Category: Fiction

“Hopeful Now” by William Cass

“Hopeful Now” by William Cass

I was nearing the end of my last year in college and could be described at the time as deeply passionate, obsessed even, about my music.  I spent more time in the practice rooms in the basement of the performance center than anywhere else on campus. I was there again one bitterly cold Sunday evening during white-out conditions in what was supposed to be early spring.  I’d been at the piano in the room at the far end of the hallway for three hours and was struggling over an ending for my senior composition that I couldn’t get right. Out of exasperation, I began playing opening strains of famous pieces.  Perhaps it was my discouraged mood that led me to begin with the second movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata #2, using a tempo even slower than his staff notation. After I’d finished, I sat with my head down and shoulders slumped and blew out a long breath.  A moment later, the same strain at the identical tortured tempo came from the next room, then stopped abruptly at the exact point I had.

I sat up straight and frowned.  I’d passed all the open doorways in the hallway on my way in and they’d all been empty, not surprising with the weather.  I was used to being vaguely aware of other music being practiced elsewhere in those rooms while I was there and hadn’t heard a

note played since I’d arrived.  I sat in the stillness for a full minute or more, then launched into Beethoven’s Op.126 bagatelle.  I stopped again in the middle of a strain, then waited. Another moment passed before the same interlude came from the next room, but played with a precision and emotion that made a shiver pass over me.  It stopped again precisely where I had.

I listened more intently and could just make out the sound of the wind straining the glass entry door upstairs, but nothing more.  Suddenly, I entered into the “Se je chart mains” canon, this time much faster and louder than it was intended to be played, and halted arbitrarily between notes.  A handful of seconds later, the same piece echoed from the adjoining room, but with a yearning and quality I couldn’t possibly approach or hope to attain. Again, it stopped abruptly where I had, and then I heard the door to the room fly open and footsteps clatter down the hallway.

I jumped from the bench, stumbled to my knees, regained my footing, and pushed open my own door.  I was in time to see the back of a young woman in a long blue overcoat with auburn hair bouncing over its collar turn at the end of the hallway.  The side of her face became momentarily exposed as she started up the stairs, and I saw her glance my way with green eyes that sparkled and lips that held a crease of smile.  

I shouted, “Hey!”

But, she didn’t stop.  Instead, I heard her take the steps several at a time.  I ran down the hallway after her, but she’d disappeared at the top of the stairs when I got to them.  I clambered up as quickly as I could and burst onto the landing on top, only to find the door that led outside

yawning closed.  I shoved it open and hurried into the thundering storm of whiteness.  There was no sign of the woman and no indication where she might have gone in the night’s fury.  I stood there hugging myself long enough that the wind and snow had turned my cheeks numb before forcing myself back inside.

*           *           *           *           *

Eventually, I finished my senior composition, received Honors in the Major after playing it for my oral comps recital, and graduated.  During those final few months of school, I searched actively for the woman from that stormy night, but was unable to find her. Our department was a large one in an urban university with over ten thousand students, so it was no surprise that she remained unidentified to me.   When I was in the practice rooms afterwards, I often tried playing the opening strains from well-known compositions, but never heard another musical reply.

My father convinced me that relying on a career in musical performance was foolhardy, so I enrolled in a teacher’s credentialing program that started in September at a college in another city a couple hours away from my old one.  While I was there, I played in the university orchestra and continued composing pieces that were heard only by me. I auditioned for several larger community and musical theater orchestras, but didn’t get selected. That next spring, I was offered a full-time position at the high school where I’d done my student teaching, and took over the band and all other music-related classes there in the fall.  

Like most beginning teachers, my days and nights were consumed with work.  I felt lucky if I found a couple of hours on weekends for my own music. Auditioning further elsewhere became an afterthought.  But, I did begin dating another teacher at school shortly

before Halloween, and she and I had become serious enough that we invited one another to meet our families over Winter Break.

Her name was Dawn, and she’d begun teaching English there the year before I arrived.  She had a long tangle of brown curls and a manner that was both shy and removed that I found alluring.  Her smile was rare enough that it felt like a small victory when I could coax its arrival. She wrote poems and had published a few in literary magazines I’d never heard of, so we shared artistic interests, if not temperaments.  We accompanied one another to readings and recitals, but I could only marvel at the way she squeezed my hand as a poet’s words moved her, and I’m pretty sure she felt the same way when I did the same at a strain of music I found particularly beautiful.  But, we enjoyed simple things together – cooking meals, taking walks, watching old movies, keeping a jigsaw puzzle going on the coffee table in my living room. Of course, we also understood one another’s preoccupations with work and the long hours involved there, so had few expectations with each other, or disappointments either.  By early spring, she’d moved into my little rental house by the river, and a month later, we’d taken an abandoned puppy home from the animal shelter. We passed the shelter one Saturday during a walk, looked at each other, and then simply retraced our steps and went inside. Although we didn’t speak of it, there was an intentionality and shared responsibility involved that felt warm and significant and a little frightening.  He was a mutt and we named him Wags: a nod to Wagner, who was a writer in addition to being a composer.

Dawn often stayed late at school grading essays, so I began playing the piano again alone in the band room while waiting for her to be ready to go home.  Sometimes, she entered while I

was playing and I wouldn’t see her there until I’d stopped, when she’d smile and applaud heartily.  She’d usually get up in the mornings an hour or so before I did to write, and would often allow me to read pieces that she was ready to send out; I admired those I could understand, and always told her so, even about those I didn’t.

*           *           *           *           *

By October of my second year at school, the marching and pep bands I taught had improved to the point that they both had placed in several regional competitions.  I’d gained enough of a reputation in the area that I began taking on a few adult students for private lessons. At around the same time, one of the online journals that had published a couple of Dawn’s poems asked her to become an assistant editor, which she was proud of and could do remotely.  So, our lives become busier and more productive, I suppose, but it did mean less time together.

We kept Sunday mornings kind of sacred and unencumbered to be with each other.  If the weather cooperated, we usually began by taking Wags for a walk along the river.  During one of those in early December, Dawn surprised me by asking, “So, do you find giving private lessons satisfying?”

I glanced at her and shrugged.  I said, “Not particularly.”

“Then why don’t you use that time instead for your own music?”

“What, compose pieces that I write down and put in a drawer?  It’s not like your poetry that you can publish and share with other people.”

“Aren’t there ensembles or something you could join?  You know, like chamber music?”

“Those are string quartets.  No piano.”

We were quiet again while Wags sniffed at a tree in the light dusting of snow.  I looked at her face while she watched him; it had taken on that distant look, her mouth a small, straight mark.

After we resumed walking, she said, “I’ve been asked to take part in a reading.  One of the local journals where I had a poem appear.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”  She looked down at where Wags tugged her on his leash along the path.  “I’ve never actually read before except in a creative writing seminar, so this will be my first time in front of an audience.  I’m a little nervous.”

“You’ll do great.  Where is it?”

“At a bookstore…next Saturday evening.”  

“Shucks,” I said.  “My pep band has a competition then.”

“That’s okay.  I’d probably be more anxious if you were there, anyway.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”  She looked at me for the first time.  “I just would.”

*           *           *           *           *

After the first of the year, Dawn won a contest for one of her poems sponsored by a fairly well-known journal that paid her $500.  Our town’s newspaper found out about it and published an interview with her about her writing, which she tacked on the wall above her desk in the second bedroom we used as a study.  That led to her becoming a member of a new literary arts council formed by public libraries in four adjoining municipalities, and she began devoting lots of time helping organize council events like author visits, book signings, and young writers’ forums.  During that same period, I started playing basketball after school a few afternoons a week with some other teachers at school; we often grabbed a beer afterwards at a pub near the gym.  Our

schedules became such that by February, Dawn and I were driving to and from school in separate cars.  At home while she was gone, I watched a lot of YouTube videos of musical performances, sometimes binging on one after the other, while Wags sat on my lap and I scratched him behind the ears.

On an evening just before Spring Break, I came into the house after playing basketball and found Dawn sitting on the edge of the couch in her jacket with a small suitcase at her feet.  She looked up at me blankly and said, “This isn’t working.”

I felt my heart quicken.  I said, “I don’t understand.”

“We don’t share anything anymore.”  Her voice was flat and dull.

“We’ve just gotten busy doing our own things.  That can change.”

She shook her head, looked away, and said, “No.”

I squinted at the way she said it.  I was still sweating from the gym, and a cold shiver crawled up my back as I asked, “Is there someone else?”

She didn’t look my way.  A moment passed before she said, “That’s only part of it.  You and I haven’t been happy for a long time.”

“I’m happy.”

“Well, I’m not.”

She stood up, lifted the suitcase by its handle, and walked towards the door.  I reached for her, but she shrugged under my arm.

I said, “Don’t leave.  Please.”

But she opened the door, went through it, and closed it quietly behind her.  I heard her footsteps hurry down the walk, heard her car’s engine start, heard it crawl quietly down the driveway and then disappear up the street.  I stood staring at the depression in the sofa cushion where she’d been sitting, a numbness spreading through me. I felt as if I was falling, falling, falling in a well with no bottom.

*           *           *           *           *

Dawn wasn’t at school the next morning, and when I got home, all her things were gone.  She didn’t answer any of my calls or messages, and after several days, she’d shut down her cell phone and personal email accounts.  She didn’t return to work after the break either; one of her friends at school told me that she’d heard Dawn had moved to another state with a writer she’d met somewhere; a month or so after that, the same friend said she’d been told they’d gotten married.  The ache I felt was like an echo, deafening at first, then slowly receding.

Like it had to, I guess, life went on for me.  My walks with Wags became more frequent and longer.  I declined social invitations and dating opportunities.  Every now and then, I Googled Dawn’s name and found a new poem of hers in some online literary journal; they became more upbeat than I’d remembered them, breezier, lighter.  One was called, “Hopeful Now”; my heart clenched as I read it.

When summer vacation arrived, I brought a keyboard home from school, and used the extra free time to try composing again.  To say I was rusty was an understatement. My first few attempts were halting and dirge-like. But, eventually, a few pieces seemed promising enough that I went over to school to try them on the piano on the theater stage.  I thought the place was

empty, but when I finished, I heard someone in back clap slowly three times and saw our custodian there grinning at me, a broom leaning against the crook of his arm.  

“Great!” he called.  “Bravo!”

I gave him a sheepish wave and heard his footsteps go off across the linoleum into the foyer and ascend the stairs; the sound reminded me of the woman on that stormy night long ago.  The thought came quickly to me because I’d found myself dreaming of her recently, waking and sitting up suddenly in the darkness, the image of her so close and vivid I felt chagrined to have awoken.  When that happened, I tried lying back down quickly in the hopes of returning to the dream, but was never able to.

Over the long July 4th weekend, I returned to the city where I’d gone to college to visit a friend who’d found a job and settled there after we graduated.  I brought Wags with me, and took him on a walk across the deserted campus one morning. I passed my old dormitory, the wing of the library where I’d done most of my studying, and peered through the cafeteria windows at the table where I’d usually sat to eat.  I wandered over to the performance center, found the entry door open, and went downstairs to the practice rooms. No one else was there, and I took a seat at the piano in the room at the end of the hallway. I played the same three openings I had on that snowy evening, pausing after each one to listen to the silence that followed.  As I did, Wags looked up at me where he sat at my feet with his head cocked.

“I don’t know,” I told him.  “I have no idea what I’m doing either.”

When we left the room, I paused to look at the spot where the woman had turned and glanced at me before ascending the stairs.  I thought of her eyes, that hint of smile. An idea occurred to me out of nowhere, and I led Wags up the stairs outside.

We went inside the adjoining building, which housed the music department’s administrative offices, and I found the student bulletin board on the wall just inside the entrance where it had always been.  The same assortment of housing requests, job postings, textbook sales, and flyers advertising musical venues were tacked here and there across its surface. I sat on the floor beneath it, took a pad and pen out of my daypack, and wrote a description of the woman from that night.  I included her blue coat, auburn hair, green eyes, and exceptional piano talent. As near as I could, I estimated her height, weight, and age, as well as the date and description of that stormy evening. I asked anyone who knew her to contact me and ended with my name, cell phone number, and email address.  

I stood and looked up and down the long, empty hallway.  Then I tore the page off my pad, found a tack and spot on the bulletin board, and secured it there.  Wags studied me with the same cocked head.

I shrugged and told him, “What the hell do I have to lose?”

In early August, I finally scooped the last jigsaw puzzle that Dawn and I had worked on off the coffee table into its box; I couldn’t remember the last time either of us had touched it.  As I was closing the lid, my cell phone pinged and I glanced at its screen where it lay on the table. A text appeared from a number I didn’t recognize. It said: “You’re looking for me.”

I frowned and typed back: “Who is this?”

A moment later: “Performance center practice rooms.  Stormy night.”

My heart leapt, and I snatched the phone off the table.  I steadied my hands and typed: “I’d like to meet you.”

Another moment passed, then a new bubble swooped onto the screen that read: “Saturday night @ Jake’s, 8pm?”

I recognized the name of the bar and could picture it in a hip neighborhood on the opposite side of the city from my old college campus.  I typed: “I’ll be there.”

*           *           *           *           *

I changed my mind several times about wearing a sport coat before eventually leaving it at home and starting the drive that Saturday evening.  It was hot, humid, and I kept the air conditioner and classical music station on low. The stretch between my new and old cities was mostly farmland, long stretches of corn and wheat fields, tall with the approaching harvest.  I watched them nodding in the small breeze along with the dipping telephone lines in the distance and let my thoughts tumble over themselves. I thought about Dawn, her new life, and what had happened to us. I wondered about the woman from the practice rooms and how she’d filled the time that had passed since then.  I thought about the days ahead and how I’d fill those myself.  I’d just turned twenty-five and had spent my birthday alone.

Jake’s was down a little set of stairs, a long narrow room that was already dark against the gloaming outside when I entered.  There was only a dozen or so customers, and I found the

woman quickly once my eyes had adjusted to the dim light.  She was sitting alone at a table next to a small stage with a piano in its center and was fingering a glass of beer.  She raised those fingers to me, and I recognized her green eyes and smile. I took a breath, walked over, and extended a hand.  She took it, and we shook.

She said, “You haven’t changed much.”

“You either.”  I sat down across from her.  The simple blue dress she wore was the same shade as her coat on that snowy evening.  I said, “I’m Tom.”

She gave a short nod and said, “Sylvia.”  The hint of smile was still there. “So, what’s this all about, Tom?  This query of yours on a bulletin board.”

I felt color creeping up my neck.  I said, “I’m not really sure.” I shrugged.  “That night has stayed with me, I guess. How you played.  Why you did.”

She took a turn to shrug.  “Well, that Chopin sonata you started was pretty woeful.  Sounded like you could use some encouragement.”

Her smile widened a bit, and I did my best to return it.  “That’s true. I was feeling a little down, frustrated.”

“Truth be told, I’d been listening for quite a while.  The piece you were working on, it was your own?”

I nodded.

“It was beautiful.  Really”

A tiny bubble of something opened in me: something good.

Sylvia said, “The finished version was even better.”

I felt my eyebrows knit.

“I was there for your senior recital.  Out in that dark audience. Has it been performed since?”

I swallowed and shook my head.

“That’s a shame.  And you’ve written others?”

“Plenty.”

“None performed?”

“No.”

“Well.”  I watched her take a sip of beer.  “Then that’s a shame, too.”

A waitress came up to our table and I ordered a draft beer, too.  Then Sylvia and I sat looking at each other until I asked, “Why did you run off that night?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Enough said at the time, I guess.”

Our eyes held.  She wasn’t beautiful, but her combination of features was pleasing, lovely somehow, full of life.  Finally, I asked, “So what about you? Even hearing you play those few moments…well, it was exquisite.”

She shrugged again.  “I’m more interested in theory, actually.”  She took another sip from her glass. “The department at school there had started a degree program for music theory, and I’d just transferred into it shortly before that night.  I’m almost finished now.”

“Then what?”

“Still trying to figure that out.”

“You should be playing.  You should be heard.”

“Oh,” she said.  Her eyes took on that same sparkle from the snowy evening.  “That might be involved.”

The waitress brought my beer and set it on a coaster.  I lifted it, and we clinked glasses. “To your good fortune,” I said.

“Likewise,” she replied, and we both sipped.

The place had begun to fill up.  The few remaining tables had all been taken and most of the stools at the bar were occupied.  As a cone of dusty light blinked on over the piano, a quiet sort of murmur rose in the room, and I felt several glances turn our way.  Sylvia looked beyond my shoulder, and I watched her raise a hand and her smile broaden. Another woman walked up beside her, leaned down, and they kissed.  Then, they both turned to me, and Sylvia said, “This is Anne. With a ‘e’.”

I sat blinking, hesitated, then took Anne’s offered hand and shook it.  She was tall with short blonde hair; even dressed only in a green T-shirt and khakis, she was striking.  She sat down in the seat between us and placed her hand on top of the Sylvia’s. They exchanged quiet smiles, then looked at me.

“So,” Anne said.  “Are you staying for the set?”

I frowned.  “I’m not sure.”

“You don’t want to miss it.”  She studied her watch, then said to Sylvia, “You’re on.  Your fans await.”

Sylvia took another sip of beer, glanced again at me with those eyes, then stood up and climbed the two steps onto the stage.  She sat down on the piano bench, adjusted the microphone

on the stand at the piano’s side so it was near her mouth, and began playing random warm-up riffs.  As she did, her gaze became serious and the noise in the room grew silent. A moment later, she closed her eyes and began playing one of Mendelssohn’s softer “Songs Without Words”.  I shook my head slowly at the absolute beauty of it.

She played steadily, a wide variety of pieces: classical, jazz, old standards, even a few improvisational versions of popular ballads during which she sometimes hummed melody into the microphone.  Regardless of the type, I was astonished at her virtuosity, and the crowd’s reaction grew more robust after each song concluded. Sylvia kept her eyes squeezed shut while playing, and only opened them briefly to say a few words of introduction between pieces.  

At one point, Anne leaned towards me and asked what I thought.

“Unbelievable,” I said.

She nodded and I watched her for a few moments gaze at Sylvia while she played.  As she did, I saw a combination of emotions on her face: love, of course, but also joy and pride and contentment.  Eventually, I looked back at Sylvia’s bowed, swaying head and closed eyes as her fingers glided over the keyboard.

After about an hour, Sylvia told the crowd she would be taking a break after the next song.  Then she looked once at me, smiled, and began the piece I’d been composing in the practice room on that stormy night.  She played it perfectly, better than I ever had. I felt

something akin to what I’d seen on Anne’s face spread up through me as she continued.  I whispered, “Hopeful now.” I didn’t want her to stop. I whispered, “Thank you.”


William Cass has had over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff ReviewJ Journal, and The Boiler.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

“This Girl” by Michael Cowgill

“This Girl” by Michael Cowgill

Joy feels no joy here in the cramped backstage area. She holds her guitar neck with her left hand, adjusts her Beatles’ wig with her right, ignores the chatter of her bandmates, her sisters in music, who more and more grate on her like a sharp note.  She still loves the music, loves the band’s concept even, a four-girl Beatles tribute band, playing those beautiful songs and dressing like them but with a feminine touch. Cheeky, a little sexy but limiting and exhausting. Joy has songs of her own she’d like to play and record, ambitions beyond the tribute band circuit, the Beatles fan festivals.  She’s thought about going to back to college, backpacking through Europe, making a pilgrimage to India.

“Jesus,” she thinks, “I’ve played George so long I’m becoming him.”

“You OK?” Ali says.

Joy glances at her, nods.  Ali tucks a strand of red hair back under her wig, grins her perfect grin. So Paul, perfect in her gray suit and Nehru jacket.

“Big crowd,” Ali says, this time trying out her dodgy Paul impression. The last fifteen minutes before show time, she likes to “get into character.” None of the others try that hard. They know the music, they wear the wigs and outfits, but they don’t play characters.  Right now, Liz–the John of the group–scrolls through a dating app on her phone, looking for some after-show New York City fun. Nora warms up on a drum pad, her focus on the brick wall in front of her, her jaw chewing away at a piece of gum. Ali? Ali taught herself to play bass left-handed for authenticity.

“You don’t look OK,” Ali says.

“I’m fine,” Joy says. What else can she say, especially right before a show?

“You feel good about that ‘Taxman’ solo?”

Joy studies her guitar, fingers a few chords.  Ali knows the damn answer, and she knows Joy doesn’t need to practice those parts anymore.  They’ve played them almost every night for three years.

“You know,” she says, “you should play that solo.”

Ali frowns. She has a great voice and great bass chops, but she doesn’t have Paul’s multi-instrumental genius.

“I mean,” Joy adds, “if we want to make it authentic.”

Ali waves her hand in dismissal.

“I don’t care about that,” she says, turning “care” into something that sounds more like “cuh.”

Joy shrugs.  Ali would love to play that solo if she could.

Then it happens.

She looks right at Ali and speaks.

“I’m thinking about quitting.”

It…just…happens.

Ali’s green eyes widen.

“Literally,” Joy says, “I was thinking about it when you interrupt. . . when you asked me if I was OK.”

“You don’t mean it.”

Joy shrugs again.

“I don’t not mean it either.”

Ali steps as close as she can without their instruments hitting, then speaks in her real voice.

“Did I do something?”

Joy raises an eyebrow.

“You know,” Ali whispers.

Joy blushes, looks away again.

“You know I can’t give you that,” she says.

“I know,” Ali says.

She rocks back on her heels.

“I thought you might want to get away from me.”

“No.”

Ali joins Joy against the wall.  Joy does want some space, but she can’t tell Ali that, even though it has nothing to do with Ali’s desires.  She needs time to herself today, tomorrow, maybe for a year or three, instead of time to herself surrounded by three other women and a slightly pervy road manager.

“Not right away,” she says, “not ‘til after the dates we have, but maybe then.”

“I can’t do this without you,” Ali says.  “It was always us.”

“It doesn’t have to stay that way,” Joy says.  “You could find a replacement or change up the act and have a dude or two around or start doing Paul songs instead.”

“Fuck that,” Ali says.

She pushes herself off the wall and retreats to Liz and Nora, puts on her chipper face again.

“You said it,” Joy mutters.

The others huddle, and Ali glances once at Joy as she talks.  Joy has had her fill of this, too, the ever-changing dynamics, shifting alliances, bruised egos.  Everyone loves the romantic idea of a band, this pure expression of friendship, the band against the world, and then everyone acts surprised when a band falls apart as if it’s never happened before.  This band in particular doesn’t have anything to do with friendship, other than Joy and Ali. They found the others through auditions, but the band only has two missions, one noble, one practical. The noble one: share this great music, honor this great band, show people “girls can do it, too.”  The practical: you can make money easier with someone else’s songs.

Their road manager gives them a sign.  Joy adjusts her wig again, makes sure her gray pants haven’t wedged themselves anywhere, brushes them off, and joins the others. They head out to the darkened stage, plug in, and strike that first magic chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” Lights blaze. The club crowd erupts in applause. After the song, they take their Beatles-style bows. Joy used to feel a charge in these moments but looking out at these Baby Boomers reliving their youths and smiling at the band’s gimmick doesn’t do anything for her. They’ve served the audience a fast-casual twist on the McDonald’s fries of other tribute bands, not some hand-crafted delicacy.

For the few seconds before the next song, she ponders throwing her guitar down and leaving, just walking out into the Village in her stupid Nehru jacket, tossing her wig in the nearest trash can, and heading to Penn Station or Grand Central or the Port Authority to catch the next train or bus to wherever and never looking back. Then Nora counts them in by tapping her sticks together, and Joy plays and bobs her head and sings harmonies with Ali at a single microphone, their faces almost touching, their voices blending perfectly, and she understands Ali’s feelings even if she can’t reciprocate them.  In those moments night in and night out, they seem perfect together.

The song ends, they step back, take their bows, and Ali leans close, whispers.

“How could you leave this?”

The fantasy rolls in Joy’s mind again, but now she has to sing lead, and she has no time to think about leaving or staying.  She has to perform, she has to tell Beethoven to roll over. Across the room, she sees an older woman they met in the train station in Washington.  Chatting with her, they learned she had seen the Beatles as a teenager and that her 14-year-old granddaughter loved them, too, so they told her about the show.  The granddaughter sits, tapping her foot but looking a little skeptical of the proceedings. Joy understands that, but she decides to focus all her energy on this girl, this one person, keeping her eyes on her as much as she can, playing her solos with extra energy, letting a little of her own style creep in.

When she steps back to her regular position, Ali grins at her as if to say, “See?”  They carry on, and Joy continues to focus her energy on the girl. A few songs later, the girl has moved up front, sometimes dancing, sometimes watching their hands, trying to learn.  She wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the cover of Abbey Road, the four Beatles not long before their breakup, crossing a street at a crosswalk. Joy likes it, points at the girl, gives her a thumb’s-up.  The girl flashes a big, bright smile, and Joy does the same. The girl averts her gaze.

They reach “Things We Said Today,” and as always, they take their cue from the live versions and do a rave-up during the middle eights.  Joy leans into it even more, and that pushes Ali, always a good musical listener, to open up her voice more. The girl bounces up and down. Her ponytail pops loose, and her long brown hair whips around her head.

They bow before a break, and the girl still moves a little, her hair a mess around her, sweat beading on her forehead.

This, Joy thinks.

They leave the stage, hurry to change into their cheekier Sgt. Pepper outfits, matching the Beatles’ original satin marching band uniforms but different: sleeveless with skirts and go-go boots.  Joy hates them but at least prevailed on Ali to forego fake beards and mustaches. Now though, thinking about the girl, about that moment of abandon, she doesn’t care about feeling ridiculous. She doesn’t care about the annoyances, the resentments, the jealousies.  She cares about the music and the girl.

Ali’s bare shoulder brushes hers, and Joy turns.  Ali’s face beams.

“Did you see that girl?” she says.

Joy can’t suppress her own smile.

“Yeah.”

“That–wow.”

Ali reaches out and adjusts Joy’s wig.

“We should do something extra,” she says.

They lock eyes, nod, know.  Ali looks over her shoulder at Liz and Nora.

“At the end,” she says, “Abbey Road, side two.”

She turns back, runs her hand along Joy’s cheek.  This has happened before. Joy doesn’t flinch, but she doesn’t relax either.  Ali’s smile softens into a frown.

“Don’t,” Joy says, then softer, “please.”

Ali’s eyes water.

Joy holds up her guitar and points at it.

“This,” she says, “just this and that girl and making her happy.”

Ali nods.

“And then?”

Joy locks her eyes on Ali’s teary eyes.

“Then,” Joy she says, “the girl in the next town.”

Ali nods again, wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.

Their road manager gives them the sign.  Joy tugs at her skirt to straighten it, and they find their way to their spots in near darkness, plug in again.  Nora counts them in, and purple lights, applause, and the girl greet their opening chords.


Michael Cowgill writes fiction, comics, and songs in Falls Church, Virginia, and is a member of the comics collective The DC Conspiracy. He also co-hosts the podcast Battle of the Network Shows. He earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of Evansville and an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University. His fiction has appeared in Phoebe, and his comics have appeared in the anthologies District Comics and Wild Ocean.

 

“I Dream, You Dream” by Chelsea Ealey

“I Dream, You Dream” by Chelsea Ealey

Tess sat up in bed, waking from a deep slumber to what she thought was music. The kind of music from a jewelry box. No, an ice cream truck. She wasn’t normally one to sleep in, but given it was Saturday, she didn’t completely discard the option. Looking at her phone, she had to close her eyes and look again, attempting to cleanse the sleep from her sight. The clock read 3:02 AM.

It couldn’t be. Why would there be an ice cream truck this early in the morning? She sat up, looking around the room. She thought maybe the TV was on, but that wasn’t the case. Tess got out of bed slowly, checking the living room next. She had a four-year-old daughter who hadn’t really grasped that there were certain times of day for specific activities. Maybe this was one of the times. She wandered in, expecting to see Addison on the couch watching television. There was nothing, yet the sound persisted.

Tess heard a loud thump from the other room. It made her jump, and the first place she thought to check was her daughter’s room. She opened the door to Addison’s room slowly, as to be sure not to wake her if the sound hadn’t already. As she peaked through the door, she noticed that there was no blonde-headed girl in the bed where she normally lay.

She opened the door further, looking around the room carefully, trying to spot her daughter. That’s when she noticed the curtain blowing in the early morning air. Through the window, Tess finally found where the sound was coming from. An ice cream truck, parked outside her house, playing the song that reminded her of her very own childhood. As she got closer, she watched as Addison walked towards the truck. She realized now that the loud sound she’d heard must have been the sound of the screen slamming down as Addison crawled out.

Tess ran to the door, throwing it open to see the door slide open from the truck. There was nothing to be seen but a pair of glowing green eyes. As she stepped out on to the porch, her daughter turned around to wave her mother goodbye. With that, long, black fingers reached out and grabbed Addison’s curls, pulling her into the van.

*                *                *                *                *

Sitting up in bed, to what she thought was her daughter’s scream, Tess ran to Addison’s room. She was nowhere to be found. In the distance, she heard the faint sound of music. The kind that comes from a jewelry box. No, an ice cream truck. She looked at the time. It read 3:03 AM.


Chelsea Ealey is a student at Hagerstown Community College.

“Beauty-ful Beast” By Esther LoPresto

“Beauty-ful Beast” By Esther LoPresto

“Make sure you get it right this time, Mindy,” he tells me as he settles into my chair. “Use more waterproof stuff. Yesterday’s rain nearly washed it all off.” His angry tone has become familiar.

“Sorry, sir.” Quietly, I close the door to the salon’s only private room.

“I have a reputation to uphold, woman!” He pounds his fist on the arm of my chair.

“Yes, sir, I understand. I mean no disrespect, but you were in a hurry yesterday.”

He sighs. “I know. It’s my own fault. All of it is.”

I start sorting through various cosmetics at my station in front of him. His vacillations between anger and sadness have become common lately. I catch a glimpse in the mirror as he uncovers his face: long, tanned fingers pushing back the black hood, removing the large, black sunglasses. He has brown eyes, a warm caramel brown. His fingers hesitate to pull off the black mask concealing the lower half of his face. He sees me watching him. I quickly duck my head and collect the necessary makeup and brushes.

Another sigh. “You try my patience, Mindy. But you’re the best in the city.”

I start applying the makeup. His face is several shades lighter than the rest of his skin. It’s my job to make sure no one notices that.

“And you’re the only one who has seen this.” There’s disgust in the word as he gestures to his face. “As such, I can’t reveal it to anyone else. The press would have a field day.” He closes his mouth and eyes as I layer on foundation. It’s three shades darker than the skin of his face, but it matches his coloring elsewhere. “Do you know what I’d do to you if you let word get out?”

“Yes, sir.” I pick up a pot of concealer, mixed specifically for his face. “You’d send an assassin after me and they’d never find my body.”

He laughs, a nice sound. “You got that right.”

My brush hesitates and I can’t hide a smile. I know it’s just an exaggeration; I’d keep his secret even without the fake threat.

“What are you smiling for?”

And the nice moment is over.

“Sorry, sir.” I neutralize my expression and get back to work.

Minutes pass in silence as I add more and more layers of fake, hiding the real man. Normally, we do talk a little. I’ve gotten to know the person he hides underneath the layers of fake; the truth that the cameras, the press, and the fans don’t see. He hides a caring heart, a slightly timid, introverted personality under the harsh mask of celebrity. He’s only a year younger than I am, and we live such different lives.

“Admit it,” he says, breaking my thoughts as I add on the final touches. “You’ve seen it. You think I’m hideous, don’t you?”

“I—”

“Don’t lie.”

“Well…” I take a step back and look at the work I’ve done. With practice, I’ve perfected this look for him. A look that matches the face he had before. I’d studied pictures of him before the accident, chosen all the right colors to match his skin tone. I filled in what he lost of his eyebrows, and helped the hairs grow back. Noticed the nuances to highlight his sharp nose and cheekbones.

He’d seen the accident. Called the fire department. Risked his life to save the children in the meantime. None of them should have survived. The children were safe. And this man in front of me… he made it out with second and third-degree burns, still healing from the worst of them. Except for one covering most of his face. There was no healing it. Only surgery could fix it, which he planned to do when his schedule allowed. Until then, it was my job to hide it.

Celebrities’ faces are their money-makers. Without the face that everyone has always known, he’d be out of work. He hates his face because of the burns. He hides it under masks and makeup so no one will know. No one will see that good deed either.

I don’t know why I do it. I take a makeup-removing sheet and swipe it down his nearly finished face.

“What are you doing?!” He jolts up and grabs my wrist, not tightly.

Rather than anger, I see fear in his eyes. Fear that someone will see the scars I’ve revealed.

“You shouldn’t be ashamed, sir. It was a brave thing you did. I think you’re trying too hard to hide beauty inside a beast.”

“Her Eyes” By Norma Burcker

“Her Eyes” By Norma Burcker

I had not gotten a full night of sleep since it happened. Every night I searched for anything the police could have missed, some clue that my girlfriend of almost two years did not just skip town without a trace. A needle in a haystack it seemed. I searched until my restless body could no longer carry on. Last night was no different than any of the previous. Falling asleep was dreadful. Every time I closed my eyes all I could see were hers. I am almost certain that the exact moment I fell asleep was the moment my alarm clock started blaring.

I opened my eyes and there she was, staring back at me from the frame on my desk. I rolled out of bed and walked over to it. I threw the frame against the wall. The glass shattered erratically all over my floor. I sliced open my hand on one of the shards while picking up the photograph. I held it for a few moments. I stared into her intense crystal blue eyes once more. I took the photo for a school project. She hated it, but I loved it. Her gaze could envelop anyone around her. The sunlight gave her long blonde hair a radiant glow as it fell over her shoulders. Her face was neutral, but her eyes, they demanded your attention.

I tossed the bloodied photo into a desk drawer. I couldn’t stand to look at her anymore. I cleaned the blood from my hands. No need for stitches. I had to hurry because it was already eight o’clock and I promised my boss I was okay. I was okay. I sleepily staggered into the shower where I met my demise. The drain had captured a few strands of her hair from her shower the morning before she disappeared. Everything got dark and blurry. I called my boss.

“Dylan? Is everything all right?” she asked.

“Yes. I’m okay. I’m just not feeling well. I won’t be in today,” I replied.

I hung up the phone. I was not okay.

Beads of sweat began to gather across my forehead. My heart was pounding out of my chest. I needed to get out of the house. I got into my car and started driving. I did not know where I was going or what I was doing. My heartbeat was now echoing in my ears like a drum.

“Where are you?!” I screamed.

“You know exactly where she is,” he said.

I looked over to my passenger seat and there he was. He only appeared when I felt like I was losing control. I grasped the steering wheel tight. I wanted to be in control.

“No, not you again,” I said. “Leave me alone!”

“Find her,” he said.

“Tell me where she is! Please!”

“You know where she is!”

“No I don’t!”

“Keep driving, you’ll find her.”

In that moment, he was gone. I hated him. He was cocky, aggressive, and everything that I was not. I needed to find her and he was making it a game. How could someone be so cruel? I kept driving like he said, though I did not know why I was listening to him. The drive felt familiar, but I could not figure out why. Then, I came to a gravel road and knew exactly where I was. I stopped and when I looked over I saw him in my passenger seat again.

“My parents’ cabin?” I asked.

“Go on,” he taunted.

“She’s…here?”

“Just go!”

I turned down the gravel road that wound its way back to my parents’ cabin. It was about two miles away from the main road, but close to the lake. The old road was in desperate need of some repair. No one visited anymore. I could not figure out why she would be there. I guess he knew something I didn’t. Or maybe he was just playing games again. I pulled up to the cabin and exited my car slowly.

“Follow me,” he beamed.

I walked behind him as we made our way towards the cabin. With each step, I grew closer to finding her. My heart rate began to accelerate again. Something did not feel right. Everything felt like it was moving in slow motion. The wind, the birds, my feet. We entered the cabin and he led me to the basement door. I reluctantly followed him. The creak of the old steps permeated throughout the cabin. Something was wrong.

“What did you do to her?!” I trembled.

He laughed hysterically as he walked over to the chest freezer in the corner. He lifted the lid and there she was. Her lifeless body was cold, blue and bruised. I started to lose it.

“You killed her! Why would you kill her?” I shouted.

“That, my friend, is where you’re mistaken. You did it,” he laughed.

“No! That’s not possible,”

“Don’t you remember? She started packing her bags after she caught you talking to me. Said you were crazy. Then you, ya know…” He placed his hands to his own throat and made a gagging sound. He laughed hysterically as I stared blankly at the wall.

“No! I’m not crazy. I would never do that. Why would I kill her? Why? Tell me why?” I pleaded.

I awaited an answer from him, but it never came. I turned around and he was gone. His laugh echoed in my head as if he were at the end of a tunnel. I looked over to the freezer. Her neck was ringed red from strangulation. Even in death, she was beautiful. Her gaze pierced through my soul just as it always had. Her eyes were the guilt deep within me that I could never fathom. My eyes welled with tears as the events began to feel true. I walked over to her with trembling hands as I pressed her eyelids closed.

Her eyes would haunt me no more.

“Girls Like Girls” By T.C. Ranae

“Girls Like Girls” By T.C. Ranae

The room was filled with blinding strobe lights, sexual tension and the overwhelming stench of cheap weed that could hardly get you high. My best friend Will told me it would be a waste of time to go but I didn’t care as I watched Robin Hunter from my seat on the dingy brown couch on the left side of the house party. She wore a dark leather strap around her tiny wrist, a tiny crescent pendant necklace around her neck, red pumps and a short black fitted dress that accented her long tan legs and body perfectly. She brought the red solo cup up to her lips and took a deep sip, leaving a dark lipstick stain on the rim. She talked to Ricky Schwartz, captain of the North Hagerstown High School football team, the number one pothead of the school, the beloved son of the principal and, unfortunately, her boyfriend. She smiled at him before glancing in my direction. I felt my cheeks begin to burn. I began to remember the first time she looked at me. It had been freshman year in our chemistry class and we had been assigned to be each other’s lab partners. She’d smiled at me and that had been the end of it. I’d been hooked ever since. She was beautiful, smart, kind and so much more. She never had a bad thing to say about anyone. I wanted her.

“Samantha?”

I turned towards where my name was called to see a joint being shoved into my face.

“Are you going to take a hit or not?” someone whose name I couldn’t remember asked, eyes glazed.

I pulled my blonde hair over to one side, took the joint from his fingers and took a deep drag. I let the smoke sit in my lungs before exhaling. The taste sat on the back of my tongue, bitter. What a waste this was. I sighed.

“I’ll take next,” someone said just over my shoulder.

I turned to see Robin.

She smiled as she took the joint from me, our fingers grazing. She took a deep inhale of the smoke, plopped down in the empty spot next to me, exhaled and crossed her legs. Her short dress rode higher, a hint of a possible tattoo on her upper thigh. I looked away.

“So how’ve you been, Sam?”

I turned back to her. “Who me?”

She laughed and nodded as she passed the joint. She moved in closer and took my hand. “Yeah, you. Who else?”

I blushed. “Right.” I took a sip of the drink I’d been holding for an hour now.

She giggled. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

I gulped.

“Here you go,” a male voice said.

We both looked up to see Ricky holding a cup towards Robin. He glanced in my direction before turning it back to her. She accepted it and took a sip before turning her bright green eyes back to me. They sparkled as they stared into my dull brown ones.

She took my cup out of my hand and sat it down with her own. “Do you want to dance?” she asked as she stood, pulling me up by the hand.

“Uh, sure.” My heart raced with anticipation as she pulled me into the center of the dance floor, cutting around and through the bodies of the other party goers drenched in sweat. When we reached the center, she circled towards me and began to move to the beat of the pulsing music. Her arms wrapped around my neck and her hips swung to the rhythm of the song.

“Loosen up, Sam,” she laughed. She pulled me closer to her.

Her face was close, so close I could practically taste the coconut rum on her breath. It was strong. I wanted to taste it. I pulled back.

She stepped closer. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I just need some air,” I yelled over the music.

“I’ll come with you.”

Before I could respond, Ricky appeared and swept her into the crowd, giving me a sneer and leaving me standing alone in a sea of faces. I needed to get out.

My body felt heavy as I found myself in a dark hallway filled with numerous pictures I couldn’t make out. My fingers trailed against the wall for balance. I ended up in the back of the house and, fortunately, an empty room. I closed the door, walked to the opposite side and opened a window. I inhaled the air with greed before letting it go. I laid my head against the windowpane and sighed.

Robin couldn’t be mine. We’d tried it already. My mind clouded with the first time I’d touched her. It had been sophomore year at a party not much different from this. She had been wearing a black crop top, a pair of dark washed jeans, black leather boots and a grey crescent that hung from her belly button. She had taken glances at me all night, giving small smiles that showed the dimple in her left cheek. As the night continued, so did the drinks, and she eventually signaled me to go upstairs with her. We’d found an empty room in the back of the house and had let our attraction take over. I touched my lip. I remembered the way her kisses grazed against my skin and the way her toes curled when I touched her hip. She had smelled like vanilla and freesias.

I shook my head, pulled out my cell phone and contemplated calling Will. What was he doing right now? Parties weren’t his thing, so he wasn’t here but I needed him more than anything right now. He always knew what to do.

As I dialed his number, there was a knock at the door.

“This room is occupied,” I shouted, putting my phone away and hoping whoever was at the door would leave.

The door creaked open and in walked the one person I didn’t expect.

Robin smiled as she closed the door behind her and locked it. She walked over to me slowly but sensually and came down in front of me. A bruise was forming on her arm. “I looked everywhere for you.”

I stared wide eyed at her. “What happened to you?”

She covered the bruise with her other hand. “Oh that? It’s just a bruise.”

I moved her hand. “Yeah, a bruise the size of a fist. Was it Ricky?”

Her silence answered my question for me.

What I saw broke my heart. Her eyes were filled with tears. Tears I wanted to so desperately kiss away.

I finally spoke. “You need to tell someone.”

“I can’t. I can’t tell anyone.” She choked on tears, putting her head down. “He knows the truth. He’ll tell.”

“What do you mean he knows?”

She looked up at me slowly and before I knew it, her mouth was on mine. My eyes closed. The kiss was warm and gentle, just like I had remembered it. My hands were on her waist and her fingers were in my hair. I wanted more. All too soon she began to pull away.

“That’s what he knows,” she began to explain. “I’m the only girl he’s ever wanted.”

I gulped.

“He refuses to let me go and as long as I’m with him, he won’t tell my parents that I’m…” She didn’t finish but she didn’t have to because I knew what she was trying to say. I was living the same life. I couldn’t tell my parents either and it wasn’t just because they were always on business trips.

“It’ll be okay,” I said, stroking her cheek.

She held my hand to her face as if it were comforting, and maybe it was. In that moment, she was there, with me, and that’s all that mattered.

I kissed her forehead. “Let me take you home.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

We were sitting in my black Sedan, outside of her dark house. Leaving the party without anyone realizing had been more than too easy. It had still been in full swing when we left, everyone too engulfed with themselves to notice anyone leave. She’d come with Ricky, but, by the looks of it when we were leaving, he had already left.

I turned off the car. “Are you going to be okay?”

She leaned towards me and kissed me again, so softly I wasn’t a hundred percent sure she had actually kissed me.

“Goodnight and thank you. No matter what happens, I promise, I won’t forget this, not this time,” she said before leaving the car and walking up to her house. I waited until I saw her walk inside and shut the door behind her. I started my car and left.

I wasn’t ready to go home. My head pounded, my palms sweated, my eyes burned and the car lights whizzing past were beginning to blur. My chest was so tight, I could barely breathe. My body was shaking and eventually I pulled over into Pangborn Park. I couldn’t drive anymore.

I pulled out my phone and called the only person who could help me at this point. The only person who knew everything about me. My best friend. He answered on the second ring.

“What’s up?” Will asked. The rasp in his voice made it clear that he had been sleeping. I glanced at the time. It was after one o’clock in the morning.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. I didn’t notice it was this late,” I apologized.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing, it’s fine.”

“Where are you? Are you hurt? I’m getting dressed now.” I heard him moving quickly around his room. He swore at the same time I heard a loud thump in the background.

“No really, go back to sleep. I’ll be-”

“If you tell me okay or that you’ll be fine I’m going to cut your tongue out of your mouth when I find you. Where are you?”

He always had been a little dramatic. “Pangborn Park,” I sighed.

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” and with that he was gone.

Will showed up in ten minutes in his red Chevy truck, wearing two different colored shoes, one green and one blue. His orange sweatshirt had “Susquehanna” written across it, his dream school. His black hair stuck up in the wrong places, and his glasses covered his tired blue eyes that normally wore contacts. He pulled me into a hug when I got out of my car.

He pulled away a little to see my face. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know.” And with that I told him everything, from beginning to end. We locked our cars and walked through the park as I told him the details of how my night had gone. He listened attentively as always and I talked for what felt like hours because I knew I could with him. He didn’t judge me and he genuinely cared.

“So, then I took her home. She kissed me goodnight, I think, and told me that she wouldn’t forget this time.”

“Damn,” he said, wide eyed.

“Yeah, I know,” I sighed, before taking out a cigarette and placing it between my lips. Will took out his emergency lighter and lit the end. I inhaled it deeply before letting the smoke escape my lungs. What an ugly habit to take part in. We looked ahead of us, staring into nothing except the trees, lights and road that stretched on forever.

“What are you going to do about it now?” he finally asked.

“That seems to be the question of the night.”

“This really sucks, Sam.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well, whatever happens, I’ll be there for you.” Will took my hand in his.

I turned towards him.

“Thank you.”

“Now, let’s get you home.”

As we walked back towards our cars, I didn’t feel like going home to a cold and empty house. It would remind me that I was alone and that the only person I trusted would be on his way back to his welcoming home in just a few minutes.

“I’m not ready to go home yet.”

He turned towards me. “Your parents aren’t back from their business trip yet are they?”

I shook my head.

“Well what do you want to do?”

“I just want to stay out.”

And so we did. He climbed into the passenger seat at the same time I sat down in the driver’s seat. We made sure our doors were locked before settling into the soft cushion seats. Within minutes, Will had fallen asleep but I couldn’t stop thinking about what tomorrow would bring. The future was never certain and there were many ways this could end. Maybe, I’d get to school, with just a few minutes to spare, and would see Robin in Ricky’s arms, wearing the black sweater she only wore on Mondays with a pair of faded ripped jeans and black combat boots that came up to her knees. Ricky would smile, a smug smile, knowing he’d won and she would laugh and kiss him like she truly did love him. I would be heartbroken, once again, wondering if last night had even been real, and I would go to Will and he would comfort me and wrap me up in a warm hug that told me everything would be okay, even if it wasn’t at the moment. And then we would go about our day and back into the flow of things as if nothing had happen. I would put the memory of tonight away, leaving it to rot until eventually it was nothing more than something that brought a bitter taste to my mouth.

The thought hurt. Reality didn’t always have a happy ending and I was too much of a pessimist to think otherwise. But still a small part of me hoped for it not to end like that. That maybe, just maybe, at the end of the day when it was time to go home I’d find a note in my locker, like a cheesy old cartoon show, that told me she still remembered tonight like she promised.

“Insurrection” by Kaitlyn Martin

“Insurrection” by Kaitlyn Martin

We clutch our muskets with white-knuckled hands. They are coming, aren’t they?

He’d said they were coming. Screamed it as he rode by leaving panic, terror, and fury in his wake.

Mostly fury.

I’d felt a shock of fear as I took down my gun from above the fireplace, an edge of bitterness as I strapped on my shot and powder, and a chilly resolve as I rammed the lead ball down the barrel.

I didn’t know what I felt as I marched out the door.

And now, here, waiting… I still don’t know.

This is it. Years of struggle and bitterness have brought us to this moment.

We’ve endured more than we deserved, resisted more than they expected…. were we now to face more than we could handle?

At least they would now know our intentions. No more would we crawl like snakes in the grass. No more would we knuckle under while we were treated as children.

They poked the bear with a stick, and now we are furious. They should have known better.

After today, they’d understand.

If we all lived to tell the tale.

Sweat stings my eyes, and makes my hands slick on the stock. I pick up a handful of dirt, and rub the grit through my hands. I pick up the musket again.

The stock doesn’t slide through my hands anymore.

Will to my left is pale, and looks like he’s about to cry. The boy is sixteen.

Joseph to my right is forty, a veteran, made of iron; he wants to shoot someone, right now.

I can’t decide which I want to do.

I close my eyes, say a prayer, and for once thank the Lord I have no wife, no one to think of—but other husbands are here.

Husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, all of one mind. All resolved. All together.

Long before we see them, we hear them. Footsteps approach. In perfect rhythm, step, step, step. Boots tramp on twigs and leaves and splash through puddles. Closer, closer.

We hold our breath as if one man, waiting for them to step out of the trees and into the clearing.

They step out, forward, and keep advancing. Is this when we start shooting?

No one shoots.

They stop. We hold fast. I release the breath from my tight lungs. My hand feels like an iron brace on the stock of my rifle, and my finger hovers over the trigger.

We stare at them and they stare at us, all of us frozen in time. Two groups of hardened men, brothers by any other standard, pointing our weapons at each other.

Blood red jackets versus brown wool coats; shiny new rifles against old scratched ones; ramrod straight lines facing a staggered, uneven row.

This is madness.

We all know it,but no one turns tail and runs, no one yells and attacks. No one moves, not a muscle.

I see a boy not much older than Will. He does not look like he’s going to cry. His eyes are hard, and he clutches his rifle, too. His back is straight, his sneer curling his lip. Fools, everything about him says. Try if you dare.

Their uniforms make them an easy target, but they don’t seem to mind. They’re not worried.

They’re exceptional, of course.

They’re better.

After all, isn’t that why we’re all here? Superior, excellent soldiers against ordinary, unimportant farmers?

Isn’t that the big reason?

I feel myself unfreeze. Heat builds inside me as I meet the gaze of each one. My own narrows.

Pretentious. Arrogant. Pompous. Haughty. Insolent. So proud, so full of themselves, every last one.

We are more than second-class citizens.

We do not exist to fill their coffers or pay for their wars.

We are not bound to their laws, their king, or their mentality.

My hand slides along the stock, bettering my grip. Near me, others do the same. We’re ready.

They shift uneasily, the first sign of weakness shown. They cast glances at each other, at their officers, unsure about the orders they’ve been given.

Somewhere, far off, the muscles in my shoulder and back are screaming. But I push it away, harden my gaze, set my stance, and slowly breathe.

They’re outnumbered, but the risk to us is high.

It doesn’t matter. All of my life has brought me here, for this time.

This is it. This is the moment.

How long can we stand like this, between life and death, between freedom and enslavement, between heaven and hell?

God above, will no one make a move?

Maybe not. Perhaps that is the wiser—

Someone fires.

One heartbeat.

Everyone fires.

“Having No One” (HCTW) by Sabrina Smith

“Having No One” (HCTW) by Sabrina Smith

I awoke screaming. Slowly, I calmed down as well I could before starting to cry into my pillow. I had no one. After glancing down at my wrists and the scars and scabs there I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

I awoke the next morning and changed out of my pajamas and into my usual black outfit, shoving an equally black jacket on over it. Then I went downstairs.

My father, a banker, glanced at me and pursed his lips, but chose not to say anything. My mother took one look at me and did the opposite.

“It’s been two months, Rosie,” she said, sitting across from me at the table. “You can come out of mourning.” I fiddled with my cereal and didn’t say anything. “I know you miss him,” she muttered. “We all do. But we need to move on.”

“I’m going to school,” I said abruptly, grabbing my bag and walking out the door. I didn’t look back at the massive house I’d exited, know mom would be watching. Instead I chose to look to the manicured lawn and the end of the driveway. Just as I arrived, the bus pulled up and the doors opened, allowing me to board.

Everyone greeted me with “Goth Girl!” I ignored it and kept walking to the back of the bus to sit, alone.

We stopped in front of the school a few taunting jeers later and I made my way to the locker I’d previously shared with my twin.

As I opened it I was hit with the realization I would have millions of times over every day: he was dead. I’d left it just the same for that reason. His things sat at the upper half of the locker, as if he was waiting impatiently for me to finish.

I filled my bag with everything I’d need for the day and closed the door.
My classes went by at a snail’s pace, frequented by the voices of those who I used to consider my friends making jabs at me.

My life was changed at lunch.

I sat in the back corner of the cafeteria, at my own table, under the flickering florescent lighting. Just like every other day, I imagined Alex sitting across from me, laughing. I unpacked my lunch. As I took a bite of my apple someone sat down across from me.

“Hello,” said a cheerful voice. “I’m Janet. Who are you?” For a moment I was stunned.

“Rosie,” I stammered. She smiled and began to eat her lunch as if there was nothing wrong. As I looked at her my eyes hurt. Even in the dim light her outfit practically glowed bright pink and green.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said suddenly. She grinned.

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m new here,” she said, answering the question I never asked. “I only just moved from Windor.” I nodded and felt that it was my turn to make some polite conversation.

“What class do you have next?” I asked carefully.

“English with Mr. Hawthorne, I think.” I nodded, neglecting to mention I was in her class.

A week later she had grown on me. She had no idea that I like to take a razorblade to my wrists yet, and I hoped to keep it that way. Despite myself, I didn’t want to lose her.

“Why do they call you Goth Girl?” she asked one day. “Is it because you wear so many dark colors?”

I nodded. She moved on, talking at fifty miles an hour.

That night I made my way to the cemetery at the end of our street. I found Alex’s grave and sat down beside it.

“Hey,” I said. “I brought you something.” I laid a bluebird’s feather on the grave. “I know you couldn’t find one for your collection.

“I have a friend at school,” I continued, making myself more comfortable.
“Janet. I told you about her yesterday, remember? I want to tell her about- you know. I don’t know how, though. What do you think?”

“Rosie?” I started and turned. Janet stood behind me.

“What are you doing here?” we asked at the same time.

“This is where my mother’s buried,” she said, pointing to a plot a few rows down. “Cancer. Just before I moved here. Now it’s your turn, Rosie. Who’s this?” She pointed at my brother’s headstone.

“This is Alex,” I said. “He was my twin.”

“Hey, Alex,” she said softly. “I’m Rosie. It’s wonderful to meet you.”
I swallowed.

“How’d he die?”

“There was an accident. A-A drunk driver came down the road as I was crossing…. Alex was waiting on the other side and saw him. He pushed me out of the way.”

“Oh….. Oh, no. Rosie, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too, about your mom.” She shrugged.

“We knew it was going to happen. It still hurt, but we got to say goodbye, at least.” We were both quiet for a moment.

“Jan, I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?”

“They- They don’t call me Goth Girl because I wear dark clothes. I-I’m suicidal.”

“I know.”

“You do?” I gasped and she nodded.

“I have since the first day I was here.”

“And you- you still came to sit with me?” She nodded again.

I grabbed her in a tight hug. She grinned and hugged me back.

“Thank you.”

I couldn’t help but think that, somewhere, Alex was smiling down on me.
From then on I left the jacket in my closet.

“Something More” by Savannah Shifflett

“Something More” by Savannah Shifflett

You can barely contain your excitement; you’re finally seeing your best friend in person, face to face, close enough to touch, for the first time in a year. You guys talk every day, but it’s different when you can actually hug her, draw her in close, and breathe in the scent of her shampoo, hoping she hasn’t changed it in the 393 days that you two have been apart.

 

She’s supposed to be at your house by ten in the morning, and you know she won’t be late. Taking a cold shower, you sigh in relief when you’ve finally got a break from the summer heat.

 

You pretend like you don’t take too long picking out your outfit before settling on athletic shorts and a crop top. There’s a minute after you put your hair in a ponytail where you look at all of the perfumes on your vanity, putting careful consideration as to which one you should wear, if any, but then the doorbell rings.

 

That’s the first thing that alerts you to the change in your relationship.

 

She tackles you in a hug as soon as you open the door, something you’re grateful for, and her hair smells just like it did when you hugged her goodbye last summer.

 

“You smell just like you did the last time I saw you!” she exclaims, and there is no way for you to express how happy it makes you that she remembered the shampoo she once called weird. “You’re right, that damn smell has grown on me, or maybe I just miss you so much I can’t even complain.” She punches your arm, only a mere couple of inches from your breast, and your heart stops.

 

She pulls her hand away quickly, rather than running it down your arm like she used to, and that’s the second thing that alerts you to the change in your relationship.

 

The first thing you grab before you head upstairs is food, an essential to a reunion sleepover. You two practically raid the pantry, carrying armfuls of junk up the stairs and into your room, plopping the chips, dip, cookies, and many other snacks onto your bed.

As soon as all of the snacks are laid down, she tackles you into the bed in a much warmer hug than the one you got by the door. She’s breathing in your ear, and you can hear the little hitches in her breath, a tell-tale sign of her giggle that you so adore.

 

You push her off, pretending to huff and puff as you feign anger, but she only gives you that smirk, the one that knows all of your tells when you’re acting, and you just know that there’s no way you’ll ever get away with the secret that you’re coming to terms with.

 

“Just for that, you don’t get to pick the first movie!”

 

“Whatever, you weren’t gonna let me pick anyway.”

 

You move your hand over your heart, acting flattered, “you know me so well; how did I ever survive without you for over a year?” The batted eyelashes are only added for dramatic flair.

 

“I don’t know dude, I am pretty damn awesome,” she responds without missing a beat, batting her eyelashes back at you, and you have to wonder if she’s also doing it to get the tears out of her eyes.

 

There’s a moment of silence where you’re remembering all the times that you wished she was there, and a small, selfish part hopes that she’s doing the same.

 

“Enough of all this sappy shit!” she proclaims, rolling off of you, careful of the snacks, and getting into her relaxing position on her, self-designated, side of the bed. “So are we knocking out five movies or two seasons?” She asks, tapping her unpainted nails against the bed in excitement.

 

“I’m offended that you doubt our binge-watching skills! We could definitely get in more than two seasons! The question is: do we want nitty gritty plot or a light comedic show?” You ask, going over the shows you’ve seen that fit either of those categories, but none of them stand out.

 

“Hmmm, I’m in the mood for one of those shitty romantic dramas,” she says, stroking her chin and looking off into the distance as though she’s saying something philosophical.

 

For as long as you can remember, she has been this way: hot and then cold, always changing her mind but sounding as though she had always thought that way.

 

You suppose it fits perfectly that you’re pretty set in your morals but not confident in them at all.

 

The choice of the night ends up being an ongoing TV drama, from one of those channels that are only geared towards teenagers, about this boy and girl that have been best friends ever since elementary school and once they get to high school they have to face the fact that they date other people while avoiding rumors of them sleeping together. It’s basically like every other show of its kind, but the obvious romantic tension between the friends hits a little too close to home for you.

 

Things would be a hell of a lot easier if your best friend were a boy though.

 

By the time dinner is ready, you guys are halfway through the second season, and after that, there’s only one more season you have to watch until you’re forced to suffer through a month or two of waiting for the new one.

 

Dinner is spent with your parents getting caught up with her, and you notice how integrated she is into the life of everyone in the house. You don’t think your parents would mind going to a house you share with her, your kids running around in circles, for a birthday party, or Christmas, or just to come over for a visit. They wouldn’t mind at all.

 

The both of you head to your room, racing up the stairs, and ultimately, she wins, just like always. You’re both panting, honest to god hands-on-knees panting.

 

“We’re fat,” she laughs, still short of breath.

 

“I vote we blame it on the adrenaline.”

 

You’re knocked out by midnight, curled into the fetal position, facing her, with a light blanket covering your ankles. When you wake up, it’s only two, and you don’t want to have to deal with the loud volume of the TV. You settle for watching her, trying not to feel like too much of a creep, as she breathes, in and out, in and out. In a matter of five seconds, she’s inhaling part of the pillow case. It covers her open mouth, stopping her from breathing, and just before you can pull it away, her eyes open, looking into yours.

 

“Weirdo,” she yawns.

 

“Hypocrite,” you yawn back.

 

“You look cute when you yawn.” She’s said this before but not like this, not five inches from your face, not looking deep into your eyes, not sounding 100% serious.

 

“You look cute always.”

 

She smiles, and it’s two in the morning, you’re both half asleep, so you take a chance.

 

As soon as you press your lips to hers, she yawns, and you pull away, forcing out a laugh. She frowns at you and your heart stops. “That sure as hell wasn’t an invitation to pull away.” Your mind has yet to fully grasp her words and your heart has yet to start to beat again.

 

She moves so that there’s only one inch between you two, but before long, she closes it.

 

You hold her hand as you walk down the stairs the next morning. Your heart is racing, but the pulse in her thumb is steady. It’s a comforting thought that she’s not nervous at all, that she’s 100% sure in the choices that you both made.

 

Your parents see your hands, and for a second they look confused, their minds running over everything they’ve seen from you in the past years.

 

“Do we have to sleep in different rooms when I come over now?” She asks, making light of the situation and taking the attention off of you like she always does. You love it.

 

“So long as you promise not to get her pregnant,” your parents say at the same time, and all of you laugh; that’s exactly how the two of you are together, best friends with the possibility of something more.

 

You’ve spent the whole last year without her thinking of the way her smile got your heart racing, how something that even remotely reminded you of her brought a smile to your face, and how at night, after you two had hung up, you’d cry and cross off one more day on your calendar, sad that she was so far away but happy that you were one day closer to seeing her.

 

As you sit down, laughing at the next joke that she cracks, you notice how her smile is contagious, and you know that she’ll never let yours leave.

“How to Save a Life” by Stephanie Eberly

“How to Save a Life” by Stephanie Eberly

It’s the same routine every day, and today is no different. Anne wakes up to the sound of her alarm playing ‘80s rock music, slams her fist on the machine to make it stop, and slides her skinny legs out from under her warm Star Wars blanket. Her pale feet hit the cold wooden floor, sending a shiver up her spine. She grabs a pair of jeans and a graphic T that were carelessly thrown on her chair the night before and slips them on. With shuffling steps she makes her way to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. That mirror. Oh how she hates it. Sometimes she just wants to punch the wavy reflection and watch as the pieces shatter on the tile. Instead she glares at the sickly face peering back at her and goes to work uselessly trying to beautify the face she was born with. Cold water splashes, a pink towel dries, mascara darkens lashes, blush colors pale cheeks, contacts go in and come back out, glasses are placed, and the door is opened.

She walks down the creaky steps of the ancient house and into the kitchen where her mother stands over a sink full of soapy water. Anne thumps a bowl and spoon on the table and pours Reese’s Puffs until little pieces roll onto the table. She opens the refrigerator door and sticks her nose into the milk carton.

Her nose crinkles, and bile forms in her throat. “Ah, gross! Mom! The milk is bad again.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says without looking up from the pan she’s washing. “You can always pick some up on your way home from school today.”
“Nah.” Anne pushes the door closed and tosses the rotten milk in the trash can. “Whatever, I’ll eat dry cereal for the third day in a row.”

“You need to eat more than that. I can tell when you’re losing weight.”

“I’m fine,” she says, pushing the concern aside, and swipes the full bowl from the table, spilling little peanut butter and chocolate balls all over the floor. “Darn it.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

Her mother turns from the sink, her hands covered in suds. “I’m going to ask one more time. What did you say?”

“Nothing, okay? Just get off my back!”

“What did I do, huh?” It’s like something inside of her snapped. “All I ever do is take care of you. I cook, I clean, I work my fingers to the bone to make sure you get an education, and this is the thanks I get?”

“Mom, don’t. Just don’t”

“Ever since your father left, you’ve treated me as if I’m just a maid.” Her mom dries her hands and leans on the counter. “I’m your mother, Anne! Your mother. I’m sorry I couldn’t get your father to stay, but I’m doing the best I can!”

“Don’t!” Tears form in Anne’s eyes, and she presses her palms against her skull. “Don’t bring Dad into this.”

“But that’s what it is, isn’t it? It’s your father. You think I wasn’t a good wife to him, and that’s why he left. Isn’t it, Anne?” She turns to the window above the sink. “Come on, just tell me. I can take it.”

“Agh! I can’t do this with you right now.” Anne slings her backpack over her shoulder. “I’m going to school.”

Her mother never looks away from the window, as she clenches the countertop so hard her knuckles turn white. “Don’t forget your lunch.”

Anne grabs the brown bag sitting so innocently on the white counter, and the screen door slams behind her.

It’s always brought back to Dad. Two years ago, he up and left them one night, no warning, no note, nothing. He packed his bags and left. Ever since then, Anne’s mother has always been so self-centered, bringing every conversation back to “Oh, woe is me.” It’s pathetic. Doesn’t she see that her daughter is struggling, too? Growing up without a father isn’t exactly easy. The older kids see her as being weak, a wimp. She won’t—no—she can’t cry in front of them, so she puts on a mask to disguise the pain inside.

Anne kicks a piece of garbage along the sidewalk in an attempt to vent her emotions. But instead the garbage seems to evade her, and her leg goes out from under her, bringing her smack down onto the concrete. A couple of kids across the street point and laugh at her struggle. This day just keeps getting better and better. Sometimes she wonders if life is really worth living, to deal with all of these dumb people and their stupid ways every single day. Maybe it would be better if she just weren’t here anymore. No one would miss her anyway, and the world would move on.

These thoughts are pushed out of her mind as she approaches the front steps of her high school. Taking a deep breath, she enters the halls that are sure to one day suck all life out of her. Ignoring the crooked looks and stabs in the back, she moves through the crowd to find her locker. It’s located between Jamie, who doesn’t say much, and Josh, a football jock who only cares about his muscles and hair.

Josh is showing off his biceps to a group of cheerleaders as Anne approaches. He raises one eyebrow and nudges the blonde beside him. “Watch this.” As if Anne couldn’t hear him from a mile away.

He shoves her locker door closed, almost catching her fingers. “Hey, Anne. I’m surprised you actually came to school today.”

Anne bites her lip and clenches her fists. “Why do you say that, Josh?” If looks could kill, he’d be dead.

“Oh, you know, because the Comic Con isn’t for a couple of months yet.” Josh and the cheerleaders burst into a jostling laughter.

Anne feels her cheeks get hot. She self-consciously covers her Captain America t-shirt with her math books as she moves away from the lockers. She barely takes two steps before Josh slaps the books out of her hands and beneath the milling feet of the crowd. He proceeds to snatch the brown bag lunch from her hands and peer inside.

“What’d ya bring me today, geek?”

Kids all around her start to laugh. Little cliques chuckle to themselves and begin to murmur. They all know the daily routine. Anne brings the bagged lunch, Josh eats the lunch, and Anne goes another school day without a meal. Her hip bones protruded further out than last week.

Josh pulls out a napkin on which letters are scribbled in bright pink. “’I love you, sweetie. Love, Mom,’” he reads. “Aw, look who’s mommy’s little baby.” He puckers out his lip, tauntingly waving the paper in front of her.

She tries to snatch it from him, but he’s too quick. How could she have forgotten to take out the napkin? The one time she forgets… The napkin is pulled from his raised hand and passed around the newly forming circle of high schoolers. Laughter erupts. Fingers point. She can feel the anger boil inside of her, threatening to spill over and burn everyone around her. Jaw clenched, she leans down to pick up her books that are newly decorated with dusty footprints.

As she goes to stand, a field of white blocks her view.

“Want this, huh? Do you?” There towers Josh. He must really want to push her buttons.

Before she knows it, tearing is heard, and his outspread hands hold the pieces of what used to be her mother’s note.

Anne’s world goes blurry as her head fills with rage. Not her mother’s note. She can barely keep her body from shaking, and before she knows it, her fist digs into Josh’s chin. He slams into the lockers behind him, the shock knocking him off his feet.

“That’s how you want to play, is it?” His forehead bulges with anger as he regains his balance. “Come here, ya little pipsqueak.” He swings at her, but she dodges to the side, the books flopping to the floor once more.

She knows she will regret this later, but all she can think about now is how sweet the revenge tastes. Summoning all her strength, she lunges onto the jock’s back. Her arms wrap in a headlock and don’t let go.

Josh claws at her arms and takes a few wobbly steps backwards, struggling to get breath. Since the beginning of the fight, people have formed a circle around them, their fists pumping in the air.

Within a split second, the cold metal of the lockers slam into Anne’s back. Sharp pain shoots up her spine and numbs her already blurred mind. She feels her grip loosen, and she tumbles onto the ground.

Like an angry grizzly, Josh towers over her limp body. She can’t help but chuckle. Never has she seen him this angry, and today, it was because of her. The little pipsqueak. A surge of pride pushes out her chest.

“I’m gonna wipe that smirk right off your face, geek.” The last thing she remembers is his large fist coming at her face, then everything goes black.
——
Anne sits in the principal’s office, holding an icepack against her brand new shiner. Her head throbs with pain, but her heart beats with adrenaline from the fight. The fight. She actually fought Josh. She lost, sure, but she couldn’t help but feel a hint of pride.

The office door opens and in walks a balding, middle-aged man who looks like he ate one too many cheeseburgers. “Hello, Anne. I heard you got yourself into a fight earlier today, is that correct?” His eyes search the non-bruised part of her face in an effort to get a response. Upon receiving none, he pulls out a slip of paper from his desk. “You know we can’t let this go. There will be consequences.”

Anne continues to press the cold pack against her flushed skin. She doesn’t really care what this man is saying; she just wants to get out of the cramped quarters.

“Josh has been temporarily removed from the football team in an effort to curtail his temper.” A pause. “Anne.” He leans forward in his chair. “This little fit of yours will cost you two weeks of suspension. Do you understand?”

Two weeks. Maybe she could end all this drama during that time. All she would have to do is get the razor…

“We called your mother. She’s on her way.”

Anne snaps back to attention. “What?! My mom?”

The principal just stares at her, his hands placed calmly on his desk. “Yes, your mother. She will be here shortly to pick you up, and I’m sure she will have a few things to say about your suspension”

Her grip on the icepack tightens. “You didn’t have to bring my mom into this. She doesn’t care.”

“Oh, I’m sure she does, Anne. She’s your mother after all.”

“No. You don’t understand.” She can feel her whole face flush and her pulse quicken. “She. Doesn’t. Care.”

“Anne, now calm down.”

“No! Don’t tell me to calm down! All you people and your dumb ways. None of you understand. You don’t know me. You don’t get what I’m going through. I just want to get out of here. Two weeks to rid myself of all this crap! Good riddance!”

She rushes out of the office before anyone can stop her. Tears blur her vision and cause her to weave through the hallway. Somehow her free hand finds the door to the girl’s bathroom, and she stumbles in.

She grips the edge of the counter. From behind her crooked glasses, she scans the face staring back at her in the mirror. There she is, the good-for-nothing geek that everyone makes fun of. With that black eye, she’d be the laughing stock of the whole school—not like that’s anything new. What is the point of her life, when all anyone ever does is yell and laugh at her? No one cares that she is crumbling inside, that all she wants to do is rid herself of this pain.

She thinks back to her bathroom, to the razor blade sitting all innocent-like on a shelf hidden behind that awful mirror. Just one swipe across her wrist, that’s all she has to do. And then all this pain can be gone. She imagines it hovering over her veins, so close to taking the life from her. But the bathroom door opens, and her thoughts disappear like a vapor.

“Hi.”

Anne gives a quick start, her darkened thoughts temporarily pushed back in her mind. A short, stocky blonde girl stands behind her, peering at her with green eyes. It’s one of the “smart, pretty” girls. The ones who ace math tests and raise their hands to answer every question in science. The ones who don’t care about lowlifes like Anne.

“You’re Anne, right?” The blonde searches for a response, but upon receiving none, moves toward a stall door. ”You know, I’ve always thought your love for Marvel is pretty cool. Don’t listen to what Josh and those girls say. They’re just jerks.” She smiles softly at Anne’s reflection. “You’re really pretty…even with the black eye.”

Anne stares back at the blonde, stunned into silence.

The girl looks down at the tiled floor and searches for something else to say. “See you when you get back?”

When she gets back? News travels fast. Anne finally gets her lips to move. “Yeah.”

“Cool. I’ll see you then, Anne.” She gives her an understanding smile before disappearing into the stall.

Yeah. Maybe she will see her in two weeks. She will. And now, Anne will look forward to it