Essential or Sacrificial?

By: Marissa Hawkins, Assistant Fiction Editor

It’s hard to think about a time before all of this: when we could go outside without wearing a mask and gloves, when we could hug without fearing sickness, when we could see our family in person and not through a zoom call. While some of us are getting used to this new norm, for however long we have to, some of us can’t stay at home. 

Consider the cashier you saw at the grocery store before this all happened. Or maybe the mail person who comes to your door almost every day. What about the drivers of Amazon, FedEx, and UPS trucks? There are so many essential employees, and it’s horrible that only now are they being recognized as crucial. Before, I’m sure you saw a “Karen” in the wild, screaming for a manager. You thought it was normal, and it was. But after this pandemic started, did you start thanking the employees at those grocery stores? Did you start noticing them?

It’s not hard to pinpoint when the world decided to go to shit. It had started the week before spring break. That Monday, everything was fine. The world was as peaceful as it usually was, which wasn’t that peaceful. But toilet paper and hand sanitizer hadn’t yet became the new money system. That Monday, I had left the grocery store where I work to head to Urgent Care. Why? My sciatic nerve decided to be fucked up, and while waiting for a doctor, I noticed signs about COVID-19 posted everywhere. The novel coronavirus had taken over the medical world by this point, but it didn’t seem that bad. A guy had jokingly asked me if I believe this shit was real and if it would be bad. I looked him straight in the eye and told him I didn’t think it would last, that it would be just like the Swine Flu, that it would come and go as quickly as it appeared. I wish I had been right. He laughed, nodded his head, and said he hoped the same, before he was called back for whatever he came in for. I think about that moment, sometimes, wanting nothing more than to go back and change my answer. To tell him I wasn’t sure. Or even to tell him I believed it would only get worse. I know at the time I didn’t lie, because at the time I was still laughing about COVID-19 memes. Now, I scroll through Facebook and see nothing but death and destruction as the virus destroys our world.

Reality set in a few days later, on that Friday after classes had been canceled until spring break was over. I went to work at 4 a.m., like I always do—and it was packed. Like, usually a few people were shopping here and there, the normal people. But no, the parking lot was packed… at 4 a.m.! I could barely even find a parking spot. It was like when people learn about a snowstorm and stock up—but worse. It was as if people were told they would never be able to leave their house ever again. They took everything; the shelves were bare. Nothing but the things people would never dare to eat, like jars of pig feet. YES! Pig’s feet. I know, gross. But it was left there, surrounded by nothing but settled dust. The one gross reality of this pandemic is how much dust can be found on the shelves and how much mold can be found in the fridges that keep the eggs. I know you likely didn’t want to read that, but that’s the reality. I didn’t want to see it; you didn’t want to read it—well tough… if I’m going down, so are you.

Customers started turning into demons in desperate need of TP, and the employees started to see that the world was just a place and they were objects. And then, suddenly, the news showed that we were more than only slaves to the system. We were “essential.” Each week my boss sent out new changes to the policy, something that our union had worked so hard to get passed. Slowly, things in the store started to change. Now we couldn’t take returns or exchange, couldn’t offer rainchecks, weren’t allowed to bag groceries in any bags that customers brought in. There were so many more rules, until eventually they put up plexiglass barriers and gave us masks and gloves. Why did it take so long? Well, they waited for an employee at one of its stores to die until they’d protect us. I was reading the article about the employee who died. Her immune system was compromised, but she loved her job—and her death triggered the debate: are we essential or sacrificial? And if I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure I know that answer. But I’m starting to lean toward sacrificial, especially since people getting unemployment are getting paid more than essential employees are right now.

Most people already knew that they were getting fucked over by the minimum wage. Why else would I be striving to get out of that shit job? I was supposed to graduate from Towson University, find a job (where I didn’t have to work on weekends), and quit working at the shitty grocery store before Thanksgiving. But as time slowly trickles away, the world remaining in never-ending panic, a part of me fears that I will be trapped at a job I hate for longer than I intended. What if we stay this way until 2021? Or even in 2022? This is what doctors are predicting because some Americans are so fucking stupid and don’t want to listen. Instead, they protest about opening the world back up. They believe this is some sort of thing to push Trump up the polls. Or even that it’s all fake. I don’t know about you, but this feels real. Too real for comfort. And I just want it to end. I want to go back to the time when the world was peaceful, but I also hope that we change the world. I want to see a world where everyone realizes that we have fucked up, that we need to fix how we act, how we treat others. Because if working during this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that a lot of people are assholes. 

My boyfriend, right now, works as a counter outside of our store. The limit of people allowed inside is 20% of capacity. Guess what that is? 117 people! That is still too many people, and they don’t even follow the directional signs (so that they flow correctly) and they don’t remain 6-feet apart. What’s funny about that, though, is they don’t care in the aisle, but once they get to the register, they scream if someone is too close to them. But that is a story for another time. Back to what I was really about to say. My boyfriend told me that the other day, he was telling people that they were only allowed inside if they wore a mask or somehow covered their face, either with their jacket or shirt. Simple, right? It makes sense, right? Well, some fucker told him, “I don’t have a mask,” and simply ran inside the store, not caring about them or anyone else for that matter. What’s funny is security couldn’t do anything. They can’t do anything. My boyfriend can’t stop customers from entering. The employees can’t ask customers to leave if they don’t have their mouth and nose covered. It’s just a front to show that we are doing our part. But once you get inside, we can’t do anything. We can’t force anyone to follow the signs, to cover their faces. We can only make suggestions. Funny enough, though, when the same guy exited, the security guard stopped him and told him next time he came, he needed a mask and then sent him on his way with a fake retail smile. 

The grocery store chain’s executives may seem to pretend they care on the outside, and the union may say they are trying everything in their power to protect us. But they don’t. We are nothing but sacrificial lambs to them. They pretend to give us protection, they gave us a raise of 10% until this is all over, gave us a coupon for $20 off our next order. But they don’t care. I was talking to the manager, and all he got was an extra day off for that week. He got nothing else. They don’t care. They only care about the money this pandemic has brought in, even with the lack of product. AND DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THE LACK OF PRODUCT! We still don’t have toilet paper or paper towels, the Lysol section is empty, as is the hand sanitizer. And the entire frozen section is bare because they keep canceling the trailer. Because of the pandemic, we can’t even order what we need. They just send us a truck of rationed supplies that they sent to other stores, in our chain, in Maryland. So, if a customer asks when we’ll get something in, the answer is “who the fuck knows” or a shrug. And then they get pissed at us because we don’t know. I heard the store manager saying that she has gotten blamed for our store not having products; the front-end manager even got yelled at and accused that we weren’t allowed to take returns that have left the store. And if you thought grocery store employees were abused before, you have not seen it during this last month. We have been screamed at, berated, and drained of all our energy. Even when I work four hours at work, I feel as if I had been there all day. I’m exhausted, I don’t have the energy, and it’s worse than it was before.

This past week, I took a vacation. I had planned to take it before this shit happened only to have to deal with school and be able to sleep in. Because of this pandemic, I used it to clean my room. From the 15th until the 22nd of April, I deep cleaned my room from top to bottom. I dusted, I swept/vacuumed, and placed some things into storage. I couldn’t be prouder. But now, as I sit here typing, I realize my impending doom. I go back to work tomorrow. I must go back to Hell and deal with trash. I must go back to wearing a mask on my face and fogging up my glasses. I must go back to being yelled at by customers for not having the golden TP. I don’t know how much of this I’ll be able to take before I snap, especially after being at home for a week. Going back to the flow of things will not too easy, especially with no flow to be had.

When it All Became Real

By: Kaitlin Marks, Managing Editor


Before this whole thing became real, a tangible threat that sent us home and closed down Disney World and stole breath and lives, people made jokes about buying plane tickets and being invincible.

In my Monday night class, a girl scrolled through flights on her laptop. “If it’s only going to hurt old people and kids with weak immune systems, I’m buying a cheap flight.”

Another kid joined in. “Yeah, it sucks for them, but this is just going to take out those people, so I don’t really care that much. I’m still going to go to California for spring break.” 

I looked down at my highlighted notes on family resources and almost imperceptibly shook my head. The words “only” and “just” suggested that those lives don’t matter. I had a sinking feeling that as bad as that outcome clearly would be, this wouldn’t end with the old or immunocompromised.

When school shut down, I thought about how this invisible thing could reach everyone. 

When the university announced that the rest of the semester would be spent at home, I knew I wouldn’t mind the actual being at home, but I definitely have minded the way my thoughts start whirling. 

It almost reminds me of waves. Whenever I’m stressed, the ocean always calms me down. But now, waves of stress, doubt, fear, anxiety, sadness, grief roll over and threaten to upheave everything I hold close. I watch the news and have to cut myself off because it all becomes too much. 

I go to the grocery store with my mom and sister. We assign roles so nothing gets cross-contaminated: I hold the phone we use to scan items and avoid checkout lines or interactions; Lindsay, who wears gloves, picks up the items for me to scan and places them in the cart; my mom, who also wears gloves, pushes the cart. We don’t cross lines. We follow the rules we’ve set for ourselves. We fear every breath, every passing shopper who steps too close. At this point, the state is under a stay-at-home order. There have been deaths, cases are practically doubling each day, and things are rapidly looking apocalyptic. And yet, as my sister and I sidestep to avoid the older couple in the meat aisle, we hear them scoff. They say things like “Idiots believing in this whole hoax” and “I would never be stupid enough to get that disease.” I watch them touch their faces, touch the cart, pick up and put down items, wander much closer than six feet. My sister and I slowly get angry. We walk away. We know this is going to last because people aren’t listening. We fear how long it might last. We try to make the best of it. 

Days themselves feel normal by now. 




{April 8th} 

Donald Trump talked about reopening the country “with a bang.” Last week, he described his goal of “packed churches” on Easter. Someone on the news today said we shouldn’t politicize the virus. I think it’s impossible not to pick apart politics when lives are being thrown away, when people are suffocating when that fate is avoidable, when we’re focusing on economics and political candidacies instead of the rising numbers daily. 

Today was the day with the highest death toll yet. Almost 2,000 American people died from COVID-19.

Tonight, now alone in my room, I find myself thumbing through my old journal, the one I wrote in during my freshman year and sporadically since, but not in a long while, the one with the rose gold cover and lettering that’s about half full (notice the half full—there by intention). I don’t write in my journal about the death toll, or about COVID-19 at all, really, even though I can. Instead, I fill a page with one of my “happy lists,” the giant lists I love to write of every single thing—big and tiny—that made me feel joy, even for an instant. It feels familiar to write this list. It feels out of place to do so in spite of the world collapsing outside. It’s hard to see that reality when I spend a whole day out in the sun with the dogs, reading and studying and sunbathing, and then cook a meal my family loves, and then go outside and have a bonfire, smoke trailing up to the stars. When I look up at the stars, it’s easy to forget about the previous day’s worries, anger, and fear. I feel weightless. I feel boneless. I feel like myself, even if only for an instant. 




{April 12}  

On the day before Easter, I spend the evening stress-baking away the week’s news announcements and anxieties and worrisome predictions. My mixer whirls ingredients into yellow cupcakes—I create DIY cake flour with the regular kind and some cornstarch, and add in sour cream to make them tender and fluffy—and before I divide the batter into the yellow and pink pastel liners in the tin, I toss a few handfuls of pastel sprinkles into the batter on a whim. Later in the afternoon, when my parents and sister come in from splitting wood in the backyard, my mom gasps: “you made funfetti?” I tuck the moment away.

After dinner, around 9:30 p.m., I tell my dad about the plan for the cupcakes as he joins me in the kitchen, eager to help. I also make homemade Oreos, and he rolls the dough into a log for me, checking every few seconds to make sure he’s doing it right. I whip up chocolate icing. He does the dishes. We both taste leftover bits of dough and swipes of frosting from the bowl. I frost the first cupcake with a plastic piping bag and a tip that makes little lines, creating a little chocolate bird nest. Dad does the rest, swirling the frosting as I nestle three little pastel-colored Cadbury chocolate eggs in the center of each. I focus on getting the placement just right. I focus on how it feels to finish the last one and lean back on my heels, neat rows of cupcakes on the tray reminding me that some things are normal, after all (note: my hands are covered in chocolate icing, my dad is covered in icing, my sister asks me to squeeze icing from the piping bag into her mouth for a laugh, all is messy and well). I focus on planning for tomorrow, on trying to create joy for someone, for myself. 




{April 13}

Easter Sunday—a day of light, a day of hope. People across the country wake up and try to create magic for their little ones as they scatter colorful, treasure-filled eggs through living rooms and playrooms and backyards. 

Today, at breakfast—we have French toast—my dad explains that he’s sad about what’s going on in the world, and hates that people are sick with this, but that he’s grateful for the time with us and the memories we are making. I feel the same. 

I have little prizes from when I was in charge of my after-school mentorship program at the elementary school—tiny squishy chicks and bunnies, candy, fluffy little duck figures from the craft store, pencils with fun animal and food erasers—but we donated our plastic eggs a few years ago. Our neighbor does what I asked in my late-night message from the night before: traipses up the hill to our house, dog on his leash in hand, and deposits two (unopened) packs of plastic Easter eggs in a planter on our front step.  

My mom and sister and I stand around our kitchen table filling the eggs with little treats, making colored construction paper signs to hang on our fence posts with sayings like “hop this way” and “eggs ahead!” (Note: I just mistyped “hop this way” as “hope this way,” and now I’m thinking about how that is just what today felt like.)

We get on the golf cart to make things go faster—me on the backseat with a pink basket filled with eggs, tape in hand, mom and Lindsay in the front pointing to spots that would be perfect for hiding—and start creating the trail of eggs. We tape the signs we made to fence posts surrounding the field. 

We’re deciding how many eggs to drop along the outside of the fence when neighbors who don’t speak to us approach. 

We say hello. 

They do, too. 

This sounds normal, but for these people who have so much hate for anything outside of their bubble, it’s not. When we were really little, the parents suddenly decided that my younger sister and I were a “bad influence” on their three children. For a while, their kids would sneak out to the corner where our yards met, where they could chat with us, shaded by the trees. Eventually, they got caught, we stopped meeting, and I haven’t spoken to them since. I often wonder about how they’ve grown up. I wonder if they wish things had been different. I wonder who they are now. 

Anyways, the present-day neighbor-parents and my mom and sister and I are standing in my driveway conversing. We tell them what we’re doing, how we’re creating an Easter event for our (favorite) neighbors who have Charlie (who is 5) and Sophia (who is 2), and they actually smile, exclaim how wonderful it is, reminisce about the good old days when their kids were little and they would hide eggs. That moment shines for me as a highlight of this whole mess. They walk away, and stunned a little by that simple, kind, human encounter, we turn back toward creating Easter magic for our favorite little kids next door. 




{April 14} 

Every summer, for three years now, I spend a week volunteering as a counselor with PALS, a nonprofit that creates immersive experiences for young adults with Down Syndrome and their peers to create transformative friendships and build a more inclusive world. In short, it’s the most magical period of time I get to experience every year—it’s the thing that brings me more joy than anything else in the world. This summer, I was supposed to be roommates with one of my favorite friends from camp, Alana. I was making plans for matching outfits and playlists for getting ready early in the morning at camp. Today, the directors sent out an email saying that all of the camps scheduled throughout the summer are canceled.

My counselor friends and I text as we cry. There’s a pain—in knowing you won’t get a week where everyone is included, accepted, and celebrated—that I can’t describe. 

Prior to this day, I’ve handled all of the things I’ve learned would be canceled with acceptance. Losing the rest of an in-person school semester, visits with friends, visits with family, the launch party for Grub Street, knowing that my 21st birthday will most likely take place in quarantine, losing planned beach trips and business trips my mom and I were supposed to take—none of it stung like losing PALS. 

But I understand why they had to do it. 

Beyond the logistics surrounding camps that normally take place on college campuses, and volunteers flying from around the country, there is a heavy layer of fear surrounding the entire disability community. 

People with Down Syndrome sometimes have heart problems. They sometimes have diabetes, and they get leukemia at much higher rates. Some people with Down Syndrome are in perfect health, and some have to fight underlying problems. 

Before the virus started, I had already learned the horrific truth that individuals with DS or other disabilities in some states in the United States can be denied life-saving organ transplants (even as babies and children) because those governments don’t see their lives as worth living. 

Every single individual with Down Syndrome that I have met has—and deserves—a valued, worthy, amazing and joyful life. People with DS and other intellectual differences have jobs. They go to college. They have friends. They participate in sports, bake for their communities, run businesses, and achieve their dreams. They are the most wonderful people you could possibly be privileged enough to know. 

And yet. 

And yet. I can barely fathom having to write about this, but I need to talk about it. 

And yet, people with Down Syndrome and other disabilities can (legally, in some states) be denied life-saving care if they contract COVID-19, even if they have a perfectly fulfilled life. 

Every time I read about this, my eyes burn, my spine tenses, and my hands start to tremble. I have a physical and visceral reaction to the level of injustice this harbors. 

Amy Silverman of The Arizona Star reports on early state COVID-19 response preparedness plans. She writes: 

Some state plans make clear that people with cognitive issues are a lower priority for lifesaving treatment. For instance, Alabama’s plan says that ‘persons with severe mental retardation, advanced dementia or severe traumatic brain injury may be poor candidates for ventilator support.’ Another part says that ‘persons with severe or profound mental retardation, moderate to severe dementia, or catastrophic neurological complications such as persistent vegetative state are unlikely candidates for ventilator support.

In a world where the word “retard” should never even be used, let alone applied to the rationing of medical equipment, this took my breath away. I thought it would be the worst thing I’d read. 

I was wrong. 

Silverman goes on to describe the ambiguous, and thus even more frightening, plans in other states. She writes: 

Other plans include vague provisions, which advocates fear will be interpreted to the detriment of the intellectually disabled community. For instance, Arizona’s emergency preparedness plan advises medical officials to “allocate resources to patients whose need is greater or whose prognosis is more likely to result in a positive outcome with limited resources.” Between a person with cognitive difficulties and a person without them, who decides whose needs come first?

When lives aren’t seen as valuable, we risk throwing away people who have strengths and opinions and dreams, the same as everyone else. We risk ignoring capability, choosing the obvious solution, refusing to see the truth about what a fulfilled life looks like. We risk creating a section of history that someday, people will look back on with horror. When we decide that someone isn’t worth saving because they might be a little different, we become something unimaginably cruel. We tighten the confines of what it means to be a human by drawing a line between a valuable and worthless person. We cannot allow discrimination like this to take away people who have capabilities beyond what we see when looking in from the outside. People with disabilities are not broken. Our society is broken for seeing them as such. 

My throat is tight as I write this. 

I cry as I write this. 



I wonder. I look up. I tilt my head back until my ears almost touch the surface of the water, until all I can hear is the bubbles, until all I can see are the stars and the moon and the smoke rising from the embers of the fire up on the hill. At this moment, the turning stops. Everything shudders to a quiet, restorative lull. I’m not thinking about ifs or whens, but I’m thinking about writing, something I haven’t been able to touch since the whole thing began. I spent the whole day baking, coaxing butter and brown sugar and vanilla and flour into something that makes my family smile. I tell my mom it’s therapeutic. I think that it’s because it demands attention. You can’t create a perfect pastry dough if you’re worried about statistics running across a screen. You can’t whip frosting into smoothness when your mind is filling your body with dread. You can’t write words when you can’t stop thinking, what if this is it? How does this end? 

After my morning shower, as I smooth body butter over my skin and pull a cream-colored sweater over my head, wet hair dripping onto my shoulders, I notice that the twitch in my eye that’s been happening for a week now is back, and worse yet, it’s the whole side of my face. Google tells me that it could be sleep deprivation, eye strain from being on screens too much, an overload of stress, seasonal allergies. I have all four of the options going on, so I don’t know what the cause is, but does it matter? Clearly it’s a product of circumstance. Maybe we’re all just a product of circumstance. 

A girl I know writes an Instagram caption about this being a trauma, about our bodies responding in unpredictable, unfortunate ways, about grief and our right to feel the pain of the things we’ve lost. I think about balance, about how I can be so productive some days and so fixated on darkness the rest. How can I feel happy, content, relaxed on nights like tonight, sitting under the moon with the ones I love most, sipping cold water as sparks crackle off the logs in front of us, but other times, feel on the brink of something—the pit in the stomach, the eye twitch, the feeling of tears ready to spill at a moment’s notice, the shaking hands? 

I think about the trauma caption, and I try to focus on ways that I feel lucky. I’m lucky to have a family I love, that provides and takes care of me and is cautious. I’m lucky we have a yard that’s huge and green and we can go outside and breathe without fear. We have groceries and I cook almost every night and challenge myself to new recipes. We have game nights and Netflix binges, golf cart rides and bonfire nights. This new normal is like a reflection of our past normal, the normal of summers and Sundays where things felt perfect. The difference, I guess, is that undercurrent of electric worry humming beneath the air, lingering in every happy moment. The anxiety I feel creates knots I can feel. 

Tonight, at least, I feel melted, boneless, weightless. I slide under the covers smelling like fire and chlorine, my hair still tied in a bun and wet against the pillow, and my little black rescue puppy curls up against my stomach, and I’m writing this while the noise machine on my nightstand plays storm sounds, and all feels okay. Writing makes me feel whole. I’ve been terrified to write creatively, focusing instead on checking off assignments and articles to be published and job applications and internship applications instead of letting my mind wander, for fear that the wandering would lead to the darkness. I think—I hope—that the wondering, the wandering, is leading me to something else. Something like hope, an open window, a breeze. 


By: Deja Ryland


Gray is an achromatic color, meaning that it lacks hue and saturation. It is known as the “color without color.”

The “color without color,” the perfect paradox.

If I had to describe life as a color, I’d say it was gray. Life is ultimately the biggest paradox known to mankind.

We live to die.

This is starting off a bit more depressing than I intended, but detach your connotations of gloom, cloudiness, and depression from the color gray—or keep them.


My world stopped twice.

The day you first stopped breathing and the day I’d come to grips with the fact that the U.S. was experiencing a pandemic.

I never imagined the day I’d witness either so soon in my lifetime.


March 15, 2019, I finished midterms and—after learning that you’d had a massive heart attack — started visiting the hospital every day. The hospital became hospice became the funeral home all while I still attended school. I have no recollection of completing any assignments, but somehow, I managed.

March 13, 2020, I began midterms and Kim Schatzel emailed students that classes for the remainder of the week would be cancelled—and for two additional weeks after spring break classes would be online rather than face-to-face. This was to ensure the safety of all students, faculty, and staff from contracting the coronavirus.

What scares me the most about both is this anxiety about the way life changes after it all. Finding that new “normal.”


My Favorite Paradox

“The mind is beautiful because of the paradox. It uses itself to understand itself.”

-Adam Elenbass


My Least Favorite Paradox: The News On How To Safely Protect Yourself from the Coronavirus

Just wash your hands.”

“You don’t need a mask.”


“Gov. Hogan mandates masks in stores, on transit.”

“The coronavirus can be transmitted through your eyes.”




I’m pretty sure that if it was something you could keep at bay by simply washing your hands then explain why:

  • Malls closed.
  • Libraries closed.
  • School campus closed and switched to online classes for the rest of the semester.
  • My job is closed. (This is the first time I’ve been unemployed since I was 16.)
  • Gatherings of more than 10 are prohibited.
  • Grocery stores and most fast food restaurants close at 8 p.m.
  • Emission Testing Areas are converted into COVID-19 testing drive-thrus.
  • Hospitals do NOT have enough masks to protect their staff.
  • Companies are sending masks to hospitals because apparently our government is

UNABLE to provide them fast enough.

  • The stock market is crashing.
  • The economy is crashing.



I hate watching the news but it’s now all my mother watches as we wait for updates on progress about getting COVID-19 under control. I prefer to not hear Trump speak and I turned it off completely as the President of America went on national television and referred to the coronavirus as


“Did he really just say the CHINESE virus?”

 “The Chinese virus.”


Gray area.

an ill-defined situation or field not readily conforming to a category or to an existing set of rules.


It was my last day of midterms and I had a three-hour break after class before it was time for me to go to work. So, I went to Noodles & Company and it was nice out, so I sat outside to eat. The wind was blowing, and my hair wouldn’t stay out of my face, but I didn’t mind. I remember thinking to myself that the day felt a bit too perfect. It felt like I finally had a chance to really breathe, that I could really just sit and take in the world, only hours later to lose the world I had known.

Sometimes I imagine what his drive home from work would have looked like. Maybe he had his window rolled down completely and the breeze felt a little too perfect, that he was thumping his fingers against the steering wheel without a care in the world as to whether there would be traffic or not. That the sun was bouncing against his skin as his left arm was perched outside the window. He would have embodied warmth.

Today I am in the house, weary to go outside since I know I must wear a mask just to be precautious, even just to take a walk, or go to the store. I imagine everyone is thinking the same thing, that we can’t wait for things to go back to normal.

But that’s why this pandemic brings back so many memories—because now everyone will soon walk out into a world that will never fully look the same to them again.


A paradox, also known as an antinomy, is a logically self-contradictory statement or a statement that runs contrary to one’s expectation. It is a statement that, despite apparently valid reasoning from true premises, leads to a seemingly self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion. — Wikipedia


Everything they told us they contradicted the next week.

First, they said all he would need was surgery on his heart.

Then, he was flown from Carroll County Hospital to Shock Trauma at the University of Baltimore.

They had to force him into hypothermia to preserve his brain and organs.

They said that once he was reheated, he had to show us what he could do, that he should start to show signs, and the longer he didn’t then the more trauma to the brain it would show.

Weeks passed and he did not respond to being pinched. He did not respond to any pain.

They continued to tell us that we needed time.

He began to have uncontrollable seizures due to synapses in the brain not connecting. He was given medicine which sedated him even further.

They detected that he had no sleep-wake cycle.

The doctors arranged a family meeting and told us they did everything they could for him, so we had to choose between assisted living or hospice, which doctors swayed us toward due to detrimental brain injury shown.

They told us we needed time when we didn’t have it.


The ruins of Pompeii were buried by ash and lava after the volcano Vesuvius erupted. What’s fascinating is that not only were the town and people preserved, but by taking a plaster cast archaeologists were able to discover that bad teeth were a common problem. In addition, skeletal remains of slaves were found still chained.

Our ruins have already been exposed. America is built on colonization, genocide, capitalism, slavery, war, and is so used to being the conqueror, a “winner,” that it takes a pandemic to realize that viruses don’t recognize borders and geographic lines. That capitalism is a volcano waiting to erupt.

Toilet paper aisles were empty as people ran amok buying items in bulk, forgetting that they were not the only people in the world who needed to wipe their ass. People do not acknowledge their neighbors, do not recognize community or unity because we are following after a leader, after a nation, that fails to acknowledge it is not the only country in the world.

The coronavirus has shown that when money loses its value, America loses its mind.


Grey area is when you’re stuck in between


stuck in the middle

One choice away from being

stuck here


Or here.


I remember when I was a kid, we’d flip through channels on our box tv and you’d try to switch from VCR to cable and you’d switch to a channel that you didn’t get, and the screen would go static. The screen would be filled with grey dots bouncing, twirling and moving in all directions, giving you a clear picture of the sound of chaos. You and your siblings usually would keep the TV up, jumping up and covering your ears as the box in front of you struggled to find a signal. Beneath the scribble scrabble, if only you had a bit more connection, you’d see the screen clearly.

The coronavirus crept up a lot like that static, like everyone lost signal all at once but now we can’t change the channel. So, you can either let it consume you, struggling to find some answer, some picture within the optical illusion, or you can turn the TV off.

I think we’re always one click away from the static. We just distance ourselves from it more now because there are so many more distractions, so many more channels.



The family decided to conduct a meeting so that the neurologist could tell us what exactly the MRI of your brain was showing.

The room was white, and I could feel the tension in the room.

Me and my siblings (your kids) against your side of the family.

Faith vs. Science

Hospice vs. Assisted Living as a Vegetable.


We go around the table introducing ourselves, and the doctors and nurses taking care of you introduce themselves next. They said you had significant damage to your gray matter.

That the hippocampus suffered severe trauma.


Science was telling us that you’d lost your mind, machines were keeping your kidneys from failing. Your heart was weak—and with your body no longer able to sustain surgery, we decided that hospice was best for you.


Your heart would beat for two more weeks. An involuntary body function.

An involuntary rhythm.


Without the mind, memory and emotion, the body—ultimately the heart—still dictates life or death.


Machines can keep the body alive, but brain cells—literally dead memories—can’t be brought back to life.


I will never forget you, but how will you remember me?


It’s ironic that there is this twoness: that our lives consist of life and death, rich and poor, ugly and beautiful, villain and hero, good and bad, right or wrong, negative and positive.

We are defined by polarity, by oppositions, by contradictions.

A world scale that is balanced by imbalance.

When I said the world was grey right now, it’s a good thing. The world paused in a sense and this greyness allows the opportunity to look at both sides, a chance to be in the middle for a while, a chance to not have to choose.

To just be neutral, to just be.



Why Clouds are Gray

The cloud appears gray due to its thickness and height. As the cloud obtains more water droplets and ice crystals, the less light can pass through.

Nimbostratus clouds, they lack any type of uniform shape, typically resulting in rain or snow.

Altostratus clouds are thin, gray clouds that stretch out “in sheets” across the sky.

Cumulonimbus are thunderstorm clouds, they are indicators of heavy rain, tornadoes, hail and lightning.

I am currently sitting on the floor with my back hunched against my bed, and a plate that has lemon breadcrumbs on it is next to me. I have ten tabs open on my computer and decide to research clouds simply because my window is open, and I do not see any outside. The sky looks like a huge endless blank sheet.

My dad had taken us on vacation. It was my brother’s first time flying to Florida, so I remember forcing him to sit by the window. We were speeding down the lane and gradually we just started to tilt upwards. During take-off you can’t wait to reach the clouds. The plane levels and no matter how old I am, it always brings back memories of Peter Pan, like we reached Neverland, a space so disconnected from everything. You’re flying, soaring through space unmarked by civilization.

I’ve never flown through a thunderstorm before, but I imagine it’s terrifying, watching clear skies transform, dark clouds swarming, thunder ripping through the sky, lightning tearing that sky in half.

The sky draws pictures for us, as people lie out on blankets in grass with their loved ones or friends pointing at clouds that look like rabbits, or dragons, or birds.

Gray clouds show us that we all run, or try to shield ourselves from rainy days, from storms within ourselves because we don’t know whether it will be a harmless storm or if cumulonimbus clouds are swarming, that natural disasters occur internally too.


Pompeii’s ruins are terrifying, too, when you really think about it. People frozen in terror, their last moments before death forever preserved.

One thing that still continues to strike me is that the slaves continued to be preserved and chained even after such a catastrophic disaster.

That their bodies were still confined to their circumstances.

That bondage is a trauma, no matter how deeply buried, that encompasses individuals far beyond death.

That enslavement is a terror forever preserved, ruins that will always resurface.


Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down.

Ring a Ring O’ Roses was a childhood game and rhyme that I’d always sing, interlocking hands with my friends or siblings as we ran or skipped in a circle, eventually collapsing to the ground.

I honestly had no idea what it meant until searching the only words I remember clearly. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” I had not the slightest clue that my eight-year-old self was singing about the plague, specifically a deadly rash. Why did parents let kids jokingly sing about kids literally dying?

My mom knew what she was doing. We forgot to do the dishes or take out the trash and she probably was thinking “yeah, sing that song.” All jokes, all jokes. That would be funny though. Anyways, it’s ironic that we turned a rhyme about death into some fun song to sing while we were playing, that we sang songs knowing absolutely nothing about its meaning.

I guess that was all just preparation and reification for a lifetime of reciting words knowing absolutely nothing about its meaning—only to discover that we chant about war and death as if those are things to build a nation to take pride in.

But hey, God Bless America, right?


All That I Have Left Of You

Your remains fill a purple heart-shaped urn, engraved with your initials.

The only residue left of your previous form.

Fire transformed you to ash.



There is no correct way to spell gray, they can be used interchangeably. You can choose which you use.

Although, there is no “correct” way to spell it, naturally you will choose.

Ultimately, this quarantine has made me think about whether neutrality can exist.

You cannot live life without making choices and even the decision to not make a choice is a choice.

So who would really choose to live in a gray world when we’ve been exposed
to colors?


By: Christina Yang

Michelle and Doug meet for the first time at a Panera Bread in May. She has come straight from the eleven o’clock service at the Anglican Church, although her preference is Presbyterian.

“A churchgoer, huh? I’m a lapsed Catholic myself.” Doug takes a bite from the shiny waxed apple on his tray. “Hope that’s not a problem.”

Michelle is recently thirty-five and new to Milwaukee. She is moon-faced and petite with skin so unblemished it looks oiled in certain lights. She is not unpleasant looking, but there is something about the unsmiling way she presents herself that seems to put people off or make them shy away from her. This is a closely guarded and deep source of pain. In her darkest moments, she worries that there is something seriously wrong with her. Michelle has matched with Doug on a dating website despite specifying an interest in Asian men only. This year, she finally decided to “put herself out there.” She hates how desperate that makes her sound, but she does not want to spend the rest of her life alone.

At first, Michelle corresponds with Doug over email. She learns that he is thirty-two and a native of the state. He does not own a cell phone. He’s only ever met one famous person in his entire life and that was Sylvester Stallone’s mother at a bookstore signing when he was eleven. She was wearing a white turban and bright pink lipstick that looked nearly fluorescent against her heavily tanned skin. Michelle thinks that these are weird details to remember, and even weirder that he’s sharing them with someone he’s presumably trying to impress. Which means he’s either an oddball or terrifically confident, both of which sound equally intriguing.

In person, Doug has a hulking build that has gone soft in the middle, and a non-descript pleasant look about him that feels appropriately Midwestern. When he looks at her, it’s with an intensity that she finds both flattering and discomfiting. Over lunch, he tells her that football was his entire life. He quarterbacked at a local college, but a shoulder injury his senior year ended his career. He’s an arborist now.

She asks him how he came to this particular profession.

“My uncle had a business. I used to work for him in the summer. Then he fell out of a dogwood. A freak accident.”

He tells her that dogwoods are not big trees. His uncle would regularly scale trees two, three times the height without ever having a problem. This one just happened to break both of his legs.

“That’s unfortunate.” She is deathly afraid of heights—just the subject upsets her stomach. She pushes aside the yogurt and granola parfait she’s eating.

She wants to know if he climbs trees too, and if so, why in the world wouldn’t he use a ladder or a crane?

The best arborists get into the tree if they can help it, he says. It’s a way to commune with the tree.

“Do you like poetry?” he asks.

Michelle shrugs. She was a chemistry major in college.

“Auden? William Carlos Williams? ‘I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox’?”


“Climbing trees is the closest thing to poetry that I know.”

She leans back in her seat. “Huh.”

He asks her what she thinks of Milwaukee so far (clean and flat with many tall white people who say “gee” and “golly” without irony). He asks her how she is settling in at her new condo, the first piece of real estate she has ever purchased. She tells him that she is mostly unpacked, but largely unfurnished, which doesn’t bother her.

As they eat, she notices that he wipes his hands and mouth with a single napkin, which he folds neatly and tucks underneath the side of his plate between uses. He chews with his mouth closed and leans in when he’s speaking. If he’s worried that his breath is bad or that there is spinach stuck in his teeth, he doesn’t show it. She admires his ease. On the other hand, he wears a smirk on his face that puts her on the defensive, like he’s in on some private joke at her expense. She tells herself that maybe he can’t help it, the way some old people always look sad when it’s just gravity and sagging skin at work.

Then he makes a comment that changes her mind.

“You strike me as very, very organized,” he says.

“Excuse me?”

“Let me guess. You were the kid who never turned in an assignment late. When the teacher had you do just the odd numbered problems, you’d do the even-numbered ones too.”

“Hang on a minute.”

“Am I wrong?”

“I don’t like what you’re implying.” She sweeps her trash onto the tray and takes an angry sip of her water. She’s heard every single Chinese nerd stereotype, and she is not here for that. Another afternoon wasted when she could have been binge watching The Victory Garden on Netflix in her favorite pair of stretchy pants.

“I bet you are a magnificent speller.”


“Spell apropos.”

He has uncapped his iced tea and watches her now with curiosity, the way you might poke at a puddle on the sidewalk out of boredom. To her surprise, she finds herself softening.

She spells apropos perfectly.

“See?” he says.

“I won a county-wide spelling bee in sixth grade,” she says.

“Now that is something,” he says.


When Michelle graduated from college, she moved to Taipei without a plan. This disappointed her parents, who had their whole church back home in New Jersey pray for her. In Taipei, she found work as an English-language tutor and later a copywriter at a plastics company. One day, she ran into a distant cousin on her father’s side who helped her land a job at a company that manufactured and sold chemistry supplies to laboratories, universities, and corporations. Now, ten years later, she is second-in-command to the CEO. It sounds impressive except that the organization consists entirely of ten people. Six months ago, she was tasked with establishing an American outpost of the company in Milwaukee. She is responsible for everything from staffing and setting up payroll and benefits all the way down to ordering the office furniture. Each day she lives in mortal fear of royally screwing something up.

She communicates with her parents mostly via email because the thought of speaking with them over the phone infuriates her. They’d hoped she might go into ministry, attend a seminary, marry a pastor. Despite being valedictorian of her high school class and then graduating magna cum laude from Cornell, they never thought to congratulate her. Earthly accomplishments should mean nothing to us as Christians, they’d say.

Her anger over the years has hardened into a jagged nugget lodged firmly inside of her chest, and when she reads the Bible and prays for forgiveness, she hears nothing. She tries to conjure up sermons about surrendering yourself to the Lord, all the while fighting the urge to balk at the notion. Nothing works, but it doesn’t matter. She refuses to give up on her faith. She’s invested too much in it already, like an insurance policy she has to keep current in case she ever needs to cash out.


On their next date, Michelle invites Doug to her place. She’s prepared a bastardized version of a noodle dish her mother used to serve the family, a dish that she’s developed a newfound appreciation of since living in Taipei.

They perch on cushions on the floor, bowls in their laps. He makes the kind of small talk that she would find patronizing coming from anyone else, but there is something playful in the way he does it. At one point, he stretches his feet through dingy white athletic socks, and she feels a flush of embarrassment for having asked him to take off his shoes at the door, like she’d asked him to hang up his underwear.

After dinner, he picks up the books she’s borrowed from the library—books on retirement planning and achieving financial independence. He flips through the pages and returns the books to the coffee table without comment. She notices how nice his hands are. His cuticles are smooth and even, not what she would have expected from someone who performs manual labor all day.

“Do you want to see my garden?” she says.

They step out onto the patio, which is seven floors up, high enough that the chatter of patrons across the street, dining outside beneath the heat lamps at the microbrewery, is muted. It’s a clear, breezeless night. A motorcycle roars down the street.

She shows him the potted tomatoes, lettuces, bell peppers, and cucumbers that she started indoors from seed.

“Wow,” he says. “The things you can grow in the middle of the city.”

She explains the heirloom varieties of tomatoes she’s planted, why she’s chosen these particular strains. She plans to experiment with different soil drainage methods to see which ones encourage the most robust growth. This is the kind of nerd stuff that excites her and keeps her up at night, her brain churning through various theories.

He looks at her with an amused expression, like a grown-up humoring a child. She breaks off in mid-sentence.

“What?” she says, annoyed.

“It’s just that I’ve never met someone so passionate about dirt and vegetables before.”

“Well, I’ve never met someone who climbs trees for a living.”

“I guess we’re even then.” He grins and places a hand on the small of her back. His touch sends an unexpected current through her that she finds unnerving, and she has to take a second to gird herself again.

For religious reasons, Michelle does not believe in premarital sex. She has only ever kissed a handful of men. One was a complete stranger, which she found surprised even herself—a Swedish businessman on a transatlantic flight who seemed strangely fixated on her pores. She’d been feeling maudlin about an upcoming birthday and had had too much to drink in the airline lounge beforehand. In her early twenties, she’d engaged in some intense dry humping with a boyfriend she thought she might marry. Over the years, she has watched friends pair up and procreate, a sifting away process which fills her with longing and sadness, the depths of which have turned her defiant. She teaches herself how to change the oil in her car, she hardly wears makeup, and she will negotiate the price of an appliance, an armchair, or whatever until the other person is in tears. She refuses to look weak because she’s single.

Doug gestures toward a series of shallow plastic bins stacked on top of each other.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“It’s my worm factory,” she says, taking the opportunity to move away from his reach. “You start with your worms and strips of newspaper and then you feed them vegetable scraps and coffee grounds, and they turn it all into dirt. It’s called black gold.”

She has done an extensive amount of research on the subject. The worm factory was the first thing she purchased when she moved to Milwaukee, but she has been adherent to the zero-waste concept for several years now. It’s a comforting thought, the idea of leaving little-to-nothing behind.

He asks her where she gets the worms. She tells him that she buys them online from a farm in California. “They ship early in the week, so they don’t die on the way.” She feels a tug of sympathy as she pictures the worms tumbling around in a box in the dark over hundreds of miles.

She pokes at a cluster of worms resting in a mound of dried-out carrot peels. They squirm and stretch.

“Say hello,” she says, smiling down at them affectionately.

“Hello,” he says, and waves.


The following Monday, she calls her older sister, Allison, from the office. She’s working late again. It’s eight, and she’s finally taking a break to eat dinner at her desk—leftovers scraped together from her fridge—while the janitor empties the waste baskets and vacuums around her feet.

“How are things in Wisconsin? Eating a lot of cheese?” Allison asks.

“No, but I’m drinking a lot of beer.”

“Better not tell Mom and Dad.”

They laugh. Allison has a better relationship with their parents. She is a pediatric dentist, and it’s Brad who stays home with their sons, packs the lunches, straightens up the house. Together, Brad and Allison are always scheming over their next vacation, debating whether the kids are old enough to be left with Brad’s parents so that they can go on a couples safari instead of their usual weekend excursion to some germy children’s museum.

“Are you completely surrounded by white people?” Allison says.

“It’s not that bad. There’s a girl at my church who’s Korean,” Michelle adds, “But she’s adopted.”

“Well, that’s not the same,” Allison says, and Michelle has to agree. Then Allison asks, “Are you happy?”

What her sister really wants to know is if she’s lonely. Michelle tells her she’s holding up. What she doesn’t say is that there are some days when she’s peeing at work and staring at the drab metal stall door and wondering if she’s made a mistake moving here. No one is rude or mean to her. Yet they circle her with unfailing politeness, as though they don’t know what to make of her. She finds this incredibly alienating.

She worries that she’ll never feel at home here. Maybe she’ll never feel at home anywhere. Even in Taipei, they knew her for what she was: an outsider. She never had to utter a single word. They recognized it in her choice of clothing, the way she styled her hair, even the state of her teeth.

Allison tells her now that she can always move. “You’re not trapped. Though selling the condo will be a pain,” she concedes.

“I’m not worried about that,” Michelle says. “It’s my worms. What would I do with them? How would I take them with me?”

“What do you mean what would you do with your worms?”

She has to explain the worm factory again, how it works, the time and patience it’s taken to cultivate them so far.

“Leave them. Outside. In the dirt.” Michelle can almost hear Allison shaking her head on the other end of the line. “Of all things.”


Doug calls on Friday night after nine. They meet in front of her building. Even at this hour, the temperature hasn’t dropped noticeably, and she’s warm, feeling overdressed in jeans. The sounds of the freeway are a constant background hum. Music pours from restaurant speakers and mingles with the sound of laughter and shouts, the unwinding of another work week. Doug’s hair is damp from a shower. She can smell his soap, heightened by the warmth of his skin.

As they start to walk, he points to the maple tree by the building sign out front and says, “That thing’s not looking so hot. You might want to mention it to the super.”

It looks fine to her, maybe a little tilted. “Okay,” she says without really meaning it.

They cross the street. She follows him down a narrow path she’s never noticed before until they emerge onto a wider asphalt path lit every so often by streetlights.

“I had no idea this was here,” she says, amazed. Pedestrians and cyclists weave their way left and right. In the distance, she can hear the sound of water lapping, smoothing away the rough edges of the night.

He steers her to a bench and produces two bottles of beer from his backpack. He pops open the tops and hands her one. It’s cold and slick from condensation.

“Spotted Cow,” he says. “Our finest.”

She takes a sip.

“You can only get it in Wisconsin,” he says.

There’s pride in his voice, like he brewed the beer himself. She holds the bottle up and pretends to admire its contents. She doesn’t know the first thing about beer, or care. People are funny, though, how strongly they associate themselves with the things of where they live, how easily offended they get if you don’t act properly impressed.

“It’s good,” she says.

“Now you’re one of us.”

He clinks his bottle against hers. She can’t help but smile as she takes another sip.

He rubs his chin. “I had this dream last night. I was being chased by a bunch of clowns. I locked myself into a room to get away from them, but I don’t know what was worse, the clowns or the room.”

“Did you escape?”

“I don’t know. I woke up before I could find out.”

“They definitely got you then,” she says, teasing. But he’s not listening. He pinches her earlobe gently between his thumb and forefinger.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

He leans over and whispers into her ear, “You’re pretty.”

She laughs because she doesn’t believe him. But the words still make her happy.

They finish their beers and walk some more. Their hips knock together lightly at intervals. Michelle tells him about an order at work for 100,000 pipettes. The order is stuck in customs, and she’ll have to contact the German embassy on Monday to try to get it unstuck. Doug looks at her intently, like he’s waiting for her to say something entertaining or amusing. But she’s not one for current affairs or politics or jokes. Then his mouth is on hers, their teeth bump, ouch.

After a minute, she says, “Can we try that again?”


Later that night, she can’t sleep. She walks out onto the balcony to check on her worms. They’re hiding in the dirt, which is now festooned with curled up, yellowed leaves of kale.

She sends a text message to Allison to see if she’s up, but there’s no reply.

She checks her email. There’s a message from Doug.

He asks her if she’s ever been in the middle of a dream only to realize she was actually inside of it. That’s what happened to me with the clowns the other night, he writes. I was running from them, and then suddenly I was watching myself running from them. All of the fear and panic I had just disappeared because I knew they couldn’t actually hurt me. He writes, I’m not here to mess around. I want to get married, have kids, get a dog, all of it. I don’t know if it’ll be you, but maybe it will be, and if so, wouldn’t that be cool?

She writes back.

I can’t remember half of my dreams. They slip away from me most of the time, and sometimes that’s a relief and sometimes it’s sad because I suspect they are good, the ones that escape. Come to think of it, it seems that the ones I remember are the dreams that frighten me or make no sense, like I’ve got to paddle a boat across a river filled with Cheerios and I’m panicking because my bladder feels like it’s about to burst. I think it must say something about my personality, that I’m cynical or too high-strung or glass half-empty, but I’d like to think that I’m better than that. That dreams are a repository for all of the negative things we want to bundle up and expel so that what’s left behind is just the good.

She thinks she should write something else in response to the other thing he said, but she doesn’t feel ready to articulate something so intimate. Instead, she sends off what she has and in the morning finds another email from him.

That there, he writes, is poetry.


Over the next several weeks, they cook meals together and watch movies on her couch with the lights off and the windows open. He massages her feet. She’s embarrassed by the fact that her nails are unpainted and her heels are white and flaky. When she tries to pull away, he plunks her feet back onto his lap without glancing away from the screen.

He tags along on really boring errands to the drugstore for dental floss or multi-vitamins. She finds his corny jokes oddly delightful, the way he tells them with a wink.

One day, she comes home from work to find him kneeling outside the front door to her unit, going at the hinges with an old rag and a bottle of olive oil. They were squeaking, he explains.

The fissures start to present themselves, too. It hasn’t quite been two months. He doesn’t clean off the knife when he switches between the peanut butter and the jelly jars. She has to constantly remind him to take his shoes off at the door, and she can’t help but think in the back of her mind that if it’s this hard now, how hard will it be later? Sometimes, she can tell that he doesn’t get her humor, but he smiles tolerantly as though it might hit him at some future point if he gives it enough time.

On one particular evening, he complains about the temperature in the condo and turns up the air conditioning, which sets them bickering. She doesn’t think it’s hot at all. He says he can’t concentrate. What do you need to concentrate on, she wants to know? He tells her she doesn’t need to be so cheap, which makes her so mad she orders him to leave.

He does, but then comes back an hour later. She won’t let him upstairs. She’ll only talk to him through the intercom.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“I don’t like being called cheap.”

“Why?” he asks.

“My parents refused to buy a dryer for our clothes when I was a kid. We had to hang them up to dry on a line in the basement, and sometimes they ended up smelling like mildew, and I got made fun of for it. Even when I’m old, or I’ve become successful and rich and famous, it won’t matter. That’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you forever.”

The intercom crackles as he disengages his finger. All she’s left with is an unbearable silence.


“I was engaged to this girl in college, and then I wrecked my shoulder. I was a big deal, and the next day, I wasn’t. She broke it off, and that messed with my head. Did she love me for me or was it because of what I could do on the field? What am I without football?”

Outside, a gusting wind has started. It rattles the tree branches. She remembers the maple tree that Doug had pointed out, and apprehension grabs hold of her.

“Then I started thinking about it the other way around,” he says. “What am I with football? I’m still me either way, right? I can throw or I can’t throw.”

Michelle is silent for a moment.

“I wish I had your confidence,” she says.

“You don’t need my confidence.”

She shrugs. “Yeah. Well. I don’t know about that.”

“I think you’re great,” he says in a way that doesn’t invite argument.

He tells her that he’s leaving her something. Downstairs, she finds a tied-off plastic shopping bag filled with old food scraps for her worms. She opens the bag to inspect the contents. She finds apple cores and banana peels, the top of a fennel bulb and ginger root shavings, plus a few things she can’t identify. It gets her a bit choked up, these gifts he’s given her.


Allison calls early Sunday morning while Michelle is brushing her teeth and still waking up.

“Brad and I are getting a divorce,” she announces.

Michelle is too stunned to respond. By now, she’s witnessed the break-up of a few scattered marriages, but the thought of her sister and Brad splitting up is unfathomable. She can’t think of two people more suited for each other. Even their spats have an air of predictability about them, a promise not to get too messy or spill outside a certain confine.

“Are you okay?” Michelle finally says.

“It was a long time coming,” Allison explains, her voice even. “He’s living in the basement for now so the kids have no idea. Also, don’t say anything to Mom and Dad. You know how bad that conversation’s going to go. I’ve got to figure out my approach first before I break the news to them.”

Michelle pauses and then says, “You didn’t answer my question.”

A funny noise travels across the line, like the gurgling sound of someone drowning.

After they hang up and for the rest of the afternoon, Michelle feels unsettled. She washes the dishes and manages to break a glass in the process. She sweeps the pieces into a dustpan and watches them tumble into the abyss of the garbage can. If her sister’s separation from her husband was a long time coming, then why hadn’t Michelle seen it? The question keeps playing in her mind as she tries to watch television or read a book, but she can’t make sense of any of it.

In the evening, she and Doug go to the big music festival in the city. Lights festoon the trees, and the sweet, hoppy scent of beer fills the air. The mosquitoes bother her legs, but she slaps them away. They find an empty square of grass and set up their blanket. Doug says he’s going to find food, maybe one of those sausage dogs with peppers and onions and he asks Michelle if she wants one too, but she says no. The band on stage finishes its set and another one takes the stage. A small-yet-determined crowd surges forward as the next band launches into a song that everyone seems to recognize except for her.

Doug returns with his sandwich and a cola. The air has grown heavy with humidity. The music is too loud, and she can feel a headache coming on. He eats in silence, oblivious to her sour mood. When the next performer comes on, he jumps to his feet in excitement. The first several chords rip through the night and the drummer starts pounding on his kit, the music quickly building towards a frenzy.

Doug leans down and shouts into her ear, “I love this band!”

He wags his head to the beat like a dog shaking rain from its fur. His feet move, too, but as though on a tape delay from his upper body.

He reaches down. “Dance with me.”

“No, thanks.”

“Come on. I’m already making a fool of myself. Might as well join me.”

He pulls her to her feet and puts his arms around her, bringing her close. He presses his forehead to hers so that she can feel the sweat sliding against her skin. “Hello, beautiful,” he says.

She tries to turn away, but he forces eye contact. With his gaze, he tries to communicate something weighty and significant, something that supersedes words, and she feels herself suffocating underneath the burden. All around them are other couples—holding hands, laughing, kissing—doing what people in love do. Except that beneath the happy exterior lies an invisible interior life that’s muddled and messy and conflicted.

Doug is still studying her with that painfully earnest look. Wanting something she can’t live up to, and neither can he, she realizes with a sinking feeling. She starts to panic.

“Let me go,” she says, nearly gasping.

She makes an excuse about the bathroom.

He calls after her, but she ignores him. She hurries towards the signs directing her to the Porta Potties and finds a long line. Her place isn’t too far from here. She decides to walk back and use her own toilet. Just to get some air, she tells herself. She cuts across the green, which has grown slippery.  She spots the maple tree in the distance and uses it to guide her back home. Still standing, she thinks to herself when she passes underneath its canopy.

Back inside the condo, she takes her shoes off and sets them neatly by the door. She hangs her purse up on the hook inside the closet and breathes a deep sigh of relief. She uses the bathroom and then goes to the balcony to find her worms hiding from sight. She pokes at the loam, which sets the soil line to undulating.

“Earthquake,” she whispers.

She lays down on the sofa, thinking how tired she is. She’ll just rest for a minute. Traffic is picking up outside. People are leaving the festival, jamming up all of the major arteries of the city. She thinks about Doug still waiting for her, and suddenly her legs feel like lead. She should go back for him, knowing that she won’t and knowing that that’s a crummy thing to do to him. She’s safe here cocooned into the cushions.

Behind her closed eyelids, she sees lights flashing green, yellow, red.


The next day, when Michelle returns home from work and unlocks the door, the first thing that hits her is the sweltering heat. The heat index is forecasted to be well into the hundreds. She plays around with the thermostat, stabbing at the buttons, but nothing happens. She calls the super. He tells her that a good portion of the building has been down, and that they’re working on getting the air conditioning back up again.

When she hangs up, her body goes numb from pure dread. She runs to the worm bin, which she’d dragged inside the previous night, only to find every last one of her worms has died.

She calls Doug, but he doesn’t pick up. When she hears his voice over the answering machine, a floodgate opens inside of her, and she begins to sob. She stumbles over her words.

“Please come. Quick.”

Later that night when she doesn’t hear from him, she writes him an email.

I’m sorry about leaving you at the festival. You’re mad, aren’t you?

She looks around the pristine condo that she cleaned just two days before. The sofa still smells like new upholstery. The sun shines through the blinds and illuminates not even one speck of dust. She has never imagined she could feel this utterly alone.

She strips down to her underwear, pulls back the comforter and lays down on top of the sheets. She presses a bag of frozen corn to her forehead as her only relief. She should leave the house, maybe walk to the bar across the street and get a cold drink, but the task of pulling herself together and looking presentable to the world seems insurmountable at the moment.

Two days pass. When she goes to work in the morning, she finally finds a response from Doug.

I’m sorry about your worms, but I can’t do this anymore. We want different things. Actually, I don’t know what you want, and I don’t think you do, either. You need to figure it out. Not for me, but for you.

His words sting. That’s it? She calls his apartment, but there is no answer. She tells her boss that she needs to take an early lunch break. She drives to his place and knocks on his door, but no one answers. The curtains are drawn.

She dials him at intervals throughout the day.

After work, she drives to his place again. She sits in her car and eats a vegetarian burrito, then manages to doze off, only to wake an hour later with a start. The sun is setting and the sky is the purple of bruised fruit. She feels a terrible throbbing in her chest that simply won’t stop.

Doug’s apartment is completely dark.

She’d pictured a much different future for her worms, one in which they grew fat and long and sleek, in which the rich, dark soil multiplied day after day until it could hardly be contained.

The next day, she replies to Doug’s email.

Remember what you told me that night, about how you thought your life was going one way and then it went another way? I have a hard time negotiating the turns. I want a map, but there isn’t one, and then I get lost. Where are you now, Doug? Please call me.

She sends the email off, and then goes for a run. She veers down an empty side street off her usual route and passes a consignment store, a tax office, and a piano tuner’s shop, all closed because it’s Sunday. At the end of the street a homeless man squats with a large dog at his feet, the kind they warn you will bite your face off if you’re not careful. This one simply looks bored and listless. It’s too late to turn around though. The man lumbers to his feet as she passes, and her throat constricts with fear. She picks up her pace.

“Don’t be scared, honey,” he says. She hazards a glance at his face as she runs past. His breath smells boozy, and he flashes a big smile to reveal several missing teeth. Suddenly, she’s reminded of the clowns from Doug’s dream. After she’s passed him, she looks back to see the man raise a bottle in salute. She recognizes the Spotted Cow logo, and suddenly her fear vanishes. Tears prick her eyes and blur the sidewalk in front of her.

Back home, she cleans out the worm factory. She drops the dead creatures over the side of the balcony. The first one lands on the sidewalk below before she realizes that it’ll get crushed by resident foot traffic, a thought too heartbreaking for her to bear. She flings the rest of the worms into the air one by one like confetti. A celebration of their lives, she imagines herself explaining to an invisible audience. The worms land in the grass and in the shrubs and in the canopy of the nearby trees.

Below, the maple tree has taken on a hangdog appearance. Its leaves are spotted, and the edges are brittle looking and curled. It’s finally obvious to her how sick it is.


Over the next week, she watches the evening news after work. At the office, she refreshes the local news website. She listens to the radio everywhere she goes. If there is a car accident or a murderous rampage or news of a body fished out of a lake, her body tenses up until she learns that it’s not Doug, but someone else.

She hears the bad news of everyone everywhere within a fifty-mile radius, but there is still no sign of Doug.

Some things aren’t meant to be, she thinks to herself, and the disappointment is both familiar and a relief.

A few days later, she comes home at dusk. She’s worked late yet again, and her brain feels like mush. The temperature has finally come down to the point where she is shivering a little in her sleeveless top. She begins the trek up the stairs outside of her condo complex and finds herself startled by the sound of a chainsaw coming to life. She becomes aware of a bright orange cordon set up around the perimeter of the diseased maple tree.

She looks up. Doug is in a knit wool skull cap in the middle of the tree’s canopy, his legs hugging a thick, gnarled branch. There’s a chainsaw in one hand, while the other hand grips the branch that he’s just cut.

“Doug? What are you doing?” Michelle says.

He doesn’t answer her. He inches along the branch, moving farther from the trunk. The branch sags underneath his weight. There is a happy hour gathering on the rooftop terrace of the building. Young professionals in loosened ties and creamy silk blouses gather at the railing to watch Doug work. Some of them whistle and jeer, which makes Doug’s lips thin with concentration, and Michelle’s heart jump up into her throat.

She wants them all to shut up. She feels lightheaded all of a sudden, seeing him so high up like that. She is afraid she’s going to vomit at any minute.

A young couple with a small child walk by. The child, when he catches a glimpse of Doug in the tree, refuses to take another step. More and more people gather on the sidewalk like one giant ball of lint.

“Doug. Please come down.” She tries to keep her voice even and calm.

“Your super hired me to take care of this tree.”

“You’re scaring me. I don’t like heights.”

“I’ve got a job to do, Michelle. So, let me do it.”

“We need to talk.”

Doug says, “If it’s the trunk that’s damaged, it will be nearly impossible to save the tree. From what I can tell, though, it’s just a branch or two. That means there’s hope.” He starts the chainsaw back up again, and it bucks in his hand, making the entire branch he is wrapped around shudder along with it. The crowd gasps.

He shouts something that gets drowned out by the sound of the chainsaw. He brings his arm down and the chainsaw along with it. One of the smaller branches is now down on the ground.

“I can save this tree, Michelle. Do you believe me?”

She is unable to speak. Her legs have turned to water. Something inside of her unclenches. Danger pulses through the air. It electrifies her, opens up her lungs.

“Yes,” she says.

“What’s that?”

She raises her voice. “I said, yes!”

He cuts power to the chainsaw and cups a hand to his ear. “I can’t hear you,” he says at the same time she says yes again. This time her answer comes out as a shout that carries across to every onlooker on the rooftop terrace and sidewalk. It travels to the residents of the various units who have opened their windows and are leaning out to watch.

“Yes!” She says it again at the top of her lungs without hesitation or shame. “You can do this!”

He looks down at her from the tree. Their eyes meet and hold for a second. He inches backward and starts the chainsaw back up. He goes to work. Branches pop and crack and fall to the ground. Parents hold their children closer. The sun shifts imperceptibly in the sky.

Doug has worked his way to the trunk, and now he stands at a V-intersection where the trunk splits into two main arteries. He must grip the chainsaw with both hands and successfully take down the last branch, which is as thick as Michelle’s waist. He braces his body against one side of the trunk. He lifts the saw above his head. She readies herself, waiting for him to swing the saw down like a sledgehammer. Instead, he touches the blade to the wood with a gentleness and tenderness that she doesn’t see coming at all. The saw whirs and spins and grinds for one minute and then two. It keeps going. It seems to her as though there is no progress being made, even as sawdust floats to the base of the trunk. Then finally there comes a deep groan as the wood begins to crack and separate, a moment when it teeters and hangs.  Everyone holds their breath. All the commotion of the city seems to shut off. There is one final resounding break, a thud, and the branch is down.

Doug’s body relaxes into the tree. Michelle closes her eyes in relief. The evening swells with the sound of cheering.