Fiction Feature: Touch by Stephen Wunderli

I knew the moment he leapt from the train. Here he was, mid-stride, airborne and about to fall. Of course, he’d been falling for years. He could feel the shame unraveling behind him like the cords of a parachute with no chute, just fibers leaving his body, finally. He wasn’t unattractive, not his fault. And his clothes were not what you would expect a young man jumping from a train to wear. They were clean, no miles of desperation ground into his elbows, his knees, the side of his body he slept on. No. Let’s see if we can read the cords as they unspool and float above him: a woman, standing against him. He touched her on the wrist. She smiled at him, her hazel eyes, his blue, really blue at the moment. Anyway, she understood his shy heart without asking. That’s what he loved. That and her skin. He loved how it responded to his fingertips, rising, electrified, aching as if it was the first time she’d ever been touched. The whole of his body craved touch, fingertips on the inside of his forearm, his own fingers thrumming her rib cage to life. Her hip against his. Touch. Not the way the grown man had touched him when he was a child, groping him hungrily, even drooling, making the then boy hard and ashamed. The boy recoiled, never touched anyone again, until her. Her hair was unashamed; it draped her face, a shade to be drawn back. He traced the vein on her neck leaving a wake of goosebumps. He longed to kiss her ear, to let his tears roll down her cheeks and pool at the base of her neck. She pressed her body against his. It was summer, and the heat made their bodies warm. He felt her shape, so different than the grown man’s that held him down, nearly drowning him in dark stench. She smiled at him, at his reaction to her body. He looked down, ashamed, trembling. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.” The tears came and dropped useless to the ground. Even her feet were perfect, delicate, at ease in the grass. Her fingertips touched the tears from his chin. He quivered. She pulled politely away and they sat in the shade watching shadows and feeling the wind that mocks lovers’ touch, brushes hair away then leaves amid anticipation. He wouldn’t talk. She was patient; she collected her hair and tucked it into the back of her shirt so that he would know he didn’t have to talk, although she must have wanted him to. She must’ve wanted him to touch her again; she took long breaths at the thought of it, his fingers on the side of her face, tracing her shoulder, pausing, not sure which path to take. “I should say something,” he whispered. She leaned into him, just slightly, making it safe. But a stench rolled in from the underbrush, and he pulled away. He didn’t sleep for three nights straight, afraid of himself. He is just one of many stories I could tell you. No one at school saw him leave. No one saw him abandon his hand-me-down car next to the rail-yard. His rapid heartbeat driving the train forward. I saw him standing, the steel doors thrown open, hating even the wind touching him. But hers was different, wasn’t it? I can see it in his eyes as he falls toward me. The stones just below my surface. I am shallow. He scatters me into a million diamonds hurtling upward, each imprisoning the sun. It’s beautiful, the end of penance.  

Stephen Wunderli is a writer living in Salt Lake City. He is a past director of Writers at Work, a writing conference in Park City, Utah. He has published several children’s books, mainly with Henry Holt & Co. He most recently published a short story with The Kalahari Review.

Fiction Feature: The Scrubber by Blake Kilgore

Mr. Low was bent, sweaty, and his back ached. Nevertheless, he continued steady, erasing the phallic symbol scribbled on the third bathroom stall door in the eighth grade boys bathroom; there was no hurry. This was already the tenth one this year. Big and small, short and long, heavy on the balls or thick on the bat, last year he’d scrubbed away more than 25. You’d think these boys would get creative, at least experiment with the notion of a woman’s body. Nope, just poorly drawn and vastly exaggerated representations of their own sprouting organs.

Walker Low washed his hands, head bowed, and avoided his reflection. He pulled a paper towel from the third dispenser he’d replaced this year. The kids had a strange desire to destroy any aid to hygiene. Several of the sink handles had also been torn off, sometimes while running, so they sprayed in all directions, flooding the bathrooms. Stuffing sinks or toilets with massive wads of paper was a favorite pastime that also induced a wretched overflow. Soap dispensers were mostly made of plastic, so they had to be replaced a few times a week. And it was truly incredible how many times kids decided it was a good idea to just crap in the middle of the floor. 

Right now the bathroom was pristine, and it felt like an accomplishment to eradicate the grime, but Mr. Low knew there was always something more to clean.

“Custodian to the auditorium, ASAP!”

Drying his hands and shaking his head, Mr. Low smirked, then frowned as he shuffled down the hallway toward the Jack Dee Wright Performing Arts Center. Who would believe he’d seen good Mr. Wright—wealthy businessman, philanthropist, and school board president—in a most untoward predicament just a few years before? All Mr. Wright had been wearing were purple and black argyle socks and a matching bow tie, and his gaunt frame was pulsating against Jenny Watkins, lovely young wife to Johnny Watkins, the superintendent of schools. Mr. Low was invisible. Neither of the two cheaters knew they’d been caught, and he decided to let the community keep their false icons.

Here came Ms. Hartshorne, the aged vice principal, who was suffering from an illness she tried to hide. She always smiled, and her gait was proud, her voice strong and clear. But Walker saw the pills, heard her vomiting late at night, and cleaned up the blood she’d failed to completely rinse away.

“I’m sorry, Walker. I don’t know why they can’t call you ‘Mr. Low’.”

Walker smiled.

“Well, anyway, come on, and let’s take a look. Bob’s freaking out because ol’ Jack Dee is coming tonight for the fall symphony and some kids took it upon themselves to welcome him with some adolescent art sculptures.”

“Let me guess?”

Ms. Hartshorne led Mr. Low down the aisle to the front row, where the backs of several chairs had new and unfriendly juvenile inscriptions below the plaques marked “reserved for the school board”.  There were chairs enough for eight school board members and their families. So, a whole row of slurs and epithets, and each chair was covered with Saran wrap and a gloss of varied human excrement. The air teemed with rancid odor.

“Well, there are no poorly drawn male organs here. That’s a first.”

“Sorry, Walker.”

Ms. Hartshorne left Mr. Low to the work. He gathered his supplies: a screwdriver, trash can, gloves, a mop, disinfectant spray, and several disposable wiping cloths. He spent the rest of the afternoon in the auditorium and wondered what other mischief all the dear children were up to while he was so thoroughly occupied.

That night, Mr. Jack Dee Wright and his sweet and unknowing wife sat in clean chairs in the front row with their two youngest daughters. Their oldest, Veronica, played the flute in the front row of the woodwind section. She had lovely purple bows in her hair and wore a matching skirt that showed off her long, slender legs. Mr. Low sat in the back, unseen and ignored, but he enjoyed the music too. Afterwards, when all of the families had gone, he’d sweep through each row, thoroughly removing the debris carelessly left behind. If each person would just carry out what they’d brought in, it would save him an hour he could spend with his own children, but he didn’t complain. 

When Walker Low got home well after dark, his wife, Leticia, was up. She met him at the door, kissed him gently on the cheek, and squeezed him around his waist. Then she led him to their kitchen table, sat him down, and pulled off his boots. She’d kept a kettle simmering while she waited, and hearing its shrill whisper, she poured a steaming cup of tea and stirred in some honey. Then she placed the warm mug snuggly between Walker’s worn hands.

Walker cupped his fingers over hers and leaned in, drew deep the aroma of mint, then smiled. He clasped one of her hands to his face, and closed his eyes, kissed it gently, then laid it back down. After a minute, he spoke.

“Well, what is it?”

“So—Bobbie’s team got new sweat suits. They got stripes down the side and their name on it and all. Coach Willis says Bobbie don’t have to get one, but he’ll sorta stick out if he doesn’t.”

Walker couldn’t remember his boyhood teams having anything special. Sometimes they didn’t even have matching jerseys, and he always had to wear hand-me-down high-tops. Kids these days always needed new this or that, but and to his mind, all that extra gear hadn’t improved little Bobbie’s jump shot in the slightest. 

He also remembered having to borrow some younger kid’s brother’s glove whenever they played baseball and how deeply embarrassed he’d felt.

“What else?”

Leticia tried and failed to smile.

“Ellie’s struggling with her numbers again. Her teacher says she’s falling too far behind. She passed on a list of tutors.”

She sighed and sat back.

Walker leaned in.  “So?”

“We’re over budget again this month, Walker.”

Walker Low bent over the tea, letting the steam moisten his face. He took a long, slow drink, sat back, and closed his eyes. 

“Well, I bet they still need help for the tournament this weekend. I could ask Ms. Hartshorne to add me on for Saturday.”

“Walker, you need a break, too, and we’ve all been looking forward to being together this weekend for the show.”

Walker put his elbows on the table, rubbed his eyes.

“Didn’t you say Ellie’s main dance is in the second act? If I hurried, I might not miss the whole thing.”

Leticia covered her face.

A few minutes passed, then Walker stood and leaned over his wife, kissed her on the top of her head.

“It’ll be alright. You’ll explain it to Ellie for me, okay?”

Leticia stood, and the couple walked hand in hand down the hall of their small apartment and shuffled quietly inside their children’s bedroom. They knelt between the small beds. Lifting hearts in prayer, they silently asked for protection and for a beautiful and prosperous future. Deep in his heart, Walker asked the good Lord for more time at home with his family.


The next morning, Mr. Low was up early and back at school before anyone else. He liked the silence of dawn. No matter what destruction was done to his building each day, it always started out new, with fresh hopes for learning and growth among the children. Even though they increased his workload immensely, he still loved them. He also cared for the teachers, even though some of them were unkind.

One snappy teacher barked at him almost every day about erasing the chicken scratch notes he’d wanted to be left untouched. Mr. Low asked if he could leave a note on the board, but that seemed like a bridge too far, and so the young fellow continued to berate him like a child whenever they met.

“When are you gonna shampoo these damn floors?” another teacher demanded. Mr. Low wanted to tell her that he’d put in a request to do just that, five times, but Mr. Jack Dee and his friends at the school board did not feel that was a necessary expense. He’d also asked for funding to repair the roof leak over the basketball center court, but the board couldn’t find those funds either, and so Mr. Low had to endure the ire of coaches who thought it was his fault their games and practices were postponed or canceled whenever poor weather settled in.

Even Jack Dee had complaints, but they were of a different sort. He didn’t think it was a risk to share his true feelings with the likes of a no-name janitor. 

“Can’t wait to get out of this town. Being overrun, if you know what I mean? I can barely understand what half of these new parents are saying in their broken-down English, and what the hell kind of religion do they practice over in that temple? Purple people with their many-armed goddesses. Dammit, when I moved here this was farm country. Quiet, and everybody looked like me. No offense.”

Apparently, ol’ Jack Dee only noticed late that Walker Low was black. He wondered what the president of the board and local hero said about him when he wasn’t around. But of course he knew Mr. Wright only thought about him now because he was in front of his face, listening to him whine. He wouldn’t think about him again until he turned down another budget request, and then he’d probably be grumbling and calling him “uppity”.

The weight of the job could get him down. Devoted, Walker had to focus on his love for the children, and despite separation of church and state, he prayed silently as he swept the halls and scrubbed the stalls and mopped the floors and helped kids into lockers that were jammed again and again each day.

He knew, perhaps as well as anyone in the building, how much suffering was here. He’d stooped to read forsaken notes that contained unspeakable sorrows. Failed marriages and dysfunctional homes, dying siblings, addict fathers and mothers. Sometimes, the scribbles spoke of cutting and killing, of self-inflicted pain. He’d bring these to the counselors or administration, but they mostly had no names, and so the heartbreak went untreated.

How many times he’d stumbled upon a weeping child hiding backstage in Jack Dee’s auditorium. Or in a locked stall in the boys bathroom. There was not a thing Walker did not observe, and some things grieved him more than others.

Most of the adults in the building loved the children as Mr. Low did, and offered up their lives to see them grow. But there were some who struggled with their own selfish desires. Some were mean to children because it made them feel strong when they’d only felt weak among adults. Some of these worshiped rules and an illusory order and sacrificed children daily at its altar. Others were poor lonely souls who wanted their students as friends, and so they could not be their mentors.

Mr. Harriet was a strange fellow, and Mr. Low saw that his eyes were always wandering below the waist. Walker once asked him if he needed help with anything, and he’d stared the teacher down and firmly gripped his hand. Mr. Harriet pulled back, turned away, and bellowed his curt response.

“You’re the janitor, right? Yeah, I’ll let you know when I need some help, buddy.”

But Mr. Low kept checking in on him, especially when Mr. Harriet became an advisor for the debate club, which met after school. Mr. Low wanted to say something to Ms. Hartshorne. There was nothing more than intuition, though, and he didn’t think it right to ruin a man’s life on a hunch. Still, he cleaned the adjoining classrooms during those debate meetings and happened to be sweeping in the hallways just outside Mr. Harriet’s room as the club let out, and what he witnessed unnerved him.

Mr. Jack Dee Wright’s daughter Veronica was in the club, and Mr. Low had learned she was a real whippersnapper. But she was soft around Mr. Harriet, and while this was not completely abnormal, it bothered Mr. Low, who could not ignore the keen look in the debate club advisor’s eye when he gazed a little too long.

One day, during winter, Mr. Low noticed a group of eighth grade boys in the lunchroom. They were giggling and pointing, and then he saw the object of their teasing was Veronica Wright. She was glancing back and forth from one friend to another and then back to the boys’ table. Suddenly, she stood and flew to the girls restroom covering her belly.

Mr. Low asked one of the lunch aides if they wouldn’t mind checking on her, but when he did, the aide abruptly walked past him to chastise a table of kids for trash left under their table. When she returned, Mr. Low tried again, but she blurted out that she was “really busy” and rushed past him, ignoring his plea. Mr. Low stared at the door to the girls bathroom and waited.

Several other girls eventually went in after Veronica, but came out again pinching their noses and looking miserable. Mr. Low kept his eye on the door, but when he saw Ms. Hartshorne walking by, he asked if she’d check on the girl. Moments later, she was leading young Veronica to the nurse and asking Walker if he’d clean the mess she’d left behind.

Closing the bathroom, Mr. Low went about cleaning up the vomit in and around the sink. He glanced up and saw the look of sadness in his own eyes and then lurched away, back out into the hall, and strode to the main office and Ms. Hartshorne. She said the girl was going to be okay, but there was something dishonest in her tone. Mr. Low nodded and wandered away to clean yet another beckoning disaster. This time some of the seventh grade boys had decided to urinate in the sinks.

The next time he cleaned up puddles of urine was two weeks later, when he was sent to clean the mess beneath Mr. Harriet’s desk. The debate club advisor had been arrested that morning. Mr. Low was near the front doors when they took Mr. Harriet away, his pants stained and his head bowed.

Earlier that morning, Mr. Low had gone into the girls restroom to empty the garbage, and when he pulled out the bag, it tore, and some of the trash fell on the floor. As he bent to sweep those stray pieces, one worn and many-folded note caught his attention. On the outside, written in purple, was the name ‘Mr. Harriet.’ 

Mr. Low leaned over the sink, gripping the sides. His intuition was clanging the alarm, so he slowly picked up and unfolded the note.

I really don’t want to “get rid of it” like you said, but if I did, would you give me a second chance? -V

Mr. Low never saw Veronica Wright again. She’d had an abortion, he heard, her father urging her to do what was best for the family. But he didn’t know for sure and wasn’t one to pry. 

At the end of the year Ms. Hartshorne took an extended leave of absence, and Mr. Low turned to his summer duties, when he’d clean everything top to bottom and make the school new again. He would baptize the floors and walls and lockers and shelves, scrubbing them with antiseptic. All the while, he prayed for the brokenhearted ones he knew were still suffering. He could see their faces, hear their voices. And he spoke their names, wondering if everyone would make it back or if, like Veronica, they would drift out of his life forever. For those he offered a prayer like the one he said for his own children, begging for a beautiful future. He would have to let them go; come fall, there would be another thousand tender souls arriving.


Blake Kilgore is the author of Leviathan (2021), a collection of poems. A wanderer, he’s from the South and Midwest and now, the Northeast. Blake used to be a preacher but walked away to find his faith. He’s been winding his way back now, and love of his wife and four sons is a balm. A junior-high basketball coach and teacher, Blake is also refreshed by the idealism of his young students. His writing has appeared in Frost Meadow Review, Flint Hills Review, Lunch Ticket, and other fine journals.

Exclusive Fiction Feature: “Always” by Karen Fayeth


…….Striding with purpose into his smallest but most carefully monitored laboratory, Adelmo picked a bit of microscopic lint off his pristine lab coat and flicked it away. 

…….German by birth, Adelmo was fussy, demanding, and humorless. He was also a MacArthur Fellow, the recipient of a so-called “Genius Grant”, so his methods were rarely questioned. The lack of strict oversight or pushback from his leadership allowed Adelmo to take chances that other scientists couldn’t.

…….Under diffuse lighting, Adelmo checked each of the four chambers quietly burbling away. He was prone to checking in on his most cherished project at least twice a day. Observing the specimens and making verbal notes into the end of his pen, which contained a small micro-recorder, was like a meditation. 

…….“Specimen One: progressing as expected. Specimen Two: temperature below optimal but not critical, faulty connector to be analyzed by Jorgensen later today. Specimen Three: growing faster than expected. We suspect genetics of the subject and will research the husbandry. Specimen Four: normal and on track.”

…….The spoken words fluttered up to the cloud where voice-to-text translated his words into a tidy lab journal app to be cleaned up late. He would review and clean them up later. But for now, he was awaiting a visit from a dignitary and everything had to be perfect. Over the past week, he’d driven all of his postdoctoral research assistants and his long-suffering administrative assistant crazy with meticulous preparations. 

…….They muttered about him in the breakroom, not knowing that the building’s ventilation system carried their every sound to a certain place in Lab 2. There was a small X made of electrical tape on the floor to remind him where acoustics were the best.

…….Satisfied that the specimens were fine and the lab was spotless, Adelmo felt ready to receive guests. With that, it was to the “X marks the spot” in Lab 2 just down the hall where he headed next.

…….“I will be so glad when this day is over. Where are we going after?”

…….“Let’s do that Irish pub. The one over on Spruce.”

…….“The Harp?”

…….“That’s it. First round is on me.”

…….“Sweet, I’m going to need two, or ten, or—you know what, let’s just start with a round of Jameson. Doctor Frank has just about worn me down. Yesterday I actually drafted a letter of resignation. I was just so…done.”

…….Adelmo wrote a few notes on a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. He knew the acoustics worked both ways and avoided the recorder pen while standing on the X. They called him Doctor Frank–meaning Frankenstein–for the exploratory and cutting-edge genetics work he did. 

…….His postdocs often questioned his work, though the institution never did. He knew how to push right up to that vague gray line between scientific progress and a violation of ethics. The postdocs who questioned him soon went away. Scott was the voice of the letter writer, and Adelmo made a note in ballpoint. He didn’t need naysayers, not today. Not any day.

…….“Doctor Fischer?” said Melissa, with her characteristic sharp tone meant to snap him out of a reverie. “The guard at Mulberry Gate called. They’ve just passed security and will be at  the door in ten minutes.”

…….Adelmo nodded. “Good. Tell Emily and Jasper to meet me in the lab.”

…….“And Scott?”

…….Adelmo scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I saw an email from Receiving that the new spectrometer is here. Tell Scott to conduct a receiving inspection. If all looks good, have him coordinate with Logistics to have it installed. They’ll know where it goes.”

…….“Very good,” Melissa said, spinning on her heel to exit. He liked Melissa. When she started, she had been sloppy and undisciplined, but he’d molded her into the perfect assistant. She could predict his needs and knew how to aggressively block his calendar. He wished he could have two more just like her.

…….Three enormous black SUVs turned the corner and lumbered up the drive. Paper signs marked three reserved parking spots, and in well-coordinated fashion, the vehicles parked then men in dark suits poured from the flanking vehicles. Major Brody Jones, chief aide to the general, slid out of the center vehicle and smoothed the front of his uniform slacks. With aching joints and an air of fatigue, five-star General Max Emerson emerged from the vehicle, found his footing, and strode with purpose toward the building’s front door as security flanked in around him.

…….“You watching the time, Jones?”

…….“Yes, General.”

…….“Expectations are low.”

…….“Yes, General.”

…….“What’s the kook’s name?”

…….“Fischer, sir. Doctor Adelmo Fischer.”


…….“Yes, sir.”


…….“Yes, sir.”

…….The general grunted with a nod as Jones opened the door to allow him to enter. “Welcome, General Emerson. Right this way.” Melissa said as she badged them into three different doors down the long corridor, noticing that at each doorway, one or two of the security crew peeled off and stood to the side. She’d seen her fair share of dignitaries, and this level of security meant the General was somebody important. She’d done research and had been unable to find any information about him, not even a press release when the Army made him a five-star. She called in a few favors with trusted insiders and still came up with nothing. The General was a ghost with good security; she had a pretty good idea what that meant.

…….Adelmo delivered a brief discussion of his research in a dumbed-down way for laypersons. He gave the General the same talk he’d delivered to a visiting class of eighth-graders last week. He had about the same level of respect for the military that he did for eighth-graders. Well, that wasn’t quite true. Eighth graders could still turn into something useful. Army generals were beyond hope.

…….“What you are about to see is highly confidential. This work is groundbreaking, and we need to protect it at all costs. Is that understood?”

…….The General fixed Adelmo with a hard stare and pointed to the stars on his collar, saying, “You think I’m a security risk?”

…….“What about them?” he said, pointing to the others in the room.

…….The General turned to his staff. “Only Jones and me—the rest of you stay here.”

…….The black suits nodded and took a step back.

…….“Proceed,” said the General.

…….Adelmo led the two men into his inner sanctum. Other than his own team, no one had visited the special lab, not even the director of his own institution. He was both excited and nervous.

…….“General Emerson, I’d like to introduce you to two very talented scientists. Doctor Emily Jorgensen and Doctor Jasper Schultz. They have been integral to this work.”

…….The General shook hands, saying, “Let’s get to it. I’m on a tight schedule.”

…….“Absolutely,” Adelmo said, then led the way to the area with four chambers.

…….“Is that a lamb?” the General asked.

…….“Yes, chamber one is a lamb, chamber two is a piglet, three a calf, and four a fawn. We found these species to be the best test subjects.”

…….“What exactly am I seeing here?”

…….“In rough terms, what you see is an artificial uterus. This clear sac is made from a polycarbonate blend that is both soft and flexible. The envelope is filled with electrolytes that mimic amniotic fluid. The balance of minerals in the fluid varies slightly by species, but we’ve become very good at tuning that in. The umbilical cord is attached to this specially designed mechanism that provides nutrition. These monitors regulate the environment. Movement is normal and exactly as the fetus would do in the womb. You can see the calf is taking practice breaths of the amniotic fluid. We’ve grown twenty such animals, which are thriving and virtually indistinguishable from animals born from a mother’s wombs.”

…….“Fascinating. And what about humans?”

…….“We see no reason why this wouldn’t work with humans, but as you know, the governance for human trials is quite rigorous. Approval takes two years to attain, at a minimum.”

…….“What if you had both the money and approval to begin human trials immediately?”

…….“It would depend on the expectations of the research, but I would have no problem beginning right away.”

…….Emily and Jasper glanced at each other, then at Jones, then down at the floor. 

…….“Jones, why don’t you take these two outside and discuss schedules?”

…….“Yes, General,” he said, leading Emily and Jasper from the room. Once the door closed, General Emerson fixed Adelmo with a rheumy-eyed stare.

…….“Here’s the truth: the Army needs soldiers. Kids are no longer signing up in the numbers they used to, but it’s more than that. The Army supports the Space Force in their long-term missions. We’ve found evidence of life-sustaining planets well outside our solar system, far enough away that using current flight technology, a twenty-year-old would be an elderly man by the time they arrive. I want to outfit our ship with several of your gizmos. Through a third party, we’ve quietly bought a bankrupt cryogenics facility and taken ownership of a large inventory of embryos. We have enough embryos to create a whole army many times over, but we need a way to grow them. The plan looks like this: we outfit our capsule with these chambers and a few people to run these things. We have a rolling plan of growing new soldiers to be trained by the older humans, and they in turn farm and train the next generation. By the time we arrive at our destination, we should have a wide range of soldiers of various ages and training to support any hostile conflicts. If the planet is populated, we take it by force. If the planet is uninhabited, we build a colony. Your science fosters exploration. What do you say?”

…….Adelmo thought about it. “There are logistics to work out.”

…….“Of course.”

…….“And compensation.”

…….“Money is not an issue.”

…….“For you, perhaps.”

…….“Let me have a few moments to discuss figures with Jones, okay?”

…….“Why don’t you and Major Jones use the breakroom? Help yourselves to any food and beverages you find.”

…….“Most accommodating. Thanks.”

…….“Certainly. Right this way.”

…….Adelmo shooed away his postdocs and sent Melissa to her desk in reception. Alone, he stood on the X and listened, scribbling notes and formulating a plan.

…….“I was prepared to be disappointed, but this is good,” said the General. “We need to lock this down. What do we have in our war chest?”

…….“Our line item from Congress looks to be 82 million, sir. We carried over 25 million. If the President signs the budget, we’re just over a hundred. We operate on sixty or so and can allocate as much as forty for this, but I suggest offering ten and seeing where this goes. If we spend twenty it would still be a bargain.”

…….“Let me see what I can do.”

…….“Say, Addy, let’s go back to your lab. I want to look at those chambers again.”

…….“Of course, follow me.”

…….The General closed the door behind them and got straight to the point. “Man to man, I can use this. What do we need to get to work?”

…….“Before we talk numbers, I need to show you another part of my research. It’s over here.”

…….“I just want to lock this down,” said the General.

…….“You’ll want to see this. Not even my assistants know about it.”

…….Adelmo took a key out of his pocket, unlocked the cover over a number pad, punched in a sequence, then used another key from a chain around his neck to unlock the door.

…….The sealed room inhaled as the door swung open. Adelmo turned on a light switch, and the General followed him inside. As the General looked around his eyes went wide.

…….“Using a similar technology to the artificial uterus, I am able to tweak the amniotic fluid in a certain way to suspend life.”

…….Under his breath, the General muttered, “…six, eight, ten… You’ve got a dozen adult humans in here. Who are they?”

…….“General, I think this technology might fit your plan. Imagine training a twenty-year-old Special Forces soldier, suspending them in my chambers, and releasing them exactly when needed. We grow your army inflight and use these chambers to preserve the best of the best to lead the fresh troops.”

…….The General looked from chamber to chamber. “You can reanimate them? Fully? With no decrement to brain or physical power?”


…….“No loss of memory or physical ailments?”

…….“No. It’s as if they go back into the womb in a suspended state and are reborn intact. Just as needed.”

…….“It’s genius.”

…….“I have one last thing to show you.”

…….“There can’t be more!”

…….“Through here, General.”

…….They entered a room located in the corner that was the size of a small closet. There, under a focused spotlight, was what looked like an ordinary 3D printer.

…….The General looked at Adelmo with a shrug. “I know what that is, son.”

…….“Of course, but I am a genetics and matter specialist. I have modified this 3D printer. It will create anything you want.”

…….“I fail to see how this–”

…….“No need to carry food or water or any provisions when it can be created on the printer. There would also be no need to carry spare parts as this easily creates duplicates. Any mineral. Any metal. Anything. Only minimal resources are needed to feed the printer. It will transform, replicate, duplicate, and expand simple matter. For a flight as long and critical as you describe, I suggest three units, two running fully operational and one backup. General, you can transport already trained forces, create new soldiers, and feed and outfit them all in a space the size of this small lab. That has to be worth something.”

…….The General stepped backward into the room with the human chambers and ran tallies in his head. He tapped his fingers, adding and subtracting numbers. It was perfect.

…….“What’s it going to take to close this deal?”

…….“It won’t be cheap.”

…….“No, I imagine not.”

…….“Money, of course. But I need assurances.”

…….“Go on.”

…….“Money, freedom from liability of any sort,” he said, nodding to the bodies in chambers.

…….The General’s face remained passive.

…….“And a Nobel. I’ll write up in what; you make the award happen. This year.”

…….“That’s it?”

…….“A lot of money, indemnification, and a Nobel. That’s it.”

…….“Pending negotiation of the dollars, Doctor, you have a deal.”

…….The two men shook hands and the General left.

…….Adelmo smiled to himself. He had found the perfect application of his life’s work.

…….He walked over to Chamber 12, the newest subject, and looked at the male human inside while devices pumped life-sustaining fluid.

…….“And you see, Scott? That is why you never question my methods. I am always right.”

…….Adelmo opened the sealed door, turned off the light, and turned back over his shoulder to look into the room.




…….Born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth writes work colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico and complemented by an evolving urban aesthetic. Now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, when she’s not writing, shooting photography, or painting, she works as a procurement manager for a research laboratory. Karen can be found online at

Karen Fayeth

Fiction Feature: “Broken Skin” by Sudha Balagopal

When I wear shorts, Ma says I look like an ungainly ostrich with my drumstick legs and my scarred, knobby knees.

…….“Stop running,” Ma shouts from the window when she hears my feet on the concrete outside. “It’s not feminine. You’ll wake the baby with that thumping.”

…….She believes girls should pursue arts because she’s a classical dancer. Earrings like inverted umbrellas swing from her ears; anklets tinkle when she walks.

…….My little sister, Choti, studies the ridges on my corrugated knees. She can see images in the scored remnants of injuries: arc of the moon, zigzag of lightning.

…….I can sprint faster than my classmate Amy who wears short-shorts, a red baseball cap on her yellow hair, and has legs like marble pillars. 

…….When I beat her at practice, she says I won because her stomach hurt. “You’ll never win the actual race.”

…….After PE, she gives our teacher an open-mouthed smile so wide I can see the cavities in her molars. “Mr. Brown, I want to improve my speed. Can you help?” she asks.

Pa signs the permission slip for Sports Day. He drops us―Choti and me—at school, says he cannot stay because of work. I tell him I understand. I’ve learned to lie, saying one thing and feeling another. 

…….We live in a two-room converted apartment at the motel, a perk Pa says comes with his job as manager. Our uncle owns the motel. 

…….When we arrived from India three months ago, Ma said, “For this, we came to America? To live in a motel?”

…….Now she says, “For this, we came to America? To have you run in a parking lot?” 

…….Ma’s smile has disappeared. She sleeps hours and still looks tired. “Having a baby is like having an earthquake in your body,” she says.

I jog in place to warm up. 

…….Amy’s red baseball cap sits like a crown on her yellow hair. 

…….Parents whoop and yell from the sidelines. They carry banners, balloons, placards, even pompoms. They hug and high-five their children. 

…….Choti is my one-girl cheer squad. She jumps high and screams, “Go, Didi, go!”

…….When Mr. Brown sounds his whistle, I dash as fast as I can, mouth open, breath pumping. 

…….I race―nose leaking, legs burning―until, out of nowhere, a baseball cap comes flying and hits my shin. I take a sidestep, wobble, then collapse into a heap on the track, skinning knees and elbows. 

…….Amy’s way ahead.

…….“No!” I scramble, rise, ignore the bleeding, the throbbing. 

…….At the finish line, Choti tells me, “That was Amy’s cap.”

…….The judges say Amy was ahead by a big margin. “There’s no doubt she won.”

…….Mr. Brown pats me on the back. “Now, now, this is about learning sportsmanship, right? Amy won fair and square. Go, congratulate her.”

…….At home, Ma looks at my legs, says, “You know why girls shouldn’t run? You end up with ugly knees.”

…….Choti applies antibiotic cream on the broken skin. “These will bloom into waterfalls,” she says.


Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Pidgeonholes, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the novel A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize and is listed in the Wigleaf top 50.

Fiction Feature: “Good Night, Pandemic PE Class” by Greg Oldfield

Good morning, bleary eyes and bed heads and pajama tops. Are we ready to share a wonderful day? 

Good morning, Melania’s blank screen. Hello, Melania’s dad, yelling at her to eat her breakfast. 

Hey, there’s Thomas and his shirtless older brother in the background blending a smoothie. 

Hi, Clare. That was a fantastic eye-roll when I mentioned we’d be doing another living room workout. 

Whoa, look at Kevin’s fingers jolt that video game controller. It’s great to see your fine motor skills improving with all that practice. 

Isn’t Justin’s effort exemplary? He submitted his post-workout assignment two minutes after class began. 

Good morning, first graders, showing your loose teeth with soggy breakfast cereals and mushed eggs wedged in between. 

Thank you, Rebecca, for boosting our creative brains as we imagine where those boogers are going after you’ve dug them out so well. 

Shine bright, Evan’s mesmerizing green light that he’s pointing into the camera. 

Hello, Mason. Way to unmute your microphone to make wet fart noises so that everyone else can join the concerto for the next five minutes. 

Excellent teamwork, class, in playing a game of mute-unmute until I finally scream, “You have to turn your mics off!”

Good morning, third period. Hello, Harry’s babysitter, chowing down a Chick-fil-A sandwich. Does everyone see how her molars grind that chicken and buttered bun? 

Hi there, Jackson. Are you drinking your chocolate milkshake again? I love the way you take powerful slurps before we start our warm-up routine.

Hello, shy Evan. I’m amazed at how comfortable you are expressing yourself on the chat, typing the Caillou theme song verbatim for all of us to read.

Haven’t seen you in a while, Mikayla. It’s wonderful to hear your mom telling someone else in the room that these worthless teachers drive her insane. 

Keep playing, Clarissa. You are having quite the session with your dolls. I can envision all the magical worlds you’re building.


Good afternoon, second graders. Hey, John, that body slam on your brother was sensational. Great use of leverage and power in finishing TJ all the way into the floor. Oh, and clever comeback, TJ, the way you whipped those headphones like a cowboy lassoing a steer.

Jump away, Grace, doing backflips on your springy trampoline. We’re holding plank stands, but your tuck and landing were tremendous. 

There’s Lucas again. Your third costume change is my favorite. The scary wolf mask with pointed ears and bloody fangs appear so real it made Christopher and Sophia cry.

Look at Tasia’s body control as she stares into the camera as if frozen in time.

Isn’t it cute to see Penelope chasing her shaggy dog around the house, trying to get her stolen socks back?


Good afternoon, fifth period. Hello, orange and yellow leaves and bright blue skies. It’s nice to see Sarah, Lacy, and Kensie having loads of fun playing tag across the playground equipment in Sarah’s backyard instead of joining our lesson. 

Rest your eyes, Suzy. You look warm and cozy under fluffy covers with a stuffed bear tucked under one arm.

Watch out, Jason, walking a tightrope across the top of the couch. So dangerous and exhilarating.

Good work, Kyle, unmuting and telling the class you finished your push-ups. That book you’ve been reading at your desk the whole time must be so tantalizing. 

Bon voyage, Sam, riding in the backseat of a car with trees whipping past the rear window. Are you going on an adventure?

Good night, disgruntled parent, with your lengthy email offering suggestions on how I can do a better job. 

Good night, fellow teacher, asking why your students are leaving our meeting one minute early.

Good night, computer, running updates for hours and smelling like burning circuits.

Good night, empty wine bottle, shimmering in the grass under the moonlight. 

Good night, pandemic PE class, thank you for sharing a wonderful day.


Greg Oldfield is a physical education teacher and coach from the Philadelphia area. His stories have appeared in Hobart, Carve, X-R-A-Y, and The Daily Drunk, among others. He also writes about soccer for the Brotherly Game and the Florida Cup and can be found on Twitter at @GregOldfield21.

Exclusive Fiction Feature: “Asian Me” by Deborah S. Prespare

…….My plane leaves at 6:00 a.m. It’s 2:30 a.m., the same time I woke up the past three mornings—no alarm needed. The meetings I’d flown in for started at 9:00 a.m. each day. The days usually wrapped around 5:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m. back at home, the time I’d be getting into my pajamas and watching TV with my husband. My body likes routines. My body isn’t happy now. My neck stiff, I sit up and stretch my arms. At least my not acclimating to the time change is paying off now with my early flight.

…….I snap on the bedside lamp. The hotel room isn’t bad, but it isn’t superb either. The carpet and curtains are a matching drab gray. The upholstery on the armchair, also in a shade of gray, needs a deep cleaning. The desk and dresser have the usual signs of wear—scratches, dings, and watermarks. The shower is nice, though. I adjust the water temperature. The white subway-tiled floor and walls of the shower are clean. The showerhead is massive and produces a high-pressure rainfall that I know I can lose time under, so I focus on the tasks at hand—wash and rinse, and rinse a little more. 

…….Showered, dressed, and with my suitcase packed, I open the curtains for a last look at the city. The shower and the view—these are the high notes for this hotel. San Francisco stretches out below me. When I checked in, I wasn’t thrilled to be up so high—33rd floor—in earthquake country, but the view is something. The sun hasn’t come up yet, so I can’t make out the bay, but the city and bridge lights more than compensate for the night-obscured water and hills. 

…….Fortunately, there haven’t been any quakes during this trip. Not yet, at least. Thinking there’s no need to press my luck, I grab my suitcase and do one more visual sweep of the room to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.

…….The hallway is quiet. An ice machine hums. The elevator, which was slow and packed every other time I used it, is quick and empty now. I check out with no issue. The man at the counter says there’s no need to call for a car. He assures me there are cabs at this hour. 

…….I stand inside the hotel’s entrance and look through its glass doors. A few cars pass by. No cabs, though. I step outside and look up and down the street. Homeless people, some in clusters, some slumbering solo, line the sidewalk in both directions. A homeless man shouts from under his stained blanket, “Go back to your country!” 

…….I step back inside the hotel and launch a rideshare app on my phone. My driver, Alexei, will be arriving in four minutes. He’s right on time. When I wheel my bag outside, Alexei, an older man, gets out of the car, favoring his right leg. He doesn’t look well enough to be lifting things, so I tell him I can manage my suitcase, but he waves me back. Taking hold of my bag, he grips the rim of the car’s trunk with his other hand to brace himself and manages to hoist the suitcase up. I can’t help myself. I lean in to help.

…….He thanks me, his words heavy with what sounds like a Russian accent. “Not so strong now, but you should have seen me when I was your age.” He winks and closes the trunk. We get in the car, and he looks at his phone mounted on the dash. “To the airport?”

…….I tell him yes and give him my airline, then we’re off. We pass the huddles of homeless people on this street and pass more slumbering bodies—some lying down, others sleepwalking through drug-glazed dreams—on the streets leading out of the city. If I were down and out, San Francisco, with its beautiful year-round weather, would be where I’d want to end up too.

…….“I like driving at this time,” he says. “It’s peaceful.” 

…….I agree with him. The highway is empty. We’ll make it to the airport in no time. I’ll be able to find something to eat, get some coffee, and have ample time to relax before boarding starts. Maybe I’ll even look for a new paperback for the flight. Being a nervous flier, I like to indulge in brain-candy-type books on flights, books meant to help pass the time, not necessarily to illuminate. My brain, having to reconvince itself with every bout of turbulence or loud mechanical whir that flying is safe, has no capacity on flights to learn anything new. 

…….I look up and see Alexei glancing at me through the rearview mirror. I know what he’s doing. Him being a white man, I ready myself to answer his questions. 

…….He asks if I had a nice trip. I tell him I did, and I wait. He asks if the temperature is okay. I tell him it is, and I wait. 

…….People wonder when they see me, when they try to categorize me. Non-Asians see only Asian, but there’s something about me that makes them want to guess the type of Asian I am. Chinese is the most popular guess, followed by Japanese. I get Thai and Vietnamese too. Rarely does anyone guess the Asian half of me right—Korean. Asians wonder about me too. They wonder what sort of exotic white I might be. Maybe I’m a Spaniard or from Eastern Europe, they guess. When I explain my two sides to Asians, they seem happy to see themselves in me. When my white self is revealed to non-Asians, though, there is disbelief. There is doubt. There is only Asian me.

…….“You going home?” he asks me.

…….A veiled way of asking where I’m from. I nod, tell him I’m headed back to New York City, and wait for the usual follow-up question: But where is home really? He keeps glancing at me through the mirror. I know what he sees.

…….A white coworker, someone who called herself a friend, someone who knew of my mixed-race background, once described me as having black eyes and black hair during a lunch outing with other coworkers. I corrected her and said my eyes and hair are brown. She reminded me of my Asian background. I was the only person of Asian descent at the table. Everyone smiled at this woman’s reminder to me of who I am. I don’t know why, but I didn’t let it go. Usually, when it seems people are set on their definition of me, I laugh off their inability to see. I was tired, I guess. I told her that her eyes and hair were darker than mine, in fact. She told me that wasn’t possible. I asked her to hold her hair up to mine. Laughing, she complied. My hair was significantly lighter than hers. She was shocked. Everyone else was too. She asked me if I dyed my hair. I told her, “Yes—in the two minutes since you first said my hair was black, I dyed it.” Needless to say, we didn’t remain friends. 

…….Asians make me feel proud to be Asian. Sometimes there’s even a gloss of jealousy to their smiles when they learn that I’m part white. Growing up, I tried to make non-Asians see all of me too. As an adult, I can rationalize why I tried so hard, why I still sometimes try. Whiteness is the ideal. TV shows and movies tell us so. Books tell us so. The way non-Asians treat my Asian mom tells me so. The way I’m treated tells me so. 

…….Growing up, I wanted everyone to know that I was part of the ideal. I tried so hard to make them see. I still try, but not as earnestly. Asians see. Non-Asians, though, can’t shake their disbelief. Tired of the skepticism, I don’t offer up an explanation of me as quickly as I used to. I fight the constant urge to make them see. I make them ask their questions. I make them work to label me.

…….So I wait for Alexei to ask me where home for me is really, but the typical question doesn’t come. Instead, Alexei tells me how much he loves New York and how he spent time there with relatives as a kid. They lived in Brighton Beach. He loves Coney Island, he says. He asks me if I ever rode the roller coaster there. 

…….“The Cyclone? No way,” I say, thinking maybe he’s one of the rare ones who doesn’t need to categorize me to feel satisfied. “Roller coasters are scary, and that one—I hear it’s so rickety. It’s like almost 100 years old, right?”

…….“Old might seem weak, but we are built strong.” He chuckles. 

…….I laugh too. I wait for him to ask about me, but he continues reminiscing about Brighton Beach. Listening to him talk about the meat dumplings—pelmeni, he calls them—that his aunt used to make, I look out my window, and my eyes meet the driver of a turquoise pickup truck that is rolling by us on the highway. In this second, as the vintage-looking vehicle passes us, I register that the driver of this truck is a middle-aged white man with a red-hued face and gray eyebrows. In this second we share, he registers something about me too.

…….The truck slows until the driver is in line with my window again. The driver is looking directly at me. His eyebrows are pinched together and his face is turning an angrier red. He points at me, his finger stabbing the air. I snap my eyes forward. My mouth dries. My hands sweat.  

…….“What is this man doing?” Alexei asks. 

…….I close my eyes and grip my seatbelt’s shoulder strap. Alexei’s car surges ahead, then slows down. Alexei swears under his breath. “Crazy man,” he mutters. He taps his brakes. He switches lanes and wrenches his car back into the other lane. “Why is he doing this?”

…….What triggered this man, my racing mind wonders, but my heart is sprinting even faster, and my heart, with its rapid beats, measures the intense notes of the man’s rage and knows without a doubt why this man is doing this. Go back to your country! his furious stare screams. Go back to your country! There’s no room for misinterpretation. I know what he sees.

…….Alexei hits his horn. The man in the pickup lays on his and doesn’t let up. 

…….“Ma’am,” Alexei says, his voice shaking, “maybe you can call the police? I don’t know what this man is doing.” 

…….“Are we almost to the airport?” I manage to ask.

…….“Almost. But he won’t let me get into the lane.” Alexei slows his car down. Its horn still blaring, the truck slows down too, blocking Alexei’s attempt to get over again. “Maybe you should call the police,” Alexei repeats. “I drive. You call.”

…….This man is putting our lives in danger. Of course, I should call the police, but my head is still catching up to my speeding heart. While I understand with absolute certainty the situation I’m in, I can’t believe this is really happening. Shock, I guess, is what I’m feeling. I reach for my phone. The truck jerks into our lane. 

…….“Ma’am?” Alexei pleads as he hits the gas to speed out of the way. 

…….I nod and unlock my phone. Another car approaches us on the left. The driver hits the horn a few times, and the pickup truck races ahead, as if those short blasts of warning from an outsider, a witness, break a hex. Alexei sighs. I put my phone away, thinking I probably should still call the police, but my mind is reeling. Did we really just experience that? I can’t believe it, but I know we did. Alexei switches lanes, and we exit.

…….“Never in my years,” Alexei says.

…….I can’t speak. My Asianness is usually the cause of ignorant assumptions or curiosity. How many times have people thought I was lying or being rude when I said I didn’t speak Chinese or Japanese? How many times have people been amazed that I speak English so well? And math questions—don’t even get me started. This racism, although not subtle, has always stayed in the realm of ignorant politeness (even if feigned) before today. This racism was always something I could shrug off. This racism was nothing compared to the American Indian or Black experience, so who was I to complain? 

…….But now? I take a deep breath. I can’t just shrug it off. Never has such fury been directed at me. I take more deep breaths to calm myself. 

…….Alexei stops the car in front of the terminal. We get out, and I help him heave my suitcase out of the trunk. This is usually when I’d make a joke about how I need to stop bringing my whole closet with me. I can’t joke now, though. Alexei’s hands are shaking.

…….“I’m glad you were driving,” I say to him. “You really handled…that well.” His careful driving, I feel in my bones, saved us.     

…….He nods and closes the trunk. He hesitates. A tear forms in his eye. He’s in shock too. It isn’t enough anymore. The thought persists. It isn’t enough anymore. It isn’t enough anymore for Asians to serve as caricatures for poking fun at. It isn’t enough anymore to remind us that we aren’t white. It isn’t enough anymore to shout at us to go back to our countries, even though, for many of us, this is the only country we’ve ever known. My eyes well. I don’t mean to start crying. 

…….He hugs me and pats my back. “You are okay,” he says.

…….“Thank you.” 

…….He squeezes my shoulder. “Everything will be okay.”

…….“Thank you,” I repeat, wiping my eyes.

…….His eyes glistening, he nods. “Just give me five stars, and we’ll call it even.” He laughs softly.

…….I laugh too. He gives my shoulder another squeeze and gets in his car. Seeing him drive off, I feel like I’m watching decency slip away. I tell myself I’m being overdramatic. I tell myself there are still plenty of good people in this world. I take another deep breath, wipe my eyes again, and roll my suitcase inside. 

…….As I head to the luggage drop-off point, I’m asked if I speak English by a man trying to figure me out. An ignorant question or a dagger in disguise? After seeing the hate in that pickup driver’s eyes, how can I not think that the questions are meant to wound? I pretend like I don’t understand him and keep rolling toward security. I’m asked where I’m from by an older woman while I’m waiting for a stall to free up in the bathroom. Pretending I don’t speak English again, I look through my purse for nothing in particular. In the terminal, a kid laughs at me and mimics an Asian language—ching chong chang. The boy’s parents don’t rebuke him. They laugh and tug him down the corridor. The questions and mocking of Asian languages—all of this is not new, but it all feels more insidious now. 

…….I refill my reusable water bottle. I look at the paperbacks on a newsstand display. Nothing seems appealing. I think to forgo my usual brain-candy, but it’s going to be a long flight with bumps and whirs and the turbulence in my own mind over what just happened. I need a distraction. I settle on a thriller labeled a New York Times bestseller. It has to be decent, I tell myself, if it sold so many copies. I buy the book, a coffee, and a bag of almonds. I’m far from hungry, but it’s a long way home.

…….I sit down outside my gate. I remove the lid from my coffee and hold the steaming cup under my nose. The good things—I focused on them before and I will focus on them now. The smell of coffee. My husband, who makes me laugh until it hurts. My parents. My siblings. My friends. The happy gatherings we have. Even this trip had its moments—we got the project done, and the view from the hotel was something to marvel at. 

…….I blow on my coffee and carefully sip from it. Feeling calmer, my mind tries to rationalize things again. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe that guy was mad about something else. Maybe Alexei wasn’t as good a driver as I think. Maybe he cut the guy off and that was what triggered him. I think these things, but my heart knows what it knows.

…….A commercial for cold medicine ends on the wall-mounted TV by the gate. A news anchor stares into the camera with deathly seriousness. He tells us viewers that he has breaking news. A dangerous virus has been identified in China. The news anchor works in “China” as much as he can. Every fourth word, it seems, is “China.” Talking heads pop up and share the screen with the news anchor. They discuss the horrors of wildlife markets and how they must be the source of the disease. (The way they’re talking, it seems these markets are the source of all disease.) The images of the markets flashing across the screen are repulsive, but there isn’t anything appealing about the American industrialization of meat production either, I think. As I listen to them talk, I remember reading somewhere that the Spanish Flu originated in Kansas. Pig farms along birds’ migratory paths—key ingredients for a disaster.

…….Trying to remember what I read about the Spanish Flu, hoping that what I’m watching on TV right now is just hype, I breathe in my coffee and wonder if I should buy some more hand sanitizer before boarding the flight. I look in my purse. My hand sanitizer bottle is still a quarter full. I notice now that the man sitting across from me is looking at me. I know Asian—thanks to the TV, Chinese specifically—and disease are all he sees. 

…….I sigh and close my purse. Sipping from my coffee, I don’t feel the usual urge to convince him that I’m not what he sees. I don’t need him to know that he’s got my Asian half wrong. There is no wrong. If we’re all the same in their minds, that’s fine with me. I don’t care anymore. And more importantly, I don’t need him to know that I’m half white. I don’t want to be associated with an ideal that can generate the kind of hate that the man driving the pickup truck showed me, the kind of simmering disgust I’m seeing on the TV right now. This man, his eyes darting from the TV to me, collects his things and moves to another row of seats. I sip from my coffee, thinking that’s fine with me.


Deborah S. Prespare lives in Brooklyn. She completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell College and received an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Menda City Review, Potomac Review, Red Rock Review, Soundings East, Third Wednesday, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and elsewhere.

Exclusive Fiction Feature: “Concrete” by Isaiah Frederick

…….You ever seen a wave of middle school kids just rushing to one place? It wasn’t a normal sight in the kind of middle school I was in. The craggy concrete would punish any victim that fell fast enough. The band-aid on my hand was a reminder of that. Yet when a football was brought around us, my aching hand was suddenly a distant memory. It’s not like we played the actual sport. Most of us couldn’t comprehend all the rules of football. It was more of a game of catch and tag, the person with the football was it, and thus the wave of middle schoolers targeted one person. 

…….I was never the fastest kid around the playground. I was relegated to the middle of the pack, pushing and bumping into other kids on occasion. I had no chance of catching the guy in the front. He was easily seen over the crowd of 6th graders. He was so tall I couldn’t imagine he was in the same grade as me. He wore a black snapback with the NYC logo on the front, like most Brooklyn kids did. I left mine inside. I had a knack for losing it. Our thirty-minute recess went by pretty quickly, this one especially, and we were back in the main building stairwell. This crowded stairwell usually forced you to move, but this time I had a reason to stand still. 

…….That same kid, tall, dark caramel skin just like mine, his hair kind of long by our standards, but in reality, it was short, dense, curly hair. Most of the kids our age looked the same. We had a dress code. Black pants and white shirt, usually polo styled, and honestly, he didn’t stand out. That is, he was probably one of the tallest kids in the school, and the look on his face—everyone looked a bit hardened, you had to be to survive here, but his expression—wasn’t an act of any kind. His brow had a natural furrow, his eyes open low, and his mouth called out to me. I stood there, looking down from halfway up the staircase, just standing there. 

…….It was mostly confusion, but also shock, I hadn’t ever spoken to this kid before. He had his snapback in his hand, except it was torn. The brim was hanging off the corner of the crown by the last of its stitches, almost severed off. He said it calmly. 

…….“You ripped my hat.” 

…….I was confused. I remembered slipping on some things, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t stumbled before. I didn’t know if I did or didn’t, so I simply apologized. 

…….“Oh sorry.” 

…….“Nah you gotta pay for it. You ripped my hat.” 

…….I didn’t know what to think. He didn’t yell, he didn’t curse, he was still around people, almost cordial, but you could tell by his look, a look that you’ve only seen when the men at the corner store would ask you to buy them a snack, it wasn’t really asking, rather it was a gaze that told me there would be consequences. So the soft sixth-grade kid who was standing halfway up the staircase looked down at the boy and said, “Ok I gotchu how much is it?”

…….“Thirty dollars, I need it soon”
…….“Alright, man.” 

…….But in my head, I knew I couldn’t get thirty dollars. I didn’t have a job, an allowance was something my parents didn’t even take seriously, they always said that an allowance was the house I was living under. I only said what I said because I knew I was scared. He knew it too. I just wanted to leave that situation. And after that, it’s exactly what I did, I turned around, and took my behind right up that staircase to my class. 

…….Nobody in my class had heard the conversation. Part of me didn’t even take it seriously, I never saw that kid outside of recess, and even then it was rare at that. So I just let it go. No need to worry right? He was a kid, just like me. 

…….A week had passed, and I hadn’t seen him. He was out of my mind. The music room was a commonplace I went to during lunch at times, my teacher was a bit harsh but loved music, and he put me on the saxophone, the tenor one. I had gone here to try out different instruments, play my tenor, or maybe talk to the other kids in there. Funnily enough, though, I was alone today. There was nobody else in the room. A tall kid and his friend walked past the door. Lo and behold, it was that guy again. This time his friend had mentioned his name, same as that one cat in the looney tunes, Sylvester. 

…….“You got my money.” He was laughing with his friend while telling me this. At this point, I kinda took it as a joke 

…….“Maaan I’m in 6th grade I don’t got thirty dollars.” 

…….The laughter started dying out. 

…….“Ask your parents or something, but you better have that money for me.”
…….A silence. He smirked a little with his friend. 

…….“Man, if you don’t get me my money… Imma shoot you.” 

…….His friend was hysterical. 

…….Maybe it had been a joke, maybe he wasn’t serious, but I know the look on my face expressed horror so much that his friend put his hand on my shoulder, almost like we were best buddies. 

…….“You don’t believe this man actually about to shoot you right?”  

…….“No Ima do it, get that money for me.” 

…….They were both still there, damn near in tears laughing. Just laughing. 

…….Later that night I was almost in tears too, I never thought it could go this far. The fear in me didn’t care about if it was a joke or not, all I could think about was the word ok, and how it started this all. The emotions I tried to hide from my parents caused so much stress, stress that trumped the embarrassment that came from telling my father. I still told my mother first. My face burying deep into her stomach as her hug was comforting me. A conversation I never thought would happen, I was telling my mom I was afraid to die, that I didn’t want to get shot. She was the best comfort I ever had, her warm embrace never failed to calm me down. Yet she called for my dad. To my surprise, he had empathized with me too. He didn’t get mad at the actions I took. He simply informed me on how to make it better. My parents were born and raised in Brooklyn. My dad in particular had a dangerous childhood. His fists were calloused ever since he was small, his attitude even more. He saw life go by before his eyes and when he looked at me, he looked at me in my eyes, into my soul, as if he was well too acquainted with this situation. 

…….“Listen very closely,” he said. My tears dried as soon as he spoke. My hopes rose as his next words would surely solve my dilemma. “When you’re walking to school tomorrow, I want you to pick up a rock and keep it with you. Then if he presses you out, I want you to say this.” My eyes were wide in shock as I listened to his next words. “Say: You’re not getting any FUCKING money, then throw the rock at his head, and don’t miss.”  

…….My mother said nothing. I couldn’t believe the words I was hearing. Throwing a rock at his head could surely kill, yet here my dad was, telling me to end this boy, and what was I to do? 

…….At this point, there was no other solution. My parents wouldn’t dare pay that kid. This was my father’s tried and true method. To him, it was foolproof. 

…….“Ok.” And that was all I could say. He made me repeat the phrase, and I’d be lying if it didn’t boost my confidence a little, but mostly, it was building up my resolve. There was no going back. 

…….The next day in the cafeteria, Sylvester came up to me again.
…….“So where my money”
…….Suddenly, my mind echoed that phrase, knowing what would happen. I needed to steel myself, I was angry at the fact that I was scared, that this grief was caused by a hat, that I had let it go this long, and that there was no other option than this or being a snitch. My lips quivered, my voice a bit shaky, but I furrowed my brow, looked him in the eye, and mustered the deepest voice a sixth-grader could. 

…….“You’re not getting any FUCKING money.” 

…….He looked at me, then looked to the side, and chuckled. He moved closer toward me, almost to hide it in front of the cafeteria aids, and delivered a blow to my guts. It wasn’t full force, and I could tell, but my adrenaline flowed. I pushed him away and stood up then pushed him again. He didn’t try to fight back, but now the cafeteria was lively. It was now or never. 

…….So I charged at him. 

…….And then I got demolished. It happened so fast I couldn’t even tell you how it happened, except at one point I got launched into a lunch table. The cafeteria aids felt bad for me. I barely got questioned and got sent back to class. I couldn’t talk to anyone, the embarrassment overwhelmed me, but to my surprise, my classmates were just awestruck. Sylvester wasn’t just intimidating to me, he was known as someone not to fight. My classmates respected me for doing such a stupid act. 

…….After that day, I never saw Sylvester again. Maybe winning that fight had worse consequences. 


Isaiah Frederick studies psychology at Towson University. His passion is writing—especially poetry—and his goal is to immerse others in his work.


Fiction Feature: “Alien Storytellers Make Contact” by Andrew Gretes

The aliens were disappointing. We expected spaceships and ray guns and creatures with heads the shape of lightbulbs. We got humans—some called them “humanoids” because it sounded more exotic—wearing trenchcoats glazed with wormhole debris. Mostly, they emerged out of storm-drains and toilets and computer screens. 

Smiling, terribly affable, the aliens claimed that they too came from Earth. We groaned. What was human history but the story of earthlings invading other earthlings? How cliché. We were so tired of invading ourselves. 

But there was one consolation. The aliens weren’t from our Earth, which made the invasion less of a repetition, more of a rhyme. Apparently, there were Counter-Earths: i.e., countless parallel blue dots that all occupied the same mesh of space-time. As one alien explained the matter: “It’s kind of like how ghosts might all inhabit the same blanket…” 

They were storytellers. Or so they said. It was hard to verify. They didn’t utter an anecdote, let alone a nice zigzagging plot… you know, one of those tales that might score a nine on the Narrative-Richter scale. No, our aliens were far more interested in eavesdropping than beginning sentences with “Once upon a time…” The aliens propped their feet on our couches and binge-watched Netflix and Disney+ and took notes in tattered journals and said, “Look at the verticality on that cliffhanger!” and “What plottery!” 

The invasion showed no signs of letting up. Week after week, aliens emerged out of manholes and chimneys and stained-glass windows and, well, anything remotely mouth-shaped. 

Pretty soon, nations divvied up the aliens and even small towns got their very own extraterrestrial diplomat. It was all the rage. 

Naturally, our native storytellers were a bit miffed. Their emotional pendulums swung from envious to desperate. Some well-known authors even broke into stranger’s houses, hid inside pantries, and crawled out when it was dinnertime, saying, “Greetings!” pretending that they too were bards from another dimension. These tactics were typically rebuffed with comments like, “False alarm, it’s just Stephen King…” or “Honey, stop recording, it’s only Joyce Carol Oates…again.”   

But as time went on, we felt gypped. The aliens seemed to have no intention of regaling us with wondrous tales of adventure and heartbreak and derring-do. All they cared about was frequenting our public libraries and lounging in our movie theaters as they survived on a diet of Milk Duds and Pepsi and popcorn. 

Our expectations plummeted. What began as… That year we made contact with aliens and the secrets of the universe unfurled like a cosmic flower… quickly degenerated into… That year aliens showed up and plagiarized our best-sellers. 

We even thought about exchanging our aliens, but we could find no return policy in the collars of their trenchcoats. 

Finally, as a last resort, we said, “Okay, well, what would these aliens say if they ever deigned to tell a story?” 

Everyone had an answer. Pretty soon, contests sprang up and speculative fiction sold out like never before. As the aliens remained mum, we studied them like humanoid-shaped landscapes and sketched their stories. 

“I bet this one comes from a version of Earth where some people work as ‘human cup-holders’ and accompany people on long drives, holding their beverages and discussing the weather and the meaning of life…”

“I bet this one comes from a version of Earth where you’re required to disseminate an instruction manual on how to ‘use’ you in order to prevent miscommunication and intimacy problems …”

The aliens encouraged us. They smiled and said “Well imagined!” and “Very possible!” For aliens, they were incorrigibly polite. It wasn’t long before they were packing up their belongings and staging a mass exodus, hopping into a variety of holes and warping back to their own worlds.

We said, “Wait, that’s it?! After all this time, you won’t even tell us a single story?”

They looked puzzled.

We said, “You’re storytellers… well, at least nominally… don’t you tell stories?”

They said, “We just did! Millions of them.”

We said, “No, we told those stories. You just sat there and posed.”

Again, they looked puzzled.

We said, “Look, just because nature abhors a vacuum doesn’t mean the vacuum should get credit for the story that nature tells.” 

They said, “You know, that’s the oddest thing about this Earth.”


“You never give credit to the ghost-writers—the real ghost-writers—all those unsung voids and question marks and vacuums.”

“Sure, but what would those voids be without us?”

“What would you be without them?”

It was our turn to look puzzled. 

The aliens took advantage of our collective head-scratching and said, “With us, all writing credits are attributed to bafflers.”


“Those which baffle.”


Before we could justify ourselves and offer a retort to all the other judgy parallel Earths in existence, the aliens leapt into nearby craters and disappeared. 

We felt robbed. We felt accused. We felt chatty. It was like a big fat portal had been carved into our mental ice, and now there was nothing left to do but go fishing.

What did we catch? 

Well, for starters, writing credits were dramatically increased. A single author became an absurdity. Authors like “the enigma of consciousness” were tacked on to psychology books, “the conundrum of antimatter” to sci-fi novels, “the riddle of attraction” to rom-coms. Cumulonimbus clouds and daffodils were finally given credit for co-authoring William Wordsworth’s poetry, while ideas like “god-complex” and “necromancy” were given posthumous billing for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

In short, the world felt more and more like a collaboration between inspiration and inspired, and we (as perhaps the most egotistical Earth in existence) became a smudge more comfortable with opening our mouths and letting out narratives and not fussing over who was doing the telling and who was being told. 


Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in New England Review, Willow Springs, WitnessSycamore Review, and other journals.

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.

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.