry.

‘Halfway. It stinks of cigarettes,’ she says, undoing her seatbelt, attending to the baby. She lifts it from the capsule anchored to the back seat. The little boy doesn’t say a word as he watches his mother handle his sibling. Toby guesses the boy to be seven, the baby is practically a newborn. Toby wonders if he’s in a position to tell Bunny to put her seatbelt back on.

‘Say hi to Toby, Cole,’ says Bunny, talking to the seven-year-old now. ‘His name is Cole,’ she says to Toby, cradling the baby in her arms. ‘Do you need this one’s name?’

‘I’m not a k-i-l-l-e-r,’ he says, smiling, spelling it out. ‘I was on my way to work.’

‘Hi Toby,’ says Cole, an innocent voice from the backseat. The boy’s feet dangle as he writes something in the window dirt with his finger. The baby is crying.

‘Pull into that McDonalds,’ says Bunny, undoing a button on her shirt, letting a breast drop to the baby’s lips. The silence is instantaneous. The nipple is red and inflamed, the breast full and pale. Bunny’s hair falls around it, framing the glorious milky bulb. She never removes her sunglasses.

‘Robert told me to park the car,’ says Toby, tightening his grip on the steering wheel, trying to accept the presence of the single breast. ‘I should really do that. Only that.’

‘We don’t have to stop the car. That’s what the drive-thru is for. Fast food. Yippee,’ she says, manipulating the baby’s head into a better position. ‘You don’t look convinced.’

He nods without looking at her and crosses a double line, pulling into the McDonalds. A car beeps, loud and brash, extending into a haze of monotonous traffic noise. Cole is ecstatic when he sees the golden arches, the playground. He bounces in his seat, dragged from his stupor. ‘Dad never lets us eat here,’ he says, digging a foot into the back of the driver’s seat.

Toby manoeuvres the car around a low hedge, clipping the gutter, a scraping sound—an utterance of damage. The front right wheel lifts momentarily before dropping back to the road. The suspension breathes in and out.

‘Is your plan to crash the car? Call it an accident?’ says Bunny.

‘The brakes are clammy,’ he says, the ‘sinister’ jokes grating on him.

They pull up alongside the intercom and Toby winds down his window while Cole stands on his seat, pushing his head through a gap. Cole pretends to be reading the menu board, but he knows what he wants and shouts it at the speaker grill when it asks, ‘How can I help you?’ Bunny doesn’t look up from the child suckling at her inflamed nipple. She crosses her legs, repositions the baby, and the small shorts she’s wearing slide up her thigh.

‘Order me something,’ she says to Cole, handing her purse to Toby, who accepts it without a word, kneading it in his palm. The transaction is subtle and natural, trust earned, names exchanged, favours played out.

At the first window, Toby reaches into the purse and hands over a twenty. He recognises the cashier from somewhere, and as she reaches over with the change, he reads her nametag: Meagan. She’s younger than him—she’d be slightly removed from his circle. The name is definitely familiar.

‘Dylan,’ she says, peering into the car, eyeing the woman breastfeeding nonchalantly. ‘Do you remember me? Is this your … family?’

‘I’m Toby,’ is all he says, easing the car to the next window, collecting his food, and pulling away. Meagan appears behind the second cashier to watch him go, her face vacant. She mouths something, a collection of words he can’t make out. Bunny doesn’t look up. Cole is rummaging around in the bag of food, slurping on a thickshake, saying, ‘I won’t tell dad,’ over and over.

Toby pulls back into traffic, brakes for a car changing lines, thinks to beep his horn but doesn’t. A police car pulls up alongside them at the traffic lights, a woman speaking into a radio, the man making brief eye contact with him. The light goes green, the traffic thins and Bunny is pointing at a car park, saying ‘There, there,’ between mouthfuls of food. Milk is trickling over the baby’s downy cheeks. Cole says, ‘I won’t tell dad.’

Toby reverses into the spot, concentrating hard, and the engine is dead before he notices the handicap sign. ‘I can’t park here,’ he says.

‘It’ll be fine,’ says Bunny, undoing her seatbelt, redoing her shirt button. The breast disappears. ‘I won’t tell dad,’ she says smiling, as he looks around for the police car.

‘Can’t,’ he says, turning the engine back on. ‘You’ll get fined. He’ll make me pay it. I told you I’m a fucking cleaner.’ He moves off the gutter. The baby is crying. Bunny is staring at him.

‘You’re taking this very seriously. Good for you.’

‘He trusted me,’ he says, sweating.

‘I think you need to keep driving. You like the power. You could take us anywhere really. You’re the one in the driver’s seat.’

‘What’s the job interview?’ he says, turning back onto the main road, changing the subject. The clock in the dashboard says 9:12. He thinks about the word: fuck. Why did he use it? Has the trust been shattered? Has he taken it too far?

‘I don’t know exactly. Is this something you need to know? Will more information prevent you from killing us?’

Something darts beyond the bonnet of the car and he doesn’t get a chance to reply. The glint of colour gets his attention. The thud is heavy and dense and he feels it through the steering wheel. Cole screams. It doesn’t take long for Toby to realise he’s hit a cyclist. The bike is on its side, bent at the frame, its back wheel spinning at an odd angle. He can feel the myriad eyes of people in purring cars. Everything’s on hold, the crowd waiting on his next move—time waiting to recommence.

Toby steps from the car. He’s alone in the middle of this scene, he and the twisted figure in bright coloured Lycra. He approaches the man stuck to the road, supine.

‘Shit. Are you ok?’ he says, running his hands through his hair.

‘I think so. How’s the bike look? The car?’ the man says, sitting now, undoing the clasp on his helmet. Blood seeps from a cut on his knee, collects at his sock.

Toby pretends to look, says, ‘Fine, don’t worry about that.’

‘It was my fault,’ says the man, gently rising. He looks Toby in the eye for the first time. ‘Dylan?’ he says, confused.

Hastily, Toby helps the man wheel his bike off the road, and traffic resumes. He looks back at Robert Night’s car, Robert Night’s family—everything he’s been trusted with. He can see Bunny’s face, contorted into a silent scream, yelling at Cole in the back seat.

Dylan?’ the cyclist calls out as Toby races back toward the car, refusing ownership.

He slides back into the driver’s seat, turns the key in the ignition. The key belongs to him now—he’s earned it. The key is what operates the car, so he’s earned that too. Is she right, does he like the power?

Soon they’re back in traffic, then pulling off onto a side-street.

‘You’ve really abused the trust now,’ says Bunny. ‘Is there blood on the bonnet?’

He ignores her, keeps looking in the rear-view mirror.

‘Did you know that man on the bike?’

It’s a warm and sticky morning, sunlight gleaming off passing cars. The clock in the dashboard says 9:34.

He thinks about trust. There’s a weight to the word, an expectation, a pressure. It can end up in the wrong hands. A misuse. Trust exists between Robert Night and Toby Hutchings. Dylan was never entered into that agreement. Dylan is met with other expectations. Is she right, does he need to keep driving? Can he take them anywhere?

‘You know, Robert’s probably done with the interview by now,’ she says.

He doesn’t reply, just takes another detour, venturing further out of town.

‘Your name’s not Toby Hutchings,’ she says to herself.

Everything’s quiet and the passengers hear the child-lock come on.



Fiction: ‘Fore I Go by Sarah Aubin


“I’ve always loved you,” he whispers drowsily, breaking the silence between them, his voice laced with the soft haziness and scent of a few too many drinks. Kelsey rolls to her side to face her best friend on his oversized bed, her own mind foggy with the effects of their night out. Her lean legs tangle in the flannel fabric of Simon’s sheets as she settles herself into a new position, dark chocolate eyes straining to see his face in the darkness of the bedroom. A hint of a smile tugs at corners of her soft mouth.

Kelsey reaches out with her hand, blindly searching for Simon’s, entrapping his fingers in hers. For a moment, the only sound in the room is the gentle rhythm of their breathing.

“I know,” Kelsey whispers in return, and that’s that.


            She awakens the next morning, still lying on her side, suggesting a deep and restful slumber. But unlike the night before, when the tip of his nose had been mere inches from touching hers and the scent of his alcohol breath had splashed comforting and warm on her face like clockwork, Simon was not there. Although this is suggestive of a simple attempt to slip away before sunrise, or perhaps something much more unfavorable, Kelsey had experienced this same situation before. Simon was, admittedly, a much earlier riser than she, and there were many times in the past that she had awakened to a half-empty bed.

Never, though, had she drifted asleep to the echo of his admission of his love for her.

With the sleepiness of the early morning still clinging to her dark eyes, Kelsey pushes the flannel sheets from her body and swings her legs off the bed. She yawns, almost obnoxiously, before pressing her feet to the cool hardwood floor of Simon’s room and making her way towards the bathroom.

Kelsey showers and readies herself quickly, her mind still distracted by her best friend’s declaration from the night before.

Dressing in the jeans and blouse she had brought with her to Simon’s house, she exits the bathroom and makes her way to the well-lit kitchen. Briefly, her thoughts wander to the lack of noise Simon was making this morning – he was infamous for playing his music loudly, no matter the time of day.

She frowns when she finds the kitchen empty and makes a quiet humph sound upon finding that the living room is the same.

“Oh Siiiiimooooon, come out, come out, wherever you are…” Her voice is loud and playful as she makes another round to each room in the house – but still, no Simon.

Biting her lip nervously, Kelsey returns to the kitchen and plops herself onto one of the chairs at the table. She taps her fingertips against the wooden tabletop, her eyes roaming the familiar scenery. She and Simon had been best friends for close to eight years; his apartment was her second home. It was only recently that he had hinted towards feeling more for her than just a generic platonic friendship.

It’s at this moment that Kelsey notices a small notepad on the table. Leaning forward with an outstretched arm, she pulls the stack of paper closer to her and finds that something is written on it that wasn’t there last night.

One more cup of coffee for the road,
One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go.

            He had sung the song to her many times before, always on their way to grab coffee from their favorite local spot, Jamocha. Kelsey breathes a sigh of relief, grabs her little black purse from the table and tucks it under her arm before heading outside to her beat-up gray Audi.


            The drive from Simon’s to Jamocha took only about twenty minutes on the days that Kelsey wasn’t pulled over by the local police department and ticketed for her chronic lead foot. The roads were scenic, aside from the occasional bag of trash or plastic cup that had been flung carelessly from the window of a speeding car, and today the sun was unobscured by any passing clouds. As she pulls into the small parking lot of the coffee shop, Kelsey notices the scene of a car accident further down the road. Ambulances and police cruisers had just begun arriving; the piercing wail of their sirens a harsh contrast to the beautiful weather, but Kelsey knows Simon was inside waiting for her, and decides she can’t play the role of the curious onlooker today.

Tugging the door open and entering the coffee shop, Kelsey waves to the barista behind the counter. The overpowering aroma of coffee beans and pastries assaults her nose.

“Kels, not to be nosy, but I have a question for you,” Dee says. Kelsey can’t help but smile as she makes her way to the counter – Dee has always been curious and prying. As she reaches the counter and sits at one of the barstools, Dee lowers her voice. “Is everything alright with Simon?”

“What do you mean?” Kelsey blushes, her face suddenly and unpleasantly hot with delightful embarrassment as her mind instantly brings her to Simon’s late night confession.

Dee frowns.

“Well… He was in here about an hour ago and seemed fine. But I think something happened when I was making the drinks because he just… well, I don’t know, he just swore really loud, jumped out of his seat, and ran out the door before I finished.”

Kelsey furrows her eyebrows with concern. “I have no idea, Dee. He hasn’t called me so I can’t imagine what…” Her sentence fades into silence as a flashback of the car accident hits her. Had she seen Simon’s car? She couldn’t remember. Her body freezes with panic, her mind running through every detail of the collision she could recall.

The cars had both been a darker color, but that’s all Kelsey could remember. Her hands clench into fists and her fingers go numb – Simon’s car is black.

“I have to go,” she mumbles almost inaudibly as she jumps from the stool and bolts for the door to the street, nearly running into a table as she tries to maneuver as quickly as she possibly can.

Once outside of the coffee shop, she breaks into a sprint along the cracked sidewalk, doing her best to ignore the panicky feeling that had welled up inside of her. She reaches the car accident but her view is blocked by one of the three ambulances at the scene. Attempting to get a better view, she ducks between the front of the ambulance and the back of a police cruiser that had been haphazardly parked to block looky-loo’s from getting too close.

“Ma’am, you can’t be back here.” The officer had come out of nowhere.

“Please, officer, my friend…” She attempts to push by him, but is stopped once again.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t be this close to the cars.”

Kelsey clenches her teeth in frustration and pivots on her heels, stalking away from the officer. She rounds the police cruiser, making sure to stay on the sidewalk where other pedestrians were being allowed to walk through, and catches a glimpse of one of the cars.

Her breath catches in her throat. There it was – black, the paint on the driver’s side door marred by the key of a driver who had been angry at Simon for parking too close to his Mercedes a summer before, the same blue ribbon she’d won at a horse show years ago still taped to the corner of his rear windshield even though he was scared of horses and hated the way they smelled. But now the front of his car was smashed and billowing black smoke, his windshield shattered into an infinite number of tiny, jagged pieces.

Kelsey freezes, her dark eyes scanning the on-looking crowd frantically for Simon.

She can’t find him, why can’t she find him? Her frustration builds, growing into fear and anger and hot tears. She watches as two EMTs stand, previously hidden from view behind the wrecked cars, supporting a stretcher. There was a body on it. There was a sheet over it.

She screams in overwhelming agony, her fingernails cutting into her palms but she doesn’t notice, her tears becoming loud, open-mouthed sobs. Kelsey sprints for the stretcher, detained again by an officer. This time he has to hold her back, his strong arms wrapped around her body to keep her from the ambulance, and he offers a soothing voice in her ear, but she can’t hear him. Her blood is pounding too fast and her thoughts are on one thing.

Simon. Simon. Simon.


            Coffee. Fleece blankets. Simon’s sweatshirt.

These things surround her but Kelsey doesn’t notice as she curls into a ball on her best friend’s favorite chair in his living room. Her fingers were still numb and her thoughts were nothing more than fragmented ideas rolling around in her head, but she had stopped crying for now. Her brown eyes, still bloodshot, were puffy and uncomfortable. A half-eaten peanut butter sandwich sat on the coffee table in front of her and the room was silent except for her ragged breathing.

Dee had driven Kelsey back to Simon’s apartment after finding her on the ground next to the collision with her hands wrapped around her face as she sobbed uncontrollably. Kelsey hadn’t thought to call any of Simon’s family – she didn’t trust herself to piece a sentence together just yet.

For an hour she sat nearly catatonic, occasionally biting her lip or a fingernail. When there’s a quiet sound at the door, she dismisses it and blames it on her own imagination.

But then there he is. Simon. Alive and well, in one piece, and smiling. He closes the door quietly behind himself and makes his way towards Kelsey, his smile disappearing as she turns to face him slowly and he sees her bloodshot eyes.


She launches herself from the chair, throwing fleece blankets everywhere and knocking her half-eaten sandwich to the floor as she throws herself at Simon with outstretched arms. He catches her, his expression incredulous as she begins to sob.

“I thought you were dead, I thought you were dead, they wouldn’t let me see you, and no one would talk to me. I didn’t know… Why didn’t you call me?! Where have you been? I didn’t know what to do… I thought…” Her voice drifts off and they’re on the floor now, Kelsey in Simon’s arms as she sobs in relief.

“Shhh, it’s okay, I’m here. I’m fine. I’m in one piece. I went to get us coffee when I woke up this morning and when I was inside, some asshole stole my car. He’s the one who wrecked it…I’ve been at the police station, filling out paperwork.” He pauses, rocking Kelsey gently. “Please don’t cry… you know I hate when you cry. I’m okay! I swear!”

A small smile grabs at her lips and she hugs him tight, her tears finally beginning to subside.

“I’ve always told you that you need to stop leaving your car unlocked,” she jokes. Simon responds with good-natured laughter, rustling her hair as he pulls her up to stand with him. They’re silent for a few minutes, wrapped in a hug that speaks of more than friendship. Kelsey’s eyes finally dry.

“I love you,” she whispers.

“I know.”

Fiction: Unaccaptable by Matt McDonald


Sol woke suddenly, like he’d been smacked in the face, with his muscles knotted and tense. His nose was runny, leaving a wet spot on his pillow, and his throat felt coated in dust. The blankets and sheets were twisted and bunched at his feet, his hairless chest exposed to chilly air. His parents were far too proud of their new central air conditioning. His heart raced, ignited by something outside his bedroom, something subconscious. It had been a vivid dream; it had to be, to leave him so wired yet disoriented. He felt disjointed, twitching his head around the room, making sense of it’s contents: the worn-out books, which were stacked next to his dresser, hidden from the door’s view; the vase on his nightstand, which contained the skeleton of a flower. Nothing in the room gave him any clues; his recollection of the dream was as black as the world outside his oversized window. He clenched his fists and ground his teeth, searching for clarity in the anxious blur of his thoughts. He’d been falling. Or was it flying?

Sol untangled his feet, stumbled out of bed, and wrapped a flannel shirt around his shoulders. Sleep was always sketchy. He could hardly ever fall back asleep after waking in the middle of the night; too many thoughts flooded his mind in the dark solitude of the basement. Will today be different? He wanted not to care. He told himself to be as chill as his brother. But in the middle of the night, nervous energy took hold. He felt like he was clutching an umbrella, desperate to hold on against punishing wind.

He took a deep breath, trying to calm the bass drum in his chest, and looked down at his nightstand. He fingered the flower’s lifeless stem, sliding his hand up the stalk, the brown, cardboard membrane smooth against his dry skin. The last of the petals had fallen from the now exposed stamen, which looked plain and awkward without them. Sol recalled the day he started keeping plants next to his bed. A few lilies had caught his eye in Stop & Shop. Out of nowhere, he wanted nothing more than to sketch them, paint them, photograph them. He needed subjects for his final art project, but his intrigue was fueled by more than grades. His parents hated art. “What’s the point?” they always asked each other when the topic came up at dinner. “Paintings don’t do anything, and painters don’t make anything.” Nevertheless, Sol had asked them to buy him the flower. “After we offer to buy you anything you want in Sports Authority, you want a flower in the grocery store? What’s the problem?” his dad had said. Then his mom had whisked his dad away, chuckling, to argue over which “Season’s Greetings” sign would look better on the front door. As he left the store, Sol slipped the lilies inside his jacket.

His eyes were clamped shut. When he opened them, a tiny sliver of moonlight had slipped through the clouds and the night, a little path to the heavens. The moon beam illuminated the dead stalk of the flower like a mini spotlight. Sol hastily pulled his painting supplies from a desk drawer and went to work. Relaxation washed away his anxiety, a wave cooling hot sand, as he recreated the image on paper. Time flew as his imagination ran away with him — four o’clock then six. He spent his final hour reading Kafka.

At seven fifteen, Sol opened the refrigerator. His parents, gone for work, had finished off the milk. It wasn’t the first time their pooled incomes, easily a quarter million a year, failed to leave him breakfast. It’s not like he was looking to be waited on; all he ever wanted before school was a bowl of cereal. But he had a funny feeling that his deprivation was intentional. The morning after an argument was always a crapshoot, and last night’s dinner conversation had been worse than most. He had told his parents the final list of colleges to which he would apply, and his dad’s reaction was typical: “But all those schools are D3! Not to mention, what a bunch of liberal hippie havens. You better not be smoking weed, Sol.”

Avoiding being called a liar for saying he didn’t smoke, Sol pressed on. “Like I said, two of them already offered me arts scholarships, and I can apply for more. They aren’t full-ride, but I think they’re–”

“It’s not the money. Jesus Sol, take a look around.” His dad pointed a barbecue-sauce-covered finger at the sofa in the living room, its Italian leather dully reflecting the light from the ornate lamp beside it. Sol hated that damn couch. “I’d pay whatever price if I knew you were doing something with my money. You think you’re gonna go learn to be on Broadway or be friggin’ Picasso? I thought you were applying to Penn State!”

“Oh come on, Rich.” Sol’s mom had returned to the dining room, placing a pot of cloth lilies in the center of the table. She was never good for more than fifteen minutes of sitting. “He doesn’t want to be in Philadelphia. It’s just a crappier, less luxurious version of New York.” Sol and his dad shared a rare look, even a fleeting smile; if she made comments like this less often, one of them might have explained that Penn State wasn’t in Philadelphia. “And besides,” she went on, “both boys can’t go to the Big Ten. They’ll hate each other!”

Then Sol’s dad started arguing with her. Then they both argued with Sol. And now, the milk was gone. Sol sighed. Kicking the door shut, he found himself face to face with his brother. Del’s white Illinois football jersey was stained with green streaks, and even in full gear, he was still shorter than his girlfriend. She really was as gorgeous as everyone said. Her dark wavy hair fell to her chest, curving around tan, pushed up breasts. Her tight figure was turned sideways, her lips planted on Del’s cheek. If a girl like her would pick Sol, things might be a lot simpler. They’d been the hottest couple of the Washington High senior class three years earlier — sports stars, homecoming stars, prom stars. Now they were off at Illinois, still attracting more attention than Sol did.

His shoulders tensed, rash anger shooting through him, as he looked at his brother’s face. His mom had been dead wrong last night; no matter where, or if, he went to college, he would never hate Del. But even if they wound up at the same school, they still wouldn’t see each other. Sol would keep suppressing his envy, while Del would continue to avoid him. It’s not like Sol hated sports. Maybe not football so much, but he’d been decent at baseball. Moreover, he liked it. But when his dad tried to force him onto the American Legion team, which would have removed him from his community theatre production of Spring Awakening, Sol quit. It was the only time his dad ever hit him. Del was studying business and he never quit anything. Now he was saving their parents thousands of dollars by buckling his shoulder pads. Sol took the picture off the fridge and pocketed it. Fuck sports. He missed his brother. He snatched a banana and tossed a pile of books into his backpack, a Bible, The Awakening, and Siddhartha joining a collection of Kafka stories and his sketchpad.

Sol’s morning classes came and went, the usual blur of wasted time. He was now sure that not even math teachers cared about imaginary numbers; they were paid to pretend. Taco salad for lunch again. Grinding the stale tortilla shells between his teeth, Sol felt drowsiness creeping up on him like a shadow. He tried to listen to his “friends” arguing about who spent the most time studying for final exams. “Friends” was the operative word when he thought about his social life. He knew artsy people, athletes, outcasts, punk skaters, “normal” kids; at one time or another, he’d identified with each clique. But he didn’t feel like he belonged with anyone. He felt okay at a bunch of different things, interested, but not good at anything. Because to really belong, you had to be good.

Every other second, he caught himself zoning like this, staring at different tables in the cafeteria. Left on their own, his eyes lingered longest on the “jock” table — hot girls, hot guys. He had to rip his gaze away from the back of Kellen, the starting quarterback, point guard, pitcher. Sol contributed to the studying conversation out of necessity: “Haven’t you guys heard? It’s quality, not quantity; I studied for like two hours total last year, but who wound up acing Physics and English?” He fervently gestured to his chest with his thumbs in mock arrogance. Everyone laughed, “Shut up, Sol, you suck!” — all except for Eddie, whose features hardened. He looked up at Sol, who felt his smile deflate. Eddie’s eyes were x-ray machines; for a split second, Sol felt naked, transparent. He had actually studied for twice as many hours as anyone else at the table. His early morning hours of solitude had pushed him to nearly 20. Or had it been 25? The penetrating expression struck Sol, like he’d seen it before. A fleeting image from the subconscious flashed in his mind; Eddie’s hardened features, the blue eyes awkwardly close together, had appeared in Sol’s dream before he’d been jolted into consciousness. Falling or flying?

He excused himself, anxiety mixing with the ground beef and heavily processed cheese in his stomach. If people gave two shits about schools, maybe there would be enough money in the system to replace taco salad. For some reason, the lamp next to the couch in his living room came to mind, the ugliest “classy and luxurious” item he had ever seen. The day his mom bought it, she forgot to stop at the grocery store. School lunches ever since.

Satisfied to toss the rest of his taco salad in the trash, Sol glanced toward Kellen’s table as he hurried toward the open double doors beyond the vending machines. He probably looked ridiculous, scurrying away like a spider after it’s almost been stepped on. Just as he began to wonder where Kellen had gone, he found himself face to face with him. The quarterback walked through the door on the right, hand in hand with his girlfriend, at the same moment Sol did. When their shoulders touched, Sol felt breathless, about to fall. He looked sideways and slightly downward at Kellen’s face — five o’clock shadow, steely brown eyes, ruffled black hair — and felt himself try to smile. Kellen’s girlfriend’s eyebrows contracted, as if Sol smelled like football cleats. But Kellen turned to Sol, fist extended. “Hey Sol, what’s up man?”

He did this every time they ran into each other — the bro fist pound. It made sense; as the younger brother of Del’s girlfriend, Kellen didn’t see Sol as just another face in the hallway. Times when their paths crossed, like lunch hour, Sol wished he could disappear. “Not much, you?” His voice sounded distant, muffled, not his own. Before Kellen could answer, a hand slid onto his shoulder, and the voice of Coach, Washington High’s athletic director, split the exchange. Sol felt his face flush.

“Trying to get Hader back on the ball field, Kell?” Coach’s eyes surveyed Sol like an ugly painting. “That dog’s had its day. Not quite the same as Del, huh?” He chuckled dryly, turning to Kellen. “Are him and your sister still goin’ strong?”

Not surprising, but Sol still had to suppress a fist-first outburst. Since Del graduated, Coach had done his best to make sure Sol knew which brother was the favorite. Now, Kellen had become his new student-athlete superhero. Still holding his girlfriend’s hand, Kellen raised his eyebrows at Sol — a subtle apology. But all he said was, “Yeah, they are.”

Cheeks hot, Sol said, “Later, Kellen.” Without meaning to, he quickly scanned the girlfriend’s chest. If one more button was undone on her light green shirt, the bra would be visible. He averted his eyes, but a tall girl in a tight shirt walked by, and they refocused on her tight blue jeans. Head suddenly spinning, he hurried away toward the science wing. They’d all noticed; how couldn’t they? Part of him wished Kellen would chase him down and punch him, knock him out. The walk to Physics was a blur. If Sol’s feet didn’t know the way, he might have gotten lost. When he sat at his desk, front and center, his eyes were stinging. He pulled out his notebook, flipped to the page where he recorded random thoughts, one-liners he might be able to use in poems or stories. Are you always the most fucked up person you know? After he wrote it, the question throbbed in his mind for the next half hour, narrating a slideshow of images — Eddie, Coach, Kellen, girls, Del, tits, low-ride jeans. He managed to listen to Mrs. Salt for ten minutes, long enough to hear about a law of trajectory for falling objects. Demonstrating, she rolled a small rubber ball off a table as she dropped another from the same height. The first fell straight down while the second flew off the side, but they hit the white tiled floor in unison.

Sol sketched his way through the rest of his classes; it was not a day for focus. The images kept rolling through his mind, and his recollection of the dream remained as abstract as ever. After he closed his locker for the last time, he considered smashing his head into the wall to make it all stop. His play rehearsal, Titus Andronicus, had been cancelled for the evening. The Go Bulldogs Booster Club needed the auditorium for a meeting, so Sol’s parents would be out of the house. He wondered if his dad had been the one to request the theater. Walking to his weekly meeting with the National Honor Society advisor, dread bubbled in his stomach at the prospect of more solitude. Alone was how he liked it, but there were no distractions in isolation. Only thoughts. He imagined himself sitting in his room yet again: Kellen laying next to him, Del standing on the dresser in his pads, Eddie’s face in place of his mirror, half-naked girls filling all the remaining space, his dad’s voice booming from the ceiling like divine thunder — I won’t pay for college for you to do art!

“Hey Sol, you wanna come over tonight? Rehearsal’s cancelled, so I figured we’d all do something.”

His mind ripped itself from his bedroom and shakily refocused on the face in front of him. Shoulder-length honey colored hair, frizzy and streaked with pink, narrow brown eyes behind rectangular glasses. Acne, not bad, but a couple zits on the forehead and cheeks — minor blemishes on an otherwise decently cute face. Not hot — the chin was a little abrupt and the eyes a little far apart — but cute. Del had always made a point of distinguishing between the two. Zoey looked her best today, with an olive cardigan draped over her shoulders, open in the front to reveal a black and white striped tee. Her breasts weren’t prominent, but they were there. Her grey jeans weren’t tight. “Cool,” he said. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Sweet,” she said. A pause — a slight grin curled her lips. “I told everyone else to come around seven, when my parents get home. But you can come a little early, if you want.” She shifted her weight and looked up at him. Sol’s mind began to cloud; his tongue went numb. After  he didn’t say anything, Zoey continued. “To show each other some art, maybe?”

Sol unfroze, not sure what the tingling in his stomach meant. “Yeah, sounds good. You live on Elm, right?”

“Yeah. See you later,” she said. She turned on her heel and walked away, leaving Sol with a whole new set of thoughts. Were they dating? Did he want to date her? Would he get turned on if he sketched her naked? She’d probably be into that. But he was overreacting as always. They’d only started talking a month ago, at the first Titus rehearsal. A couple hangouts later, they were friends. He showed her his sketches and she taught him how to stain glass, saying she was “super impressed” by his sketches, but that sketching was “such a cliche — you should get into something different.” Sometimes he found her attractive, like the two times they made out after rehearsal. Sometimes he didn’t. He’d dreamed about her several times; one night, he had sex with her. But his dad had been standing next to the bed, holding a 12 gauge to Sol’s head and yelling at him to keep going. In another dream, Sol hit her in the face with a baseball bat after she tried to rape him. The next night, they starred as rebellious lovers in Spring Awakening, performed on the turf of Soldier Field in Chicago in front of seven million screaming, faceless fans. But then her father, deacon at Washington’s Catholic parish, had them arrested and shot into space in a tiny purple canister. Sol chuckled as he opened the door to the Honor Society office. They’d had the time of their lives in that canister, laughing as they speculated on whether they would freeze, explode, or suffocate first. Then they imagined what might come next. That dream had inspired Sol to sketch the outrageous and comedic deaths of almost everyone he knew. “If everyone’s gotta do it,” Zoey had said in the dream, “why not die in the funniest way you can think of?” Sol wondered if the real Zoey felt the same way.

The meeting was uneventful, typical productivity. Sol outlined some of his ideas for community service events, and the advisor chuckled at his “creativity,” praising him for his hard work.  After they finished, Sol made the short drive to Washington Falls, his favorite place to read. He navigated the secret trail through the brush that brought him onto a line of cliffs from which the East Branch crashed over 100 feet into the pool below. Standing at the edge, he remembered the times he’d looked down at the pool and the jagged rocks and imagined jumping. They had been days like today. Sometimes he kicked rocks off the cliff to see if they would shatter when they hit the ground.

After several uncomfortable minutes, he pulled the Bible from his pack and sat against an oak. The cool breeze from the falling water played with the pages of Luke 23 and flicked Sol’s hair. His parents resented the Bible — “how can a collection of fairy tales be the number one selling book in the world?” his dad said once. Even if they’d been interested, they would never have time to give to religion. Sol wasn’t a devout worshipper of the Word; the only reason he bought a Bible was to read about Solomon. But for some reason he’d become fascinated. Maybe he was a minister in the making. Or maybe he was in it simply for one-liners, answers. As he read, his mind didn’t wander. The people and body parts that had tormented him all day mercifully stayed in his Subaru. But when he got to the crucifixion, part of him wished his subconscious would take over. Hanging from a cross while your lungs collapsed would never meet his and Zoey’s standards for an acceptable way to go. When he came to verse 43, he stopped reading, staring at the small black letters. Jesus was responding to a criminal, slowly suffocating, nailed to a cross next to him. Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. Sol reread the line several times; the last word surprised him. Paradise. Paradise? After a few moments, his eyes moved on, leaving his mind stuck on verse 43. He wanted to see Zoey’s dad. He wanted to ask him about paradise.

A few chapters, a sketch, a turkey sandwich, and two and a half hours later, Zoey was on top of him. Hands feverishly exploring his scalp, her mouth was glued to his lips, her tongue wrestling his while their hips flowed back and forth, locked together. He moved his hands up and down her back, through her hair, below her belt line. The past half hour had been a blur, just like everything that came before it. They gossiped about other cast members, and she showed him her latest project, a tye-dye stained glass marijuana leaf. It was impressive, like everything else she did, a perfect balance of the rainbow. “What about you?” she said. His pulse quickened: “I don’t have anything new.” He looked away. “Liar,” she said, grinning. Sol looked at her, mind blank. He hadn’t wanted to. Sighing, he pulled out his sketchpad and flipped to his last drawing. It depicted an abstract version of Coach, his arm extended into a thumbs-up. He was surrounded by four football players, each stabbing a colored pencil into a different part of his body. Tiny specs of pencil blood streaked the page. She had examined it for a moment, eyebrows raised. Then she burst out laughing. “This is hysterical!”

She breathed heavily, a light moan. Sol wished she had chewed a piece of gum between lunch and his visit — more taco salad. He groaned too, remembering Del’s advice: “There’s definitely a time for dude-moans.” But the smell of ground beef triggered another image slideshow — Kellen, Coach, garbage can, Eddie, taco salad, turkey sandwich, verse 43. She moaned again, snapping Sol back to reality. He forced himself to focus on her body. He moved his hands around again, squeezing her hips. His mind threatened to wander, the feeling of forgetting something. Five, six, seven more minutes of kissing and thrusting — then she sat up and pulled off the striped shirt. Black bra with pink polka dots. Black ink interrupted the pale skin on the side of her ribs: a tree with falling leaves ran from her waistline halfway up her ribs, an intricate peace sign on her hip in place of its roots. She straightened her glasses and wiped her brow, staring fixedly into Sol’s face. Del would have laughed; it was the most awkward, scrunched-up seduction face Sol had ever seen. But he clenched his eyebrows, trying to make himself like it. He looked down at her breasts, imagining them going at it again. He’d become horribly aware of deflation in his pants. Del would have laughed at that too. After Zoey unbuttoned and unzipped, she giggled. “We’ll just have to fix this.” But as she tried to “fix” it, the last thing Sol felt like doing was laughing. His mind started to run away again; his dad appeared next to the bed, and he felt the barrel of the 12 gauge on his temple. He felt like a hospital patient, passive to her touches, distracted by a poster of George Clooney taped between the closet and the drape-covered window. His heart began to pound as she looked up at him. “What’s wrong, Sol?”

“I’ve gotta go,” he said, head spinning. He pulled his legs away from her and sat up, yanking his pants to his waist.

“What? Sol, it’s fine. I don’t care. It happens –”

“I’ve gotta go. Sorry.” His cheeks burned, like his voice had cracked during a song in front of the entire school. He stumbled from the room, not hearing her reply, jamming his sketchpad into his backpack. A left, a right, and he found himself facing a dead-end: a half-open door to which a small wooden cross was nailed. He glanced over his shoulder, but Zoey hadn’t caught up yet. His feet sped forward, bumping the door open. He looked around frantically, no idea what he was searching for. Two robes hung in the closet, two more crucifix crosses on the wall. A notebook was open next to a vase of silk roses on the desk in front of him. As he turned toward the door, surveying the desk, black ink at the bottom of one of the pages caught his eye. He took a few steps closer, squinting. Underneath what looked like an agenda, a list of bullet points and verses, was a line of small capital letters: LBGTQ=UNACCEPTABLE. Sol froze. Then he reached for the Bible next to the notepad, ready to flip to one of the verses on the list. Zoey’s voice startled him. “Why the hell are you in here?” She sounded far more incredulous than upset.

“I don’t know, I –” Sol choked on his words, backing away from the desk. He straightened his backpack and tried to slip past her. “I’ve gotta go.”

She grabbed his arm, looking up at him with what she must have thought was an encouraging smile. “Sol, calm down. It’s fine.” She touched his shirt, tugging him into a kiss. “I don’t care. It happens to everyone. Stay.” Before he could protest, his cheeks on fire, the doorbell rang. “Shit.” She tried to fix her hair, which pointed in all directions, while Sol buttoned his pants. The capital letters were engraved on his skull, tattooed on the insides of his eyelids. UNACCEPTABLE. Walking to the couch in the living room as Zoey answered the door, he cleared his mind by forcing himself to imagine her on top of him.

The hangout was normal. It might have been fun if Sol had been able to relax. He didn’t leave the lumpy grey couch, afraid to run into Zoey’s dad, and kept feeling his nails dig into his arms. The deacon, tall and straight-backed, walked by several times but didn’t stop to talk or investigate. Clearly, Zoey’s mom was the reason the eight actors were allowed to be there. She stopped in to the living room to replenish the popcorn, potato chips, and Sprite periodically. After they’d shared stories and gossiped, the girls leaving at one point to have a private chat in Zoey’s room, she even let them watch American Pie. “Just keep the volume down,” she said. By the time the credits scrolled, Sol’s back ached, and a muscle in his thigh twitched. His whole body had been clenched from start to finish, the day’s events repeating themselves in his mind. The same images, same feelings. The only one who sat on the couch with him was Eddie. They never directly talked outside of rehearsal. Sol hadn’t known why until lunch. Luckily, Eddie didn’t look at him.

As Zoey ejected the DVD, yawning, Eddie stood and stretched. “I love that movie. Sean William Scott is frickin’ hysterical.” He reenacted one of the actor’s comedic moves, slowly thrusting his hips forward and back, swinging his right arm in a smacking motion. Everyone laughed, except Sol. He wished Zoey didn’t; he hated every moment she laughed at her ex.

Just as he was about to make himself say something funny, Eddie continued, “I’ll bet he never had any problems getting it up.” The x-ray eyes turned to Sol, complemented by a smirk. Sol’s stomach plummeted, every muscle froze. He’d imagined it; Eddie had said something else. He was just paranoid. But as he watched, deaf and from a distance, Zoey snapped her head to the right, glaring at the other girls. They were holding their palms to their mouths, trying to suppress snorts of laughter. Even the two boys behind Eddie laughed. The walls began to close in; Sol felt them press against his skull, suffocating pressure. His heart throbbed, as if shockingly aware of its mortality, and his head spun once more. A voice from his right: “Yo Eddie, check this out, man. I just accidentally knocked Sol’s pack off that chair coming back from the bathroom, and this fell out.” Andy, Eddie’s best friend, held up Sol’s sketchpad, open to a drawing.

Eddie took it, eyes scanning. “What’s this, Sol?” When Sol said nothing, he squinted. “Is that Kellen Klatt?” Everyone swarmed around him, like idiots around an iPad. Zoey was right in the middle, scrunched between Eddie’s shoulder and one of the girls’ arms. An invisible fist punched Sol in the gut; he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t believe what was happening. Mouth dry, he saw Zoey’s eyebrows rise. He’d drawn the picture two nights ago after waking from a horrifying and erotic dream about Kellen. Huge, strong, and naked, Kellen was standing on top of the school, dwarfing it. The clock tower over the front doors rose to barely cover his genitals. With one leg raised, knee bent, he was about to stomp on Coach. His face was turned to the side, joined to Sol’s at the lips. With his left arm, bicep bulging, he was holding Sol in the air, his hand between his legs.

Sol had no idea what to say. His hands shook like he was freezing to death. The girl next to Zoey tried to whisper in her ear, but the words came out loud enough for everyone to hear: “Is he bi?”

Eddie chuckled. “Jesus, Sol, this is news. Are you fucking with us, with Zoey?” He glanced sideways at Zoey, as if to see whether she would object. “I mean if you’re out, you’re out. Just don’t mess around.”

Zoey looked up at him, then turned toward Sol. He couldn’t read her expression, but her eyebrows were still slightly raised. “You didn’t show me this one,” she said. Her voice was plain, like a one-note song. “It’s good.” She was clearly searching for words. “I don’t really know why you –”

Suddenly there were footsteps in the hall. “Zoey, it’s past eleven and it’s a school night.” The deacon’s voice was higher than Sol had imagined. He emerged from the hallway behind Eddie in a navy bathrobe. Everyone turned toward him, except Zoey, whose eyes were still glued to the drawing in Eddie’s hands. “I know you guys like it late, but it’s time for goodnights.” A pause. “What have you got there, Zo?”

Sol’s jaw dropped. He stepped forward, heart racing, and heard himself say, “Just my script. I’ve gotta go.” He grabbed the sketchpad, but Eddie didn’t release it. Mind numb, Sol felt his hand clench into a fist and swing upward. It missed Eddie’s face, but connected with his ear, knocking him backward into Zoey’s dad. Eddie’s “What the hell?” mixed with the deacon’s stunned exclamation as they caught themselves against the wall. Sol snatched his backpack and jammed the sketchpad inside as he flung a strap over his shoulder. He stumbled to the door, tripping over an armchair, as the deacon said, “Sol, that’s unacceptable. Come back here!” Before he slammed the door, he got a fleeting look at Zoey’s back as she turned toward Eddie and her dad. Everyone else was frozen in place.

When he hit 90, struggling to keep his Subaru between the yellow and the white, he narrowly missed a white-tailed deer. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried — Del said several times that “dudes just shouldn’t cry, I guess.” His father said “There’s a place for men who cry: Fagville, USA.” But hot tears blurred the green street sign as he flew past the road to his house. His heart was a bass drum again; everything he’d read, seen, felt, and heard that day flooded over him. Like a desperate loner, he checked his phone for what must have been the hundredth time. Del still hadn’t texted back. Had he made up his mind yet? The only person who’d ever defended Sol from their father had nonchalantly dropped into a text the previous night that he was considering enlisting. As if Del Hader needed to be any more of a hero. Sol remembered that night clearer than any of his dreams. Over Christmas break, his father had made an all-out push to get Sol to try out for the baseball team instead of Titus Andronicus. “You’re a senior! Better late than never, right?” he said. “No, Dad,” Sol said, “get over it.” Out of nowhere, his dad had smacked his empty bottle of Budweiser on the table and stumbled toward Sol, fist raised. “My son, a goddamn flamer.” Del, just home from the gym, mixing a protein shake, had stepped in front of his father and placed both hands firmly on his shoulders. “Sit your ass back in that chair, Dad. If I ever see that shit again, the cops will be all over this house. Got it?”

Sol had never seen his father so stunned or so broken. Wordlessly, he returned to his chair and crumpled. For at least forty-five minutes, he sat in silence, drinking more Budweiser and gazing blankly out the window. Twice when Sol passed the table, he looked up, features limp. It was the closest thing to an apologetic expression Sol had ever seen on his face.

America wasn’t the one who needed Del.

Paradise flashed through Sol’s mind as he parked by the entrance to the secret trail.  Religions were infuriating; while one was telling you about paradise, the other was describing Nirvana. Then there were all the conditions, the fine print. What about the “unacceptables?” What happened to them? Would they fall straight down, tragically crashing into eternal nothingness, or was it possible to fly gracefully into whatever came next. Billions of people had believed in paradise, billions in Nirvana. They couldn’t all be wrong. It had to be better than this.

As he stumbled through the bushes, thorns grabbing and slicing his soft forearms, Sol thought of that damn Italian leather couch. And the lamp. Maybe this day had gone so wrong because the milk was gone. Maybe he could convince his parents to pay Del not to join the Marines. Maybe they’d pay for a fancy funeral at the deacon’s church. He saw Zoey’s back, Eddie’s smirk as he stepped robotically toward the wall of darkness beyond the cliff. Looking to his right at Washington Falls, infinite crashing and the familiar mist on his face, Sol almost laughed. UNACCEPTABLE. His parents hated jumpers.

His heart had done enough frantic pounding in this single day to last a lifetime. Looking down on the ground below, silhouettes of jagged rocks in the moonlight, his head stopped spinning. Ridiculously, he thought of the law of trajectory for falling objects; it wouldn’t matter if he leapt as far as he could or did a pin-drop. He pulled his Bible from his backpack, flipped to verse 43, and placed it on the cold slab pages-down. With his other pale hand, he pulled the picture of Del and his girlfriend from his left pocket, smoothing it out against his thumping chest, and gazed down at his brother, the hero.

Breathe deep. Take a step. Feel the rushing wind.


Fiction: Tornadoes in Alaska by Matt McDonald


As Aura closed the door behind her, the white bathroom lit up — three faint clicks, one for each light. The one over the mirror, the brightest, came last; it illuminated her figure, wrapped in a green, velvety towel. She examined herself for a moment, tipping her head slightly to either side. A frown sinking into her features, she clutched the towel to her chest with one hand and lifted the other to her shoulder. The skin around her collarbone looked like hamburgers from old movies, pink and tender. When she prodded the skin with her finger, a white silhouette stayed behind. She poked the other shoulder, deeper pink, and winced. She’d have to take a trip downtown; if she were to survive the summer, higher SPF would be a necessity.

The delicate, narrow stream of cool water that greeted her when she stepped into the shower soothed the burns on her shoulders, and as blue digital numbers on the screen in front of her flashed, beeped, and began to count down from four minutes, she imagined steam rising from the back of her neck, like a searing campfire stove doused in a lake. She’d never been camping herself, just read about it in her great-grandmother’s journal. Bears, snakes, mountain peaks, freshly caught fish for dinner — reading the journal was like reading a fantasy, slipping into a daydream. The only bears Aura had ever seen whirred around a couple feet off the ground, disrupting her sleep when their inexperienced drivers crashed into something. Her mountain peaks were the tops of buildings, kept perpetually out of sight by the overpowering reflection of sunlight off shiny windows. Her mind floated away for a moment as she stared at her feet, lost in the imagined images of her great-grandmother’s adventures.

An itch on the back of her neck brought her mind back to the shower. She looked up: three red zeros flashing in her face. “Oh shit!” she felt herself say as her stomach churned, heart stopped. Slipping, nearly falling, she frantically stumbled forward and pressed a finger against the lower right hand corner of the screen. Why the hell didn’t the alarm work? Her first house, first month, and she’d already been cited for two violations. She clutched at her chest, breathing deep, slowing her heart, and stepped out of the shower. This one wasn’t as bad; she’d only been daydreaming for a split second, right? The timer must have hit zeros right when she looked up. The last two fines hadn’t crippled her, but that didn’t mean she wanted a third. She kept breathing deep as she dried herself and got dressed. It would be fine. No need to panic.

As she walked from her bedroom to the kitchen, more faint clicks followed her, illuminating her small palace. It wasn’t much, but it was hers. The baby-blue countertops, the smooth white floor, the plasma-screen walls — every Monday was beach scenery day. She needed something to jumpstart her week, and eating breakfast next to 3D digital palm trees certainly helped. Still, before she could indulge, she had to go through her routine step-by-step. Focus on everything and go slow, she told herself. No more violations.

First, recycling. Singing to herself as she went, she emptied her four collection bins into the large plastic canister by the door, obsessively gathering and examining every single leftover in her house like an antique mouse collector. Nothing could go to waste; flunking the next inspection would be another violation. Her heart stopped again when she realized that she’d almost missed the wrapping from dinner the previous night; she’d come home from work frazzled and carelessly tossed her jacket onto the counter, hiding the dinner’s plastic packaging. If they found it, the inspectors would explain that there was enough material in that packaging to power her plasma-screen walls, maybe even her sleek new TV. They’d be like robots. In their lifeless monotone, they’d go on to explain that citizens can’t afford to waste anything. Anything. They would finish ominously: “When the next catastrophe comes, power failure or storm, look to yourself for the cause. You the People hold each other in balance every day.” Then they’d stick her with another fine.

After the recycling was finished, Aura peddled the bike in her living room until her thighs burned. Ten minutes of hard peddling generated just enough energy to meet her daily generator contribution requirements, but it didn’t make her sweat enough to negate the shower. With one push of a button, the video of her morning routine was sent off to the national database, Mainframe, to be reviewed by some guy in D.C. — at least she assumed it was D.C. That was top secret information. She always wondered if the Mainframe workers were perverts. She’d been cited for a violation after going through her routine naked on one of her first mornings in the new house. She didn’t think the reviewers actually hated it as much as the fine indicated.

Finally breakfast, a few moments of non-videotaped freedom. Opening the meal package, she looked out the circular window next to the door. Over the distant skyline, those foreboding towers, dark clouds were piling into the valley. Aura thought she saw a tornado over one of the bare, brown hills in the distance, but it was probably just her imagination running wild again. Tornadoes weren’t quite as common in Alaska as they were in British Columbia and the Northwest Territory. Thankfully, none had been devastating yet. But then again, it was only May. A gust of wind whirled dust and tiny pebbles into the side of Aura’s house; the sudden crackling against the window made her jump.

Happy to ignore the clouds and the buildings and the wind, Aura sat at the counter with her pancakes. But before she could take a bite, the howl of sirens drowned out the wind. In an instant, they were right outside her door. Aura’s beaches vanished, the plasma walls blank. An automated female voice, disgustingly articulate, filled the air: “Aura Romero. Please step outside.” But Aura was frozen to her stool, pancakes mocking her, heart pounding. “Shit, shit, shit!” She looked around wildly, trying to think of some way to escape.

But after what seemed like just seconds, the door slid open, revealing four tall men in dark blue uniforms, guns and gadgets strapped to their waists. “Aura Romero, you must come with us,” they said in unison. “This is your third water violation.” Two stepped forward and grabbed her arms.

Aura’s heart would explode. “But,” she stammered, “but my alarm doesn’t work! Please, I didn’t mean to –”

In a flash, she was being dragged outside toward a hovering red vehicle with black windows and ten doors. Her neighbors watched from behind red police laser lines, little girls crying, parents sullen. Shoved into a middle door, Aura looked around through blurry eyes. All black interior, a muscular black woman in a suit seated next to the window. Hysterical, Aura gasped, “I swear, my alarm didn’t work! I tried so hard to avoid –”

The woman held up a hand, her jaw clenched. “This is your third water violation. The law is clear. You must understand the justification; citizens cannot waste water, Miss Romero. You the People hold each other in balance. This nation will avoid suffering if you follow the law.”

Tears silently rolled down Aura’s cheeks as the landscape flew by, a blur of treeless hills, hazy sprawl. It was as if the woman in the suit had sucked speech from her throat; the words “we already suffer” never formed on her lips.

Fiction: Eggs by Katie Regnier


Kelly stumbled upon the bird’s nest as she was ordering her imaginary servants to fetch her some tea for her meeting with the King. She was skipping towards the river, preparing to freshen up for the meeting. She was only a few feet away from the rushing water when she noticed the bright white out of the corner of her eye. She caught her foot at the last minute, the tip of her toes touching one of the three eggs that had fallen to the ground. Kelly leaned forward curiously, looking at the mess. The twigs and leaves that had once made a secure home had come undone, leavingthe eggs vulnerable to predators.

Kelly plopped herself on the ground. She looked closer at the three, reaching a hesitant finger towards them. There was not a speck of dirt on any of them, all were white and smooth on the outside.

“What are you doing out here?” Kelly immediately recognized her brother’s voice and turned around.

“I thought you were punished,” Kelly replied. Joe’s fists were shoved in his pockets and his shaggy hair brushed his forehead as he approached her.

“I don’t even deserve to be punished,” he said. “But if you tell her I’m out here, I’ll tell her you’ve been using her lipstick,”

Kelly frowned at the threat. She had only used the bright pink one; it was the one that her mother never used. Her mother rarely even wore make up anymore, not since their father had been away for most of the summer.

“What are you looking at?” Joe asked, peering over his sister’s shoulder. “Some dog shit or something?”

“Nuh-uh,” she grumbled. She cuddled the eggs protectively. “They’re bird’s eggs. I just found them here.”

“That’s boring,” Joe sighed. He walked around to face her while kicking some rocks with his shoe. He was tall for fifteen, towering at a height of five foot eight inches. It was surprising to see him out at such an hour; he was usually locked in his room, punished or not, with loud music blaring from the crack under the door. “Let’s go swimming or something.”

“You know I can’t swim,” Kelly said.

“Why? Are you stupid or something?”

“No!” Kelly shouted. “Daddy was supposed to teach me,”

“You’ll probably never learn how to now.”

“That’s not true,” Kelly argued, petting one of the eggs gingerly with her fingers. “Mommy said—“

“Mommy doesn’t know anything,” Joe said. “She’s just as stupid as you are. Dad left; I saw his suitcases.”

“Mommy said,” Kelly continued. “that he would be back for Thanksgiving.”

“Yeah, right. Unless he suddenly decides to leave Sue, I don’t think so.”

Kelly ignored the remark. She remembered Sue, her father’s assistant. Kelly had always admired her long blond hair and big blue eyes whenever she came over– which happened to be when their mother was out with her friends.

“Look at how pretty it is,” Kelly said. She turned one of the eggs slowly to display its smooth surface as Joe started throwing sticks into the river. “And there’s a little birdy in there too. I think I can feel its heartbeat.”

“No you can’t,” Joe said. He leaned against the trunk of a tree, looking out at the river. “There’s probably a yolk in there or something, like the kind we eat.”

“Nuh-uh,” Kelly said. She knew the baby was in there; the fluffy little spec of bird with its tiny beak trying to crack at the shell. She gave the egg a slight shake and felt the inside jiggle with the movement. “Joe, here! I swear it’s inside–I felt it!”

Joe took the egg from his sister, watching her eyes widen with excitement as she lifted another from the ground. Joe was jealous– all he saw was an egg. He felt hungry, thinking of the fresh scrambled eggs their Dad would make for breakfast.

“What’s the big deal?”

“You don’t think they’re pretty? Or cool?” Kelly asked, rubbing one against her cheek with a grin. “They’re so warm!”

Joe rolled his eyes but leaned in, giving the egg a shake.

“Nothing’s in there,” he concluded.

“Yes, there is. Maybe they like me more than you,” Kelly replied, looking up at him. “They jiggle for me,”

“Shut up, they do not. They’re just dumb birds,” Joe said. His fingers tightened around the delicate egg. It felt light and thin under his long fingers. “It doesn’t matter what they think.”

“Everyone always likes me better,” Kelly instigated, taking up the last egg in her other hand. This one had a tiny, jagged slice running down the middle. She frowned at the imperfection and turned to look at the other egg. “I have more friends than you. I have Rebecca, Tyler, Carol, Nora and Maria.”

“They all told me they didn’t like you,”

“Who did?” Kelly asked. She looked up at him expectantly, her bushy red hair framing her round face. “You’re always making things up.”

“It’s true. Dad thought you were annoying,” Joe said casually. “That’s why he left,”

“You said it was because of Ms. Sue,” Kelly said. “Daddy loves me.”

“He never even taught you how to swim, and you’re six! He taught me when I was five,” Joe said. He looked out at the river again. It was wide, almost ten feet across. Their father had pushed him in the water abruptly, yelling that he would learn no other way as Joe tried to scramble up to the surface for air. Joe remembered how scared he was when he crawled back onto the shore, gasping for air, dripping wet with his hair blurring his vision.

“No, Daddy never liked you,” Kelly said. She started to get mad. Her dad always loved her. He was going to come back; Mommy said so. “He hated you because you kept stealing his magazines from under his bed! He told me once, he said, ‘Kelly, I’m glad you don’t steal from your father like your stupid brother’.”

“He never said that!” Joe yelled. “Stop lying Kelly, no one likes a liar!”

“He said that, he really did!”

“Kelly, you better shut your mouth before I shut it for you,” Joe said. He glared at her, his fingers pressing down on the egg.

“No you won’t! I’ll tell Mom!”

“Mom’s not going to do anything,” Joe said. “She didn’t even see me leave the house before, she just sat in front of the window and stared out at the street. She doesn’t even make us breakfast anymore, Kelly; I put those pancakes on your plate every morning!”

“She still tucks me in,” Kelly answered after a moment, refusing to look at him. “She reads me stories.”

“Yeah, for how long? Five minutes? Dad used to read them to you for an hour.”

“Mommy made me lunch yesterday,”

“No, I did. I made you that peanut butter sandwich; Mom put it on your plate because I went over Billy’s,” Joe said, referring to their neighbor down the road. “All she does is takes away our tv time! She sits in front of it all day, hogging the remote! She—“

Joe looked down at his hand and tightened his fingers, squashing the egg into pieces. The mucus of the egg and the baby bird slipped through his fingers to the ground. The bird’s body was limp, covered in slime. It was a soft pink and had no feathers. It didn’t have much of a beak either, only a small tip coming from its head that signified there was going to be one if it had more time to grow. The body was contorted in dramatic angles from falling, and the broken shell was scattered around it.

“Joe!” Kelly yelled. She let both her eggs slide softly to the ground. She couldn’t stop crying as she crawled over to the broken egg. “You killed him. He was going to grow up to be a big bird and eat worms and stuff!”

Joe looked down at his feet. He felt no shame for what he had done. He watched his sister, slowly getting agitated at her crying.

“What’s your problem? It’s not that big of a deal. It’s just an egg, Kelly.” Joe walked over to the other eggs and quickly scooped the cracked one up. Kelly bolted towards him, realizing that he may hurt the others.

“Stop it! Stop you bully!” she cried out.

“Get off of me,” he growled, trying to shake her off. “You’ve never cried like this before! Birds are nothing to cry over; there’s a million more in the trees.”

“They’re only babies. They don’t deserve to die,” Kelly said. She couldn’t bear to look at the dead bird anymore and fell to her brother’s feet, smothering her face in his pant leg.

“Deserve it? No one deserves half the shit that happens to them!” Joe said. “You care more about these stupid things than–” He was unable to finish. He forced the egg into Kelly’s view, waving it in front of her as she cried. “What’s so special about these? Are you being their new mommy? You care about them so much you think you’ve laid them or something? No one gets a new mommy, Kelly, not even birds.”

“Maybe if we kept one,” Kelly said. She was quiet as she spoke, her head bent to the ground to avoid her brother’s glare. “Mommy would let us hatch it at home and if it grows up to be really cute, Daddy would come over to see it.”

“Kelly!” Joe shoved her off his leg. “Dad’s not coming back! Did you even listen to me? He’s gone! Forever! No bird is going to make him come home!” He reached his arm up and pulled it back. Kelly shrieked as Joe released his stance and threw the egg into the river. It happened so quickly that Kelly barely had time to get up from the grass. Joe stood for a moment to look down at her then shuffled to the last egg.

“No, Joe! Stop it! They didn’t do anything to you!”

“There is nothing these birds can do,” Joe replied. He stared at his sister, yelling at him as he cranked his arm back. Kelly jumped up to try and reach his hand. She remembered how she was always able to reach her father’s hand whenever he teased her. He would lower his elbow slightly so Kelly could grab the item from his grasp, running a victory lap and bursting out laughing as her father chased her down to grab it back. As she tried to reach her brother’s, however, her fingertips barely reached the bottom of his palm.

Desperation kicked in as Kelly stomped on Joe’s toes, screaming incoherent words at him then succumbing to calling their mother with a one last piercing cry.

Joe ignored all the protests. Their mother didn’t respond to Kelly’s call. Without blinking, he threw the last egg into the river.

“You bully! You’re so mean, Joe. I’m gonna tell,” she cried. “I’m gonna tell that you killed those poor animals.”

“Who? Who are you going to tell, Kelly?” Joe asked.

Kelly pulled her legs in to her chest and buried her face into her knees. She couldn’t answer as she heaved on the ground, trying to suck in oxygen. She heard the rush of water from the river behind her muffle her brother’s voice.

“Come on Kelly,” Joe said after he had heard enough of her sobs. “Get up.”

“No.” She curled up tighter into a ball.

“Kelly, get up,” Joe ordered more forcefully, stepping towards her. “It’s not that bad; it had to happen.”

“No! Go away! You’re going to throw me in next!” Kelly screamed. She kicked her legs violently as Joe got closer, his arms outstretched to pull her to her feet. Kelly was successful with her kicks as she thrust her heel straight into Joe’s kneecap. Howling, he hunched over to nurse it with his hands while cursing his sister.

“Whatever, Kelly,” he muttered. Joe rubbed his knee with both hands in a crouched position. As he paused, praying the throbbing would stop, he stared at his sister. He couldn’t see her face as she buried it deeper into herself. He felt a sudden urge to leave, to run back to their house and shut the door to his room. Joe followed his gut and turned around. He slowly limped back towards their house without looking back.

Kelly watched him leave. She was unable to call after him, but followed his lead. She slowly got up. Her legs felt like jelly, and she felt heavier than before. Her body weighed her down as she walked home.

The river was only a few feet from Kelly’s backyard. She could see her house nearby. She walked to the back door. The screen on the upper half of the door was tearing at the sides and swaying in the slight breeze. Kelly saw that there wasn’t even a doorknob attached.

Pushing the door open, Kelly walked into the kitchen, then the living room. Joe had been right; their mother sat on the couch, her back facing Kelly.

“Mom?” Kelly asked. Her mother’s hair was curly like Kelly’s, and just as red.  Her mother had gotten thinner within the past few months. Her skin was tight against her bones, and it seemed to be paler then before. Kelly remembered when her mother used to threaten her with no dessert if she didn’t clear her plate at dinner.

Kelly walked in front of the television. Her mother’s eyes continued to stare until a few moments passed, then they flicked up to Kelly’s face.


“What are you doing, Kelly?” she asked. “Scoot! You’re blocking the tv.”

Kelly frowned. New tears started to form as she shuffled to the side.

“Mom,” Kelly said. “Joe was being mean to me outside. I found bird eggs and then he just threw them into the river. He killed the babies, Mom.”

Her mother didn’t answer. The people on the television laughed.

Kelly waited a few more seconds before turning her back to her mother. The climb upstairs to her bedroom was long. Each step she took echoed throughout the silent house. She passed her brother’s room. There was no music playing and no light filtered underneath the door. He probably snuck out of his window, or walked straight out the door to hang out with friends or wander around town. Kelly knew she was alone.

As she reached her room, Kelly didn’t feel like crying anymore. Her room, scattered with posters of kittens and puppies, and stuffed animals lining the top of her bed, all seemed wrong. The pink bedspread seemed too bright. The dolls lying on her dresser no longer inspired imaginative scenarios. Kelly walked into her room and shut the door quietly behind her.


Fiction: D.C. al Fine by Geralyn Adams


The chain link fence had a hole where Morty commuted daily from his home, nestled behind a stack of wooden pallets along an abandoned warehouse. The sun was sharp that day; he could feel his skin burning as he began to walk to the only place there was for him to go anymore—the dump. He’d spend his days walking through, seeing relics of time passed—dial telephones with missing numbers; carcasses of cars that had been devoured by rust; an old baby doll missing hair, stained with clay earth. He clung desperately to the nuances of these things. He picked up the phone and began to dial out a number as he held the receiver up to his ear. He pretended his call went to voicemail and pleaded into the phone: “Please, please call back.”

The lack of dial tone, ring, or answer was a painful reminder that he was utterly alone. He hung up the phone and placed it on the ground the way he found it—in the groove it made from sinking into mud after rain.

Occasionally he kept trinkets found at the dump. Yesterday he unearthed a tarnished silver pocket watch. Inside was a faded picture of a smiling woman. Her smile was genuine, with a small chip in an incisor. She had a freckle on her lip, vibrant green eyes, and strawberry blonde hair; she was beautiful. Underneath the photo was an inscription: I’ll love you ‘til time stops. The watch was broken, stuck on 7:55. He put the watch in his pocket, checking it every now and then just to see if maybe it would begin ticking again.

He scrambled up mountains of refuse and looked down, scouting for this or that. Blanched plastic, flattened aluminum cans, a mouse scurrying into the toe of a shoe. He searched for something, anything. Amongst the rubble of overstuffed, disintegrating garbage bags, rust, and broken glass, he paused. Eyes glazed, mouth open, he marveled at the sight of a grand piano—missing keys, a gap-toothed smile. He descended, foraged among the discarded and found two milk crates. He stacked them in front of the piano, and while clearing his throat, pantomimed moving long suit jacket coat tails out of the way before seating himself in front of the mammoth. He gingerly placed his fingers on the keys, pressing one lightly—C sharp—savoring the sound. His fingers stumbled, played the wrong keys. Muddled notes mingled together, cacophony.

In faulty flats and sharps blended incorrectly, his ear found euphony. Faster, louder; accelerando, crescendo. Staccatos, accents of painfully pressed A flat, F sharp. He churned out dysfunctional arpeggios in the muddled urgency to create.

He played and played, feeling the bonds of time cease to shackle. He was free of this or that. Enthusiasm gave way to exhaustion. The notes he played began to fade, slow; decrescendo, ritardando. Placing a foot on the sostenuto pedal to listen to the last sounds reverberate, he trembled.



Fiction: Dinner time by Christopher Brennan


     Jackson didn’t like the fork, and he didn’t like the knife.

            He didn’t like the plates either. He didn’t like the napkins, the tablecloth, the table, the chairs, and pretty much everything about this place. He didn’t like any of it.

            “Jackson,” his mother said, “What’s wrong? Why are you making that face?”

            His face was scrunched up, with a deep frown and a crumpled forehead. It was as if he was concentrating all of his energy into making his face look as unpleasant as possible. In fact, that is exactly what Jackson was trying to do. His suit was too snug and he felt uncomfortable here.

            “I don’t understand why you can’t just smile for me,” she said. “Honestly, sweetie, I wish you would behave this once.” His mother was refolding her napkin for the third time, her slender fingers moving about the cloth, a strange look in her eyes.

             Jackson felt like exploding at that comment, but instead he merely growled. Normally, he would express his anger in the form of a tantrum, banging fists and smashing plates. He would have liked seeing the tableware smashed, the fork bent, and the knife broken. But Jackson did nothing. His mother made him promise to stop throwing tantrums, especially tonight. Besides, he was a big boy, she told him, and big boys don’t embarrass their mothers.

            The door to the kitchen swung open, revealing a tall, thin man carrying a silver platter. Jackson tightened his jaw and tried to give this man the ugliest look he could think of. It was hard to guess exactly what he was going for, but it involved a tongue and a thumb pushing up his nose.

            “Soup’s on!” the man said, apparently oblivious. The man’s gaze was towards his mother, beaming with delight.

            “I’m not hungry,” Jackson said. His mother gasped, but the man shrugged it off and set the platter down on to the table.

            “Jackson, sweetie,” his mother said, “Tim here has graciously offered to invite the both of us to dinner. It would be rude of you to simply refuse to eat.” She sounded impatient.

            “Yeah, sport,” Tim added, “I made all of this for you two. If you don’t want it, I guess I’ll just have to throw it out the window.”

              Jackson’s mother laughed, even though it wasn’t funny. This was nothing new to Jackson; she had always found those corny jokes funny. She told Jackson once that she always thought a funny man was charming. It was why she was with Tim, she said. It had also been why she had been with Jackson’s papa, but Jackson knew not to say that. It would only make her upset.

            She was dating Tim for a few months now, and the two of them decided it was high time that all three of them have dinner together. Jackson, of course, had no part in this decision.

            “I said I’m not hungry!” Jackson slammed his fists onto the table, and the tableware shook. His mother gasped again, and Tim shrugged it off again.

            “Jackson!” his mother said, a little more impatiently this time. “You stop that this instance or so help me God…” She glared at him, her face reddening, her thin lips tightening. This was her “upset face,” a look Jackson was unfortunately familiar with.

            “Alright now,” Tim interrupted. “Let’s settle down. Claire, he’s just an eight-year-old boy. He’s just being, well I don’t know, difficult. It’s always hard for kids to meet someone new, especially when that someone is dating their mother.”

            Tim turned to Jackson, flashing two rows of dazzlingly straight teeth, as if he were trying to smile the tension away.

            Jackson didn’t like smiles, they made him feel weird. Besides, he had seen better smiles. Like his papa, who had the biggest smile ever. Some teeth may have been crooked or yellow, but it was the best smile he had ever seen. It was the only thing Jackson could really remember about him. He always thought of it when other people smiled, but the short happiness was beaten down by rash anger. He didn’t know why, but he did know it got him into a lot of trouble. Jackson didn’t care. No one could smile his father away.

            “Now, Jackson, maybe if you see what I made, you’ll change your mind about it.” Tim pulled off the silver lid of the platter. Surrounded by white potatoes and green beans, there it was.

            “S-steak,” Claire stuttered, “I didn’t know it was steak you were making.” The red from her face drained as quickly as it had come.

            “Well, you said you only have it on special occasions,” Tim beamed, “And this definitely seems special enough to me!”

            “Oh. Well, th-that was very thoughtful of you, Tim,” she laughed nervously. “Don’t you think so, Jackson?”

            Jackson stared at the steak. It was thick and brown, almost like some old shoe. His stomach grumbled, but it wasn’t with hunger. It was something else.

            “Jackson,” his mother said, “I asked you a question.”

            “Wuh?” he mumbled. Jackson wasn’t paying attention. Something about the steak made him feel weird. Shivers ran up his body.

            “I said, don’t you think this was very thoughtful of Tim to make this steak, Jackson?”

            Silence. Someone started speaking, but Jackson couldn’t hear what was being said. All he heard was “knife.” All he saw was the knife cutting into the steak, revealing the red meat underneath that rugged skin. There was a liquid pouring out of it, making his insides jump up and down. It was oozing out slowly but steadily, as if it was trying to escape.

            “Aw shi–I mean, shoot,” Tim said. “I didn’t cook it long enough.”

            “It’s alright Tim,” Jackson’s mother said. “We like it rare. Don’t we, Jackson?”

            The liquid was still flowing, faster this time. It started seeping off the silver platter onto the tablecloth. Jackson followed the liquid path with his eyes, pupils darting in every direction that the red stream split.

            “Jackson!” his mother yelled. “Answer me! Right now!”

            Oh. Oh! Steak. Of course. That was what they had together. That last time with papa. It had only been a few years ago, but it seemed so long ago now.

            His papa was helping him cut the steak, smiling his big, stupid smile. He smelled funny like he always did, like the funny water Jackson wasn’t allowed to drink. His mama—back when he still called her that—was scowling at his papa. She always had on her “upset face” when he smelled funny.

The apartment they lived in was small with thin walls and quiet neighbors. At night, when Jackson would go to his room, he would hear things. Behind closed doors, his parents would shout loudly and start slamming things and making noise. It always ended the same way, with a loud smacking sound and a light thud. Then everything was quiet.

            But this was different. His mama relaxed her face suddenly. Without the scowl, her face was long, with high cheekbones and a button nose. She looked pretty, except for that thing around her eyes. It was some sort of mark, like a stain, and she seemed to wince at it. Claire wore her hair loose, stringy blonde hairs falling delicately over the side of her face, covering the stain.

            “I swear,” Jackson’s papa was saying, not really paying attention to his wife. “The guys down at the bar were hollering at Ricky to stand up to Mr. Jennings, when Martin shouted—you remember Martin—at him to sock Jennings straight in the jaw. And then he showed him how on poor Robbie! Ha! Ain’t he a real piece of work, Claire?”

            No response. Claire looked away from him. Her food was untouched.

            “Hey, I asked yous a question, Claire.” His words started to slur, as if talking strained him.

            “Jackson,” she said, “Go to your room.” Jackson knew what this meant. The loud noises would start, and the sooner he was away, the better.

            But he didn’t move. His little legs swung, trying to get off the chair, but Jackson stayed.

            “Hey, now,” his papa got up. “You let ‘im be. And I asked you a question.”

            No response. Claire walked over to her husband.

            Jackson tried to swing his legs faster, but still he wouldn’t move. The floor seemed a thousand feet from him now. He didn’t know why, but he felt scared. He wanted to cry.

            “Hey,” his father roared, “Answer me! Right now!”

            The shouting started, and Jackson balled his tiny hands into his eyes, blocking them from the sight of the fighting. His papa’s words slurred together in his booming voice, which sounded more like roaring than shouting. His mama’s shrill voice was trying to compete in volume but it was drowned out by her husband’s. He didn’t understand what they were saying; the anger was too loud. It was too loud.

When Jackson lifted his hands, his papa did the same with his, balling them into large fists. He slammed the table, as forks and knives and plates jumped. Claire jumped with them, startled as she fell on the floor, next to the fallen silverware. A piece of steak fell with them all, and her knife flung into it, splattering juices on the hardwood floor.

            Her lips quivered with Jackson’s. Her face reddened with his. Her eyes met his briefly, and Jackson could see tears, but he couldn’t tell who which one of them was crying. His papa walked towards Claire, and her hands were working fast to help her up as they fell over the steak.

            Her slender fingers found the knife and threw.

It happened so fast. A flash of silver. A sound that was a mix between a gasp and a yell. And another sound. An awful, wet sound. Quick but deep.

            His papa thudded on the table behind him, a wooden handle sticking out from his chest. His mama stared on, still on the floor, her face still. She had a strange look in her eyes, and her mouth shifted slightly, almost like a smile—no. No, that couldn’t be it. Jackson looked back at the table. There was a red stream flowing down his papa’s shirt. It was oozing out slowly, as if it was trying to escape.

His mother’s still face broke. She started screaming, crying, shouting for her husband. She crawled over to him, touching his face. She clasped her hands to his face, staining it with juice and oil. She brought his face to hers, strands of blonde hair falling over both of them. When she finally looked at Jackson, Claire stopped, staring into his eyes. She quickly turned away from them.

“I­—I didn’t…” his mama muttered, staring at his papa. “It was an accident. It was an accident. I swear, I didn’t ki­—Oh god, I didn’t. Please, please believe me.”

She was pleading, Jackson could tell, but he couldn’t see why. It was too sudden for him, too confusing, still fresh like the wounds on her face and on his father’s chest. He didn’t understand, he couldn’t understand. He stared at his mother, searching for truth. Yet she couldn’t look him in the eyes. He didn’t understand that either.

Claire reached for the phone, muttering the same words over and over again.

“I didn’t do it.”

What happened next was a blur. Men came, with blue suits and shiny badges. She cried hysterically to them, but Jackson only heard a few words, like “attacked” and “accident.” Some neighbors poured in, with shocked faces and low voices. They asked questions and stared at her stained eye. One of them put a blanket over Jackson. He was still sitting at the table, staring at his mother. His legs were still swinging, trying to get off the chair.

            In a few days, Jackson was sitting again, staring at another table. Except it was outside and sunny. The table had a long box and was looming over a long pit. A man in robes spoke and people cried. Claire was quiet. Everyone wore black, even Jackson. He was wearing a suit.

            The same suit Jackson was wearing now. It was the only suit he owned, and his mother said she didn’t want to waste money to buy a new one when this one was perfectly fine.

            “Jackson!” His mother yelled again. Her face was still pale, but there was no stain, no redness, no broken screams.

            She never talked about that night, he knew now. He must have forgotten about it, but how could he forget? How could she forget? Did she forget or did she just want to? He didn’t understand anymore, just like all those years ago. He couldn’t feel angry, but he couldn’t feel relieved either. Jackson didn’t know how to feel, how to look at his mother now, yet that didn’t stop him from staring at her.

            His eyes met hers, sharing the same look. There were no tears this time.

            “Yes, mother,” Jackson found himself saying, “It was very thoughtful, Tim. Thank you.” He felt cold.

Claire looked stunned and quickly turned away from his eyes. Her face gained color again and relaxed.

            “That was very nice of you, Jackson,” her voice sounded pleased. Yet she had that strange look in her eye. Jackson suddenly realized that they always looked strange, since the last time they had steak for dinner.

            “Uh, well,” Tim stuttered. “How about we eat? I don’t know about you two, but I’m starved.”

            He started to cut into the steak again. Tim and Jackson’s mother started talking, something about gas prices or working a hard day. They laughed together over a corny joke.

            Jackson was still shivering, sitting at the table, his legs swinging. He felt hot, yet strangely cold. His breath quickened. He wanted to get away from here, from this place. With all its forks and knives and smiles and red streams oozing out of the body—no, the meat. Yes, that was it.

            “Jackson, sweetie,” Claire said, “How about a smile, hmm? For mama?”

            Everything seemed to stop for a moment.

            She smiled. Claire smiled at him, that same smile. Empty. Like her eyes. Like him.

            He felt like crying, like running away, like throwing a tantrum, like smashing everything in sight. But he was a big boy now, and big boys don’t embarrass their mothers.

            Jackson smiled. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like any of it.