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Aisles - Quinn Cataldi

Return to Sender - Lauren MacKenzie

Chinese Water Torture Cell - Valerie Massey

Victim - Nick Snow

ReLive - Samantha Spott

Strange News From Indian Country - David Stucker

Normal - Cheryl Sutton

Until It Isn’t, Anymore - Anya Welborn

Aisles by Quinn Cataldi

“Excuse me, do you know where I could find diapers or —”

“No, sorry. I think there’s a registry in aisle three that might help.” “It’s just that—”

“Sorry, it’s my first week. Aisle three is down that way,” I pointed across the store.

I had been working at Bonnie’s—a name once so full of meaning, but had since been impersonalized as a suburbanite, bulk-buyer haven—for two years. I was a professional, excelling in the mediocrity that my work demanded.

Looking at the list of employees in the break room, I might have been easy to miss. As far as stars and employee commendations went, I was dead last. On the alphabetical list of employees, I had been pushed to the bottom. My penance for disgracing the Bonnie’s name. The ideologues in management were drunk with power. They saw me as a living affront to the chipper attitude that THE JOURNEY OF THE CUSTOMER asked of us. This was the

seventy-four page packet handed down from corporate that detailed customer interaction down to the most boor-ish detail, explaining how Bonnites (their jargon for employees of Bonnie’s) how they might say ‘hello’ to customers as they walk in. The latest edition featured a new chapter: “THE PRONOUN”, warning against ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’ greetings. How disgruntled the elderly Bonnites were. That section was snuggled neatly between “BAKING AISLE: DOs & DON’Ts” and “SO YOU WANT TO STOCK EGGS?”. Managerial Bonnites read it like a Bible. Every other Monday they asked us to come in for employee meetings. Useless drivel, no doubt, but the Bonnites flocked to it as if it came from the tongue of God himself. They would read certain sections from the packet, newly added or just slightly revised ones, and talk about their experiences in the past week. Managers in states of rapture would flavor the meetings with their own Midrash, blending fact with fiction and Bonnie’s with life. Sometimes there was food.

Mostly it was just leftover bread in a rocky limbo between fresh and molded. For obvious reasons, I was often sick on those days, but the minutes were emailed with uncharacteristic promptness the same night.

I glanced up from my fiftieth re-fluffing of the pillows in the bedding department just in time to see my manager, Doltan, walking in my direction.


He bent down to pick up a fallen pillow case—packaged, as we assured customers, in the most hygienic plastic Bonnie’s had to offer—and I bolted, zigzagging through the maze of identical comforters and bed sheets. The shelves at Bonnie’s kept my cover. Like most superstores, Bonnie’s prided itself in enormity but took that enormity to new heights. Shelving towered over most aisles, the uppermost products only accessible by absurdly long hooks wielded by bodybuilder Bonnites that roamed the store.

I reached in my back pocket for the map given to me in orientation oh so many hours ago. I had surreptitiously marked it with different hiding spots throughout the store. While the ‘Bed & Bath’ section might seem a comfortable place to sprawl out, it was the most dangerous, too. There were too many areas that management could approach from, and Doltan was already close in pursuit. I went through my list of typical spots: Women’s Clothing? no, being caught napping in the clothing racks is never a good look; the Toy Department, at least this close to the holidays, would be crawling with shoppers and Bonnites alike; the Hardware Department looked to be the place to go.

“Excuse me, sir—”

I shook off another customer and continued walking.

Bonnie’s had everything. It was the golden child of hyper-consumerism and an exploding population, flaunting all of it with a fluorescent shimmer. It took fifteen minutes to maneuver across the store into Hardware. How beautiful it was. Aisle 16, my escape, was lined to the ceiling with options— garage doors, storm doors, screen doors, cat doors, and just regular doors, too. On the bottom shelf there was a carousel of doors, each inhabited (unknown to management) by rent-evading tenants. Benadryl— he was adamant that it was his given name —usually played chess with me behind door number three; the blue door was home to a burgeoning tech start-up. Disheveled, bug-eyed programmers in sweat pants and button-down shirts could be seen wandering in and out throughout the day. We maintained a mutual silence. The last door was mine, complete with Drevil’s highest end bolt lock. I napped more often than not, preferring it to the barracks in the Bonnie’s break area.

As I shut the door behind me, I saw Doltan’s foot, laced up in his white orthopedic sneakers, rounding the corner. I laid back to rest. I had since brought a blanket and pillow from B&B to rest on in my down time. I closed my eyes and dreamed a Bonnie’s dream:

Visions of bubblegums danced in my head — Sticky’s, Bubble Breaker, Mintsy. I dreamed I was somewhere in Produce, blowing the biggest bubble I had ever blown while I did stock, shuffling around boxes of Andrew’s Pudding Pops, Gonzo Beans, Catalini Spaghetti, Auntie M’s Microwavable Fish Sticks, Valhalla Avocados, Zemurray Bananas, Thistle-brand Cilantro, Thistle-brand Fresh Oregano, Bonnie-brand Cilantro, Bonnie-brand Fresh Oregano, Spagliano Tomato Sauce, Ho Chi Minh Instant Pho, Bonnie’s Non-Oxygenated Mozzarella Cheese, Goudie’s Mozzarella Cheese, Patriot Hamburgers, Sticky’s Rice, —


—I woke, only ten minutes into my nap, to the sound of my name ringing loudly. Doltan must have caved. Using the intercom was a forgotten art form, one that most avoided at

Bonnie’s. It required a level of apathetic detachment that most spend their entire lives mastering, each syllable competing for enunciated sorrow, but Doltan, that magnificent man, had it perfected at the ripe age of twenty-six. Ever since his promotion six months ago, he had been hassling me to re-straighten t-shirts for the nth time or spray down the men’s room. His nametag had been enlarged twice the size to show the word MANAGER across the top, and his ego had inflated proportionally. Disgruntled, I stepped out of my makeshift bunker into the blinding light.

“Hello, how are you, ma’am?” I said, startling the woman on the other side. Behind her, two children peered into my hovel. She pulled them close.

“Hi,” she said after a moment, “could you tell me where I might find the Bed & Bath department?”

“You know what,” I said with an air of regret, “it’s actually my first day, and I’m trying to figure that out myself. There’s a directory in aisle three if that helps at all.”

She thanked me and scooted away, her shopping cart dragging a broken wheel across the linoleum. Just as she rounded the corner, I started towards the front of the store.

Walking past the appliances, I saw some teenagers whispering to each other. A good Bonnie’s employee would step in, investigate. I kept on to register four.

Oh no. Two departments away, I spotted them: Doltan conversing with a woman whose age I would calculate in centuries rather than decades. Her floral moo moo dress stopped just short of the ground. She laughed at one of Doltan’s jokes, throwing her whole body against the wheelchair.

“Well, here he is. The man himself,” Doltan greeted me, a smug smile tacked on to his


I asked what the problem was and damn was he happy to fill me in.

“See, Angel here is doing some shopping for her family, but she has some trouble

moving around. I told her that, at Bonnie’s, we only believe in the best of service. You’re going to be pushing her around for a bit while she picks some things out.”

I told him it was alright. Not my first lie to the man, I suppose. I reached my hand out to the old woman, “Milo.”

She returned it with a firm shake, “Angel Newkirk, honey. Glad to meet ya’.”

“Well aren’t you two just the best of friends!” Dolton said, his faux enthusiasm eating away at me. “I’ll leave you to it, but if you have any questions, just let me know.”

He glared at me as I pushed away with the old woman. We were off towards Children’s Clothing for her granddaughter. In our four minute walk, I learned more than I ever thought I might know about an eight-year old.

“She likes yellow. Not what you might normally think of as yellow. A maroon kind of yellow. Something you might see in a fall catalogue. If that fails, banana laffy-taffy yellow is a second option. A creamy kind of yellow. Somewhere between light and regular yellow. Almost like butter, but don’t think of it like that. Construction worker yellow is good, too. Not that hard hat yellow, but a bright, reflective one. Neon? Is that what they’re calling it? She likes to glow at

night, my granddaughter. Sometimes she bikes laps around the neighborhood to prove that she has the endurance, more so than the boys, anyways —”

This is about where my thoughts began to wander. I glanced at a woman who had precariously stacked three televisions in her Bonniemobile. I had both the urge to caution her and to knock them all down. Caution tape yellow. That’s another one. Fifth on the granddaughter’s list if I had to guess. I started curating my own list of yellows when the old woman yelled at me to stop.

“This is the one,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “The magnum opus of yellow.”

It looked an okay yellow, I guess. She beamed, holding up a sweater with a stripe across the chest. Charlie Brown yellow, that has to be on the list.

“Is there a husband you’re shopping for?” I asked her, trying to avoid an awkward lull more than anything.

“Are you asking if I’m single?” her laughter cracked like a whip, “Shit, no, Honey. Remo died ten odd years ago. Take me to the liquor aisle, will ya.”

Grocery Department, Aisle 21. Off we were. On the way she told me about him, about Remo, Ray.

“Remo was his Italian nickname. When he came over from Italy, he couldn’t speak shit for English, and the only job he could find was in a shipyard. He’d spent three weeks learning ‘English’ with the other guys— he got pretty good, too —, only to find out that they were Poles. Hah! The bastard could speak basic Polish ‘til the day he died. God love ‘im. Eventually, he learned English, just took ‘im a few years. I told him I wouldn’t marry him until he could recite Hail Mary in English, and he did it in Polish, too, just to be funny.”

Conversations with the elderly always caught me off guard. I never knew what was appropriate to say, but she had a personality to her. “He sounds like a great guy,” I said stupidly.

“Shit, he was a piece of work. I met him at a dive off 44, somewhere long since demolished. When he asked for my hand, he couldn’t afford a wedding ring. That sumbitch got me a small hoop earring instead. Said I could wear it as an earring or an engagement ring. Have a look, Hun,” she said, tugging at her ear. An earring older than bronze dangled off her right lobe.

“It’s broken a few times since then, but I keep sending it back to the jeweler. I’ve probably since replaced the whole thing.”

“I like it, I like it,” I told her earnestly, “did you ever —”

“— here, Hun. Stop here,” she gestured towards the olives. “Can’t make a vodka martini without any olives, can we?”

“No, ma’am.”

To the liquor aisle, through the sea of muted faces, despondent shoppers. “What’s your drink, Honey?”

I told her I didn’t drink. “Don’t do much of anything.”

“That’s good. That shit’ll kill ya’, just like it did my son. I’m old enough that if anything kills me it’ll be a saving grace. Pull off that bottle from the top there. May as well celebrate while we can, right?”

“I suppose so, yeah.”

“You suppose so? Of course we should. There’s always something worthy. Always, always.”

I handed it to her. She placed it gently atop the sweater, and sat for a minute.

“If you were a bitter daughter-in-law, what kinda present would you be expecting?” “Not a damn thing,” I told her.

“Hah. I wish. Drag me on over to Home & Garden. Maybe we can get some poinsettias to kill her tabby.”

Again, we were off, the finest crew in all of Bonnie’s. Overhead, the intercom rang through the store:


Fate would have it that Appliances were on the way to the Home & Garden. “I’m jealous of you, Hun” Angel told me, unprompted.

“Why might that be?”

“Look around you,” she said with a flourish, “not that background noise you restock, but what it really is. Can you see it?”

We were approaching appliances pretty quickly when something changed. I felt hot, humid. Both Angel and I started breathing a bit slower. My head dropped; I was exhausted from pushing. I saw my arms were covered in thick beads of sweat, growing by the second. I glanced to our left. Fifteen of Honeydew’s best humidifiers (on sale for three-fifths their original price) were plugged into the back wall, humming. From the sound of it, they were all running on the highest setting. The air in the aisles surrounding them had congealed into a thin, almost imperceptible liquid. As we got closer, it became thicker and thicker. It felt as if we were floating. Angel’s earring hovered, suspended just above a dangle. She spoke for both of us, saying:

“Shit, Honey. What in sam hell we just stumble into?”

All of the boxes, stacked oh so high, were dark and damp. Irreparable, if I had to guess. Four teenagers in ripped Vans swam above our heads, cursing at us, each other, who knows. We caught our reflection in their faces, arrested somewhere between fright and excitement.

“Push me up there with them,” Angel said. I assented and kicked off.

The harder I kicked, the better the view we had. Soon enough, we were afloat in the rafters. All of Bonnie’s, those ten square acres, came into full view. The meticulously designed packaging diminished to a blur; the products themselves seemed even to move away; and the shoppers—the people, rather—were all that remained. Back in the Bed & Bath Department, a woman dozed on a bed while children swung pillows at each other. Over in the diaper aisle, a laughing couple perused their options. And a man in chunky white shoes sprinted towards us.

He stopped.

A woman had dropped a few large boxes. He bent over to pick them up, gave her a reassuring pat on the arm, and sprinted on. Just below, I heard Angel call out:

“Well I’ll be damned. Looks like I might need a towel after this!” “Don’t worry,” I yelled through the air “Bed & Bath, aisle 46!”

Return to Sender by Lauren MacKenzie

“The Mississippi River is one-Hell-of-a-something at night, ain’t it Mama?”

Every time I talked about the Mississippi as a kid, you’d think I just saw Jesus getting baptized in it. Bev never once brought me to church, always saying she’d only start reading gospel when the man upstairs put an end to Vietnam. Maybe it was the sweet lull of the summertime that made me feel a holy ghost running through me, but from June to August of 1967, I reckon I believed in a god. I didn’t know it then, but that summer was the culmination of the fifteen summers I’d spent with my legs dangling out of Bev’s mail truck, staring at the heavenly Mississippi all night with a Lucky wedged between my teeth.

“Mhmm,” Bev made a hum of agreement, the distracted type, the way a person who isn’t truly listening would hum. Her pupils were so dilated that they were eclipsing the hazel, licking the outline of each word my father had written her.

“That must be a good one,” I piped up after her murmur dissipated into the dull roar of the cicadas. “You haven’t even looked up once to see all the fireflies that are out right now.”

“Every one of ‘em is a good one, Jo,” Bev’s voice maintained its plateaued, disinterested pitch. She was too preoccupied by the sweet nothings pledged to her in cursive by John Covington, a man whose devotion to the American cause in Vietnam had forced him to abandon Neptune, Mississippi for the better part of my life. He was a carrier first and a pilot second, marrying his two passions by working in airmail. I never saw him when I was young, work keeping him in the air and keeping Bev on the line. He disappeared altogether upon being drafted to Vietnam, not even coming home once. His presence still floated through our house in the form of the occasional love letter Bev would receive from overseas. As I watched her spiral into the spectacularly obsolete, the only thing yanking her out of her depression spells was the prose from my absent father.

“How’s the memorization of that one goin’, Mama?” I leaned over her shoulder, trying to get a peek at the spells my father’s poetry was putting her under. “Am I gonna get to hear it soon?”

Bev snatched up her letter, hiding it behind her back to shelter the sacred words with her body. “Josephine, you know you’ve got a job to be doin’ right now,” She snapped at me, not mincing a single word. “I’m gonna lose you come September first. I need all the help I can get.”

I tried to suppress the exasperated sigh attempting to escape my chest. I did have a job to do, Bev’s job. I picked up the stack beside me and began sorting, giving into my temptation to watch the river every few letters, even for a moment. Looking across its rushing waters made me feel like I was at the edge of the world somehow. Suddenly, the lights on the banks of New Orleans were far away

stars and planets that I could reach out and touch. I would stretch my hands to the Milky Way back then, having full faith in the heavens that were slipping through my fingers. When I think back to life in Neptune, Mississippi, or lack thereof, that’s what I immediately remember every time. How I do miss swimming.

I worked in near silence, the only sounds underscoring my sorting being the non-human kind: the sputtering sprinkler on the lawn next door, the crackling of the radio static that dominated over the Vietnam news, and the lullaby of the Mississippi. Bev effectively broke my concentration through the sound of her bare foot meeting the radio, forcing it to choke on its stammer. “Damn thing,” She cursed it as the orange plastic toppled over, its knobs sending tin echoes reverberating off the walls as it collided with the sheet metal of the truck bed.

I peeled up the undersides of my legs from where my sweat had cemented them to the truck and pulled myself in. “Let me get it, Mama.” I coerced Bev, wrestling the radio from her. I began to troubleshoot it, tinkering with the alignment of the antenna and jamming my fingers into each of the buttons.

“Give it up, Josephine.” Bev swatted at the obstinate machine, repositioning herself at the edge of the truck and nestling up with her letter again. I flicked off the switch on the back of the radio and set it on the truck bed, sending its static to an early bedtime. Bev glanced up from her letter. “Don’t be shutting it off now.”

My legs were suspended in a mid-squat position as I went to take a seat again, halted by her instruction. “You want the static on?”

Bev’s sternly arched eyebrow made me recoil from my question. “You heard me, Josephine. Put it back on.” I hesitantly complied with her request, rising again to flip the switch. The truck was flooded with a screaming match between the static and the war talks, underscored by blindly optimistic radio jingles. “Ain’t the Mississippi enough background noise for you, Mama?”

Bev retracted her attention again, the absence in her voice prominent. “What are you rambling on about, Josephine?”

I squatted beside her, folding my legs under each other. “There’s lots of other sounds that aren’t as garish as that radio static.”

Bev snickered, still refusing to peel her eyes off the letter. “Where did you learn a word like gar-ish? Whatever the hell that means.” I winced to hear her criticism of the word I’d ripped from a headline in the newspaper that morning. Bev hardly took notice. “It’s the not-so-white noise of it, I think. That’s why I like that garish radio so much,” The tip of her tongue traced her lips as eyes fluttered shut, welcoming the static with her inhale. “Even though I can’t quite make out the words, it

reminds me that there’s a world out there beyond this prison Neptune’s become. A world that’s got my John in it.”

I considered her indictment of my home as I surveyed the small window of it the mail truck made us privy to. My eyes fixated on the spot where Neptune met the rest of the world, the treetops whose leaves bled into the cirrus clouds that muddied the sunset. “I like this town,” I concluded softly. “for all it has and all it does not.”

Bev snickered. “It doesn’t surprise me that you like Neptune so much,” The steely tone of her voice stood in contention with the enveloping warmth of the August night. “It’s the kind of place for a person who hasn’t seen nothin’ else.” She’d always cursed Neptune as an insignificant speck on a map. Its greatest claim to fame was proximity to the Mississippi, but even that held little import. As a child I did not mind the barrenness, the utterly bland life Neptune had to offer. Perhaps it was because the stability Neptune offered counteracted the one thing in my life that failed to maintain itself as a constant.

My eyes sustained themselves on the dissipating embers of light that glistened on the water’s ripples until the violet curtain blotted out any remnant of day. “And what have you seen, Mama?”

I could feel the dry heat of Bev’s stare out of my peripheral vision. She swiftly ran her thumb and index finger up the body of the letter as if she were sharpening a kitchen knife with it. “I’ve seen enough.”

We’d reached an unspoken stalemate in our argument, the atmosphere quelled by our mutual stubbornness. Bev pulled her knees into her chest and averted her gaze from mine, the letter migrating to her lap. I reluctantly returned to work on her pile, squinting my eyes at the faintly written address lines and cursing myself for allowing the daylight to flee from me.

“You know,” Bev piped up finally, her tone uncharacteristically meek. “I was a bit harsh on you earlier.”

“It’s okay Mama,” I replied.

“No Josephine. I’m mighty sorry I snapped at you earlier,” Bev pulled her eyes up from her lap. “you know the stress I’m under. It’s getting to me, I reckon.”

“I get it Mama, it’s alright,” I inched closer to her, softening my voice at the sight of her unresolved contrition. “Really, it is.”

Bev looked out at the river, a grin pushing up at the edges of her cheeks. “This letter, if you must know, is a beauty,” She turned her gaze back towards me. “You want me to recite some of it for you?”

My breath caught hold of the Mississippi night. “Of course I do, Mama,” I responded, trying to suppress the full extent of the giddy I felt.

“Well alright then,” Bev repositioned herself, her back against the frame of the truck. I couldn’t see the words, but I could feel them. I closed my eyes as she began.

Dear Bev,

High school was a whole different beast I came to learn real soon. The same kids I’d been in class with since I was in diapers had somehow gotten crueler over the course of one summer. Girls came to school with hips, chests, and unabashedly judgmental eyes. Boys came with lean muscles from summer work on farms and bottled-up perversions they dreamed of acting upon beneath the gym bleachers. I came to school the same skin-and-bones eighth grader I was the year prior, accompanied by a bad sunburn I’d acquired from laying out at the river too long.

I wished it’d happened in November, when the air outside held a fiercer bitterness, one even Bev couldn’t persist through. The entire walk home from the bus stop, I repeated a silent prayer in my head. It was the first silent prayer I’d ever wished on, and the first time I’d tried to get into contact with a god I hadn’t actively believed in since the warmer months.

Please, O God, will the Mississippi winds to shut the truck door. Oh—and amen.

But as I sauntered onto our lot, making my way across the torn-up lawn muddied by all the rainfall we’d gotten that year, I knew the Lord had turned a blind eye to my simple request.

“Josephine!” Bev hollered at me when I came into the view of the truck. I could only make out the silhouette of her figure in the shadow cast by the monstrous-looking pile she had on her hands. She needed my assistance.

Pinpricks spread across the surface of my cheeks as my reluctant legs carried me to her. “Mama—”

“I’m sure you’ve got homework Josephine but I’m gonna need your help for an hour or so,” Bev didn’t look up to acknowledge my presence from where her body was sprawled out on the truck bed. “I had one of my migraines today, didn’t get much done.” I couldn’t even summon a response with my gaze averted to my shoes, which were rearranging the gravel on the driveway.

“Josephine?” Her voice wasn’t asking, it was telling. My eyes shot up, meeting hers for a few agonizing moments before she migrated her stare to my right hand. “What’s that you’ve got?”

One of my eyes twitched independent of the other. “It’s…a paper. For you to sign.” Bev snatched it, her eyes scrutinizing each word as if it were a fresh letter from my father. I watched the rosy undertones of Bev’s flesh begin to simmer. “Why the hell are you bringing home a disciplinary notice to me?” When I couldn’t hoist my eyes up to meet hers she seized the underside of my chin, yanking my pupils upwards with it. “Huh?”

“I…” My throat reflexively cleared itself. “I filled Mark Stewart’s locker with paper airplanes.” Bev’s hand dropped from my throat. “You what?”

My voice autonomously raised in volume. “I filled Mark Stewart’s locker with—”

“I heard what you said,” Bev pinched her temples, her head shaking slowly. “but why the hell’d you do it?”

I couldn’t tell her the whole truth of the matter, so I omitted the part about Mark spreading a rumor that my mother sleeps in her mail truck. A true rumor. “Mark was making fun of me for having a Daddy that works in airmail,” My words came out gradually as I attempted to gauge Bev’s reaction. “He said it was pathetic to go through pilotry school only to come out with a license to carry greeting cards.”

Bev sunk her back into the sack of mail behind her, positioning herself on her throne of postage stamps. “Is that so?”

“I had to do it, Mama,” I hoisted my body into the truck, crouching in front of her to meet her eye level. “Mark Stewart has been calling me funny names, boys’ names.” My pupils did a somersault. “I’ve been ‘Joseph’ or ‘Joey’ since we were in kindergarten on the account of the overalls I always wear.”

Bev’s fingers toyed with her box of Luckies. “Was a locker full of paper airplanes really the solution?” She chuckled to herself. “You’d think after all these years of working with mail that you’d learn how to use words.”

“I didn’t want to hurt him, Mama, just mess up ‘is day a little,” I folded my hands across my chest. “And I wanted to see his face when a fleet of airplanes fell outta the sky and onto ‘im.”

A Lucky nestled itself into Bev’s jaw. “That’s a bit cynical, Josephine.” “No damage was done, Mama,” I pleaded with her. “A paper cut, maybe.”

Bev’s nose wrinkled. “Well, you can tell Mark Stewart that ‘is Daddy has gotten fat since I graduated from the high school with ‘im, and Mark is headed down the same exact path.”

“I don’t wanna tell Mark that. Besides, we’re even now.”

“Alright then,” Bev smirked. “He probably likes you anyways, that Mark Stewart.” “ Likes me?” My spine cemented upright. “As in, likes me, likes me?”

Bev smirked, smog filtering out of her mouth from the gaps between her teeth. “I reckon so.” I considered the notion. “I don’t very well think he could like a girl named Joseph.”

Bev reached backwards and tossed me a stack of letters. “Well it’s a good thing your name isn’t Joseph then, isn’t it?” Then she tilted her head backwards and shut her eyes tight while I began sorting, keeping my lips sewn for a long while.

“Mama,” My timid voice was enough to pull up her right eyelid. “Daddy addresses all of his letters to Bev.”

She nodded. “That’s a fact.”

“Why do you got ‘Bev’ stitched on your uniform? And why does Daddy call you that ‘stead of Beverly?”

“Bev is a better name for me,” She replied, her tone of voice steady and void of emotion.

That was always how she talked when she was trying to shut me up.

I chewed on my lip. “I think Beverly is a beautiful name, Mama. I think it’s better than Bev.”

She looked at me, simultaneously picking up the Lucky she’d been working on from the ashtray beside her. “That’s just it,” Her response came through a puff. “Beverly is a pretty girl’s name. It ain’t the name of no small town mail carrier.” So, she went by Bev.

I always thought Josephine was a terrible name despite it being my own. There were too many syllables I decided. It didn’t come with any extraordinary nicknames either. Josie? I told myself there were too many ruffles attached to Josie. In reality, I think that my subconscious had dictated to me that Josie was a pretty girl’s name. So, I went by Jo.

My father only knew me as Josephine, I imagined. Bev had told me that he picked my wretched moniker, and that my namesake originated from the old song, “Come Josephine in my Flying Machine”. Bev liked to hum it whenever her mind wandered someplace else while she did her sorting, someplace she could only get to in an airplane, I think.

Come Josephine in my Flying Machine/Going up she goes! Up she goes!

“Did Daddy ever call you Beverly?” I piped up again. “What?”

“Did he call you Beverly or Bev?”

Bev’s reply came in a cautionary fashion. “He didn’t really call me anything, not one or the other.” I didn’t protest her ambiguity.

“What was he like? — Is he like, I mean.”

Bev’s lips spread, unveiling two rows of crooked, yellowing bone. “We were coworkers at the post office before we were married,” She began, not protesting as I sprawled across her with my head in her lap. “It was just supposed to be a summer job for me, but it rolled into fall, and winter…” And by spring of ‘53, a daughter was born to John and Beverly Covington in the back of a mail truck they both worked in, and that was just about the last time anything out of the ordinary happened in my mother’s life.


“Yes, Jo?” Bev wove her fingers into my hair, twisting sections of it into what I imagined was a sorry attempt at a braid.

“What’s it like to kiss a boy?”

I could feel her stomach convulse with a rumble of laughter. “Are you meaning to tell me that you’re a fifteen-year-old girl whose never been kissed?” My skin stung momentarily and I lifted my head from her lap, retreating to lick my wounds. “I’m sorry Josephine, I didn’t mean it like that.”

My sheepishness suddenly fell to the wayside. “’Course I’ve never been kissed,” I snapped, flinging my back against the wall of the truck and tightening my arms across my ribcage. “the boys at my school call me Joseph.”

Bev pulled my head back down to her lap and my neck allowed it, her fingers assuming their position in my scalp again. Her chest billowed against my temples, heaving a sigh. “Boys’ll do funny things to show girls how they feel. All boys are nasty like that,” Her voice was coming from someplace else, somewhere far, I think. “It doesn’t help that they turn around and tell us how sorry they are and make us come to them in a heartbeat. But that’s human nature, I suppose.”

My eyes rolled backwards, straining to see her expression. “Is that what Daddy was like?” Bev exhaled a laugh, a soft one I reckon she could’ve easily swallowed. “Oh no, my

Josephine. Your Daddy was always a gentleman. Is always a gentleman.” She finally released my hair from the guardianship of her fingers. “When you find a boy worth kissing, you’ll know it.”

That night, after I completed my punishment of doing the extra sorting, I sat down amidst the dusk infiltrating my bedroom to write my first ever letter to my father. It was then that I’d become self-aware of how inconsiderate it was of me to impatiently wait for each of his letters then never send a reply of my own. It didn’t bother me much that all his letters were all addressed to Bev, they still helped me feel close to him.

I wrote my first letter on October thirteenth, my second on November seventh, my third two weeks later, and about five others over the course of December. None ever received a reply, though

Bev got hers. I wondered if he was regretting naming me after his most favorite song. Perhaps I was not worthy of that title. Nonetheless, I signed each of my letters in the same exact fashion.

Sincerely, Josephine

We spent Christmas Eve of ‘67 alone together in the back of the truck. Winter had to be the most deplorable of all seasons, I reckoned. It was a time of greeting cards galore, letters of well wishes, and non-stop complaining from Bev about the work we were up to our elbows in. Winter made me melancholy for a few other reasons; for the soldiers who wouldn’t be home for Christmas, and for the closed back door of the mail truck, shutting out the Mississippi and the incessant bitter wind. But mostly, the winter made me feel guilty for all the people who wouldn’t be receiving any Christmas cards that year.

“The Michaelsons’ kid got chubby, huh?” Bev elbowed me, disrupting the letter I was in the process of writing on my lap. I craned my neck towards the image she was trying to show me.

“Mhmm,” I agreed shakily, choking on the burgeoning guilt in my throat. I wondered if the Michaelsons would say the same about me if they had been annually ripping open a Christmas card I was featured in. I tried to block out the discord I felt by focusing on my letter.

Dear Dad, Dear Dad, Dear Dad, Dear—

My train of thought derailed at the sound of another envelope being ripped to shreds voraciously. Undeliverables, she called them.

“When do you think Mrs. Carver is gonna eat it, Jo?” Bev stuck the Christmas card in my nose, which bore an elderly woman, a sweet smile on her face and a small dog in her lap.

I grimaced. “No idea, Mama.” I hoped it wasn’t soon. Mrs. Carver’s cards had always encapsulated Christmas for me. She didn’t have much left, only the dog that kept her company, but she had something. Something worth showing off in a Christmas card.

“Why even send a Christmas card at all if it’s just you and your dog?” Bev asked, her words dodging a Lucky.

“We never send a Christmas card of us, Mama.”

Bev said nothing in reply, the muscles in her face contorting while her eyes fixated on the card. Then she threw it down abruptly, swiftly pulled the cigarette out of her mouth, and buried its ashes into Mrs. Carver’s face. “I need some air,” She said finally, and kicked open the back door of the mail truck.

The chill of winter quelled the complacently stagnant air inside the truck, its wind stroking our cheeks and lining our arms with goosebumps. We were silent in the moments before the sound of a propellor disturbed the peace, an airplane announcing itself as it broke through the atmosphere of our solitude.

“Look up,” Bev squeezed my shoulder and pointed at the passing plane.

I swear my chest filled with enough air to carry me 32,000 feet into the sky. “Is that Dad?” I asked her, knowing full well it wasn’t him no matter how much I wished it could be. My dreams were laden with images of Dad delivering letters to the heavens, stopping at every mailbox in the clouds.

Bev’s face remained unchanged, a glossed over interest in the mighty sky machine. She pulled another Lucky out of her coat pocket, making several attempts to light it with her numb fingers. “It must be.”

I grinned at the thought of it, at the thought of Dad. Bev’s stare came into my peripheral vision, longing for my head to turn towards hers. The Christmas Eve sunset painted her cheeks, decorating her rare smile with tints of tangerine. “I love you more than anything Josephine. You know that?”

I squinted at her. “More than Daddy?” Was all I managed to get out, keeping my voice low and my hopes lower. Bev pulled her knees up into her chest, pondering my inquiry. “As much as him.” She replied. We both returned our gazes the retreating airplane, fixating on the trail of smog leaving its scars on the atmosphere holding Neptune together. Silence settled on us when we finally couldn’t hear the hum anymore. I strained my ears to listen for its propellers long after it had gone, blindly hoping it might turn around and come back.

“Jo?” Bev asked me. “Yes, Mama?”

“Would you like an early Christmas gift?” I nodded. Bev cleared her throat, let her cigarette dangle from the corner of her mouth, and began to recite.

Dear Bev,

January of 1968 had made Bev a hermit of the mail truck and me a prisoner of the kitchen radio. It was the first year that Bev refused to start sleeping in the house when the winter equinox rolled around, the escalating death toll of the war fueling a degree of delirium I never imagined she could reach. I didn’t want to obsess over the thought of it, the bloodless bodies dusted in shrapnel. I couldn’t help it, my impulse to sit on the kitchen floor each night, hugging my knees to my ribcage and absorbing the lump sums of lives that would cease to continue. Each morning of the new year I had been worming my way out of a jungle infested dream, crawling on all fours out of the dirt and into my sheets. I couldn’t stop screaming even when I was fully awake, always feeling the napalm singeing my skin.

The night that Walter Cronkite’s voice prevailed through the radio static to relay the death toll at the Tet, I decided that my mother needed me more than she needed the isolation of a sheet metal prison. I also decided that I needed my father more than my mother needed to hide his memory in a shoebox beneath the driver’s seat. I didn’t even shut the front door behind me or throw a sweater over my shoulders, fully submerging myself into the blistering winter. My feet were spectacularly numb, refusing to recoil as they met the gravel driveway. I ran with the adrenaline of an ingénue in a horror film at the exact moment of realization that she was as good as dead.

“Mama!” I shrieked to her, coming up on the truck. I squinted hard as I neared it, the silhouette becoming more prominent. Bev had parked it so far from the water, so far from the house. So far from me. “Mama,” My voice came through heavy breaths as I reached the back of the truck where Bev sat, her legs dangling. I heard the voices first, the voices from the plastic orange radio. I immediately saw the way she was slumped over the shelf, the dying embers of a cigarette pulverized into the ground, and the quarter-full handle of Johnnie Walker. The perfect cocktail for a night you never wanted to remember. It was obvious, she knew.

I reached for her cold, clammy hands as she retracted them. “Please, Mama,” I begged her, but she wouldn’t budge. I pulled myself up into the truck with strength I didn’t even know I had and stepped over the letters and magazines that were nearly covering the entire floor. I crushed Bev’s box of Luckies in the process, and narrowly avoided stepping on an emptied-out handle. An old one, I silently hoped.

“The letters had to stop coming at some point, Josephine,” Bev’s voice was froggy, sounding as though it aged thirty years. “good things don’t happen to Neptune folk. They just don’t.” I kneeled beside her.

“Mama, what are you talking about?” My hands embraced her shoulders, desperately squeezing them to the bone. “You’re not making sense, Mama. We don’t know anything yet.”

“I wasn’t pretty in high school,” Bev’s eyes darted just about everywhere, refusing settle on mine. “Handsome, my father said. Handsome enough to go with a few good guys, sure. Not handsome enough to make one stay.” Her pupils finally acknowledged me, sharply shifting over and dilating to take me in as if I were a stranger she’d never seen in her life. “You’re handsome enough maybe, Josephine. I think about that often, you know. You’re a scrawny thing, but there’s a chance for you.” Bev let her head sink backwards and hit the truck wall, rattling the tin. “I sometimes hope every man on the planet dies in Vietnam. It’s a terrible thing, I know. I shouldn’t say it out loud.” Bev assessed my horrified look, her voice simmering at the sight of it. “Not all boys are men, Josephine, but all men are boys. It’s us women who do the weathering. Men live, leave, come back, die. But we stay, Josephine, we stay.”

“Mama,” My voice came softly, shaking as much as my head was. “Mama you’re not thinking straight you need t—”

“Josephine. Jos-eph-ine.” She smiled to herself, slurring my name through her mouth. “It’s a beautiful name, really. You were the handsomest baby I ever saw, not that I ever saw any others.”

Mama,” I tried to pull her up from where she was slumped over. “Come inside the house.


Bev’s neck suddenly snapped straight up from her limp body. “Josephine!” Her eyes were begging mine. “Sing along with me now! Help me drown it all out.”

I pressed my plead. “Mama, you—”

“Come Josephine—come on, Jo! —Come Josephine in my flying machine, going—” “Please!” I seized her hands, muting the singing. The sobriety Bev had drowned in Johnnie

Walker suddenly resurfaced in her voice.

“I love you more than anything, Josephine. You know that?”

I let the night absorb my exhale. “I know, Mama.” We were both breathing heavy, our crystalized breath cumulating in a cloud. Bev returned to singing, further off-key than before.

Bev was too far away, I knew then. I rose from her body and gave that damned orange radio the hardest kick I could, dispelling its haunted voices into the retreating day. Bev’s head swiftly repositioned, her neck slowly rotating to look back at me. She didn’t look much like the woman who had just been humming my name. “Put the radio back on.”

“Mama,” I couldn’t swallow my trembling. “I need to see the letters.”

The muscles in her face couldn’t settle into a singular expression, contorting into a steely snicker. “What makes you think I’ll let you do that?”

I mulled on the inside of my cheek in a sorry attempt to stifle my emotions. “I know anything could have happened to Daddy today but I need to read ‘is—” My throat got caught my words. “I need to read his letters. Please, Mama. I need to read his words and know that he’s real.” Bev’s glare wouldn’t let up, prompting the words I’d been holding in for fifteen whole years to rupture.

“Mama! I don’t remember him Mama! I don’t remember seeing him ever in my life and it—it pains me,” I pleaded with her, my voice getting so hysterical it was giving out. “I feel guilty everyday for not being able to remember a man who is…who…I just need to see them Mama. Please.”

Bev resembled a scorned corpse; colorless, motionless, adamantly speechless. In that moment, I made a decision. A crass one, maybe, but one that I could never forgive myself for not making. In a swift motion, I reached under the driver’s seat, lunged for Bev’s shoebox of letters, and ripped open the lid.

Bev made a sound, some kind of yelp in the instant that I did it. Her arm shot towards me, slinging the remnants of her Johnnie Walker into the gravel, but it wasn’t enough. She watched in anxiety-laden silence as I flipped through the stack of letters.

Dear Diane, Dear Elizabeth, Dear Ruth, Dear Margaret, Dear…

I didn’t need to read the sincerelys or the yours trulys. I physically couldn’t anyhow, my eyes were so welled up that I felt like I had my head in the Mississippi. Looking through the ripped open envelopes was enough to seal the truth, the envelopes that were once homes for these love letters that never made it. These undeliverables. When I finally composed myself enough to speak, I was able to look Bev in the eye for the first time in my life and not feel so small.

“Mama,” My voice came out narrow and level despite the clattering in my bones. “What are these?” Bev made no attempt at a reply, not even acknowledging my gaze. I tried again. “Where is my father?”

Bev lunged at me then, impelling from the mass of letters that coated the floor. During the milliseconds I had to process before my mother reached me, I determined that her outstretched hands were not coming to wring my neck. The box, I thought, I need to protect the box. With unanticipated agility, I managed to swerve past Bev as she stumbled over an empty handle. The piercing scream she emitted when the bottle sliced her foot kicked up any of the last stagnant adrenaline hormones within my body, propelling me forward and into the night with only one destination in mind.

The churning river just below where I had stopped on the bank carried an ominous promise, distorting the reflection of the moon. I felt odd tranquility in knowing that the all-powerful night bringer, the dictator of tides that the moon was became a mere ripple of light on the surface of the Mississippi. I turned to face my mother.

Bev had always been off, that was a fact that I’d known consciously and subconsciously for my entire existence. But she had never looked more delirious, more separated from reality than she was in that moment. The whites of her eyes were muddied with strokes of bloodshot lightning, her disheveled uniform clung to her heaving frame, her foot carried with it a trail of blood all down the gravel. And she was afraid of me.

“I’ll give you one chance to tell me the truth,” My voice came through with a backbone that had suddenly done fifteen years’ worth of growing in a matter of ten minutes. “Where is my father? Who is my father?” Bev’s breaths grew shallow, the ferocity of her front crumbling before me. She finally sacrificed her stance, collapsing to her knees and succumbing to hysterics. I watched her fit unfold, sustaining itself for minutes before she spoke a word of truth to me.

“He…he didn’t write those letters, Josephine,” The box began to grow heavier then, my shoulders trying their damnedest to support its weight. “but I wanted them to be from ‘im so bad that…” Her voice clipped as her eyes grew to the size of mine, perhaps caught in the same realization that I was. I wondered what was more mental, the mad woman who had so intricately invented a war- hero husband that the lies faded into reality, or the reality of my entire life, which turned out to be no reality at all. It was my turn to talk. “So where is he then?”

Bev looked up at me from her place in the dirt, her eyes asking for the mercy I wasn’t prepared to give her. Then her reply came.

“I haven’t seen him in over fifteen years.”

My body began to convulse at the mercy of the storm that had just entered my stratosphere. I looked down at the box in my hands, the box that had once held half of my identity, then shifted my eyes down to Bev again. I turned my back to her, released the grip of my fingers, and watched the box plummet into the Mississippi.

I was lucky I was able to find him, luckier that he even wanted to take me in. Or rather, felt obligated to take me in. When I showed up in New Orleans at the front door of Richard Wright, a man who previously did not exist to me and to whom I previously did not exist, I felt for the first time in my life that I was the least sane person in the room. Severing the fictional John Covington

from my being was the hardest part; he was the mystery, the mailman, the pilot, the lover and the fighter that had shaped everything I knew. Richard Wright was a doctor who had never seen war.

“Is chamomile alright?” Richard set a dainty teacup on the coffee table in front of the sofa he’d ushered me onto. I couldn’t force an utterance out of my lips, my eyes entranced by the row of antique Johnnie Walker bottles lined up like an army in his liquor cabinet.

“You like Johnnie?” I asked him, my eyes not greeting the stupor I’d put him in. He glanced over his shoulder at the liquor cabinet.

“Oh—yes, I do. Been drinking it since high school.”

I nodded. “That’s my mother’s favorite drink, Johnnie is.” John, I thought.

Richard lowered himself onto the cushion at the other end of the couch. “About your—” He swallowed hard. “— mother, My eyes met his. “What we had—well, it meant…nothing, ultimately.”

My fingers grazed the handle of the porcelain teacup. “It meant everything to Bev.” Richard shook his head as if he were in a daze. “Bev?”

Beverly,” I replied quickly, catching the tail end of his voice. “That’s my mother’s name.


“Beverly,” Richard swallowed the name along with the saliva in his mouth. “That’s pretty.”

It was then that I decided I liked the men that lived inside my imagination better than I liked the real ones. Nonetheless, I had to get used to writing Josephine Wright on my documents.

Two years ago, I read in the newspaper that an infinitesimal town called Neptune, Mississippi had been absorbed by the neighboring Lancaster, Mississippi. East Lancaster, they were calling it now. My brain impulsively jumped to the question of how they would be handling mail delivery now in this conjoined town. Surely Bev would have been able to keep her job, as devoted to her career as she was. Hell, she lived inside her career. Did I want that? Did I want to know that Bev’s existence was carrying on in this East Lancaster, or did I want her to fade with my memories of a place called Neptune, Mississippi?

For the first time since 1968, I couldn’t sleep through the night. But this time, instead of crawling out of the jungle and into my sheets, I was hoisting my body from the Mississippi, drenched in its waters, carrying a box under my arm. It was a recurring dream, one that kept me up every now and again, one that haunted me. One night, I decided to do something about it.

I sat down at my desk in the dark, the all-too familiar feeling of squinting in the pitch black at address lines coming back to me. It had been a long time since I’d written a letter. The only difference this time was that John Covington, the fictional stranger whose remnants only lived in my

memory, would not be the recipient. As I wrote furiously, I wondered if Bev had ever received a real letter of her very own.

Dear Bev,

I thought for a moment, erased what I’d written, and tried again.

Dear Mama,

  Chinese Water Torture Cell by Valerie Massey

“This is the last stop of the night,” the conductor stated. The only passenger left on the subway car was a woman who had been asleep since the fourth stop of the day. There had been people boarding and departing this car for hours, but nobody cared enough to wake her up. They all assumed someone else would.

“What about SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY FROM WHERE YOU CAME?” the woman asked, using her coat sleeve to wipe the saliva which had collected in her dimple. Her left foot had fallen asleep precisely two-and-a-half hours ago and her back ached from the tensions of contorting her limbs to fit a seat which was not crafted with the human body in mind.

“We passed that stop over three hours ago,” the conductor walked down the aisle, removing the paper scraps of the day’s tickets from the edges of the seats. He didn’t look at the woman when they spoke—he had seen this happen all too often. He just wanted to end the day so he could go home.

“Well, where are we now? Are we anywhere close to SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY FROM WHERE YOU CAME?”


“What should I do?” the woman asked, expecting that the conductor would have an answer. It didn’t matter if he did or if he didn’t, though. He was tired of putting too much thought into things.

“You missed your stop. This is the last stop of the night, so now you have to get

off. I don’t see how this is so complicated.”

“Is there no way to make one extra trip tonight? I’ve gone through a lot to be this far away from where I began.”

“Listen, I’m sure you’ve sacrificed a lot to be here, or that there’s no going back for you,” the conductor started, “but we all have our own lives to live. My life is making sure that this subway operates safely and properly.”

“This is a one-way trip,” he continued as the woman sat dumbfounded. “After

this stop this car will be decommissioned. Dematerialized. Zippo. Gone. So I’m sorry, but you’re out of luck. There may be other lines that stop here sometime later, but, for now, this isn’t the line for you.”

“Please, mister—you must understand what it feels like to make an oversight that keeps you from going to where you wanted. I’m sure of it,” the woman begged.

“I’m nothing but a rule enforcer.”

So the woman gave up her battle, grabbed her bag, and left the subway car.

It was an unusually timid subway station. The walls and the floor were lined with the same mint green tile, with a dull brown tile thrown in every once in a while

for some spice. There was a mural on the wall of a cowboy on a horse. It seems to be the centerpiece of the station, the woman thought, but what a strange place to have a mural of a cowboy on a horse. Defeated, the woman sat down at a bench in front of the cowboy mural.

To the left of the cowboy mural was an old-fashioned sign which proclaimed Arrivals and Departures. There was a man who seemed to be taking down the last and only posting on the board. After his job was done, the man sat down next to the woman and stretched his legs out.

“So, what are you doing here?” the man asked, a little bit too friendly for the woman’s taste. “It seems a bit too early to be doing any holiday traveling.”

“I’m just passing through,” the woman lied. “What about you? I think it’s awfully rude to interrogate me before even introducing yourself.”

“I’m the Custodian. I’m in charge of maintaining this station. Not many people come these ways, though, so there’s not much for me to do here. But every once in a while a subway will pass by and I’ll get to change the postings on the board.”

The Custodian cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath. “Be honest with me—what are you really doing here? No one comes this way just to pass through.”

The woman sighed.

“I meant to get off at SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY FROM WHERE YOU CAME, but I fell asleep, missed my stop, and now I’m here,” the woman confessed. She held her hands tightly together in her lap, so much so that her fingers began to turn white and then purple. The beating of her heart was so out of rhythm that a melody began to form in her lungs. Her foot tapped ad nauseam on the polished tile floor.

“You seem pretty worried about this all,” the Custodian said matter-of-factly.

Well, no duh! the woman thought. At least I know he passed his first grade skills of deduction test! and she sat in a stubborn silence, waiting for the Custodian to leave to go clean up some nonexistent speck of dust on the ground.

The two sat in a stalemate for a long time. The woman’s face was beginning to turn red like a child throwing a tantrum. Maybe she is a child, the Custodian thought. But he couldn’t think of any parent who would let their child wander so far away from home. So he deduced that she was simply a grown woman throwing a child’s fit.

“Listen—when I first got on that subway I was meaning to get off at I WANT TO RIDE IN THE SUNSET WITH THE WIND IN MY HAIR, but when we got there, I was

enjoying the ride so much that I figured I’d stay on instead. So I ended up riding the subway all the way here, and when I got off I heard that they were looking for a new custodian.”

“Why do you stay?”

“Where else would I go?”

“Surely there must be places you’d rather be than taking care of a desolate subway station, things you’d rather be doing?”

“I guess sometimes I dream of becoming a cowboy and riding my horse through the prairie, escaping from the gunshots of other cowboys I had managed to piss off.

But I’m happy to leave that as a dream. It’s comfortable here. Every morning I wake up and I know what to expect. And when things start to get too boring, it never fails that a lost person like yourself finds their way here”

The pair sat once more in silence. But this time it wasn’t a stubborn silence. It was a comforting silence. The woman hadn’t realized it, but her posture had changed. Her hands were gracious to be able to breathe, and her heart was excited to be playing at its normal tempo once more. The tappings of her foot against the tile floor no longer echoed down the long, dark tunnels.

“How long do you think it’ll be until another subway stops here again?” the woman asked, breaking the vow of silence.

“It’s never more than a week,” the Custodian answered. “More people end up making their way here than you’d think. They all claim it’s an accident, but I think most of them secretly wanted to end up here.”

The woman nodded her thanks. She stood up and exchanged see-you-laters with the Custodian and walked up the stairs of the station, waiting for that all-too- refreshing splash of sunlight that shocks your eyes after you’ve been living in fluorescence for too long. But today the artificial light just gave way to darkness. And it was cold. Not the type of cold that makes your whole body break out in the shivers, but rather the kind of cold that reminds you of the feeling of being left out at family gatherings when you’re the youngest child and still sitting at the children’s table and you can see your siblings flirting with the adults a table over and you no longer feel connected to them in the same way you used to.

The air was dusty. The woman looked at her hands and they were dusty, too. The Custodian ought to come up here and clean up a little, she thought. Her eyes attempted to give her a sense of placement but all they found was a single flickering light, dimmed

by the thick dusty air. Since there was nothing else to do but stand still, the woman walked in the direction of the light.

Eventually, she walked far enough to make out what was casting the flickering light. It was a candle-lit table. Not a Paris bistro kind of candle-lit table, but more of a folding table kind of candle-lit table. It was the kind of table that reminded the woman of summer camp lunches—the kind where everyone could gather to eat outside on those cheap paper plates that only allowed you to get halfway through your lunch before the flies would infest your potato salad and the mosquitos would make just as much of a lunch out of you.

There was a man sitting at the table, too. He played with matches, blowing life into the smoke they emitted and giving birth to images that floated away into the blackness. It appeared that the man had been there for quite some time, since the remnants of matches littered the table and the ground with a layer of cheap wood and ash.

The woman stood on the opposite side of the table, waiting ever-so-patiently for the man to acknowledge her presence. After a precisely respectable amount of waiting (three minutes), she made herself known: “Hello, can you help me?”

The man changed his focus mid-match and smiled a great, theatrical smile at the woman. “Welcome to the FAR SIDE OF THE MOON. THE PLACE WHERE THINGS GO TO BE FORGOTTEN. What can I do for you?” he asked.

“I’m lost.”

“I’m Harry Houdini. Pleasure to meet you,” the man kept smiling, despite the fact that the match he had previously lit and then forgotten about was seconds close to burning his right hand’s pointer finger and thumb. “Are you here to see a magic trick? I can do whatever you want, as long as it’s from my prescribed menu of things I can do.”

“No—I’m not here to see a magic trick,” the woman said in frustration. “I just wanna know how I can get out of here.”

“Where would you rather be than here?” Houdini asked. “It must be someplace grand.”


“What happened?”

“I fell asleep and missed my stop and now I’m here.”

“I don’t believe many people intend to find themselves here. But I have discovered that people always seem to find that here is much better than there. Tell you what—to cheer you up, why don’t I show you a magic trick?”

The woman opened her mouth to refuse, but the magician was already reaching

in his coat pocket. He lit the match and let it search for a breath, closing his eyes to focus on his newest magic trick. He blew out the match and the smoke manifested itself into the shape of a man, held upside down in a chamber of water, struggling to free himself.

“CHINESE WATER TORTURE CELL,” he announced. Houdini waited for the woman to clap and to tell him how amazing his magic trick was, but the look on her face was anything but amused.

“This was one of my most impressive escape acts,” Houdini attempted to explain to the woman who was apparently too daft to understand his art. “See—the human body isn’t too big of a fan of being held upside down. The blood rushes to your head and your eyes and ears start to pound. Your body keeps telling you this isn’t right, this is very wrong and you forget about everything other than simply surviving.”

“It’s an absolute magnificence of human nature,” he continued. “I’ll never get tired of the rush of terror and adrenaline when you’re unsure if you’ve just signed

your death warrant or not. It’s truly is the greatest form of art mankind has ever produced.”

“Why escape tricks?” the woman asked.

Houdini stared back, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Why not card tricks or mind reading? Those are a lot less dangerous.” “Because I’m no good at card tricks or mind reading. I’m good at escape tricks.

It’s as simple as that.”

Houdini grabbed another match from his pocket, let it burn until his fingers were almost burnt, and extinguished the flame. This time the smoke transformed into a townhouse, lined with pretty flowers and the warmth of familiarity. The magician allowed the woman to admire the sunlit scene for a minute before brushing the smoke out of the air.

“There’s another subway coming in an hour,” Houdini announced. “It’s heading for THE PLACE I SHOULD HAVE BEEN. It’s not exactly SOMEPLACE FAR AWAY FROM

WHERE YOU CAME, but I think you’d come to enjoy it. There’s only one rule—you can’t sleep during the ride. They’re pretty strict about that one.”

Victim by Nick Snow

It’s such a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the fields are green and the trees are standing tall, full of leaves. The birds feed on the insects while the insects feed on the leaves; the mammals feed on the fish while the fish swim in the streams. All is against and acting with all, spinning perfectly round in its sync. The clouds are cleaved obtusely, by the mountains which stand beneath them. The water falls down to soil, making homes in streams and oceans. The foliage is fighting for sunlight, and the earth is moist, verdant, and brimming with life. The wind is whistling above, and humming songs for everything here. It’s such a beautiful day.

Paul is fucking late; again. As he rushes down the descending order of cubicles marked 10, 9, 8, 7 and so forth, Paul nearly whips a stack of papers off cubicle #5’s cluttered desk. As he fumbles to button the last four holes in his shirt, he nearly bumps into the occupant of cubicle #3, and after arriving within his own cubicle, cubicle #2, he takes a long final look in the mirror, fixes his tie, and plops down in his discount priced genuine leather chair. Finally at ease, Paul begins his daily routine, starting first with his arms by pushing them out in front him. He interlocks his fingers and strains further and further forward until 8 cracks could be heard emanating from his knuckles. He works on his neck and back next, twisting himself upon his chair and pushing his chin up parallel to his shoulders. The satisfying snaps pops and crackles of his bones finally subside, and upon hearing this frequently performed ‘Paul-style’ ritual, Paul’s boss Mr. Mark (Just Mark) leaves cubicle #1 and knocks on the wall of cubicle #2.

“Hey Paul.” “Oh, hey Mark.” “Late again?”

“Oh no, no. I’ve been in the office for a while, it’s just that that coffee maker in the break room wasn’t working so well this morning.”

Paul snorts and spits into his wastebasket. “Alright. Just try not to be late again, okay?” “Yeah yeah I got it. Thank you Mark.”

“Of course.”

And so it went. After Mark leaves and returns to his own cubicle, Paul sits back in his chair and decides to boot up his computer. He wants to see what is in the news today.

Bob had found his newest passion. He was showcasing such a degree of skill with bagging groceries lately that he began to wonder if it could possibly be his next big career. Before the items even rolled down the conveyor belt Bob knew which bag to sort them all in; hot with hot, cold with cold, boxes for side support and bread or eggs on top. It seemed to him that he possessed a natural talent for the hidden order of grocery bagging, and this filled him with so much glee that he knew he would soon be known as the ‘greatest bagging boy in all of town.’ He could see it now; customers standing in his checkout line for hours just to see the magic sorting flow wildly out his fingertips. A book deal, a subsequent signing tour, talk show host spots and a constant presence at the center of attention. Maybe he’d even get his own tv show! The possibilities were endless, and as Bob drove on autopilot down the streets back to his mother’s house he could barely contain his rabid excitement. Upon his arrival back home, he burst into the door and fervently discussed with his mother this newfound moxie for the ways of the bagging boy. Beth, his mother, tried her hardest to echo this enthusiasm; but, despite her finest efforts, all she could muster saying was

“Oh, okay.”

Martha was frantically busy getting Dorothy, her prized miniature doodle-dachshund-retriever mix, ready for the initial judging stages of the 11th Annual Pulhooney County Dog Show. She was going over almost every inch of Dorothy with her brush, triple checking for clumps, cowlicks, split ends or otherwise unseemly patches of hair when Jodi, one of Martha’s competing buddies, came up to her table with her purebred malamute, Bart.

“Hello Jodi.”

“Hello Martha. Is that your little star for today?”

“Why yes, yes. This is Dorothy, she’s my miniature mix of doodle, dachshund, and retriever. I see you’ve brought Bart again.”

“Yes, yes. I’m hoping he pulls a clean sweep again this year; no offense to your Dorothy of course.” “Of course, none taken. He’s certainly a handsome boy.”

Martha continued brushing Dorothy. “Where did you take her to get trained?” “Oh, I took her down to Pete’s on 76th St.”

“Oh really? I’ve heard Pete’s is just wonderful; my Bart went down to Sebastian’s on 13th.” Martha continued brushing.

“Well, it was nice to see you. Best of luck.” “Thank you, you too.”

As Jodi moved Bart back to her prepping table, Martha noticed a security guard standing next to her. “Excuse me, Miss?”

“Yes? What is it?”

“I’m sorry to bother you ma’am, but is this your child?”

Jane had spent the entire day tidying up the house, making sure everything was perfect for her husband, Mark. She was nearing the final stretch of this cleaning when, suddenly, she heard the front door being clumsily unlocked. Mark had come home early! She ran up to the front door, draping her arms round his shoulders while he placed the perfectly wrapped package he was carrying very carefully on the ground. “Hello sweetie!”

“Hello darling.” They kissed.

“How was work today?”

“The same as always. Look, I brought you something.” “Oh my! Thank you sweetie, I’ll open it right away.”

Jane tore off the wrapping in a flurry, revealing a brand new food processor.

“Oh! It’s a brand new food processor! Thank you sweetie, it’s wonderful. I love you so much.” “I love you too, darling.”

Again, they kissed.

“I’m just about done cleaning the house, while I’m finishing up could you start making dinner?” “Of course. I’ll get right to it.”

They tenderly separated, with Mark going to the kitchen and Jane to her cleaning. After a brief bit of silence, Mark called out to Jane.

“Oh, honey!” “What is it dear?”

“You forgot to sort the fucking spice rack again!”

Millie always felt like there was somebody missing. Multiple times during conversations, hangouts, club meetings or even dentist’s appointments she would idly pass a glance over her shoulder, peering through vacant doorways and long deserted hallways in anticipation of her unknown visitor’s arrival. This habit had a particularly distressing effect on many of her friends, due partly to her routine of leaving an empty chair available at any table she happened to sit at, accosting anyone who attempted to sit in the vacant space with a brief

“Hey! That spot’s saved!”

Her friends would always ask

“Millie, are you expecting someone?”

To which Millie would reply “I hope so!”

But this visitor never came. Still, Millie never gave up on trying to attract her visitor, and her friends, for both their sake as much as her own, tried to alleviate this farce through minor teasings of Millie’s habit, asking her

“Oh, your visitor didn’t arrive today Millie? Have you thought about hanging up ‘lost visitor’ signs all around the block?”

Millie always laughed at these teasings, and usually replied with “Yes, yes; I guess you’re right.”

But still, her habit never went away. Finally, after about 4 months of watching their friend yearn and glance and hope for this always absent visitor, Millie’s friends pooled their money together and bought Millie a dog. And, for a while, it might’ve helped her a bit.

Kevin returned to work today, feeling a little bit better after his recent week off. After arriving in his cubicle, he noticed an abundance of sticky notes splayed across his computer screen, all with differing handwriting, styles, and notes.

“You’ll get through this!”

“We’re with you man, don’t give up!” “It wasn’t your fault!”

“Don’t lose hope! It’ll get better!” “You are stronger than you think!” “I’m so proud of you! You’re the best!” “Don’t stop! Keep going man!”

“We need you and we love you!” “I’m so sorry.”

“I’m always here if you need me!” “You can do this! Stay strong!” “You’re doing your best!”

“You are such a great guy!”

By the end of his shift, Kevin was crying in his cubicle.

Smilin Sally walks out onstage in her usual colorful flowy attire and a brand new pair of sunglasses, followed by the seven members of her Marvelously Sunshine Smilin band. The crowd roars in response to her appearance, clamoring with random screams, hoots, whistles and applause to showcase their extreme enthusiasm. Smilin Sally smiles back at this colorful response, and motions towards her Marvelously Sunshine Smilin band to start up the very first song of their set. The lead guitarist smiles back at Smilin Sally, and strikes the first chord on his signature double necked guitar. The crowd can’t believe it! Smilin Sally and her backing band are opening with their brand new hit single, Sunshine over Los Angeles! They once again begin to scream, hoot, and whistle towards Smilin Sally and her band, and Smilin Sally laughs back in a childish sort of way before the rest of the band joins in with the guitarist. The tune goes perfectly, with Smilin Sally nailing almost every note of the new song while the band members behind her basically over perform, causing the audience to go into a state of aggressively loving hysteria. More screams, hoots whistles and applause are thrown at Smilin Sally, and while she stands at the microphone, dancing, singing, grooving and, of course, smiling, she takes a moment to look out over the crowd and bores holes through the eyes of her sunglasses.

Harold was stuck in a nightmare. In it, he was hanging off the side of a bare sheared back cliff face, with little clumps of soil and slight outcroppings of rock falling every so often into an immense void below. He began to drag himself up the cliff face, grasping for what little handholds he had for a few hours until he rested for a second, and looked down to gauge his overall distance. He was closer to the top than before, but upon looking down he noticed all the others, climbing just as he had, innumerable figures with the silhouettes of their frames struggling for a hold over a definite shape. Harold resumed his climbing, climbing even more and more and more until finally; at long last he had reached the summit.

He pulled himself up, stood along the thin edge and looked down at the immense void and all the shapes struggling below. Then the cliff groaned. It shuddered its whole tricky frame with an incredible and unexpected force, whipping off its weakest climbers like a cow’s tail to a fly. Harold was able to keep his balance, just barely; but he couldn’t prepare himself for what came next. Now the cliff roared, twisting its frame now backwards upon itself while crumbling under the weight of its movement with all climbers now being thrown into the void and the clumps of soil and stone were thrown with them as well, the air below Harold now clogged with dust rubble the faceless shapes the screams and the unbearable whooshes of gravity’s ripping hold while the cliff, still folding backwards, backwards further and further until finally collapsed its frame ripping Harold down down into the void while the rotten earth funneled around him now tumbling down while his thoughts began to tumble too the specters of life’s denial haunting him as he fell further and further down down down down until finally he found his end; the assemblage of shapes earth stone and soil at the bottom of the void where now all memory and thought are stolen from him. When he awoke, he pitched himself forward in his bed, shoving his hands into his mouth to keep himself from screaming. He would have to change the bedsheets in the morning.

Jennifer had spent the entire day with them, passing through grocery stores, department stores, gas stations and the occasional library. She enjoyed being by their side as much as possible, and happily bounded to each and every one of their spontaneous wishes and whims. Now, Jennifer and them were alone, relaxing in their living room after unloading all their supplies. Jennifer thought this was it, this was the closest she would ever get. So she sat in silence for a bit, agreeing along with them while she prepared a script in her head; and finally, when a silence came, Jennifer summoned up enough courage to turn and begin her confession to them. But it all came out so wrong. The script she had so carefully prepared fell apart as she spoke, and she began to stutter and blubber out incomprehensible pleas and fears. Her nose and eyes began to run, which, along with the stuttering and blubbering, turned Jennifer into a snorting, choking, sobbing, shivering, vulnerable human being. When she couldn’t stutter anymore, her eyes were counting cracks in the ceiling, a jets flame of snot soaked all the way through her shirt while her makeup ran in streaks down the length of her neck. She gave a few more chokes and snorts, still dwelling on the whole ordeal when suddenly she realized they were still there, watching her with a sympathetic expression. They playfully jostled her leg a little bit, and Jennifer weakly turned her head, meeting the eyes she had tried to ignore. They hesitated for a second, with that reassuring smile on their face, until they broke contact with her and began looking forward in space. Their smile began to waver, and, once that smile was all but gone, they let out a sigh and turned back to Jennifer.

“I don’t know.”

Joni walked through the aisles of the department store, searching for a 24 pack of Crayons. She passed through the deli, getting a ½ pound of provolone, a pound of baloney, and a ¼ pound of swiss. She passed through the grocery aisles, getting a jar of pickles, 2 boxes of cereal, a large sized loaf of bread and a 3lb bag of apples. With her groceries taken care of, she began to move towards the arts and crafts aisle. On the way, she got a new dish towel, a bottle of bleach, toothpaste, 2 toothbrushes, floss, a pack of new sponges, and a 24-pack of water, just in case. Once in the arts and crafts aisle, she looked over the art supplies until she noticed the yellow packaging. It was a 36 pack, and it didn’t have her favorite color; but that was okay. She placed the crayons in her cart and looked over the rest of the art supplies. She felt a weight rising within her, a long shiver down her body. She felt her eyes dry out, her throat fall in, and a deep longing in her fingers. She closed her eyes and found her cart. She pushed it out of the aisle, opened her eyes and started to walk towards the checkout line.

“I think I have enough.”

It’s such a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the fields are green and the trees are standing tall, full of leaves. The birds feed on the insects while the insects feed on the leaves; the mammals feed on the fish while the fish swim in the streams. All is against and acting with all, spinning perfectly round in its sync. The clouds are cleaved obtusely, by the mountains which stand beneath them. The water falls down to soil, making homes in streams and oceans. The foliage is fighting for sunlight, and the earth is moist, verdant, and brimming with life. The wind is whistling above, and humming songs for everything here. It’s such a beautiful day, and the seasons will always change. The sun is still shining, but the fields and trees are threadbare. The birds flew away while the insects froze in dirt; the mammals hid in their holes while the fish slept in currents. All life is in stasis, waiting for months to turn. But the clouds join up together, in the overcast skies above. Ice forms over the streams but the water flows underneath. The earth is hard, frozen, barren and torn, but life is there waiting, praying for warmth. And while the bitter wind is cold, for its friends are no more, there are evenings when it rises, singing hymns for all below.

It’s such a beautiful day.

  ReLive by Samantha Spott

Eris cried every time her roots grew back in, dark like her eyebrows. The longer she waited to get them bleached, the longer they tainted her perfect blonde hair and the more she agonized.

The dark brown, almost black roots sprouted from her head like a tangible migraine. She popped pills, generic painkillers she was careful not to overdose on, but the thought occurred to her once or twice. How many would it take to kill her? 10? 20? At what point did it become one pill too less or one pill too much? If she wanted to die, she wanted to make sure she carried through.

It came to the point she made regular scheduled appointments with her hair stylist to combat her distress. She couldn’t have black hair. She wasn’t supposed to have it. Or brown. Whatever color her roots tried to be. She needed to be blonde. She was supposed to be born that way.

“Your hair will fall out before you hit your 30s,” her hairstylist warned.

“There’s a new hair mask on the market. Shampoo and conditioner too. It’s meant for situations like this,” Eris said. She saw the ad on TV while she was watching movie awards.

She figured it’s what all the actors and actresses used to stay young and conform to all their roles. She wondered how often they used wigs.

Eris’s scalp started to tinkle from the pasty concoction of bleach pressed into her pesky roots. It was her favorite part. A faint burn, not enough to be painful, just discomforting. If she closed her eyes and slowed her breath, she swore she could hear the fizzing of the bleach eating away at the wicked dark color of her roots. She’d be pure again.

“I heard a rumor that that stuff is made by the ReLive company, and I wouldn’t doubt it. They have to keep their customers happy and unknowing,” the hairstylist said. She threw away the brush she’d used to paint the bleach onto Eris’s hair, and the container that had held the odd, yellow-tinted milky paste. “But who am I to say? We could all be ReLive patients and never really know, and as long as we’re happy, what’s the point in complaining?” She washed her hands in the sink and hummed a soft tune.

Eris frowned. She couldn’t hear the fizzling and popping anymore.

It’d been awhile. Eris’s roots were growing back in, dark and ominous. Wicked, corrupt, blackened things. Yet she laid in bed on her side, half curled into herself, staring at her fingers as she curled and uncurled them from her palms.

She was a beautiful woman. Men complimented her curves and bright eyes and stared too long at her hips. Women envied how her butt and average chest fit every pair of skinny jeans, leggings, and tops, without too much or too less showing. The clothing market seemed tailored to her body. She was the target audience of society that looked good in everything. She had even mastered confident, unaltered strides in three-inch stilettos. She was a temptress and she knew it, but never took advantage of it.

Eris was one of the top five workers at her job. Admittedly, she was just a front desk person, a secretary, for a big company that manufactured glass. People would think it was an easy, simple, odd job. It was. But being the front desk, top secretary woman was like being a poster model. She was the one that smiled at people who came in, who guided them to various rooms for important meetings. Glass was a simple product, but the company was large and

nearly monopolized the city she lived in. Its glass went into every window of almost every ranch home, apartment building, mansion, or corporate office. The company prized its odd work of art, and prized Eris as their gorgeous greeter.

“You could be a model,” Briana, one of Eris’s co-workers, told her at lunch.

Eris smiled at her food, shy, knowing. She’d heard the compliment before, but she wouldn’t boast about it. “I like it here. It’s quiet. I get what I need. There’s no media fuss, no privacy invaded.”

The truth behind Eris’s answer gnawed at her more than ever as she lied there in bed. She hadn’t even bothered to turn the lights on or open the curtains after waking up. It was almost noon. She’d been off and on awake. First 6am, then 7am, 7:30, 8, 9, 10.

There’s no media fuss, no privacy invaded.

Her head hurt. Another migraine. Those damned roots.

She hooked her fingers into her hair, curled tighter into a ball, and shut her eyes. She had already called in sick to work that day. She had taken a half day before the weekend for the same excuse. Bleaching her roots had stopped working to ease her pain. Her pain had twisted into nightmares.

Ma’am, I want to reiterate that this is a permanent procedure. I’m not saying that there are no benefits, there’s many and the success rates are phenomenal, but many people use this as a last resort, not a first attempt.

The words haunted Eris in the back of her mind, staticky, distant, and muffled, like a phone conversation. In her dream, she was crying. Crying because she already knew the words and didn’t want to hear them again. Crying because she wanted to belong. But she didn’t know


Eris was single. Always had been, always would be. A deep part of her, maybe as deep as the pesky dark roots, her migraines, her increasing nightmares, told her she shouldn’t pursue a relationship. That deep feeling lectured her that if she pushed too far, she’d break, that she was already broke. She realized the entirety of that inner voice so much more as she recounted the snippets of her dreams that repeatedly awoke her throughout that morning, and all the dreams before that day.

She needed therapy.

She was afraid of what that meant.

In the series of her dreams, Eris found a lone woman. She was in her mid to late 20s and had perpetually straight black hair grown so long that its miraculously well-kept ends swayed about at her tailbone as she walked. This woman didn’t suffer from migraines, but instead a deep internal pain. Her hair was a shield, Eris thought, to hide herself from the world. The fact the woman wore sweatshirts and sweatpants too often strengthened this thought. The woman was convinced she wasn’t good enough. She didn’t see the same picture-perfect body she saw on TV, in magazines, movies, ads and billboards. She tried to follow her dreams of being an inspirational author. She couldn’t get any story past the publishing phase. She settled for working in a bookstore. She had a cat once, but it died after five years of her owning it from stress induced trichotillomania. Her parents divorced at a young age. Her mother raised her, meant well, yet kept insisting she needed to dress nicer, be more confident, yet never backtalk, which

meant never try to correct mother dear even if she was wrong. Good girls were supposed to mind their business. Parents were always right. She developed into a quiet, soft spoken girl with a mother that meant well but tried too hard.

Eris first saw the woman packing her whole apartment into cardboard boxes and plastic bins, prepping for a move. The aspects of the dream-woman’s life was a movie that pieced itself together over days, weeks, and months that spanned out as Eris refused to dye her roots. Eris had recognized slowly and surely that the painkillers, bleaching of her roots, and special hair products wouldn’t solve her problems. She vowed to watch the woman in her dreams. Tried to piece together her life as the lone audience watching a lone movie.

A month earlier in the dream-woman’s life, she upset a snarky customer who insisted on having a certain book that the store didn’t have in stock. It was a new release, but the shipment to the store was delayed.

“Well, you obviously can’t manage even a simple job. This book came out two days ago.

How can you not have it?” The customer stormed out after the woman had tried to explain the situation, to no avail.

A co-worker shook their head and made a tsk noise with their tongue once the customer was gone. “Cranky weirdo. Maybe if he got the ReLive procedure he’d be more likable.”

The dream-woman realized what she wanted and needed to do then. Maybe she’d stop hating herself for feeling like she didn’t fit in. Stop hating her body, stop hating her inability to handle people yelling at her, and maybe be able to properly care for a cat.

She signed the extensive paperwork for the ReLive procedure with the name Vivian

Angela Ray. The procedure was taking the world by storm and the Governmental Council of Societal Balance was behind it. Only after all the paperwork was filled out, processed, and extensive background research was run, did they deem people worthy or not to receive the treatment. It was free. Paid for by the Governmental Council itself. It was their promise to make people feel worthwhile, to be contributing and happy members of society.

Vivian had received the letter of acceptance in the morning of the day she started packing. It was in a white envelope with a gold sticker seal. She cried as she unfolded the letter, tried to read it all the way through, but only really focused on the word ACCEPTANCE written in a gold cursive font.

Eris’s head pounded while she lied there in bed, piecing the bits of her dream together. She wondered if that’s how the procedure actually worked. Vivian was just a normal sad case that the ReLive advertisements which plagued media everywhere tried to appeal to. She was a sucker for a potential scam.

Hate your life? Feel like you’re insignificant? That maybe you were destined for better things? ReLive can help you with that! Apply today and see if you’re one step closer to a new and better life!

“Do you really think it works, that it’s even worth it?” Eris had asked Briana at lunch one day. The rumors floating around about ReLive made her curious, like everyone.

Briana shrugged and popped a chip in her mouth. “No one protests, everyone seems happy. Guess it works, somehow.” She sucked the salt off her fingers. “But I hear they only target the small people. The ones that would be missed less. It’s like a test, to see where things

will go. Celebrities, idols, and big names can’t have it done. They’re too ‘important to society.’ Can’t have a big name or big face suddenly changing on us. That’d be too much of a shock.”

Vivian was a small case. A relative nobody in her own eyes and in the fact that she isolated herself from everyone. She lost contact with her friends after college. They’d all gone their separate ways, were always more social than Vivian, and she was too scared to be the one to reach out to them. She wasn’t even going to tell her mother her plan.

Radio silence was too much for Vivian. It’d draw too much attention and too many questions. She packed a special box of old photo albums her mother had given her when she first moved away. They were a gift to remember the childhood, fond memories, and people she left behind as she moved off into the world to become her “own precious grown up self,” or at least that’s how her mother put it. The photos were mainly Vivian and her mom and other family members or family friends. There were a few pictures of Vivian when she was in elementary school with a girl who had thick, curly hair that she couldn’t remember the name of. Vivian didn’t want the albums. She’d hardly looked at them. She hadn’t protested taking them because talking back is not allowed. You should be thankful for what you get. She didn’t know if her mother had copies. She sent the albums back to her mother with a note that said:

I won’t be needing these anymore. Sorry, Mom.

Eris got up and took more painkillers. She used the bathroom, grabbed a fuzzy red blanket from the living room couch, and curled back into bed. She shut her eyes and fell asleep again. The pulse of her aching head her a personal lullaby.

This time, Eris’s dream spelled out the big day. The big day that the rumors she’d heard, and her own imagination, crafted. Vivian awaited her new future. She sat on a white cushioned chair with only her purse filled with her phone, wallet, and keys in a modern, minimalist styled waiting room. She faced one of the pure, sterile white walls decorated by a few silhouette portraits. Were the silhouettes of stars of low budget movies that thought they would become big hits one day, a zookeeper that secretly wished they’d have a fatal accident while feeding the tigers, or no one specific? It didn’t matter. The old you was unknown, forgotten, utterly erased. That was the only way to become the new, ideal you. The you that felt an acceptance in society as a true, redesigned, more contributing member instead a sad sack of nothing. Maybe Vivian would be an actress, a model, a motivational speaker, or even the notable author she failed to become to begin with after it was all over.

A man wearing light blue scrubs called her name and led her to another room. It was pure white, like before. A cushioned, off-white chair that looked like it belonged in a dentist’s office rather than a doctor’s office sat perfectly in the center of the room. The only other bit of furniture was a desk with a computer and a shiny black stool.

“Please put all your belongings in the back corner of the room, adjacent to the computer, and change into the gown on the seat,” the nurse said, gesturing to the patient’s chair. The dream willed the man’s voice to sound like a mocking, too formal, too cheery intercom announcement projected on speakers that echoed throughout the room and only happened to match up with his mouth. “The doctor will be in shortly.” He smiled before exiting the room and the door closed behind him with a heavy thunk and click.

Vivian peeled her clothes off. There was nothing wrong with her body. She was beautiful with a nice butt and average chest. The curve of her hips could be enticing, if she properly accentuated them. But she didn’t see it and didn’t let anyone know. Her baggy clothes had always hidden her beauty. She put on the gown, folded her clothes and placed them in the indicated corner with her purse on top. She sat in the cushioned chair and wiggled into it like a bird hunkering down into its nest. The lights were bright.

A harsh knock sounded on the door before a man wearing a fitting lab coat and large circular, wire-framed glasses with dirty blonde hair strode in with a tablet tucked under his left arm. He approached Vivian and stuck out his right hand, leaning in a little too close while smiling broadly. “Hello there Vivian! My name is Dr. Alchem—” he pronounced it like alchemy, but without the y “—and I’ll be the one to carry out your ReLive experience today.”

Eris stirred in her sleep. The afternoon sun tried to press through her bedroom window curtains. A thin sliver of light fell upon her face. She groaned, rolled over so her back was facing the window, and threw her blanket over her head. She didn’t want to wake up. She had her dream-movie to watch. She wanted to know what the procedure would be like, what exactly it’d do.

The procedure was conducted with a machine called the remapper. A bulky metal contraption that rolled up behind the patient. A large, black, U-shaped, magnet-like contraption extended from the metal tower, sticking out parallel to the ground, and neatly slid up to surround the back and sides of the patient’s head. Dr. Alchem had already wheeled it out and put it in

place. Vivian looked like a mock, medical version of Sleeping Beauty with black hair that was too long and no prince to wake her with a kiss. Or maybe she was like Frankenstein ready to be brought back to life. Or just a lone, sad girl, trying to find a way to love herself.

Eris didn’t know if this was how the actual procedure worked in real life, but this was how her dream said it did. The process used was known as Neurological Remapping through Advanced Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, otherwise known as NR-ATMS. It was an elaboration on transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. Normal TMS could produce

non-harmful electrical pulses to specific parts of the brain, to inhibit or stimulate certain sections, like preventing movement in a patient’s right hand for a short time. NR-ATMS took things to new extremes. It remapped the whole structure of the brain and subtracted and implanted memories and personality traits that weren’t fully based on genetics. It stimulated and implanted desirable characteristics to develop the new you. Either Eris’s subconscious was a genius fed by a cocktail of imagination, crude scientific knowledge, and rumors of the ReLive experience, or disturbingly crafty and potentially insane.

The dream jumped. Flashes of images and memories of Vivian’s life passed by. They were the pieces being erased by the remapper or implanted to take their place.

A fourth-grade girl with straight black hair played with her friend at recess. It had rained significantly earlier in the day, causing deep puddles to form in sunken parts of the ground that refused to absorb any more moisture. The girl crouched at the edge of the playground, her friend who had thick, curly hair at her side.

The rain had brought a sacred ritual of theirs about that day. They were imaginative kids,

and to make a wish, you had to sacrifice something to get something else. Sometimes people prayed to a form of god.

The girls plucked up worms still crawling about the damp black top and dropped them into the crystalline pool of water in a divot of grass. The worms thrashed about in the water as they slowly drifted to the bottom, their tiny pink bodies cradled by the deep green blades of grass in need of a trim.

Two worms. One for each girl. A sacrifice to the gods their childish minds created for themselves, with no real meaning in something they believed to be for a better future.

A woman with shoulder length, bleached blonde hair lied on a beach towel basking in the sun. The sand radiated warmth around her and the waves ebbed and flowed, crashing and rumbling a handful of feet away. The woman wore a baby blue bikini. It fit her perfectly, cupped her average chest and butt without showing too much or too less. It accentuated her enticing curves. The seagulls cried overhead, and children squealed as they splashed each other with water.

The patient awoke a day later, as prescribed by the ReLive procedure. She stood before a full-length mirror still in her gown. She asked for a pair of scissors and a nurse reluctantly complied and supervised from a distance. The patient stared pointblank at the eyes she no longer knew staring back at her in the mirror. She raised the scissors and lopped off her long black hair grown to sway around her body with a few, broad, rough strokes. The locks fell in sheets until what was left barely brushed her shoulders. She turned away from the ghost in the glass and

looked at the nurse.

“I’m supposed to be blonde,” she said.

The nurse moved to pat her on the shoulder and retrieve the scissors. “You can bleach your hair later, once you’re released. But please, for now, lie down again. The doctor will come in to run some final tests on your vitals.”

The patient complied, and the nurse cleaned up the hair littering the floor.

A doctor arrived. His name was Dr. Alchem, pronounced like alchemy without the y. His glasses were ridiculously large, but a solid fashion statement that accentuated his eyes. His black shoes were well polished.

“Looks like you’re all clear and ready to go, and here are your belongings,” the doctor

said as he handed over a purse with only keys, a wallet, and a phone. They were complimentary items of the treatment. The phone was used but would work well enough. An address written on a slip of paper tucked into the wallet would help the patient find her new home.

It was the wallet the patient fixated on. She fished out her ID, like she needed to confirm who she was. Her lips twitched into a smile as she read her name. The doctor smiled in return, then left the room and sent in a nurse.

The nurse handed back the patient’s clothes. A pair of stylish, black leggings with lacing up the sides, a floral top with just the right amount of pattern as to not be too busy, and a pair of ankle boots. The nurse left to let the patient change. She admired herself in the mirror after dressing and before letting the nurse back in. She always knew she was in fashion and on trend.

Ten minutes later and the patient was stepping past the automatic glass doors to find the SUV she was promised and said would be in one of the front parking spots to her left. Her phone

rang, and she paused. She dug it out of her purse and stared at the foreign number. She answered, purely out of curiosity, and to get a feel of how the phone worked.


“Vivian! It’s been so long since we talked,” a woman said on the other end, her tone sliding into slight distress. “I hope you’re doing well, especially since you spontaneously sent back a whole box of photo albums I sent with you. Remember? My whole gift for when you first moved out? I told you I had copies of most of these at home, and I thought you’d want these for keepsakes and just fond memories to look back on. You wrote a short note saying you didn’t need them anymore. Did you get them all digitized like what’s all hip and happening these Days?”

It was hard to get in a reply. The woman’s speech was almost breathless, and the shock of the foreign caller who talked so familiarly didn’t help.

“Uhm, I’m sorry ma’am, but I believe you have the wrong number.”

The woman on the other end sounded offended. “Why, Vivian Angela Ray, please don’t play tricks like this on your poor mother who you haven’t bothered to call in ages and always happen to almost never be available when I try calling you. If you don’t have the time to chat with me now, then at least do me a favor and tell me why you suddenly don’t want all these precious photos.”

“Ma’am, I’m really sorry, but you’re confused. My name is Eris, Eris Synthian. Not Vivian. I apologize for the confusion, but I really need to go.” She hastily hung up and slipped the phone back into her purse before going back to finding her car. She found the silver SUV after a bit, clicking the unlock button to use the slight noise to help her officially locate it.

Eris flung her purse down on the passenger’s seat and plopped down in the driver’s with a sigh. She briefly glanced at her phone as it rang again with the same foreign number. She shook her head as she started her car and pulled out of the parking lot.

“Vivian Angela Ray,” Eris said to herself. “What a pretty, lively name.”

Strange News From Indian Country by David Stucker

Some days, it felt like living by the sea. On better days, thunderstorms built on the horizon and rain churned the lane, dulling the sharp-edged ruts left in the dust by children’s bicycles and the occasional passing auto.

The house had come in on the railroad, piece-by-piece laid flat or boxcar crated; its skeleton traveled from Chicago to the plains in the waning days of Free Silver. A farmer and his wife had picked it from a catalog, and the only memories left of their first winter were a faded quilt in the hall closet and some dusty canning jars in a broken crate near the furnace. He never knew them; the house was purchased at auction from a distant California nephew.

It creaked like a ship when the wind blew through the rafters. He would lay awake when it began to get cold of the nights to listen to the rattle of the windowpanes and the light rush of the wind through the surrounding wheat. On other sleepless nights, he would stay at the kitchen table and read his Bible or the women’s magazines that appeared uninvited in the mailbox during the second week of each month.

He kept his radio off most days. Nothing but strange news from Indian country, he would say to himself when brushing the dust from its cabinet in an infrequent but favored ritual.

Thirty-four years old, and his days passed like those of a child. He’d watch hummingbirds from the porch and hope idly for letters to arrive. He would have some notion of obligation once the money would begin to run low, doing odd jobs for surrounding farms for a few weeks at a time, but he mostly kept to his own as time and necessity afforded.

He’d pray on his walks, usually down the lane and along the fields bordered by low stone walls. Afternoons following the rain were best for this – retreating thunder and stray lightning punctuating his devotions. His prayers were a constant plea – Father, give me purpose and strength. Grant me warmth in the night, and company in the desert.

He sometimes prayed for forgiveness when he considered his distance. He’d turn to look at the house in the wheat far behind him and hope for a Damascene vision.

Days with the sun in his eyes. Dust stirred along with drying fallen leaves. Barn swallows overhead; the color of glass telegraph insulators.

Night would settle gradually; the lingering reds and purples and golds fading into a percolated coffee blackness. He’d sit sometimes in the parlor at dusk and watch the sky, the only other light the glow of the radio dial; the uninterrupted low hum of its tubes reaching into each corner of the room and up the stairs and halfway through his mind.

These were nights to watch the sky.

Each star and distant electric light combined into clustered, almost granular arrangements like dandelion seeds bunched together on a screen door. Distance between their points was hard to determine at a glance; he would have to hold his hand at arm’s length to get an idea of where the horizon broke.

Moonless at times, the house under its stars seemed adrift, the wind through the wheat like lapping waves upon its hull.

It was one of these nights when his meditations were halted as the hum of the radio tubes pitched upwards into a shriek and the dial’s light burned white on the parlor wall. At this, he rose suddenly from the table, upturning a small saucer and an untouched cup of Maxwell House from the prior morning. Noise filled the room, an unbroken shrill whistle that rattled the dusty china in its cabinet.

Through the window, it was as if all visible light had combined, reaching continuous to a point of convergence – like embers of a bronze lamp.

He stumbled to the porch and the scene in its entirety was lit by a vision. Overhead was something like a dome, a rushing elliptical shape with the glow of heated metal just cooling. It shed small sparks in its wake, each lazily arcing in a diving motion and extinguishing before reaching the ground.

At this, he recalled tracer and dying men in the night.

The dome crept across the sky and brought an odd coldness with it. There was something about its surface that pulsed with the clenching of a fist. It was perhaps two-hundred or so feet overhead when it fractured into a series of smaller elements and these dozen formed a trail like Canada geese or Chinese lanterns on the undefined horizon.

Everything was now quiet as the line traveled, each light a measured distance away from the others. He stood, unsure of what to do with his hands or eyes, and watched as the formation looped across the sky, casting a total darkness around them. Stars, electric lights, radio dials – all other sources of light were blanketed over by their luminous output.

Every hair on his body and every stalk of wheat and every blade of grass and leaf stood upright, charged with a paralyzing static energy. Everything for miles, it seemed, or at least so much as he could imagine. The lights in their strand motioned like a whip, and they joined again into a singular elliptical dome gliding silently across the blackness.

Distant the thing passed; a hailing ship, vision, or strange songbird. He found his hand before him, holding it at an arm’s length, miles away.

He turned. Inside the house, the radio hummed and glowed as before, and he went to close his open window. In the distance, clouds built; dreadnought-like and advancing, obscuring the stars. Flashing, its first bolts of lightning forked between clouds and to the earth below.

He thought about the dome; distance and Damascus, and how the robin’s breast wasn’t quite as red as he remembered. The thunderstorm darkened on the horizon, its first drops dulling the ruts of the lane – rain, or something like it.

Normal by Cheryl Sutton

My dad joined a cult the year before I was hospitalized. The family was falling apart at the seams, my mom used to say over and over. She said it at least once every time she came to visit me. I wished that she wouldn’t, because, truthfully, our family had never been stitched together, mostly stapled, but even then it was more like whoever was up there putting families together had used a jammed stapler when they got to ours.

The cult, though, we never knew much about, but my dad had to move away to become a “fully-dedicated to God”, whatever that meant. For some reason, Utah comes to mind, but maybe I’m just projecting, it seems like a pretty cult-filled place. We didn’t, and still haven’t really, heard much from him, but it affected my grandma Bernie mostly.

She stopped praying after he left. It was the first Thanksgiving, about two months after, and we sat at grandma’s large wooden dining table. Plates set and food spread out down the middle of the table. Mom and I were already holding hands, ready to say grace. Noise at the other end of the table caught my attention. Grandma Bertie was already putting food on her plate, the corners of her mouth turned down in a deep frown.

“Mom,” my mom said, “We need to pray. What are you doing?”

“Eating,” she said without looking up. Her plate was full of turkey, potatoes, and stuffing already. Grandma Bertie glanced around the table and pointed at the gravy boat sat in front of me. I handed it to her.


“Leave it be, Mary,” she snapped back, “Let’s just eat.”

I later learned that something about the sickening of my dad’s perception of God after he was absorbed into the cult had crushed her own faith. The loss of both her son and God had left her hollow.

Less than 8 months later, I would be hospitalized after an attempt. Grandma Bertie would be the one who found me since we’d moved in with her after my dad left. My mom couldn’t afford the rent payment of our old place without my dad’s help. And well, the state didn’t see joining a cult as a reason for him to send child support. They were still married after all. I’m not even sure my mom wanted a divorce, she just needed the money.

The hospital was about an hour drive from grandma’s house, so my mom only came to see me every other week, which aligned with her payday, and then she’d have enough gas money to make the drive. Grandma Bertie came every two days.

The week I behaved, they let me walk myself into the family lounge, where she would set at the same corner table every time. The other week, I’d have to be escorted out. Although, it’s not like I was itching to escape. The hospital, with its dingy tan walls and ugly stock photos hung precariously from the wall, was better than home, wherever that was, and listening to my grandma and mom fight for hours.

“Has your mom seen you like this?” she asked once. “No,” I said, “I know which weeks to behave.”

“Are you doing this on purpose, Mallory? Do you not want to get out of here?” she carried on, rubbing her hands over her face, “For God’s sake, why can’t you just be normal?”

The nurses cut our visit short that day.

I imagined a lot of what she said to me is the same things she wanted to tell my dad. Still, two days later, she brought a freshly baked loaf of banana nut bread and I didn’t mind so much. We ate it in silence, trying to forget what had been said.

Until It Isn't, Anymore by Anya Welborn

I’m looking at my reflection splayed against the glass like I’m not even really here. The sky is this strange shade of sunken violet, like grape Kool-Aid, or half past eight—I watch the cars driving past with people in them who have places to be, or places they’ve been, blurred out against existence like a string of fairly lights laid out across the street, and I’m stuck in the

sudden revelation that the only noteworthy thing I’ve done all day was decide to drag my blanket downstairs, to sit in this chair, and stare out this window. I’m listening to music that reminds me of 2006, mixed with the sound of some stranger, stumbling over Für Elise for the fifth time, as if he’s never even met Elise, as if he didn’t care. I wonder if a lot of things are like that—they matter some way until they don’t anymore; a song is a song about a girl, until it isn’t anymore— until it’s just a set of notes on a page. People can go ahead and put together the pieces of a puzzle with the picture upside down, they’ll still slide into place with the same glossy snap, but the box bears no resemblance. And no one even notices, when meaning finally fades enough that what’s left behind is just a reflection, on glass, spread out against a Kool-Aid sky so sweet it makes your teeth hurt, until it doesn’t.

Until not even the ache remains.