The Beast by Lauren Trail

She is given a task that morning, one that is not grand or unique. She has carried it out a hundred times before, but today her thoughts get muddled and bleak.

Some days it seems she floats on a breeze, her mind at ease, no troubled sleep. She carries with her woes and strife from days gone by, pain that cut so deep its internal scars might never heal. Yet everyday she wakes and stands and moves her feet, paints on a smile with cracked teeth, and dons her armor even though it is weak. She does not allow herself to mope and weep, but pulls back her shoulders and struts down the street.

Today is the day, she always thinks. Today is the day I conquer the beast.

She surges towards her goal, determined to fulfill her task, courageous and strong and happily content. She knows where she’s going, she knows what needs done, but halfway there, there’s a bump in the path. She sees it coming and tries to avoid it, but she’s thrown off course and now everything is ruined.

That’s when she feels it, a shiver running down her spine unbidden, and though she cannot see it, she knows that the beast is coming for her. She looks down at her armor, all battered and cheap, and she thinks about fighting, but her mind is too weak. Where before she had been confident, so sure and so strong, now her plans have been altered and her whole body has gone numb.

The beast is coming fast and hard, she can hear its thundering feet. Her heart leaps into her throat, fear coiling in her chest as her lungs constrict. Her body is slow to respond, even though she is desperate to run, and the first few steps she takes are tremulous and clumsy. She grits her teeth and forces her stiff muscles to obey, and soon she is sprinting for her life, desperate to outrun the beast, desperate to escape what fate has thrust upon her, even though she knows she is too late.

The beast comes for her nearly every day with no rhyme or reason to its scheme. Its arrival is seldom anticipated or planned, but she can always sense it the second it grows near. Though it is never an early enough warning for her to truly escape, and she knows that she never will, she still tries, again and again, each time hoping for a different result. Some days, she is too tired to run, so she bargains and pleads. Some days she turns to face the beast and tries to fight back, but the beast overpowers her every time, leaving her bloody and weak. Some days she runs until she thinks that she has won, only to turn around and see that the entire day is gone and she is far from home, and the beast slinks back into the shadows with a broad smile of glee.

Today is another sort of day. It is the type of day when she knows, no matter what she decides, that the beast will capture her in its teeth before she can even think. Still, she attempts to flee, but she does not make it far when she feels the beast’s warm breath tingling on the back of her neck. She pushes herself harder, arms and legs swinging, head ducked down as if to increase her pace. Sweat forms on her flesh, races down her spine, pools between her breasts. Her knees nearly buckle, and her legs are spent. When she gasps for breath, the air gets trapped somewhere in her chest. Nausea coils in the pit of her stomach, the world spins and her head feels dizzy.

As she runs, she tries to remember a time when the beast did not chase her. It has been so long now that she cannot truly recall. She remembers fighting other beasts, beasts that still haunt her at times, but they are only nightmares now, past woes she tramples on and scrapes from the bottom of her feet.

As she runs, she sees other people passing by, and they look at her as if she has lost her mind. She covets those who do not suffer the same. She looks at them hard as she’s racing by, out of breath and full of misery, and she wonders how they can gaze upon the beast so blankly and without fright. She notices, too, that some of them have beasts of their own. She can see it in the twitch of their eye, the flinch in their shoulders, the stutter in their speech. She wishes to commiserate, to seek comfort in their comparable fates, but when she is ensnared in the claws of her own beast, she loses the ability to speak. How can she come to know theirs when she is so deeply scared?

As the beast comes nearer, she makes one last desperate leap. She outstretches her arm, in the direction of her original goal, but everything is distorted now, and she does not know where to go. It feels as though she is reaching for something she cannot grasp, always so close, yet so far. She tries to swallow, but the air is too thick. She tries to keep going, but she’s too far off her path. No amount of reaching will get her there.

Then the beast catches up to her, wraps its weighty, gargantuan palm around her waist, and she is jolted to a stop, her stomach heaving a little from the force. The beast’s claws stab through her abdomen, and her mouth opens in a silent scream. Her feet are lifted from the ground and she is suspended there, with nothing but time to think. The sharp daggers in her stomach twist and cleave. She closes her eyes tight, tries to breathe through the pain, but the more she focuses on it, the worse it seems to become.

The beast’s mouth is close to her ear, and it whispers to her softly, filling her head with more worries and fears. “What good are connections when they only bring strife? What good are your words when they have no design? There is nothing for you here, no reason to fight. You can run, and you can hide, but you’ll never defeat me, so why even try?”

In the midst of her agony, she finds her voice enough to hopelessly query, “Why? Why me?”

As per usual, the beast has no sympathy. “Our fates are intertwined,” it says simply. “We are forever linked, you and I. Come rain or shine, no matter where your life leads, there I shall always be.”

She has no fight left within her, now her thoughts are just bitter. Her task is not forgotten, but it’s too heavy a burden. She wants to sulk and complain, even though nothing will change. What is the use? She will not defeat the beast today.

The beast eventually lowers her back down to the ground, loosens its grip on her wounded middle, though not entirely, and she takes the moment to breathe, to even her breaths as she hadn’t been able to before. She takes one shaky step forward, swallows the nausea, and forces herself to push forward. The beast does not inflict further pain, but it follows close behind her, mimicking her every step, its heavy body wrapped tight around her back and chest. With no choice but to accept its frequent presence, she tries to carry on. The beast always lurks in the shadows or presses against her spine. It is always enshrouding her like a heavy cloak, always waiting to strike, always weighing heavily on her mind. Some days she makes it through with little trouble from the beast. Some days she is dragged so far from the trail that she makes it nowhere. Yet still she struggles, still she fights, even when the beast comes for her, day or night.

Each morning she wakes, to do it all over again, and each morning she thinks, Today is the day. Today is the day I conquer my beast.


Lauren Trail is an English major at Hagerstown Community College. She enjoys margaritas and long walks on the beach.

My Name is Laura By Laura Sweeney

from Dr. Zhivago, or the 40’s film noir epic.

It means victorious, like laurel wreaths.  An overcomer.  Epic.


I could have been Holly or Angela or Christina because I was born

on Christmas Day.  The doctor was out skiing, or so the epic


goes.  The nurse delivered me.  Placed me on a mantle in front

of the nativity in Avera Holy Family Hospital.  The first epic


I knew was the Bible story, but my name isn’t in the Book.  Neither is

Laurie, which isn’t my nickname, nor Lauren, Lorraine, or the epic


“Laura Sweeney in a bikini,” like they teased in school.  I call myself

‘laurita gringita the hip hipporita.’ I hope they name an epic


constellation after me, a shimmying hippotenuese, kicking up my heels

in the night sky.  If I could choose another name it needn’t be epic,


just Jasmine, like the flowers Mike DeMarco pinned in my hair

in the street in Mysore to drown the epic


stench of urine, cow dung, incense and rotten fruit.

But, too late to change my name, whether or not epic.


I’m already a published writer. Here’s hoping

Irish in the Literary World is both lucky and epic.



Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa.  She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. She is the associate editor for Eastern Iowa Review.

Searching for Him Via Facebook I Discover His Family Portrait By Laura Sweeney

I was teaching but I went to the movie

Mamma Mia, ten times, just to get him off my mind.


My mind was on the porch where he said, you will be back

you are mine. But I didn’t want to be owned,


not like his aunt in El Paso who said

if she could do it over, she wouldn’t.


Or his friend in Matagalpa, she will devote

her life to service, he said, describing her love


for a married man. This was before

that wretched call that wretched rain when


he confessed he got a teen girl pregnant,

said we can still stay friends.


Now, he looks matured, the wife the boy

the girl the reading glasses the tiled floor.


He told me I need to appreciate Nicaragua’s

beauty, and I’m trying.  You don’t know your place, he said.


He wanted a woman groomed for the kitchen

and the bedroom.  I wanted room to grow and to roam.


Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa.  She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. She is the associate editor for Eastern Iowa Review.

Miss Laura Considers What Kind of Woman She Is By Laura Sweeney

I have been her kind.  – Anne Sexton



Who doesn’t trade her scholarship for cucumber facials,

herbal essences, or swap recipes and gossip.


Whose wrist doesn’t drip with bling and grandmother’s

wedding ring is worn on her right hand.


Who trades sapphires for Cape Cod

earrings she buys antiquing.


Who does it wrong all wrong, like clumsy freshman

fingers on a manual typewriter.


Who immortalizes lines like, It’s a woo-hoo day,

I don’t have time for green bananas.


Who knows that to write is to transgress,

which means that some artists draft on phonebooks.


Who doesn’t go from her father’s to her

husband’s house but makes a different bargain.


Whose car breaks down, a boyfriend leaves,

a miscalculation means eviction.


Who knows it takes a helluva good man

to be better than none.


Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in central Iowa.  She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. She is the associate editor for Eastern Iowa Review.

30 Yards By Bob Chikos

At 13, I learned that quitting is a solo act, but success is a team effort.

In 1988 I entered high school an obese, unpopular, D student. I wasn’t interested in high school for the intellectual discourse, as a route to college and career, or to explore different subject areas. I just wanted to play football.

I had been picked on throughout junior high. Boys grabbed my flabby pecs and told me I had bigger boobs than any of the girls. Bob became Blob. A teacher, exasperated with my lack of progress, told the class, “We have millions of dollars’ worth of brains in this class, except for one or two people.” She had been looking at me.

I’ll show them! I thought, Football’s going to change all of that!

Beyond my own stardom, it would make my dad proud. His parents had forbidden his playing football. I hadn’t given him much to be proud of. But that would soon change.

Twice-daily pre-season practices started in early August at the World War I-era campus where they stored freshmen. The field was bare in the middle from decades of use, and the ground was rock hard from that year’s drought, a terrible summer in which 47 of the 90 days claimed new heat records.

On the first day, we lined up on the field. Our last names had been written in marker on athletic tape, applied to the front of our helmets.

Coach walked among us, his clipboard hidden behind his back. “My goal” he yelled, “Is to turn you from boys into men.”

That’s why I’m here.

He continued. “We are not allowed to cut players. That said, we will do everything in our power to get you to quit. We only want survivors on our team.”

He stopped in front of me. “Hey Chikos, you like coffee with your roll?”

I removed my mouth guard. “What?”

He jabbed me in my gut with his clipboard. “Your roll. Your roll. Do you like coffee with your roll?”

Everyone but me laughed.

That August was the closest thing to hell I’d experienced up to that point. Each morning’s temperatures started in the 80’s and rose throughout the day. Practice consisted of calisthenics, group drills, and conditioning, over and over and over.

I remember one particular drill, which was typical:

Two tackling dummies lay on the ground, ten feet apart. I hunkered in a stance between the two dummies. Evans lined up facing me, three feet away. Wolnik cradled a football, ten feet behind Evans. When Coach blew the whistle, Wolnik was to get past me, while staying between the dummies, and I was to tackle him.

“Remember boys,” Coach said, “butt down, head up!”

Coach blew the whistle. Evans and I lunged toward each other like two bighorn sheep battling for supremacy. He threw a forearm toward my chest as I tucked my head in. His forearm landed on my facemask, which jerked my head backwards. Everything went black, except for a cucumber-shaped flash. I don’t remember hitting the ground, but when I opened my eyes, I was on my back, facing the sky.

“That’ll teach you to put your head down, Chikos!” Coach laughed.

After morning practice, we showered, but immediately began to sweat again. Those of us who couldn’t go home sat in the shade of the gym’s north side steps and ate our musty sack lunches, which had baked in our septuagenarian lockers all morning.

One day someone played a Guns N’ Roses cassette on a boom box. It was the first time I had listened to hard rock. Before then, I listened only to oldies; I had an idealization of the 1950s, that everything modern was leading society away from that perceived innocent time.

I felt sinister enjoying it, like a prude who finally allows himself to laugh at a dirty joke, many of which I also learned from those guys. I felt liberated, like I was finally becoming a part of something.

Since we were called by our last names, I became Chikos and, later, Cheeks. I stopped thinking of myself as an individual and started thinking of myself as a representative of my family. I was carrying on the tradition of people who went before me: people who survived war, depression (both economic and emotional), immigration, and working every day at rough jobs so they could support their families and offer a better life for those who came after them. Being a Chikos became something to be proud of and I needed to be worthy of the honor.

Afternoon practice was like crawling through the desert. Our oasis was a pipe, six feet long, bolted to the side of the gym. It had holes drilled in it, like a flute. During our break, when the assistant coach turned it on, water shot out. We waited our turns, throats dry, mouths encrusted with dried saliva, tasting dirt and salt.

Once, the water wouldn’t come on. The coach wasn’t unsympathetic, but wouldn’t suspend practice on account of our thirst.

“I don’t know what to tell you, boys. The best I can say is to just grin and bear it until it comes back on”.

Easy for you to say, old man. I thought, you’re not the one dying out here!

Minutes later, during drills, the water shot several feet in the air like Old Faithful. The precious water trickled all over the unappreciative sidewalk. We sighed with relief, like prisoners of war who just heard the cavalry bugle. The coach turned his head at the sound of the water splashing, shrugged, then faced back to the drills.

We thought of worse things to call him than “old man”.

Conditioning came at the end when we had nothing left in the tank. We ran sprints, strained push-ups, gutted out sit-ups, plus many others I’ve managed to block from memory, all while wearing 20 pounds of equipment. Every muscle ached and I strained to breathe. No matter how hard we tried, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the coaches. A voice in my mind asked the unthinkable, Is this worth it?

I had no true rest. Even in my sleep, I dreamt I was sweltering at practice. At home, we couldn’t afford air conditioning so I’d wake up several times throughout the night, my sheets clinging to my body. One night I woke up screaming with my first charley horse. Every morning I woke with aching muscles and new bruises replacing the old fading ones. I was never ready to go out there again, but I always did.

One day, as practice ended, I took off my helmet. I was overheated, parched, filthy, and my eyes stung. I started toward the water pipe.

“Put your helmets back on, boys!” Coach yelled. “Two of your teammates decided to come late to practice today. As a result, they will watch the rest of you bear crawl until they learn their lesson!”

What?! We have to be punished for their mistake? This doesn’t make any sense!

Coach ordered the offending players to sit on a tackling dummy.

The rest of were to bear crawl the length of the field, akin to climbing a horizontal mountain. As I started, I looked 100 yards in the distance to see the goalposts wave in the heat.

Behind the goalposts, two girls from our class, team managers, sat, fanning themselves with clipboards. I was clueless about girls, but I knew one thing about them: they talked. Beyond wanting to make the team, I wanted word to get out among their tribe.

I imagined the talk if I were to quit:

Who’s this Bob Chikos guy in my class?

He was a loser in my junior high. He still is. He quit football during preseason.

But if I survived:

Who’s this Bob Chikos guy in my class?

He was this fat guy at my junior high, but he’s changed! He made the football team. He’s actually pretty good!

My hamstrings were so tight, I couldn’t bend my knees. Since I had little upper body strength, I locked my arms to keep from falling. When I looked down, all I could see were drops of sweat landing on my filthy hands and an occasional bee threatening to sting.

After 100 yards of crawling, Coach blew his whistle.

“Get back here!” he screamed. “If you don’t make it in time, you’re all doing more!”

We sprinted across the field, toward the goal line, where Coach stood like the only girl in port.

As the last of us limped to the end, he announced, “Not everybody made it back in time. I guess our two friends haven’t learned their lesson yet. Go again.”

Again, we crawled. Because I was exhausted, I had to put in more exertion just to cover the same distance.

At midfield, I looked to my left. Someone had taken off his helmet and was on his hands and knees, vomiting. Twenty yards later, I looked to my right. Four others were walking toward the locker room.

Not me – football is all I’ve got!

Ten yards from reaching the end, Coach’s whistle blew. I scrambled to my feet. My ankles locked. Unable to push off the ball of my foot, I ran off my heels. At the worst possible moment, I had forgotten how to run.

Through my facemask, I saw everyone finish ahead of me. Everyone will have to go again because of me. 

I was the last one in, but I made it. Coach looked at his watch in mock surprise. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t start my stopwatch so I don’t know if you made it back in time or not. Looks like you’ll have to go again.”

Worse than the abuse in junior high, worse than the physical treatment in practice, worse than the incinerating heat, now my spirit had been broken.

I crouched back into my stance. This time, tears, not sweat, dripped onto my hands.

Forty yards down the field, I muttered, “You’re a bastard! I hate you, you bastard!”

I heard an assistant coach behind me, “You can go home any time, Chikos. Take a nice cool shower, sit in the air conditioning. Mama will feed you cookies.”

How long will this go on?! I thought. Even if I make it through this round, how many more will there be?

Twenty yards from the end, I accepted that I’d probably have to quit. I didn’t have what it took and I was dragging everyone else down. I wasn’t sure how I could live with the humiliation at school, being both a loser and a quitter, but I mostly dreaded having to tell my dad.

I heard the echo of the distant whistle. I fell to my knees, then climbed to my feet. Running, I inhaled wheezes as I saw people who had started behind me pass me up.

Forty yards from the end, I slowed to a walk. After 10 more yards, I stopped and doubled over.

I looked at everyone who was already at the end, just 30 yards away.

It was no longer a matter of will. I couldn’t do it. Those 30 remaining yards might as well have been 30 miles.

I felt someone grab my jersey. It was Casey, a fellow lineman.

I hadn’t known Casey before football. We had gone to different feeder schools. As someone who played the same position as I did, had I quit, he’d have less competition. He had nothing to gain if I stayed on the team.

I violated the most grievous sin among adolescent boys: I publicly cried. “I can’t do it!”

“Yes, you can, brother! I’m not doing any more bear crawling and neither are you!” He barked through his mouth guard. He dragged me as my legs moved from habit.

“Let me go! I’m quitting!” I begged.

“No, you’re not!”

Wheezing, we sounded like two bagpipes running down the field. His hand slipped from my jersey but he grabbed my wrist and continued to pull.

Hand in hand, we crossed the goal line.

Coach took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his forearm. “Ok, that’s enough, boys. Take a knee.”

I unsnapped my chinstrap and pried my helmet. Now that it was off, everybody could see me cry.

“I’m quitting.” I said to Casey, as I sniffed my runny nose.

“Dude, you’re not quitting.” He said, gasping between words.

“I just can’t take it anymore.” I said, in a high-pitched squeal. “And I hate Coach.”

“It’s over. We made it.”

“I can’t do another day like this.”

“It’ll get easier, brother.” He said. “Just don’t quit.”

I didn’t quit. I’d like to say this was the breakthrough of a stellar football career, but I didn’t have any game day success. It didn’t matter – no victory could have been as meaningful as finishing that day of practice. And Casey was right, it did get easier. Or, rather, we got stronger.

After two seasons, I stopped playing due to waning interest. As I learned more about my dad, I realized that playing football wasn’t the issue. What made him proud was that his son had the opportunity to do what he couldn’t.

I had learned my most important lesson from high school: football doesn’t make you a winner, but being a good teammate does.

But the story doesn’t end on the football field.

Twenty-six years later, Casey and I reconnected via the miracle of Facebook. He told me about a stomach issue that baffled his doctors. He had already undergone several surgeries, none of which worked. They scheduled one last major surgery as a Hail Mary.

Then, one of the toughest guys I’d ever met, said he was scared.

I said, “Casey, you might not remember this,” and proceeded to remind him in detail about that day. How, even though he was drained, he wouldn’t let me quit. I ended with, “And that’s the tough bastard who’s going to make it through surgery.” After 26 years, it was finally my turn to pull Casey 30 yards.

After the surgery, I saw pictures of a mummified Casey in the hospital. I replied, “Yeah, but you should have seen the train that he took on!” He recovered and, within a few weeks, he was back on the football field – coaching his son. His legend grew.

In 1988, Coach had said he wanted to turn us from boys into men. He did. Being a man has nothing to do with being muscular and fearsome – it has everything to do with helping each other.

All around us, so many are trying to make it through adversity, thinking they’ll never make it through. They need to go just 30 more yards, but they can’t do it themselves.

Will you be their Casey?


Bob is a 22-year veteran of working with people with special needs. In his third stage of life, he has finally reflected on his life lessons in order to advocate for change. Bob lives in Cary, Illinois with his wife Aileen and son Martin.

Deadfall By Paul Lamb


How could it have been worse? Not only the three-hour drive, mostly into the setting sun, and their wooden conversation, mostly about nothing, but in the last half mile of forest, just before they finally got to the cabin, a tree lay fallen across their road.

David had watched the tree for a few years, a hackberry. He watched it die limb by limb and drop branches slowly, watched it shed bark in sheets, watched new pileated woodpecker holes appear in the bare white trunk, watched the tree and wondered if it might do exactly what it had finally done.

Had watched and done nothing because this was the natural course. A snag like this served its own purposes in the forest. After it had dropped its leaves for the last time, it became a home to furred and feathered cavity nesters taking their turn. It allowed sunlight to return to the forest floor. And then finally, when it came down, it began to merge with the ground again, returning its decades of enrichment to the soil. To David, a fallen tree wasn’t bad it was just, well, next.

Curt saw none of this however. To his green eyes the fallen tree was a roadblock, a new chore to hijack their weekend, a bad start to a difficult visit that needed to be a good one or else everything would be wrong for all time.

David shut off the truck’s engine, and both of them stepped out at the same time. The tree was a blowdown, its withered roots heaved from the ground and coated with the rocky Ozark soil the trunk had risen from, the hole it left behind still holding water from the storm that had toppled it. His father had once said – had he said it, Curt wondered, or was it just a story he liked to believe? – that it would be among the roots of such a fallen tree that he could ever hope to find an arrowhead, and Curt scrutinized the rocks there, looking for a worked stone lost by a hunter centuries before and then entwined in the roots of a sapling begun as an acorn or nut that had fallen beside it. He wasn’t sure what kind of tree it had been, but his father would know.

“A snag like this could have stood for another twenty years or fallen in a day,” David said. “Our tough luck that it came down now and across the road.”

“Must have made a lot of noise when it fell.” Curt paused, waiting for a response that didn’t come. Then, “I guess we need to walk the rest of the way to the cabin and bring back the chainsaws.”

“Maybe not.” David broke off a branch as thick as Curt’s arm and tossed it aside. “C’mon.” He returned to the truck, and Curt followed. David shifted the truck into four-wheel drive and steered into the trees, picking his way, pushing down or pushing aside the scrub and saplings, bumping over rocks hidden in the damp leaf litter, finding a path through all of it that would fit his truck and get the two of them past the problem and back on the gravel road that lead to the family cabin. Branches scraped the side of the truck, stuttered across the roof of the cab, slapped the windshield and plucked the antenna. But David did not relent, and as they crept, Curt watched in silence as his father found a way that was invisible to him. When they bumped onto the road once again, David didn’t pause to relish his success but stepped on the gas and continued to the cabin.

The cabin waited, waited to welcome them, waited as it had for decades past and would, they all hoped, for decades more, its own roots sunk deep in the Ozark hardpan. For David the cabin was the most evocative memory he had of his father, who had built it; for Curt the feeling was more diffuse. It was family and memory and stories and a sanctuary that would always be ready, both safe and sacred. As it needed to be most of all for him, for them, this weekend. All that was wrong could seem right, seem fixable, when he was at the cabin.

The fallen snag, they both knew unspoken, would wait for the next day. They would return rested, with the tools they needed and when the day was fresh. An hour or two of harsh noise and heavy lifting, then the road would be clear again, showing remnants of the fall and their clean up, but all of that would soon be absorbed by the living forest that would keep to its eternal cycles. Before them now, though, was the work of getting settled in the cabin and a fire built before the summer sun had set. Chores practiced through the years, both together and alone, that were simple to Curt. Simple and clear compared to his real, his dreaded task for their weekend. This complicated and conflicted son of a good but possibly not good enough father. He would soon know.

“Talk to your father,” Kathy told him. She had watched her boy in the days and weeks following his graduation from medical school, saw how the completion of this one great thing had now meant that another, greater thing took its turn and lay before him, no longer to be shunted and put off. “Say what you need to say to him,” she said as the two of them sat at the kitchen table and picked at the threads of Curt’s next life. Kathy knowing, without having been told, what her son needed to tell his father, and also knowing, better than her son could, what his father would say in response.

“Do you think maybe you underestimate him?” Kelly had said, his turn to press counsel on Curt, unasked but not, he knew, unwelcome. “Has he ever given you any sign that he is not broad-minded? Or at least incapable of being so?” Kelly knew, guessed, with an objectivity Curt did not have, that the picture Curt had painted of his father was incomplete, even unfair, and further, suspected that this most important conversation of their two lives would finally breach that false barrier, and Curt could begin to see the depth in his father that he hadn’t allowed himself to across most of his life.

And so here he was, in the place that was refuge for both of them. Where, Curt knew, he had always felt most clearly the love of his father, a man who was not so good with words but who had an eloquence of both action and stillness that better expressed his heart. But if his love was unspoken it was also, Curt believed, unguarded. As natural and boundless as the blue summer sky above them. All that remained was for Curt to say three small words. But his life would not be the same after he spoke them. Nor would his father’s. And he cared deeply about both. So, Curt asked himself as he built the fire he would certainly light with a single match, should he upend their entire weekend at the cabin, or wait for the last possible moment so he, they, could relish most of this time they had together just as they had countless weekends of their past?

Yet if Kelly was right, then so many of those uncounted visits – most of Curt’s life as a son really – had been incomplete, not as fully or as deeply lived as they should have been. If Kelly was right, then Curt had cheated his father and had cheated himself. And if his mother was right – there was no question of this to Curt – then he shouldn’t wait a moment longer.

Still, nothing would be the same afterward. Who would think that it could? Each moment of each day for the rest of their lives would be filtered through this new knowledge. And it was this aftermath that Curt feared the most. Even the best outcome would mean a subtle but permanent difference in how they saw one another.

Curt’s fire burned brightly, pushing back the falling darkness, and he readied the larger pieces of wood to add so they would have flickering flames and coals for conversation and quiet musing. He wondered how many of these fires he had built in his life and wished he had kept some record of it, some record beyond the deep build up of mute ash in the ring. David came from the cabin with two beers in hand, giving one to Curt, and they both popped them open. The night sounds of the forest were beginning. A barred owl had been calling across the lake below them, and they hoped, as they always did, to hear a whippoorwill, their totem sound and one David had commented that he’d seemed to hear less frequently than he had in his boyhood memories. Even with the regular cycles of the forest, some things changed. This simple, even pure delight of theirs might go missing some day, and he was glad Curt had known of it, had experienced it.

Doctor Clark! It’s easy to be proud of you, Curt.”

Stop, Curt thought. You’re making this harder. He dropped a chunk of split oak onto his fire. Orange sparks spiraled into the air and winked out.

“Maybe so,” Curt said. “But maybe med school was the easy part. Being a doctor, a resident in the real world might not be so easy.”

David pulled a chair closer to the fire; its feet ground through the gravel. He sat, and in a moment, Curt did the same, across the fire from his father. Once on an evening much like this, a screech owl had pierced the forest with its call. Sudden silence had followed; every other creature had ceased its noise in awe or terror. Curt remembered that.

On this night they were instead gifted with the three notes of a whippoorwill, somewhere in a tree beyond the firelight. Both men sat in silence, savoring the sound, and Curt recalled another now long-ago time when he had tried to count the repetitions of the bird’s call, giving up somewhere in the thirties.

The whippoorwill had spoken. Curt would as well.

“Dad,” Curt said, not lifting his eyes from the orange glow of the consuming flames between them, and David knew from Curt’s use of that word, this less formal name for him he rarely used, that important words were about to come, words he thought he could guess.

He tried again. “Dad, I’m gay.”

And now the aftermath.

Curt did not know how long his father had been waiting to hear these three small and so hugely complex words from his boy. Curt had always been a clever boy. The depth of his compassion had led him down the path to becoming a doctor. But for all of the range in his heart and mind, Curt had never seemed able, or perhaps willing, to grant sufficient humanity to his own father. Early on he had formed a concept of who the man was, what his essential nature was, and he had been so busy hiding his own essential nature, that he missed all of the evidence that David Clark was the one person on the whole planet who loved him most of all.

David hadn’t understood, at first, why his son had cultivated an uncrossable distance between them. They could joke and laugh and discuss most things and even skinny dip in the lake together without hesitation, but he knew there was always something in the way. As his realization of what this must be slowly came to him, and he stopped joking about girlfriends and stopped speaking about grandchildren, he understood that if it ever were to be broached, it would have to be on Curt’s terms. His boy grew, never giving him a single moment of rebellion or cause for grief that he could remember. He finished high school well. He went to college and came back a man of insight and achievement. Then he went to medical school and came back a doctor. And yet during all of this, Curt had not found the opportunity – or was it maybe the desire? – to be fully open with him.

David never knew why, just as he didn’t know why this time, this visit to their cabin, was when it had finally happened. What about the universe had changed?

And then it struck him. He pulled on his beer then cleared his throat, wanting to say the right thing and not realizing how even the short time the took for this reflection was rending Curt’s heart, filling him with a certain fear of an outcome that he had been equally certain wouldn’t come.

“So is there someone special?” David asked, not yet ready to meet his son’s eyes. He would follow Curt’s lead in the moments ahead.

Curt slumped into the most immense relief he had felt in his life. David’s question told him that his father, whose opinion most counted in all the world, had jumped past objection or rejection or confusion or whatever wrong might have been, had even jumped past immediate acceptance, and had effortlessly moved on to opening his heart to Curt’s fuller life. Someone special! Someone his father would greet and hug and welcome as a second son and bring to the cabin and their forest because this was his way of expressing love.

The part of Curt that had known this all along pushed aside his unfounded fears, sidestepped the more obvious subject for discussion, and joined his father on the other side.

“Yes, actually. His name is Kelly.” Then a moment later, “I met him on the running trail.”

“A runner like you! That’s great.”

“Yeah,” he said, barely able to suppress a chuckle of giddiness.

David was about to ask when he would get to meet this Kelly person, this person who loved his son, but another thought pressed itself ahead.

“I don’t suppose you even need to tell Mom.”

“She can see right through me, Dad!”

“I know. Me too.” And he’d heard that word “Dad” again. “Still, you should tell her anyway. Just to get it in the open.”

Maybe they were exhausted by their achievement because they let a comfortable silence fall between then, filled, mercifully, by the chirring forest around them. Each man had been unprepared for the other’s words but each man had been relieved and released by them. David finally attempted.

“Curt.” He scuffed the toe of his boot in the gravel. “I’m not very good with these things. With speaking my mind. I don’t know the right things to say, the right way to say them. All I can say is that I love you. I always have. I always will. You’re my perfect boy and I’ve always been proud of you.” He paused and set his beer on the gravel then clasped his hands. “I don’t know what else to say, son.”

In a husky voice Curt said, “You don’t have to say anything else. What you said is perfect.” And then, “Thanks, Dad.”

And so for a while neither of them said anything. The fire between them snapped and sizzled. The insects and frogs sang in the trees. Faraway owls hooted. A breeze came from the other side of the cabin and blew smoke into Curt’s face. He closed his eyes for a moment, but when he opened them again, the smoke was still coming at him.

“Well, if that’s they way it’s going to be,” he said, rising from his chair and dragging it through the gravel to the other side of the fire beside his father. His dad. Dad.

In the orange of the firelight David reached across and rested his hand on Curt’s bare forearm.

“You know what I don’t see a lot of out here?”

Curt, not expecting to be confronted with such an odd question and unable to imagine where it might lead said simply, “What’s that?”

“Mosquitos. I guess the dragonflies and the bats take care of that for us.”

What could he say in response to that? Curt wondered. Was any response necessary? His father had eased right back into common cabin conversation, into the mundane they shared as though Curt’s monumental words were now well behind them and maybe even not so monumental at all. More importantly though, when, beyond a perfunctory handshake or a clap on the shoulder, was the last time his father had touched him, touched his skin? When had he let him? His arm tingled.

They both knew, each at his own level, that what had passed between them at this campfire would need more thought, more slow absorption into their lives. That their few words to each other would eventually be followed by other words, mostly good words surely, but words that would pick and poke at their changed relationship, furthering it, deepening it, and discovering what it would mean going forward.

David was already beginning to sense this. Now that he had his son back – and he was back, wasn’t he? After more than a decade of holding himself at his distance Curt had finally spoken his truth and together they had pushed aside or left behind what had been between them, right? – David realized that he was also losing him. Soon he would no longer have Curt to himself, at least as wholly to himself as he might have before and now could only for the rest of their weekend while they were together in this place. Because Curt was going to give himself to another. To Kelly. David would have to learn to share him, to accept – once again, ironically – whatever bits of Curt were allowed to him. He held this bittersweet tension in his heart, feeling it but not understanding it.

Curt, in turn, tried to find his own new equilibrium. It wasn’t so much that his father’s automatic acceptance of his son’s life had been unexpected. He realized how he should have seen this, should have seen it years before. No, it was that so much time had been wasted, so much love had been tempered, so much chill had been cultivated and then endured. So much needless waste! Why had he allowed himself to create such a mess? To let it last for so long? His diagnosis: he hadn’t been a very good son to a very good father. No, he had not been very good; merely good enough. Never mind that the cure had come easily or that they could both now be healthy again. That the affliction had existed at all was his real shame.

The whippoorwill had ceased its call. David thought he had heard one across the lake, up on the far ridge, but it was too distant to hear clearly. The air had stilled. A thread of smoke rose unmolested from the few coals still glowing in the ring. Time to spread them so they could burn out. Maybe quench them with whatever liquids the two men had at hand. And then to the cabin for the night. The usual routines before going to sleep.

David screwed his half empty beer can into the gravel and pushed up from his chair. He prodded the coals with a stick and considered whether they needed further attention or could burn themselves out overnight. The recent rain meant the forest was wet, so he wasn’t too worried, but he also knew he would rise in the night, more than once likely, and he could check on the coals then.

Curt had watched in silence, thinking much of the same thoughts as his father, the result of having shared countless campfires with him in this place.

David said, “I’m turning in.”

“Be right there,” Curt said, rising from his chair and stepping closer to the coals. “One thing first.”

As David walked the familiar path to the cabin he heard Curt quenching the coals.

When Curt reached the cabin, David had already turned on the lantern that hung from a hook in the ceiling. The light was dazzling to his dark-adapted eyes and he looked to the floor at first as David opened the windows to ensure that whatever breeze passed before the cabin would also pass through it and keep them cool as they slept.

And it was in this moment that Curt was overcome with the realization of how fully his three words had changed his life.

Before him his father was undressing, getting ready for falling into bed. He would strip to his briefs, unabashedly before his son and move about the room nearly naked. Curt would do them same, peeling down to his boxers with nothing left but to say a few words and then get into bed himself.

Together, the summer before, they had added a second bedroom to the cabin, which was his dad’s big indulgence. His grandfather had built the cabin, and Curt saw that putting on that second bedroom was important to David, a way of leaving his own mark. More than anything, David wanted the little cabin and their hundred acres to be a part of the family forever. He was preparing it for further life that he wanted to be lived there, for further perfect moments.

Yet Curt feared that the second bedroom would soon be witness to a different kind of moment. One that would forever evoke its own memories. This sudden realization tainted his outlook for the whole weekend ahead. On the face of it, a perfectly sensible, even inevitable consequence of his three words, yet harrowing because nothing could speak more clearly of a new and irreparable sunder with his father. It was this: that no longer could they share the old bed in the old cabin. No longer could these two men in nothing more than their underwear curl under the single quilt as they had hundreds of times and fall asleep side by side. For despite the love he knew his father felt for him, Curt was certain that the man could never again sleep beside his son, his son who was now an openly gay man. It tainted his whole life ahead.

Curt stood beside the bed, hesitating. He was waiting. Waiting for a word from his father or the will in himself. Waiting for direction.

“It will be good to get some sleep before we tackle that fallen tree tomorrow,” Curt offered as innocuously as he could, trying to fill the empty air between them and maybe prod the right words – or even the wrong ones – from his father.

“I’d completely forgotten about that!” David chuckled at his own forgetfulness. “Yeah, that will be quick work for the two of us.”

Left with nothing, Curt paused for a hopeless moment then grabbed the second pillow from the bed and turned to march off to the other bedroom.

“Hey, where are you going?”

Curt stopped but didn’t turn.

“Aren’t you going to sleep here with me?”

Curt spun around did not try to hide his smile as he threw the pillow at his father. He shook off his clothes and hurried under the quilt with his dad.

David in his briefs and Curt in his boxers. Two grown men, nearly naked, happily in bed together. And would they slip into the lake fully naked the next day, to wash off the grit and grime of their work on the deadfall, just as they had so many times before.


Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his little cabin in the Missouri Ozarks whenever he gets the chance. He keeps a blog of his writing and other oddments at Lucky Rabbit’s Foot. He rarely strays far from his laptop.

After Later By Michael Holland

Breeze blows coolly in through the window

Black morning sun as dim as streetlights’ glow

Air never tastes this good, eyelids never fight this hard to close


The sun at its zenith is like CSPAN

Shade makes life livable again

Night seeps down into your hands


Skeletal trees perch on piles of leaves in the rain

While the sun makes its descent over the landscape

Painting the clouds and everything around brilliant vermilion shades


The urgency of temperatures below freezing

Can be so pleasing

And fire makes us hold onto the moment completely


The moon is always waiting, patiently watching

At just the right time you can see it’s a sphere, it’s awkward

The moon is always turning, spinning, and falling


Michael Holland is a veteran and a graduate. His favorite book is Replay, and he’s an amateur electronic athlete.