Alani Rosa Hicks-Bartlett translates Pablo de Rokha

from Los gemidos, “Mar” (The Groans, “Sea”)

The Girl

—Like in novels, like in melodies, or like in oleographs, you, imperial woman, you go saddening, you go saddening the marine sunsets…


Eternally you’re perched on the majestic rocks… a popular feuilleton lost in your skirts and your immense eyes, stunned, dark, in pursuit across the distances, across the most DISTANT, most DISTANT, most DISTANT distances!… 


Your name is Luisa, Inés, Julia, Maria, your name is Maria,—“like in the novels!”—and you are dressed as a bride, you are dressed as a bride, you are dressed as a bride always, always you are dressed as a bride. 


Oh! enormous female, little romantic, poetic woman, little enchanting woman, little woman: what does it matter, what does it matter that you DELIGHT IN reading Rovetta when your attitude, your attitude, your attitude alone, alone is just as definitive as the WORLD?.. !..


La niña

—Como en las novelas, como en las tonadas, o como en las oleografías, tú, mujer imperial, vas entristeciendo, vas entristeciendo los atardeceres marinos. . .  


Eternamente estás sobre las augustas rocas. . .  el folletín vulgar caído en las faldas y los ojos inmensos, alucinados, oscuros, persiguiéndose en las distancias, en las distancias más DISTANTES, más DISTANTES, más DISTANTES! .  . . .


Te llamas Luisa, Inés, Julia, Maria, te llamas Maria,— «como en las novelas! » —, y estás de novia, estás de novia, estás de novia siempre, siempre estás de novia. 


Oh! hembra enorme, mujercita romántica, poética, mujercita encantadora, mujercita: ¡que importa, que importa que GOCES leyendo à Rovetta cuando tu actitud, tu actitud, tu actitud sola, sola es tan definitiva como el MUNDO?. .  !. . 



Over the majestic oceanic voice, the sun, the agonizing sun sings, sings, sings the ephemerality of human things and the failing light…


Already the last candles are waning, are waning in the DISTANCE… …The philosophical tune of the fisherman and the sirens of the ocean liners, the submarines, the hydroplanes, the hydroplanes migrate with the first wandering swallows towards the old eaves of melancholy… … …


The bride and groom play around with burning kisses and the withered leaves with the tombs, and the withered leaves with the tombs.


Something distant, very distant, very distant weeps with us…oh! sensation of the old lives of ours, of ours

you emerge from the sea, you emerge from the sea, you emerge from the sea, like a vague and sad memory, MUTE, from the entrails of MAN… children of the sea, children from the sea we carry all the metaphysics of the eternal waters WITH US, WITH US, WITH US!.. !.. … …


(…The tremendous cows go on bellowing, go on bellowing, with the waves… …)



Sobre la augusta voz oceánica, el sol, el sol agonizante canta, canta, canta lo pasajero de las cosas humanas y la luz desteñida. . .  


Ya las últimas velas se diluyeron, se diluyeron en la DISTANCIA. . .   . . .  La tonada filosófica del pescador y las sirenas de los transatlánticos, los submarinos, los hidroplanos, los hidroplanos emigra con las primeras golondrinas viajeras hácia los viejos aleros de la melancolía. . .  . . .  . . . 


Los novios juegan con besos ardiendo y las hojas marchitas con las tumbas, y las hojas marchitas con las tumbas. 


Algo distante, muy distante, muy distante llora con nosotros… oh! sensación de las antiguas vidas NUESTRAS, NUESTRAS, 

                             tú vienes saliendo del mar, tú vienes saliendo del mar, tú vienes saliendo del mar, como un
                             recuerdo triste y vago, MUDO, desde las entrañas del HOMBRE¡hijos del mar, hijos del mar
llevamos toda la metafísica de las aguas eternas CON NOSOTROS, CON NOSOTROS, CON NOSOTROS!..
                             !. .   . . .  . . .   


(. . . Las vacas tremendas continúan bramando, continúan bramando con las olas. . .  . . .)



You are like the sound, you are like the sound of all undone lives. . .  Your voice is pregnant with possibilities! . . !. .


Just like a lugubrious dog you go on barking, barking, barking in my heart. . .


Your attitude seems to me, sea, it seems to me and yet it isn’t at all; great quantity of waters, of waters, great quantity of waters WITHOUT SENSE, light from obscure forms!. .  ? . .  . . . 


You are CREATING YOURSELF, like this, like this, oh! wandering, macabre, macabre cradle of the earth!. .  ! ..  


Your horizontal statues, the waves, fill up the public squares, the public squares with your indefinable ways, and you fit, sea, sea, and you fit in a seashell, good friend!… 



Eres como el sonido, eres como el sonido de todas las vidas deshechas. . . Tu voz está preñada de posibilidades! . .  !. .  


Lomismo que un perro lúgubre vas ladrando, ladrando, ladrando en mi corazón. . . 


Tu actitud se me parece, mar, se me parece y NO es ninguna; ¡gran cantidad de aguas, de aguas, gran cantidad de aguas SIN SENTIDO, luz de las formas oscuras!. .  ? . .  . . .    


Estás HACIÉNDOTE, así estás, así estás, oh! cuna errante, macabra, macabra de la tierra!. .  ! . .   


Tus estatuas horizontales, las olas, llenan las plazas públicas, las plazas públicas de tus maneras indefinibles y cabes, mar, mar, y cabes en un caracol, buen amigo! . . 


Translator’s Note:

In “The Ballad of Pablo de Rokha,” the opening self-referential poem of Los Gemidos, [The Groans, 1922], Pablo de Rokha’s poetic voice emphasizes poetry’s magnetic, elemental, organic, fated pull, and describes the creative process as an involuntary, inevitable capture within its folds: “I sing, I sing without meaning to, necessarily, irremediably, fatally, at the randomness of events, like a person who eats, drinks, or walks and because certainly; I would die if I didn’t sing, I would die if I didn’t sing….”  The musicality of these sentences in the original, the destabilizing repetition, and the bright percussive mark of uncertainty—“y porque si; moriría si no cantase” [and because certainly; I would die if I didn’t sing]—repeated in the original, are among the qualities that immediately caught my attention the memorable first time I read de Rokha’s poetry some years ago. Throughout Los Gemidos, de Rokha describes poetry and the human experiences built around it as integral components of an electrifying world, a soundscape of music and words that wash over the individual as part of a consuming, transfixing, and again, electrifying process where nerves are ablaze, where synapses sing, and where linear thought (should such a thing even exist) cedes before music, bellowing animals, and crashing waves. “Walking musically,” and holding “songs that have eyes and feet, eyes and feet” in their mouths, the individuals evoked in de Rokha’s poems are portrayed encountering climactic moments in which they are swept up in a maelstrom of cosmic, Dionysian sounds that pulse, shriek, creak, and groan while alternatively animating and conquering the body. 

It is this synesthetic saturation and this tension between the body and mind, between the elements and the individual, between the natural world of lowing cows and the frenetic thrum of machines, between a prodigious, universal darkness and intrusive flashes of technology and buzzing lights that I find thrilling to read and translate. Whenever I read and translate de Rokha, I pay special attention to the acoustic atmosphere that he creates, and I strive to “hear” the resonances located in and hovering through and around each poem. Most recently, I keep returning to the juxtaposition and sonoric clash between the “groans” prioritized in the collection’s title, and the ostensibly melodious ballad evoked in the collection’s first poem, in part because it is a clash that reverberates in numerous other poems, including the “song,” “hymn,” “elegy,” “harangue,” psalm,” “ode,” and “canticle” that help constitute Los Gemidos’s sonoric landscape and its various dissonant manifestations. 

Yet it should be said that de Rokha’s poetry offers far more than anything I could succinctly express here: his rich imagery, evocative symbolism, seething conclusions, and the acuteness of his voice make every experience of reading even just one of his poems vital and constantly new. The selections from Los Gemidos’s section on the “Sea” that are included here (“La niña,” “Atardeceres,” and “Invocación”), speak to de Rokha’s expansive eye and his capacious embrace. Yet, as I have suggested above, this capaciousness is paired with an exacting temporal dimension, an awareness that the things that we love, or that we use to find our bearings will eventually fail us, or fail with us… “Atardeceres,” for example, evokes the opening “I sing, I sing” of the first poem of Los Gemidos, but this time it is the “agonizing sun,” miraculously heard over the ocean’s expansive voice that “sings, sings, sings” its melancholic awareness of the passage of time and the fugacity of human experience.


Born in Licantén in 1894, Pablo de Rokha (pseudonym, Carlos Díaz Loyola; d.1968, Santiago) is known as a towering Chilean literary figure. Although he explored various genres, de Rokha was especially prolific in poetry and essays, publishing numerous volumes of both. He published a collection of avant-garde poems, Los gemidos (The Groans) in 1922, and received numerous awards for his work, including Chile’s prestigious Premio Nacional de Literatura, which he was awarded in 1965. De Rokha was married to the poet Luisa Anabalón Sanderson (pseudonyms, Winétt de Rokha and Juana Inés de la Cruz) from 1916 until her death in 1951.

Alani Rosa Hicks-Bartlett is a writer and translator who loves the invective genre, most of all, followed by lyric and epic poetry. Especially drawn to the premodern period, she is passionate about languages and enjoys translating from Catalan, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, and Yiddish. She has won awards for her creative writing, including the University of California, Berkeley’s Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Lyric Poetry Prize, Dorothy Rosenberg Memorial Prize in Lyric Poetry, and the Emily Chamberlain Cook Prize. Her recent creative work has appeared in The Stillwater Review, IthacaLit, Gathering Storm, Broad River Review, The Fourth River, and Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Translation, among others.




Katie Rhiannon Jones translates Emmy Hennings

Wor(l)ds in Flight: Three Poems


We lie in a sea-deep lake
Knowing nothing of sorrow and heartache
We embrace and encase ourselves 
And waterlilies circle us and draw
Rings – We strive and wish and want no more
We have no cravings.
Love, something’s missing still,
A wish that’s unfulfilled:
The desire for desire…  


Ein Traum

Wir liegen in einem tiefem See
Und wissen nichts von Leid und Weh.
Wir halten uns umfangen
Und Wasserrosen rings um uns her.
Wir streben und wünschen und wollen nichts mehr.
Wir haben kein Verlangen.
Geliebter, etwas fehlt mir doch,
Einen Wunsch, den hab ich noch:
Die Sehnsucht nach der Sehnsucht.



My flesh aches somewhere in a strange 
I no longer feel my body
Feet like lead—so heavy,
Breast hollow, burned-out and branded
I don’t hurt, and yet I’m full of pain.
I look into your eyes spellbound.
I fall into a sleep, candles flicker and flame,
They light my way into the unknown land.



Mein Leib schmerzt, irgendwo in einem fremden 
Ich fühle meinen Körper längst nicht mehr,
Die Füße sind wie Blei so schwer,
Die Brust ist hohl und ausgebrannt,
Mir tut nichts weh und bin doch voller Schmerzen,
Ich seh in deine Augen wie gebannt.
Ich fall in Schlaf, es flammen Kerzen
Sie leuchten mir ins unbekannte Land.


In hospital

All autumns pass over me. 
Lying ill in a white room,
Wishing dearly to be dancing. 
Always thinking of violin tunes
And a thousand flickering lights.
O, how pretty I am today!
Faces painted so brightly
Dancing past me so fast.
O, so many wilted roses,
carried home each night
crushed by caresses 
tenderly arranged in the morning.
And I remember the girls,
Vagabonds like me—love makers,
Singing of some mythic homeland
Through tears of laughter and heartbreak.
Yet now I lie abandoned—stranded
In a white room—a blank screen.
O, my sisters of the streets,
Come to me tonight in a dream!


Im Krankenhause

Alle Herbste gehn an mir vorüber.
Krank lieg ich im weißen Zimmer,
Tanzen möchte ich wohl lieber.
An die Geigen denk ich immer.
Und es flimmern tausend Lichter.
O, wie bin ich heute schön!
Bunt geschminkte Angesichter
Schnell im Tanz vorüberwehn.
O, die vielen welken Rosen,
Die ich nachts nach Haus getragen,
Die zerdrückt vom vielen Kosen
Morgens auf dem Tische lagen.
An die Mädchen denk ich wieder,
Die wie ich die Liebe machen.
Wenn wir sangen Heimatlieder,
Unter Weinen, unter Lachen,
Und jetzt lieg ich ganz verlassen
In dem stillen weißen Raum.
O, ihr Schwestern von den Gassen,
Kommt zu mir des Nachts im Traum!


Translator’s Note:

These poems are from Emmy Hennings’s first collection, Die letzte Freude / The last Joy (1913), a title that conjures a host of compelling allusions: the reference to last joy might evoke eschatological associations, implying the author’s interest in religion and renewal, as well as her historical context at the eve of the First World War.  However, these words—letzte Freude—might equally connote an orgasmic petite mort, and are highly suggestive of one of the collection’s leitmotifs—sex work and the life of Freudenmädchen, slang for women and girls who perform sex work. Hennings occasionally relied on sex work for money, and so it might be tempting to read these references autobiographically. Yet Hennings’s intervention in the (usually male-authored) “prostitute narrative” also gestures towards a critique of the economic and gendered mechanisms of exploitation, a theme throughout her oeuvre. Imagery relating to exploitation can be noticed in “Im Krankenhause,” in which the speaker remembers aspects of her life while convalescing from an illness implicitly related to sex work. While the blankness of the poem’s white room contrasts with the speaker’s colourful memories, the remembered scenes are also anti-romantic and inflected with imagery of (mis)use—the crushed roses, for instance. In Hennings’s German, she uses rhyme to pair streets (Gassen) with abandoned (verlassen). In an attempt to maintain these associations, I’ve inserted the word ‘stranded’ to echo abandoned and bring the relationship between topography and abandonment into sharper relief. 

The poetic I’s memories of singing Heimatlieder with her comrades ironically connects the figure of the sex worker with a nationalist myth of Germany. Through the subversive image of the so-called “fallen” women singing Heimatlieder, Hennings seems to critique the provincialized innocence suggested by the term Heimat/ homeland, instead associating Germany with the unsentimental exchange and exploitation that the sex worker figure might signify. In my translation of “Im Krankenhause,” I’ve inserted the word ‘vagabond’ to gesture towards this subversive element and toward another ‘whore and vagabond’ of German literature, Courage—the picaresque protagonist of The Life of Courage: Thief, Whore and Vagabond (1670) by Johann Grimmelshausen, part of his Simplicissimus series of books. Hennings met her future husband, Hugo Ball, at Café Simplicissimus in Munich—where she performed and discussed art and politics with many other budding (or established) avant garde artists of the early twentieth century. Together with Ball, Tristan Tzara, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and others, Hennings founded the infamous Cabaret Voltaire, which opened its doors in Zurich in 1916 with Hennings performing her poem “Gefängnis”/ Prison on the opening night. Indeed, Hennings was a full participant and instigator in the Dada movement, though she has not received as much attention as her contemporaries. Descriptions of Hennings by her fellow Dadaists are far from flattering, and Erika Biddle points out that ‘the men in her inner circle undermined Hennings’, noting the way some friends dismissed her as a drug addict, or as uncommitted to the Dada spirit (Biddle 2007: 275). A contemporary reviewer refers to her ‘hysteria’ (Siurlai qtd. in Rugh 1981: 2), and later writers interested in the movement considered her work a vehicle for understanding Ball’s art, as opposed to reading it in its own right. The performative elements of her work and interest in dolls and puppetry might reflect the gender politics within the group, despite the Dadaist (cl)aim to undo such hierarchies. While the poetry translated here predates the Cabaret Voltaire, suggesting a bold poetic voice, Hennings often recited poetry written by other members of the group, particularly Ball’s. Such details add texture to Hennings’s poem ‘”Hypnose” in which the self is hollowed out, like a puppet. The hypnotic, light and dark quality of Hennings’s poetry recalls linguistically the chiaroscuro techniques used in expressionist film, and one might put her writing into dialogue with the widespread interest in somnambulism at the fin de siècle and first decades of the twentieth century. Such imagery implies the poet’s interest in personal and mass manipulation by means other than brute force.

In these translations, I’ve aimed to tread the line between faithfulness to Hennings’s meaning as well as spirit—making small changes to preserve rhymes and rhythms where possible, and shuffling or inserting the occasional new word in the spirit of transformation and flight woven throughout Hennings’s largely ignored poetry. Feminist intervention and scholarship have sought to bring Hennings’s writing into focus—and I suspect Chris Kraus’s reference to Hennings and Ball in her autofictional hit I Love Dick (1997) brought this overlooked Dadaist to the attention of many contemporary readers. Henning’s interest in theatricality, puppets, and performance marks a desire to escape rigid boundaries of gender that speaks to us across time. Yet, while Hennings’s writing might be easy for some to dismiss as autobiographical or confessional, upon a closer reading less fettered by a hermeneutics that privileges certain topics for art, we can read Hennings’s interest in feminine roles in more expansive ways. In Die letzte Freude readers can find and be affected by Hennings’s suspicion of nationalism, her fascination with mysticism, and a nuanced and conflicted relation to the mechanisms of the sometimes brutal, sometimes sublime, economies of desire.


Biddle, Erika (2007). ‘Better a One-Legged Man Than a Woman’, in Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority. Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland (eds.). Oakland & Edinburgh: AK Press, pp. 272-284.

Rugh, T. (1981). Emmy Hennings and the Emergence of Zurich Dada, in Woman’s Art Journal. 2: 1, pp. 1-6.


Emmy Hennings née Corsden (1885-1948) played a formative role in the Dada movement and was a founding member of the Cabaret Voltaire. She was a performer who published poetry and two semi-autobiographical fictions, Gefängnis / Prison (1919) and Das Brandmal / The Branding (1920), which fictionalise the life of vagabond women—both troubled and troublesome. Hennings was married twice. First, to Joseph Hennings, with whom she had a son who died in infancy, and a daughter named Annemarie. Hennings later married the Dadaist poet Hugo Ball in 1920—the same year she converted to Catholicism. After Ball’s death in 1927, she dedicated much time to the loving promotion of his work. Hennings died in Switzerland in 1948.

Katie Jones is an academic with a particular interest in women’s life writing, and is currently working on a book exploring this topic with the working title Improper Subjects. She also writes poetry, and some her poems and publications can be found online and in print. She lives and works near the sea in Swansea, Wales. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.




Mira Cameron



It’s snowing and I’m lying in the incoherent noise that is me asking what
you think. I don’t expect to understand what I’m doing but I know I
understand that you’ve been on my mind.

                           You’re laced into my thoughts, curled into the door 
                                                   each time I come home
                           from walking the dog. You don’t know / where I live. 
                                       I know
                           the exact movements of each time I’ve bled to kiss you
                                                                     in re/creation 
                           and every single word I need to remind myself 
                                                   why I don’t want that.


Who am I in a world without language?

                  I’m the one who follows a shadow’s sliver
                  believing it to bloom into a hollow secret. 

                  Outside of Big Timber, Montana, 
                  I realized I’d left you alone
                  in the tail end of a dark winter
                  after driving all night fleeing us but more so, 
                  fleeing after us, my failing ability to stand 
                  on my own, spun out by red wine morality,
                  questions that slashed without hesitation or
                  concern for the threads that held grasp 
                  between what was here and what was delusion, 
                  where was I; where a change, a tree suddenly there, a
                  gargoyle sconce, sent me past the silent walk I took
                  everyday to a blank space haven. 

                  Fleeing did little besides save my life 
                  which was more than enough reason
                  to work with myself to try.

                                    I let myself get away
                  and woke up to the first day of a new life.

A cup of coffee with one sip out of it somehow won’t splatter
                               as my car veers out of control,
                                         having hit black ice.

                  In at least one reality, this is how I die.



What am I looking for besides the way you say goodnight? 

             When we talk, time becomes 
                  a river you hardly notice has a current
                         running both ways.    

                      I’m rambling down the edge 
                      of the field I crashed into,
                 watching amber halos linger through the air;
                their glow a coal igniting the bare winter 
                crops, a casket of flame that will itself die,
               ash falling, faint into mud before sunrise, 
                flame waiting for the exhale of cinnamon 
                                           on your breath.


                          How can I separate greed from understanding
                          that you are always
                          on my mind?

                 How can we define who we are in relation to the other, 
                                                  without the other?

              I would never leave you alone
                                                                      in the winter,
                                                                      but I did.
                                    You weren’t alone 
                             and I’m not the savior;
you were alone,
                                                      I can still save.
                                                      Come near my heart.
                                         Let’s watch the crops burn tonight.
                  I’m warm from the glow of want 
                  in a way that contradicts the bitterness
                  of your perennial roots sprouting out my throat.


                  If not the way an anonymous figure kisses me,
                                      then how their fingers make me blush

                          wrapping their way back around my jaw.

                               Who am I talking to
                               besides the snow
                               that caught my body?

                          I miss lips against my neck.

Waking up to light melting through the windowpane
    as I taste my favorite smile streak across my face.



                                Imagine my childhood hallway.

                        My parents destroy each other
                        so I step over my brother’s dog
                        and go up the staircase, stopping halfway
                        to march in faux removal of self,
                        sit and idly listen to the screams,
                        the shaking rafters and whimpering dogs.
                        I do this just in case.
      The horrid part of me wants to laugh
           at my however old self: quivering, unable
       to refuse my own incapacitation
           lacking any ability to be what could change
                     the situation
           but needing to witness it the same.

                               I can’t see or be seen from the angle
                                    so focus on a few scattered marbles
                                  across the light wood below,
                   the peeling black paint on the grate
                          of a heating vent.

          Light’s coming through the forever unused front door,
                                stiff with antique glint.

                                 This house feels like hell
                                 and I’ve never let anyone in.

                   But when I close my hallway’s eyes,
                         you’re the one the door makes an exception for

                                                     because you’re the one I trust,
                                                  here for the eventual day we talk

          about whether ‘despondent’ is in the past tense,

                     the sins of striving for something better,

                                                                do you ever plan

                                                  to swim across the styx?


      On my walk to watch the wheat burn
      I take two pink candles. I light them
      once I reach an ember;
      watch false twin flames still try
                                 to dance; learn.

                                                         How will they learn?

                                 The candles end the night caught
                                 in an unexpected song of hope.

                          Decisiveness is what separates catastrophe
                                 from a fermentation process.

                          Can you promise me we’ll end up anywhere
                          besides a perpetuity of inferiority and lust,
                                        drowned and tossed around
                                 the cyclic motions of another’s eye?

        — Particles entwined find their way.

        — I don’t want to offer each other false promises,
                               I want our lives to be warm and full.

                          I truly believe this world can be happy,
                                       and I want you to know.

                                        Would that mean forgetting
                                      or feeling better, forgetting hope?


                                   Curiosity pulled on me one sleepless night,
                                     asked me to follow them to the bathroom
                                                                to reenact a role.
                                     I shut the door quietly and struggled
                                     to look myself in the eye before falling
                                    into my blood, river of indigo drifting out
                                    crimson through the tributary creeks of the
                                                linoleum floor.

                                                I saw if I could,
                                   but woke to the knowledge
                                    that I may just feel poisoned
                                    or never get better,
                                                                 or go away,
                                    only half-aware as to whether or not
                                    I’m causing the world a problem.

                             In another world, I won’t wake up
                              and the blood will immerse me,
                              and this will be how I die. I imagine
                              it will feel like floating through saltwater
                                      on a summer day
                               or when the world in my head debates
                                                                   between flare

                               and monotone wavelength. I was a corpse
                                                       and when I closed my eyes,
                               I saw death cloaked in nighttime red.
                               She swung her blade as I moved closer.

                                       A dream I used to have rains overhead.

                                                    For the rest of the night
                               I can’t stop myself from feeling like a sin,

                               like my own resolution to a sleepless night.


                                                      My feet are covered in blood
                                              and you would say I’m alone,
                                                            and I would say I’m not,
                                            that the ensemble in my head
                                                                           have built a stable
                                             enough rapport to
                                                           carry their own presence.

                             This is a literal message that means nothing
                                                                         which is most of life.

                                       The blood from my feet has left a trail
                                               that ruins any hope of anonymity I have.

                               It’s a heartbreaking ultimatum I’m terrified to lose.

                               I am who I am as I jog across the street to kiss you

                                                                          a coincidental hello.


I take a simple mixture: herbs and warm spices, then grind them into oil, mixing in tree
resin to make a salve for the gashes scattering my skin. I strip my clothing and prepare to
be anointed, repeating manifestations for the world to hear. Holy work is for when you
need it to. Hope is a ritual of learning time and action. The buzz, a humming chant, our
worlds and we are all singing. I stand up tall, take the paste and seal the gaps in one full
moment of bliss as I watch it mix into my blood’s routine drip. My reflection in the
mirror falls away, replaced by my family’s mulberry tree                  
                            struck by lightning.     

                                                                   Fire burns from the inside out.
                                                           My last sight is my body cracking open.


The bark is scarred but I surprise myself and move back
into the burrow beneath. Heat weeps from my roof
and I struggle across the years, finding a way to live
a happy life. I regain agency walking the woods;
find life by watching it, reenacting it, acting as myself,
an evolving mind, a mutant body. Rejoice.

I go to bed one night and the ceiling collapses.
Again, I learn my lessons of massive death and rebirth.

Flames dominate my life, loominate over my sleeping body,
so I join them, burning out radiant shafts of light; and we share

                            our sentience alive in the sun.
                       My new life warms herself from our burning body.

             I hear the birds gossip in the smoldering morning;
             through them, I know it’s time for me to leave.

I feel an immense amount of guilt despite no real pressure,
                                                                   but still manage
to leave behind the charred remains of a life I can no longer

Mira Cameron is a 26 year old trans feminine, masc for masc darling of a poet. They tend to call Chicago their home, or the central Illinois cornfields, but at various times, Washington state and an Illinois state minimum security prison have filled the role. They work for a food justice based urban farm as a farmhand and grant writer and attend Roosevelt University where they double major in Sustainability and English-Creative Writing. Their poems can be found in JABBER, Anti-Heroin Chic, Corvus Review, and Boats Against the Current; a chapbook length sequence is in Slippage Lit. Connect with them on Twitter @nonsensetheimp.




Mary Zhou 周世芳

A Patient Record

Last Name:

In the United States, 周 ends my name.
In China, 周 begins it.

Grandma never touched school.
Couldn’t read her own name,
but ran numbers in her mind
like blinks of an eye.

Great-uncle was the only boy, 
the only one allowed words
as Grandma and her sisters 
brushed his room, boiled his food.

Bitter for my Grandma,
I ask what he makes 
of his privileged pen, 
his manhood, his career.

Instead I hear how
this only son’s
only son worked 
down in a coal mine

and one day got shut 
in the earth forever; 
how Great-uncle was 
not entirely there after.

Meanwhile, Grandma was a doctor. 
Barefoot doctor, trained but still
unschooled; the countryside’s answer 
to medical shortage.

She welcomed newborn 
farmers to the fields,
eased ill and old growers
on their way back into soil.

After college, I move 
to a small country town 
to learn about medicine.
I read, I run numbers in my mind.

I think of Grandma, 
how my surname is hers too. 
Later, I realize I’ve confused 
my grandmothers. 

Half a globe and two deaths away, 
they form one woman in my mind. 
In China, they are 姥姥 and 奶奶.
In the United States, they are Grandma.

My mother’s mother doctors.
My father’s mother births 
my father with her name
after my father’s father flees.

English can lack clarity,
but I refuse to take the ability  
to read and write all my family 
names for granted.

Date of Birth:

A girl dreams of a doll
A man dreams of a son
A woman dreams of a life of her own

I was in the world
I was something like air
but then I was born.

On a Sunday afternoon, the wind turns a girl sister, a man father, and a woman
mother, mine.

First Name:

When the nurse hears my name for the birth certificate, she says Isn’t that an old
woman’s name? Of course: I’ve already been here too long. I’ll live as a question 
that ages every fall.

               Whose dream did I answer? 

                          Whose dream? 

                                      Did I answer?

Mom nurses me at night and attends nursing school by day. 

A year later, she stops nursing me, and starts nursing hospital babies who grow newer
as I grow older. She nurses at my birthplace, alongside the doctor who delivered me. 

Years later, he holds a reunion of lives he’s brought to the world.
Will you join us to celebrate?
I have no space for more questions. I toss the invitation.
The first man to hold me stays in the past, where he belongs.

Home Address:

As a child, I needle my mom 
for diagnoses every time I get sick–
Flu? Cold? Allergy? Bug? Curse?

Medicine is the Answer; I will treat 
it as one when I ask 
what to do with my life.

In that farm town for future doctors
I bloody my own finger 
to practice glucose checks.

I watch doctors’ demeanors
to determine who I want to be.
I feel not good enough.

If I only had a brain
is not what I wonder.
I already think too much; 

I want a heart (bigger, stronger) 
and courage
and dare I sing it–a home.

I watch tornadoes
drop old houses
onto their ghosts.

Here, ruby glitter is only
what deer do after dark,
and steel cars.

A hoof heel-clicks
in wind for a faraway field.
There’s no trace but bone
There’s no trace but bone

dry burntout self after 
the service year ends; 
I can look after

only myself the next year.
My answer was not an answer.
I move from country to city.

I scavenge a temp job
and take up a tablet 
preloaded with voter addresses
alongside other 20-somethings
desperate for paychecks.

We go home 
to home, push door
bells for hours 
and make too little money for it. 
It’s not white out yet, 
but we walk toward winter.

Going around
ing, ringing 
temple to temple 
my head is full of prayer: 
please, nobody answer the door.  

One shift, my prayer is answered
and eighty doors aren’t. 
But the boss is extra high
strung lately, 
and I start to worry 
about my numbers. 

The eighty-first door, my last: 
an old man in a wool sweater appears; 
he’s familiar with the work, 
he supports it, he smiles, he nods. 
Yes, I can hear already,
when I ask if he’ll take a survey. 

I’d love to hear your answers!

It’s dinnertime, 
he says, 
and simply walks back 
into the house.


• Brown sugar hotteok & vanilla ice cream–take 1x at breakfast before running to SEPTA station. Take last possible train to work–be almost late. Be almost fired. Be almost done with job, but instead keep running, keep ringing, keep making money to make rent and more hotteok and ice cream.

• Cheese chips–take 1x at lunch break, on any dusty For Sale stoop you can find. Substitute with beef jerky from backpack if it would take entire lunch break just to reach nearest grocery store.

• A whole tomato pie–accidentally step in 1x on sidewalk during work. Man walking out of funeral will watch you and sigh.

• Your leg–loose dog will take 3x bites during work and land you in urgent care. 

Actually, not you, but almost. Supervisor will screech up to your curb and wait until you’re buckled in before explaining what happened to your shift partner. You will never see him again. For his sake, you and your coworkers hope he faked the story to get out of this job. 

• Spicy instant ramen & fried egg–take 1x at dinner while watching any YouTube video that lets you forget who you are.

• Whatever else puts grease between you and the day–take as needed.

Phone Number:

1AM: Woken by a tidal wave; instead of the usual anxiety, it’s a contraction in the center of my chest. WebMD is awful for these things, so of course I read it on my dummy little phone and sweat. This could be a Heart Attack–or just Heartburn. I bet on Heartburn, forage for Tums, and knock back two dusty tabs. Back to bed.

3AM: Storm surge and the wave is full of sharp shell shards and it won’t recede I can’t remember if insurance covers ambulances I don’t have the money to test this I call a cab to the ER and try not to alarm the driver I silently die a little inside every time we hit a pot hole I crawl out the car and through the walk up entrance The triage receptionist is nonchalant while I hold my body together It’s so hard to speak with her through the thick glass pane THE PAIN ISN’T A THING YOU CAN SEE I think at her YOU HAVE TO TRUST ME WHEN I TELL YOU IT’S THERE

They stick me behind a curtain and forget I’m there. 
I’m patient. I fall asleep and forget who I am.

Patient Note:

Hour, hour, hour, hour: 
then the curtain parts, white enters, and I wake from a poem–
Look back into the snow and ask whether God can sing.

The white turns coat, turns man in white coat, who asks me a question. 
Still in a half-dream, I gesture at my chest. It hurt so bad I couldn’t breathe right. 

And what could it be? I walk a lot. I’m out in the cold. I wonder how dark and quiet God can be. I eat things not right for me. I am lonely. I think too much. I think about money, or not enough of it. I sleep badly. I am heartbroken.

I scatter a handful of this into his coat pockets.

Past Medical History:

A boy, 
though I should say man, 
from that farm town of future doctors
is training to be one in this city.

He broke the heart of a friend,
another farm town doctor-to-be.
I broke mine on one 
who was his friend, and her friend, 

and once mine.
I was about to say I love you. 
It rattled against my ribs
and as if sensing it

this friend read me 
a Davis story that ended
with heartbreak and an old shirt.

In it, I love you was an awkward 
obligation, to hear it back,
or to awkwardly not.
In it, pleasure did not make 
pain worth it. Love was a mistake
one kept committing anyway.

I remembered visiting a patient
at church the other week;
the pastor had us all hug
and say I love you, 
and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I did it then, but here I balk. 
Speak now, or forever hold my piece.
I hold it in.
It shatters.

Physical Exam–Tenderness: There is no guarding or rebound.

As I blink off my poem and look at the doctor,
I can’t help but see him, old boy, in the dark 
beard, the gold-rim glasses, the soft voice.

The year must be too new;
I must have asked the cab for the wrong day.
The driver pushed the gas 

and left me at the future.
My brain said, say any hospital but that, but that
so my throat simply repeated the that.

This must be him,
(not the one I loved, but still a mutual connection point, a tangential reminder, like almost anything is–any cloud, bossa nova song, blue sedan, yellow shirt, old pair of sneakers, spiral shell, jar candle, blackberry bush, fine-tipped marker, tomato seedling, rolled sleeve, plate of scrambled eggs, burned CD, old kayak, receding figure in the rearview mirror)
a medical degree, a gold ring, and fine-lined decades later.
Here, he’s known me longer than I’ve been alive.

The white coat, old, old friend, turns his pockets inside-out.
And what could it be? 
Acid Reflux. Heart Attack. Kidney Stone. Stomach Flu. Pregnancy.
Hard to know at this moment, he says, like a stranger.

He doesn’t know me after all.
He doesn’t know who we are, or when.
This is the stupidly correct hospital. Not his. It is today. It is this hour.

Mental Status: Memory normal. Patient is alert and oriented to person, place, and time.

Procedures Performed:

The doctor touches an ankle and there is pee in a cup and there is a wire everywhere he feels a pulse. Ribs, wrists, throat, feet. 

The body stays still,
still, it stays–
not time to go back 
into the earth, and everything.

All this to hear Your heart is fine. Something went wrong, he admits, but he can’t figure out what. There’s no pain to fix right now, which means


Go through the sliding glass and it turns out the world is morning and near-freezing. Wind dries tears still in the eyes. Clutch discharge papers and shirt to the skin. Current property: more paper, another question.

In the mind: Cold, and Dying, but mostly, God, So Hungry

Bus home, record dream-poems, boil miyeok and miso in a big white pot, and go back to bed.

Review of Symptoms:

At the follow up, I tell the nurse I don’t think it was the food–I ate sweet hotteok and spicy ramen a few weeks later and slept fine. 

You’re brave, she says, without admiration. 

Mental Status: Judgment normal. 

She has no answers and sends me home with a printout. At the top, a cropped two-body picture: a hand clutches its headless chest while the other torso, expressionless, notes this on a clipboard.

Treatment / Refused Treatment:

Fresh from the hospital, from hell-edge, I gather my pieces and hold them holy. The
chest pain never returns.

I toss out the calls for proton pump inhibitors and laxatives. I find a new job that lets 
me stay home for winter, and break my canvassing contract a luxurious two days 
early. You look like you’re going to cry, the boss says at my last shift debrief. I’m about to,
say, from relief, I think. I nearly fly out of that 52nd Street McDonald’s.

I prescribe myself new rituals. I close my eyes and open to a page in Rilke’s Book of 

                Through the empty branches, 
                the sky remains.
                It is what you have.

My first snow in the city falls a month later and I listen closely to the rattle-radiator,
the shake-glass, the drip-ice. I name them on the page, and they are full of questions.
They are what I have.

Test Results:

Whose dream? 
My own.

And what could it be? 
Maybe looking into snow, maybe holy song, maybe riding into the future.

Did I answer? 
Unknown. For now, I wait and listen. 

I begin to sing along.


Mary Zhou is an artist based in Philadelphia. Their work is published or forthcoming in Oversound, Philadelphia Stories, and Philadelphia Contemporary’s Healing Verse Poetry Line.





K. Degala-Paraíso

A History of Skin


Mama [grandmother] started coming to me in my dreams before she was even dead. Before all of her body’s organs failed at once, before her brain finally shut down, before she lost her memory, before the diagnosis, before her brain cells started degenerating. Before all of it, she came to me in my dreams. As though she sought refuge from her mind in mine. 

And then after she died, she vacated. Must’ve flown out of my ear, a bird freed of its cage. Her ghost nested in the space between the ceiling and the wall. All the time, just hovering above me, watching over me, unwilling to leave. 

Sometimes, I forget to look up. Forget to greet her. She glides down from her perch and brushes against my arm. Whispers my name reserved for only her in my ear —

She always forgives me for forgetting. 


[a kind, strong animal? pastillas? Grandma’s river? living in a dome, thousands of miles from my family? flowers from Grandma’s baranggay, one for each family in the clan?]


[tattoo artist offered it for free because she laid the lines of papa’s fish too thick. didn’t know what to get, so got this.]


[5am coffee before fishing]


[chasing the dog around the rose garden]


The problem with tattoos: the pain of being stabbed with an unrelenting needle thousands of times per minute becomes a good pain at some point. A pain that you come to crave every new moon.


Sometimes, I just really miss my Mama.


One day, my manic mother “forgets” to give our diabetic dog his insulin shot. He dies a horrific and unnecessary death. 

After seeing the body, my youngest brother comes to stay with me for the weekend. He acts normally, but I don’t buy it. Eventually he folds.

I get out my sewing kit, lighter, half-empty bottle of India ink, paper towels, small plastic trays, a cup of water. We sit on my bedroom floor with the lamp between us. Lofi beats play through my laptop speaker.  We etch matching crowns into our flesh in silence. 

We’ve always been headstones.


Things I Know About Salt:

     1) In alchemy, it’s one of the tria prima, or the three primes: foundational elements, of which all materials are composed. It is said that salt is the base element for the body; mercury, for the mind; and sulfur, the spirit. The alchemical sign for salt is 🜔.

     2) It is easier to float in saltwater because salt adds to the density of water, permitting submerged objects more buoyancy.

     3) In cooking, salt universally enhances the flavors of the other ingredients. At low concentrations it reduces bitterness while increasing sweet and sour flavors (preferable for sweet dishes). At higher concentrations, it reduces sweetness and increases umami (preferable for savory dishes).

     4) It also acts as a preservative, and is thus pragmatically essential for peoples of third world countries. In the Philippines, for example, access to refrigeration technologies is a luxury. But the islands don’t care: they remain hot and humid anyways. Pilipinxs use salt (and vinegar) to preserve their food.

     5) Pilipinxs preserve, even after they leave the islands.


[scene of former lover stick-n-poking my ribcage by the light of a lamp placed on the floor. spent all of college remembering myself just to come here and feel like i was forgetting myself again and you just can’t trust your memory because your brain will one day eat itself so it is of the utmost importance that we document as much as we can and then never forget that we documented so i’m letting this boy carve the title of my memoiric poem that i wrote in college in his handwriting onto my body in permanent ink and i wonder what i’ll think this means years from now when i catch a glimpse of it in the mirror out of the corner of my eye when i’ve forgotten how his hand held my breast and all of my own poems and how he stretched my skin and my own name]


[the plan was that i would pay for our housing with my student loans, and he would help me pay them off after graduation. but then we broke up and he never paid me back and i didn’t ask because i didn’t want anything from him. couch-surfed for a while, then posted in student email forum asking if i could pitch a tent in someone’s backyard. someone responded, said i could live in the garage for $400/mo. there were black widows nested in the dark corners of the garage; cigarette butts and empty beer cans on every surface inside the house; and a massive ditch in the backyard, where everybody claimed the pet alligator of the previous tenants lived. wasn’t expecting much, especially from this house of five cishet-yt-boys, but it was the first home i knew in a long, long time.]


Once upon a time, I ran alongside some of the fastest women on the West Coast. They called me Captain and I loved them and they loved me.


Tectonic plates moving an average of __cm a year
[study abroad in nepal]
but Indian and Tibetan plates move at a double-time average of __cm a year
[smoking hash that my lover scraped off the marijuana plants growing along the mountainside, and rolled between his palms] 
the land folds in on itself like a paper accordion.
[the smoke tastes like his hands. we’re in one of our yellow tents and there’s some kind of magic in the fog that rolls in]
This epic collision causes a massive, devastating earthquake every 100 years along the fault line.
[my friend is stick-n-poking me in my ribcage: a tiny triangle]
A bi-product of centuries of collision: the majestic, awe-inspiring Himalayas.
[and the number 2 in devanagari: a symbol that looks like a rupture]


After the breakup. 

People ask what it’s like to get a tattoo on your sternum. It’s like somebody clawing toward your heart. Like fire consuming your flesh. Peeling your breasts away from the bones. Like the opposite of numb.


[history of expression in italics, intertwining with ode to italian host mom]


[stick-n-poke with the ink that i got shipped to my italian host family’s house from great britain (it took 3.5 weeks for it to arrive), and a syringe i found in one of the cabinets. while the family was out, did it by lamplight in my little host brother’s bedroom that i was staying in. it’s not a real constellation; it’s a symbol from the cover of an album that’s a little too nostalgic to listen to anymore.]


[stoned in portland with my college boyfriend and my best friend, going to get tattoos. one leaf for each brother, in the colors of new england fall.]


[cultural appropriation, but list what it symbolizes]


I’m 18-years-and-1-month-old, standing at the mouth of a garage-turned-tattoo-studio in East New Haven. 

My tattoo artist is a prick. He’s also a shitty tattooer: he leaves blow-outs in my skin that will still show, almost ten years later.

I don’t bother telling him that I’m getting this in honor of my friends — the ones who slit their wrists and pray that their own hearts will fall out the openings. He’s not worthy of knowing.

For years, it is my only visible tattoo. People who don’t know me notice it, and somehow always have the audacity to proclaim: “Oh, you must wear your heart on your sleeve!”

[last line: my mother always accused me of having a bleeding heart. said it would be the death of me.]


K. Degala-Paraíso (she/they) is a Filipinx-American experimental writer with a B.A. in Creative Writing from Pitzer College. She teaches creative writing through GrubStreet. Her work has appeared in miniskirt magazine, [PANK] Magazine, and Okay Donkey Magazine; and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. When she’s not writing, catch K. hauling ass up the Santa Monica Mountains. Follow K. at




Lisa Gordon

By Free, I Meant Silent

I tried to switch into Ms. Senson’s art class, and when they asked why, I said it was because I heard one of her children was killed in a car accident. The look on the principal’s face was that of disgust. I should have known better than to tell the truth. I should have known what I’d be up against.

But I’d been drawing a lot—more than usual. It was taking up my time as well as my headspace, and I wanted to experience it fully. It was Winona Ryder I could not stop drawing. It was like she consumed me, and I wanted to consume her back. I pored over videos of her on YouTube and scoured Netflix for anything she was in pre-Stranger Things, which, it turns out, was a lot. I brought my sketchbook to dinner, to gym class, on the bus. Pages and pages and pages of her face.

My mother sent me to the school therapist, whom I could have danced circles around without ever having read a child psychology book in my life (by now, I’ve read nine; The Developing Mind is my favorite, but I paid particular attention to Odd Girl Out because I was certain it would be used against me, and I was right).

His name was Mark and he had a completely blank and fine-looking face, the kind you forget as soon as you see it. I noticed he was married and I wondered, when his wife closed her eyes, how she pictured him. Did she look at him while they had sex? I wondered who was more intent on pleasing who. I was thinking about this  when he placed both of his hands, palms down on his desk, and said my name: Clara. It felt weird coming from his mouth, like a ball he was molding with his tongue. I did not like it. I looked into his eyes and decided it was a mistake for the school to have hired a man for this role. 

“Yes,” I said.

“I think you probably know what all of this is about, right?”

I winced. It bothered me when adults were not direct, when they tried to soften the blow of what they were saying by adding words that had no meaning.

“Yes,” I said.

“What do you think it is about?” he asked. On the wall behind him a round Schoolhouse brand clock ticked audibly. I listened to it for some time, trying to pick out a cadence I could speak alongside. Sometimes I used my dad’s metronome when I was sketching. Drawing was the only time when I felt my mind was really free, and by free, I meant silent. 

“It is about the fact that I asked to switch art classes because the teacher had experienced tragedy. I felt that a tragic event would surely have rendered itself in her own art, and that that was the kind of art I felt worthy of learning about, and thus concluded that the teacher would be better than the current teacher. It is also about the fact that I draw Winona Ryder constantly, and all of my teachers have noticed it, and so have the students, and that I am probably going to be the target of bullying soon, as I’m sure I’m the target of back chatter and gossip as it is. I have determined that I do not care what my peers think of me, and that in a few years, none of this will matter.”

Mark stared at me. The clock ticked. I smiled. I wanted to show him that I recognized that he was just beginning to acknowledge me as a more mature mind than he’d expected for an eighth grader, but that I was also complacent. It was a combination I’d perfected with my parents. One of his eyebrows furrowed as he wondered what to say next. I crossed my right leg over my left and waited.

“So you’ve discussed this with your mother,” he said.

I couldn’t help but let a little smirk cross my mouth, quickly covering it up with a twisting of my lips to suggest I was deep in thought. That was the best he could do?

“She told me she was going to ask that I see you. But she knows that I know why. Nothing gets past me, she says.”

“And by that you mean, nothing gets past you.”


“And what about your father?”

“He does everything my mother tells him to do. It’s like the man has no life of his own.”

Mark’s eyes slid behind me to the door and then slowly back. “Right.”

I could sense he wanted more but didn’t know what to ask. “He’s a nice man. He tries. He loves me. They both do.” I wanted desperately to add: Can we be finished now? But I knew we were only at the beginning.

Mark opened a notebook, then closed it. “So where shall we begin?” he asked. “With the art teacher? Or the drawings?”

“Isn’t that up to you?” 


Winona was born in Minnesota, in a town called Winona, her namesake. Oh, to be named after a town, I thought! She grew up on a commune in Northern California. While drawing, I fantasized about her upbringing, the freedom she had to roam through the fields, stray grasses clinging to her skirts, slicing her bare feet. I imagined the meals she’d have, maybe raw eggs in straw or turnips pulled right from the ground—surely no meatloaf and greasy potatoes, as my mother was keen on making, generally on Mondays, the alliteration of which killed me (Taco Tuesdays followed, but she’d yet to come up with something good for Wednesdays). I thought about her lying under a blanket of blinking stars, her lips dry from the wind, a knitted blanket around her shoulders for warmth she’d dragged from her bed, homemade by a family friend. And how she probably didn’t have to go to school once the kids started bullying her. Thin, androgynous, and wise beyond her years, the others couldn’t place her, didn’t know how to talk to her, didn’t appreciate the difference between “other” and “normal” and the beautiful spaces that exist in between, and how her father, a rare book historian and good friend of Timothy Leary (who I had to look up, subsequently devolving into a fascinating black hole of LSD research), probably stroked her hair and gave her a tumbler of whiskey and said something like: “the only schooling you’ll ever need is exactly what you’ll find right here.”


The incident came swift and quick. I was expecting it, and yet, it’s hard to be prepared. I got up for only a moment to buy a Coke—how cliché, right?—and left my sketchbook behind. I should have known. Lacie Peters and her gaggle of friends had been giggling about me all class, but I’d built up such a wall around them that it was like I forgot the wall was there. Rookie mistake. When I came back, there it was: “die bitch,” smeared in what had to be period blood from a used tampon.

Later, Mark asked me how I’d known what it was. And even though I’d not had mine yet, this substance, as I’d come to know over and over again when I got older, however varied in its color and texture, was among the things a woman could always recognize. 


When my father came to see me in my room, I knew he was trying his best. He always did. With another child, I often believed, he would have succeeded. He hugged me frequently (meaning he draped his arm around my shoulders and left it there for a few seconds), made my eggs the way I liked them, and played the things I used to want to play, when I was still agreeable enough to play with him. He went to work dutifully, kissed my mother dutifully, accepted his nightly scotch dutifully, asked me dutifully how my day was. Today was no different when he approached my bed, where I sat drawing, always drawing, Winona, in the exact same notebook.

He sat down slowly, tenderly, so as not to shift the mattress too much. The charcoal in my hand maintained its smooth lines, unaltered. (I’ll think of this later, much later, after he was long gone—how thoughtful that was, how few people, perhaps none other at all, would have been so considerate.) I was working on shading around her nose.

“I know that one,” he said. “Beetlejuice?” 

I nodded. 

“Did your mother let you watch that?”

I looked up at him with extreme curiosity mixed with exasperation. “It’s PG, Dad. How old, exactly, do you think I am?”

He was silent for a while, watching my drawing. 

“I know what you really want to talk about. I’ll just show it to you,” I said. 

Showing it to my mother had been easier—she’d wrestled the notebook from my hands somewhat rudely, though I knew it stemmed from her anger at what had happened more than her frustration at what kind of daughter I was, how different I’d turned out to be than what she’d hoped. She turned the pages with a ginger aggression, sighing each time a turn of the page yielded no results, and when she finally saw it, the smeared blood, some of it bleeding onto the next page in Rorschach clumps, she closed her eyes into tight buttons and pursed her lips out like a duck. She looked funny, and I could have laughed, but it was all just too serious, so serious it was absurd. “And to think that Lacie girl used to be in Brownies with you,” she said. 

“Oh, please,” I’d told her. Actually, Lacie had always seemed kind of cool in my mind, like, I thought she might be fun to hang out with if it weren’t for her friends who followed her around like princess puppies. 

I wiped the outside of my pinkie joint on the charcoal, blending ever so slightly, focusing as hard as I could on replicating the primness of Winona’s nose. I wanted nothing to be more important than that: than her tiny, perfect, feminine slope. I thought of it pushed up against a pillow, of how water might drip off of it after a shower, if men had kissed her there. And then I turned the pages, six back, until I reached it.

My father stared. He shook his head, back and forth, a slow, rhythmic movement. Then he looked up and sighed, in dialogue with someone—something—else, though not God, whom I knew he did not believe in. I could not figure out what it was he was thinking, and that was the part that bothered me the most. I was aware of my precociousness and prided myself on interpreting adult thoughts, actions, implied movements, of understanding their impulses better than they could themselves. This confounded me. I watched him curiously, this suddenly new and unknown father of mine.

And then he erased it all. He’d come so close—so close to something I did not know I wanted. He put his hand over mine, gave it a small squeeze, and said, “Sorry, kiddo. What a bummer.” He got up, closed the door behind him, and left, leaving me stunned, my hand rendered useless in a swift kick of shock, the artist in me abruptly withdrawn, focused on nothing more than how filthy the charcoal left my hands.


Winona was bullied and beat up at school—an early form of what we now call gay-bashing. Some of my favorite photographs of her are at her youngest. In one photo, a school photo, her hair is short and spiked. If you really try, you can probably tell her gender, but it’s tricky, and I liked that her face was a contradiction, two things at once. I liked it because, how can a face be a mystery? Nothing is more mysterious world than a face, nothing more deliberate and unmasked. And yet hers—I stared for hours, drew for hours. I kept thinking: how much of how she looked was intentional? Did she want to stand out? Did she not think she would? Did she not think about it at all? Answering these questions led to more contradictions: that she was either a precocious and progressive pre-teen, or incredibly naïve to the social norms of her peers. And again, the space between fascinated me. 


Her parents let her drop out. Her education, they said, could be whatever she made of it. 


In the morning, I lay in bed long past when I should have risen for school. My father had checked in on me, then my mother; I heard them whispering outside my door, with hushed urgency, debating the importance of letting me stay home while I pretended to still be asleep, my head turned toward the wall. They both knew they would, but arriving at that decision was the thing that made them feel like parents. I knew that I would, too, and overhearing this exercise in parenting made me feel doted upon, as well as lonely.

At last, I heard my father say, “all right, all right,” his faint footsteps descending the carpeted stairs. In that moment, I never felt more like an only child, and this awareness was profound, for being an only child was something I bore like a scar. And yet I wondered if I’d enjoy having siblings, and decided, never having been given the chance to know, that I wouldn’t.

The door creaked open, and my mother emerged, her face flushed with anxiety. “Clara, sweetie?” she started. Sometimes I felt like my mother loved her perceived impression of me more than the actual me—it was like, when she entered my room, some amount of love and affection disseminated when she saw the bareness of my room, my black jeans and t-shirts littered across the floor, the charcoal spread across my desk, probably smeared on my face. She sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed my ankle absentmindedly.

“We’ve decided to let you stay home today,” she said.

“I’m fine,” I said. It felt like my duty to protest. If I was going to be the outcast, surely I should own it. But I felt as defeated as I sounded, and my mother sighed, tipping her head toward the floor.

“Those kids will be punished,” she said.

“I don’t care about that,” I said, and that was true. That was very true.

My mother appeared aghast, and just as quickly, resumed exhaustion. “What do you mean?”

“Their punishment doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care.”

“Of course we do,” she said. There was that inclusive we, the one that made me feel at once loved and excluded. “Mark will want to talk to you again,” she said. “He might call.”

I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly. “He’s a quack,” I said, sitting up and banging my head against the wall behind me. “His help is useless.”

“Clara.” She sat up straight, tucked her hair behind her ears. It was the way she got when she didn’t know how to deal with me, when I assumed she was ticking back all the memories of where she may have gone wrong as a parent. “I just wish you had some friends. Even just one…”

I began to cry. I couldn’t help it, not at all. It surprised me just as much as it did my mother, and as she reached out to wipe the tears away from my face, I felt like I was watching a movie, a terrible movie, far too sentimental, the kind that makes you cringe and yearn for reality. But I allowed this maternal gesture, closed my eyes, and felt the print of her thumb on my skin, and tried to feel it for what it was: a unique combination of pureness and responsibility, the percentages of which I’d never understand.


If I’m being honest, I know this much is true: I wasn’t necessarily as ostracized from the other students as I ostracized myself.


Mark called at 10:00 a.m. on the dot, as if he was trying to give me space as a teenager, believing I had just wrangled my depressed self out of bed, wolfed down some cereal, and used the minimal energy I had just to answer the phone. In fact, I’d taken that morning to teach myself about coffee. The magical, unduly wonder of coffee: that I’d never experimented with it before alarmed me. But once my mother had left, leaving me in the house all alone (a rare treat), it occurred to me like an epiphany. A simple Google search rendered the coffee maker nothing more than an easy game to play, and within minutes, I was toying with the harsh black liquid in my mouth, waiting patiently for something to change, to pop, to announce itself. It took some time. I took my mug, plastered with a cracking WARRIORS 1ST YEAR CHAMPS, harkening back to days of yore when I played recreational sports like every other child in America, to my father’s easy chair, positioned carefully in between the bay windows, with the piano to the left, and the front door to the right, and I sipped, and I waited. In due time—how much time, I’m not sure—I felt a thin, low buzzing in my temples and behind my eyes, forcing my eyelids to be more open than usual, my hearing more sensitive, and my involuntary gestures—blinking, twitches—to feel profound.

So when the phone rang, I was ready.

“Clara,” he said. “I’m so glad you answered.”

“Instinct more than anything else,” I said. “Being home alone, and all.”

“…Right. I want you to know that we’re taking this seriously. That’s first and foremost.”

“And I want you to know that I don’t care.”

“That can’t be true.”

I rolled by eyes. “And yet, here I am, speaking for myself, using agency, telling you my own truth.”



I had befuddled him. I was enjoying myself immensely. The coffee was making my heart race. 

“You don’t care that we’re taking it seriously? Or you don’t care that it happened?”

Ah! A question I hadn’t expected. One point for Mark. “I’m glad you’re taking it seriously. It would be way worse if you weren’t. But I don’t care that it happened. And I don’t care if they’re punished.”

“That can’t be—okay, listen. What they did was wrong, very wrong, and they will absolutely be punished, as they should be. Why wouldn’t you care about that?”

“Think about it. If they’re not punished, what message does that send?”

“That they can commit a heinous act of bullying and get away with it.”

“But they expect to be punished. I agree that, within the standard societal expectations, they should be. But if they’re not, it actually might make them think that you don’t care about them. And that would really kick them off their own pedestal.”


“Thanks. I’m thinking of writing a book.” I sipped from my coffee mug like I was being interviewed for a national newspaper on what a well-rounded yet misguided childhood looks like. The coffee was really working! I felt like I could attack the game of life and win!

“Clara,” he said again. His voice got soft. “Let me…switch tactics here. Can I ask you something? And can you answer honestly?”

“Try me,” I said, still feeling strong.

“How are you?”

This surprised me. No one had actually asked how I was. I felt a strange and sudden affection for him. Two points for Mark. I thought about telling him that I had cried earlier, that I hadn’t slept at all, but then quickly barricaded myself against his sympathy. 

“Better than ever,” I replied.


In truth, the pain of it was dull and unrelenting, but not unfamiliar to the way I’d felt for years now.


I passed a few hours sprawled in front of the TV, skipping through reality shows, bad talk shows, and cooking shows, which mesmerized me. Food was a pleasure I felt too young to appreciate, but believed that maybe some day I would. At home, we ate to satiate ourselves, a means to an end. My parents seemed to savor few things: my father, his scotch, my mother, a cup of earl gray with honey—these were things they paid careful attention to, the rituals around them as important as the liquid, and the feeling it delivered. I watched a woman with large hands spin sugar into frosting. I watched a man with spiked hair slather corned beef with mustard that fell apart, glistening, into his hands. There were only so many hours I could kill doing this, though, and the entire time, I felt my notebook calling to me, as if it was haunting me. 

I tried to ignore it, but the impulse to draw was so strong, I finally decided I’d try it without the notebook. I gathered scraps of paper from around the house, somehow believing that if I used scraps, it would render my drawings less meaningful. I pilfered bits of pencils from my father’s desk drawer, a runny pen from my mother’s old purse, sat down at the kitchen table, and closed my eyes. One of my favorites came to mind first: Winona, head cupped in her hand, a strand of hair falling across her eye, a subtle smirk that was unintentionally sexy, because she was too young to be intentionally sexy. I sketched the eyes first, my usual go-to, but I could not get the pencil to be dark enough, not enough to be worthy of her deeply dark eyes. I tried again with the hair, but the pencil was too wispy, it came out looking like frayed ends. And the pen, of course, was worse: why I thought I’d even try drawing with a pen made me laugh at myself and chuck it across the room, where it sputtered and rolled under a counter.

I wondered, if I’d ever actually made it to Ms. Senson’s class, what she might have taught me.

It was 1:06 p.m.. There was still so much time left in the day. I did not know how I would make it. I could not imagine how people did it, people who did not have jobs or could not work or did not have children or an otherwise more or less daily responsibility to keep them from going absolutely mad. For I felt mad—it was maddening, living with the desire to erase what had happened to me and what would happen, listening to the seconds tick away on the clock in the kitchen, feeling like there was nothing to look forward to. More than a friend, I yearned for a pet. Something to talk to, who wouldn’t talk back, but could offer some affection, or at least look me in the eye, so I would know I was seen.

Without knowing what else to do with myself, I decided to take a nap. I woke to the sound of the garage door opening.

“Clara?” he ventured when he came in. “I came home to check on you.” He approached me slowly, like he was afraid of me. He perched himself on the edge of the couch, rubbing a finger absentmindedly on a fraying strand of fabric. We’d had this couch my whole life, and it was only occurring to me now how old it was, and how truly ugly.

“Did Mom tell you to?”

“No. Do you think I only do what she tells me to do?”


The look on his face was that of recognition. “Well, you’re right. And you should know that we’re probably getting divorced.”

I sat up quickly. “Wait. Really?”

He nodded. “Don’t tell her I told you.” He slammed his hand against his forehead. “Shit. I shouldn’t have told you that. Not now, with what you’re doing through. Shit. What is wrong with me?”

My thoughts scrambled. I had to focus on the piano.

“I’ve never known how to be a parent.”

I stayed silent, realizing that interrupting now would mean sacrificing learning something significant. 

“It’s hard, every day. It’s like it’s all you are: just a parent, nothing else. Or a husband.”

“Want me to just run away then? It would solve all of our problems, apparently.”

He laughed. “No, Clara, don’t you see? If you left, we’d have nothing. You’re everything to us. Everything.” Then he added: “Do we stifle you?”

“Yes. No.” I said. 

“Everything is right, and everything is wrong. We can’t guide you at all. Neither can that guidance counselor you’ve got, nor the stupid kids you call classmates.”

“What’s left, then?” 


“Well, that sucks. I don’t like myself very much,” I grumbled. 

“Oh, but Clara, let me tell you a secret. You do! You like yourself very much. And that’s what makes you so great. You are you. You do what you want. You say what you want. You’re probably smarter than your mother and I both, already. You’ve never cared about perception. You’ve never given in. It’s like you’re impervious to scrutiny other than you own.”

My face turned in on itself. This comment was like a hit of dopamine, a sugar rush, the way I felt when I finished a Winona drawing perfectly without revisions. 

“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty cool.”

“And I can’t believe you’re ours. Your mother, who wants to be perfect in everyone’s eyes. And me, who’s never known how to please anyone. And we made you. You’re the best thing we did.”

For once I didn’t have a witty reply. But I did know what I wanted to do. 

“Can you drive me to school?”

He looked at me with a blank face. “I can.” Then he narrowed his eyes at me. “What are you up to?”

“Nothing. I just want to go to school,” I said. 

“But what about…”

I shrugged. “I can’t stay home forever.”

“Well, that’s true. Look at you, parenting yourself.” He picked up his briefcase. “Well, hop to it, then. Get your things. I’ll drop you off, then go back to work, I guess.”

“Or don’t. They’re not expecting me to go back to school, and that’s why I want to go. They’re expecting you to go back to work. So don’t.”

Then my dad laughed. I saw all the teeth in his mouth and the way his Adam’s apple bobbed when he threw his head back.  

“Can you write me a note?” he asked. 

“Sure. Should it say, ‘die, bitch’”?

He laughed harder, and then we both did. 

“Let the record state that it’s not funny,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. 

“That’s what makes it funny,” I said. 

I tore a page from my notebook and wrote a note. My dad won’t be coming back to work today. Let him be.

“Thanks,” he said, holding it in his hands, admiring it as if it were a work of art. Then he folded it up and opened his briefcase, and that was when I saw it: a drawing I had done, tacked into the underside of the case. A colored pencil drawing of myself. I remember doing it, it was early on when I started learning to draw, and I was coloring everything: the kitchen, my sneakers, the air conditioning unit. In this drawing, though, I was just looking out our bay window, and I’d colored in a pair of sweatpants I used to love, purple with green dragons on them. 

I don’t know whether he saw me see it, but he closed it shut with a loud snap. 

“Off you go, now,” he said.  


Lisa’s short fiction has been published in Paper Darts, the Rumpus, Hypertext, StoryChord, Eleven Eleven, Litro, Five:2:One, and others. She is at work on two novels—wish her luck.





Guy Melvin

The Prototype


The underground strip mall was used by high schoolers, some of them old students of mine, as a destination for kissing, jerking, smoking, sucking, graffitiing, loitering and other displays of fleeting fun. Many of the same kids who came for lust and destruction also frequented Kedar’s video game rental/VCR/VHS player repair shop. He’d sold new games but the thefts became too much. They all but ceased when only scratched, outdated rentals remained. Save for a billboard on an abandoned building downtown, and the transient gentlemen who danced in a googly eyed VHS-tape costume at street level holding a sign that advertised our weekly specials, you wouldn’t have known we existed. 

For the past few months Kedar had extended his Friday lunch breaks to two hours so he could amble the narrow linoleum-lined corridor to Toya’s and get his nails done. 

“This could be the weekend?” 

“Will it?” I asked, inflecting a tinge of optimism to the word “it.”  

“You don’t think so?” 

“It’s been how many years since y’all got together?” 

“Well…” Kedar thought. “At least three…of us living together.” 

Kedar had seen a psychic located across from Toya’s who’d told him a ring was in his future. The psychic could not elaborate, and so he interpreted it to mean marriage. For the first few days he was relaxed, complimentary of my work, buoyant. Soon this turned to concern over his inability to afford a grand marriage. I reminded him that the ceremony wouldn’t be big, because neither his nor Farhad’s family would likely come. He agreed and for a brief time his general buoyancy continued. This didn’t last, and as his mood became bluer, I noticed him looking at his hands more and more. So often that he was unable to do the simplest of VCR or VHS player repairs. He, in turn, noticed my concern and told me that if he wasn’t to have a spectacle, his announcement photo would need to be “memorable as hell.” His hands, after years of being shoved into tight, small, sharp places, had paid the price with hundreds of tiny cuts. Richly brown hands told the story of his profession in loosely connected scars, a lightly colored patchwork of shiny skin, raised above the non-marked skin like islands from the sea. An archipelago; I thought it sort of beautiful. 

But he wanted to record the moment Farhad put the ring on his finger. He wanted this moment, “the start of their forever,” to look as grand as he knew it to be. He didn’t think his hard-working hands would read as “grand” when played back via VHS. The scars were there to stay, but he figured that his nails could at least be pretty, pretty enough to pull attention from his hand and back towards the ring being placed on it. The psychic had neglected to provide him with any date or series of lucky numbers, so he chose to be prepared. Making sure that his nails were done to perfection weekly, just in time for the weekend, a time we both agreed it seemed most proposals occurred. 

“Are you leaving him hints?” 

Kedar frowned. “I don’t think I can.” 

“Why not?” 

“That’s messing with destiny, or something.” 

I considered this for a few moments. “Can you just go back to the psychic?” 

“She’s usually wrong, and I’m already spending too much on these damn nails, I can’t afford her incorrections too.”  

I was happy for Kedar, even a bit jealous of his single-mindedness. Farhad was a good man, handsome, had a job. One didn’t need to commune with the other realm to know that marriage, if not in the immediate future, would serve both well whenever it occurred. For the sake of his worry and wallet, I wanted the marriage proposal to arrive. Conversely (selfishly) I didn’t want to jeopardize the recurrence of my boss’s two-hour sojourns, because they gave me, in the midst of a twelve-hour shift, opportunities to indulge my own personal life. At first this had meant scrawling “be back soon” across a piece of paper, taping it to the door, locking up, and quickly walking a mile to one of the adult theaters downtown. Construction workers in neon vests and paint-splattered jeans, along with bank clerks in ill-fitting Men’s Warehouse suits, made their ways down the sticky aisles for the matinee rush. Some watched, others participated. When the scene grew stale I’d find myself considering my future. My hand down some dude’s Lee’s, his hand down my swishy trackpants, I’d catch myself thinking about my age, weight, or bank account. A series of numbers that were always either too high or low. I’d come enough, so I began using the time to rearrange my future. Heading downtown to the main library branch, going through job listings. Old book musk sat heavily beneath high marble ceilings. The sounds of heels clicking, the hush of lowered voices, and strained creaking of old chairs were as familiar and welcoming to me as the spitting, stroking, and groaning of the theaters.  

This particular Friday I was headed in the opposite direction, uptown for a lunch meeting with my brother. He was around for a conference, and wanted to discuss something which could benefit my working future. Ada, a graduate of my freshmen computer class, arrived exactly five minutes after Kedar left. She’d once, like the other teens, used this space as her vice den away from home. Now a senior, she too had her eyes on the future. I began paying her a little to watch over the store while I was away on Fridays. At the end of the school year I would write her a letter of recommendation and act as a reference for whatever cashier, sales associate, clerk, or stockroom assistant job she hoped to get come summer. This would be her internship. 

She entered with the informally alert air of a fellow conspirator. “He left?” she asked in a hoarse tone barely above a whisper. 

“He has. I’ll be back in…” I looked at my watch “Ninety minutes.”  

“Cool.” She took the keys. “Can my friend come through?” 


“No reason, I think they want to see that expansion of the mindset game.” 

I was already heading out the door with my bag. “Just them, and put everything back as it was.” 

“Thank you!” 

“Okay,” I responded over my shoulder with a firm smile that I hoped conveyed the trust I was placing in her.   



The uptown 77 bus was already at its stop when the escalator rolled me above ground and onto the mid-afternoon street. Somehow, the daylight always managed to surprise me. For an instant I allowed myself to enjoy its warmth before jogging to the 77’s open doors. From my seat, I watched Casper doing a two-step into a box-step so elaborate for such a bulky suit that he nearly dropped the sign reading, “You break it we fix it! 30% Off!”  

More of a bar than a restaurant, the place my brother had chosen served great nachos. The kind containing the right amount of both real and canned cheese which blended into an even spread across all the chips. I was licking salsa from my fingers and finishing a second beer when he began explaining the plan that he and his business partner Jerome had fit me into. 

“You’ve got experience in education, working with kids…” 

“Mostly teens.” 

“Exactly, and we’re going to pitch our idea to North Ridge Hospital using an actual kid as a part of the demo.” 

“Okay, the robot idea?” Not wanting to seem rude, I glanced as briefly as possible at my watch. I had about forty-five minutes to finish up and get back to Ada.   

“Well, no, but sort of. At this point in development, the robot isn’t as much of a robot as it is a very expensive doll.”  

I nodded with the polite inquisitiveness of a unbiased TV news anchor speaking with an alien abductee. “Would you like me to help with it?” 

He told me that the technology wasn’t quite where they needed it to be—not yet, at least. He wasn’t sure it would be, but it certainly wouldn’t be any time before his Saturday morning demonstration to hospital investors. It was too late for him to delay the meeting, and far too late for them to return any of the seed money which had already been, as he put it, “invested into other avenues.” Using a sports metaphor about a final quarter audible that I barely understood, he told me that I was being brought on as “sort of distraction.” 

“You’ll lead them left so that they go right.” 

Once again, I nodded. 

“You’ll discuss your own experience as a computer science instructor to teens or kids and your knowledge of machine learning. Give a long drawn-out speech about the potential of this new technology, but highlight the limitations and how expensive making the vision a reality could be for them.” 

“Okay, so once I’ve done that they’ll want to pull out from this whole venture?” 

“Maybe. Well, hopefully. That’s when Jerome will introduce them to the other prototype…” 

I interrupted, beginning to see where this was going. “The actual prototype?” 

“Right, this is the one that we can produce. The only one we’ve been able to.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a purple teddy bear with large green eyes. “I want this to be the future of pediatric care.” 

I looked at the “future of pediatric care,” sat there between my empty pint glasses and our dwindling basket of nachos, looking more like a psychedelic Teddy Ruxpin than a savior of sick children. “At what point do I tell them I work in a video game rental/VCR player repair shop?” 

He laughed and gestured for me to pick the bear up. I did and, feeling the heft of it, asked, “What’s it supposed to do?” 

“Improve their moods with pleasant conversation, study their emotional responses, vitals, and learn when they’ll need a nurse or doctor before the doctors or nurses have to figure it out. At this point it’s early on, but it’s got so much potential.” He reached for the nachos. 

“What does it do?” 

Apparently, not much. Reality had yet to catch up with my brother’s vision. This was not uncommon. Still, I always felt obligated to help family when possible. I’d sadly found myself with less and less opportunities or means to do so. Plus, he’d pay me for my time. During the demonstration, I would alert the investors to the “subtle movements” of the doll’s body and what this meant in relation to its reading of the child’s health. We had another drink each, this third cold beer feeling as surprisingly refreshing as the sun had, only an hour earlier upon my skin. 

As we hugged goodbye, I inhaled deeply to take in the smell of him, my smell, one I hadn’t noticed in far too long. He asked if I could take the prototype with me back to work and have a look at it with Kedar. I picked it up with some care, uncertain of its structural integrity. Surprised by its mass, I let out a playful groan. He chuckled, adding that he was “a little confused” by some of its recent behavior and wanted to make sure that it would follow a prepared script he’d uploaded into it the previous day. I said, “Of course,” and he gave me the same weighted smile I hadn’t much long ago given Ada. 



About a mile from work, somewhere outside the Jefferson House projects, the 77 broke down. According to my watch, I had thirteen minutes to reach Ada. When I asked the driver what his plan was, he looked at me and smiled. “Papi, really?” I considered everything about the day and laughed as well. This wasn’t anything new, this was reality. Things were conveniently inexpensive, serving the masses, until they didn’t. Faint clicks of reality could be perceived, even if just barely, in these moments. Somewhere in the distance was a signal reminding me of my own eventual end. I laughed with the driver until I felt the formation of a new smile line forming around my left nostril.   

Filled with cheese and beer, fighting back coughs, trying to look like a black guy casually jogging, not a black guy running from a crime, I briskly jogged back to work. Even if a taxi were to pull over for me, I wouldn’t have had the money to pay. My chest burned, my feet ached, and yet somehow my thighs felt strong. To distract myself, I wondered over the inconsistent nature of my glorious body. Genetics, maybe.   

Sweaty, panting like an abused dog, I arrived to relieve Ada of her duties with three minutes to spare. 

“You alright?” A slice of pizza on a paper towel in her hands.  

I smiled, composed myself. “Bus troubles, what’s new?” 

“Horace never showed anyway.” She sounded disappointed.  

“Anyone else come in?” 

“What?” She was already gathering her things. 

“Any customers?” 

“Barely, no rentals or repairs requested.”  

Ada had not been a student I’d known particularly well, though it’s fair to say that I knew none of my students particularly well, anyone really, during that period of my life. So, I guess when considering that we were currently a part of this thing together, I now knew her far better. Her ambitions, and her ability to keep a secret. She’d eaten her twin in the womb, “absorbed them,” is how she put it. A half-eaten box of pizza sat next to her. I thought of Horace, the no-show lunch date.

“Are you around tonight?” 

“What for?” 

“My brother wants me to check out this doll for sick kids, maybe just a spec test. I guess to make sure it’s working alright. I need another opinion.” 

“When does Kedar leave?” She gestured towards my bag. 

I pulled the thing out and handed it to her. “I’m doing a presentation with it tomorrow, we’ll need to make sure it behaves as planned.” 

“Weird,” she said to herself, inspecting it the way one would a two-headed fish. 

“I think he’s outta here around seven, but you can come in before that, like you’re passing through.” 

“Just passing through.” 

“That’s right, that sort of thing.” 

“Cool, I’ll check it out if nothing comes up.” 

Sometimes I thought of a life with kids to raise and worry about. Often, I wondered if heteronormativity would’ve been a stabilizing force in my life. Some college classmates had kids now, teens even. It only took my time as a teacher, and knowledge of the other men in my family, to understand that child rearing, in my lifetime, was a fate best avoided. Since my brother had gotten the food and drinks, I gave her the five-dollar bill floating in my pocket. I’d be doing more drinking than eating tonight anyway. “Get dinner later, then tell Horace to fuck himself, then come here.” 

She smiled. “You don’t have to.” 

“It’s fine, hon, look at me.” I gestured to the shelves of empty game boxes, the cartridges were kept in a safe in the back. “I’m doing fine.” 

Again, she smiled. “Thanks, mister.” 

Kedar arrived a minute, maybe less, after she’d left. He was greeted by me and my brother’s prototype. Both of us behind the counter looking, presumably, equally out of place.

“I feel beautiful,” he announced with faux exasperation. Then, “What the fuck is that?”  



Analog watches made me nervous. I kept mine, a gift from a guy deserving of sentiment, in the back of a sock drawer in the company of various sex toys and rolls of coins to avoid the sound of ticking. In my apartment, time was displayed digitally. My microwave, oven, microwave oven, answering machine, and VCR/VHS player. Having synced them all to the same minute was a feat of engineering for which I’m still proud. Around my wrist I wore a handsome gold Casio DBC-610 Databank calculator watch. I enjoyed the eerily green kryptonite glow its back light emitted.  

There I stood, back in the store, leaning behind the counter, toying with this feature and thinking about the women who’d contracted radiation poisoning as a result of their work licking the brush tips to more effectively apply self-luminescent paint to 1920s watch dials. A soft whirring sound, the sound of something turning, attempting to turn, caused me to notice the time rather than only the light. An hour had passed since Kedar left for the night, and only a couple customers had come in. I decided to take a look at the prototype. Turning it over, I found the on/off switch and a few Velcro tabs that, when undone, revealed a parallel port beneath the bear’s fuzzy backside. I plugged in an accompanying cable my brother provided me at lunch and inserted the other end to the tower of the store’s computer. 

After waiting a few minutes for the machine to whir itself on, I was able to review Jerome’s code. My knowledge or whatever I still remembered from my time teaching did not appear to meet his. The lines were unfamiliar to me in their sheer complexity. I wasn’t quite sure if I was observing gibberish or genius. As I read through the lines, I again noticed a mechanical whirring, barely perceptible beneath the loudness of my thoughts. My neck tightened at my potentially glaring inadequacies, then relaxed as I thought of how hieroglyphs must have first appeared to those viewing them millennia beyond their intended time.  

Deciphering what fragments I could, line after line left me significantly more intrigued with the product than I’d been at lunch. The mechanical whirring sound continued and I bent down, stooping below the counter to where the dusty computer tower was located. The sound stopped. A few gentle taps along the warm tower’s side with the back of my hand, nothing. The sound began again as soon as I stood up. Baffled, I walked around the counter and paced the store looking from floor, to shelves, to ceiling. The further I moved from the counter, the louder the noise became until I heard a crash. The sound stopped. Approaching the counter, I saw, with a healthy amount of confusion and fear, the prototype on the floor. Hoping to find some answer other than the obvious, I looked around for some phantom perpetrator. None was found. 



Though I hadn’t gotten my usual Friday night booze, I woke on Saturday with a 6/10 hangover. Stumbling off the couch and towards the kitchen for water, I felt the microwave display’s blue digital glow. 8:23 A.M. I checked my voicemails. 8:25 A.M. 

“Today shouldn’t take too long. In by 1:00 and out by 2:00.” There was some noise in the background, likely Jerome, and my brother paused to respond. “Anything up with the prototype,” he continued, “any issues of note for us to be concerned?” Another interruption, then, “Okay, you’re asleep, give me a call when you’re up. Alright. Okay.” The message ended with a click of the cassette.   

Standing there, a wine glass of water in hand, I rewound the tape and replayed it a half-dozen times, hoping to find some clue in my brother’s voice and to better hear what was happening in the background. Neither happened. 8:36. I drank the water, trying to understand why my head was pounding, and my stomach sour. As I put the glass next to the answering machine, I noticed my hands were trembling.  

When people had found out I was a teacher, they’d give me an extra pat on the back. I remembered that well, hating it, needing it. I was happy to remember little of those nervous days. Maybe that’s what this was, the headache, the stomach and hands, a healthy reaction to fear. Less than twelve hours earlier the prototype had nearly broken. Why had it broken? I was barely able to admit this to myself. My brother had never mentioned anything about the doll being able to track movements, but surely it had been tracking mine. Looking for me, searching until it spun itself off the counter. 

Panicked, I’d closed up two hours early, gone home and slept. Where was it now? I leaned against the wall opposite the answering machine, beneath a portrait of my father which my sister had painted at sixteen. I kept a mirror over the phone, to practice appropriate expressions while having conversations, to look more empathetic when in person. Looking into the mirror while making eye contact with the resemblance of my father at middle age was not unlike looking into a parallel timeline. I’d left it at the shop. 

In no rush to return, I walked the two miles from my place to the underground strip mall. A large group of pigeons were posted up (roosting maybe) along one side of the pedestrian footbridge I crossed. Beneath us, cars passed quickly and loudly. The silly birds seemed unworried and continued pecking. I looked up. The clouds looked exactly like how clouds were supposed to look on Saturday. My pits were wet, so I removed my shirt; hard to tell if I was scared or tired.  

Casper greeted me with a one-finger salute into a finger gun sort of thing. I smiled and nodded. The escalator had yet to be turned on by the site supervisor, so I walked down the grooved steps, clumsily. The hallway was dark, which made me grateful to see that the psychic’s lights were on. I unlocked the security grating, lifted it up, made my way in. Just as I flipped the light switch, the phone rang. 

My brother was more understanding than disappointed. “Thanks for dropping it off, I’m sorry you won’t be able to make it. Tell me if you change your mind. There’s still a few hours!” A pause. “Anyway, how have you been, really?”     

Ada knocked on the window. “Sorry about the no-show last night. Still need any help today?” 

I smiled and nodded. “Sure, I think. There’s always something, isn’t there?” 

She smiled too, mostly to herself. 

I looked up, certain I could see the clouds, the pigeons, the cars. Everything right where it was. At the other end of the hall was the psychic. What would she tell me that I didn’t already know? I could see my future clearly. The adult theater for some fun, then the library for a bit of job research. I could see it all clearly, read like palm lines outstretched before me.  


Guy Melvin was born in North Philadelphia, and lives in Brooklyn. He has work in Sundog Lit, Fahmidan Journal, All My Relations Vol. 2, Cypress Press’ Red House Anthology, and Cerasus Magazine. His most recently published story can be found in A Long House. He can be reached at guymelvin82[at]yahoo[dot]com.




Sarah Williams

A Study of Emotional Mathematics

In this next section, you will be presented with three theoretical situations. Each situation requires the precise application of advanced emotional mathematics to reach an acceptable conclusion. Be aware that in some situations no non-lethal conclusions are possible and only less-lethal conclusions can be achieved. Be prepared to consult Quimby’s Algebra of the Affections, the Bible, and page six of today’s Mirror. Try to avoid projection-based empathy with the fictional constructs in these situations. They are not real and should not be regarded as such. If you experience difficulty in this area, raise your hand and an Equivocator will come to assist you. You have two hours to complete this section. 

1. A young woman meets another young woman and falls in love. They work at the same department store on different floors. The first young woman is named Adela and the second young woman is named June. June has short dark hair which she cuts herself and which smells like jasmine; she works in a cosmetics store which is aimed towards young countercultural people. Adela, who has dark hair also, likes to watch June’s quick clever hands arranging the rows of lipsticks, like many-colored flowers in beds, each with its own precise click and release. Adela begins to think about June more and more. She wonders what sort of movies June likes, and if she is simultaneously afraid and fascinated by splatter movies like Adela is. One night, somewhat drunk, Adela masturbates while thinking about June. She climaxes and is immediately overwhelmed by shame. She feels that by using June’s image as a sexual stimulant without June’s knowledge or consent, she has involved June, consciously or not, in a sexual situation in which June had no say. Due to various events in her earlier life, this thought is unbearable to her. She is disgusted by herself, and wishes she was dead. She does not go to work the next day. Even when she does return to the department store, it is a week before she can look June in the eye. 

A month later, June asks Adela to a movie. Adela, ecstatic, says yes. They begin a relationship, and for a time it is wonderful. Adela cannot remember ever being happier. June is funny and kind and spontaneous and strange in exactly the sort of way that Adela hoped the first person she fell in love with would be. It is as though a second sun has opened onto the world, bathing everything in clean new light. Adela tries to ignore the guilt about her previous behavior, which still lingers in her gut, chewing and chewing away at her like a starving rat trapped between her ribs. It doesn’t matter, she tells herself. It happened only once. It will never happen again. She does not feel that she can tell June about it. 

June sometimes goes to parties and uses cocaine. Adela accepts this, because of the stereotype of a beautiful, fascinating, self-destructive woman, which has been sold to her by her mass media. One night, June comes home very late, while high on cocaine, and gets into an argument with Adela. During the course of the argument, June strikes Adela across the face and then leaves the apartment. When she returns she is immensely apologetic and says that she will never strike Adela again. Adela says okay, although she does not believe her. She is right to not believe her, as the next time June uses cocaine, she pulls Adela’s hair so hard that clumps of it come out. They aren’t arguing this time, they’re just lying next to each other in bed, and June reaches over and grabs Adela’s hair and pulls and a white blade of agony stabs down into Adela’s skull. She screams, and June covers her mouth with her other hand. 

A few weeks after this, June comes home while Adela is asleep and climbs into bed next to her. She puts her hand in Adela’s pajama pants, waking her up. Adela, tired and afraid, says no, I don’t want to, come on. June says just want to mess around. Adela says no, June, I’m tired. I don’t want to. Get off. June says you want to, I can feel it. She begins to kiss Adela’s face and the side of her neck and puts her hand inside Adela’s underwear. Adela says no one more time and then gives up and lies there still as June touches her. She is aware, vaguely, that this is wrong, but a familiar still cold feeling has closed over her body and she cannot move. She doesn’t want June to be angry at her, not simply because she is afraid of the pain that June can inflict upon her but also because she loves June and does not want June to be upset in any way. So she says to herself, you did this to her before she even knew your name, what you did is just as bad as what she’s doing now, and lets the guilt climb up into her throat until she can feel nothing beyond it, not even June’s fingers inside her. 

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a thunderstorm lasting less than two hours
                  b) a billboard slogan containing the letters a, b, o, e, g, s, h, w, j, l, v, and q
                  c) a public interaction between a short-haired tabby cat and its owner?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

2. An eighty-year-old man named Jason has a fight with his granddaughter Sylvia. Sylvia is Jason’s only surviving relative and wants money to go to graduate school. Jason does not feel that Sylvia needs to go to graduate school, and also he has very little money of his own. Sylvia tells Jason over the phone that she never wants to speak to him again, and then puts the phone down with a resounding crash that makes white static leap through Jason’s head. Jason decides that she is a frivolous bitch like her mother. He knows that he will feel bad about thinking this later, but he thinks it anyway. 

Later that day, Jason hears from one of his neighbors about a break-in which took place in the vicinity of his neighborhood. Supposedly the victim was an old man living alone, which is rather unpleasant for Jason to hear. To change the subject, he complains to the neighbor he is talking to about his granddaughter, and she commiserates about her own granddaughter, June, whom she recently saw in a picture on Facebook with her arm around another girl, wearing a t-shirt that said BOYS OPTIONAL. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, the neighbor tells him, it’s just that I want her to be happy, and that seems like such an irresponsible way to live your life, you know? Jason nods and reflects on how deeply he dislikes most of his neighbors. He thinks about his wife, Tricia, who died fifteen years ago. He remembers how they met in 1965, and even then she had told him that she sometimes slept with girls. He had been surprised, then fascinated; it was the first time the idea of female homosexuality had ever occurred to him as a possibility. After they were married, they were faithful to each other, but they would still sometimes confuse waitresses at restaurants by flirting with them simultaneously. He had loved Tricia very much. Sometimes he looks back at her and is astonished by how much he loved her. It seems almost impossible, from his vantage point, that he had ever loved someone so much, even though he was there and it really happened. 

In a daze, Jason goes to a nearby gun store and buys a handgun and some rounds. After purchasing them, he is rather baffled by himself—he’s never really been a gun person—but resolves that safe is always better than sorry and having a gun in the house will certainly be helpful if he is burgled. That night, as he sleeps, he is awakened by a sound and filled with fear. He goes around the house looking for the source of the sound but finds nothing at all. The next morning, he decides that he needs a smaller weapon, something that he can have immediate access to, so he goes online to buy some knives. He can’t settle on which knife is best for him, so he buys all of the ones that have good reviews. It costs about a thousand dollars. 

The next night the sounds are there again, and again there is no one in the house but Jason. Jason realizes that knives are still fairly deadly, and he doesn’t want to deal with the legal hassle of killing someone, so he gets a baseball bat. On his way home, it occurs to him that the burglars may come in a group, and if so none of his weapons will suffice to protect him. He goes to the gun store again and gets himself a shotgun and some shells. After a moment’s hesitation, he also buys another small firearm, so that he can put it in the bathroom and be prepared if someone attacks while he’s taking one of his long, stiff, trips to the toilet. 

It rains for the next few nights. Jason doesn’t sleep much. He considers the possibility of death and resolves that he will do anything necessary to prevent it from coming in violence and pain. Tricia’s death was agony; liver cancer, fifteen months in a hospital bed, screaming and vomiting. Jason doesn’t want to die like that. He doesn’t want to die at all. He almost calls Sylvia, and then remembers that she doesn’t want to talk to him. It doesn’t matter, he decides. He doesn’t want to talk to her either. He has more important things to do. 

A week later, he contacts a company that installs home security systems. He wants the works, he tells them; cameras, motion detectors, a keypad for every room. It will take about the same amount of money as Sylvia asked him for to help her go to grad school. He is aware of this. He says sure, I can pay that with a feeling in his stomach that is something like sickness and something like exultation. He has all these guns and no one to shoot. He has nowhere to be but his house, so his house will be the safest place on earth, the only place where death cannot trespass. There will be no death in his house. There will only be Jason, sitting in the corner with his guns and his knives and his baseball bat, always awake and ready for anything. 

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a phone call in which no words are spoken
                  b) the sound of a child crying outside a window
                  c) a poorly-marked patch of slippery ground?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

3. Linnea has gotten the lead role in her college’s production of Tosca. She loves opera and is very happy to have gotten the role; she knows that it will be difficult, and is prepared to work harder than she ever has before. The director is a music professor, Professor Mulhaven. The night after the roles are posted, Linnea calls her dad and tells him she got the part. She is so excited she almost cries. 

Later that week Linnea realizes she has a paper due Friday and has forgotten to work on it. She spends the rest of the week furiously researching and writing, and by the time the first rehearsal rolls around, she has not had time to memorize or practice any of her songs. She arrives in the classroom completely unprepared. Professor Mulhaven, who encourages his students to call him Billy, is deeply unimpressed. Jesus, maybe we should have given the role to someone else, he says. Linnea promises to be ready next week. I’ll believe it when I see it, Billy replies. 

At the next rehearsal, Linnea is ready. She has her lines memorized and has practiced for several hours in a rehearsal room. She feels confident and sure right up until she gets up in front of her castmates and sees Billy looking at her with an expression on his face that can only be described as a sneer. She opens her mouth and nothing comes out. Her voice, the only part of her she has always been sure is beautiful, the part of her that her father described as a gift from God, hides in her chest like a wounded animal. Oh, come on, Billy says loudly, and a few of the other cast members snicker. Panic moves through Linnea like a surge of electricity and she squeezes her voice until it leaps out of her throat, but it sounds thin and whining, like a child’s. Billy wrinkles his nose. I have to tell you, that was terrible, he says, when she’s finished. Here’s some advice: learn how to fucking sing before you come back here. 

Later on, Linnea will think that this is the pivotal moment. This is the first moment he says something truly, deeply, inappropriate, the moment when one of the other cast members could have said this is wrong and reported him and made it all stop. But no one says anything. Everyone is smiling. All their smiles look like the same smile, and it is not a nice expression. 

At the next rehearsal, Billy invites all the others to say one thing they don’t like about Linnea’s performance. When one of the boys says that she’s afraid of high notes, and then adds also she’s gained weight, Billy nods and says good point, to another round of snickering. Linnea starts to feel very tired all the time. Her best friend Sylvia, who is going to another college, tries to Skype with her and Linnea avoids her; she doesn’t want Sylvia to see her face. She doesn’t know why she isn’t saying anything. She’s played the lead in other performances. She could just leave. She could tell someone. But she imagines saying to some faceless implacable figure beyond a desk, they said I was ugly, they said I was stupid and I couldn’t sing, and that thought is somehow more unbearable than any future cruelty she can picture. 

At the next rehearsal Billy sniffs at her face and tells her she’s drunk. She’s not, and she replies to that effect, at which he declares drunk and a liar, too. And then that’s a thing, another weapon to be used against her. Someone pours a beer into her bag during class and she loses most of her written class notes and has to get her computer fixed. Billy pinches her stomach and says you know, I’m pretty sure that Tosca isn’t supposed to look like a pregnant cow. She gets a D on one of her midterm projects and stops going out to meals. At rehearsals her voice starts to sound like glass scraping. It’s ugly. She knows it’s ugly. It’s the only thing she’s ever been truly good at, better than anyone else, and now it’s ugly, and she’s ugly, and the world is ugly. Her life dwindles to going to rehearsals. The thought that she could tell someone occurs to her less and less. Billy grabs her face, forces her mouth open, has the other cast members smell her breath and say that she’s drunk. He stands right in front of her, his face almost touching hers, and tells her to sing and she can’t. She stands there with her mouth open and nothing coming out of it but a sort of wheezing moan. She can’t sing, she can’t make a sound, and she stands there for what feels like hours and everyone laughs and laughs and laughs. 

She wakes up in the night, but it’s actually the daytime and she’s slept through all of her classes. She thinks, I hate him. She thinks, I wish he was dead. She thinks that she’s a bad person already and nothing she does is going to make her a worse person. Almost without meaning to, she does some research and finds out Billy’s home address. He has a wife, three children. She finds herself standing in the kitchen of her dorm, holding a kitchen knife, and for a moment she considers cutting her throat before realizing that she can’t. She doesn’t have the courage to kill herself. What she has is an endless rotation of dreams where she’s stabbing someone and the blood is bright and sweet and it opens her throat up and she can sing again. She can sing into the darkness.

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a throwaway line in a pornographic movie
                  b) a glass of spoiled milk
                  c) a tube of film falling off an end table in the middle of the night?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

Bonus questions: Is love always good? Have you ever truly been in love? Are there things worse than death? Do people ever deserve to die? What do you owe to the world? Is it possible to entirely divorce your relationship with your parents from your basic anger at having been born? Are you actually a part of your body? Can you ever truly know anyone? 

If you finish this section of the test before the time is up, turn it in to the instructor at the front of the room. Sit in your chair. Put your right hand on the right side of the chair and your left hand on the left side of the chair. Wait for the instructor to announce the time, and then leave the room without speaking to anyone.


Sarah Williams is pursuing a graduate degree in religious studies at the University of Chicago. Her work has been previously published in Room Magazine. She lives in Indiana with her partner.





D.K. Lawhorn

Tu me manques

Some nights I wake up because I have forgotten how to breathe. Panic overtakes me. Sweat covers my body. Lungs aflame in their need for air. Every neuron is convinced I’m being suffocated by the blanket of nothing covering my face. But it’s not nothing. It’s a lack of something that smothers me. I never mention this idea, of course, because that would mean the shell shock is winning. According to my handlers, what I experience on these nights is too deep of sleep. My mind drifts so far from consciousness, it shirks its new responsibility of drawing my each and every breath. This explanation is more actionable than mine, so I go with it. Solution: I do not allow myself to sleep soundly anymore.

God, I miss you.

Eating is the easiest thing to overlook. A year after you, when my handlers finally feel comfortable enough to let me try handling myself, I fail to eat for over a month. This isn’t done out of any direct choice. I never had to be bothered by something as pedantic as feeding myself when I was with you. I don’t notice my unintentional hunger strike until I wake up back in a sterile bed, surrounded by hospital and military uniforms. The lead doctor sticks the long needle of an IV in my arm. I was apparently mere hours from starving to death. A nurse tells me I’m lucky my main handler arrived three days early for our monthly chess game.

Truth be told, I haven’t felt lucky in a very long time.

Other bodily functions are even more troublesome. It’s not that I don’t feel them coming. I just don’t want to break away from whatever it is I’m doing, and my decades with you made me lose the ability to hold it. I’m learning, though. Not fast enough. My handlers put me in diapers to reduce the mess. What’s more embarrassing than a grown man in a diaper because he can’t bring himself to go to the bathroom when he needs to? Me, the star Pilot of the Foreign Legion’s 221st Mechborne, reduced to a diaper-wearing simpleton.

Life was so simple with you.

Basic motor functions are basically gone. I’ve recently graduated to holding cups without assistance. The paper cone ones, mind you, just to be safe. Regular cups are still too dangerous, because now that I’m without you, broken glass can hurt me. Plus, the sound of their shattering pulls the trigger of something deep inside me that doesn’t stop firing for hours. I can’t hold a pencil or strike the keys of a typewriter with any accuracy. I must dictate all my correspondences to this beautiful orderly who has the loveliest handwriting I’ve ever seen. He types twice as fast as I can speak, but I ask him to write as often as he feels up to it, so I can watch my words sprawl out from the tips of his fingers. I make him to bring such beauty into this world.

The artistry we used to make together: my commands; your hands.

My short-term memory is fried. I lose myself in the middle of sentences, the topic of conversation completely forgotten. I ask for a gramophone and some of the Moroccan records I remember from my boyhood days before France conscripted me into the 221st Mechborne. I get a fancy radio set instead, along with the promise that all of the music I could ever want is on the various Parisian stations. I can’t remember any of the dial numbers. My main handler tapes a note to the side of the radio. On it are the numbers for the more popular stations and what plays on them. None of them are labeled ‘marocaine’. She says she penned the list because music has proven beneficial in severe cases of shell shock. It’s a pretty lie. One I let her get away with. In truth, she is tired of walking into my apartment to the chattering gunfire of radio static and me whining on the floor, in the throes of another episode. I forget about the note immediately and start ignoring the radio set. When I want music, I sing to myself. Snatches of songs I recall floating from a gramophone’s horn and filling a house time has nearly erased from my mind. These half-remembered lyrics tremble from my lips as I sit in the wooden rocking chair by the big window overlooking the Pont Neuf and the lazy Seine flowing beneath. I pretend I’m performing a concert for the men, women, and children who are enjoying a stroll across my bridge.

You would sing to me in the most vibrant vibrato every time I wanted a song.

My long-term memory, however, is fine. Too fine, apparently. My main handler loves talking about the War. She’s convinced having me relive my good times with you will help lessen the severity of my bad times with myself. It doesn’t, but I try to humor her. She always avoids Verdun, though. I get curious about her eschewal of the topic, so I sneak a look at my file while she is in the bathroom. It is difficult, but I manage to turn the pages. My first feat of close-to-normal dexterity since you. The 221st is convinced I have no memory of my last deployment. I’m the only Pilot who made it back, so they have no other cases to compare me to. I’ve been willing to talk about anything asked of me. But not once have I come close to mentioning Verdun. I thought my reasons were obvious. My main handler’s working theory is that the trauma I sustained during my extraction was enough to wipe those ten long months from my mind.

How I wish this were true.

At some point in each of our weekly meetings, my handlers ask if I suffer from nightmares. I don’t. As I said, I no longer allow myself the type of sleep needed to get them. Breathing’s more important than dreaming. They should be asking about daytime terrors, which I do have. All the time. A Bentley trundling over cobblestones becomes a German sturmpanzermecha crunching over a collapsed wall. A session of skeet shooting with strangers wearing friendly faces turns into a hail of anti-Mech rounds. A simple trip and fall due to the atrophy still plaguing my legs sends me plummeting down to the fields of Verdun—all turned to mud and muck by the blood soaking them—my body cradled inside an inoperable you. If my handlers won’t ask about these events, then they don’t need to know about them.

But I never kept any secrets from you.

I never ask anything. This isn’t a new development. The 221st Mechborne instills an extreme independence in its Pilots-in-training immediately after conscription. This is meant to make Pilots superior. Put us above all other conscripts who, according to our handlers, whine all the time and ask for everything under the sun. I ask for the first time in my life while sinking in that Verdun ocean of blood. They slice through your body to get at mine. Peel back your hard metal to pry out my soft meat. When I realize they mean to remove me from you, I plead to be left to drown in the steam spraying out of the fatal injuries covering your body. The poilu don’t listen to me. I can’t blame them, though. The medics who pull me away from you are trained to turn off their ears when saving Pilots from their dying Mechs. My breaking of the 221st’s golden rule of no asking is forgiven due to my suffering from ‘severe and acute psychosis brought on by shell shock’. This is how my handlers rationalize my preference of death over being separated from you. Even though they know you and I have spent nearly thirty uninterrupted years together, shell shock is their precious logic they assign to me begging to die alongside you. Because it is curable. Because I will eventually get over it.

They don’t know I still silently beg for the same thing every single day.

My heart stops beating quite often now. This is the most painful of all the changes. It occurs in moments of high concentration: reading a gripping book, playing a particularly tricky match of chess with my main handler, working through the physical fitness examinations the army likes to spring on me. Thinking of you. The doctors call it an arrhythmia. Say I will have it for the rest of my life, or at least until I pair with a new Mech who can bio-regulate me again. Every Pilot who has ever retired from the 221st has developed a similar heart condition. The doctors say it’s natural. And it is. But not in the way they think. They believe our hearts are used to being guided by complex machines and can forget themselves without the aid they have grown accustomed to. That’s too clinical for matters of the heart. I know what’s really happening. A heart can’t beat correctly when a large piece of it has been torn away.

They assign me another Mech today. 

German sturmpanzermecha tear up idyllic fields all throughout the Low Countries. 

The 221st demands the return of its best Pilot. 

This Mech is new, top of the line. 

And not you.

Some days I drop what I’m doing and force myself to stop breathing. I stay in this suspended state for as long as I can. It’s surprising how well my body does with no air. Minutes pass. I make it all the way to ten. My lungs grow annoyed, then angry, then desperate. Black spots intrude on my vision. My head swims as if I’ve just swallowed a bottle of fine champagne. An old drinking song gets stuck in my ear. My mind is so set on this task, my heart stops beating. I get so close, but I suck in a ragged breath right before I reach my goal. I want to be smothered by the lack of you, but I am nothing if not a coward without you.

God, I miss you.


D.K. Lawhorn (he/him) has stories that have appeared in Pyre Magazine and Haven Spec, with upcoming pieces in khōréō magazine and a Flame Tree Press’ First Peoples Shared Stories Anthology. He is a citizen of the Monacan Indian Nation and lives on his ancestral land in Virginia with his legion of rescue cats. He is studying Native Speculative Literature at Randolph College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Follow him on Twitter @d_k_lawhorn or visit his website at




Maxwell Suzuki

How a Gecko Grew its Tail Back

His voice, a crashing of tormented cymbals over the phone, was what I imagined a waterfall stuck in winter would sound like. The rush of falling water below its thick, icicle shell. And, in part, it reminded me of a nature documentary I had seen once in my college dorm. The stiff rattling of David Attenborough’s voice combing through the past. A narration that had haunted me then and didn’t ease my anxiety as he spoke. I focused on the irregularities of his tone because I had known of his glacial voice before—afraid to become a sanded erratic.

The man, of course, was a neighbor lost, at first, to the collapse of the housing market, and then to the calving of his decade’s long marriage. He must have called me when he found my number buried deep within his phone’s dusty contacts, now begging for forgiveness.

I first met him at a church potluck the summer before 6th grade, where he bent down to meet my eyeline and extended his hairy arm for me to shake. He introduced himself as Anthony to my single mother—and Tony to me. When I began to question why, he plucked a Deviled Egg from his platter of a dozen and placed it on my paper plate—already soggy from watermelon rinds.

The fear in my eyes, an animal stilted in an empty plain, prompted him to explain that Deviled Eggs don’t actually mean they’re from the Devil—just that the Devil had been beaten out of them. It worried me that eggs were evil in the first place.

That Sunday afternoon, my mother had learned of his wife Sherri, their two sons (I forgot their names years ago), and that they lived at the end of our cul-de-sac in a house the size of two blue whales. After, he invited us to weekly barbeques with Sherri and the kids. My mother, being unceremoniously kind, agreed.


I learned during our cookouts that his sons were eerily quiet. They ate their cedar-smoked ribs in silence, their bluffs of potato salad without a word—even kept their conversations below a strained whisper. I confronted them about this once in the shade of their Willow tree. The older one, freckles the size of pregnant ticks, had said that if they were super quiet and still, no one would think they existed. The younger one only nodded while picking at the tree’s sappy bark, some of it collecting at the nubs of his fingertips. And when I asked them why, their answers faded into the hiss of the patio grill.

My mother thought Tony was a great orator. He told stories about his prickly sweat in the Middle East, the emptiness of Dubai before the oil boom, his failed farm venture afterward. First with peas, then radishes, and finally two sons. I understood why she found him to be captivating—the golden rings in his eyes, the brandish of a genuine smirk, the way Sherri was never home.


One summer, my mother, rich from nail salon tips, brought me to Disney World. I could only remember the blazing concrete after, the way I could trace Mickey on the burn of my forearm—a white outline against dying skin.

As we were headed back to our hotel, my mother’s cheeks pinched between my knees, we paused to watch a flock of ducks. Their bodies hovering on glass, their bills all pointing south—to somewhere we wished we could see but couldn’t. My mother saw the shadow first—a tinge of brown among so much green. Then its eye, a yellow band encasing a black diamond, trained its gaze on the flock.

She made me close my eyes. My warming Dole Whip splattered on asphalt. Then a pulse of a dozen birds took off at once, finally a silent shudder. When my mother said I could open my eyes, we had walked too far to see if there were any ducks left. I asked her where they had gone, though she never answered.


I first learned I was a reptile the summer I met Tony. The thieving chill of a rainstorm forced us into their house—the sound of a leopard in chase on the roof. When he suggested we should play Hide-and-Seek, his sons had slithered into the confines of their room. And my mother, drunk off box wine and his charisma, encouraged me to play. How do you play Hide-and-Seek if you’re the only one meant to be found?

I hadn’t known the expanse of his labyrinthian home until he began counting. Doorways led to innocuous bedrooms and dressers—where I was always on the lookout for a cartoon alligator pit.


If given the opportunity, most animals would prefer to hide if they were aware danger was nearby. Conserving energy—beyond being eaten—would be a reptile’s main concern. Best to be still and beg to be blended into the surroundings than to be spied on from the guts of a swamp.


With only a few seconds left, I found the master bedroom, and within it, his closet. It’s able to hide a reptilian body behind shale and shackle. And as I snuck into its bowels, the doors hinged jaws bit the tip of my index finger. I could feel the rising pitch of a distressed scream bleed from my mouth. When I was silent again, a stream riding the cliff of my cheek, I had forgotten about the hesitance of Tony’s sons.

Naturally, he found me. The closet door opened, then slowly shut behind him. The darkness holding me stiff.

When I talk about Tony, what I really mean to talk about is the hunt. I felt his lips on my finger—the rotting iron of a muskeg. This was what it must’ve been like to be that duck in an Epcot swamp. How hard the duck must’ve tried to flap its wings and fly; how easy it was for those jaws to clamp down.

I left the closet, a kiss branding my fingernail, wanting only to feel the pinch of that door again, and not his hot breath.


That week, my fingernail bloomed into a lavender field. My mother never asked why, instead she offered to paint the rest of my nails a similar shade of purple. She didn’t want my teachers to question the single welt brewing within me. What did it mean for a mother to know of the alligator’s sins and not how to save the meat it relied on to live?

I laid out my fingers on our kitchen counter as she gave me camouflage. Maybe somewhere in her brushstrokes there was love. Or guilt. Or shame. I couldn’t tell because her hands were as steady as they had always been. If I told you my hands weren’t also shaking—the grip of fake granite below my fingers—I would be lying. I would also be lying if I told you I liked the color.

Purple is ugly; alligators are ugly; the crooked doorframe of a master bedroom is ugly. Gazing into my bruised finger that day, I believed that I was ugly. And I thought a thin layer of nail polish could make me pretty again.

In a month, my fingernail fell off, which left a bed of puss and the birth of a new nail. In a month, everyone asked me why I only had nine fields of chipped lavender. I didn’t have the words then to say that Crested Geckos could lose their tails if they felt they had become threatened. I couldn’t tell myself then that they could continue living with parts of their souls ripped from their bodies.


The episode where David Attenborough explained the escape of a Crested Gecko was the same one where I waited in my college dorm for the pills to explode within me. The tail had been removed, so why hadn’t the body also left?

I remember watching how the crack of an alligator jaw nearly ate the whole body of a Crested Gecko. Luckily, in its instinctual desire for life, the gecko sprinted from the majority of the danger. After the gecko was safe on the branch of a Cypress, the movie showed the slow regrowth of its tail in a panning time lapse. The molt of its body at first unsettling—and then beautiful. How still it had stood before reclaiming the parts of itself taken without consent.

As the pills began to smudge my vision, the panic of my finger made me vomit across my coffee table. And when my roommate cleaned up the mess, he didn’t ask why. Instead, he held me as if I were a child that had never grown out of his trauma. He apologized as if he were Tony—as if he knew what it meant to take away from something that had nothing left to give. Afterward, I struggled with bulimia. But I was still alive.


When Tony explained himself over the phone, there was nothing left for me to do but keep silent. There was no forgiveness to give. I didn’t have a revelation—didn’t want to hold my head up high and give him the space to apologize. Often when we talk about trauma, we forget to search for what was lost. We want tangible things: explanations, regret, pain removed from the bodies we were grown in. All things that cannot be given back.

I kept silent when I heard his sobs over the crackle of the reception. And after a minute of his blubbering, I ended the call. He would call again and again, hoping I would answer and forgive, but I didn’t.


Alligators, like all predators, beyond the safety of their mosquito-infested waters, become fragile. They are both slow and easy to capture. Then tamed, killed, and finally eaten. Boiled or stir-fried or grilled or baked or stewed or mashed into something completely unrecognizable. Then, they will become tasty. I heard once, from a friend who lived on the precipice of the Santa Fe Swamp, that alligator meat tasted just like chicken. I suppose then, that chicken must also taste like survival.


Maxwell Suzuki is a queer writer who lives in Los Angeles. Maxwell’s work has appeared in trampset, Anti-Heroin Chic, Kissing Dynamite Poetry, and The Hellebore. He is writing a novel on the generational disconnect between Japanese American immigrants and their children. You can find him on Twitter @papasuzuki or on his website