My Wish for You in the Land of the Dead: a Cuban Sandwich
by Leslie Blanco

Winner, Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction

See what things have come to? See? Yesterday, I very nearly fell asleep in the grocery line while waiting to buy you a ham.*

You don’t like ham.

Neither do I.

But it’s the tradition.

Every year, the ham “provokes” you. “Como me provoca!” Every year you say: “It’s just not right without the ham.” Pink. Shiny. Glazed. You like to add pineapples to it, affixed helter-skelter with the kind of tooth picks that have red plastic fringes on the ends. “There. Now it looks like Chiquita Banana.” You say that every time. Also: “Poor Carmen Miranda. Dead of heart attack at forty-seven. She wore herself out.”

Without the ham, you tell me, the side dishes don’t look right. “A flower with no center,” you say. “The petals are pretty, but …” Shrug.

There are doilies, of course. To make the home-made food look prettier, and the store-bought food look home-made. A little trickery of yours. A little brujeria, your every-day sorcery.

And the easy-to-wash polyester tablecloth, that’s there too, off-white with a border of embroidered flowers in every neon color of the rainbow. More Chiquita Banana.

None of this ever varies. The pineapple slices must be Dole. No other brand. “No se te ocura!” Don’t let it occur to you! As if the pineapples will be second rate. Imported from the wrong place. Unreliable. Niña! There’s enough insecurity in the world without having to go and try new brands,” you say. “Not that they aren’t capable of changing what goes in the can without so much as changing the label.” They. You say that a lot. Who’s they? “The scoundrels. The sinverguenzas. You know they mess with the sugar in this country, don’t you? In Cuba, I can tell you for a fact, the sugar was sweeter.”

I never believed you, about the sugar, until that year I visited a friend in Mexico. My standard two spoonfuls in my coffee, and I had to pour it down the drain. Too sweet. And a few years back I met a lobbyist, or a regulator, some politically inclined person who worked for the sugar industry. You are right. You are right! They mess with the sugar. They alter the volume chemically. “So we’ll have to use more and pay again,” you say, “for what should have been enough for the recipe the first time.” 

You are absolutely right.

No wonder I am so tired. It’s exhausting, not knowing which of your ridiculous theories to believe. Also, the boxing matches keep me up late. The ones I see on your tiny, black and white television with the antenna that has to be manipulated every two minutes. You watch those matches at night, from your bed, because boxing is the proper thing to watch last thing, for a peaceful sleep. “Hit him in the face!” you yell at the television. “Right hook! Left! That’s how it’s done! That’s how you do it!”

In the side by side twin beds, me in the one that used to be your sister’s, I fall into a shallow sleep and wake to your cheers, your angry ravings. The bed is soft as sponge cake, with some sort of second market, bargain warehouse foam, unevenly cut, stuffed beneath the sheets to extend the life of the mattress.

Under your bed, right where your hand would fall if you reached straight down from the shoulder, you keep a heavy flashlight and a toy gun. You’ve shown me. “In the dark, people will believe anything,” you say. “When they’re scared, not expecting it, that’s when you have the advantage.”

I tell you it could backfire. Excuse the pun. Anyway, you ignore me.

“The flashlight is for whacking them in the head,” you say, “but you make sure you aim well. One try, that’s all you’ll get at those thieving descarados.”

“Descarado” is your third favorite word, right after “they” and shameless “sinverguenza,” and though you are not political, though you alone of the many like you never speak of politics, of Democrats or Republicans or secretly infiltrating Communists in disguise, it’s plain who you think is the biggest descarado on the face of the earth, the Descarado Último, Generalissimo Son of a Filthy Whore, at the very tippy top of the pyramid of the world hierarchy of descarados. You don’t say his name. Not even once. Not his famous first name nor his slightly less famous last name. You pretend he does not even exist.

Every year, at the large dining room table with the leaves put in, in the house you never had, for the clan you never met, in a country that never really became yours, you place the ham in the center. You are a great aficionada of tin foil and so tin foil is draped over the top and pressed to the sides, covering the ham ineffectually, but nevertheless, the pineapples need to be protected. You’ve spent your life in the kitchen. You know these things. At the kitchen, and also at the clearance rack at Hecht Company, and also at the fabric store. You had to do everything. Your sister couldn’t even thread a needle. Your sister couldn’t even press the button to start the deep fryer.

You surround the ham with white rice and frijoles negros, white rice and what Americans call black bean soup, in separate bowls, because that’s one thing, everyone likes to mix them their own way. On the other side of the table, like another religion, at least another denomination, are the Cristianos y Moros. The Christians and the Moors: history and gallows humor and unwitting admission of the desirableness of culture clash. I am talking about black beans and white rice, yes, but the kind that get baked together. Not just mixed, but forged with heat and the harmonizing effects of bacon. 

Avocado, chopped and covered in olive oil, is the only vegetable you will provide, though someone else will bring sliced tomatoes, that other food that “provokes” you so much, but that you can never bring yourself to like. There is a plate of boiled yucca with the garlic mojo already on top. “What kind of an idiot would eat it without the mojo?” you say. Plantains are required, platanos, both the over-ripe kind, maduros, and the starchy, green tostones, fried, separately, in the frying pan that always fills the house with greasy smoke. 

There is not so much as a piece of iceberg. Not even next to the pre-sliced rolls and the mayonnaise and mustard spooned into cut glass bowls and reserved for the ham sandwiches. This is how a table should look. This is how a holiday should look, young people and their obsession with lettuce and quinoa be damned.

The desserts, of course, wait in the kitchen. Prohibited until after dinner by the wrath of ancestors. Not even to be glimpsed. Under more tin foil. Gaining power. Stoking desire. A little deprivation is good for everyone. Patience is a virtue.

Every year, when everyone has come, eaten like barn animals, like refugees, like people who haven’t seen a buñuelo soaked in anise syrup for a hundred years, you sit down among the dirty serving platters, among the crumbs and the smears of frying grease, and you cut off a little sliver of the poor, demolished ham, on which one or two Chiquita Bananas still stand. You put the slice on a fancy plate, but a small one. You taste it. You nibble, wanting to like it.

“The first bite is always good,” you say, savoring. “The second less good.” A waggle of the head. “The third too salty. Naah,” you say suddenly, as if the ham has insulted you. “I’ll stick with puerco. Chichironcitas. Masitas. Lomo. Pierna.” Pork. Pork rinds. Pork loin. Whole leg of pork thoroughly encased in a paste of raw garlic, onion, oregano and lemon juice. I’ve seen you. You coat the leg as with a spa treatment before inserting it, pot holders to your elbows, into the sauna. “Perfect on the third day,” you say, “thinly sliced with pickles in a nice, thick Sanweech Cubano.”

Well.

An empty dining room here, Tía. The same mess to clean up. The same guests gone. 

But you’re still here, like the fading photos of your father and your mother that you kept by your bed, next to the votive candles, the fresh carnations and the prayer card of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. 

And Tía, I’ll never forget what you said to me during my first divorce. Your shoulders shrugged up to your ears, your palms extended toward me with that gesture of what-a-great-shame: “Ay hija, can’t it be fixed?”

I shook my head.

That’s all the time it took for defiance to rock your face and boom your voice. “Mejor! Better. That’s why I never married. I can’t forgive.” You shook your head. “No. I don’t forgive.”

You told the story. The one and only boyfriend of your life. Severed, as with a sword, upon the mere rumor that he’d gone to Havana and been seen holding hands with another. He came to the house and pleaded — to you, your sisters, your father. “She was my cousin,”he said. “It wasn’t anything.” His mother came, the cousin herself. No matter. You were a statue made of marble. He was dead to you.

And now Tía, the second divorce is done and over and I vow today, on your grave and on this ham, to shed not one more tear, to be a spinster like you until the day I die. The family needs one. Someone needs to be here to hold the opposite opinion, the unpopular one, for the young people who come in tears and desperation after the priest has filled them with all that drivel about forgiveness and the true nature of love. Because Tía, I had the opposite problem as you. 

I forgave too much.

I forgave too much. A fatal flaw.

Bueno. Mejor. They are dead to me. I have no qualms about either of them. 

But guilt is a sticky nectar that clings to the fingers and against which napkins are useless and now that it’s too late, like you told me it would be one day, I am trying to take care of you. I am haunted by the broken hip, your screams of pain, the way one day you folded up and didn’t want to talk any more. Not interested. Done. Your indomitable spirit, always so angry at the world, so fiercely protective, so certain, so right, merely succumbed. 

I am a cliché, I know. Too busy tending to that first idiot. Crying. Buying self-help books. What did I do for you, your final years? Come stay with you for a weekend when your sister died, take you to the grocery store once or twice? 

At the grocery, all the checkers knew exactly how you wanted your items bagged for the walk home. You roamed the aisles slowly, meandering, the meat aisle, the produce, checking the sales, identifying things you’d never cooked, whispering — too much — and raising your eyebrows at me while cocking your head toward the registers, as if you didn’t want your friend the manager to hear. The first time — going up and down the frozen food aisles, looking at the corn, comparing all the varieties of three-color, three-flavor ice creams, Giant brand, Breyer’s brand, going round to the juices, coming back to the ice cream — it took me thirty minutes to realize you didn’t actually need anything. You already had enough toilet paper to last until the Apocalypse, still had a full gallon of the “good,” whole-fat milk. But even after thirty-some years it just never got old for you, to go to the grocery store and see that the shelves were not empty, that you would not have to stand in line three hours for one item, that they would not run out or tell you how much of a ration you were allowed. You liked to see the new packaging, the items stocked neatly one in front of the other on a shelf as deep as the length of your arm. Colorful things. Things that were not expired. Novelties. Cake mixes! Cans that shot out whipped cream! A kid in a candy shop. A ritual of reassurance that everything would be taken away from you only once in your life. 

And every year, every year: the luxurious indulgence of the spiral cut, pre-salted, syrup coated ham you did not have to cook, but only to decorate. The little thrill of giving the ham a second chance, of seeing if your taste buds had finally decided to agree with your eyes.

I admit that once or twice I’ve considered that you might have been a lesbian. The way you wielded a hammer. The way you hid your money rolled up inside of the hollow clothes rod in your closet. I don’t know why that should lean things one way or the other, or why what should convince me that you were straight was how much you loved to sew. I just can’t see a lesbian sewing. A lesbian, somehow, should claim all the macho rights of the opposite sex. The swagger. The facility for household projects and tool organization. Really, you were more like a nun than a lesbian. A fierce, grumpy nun. And as far as I know, it was that grumpiness that protected you from temptation and trickery.

To my great misfortune, I have a cheerful disposition. I try to be wary, I practice that up and down, suspicious to my bones look you used to give people, but at the first smile I am already offering a jar of home-made raspberry preserves or a cutting from my garden. 

To my even greater detriment, I like men. I like their hairy arms, their gracelessness, even the smell of bear and sweat and truly scandalous lack of hygiene that most women recoil from. 

Not that any of that will change my mind now.

Oh. How I loved you, as a child. And how I resented you. During my spinsterhood-is-a-fate-worse-than-death phase. You were right, Tía. You were right. Forgiveness is for the birds.

And I want you to know. Oyeme lo que to voy a decir, once and for all.You don’t need to worry about me any more. No. Not one bit. Because I’m settling into my new role. The new anti-matriarch. The anti-sacrificial lamb. 

Please Lord, I pray now before bed. Actually, no. Who am I kidding? Please Lord Buddha, Divine Mother, Great Spirit. No, no, still not right. Tía, who watches over me from above, please, when I am old, let me be difficult and furious and endearing and always right. Let me say I told you so. Let me call my philandering nephew-in-law a mosquita muerta, a little, dead fly, and let me assert that it’s precisely the ones who look like little dead flies, seemingly innocent, seemingly incapable of hurting anyone, who you’ve got to watch like the criminals they are. 

Please Tía, when I give the twenty dollar bill as a birthday gift to the children of the family, let me say: “enjoy it, sinverguenza, I might not be here to give you another one next year.” Let me tell everyone to stay single, let me lord my experience over them, my nonconformity, my disdain for the bland and obvious stupidity of those who blindly choose the societal norm. 

Yes. Let me give everyone Hell 24/7 and go collecting their smiles, their indulgence, their respect. Let me hoard my famous flan de coco recipe until I am on my death bed, and even so, when the great-niece I have chosen for this extravagant inheritance reminds me that I promised, that I promised to give her the recipe before I died, let me rise like your favorite San Lázaro. Let me scold her, and tell her she is not doing it right, all the while eyeing her suspiciously, as if I am not giving this recipe to her of my own free will, but as if she is stealing it from me, as if all her life she has been waiting for me to die, all her life she has been plotting, biding her time, for this, to take from me, shamelessly, my last remaining vestige of earthly power. 

But above all, Tía, let me broadcast — silently, in code, with jokes and the ferocious and sometimes shy imposition of my will — that all I do — my criticism, my eye rolls, my scowls —  I do out of obstinate, unflinching, unforgiving love.

*With modification, from “Difficulties,” in Mouth, Poems by Tracey Knapp (42 Miles Press, 2015).  

Leslie Blanco’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, PANK, Calyx, TransAtlanticPanorama, Southern Humanities Review, and The Coachella Review, among others. Her story “I Haven’t Forgotten You” won Big Muddy’s 2019 Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Prize. In 2020, “A Ravishing Sun” was selected for publication from among the finalists of the New Letters Robert Day Award for Fiction. Leslie is the recent recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, a Hedgebrook fellowship, and a Rona Jaffe fellowship. She has an MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and a novel in the closet. She loves travel, the diverse and universal feast of spiritual possibility, and speaking to children through invented characters born when said children press her belly button.

The Oedipal Myth: a Retelling
by Jeffrey Rapaport

Runner-Up, Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction

Dion moved back to the neighborhood.

It defied the change characterizing the rest of the city: new developments, young professionals, coffee shops, and bars—an evaporation, like a puddle retreating into itself, then into nothingness, of crime. But the neighborhood was never dangerous or too dangerous and the same dollar stores and Hispanic restaurants flanked the streets. Kids still sold pot outside their buildings and police cars still screamed by, but the neighborhood was not unruly. The neighborhood above it was.

Marcia answered the door in a purple tank top. She was forty, probably. Dion, twenty-five, shook her hand. She turned around, her curves widening, broadening necessarily inside the leggings, flesh stirring and returning to stillness; his breath caught in his upper chest, pressed against his throat: “This is the room,” she said.

Furniture clogged the little space. A twin bed had retreated, with nowhere else to go, in the corner. A random door to the kitchen opened a crack in the middle of the bedroom wall—one of those doors in a bedroom betraying it is not supposed to be a bedroom at all—just enough for the wire strung through it to connect to an outlet by the bed, probably powering the refrigerator in the kitchen. When Dion asked Marcia if it were possible to close the door, she volunteered to drill a hole in it for the wire to feed through, to allow the door to shut, for Dion’s privacy. Beside the door to the kitchen opened the bedroom door in which they stood, him a little ahead of her: “The rent includes utilities?” he said.

“Yep.”

Then they sat down at the table beside the front door. Packaged candy covered the table. The wall behind Dion was painted pink. The wall beside him was orange. Another wall was bright green. Little candies filled a bowl on the coffee table opposite the purple couch. Marcia smiled and Dion noticed her green eyes and she asked him to tell her about himself and Dion said:

“I grew up near Philadelphia, I work at a deli downtown, I’m a painter.” Before he could see any concern ripple through her face, he said: “My painting supplies are in a storage unit. I’ll get them when I move out of here.” He couldn’t think of anything else. He wanted to say something else. He felt he should.

“I was born here,” said Dion, the words floating away from his mouth, him observing the words float away from his mouth, “in this neighborhood.”

“Oh, wow,” said Marcia, “and when did you move to Philly? When you were a kid?”

“Yeah,” said Dion, breath emptying the word, shrinking it, because “move to Philly” surrounded what really happened like an earth around a core. Philadelphia was where Dion’s adoptive parents had taken him, after adopting him from a birth mother in the neighborhood and city he’d just returned to. 

Her ex-boyfriend came that night while Dion was asleep. Dion’s feet shivered over the edge of the bed. Somewhere, somehow, a draft. The screaming and the thump of boots and then the slam of the door should have woken him but fatigue, insurmountable, from days of sleepless searching for a room as the month ended, of withholding money for a motel to afford a deposit, of internet cafes and 24-hour McDonald’s, heaved onto him, burying him—a very deep sleep.

He joined her in the kitchen the following evening. She made coffee. She smiled, lips tight, and lifted the cup: “I like to drink coffee in the night,” she said, and the words in the night, spoken by her as if by a little girl, he thought, transformed into a little girl in his mind, or an image of a girl, an archetypal imprint of a child jumping rope, and he said: “Me too,” even though it wasn’t true. She offered him coffee and he had a mug. She told him about herself: she’d lived in the neighborhood her whole life. Her father worked for the city. Her mother was dead. She worked for the city, too. At a subway station, at the booth. “Which station?” “210th Street,” she said, “my home station.”

And then he took his coffee and she took her coffee and she went to bed and he stood in his room, holding his mug in both hands, then sat down at the desk beside the door, the little desk, and felt like painting, but because his stuff lay in a storage unit and he could not paint, and knew he could not paint, energy like light from the sun on the beach ran up from his pelvis to his head, bursting upon the ceiling of his skull, spurring him out the door, into the street, swept by wind and pre-storm electricity, enlivening the air. Then he rode the subway for one stop, just to ride. He got off. When the storm broke, he hid under the awning of a deli. The rain lessened. He ran to the subway, through the lighter rain, rode, mistakenly, downtown, in the wrong direction, realized it, and it took him two stops to resolve to get off the train, cross the platform, and ride uptown, in the right direction, home. Outside the door to the apartment, he heard yelling from inside, his hand held onto the doorknob as he listened to the shouting, a man’s, barks of noise, serrated around the edges like someone notched the yells with a box cutter, shouts solidifying into words, half-heard through the door: “FAULT,” and “TAKE,” and “I,” and he turned the handle and walked into the apartment and the man, standing in the living room beyond the hall, turned green eyes on Dion and Dion walked toward them and then Marcia said: “Frank, this is Dion” and Dion’s mind said go to your room but his backside sank into the couch where, crawling with fear, he stared ahead, sitting on the couch he had never sat on before, a pace away from the man and Marcia, facing one another, seconds before entrenched in the screaming. But Dion just sat on the couch, staring straight ahead. Standing where he stood, the man’s fist hung beside Dion’s ear. Marcia looked at Dion and looked at the man. Her eyes, wet before, brightened, hardened. Then Dion stood up and went to his room. A little while later he heard the front door slam. 

The following evening, he sat down again on the couch because he figured: Now I’ve done it, better keep doing it, to make it seem like it’s natural, and she came out of her room and sat down. Each asked the other about their day. “I’m gonna’ watch The Twilight Zone,” Marcia said, to relieve the pause. Dion said he’d never seen The Twilight Zone

Marcia gasped.

It was an episode about a family of aliens who seem like earthlings, terrorized by earthlings who seem like aliens, until the end of the episode, when the twist is revealed. Dion said he liked the black and white, he liked the show, and Marcia nodded, looking at him, eyes wide, excited.

“Do you want to know who your birth parents are?” said Naima, the young woman across the table—his date. 

Dion for lack of something to talk about had volunteered that he was adopted.

This was their third date. This was the third date Dion had ever been on. Nervousness traveled up and down his body like an electrical current. Sometimes, an extraordinary calm possessed Dion at an impenetrable—it seemed—center, and reality encircled him like a planet around a sun. Other times, Dion’s head ballooned with red energy, chaos, and he thought he would die or collapse into himself, draining into a hole, some destruction, some misfortune worse than death. This latter state dogged him throughout this date. Dion shook his head, no, he didn’t want to meet his birth parents. “Well,” he said, reconsidering, “yes and no.”

I should kiss her, he thought, facing her outside her door, later that night, but he said goodnight, turned around, and trudged to the train station, shame inflaming him. 

He got off at 210th Street. The entire ride home, he wanted to punch the air to death or cry or scream. Passing the booth outside the turnstiles, he heard a knocking—a knocking on the bulletproof glass, from inside the booth, and turned and saw her, knocking on the glass, smiling, in her work clothes. He smiled, too. “I’m just getting off,” she said, clambering out the booth.

They walked home.

She took off her uniform jacket. Shoulders, wide and fleshy, overflowed the sleeveless undershirt, Dion’s eyes weakened, softened, the word “Twilight,” uncurled before “Zone,” curved upward into the air. 

“What?” Dion said, drawn to her.

“Twilight Zone?”

“You’ve never had a girlfriend before?” said Marcia, as they talked, after the episode about the boy who could destroy the world with his mind. 

“No,” said Dion, “but I’m signed up for online dating.”

“I’ve tried that, too,” said Marcia. She laughed. 

Dion was silent.

“I’m sorry about the last few nights,” Marcia said, looking to the side, as if distracted by a crack in the wall she’d never seen before. “I told him to not come here anymore, and he said he wouldn’t.” She looked back. Their green eyes met. 

“Let’s watch another episode of Twilight Zone,” Dion said, and they did.

That night, lying in bed, on his back, he thought again about the way she seemed to sway through the world. How she laughed—a curt, imploding snort from the other room, the living room, when he heard her watching Seinfeld, at six, or Friends, at six-thirty. 

At work, the next day, a few minutes after Dion had clocked in, his manager said: “Dion, can I talk to you for a second?” and Dion followed him downstairs. 

A few days before, a drunk Wall Street type—the deli was in the Financial District—impressed his friends (also drunk—in different colored polos: pink, blue, and pastel red) by opening a root beer bottle and drinking it before paying, implying, through his swagger, staggering from the cash register to tables and chairs in the deli, that he might not pay at all, that he might not bring it to the register, to Dion, who was tightening, reddening, unsure of himself. Dion’s shoulders rose and knotted and his pulse sped. Out of nowhere: “Are you going to pay for that?” expelled from him, like a sentient thing—loudly. He did not even remember his own curse words which soon followed or how he left the cash register to talk, too closely, to the man drinking the root beer. He did remember being outside a little while after, on the sidewalk in front of the deli, the November air, a nightly breeze, which could have blown the floating, falling leaves together to form the letters and words: “You’ll be fired.” 

A half an hour after walking downstairs with his manager, Dion walked upstairs. He shouldn’t have said what he said—to his manager, to anyone. He walked out. The sun was high and the day was cold. Aimlessly, he caught a bus uptown and watched women on the sidewalk through the window. For upwards of forty-minutes, he strained to think of something to say to the girl across the aisle from him. The bus’s seats where Dion sat faced one another. She sat down on 30th Street and stayed on, across from Dion, the entire trip uptown, to 125th, where, his forehead crinkling, Dion said: “Do you know if this bus goes to 130th Street?” It did. He knew it did.

He got off. He walked, bent forward, fists balled. He thought he saw Frank, the man who visited his landlady, her ex-boyfriend, up ahead, bounding out of a corner store, bald head, Dion remembered from the apartment, like a baby, sideburns swooping down, jaw curved and edged, like a machine used in a shop for cutting. But it was not him, he realized. Dion thought: I could kill him. I honestly could. I could kill someone. I could kill him. I could do that and not feel bad about it. Stores passing as he thought: I could make the foot go into his neck over and over enough times to do that I could do that and then without a sliver of consideration he ducked into the subway to find his way uptown, to his stop, to her booth. She was not there. She came home that night and Dion looked over from the couch. He was going to say: “Twilight Zone?” when he saw her face. She went into her room. Dion said nothing. Hushed, frenzied hysteria whirled around in his head. 

She did not come out, to his knowledge, the whole night, except at one point to use the bathroom, which he heard her do from his room. He wanted to knock on her door. He stood outside of it for a long time, on several occasions, getting into bed, getting out again, standing outside of her door. 

Eventually, unable to sleep, Dion walked out of his room and sat on the couch. He woke, seated upright, in the afternoon. To pretend he went to work, he left in his uniform, a black t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the deli, and walked to the train. He transferred at the station he always transferred at, to catch the express train downtown, and there, across the tracks, on the other platform, waiting for his own train uptown, stood Frank, unmistakable, short, taut, bald, hooked sideburns sloping down his jaw. “He doesn’t see me,” said Dion aloud, and Dion parted from the line of people waiting beside the edge of the platform, darted upstairs and across the station, to the uptown bound trains, then down the stairs, seeing Frank, again, his head neither close, nor far, but visible, bald. He saw the head enter into the opening doors of the arriving train. Dion went into the train car beside it. Through the window of the doors dividing the train cars, between which you could stand and smoke a cigarette as Dion had once seen a man do, Dion saw Frank, maintained the visual lock on Frank, who stood beside a pack of other people, whose baggy jeans, shortness, baldness, Dion sought every minute or so, where Frank stood behind a homeless man and his shopping cart of enormous trash bags, black and heaping. Then they reached 210th Street. Frank turned, moved, another body eclipsed his: Dion prepared his legs to launch him out of the subway car, one last glance trained on the door between the cars, the window, where he saw Frank sit down, his bald head descend into an empty seat, and Dion rode on.

The train climbed upward, hauling itself out the tunnel, into the light, on an elevated track lifting toward the neighborhood above Marcia’s, storied for crime, infamous as a bastion of the old city, where, sidling along the elevated platform, slowing, grinding, the train opened its doors, and almost before Frank rose, Dion rose, and as Frank departed, disappearing from view, Dion stepped out, standing straight, eyes unblinking, onto the metal grid of the platform. He followed the back of the bald head—like a baby, Dion thought, heart clamoring—down the platform, down the steps. He kept a distance but the distance was not far. He marveled at his heart. Frank led him away from the station, down a street peopled less and less with commuters going home, aside high, wide housing projects and corner-stores, fewer than in Marcia’s neighborhood, as darkness fell, and soon Frank walked alone, a little person in between the enormous buildings, but little buildings beneath the enormous sky, heavying, above them, denser with the dusk, and Frank turned, Dion saw, into what looked like an alley, and Dion hastened, just a little, silent steps, flat and sinking, but quickened toward the point where Frank turned and, turning, Dion saw Frank, a bald head between cement walls, walking down a narrow side-entrance, empty and long, bridging the street and—Dion realized—a housing project. Dion turned into the corridor. His heart was a war drum. Clasping the back of the bald head with his eyes, he leaned forward and started to run. 

That night, he came home and walked straight to the door of her bedroom. He walked past, as if he had something to do beyond the door of her bedroom, but there was nothing beyond the door of her bedroom but the end of the hall, and he turned around, hands shaking, passing again the door which he saw, again, was open, and he turned around once more, at the kitchen, beside the couch, hands shaking, his whole body turning as if revolving around his open, shining eyes, and he walked to the door of her bedroom, stood beside the open door, saw, atop the bed, her shadow atop the shadow of the bed, form atop form inside darkness, felt her see him, and choking, trembling, inside of him materialized, like smoke above a stamped out fire, the word Hey, and out of his choked and trembling sternum, evacuating his neck as if by its own will, the word went out into the dark.

Jeffrey Rapaport is a writer currently living in New York City. He can be reached at Jeffrey.Rapaport@gmail.com.

Today You Fly with Me
by Marina Clementi

Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction

I watched my husband’s death on livestream. A minute before impact, he held the camera at arm’s length, waved, and stuck out his tongue. He flipped the bird.

“Today you fly with me.” He fastened the GoPro back on his head, facing the valley floor, spread out below him in miniature. Then he jumped.

What pisses me off most now is the indignity of it. The accident just sitting out there for all the world to see. Leif’s easy way of being, refuted by the universe, like a slap in the face. My embarrassment, among other things, won’t allow the wound to heal. It’s not the death he deserved. Or maybe – and this stings the most – maybe it is.

What pissed me off at the time was how difficult the video was to take down. I sat in front of the screen, saying nothing. I could only see what the camera saw: trees fast approaching, then the view of a far-off field. I could only hear what the camera heard: moaning. Cowbells, faint and cheerful in the distance. I could only sit before the screen, placing my hands on the edges, willing it to suck me inside. Wombat was on the phone with facebook, screaming himself into a whisper. He hadn’t yet realized the number was only robotic, leading nowhere. 

“We’re gonna sue the fuck out of you motherfuckers,” he shouted.  “Put someone on here who – hello?”

Refresh. Refresh. I memorized his dying breaths.

Building

Many skyscrapers have locked doors or security at the top, a logistical nightmare for BASE jumpers. It’s thus common practice to find a building under construction from which to jump; there’s not much infrastructure to prevent this, nor is the sport widespread enough to warrant it.

#

I met Leif in the waiting area at Equinox headquarters. The room boasted one full wall of windows, floor-to-ceiling: the desert on a platter. The rocks outside stood dramatic and amorphous and orange, the sky so blank blue that my eyes hallucinated clouds where none existed. A woman sat typing at the main desk where I’d signed in. Visitor List: Equinox Wilderness Therapy Center.

Wilderness therapy wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to be part of a search-and-rescue crew more than anything, and that would first require my wilderness EMT, which I didn’t have enough money for. In the meantime, I took the interview with Equinox, tipped off by a friend who was going into social work. I borrowed her car and drove to southern Utah with $37 cash and a drawstring bag that included two pairs of underwear, an extra shirt, and two paperback books.

I had brought one of these to the waiting room, but I couldn’t concentrate. The view was too vast, and the pressure of the interview too great. I had been assured that the turnover rate in this field was high, that they were always looking. But I didn’t know what kind of field therapist I would be. My own angsty teen years were not so far behind me that I wasn’t dreading the idea of working with troubled youths a little. Then again, if I didn’t get this job, I didn’t know what I would do instead. The schedule was enticing: eight days on, six days off to do whatever I wanted. I could volunteer with the local search-and-rescue, save for my WEMT course. My suburban upbringing repelled me like water surrounding a bead of oil, pushing the small orb of my being as far out as it could go.

Leif came in about twenty minutes after me, walking in the unfettered manner of a young man for whom nothing had ever gone very wrong. He was tall and large-framed, but so thin as to seem concave. “Leif Neilson, here for an interview. Did they ask for me yet?”

“Take a seat,” the receptionist said. “They’ll call when they want you.”

He sat directly across from me. He looked at me until I looked back. His dainty nose was sprinkled with the blotches that come from years of harsh sun; he wore Birkenstocks and climbing pants with a fleece hoodie. 

There was nothing to immediately suggest that one day he would die with a GoPro strapped to his head.

“You here for the therapist interview?”

“Yep.”

“I got lost,” he said, smiling.

“How? There’s nothing else around here.” The building was isolated but for a gas station in one direction and a Church of Latter-Day Saints in the other. 

“My phone died before I made that last turn,” he said. “I drove down from Salt Lake overnight. Had to pull over and plug it into the solar charger, let it reboot – you know. Then I fell asleep for a little while I was waiting.”

“It’s hot as hell out there right now.”

“I live in my van,” he said. “The bed is pretty comfy when you crack the windows.” I stared at him; he smiled. “You look like you’re thinking, What a weirdo.”

“I am.” I was. This was before all the #vanlife stuff, before “I live in my van” was a viable lifestyle option. I waited for him to offer me drugs, but he didn’t. He stuck out his hand. 

“I’m Leif.”

“Theo.” 

“What’s that, short for Theodore?”

“Theodora.” My face burned, but his laugh was kind. We smiled at each other for a long moment. Then they called me into the back.

#

We were both offered a “tryout week,” after which, if we didn’t totally fuck up or have a mental breakdown, we would be hired. 

We learned that week that Equinox was like a cult. To be a part of the cult, you had to be resilient, rugged, and infinitely patient. The company took troubled teens all over the deserts of Utah. We were to run into the roiling heat after them when they tried to run away. We were to lose toenails carrying forty-pound packs. We were to start campfires and rituals in which we appropriated Native American ceremonies and gave the kids badges for things like sharing their feelings and contributing to the chore chart.

The staff all communicated via walkie-talkie, with the effect that I didn’t learn anyone else’s real name. My handle was Sharkbitch. “Cause you’re a badass!” our supervisor, Wombat, said. I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me or not. Leif’s handle was Easy Money. “You got that smooth-talking vibe.” We didn’t question him; we were both too flattered.

That first week was a group of boys, all white, aged twelve to fourteen: rowdy, testing their boundaries, awed by the desert. In group that night after dinner, they admitted one by one that they had never gone camping, not even for one night.

After they were asleep in their tents, the staff members stayed up to prep for breakfast. Bonesaw, a young Mormon who’d just gotten married, was the most senior staff member on shift. I suspected her handle was a joke. Wombat, a muscled, bearded guy from Vermont, was second in command.

 “So, where’s everybody from?” Bonesaw asked.

“Northern California,” said Nightcrawler. He was fidgety, looked barely out of high school and made too much eye contact with everyone.

“Canada,” Leif said.

“Colorado,” I said. I didn’t mention I had only gone to school there.

“Rad, rad,” Wombat said. “It’s great to have new faces. Can’t wait to get to know you all better. I usually get some climbing in over at Indian Creek on the off shifts,” he said. “Y’all are always welcome to join.” We nodded. I wasn’t much of a climber – however, I had determined to accept every offer to do something social. I stared out at the silhouettes of the rocks. I wondered if I could cut it.

The next day, the boys fought amongst themselves, probing for the weakest link. Wombat had undermined the no-swearing rule by naming me Sharkbitch the day before; the boys called each other “ass-lickers” and “faggots” the whole three hours it took us to make breakfast and pack up camp. We chastised them uneasily, in lukewarm tones. At some point, Bonesaw pulled us aside.

“You have to show them you’re serious,” she said. “Consequences and rewards.” We nodded, saddled our packs, and trudged on. My muscles burned, and so did my skin. One boy, an overweight twelve-year-old from the sprawling edges of LA, sat down in the dirt after our first mile, and refused to get up for over an hour. Sweating under our broad-rimmed hats, it seemed cruel to make him get up again, but eventually he did. 

The boys were as brutal to each other as the terrain was. “Why did fatty get to take a break?” 

“You all got to take a break,” Bonesaw said. She informed the boys that we would make the miles we’d planned that day, even if it meant not stopping for lunch. That made them all march. They were all afraid of her, so we scrutinized her tactics with interest.

We had a “sharps bag,” for knives, scissors and the like, but it didn’t matter. At lunchtime they started giving each other stick-n-poke tattoos with cactus needles. We confiscated the ink, narrow vials one boy had pulled from black ink pens and stashed in his underwear. But later that night, we did the same to each other. 

Leif gave me total freedom with his tattoo. “Anything,” he said. “Well… not a penis. Or any genitalia.”

“That’s too intricate, anyway,” I said. I made an exclamation point on his big toe. 

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know. Perpetual surprise.”

“Wonderment.” Leif ran his thumb over the exclamation point. He began to give Nightcrawler a stick-figure centipede on his ankle. 

“That’s not a nightcrawler, man!” he shouted when he saw what was happening. “That’s a fuckin’ millipede or something.”

“What’s a nightcrawler then?”

“It’s a worm, dude.” Nightcrawler looked angry and for a moment, I thought he might punch Leif.

“You wanted a worm?”

“I like to fish.”

“Well, it’s too late,” Leif said. Nightcrawler allowed him to finish the drawing for consistency’s sake. Then Leif took up another cylinder of ink and a new cactus spine, and I offered my foot. Numbness overtook the area. When he was finished, a lopsided spiral graced my toe, looping oblong like a question mark.

“It’s the Spiral Jetty,” he explained. “It’s a sculpture on the shore of Salt Lake.”

“Like a downward spiral?”

“Maybe it’s an upward spiral,” he said. “Maybe it’s expanding. Up and out.” 

He stayed up with me on the night shift. No one tried to escape that night, which was lucky because we wouldn’t have noticed. Though it was summer, the desert air turned crisp and cold. We sat in foldable camp chairs, stoking the fire and adding logs, listening to the pops of vaporized wood. Leif told me that he had grown up in British Columbia, fly fishing and skiing and other expensive things those kinds of families do. He’d also started college in Colorado, but dropped out soon after, graduating instead to fishing and rock climbing, heli-skiing and skydiving. From there, the most logical extension was BASE jumping.

“What’s that?”

“BASE,” he said, raising his eyebrows, “is a religion.” I waited for him to laugh, but he didn’t. He pulled out his phone and pointed it towards me, scrolling through photos of rocky cliffs, aerial shots, selfies with a parachute on. “It’s basically skydiving. You’re just jumping off of things instead of an airplane.”

“Things like what?” I’d gone skydiving once before, for my twenty-first birthday. I hadn’t been afraid beforehand, but found myself on edge in the plane, just before the jump. Those moments of anticipation made the adrenaline release like nothing I’d ever experienced. Intoxicating.

“Buildings. Big cliffs, bridges, radio towers… whatever’s tall enough.”

I remembered that my skydive had been from 12,500 feet. “How tall is tall enough?”

Leif smiled. “That’s kind of the point.”

He scooted his chair a little closer to mine. The fire was dying. He put his arm around my shoulder and I turned to look at him. When we kissed, it felt a little like those moments just after the jump.

#

Antenna

Some BASE jumpers never pull the cord deploying their parachute. They miscalculate the length of the fall, or simply freeze. Sometimes, the parachute simply doesn’t deploy. 

About 38% of BASE jumping fatalities occur as the result of a no-pull. 

#

Leif was never interested in these statistics, and in the beginning, neither was I. They were a way of boxing us in, convincing us to be more like the rest of the world, which we weren’t. We were special, free and angry and full of wonderment. 

I moved my few belongings into his van, a white 1996 Dodge he’d built out with a platform storage bedframe and solar panels. There was no reason to wait. Why should I pay for an apartment or a van of my own when we spent every minute together? I had never been so happy. In retrospect, maybe it was the proximity to his brazenness and vitality that I mistook for my own.

He took me skydiving first. I needed to get more comfortable moving through the air before even thinking about BASE, Leif explained. “Way more comfortable.” Each jump was a sort of rebirth: the fear and shaking, the rush of adrenaline, the omnipotence as I gazed over the fields and mountains in ordered little pockets on the earth. Leif took pictures of everything. We went back again and again in between shifts. There was intimacy in the belly of a plane.

In the van, we cooked on a two-burner, just like we did at work. I strung Christmas lights around the inside, fashioned a spice rack for the side door out of a shower hanger, and began experimenting with various curries. We parked near coffee shops and libraries for WiFi. Leif had a large space heater hooked up inside, but it was dangerous to leave it on overnight. We woke at 3 AM shivering, clutching each other beneath the down quilt.

I spent my money on jumps just as fast as it came in. I supposed I would save up and get my WEMT eventually. Leif never spoke of an alternate plan. I assumed this was because he enjoyed our work more than I did, didn’t see the need for anything else.

“What do you want to do after you stop jumping?” I asked once, a few months after moving into the van. Coffee diffused in our little French press; the entire cab smelled of fresh brew, turmeric, and stale clothing. 

“Why would I have to stop jumping?” He seemed genuinely confused, scratching the pale stubble on his jaw as he pushed the plunger down. Looking at him, it was hard to imagine his solid, capable body ever breaking down; though it was inevitable, I could see why it hadn’t occurred to him.

“Isn’t there kind of a life expectancy on extreme sports careers?” 

He smiled and shrugged. “If there is, I don’t want to live through it.”

#

Leif connected with the kids on the job in a way that I didn’t. In order to be sent to us at all, most of these teens had enjoyed a level of financial security that was foreign to me. I didn’t feel I was helping them much. I tried reading The Monkey Wrench Gang aloud to them after dinner, confident that the illegal antics would pull them in, but they were more interested in rehashing stories of what got them sent to “boot camp,” as they called it, in the first place. Leif easily broke into these conversations, probably in part due to his maleness. His go-to was showing them his incredibly popular Instagram account, filled with high-resolution pictures from the top of things he had jumped off of, or shots of him from above by drone. 

“Holy shit, dude.” 

“That’s so sick.”

“You can learn to jump, too,” Leif promised. “Anyone can do it.” 

When we drove out to the field, he would point out a certain radio antenna to each new group. “I jump off there all the time.”

“Liar!” the kids invariably screamed. Then he’d show them the video footage. He often live-streamed directly to Facebook, and the kids watched these over and over again on his phone.

Bonesaw disapproved of Leif, I could see. She watched him intently when he held group therapy sessions, fiddling with the wedding band on her finger. After one shift, she wrote him up for leaving a small group with only one supervisor when he’d gone to fetch more water from a stockpile at base camp. 

Wombat pulled him aside back at the Equinox office. “That was fucked up, man,” he said in a low voice. “I talked to Mark about it.” Mark was our administrative supervisor, one level from the very top.

Leif didn’t care. “It’s chill,” he said. “I broke protocol.”

“Yeah, so they wouldn’t get dehydrated,” I broke in. “She didn’t need to write you up.” 

Wombat nodded. “Sharkbitch is right.” Leif shrugged, unbothered. It was all peripheral to him. Soon after that, his Instagram led to a sponsorship from Red Bull. His following grew tenfold. There was money to be made. 

Most of his followers were fans. But there was also an oddly visceral reaction from the general public in response to other people putting themselves in mortal danger. We couldn’t understand it at the time. People posted hateful messages below Leif’s pictures, or DM’d him directly. U desrve to die u fcking idiot. 

Wombat and Nightcrawler started joining us on our skydiving sessions after climbing season ended. We did multiple jumps each off-shift. All our money went into the jumps. I got my skydiving A license, then B. The motions of my gear check burned into my muscle memory. I learned when to deploy my parachute, and what to do if it didn’t deploy. I learned how to fall, angling my body through the air like a seal through arctic waters, fluid and controlled in each movement. Some nights as I fell asleep, I found myself mimicking those freefall motions, twisting against the imaginary wind.

#

Span

About 30% of fatalities from BASE are categorized as body strikes. These occur when the jumper comes in contact with something on the way down, usually a cliff. These are not to be confused with canopy strikes – trees, electrical wires, manmade structures. 

There is the lowest chance of a body strike when jumping from a bridge or other span.

#

Perrine Bridge: Twin Falls, Idaho. Jumping was and still is legal there, right above the Snake River. It was May, nearly two years after we’d been hired. We’d pulled a double shift in order to get two weeks off. The site of Leif’s first BASE jump was about to be mine, too. 

“Relax,” Leif said. “You know how to do this.”

I did know. I tried not to listen to the churning in my gut. Fear is good, I told myself. It keeps you sharp. We performed our checks, straddled the railing and carefully arranged ourselves on the other side, facing out. I forced a smile. The air was cold, but I barely felt it. You are Sharkbitch, I told myself. You are a badass.

“I’m right here,” Leif said. Carefully, we joined hands. Leif counted to three. Then we flung ourselves into the void. 

Everything in the human body screams out against this motion; the mind’s control over the body never seems so tenuous, so conditional. As if the body could mutiny at any moment. Time slows. The shock of the jump spreads through the bloodstream.

But the skydiving training had done its work, and muscle memory prevailed. We held hands for a second or two, starfished in the air, and then broke away, each on a parallel trajectory down to the river valley below. The water zoomed towards us, the trees on the shore closer than they ever were when we jumped from the planes. Terrified, I deployed. My relief when the parachute billowed open had never been so palpable. Adrenaline coursed through me, pulsing with its own life. I looked back for Leif, who had deployed later and was drifting only slightly above the riverbank, a hundred yards behind me.

“Woooooooh!” His scream was faint, nearly absorbed by the vastness.

“Woooooooh!” I screamed back. 

#

Bonesaw got promoted to field supervisor, and switched Leif to the alternate shift. We assumed it was to separate him from me, Wombat and Nightcrawler. Leif confronted her in her Equinox office. We could hear the back and forth from the hallway outside, voices rising in pitch and volume. Then he appeared, slamming the door behind him. He shook his head.

“I’m not doing it,” he said. “I’m staying on this fucking shift.”

But Bonesaw had gotten to Mark, who fired Leif the next day via email. Among the reasons he cited were insubordination, inappropriate social media contact with students, and unprofessional demeanor. Leif called to plead his case, but fell quiet as Mark delineated his reasoning. Leif hung up without a word.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Fuckers.” But his work visa was no longer valid, and after some research, he flew to his parents’ to avoid “accruing unlawful presence.” He got a job at the gear shop in his hometown, restocking ski helmets and ice axes. After a few weeks of that, he asked me to marry him via Skype. 

“Theo, I don’t know what else we can do,” he said. His voice was clear but his face was warped by the connection. “I have to wait six months for a tourist visa.”

“You’ve already been there for a month,” I said.

“Gee, I miss you too.”

“Of course I miss you.” It was almost debilitating, but I didn’t want to say that out loud. His pixelated face made it worse. “That’s not a good enough reason to get married.”

“It won’t be a big deal. Nothing will change.”

“It just seems so…uncool,” I said, after a silence. I’d thought about marriage in the abstract, about my future family unit, as something far-off, something future me would take care of. These were the prodigal years, the ones I was supposed to look back on.

“Obviously,” Leif said. “What’s less obvious is that getting married is a countercultural move now. No one will expect it.”

“Everyone expects it. It’s a heteronormative institution, not an act of protest.”

“Unless you’re marrying an illegal alien!” he shouted. “C’mon, it’ll be fun. Our new radio names can be Mr. and Mrs. Sharkbitch.”

I studied the pixels of his face for a moment. “You don’t really want to do this,” I said. “I’m just… mediocre. Convenient.” I was surprising myself. Until that call, I hadn’t given it a thought, and now here I was holding out for a down-on-one-knee kind of thing. But Leif never missed a beat.

“You are stunning, and fucking inconvenient,” he said. “You think it’s easy being with somebody who’s so much smarter and better-looking than me? It’s a constant struggle.” 

I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. “Really? You think I’m inconvenient?”

“Totally. You’re the absolute worst.”

#

Twin Falls, Idaho. Perrine Bridge. It was a predictable spot, Leif contended.

“God forbid you do a predictable thing,” I laughed. 

I was wearing an off-white dress that I’d bought secondhand in Moab; Leif wore his nicest climbing pants and a white linen shirt. We were married in the middle of the bridge by a justice of the peace, shouting over the cars whirring past. Leif posted Wombat and Nightcrawler stood witness. The pictures Leif shared of us kissing on the bridge got more likes than anything he’d ever posted before. 

After our kiss, I traded my dress for spandex. We suited up, straddled the railing and held hands, then leapt. We grinned at each other through our goggles before letting go and drifting into our own airstreams, propelled by wind and chance.

#

Earth

The learning curve for BASE is steep and unforgiving. Cliffs are the least forgiving category, statistically speaking. 

What you want is to fly; what the earth wants is to bring you back.

#

It was on a cliff jump that Nightcrawler had his accident. The four of us stood atop Glacier Point as dusk set in, tourists long gone, the park rangers done for the day. 

It’s illegal to jump in Yosemite, but that never stopped us; it just made conditions riskier. Visibility was not at its height. Perhaps there was a rock at the very edge, or maybe the lip just crumbled a bit from his weight. Whatever the reason, Nightcrawler slipped as he jumped, failing to gain much clearance as he plunged into the void, his head whipping violently into a granite ledge.

Fuck,” Leif said. The three of us jostled forward to watch the descent. It seemed that we watched for a very long time. Nightcrawler wobbled through the air, off-balance, struggling in the way of an injured animal, a bait fish on a lure. 

A second later, we saw the pop of color we’d been waiting for: he had deployed his chute. I burst into tears.

“Oh, thank god,” Wombat said.

“I’ll go next,” said Leif. “See if he’s okay.” He began to prepare his parachute.

“You are not seriously jumping right now.” I couldn’t imagine going after what we’d just witnessed.

“Theo. We need to see if he’s okay. Hiking down would take hours.” I nodded. Leif quickly performed his chute checks and jumped. Wombat followed, shrugging.

Hiking down did take hours. I regretted it about twenty minutes in, but I kept on and eventually found where we had parked the van. It was pitch black by then; my headlamp illuminated a faint circle. No one was there. I walked on, searching for reception until a barrage of texts pummeled my screen.

“We r at Mammoth Hosp,” Leif wrote. Then: “Tests coming. Will keep u posted.” 

Nightcrawler turned out to have a concussion, along with whiplash and two dislocated vertebrae. He was lucky. He was alive.

“You have to get back out there,” Leif said. “Otherwise you’ll never jump again.” He was serene, somehow, in a way that didn’t seem forced. Nightcrawler was still in the hospital, though according to Leif, he was ready to try again as soon as he was discharged. I suited up again just a couple of days later with Leif and Wombat. 

Yosemite was Leif’s favorite spot. I loved it, too: august beauty in every direction, imposing granite slabs peppered with tiny climbers, the stark ridgelines propping up miniscule day hikers in baseball caps. The total stillness of the rocks at night, jutting austere into the sky.

Yes, I loved this place – but, I realized, I didn’t want to jump. As we stood on the edge of the wall, I started to shake. My bowels were quaking, my stomach queasy. After a few minutes, I leaned over and vomited into the brush. My eyes watered, head hanging between my knees. “I can’t do this,” I said.

“Yes, you can,” Leif said. “Just send it. Don’t overthink.” 

“Maybe I have the flu.”

“Do you really think you have the flu?”

“I don’t know,” I said. 

He held my eyes for a long moment, and I saw something like tenderness. Then he turned back to his gear. He didn’t move towards me or speak again as he performed his checks. When the two of them jumped without me, I knew that I had lost something important. But I also felt relief.

The next week, Leif left for “Bridge Day,” in New River Gorge, West Virginia. It was a sponsored event, easy money. I gave up my plane ticket and spent the rest of my off-shift curled up in the fetal position in the van, trying to read. Wombat called a few times to see where I was parked, but I didn’t answer. I was vomiting a lot, into a bucket I emptied out and washed in gas station bathrooms. 

What would I do now? My relationship with Leif was a vortex, eddying and spiraling, battering me around. I could barely remember what had come before. I had about as much control in the jetstream of Leif’s desires as Leif himself did: that was to say, very little.

When Leif came home, I broke the news. “I’m done,” I said. “I’m not jumping any more.” Saying it aloud gave voice to something. My bones had absorbed the brutal closeness of the danger we constantly invited. I no longer wanted this.

 My relief settled in even as I read the disappointment in his face. “It’s okay,” he said, trying to mean it.

#

After I peed on the stick in a drugstore bathroom, I came back to the van and showed Leif the little red lines. 

“What do you want to do?” His inflection gave away nothing. I raised my eyebrows.

“Well, we can’t keep it,” I said. “Obviously.”

For once, he didn’t have a quick retort. He stared out the window of the van as people came and went. I set the pregnancy test on the dashboard. Finally, he looked back at me. “We can’t?”

“We live in a van,” I said.

“We don’t have to live in a van.”

I was silent.

“We can live wherever we want.”

“Leif,” I said. “Anything could happen to you. Then where would I be?”

He shook his head. “I’m careful, you know that.”

“Promise?” I wanted to hear him say it.

“Promise.” We sat perfectly still for a few long minutes. I had thought the promise would make me feel better, but it held no weight. I wouldn’t call it a premonition. It was more self-preservation. We were married, we were pregnant, but it all felt precarious and subject to change. And I had a feeling that with Leif, it always would.

“I’m going to make an appointment,” I said. “I can’t handle this right now.”

“Theo, please,” he said. “Just think about it.”

“I don’t need to.”

A week later, he left for his first sponsored international jump. I drove him to the airport at sunrise, in silence. My fears had wormed their way between us, stopping us from talking about the important things. Leif was unbuckled before I even parked next to the curb. He was like a child when he saw the airport, all teeth ear-to-ear. Energy radiated from him. “What do you want me to bring you back?”

I thought for a moment. “Wooden clogs. Those little clogs they dance with in Denmark.” 

“I’m going to Italy,” he laughed.

“It’s all the same in Europe,” I protested. “I bet they sell wooden clogs somewhere in Rome.”

“You got it.” He kissed the top of my head. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” I smiled. 

He jostled out the door and pulled his bags out of the back of the van. I watched his skinny frame wrestle into the pack with all his gear, sling another duffel bag over one shoulder, and tote it all through the automatic doors, not looking back.

Wombat came over to watch the jump with me, leeching internet from the parking lot of a Salt Lake Starbucks. It was the middle of the night for us, but the video occurs in the early morning hours, the Dolomites a distracting backdrop for the event. We could see that over 70,000 people were out there, the same as us, staring at a screen just to watch him fly.

Fuck, Leif said, followed by those sickening whumping noises through the trees. Wombat gripped my hand until I yelped. He made phone call after phone call while I sat in front of the screen, just listening to Leif breathe. It took thirty-six hours for the video to be removed.

Click. A 2007 study says, “BASE jumping appears to hold a five- to eightfold increased risk of injury or death compared with that of skydiving.”

Click. “Today you fly with me.” He fastens the GoPro back on his head, facing out. The valley, spread out below, waiting. He jumps.

I didn’t cancel the appointment. Rather, I let it pass, waiting until the last possible minute to decide. What I’d feared had already occurred, and so I didn’t fear it any more. I decided I wanted this after all: this one eternal part of him.

A few months later, I finally put the money down on a WEMT course. It was the only thing I could think of that I wanted, the only thing that would be worth spending Leif’s easy money on. Jumping was over for me. I had circled all the way back to where I’d started. 

About a week before the course began, I drove the van up to the north shore of Salt Lake on a whim. Out in the middle of nowhere, barreling down deserted roads and following my GPS, I found it. The salt was so white in the midday sun it was almost blinding, the water lapping it a pale shell pink. I walked slowly down from the parking lot, cradling my slight belly, and carefully hopped along the rocks, all the way around, and then around again, winding in on myself, until I stopped in the very middle of the Spiral Jetty. I kicked off my sandals and shuffled slowly down from the spiral to the water’s edge. The baked, crystalized salt stabbed the soles of my swollen feet as I trudged on. The sculpture is sometimes visible and sometimes submerged, depending upon the water level of the Great Salt Lake, my phone informed me.

I dipped my toes into the water, staring at the tiny, fading Spiral Jetty tattooed on my left foot. Salt clung to my skin in a sheen as I lifted my foot from the water and sunk it back in. I sat, letting the water sting each pore of my skin. I wiggled my toes. As I stared, I could see that the spiral was expanding, moving upward and beyond itself, up and out. 

Marina Clementi received her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and BA from the University of Chicago. She lives in Pittsburgh.

In the Shower, When Your Marriage is Finally Over
by Erin Rose Coffin

Winner, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

stand still, then spin in small circles.

eyes closed, mouth opened, window cracked.

let water pool in your mouth, push

it back out. unclench your fists.

run your tongue over your teeth.

step out of the glass, in front

of the mirror, in front of the window,

in front of your teeth.

square your shoulders like an outlaw.

when you see yourself, admire the new

gray strands in your hair, the lit golden fuse

of letting go, of setting fire, of forward—

the glamour of the morning-glories,

                    no need for roots, just water

and space and the promise

of returning light.

Erin Rose Coffin holds a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry from North Carolina State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Maine Review, Raleigh ReviewGulf Stream, Arcturus, Angel City Review, and Punch Drunk Press. She was a 2021 recipient of a residency at Goodyear Arts, and served as an editorial assistant for So and So Magazine. In 2016, she was a finalist in the North Carolina State Poetry Contest, judged by Yusef Komunyakaa, and in 2018, she judged the Carol Bessent Hayman Poetry of Love Award. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her partner and her cat.

Grief Sestina
by Sunni Brown Wilkinson

Runner-Up, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

I met a woman who’d been struck by lightning.

She held herself like a firefly

when she told me. That’s something

I thought. She was now her own gold.

I was pregnant then, fourth boy, more full moon

than ever. But all that beautiful milk

went sour when he died, the stuttering milk

that dripped from me lightening

each day and by the time the moon

waned so had I. What came out next was fire

and like a wild man digging for gold

you searched for me nights I left something

cold out for dinner, turned some thin

line into a stone wall. Love, drink this milk

of our grief with me, tell me the days are gold,

and though I push you away, let the lightning

of you find the dry tree of me, and after, fireflies

rise from our bed, strike dumb the brutish moon.

Forget the hospital machine blank as the moon

behind clouds the night we turned into something

we couldn’t name. Let’s reclaim the days of first fire

when in our house of futons and cheap milk,

we rang each other like bells, like strands of lightning.

Love, how the river of you washed me. Oh, the gold 

in your beard then and the gold 

in the finches winging endlessly against the moons

of our windows. I come humbly in the lightning

of my grief now. I eat the cold crumbs of something

we made together and lost, the chipped glass of milk

rattling in my hands burns me like the longest fire.

This simple meal of our life more fire

than water in our fractured bodies. Love, stuff gold

into the hands of strangers, spill the milk

of your laughter, anchor the moon

in your quiet hands and give me something

to believe in again. Even a dogged, tenuous light.

And say it, Love, we’ve been struck by lightning,

that milky gold something

that’s changed us, made us strange. The moon on fire.

Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s poetry is forthcoming in Western Humanities Review, Coal Hill Review, New Ohio Review, and Ruminate. She is the author of The Marriage of the Moon and the Field (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and The Ache & The Wing (winner of Sundress Publications’ 2020 Chapbook Prize). Her work has been awarded New Ohio Review’s NORward Poetry Prize, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, and the Sherwin W. Howard Award. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in northern Utah with her husband and three sons.

Quantum Entanglement
by Leslie Williams

Honorable Mention, Ruth Stone Poetry Prize

A gang of turkeys has settled in the yard.

They’re disagreeable, eating my new grass seed.

Ugh the big unbalanced

bodies and skinny necks with wattles, caruncles, snoods.

Spurred shanks and awful twisting feet. Now a limping jenny

goes fancy-footing by, as if across parade grounds

where wonders may appear, the majesty

of every ugly thing

turning beautiful, the way

anything loved will be, which reminds me

of this woman with whom

I’m having a feud—she doesn’t know it

of course, and must not think about me

at all, or if she does it’s with a slight

dismissive snort, because I should really

know my place—this morning in the mirror

a mote in my eye

I was trying to remove

and I thought: definitely, her faults

I grow painfully aware

amount to a speck compared

to those same mountains in me,

so I’ve lately grown obsessed

with physics: force and action, spooky action

at a distance, and love. Always

love. You can’t see it

but what it makes you do is real.

Leslie Williams’ most recent book is Even the Dark, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Image, and elsewhere. She lives near Boston.

What You Wanted from Me I Imagined
by Nikita Ladd

Winner, Creative Nonfiction Prize

I am on top of a truly beautiful woman. I’ll call her Renée. Step back: we’re in her room, on her bed. I’m still wearing my men’s XL winter coat, all ready to walk out into the Connecticut winter. The coat reads “Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum” over the left breast, something that would only be on regular rotation for a college student. The light in her room is warm. Her laptop sits open on her desk. I caught her off guard, in her pajamas. Step back in: I’m on top of a beautiful woman that I’ve been seeing for the last few months, and I don’t want to be here. 

The conflict feels obvious, alarming, but I can’t pull myself away. And to clarify, no one’s forcing me to stay. No one even invited me. I had just ended my night in my friend’s room down the hall, with no intention to stop by, but something walked me to the door. She’d want me to say hi. I knocked, came in. I pulled her out of her chair into a hug, and then a kiss. Now we’re lying down, as we have many times before, but my head’s gone. It stepped out the door and walked all the way down the street. It turned my house key in the front door, curled up in my bed, and the whole time I’m wondering when my body gets to leave. How the fuck did I land here in the first place? I wonder if you’ll work this out with me.

#

Starting at the beginning: Way back when:

In elementary school my parents hired a babysitter for me, for the first time. He had a thick black beard and glasses and no other defining characteristics. I cried the whole time my parents were gone. I remember the mahogany coffee table from the living room, the wood latticed and dark. I used to stick my fingers in and out of the negative space, counting the holes. Maybe I hid under the table that day; maybe that’s just where my mom left me. But even now, I stand by the crying. Why would I want to be taken care of by a stranger? Wasn’t that what older siblings were for? 

That day when my mother returned, and agreed to never hire a babysitter again, she asked what happened. I explained that I just didn’t like him. 

Years later she asks, “Did he do anything to you?” I think, There was something he could’ve done to me?

So much later: Freshman year of college, 2016: A boy who lived on my hall:

Charles didn’t catch my attention. Or, he himself didn’t catch my attention, but his staring did. It was constant, but I remember two instances even now: the first time we were across the table from each other at brunch, surrounded by so many people we were just beginning to know and picked-at plates of eggs and homefries; and then later in a friend’s dorm room, sitting on opposite beds, his eyes stuck to me no matter who was talking or who he was talking to. During the two-week onslaught, I spun his gaze into a compliment. Why me? turned into I must be something worth looking at.

Which meant that sitting outside, at night, with him and five other people felt exciting, and when he pressed his forearm to mine, I liked it, and when everyone else left, we stayed. It wasn’t exciting after that, though. His hands ran over my body like they didn’t know me and didn’t care to. His tongue poked around the inside of my mouth; his lips felt thin on mine. As we rolled over the hill, a few feet left and then back again, tree roots dug into my ribcage and we picked up debris. I pulled my head back to smile or press my forehead to his, or actually, to breathe. He laughed at me. Time elapsed, not much, and then I stood us up and walked us back to our rooms. “It was good,” I told my roommate, “Definitely good.” 

But not good enough for me to want it again. A lie I told myself, I’d realize later, to keep myself comfortable at the moment when I felt the most disturbed. When he’d stare after that I dramatically ignored it, glancing over him as if he were an obscenity blurred out. The cue didn’t land. He only stared back, harder. We would be in a room full of people and his eyes wouldn’t budge. When he’d finally leave, I’d shake my body wildly to clean them off. His friends pressed me on it: “You don’t understand how much he likes you,” and “he expects it’s going to happen again,” and “Didn’t you like it?” As if my desire and consent, given one time, was eternal. 

#

I remember nothing from the second half of that night with Renée. The hook up itself, in our physical bodies, was benign. (If I’m even allowed to say that. Maybe by benign I’m trying to tell you that she did nothing wrong.) 

Regardless, we just kissed. But that night, words clotted my throat as my body kept shifting below. Whatever cord it is, thick and vital, that holds our minds and bodies in conversation, that cord had been severed and my body was left marooned in the most intimate sort of moment. My body, then, moved on muscle memory alone: this is what it means to kiss, to hold, to show love. But it moved without desire. 

I know the route I would’ve walked home that night, the stoplight I’d pass by at the top of the street, the gentle pitch down to my yellow house. But I don’t remember that walk, only that I must have taken it. And I don’t remember how I was feeling, only that I must have been scared. In a certain sense, I’ve been in much more uncomfortable sexual situations. I’ve been kissed without my consent; I’ve left hook ups feeling incredible shame and regret; I’ve gotten men off to hurry a night along. All of that felt bad. But there was an itch to this moment, something felt newly wrong. 

#

Once, a dream a boyfriend had:

I walked past him, completely naked and emanating golden light. That was the entire dream. I was honestly touched.

Paris, France: Early 2017: When their eyes are a constant, not an anomaly: 

This was a spring break voyage to visit Harry, a friend of mine from home and twin to Anna, someone who had entered my life in middle school and hadn’t left. Some friends and I had flown from our various schools in the states and converged in Harry’s one-person apartment. We spent five days tracing lines across the city, only purchasing bread and museum tickets—we’re adults now, remember? So what if we’re a little hungry. 

Now, it’s our last night here and we’re inside Café Léa, one of Harry’s favorite bars. The interior is a glow of red and orange. In front of the bar, a brick wall climbs from floor to ceiling. The air is thick with French dialogue. The waiter set us at a long table in the back room. We are five plus Griffin—a friend of Harry’s from the program, who’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a scarf, and beard. His favorite author is David Foster Wallace, which I could’ve guessed. (One of my passwords may refer to Broom of The System, but that’s not something I’d typically advertise). Sofia and I are across the table from each other. She is smiling so fully I think something might pop, and I breathe it in. Pleasant.  

I look up. The chandelier has tiny lampshades over each light, the colored bulbs laugh above us. I look back to the table. Caleb and Griffin are arguing about football. Someone has thrown in the concussion and traumatic brain injury tidbit, which has Griffin all conflicted because he loved football when he was younger. Anna makes frenzied faces at me from the other side of them, this is what we were absolutely dying to talk about tonight, how did they guess, and I press Harry into talking about anything else. He and Sofia take it from there, negotiating between their life philosophies and the utility of pessimism, as I swirl my wine in the bottom of its glass and lose track of how much I’ve had. 

Leaving that eye contact conversation with Anna, I catch Griffin’s eyes. Like: he’s waiting, or, he wants. My breath curdles, but—there’s some flattery there, too. There’s concealed pride like a half-curled smile. A defense mechanism, like: maybe if I find pleasure in this, it won’t feel so totally violating. So, I look down at my drink, and imagine that he’s interested. It’s not such a far leap.  

The night melts after that. A charcuterie platter arrives, ladened with slips of cheese, salted crackers, and green olives. Oh, and a round, silver tray of tequila shots. I don’t remember getting drunk, only that then I was. I catch his eyes waiting, again. I wish he wouldn’t. 

Later, when we’re home and in bed, I remember his eyes, all dark and warning. Until: Sofia tells me that he grabbed her thigh under the table. Her breath curdled, too. 

#

I started seeing Renée in the fall, and, for the first time in my life, I started going to therapy that same winter. Bad timing, or necessary timing, depending on what you think of therapy. In my sessions, I was just beginning to understand that I spend a lot of energy trying to understand the people around me. Thinking back, I’m imagining myself in those early sessions debriefing the week’s events from everyone’s point of view except my own. Watching people closely enough, I manage to explain away every disappointment or hurt they may have caused. I frame my thoughts and feelings in response to how I imagine they feel, what must have led them to say or do what they did. I am all reaction. 

Sometime around that hookup with Renée, I told her we needed to stop seeing each other. It wasn’t because of the hookup alone, but rather the swirling uncertainty of whether or not I could hold both care for another person and care for myself. The notes I took from the session following that hook up read as follows: 

I’m always seeking to make other people feel comfortable 

and What really scares me is that I hooked up with her when I knew I didn’t want to 

and I don’t know if I can come back from that with her because I don’t know the ends to which I would go to make her feel comfortable

and By fulfilling the moment of being wanted by someone, and them thinking I’m special, I put myself in the position of receiving that much more unwanted attention

In that session, I tried to work out what had happened inside me that night. Why I felt so comfortable stepping over my own boundaries, ignoring my desire or lack of desire, without any clear coercion from the other person. That work of uncovering and trying to understand the internal workings of my mind was upsetting. I felt ashamed and embarrassed to reveal how in a moment of such intimate importance I had such little control over my own body. 

I wonder if your instinct has ever been to run. You’ve figured out that something is wrong, but you don’t know how to fix it. The only way to step forward soundly is alone. Do you know that feeling? 

#

Later in college, maybe 2018: The typical scene: The typical guy:

I leave his room, a basement room in a house I rarely go to. My skin lets off steam, the film of sweat meeting the air in a sudden chill. I left right after we were done. The streetlights cast yellow over the grass and the pavement. I weave between them, avoiding illumination, hiding. I play the night back in my head, slowly at first, the memories hiccupping up and into focus. A haze of tequila and Adderall, a battle for clarity. 

This guy sports the outline of a pencil on his bicep. He wants to be a writer he tells me, as he pushes his shirt sleeve up to show me the ink. As the pieces of the night surface, everything is the color of funny. Did I laugh directly into his face when he showed me the pencil? Unclear, but I remember him showing me his other tattoos, so it seems unlikely. Or maybe he just went boldly on. 

He talked a lot, maybe something about the film posters on his wall or what he wants to do after college. A performance really, as if he were on stage and it was a privilege for me to watch him. Then maybe later we pulled our clothes off. I remember his dick somewhere in the mix. And with that it clears up a bit, the rest of the night: he fucked me like he was groping in the dark for a light switch. I faked an orgasm and thought, You’re welcome.

When I wake up the next morning, the memories are not that color anymore. I wonder, How do I take last night back

Once, a dream a real asshole had: 

It was about the head I gave him. At the time, I was honestly touched.

#

When Renée and I started seeing each other, it felt a little like I had found the answer: Women. Well, a woman. A bright and wild woman who was easy to brag about and absolutely impressive in person. I’d show people the photo of her on my phone: her face speckled with freckles, her hair sandy red and perfectly disheveled. The whole time, just leaking tidbits about her studies (psychology) and her various artistic mediums (photography and the violin). It feels good, I learned, to be intimately connected with someone who understands what navigating this world as a woman feels like, and as a queer woman, too. I imagined it as the ultimate safety. With Renée, there were no threatening eyes digging into me. No forearms pressed into mine, no assumption of interest or intimacy. The first time I saw her at a party, she barely looked at me and she didn’t stay long. I was the one staring that night. 

I was safe with Renée. I just wasn’t safe with myself. I was the agent of my own violation, mobilizing over my desire to deliver a particular fantasy to someone I cared about. The fantasy I imagined: a perfect partner in service. Supplying every need, each desire, in anticipation of any actual request. I realized after that she had never expressed any interest in that fantasy. I had, of course, never asked. That hook up stands alone, separate from so many intensely uncomfortable experiences where I was coerced, manipulated, or left unsatisfied, because it’s much scarier to realize that you are the one hurting yourself. Cord severed, body unmoored. 

Our breakup wasn’t the end. It should have been, but as most breakups go, the disentangling was difficult. We’d spend a week apart, then reunite for an intensely emotional sit-down where she’d tell me that she took time to think about it and she did, actually, want to be with me. My head would cloud: maybe I was wrong, maybe we should be together. I’d stare at her face, the freckles still somehow dramatically present even in the middle of winter, trying desperately to remember why I broke it off in the first place. Those conversations gave way to a week of reconnection, until I’d realize all over that I ended things because I couldn’t trust myself to care for someone else, just as I was beginning to understand myself. Another breakup, time apart, and then we’d run the whole sequence over again. 

Thinking clearly about it now, that breakup was so necessary because it was my grab for agency. After a moment where I felt like I had lost it completely, I needed to know that if I wasn’t safe with myself in a relationship, I could actually just be alone. Space was the only answer at a time when there were no others. I wasn’t sure quite how to talk about it, imagine it, resolve it. I chose to step away. 

Now, I keep returning to the idea that we all have the capacity to cause harm. During that dragged-out breakup, Renée and I both hurt each other intimately and repeatedly. This is the kind of harm that I almost understand––or perhaps, just am more familiar. There’s no clear delineation between the harmed and the harmers in this world. No matter how angelic we feel, we can hurt or disappoint the people we love. We do it all the time. But we can harm ourselves, too. Somehow, that idea has opened up so much space in my head and heart. Room to grow. I wonder if I’m not the only one who has hurt themselves like this. I wonder if you have, too? Whether because of so many internal mechanisms and societal expectations, you, too, might have gotten caught in some unpleasant space, violating your own trust or boundaries? I’m so sorry, if you have. I know it isn’t easy.

Once, a dream I had to cultivate: 

A picture of safety. In it, I care for myself with the intention usually reserved for others. I listen to my own boundaries intently and learn just where they lie. (This one, I know will take until the end of time.) I talk during sex a lot more than I do now. So much more I can’t nearly explain. In this picture, my body and mind are intact, connected. My breath is uncurdled and honey sweet. 

Nikita Ladd is a creative nonfiction writer and poet based in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BA from Wesleyan University, where she studied Neuroscience and minored in Writing. This is her first publication. 

Indrajaal
by Mitu Malhotra

Overall Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Literature for Young Adults & Children

Mitu Malhotra holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In previous avatars, she was a textile designer and taught fashion illustration. She writes stories inspired by her Indian culture, ancient myths and historical events. In her spare time Mitu paints, sews and builds miniature dollhouses out of recycled materials.

This free verse piece with elements of concrete poetry is a retelling of the myth of Indra—the thunderbolt wielding rain-god, a philanderer and a sort of Hindu version of Zeus.  Retaining the original sequence of events, curses, and characters, Mitu made two silent spectators—the moon-god Soma and Indra’s thunderbolt—narrate the events from their points of view. 

Website: mituart.com Instagram: @mituart Twitter: @Mitu_B_Malhotra

My Father’s Messiah
by Evelyn Krieger

First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Young Adult Category

Every school morning, my father wakes me the same way: he yanks open my blinds, slaps his hands together, and says, “Boker tov, beautiful daughter. Time to rise and serve your Creator.” 

Once upon a time, I didn’t need wake-up calls. I bounced out of bed as if each day delivered a surprise package. When I was five, I might have found my father’s routine cute, but now my fifteen-year-old brain barely registers Abba’s words. Instead, I hold onto my last dream before it morphs to reality.  

“And who knows?” my father booms. “Today might be the day the Messiah comes!”

He says this says every morning. No joke. 

“Stop, Abba. Please.”  I pull the quilt over my head.

He starts to hum a Hebrew song—a nigun, as he calls it, a mystical melody passed down from the Hasidic masters.

I groan. “You’re annoying me.”

“Yes, Sara sweets, that’s my job.”  He pats my leg beneath the covers. “Come on now. No going back to sleep. You’ll miss the bus again.”

“Okay, okay, just stop the singing.”

During Torah class, while Rabbi Ginsberg  drones on about the sacrificial peace offerings brought to the once-standing holy Temple, my mind turns to a more pressing concern: what to do about Abba. I stare at my teacher’s scraggly black beard and try to imagine what he would advise me. Most likely this: You should be proud to have such a father, Sara. Lately, I’m not so sure.  I’m worried about my father, like, big time worried.

The rest of the day I consider each of my teachers as a possible confidante. Not one of them seems fitting for the job, except for, well, maybe, Mrs. Wright. (I think her name could be a cosmic sign.) First of all, she’s an English teacher who seems naturally sympathetic to the drama of life, at least when we’re discussing Shakespeare. Second, the fact that she is not Jewish makes her a better candidate. Mrs. Wright won’t pull that, ‘honor your father’ lecture on me. Besides, isn’t saving your father a form of honoring?

On the bus ride home from school, Nina rattles on about the unfairness of the math team coach. “Just because I missed two practices, and for totally valid reasons, I’m on probation. Seriously? I’m like the second best on the team.”  

That is not a problem, I want to say to my charmed-life friend with the big intact family. While Nina blabs, I think about the best way to ask Mrs. Wright for help. Email?  Too risky. I consider writing a letter and leaving it in her mailbox. Then I worry she’ll tell someone else, maybe Dr.. Feldman, our principal. I worry that I’ll be betraying Abba. My head starts to ache from the mental gymnastics. Maybe the Messiah will come tomorrow, after all, and then I won’t have any worries.

“Call me later?” Nina says, as the bus stops at Elmwood. “I’ve got to figure this out.”

I half-smile. “Yeah, sure.”  

When I walk in the front door, I’m surprised to see Abba at the dining room table studying a page of Talmud like it contains a secret code. He’s wearing his Hasidic black hat, and it’s not even the Sabbath. Just another thing about him that I find annoying lately. When I ask why he isn’t at work, Abba says he needed a break. Panic flutters in my chest. I hope he hasn’t lost his new job. 

Abba used to teach Hebrew school. The students loved him. Then he started saying things the administration didn’t like. “They have trouble hearing the truth,” Abba explained to me after they axed him. Now he works as a kosher supervisor for three restaurants in Philly. Abba makes sure the kitchen workers use only kosher ingredients, inspect raw vegetables for bugs, check eggs for blood spots, and don’t mix milk and meat, so that when your meal is served, you know the food is one-hundred percent kosher. 

I grab some chocolate milk from the fridge and sit down across from Abba. 

“I didn’t hear your bracha,” he says as I drink the milk. Abba likes when I say the food blessings out loud, which makes me feel like I’m five years old. “Did you know that when you answer ‘amein’ to a blessing, you do an even greater mitzvah than the person who recited the blessing?”

“I think I heard that before.”

Abba gives me a wide-eyed look. “I certainly hope so. It’s right from the Talmud.”

I shrug.

“What are they teaching you in that school, anyway?”

That school is Hillel High School, the one my mother graduated from, the one that, until last year, seemed just fine to Abba.

“I got a 93 on the bio quiz,” I announce, trying to change subject.  

He nods. “Good for you. And what about Talmud?”

I gulp my milk. “Didn’t have a quiz in Talmud.”  The words I really want to say—Talmud bores me—stay in my head.

Abba presses on. “But what are you learning?”

I take an apple from the fruit bowl. Just as I bring it to my mouth, I remember the blessing, which I mumble in Hebrew, so Abba won’t get on my case.

Amein!” my father replies too loudly.

I can’t explain to my father what I’m learning in Talmud because I don’t understand it in the first place. It’s like reading an ancient chat room filled with rabbis arguing. “The laws of the Sabbath,” I offer.

“Do you want me to help you review?”

“Nada.”  

My father takes off his black hat, and puts it on the chair next to him. “So, nu? What else happened in school today?”  

I’d like to tell him that Ezra Cohen smiled at me in the hallway, that I noticed he is now braces-free. I’d like to tell Abba that seeing Ezra’s ten thousand watt smile momentarily erases all my worries. “We had gym, and my team lost in volleyball.”

“What did you do to bring the Messiah closer?” my father says, as if this were a normal thing to ask your kid after school.

My stomach churns. I think about that imaginary letter to Mrs. Wright. I don’t answer Abba. Instead, I get up from the table, knowing that I’m being rude. As I walk out of the dining room, my father begins humming a Hasidic tune. I plug my ears and retreat.

Six months ago, Abba was a regular modern orthodox dad who wore a small knit yarmulke and rooted for the Phillies. Then he went to Israel to bury his brother. Now he wears a large velvet yarmulke and roots for the Messiah. My friend Tamar says that visiting Israel changes you, that everyone comes back a little bit more Jewish. My father was in Israel only three weeks. I stayed back with Tamar’s family, so I wouldn’t miss school. I should have been with Abba. Maybe he’d have skipped visiting the grave sites of all those Jewish mystics. It’s like there was some soul switch and my father now has the eighteenth-century spirit of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. 

My father’s Messiah is a great man who God is just waiting to send forth. This righteous dude will rebuild the holy Temple and bring all the Jews back to Israel. My father’s Messiah could come any day now, blowing his great shofar, and usher in a time of world peace and oneness with God—if only we are deserving. 

But here’s my question: what if you like it just fine here in Philadelphia and you don’t want to move to Israel?

I decide not to ask Mrs. Wright’s advice about Abba because the next day she hands back my essay marked with a C plus. She wrote: Sara, you need to revise for clarity. While you express your emotions beautifully, your essay lacks structure

My essay is about the day my mother died of cancer. 

Did Mrs. Wright not get that Imma has been gone almost half my life, so I don’t really have clarity on the subject? And how do I give structure to something that doesn’t make sense in the first place? 

I crumple the paper and stuff it in my backpack. If I had a mother, I wouldn’t have written that stupid essay in the first place. I wouldn’t need to ask Mrs. Wright whether or not my father is going crazy. Forget the confidante. I need a mother, and the only way I’m going to get one is if Abba remarries. But who is going to marry him when he gets fired from his job because he preaches about the Messiah?

After last period, Nina and I walk side-by-side through the crowded hallway. “So, I decided just to suck up to Ms. Finn and play the goody-two-shoes,” Nina tells me. “And guess what? Ms. Finn agreed to—” Nina stops walking. “Hey, is that your dad?”

I freeze.

My heart back flips when I see Abba standing outside the school entrance. He is smiling, greeting kids as they walk by and…oh my God. He’s handing them something.

I feel faint. “Uh, right. I forgot he’s picking me up,” I tell Nina. “You go ahead.”

Nina looks at me funny. “You okay?”

Yes,” I say too harshly. 

“Okaaay. Talk to you later.” Nina heads outside while I stand inside this nightmare. 

Oh, no.

I see Ezra Cohen pass by Abba, then stop. 

Please, God. 

Ezra takes something from Abba’s hand. A business card? I watch Ezra look at it as he walks toward the carpool line.

I cringe.

When the coast is clear, I take a deep breath and march toward my father. I grab his arm. “Abba, what are you doing here?”   

His face brightens. “I wanted to surprise you on this gorgeous day. Let’s get ice cream!” 

His answer has no effect on my hard heart. I consider hopping on the school bus but reconsider at the thought of facing the other kids. “Take me home. Now.”  I turn away from Abba and walk quickly toward the parking lot. 

Inside the safety of our car, I let my father have it. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking how wonderful it would be if more young people prayed for the Messiah.”

“That is totally embarrassing, Abba!”

Confusion spreads across his face. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Would you rather give them out yourself? I thought it was a nice thing to—”

“No, I don’t want to give out Messiah cards, FYI.”

He starts the car. “Sara’le—“

“Don’t call me that! I’m not a little girl.” I stare out the window. I feel my father’s hurt hanging in the air between us.  

Abba drives. After a few minutes he says, “Do you realize…that if everyone really yearned for the Messiah, he would come?”

I bite my lip. “Not everyone believes the way you do. Don’t you get that?”        

“The great sage Maimonides himself said that we are supposed to, not only believe, but await the Messiah every day, or else, it as if we denied the whole Torah.” He lets out a sad sigh. “But we’ve somehow forgotten that in our modern life.” 

I try a different tactic. “Parents might get upset, you know.” 

Abba glances at me. “What parent would get upset about me encouraging their child to do good deeds?”

“It’s the way you do it, like…like some missionary!”

“We are all ambassadors of Judaism, Sara.” He pulls a card from his white shirt pocket. I snatch it from his hand. On the front is a picture of the Western Wall. Do a good deed today to bring the Messiah now! Join the coalition for world peace. For more info on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, visit: Messiah.org. 

I call him crazy.

Once home, I retreat to my bedroom, hug Boo, my stuffed tiger, his faded fur matted with the scent of childhood. That’s fading, too. Like my memory of her. Sometimes I hate my mother for dying. 

I simply cannot to school tomorrow. Won’t go.

But I do go. 

Abba makes me. 

Miraculously, not one kid says anything about Abba’s cards. Maybe they’re just being nice to a motherless girl. Or, maybe they secretly feel sorry for me because I’ve got such a lunatic dad. 

I go to school the next day, and the next, and that is when another miracle happens. Ezra Cohen sits down next to me in study hall. Me, Sara Myerson, nerd girl with the flat chest. There are plenty of other seats he could have chosen, so I know it’s not some random stroke of luck. 

I glance up from my chem book. 

Ezra smiles and says hi. His teeth are perfect. He’s wearing a Penn sweatshirt. I try not to stare into his ocean blue eyes. I want to dive into them.

I smile back. 

Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the Messiah card. 

My cheeks burn. I am two seconds from running to the bathroom. Ezra holds the card between his fingers. I want to crawl in a hole. I stare at the textbook page. The periodic table swims before my eyes. 

And then I hear Ezra’s deep voice whisper, “This card is…so…cool.” 

Did he just say…?  Yes, yes, he did! 

Relief zips through me. My smile widens, and I know at this moment the universe is on my side.

By the end of the week, I have spent 187 minutes on the phone with Ezra. We’ve exchanged 132 texts. I can’t believe all this happened because of my father’s ridiculous Messiah card. Forget Mrs. Wright. Forget Nina. I choose Ezra as my confidante. 

We sit together in the back of the library. I whisper my worries to him. 

“Your dad doesn’t sound crazy,” Ezra says gently, “more like a zealot.” 

“Is there really a difference?” I ask.

“If you want to see crazy, you should see my dad when he loses his temper, which is like every other day.” 

I can’t remember the last time Abba lost his temper, but I don’t say this. Then Ezra tells me about the time his father got so mad about the cell phone bill that he smeared Ezra’s phone with peanut butter. Ezra is allergic to peanuts. 

Sunday I meet Ezra at the town park. We walk for a while past a row of maple trees, their colors glowing like a flame. Ezra veers off toward the gazebo. “I like hanging here,” he says. 

We sit on the gazebo floor, our backs resting against the wooden slats. The October sun covers us like a blanket. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this peaceful. 

I tell Ezra about losing Imma and how my memory of her is fading. He listens quietly, not like other boys I’ve known. Not like Nina, either, who can’t stop bringing herself into the story. Ezra listens as if he is storing up my words in a safe place.  “Like, right this very moment, sitting here,” I tell him, “I can’t even remember the sound of her voice.”

Ezra touches the top of my head every so lightly. “The sound is still in there.”  Then his finger points toward my chest. “And there, in your heart.”

I shiver.

“You just need to find a way to unlock it,” he says softly.

I meet his blue gaze. Then I ask Ezra if he believes in the Messiah.

He pauses. “Never gave it too much thought, honestly, at least until your father handed me that card. Kind of ironic, huh, considering we say it every morning in the prayers?” 

“We do?” The monotony of our school’s daily prayer service often puts me to sleep. Now my ignorance feels embarrassing. 

Then Ezra recites the line, “Ani mamin b’emuna sh’laima, I believe with perfect faith.’ You know, like the song?”

“Okay, but do you really believe it, like, you know, the Messiah could come tomorrow?” 

“I think he’s got at least a few years of preparation before taking on our screwed up world.”

I laugh. “Right. So what about the dead coming back to life? Do you believe that part?”

Ezra looks toward the sky, as if the answer is floating up there. “I want to believe it. Don’t you?”

“And how exactly would that work? If your mother died when you were a child, would she recognize you? Would she look the same as on the day she died?”  My throat tightens. “And what would she be wearing? How come the rabbis never answer that one?”  I look over at the red maple trees. There’s a fire rising inside me.

“You think too much,” Ezra says, laying his hand on top of mine.

The warmth of his palm spreads up my arm. “Is there a cure for thinking too much?” 

He leans toward me, letting his forehead rest on mine. My heart drums. I’ve never kissed a boy before. Jewish law says… Our lips move closer. I feel his warm breath on my mouth. The no-kissing rule slips out of mind. His, too, I guess.      

Ezra asks me out to the movies Saturday night. I tell him my father would never let me.    

What if we go in a group? Ezra texts.  

Not sure, I reply. 

He tells me he misses me. 

I miss him back. 

Then Ezra writes: My fire will burn until the coming of the Messiah. 

Me: Huh?

Ezra: That’s from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Cool old soul.

I stare at the quote. Goosebumps on my arm.

Ezra: When’s your birthday.

Me: April 3rd. Why?

Ezra: According to Reb Nachman, your birthday is the day God decided the world couldn’t exist without you.

Me: Gotta go.

In bed that night, I think of Ezra’s soft lips and the faint dark hair above them. My heart fills with a feeling I don’t quite recognize—something like happiness, excitement, fear, and love all lumped together. I think of Ezra’s name, which means ‘helper,’ and I know that this, too, is a cosmic sign. My fire will keep burning until the coming of the Messiah.    

Goosebumps again. Faint words echo in my head. I squeeze my eyes shut, listen really hard. 

Until…until….

My mother’s voice.

The game we used to play so long ago springs to life. I’ll love you until…. until…what? 

And then I remember. 

Until the moon turns to cheese. 

Until the clouds turn to cotton. 

Until…fire turns to ice.  

“Until…until my tears turn into an ocean,” I whisper.

I lie there wrapped in my mother’s words, until the darkness turns to light, until my father comes to wake me.    

Evelyn Krieger is the author of the award winning Young Adult novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number. Her writing has been supported by PJ Library, Vermont Studio Center, and TENT Children’s Writing Conference.  She was a Hunger Mountain Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize Finalist in 2019 and a Creative Nonfiction Prize Finalist in 2018. Evelyn’s fiction and essays have appeared in Lilith, Hippocampus, Tablet, Sunlight Press, Winning Writers, Gemini, Teachers & Writers, and other publications. She is currently revising a Middle Grade novel set in the summer of 1968. Visit her at EvelynKrieger.net.

What Olivia Knew
by Emily Young

First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Middle Grade Category

Fireflies die when they are two months old. They spend those two months lighting up hot summer nights, sometimes flickering in a special way to attract a mate, sometimes just glinting in the dark like earth-fallen stars.

The fireflies were missing tonight, leaving only the August heaviness in the air and the faint scritching of cicadas in the oak trees. Olivia pressed her face against her bedroom window, breathing in the earthy smell of mildew on the frame. She stood barefoot, shivering in the darkness of her room where the shadows of unfamiliar furniture loomed like ancient devouring beasts. She wasn’t cold, really; she shivered because she could feel them watching her. She tried not to look at them. Better to keep her eyes fixed on the darkness beyond her window. Better to wait for the tiny pinpricks of light to appear. 

But there was only darkness beyond the window. The fireflies were gone. Maybe they were already dead. 

“Olivia.” 

Her brother’s voice. Tom stood in the doorway, a dark silhouette against the brightness of the hall. “Why are you awake?” he asked. 

There were too many reasons, so she said nothing. 

He walked a little further into her room and glanced between her and the bed in a helpless way. “Did you have a bad dream or something?” he said. “Is that why you’re still up?”

“The fireflies are dead,” she said. 

  He blinked at her. He had a starey look on his face, a look she’d seen in photos of soldiers in her WWII book, after they came back from the war. He had that look a lot these days.

She ran her tongue over her back molars, exploring the empty place where her tooth used to be. It always gave her a sick rush, feeling the hollow in her gums, the emptiness that reminded her another piece of her childhood had fallen out of her mouth. Just fallen out. There was no way to stop it, growing up—she would be ten next month and it would probably change her in all sorts of ways. She would no longer be child Olivia, she would be grown-up Olivia, a completely different person who might not like stuffed animals or collecting bottle caps or watching for fireflies. It was such a terrifying thought that she shut her eyes and began to count by four’s. 

Four, eight, sixteen . . . twenty, twenty-four . . . 

“Olivia.”

She didn’t hear Tom’s footsteps as he crossed the room and knelt before her. But when she opened her eyes again, he was there. She took a breath and felt something loosen inside her chest, a tightness that had held her all night long. Tom was safe, the only safe thing in this new apartment, the only link back to all the safeness of her past. He smelled like laundry detergent and Old Spice—that’s what their dad had smelled like, too—and when he knelt in front of her the hulking shadows became her bed and dresser again, and they no longer wanted to devour her. 

“You’re okay, Olive,” Tom said. “You’re okay.” He stretched out his hand towards her, then withdrew it again. He knew she didn’t like to be hugged anymore, but he didn’t understand why. She’d tried to explain. She had hugged her mother that morning, and then it had happened. The two things were connected. If she let Tom hug her, he might go away too. 

“Do you think you can go to sleep now?” he asked her. 

Olivia nodded and climbed back into bed. Tom tucked the blanket around her knees, then sat beside her, not saying anything. “Dad’s in Arizona,” he said finally. “We got a check, and the postmark said Arizona, so I guess that’s where he is now.” 

“Is he coming back soon?” 

“I don’t think so,” Tom said. “But at least we know where he is.” 

Olivia explored the sheets with her legs. They felt soft and cool. 

“Did you get your homework done for tomorrow?” Tom asked.

“Where is Arizona?” Olivia said. 

“It’s another state.”

“Is it far?”

“Yeah. It’s pretty far.” 

“Is it farther than where Mom is?”

There was no answer except for the cicadas outside the window and the swishing of her legs under the sheets. 

“Tom. Is it farther than where Mom is?”

“I don’t know,” he said. 

Then he was quiet. He was quiet for such a long time, she yanked the sheets over her head in frustration. When she finally peeked at him over the covers, he was gone. The things in her room noted his absence and stirred, turning themselves back into monsters. I am safe, she whispered. Tom is safe. Her lips formed the words over and over, the words to keep them safe, until she was too tired to remember why they needed protection. 

In the morning she woke shaking, her nightgown stuck to her back with sweat and her body tangled in the sheets. That was okay. She was used to nightmares. 

Her eyes focused on the morning light that seeped through her window—it was a thin light, as if it had trickled through so many other houses it had used up all its brightness. The apartment buildings here were so squished together, that’s what you got: secondhand sunlight, faded like a pair of hand-me-down jeans. Olivia was careful to never mention this to Tom. This was the only apartment they could afford, and inferior sunlight was just part of the contract. 

Maybe her window would look better with a wind chime. 

“Tom,” Olivia said as she walked into the kitchen, backwards, because it would keep Tom safe today. “Can you help me make a wind chime?”

“What?” Tom said. He was pouring cornflakes into two bowls. 

“A wind chime.” She knocked into the kitchen counter and bit her tongue to keep from yelping. “Out of bottle caps. Like the one in my old room.” 

But Tom was busy looking in the fridge for the milk carton. 

Every day, it was Tom’s job to make breakfast. It was Olivia’s job to keep them safe. On a morning like this, after a nightmare, it was particularly important to perform the rituals right. She shut her eyes, counted by tens, made sure Tom wouldn’t die. Then she ate her cornflakes.  

After breakfast, she sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor while Tom rushed around, like always. Tom hated mornings. But this morning he would be proud when he saw she’d tied her shoes all by herself. He would see how she’d knotted the pink laces just enough times to keep her sneakers from slipping off, which they almost always did, and he would say— 

“God, Olivia, bunny ears. You should know that by now.” He skidded to a halt in front of her, one hand clutching her backpack. “It’s ten till eight! It’s ten till eight, Olivia, we have to go.” 

She felt her face turn hot and looked down at the shoelaces, hanging limply between her fingers. He took a breath. 

“I’m sorry,” Tom said. “I shouldn’t have . . . . You’re doing good, you almost had it.” He crouched before her and looped the laces around, his fingers quick and capable. “See?” he said. “That’s how you make the bunny ears.”

“I know,” Olivia said. 

“And then you make the bunny ears tight so they don’t fall off. Right?”

“I know,” Olivia said. 

He looked up at her and gave her a quick, crooked half-smile, his fingers squeezing her foot through the shoe. “You’ll get it next time.” 

Olivia sighed. “No, I won’t.”

Tom chewed the inside of his cheek, like he was trying to think of something that would cheer her up. Finally, he said, “I’m thinking of an animal. It lives in the jungle. What is it?”

Olivia shrugged. Games couldn’t fix things. And Tom, who went to college, ought to know that by now. But he had such a pleading look on his face, like he wanted to make things all right and didn’t know how. 

So she started guessing. 

She guessed tree frog while she put on her red coat and shouldered her backpack. Then, as they walked down the five flights of stairs, she changed it to poison dart frog. Tom said no. 

She guessed mamba when they passed the abandoned brick factory on Seventh Avenue—the one with shattered windows and a wooden sign that advertised, Bablin Brothers Cigars

No again. 

She stopped guessing when they reached the streetcar tracks because she liked tight-roping on them, liked balancing herself on the glistering steel veins that crisscrossed the city. She wobbled on the tracks, felt sweat drip into her eyes, wiped it away on the sleeve of her coat. Tom, walking beside her, cast a worried glance at her flushed cheeks. He exhaled. “Olivia, you should take your coat off.” 

She shook her head. 

He opened his mouth like he was going to say something else, then changed his mind. He reached over and lifted her backpack off her shoulders, carrying it as they walked along. The school was only eight blocks from their apartment, so they always walked together in the mornings. At least until they saved up enough money for a car. Olivia hoped they wouldn’t save up enough money for a long time. She liked walking. With Tom. She liked walking with Tom. 

By the time they reached her school, she guessed bullet ant, and Tom said yes. But now it was time for him to leave. He handed her the backpack and crouched down to eye-level with her. “I’ll pick you up when aftercare is over,” he said. 

In the seconds before he left, Olivia studied his face—filing away every detail so she would not forget. His dark brown hair, cut extra short this time because his hand had slipped with the electric razor. The scar over his right eyebrow from playing baseball when he was her age. And the way he stared at her as if he really saw her—when most people just passed her by without even noticing. She existed when Tom looked at her. She was Olivia

When he walked away, she shut her eyes to cement the memory. She might not have done the rituals right this morning; she might not be able to keep him safe. 

She fingered her red coat as she walked up the steps into the brick school building. It was way too hot for coats—Tom was right about that—but this wasn’t to keep her warm. It was a talisman. It meant that she could walk inside the classroom and come out again alive. 

She kept tracing patterns in the soft red wool as she pushed through the hordes of students in the hallways and slipped into her classroom. Then she took her seat, third from the front, just like always. And just like always, Miss Small gave her the special Olivia-smile. Olivia felt sorry for Miss Small. She was young and pretty, in a perfect sort of way, like a porcelain doll that had never been played with. But she didn’t know very much. She was always trying to say comforting things that weren’t true. Your mother will be with you forever, she told Olivia last month. You’ll feel her presence all the time, because you’ll carry her in your heart. 

She wondered if Miss Small had ever known anyone who’d died. Because it didn’t feel like that at all. There was no presence of her mother. There was nothing. It was like the black holes in space. A cosmic emptiness so great it would consume you if you got too close, a nothingness that sucked spheres into its vacuum and swallowed up the light. Tom’s science book said black holes form after a star dies. And it made sense to her—the image of that collapsing star, that one last flash of brilliance before it left an unending absence behind. 

Olivia pressed her pencil into her lined paper, hard, so that it made one permanent black hole. Then she drew lines around it and turned it into a sun. 

Aftercare came too soon, like always. She dragged herself out to the small, mulched playground and sat on her favorite red swing. She’d found a bottle cap at recess—Blue Moon Brewing Company—and she was so absorbed in looking at it that she almost didn’t notice when the girl on the other swing began talking. 

“Olivia!” the girl said. It was Loni, she realized. “I said I’m having a party.” 

She stiffened. Nobody ever talked to her on the playground. But Loni must have forgotten. “I’m turning ten,” she continued. “I just wanted to let you know, I can’t invite you. My mom says I can’t play with you because you’re weird.” 

Olivia closed her eyes and pretended Loni wasn’t there. And eventually, the swing next to her was empty again. Most of the playground was empty, she realized—it was just her and Sam Spencer left. She pushed up the sleeve of her coat and checked her Minnie Mouse watch. It was after 5:30 p.m. Where was Tom? He always came at 5:30.

But at 5:40, she was still waiting. Even Sam Spencer had gone home. 

At 5:45, Olivia crossed the playground and picked up her backpack, where it had been leaning against the side of the school building. It was the only one left. 

At 5:50, Olivia clutched the straps on her backpack and watched for Tom to come walking up to the playground gate. Her shoes kicked at the mulch under her feet and she took deep, shuddering breaths, but it did nothing to dispel the growing panic in her stomach. Tom never forgot her. He was never this late. 

On the other side of the playground, Miss Sarah was beginning to check her phone. 

 At 5:53, Olivia knew that Tom was not coming. Her mind shied away from the words but she forced herself to think them. Tom was not coming. She gripped the straps of her backpack harder, as if to ground herself to the earth, because if Tom was not coming then she might drift away into the outer atmosphere with nobody to call her back. It was the same feeling of weightlessness, of being un-tethered, that she had in her nightmares. It was the same feeling she’d had when her mother had died in the car accident. 

She knew now, just as she had known then, that something bad had happened. She could see Miss Sarah walking across the mulch towards her, walking as if in slow motion, to tell her the news. It would be like before, when they told her about her mother as if she didn’t already know, as if she had been too stupid to understand. She wasn’t too stupid now. She knew. 

She had done the rituals wrong, and now Tom was gone. 

A shudder ran down her spine when she thought the word. Gone. And with Tom gone, she felt herself begin to disintegrate, to disappear. She was not Olivia without Tom. She did not exist. Nobody else knew her, not really, and so nobody would care whether she lived or died. 

She pressed her tongue hard against her front teeth and felt one of them loosen. There it was. Already she was falling apart, her body splintering into a hundred pieces that she could never put back together. But maybe that was all right. She no longer avoided the black hole on the edge of her consciousness, she leaned into it, letting herself become absorbed into its nothingness. There was nothing in the center of black holes, no time, no space, no gravity to pull you down to earth and force you to remember. She could feel it beginning to swallow her up—and not just her but the whole school, until the swing set crumpled and the metal monkey bars flattened and the red brick building compressed and there was nothing left but the void.  

She began to cry, to sob so hard that her whole body shook and she choked for air. She couldn’t seem to stop. Miss Sarah was kneeling before her now, her lips forming words that Olivia couldn’t hear. She didn’t want to hear them. Hands picked her up, carried her into the nurse’s station and laid her on the exam table. They unbuttoned her coat and gave her a pill to swallow and wiped the sweat off her face as if this would bring Tom back. Didn’t they know?

Her vision turned gray around the edges. She let it wash over her, a pleasant tingling in her arms and legs, a gradual drift into nothingness. 

“Olivia.”

Her brother’s voice. Impossible. Tom was dead. 

“Olivia.” 

It sounded exactly like his voice. Olivia opened her eyes, just a slit, and peeked through the shadow of her eyelashes at him. Tom was sitting there, right in front of her. Not a ghost, because ghosts do not stare at you and bite their lip like that. Only alive, not-ghost brothers do that. He leaned forward when he saw her eyes open, every muscle tense under his gray T-shirt. “Olivia,” he said, in a careful voice. “What happened?” 

“You were dead.” She sat up on the exam table so fast that the room spun. “You were!” 

“No, Olivia—I wasn’t dead, I was late. Those are two completely different things,” Tom said. “But I’m sorry—I’m sorry I was late. I’m sorry it scared you.” 

Olivia just stared at him. Her world had ended, she had been so sure it had ended, but now she was sitting in the nurse’s office and Tom was there. 

He rummaged in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a bottle cap—cherry red, Strawberry Soda. “Look, I found it this morning,” he said. “You want it for your wind chime?” 

“My wind chime?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought you weren’t listening to me earlier.” She swallowed to make the ache in her throat go away. “About the wind chimes.” 

“Yeah, I was.” He set the bottle cap on the exam table, rustling the paper cover. Then he looked up at her. “So what do you think? Are you ready to go home?” 

In Tom’s science textbook—the beat-up one with the diagram of the Milky Way on the front—it said that black holes can last forever. But it was wrong. After a long, long time, black holes disappear into the universe, leaving behind a faint glimmer in the dark. Olivia, sitting on the nurse’s exam table, knew nothing about this. But she felt, when she looked at Tom, like maybe the nothingness inside her was growing smaller. 

She shivered, and Tom noticed. He reached out as if to touch her, then curled his fingers into a fist and dropped his hand onto the exam table. It hurt Olivia to see him make that gesture again, a sign of defeat. He thought she’d never let him hug her—and she couldn’t, not just yet— but she felt like she might. Eventually. 

Olivia looked at his hand on the exam table and inched her fingers closer, just close enough so that the tip of her index finger touched his. “I’m ready,” she said. 

Emily Young holds an M.F.A. from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program and attended the Tin House Young Adult Fiction Workshop in spring 2021. She is currently a fiction editor with Angelella Editorial. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s probably trying to teach her dog (a basenji named Fury Rose) the names of all her toys (they’ve gotten to “soccer,” “football,” and “carrot”). You can follow her on Twitter at @egywrites or connect with her on angelellaeditorial.com/emily-young.

An Atom in Space. A Cantaloupe.
by Jen Breach

First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize, Picture Book Category

“The particles of matter are subject to strange vicissitudes. 

Every atom has its peculiar history” 

– John Cargill Brough

Here is a cantaloupe. 

Cut it open for that 

pearly orangepink with a slash 

of vibrant green. 

Could you have guessed those colors 

from the beige outside?

Things are not always what they seem. 

Now take a spoon and scoop out the seeds….

But wait! No! 

You can’t scoop out this 

cantaloupe. 

It’s only a drawing 

of a cantaloupe. 

Here is a drawing 

of a painting 

of a cantaloupe. 

This is a fancy painting 

made by a fancy painter 

called a Dutch Master. 

He painted it four hundred years ago, 

and now it hangs 

in a fancy museum. 

Perhaps you have seen 

one like it?

When the Dutch Master painted this cantaloupe, 

and the grapes and the pheasant and all, 

he laid out a table just like this, 

and painted what he saw. 

The cantaloupe he painted 

is long, long, long

gone by now—eaten and digested 

and decomposed like the 

Dutch Master himself—but

the cantaloupe in the painting 

is still there. 

The atoms in 

the mercury which made 

the vermillion paint 

are more stable 

than the atoms in 

a cantaloupe 

or a Dutch Master.  

But eventually 

that vermillion paint, that mercury, too, 

will decompose.

It will take a 

long, long, long time.

But “long” is not 

long for an atom.

Before it was a 

pigment in

paint in a 

painting of a 

cantaloupe,

this atom wandered 

the nothingness

and somethingness 

of the Universe.

You see,

more than thirteen billion 

years ago

there was

a Bang—

a Big one—and then

this atom existed.

The force of that Bang was 

tremendous

astounding.

The atom raced 

and sped 

and spun

across space. 

It might have formed part of a star

for a while,

say, ten million years…

before the star exploded—

in a fraction of a second—

flinging the atom through 

the Universe

once more.

Was it then part of 

another star?

a planet?

a moon?

Who knows?

Only the atom, 

and it won’t tell. 

But then…!

The atom formed part 

of the earth. 

Perhaps a beetle,

a blade of grass,

a bright flashing fish.

A drop of rain

taken into the roots of a hundred year old pine tree,

standing tall and straight on a mountaintop.  

Then flung and spun again,

until…

magma—

thick, boiling fire in the center of the earth—

then lava exploding, gushing, oozing forth

then cooling to cinnabar mercury, a slash

of vibrant red in a chunk

of black volcanic rock.

Then paint.

After it is no longer a painted cantaloupe, 

once those mercury atoms decompose,

what then? The atom 

will speed and spin

once more.

It might be a beetle, 

a grass, 

a silk thread,

a moon,

a star,

a child,

a Master painter, 

a cantaloupe.

Jen Breach (they/them) is queer and nonbinary. They grew up in a tiny town in rural Australia with three older brothers, two parents, and one pet duck. Jen has worked as an archaeologist, a librarian, an editor, a florist, a barista, a bagel-baker, a code-breaker, a ticket-taker, and a trouble-maker. The best job they ever had was as a writer, which they do now in Philadelphia, PA. jenbreach.com.

Someday I’ll Love Ottavia Paluch
by Ottavia Paluch

Winner, International Young Writers Prize

Ottavia, don’t be scared.

You’ll never have less of yourself

than you have right now.

Don’t fear. Your name is only your name

until you make up its’ meaning. Like how the sun

and your spine become the same,

whenever they curve against the world

and its endless weight. Ottavia,

can you hear me? The most beautiful part

of your eyes is wherever

it forgets how to see.

Here’s the body made unholy

because you forgot to pray.

Don’t fret. Just call it heaven

and you’ll never find it.

Here’s the future. Run. I promise it isn’t

a death sentence. Here’s the person

whose mirror reflection you cannot believe

is your own. And here’s the time,

after the moon comes up, when you can still see

her chest rising and falling the way yours does.

How you breathe in and out

to find your own pair of lungs.

You asked for forgiveness

and received two hands to fill.

Don’t be scared; the noise

is just the sound of people

thinking they had fire within them

and burning out. Ottavia. Ottavia—

stand up. The most beautiful part of your eyes

is what it’s looking at. And remember,

happiness still knows who you are

even when you don’t. Here’s

the destruction without the destroying.

Your friend who said everything happens

for a reason when nothing was happening.

Here’s a pencil you cannot hold properly

and ink that bleeds onto your fingers

to cover up the actual blood. Yeah, here’s

a mind so simple and soothing,

I swear, you’ll wake up

and think every mistake

belongs to God.

Ottavia Paluch lives in Ontario, Canada. Her work is published or forthcoming in Four Way Review, Gigantic Sequins, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Best Canadian Poetry, and Ghost City Review, among other places. She’s also an alumnx of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, Flypaper Lit’s Flight School workshop, and the Iowa Young Writers Studio.

Hunger
by Sarah Fathima Mohammed

Runner-Up, International Young Writers Prize

I tighten my body on the rain-softened sidewalk outside our home, waiting for my mother to pick me up and drive me to school. The wide street in front of me is quiet, covered in a thin layer of fog; there are no cars passing by this early in the morning. The silence almost feels holy. 

*

I want to be with my people, to rest in the holiest place I know. In the mosque, young girls, half-lidded from the warmth of our bodies held close, trace the Quran on the roof of their mouths for the first time. Widows in the corner huddle in circles, their white burkas flowing, as they weave their grief into songs. The breaths of a thousand Islamic prayers submit to the blue-patterned rug, the muezzin’s sermons peeling open—his guttural Arabic baritone ringing, this ripened sustenance. 

*

I catch sight of a boy who looks around my age jogging around the block, his hair platinum blonde, shining as a knife. When he passes the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s house, he stops to watch me, my knees pressed into my chest, arms wrapped around them. The boy sits next to me here, on the sidewalk in front of my house, right on top of the hair that has just fallen out of my hijab. His green eyes lock with my startled ones. Thighs pressing into mine, he takes my face in his meaty, creased hands and brings it up to his lips. 

“All covered up, aren’t you? Well, that’s okay. I like my girls exotic,” he murmurs into my mouth, his breath hot, thick with the scent of hamburgers, cologne, sweat. A smattering of his prickly facial hair rubs against my face. He palms my hijab, two of his fingers grabbing the edges of the scarf, as if given permission. My body, hollow, a guava emptied of pink flesh, throat dry. 

Before, all I wanted was a body close to mine. But this stranger folds our hips together, trespassing both my body and the property of our sidewalk. This is different from the warmth I am searching for. This is hunger, only pressurized into his body heat—the way his mouth rubs like chafing wires around baby, sweetheart. 

*

My mother told me about these men, their violence, how they take off our hijabs, find so many ways to invade our bodies. Even desire is a form of violence. If she was with me now, she would clasp my palms, so I could feel her hardened calluses between us like the lands she once crossed barefoot, holding only an extra hijab and coconut milk that spoiled in the American sun. I wish I could have held my mother’s hand on her journey.  

When Amma, my mother, had arrived, she touched her mouth to the valleys of hot dust, trying to hold this country as a second mouth. A pregnant second passed and then a man ripped the hijab off her head. Get up, you terrorist he had screamed, slapping her mouth, which was already burnt by the land she worshipped. Her hijab was no longer an embrace, a source of protection, only the propellant to a white man’s anger. The man’s hands tightened around the gun under his belt, a silent threat. This is what entitlement looks like: a white man flushed hard red like the wet mouth of a cherry, body carved into a bowl.

*

 On the sidewalk outside my home, the boy picks me up like a brown Barbie doll, hungry for something exotic. Entitled enough that he thinks he can have me, claim my body as a country. 

*

When she used to braid my hair, my mother sat with my sister and I, back curling into the shower door, as she told us stories on how she survived during the war against her people. When the harvest emptied, my mother would leave her family’s doorless thatched hut. The walls were thin, made of dirt so soft she could feel it move under her palms, the floor just a layer of brown dust. Melting under monsoon rains, the shape of the only room was uneven. Amma would squeeze her eyes shut and swallow a swollen guava rolling in the middle of the dirt street—the flesh of the abandoned fruit bitter and half-decayed. 

For young Amma, this was hunger: trying to hold something in her body that was already crumbling, something that she knew she could not keep in her stomach. Later, Amma would hold her stillborns daughters like this too, praying for a womb that would not be a graveyard. And this became our dark bloodline, thick and rough as our hair: women bearing fattened, oiled wires of craving, baring the harsh flavor of loss. 

*

 I will never forget what aching feels like, yearning to be American so much it drains the pulp from my body. On the first day of sixth grade, Ms. Williams stumbled over my last name, shifting her glasses further down her nose to see the mass of letters clumping together. She butchered the vowels into split, weakened seeds and tossed them haphazardly into my unassuming dark hands. I’ll never forget that name, eh? she had remarked, voice burning beneath the rigid surface. High-pitched giggles had filled the room. Bodies turned and gaped at my crimson hijab, at my face, bright, a mango just beginning to rot. At that moment, my tongue was no longer a muscle, just a lump of congealed heritage. 

I began to wear my words like a backpack, a sprawled weight. From then on, I became an instinct, a trembling heart, a pounding gut, immobilized by my hijab, by my Tamil accent, by skin oiled dark in the daylight. America tore the flag that my mother buried in my body piece by piece. This was the day I realized that there was nothing left in me but tattered threads hanging haggard. 

*

Pressed between the boy’s body and the San Franciscan sky curling gray fists, I begin to understand: the boy and I are both hungry. Both yearning for so many things all at once. And in this moment that lays open like a stretched palm, we both hope for something small and trembling. He wants my body, and I want my mother. 

Sarah Fathima Mohammed is a brown, Muslim-American writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Frontier Poetry, wildnessSOFTBLOWPANK, diode, and elsewhere. She has been recognized by the Poetry Society of the UK, Claudia Ann Seaman Awards, and Hollins University, among others.