Fiction Feature: “Fox” by Eliza Hunt

They moved into the big old farmhouse on Friday, and on Sunday Evan Matthew packed a few soil sample jars and his pH testing kit in his backpack and went outside to meet the neighbors.

For a town with a population high of seventy people, it was surprisingly spread out. Their immediate neighbors could barely be seen from the house. To say this wasn’t what Evan Matthew was used to would be an understatement; the yellow townhouse in the city, after all, had touched its neighbors on either side, and from his window, Evan Matthew could see the buildings getting higher and higher, denser and denser, coalescing into the city center. In the city, you could know no one’s name and never be alone.

Somehow, he doubted that he’d remain anonymous in their new town.

He was halfway down the road when something darted out from behind a tree and swung a stick at him. Evan Matthew shrieked and fell, thankfully not landing on his backpack. The person stopped, holding their stick like a baseball bat. “Who’re you?” they demanded.

“Evan Matthew. Who’re you?”

“Fox. These are my places. You don’t belong here.” They peered at him with suspicion.

“Do so.” Evan Matthew got up, dusting off his pants. “I live there now.”

Fox looked back at the farmhouse, narrowing their eyes. “Really.”

“Really!” Evan Matthew crossed his arms.

Fox opened their mouth to say something else when someone called from the house ahead, “Andy! Come on!”

Fox’s eyes widened and they grabbed Evan Matthew’s wrist. “Come with me!” they demanded, dragging Evan Matthew off the road and into the woods.

Evan Matthew nearly fell as Fox leaped over logs and darted between trees with practiced ease, still gripping his wrist. “Where are we going?”

“Away!” Fox came to a halt in front of a small, odd fort. It was made of living trees and dead branches, leaves and clay, and had a small opening. Fox pushed Evan Matthew towards it, “Inside!”

Evan Matthew went inside. The fort was rather well-equipped, with the “floor” covered in leaves, a sleeping bag rolled up, a tarp by the opening, and a lot of junk scattered around. “What is this?”

“My place.” Fox crawled in, allowing Evan Matthew to finally get a good look at them. Their age was indefinable, but they weren’t much taller than he was; they had a grubby, freckled face and dark eyes. Their hair was tangled and tied into two short, low pigtails, the ends of the auburn hair bleached white. They wore an overlarge and…well-loved might have been an  overstatement, sweater, dirty rainbow stripes reaching their knees overworn jeans, and bare feet. They glared at Evan Matthew, “You really live in that house?”

“Uh-huh. My- Agatha made us move. I wanted to meet the neighbors.”

Fox scowled. “Don’t bother. They’re assholes.”

“You know them?”

“They’re my family.” They said the word with great disdain. “So I come here instead, when I can.”

“What’s all that?” Evan Matthew motioned to the objects surrounding them—a brass cup and bowl, tarnished silverware, an old gas lamp.

“My collection. Ma said I was too old to keep it, and she tried to throw it out. That’s when I started coming here.” Fox tapped the lamp slightly. “I hate them.”

“I hate Agatha a little,” Evan Matthew muttered. “For making us move.”

Fox looked up. “What’s in your bag?”

“Science stuff.”

“Cool.” They smiled a little, crooked and wary. “You wanna be friends?”

Evan Matthew blinked. “…Sure.”

“I’ve never had a best friend before.” Fox scrambled around in their collection, finally pulling something out. “Here. This is for you.” They shoved it into Evan Matthew’s hand.

Evan Matthew looked at it. A pendant swung on a tarnished chain; it was an odd, flower-like sun. “What is it?”

“Got it from the witch. It’s for protection.” Fox pulled an identical pendant from under their sweater, then dropped it back in. “If we’re gonna be friends, you gotta be protected from the bad stuff too.”

“Oh.” Evan Matthew put it on, tucking it under his T-shirt.

Fox looked pleased. “I’ve never had a best friend before.”

“I have. But…I haven’t for a while.”

From the forest came a shout. “ANDREA! WHERE ARE YOU!”

Fox tugged Evan Matthew’s hand and led him out of the fort, towards the voice. “If I go to them, they don’t find my hiding spot.”

“Makes sense.”

The two pushed through bushes and nearly ran into an older teenager with curly hair the same shade of auburn as Fox’s. “Andy, there you are!” she said. “Who’s this?”

“Evan Matthew. He lives next door now.”

The girl’s brow furrowed. “I think Ma told me about that. Come on. You can bring your friend, but we gotta go home. Storm’s coming.”

Fox glanced up at the sky. “One sec!”

They darted back into the bushes. The teenager sighed. “Dammit, Andy.” She looked down at Evan Matthew. “Hey, kid. Sorry my sister dragged you into this. I’m Nami.”

“I’m not your sister.” Fox popped back out from the bushes. “I’m not a girl!

Nami rolled her eyes. “Right. C’mon.”

Evan Matthew followed the two out of the woods and back up the road, on the way to the neighbor’s house. Nami walked with a purpose and Fox slumped behind her.

“So you live in the old Lockheart place?” Nami asked. “We thought no one would move there. Makes sense that it was a newcomer.”

“Why? ‘cause everyone’s already got a house?”

Nami turned, smiling mischievously. “Nah. ‘cause someone died there once.”

Evan Matthew startled slightly, almost tripping over a rock. “Really?”

“Well, not in the house.” Nami shoved her hands in her pockets. “On the property. The lake at the bottom of the hill.”


Fox scoffed. “No one died there, Nami.”

“That’s what Mom and Dad told you. You were too young. But it happened.” Nami’s sparkly green thumbnail poked out from her pocket; the polish reminded Evan Matthew of the girls in his class in the city. “Janice Evers drowned in the lake. It was in the city paper and everything, ‘cause she was with someone, and he went missing.”

Evan Matthew’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “How?”

“Nami’s bein’ dumb, don’t listen to her,” said Fox. Evan Matthew barely heard them.

“I mean, we don’t all the way know.” Nami kicked a rock lightly, sending it bouncing ahead. “Maybe I shouldn’t say. You’re what, eight?”

“I’m twelve!”

“You look eight. And I’m not supposed to say around Andy.”

“I am not listening and do not care,” Fox announced, having dug a dirty rubber band out of their pocket. “You can tell ‘em if he wants to hear.”

“Alright.” Nami caught up with the rock, kicked it again, and looked down at Evan. “The Lockhearts lived there before you did—like ten years ago. I think they lived here before the village was founded, even. But ten years ago it was Mr. and Mrs. Lockheart and their son, Lucas. He was, like, fourteen then. And you’ve seen the lake, right?”

Evan Matthew had, in fact, seen the lake. The bottom of the hill behind his new house was even muggier than the rest of the town, a perfect habitat for frogs and mosquitoes. He’d wanted to go down to catch samples, but Agatha had forbidden him from swimming. At first, he was disappointed—the heat was overwhelming—but as soon as he’d seen the cold, dark water, barely visible from the attic window, he’d lost all interest in going anywhere near that. Not even the  lack of algae on the glassy surface tempted him.

Once Evan Matthew had read a Time article about a river in South America that was so deep, no one had successfully reached the bottom and the bodies of divers were never recovered. In his head, under the black of the lake, sat skeletons, the maw of a pit to the center of the earth. “Yeah, I’ve seen the lake.”

“Right, so you know what it’s like. Dunno how or why, but Lucas reallyloved swimming in that thing. He was a strong swimmer too, which is why—well, no one expected him to drown.” Nami picked up the rock as they reached it again, tossing it up and down in her hand. “He was nice. I remember, he was nice. I was just six, but he always offered to help me out with my homework, and Mom wanted him to teach me to swim—but I didn’t like the lake, so I kept pretending I was sick. Maybe she would have made me, eventually, if Lucas hadn’t disappeared, but he did. And even more than that, he did while teaching Janice to swim—which put Mom off swimming lessons forever anyway.”

“How did they die, though?” Evan Matthew demanded. He was paying no attention to the road. Even Fox, initially apathetic, seemed somewhat interested.

“Well, I don’t know. No one knows. He went down to swim with Janice and he didn’t come back.” Nami inspected the rock, holding it delicately between two glitter-green fingertips. “Janice’s little sister went to get her from the Lockheart’s, and Mrs. Lockheart went down to get them and came back screaming. Pretty soon the whole town was down at the Lockheart place. I was supposed to be watching Fox, but they were sleeping and I was curious so I went down and got there just as the police from the city showed up with an ambulance and the coroner. I remember I’d never met a coroner or seen an ambulance before. I was excited.”

“And they were both dead?”

“That’s the rub—they only ever found Janice. Lucas just disappeared into thin air. I saw the body under sheets. I asked Marlene Fairsworth’s son, after, because he said he’d seen her, all bloated and white and gross.” Nami shrugged. “I think he was lying about seeing the body, but that’s what it would have looked like.”

“But Lucas went missing?” Fox asked. Nami didn’t seem surprised or bothered that they had stopped pretending not to listen.

“Well, there were search parties for days and days. They looked everywhere; the woods are big, but they’re not really that big. Eventually they ruled that maybe he’d gotten stuck on something and never, uh, floated back up. The lake’s a sinkhole, you know—goes down and down, no one’s ever really been all the way down there.”

“Did they ever find him?” Evan Matthew asked.

“Nope.” Nami hefted the rock up. “They buried an empty coffin eventually, for ceremony I guess. The Lockhearts moved out a month later and no one’s been in the house since then. Not until you. That’s sort of just the village though, I think. We don’t get new folks too often—and no one already here wanted to move down the street, much less into thathouse.” She reached back and let go. The rock arched up, up, and off the road, into the woods where Evan Matthew couldn’t see where it landed. “You brave, kid?”

Evan Matthew was more than a little startled by the teen’s sudden question. “I—I hope so.”

“Good. If you’re brave, you might do okay.”

Fox and Evan Matthew were silent the rest of the way up.

“So you met the neighbors today?” Agatha asked, setting down a platter of something vegetable-y. “What were they like?”

“They were okay.” Evan Matthew frowned in dismay as Eden spooned a large portion of whatever-it-was onto his plate. “I mostly met their kids: Nami and Fox.”

Agatha tilted her head. “Marlene said the daughters were Nami and Andrea.”

“They don’t like the name Andrea. Or being called a girl. We’re best friends.” Evan Matthew poked at his possibly-food.

Eden smirked. “That was quick.”

“They decided it, not me. It happened fast.”
“Well, I’m glad you have a friend already.” Agatha was all smiles again. “You should invite them over sometime.”

“I don’t think they like houses. They like playing in the woods. Can I go play with them tomorrow?”

“Sure, if the rain dies down.” As if on cue, lightning flashed outside the front window and thunder rumbled over the village. “You’ll wear your boots, though.”

“Yessss.” Evan Matthew wiggled. He liked his boots, thick black Wellingtons that reached his knees, with orange rubber soles. They were good science boots. “Can I take my sample kit?”

“If you eat all your dinner.”

Evan Matthew looked down at the plate of could-be-vegetables and scowled.

That night, the bed which had seemed so comfortable the night before felt cold and unwelcoming. Evan Matthew burrowed underneath the quilt as thunder roared outside and rain threw itself at the house.

If Nami had told a ghost story, that would have been one thing—ghosts were scientifically impossible. People dying, though—that was bad luck. It would be easy to drown in the lake, if you were unlucky; if the lake was a sinkhole, Evan Matthew had read about sinkholes—how most of them were unexplored, opening to vast caverns below the earth, and how dangerous they were, how even experienced divers could easily get trapped in a cave and drown and no one would find their bodies. And maybe bad luck was real and it was in the house, in the lake.

It was nearly one in the morning when Evan Matthew finally fell into fitful sleep.



Eliza Hunt has decided that she won’t take any chances when it comes to giving her true name to the Fair Folk and heartily suggests you do the same. You can find her at lizard_hunt on Twitter, playtesting RPGs, and making pithy remarks.

Art Feature: “Watercolor” by Mark Hurtubise

Mark Hurtubise published numerous works in the 1970s. Then family, teaching, two college presidencies and for 12 years president of an Inland Northwest community foundation. After a four-decade hiatus, he is attempting to write again by balancing on a twig like a pregnant bird. Within the past three years, his work has appeared in Apricity Magazine (Texas), Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Award (New York), Bones Journal (Denmark), Deep Overstock (Oregon), pacificREVIEW (California), Modern Haiku (Rhode Island), Ink In Thirds (Alabama), Kingfisher Journal (Washington), Atlas Poetica (Maryland), Burningword Literary Journal (Indiana), The Spokesman-Review (Washington), Frogpond Journal (New York), Stanford Social Innovation Review (California), Alliance (United Kingdom) and Monovisions Black & White Photography Magazine, Two Honorable Mention Awards (United Kingdom).

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Poetry Feature: At the Library by Josh Lefkowitz

Back at the library, trying to write

an interesting poem about ancient Greeks


but some little girl won’t shut up about horses

and the two librarians are being too Minnesota-nice.


They had six different words for love, those Greeks:

Eros, Philia, Ludus, Agape, Pragma and Philautia.




Eros, of course, is the most well-known:

Passion, driven by desire.




And Pragma, I think, is a worthy aim –

developed over time, as a river carves rock.




Y’know, I’m really trying to practice Agape here –

love for everyone, including annoying little girls –


but I’m also pursuing Philautia – self-care –

and that means writing, and that needs quiet.




Her mother – not deaf, just regretting her life –

hides in the stacks and swipes through her phone.


Back to the ancient Greek shelves I go,

this time not for love, but Euripides.


There’s some good ideas in here, I say,

interrupting the mother-phone session, handing her a play:



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.


How to Make Nice

By: Christina Yang


Sue notices that the front door drifts open throughout the day. She’s perplexed. Are people forgetting to shut it, has a ghost come through, is the door broken? It’s the day after the Chinese New Year, the reason the family has gathered. Outside, it’s freezing in the worst possible way, a joyless and desiccated cold, absent of a good, heavy snowfall. So Sue, being conscientious and dependable and increasingly bitter over these designations that have followed her through the course of her life, shuts the door whenever she sees it ajar.

In the living room, bright red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. A single potted orchid sits on the coffee table. Neither Peter, seven, nor Ava, three, are wearing pants. Sue put a hard-boiled egg into each grandchild during breakfast, which she felt good about, but then they got into the cabinet when she wasn’t looking, and now they are eating dried marshmallow bunnies from Easter. Sue checks her phone.

“When is Daddy coming home?” Peter asks.

“Just as soon as a doctor removes the googly eye from your brother’s ear,” Sue says.

Ava perks up. “Is William going to die?” Sue is disturbed by the hope in Ava’s voice. She wonders what her granddaughter knows about death.

“Of course not,” she says. “But what can we learn from this very unfortunate incident, kids?”

“Don’t put foreign obstacles in your body,” Peter intones, wagging his head back and forth.

Sue takes a second. “Objects. Don’t put foreign objects in your body.” She turns to Robert, her ex-husband. “Have you heard from Bobby yet?”

Robert doesn’t look up from the football game. “Nope.”

She stares at the back of his head, annoyed. Their son has been at the hospital with William, five, since last night. Megan, their daughter-in-law, is upstairs asleep with the baby, recovering from a C-section. Without exactly agreeing to it, but understanding that she was the natural choice, Sue has found herself running the entire damn ship, and she feels incredibly unsettled by the responsibility.

The doorbell rings, and Robert’s wife, Carla, stands up. “I’ll get it.”

“We should call Bobby,” Sue says to Robert. “They’ve been at the ER an awfully long time. Maybe something’s wrong.”

“Okay,” he says.

Ava says, “Nai Nai, can we go up to our room and play?”

“Sure, honey,” Sue says. The children thunder up the stairs. “Quietly,” she calls after them. “Your mother is sleeping.” To Robert, she says, “I meant you. You​ should call him.”

Robert closes his eyes and throws his head back. “Sue. He’ll call us if something is wrong.”

Carla returns bearing a covered casserole dish. “That was one of Megan’s cousins. Joanne?”

“Joni?” Sue says.

“That’s it, Joni. Dropping off a lasagna.” Carla lifts a corner of the tinfoil. “Oh wait. Baked ziti.”

Carla is in her mid-fifties, a decade younger than Sue. She has the kind of hair that barely moves, and fingernails that feature entire painted scenes on them. Sue’s style has always skewed towards the unadorned. Yet there is a certain exuberance to Carla’s tackiness that presses at Sue’s vulnerable spots.

“Look, why don’t you ask Megan what’s going on?” Robert says. “I’m sure she’s talked to Bobby.”

“She’s resting. I don’t want to disturb her.”

“Fine then,” Robert says. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

A bowl of potato chips perches on his stomach. He is much too heavy now, can hardly get in and out of a chair, doesn’t exercise. When they were still together, he used to mow the lawn every weekend and refill the bird feeders, paint the walls whenever Sue craved a change. That stopped when he finally married Carla after Bobby and Amanda were grown. Sue believes Carla has made him lazy, has never forced him to rise to his best self. Perhaps that’s not entirely true or fair, but Sue clings to it anyway. Then again, who can blame her? To have to make nice with her ex-husband and his mistress for the sake of the family at large would put anyone over the edge.

Sue goes back into the kitchen to unload the dishwasher. She can hear Peter and Ava upstairs giggling and shouting. There are intermittent thumping noises that suggest they are jumping on the furniture, which they are not allowed to do.

Sue sticks her head into the living room. “Robert, can you check on the kids?”

“They’re fine,” he says.

“Robert.” It’s Carla this time. She shoots him a look that says he better go upstairs. He looks down at his half-finished snack and lumbers to his feet. Both Sue and Carla watch him take the stairs one at a time, hanging so heavily onto the banister that Sue is afraid it might break away from the staircase.

When he has disappeared, Sue looks at Carla. She’s about to thank her, but then something inside of her hardens, and she retreats to the kitchen again. In recent years, Sue found out that during the height of the affair, Robert had taken Carla to a casino once. This had devastated Sue. No, she has never wanted to go to a casino with its sticky low pile carpeting, where people amused themselves by throwing away their money. But maybe if Robert had seen her as a different person back then, someone open and worthy of effort, he would have asked her. Maybe if Robert had asked her, she would have said yes.

A few minutes later, Carla walks in. “I thought I’d come in and help.”

“Well, you didn’t have to do that,” Sue says. It comes out sounding mean, and she is disappointed by her lack of restraint.

“I want to help,” Carla says, already poking around in the fridge.

They work together in silence. Sue reloads the dishwasher with dirty bowls and silverware. Carla makes a turkey sandwich for Peter and Ava’s lunch. She uses white bread with too much mayo.

“Voila!” Carla says. She holds up the finished sandwich which she has cut into halves and placed onto matching plates.

A sudden flash of anger tears through Sue. What does this woman want? It’s just sandwiches, for crying out loud. Sue must have had a look on her face because Carla shrugs and then busies herself with drinks for the children.

A knocking starts up. It’s coming from outside, against the walls. The sound is hasty and insistent, yet oddly distant. The women look up from their work.

“Woodpeckers,” Sue says. Carla follows Sue’s gaze to the window above the sink. All that is visible is a line of naked trees in the backyard. Sue pounds her fist against one of the cabinets, but the hammering continues unabated. Anyway, even if she’d scared the creature away, the damage is still there, only hidden from view because of where the birds are in relation to the house.

Upstairs, they hear a loud thud and a howl. Sue and Carla look at each other. They drop what they’re doing and run out of the kitchen.

Sue hurries past the front door which has yawned open yet again. When she is at the top of the stairs, it hits her all of a sudden, and she cries out, “Woodpeckers!”

“What?” Carla doesn’t even pause.

“Never mind,” Sue says, but she is smiling. The pecking is the reason the door won’t stay closed! She has figured out the source of today’s trouble.

When the women reach the bedroom that the boys share, they find Robert on the floor with Peter and Ava dogpiled on top of him. The three of them are one wriggling mass, just a tangled mess of limbs. Sue peels the children off of Robert, and Carla says, Robert, Robert, are you okay? He doesn’t respond. He’s curled up on his side, and his entire body is shaking. The women bend over him.

He’s injured, Sue thinks. They have to help him.

Then she notices Carla’s hand on his shoulder. She moves aside so that Carla can roll Robert onto his back. He throws his arms and legs out flat. Tears leak from the corners of his eyes. The women look at each other, and Sue can see the concern on Carla’s face.

Then it dawns on Sue that Robert is laughing.

He opens his eyes. He blinks up at the ceiling as he catches his breath. “That was fun,” he says.


Bio: Christina Yang graduated from Columbia University. She loves the library, a good binge watch, and a hot meal cooked by someone other than herself. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grub Street and The South Carolina Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and three children.

Fiction Feature: “Vivian” by Coty Poynter

The rising sun above the cityscape, tinting the polluted sky a hazy shade of pink. High-rise buildings, both old and new, loom over the smaller, less significant buildings creating a man-made mountain range that lines the inner city, divides Baltimore. A crane in the distance. Its neck outstretched, reaching upward toward an airplane, the white contrail tearing the impeccable sky apart. Standing at the bottom, beneath the great world at large, two shadows, one slightly taller than the other.

All of this captured in a single photograph April holds, by the camera her grandma Vivian — Viv, that’s what she called her — gave her years ago, long before she passed away. On the rooftop of her rowhome, once her grandma’s rowhome, she lets her feet dangle over the edge as she looks over the photograph one more time.

The photograph, despite its glossy sheen, is tacky. Ghostly fingerprints blemish the corners of the photograph she’s held many times before. How many hours have been lost studying it? She couldn’t say. 

Before the photograph was taken, Viv next to her, encouraging her to simply take pictures of what she likes rather than what’s she thinks might be good, she barely remembers much of anything.

What she does remember is the quiet of the city that particular morning, how each time that quiet seemed to settle itself deep within her chest, accumulates a weight that pushes it deeper still. It’s a shock to April that her heart has room to beat beneath her sternum at all.

* * *

Living in the heart of a city, especially one so saturated in violence as Baltimore, quiet is rare, jarring, unsettling. Some view the quiet as a commodity; April sees it as an omen. 

Because it doesn’t happen often, or because it isn’t often paid attention, the quiet moments stick out. They act as a divergence in her life. A point where all things changed, serving as a clear marker to the life events that have led her to the rooftop. Over time, she’s learned to be wary of the times when the city slips into these strange lulls. When the citizens become too exhausted, too worn down to play their part in the cacophony of sound the city produces. It’s in those moments that it happens.

There was quiet, or so she imagined, the night the bullet broke through her boyfriend’s belly while he walked home from work. The force of it knocked the air from his lungs, pushed his body to the ground. A second passed through his head. Murdered for Marlboro Reds and seven dollars.

After Derrick’s murder, the night terrors started. April would lay down to sleep, lights off, the quiet of night settling over her, that’s when the haunts started. The shade of a man, distorted face, a body like a blackhole that sucked the faint, flickering light from April’s chest. Emptied her of joy. Noise was the only way she could sleep. And the louder the noise, the more chaotic, the better she seemed to sleep, though she never again felt rested as did before Derrick’s absence.

Too exhausted for daily life alone, April eventually moved out of her rented apartment off Boston Street, on Linwood, and moved back into her Viv’s rowhome in Highlandtown. With open arms her grandma greeted her as April stood on the stoop, her bags dropped at her side. The bed she’d slept in as a young girl still there, covered by the Mulan bedspread. Pictures of her parents, the same ones she doesn’t remember, the same ones that died in a car accident, the car’s roof opened like a can of tuna, the truck driver still lethargic after being asleep at the wheel; he wasn’t jailed, but never drove again, were scattered around the room. Only one frame held the family as a whole: April perched on her mother’s hip, her father’s arms around both of them, smiling under his thick mustache. April was too young to grasp their absence after they died. Viv, living alone except for her cat, Earl, gladly took her granddaughter in, became her guardian, her keeper, her mother.

Photographs were scattered around the house. April walked through the living room, down the halls, and studied the small details of each one.

At a much younger age, when Viv’s father showed her how to use his camera from back when he was a photojournalist, a Zeiss Contax II, her grandma started practicing photography. Every trip she took, no matter how grand, she carried that camera with her.

In the old, unchanged room she once inhabited, she picked up the photograph her parents and her, studied it. “Get rid of this,” she said, handing it to her Viv. “Just get rid of them all. I don’t care what you do to them.”

Knowing that grief is an unbearable creature, knowing how it malleable people become, how they tend to be shaped by what isn’t being cared for, Viv obliged and removed all the photographs of her parents from the room. Carefully, Viv stacked to frames in a box, closed each flap, and watched as the smiling faces of her family fade into darkness.

 It wasn’t until her grandma’s back ached terribly, her legs giving way to the hardwood floor beneath her, that April started to normalize, whatever that means. The common bodily failings a woman of ninety-two affected Viv, aged her by five more years. Hands, once steady, continually trembled.

After the second fall, April bought her a walker that Viv proudly refused to use. But by the fourth she’d agreed to the cumbersome thing, carefully maneuvering the narrow halls of her home with her fractured wrist braced. 

Conversations grew longer with less being said. April would watch Viv place her left hand against her head and massage her temple with her pointer finger; she imagined the words loosening from her brain to drop on her tongue like the toys Viv used to win for April at Funcade on the Ocean City boardwalk. The pink fuzz of her tongue hangs there for a moment, licks her top lip, and slowly, meticulously, works the word from her mouth: “Pars-lee.”


“We need more parsley,” she said. “Or is it cilantro?”

April knew what was happening, though she tried her best to ignore it. She didn’t want to acknowledge that her grandma was fading into the prison of her own mind. But it’s hard to ignore when Viv started calling her Deanna, her mother’s name. Or when she stopped pulling her underwear down to use the bathroom. Or when continually meowed and circled beneath April’s feet, hungry after not being fed the evening before, after she returned home the next morning having slept over some strange man’s house she’d met on Tinder. 

“Deanna,” Viv said. “How’s Charles doing? I swear you’re going to marry that man someday. He’s sweet on you.”

Instead of correcting her, instead of imposing the reality that Deanna and Charles did marry, had a daughter, and are now dead, April replied, “He’s doing just fine, mom. He’s doing just fine.” The guilt churned around in her stomach. But was it so bad to preserve whatever joy she might have felt seeing what she thought was her daughter happily with her would-be husband? April didn’t think so. It was far better than the truth, telling her that Deanna and Charles are dead, that she’d slept with  yet another man she’d only met earlier that same night, that she opened herself up, allowed him to do as he pleased, exploited herself to try to fill the hole left behind by the bullet that killed the last man she loved.

Quiet moved in her grandma passed away. Dust settled over the once-busy house; April let it gather on the windowsills, atop the photo frames mounted along the wall. She kept herself moving forward, busied herself with photography, strange men and, on one occasion, a woman, not looking at the loss lurking in the dark. Her life seemed to revert into the blur it once was–nights she spent alone, her time unoccupied, she couldn’t sleep. The ouroboros of loss continued to chase her, closed in on her. It always does.

One night, sleep deprived but unable to sleep, April heard the shuffle of footsteps down the hall, the closing and opening of a door. When she peeked around the corner, there was no one. Earl weaved between her legs, his fur soft against her bare ankles. She proceeded down the hallway, into the living room where the portraits hung; eyes all on her, watching as she moved into the dining room where her grandma would sit and enjoy a glass of whiskey. She half-expected to see her there, dressed in a white nightgown, her pastel skin aglow beneath the fluorescent light. 

But there was no one. Earl jumped up and perched on the tabletop, purring. April poured herself a whiskey and sat in her grandma’s seat. She thought about reaching out to one of her many old flings. She thought about calling Cheryl, the one woman she’d found herself with weeks ago. She thought about each one, how they felt foreign despite being intimate. She thought about how Derrick used to hold her during sex, his hands clumsily gliding along her body, and how he would kiss her forehead before they fell asleep. She thought about the many memories she’d accumulated over her life thus far, how they gathered along her brain like dust on the windowsill, and how each one felt like a different life lived. And she thought about Viv, her guardian, her keeper, her grandmother-turned-mother, how she held the camera to April’s eye, steadied the frame, snapped the shot; taught her all that she knew about photography, about preserving memories. April sat at the table, her losses gathered in all in one place, and wept unlike she fell asleep, her head resting on her folded arms.

Photographs that Viv had taken over her lifetime hung on the walls. April marveled at them. People she’d never met, places she’d never been. The ghost of so many strangers crowding the paint-chip wall, memories of a life she’d never lived. 

When April tried to take down particular photos, not because she didn’t like them, but rather to make room for her own life, the frame remained mounted on the wall, unmoving regardless of how much force she applied. Each one had been placed with care, bolted into the wall so that no one could change what Viv had laid out. 

Sweat collected on April’s brow. She looked on at the array of faces, overwhelmed by the eyes looking at her, through her. They’d watched as she cried at the kitchen table the night before.

Cutting a length of string she’d found under an end table, in a basket with miscellaneous knitting supplies—she never knew her grandma could knit—April tied end-to-end together, forming a loop, and hung her photographs overtop those of her grandma Vivian. With each photo she added to the over-cluttered wall, their lives blended together into an amalgam of decades, becoming a portal to two different lifetimes. The place where Derrick now lives, wearing a permanent smile, among the faces of many strangers; her grandma, too.


Months after she’d committed to living in her grandma’s rowhome, after sorting through the rummage left behind by her deceased family, all but one box unpacked, the pain of her losses lessened, she goes through the final box marked “VIV’S THINGS.” 

In it, April finds, among the assortment of shoddy knit gloves, old hats, papers covered in doodles and scribbles, Viv’s first camera; the Contax II her grandmother’s father used and had given her when she was a young girl. The metal body dented. Crevices and gears filled with dust and hair that could’ve been Viv’s, or her father’s, or someone else neither of them knew.

April held it to her right eye, closed her left, and saw the crack that spanned from side to side of the viewfinder. She panned around the room, moving from corner to corner, from high to low, looking at the wall of portraits that she covered with her own portraits of landscapes and animals and the people in pain she photographed for her college project. When she looked towards the kitchen, Earl sat atop the table. Left of the Snickers-colored cat, Viv sat. She gazed at her granddaughter, the once-young girl now grown into a woman, the very same woman who slowly became her own caretaker, and smiled. April removed the cracked viewfinder from her eye, taking her grandma with it. Earl licked between his legs, only stopping to glance at April, meowed, and carried on with his cleaning. 

In that moment, April noticed the smile. It decorated her own face, even after Viv had left. It was the first time she’d smiled since grandma passed.

Baltimore is more than pain and heartbreak and loss. It must be. Since Derrick’s murder, since her grandma’s death, since she resigned herself from her former life, embarking on a new life, reborn into the old family rowhome as the last photograph was hung on the wall, she’s found a reason for the city to be much more than how it is perceived.

On Saturdays, she walks the city and takes photographs. Some of the buildings, the architecture her grandma loved. Some of people, mostly homeless—some asleep on stoops, some too high on heroin to hold their head up; some who sit on the benches, half naked, stinking and laughing, posing in gratitude of being alive. 

When she walks President Street, she photographs the young black boys who endure rejection at each traffic life, their squeegees held tight in one hand, spray bottle in the other, trying and trying until that one person tells them “yes” and tips them a buck out in the oppressive summer heat. April wipes the sweat from her forehead with her free hand and watches, even after the film has run out.

These photos she takes, they are single moments that she has come to possess. By applying pressure to the button, she quietly agrees to the someone else’s keeper—a museum curator for the lives of other people, alive, dead, known and unknown. 

Sometimes, after the film is developed, she sits and looks over the photographs. Reviews them for signs of life she might have missed. On occasion, in the frozen world of a photograph, when the great world ceases to spin, she finds the potential buried beneath. When she finds that potential in the photograph of the city she lives in, that’s when she knows there is much more to it than what she’s come to know.

She returns home, exhausted from the day of photography—different from the exhaustion she feels coming home from her work as an editor for a financial well-being service as she herself struggles to pay her residual student loans, her credit debt, the cost of her grandmother’s death—and she falls onto the couch and wonders why she’s in a position to edit financial advice for anyone when she just signed on to inherit the debt of Viv’s old rowhome, which is paid off but requires much work and upkeep. She raises one foot at a time up onto the couch and pulls them into her, one under the other, and retrieves a black film canister from her bag. 

Each image the light burns into the strip of film is a memory. In a single plastic container, April carries roughly thirty-six of them. The actions of others permanently paused. She relishes the feeling of having control over these lives of strangers, that they are hers to own.

Some part of her desires to share them with another; hope that change can come from others seeing the potential for beauty that she sees. 

The other part knows that can’t happen. It’s a fool’s errand, and she knows it. 

But if there’s one thing that she’s learned over the years, it’s that sometimes a small, kind gesture is enough to alleviate great burdens. Times when we wish to give up, when the whole world’s gone dark, April knows she must push onward until the light is there, within reach.

Despite the pain she saw on Viv’s face, she watched as her grandma continued to cook and clean while April grappled with her life and loss; urged April to go out into the city, take photographs, read, learn, keep her mind occupied. Every now and again, when April felt too heavy to move, Viv grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out of bed and out the door, where they’d walk slowly through the streets of the city grew up in.

“Nothing looks like it used to,” she’d say to April. “It’s all so different.” Viv winced in pain, but April, holding her steady, helped her down the road as her grandma observed all the change, smiling—though was never certain if it was out of nostalgia or for that moment: the two of them, arm in arm. Viv started to laugh, started to curse the deficiency of her body as her nerves screamed and sent fire to her brain.

Back inside, Viv sat at the dining room table while April fetched her large, yellow pills. She’d swallow them down, along with her pride, as April went about cooking a meager meal for dinner—Easy Mac, Velveeta, or Hamburger Helper were all within reach of her culinary skills when it came to a hot meal. Stirring the thick, vicious cream that looks more plastic than cheese, April listened to the faint strain of her grandma’s breathing, felt the soft stare of admiration Viv often offered her. She loved her grandma and hated to see her suffer; wished, day and night, that there was something she could do to ease the pain.

As she bathed her, dipping the sponge in hot water before dappling it across her shoulders, along her upper back, refreshing her skin, allowing the water to trickle down—it offered Viv a small moment of relief, those delicate touches. The two women, a generation apart, met eyes, and April felt sorrow melt away as her grandma smiled, nodded, and told her, “It’s okay, dear.” With a damp hand, Viv wiped the tears from April’s eyes and rested her along her left cheek. Without thinking, April brought both her hands up and, in a small, kind gesture, embraced the single, shaking hand her grandma placed on her cheek.

In her heart, she still carries a tremendous love for who showed her how to be strong and how to be vulnerable. Showed her how to be a proud woman, to say “no,” and to carry the weight that comes with womanhood. And she showed her how to use a camera, to center the frame, introduced April to the magic of a moment and how a camera can turn a memory into a possession.

But a memory isn’t permanent, and neither is a photograph. Both can be easily destroyed. Both can be warped and altered. 

Her grandma didn’t have the heart to tell her that.

The colors fade over time, lose the vividness once captured, just the same as memories lose their potency. The corners wear thin and tear. Before long, the photograph becomes a tattered scrap of paper without meaning. 

Sometimes, the image, though simple, exists to be pain possessed: an image of a quiet morning in Baltimore, the pink sky torn in two by the jet plane, a frame for the shape of absence.

When April is alone, she combs through a collection of private albums from her past, removes portraits of friends and strangers from the over-cluttered wall, sifts through the memories she possesses and allows herself to sink deep into the longing that comes from each one. Eyes closed, she sits in the quiet rowhome, at the dining room table grandma Vivian always sat at and listens for the soft voice she once spoke in.

Ghosts have taken up residency along the walls of the rowhome, in the vacancy of her heart. Laughter fills the room—Derrick’s, the strangers never met, her grandma Viv’s and her pop Teddy, and most startling of all, her own. Emptiness becomes the wrinkles of her flushed cheeks as she wipes the tears from her eyes.

Vivian whispers something to her, April is sure of it. Only she can’t understand it.

The photograph she holds, Baltimore at dawn, is between her fingers. One hand moves opposite of the other. Tension is applied to the glossy paper. The white border that frames the image breaks apart. Destroys what she once possessed.



Coty Poynter is a nonfiction reader for Mud Season Review. Born and raised in Baltimore, he continues to live there with his partner, their cat Pudge, and a hodgepodge of plants. His work has appeared in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Equinox, Grub Street, and Underwood Press. His second collection of poetry, Delirium: Collected Poems, was published in October 2018 by Bowen Press.

Seeking solace in art

By: Maria Asimopoulos, Fiction Editor

A few days ago, my best friend Krupa texted me to tell me she was taking a break from her usual streaming routine to revisit Divergent, a book and film that were huge when we were teenagers. I told her it was an excellent choice and that I’d been itching to rewatch The Hunger Games. “I just did that too,” she said. “It hits a little harder in these times.”

Years ago, at the start of my undergraduate English program, I sat at a cheap desk in my dorm studying for Spring semester finals. I had been at it for hours, flipping through PowerPoints and crafting notecards instead of sleeping (which is arguably what I should have been doing at 5 a.m.). I’m now a senior, but this moment came back to me today, April 19, at the start of my fifth week under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The contents of the notecards are the reason why.

In my hands were American literary movements from realism through postmodernism: time, space, history, and people, bundled up nicely into abbreviated bullet points and blue ink for me to study. I held literature’s reflection of the human condition in my hands, and I wondered what it looked like now, on that May morning in 2017. So I googled it.

Dystopian literature. A movement hadn’t been defined yet; critics went back and forth arguing whether we had moved beyond postmodernism to begin with, but a brave few suggested that dystopian fiction was our next stop on the literary wagon. Indeed, with booming franchises like Divergent and The Hunger Games so fresh in my memory, 18-year-old me could believe it. Authors were telling stories of environmental destruction, economic despair, and the collapse of society. With climate change and wealth inequality looming in the back of our collective consciousness (of course, these days I would argue that it’s more at the forefront), it is no wonder we had such a need for these stories.

And it’s no wonder that we feel such a powerful need to return to them now. Our economy is crumbling and, for many of us, the thought of participating in society makes us paranoid. We’ve become increasingly conscious of our bodies in relation to the world: the ways they function, their positioning around other people, the way we hold ourselves in grocery stores. We’re not being sorted into personality categories like characters in Divergent, nor are our children being rounded up to fight to the death as they are in The Hunger Games. But we are getting a front row seat to the exposure of vulnerabilities in our medical and financial infrastructures. We’re bearing witness to politicians’ blatant disregard for human life while we burn through our savings and apply desperately for unemployment that many will not receive. We’re video chatting with loved ones to express our condolences during funerals that have a mandated limit on how many people can mourn together. Dystopian.

In all the time we spend at home, art is more critical in our modern lives than ever. Movies and TV can distract us from endless hours spent indoors. Never before have I seen quite so many people posting music recommendations on their social media. We can finally find moments to get to the endless reading list, books that have been glaring at us from our shelves for weeks, begging us to take a break from our busy schedules and open them. We can spend this strange time panicking, or we can spend it immersed in other worlds and stories. Many of us are choosing the latter. 

If dystopian literature wasn’t where the bulk of critics thought we were moving a few years ago, perhaps it will be now. Brave New World has just re-entered my “to read” list on Goodreads. I’m going to keep on my vow to rewatch The Hunger Games—more than that, I’ve been itching to reread it, too, and I haven’t felt that urge about a YA novel since my mid-teens. 

These are unprecedented times. It often feels as though we have more to worry about than we ever thought we could handle. But when a virus cracks the world wide open, maybe literature is just the thing we need to begin to fill in the gaps.