*Mak Sisson is the first place winner of The Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s 37th Gold Circle Awards Program in the alternative story form category. Read the 2020 awards announcement here.


1. The fiddling. I fiddle with things near constantly. My phone case, my receipts from Au Bon Pain or Susq Food Court, my hoodie strings (to the point of breakage), my headphones (to another point of breakage), the backs of remotes (the parenthesis have a pattern, you know). When I was younger, I would stay up well into the night pulling out the yarn from my doll’s heads to curl it into small red balls that sat under my bed, gathering dust and spiders and all sorts of things my mom hated to clean up when I went to daycare. I went through four dolls that way, and my fingers still remember the pattern of moving my forefinger and thumb that I used to make the little balls of fuzz.

2. The grinding. I grind my teeth against themselves, through the night and during the day. It got so bad that the dentist prescribed me a mouthguard. I didn’t know the dentist could prescribe anything but a toothbrush and a small sticker on my lapel when I was eight, but they could, apparently. I wear a mouthguard at night, but that doesn’t fix the day problem, and I refuse to wear that green monstrosity out of the safety of my bedroom. So when I catch myself doing it, I force my tongue between the two warring parties, making sure that there’s an obstacle in the way of me doing it again. My mom thinks it’s stress. My doctors think it’s stress. It’s been about thirteen years since I started doing it, so maybe it’s stress, but it may also need to be added to the list, because I don’t think you can experience one continuous strain of stress for thirteen years.

3. The checking. Checking the bag, checking the suitcase, pulling over on the side of the highway to check the backseat, checking my pockets, checking the cupholders. Everything is where it should be. Everything will continue to be where it should be. My dad says checking before you leave the house is healthy. Wallet, phone, keys. I check wallet, phone, keys, toothbrush, pads, mints, lip gloss, brush, sunglasses, Advil (expired, I have to replace it, I have to replace it), condom, pads, wallet. Wallet. I reach a stoplight and check with my eyes, since I don’t trust that the thing my hand closed around is really the wallet. I am not looking at the light. I see my wallet, and the dopamine rush of relief hits my brain. This goes on the laundry list too, since I can’t see this as anything but an addiction to the narcissistic belief that I’ve remembered everything, and I just want to remember that I have over and over and over again.

4. The guilt. The small guilt, when I check my bag and realize that I left my bag of earrings and necklaces at school. The big guilt of missing an assignment, or a meeting, or a birthday. This may not seem like a symptom in a physical sense, but it is. Dark Gray Guilt sits in the corners of my mind, a physical force inside of my skull. 

A lurching pit in my gut, a tenseness that grows in my shoulders, the muscles in my body resculpting themselves to hold an invisible weight. Invisible, but tangible. Would you call Harry Potter in the Cloak of Invisibility intangible? Then this guilt is tangible, too. A foundation on which to place the checking and the fidgeting and the stimming and the grinding and the listing.

5. The forgetting. The sectioning away of the world into parts that are divided into subsections that are divided into categories that are divided into partitioned pieces until the dividing goes so low that it turns some pieces to dust. How far can you divide a chocolate bar before you lose track of the squares, before it’s down to advanced compounds of dyes and sugars, before it’s reduced to the three- and two-sugars, then the one sugar, before you hold carbon on its lonesome, before it’s a carbon memory you want to piece into a compound again, before it’s all crumbles of sweetness in your hands? That’s what it’s like, with this thing I cannot name. I’ve crumbled up all my sweetness.

6. The paranoid thinking. Being a science major right now fills my head with the knowledge I need to move forward and the wisdom I need to stay perfectly still, hoping that if the world does not see me, it will not come crashing down on my shores. The world’s oceans will not rise over my ankles, the great wildfires will not scorch my back, and the hurricane building somewhere in the trenches, the one that will tear up my home, will never approach me, will never rip the anchor from the sand in which it lays. It is a tenuous thing, the paranoia, because I have the education to prove that the paranoia is not all conspiracy theories and tinfoil hats, but my mind doesn’t have the full bandwidth to process that the world is falling apart around me, in the slow, almost unfeelable way of a band-aid pulling off every individual hair on my arm. It’s trying to calibrate a 720p video to a 144p screen, so all I end up with is blocky colors shooting past. Every presentation I give is a mixture of prepared notes and trying to parse the pixels into a working model of a world I am trying to accept as reality.

7. The shaky hands upon acceptance of a world I am not ready to face. Similar to the fidgeting, actually. My hands need the knowledge of holding on to something definite. I have blamed it on blood sugar loss in the past, blamed it on not being prepared (prepared for what? For what?), blamed it on the tone of a voice I had heard passing by, the voice pressing into my brain as if I were its intended target. My hands don’t shake enough to interrupt my typical functionality, though. Don’t worry. Sometimes I just can’t get the jack of my headphones into my phone, the movement too precise to pin down with instability. On those days, I watch people walking past with cords around their ears and envy.

8. The embracing, and the belief that not everything is worth embracing, and the continued embracing anyway. The guilt in holding (see point 4), and the holding nonetheless. The stilling of the shaky hands. The replanting of the anchor. I check with my parents after nor’easters, and they reassure me that they are okay, and the okaying bleeds into me like paint across a storm-sprayed canvas. I pick up the pencil. I rewatch Harry Potter, so I can uncycle myself. Recycle myself. The full embracing of a narrative in which the list ceases existing.

9. The belief that a perfectly completed list needs to end in an even number.

10. The writing. The story-building. The spiting of points 1-9, while knowing they are still there. The telling of a culmination of work, and the speaking of an “after.”


Mak Sisson is a graduate student at the University of Montana, studying journalism. She aspires to save the planet and to be an environmental writer. Her nonfiction appears in volume 69 of Grub Street.

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