Author: The Editors

Candles – Alaina Conaway

Candles – Alaina Conaway

When I was young, I wasn’t allowed to light candles.

My father would warn me that the wax

would be too hot or the glowing flame

could burn my fingers; instead, he lit the wick.

In only a matter of seconds, it would begin to melt

and I’d sit mesmerized by the delicate drips.

As I grew in age, so did the length of the drips.

And with them, my connection to those candles

grew warmer, fonder, strong enough to melt

and mold others’ feelings made of wax;

This time I would try to light the wick.

Carefully and cautiously, I’d watch the budding flame.

Brighter, bolder, brasher grew my precious flame,

as did my protection, fearful that the drips

may extinguish the older, staler glowing wicks

of my more mature, independent candles

with their worn, dingy, lackluster wax;

I didn’t want to see them melt.

For some, it was fate to melt.

Over time, my fading attention killed their flame.

The fragile, broken and crusted wax

cooled by the chill of my neglect ceased to drip,

and slowly I lost some of my candles.

No longer viable, I’d swallow my hesitation and extinguish the wick.

Even so, others prevailed; hearty, stubborn wicks

continued to burn, desperate not to melt.

These are my most cherished candles,

reminding me the value of even the oldest, weakest flame

It doesn’t matter how long it can drip,

but the quality and integrity of the wax

The hue, shape, or scent of wax

matters not, for the strength lies in the wick.

Who do you think causes the drips?

Who controls the shape, the speed at which they melt,

revealing the central flame

of those long-lasting candles?

The wax will always melt;

the wick is left to carry the flame,

and all that remains are the drips in the shape of candles.

Author Bio: Alaina Conaway is a free-spirited, yet outspoken writer who finds solace in the deepest, most profound corners of the universe. Her focus falls on the less digestible, grittier subjects, occasionally turning towards life’s unyielding beauties. In her free time, Alaina can be found throwing pottery, making excellent coffee, and/or blasting music, belting along.

Innocent Author – Laura Jeu

Innocent Author – Laura Jeu

I have not failed at being a writer.
The implication of failure conveys a lie:
A series of accomplishments required to be a writer
Rather than an identity of which I cannot be stripped.

Like a virgin who slyly knows
How she craves to ride the wave
Of tremors that send shockwaves
From her stomach to her knees,
I compose these words in secret.

“Irresponsible career choice”
Through thoughts of ambition echo,
Resounding with connotations of a shouted
“Whore!”

Corporate America raped me,
Shoving my knees to my chest
And insisting that I consented
Because a barely living wage
Can still grant permission.

Rape does not negate virginity
So I fantasize of this composition
And its power to transform
My naivety into prowess.
I will rock your word.

Author Bio
Laura Jeu lives in Pennsylvania with her dog, Scout. When not writing, she can be found trekking up and down mountains. Her gracious mom and considerate brothers provide helpful critiques, receiving the author’s chidings in return.

The Tower – Sidney Stevens

The Tower – Sidney Stevens

     “Let’s get married,” Cory urged as Adair gazed up at the faded sky-blue water tower in La Rue’s town park. From below, the massive ellipsoid-shaped tank reached so high it looked smaller than the tall base and four support columns holding it up. Like a tiny insect body perched on long, spindly legs.

     “Seventeen’s plenty old enough,” he added, wrapping her in his beefy arms. “I’ll get a job at the plant and start saving for the diner like we planned.”

    Adair stiffened against him, hoping he didn’t notice. “Gonna walk home by myself,” she said carefully. “Need time to think.”

     Cory was sweet. It mostly felt like love. But that didn’t make the right direction certain, even if she was pregnant, which she didn’t really believe—probably just late again. Cory might be sure about a baby and all, but not her.

     Truth was Adair had always counted on being like her big sister Caroline, long gone from La Rue—a town you could drive through in three minutes—as soon as she was able to speed away. Long gone from Missouri, too. Caroline had magic. Said Adair did, too, long as town boys like Cory Briscoe didn’t keep it for themselves.

     Dizziness washed over Adair imagining Caroline atop the tower peering clear to Quincy, twenty-five miles east across the Mississippi on the Illinois side. She’d only been nine at the time, Adair still in diapers. Always told it in her storybook voice, amber eyes gleaming like she was watching a dream burst to life. “Crops danced in the fields, Mississippi waters glistened, and Quincy was vibrating and glowing like Paris,” she’d sigh, words wrapped in a layer of shiny satin with special sparkles and colors that other folks couldn’t see until she spoke them out loud.

     Adair still felt magic when she and Caroline talked by phone, like she was playing in a technicolor, surround-sound movie inside Caroline’s head. But Caroline’d been gone so long, empty spaces had started popping up where the colors and sparkles didn’t quite fill in. Her magic was losing its shimmer.

     Adair smoothed back her auburn waves, best feature on her, and kissed Cory before crossing Shelby Street with the burn of his puppy-dog-hurt on her back. If there was a baby—not that there was—no chance anybody’d suspect for a while due to her weight. But also because she was a Ewell. Name might not count for much outside this piece of Missouri, as Caroline liked to declare, but it sure counted here. Ewells got by on remembrances of their past prosperity, which had dwindled considerably over the generations but still impressed folks.

     Adair passed La Rue Savings & Loan, Maywood Hardware and hurried past Shotz’s Feed & Supply before Mr. Shotz could poke his head out to say howdy or insist Daddy come see the newest shipment.

     On the dusty edge of town past the Shell station Adair followed her favorite stretch of Highway 6 round the curve to her family’s aged farmhouse standing as it had for eons in a mess of white oaks, flanked by a giant barn, two battered cobalt-blue silos, and nothing but cattle, corn and quiet beyond.

     Caroline couldn’t see a future here, not one thing to help fashion a life for herself. And who could argue with her sight? She’d gotten the dream life she called for. Believed, and it happened. Said Adair could create a new life, too. Course she was right—Caroline had the gift of utter certainty—but how on earth would Adair tell Cory and her folks she was going Caroline’s way before they dreamed her too much in their direction?

     “Letter came from Desmond Beauty College,” Mom called from the kitchen as the screen door banged behind Adair.

     “Envelope’s on the table,” she added without glancing up from peeling potatoes in the old farmhouse sink, same one Grammy had used, and Ma Ma before her. Caroline liked to say no farmwoman looked decent past thirty-five. Men either. Got lumpy like dough people. Like Mom with rolls of flesh where her waist and hips should be. Or they grew stringy, brown and pinched from the sun and wind. At least Adair wouldn’t be a farmer’s wife with Cory—not that she was marrying him or anything.

     “Well, what’s it say?” Mom wanted Adair to go—“beef up her options”—though she never admitted it outright cause Daddy couldn’t stomach another daughter leaving.

     Adair ripped open the envelope, belly flip-flopping, oddly gratified to see an acceptance—even if she wasn’t going. She hadn’t breathed a word yet, but Caroline was paying her tuition at Berkeley, out in California, where her new boyfriend was about to start teaching.

     “Got in,” Adair announced, feeling a smile pull at her lips before it evaporated in the cool of Caroline’s whisper: “You can do better.”

     “Ain’t pretty enough to be a beautician,” Bennett, Jr. announced at dinner, exploding into a giggle-fit that rattled everything on the table. “Or skinny enough.”

     “Hush your mouth,” Daddy hissed. “Adair, what’s Cory say about this?” 

     She watched her pile of mashed potatoes, every eye on her, even her baby brother Wyler’s.

     “Cory want you over in Quincy all the time?”

     Mom gave Daddy a roll-eyed look, but didn’t speak up. Adair heard it in his voice: he didn’t trust her to keep a boyfriend solid as Cory. Caroline believed she couldn’t do worse. Daddy feared she might not do better.

      Caroline saved all her babysitting money from age twelve on, plus most of her wages from the Dairy Queen over in Stebbensville. Day after high school graduation she took off for Chicago, biggest city she could imagine getting to in that old green Malibu she bought from Terry O’Brien for $200. Adair was eight, and thought she’d never lose the ache of watching Caroline roar away.

     Made it far as Des Moines, Iowa, the first night where she met Dean Gebhardt, age 58, owner of the Cozy Stay Motel she checked into. Turned out he also owned three other motels and a small apartment building on the city’s northeastern edge. She never got to Chicago, but Dean gave her the start she needed to become the Caroline she was set on becoming. When he died of a heart attack four years after they married, she inherited enough, even with his grown kids getting most of it, to enroll in Drake University, located near the heart of downtown, where she began studying literature and art history.

     Might seem Caroline was just aiming to appear cultured. But she’d actually been eating up Hemingway and Jane Austen—all the classics—since she learned to read, like she was born knowing the titles. She spent hours, too, in the school library poring over books about the world’s great artworks. Couldn’t tear Caroline away when she got lost in a story or absorbed in vibrating colors on canvas. Folks finally had to conclude her appreciation was as genuine as her uncommon good looks.

     No surprise she and Lyman Chang fell for one another after she enrolled in his seminar on 20-century world art. He not only loved Japanese watercolors and modernist sculpture like she did, but also traveled regularly for research. With his encouragement Caroline had started collecting animal-themed paintings, ceramics and clothing on their trips to Europe, South America and Asia. She now wore snake bracelets and leopard-spot scarves and planned to launch a store in Berkeley called Wild Things once they got settled. They were also arranging an August wedding, even though she’d barely been widowed a year.

     Hard to fathom such a makeover could happen so quick. Sure, Caroline was a Ewell. Family viewed itself as high-born, but not show-offy. Ewells had stayed in La Rue for generations, opting for slightly grander versions of esteemed country occupations—like farmer and town banker—over education, city sophistication and flashier vocations.

     Course that never suited Caroline. She simply didn’t fit the place—arms and legs and daydreams always spilling over the edges. Didn’t quite know where to go, but her mind seemed bent on just the right path out of town, like she carried a precision compass in her genes—genes that never showed up in any other Ewell. In fact, Caroline remade herself so completely—shining herself up so brightly and unleashing her wildest reveries so fully—Adair sometimes didn’t recognize any part of the old Caroline, inside or out.

     “Let’s get married tonight,” Cory’s text read.

     Adair’s mind clicked into clarity, “Meet me in the park,” she texted back. Tonight was it. She had to tell him—sweet as he was, despite all the plans they’d dreamed together, even with a possible baby—she could do better.

      Outside, the evening was settling in. Not a car in sight. Always felt like things were about to happen in that hush between bright day and nighttime. They never did, but the possibility felt realer then.

     Sometimes, like tonight, Adair didn’t mind that nothing ever changed. Sign outside town had read La Rue, Missouri, Pop. 719, long as she could remember. Wasn’t actually too different from when Mom and Daddy were little, mostly same families and shops, except for occasional changeovers like Harold Stice selling his minimart to Debbie Burley and her husband in 2008.

     Sometimes, like tonight, Adair didn’t mind the quiet either. May was her favorite month, right before the hard heat of summer when everything was just beginning to grow, sweet and young, corn barely pushed through the soil. Not a peep yet from crickets and cicadas. By July, they’d drown out every other sound. 

     Sometimes, like tonight, Adair even craved the coziness of Cory’s big arms forever. Didn’t mean to feel a pull toward him—Briscoes sat several steps below Ewells. Just came over her sometimes without warning. Didn’t help that Daddy talked him up—called him a throwback. To before Cory’s great, great, great grandpa, Marshall, lost most of the family fortune in a bad land deal, and proceeded to drink away what remained. Following generations slipped into stagnation … and worse.

      At least Mom and Daddy could admit some families come back from ruin. Not like Uncle Glynn and Aunt Mina over in Belleview who believed they were better than everybody cause of their Ewell blood. In their estimation once folks slid into the trash heap, they were all but certain to stay trash, a black mark nothing could erase like a brand burned into flesh.

     Course Caroline sounded the same, but Adair recognized something beyond ordinary snobbery. Caroline didn’t contend to be the only special one. She regarded all folks as special, even the lowest of the low. They just had to locate it inside themselves.

     “Most people get locked in a box of expectations before growing into their full selves,” she explained once. “It’s a choice they make, even if they don’t know it.” Meaning no matter who you were—trash or not—if you didn’t kick up a better life for yourself, you clearly believed in limitations and were doomed to become whatever you were set to be at birth. A notion Caroline couldn’t fathom or abide.

    Course anyone would tell you Adair had to eventually climb the water tower. After all, Caroline did and it changed her life, gave her answers that made everything clear. Adair needed answers, too.

     She stood alone in the park eyeing the rusty steel ladder rising up one of the tower’s support columns. She scoured the horizon for Cory’s truck, heart pounding loud as it ever had. No sign yet. The stores were all dark, even Mr. Shotz’s. A ghost town. She was a ghost too, craning her head up toward the tank, a place where life might make sense.

     Adair grabbed the ladder, fire-red fingernails glinting in the remains of daylight. She kicked off her favorite jeweled flip-flops and hoisted herself up rung-by-rung, above small square stores, unfussy homes and aging doublewides planted along tar-patched streets.

     Two headlights made their way along Route 6 in the quiet dusk. Cory. Her stomach lurched, but she kept climbing. Had to see the Mississippi. And Quincy. Buildings just beginning to twinkle with lights. All that traffic and restaurants and movie houses a twitter.

     Cory’s truck slow-crawled around the park and stopped beneath the tower. Sweat trickled down Adair’s temples and the back of her neck. She paused to rest, praying he didn’t spy her before she got where she needed to go. High enough so his thoughts couldn’t reach her. Caroline’s either. Or Daddy’s or Mom’s. High enough to hear only her own free thoughts for once. High enough for what touched Caroline to touch her.

     Adair imagined Cory slouched in the driver’s seat, arms across his barrel chest, worry fastened on his face. Did she get hit by a car or fall in a ditch? Cory showed everything he was thinking. Just came natural to him.

     Up she climbed and up, panting, straining to reach the balcony that circled the tank. She heaved herself over the handrail and looked out, bracing for a view of Caroline’s world. But it wasn’t there. Only the world she’d seen a million times. Red lights blinking on the radio tower to the east. Her folks’ farm to the west. Adair could almost hear the low cluck of hens settling in for sleep and barn cats readying to hunt the dark pastures.

     Below on Knox Street, her best friend Kimber’s clapboard house stood same as always, rear-ended by an old summer kitchen where they’d played dress-up endlessly as kids. Next door, Miss McChristie’s family home, once the finest place in town with its cross-gabled roof and wraparound porch, sat nearly haunted. At street’s end, eroded gravestones in the town cemetery marked lives of family and neighbors stretching back two centuries.

     Caroline had climbed the tower and saw possibilities splayed out forever, providing wings sturdy enough for lift-off. But Adair saw none of that. No wings sprouted for flight. There was only the great weight of her belly and thighs, maybe a baby, Cory below, a line of Ewells stretching backward and forward in time. She clung to the handrail, squeezing every muscle against the mighty gravitational pull.

     Maybe she was trapped by limitations of her own making. Or caught in expectations handed down from her folks. Maybe she didn’t want to hurt them or leave their love behind. Or wasn’t gifted enough to see what made her special. Maybe she lacked imagination and guts to do better. Or couldn’t muster motivation for the tough work of reinvention. Or maybe, just maybe, the world in sight right now was just as consequential as the world that might be, more in beat with her heart. And maybe she was too. Maybe all these things were true at once.

     Adair watched the familiar details of her world fade to sunset orange. A kind of magic. But not Caroline’s kind.

     Fact was she didn’t feel someone different inside, no true soul waiting to take shape. Grief pounded against her, like waves buffeting the muddy Mississippi riverbanks. Helplessly, she watched Caroline’s dream for her crack open like a giant egg. Jagged pieces plummeted to earth, sending up a cloud of shame. But also the first inklings of relief.

     Maybe there was a baby and she’d marry Cory. They’d build a ranch house near Mom and Daddy’s farm with flower beds and a big lot for dirt-biking. Maybe she’d go to beauty school and open a home salon while Cory ran the diner. Or just raise kids. Cory wanted four. Or she might enroll in community college and marry somebody else. Or no one at all. There were choices. Not Caroline’s life-upside-down kind, but choices nonetheless. Choices sitting squarely before her in the midst of all she knew.

     Slowly, Adair lowered herself down the ladder, allowing gravity to slide her from rung to rung. She’d seen what she needed to see—wasn’t climbing higher than she stood right now.

     It was her choice, and hers alone, to become who she was set to be at birth.

Author Bio
Sidney Stevens is an author with an MA in journalism from the University of Michigan. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including The Wild Word, Finding the Birds Literary Journal, Viscaria Magazine, OyeDrum and The Centifictionist. Her newest story, “Night Trolley” will appear in the Summer 2021 issue of The Woven Tale Press. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Newsweek, New Works Review, Sure Woman, and Nature’s Healing Spirit, an anthology from Sowing Creek Press. In addition, she’s had hundreds of nonfiction articles published in print and online, and has also co-authored four books on natural health. Learn more at www.sidney-stevens.com.

Paul David Adkins – Poem

Paul David Adkins – Poem

When he spied the cell blocks burning,
the warden asked,

     Why are they destroying their home?

I’ll tell you why. Because you 

paid us for hard labor with change peeled from beneath bus station coke machines.

Because your Christmas gift to the laundry “boy”
was a carton of Lucky Strikes.

Because you were untouchable, unreachable.

You fed the Muslims pork. You gave the white boys ice in summer. Us, a cold Get lost.

The prison doctors treated broken bones
with a plaster-wrapped shrug.

         Why are they destroying their home? 

Because it was your present.

Author Bio
Paul David Adkins lives in Northern NY. He served in the US Army from 1991-2013. Recently, he earned a MA in Writing and The Oral Tradition from The Graduate Institute, Bethany, CT. He spends his days either counseling soldiers or teaching college students in a NY state correctional facility.

Desert – Mary Corbin

Desert – Mary Corbin

The coyote ran across the path in front of Shana not two feet ahead of her. She stopped to watch it disappear into the arroyo before continuing her walk down the dirt path. A feeling was awakened in her again, something she felt often on her solitary morning walks while her girlfriend, Raven, slept back at the casita. Hot coffee would be brewing when Shana returned. They had their routines, their predictability. This is what becomes evident in a long relationship. 

Pulling her mask up onto her face as she noticed an elderly man approaching, walking his dog on a tight leash, Shana picked up her pace. They nodded to each other without exchanging words in shared anonymity. This is all so surreal, when can we get back to normal, Shana thought. “It’s like we’re all hungry ghosts,” she whispered out loud to herself. Most mornings she was alone out here, only occasionally passing another early riser out walking the dusty roads. She felt the crisis had much to do with that, keeping everyone indoors and out of sight. It was at once eerie and peaceful, inducing a soul-searching before the day kicked in, another day of wondering what the future held for a humanity hanging by a thread.

It had been Raven’s idea to come to this desert town after quickly leaving Mexico when the news of the pandemic hit the airwaves. After a yearlong, open-ended road trip originating from their Oregon home, the adventure startlingly halted, pivoted, redirected. The early March uncertainty extended their stay indefinitely. “We might as well just stay put for now,” Raven had said, “Ride this thing out.” The next day, Shana was on it. The more organized of the two, the keeper of logs and maps and itineraries, she secured a temporary abode, an uncertain home for a fraction of the cost it would normally cost. Their usual means of living had vanished. No one was going on a cruise or traveling to Europe or going anywhere right now. No one needed a house and garden looked after, their pets walked and fed and loved in their absence. No, people were hugging close to home for the foreseeable future, putting everything on hold.

Shana dropped down into the adjacent arroyo for the last leg of her walk before ascending the hill back to the casita. The sun was warm on her back and the blue sky held its golden orb in a cradle of expansiveness. She stopped to take in a deep breath, to smell the red earth, to feel the cool breeze across her face, inhaling a deep affinity for this place, a mysterious karmic connection as though she was always meant to be here.

Surfacing, a memory of long ago, camping near here with her then husband on their westward migration to California. She’d woken up and climbed out of the tent to the cold, cold morning on the hillside. A cottontail scurried by. She caught sight of her husband down below taking photographs with his new camera and talking with an old timer camping in his pick-up. She watched as her husband turned and waved. Shedding the Indiana dust, she remembered how she had felt squarely in the west at that moment. The rising sun alerted the dry, cold morning around her, rousing her own spirit to dawn.

Back at the casita, Raven was just putting breakfast together for the two of them, a cheese and onion omelet, toast and jam and a French press of coffee. Shana opened the door and the aroma stirred her appetite immediately. “Smells like Joe’s Diner in here,” she laughed.

Raven turned, spatula in hand, “You’re just in time! Hungry?”

Shana pulled a chair out at the dining table and removed the mask from around her neck, unlaced her hiking boots and set her cowboy hat down on the table as Raven dropped a steaming mug of coffee in front of her and ran back to the kitchen to plate up the breakfast. “How was your walk?” she asked from her post at the stove.

“Great. As always. I don’t know why you don’t get up and join me once in a while?” Shana said between hot sips.

“Oh, I know. It’s just not my rhythm.”

Appearing at the table with warm plates, a dish towel slung over her shoulder, Raven beamed brightly over her accomplishment and offering. “Besides, look what you get to come back to!”

Raven pulled her chair out and sat down, heartily digging into her omelet, her black hair pulled up into a towering topknot over deep brown eyes and thick eyebrows, aquiline nose and full lips. She was of Belgian by way of Greek descent, a natural beauty carried over millennia and captured in paint by old European masters; classic, timeless and exotic. “So, what do you think about what we talked about last night,” she said looking down at her plate, loading up her fork with egg.

“I’m still pondering it, Raven. I’m not sure it’s time to move on yet.”

Raven looked up and set her fork down. “Well, we could get stuck here for a while if we don’t make a move soon. Who knows what’s gonna happen next in this crazy world!”

Meeting Raven’s gaze directly, Shana explained she was pretty happy to be “stuck” here and did not feel the impetus to do or decide anything different. “If we left now, it would feel prematurely over. Unfulfilled. I don’t know. It would be like unrequited love. I can’t explain it, it’s a yearning. I’ve only felt it in a few places on this earth. When we were here before, I was sad to leave. I even told you we didn’t spend enough time here as we were driving away, remember?” Shana asked. “And now that we’re back, it’s like it’s home.  Some part of my life has already mapped this out. I can’t leave. Not yet.”

“That’s an awful lot of “I” and not much “we”, Shana,” she said but Shana just looked away and cast her gaze out the window onto Western Junipers sharing residence in the foreground of a sweeping sky over not so distant mountains. Majestic clouds hung loosely across a horizon that filled her with wonder and expansive hope.

“How is this stunning beauty lost on Raven?” she wondered.

“Well, whatever. I’m not a desert person. It’s too dry. The earth smells weird to me here, potent, cloying even. Smoky. My eyes hurt and my sinuses are so dry, my skin feels like paper… I prefer a wetter climate. How about we head to Maine, Shana? Like I suggested last night…see what we can find there?” Raven pressed. Shana sat still, unmoved by Raven’s plea, unable to find words to express things with more clarity than she already had. Standing, she gathered up their empty breakfast plates, walked into the kitchen and began to wash the dishes in silence.

“Raven is a messy cook, this will keep me occupied and at a safe distance from her for a minute,” she thought. But Raven was suddenly there, leaning on the kitchen island counter directly across from Shana, not letting it drop so easily.

“C’mon, Shay, don’t leave me out of this. We’re in this together, ya know. Let’s decide on something that works for both of us. Would Maine be so bad?” Raven said.

Shana felt things were undefinable. She tried persuading Raven to see the desert town the way she did. How it spoke to her with its unique architecture – a style Raven sarcastically called “Flintstone Chic.” She tried to explain the attention to a specific visual aesthetic and the town’s support of art and artists. But Raven kept on with her complaints about the arid climate, the heat. And then when the temperature dropped dramatically on an early September afternoon dumping snow out of nowhere after weeks of 90-degree temperatures, she grumbled that this place didn’t even know what season it wanted to be. She couldn’t win an argument against that kind of thinking. To Shana, the unexpected snow refreshed everything, adding to the otherworldly quality of this place, Shana’s place in the world.

*************

The two women met at an art opening seventeen years earlier in Portland, Oregon, introduced by a mutual friend. They hit it off immediately and made a date for lunch at a cafe on Hawthorne later in the week. Shana learned that Raven was a French teacher and assistant Lacrosse coach at an all-girls private high school in Lake Oswego, just outside the city. She loved to hike and camp and be outdoors as much as possible. She was a bon vivant and liked being around people.

Shana was her opposite in some ways, preferring a more quiet existence. She found solitude in her Everett Station loft, sculpting for hours alone, lost in creative reverie. She went for walks through the dense downtown neighborhoods leading to the river every morning to consider the new day ahead. In an unhappy marriage that happened too fast, Shana had explained to Raven over that first lunch how she left California and her ex-husband after three years and disappeared into the Oregon forest to figure out her life. Emerging from her living mediation, she moved into the city to fulfill her identity and life as an artist.

Though they were different personalities, they found common ground and before too long they fell into bed together and into each other’s lives so deeply there was no turning back.

*************

Shana wandered through the used bookstore in Tucson, just days before they would cross the border into Mexico last winter. Raven was next door getting her hair cut into a short and curly bob, often in need of changing things up. Loading her basket with a couple of new novels and a few classics she knew they would both enjoy, Shana found herself in the section marked Religion and Philosophy. She set her cart down and ran her finger across the titles, some familiar and others not. She had taken a class in college on World Religions and remembered that the Hinduism and Buddhism segments had resonated with her, though she did not retain much of it in her life on purpose.

Her finger stopped on a slim book with a red cover and a mysterious title that felt oddly familiar. Opening the book to a random page somewhere in the middle, she read the title Samskaras, which marked the top of the page. She studied it silently, oblivious to the activity and bustle all around her in the shop. Reading a few pages, she learned that samskaras were the karmic grooves etched into us from our words, deeds and actions in life. Suddenly it sparked a memory from her college course, remembering how she had thought the word sounded like “some scars” which was what they were, in a way.

Her teacher had described it like this: Imagine an old vinyl record. There are grooves where a song begins and where a song ends. Over time, the record gets scratched and some of those scratches are small and some are deep; we drop the record, there are dents and dings and dust, it may get cracked in places. All of those blemishes interrupt the melody, disrupting the continuity of the song. We, too, have grooves – imprints we are born with along with new ones that form across our lives from all our beginnings and endings, the cracks and dents are the events that shape us and affect the sound of our music.

The professor went on to explain that samskaras were the karmic data etched deeply into our souls, but, unlike the vinyl record, we could buff out the grooves and scratches with better actions. Nothing was eternally engraved unless we allowed it to be. It was coming back to Shana slowly, then. She recalled how the teaching had encouraged her to leave her husband, how to restore her internal song back to its proper cadence.

Raven sauntered up to Shana with a new haircut. Shana’s hand dropped the book into the basket nonchalantly. “I found us some great books to read on the beach in Mexico,” Shana said of the other works beneath the red cover. “Hey, your hair looks great! Ready to get out of here?”

*************

Over an early dinner on the patio a few days after their breakfast conversation about moving on, Raven broached the topic again with Shana.

“From Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, huh? I love the way that sounds, finding ourselves in the same named city but on opposite sides of the country in whole new surroundings. Doesn’t that sound fantastic, Shay!” she urged with a giggle, taking a sip of red wine.

“Ya know, Raven. You are the most persistent person I know. You just won’t stop until you get your way. I hear what you’re saying you need, but are you hearing me?” Shana asked, looking deeply into Raven’s dark eyes.

The relationship had been strained for a while now, and they were both just making the best of a slowly deteriorating situation, further stymied by the global crisis. Their physical relationship was nothing like it used to be. But bigger issues loomed. Blames had been inaccurately assigned over recent years. Arguments erupted with more frequency, tensions and differences revealed more openly than before. While they shared in each other’s small successes, they had become each other’s dumping ground for failures and disappointments, too. Love had become a desert. A desolate silence engulfed them until Shana broke it open.

“I think it’s obvious we want different things right now, Raven.”

Raven looked down at her empty plate. “What are you getting at, Shay?”

“Look, we’ve been struggling for a while. All couples do after this much time and maybe we need to take a break. Recalibrate. Consider our options, that’s all.”

“Oh, like when you left your husband in California and disappeared into the woods, ya mean, like that? Those kinds of options?” Raven asked with dry contempt.

Shana knew she hadn’t handled things well with her husband and if she could undo the hurt, she would. But that was her past, a groove left in place, etched forever on her soul.

“Raven. Go to Maine. I’m staying here. I’m not saying it’s forever, I’m not kicking you out of my life. But how many times are we going to have this conversation, it’s a broken record! A record that is full of scratches so deep we can’t even hear the music anymore. Just static. Maybe after a while, we buy a new recording…one that’s sweet and beautiful. Like we once were. You see what I mean?”

*************

Raven left two days later, driving away at dusk down the dirt road leading from their casita out of town. The sun was dropping across the horizon and bringing a cool ending to the day. After spending an hour or two separating their things and cleaning out the van of any remaining articles of Shana’s, they had shared a mostly silent meal, followed by tears and a long embrace at the doorway. Raven didn’t turn back to take Shana in one last time but simply drove away in slow movement away from her. Shana stood on the front porch and watched the sun make its final dip, went inside and drew a bath to wash the residue off her skin.

*************

Shana opened the French doors of the bedroom to let in the new morning air, a single red book sitting solitary on her nightstand. Stepping out into the patio, she turned her face into the warmth. Across the road, a raven fluttered its wings in a nearby tree, taking flight to other realms unknown. Somewhere in the desert, a coyote wandered solo down a dry arroyo. A cactus flower opened its blossom to the sun.

Author Bio
Mary Corbin is a writer and artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her approach is one from the heart, seeking connection to the global community. Whether in words on a page or paint on a canvas, she aims for strong narrative and relatable characters and experiences. Mary seeks common ground by capturing a simple moment, thought, or gesture of the ordinary, while suggesting the mysterious layers that lie beneath the surface. This contemplation is her constant source material.

Hooky – Gerard Sarnat

Hooky – Gerard Sarnat

Back in high school days, 
although this rookie 
liked Classical Music Appreciation,
I pushed Ms. Moore to the limit 
baiting her during senior year  
to flunk me if missed class
— which she didn’t. 

Today my grandson just turns off Zoom’s camera. 

Author’s Bio
Gerard Sarnat won San Francisco Poetry’s 2020 Contest, the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for handfuls of recent Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry is widely published including in Buddhist Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, Northampton Review, New Haven Poetry Institute, Texas Review, Vonnegut Journal, Brooklyn Review, San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, and The New York Times as well as by Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Penn, Chicago and Columbia presses. He’s authored the collections Homeless Chronicles (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014), Melting the Ice King (2016). Gerry is a physician who’s built and staffed clinics for the marginalized as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. Currently he is devoting energy/ resources to deal with climate justice, and serves on Climate Action Now’s board. Gerry’s been married since 1969 with three kids plus six grandsons, and is looking forward to future granddaughters.
gerardsarnat.com


Making Your Bed by DS Maolalai

Making Your Bed by DS Maolalai

pulling your linens 

hard against the mattress. like flags at airports,

tight in high winds. piling 

old sheets in the corner

and putting down new ones – 

our tangled scent and memory

given way to smells of chemicals.

I don’t know if I like this;

replacing the comfort of odours

with something that comes from a bottle,

which smells the way that someone 

has decided flowers smell,

but I know you do. and really,

who wants dirty bedlinens? 

I’ll like this just as much

when we’re both asleep tonight. 

I tuck it at the corners

and strip the comforter

for new covers.

you are in the kitchen

sorting the rest of the washing. it’s winter,

walls batting cold 

like a horsetail with flies. 

I feel that I could take your laundry

and pile it with my fingers.

push it down

like leaves in compost.

fall in it backwards

and sink.

Author Bio: DS Maolalai has been nominated eight times for Best of the Net and five times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, “Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden” (Encircle Press, 2016) and “Sad Havoc Among the Birds” (Turas Press, 2019)

Paul David Adkins – Poem

Paul David Adkins – Poem

As a former Marine, I knew the dangers,
knew I’d earn the Medal of Honor in ‘Nam.

I got a Dishonorable instead, and this prison stretch.

I knew I’d be famous. I never gave up.

I slipped word to reporters – There are 
chinks in the armor, division in our ranks.

Other inmates saw me, seized the note, 
tried me for treason,
banged a ballpeen hammer on a card table.

My cell was a circle dug in “D” Yard with a boot heel.

Before my countrymen laid me on the altar of a metal bunk,
they gave me water, combed my hair, fed me the only

unbruised Red Delicious ripped from the burnt commissary. 

Author Bio
Paul David Adkins lives in Northern NY. He served in the US Army from 1991-2013. Recently, he earned a MA in Writing and The Oral Tradition from The Graduate Institute, Bethany, CT. He spends his days either counseling soldiers or teaching college students in a NY state correctional facility.

Tangerine Strands- Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi

Tangerine Strands- Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi

The little girl and boy were screaming.

            Not the bad screaming.

            Not Mia’s screaming.

            Lucretia stood in the outer schoolyard, looking through the fence that separated her from the scene of the crime she had created two months prior.  Of all the kids packed into the limited pen designated for kindergarten students, her eyes and ears couldn’t help but track the running, laughing—For now, she thought—screaming little girl and boy, engaged in the age-old interplay: the fluttering of the little girl’s long hair; the little boy’s outstretched hand; the former barely outrunning the latter, whether by choice or biology, laughing, screaming, most times out of exhilaration, sometimes because a primitive thought told her she was in genuine danger; the way the invisibly tethered pair navigated the other children, who were merely sitting ducks oblivious to the fast-paced game of tandem sparrows; the little boy finding a latent gear, accelerating, reaching with a clawed hand, closer, closer, closer; the little girl abruptly turning to avoid his fingers; the chase slowing down—this time—to recover for an encore, or dying altogether, the dangerous game saved for something as distant as another day, or as close as the next recess.

And outside of this customary exchange, outside of this playground within a playground, Lucretia felt relief, for the little girl and boy had yet again successfully avoided recreating the history that had taken place in there.

She and Mia’s history.

A history she had forgotten until last week.

Lucretia had looked forward to the first day of school. Her mother had dropped her off at the side of the building, wished her good luck on her first day, and drove away to the job that paid their rent. Mia’s mother, on the other hand… well, if she had work, she had clearly called in sick so as to protect her daughter from Lucretia.

It was in the gymnasium, where the buzzing student body waited to be assigned their new teachers, that Lucretia had felt the summer’s sunburns in her gut, the summer’s scraped knees all over her body, for she had seen for the first time how and in what condition Mia had spent her summer—thanks to that single moment in June.

Thanks to Lucretia.

The little girl and boy were screaming again.

Not the bad screaming.

Not Mia’s screaming.

Not yet, Lucretia thought.

She looked away from the potential violence and focused on the one obstacle she would need to overcome if now was indeed the time to do what she hadn’t any real courage to do. But when the obsidian eyes of Ms. Jackson, perched atop the steps leading to Lucretia’s assigned door, met hers, she panicked, resorting to blindly surveying the vast schoolyard available to her.

She knew her new world by heart: the field that was home to two continental versions of football, haloed by quintuplet tracks; faded baseball diamond; fully-loaded play area—just some of the perks of becoming a full-day student in the first grade.

The perks, however, did nothing to perk her up.

Everyone was out here, relishing their twenty minutes outside the stifling classrooms, trying to capture as much of the lingering dog days as possible. Everyone who stole glances of Mia, who never saw, but must have felt the judging eyes. Everyone who gossiped, but pretended otherwise, as if the school was ripe with other Mia’s.

Everyone was out here.

Except Mia.

Lucretia could bear the Mia-less vista no longer. Heavy guilt shepherded her heavy legs toward Ms. Jackson. She could have claimed to have felt ill—she was, after all, sick with nerves—but opted for a watered-down lie that the hateful teacher would likely deny. “Can I get a drink, Ms. Jackson?” Her voice cracked, supporting her cause.

Ms. Jackson smiled, opened the door, and held it for the stunned Lucretia. She eyed the teacher as she crossed the threshold. The woman indeed appeared to be the same Ms. Jackson who had cradled and cooed the wailing Mia on that day in June; the same Ms. Jackson who glared and yelled at the culpable Lucretia. Doesn’t she remember me? Lucretia mused. Doesn’t she remember what I did?

The hard handrail felt like a slippery serpent of electric nerves. With legs of quicksand, she began the long ascent. She caught up to her pounding heart upon reaching the second-floor landing. There, the pair of heavy doors guarded against her, protecting whom she sought. But they were no match for a mousy thumb pressing the latch.

The click of the stairwell door did nothing to interrupt the hushed voices wafting over to her from the opposite side of the hallway. While the volume of the conversation rose with every step toward the only open door, specific words refused to clarify themselves. Still, Lucretia discerned two voices: one she knew, but scarcely heard during class; the other could have belonged to either relief or dread, for Mia’s mother was prone to classroom visits between the usual drop-offs and pick-ups—which contributed to the list of gossip topics.

Please be Mrs. Atwood, she thought.

Lucretia reached the door and listened for whether or not she would abort her mission. When her heart, thudding in her ears, skipped a beat, she heard not dread, but relief—Mrs. Atwood!—and turned the corner just as another thought occurred to her: Mia’s mother could still be in there, not talking.

Two pairs of eyes looked up at her from their respective desks. One pair looked back down just as quickly. The other pair held her gaze. “Hey, Lucretia.” There was a tinge of surprise in Mrs. Atwood’s voice. Surprise turned to concern. “You okay?”

Lucretia knew she looked as disheveled and antsy and nauseous as she felt. “Yeah,” she croaked. “Just…” She couldn’t lie about needing a drink; she had passed the fountains on her way over.

“Too hot outside?” Mrs. Atwood offered.

“Yeah,” Lucretia exhaled, relieved for the out.

“Well, you can take your seat if you like. Recess is almost over, anyway. Speaking of…” Mrs. Atwood rose from her desk. “Girls, I’ll be right back. Gotta use the ladies’ room.” She turned to the damaged thing at the far end of the second-last row, peeling a tangerine. “We’ll talk some more about it later, okay, Mia?”

Lucretia wondered if Mrs. Atwood saw the pain, suffering, and sadness that animated Mia’s barely nodding head. She wondered if Mrs. Atwood knew that she was responsible for those emotions. Of course, she does, Lucretia reminded herself. Mia and her mother and Ms. Jackson for sure told her what I did.

Mrs. Atwood flashed Lucretia a smile on her way out.

Victim and criminal were alone.

Lucretia remained at the door. Staring at Mia, like the other kids. Talking about her, like the other kids, except her conscience was the mouth, tongue-tied, inarticulate. Her meagre vocabulary boiled down to a single thought: Just do it, chicken!

Paring herself from the linoleum, Lucretia shuffled toward the row of desks in a wide arc, simultaneously avoiding and gravitating toward the back row. Her eyes never left Mia, who busied herself with her tangerine. As she drew reluctantly closer, Lucretia was afforded a profile view of the baseball cap—a major topic of gossip—that never left Mia’s head. Having reached the beginning of the back row, she then trudged the never-ending trudge toward her ill-placed desk at the very end.

Each timid step brought her closer to Mia.

Each fearful step brought her closer to the damned baseball cap… and what it hid.

Each outright terrified step packed more and more of Mia’s citrusy snack into her nose.

Standing behind her chair, which sat behind her desk, which sat behind Mia, Lucretia wondered why Mia’s mother—who had witnessed the unfortunate seating plan during several of her visits—allowed the criminal so close to her daughter.

Lucretia heard Mia’s chewing slow, saw her back stiffen, growing uncomfortably aware of Lucretia’s presence, and the lack of chair legs scraping against the floor.

Chicken! Chicken! CHICKEN!

She collapsed, rather than sat in, her poorly assigned seat, and couldn’t help but fall into the week-long habit of studying the bit of naked scalp visible under the rim of Mia’s baseball cap. She memorized the bony ridges, the shallow pockets, the pronounced point where the skull met the spine, the precise number of pink and red bumps. She knew each of Mia’s five beauty-marks intimately, and no matter how many times her eyes played with them, she couldn’t settle upon a shape, pattern, or design. She believed that if the school day were longer, she would finally be able to count each terribly short bristle of thin hair.

A fresh burst of tangerine invaded Lucretia’s nose. The odour divided itself: southbound, to her stomach, where it mixed with and churned breakfast; northbound, to the mysterious region of the brain where scent converted to imagery. There, she saw that bright June day, not too dissimilar from the little girl and boy outside. Did he catch her? she wondered. Is she crying?

Chicken! that other part of her taunted.

What if she doesn’t believe me?

Chicken!

What if she screams and cries again?

Chicken!

What if she hits me?

CHICKEN!

Another burst of tangerine perspiration. This time Lucretia didn’t see the little girl and boy, but another film entirely: the claustrophobic kindergarten playground; Mia clutching the back of her head, bawling in Ms. Jackson’s arms; Lucretia trying her best not to join in on the bawling, but failing, trying to give back the long brunette strands of hair wrapped around her stubby fingers; Mia blaring her refusal; Lucretia covering her blubbering face, her snotty nose detecting something flowery, something fruity.

Yet another surge of Mia’s tangerine, and Lucretia realized that Mia’s envied, rope-like hair had been washed in tangerine-scented shampoo that day in June.

“I’m sorry.” Lucretia craved to be heard, perhaps even to be forgiven, and yet she didn’t understand why Mia was turning to face her.

“For what?” Mia asked.

Lucretia couldn’t believe the question more than the fact Mia was actually talking to her. Did she forget, too? Like Ms. Jackson? Does her mom remember?

Mia started to turn away.

The tangerine had completely assimilated with Lucretia’s stomach contents, and out came a vomit of sorts: “I’m sorry for pulling your hair and for making you cry and for making all your hair fall out of your head and eyebrows and everyone talking about you and looking at you and not playing with you and making you not want to go outside and play…” As she purged, she saw the most peculiar thing: a smile. Mia had never looked so pretty. Lucretia thought Mia had been pretty on their last day as kindergartners, when she had asked if she’d like to play tag, but this was…

…beauty.

Lucretia sealed her spewing. She noted a sliver of pale orange flesh stuck between Mia’s big teeth, somehow enhancing her beautiful smile.

“You didn’t pull all my hair out, Luke,” Mia said, her voice tickled by a suppressed laugh.

Lucretia—“Luke” to her only friend, Mia—saw two of the girl before her. Both Mia’s lost their beautiful smiles as they took Lucretia’s hand, and asked her why she was crying.

“I thought I…” Tears drowned the thought. “I thought I pulled out all your hair when we played tag that time.”

“No,” Mia said, beautiful smile nowhere on her lips. “I was sick.”

“Sick? Like a cold?” Lucretia sniffled as if she bore the illness.

“I got leukemia,” Mia said, the word somewhat shaky on her tongue.

Lucretia tasted the foreign word. “Lu-Luke-Mia?” She beamed. “Luke-Mia? Like our names?”

Mia smiled another one of her rainbows, tangerine pulp and all. “I never thought of that.”

“What’s Lu-Luke-”

“Leukemia,” Mia corrected. “It’s a bad sickness, but I don’t got it anymore because the doctor gave me medicine, but the medicine makes your hair fall out. My mom is going to come to class one day soon and help me and Mrs. Atwood tell everyone about it.”

On the one hand, Lucretia was relieved to be off the hook. On the other, she now wished she had been the cause of Mia’s hair loss. “Is that why you don’t want to go outside?” The regret of the inquiry came as swiftly as Mia’s radiant smile faded.

“I want to, but I can’t do too much stuff, like running. I don’t like the way the other kids look at me, and stuff.” Now it was Lucretia’s turn to wipe her duplicate self from Mia’s brimming eyes.

The school bell rang, setting off an uproar outside.

Mrs. Atwood returned as if on cue. “You girls okay?” She hadn’t noticed the swollen eyes. They smiled. “Mia, all good?” An extra smile from Mia.

Once again, Lucretia was gifted with the back of Mia’s baseball-capped head, the way she would remain until the glancing and gossiping kids were summoned outside for more for-granted play. She leaned forward, and whispered each word louder than the next, for the rowdiness was racing up the steps. “If you want, I can play with you outside next recess.” She saw the beauty-marks closest to each of Mia’s ears rise ever so slightly, and she knew her friend was smiling.

And though the children were screaming in the hallway—not the bad kind of screaming; not Mia’s screaming—Lucretia caught Mia’s whisper: “Maybe we can play tag.”

Author Bio: Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi has spent a decade penning award-winning short- and feature-length screenplays, while working as a full-time artisan baker. His prose work explores the trials and tribulations of ordinary people embedded in ordinary and extraordinary environments and conflicts. His short stories have appeared in over 45 literary journals worldwide, and was a finalist in the Blood Orange Review Literary Contest. In addition to several short pieces, he is currently working on his debut novel.

Hickory Farms – J. Saler Drees

Hickory Farms – J. Saler Drees

The first time I stole was in second grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Beamer, gave us silent reading after lunch recess, but I couldn’t read well, not like Logan Lee, who read big words— think “behemoth,” “colossal”—and he bragged he already read older kid books—Sarah Plain and Tall, Charlotte’s Web, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing— but his dad was the school principal, so why shouldn’t his son know how to read. I didn’t like him much. He called me Smelly Face, and since the name Logan sounded like “yogurt” to me, I called him Yogurt Head. Like I cared he could read. 

 Who needed books anyways? Books had few pictures and since the pictures were stuck between a bunch of words, they just didn’t do it for me. But then I found Hickory Farms holiday catalogue. When I reached into that bookshelf and discovered it—filled with pages of sausage links cut so the slices spilled off the log, and little jars of sauce, and cakes with pastel frosting, and baskets of bright fruit, honey hams, wheels of cheeses—I was in heaven. 

At the time, I didn’t know the flavors, but I could imagine them as sticky-sweet, peppered tingles on my tongue. So, clap those hands, that’s when I learned how to read. The pictures and words finally made sense. 

I started looking forward to silent reading time, ready to grab the catalogue from the shelf and disappear into Hickory Farms, a place filled with food and no people. I liked to picture this farm tucked away in the hills, a secret place where pears dripped off trees, oranges glowed through leaves, cows dotted the fields, and chickens scattered the grasses. A place where, somehow magically, foods popped forth. Every silent reading, I went there. Yet with summer coming, I’d no longer be in Mrs. Beamer’s class, and no longer be able to look at the Hickory Farms holiday catalogue. 

Taking it seemed an obvious solution. First, I tried to slip the little catalogue in the back of my pants, but there was nothing to hold it in place. I didn’t wear undies—Ma said underwear was a waste on boys— and the catalogue slid out in front of Mrs. Beamer, but thankfully she was busy confiscating the WWF action figures Logan Lee brought. Did I mention, on top of being the ace reader of the class, he was also the kid with all the latest toys, including, as he liked to boast, a Super Nintendo at home. Secretly I wished he’d invite me over to play, but he never did.

 But back to underwear. I needed to get some and guess who had a bunch of it: Ma. While she was out with one of her boyfriends, I snuck into her bedroom, a room of bent blinds and overloaded surfaces. Ma liked to keep everything: past knitting projects, spools of yarn, purses full of empty pill bottles, National Enquirer and Weekly World News magazines, a box fan here, a litter box there, Big Slurp cups everywhere, tons of clothes—she especially had a thing for jackets out of lost and found bins. “Just in case,” she liked to say.

I waded my way to Ma’s dresser drawers, full of lacy soft things. She kept them apart from her other things. She told me once that her undies were sacred, and she always wore undies unlike Auntie JoJo. Auntie JoJo, Ma said, didn’t wear underwear. Auntie Jojo also believed the government paid for her baby making. This was back in 1991 during the wave of welfare dependents, and people like my Auntie Jojo didn’t have the resources to get out of having children, but I’m getting off track. 

Undies, yes, one strong enough to hold the Hickory Farms catalogue in place. I tried on lacey undies, stringy undies, sparkly undies, silky undies, all too big, but if I slipped through the leg holes of one very stringy pink pair, then it was tight enough around my waist like a rubber band, but small and hidden beneath my pants. 

What risk! If Ma caught me, she’d take it another way. Also, if any of the kids at school found out I was trying on my Ma’s underwear, I’d be called mean names and not allowed to play tetherball or dodgeball at recess. 

But for Hickory Farms holiday catalogue, I’d face the possible dangers. Who else to enjoy those well-taken photos, the foods so thoughtfully arranged on tables of candle and wreath, distant hills in the background?

I planned to tuck the undies, small and light, into my pants pocket, take them to school, and, during the lunch recess, slip them on in the bathroom. Then during silent reading, I’d tuck the catalogue in the band of undies, and throw my t-shirt, originally my older brother’s, over it. 

At this part of the story, I’m often asked why I didn’t just have a backpack or lunch pail to easily slip the catalogue in. Well, I did have a bag with colorful zigzag lines stitched in it that Ma had given me. She said it was a special bag, one made of leather, a strong material, and that the bag had traveled all the way from Mexico. I took pride in that bag, except one day at school Michelle Davies had stolen Mrs. Beamer’s wallet from her desk and all our packs and bags were searched. It happened to be Burger Day at the school cafeteria—which was on a special program where lunches were free—and none of the kids liked Burger Day, saying the burgers tasted like “rat butt.” Except I didn’t think so. Everyone ended up giving me their burgers, and I stashed them, not one, nor two, but five burgers in my leather bag, for later meals. Yet, when the principal, searching for Mrs. Beamer’s wallet, pulled out the burgers, she looked at me all sad-like and quizzed me, “Why’re these burgers in your bag?” 

I stammered and couldn’t speak. Explaining that all the kids, but me, thought the burgers were “rat butt” felt a dumb thing to say. 

While I didn’t get in trouble, Ma did. She came home crying, asking me why’d I take all those burgers? I didn’t like to see Ma cry. The world seemed to end when grown-ups cry. She hugged me tight, and I let her, this time not wriggling away and saying I was too old for hugs. She told me if I took food from the school cafeteria again, bad people would come to our home and take me away, how they did my older brother, before he moved with his dad. I imagined people in lab coats. From then on, I stuffed myself with cafeteria food only at lunch time and never brought my bag back to school.

And there it is: why I had to rely on Ma’s undies, bunched in my pocket as I walked to school on the morning of the Hickory Farms heist. Already I’d gotten away with taking Ma’s underwear, and this emboldened me. 

Throughout the day, I rubbed my fingers along the underwear’s elastic strings safely tucked inside my pocket. We had a secret, a mission. Yet, after playing a palm-slapping round of tetherball against Logan Lee aka Yogurt Head during lunch, I reached into my pocket for the undies to find them missing! I frantically glanced about, but the tetherball court was clear of any pink stringy lingerie. No sight of them flung in the line of kids waiting to play tetherball next. What to do? Not about to ask anyone if they’d seen a pink thong.

A shrill whistle blew and then a loud, raspy voice, the type of voice that made you want to pee your pants, the voice of Ms. Sharon, the meanest yard duty teacher. She shouted, “Who here thinks it’s cute to bring these to school? Who here thinks it’s funny to throw these at my feet?”

She held up Ma’s pink undies dangling like a drowned mouse at the end of her ruler stick. My face went dizzy-hot, my legs noodle-limp. All playground action came to a standstill. Even the wind seemed to halt, and the birds quit chirping. A basketball bumbled across the blacktop. No one spoke, but there were several stifled giggles and some moans, “Gross, a thong,” and some of the older boys nudged each other, whispering, “Those your sister’s?” But no one dared confess, especially to Ms. Sharon, known to throw you in the detention center without a cause. 

“Someone better speak up,” Ms. Sharon said. “Otherwise you’re all going to find yourselves staying after school until the culprit admits to this tasteless prank.” 

All the kids were looking at each other, trying to guess whodunnit, the giggles over. This became serious and soon fingers pointed— “Logan, I saw him do it”; “no, I seen Allison wearing ‘em”; “shut up, those not mine”. The chorus of voices grew louder and more desperate while the undies hung limply from Ms. Sharon’s ever fearsome ruler. 

I stayed quiet, staring at the hole in my sneaker and wouldn’t it be nice to have the power of invisibility, where I’d just walk up and pluck those undies off Ms. Sharon’s ruler and run away, the undies appearing to be carried off by the wind and so fast no one could catch them. 

Ms. Sharon, evidently fed up with us children and our name-blame game, lowered her ruler, tore the undies from it and tucked them in her back pocket of her jeans, on full lecture mode—how she was ashamed of our behavior, our inability to tell the truth, oh, you bet she’d be writing us detention slips right and left—and while she ranted, we all rocked on the balls of our feet. Sure, I could’ve fessed up, saved everyone from detention after school, but I worried not only would I get in trouble but Ma too, and I didn’t want to see her cry, and I definitely didn’t want the bad people in those lab coats to come. Finally, the bell rang. 

Undie-less and detention looming, I ran to class, but noticed my shoelace was untied, and when I bent down to tie my sneaker, the most brilliant idea came to me. I unthread the shoelace, and tied it around my waist, armed once again to take the Hickory Farms. 

During silent reading, I searched the bookshelves but couldn’t find Hickory Farms, shoved away in its usual space in the corner. I flung books off the shelves. Mrs. Beamer, from her desk, frowned and said, “Hunter, you have one minute to pick a book and clean up that mess.”

“But, Mrs. Beamer, the book I want isn’t here,” I said. 

“Someone else must be reading it today. Pick another one,” she said, pushing her glasses up her nose, and turning back to her paperwork.

I scoured the rows of desks, the books kids were reading, and then landed on none other than Yogurt Head with my Hickory Farms sprawled out on his desk. He wasn’t even looking at the pictures, instead fiddling with a toy car under his desk—a toy I later stole—and I walked over to him, yanking the Hickory Farms off his desk. He tried to grab the catalogue back, saying, “Let go, Smelly Face.” 

And remembering what my older brother often said, I snapped, “Suck dick,” and added “Yogurt Head.” 

Logan’s eyes went baby-wide. The whole class looked up from their silent reading, some gasping, some giggling, some looking clueless like they didn’t know what I said. 

Mrs. Beamer looked up from her desk, sighing. “Hunter, those are not school words.” 

With a groan, she pushed off her chair, and shuffled toward me, pointing to the time-out corner. I marched over and hunkered down, clutching the Hickory Farms catalogue so hard the pages bent. 

“What’s going on with you today?” she asked. She took her glasses off and rubbed her eyes, looking more tired than mad. “Is there something you’d like to talk to me about?”

I shook my head, wishing I could hide. Usually a quiet boy, grown-ups assumed me a bit spacey, a little slow. Eventually I believed, yes, I lacked the brain power others around me had. Why couldn’t I read? Why did I get so easily distracted? Questions adults asked me, soon became my own questions. 

Mrs. Beamer said I looked ill, and would I like to go to the nurse’s office?

I nodded because being sick always got me out of trouble. Nurse Peggy was called. She came to our classroom, took me to her office and examined me, finding the shoelace tied around my belly, which prompted her to asking me who did it, and I told her me, and she asked why.

“Because I felt like it,” I said. She pursed her lips, clicked her pen, took my blood pressure and my temperature and weighed me, clicked her pen once more. I began to feel I was in trouble again, that I’d done more wrong than I knew, and what if the lab coats found out. The whole time I was clutching the Hickory Farms holiday catalogue, and no one took it from me, so I didn’t dare say it wasn’t mine, especially since more questions were being asked, like, What did I usually eat for dinner? When was bedtime? Did I brush my teeth? All these questions were shutting me down; I didn’t know the right way to answer them. What answers did she want?

“I don’t have to talk to you,” I finally said. 

Nurse Peggy, grandmotherly with white hair, spectacles and wrinkly hands, didn’t ask more. In fact, Nurse Peggy—after calling my Ma, who didn’t pick up, and then my Grams, who did pick up—had a brief talk with Grams when she came, which ended in cuss words on Grams part, something about don’t you say how to raise her grandbaby, he’s a fine, fine boy, taught to be mindful and eat his peas, why, the boy would eat leather if you asked him too, he’s that well-mannered. Such was what Grams said, but I spared the more sailor-like version. Grams grabbed my arm and told me as we walked out the door, “This town can be full of snobs. Your Ma, she tries hard, see, but people think it something else.” 

All the way home, I gripped the Hickory Farms holiday orders catalogue. Applaud loudly. Victory, all mine. Once home, I ran to the gully that was behind the trailer park. I scrambled along a secret deer path weaving through blackberry bushes and pines on down to the pond, covered in a lawyer of green algae. At the edge of the pond, a little grove of bushes sheltering flat moss-covered boulders. I crawled under the bushes, and sat cross-legged on the moss, dried out and flaking due to the oncoming heat of the summer. The wind shifted triangular light through the branches and the woods seemed to sigh, finally, finally. At last I could look at my catalogue in peace. At last, here in my quiet space with the tilted shadows, the high-whine of mosquitos, the solo chirp of a cricket, I could allow myself to enter Hickory Farms, where all the foods grow, and are loaded in baskets, arranged on trays, displayed on large dinner tables for invisible families.

I laid out the Hickory Farms holiday catalogue on a rock and smoothed it out, rubbing away creases, bending back crumpled pages and flattening its cover, a photo of a honey ham with glistening, ribbed skin, the slices spilling over onto a gold platter. I’d memorized the order of the log. First the new additions, then the best sellers, next the holiday meats, the cheeses, the fruits, the sweets, then the gift baskets, boxes and tins and finally the items on sale. Drumroll! I opened the pages, and I’ll end here. I could go further, tell what happened to Ma, how Grams became my guardian, and how I started stealing headphones and Gameboys, even shoes and lunch boxes, later bikes, lawn furniture, keep going, and then there was juvie, then there was writing it down. But this story isn’t about all that, the real things outside of Hickory Farms. No, this is about me, under the bushes, looking at that holiday catalogue, finally something I owned. 

Author Bio
J Saler Drees was born in and has lived all over California. Recent works have been published in Blue Lake Review, Hypertext, OxMag and RavensPerch. Forthcoming work can be found in Evening Street and Shooter Literary.